How China's security law changed Hong Kong forever in 12 months

Hong Kong police officers patrolling past a man reading the final edition of Apple Daily in Hong Kong on June 24, 2021.
Hong Kong police officers patrolling past a man reading the final edition of Apple Daily in Hong Kong on June 24, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - The national security law China imposed on Hong Kong a year ago on Wednesday (June 30) was much more than a piece of legislation: It showed Beijing was now running the show in the former British colony.

The measure - enacted with immediate effect and without public debate - has radically transformed the political and legal landscape of a financial centre long known for its consistent application of the law.

From scrubbing school curricula and censoring films to denying some suspects the right to jury trials, the broad use of the legislation has left many people guessing about China's new red lines.

The sweeping change, seen clearly by the Apple Daily's disappearance from newsstands and the erasure of once-common protest slogans, undercuts Chief Executive Carrie Lam's assurances that the measure would "only target an extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts".

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have sought to relocate to places like Canada and Britain, and more than 40 per cent of members surveyed last month by the local American Chamber of Commerce branch said that they were thinking about leaving.

"A year ago, many of my pro-democracy activist friends decided to stay and carry on the struggle," said Mr Joseph Cheng, a retired Hong Kong political science professor who has moved to Australia.

"Now, most of them realise that there is not much they can do."

For decades, Hong Kong was famous as a place where locals and foreigners could engage in vigorous debates about China forbidden on the mainland. The security law has made that increasingly precarious, with more than four-fifths of the people swept up under it accused of offences related to things they said, chanted, published or waved on a banner.

The 117 people arrested to date include some of Hong Kong's most prominent democracy advocates, such as former student leader Joshua Wong and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai.

Former opposition lawmakers who once led criticism of government policies, including Claudia Mo and Alvin Yeung, have been jailed without bail on charges related to an election campaign last year that the authorities described as a subversive plot to paralyse the government.

Elections interrupted

With no opposition in the Legislative Council, measures like an election overhaul that would roll back the number of directly elected legislative seats have passed overwhelmingly. The measure, which effectively ended China's only experiment with open elections, also created a committee to vet whether candidates are "patriots" who "respect" the Communist Party.

Hong Kong officials have defended such moves as necessary to restore stability and reduce the influence of "foreign forces". Mrs Lam rejected concerns the election overhaul would reduce oversight, saying "the executive needs to be monitored and scrutinised by the Legislative Council".

Protests silenced

Empowered by a charter that guarantees freedom of assembly, activists have long filled Hong Kong's streets with peaceful demonstrations, forcing the Beijing-backed government to back off previous plans to impose national security legislation and patriotic education.

Such marches swelled to an unprecedented size in 2019, before turning violent as police in riot gear clashed with radicals throwing Molotov cocktails.

Last year, the protests fell silent as police increasingly cited coronavirus concerns to ban mass gatherings, such as an annual candlelight vigil to mark China's 1989 military crackdown on democracy activists in Tiananmen Square.

While Hong Kong officials made no criticism of the vigil's political message, the local Security Bureau warned those who attended that they could be violating the security law, which carries sentences as long as life in prison.

Media crackdowns

Hong Kong's guarantees of free speech, laissez-faire approach to foreign news operations, and large financial centre gave it what was until recently one of the world's most vibrant media markets.

Now, the city's largest pro-democracy newspaper has been closed and some global news outlets such as the New York Times are moving staff elsewhere.


Next Digital chief executive Cheung Kim Hung (centre) being escorted by police officers from the office of Apple Daily in Hong Kong on June 17, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The Apple Daily, founded by Lai 26 years ago, was forced to shut this month due to a security law investigation that has led to the arrest of seven employees - including the editor-in-chief and top opinion writers - and a freeze on assets totalling HK$18 million (S$3.12 million).

Other news sites are now taking down articles over fears they could be the next targets of what United States President Joe Biden condemned as a campaign "to suppress independent media and silence dissenting views".

The government disputes that its actions have had a "chilling effect", with China's local Foreign Ministry branch saying that external forces had "distorted the truth, smearing Hong Kong's press freedom".

Mrs Lam, however, said the security law needed a deterrent effect to achieve its objective.

Legal worries

Such cases are placing new stress on Hong Kong's judicial system, which uses English Common Law and is guaranteed independence by the Basic Law, the territory's mini Constitution.

Hong Kong ranked 16th out of 126 jurisdictions surveyed by the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index before the security law was imposed. China was 88th.

The legislation granted Mrs Lam the ability to appoint judges for security trials, which a Georgetown University report this week said "raises concern about judicial independence".

It even lets Beijing move some sensitive cases to the mainland. The sweeping changes have led to sometimes chaotic hearings where dozens of prominent pro-democracy politicians - including some in their late 60s and early 70s - were denied bail and kept in jail for months before trial on non-violent offences.

Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng launched a series of online seminars for international investors this month touting Hong Kong's "well-tested common law system" and "open, transparent and independent judiciary" as the city attempts to quiet concerns.