Hong Kong’s national security law transformed the city in just one year
Now, the full text was here — and it was broader, vaguer and gave Beijing more power than many expected.
The bill was drafted almost entirely in closed-door meetings in Beijing that even Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, was not a part of. It came after months of anti-government, pro-democracy protests that infuriated the Chinese leadership, who saw it as an open challenge to their national sovereignty.
The result was a law that criminalized acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security — with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for all four.
Chinese and Hong Kong leaders assured the public the law would target a minority of individuals, and not diminish freedoms in the semi-autonomous city.
One year on, while some have welcomed the law for restoring stability after the violence and political unrest of 2019, others feel their worst fears have been confirmed.
Crackdown measures that would have been previously unthinkable have arrived at a dizzying speed, with 117 people arrested under the security law and 64 charged as of June 27. Once an open international hub with a freewheeling press, rich protest culture and limited democracy, Hong Kong is looking increasingly like other Chinese cities under Beijing’s tight grip, subject to Chinese laws and censorship.
A newspaper has been closed down, public protest appears to be banned, and nearly all of the city’s leading pro-democracy figures, including activists and politicians, have either been jailed or forced into exile. Tens of thousands of citizens are emigrating to democratic countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, which have offered safe harbor from the law. Even schools, universities, libraries, movies and internet access have been impacted.
In just one year, the city has been transformed, leaving many residents stunned and grieving. Here’s a look at how the change unfolded.
The 2019 protests
Fears of Chinese encroachment on the city’s freedoms drove another round of mass protests in 2019, this time sparked by a bill that would have allowed extradition to China.
All that was too much for the Chinese government, which until then had left the crisis for local authorities to handle.
When the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on mass gatherings, Beijing swiftly used a back door in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution to bypass the city’s independent legal system and pass the controversial law.
Even before the law passed, a chilling effect could be seen throughout the city, with political and activist groups disbanding and many citizens hastily deleting social media posts and accounts prior to June 30.
The crackdown begins
Hong Kong awoke on July 1, the anniversary of the city’s handover from British rule to China, to the new reality of the national security law.
Hundreds turned out to protest, clashing with riot police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Police made their first arrests under the national security law that day — and haven’t stopped since.
‘All rights are not absolute’
If there was any hope a new year would bring an end to the crackdown, it was soon dismissed.
On January 6, 2021, at least 53 former lawmakers and opposition activists were arrested for “subverting state power.” They had taken part in an unofficial primary election the previous summer, designed to field the strongest pro-democracy candidates in a legislative election that, in the end, never took place, ostensibly due to coronavirus.
In February, authorities ordered schools, including kindergartens, to implement national security into their curriculum across a range of studies, from history to biology and music. In a circular to schools, the city’s Education Bureau said that “as far as national security is concerned, there is no room for debate or compromise.”
As the one-year anniversary of the law loomed — along with the all-important landmark of 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 — there was one remaining figure from the pro-democracy movement still at large: the Apple Daily newspaper.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian denied the raid had been an attack to press freedom, calling it a “just move” done in “strict accordance with the law.”
Through it all, as authorities have detained journalists and activists, unseated opposition lawmakers, and arrested those who still dared protest, they have insisted that the security law does not diminish any civil or social liberties.
“The objective is to maintain long-term stability and prosperity in Hong Kong,” said Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, several days after the Apple Daily raid. “The enforcement of the National Security Law and its implementation is to maintain national security.”
The law acknowledges that human rights have to be “respected and protected,” she said — then added, “but all these rights are not absolute.”
Last week, Security Secretary John Lee, a former police officer who made the decision to freeze Apple Daily’s assets, was promoted to chief secretary — the second-highest position in Hong Kong. The city’s police chief was also promoted to take Lee’s place as new security secretary.
When asked why two of the city’s most important positions were both given to officials with policing backgrounds, Lam dismissed concerns, saying it was “all about meritocracy.”
An uncertain future
One year on, Hong Kong looks very different from the raucous, rebellious city of protest it had been for decades.
Since the city’s handover, it has had a history of mass protests, sometimes stretching into hundreds of thousands of participants — and in 2019, reaching two million, according to organizers. These mass demonstrations are now nowhere to be seen; there are occasionally small flash protests, but these are quickly shut down and the organizers punished.
Many families have already left, citing fear for Hong Kong’s future and a desire for their children to grow up in a free and democratic society.
Still, a sense of apprehension persists, and some firms have reduced their presence in Hong Kong due to the political upheaval.
Others have also decided to stay, even at the risk of arrest or imprisonment. And many continue to resist in whatever ways they can, throwing their support behind the crumbling bastions of free press and political dissent.
Last Wednesday, people began lining up behind newsstands by midnight to buy the final Thursday issue of Apple Daily before its closure, with lines stretching down the street and around the block. A crowd gathered outside the newspaper’s headquarters in a show of solidarity, holding placards and flowers. Many waved flashlights and tied yellow ribbons — the color of the pro-democracy movement — to the building’s gates.
When journalists came out to thank their supporters and hand out free copies of the last issue, they were met with cheers and applause. “Thank you, Hong Kongers,” the group of journalists shouted in unison, before taking a deep bow and waving farewell.
“Thank you, Apple Daily people — ga yau,” the crowd shouted back, using a Cantonese phrase that has been a rallying cry throughout the protests. It translates to “add oil,” and it means: keep going, work hard, and above all else, persevere.