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Hong Kong's national security law creates new era of repression

Arrested while campaigning, I saw protesters' bravery in face of Beijing's sweeping powers

| Hong Kong
A man is detained by riot police on July 1: young people know what they were getting themselves into and what the future may hold.   © Reuters

Raymond Chan is a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong representing the New Territories East constituency.

On July 1 2020, the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China, I was arrested while campaigning on a busy street and sent to North Point Police Station. As busloads of arrestees arrived, the holding cells quickly ran out of space.

Toward the evening, about 180 of us were detained in the basement. Sitting across from me, a number of teenagers looked collected, if not stoic. Compared with those arrested in the early days of the protests, these young people seemed to know exactly what they were getting themselves into and what the future may hold.

China's Standing Committee of the National People Congress had unilaterally passed the national security law for Hong Kong the previous day, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who had admitted to the press that even she had not read the bill before its passage, hastily signed it into law.

However, from these teenagers' expressions, I could tell that they were not intimidated by the all-encompassing and vaguely-worded new law. Like water, they would come out in droves again. Nothing would stop them from exercising their freedoms and civic rights.

"It's you who have taught me that peaceful demonstrations were useless," a protester had written on a wall using spray paint. Indeed, half the seats in Hong Kong's lawmaking body are filled with representatives of lobby groups or sectoral interests, which are easily manipulated by Beijing's cadres to ensure that two out of three branches of the government are under their firm control.

Although over a million Hong Kongers took to the streets to oppose the bill allowing extradition to mainland China, the government decided to go ahead with the bill and failed. To avoid a repeat of last year's fiasco and international embarrassment, the national security law was drafted and passed a thousand miles away in total secrecy.

The legislation, predicated on controversial and unconvincing notions of sovereignty and reserve power, circumvented the legislative process and was incompatible with the provisions of the Basic Law and the U.N.-registered Joint Declaration between the U.K. and China. Hong Kongers were never consulted and had no say in the law's passage.

A government-sponsored advertisement promoting the national security law, pictured on June 29: Hong Kongers were never consulted and had no say in the law's passage.   © Reuters

The law overrides human rights safeguards in the Hong Kong legal system. If deemed necessary, habeas corpus, the right to protest unjust arrest in front of a court, will be denied to allow for indefinite detention without a speedy trial. The condition for granting bail is also now different. Even if a defendant is no or little flight risk, he or she can still be detained if the defendant is seen as prone to other national security "crimes." A public trial or trial by jury can be denied for some cases.

As definitions of offences relating to state secrets, terrorism and secession are much broader than the international norm, the law can be understood as a form of thought-policing that aims to silence dissidents. As Hong Kongers suddenly find themselves living in the political culture and social climate of red terror, a period of severe repression, self-censorship has sadly become a fact of life for those who do not yet have plans to pack up and leave.

What has been troubling Hong Kong people since last year is the seemingly high number of reported "suicides" and dubious circumstances of death, such as that of 22-year-old computer science college student Chow Tsz-lok, who died from head injuries after falling from a car park. Many have feared that mainland agents operating in Hong Kong could be behind these deaths.

This fear is well founded: the kidnapping of the Causeway Bay booksellers and detention of British consulate staff Simon Cheng in downtown Kowloon's high-speed rail station have shaken people's confidence in the "one country, two systems" principle. Indeed, the national security law has provisions for prosecution and trial by mainland authorities. In other words, suspects can be sent to the mainland according to this law.

Both the National Security Commission and National Security Office in Hong Kong are above the law and need not be accountable to Hong Kong's legislature. Unlike how other public spending is vetted, expenditure relating to their operation will not be subject to the scrutiny of the Legislative Council's Finance Committee.

As I am an elected lawmaker, the news of my arrest traveled fast. I am extremely grateful for the outpouring of support from Hong Kongers and the international community. Yet for so many arrestees, such as those teenagers I saw, they must rely on their resolve and the moral support from one another.

When someone gets arrested during a protest, elected local councilors, social workers and even residents call out "What is your name?" to the handcuffed arrestee for fear that he or she will be unaccounted for one day.

The people of Hong Kong, especially young people, can never be silenced, even when heightened state violence and political persecution are putting them in harm's way. We need international support in this fight against a draconian law. I plead to the free world to offer those most vulnerable a safe haven and a new hope.

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