Over the past nine months, China’s Communist Party rulers in Beijing have launched a wholesale transformation of nearly every aspect of life in this prosperous territory – in the schools, the courts, the civil service, the media, the elected legislature, and even the relatively powerless local neighborhood councils. Only the local business community has been largely spared – but not untouched – by the changes.
As a result, in less than a year, this once freewheeling city known for its frenetic energy, lively debates, rambunctious local media, and long tradition of street protests has become hardly recognizable. This longtime British colony which once embodied the perfect blend of East and West now resembles every other sprawling megacity on the Chinese mainland, marked by soaring skyscrapers and impressive infrastructure, but stifled by repression and fear.
The vehicle for Hong Kong’s rapid transformation is the new draconian national security law (“NSL”) imposed by Beijing and handed down last year. Hong Kong’s China-appointed local government was supposed to draft and implement its own version of the national security law immediately after the ’97 handover, but successive leaders repeatedly demurred in the face of intense local opposition.
Finally, Beijing’s leaders decided to step in and do it themselves. The proximate cause was a series of large-scale and often violent anti-government protests that erupted here in June 2019 and continued unabated for the next seven months, until the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic early last year brought a ban on all public gatherings.
The demonstrations were sparked when the city’s Beijing-appointed administrator, called “Chief Executive,” Carrie Lam, introduced an ill-conceived criminal extradition bill that would have allowed suspects arrested in Hong Kong to be shipped over the border to stand trial in China’s opaque and unjust legal system. In the face of government intransigence and increasingly brutal police tactics, the demonstrations soon morphed into a broader movement that began to challenge China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.
The 2019 protests saw unprecedented scenes of masked, black-clad demonstrators armed with rocks, slingshots, Molotov cocktails, and even bows and arrows battling riot police who fired tens of thousands of rounds of tear gas, water from a spray cannon, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. High-end shopping malls, subway stations, university campuses, and even the upscale financial district of Central came to resemble a single fluid and shifting battle zone. Thousands were arrested under the charge of “rioting,” which carries a lengthy prison term.
At first, China’s Communist leaders tried to ignore the protests. In the early days, there was almost no mention of the riots made in the tightly controlled, heavily censored state-run media. When stories eventually did begin to appear, it was almost always to depict the demonstrators as a small band of “rioters.” But when protesters attacked the Beijing central government’s main office in Hong Kong and provocatively defaced the Chinese emblem with black paint, defiantly tossed the Chinese flag into the harbor, and began targeting China-affiliated banks and mainland-owned restaurants, authorities in Beijing decided enough was enough… And the result is the new NSL.
The national security law is actually somewhat a misnomer. The new law is much more an Internal Security Act of the kind commonly used in Britain’s other former colonies like Malaysia and Singapore, which is aimed at crushing internal dissent, not deterring an attack from abroad. China’s version of the law, imposed on Hong Kong with no local input or debate, defines four broad categories of offenses: terrorism, secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces. Those sweeping categories are left deliberately vague, meaning the NSL can proscribe virtually anything police, prosecutors, or the Chinese government wants it to.
Under the law, singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the anthem of the 2019 protest movement, or chanting the movement’s slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time,” can now be deemed a national security offense. Carrying a banner, wearing a T-shirt, or posting a social media text advocating Hong Kong independence can lead to arrest and a lifetime prison sentence. Under the new law, inciting hatred against the local government, the Communist authorities in Beijing, or against the Hong Kong police is now a national security crime.
The law is so broadly written that even criticizing the NSL itself is a crime against national security.