Just a few weeks after China’s imposition of a new “national-security law” on Hong Kong, we can already see the law’s effects: It has emboldened the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to suppress dissent, punish activism, and create fear within the city’s democracy movement.
In 1997, the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong, which it had governed for 99 years under a lease extorted from the Qing Dynasty, back to the People’s Republic of China. At the time, the PRC promised to preserve the political autonomy and freedoms the city had enjoyed under the British until 2047. The national-security law and the crackdown it initiated marked the breaking of that promise.
Beijing’s move to exert increased control over the city reflects several factors, first and foremost among them the rise of Xi Jinping. Xi has attempted to strengthen the CCP’s control of China and his control of the CCP, and after tightening his grip on the mainland, he naturally sought to inflict the same fate on Hong Kong. The city’s democracy movement, in turn, erred by forgetting that it ultimately was dealing with Xi’s regime, which had already crushed all opposition at home, and in demanding what the Hong Kong authorities could never provide (full democracy) while delivering what the CCP could never abide (chaos).
Hence the imposition of the national-security law by Beijing, with results worse than anyone predicted.
The NSL criminalizes separatism, subversion, and terrorism. All of those crimes are vaguely defined, with ultimate interpretation up to Beijing, which uses similar restrictions to stifle dissent on the mainland. Special judges will be appointed to oversee national-security trials, which can be conducted in secret. Chinese security agents now operate in Hong Kong and defendants can be sent to the mainland for trial. The law singles out “collusion with a foreign country or with external forces to endanger national security,” which is so broad it could cover something as simple as criticizing Beijing in an interview with a foreign reporter. Under the law, Beijing even claims the power to charge foreign nationals for acts committed overseas, and indeed has already attempted to do so. Those convicted can receive life imprisonment.
Representatives of Hong Kong, who had no say in formulating the measure, have spent the weeks since its enactment desperately seeking to defuse international criticism. No doubt, Xi’s regime would prefer to win widespread compliance through intimidation; mass arrests would take effort, create international controversy, and undermine Beijing’s image. Ultimately the CCP hopes to use indoctrination backed by coercion to tranquilize Hong Kong’s population.
Indeed, regime allies in the city’s government admitted as much when the law was first implemented. Stanley Ng, a delegate to the National People’s Congress, the mainland’s rubber-stamp legislature, said the law was ambiguous by design in order to incorporate the “real effects of intimidation and deterrence. You can see the rebels in Hong Kong are now in turmoil.” Tam Yiu-chung, another NPC apparatchik, also lauded the law’s impact: “Those who have stirred up trouble and broken this type of law in the past will hopefully watch themselves in the future. If they continue to defy the law, they will bear the consequences.”
The law was, in short, intended to trigger the democracy movement’s broad retreat from the public square, and it has. But there are already signs that its effects will be much more far-reaching.
On Monday, Hong Kong authorities arrested Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, along with two of his sons and four company executives, for alleged collusion with foreign groups. Around 200 police officers raided the paper. China’s nationalistic Global Times tagged Lai as a “modern traitor.” On passage of the NSL, Lai had warned: “Whatever we write, or whatever we say, they can label secession or subversion or whatever they decide according to their expedience.”
Detained separately were members of the now-disbanded group Scholarism and an election-monitoring organization, as well as 23-year-old pro-democracy politician and protest leader Agnes Chow. Over the weekend, Chow cited surveillance of her home on social media. After the plethora of arrests, another democracy activist, Sunny Cheung, observed: “Everyone, let’s mentally prepare. The road ahead will be darker and more terrifying than what we’ve imagined.”
Such arrests might have been expected within Hong Kong when the law was passed. But last week, the authorities also issued warrants for six activists based overseas. The police refused to discuss the case, but the Chinese state-owned CCTV network helpfully explained that the activists were wanted for promoting secession and colluding with foreigners.
One is Samuel Muk-man Chu, the head of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, which lobbies the U.S. government. Chu, born in Hong Kong, has been an American citizen for 25 years. He is best known for his work as a pastor and for running several social-justice organizations. China seeks to jail him for promoting the cause of human rights in Hong Kong from the U.S. “I might be the first non-Chinese citizen to be targeted, but I will not be the last,” he told CNN. “If I am targeted, any American/any citizen of any nation who speaks out for Hong Kong can — and will be — too.”
Also charged was Nathan Law, a leader of the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution” democracy protests. He was elected to the Legislative Council in 2016, but subsequently disqualified at Beijing’s direction. He wisely fled to the United Kingdom after the NSL’s passage. If the law is not being applied retrospectively, as China claims it is not, he is being indicted for actions he undertook after leaving the territory.
Simon Cheung, another target, worked for the British consulate in Hong Kong. When visiting mainland China last year, he was detained for 15 days, apparently tortured, and questioned about the democracy movement. After his release, he was granted asylum by the United Kingdom. The charges against him apparently relate to his work there.
Amid all of these efforts to intimidate dissenters into silence, the law’s passage has also prompted Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, to postpone the September Legislative Council elections, allowing Beijing to decide the body’s make-up until the vote is held next year. Lam, who defended the NSL despite not having seen it before it was enacted, claimed that “political considerations” played no role in the postponement, which she blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic. But the PRC had real reason to fear that the opposition would gain control of the Council for the first time if the election had been held as scheduled.
The council’s makeup is determined through a hybrid system, some lawmakers are directly elected by Hong Kongers, while some are chosen by interest groups. Historically that has ensured that China-friendly elites have the upper hand in governing the city, but hostility toward Beijing has peaked in the aftermath of the NSL’s imposition, so much so that the traditional barriers to democratic governance were unlikely to hold if the election had been held. Last November, democracy activists won control of 17 out of 18 district councils normally controlled by establishment parties. Even pro-Beijing Legislative Council members expected another devastating election defeat. The vote delay gives the regime even more opportunity to threaten and arrest anyone who poses a threat to its aims.
Even before the election was postponed, the Hong Kong government had disqualified a dozen candidates, including four sitting legislators, on the grounds of promoting self-determination/independence, seeking foreign intervention (such as sanctions against Hong Kong and/or Beijing), opposing the NSL, and promising to reject government initiatives. Beijing’s Liaison Office, the territory’s real government, explained that “these unscrupulous individuals who are plotting to destroy” Hong Kong could not be allowed to sit on the Council. After the election delay was announced, the government admitted that other candidates are being reviewed: “We do not rule out the possibility that more nominations would be invalidated.”
With unintended irony, Lam’s government mixed its announcement with the statement that it “respects and safeguards the lawful rights of Hong Kong people, including the right to vote and the right to stand for elections.” Two weeks ago, the same government suggested that 600,000 Hong Kongers may have violated the NSL by voting in an informal primary for democracy activists. If the goal of the ballot was “objecting or resisting every policy initiative of the [Hong Kong] government,” Lam said, “it may fall under the category of subverting the state power—one of the four types of offenses under the national-security law.” The police subsequently raided the offices of the polling organization that ran the vote.
The authorities also recently arrested four activists, as young as 16, for “inciting secession.” They were members of Studentlocalism, a group for pro-independence students in secondary school. Notably, the organization ended operations before the NSL officially took effect, but those detained had posted support for independence on social media afterward, and the police explained that making such statements constituted incitement. Regina Ip, one of the PRC’s most reliable local factotums, applauded the arrests, which, she told the New York Times, show the authorities are “acting in accordance with the law.”
After the law’s passage, tenured law professor Benny Tai was dismissed by the University of Hong Kong for his pro-democracy activities. Previously punished for his participation in the 2014 demonstrations, he was recently cited by Beijing for assisting in the unofficial primary. The PRC liaison office blamed him for having “poisoned Hong Kong’s political environment,” calling him “the culprit behind the chaos in Hong Kong and the representative for colluding foreign powers,” and his removal “a just act of punishing evil and promoting good and conforming to the people’s will.”
Other Teachers are being targeted, too. Last month, 92 percent of those surveyed by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union said they felt government pressure and had a negative view of the educational system’s future; 80 percent avoided sensitive subjects in the classroom. Many who protested or endorsed anti-government demonstrations were reprimanded and in some cases fired. The Education Bureau called for the elimination of any teaching materials that could “provoke any acts or activities which endanger national security.” Some subjects, such as human rights on the mainland, seem likely to become verboten. At an education meeting, Lam ominously said that she hoped “the national-security law is also a turning point for returning education to education and returning students to the right track.”
Beijing has conducted a broad, cruel, and shockingly effective campaign to destroy political and intellectual liberty in Hong Kong in a very short time. There is no need to wait to judge the impact of the national-security law: It has already chilled free speech, precluded political protest, and silenced critics of the PRC’s increasingly oppressive rule. Hong Kongers now face the same fate as mainland Chinese, free to talk only about what the government allows them to talk about. Speak out on anything else, and they risk arrest, prosecution, and prison.
The West, at least at the moment, has no satisfactory answer to the crackdown facilitated by the NSL. But we should be under no illusions: Xi Jinping is bringing his increasingly totalitarian rule to Hong Kong. Just over a month and a half after the law’s passage, that much is all too clear.