Hong Kong: A city on the brink
Residents see their freedoms diminish rapidly as the Beijing government implements a draconian national security law it forced on the city
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Daniel Cheung first heard of Beijing’s plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong in late May, while he was stuck inside a Causeway Bay hotel for his mandatory 14-day quarantine. He had just returned to Hong Kong from the United States, where he is getting his Ph.D. in theology, and he remembers feeling angry and frustrated as he read the news on social media. He had known one day mainland China would clamp down on the city’s autonomy, but he had no idea it would be so soon.
A month later the law went into effect at 11 p.m. on June 30 ahead of the 23rd anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to China, an anniversary typically marked with large pro-democracy protests. Yet this year, the protests were banned ostensibly due to coronavirus restrictions against gatherings. No one in Hong Kong—including the local government—saw the contents of the law until it was enacted.
The law claims to target secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference with punishments up to life imprisonment. Yet it makes the terms so broad that it covers all types of dissent. “They can make up any specific detail or subsequent legislation whenever they like, as the authority of interpretation is in their hands,” said Cheung, who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear of the new law. “If they want to charge you, they can do it with or without evidence.” The law pertains not only to Hong Kong residents but to people of all nationalities acting against the Chinese government anywhere, and the maximum punishment is life imprisonment.
The reaction to the passage of the law has been dramatic. Starting from before the government implemented the law, Hong Kong residents began deleting their Twitter accounts, self-censoring their posts, downloading virtual private networks, and switching from WhatsApp to more secure messaging apps such as Signal. Churches began pulling back from criticism of the Beijing government, and pro-democracy groups disbanded, with some activists fleeing overseas. Meanwhile, faced with this sudden crisis, British, U.S., and some other countries’ officials have tried to find ways to help Hong Kongers and sanction China.
ON THE FIRST DAY of the law’s implementation, police arrested 10 people under the new law as thousands defied the police ban and turned out to the streets, including Cheung. Rows of riot police tried to block the protest route, and Cheung could sense a high level of anxiety among the protesters as they faced off against the riot police’s pepper spray, tear gas, and water cannons. By the end of the night, police arrested more than 370 people. The 10 arrested under the new law were guilty of crimes ranging from holding a “Hong Kong independence” flag to carrying “subversive” materials including stickers that read “conscience” and another quoting Amos 5:24.
Within the first week, the government banned the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” as well as Lennon Walls where protesters wrote messages of support on colorful Post-it Notes. Libraries pulled books by pro-democracy activists to review if they violated the law. The government gave police sweeping new powers to search private property without a warrant, freeze assets, intercept communications, and force internet firms to hand over and decrypt information. Schools banned the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” as well as any activity that expresses the protesters’ political stance. Three writers for the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper have discontinued their columns.
By July 8, Beijing had turned the hotel where Cheung was under quarantine into the new national security headquarters in Hong Kong, affixing the red-and-gold emblem for the People’s Republic of China on the building’s exterior. The office, which oversees the enforcement of the sweeping new law, is headed by Zheng Yanxiong, a Guangdong official who is best known for his heavy-handed dealing with protests over land disputes in the southern village of Wukan. (He criticized the villagers for talking to “rotten foreign media organizations” instead of the government.)
Cheung lists the things he believes Hong Kong has lost since the passage of the bill: rule of law, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, autonomy, “freedom from fear as now we live in Hong Kong with white terror …, and a very energetic, talented future generation of Hong Kongers.”
The law establishes the Committee for Safeguarding National Security. Under the supervision of Beijing’s central government, it works in secret and operates outside of judicial oversight. The law also empowers a section of the police force—which can include officers from China—to focus on national security cases. A new division in the Department of Justice will prosecute national security cases. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam will appoint the division’s leader.
Lam also chooses the judges who hear national security cases, but the special Office for Safeguarding National Security will take over cases officials consider more serious. Staffed with mainland officials, it can send the accused to China to face trial there and is not subject to Hong Kong law.
Cheung says that in talking with Hong Kong pastors, some have told him they’ve begun to censor their sermons. Pastors who have spoken out prophetically to the general public or against the sins of the authorities in the past seem to be waiting to see how things play out.
As he has been studying Chinese church history with a focus on the years around the Communist takeover in 1949, he sees parallels between history and what is happening in Hong Kong today. Before, he didn’t understand how people could go along or do little amid such massive government changes. “But now we understand that there’s not much you can do except to accept it and try to accommodate accordingly.”
Already Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong has openly supported the new law, Cardinal John Tong has said the law will not threaten religious liberties, and the Baptist Convention of Hong Kong has taken down an online article written by its president that was critical of the law. Churches that run schools and charities will be under great pressure to remain silent and submissive to the government.
Jennifer Chan, who is also currently studying theology in the United States, believes an independent church separate from the institutional church will emerge, similar to the house churches in mainland China. (Chan is also using a pseudonym.) Cheung agrees and says the Hong Kong church should begin preparing for such a future by strengthening cell groups and interpersonal relationships within congregations.
Young Hong Kongers like Cheung and Chan are facing decisions about whether to stay in (or return to) Hong Kong. Pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, who was the youngest person to be elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council before he was disqualified for modifying his swearing-in oath, announced that he had fled the country after testifying (by videoconference) at a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on July 1 about the national security law.
The law has also led Cheung to question his future. Originally, he had planned to return to Hong Kong to find work after getting his Ph.D., but he’s not sure anymore. With the coronavirus pandemic raging on in the United States, classes have moved online, and Cheung had hoped he could stay in the city until the September elections for the Legislative Council. Yet with new U.S. immigration rules requiring foreign students to attend at least one in-person class next semester to keep their visas, he was worried he might have to return earlier. The Trump administration has since reversed that rule.
Others are determined to stay and continue the resistance, even as it takes a different form from a year ago. Since the banning of “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” some protesters have held blank sheets of paper or found clever ways to symbolize the phrase without directly saying it. Online, some drew out geometric shapes corresponding with the eight Chinese characters making up the slogan, while others used its English-alphabet initials “GFHG, SDGM.” Another popular meme included listing random phrases where the slogan can be read as an acrostic.
Chan plans to return to Hong Kong soon, as she fears that in the future Hong Kong may no longer exist: “It’s like someone I love is so sick, and it’s killing me that I’m not there in her weakest moment.”
INTERNATIONALLY, OFFICIALS ARE TRYING to help the people of Hong Kong. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has offered the nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport a right to live and work in the country for five years before allowing them to apply for citizenship. China responded angrily, as China’s ambassador to the U.K. said Beijing “reserve[d] the right to take corresponding measures.”
The U.S. House and Senate unanimously passed a bill that would sanction Chinese officials involved in rolling out the national security law, as well as banks that conduct “significant transactions” with them. President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act into law on July 14. A bipartisan group of lawmakers also introduced a bill that would give refugee status to Hong Kong residents who fear punishment for protesting peacefully. The bill does not put a limit on the number of Hong Kong residents who qualify.
U.S. tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, and Microsoft’s LinkedIn have said they would suspend data requests from the Hong Kong government as it reviewed the law. TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, has decided to withdraw from Hong Kong, as it would be more susceptible to Chinese pressure to turn over its data.
Neighboring Taiwan set up an office to help facilitate asylum for Hong Kongers fleeing the city, although the democratic island does not have a refugee law in place. Australia also said it was actively considering ways to provide refuge for Hong Kongers.
The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international coalition of lawmakers, called on Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Britain, and the United States to stop extraditions to Hong Kong. Canada was the first to suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, on July 3, while also banning the export of sensitive military items and upgrading its travel advisory to the city due to the “increased risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds and possible extradition to mainland China.” Chinese authorities detained two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Micheal Kovrig, and charged them with espionage in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States.
“Now is a battle between … the resilience of Hong Kong people and the national machine from mainland China.”
Chan believes Beijing has taken a crazy gamble to turn Hong Kong into a mainland city in hopes the rest of the world does nothing. While in the past few decades China has tightened control over the mainland little by little, now it is trying to cut off Hong Kong’s freedoms all at once. She questions whether China will be successful, as Hong Kong is an international city that has long enjoyed wide freedoms and won’t be easily silenced. “I think now is a battle between … the resilience of Hong Kong people and the national machine from mainland China.”
On July 11 and 12, more than 600,000 Hong Kong citizens voted in democratic primaries to determine the candidates to run in September’s elections for a little more than half of the seats in the city’s legislature. (Pro-China professional groups determine the other half.) Lam said the unofficial primaries may be considered subversion of state power under the national security law, as pro-democracy groups hope to gain a majority in the legislature to resist the Hong Kong government’s policies. Beijing was much more direct, calling the primary election “illegal” and claiming it had the “support of external forces.” Hong Kongers fear pro-democracy candidates will be disqualified from running come fall.
Amid the drastic changes in Hong Kong, many describe a sense of loss. “I feel I no longer have a home,” Chan said. “Even if I can physically return to Hong Kong, this isn’t the Hong Kong we grew up in.”
Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story to reflect changes in proposed immigration rules and that President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act into law.
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