By Javier Vidal Cano, BA Chinese Studies
The passing of the National Security Law in July 2020 marked the end of an era for Hong Kong and the start of a new, more sinister chapter for its 7.4 million inhabitants. Ever since its implementation, the city has been weathering a turbulent socio-political storm as its democratic institutions wither under relentless Chinese pressure. The vague provisions of the law prohibiting acts of ‘treason, secession, sedition and subversion’ have allowed it to be enacted arbitrarily according to the political agenda of the Chinese Communist Party. As Chief Executive Carrie Lam desperately tries to assuage local fears with promises of the preservation of free speech and respect towards human rights, her words ring hollow in the face of a wave of activists arrests, the banning of pro-democracy opposition candidates from elections, and increasing censorship in education and media. The future of the city is now in the hands of Beijing as they seek to increase their influence in Southeast Asia and indeed solidify their presence on the world centre stage.
Despite unprecedented developments over recent months, Hong Kong has since dropped out of the limelight in international news as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, Beijing is enjoying a period of free reign over the city, citing security concerns as it uses the sweeping National Security Laws extraterritorially to gain complete socio-political control over Hong Kong. One of the most notable developments was the arrest of tycoon Jimmy Lai in late August who is facing allegations of collusion with foreign forces. He had been a prominent pro-democracy figure, often using his newspaper Apple Daily as a platform to criticise the Chinese government. On 15 October 2020, members of the Hong Kong Police National Security taskforce also raided the Apple Daily offices, confiscating material and seizing documents. Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong, both acclaimed pro-democracy activists, were arrested on charges of secession and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’ last October. Exiled activists Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung have had arrest warrants issued on their name for attending the 4 June peaceful Tiananmen vigil which the police banned this year due to ‘health concerns.’ Activists are now desperately trying to flee to Taiwan, however, even this is dangerous. In August 2020, 12 Hong Kong citizens attempting to flee to Taiwan were captured by the Chinese coast guard and detained by Chinese authorities. They are currently facing a potential trial in mainland courts. Despite public pressure mounting this week through social media with the trending hashtag ‘#save12hkyouths’ demanding their release, little is known of their whereabouts or their fate.
However, the National Security Law spans much deeper than just petty arrests on questionable premises. Unfortunately, it has penetrated the very foundations of the Hong Kong constitution and will have long-lasting implications for the legal future of the city. The November 2020 legislative election was postponed for one year as Ms. Lam invoked her emergency powers again citing COVID-19 concerns. The pro-democrats were looking to make massive electoral gains after their landslide victory in the District Council Election of 2019. These COVID-19 concerns cited by Ms. Lam are questionable, considering that just days prior 12 opposition candidates were disqualified from running after allegedly supporting Hong Kong independence. Activists say that this is only the beginning of a continuous erosion of Hong Kong liberties under the ‘draconian’ National Security Law. It follows a disturbing pattern of events as China’s strong-man Mr. Xi Jinping aggressively expands his powers into Hong Kong, thwarting the widely supported pro-democracy movement. One wonders whether the people of Hong Kong will have free Legislative Council or District elections ever again. It is difficult to believe that Mr. Xi will ever allow a pro-democratic majority right on China’s doorstep. Contrary to what Ms. Lam might say, a strong democratically-sound constitution cannot co-exist with an overarching legislation that can label anything misaligned with Chinese government ideology as subversive or terrorist.
Unfortunately, Chinese attempts to reshape Hong Kong according to their own terms by subverting what’s left of its democratic institutions under the guise of ‘national security’ appear to be working. Ms. Lam’s public approval rating has plummeted to an all time low with many lawmakers and activists accusing her of ‘surrendering Hong Kong,’ and, with the current situation, who can blame them? It seems like Hong Kong may have witnessed two handovers in living memory, one to China in 1997 and one in 2020 to Xi Jinping and the iron-clad grip of the Chinese Communist Party.
Photo Caption: Apple Daily headquarters curtained off by police tape. Credit: VOA Cantonese.