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Democracy on the run: China cracks down on Hong Kong independence

For nearly 20 years, the people of Hong Kong have battled an ever-encroaching Chinese government.

Author’s note: With the exception of Mr. Cheung and Professor Chan, the sources in this article have been given pseudonyms to protect their safety and identity.

“I think up until very recently people felt that it is safe to speak out against Beijing,” said Eric Cheung, a freelance journalist writing for CNN in Hong Kong. Today, the streets of Hong Kong are quiet. The city he knew growing up has changed almost overnight. The colorful umbrellas and hand-made banners calling for “Hong Kong Independence” and “No China Extradition” have vanished along with the demonstrators who carried them. The streets, that for years swelled with sustained pro-democracy demonstrations, are now heavily patrolled by police. A new sense of terror and uncertainty has gripped the city, and that’s by design.

On June 30, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the legislative branch of the ruling party in China, unanimously passed a sweeping national security law (NSL). The law was drafted in secrecy and enacted just hours before the 23rd anniversary of the former colony’s handover to China from Great Britain. Many policy makers in the region, including Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, were kept completely in the dark until the law had already taken effect. With the NSL’s passage, President Xi Jinping has abruptly ended the “one country two systems” principle underlying the 1997 treaty between China and Great Britain.

The NSL ends civil liberties and privacy in Hong Kong. The legislation is vaguely worded, far-reaching, and supersedes local Hong Kong laws. The law criminalizes four major acts; secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with a foreign country to harm China’s national security. It warns that serious cases of each of these four offenses can carry a prison sentence of at least 10 years, and for the most serious offenses — life in prison.

An English translation of the full NSL can be read here:

A month after’s the law’s passage, police in Hong Kong are emboldened. Officers from the local Hong Kong Police Force along with China’s own top security force, the People’s Armed Police Force, have descended into the downtown area as well as into quiet neighborhoods. Clad in camo and bullet-proof vests, some carry AR15 rifles, others brandish less lethal pepper ball guns designed to resemble assault rifles. Regardless of the weapons they carry, the local and national police look like military personnel.

Hong Kong police were marshalled to break up the demonstrations.

The new law appears to directly contradict Hong Kong’s de facto constitution known as the “Basic Law.” The Hong Kong Bar Association believes the law is unconstitutional, but that has not stopped the police from using the NSL to begin making arrests.

On July 29th, four student activists were arrested for allegedly plotting secessionist acts. The students, three male and one female between the ages of 16 and 21, were arrested in three areas across the city. Police claim the activists had created social media posts promoting a Hong Kong nation. The students now find themselves in a terrifying position, as the Chinese government seeks to make an example of them in order to chill further political speech. At the news briefing on their detainment only certain journalists who were registered were granted access. This is the first time members of the press were blocked from reporting on a police briefing.

Despite the undermining of the press, journalists like Eric Cheung refuse to be intimidated. “I think the last thing that journalists want to do is practice self-censorship. No, I have not decided against pursuing some stories because the national security law is in place now. What I would say is that some of my journalist friends and I have stepped up our internet security,” he said.

Some prominent members of the pro-democracy movement such as Nathan Law have already fled the city out of fear of prosecution. Law’s political comrade, Joshua Wong, was arrested and charged under the new law on August 6th. While Law and Wong became high profile figureheads of the pro-democracy uprising, the movement is decentralized and contains no formal chain of hierarchy. An untold number of activists are continuing their campaign underground.

Now, the city’s 7 million residents must find a way to continue their daily lives under a veil of constant fear, unsure of whether they have already unwittingly violated the new law. The question on many people’s minds: will the vast net of police surveillance in mainland China be cast towards a few of Beijing’s most prominent critics, or is everyone in Hong Kong now a suspect?

“The new law shows tightened control, confers vague powers, and creates plenty of room for abuses,” said Professor Johannes Chan at a recent conference on “Balancing Freedom and Security: the Hong Kong National Security Law.” Prof. Chan, who specializes in human rights and constitutional law, serves as the Chair Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong. He believes national security laws should be assessed on two major points: the clarity of the text so that citizens and law enforcement have a reasonable understanding of how a law might be implemented and enforced, and practical ways to prevent the law from being abused or used to assert an arbitrary excess of power. On both terms, Professor Chan has serious concerns.

For example, Article 29 of the law is extremely vague. It criminalizes the distribution of “State Secrets” or any information regarding “National Security” to an entity outside of mainland China.  Professor Chan and his colleagues are left asking, what constitutes a state secret and national security? He added, “There is no single definition of National Security, and State Secrets is a notoriously vague term.”

Prof. Chan also worries about the law’s more draconian provisions, including mandatory minimum sentences, the ability of the Secretary of Justice to strip a suspect of the right to a trial by jury, the removal of bail in many cases, and the list of Beijing-approved judges who will preside over national security cases.

As for how the NSL might be enforced, that task lies mainly with The Special National Security Police Unit. The law grants this force a broad range of powers, including the right to covertly surveil citizens, including warrantless wiretapping. Lawmakers in Beijing have also created a new National Security Council to review the law’s application, but the council and the conduct of its employees are not subject to local jurisdiction. Furthermore, the council’s operations will be exempt from judicial review and legal challenge.

“Ultimately, it is not in dispute that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting national security. But,” Prof. Chan added, “national security is not an excuse for arbitrary power and authoritarian governance.”

Some Hong Kong residents say they expected this type of move from President Xi Jinping. “The trajectory was clear but nobody expected it to be this quick,” said Lily, a local filmmaker. She grew up in Hong Kong during the 1980’s and attended a Portuguese school set up by Jesuits. Her father left Shanghai during the cultural revolution, and her mother is from India. Back then, Hong Kong still felt like a British colony. “It was a very weird and blended world,” she said, “sort of a colonial outpost in Asia. Like a little fishing village turned into a metropolis. The city still has a little of these flavors but it’s changed.”

At her work, Lily is already seeing the effects of the NSL. “There is a noticeable change,” she said, “It’s not much about the law itself but how it was enacted — it was an Alpha move designed to quell any sort of opposition and it felt really sinister.” Over the past few weeks she has observed that her friends and colleagues are increasingly self-censoring their speech in public, while others are going out of their way not to restrict themselves. She said, “I think it’s (the NSL) designed to create this sort of disease or doubt amongst people.”

For some foreigners living in Hong Kong, the culture of spirited debate and civil participation is what first attracted them to the city. “I’ve never lived anywhere where the population is as politically switched on… You can have political conversations with anyone from your barber to your cab driver,” said Julius, a composer who teaches music at a university in Hong Kong.

Having lived in Hong Kong for nearly six years, the city has become a home for Julius. But with the passage of the NSL, the city that welcomed him may no longer be so hospitable. “This is the first time I would be hesitant to tell people it’s safe here,” he said, adding,” I’m genuinely worried.”

Some people are already being pressured by their friends abroad to leave Hong Kong. Sandy Parker, a copy editor who moved to the city when she was 24, has become increasingly worried and angry about the new law. Her friends have started communicating over the encrypted messaging app, Signal, and have encouraged her to evacuate the city with her family. She tries to comfort herself with the thought that the NSL isn’t really designed to go after people like her. She said, “I don’t think we are necessarily targets, but who knows where things will lead given China’s history?”

Posters declare the demands of the Hong Kong demonstrators.

In the halls of academia, the legislation is already being appled in authoritarian fashion. Julius explained that “in the university world it felt like everyone was pretending this wasn’t happening. There was a very scary thing where five university heads signed in support of law before it even passed.” He also heard that, “Newly graduated teachers have been called into interviews to talk about their political beliefs. There is talk about installing cameras in classrooms to make sure teachers are ‘patriotic.’”

Professors in Hong Kong often teach students from mainland China, but the NSL has complicated teacher-student relationships. Parker said she is aware of an academic whose mainland Chinese Ph.D students have declined to be published with her because of her support for the democrats. Those Ph.D students have good reason to worry. Just this week, Benny Tai, a prominent law professor and outspoken critic of the Chinese government, was fired from his position at the University of Hong Kong. In addition, books by pro-democracy writers such as Joshua Wong have already been pulled from public libraries in the city. An untold number of other titles are currently “under review” by the library authority.

Despite the aggressiveness of the new law, public support for the pro-democracy protests has historically been high, with as many 2 million of the city’s 7 million residents participating in public demonstrations. Public opinion polls show that a majority of people in Hong Kong support “one country, two systems.” In the 2019 local elections, democratic politicians who championed the  pro-democracy protestors’ five demands won a landslide victory, taking 17 of the 18 District Council Seats. This is despite a sustained campaign from Beijing’s top officials to discredit the public demonstrations. For years, the Chinese government has attempted to paint largely peaceful protestors as a band of thugs, rioters, and radical leftists. Last year, Carrie Lam accused people protesting a proposed extradition law of selfishly “paralyzing” the city. In June, she defended the NSL before the United Nations, claiming that new law would restore stability to the region. In an effort to assuage the concerns of her own constituents, she has said that the new law will primarily be used to deter crime and target a small minority of dangerous political disruptors. But just last week, two dozen people were charged under the new law for attending an annual vigil held in honor of those who died during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In retaliation, the U.S. has sanctioned Carrie Lam and the U.K. plans to suspend their extradition treaty with China indefinitely.

Some people are more receptive to Carrie Lam’s posturing. For David, who works with charities and victims of human trafficking, the NSL has made his life easier. “Hong Kong could just not cope because of the riots in the name of democracy. It was really pretty annoying,” he said. Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of protestors have disrupted air and train travel in the city in order to send a message to lawmakers in Beijing as well as to express discontent with city government. While David is not wholly opposed to the pro-democracy movement, he thinks that the protestors don’t really understand what democracy is — or appreciate the freedoms they enjoy. In his view, the occupy movement was close-minded, operating with a sort of my-way-or-the-highway mentality. “The pro-democracy pushes are naive because China is undergoing its own reform towards a strong man. And most of the time when you try to blow up the system, it crushes you instead,” he said.

Political activism can be dangerous. People like Alice (David’s girlfriend), tend to shy away from protests. Alice grew up in New Zealand and her family now lives in mainland China. She suspects that support for democracy in Hong Kong is not a cut-and-dry affair. “I think there is the perspective of the mainland Chinese who live here — they are quite split on their perspective of things. Most of them I know are supportive of this new law. But there is a portion of them that is strongly aligned with local Hong Kong positions.” At her job, Mainlanders and Hong Kong natives work side by side. But people who grew up in Hong Kong tend not to identify as Chinese. Alice recalls that during the protests last summer, differences in personal identity and political persuasion led co-workers into arguments. Disagreements over the protestors’ tactics and the role China should play in Hong Kong’s affairs made work life stressful.

Even for supporters of the occupy movement like Lily, the question of what democracy in Hong Kong should look like is not straightforward. “There are many points of view — a lot of people say, ‘look at the U.S. and does democracy really work, like you guys have Trump.’ Is America really a democracy? A lot of people here feel like, well, maybe democracy isn’t the answer and we were never really a democracy, and it’s not a binary conversation for us,” she said.

For nearly 20 years, the people of Hong Kong have battled an ever-encroaching Chinese government. Fighting with massive public demonstrations and support from many in the international community, they have largely staved off Beijing’s efforts to crack down on civil rights. But the NSL is a particularly aggressive move. The law comes at a time when many Western democracies are facing internal conflict, making them ill-suited to exert diplomatic pressure on China. It remains unclear whether Hong Kongers want to risk a game of brinkmanship with Xi Jinping now that their livelihoods and freedom could be on the line. Looking ahead, Sandy Park said, “Hong Kong people are practical — they don’t need to be martyrs and they are likely to do what is needed to survive. But from what I’ve seen, the anger runs deep and I don’t think they will forget. It’s just that they won’t be able to do anything about it.”


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