HONG KONG – An American lawyer who became the first foreigner arrested under Hong Kong's national security law said Friday that the courts now have a choice between the new law and the city's legally enshrined freedoms, as China cracks down on dissent in the Asian financial capital.
John Clancey was one of 55 people arrested last week over their involvement in an unofficial primary election last year that authorities say was part of a plan to paralyze the government and subvert state power. He was released on bail and has not been formally charged.
His adopted home of Hong Kong, where he has lived since 1968, turned from a British colony to a semi-autonomous Chinese territory in 1997 that enjoyed Western-style civil rights. It is now once again in transition as China wields the tough new security legislation against activists, opposition lawmakers and others who challenge the central government in Beijing.
“On the one hand, we have all these basic rights, including the right to democracy, voting, freedom of expression, built into the Basic Law,” he said in an interview Friday, referring to the mini-constitution that has governed Hong Kong since its return to China.
"On the other hand, we have this new national security law. Both passed by (China's) National People’s Congress. So the courts in Hong Kong, the judges, ultimately will have to decide which takes precedence, and which is stronger: internationally recognized rights we have from birth, or is it going to be the national security law?”
Clancey first came to Hong Kong as a missionary. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, he speaks Cantonese and is married to a woman from Hong Kong.
“Up until now, I’ve never considered, you know, leaving, or going back," he said.
He has a long history of work with the city’s poor as a priest and has committed his life to social justice, inspired by his religious conviction. He worked with activists to fight for basic freedoms like voting ahead of the handover to China by the British.
Back then, many residents had left the city, fearful of the return to China under Communist Party rule. Clancey stayed.
“Given what was set out in the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration, I was quite hopeful, because it very clearly states that internationally recognized rights would be part of the Hong Kong society,” he said. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, set the general conditions for the 1997 return.
“I was in the optimistic camp that said, well listen, it’s in the law, so let’s keep working for making this a reality, and let’s make it sooner, rather than later,” Clancey said.
The same year as the handover, he began working as a lawyer. Clancey later joined Ho Tse Wai & Partners, a firm known for its civil rights work. It challenged a face-mask ban during anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019. The firm's founder, Albert Ho, is a veteran pro-democracy activist.
Clancey was arrested for his work as the treasurer for Power for Democracy, a political organization that was involved in the unofficial primaries that the pro-democracy camp held last year.
Although the pendulum in Hong Kong has shifted toward more restrictions instead of less, he maintained that it was important to keep going forward.
“My approach has been, you live according to your conscience, you live according to your principles, you live according to the people you’re working with, and you keep going forward," he said. "And even in the darkest days, I think it’s very important to maintain hope.”