Virtual ceremony honours ‘the movement’ in wake of China’s imposition of national security law

Previous recipients include Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama and Uygur activist Ilham Tohti

A US democracy watchdog honoured Hong Kong’s anti-government campaigners on Wednesday for having “inspired the world” and continuing to protest despite new

that had made public expressions of opposition “tremendously dangerous”.

Freedom House, which is funded by the US government, bestowed its annual “freedom award” on those who have protested against the perceived erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Previous recipients have included Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and

, the imprisoned Uygur activist.

The award, granted to the “movement” rather than any one individual, comes more than a year after anti-government protests in Hong Kong were triggered by a proposal to amend the city’s extradition laws before ballooning into broader calls for democratic reform.

“Beijing’s sudden imposition of a repressive new national security law has made these efforts tremendously dangerous,” Freedom House said in a release ahead of a virtual award ceremony on Wednesday. “Yet the people of Hong Kong remain committed to defending their rights for future generations in new and creative ways.”

Honoured alongside Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement on Wednesday were protest groups in Sudan, where president Omar al-Bashir was deposed last year following a popular uprising against his government.

The move to honour the Hong Kong protest movement at large rather than specific figures was a “late decision” made in the wake of the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing, said a Freedom House spokeswoman.

“There were several individuals we wanted to honour, but after the passage of the national security law it became too dangerous for any one individual to accept the award,” Jennifer Stapleton said in an email.

Enacted in July after a year of sustained anti-government protests in Hong Kong, the new legislation criminalised a broad swathe of behaviour under the four categories of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers.

Since its implementation, the law has been invoked in numerous high-profile arrests, as well as authorities’ reported pursuit of several individuals living outside Hong Kong.

Among them was activist and former lawmaker

, who fled to Britain in July, soon after the law’s enactment.

In pre-recorded remarks aired during Wednesday’s ceremony, Law said Hong Kong was at the “forefront of the clash of authoritarianism and democratic values” and argued that it was time to abandon the “wishful thinking” that engagement with China would lead to a liberalisation of its governance.

US lawmakers from both parties, who have coalesced around efforts to punish China over its handling of Hong Kong affairs, applauded the award.

“The Hong Kong protesters’ extraordinary outpouring of courage stands in stark contrast to the cowardly government that refuses to respect the rule of law, or the one country, two systems framework guaranteed more than two decades ago,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, addressing Wednesday’s ceremony.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said protesters in Hong Kong had offered a lesson, that “those who’ve known freedom and have tasted it don’t give it up easily”.

Rubio, a vocal China hawk who was recently targeted with sanctions by the Chinese government for “egregious behaviour” relating to Hong Kong, was among a group of lawmakers who nominated the city’s pro-democracy movement for the Nobel Peace Prize, set to be announced in early October.

“I can’t think of a better group of people for Freedom House to recognise than the people of Hong Kong, particularly those involved in defending democracy and freedom,” he said.

Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, Freedom House is a non-partisan, non-governmental organisation funded largely through US government federal grants.

Beijing, which has routinely sought to portray US individuals and entities as “black hands” coordinating Hong Kong’s protest movement, announced sanctions against the organisation last year for playing what it called an “egregious” role in “disturbances” in the city.

“We offer solidarity to the people of Hong Kong, who need little guidance from others in standing up for their rights,” Freedom House said at the time in response to the unspecified punitive measures.

In August, Beijing included the organisation’s Hong Kong-born president, Michael Abramowitz, among a host of American individuals subject to further sanctions, in retaliation for the US government’s sanctioning of Beijing and Hong Kong officials over the national security law.

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