Residents in Hong Kong say an atmosphere of trepidation has permeated the Asian financial hub since the enactment of a sweeping national security law imposed by China. But activists say despite new concerns of a clampdown on certain freedoms they will continue their pro-democracy pursuits.
The law passed by China’s legislature on June 30 and enacted in Hong Kong on July 1, punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Since the enactment of the law, banners and posters that call for independence or even those critical of the government have disappeared from Hong Kong’s bustling streets. The government claimed the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” was illegal under the new law, accusing it of being pro-independent, secessionist and subversive.
Books written by opposition figures have been suspended from public libraries as the education authorities implored schools to remove books that might endanger national security. Ten people were arrested on national security charges in a protest on the day the law was enacted for carrying materials deemed “secessionist” and “subversive.”
National security agents can now operate openly in the former British colony. A hotel was converted into a new national security headquarters last week. Meanwhile, the new law empowered police to conduct searches without warrants, restrict suspects’ movements and freeze their assets as well as intercept communications for national security cases.
Shops and restaurants that supported the anti-government protests quickly took down pro-democracy posters and flyers for fear of breaching the law after police warnings. Several young political groups closed hours before the law passed. The founder of one of them, Nathan Law, fled the city after testifying about the new law before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 1, the day it took effect.
Admitting they now need to cautiously negotiate their pro-democracy campaigns within very limited space, political activists say they are however determined to carry on their missions, even though they must face the bleak prospect of jail.
Veteran activist and lawyer Albert Ho said: “We would evaluate the risks, but we need to speak from our conscience.”
“Democracy comes with a price,” said the former chairman of the Democratic Party and the vice-chair of the group Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which has organized the candlelit vigil to commemorate the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement for 30 years until it was banned this year, purportedly due to Covid restrictions.
He and 14 other prominent pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong were arrested on illegal assembly charges in late April. Under the new law, he and other activists would be particularly at risk of being charged with national security crimes for “inciting hatred” of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for slogans such “end the one-party dictatorship” and “account for the [Tiananmen] massacre.”
“I might be jailed and they might suspend my legal practice, but I can’t leave,” he said. “We had been too pampered in the past because our risks in Hong Kong had been small. Resistance has more meaning now that we have to fight under suppression.”
Legal experts have criticized the national security law, passed by China’s legislature, as being too broad and vague in its definitions of crimes and incongruent with Hong Kong’s common law tradition. A Chinese official said last week that the law seemed intended to hang over potential troublemakers “like the sword of Damocles.”
“The law lacks logic, certainty and accuracy,” said Lawrence Lau, the defense lawyer for the first national security case in a Hong Kong court. “When people are uncertain about when they’d breach the red line, they would self-censor.”
A 60-year-old retiree, who requested anonymity citing fears under the new law, said she is now too scared to take part in protests: “Hong Kong is no longer a normal society.”
“Now it is as if they’re going back to the era of ‘burning books and burying the scholars.’ We have to be so careful with what we say and do,” she said, referring to the dictatorial reign of the Qin Emperor in 221 BC – 210 BC.
Despite the mood of despondency, Hong Kongers are still showing their defiance, however.
An estimated 600,000 people took part in an informal vote in the primary elections for the pro-democracy camp over the weekend, hoping to capture a majority in the legislature in the September election. China on Monday declared the primaries illegal and Hong Kong’s top leader, Carrie Lam, warned they might have “fallen into the category of subverting state power.” Officials also say candidates who oppose the law may be disqualified.
Pro-democracy legislator Roy Kwong said despite all odds, Hong Kong people are still using their actions to show their democratic aspirations.
“No one knows what will happen in the future, what we can do is to show our strength today,” Kwong said. “First, we have to protect and preserve ourselves. But we can’t worry too much, we’ll deal with things as they come along. I believe Hong Kong people will tackle things intelligently.”
Andy Chui, a district councilor who was a candidate in the primaries, said “we still need to reflect public opinions and not be silenced.”
“I just want Hong Kong to be still our Hong Kong,” he said.