Hong Kong: One year after China passed the National Security Law

Last year China passed the contentious National Security Law for Hong Kong. It has since been tightening its grip on the city with crackdowns on protests, stifling dissent and free speech furthermore triggering self-censorship.

Recently, on June 24th, Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper printed its last edition following a raid by some 500 police officers on the publications newsrooms who froze the company’s assets and arrested its Chief Editor as well as four Senior Executives on June 17th 2021. This move was condemned in a joint statement by the 21-Country “Media Freedom Coalition” that includes the US, UK, Germany and Japan.

According to the statement issued by the U.S State Department, “The use of the National Security Law to suppress journalism is a serious and negative step which undermines Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong, as provided for in the Hong Kong Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

People queue up to buy the last edition of Apple Daily in Mong Kok. The company printed its final edition on Thursday. Photo: Felix Wong

The National Security Law (NSL) came into effect on 30th June 2020 after months of anti-government, pro-democracy protests and it criminalized acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign powers to threaten national security. It expands Beijing’s powers to investigate, prosecute and punish suspected criminals in Hong Kong, sending the city into a turmoil. 

Beijing issues its interpretations of which activities fall under the NSL’s ban on activities that endanger national security through the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) which is the final authority on the interpretation of all laws and it has ruled that such threats include protest slogans, unofficial pro-democracy primary and writing editorials against the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities.

Police try to disperse media and pro-democracy supporters after authorities denied permission for a protest rally during the 24th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule, on the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

As of 27th June 2021, at least 117 people have been arrested and over sixty charged for alleged violations of the National Security Law. This includes high-profile cases such as that of media mogul Jimmy Lai and 47 pro-democracy activists involved in 2020’s primary. 

Fearing arrests many activists had begun fleeing abroad to seek asylum. In August, twelve arrests had been made of men and women between the ages of 16 and 35 who attempted to flee the city by a boat to Taiwan. Ha Sye-yuen who escaped mainland China for Hong Kong in 1975, said “Now I feel like freedom is being taken away gradually,” referring to the ongoing crackdown on political opposition under the National Security Law imposed last year.

The grim situation deteriorated in November 2020 when Beijing passed a resolution allowing the Hong Kong authorities to dismiss elected lawmakers deemed a threat to national security without approaching the court. Four lawmakers were immediately disqualified and soon after that 15 other pro-democracy lawmakers announced that they would leave in solidarity.

Hong Kong opposition legislators announce their intention to quit the Legislative Council at a press conference at Tamar on Wednesday. Photo: May Tse

With little opposition, Beijing passed an electoral reform bill in March through Hong Kong’s legislature as most of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy legislators resigned en-masse last year in protest. This reform allows the city’s national security department to perform background checks to ensure candidates for public offices are loyal and “patriotic” to Beijing. It is aimed at keeping people they deem “unpatriotic” or critical of Beijing from positions of political power.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the National Security Law and the bill “fully demonstrate the central government’s unwavering determination in upholding ‘one country, two systems’ and they will go a long way towards ensuring the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.” Furthermore praising the bill as “patriots administering Hong Kong in accordance with one country, two systems.”

The Hong Kong police too gained sweeping powers that include confiscation of property related to national security offences, allowing police to enter and search premises for evidence without a warrant “under exceptional circumstances”, secretly monitoring suspects, ordering the takedown of online material that authorities consider a threat to national security, and barring people under investigation from leaving Hong Kong to uphold the National Security Law.

A protester is tackled by riot police during a demonstration outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 12, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

In February, Hong Kong broadened their societal overhaul to education as they unveiled controversial guidelines ordering schools and kindergartens to implement national security into their curriculum across a range of studies, teaching students about colluding with foreign forces  to endanger the nation’s security, and subversion. Teachers should “clearly point out that safeguarding national security is the responsibility of all nationals and that as far as national security is concerned, there is no room for debate or compromise” the city’s Education Bureau’s guidelines said. Some parents welcomed the change, others opposed it.

Worries and concerns kept growing over the media freedom in the city as Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the government was working on “fake news” legislation to tackle “misinformation, hatred and lies”.

Anti-extradition bill protesters run from a cloud of tear gas on Harcourt Road in Admiralty, on June 12, 2019. Photo: Sam Tsang

Self-censorship is on the rise in Hong Kong fearing arrests and has hit the region’s book fair to be held this month. It will see far fewer politically sensitive books on display since vendors are curating their books carefully to avoid violating the NSL. Jimmy Pang, a local publisher who used to sell books about 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations that became known as the Umbrella Movement, said “Every vendor will read through the books that they are bringing to the book fair to see if there is any content that might cause trouble”.

“We don’t want to get into trouble that will affect the operation of the book fair, so we self-censor a lot this time. We read through every single book and every single word before we bring it here,” said Pang, the publisher of the Subculture publishing house.

HONG KONG, HONG KONG – JUNE 16: Protesters hold banners and shout slogans as they march on a street on June 16, 2019 in Hong Kong China. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Since the city’s handover to mainland China, Hong Kong has witnessed mass protests sometimes stretching into hundreds of thousands of participants that have reached nearly 2 million in 2019. A year on since the NSL was imposed, these mass demonstrations are nowhere to be seen. 

Many have fled the city citing fear for its future, a large number of local residents are expected to relocate to Britain under a new scheme implemented by the UK government for holders of British National (Overseas) passports. In addition to this, Australia and Canada have also announced new pathways for Hong Kong citizens to gain permanent residency.

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