Explainer: A city shackled – How Beijing’s security law transformed Hong Kong in one short month

©Hong Kong Free Press

Once a vague spectre, national security legislation became a reality in Hong Kong last month when – in less than six weeks – Beijing imposed a law granting authorities sweeping powers to clamp down on dissent.

Drafted behind closed doors without local legislative input, the law ostensibly targets acts in the city deemed to threaten state security, including terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, following months of sometimes violent democracy protests.

Protesters in gas masks and helmets at night. Photo: Viola Kam/ United Social Press

With broad, catch-all provisions – encompassing acts committed abroad – and charges punishable by up to life imprisonment, the law has sent shivers down the spines of activists who feared it would chip away at the territory’s treasured civil liberties.

The move was welcomed by the pro-Beijing camp as heralding the return of social “stability,” but activists and NGOs have warned it will open the floodgates to more direct mainland interference and spell the end of One Country, Two Systems.

Resting protester on Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus. Photo: Jimmy Lai/United Social Press.

Within a fortnight, local authorities have outlawed select protest phrases and activists were arrested for allegedly inciting secession. Critics warned of a “chilling effect” as foreign governments, such as Australia and New Zealand, suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong; former lawmaker Nathan Law fled to the UK and Downing Street created a “lifeboat” citizenship scheme for British National (Overseas) passport holders looking to emigrate from Hong Kong.

As some seven million residents wake up to a radical shift in the city’s political order, HKFP rounds up some of the key developments in Hong Kong as the new legislation was rolled out.


1. First arrests under security law

Despite the newly-gazetted law, coronavirus gathering restrictions and a police ban on the annual Labour Day march, thousands took to the streets on Hong Kong Island on July 1. Police made their first arrest under the new law of several individuals including those who carried Hong Kong independence items.

On the same day, police introduced a new purple flag warning crowds that they may have violated the security law.

2. Protest slogan criminalised

Reverberating through shopping malls across the city, the chant “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” came to define last year’s protests.

Police raise a warning banner against violation of the national security in Yuen Long’s Yoho mall on July 19, 2020. Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

With localist roots, the original English translation of “光復” was “Reclaim,” according to one of its creators – a reference to parallel trading in border towns which has been blamed for driving up retail prices and disrupting communities. The slogan took on broader connotations last year as public anger towards Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration and Beijing boiled over.

Two days after the enactment of the security law, the government singled out the phrase as implying separatism; anyone found uttering or displaying it could be arrested, it warned.

Legal experts have questioned whether the ban would be binding in nature. But police swiftly took to cautioning pro-democracy political group Tin Shui Wai Connection at a street stall and arrested a demonstrator for holding a placard featuring the forbidden slogan in Yuen Long last Tuesday.

An electoral officer also pointed out an Instagram picture, posted in January by election hopeful Tiffany Yuen, containing the phrase. He asked whether she had continued to display it “in subversion,” which she denied. Yuen later had her nomination invalidated, barring her from the race.

Protesters have responded using creative workarounds, such as near-homonyms, a geometric typeface of the eight characters, and the initials of the romanised slogan. Some voiced their opposition by holding up blank signs, while others pasted blank Post-It Notes on walls to mimic “Lennon Walls” – public display boards once filled with messages of support for the protest movement.

3. Democracy books pulled

Days after the enactment of the law, at least nine pro-democracy titles disappeared from public library shelves, prompting fears over censorship.

Among the books removed for “review” included incumbent democrat Tanya Chan‘s My Journeys for Food and Justice, activist Joshua Wong’s coauthored Unfree speech, as well as Horace Chin’s On the Hong Kong City-State and Hong Kong State-survivors, penned under the name Chin-Wan.

4. Protest song banned in schools

Hong Kong Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung declared on July 7 that no one in schools should “hold any activities to express their political stance,” and teachers must not allow students to play, sing or broadcast the popular protest song Glory to Hong Kong on campuses.

5. Polling institute raided

Police with a warrant descended on the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Institute (HKPORI) on the night of July 10 with the objective of seizing computers.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The raid over a suspected data leak coincided with the pollsters’ involvement in self-initiated democratic primaries to select candidates to run in September’s legislative election, which went ahead as planned the following weekend. Officers left without removing any electronic devices.

6. Taiwan envoy leaves

Taiwan’s top acting representative in Hong Kong Kao Ming-tsun left the city on July 16 after refusing to sign an affadavit of support for “One China” for his visa extension application, according to an Up Media report.

“One China” is a diplomatic principle acknowledging only one Chinese government and Taiwan as part of China. Taiwan has been ruled by the Republic of China government since 1945 and considers itself to be an independent country.

Kao has been the acting top representative after the designated official Lu Chang-shui’s visa application was left pending since 2018. Taiwanese officials have accused the Hong Kong government of imposing “additional political conditions” when processing visa renewals and applications since the enactment of the security law.

7. Media bureau relocates staff

The New York Times suddenly revealed on July 14 it was to relocate its Hong Kong digital news team – equalling about a third of its staff – to Seoul, South Korea. It cited press freedom fears arising from the new legislation and unusual difficulties securing work permits, “rarely an issue” before.

File photo: United Social Press.

The paper said it would keep some of its correspondents in the territory to chart its morphing political landscape.

8. Student arrests

On Wednesday evening, police arrested four former members of the pro-independence group Studentlocalism on suspicion of inciting secession, in the first major roundup following an investigation under the security law.

Officers from the new National Security Department detained three males and one female, aged 16 to 21, including ex-convenor Tony Chung, ex-spokesperson Ho Nok-hang, as well as ex-members Yanni Ho and Chan Wai-jin. All were denied bail.

Tony Chung Hon-lam. Photo: HKFP.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, senior superintendent of the department Steve Li pointed to social media posts – created after the law’s enactment – which allegedly advocated the “joining of all pro-independence forces” to establish a “Hong Kong republic.”

Studentlocalism announced a day before the government gazetted the security law that it would shift all local operations overseas. Critics sounded the alarm over potential retroactive application of the law following the arrests.

9. Democrats disqualified

Less than 24 hours after the student arrests, returning officers invalidated the nominations of a whopping 12 democratic candidates seeking to run in September’s legislative election.

The list included prominent activist Joshua Wong, long a thorn in the side of the government, as well as incumbent lawmakers Kwok Ka-ki, Dennis Kwok and Kenneth Leung, previously considered to be moderates. Others included district councillors Tiffany Yuen, Lester Shum and Fergus Leung, and newcomer Gwyneth Ho – a former journalist.

Alvin Cheng, Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Tat Cheng Kwok Ka-Ki, Joshua Wong, Kenneth Leung, Ventus Lau, Gwyneth Ho, Tiffany Yuen, Lester Shum, and Fergus Leung.

One of the reasons cited as grounds for disqualification was expressing opposition to the security law which, “in principle,” meant the candidate did not sincerely intend to uphold the Basic Law.

In an ominous statement, the government said it would not rule out the possibility of barring more candidates in the future. Wong on Friday warned authorities were attempting to scrub the legislature of opposition figures in order to maintain the pro-establishment camp’s majority.

10. Exiled activists ‘wanted’

On July 31, Hong Kong police reportedly ordered the arrest of six pro-democracy activists on suspicion of violating the national security law.

Nathan Law. File photo: inmediahk.net via CC 2.0.

Police refused to comment but state-run CCTV reported that the police were seeking activist Nathan Law, in the UK, as well as former British consulate staffer Simon Cheng, pro-independence activists Ray Wong, Wayne Chan, Honcques Laus, and Samuel Chu. The controversial legislation includes passages which make it applicable worldwide, putting Hongkongers overseas at risk of arrest should they return to Hong Kong or Chinese jurisdiction.

11. Election postponed

Also on July 31, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced Hong Kong would postpone September’s legislative election by one year owing to a resurgence in untraceable coronavirus cases.

However, earlier that day, 22 democrats said the government was conspiring with pro-establishment lawmakers to stall the poll, using Covid-19 as an excuse: “The incumbent pro-democracy legislators – who represent the will of 60 per cent of the population – collectively and sternly oppose a postponement,” they said, calling for anti-epidemic arrangements to be rolled out for the race. “Otherwise, it’s tantamount to uprooting the entire basis of the SAR.”