Explainer: How Beijing’s security law transformed Hong Kong, two months in

©Hong Kong Free Press

Hong Kong’s national security law has thrown a city scarred by months of political unrest into further uncertainty, as millions continue to adjust to a new normal. Two months after its enactment, pro-democracy activists been rounded up and government officials targeted with tough sanctions amid an increasingly hairy diplomatic dispute between superpowers.

Photo: Kaiser/HKFP.

HKFP rounds up some of August’s key developments, two months after the new legislation came into effect to criminalise subversion, secession, foreign interference and inference with transportation and other infrastructure. Read part 1, summarising July’s events, here.


1. Spiralling tensions with the US

In one of the boldest punitive actions yet, Washington on August 7 imposed sanctions on 11 individuals accused of undermining Hong Kong’s “autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens.” Chief Executive Carrie Lam, police chief Chris Tang, ex-police commissioner Stephen Lo, security secretary John Lee and justice secretary Teresa Cheng were among those listed, in a move designed to bar them from the US financial system.

China called the move “barbarous and rude,” whilst the city’s leader said the act of publishing data on the individuals – including addresses – online amounted to doxxing.

Carrie Lam at a press conference on August 18, 2020. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Beijing hit back three days later, sanctioning 11 Americans – including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – over “gross interference” in domestic affairs.

Weeks later, US authorities officially axed three bilateral agreements with Hong Kong on extradition and tax exemptions, while demanding exporters label their goods “Made in China” instead of “Made in Hong Kong” following the cancellation of the city’s special trading status.

2. Extradition treaties shelved; new immigration routes

France joined a growing list of countries suspending their extradition treaties with Hong Kong in light of the security law. Previously, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand – part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance – decided to do the same. Germany, meanwhile, halted their agreement due to the city’s decision to push back its legislative election by one year in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

In a statement on its decision to postpone its treaty ratification, the French foreign ministry criticised the new legislation as a threat to fundamental liberties and the One Country, two Systems principle.

In August, Australia also introduced new visa arrangements for Hong Kong passport holders, making it easier for students, temporary graduates and skilled workers to gain permanent residency status.

3. Mass arrests; newspaper raid

Flooding into the offices of the maligned pro-democracy tabloid Apply Daily, hundreds of police officers conducted their most daring raid yet under the security legislation. They also nabbed owner Jimmy Lai, his two sons and four top staffers during the August 10 operation.

Local media reported that the Next Digital media mogul was arrested on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces – an offence under the new law – as well as fraud. Next Digital’s CEO, Cheung Kim-hung, CFO Royston Chow and COO Chow Tat-kuen were among those apprehended. Executive Mark Simon, who is overseas, remains wanted.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Later in the evening, the force arrested 23-year-old Agnes Chow – an ex-member of the now-disbanded political group Demosisto – and two former student activists, including a freelancer for the UK’s ITN Wilson Li. He used to be a member of the now-disbanded pro-democracy group Scholarism.

The sweeping roundup prompted a wave of support as the public cleared newspaper racks of Apple Dailyacross the city. Stock prices for Next Digital soared by more than 300 per cent as Hongkongers took out ads in the paper to support it.

4. Reports of democrats tailed as activist flees

Multiple pro-democracy figures complained of being tailed by unknown individualsin August. Sunny Cheung, a former spokesperson of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Higher Institutions International Affairs Delegation, wrote in a now-deleted post that he suspected three of his alleged stalkers were national security personnel.

Agnes Chow wrote on Facebook that “suspicious men” had appeared around the clock outside her house, filming using their phone and appearing to work in shifts.

Police tackled Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui to the ground afterhe confronted people inside a vehicle he believed had been following him. State-run Ta Kung Pao later confirmed the men were reporters for the newspaper. It said Hui had hurled abuse at their staffers and tried to pull them out of the car.

Vice-Convener of the Civil Human Rights Front Figo Chan also complained of two men wandering around a radio station where he and fellow convenor Jimmy Sham were recording a programme on August 14.

On August 17, state-owned Wen Wei Po reported Cheung had fled to the UK three days prior, however, the next day Ta Kung Pao reported he had gone to Taiwan. The activist has not publicly confirmed his departure.

5. UK halts military training deal

Amid increased scrutiny of overseas military training, the UK announced it would temporarily halt its military training arrangement with the Hong Kong Police Force. A spokesperson for the ex-colonial power cited coronavirus restrictions but also highlighted Westminster’s concerns over the effect of the security law on civil liberties. The contracts will be reviewed after the epidemic is over, they added.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The ban puts a hold on limited drill instructor programmes for the Government Flying Service and Sea Cadet Corps run by the British army and the RAF.

It came almost a month after Downing Street revealed it would suspend exports of military equipment to Hong Kong, citing a lack of judicial safeguards under the new law.

6. Censorship fears

Six publishers revised the content in eight sets of Liberal Studies textbooks following a voluntarily screening by the Education Bureau, prompting censure from the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, which accused publishers of censoring sections on civil disobedience objectives.

Local media reported the phrase “separation of powers” and an image of a “Lennon Wall” containing pro-democracy messages were removed, as well as a line reading: “Some political groups criticised the law enforcement methods by police in recent years for violating human rights and infringing upon Hong Kong residents’ freedom of assembly and protest.” Warnings about abiding by the law as a civic responsibility were also reportedly added to textbook chapters on civil disobedience.

Liberal Studies textbooks. Photo: Apple Daily.

It came after the Catholic diocese asked its primary and secondary schools to enhance students’ awareness of the security law and cultivate “correct values” on national identity,” while guarding against campus politicisation.

Meanwhile, the city’s public broadcaster RTHK removed an interview with exiled ex-lawmaker Nathan Law, citing concerns over publishing material relating to an interviewee reportedly “wanted” on suspicion of violating the security law. There are no laws or regulations which state that the press cannot interview activists sought by police.

7. Visa freeze

Foreign nationals hoping to work in Hong Kong have suffered months-long visa application delays and fewer approvals, often without explanation. The city serves as the Asian headquarters for many overseas companies and international news organisations.

Both Stand News and The Standard cited sources as saying work visas for journalists were being vetted by a new national security unit within the Immigration Department, stoking press freedom concerns. The division – which has not been publicised – is reportedly led by a principal immigration officer from the Quality Migrants and Mainland Residents Section.

Photo: Wikicommons.

Hong Kong Free Press last Thursday was denied a work visa for established journalist and incoming editor Aaron Mc Nicholas following an almost six-month wait. The Immigration Department’s rejection was handed down without an official reason.

In July, Hong Kong authorities refused to renew the work permit of The New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley, who was ousted from China amid a diplomatic dispute. The US newspaper also cited uncertainty over Hong Kong’s prospects as a regional hub in its decision to move half of its operations in the territory to the South Korean capital of Seoul.

The practice of denying or issuing short work visas to journalists is often seen in the mainland, where tighter reporting restrictions exist.

8. China captures fleeing Hongkongers

At around 9 am on August 23, China’s marine police detained 12 people believed to be Hong Kong activists on a speedboat headed to Taiwan near Ninepin Islands, according to the Guangdong Coast Guard’s official Weibo account. It said the individuals were suspected of unlawfully crossing a national border.

Local media reported that activist Andy Li was among those seized. He was arrested under the national security law on August 10 during a round-up. All onboard the vessel were criminally charged – including in connection with homemade bomb cases – and had been released on bail.