On the 30th of June, 2020 China imposed a new law on Hong Kong. China’s National Security Law (NSL) went against the independent identity of Hong Kong, subjecting it entirely to the power of Beijing. In the name of criminalizing secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign actors, Beijing declared that it would monitor individuals suspected of these crimes through wiretapping and surveillance. This has led to people fearing being arrested over minor posts, which might be considered anti-government by Beijing, on social media.
Since the law undermined the “one country, two systems” principle and the Basic Law—which allowed Hong Kong to have relative freedom in terms of speech, assembly, judicial power, and democratic rights as compared to mainland China—the influence of Beijing in the affairs of Hong Kongers has reached new heights. Aside from the laws of Beijing taking precedence over those of Hong Kong, the region has also lost its independent judiciary.
The Legislative Council: A Pro-China Entity. Beijing has completely overhauled Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo). In June 2020, pro-democratic activists and leaders organized unofficial elections at 250 polling stations in Hong Kong, to determine which democratic candidates had the highest prospect of winning in the 2020 LegCo elections. 600,000 people voted in the primaries.
However, once the law was passed, 47 politicians and activists involved in the elections were arrested on charges of subversion. They have been denied bail and face up to life in prison. These unofficial primaries allowed Beijing with the perfect excuse to reform the council, to allow only “patriots” to run the city. Before May 2021, the council had a total of 70 seats, 35 of which were filled by direct elections.
Yet, now, Beijing has increased the number of seats in LegCo to 90 and decreased the directly elected seats to 20, hence, abating the presence of democratically-elected politicians. To further consolidate China’s hold on the council, a pro-Beijing electoral committee will vet these politicians/candidates and determine their degree of Chinese patriotism.
Increasing Arrests under NSL. While the Communist Party of China defended NSL, citing its significance in countering terrorism and anti-government protests, Hong Kongers viewed it like a noose around their necks. From July 2020 to June 2021, 118 people in Hong Kong have been arrested due to the law. The arrested individuals included protesters, pro-democracy politicians, and journalists. Since the 29 of June, 64 people out of those arrested, have been charged for violating the NSL, while the rest are awaiting trials.
Instead of the presumption of innocence, the arrested individuals are presumed guilty at first glance and denied bail. For them, the possibility of bail only exists if they prove to not “commit acts endangering national security”.
The Hong Kong Police: Advocates of Justice or Brutality? Living in fear of being oppressed and arrested by the police has become a new normal for the people in the region. With many losing faith in the justice system, the police are being viewed as a tyrannical institution forcefully subjugating the people of Hong Kong and imposing the Communist Party’s will.
The Hong Kong Police Force Support Rating indicates that from 2017 to 2020, the public’s police approval has dropped by 30%. In 2017, 66% of Hongkongers supported the police, whereas, in 2020 only 36% of the population endorse it.
Emphasizing the fact that the NSL has propelled Hong Kong on a path to becoming a police state where human rights are pushed to the shadows, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, Yamini Mishra, said, “From politics to culture, education to media, the law has infected every part of Hong Kong society and fomented a climate of fear that forces residents to think twice about what they say, what they tweet and how they live their lives. Ultimately, this sweeping and repressive legislation threatens to make the city a human rights wasteland increasingly resembling mainland China.”
According to papers released by the Department of Justice, the Civil Service Bureau, and the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, the Hong Kong police have arrested more than 10,200 people since mid-2019 due to their ties with the anti-government protests deemed as acts of secession, and terrorism.
The Hong Kong police have repeatedly used tear gas and violence against the citizens, regardless of their age, gender, and physical condition. There is not a single person left in Hong Kong who hasn’t known someone arrested or followed by the police.
Hongkongers’ Self-imposed Exile. The situation in Hong Kong has forced the people into exile. To avoid being included in this number, 322,000 people are expected to leave Hong Kong and settle in the UK in the next five years. In the first 3 months of 2021, 34,000 people applied for visas in the United Kingdom. Apart from the UK, Australia and Canada have received similar requests. If this goes on, the world will be dealing with another refugee crisis.
On top of that, the immense paranoia among Hongkongers due to the police surveillance of communications has led many to believe that even something posted on social media years ago will land them in jail. With their freedom being constrained and their lives hanging by a thread, they see no options but to leave Hong Kong.
Driven out of their homes by fear and for the protection of their loved ones, these exiled Hongkongers see no sign of the conditions improving. Voicing her concern in an interview with Al-Jazeera, Eliz C., a former nurse in Hong Kong and now a UK immigrant, said, “I can’t sleep or even live normally in Hong Kong anymore. It’s not the Hong Kong I knew. My mother doesn’t want me and my brother to die in a place with no freedom, she encouraged us to escape. I know I might never see my mother again before she dies but this is for the best right now.”
Implications for China. Banning everything pro-democratic—be it elections, protests, films, literature, or social media content—will not prevent individuals from finding alternative platforms to project their opinions. If anything, it will only ruin China’s soft power image.
Hong Kong filmmakers realize that their work on pro-democratic protests or politics will be scrutinized by China but despite that, it can gain international recognition. An example of this is the documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” which won the best editing award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) but was banned from screening in Hong Kong. This leads to the international community pushing China in a corner and demanding an answer to the allegations of human rights abuses in the city.
While the National Security Law aimed at preventing the secession of Hong Kong and terrorism, the way the law has been implemented has induced more dissent and hatred for the mainland. The sense of injustice created as a result of the Hong Kong police’s conduct has further aggravated the fear among the general public. If this goes on, the Hongkongers will continue to protest for democratic reforms and the secessionist element within the city will intensify. The law provides other states with the space they need to intervene based on humanitarian intervention, no matter what their true intention may be.