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The security law has produced a "chilling effect covering the entire Hong Kong society," says Toru Kurata, a politics and law professor at Rikkyo University.   © Illustration by Hiroko Oshima
Asia Insight

How the National Security Law transformed Hong Kong in one year

Legislation forces people to migrate, steer clear of politics in 'South Shenzhen'

KENJI KAWASE and MICHELLE CHAN, Nikkei staff writers | Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- The first time the Hong Kong government tried to put into law a security bill that would restrict civil liberties, the city's Civil Human Rights Front organized a protest that drew more than 500,000 residents, a stunning turnout that helped force authorities to scrap the plan.

The demonstration took place on July 1, 2003, exactly six years after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China. The protest started a tradition in which the CHRF organized demonstrations every July 1 in which people expressed grievances on a range of issues including Hong Kong's horrifically-high housing prices.

But the tradition now is buried. Last year's July 1 was the first full day in effect for a tough National Security Law (NSL) for Hong Kong imposed by China's National People's Congress, after prolonged pro-democracy protests in the city. The CHRF tried but failed to get a permit a year ago; officials cited COVID-19 restrictions.

This year, with the security law in force, the group didn't even try. "We could in no way submit any application under the name of the Front," acting convenor Chung Chung-fai told reporters. Applications to march by three other pro-democracy groups were rejected by police on Monday, who cited the pandemic.

In its first year, the NSL has brought a lot of change in Hong Kong. Some people have migrated, more say they plan to, and others are staying but steering clear of politics. The transformation over the year has been multifaceted, as some sneer that the former British colony has turned into "New Hong Kong," or even "South Shenzhen."

The security law has produced a "chilling effect covering the entire Hong Kong society," Toru Kurata, a politics and law professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, told Nikkei Asia. And some analysts are worried the chill could deepen in the law's second year. There's increased concern about the media after arrests and actions under the NSL forced the closure last week of Apple Daily, an outspoken and popular pro-democracy media.

Tens of thousands of protesters march on the streets to demonstrate against an anti-subversion law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2003.   © Reuters

Kurata, a longtime Hong Kong and China watcher, doesn't see any way authorities will be forced to put the brakes on repression. Even the judiciary, the last bastion of the "one country, two systems" formula promised by Beijing to last at least until 2047, "has been considerably influenced by political circumstances when it comes to political cases," he said.

There are still pro-democracy figures and groups in town, but they are treading very carefully. The CHRF exists but appears in jeopardy. In April, police questioned its legality and said they were investigating whether it had violated Hong Kong's Societies Ordinance, enacted in 1911 by the British mainly to register triads.

Figo Chan Ho-wun, the Front's current convener, in May was sentenced to 18 months' prison for participating in an unauthorized assembly in 2019 when the Chinese Communist Party celebrated 70 years of its rule. He and some other pro-democracy activists weren't charged under the NSL, but were put on trial after it was enacted.

Since the law was imposed, more than 100 arrests have been made, while Hong Kong authorities have used a range of enforcement tools to crack down on pro-democracy movements and activists.

The first trial of a person charged under NSL opened last week, for Tong Ying-kit, arrested right after the law took effect.

Tong is charged with inciting separatism -- one of the four types of offenses under NSL, along with subversion, terrorist activities and collusion with foreign forces. The 24-year-old is accused of driving his motorbike into police lines while flying a banner reading: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times."

These words were deemed to carry a "connotation to Hong Kong independence" by prosecutors. If convicted, he could get a life sentence. Tong is not getting a jury trial, even though it is a constitutional right of defendants, but the NSL is an exception and all judges have been hand-picked by the government.

Among events lost in Hong Kong in the new order brought by the NSL, the June 4 candlelight vigil at Victoria Park is probably the most symbolic, embodying the "one country, two systems" approach. Thousands gathered every year to mourn the killing of unarmed students and civilians by the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square in 1989 -- talk of which is forbidden in the mainland.

Protesters gather at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4 in 2019, left. The park was empty this year after being cordoned off by police. (Source photos by Kosaku Mimura and Reuters)

But this year, the Hong Kong commemoration was banned. While many thousands milled nearby, a cordon and a few thousand police kept Victoria Park sealed off. The police based its action on the Public Order Ordinance, enacted in 1967 by the British colonial government when it was challenged by riots led by leftists influenced by China's Cultural Revolution.

Like the CHRF, the group that organized June 4 vigils -- the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China -- remains, but its future is clouded.

"We don't know whether the Hong Kong Alliance will be facing greater difficulty, or even be outlawed," Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, one of its standing committee members, told Nikkei. "We cannot say it is totally impossible."

The alliance's chairman and vice-chairman, labor rights activist Lee Cheuk-yan and human rights lawyer Albert Ho Chun-yan, are in prison for 20 and 18 months, respectively, one of them for taking part in the same October 2019 rally Figo Chan was imprisoned for. So is Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying.

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai speaks during an interview at his home in 2016. (Photo by Akiyoshi Inoue)

Prior to going to jail, Ho told Nikkei he had "no regrets" about participating that day. "Sometimes, you have to sacrifice your own freedom for the greater good."

Ho and Lee, along with Tsoi and over 20 other pro-democracy activists, also face separate criminal charges over leading an unauthorized commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown last year. Authorities banned the event, citing Covid-19 rules, but the organizer went ahead.

A museum commemorating the crackdown, operated by the same group, was shut on June 2, only four days after reopening following a renovation. The city's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, citing a 1919 ordinance, declared the facility illegal.

Ten days later, Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong signaled in a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party that action against the Alliance could come any time. Luo Huining, without naming the group he called the territory's "genuine archenemy," said the organization advocates "the end of one-party dictatorship."

Tsoi's reaction was that "very likely, in the next months or even weeks, some sort of legal action could appear."

Ho admitted that supporting China's democracy movements, albeit an important cause, is becoming increasingly difficult in Hong Kong. "But if we pay attention to these events and learn from the history, then we'll know Hong Kong has not entered the darkest time yet," he said.

In the case of Apple Daily, authorities acted speedily to hasten its demise.

Following two police raids to their headquarters and arrests of its founder, executives and senior editorial members, the 26-year-old newspaper published its final print edition on June 24 and stopped updating its online service the day before.

Next Digital, Apple's publisher, was in a dire financial state, recording five consecutive years of net loss until March 2020 and running another net loss for the half year until September. Although Apple had 600,000 online subscribers and was one of the most widely read paid newspapers in the territory, the company had been hit hard by an advertising boycott by pro-Beijing businesses and the government.

It was kept afloat by personal support of Lai, who owns 71% of Hong Kong-listed Next. He was extending 765 million Hong Kong dollars ($98.6 million) in unsecured loans, but his stake and bank accounts were frozen by authorities in May. The final blow came a month later as the government blocked HK$18 million in the accounts of three subsidiaries, on allegations of "collusion with foreign forces" under the national security law, which Lai is also charged for and could keep him in prison for life.

John Lee, then head of Hong Kong's security force, told reporters that "any activities that endanger national security will not be tolerated," when announcing the freeze of Lai's assets and shares. "Such activities or such person or such organization will receive the full force of the law," he added. Later, Lee said Apple Daily was not involved in "normal journalistic work."

Chief Executive Carrie Lam on June 22 defended Lee's comment and asserted the newspaper was "violating the law as defined in the national security law and based on very clear evidence," without giving details. She warned reporters "Don't try to underplay the significance of breaching the national security law, and don't try to beautify these acts of endangering national security."

The day after Apple Daily closed, Lee was promoted to chief secretary, the number two post in the territory's government, the highest position ever assumed by a former police officer.

Beyond seriously impacting media, the NSL is starting to have an effect -- which could be profound and long-lasting on education. According to a recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, about 40% primary and secondary school teachers expressed intention to quit their jobs, with "increasing political pressure" being the popular reason, followed by discontent over Hong Kong's society and education policies.

"I don't know what I should tell my students anymore," said a history teacher who gives his name as Chan. He said he used to make his own notes for his pupils, but now he would rather stick to the official textbooks. "It's a shame, but I have no other choice. Students or their parents can report on you if you said anything wrong."

Indeed, authorities in recent months have revoked licenses of at least three teachers, including two who have held class discussions on sensitive topics including the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and Hong Kong independence, and one for his participation in the 2019 protests, according to local media reports.

"It is now security measures everywhere in campus," Ray Yep Kin-man, political science professor at City University of Hong Kong told Nikkei Asia. At his university, an electronic gate like an automated ticket one at train stations has been set up at the entrance, where guards check the people flow.

Only pre-authorized individuals are allowed to enter the campus. Yep said this is because authorities "take students as troublemakers, they take students as enemies," as many pro-democracy movements were led by students.

Yep, who teaches Hong Kong and mainland Chinese politics, has not changed the curriculum but now is careful not to put students at risk. He has dropped an assignment to produce videos on political issues that are their top concern, which in the past resulted in some students conveying critical views on a lack of democracy and on Beijing's increasing influence.

"I won't do it anymore, because I may put students in trouble," Yep said.

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