HONG KONG -- For the first 23 years after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, residents of the territory remained free to express their views about the handover, the mainland and much more.
But now, one year after the China-imposed, stringent National Security Law (NSL) took effect, many Hong Kong residents are afraid to raise their voices. While some continue to be outspoken, government actions like those that caused the closure of Apple Daily are discouraging people from speaking up.
"The national security law is a law that has taken away humanity from Hong Kong," Tomoko Ako, professor of sociology and China studies at the University of Tokyo, told Nikkei Asia. As the "red line" of what constitutes an offense is unclear, she believes it has taken away freedom to express even "basic emotions and sorrows."
Activist Agnes Chow Ting, who has been outspoken, is quiet at present, which is not surprising as she was arrested under the NSL last year, though not charged. For her role in an unauthorized assembly in 2019, she was imprisoned for 10 months and released on June 12 after serving over six months. The 24-year-old was greeted by cheering supporters, but remained silent. Later, she posted an Instagram message thanking friends for greeting her despite heavy rain. "From now on, I need to rest well and recuperate my body, because I lost too much weight during this period," she wrote.
Chow is well-known in Japan for her democracy advocacy, speaking and writing in her fluent self-taught Japanese. Her Twitter account in Japanese has 581,000 followers. But Ako, who has hosted her visits to Japan, said that under the NSL Chow "could be deemed as colluding with foreign forces if she expressed anything in Japanese." Ako, who earned her doctorate degree at the University of Hong Kong, said she also no longer feels safe to visit the territory.
Despite the ban on Hong Kong street protests, people are trying to show their opposition to the law however they can.
At every session of a trial on June 11, supporters cheered "I love you! We all back you!" each time more than 20 pro-democracy activists charged with illegal assembly appeared. A 42-year-old restaurant owner told Nikkei Asia that he comes to applaud "as often as I can." A 68-year-old retiree said, "I will do what I can do to support them."
The day after police in May raided children's clothing store Chickeeduck, accused of violating the NSL by displaying a protest slogan, customers formed long lines around the shop to show their backing.
"I'm so grateful for everyone's support," said Herbert Chow, the brand's founder. Chow was forced to exit his investment on the mainland and move his company's production line to Southeast Asia in 2019, after he was attacked by state media over his support for Hong Kong protests.
The city's major property groups refused to renew his leases, leaving the clothing chain with only four outlets in the territory, compared to 12 before the protests.
"If the government actually bothers to make a case against me, it is declaring a war on all small business owners in the city," he said. "In that case, it's a gain for the Hong Kong democracy movement. That's how I overcame my fear [of being jailed]."
One prominent activist, Nathan Law, left for London just before the NSL took effect. With fellow activists being arrested in Hong Kong, his relocation was meant to ensure a voice of dissent overseas.
Law said leaving was the correct decision and fulfilled the responsibilities to raise attention about Hong Kong internationally. He feels that policymakers around the world are increasingly seeing China as a threat and becoming more vocal on China's human rights problems. In April, Law said he had been granted asylum in the U.K.
"I still believe I can return to Hong Kong as a free man one day, although it might take years, or decades, as long as we never forget why we started and stay true to ourselves," he said.
Emily Lau Wai-hing, a former pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmaker, remains outspoken. In 1984, when she was a journalist and Britain and China had just signed the Joint Declaration on returning Hong Kong to Beijing, Lau famously asked then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "You signed an agreement with China promising to deliver over five million people into the hands of a communist dictatorship. Is this morally defensible?"
She continues to advocate democracy in interviews with international media, despite the risk being charged of collusion with foreign forces. Talking to Nikkei Asia recently, Lau said, "I think the game is not over. I refuse to be intimidated into silence." But, she added, people need to "be bold, be wise, but be careful," to avoid unnecessary arrests, given Hong Kong's new reality.