‘Night fell’: Hong Kong’s first month under China security law

Since China imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong a month ago, the territory has seen radical changes.

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Pro-democracy activist Gwyneth Ho, top - second right, and other winners of the unofficial democratic primaries to choose candidates for legislative elections in Hong Kong, including Joshua Wong, far left, pose at the end of a press conference in July [Anthony Wallace/AFP]

Teenager Tony Chung says he had been walking outside a shopping mall when police officers from Hong Kong’s new national security unit bundled him into a nearby stairwell and tried to scan his face to unlock his phone.

Chung, whose alleged crime was writing comments on social media that endangered national security, was one of four students – including a 16-year-old girl – detained for the same offence that day.

The arrests were made under a sweeping new law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong just over a month ago, radically changing life in the once-liberal city.

Chung describes the law in stark terms.

“I think night just fell on Hong Kong,” the 19-year-old told AFP news agency after his release on bail, the investigation ongoing.

A political earthquake has coursed through the former British colony since the national security law came into effect on 30 June.

Under the 1997 handover deal with the United Kingdom, Beijing agreed to let Hong Kong keep certain freedoms and autonomy until 2047, which helped its transformation into one of the world’s leading financial centres. 

The security law – a response to last year’s huge and often-violent pro-democracy protests – upended that promise. 

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Teenager Tony Chung said he was walking through a shopping mall when national security unit officers bundled him into a nearby stairwell and scanned his face to unlock his phone [Isaac Lawrence/AFP]

Last week, the United States placed sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including the territory’s leader Carrie Lam.

‘Second handover’

Despite assurances that the law would only target an “extreme minority”, certain peaceful political views became illegal overnight and precedent-setting headlines started appearing almost daily.

“The overnight change was so dramatic and so severe, it felt as momentous as a second handover,” Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong lawyer who has written books about the city’s politics, told AFP.

“I don’t think anyone expected it would be as broad-reaching as it proved to be, nor that it would be immediately wielded in such a draconian way as to render a whole range of previously acceptable behaviour suddenly illegal.”

The law itself was new territory.

It bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature – its contents kept secret until the moment it was enacted – and toppled the firewall between the mainland and Hong Kong’s vaunted independent judiciary.

China claimed jurisdiction for some serious cases and enabled its security agents to operate openly in the city for the first time, moving into a requisitioned luxury hotel.

Officially, the law targets subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces. 

But much like similar laws on the mainland used to crush dissent, the definitions were broad.

Inciting hatred of the government, supporting foreign sanctions and disrupting the operation of Hong Kong’s government all count as national security crimes, and Beijing claimed the right to prosecute anyone in the world.

People in Hong Kong did not have to wait long to see how the letter of the law might be applied.

The first arrests came on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, mainly against people possessing banners or other objects carrying pro-independence slogans.

One man who allegedly drove a motorbike into police while flying an independence flag was the first to be charged – with terrorism and secession.

The law has also been felt in many other ways.

Schools and libraries pulled books deemed to be in violation of the new law. Protest murals disappeared from streets and restaurants. Teachers were ordered to keep politics out of classrooms. 

Local police were handed wide surveillance tools – without the need for court approval – and were given powers to order internet takedowns.

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Tony Chung reads a copy of a book that police seized as evidence from his home when he was arrested under the new law [Isaac Lawrence/AFP]

On Monday Jimmy Lai, a local media mogul and one of the city’s most vocal Beijing critics, was arrested under the new law and accused of colluding with foreign forces.

Political crackdown

The roll-out of the legislation was combined with a renewed crackdown on pro-democracy politicians.

In July, authorities announced that 12 prospective candidates, including four sitting legislators, had been banned from standing in upcoming local elections.

They were struck off for having unacceptable political views, such as campaigning to block legislation by winning a majority, or criticising the national security law.

Lam later postponed the election by a year, citing a sudden rise in coronavirus cases. 

Three prominent academics and government critics lost their university jobs. 

Media networks started having visa issues, including The New York Times, which announced it would move some of its newsroom to South Korea.

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Gwyneth Ho, who was recently banned from standing in legislative elections that were scheduled for September, poses with her disqualification notice at her office in Hong Kong [Anthony Wallace/AFP]

Gwyneth Ho, one of the disqualified election candidates, described the security law’s suppression of freedoms as “obvious and quick”.

“We are now in uncharted territory,” she said.

Nonetheless, Ho remained optimistic.

“The people’s fighting spirit is still there, waiting for a moment to erupt,” she said.

“Hong Kong people have not surrendered.”

Source: AFP