One Year of The New Security Law in Hong Kong: An Assessment of the State of Democracy

One Year of The New Security Law in Hong Kong: An Assessment of the State of Democracy

Elisa Bianchini
Filippo Angeli
Illustration by TNGO Illustrator Sara Massidda

Hong Kong is a former British colony that was overtaken by China in 1997. Maintaining a separate legal system from Mainland China, Hong Kong has rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. These freedoms are assured by Basic Law which is set to expire in 2047, making the future of the former colony uncertain. Signs of erosion of democratic principles in the past two years have led to a series of protests.

In June 2019, protests broke out against a plan to allow extradition to mainland China. People in Hong Kong feared that the bill would pave the way for unfair trials and censorship of political opposition, as well as exponential increases in control by mainland China over the territory. Despite the bill being revoked, Hongkongers feared that it would be reintroduced, and thus continued to take the streets with a significant escalation in October 2019, particularly on the 1st of October when China was celebrating 70 years of Communist Party Rule. After that, violence between police and protesters escalated until December when the local council elections saw pro-democracy forces win 17 out of 18 councils. 

More than a year has passed since Beijing introduced the New Security Law, a set of policies aimed at restoring stability through the “one country – two systems” principle. The New Global Order covered the policy at the time. The most salient and worrying provisions are the ones that indirectly aimed at silencing freedom of speech. For instance, ‘The vaguely defined acts of ‘secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with external forces’ will be criminalized”. The main issue with the policy is its vagueness and its ability to legislate a wide array of pro-democracy actors. As Amnesty reports, the law has been abused from day one. 

Furthermore, Al Jazeera reported on September 1, 2021, that nine activists were arrested for participating in the 2019 protests in an arguably violent manner. Two Hong Kong activists have pleaded guilty under the territory’s national security law in a case linked to jailed pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded the popular newspaper Apple Daily. Moreover, as of now, another one hundred thirty people have been arrested under the law. Finally, the law has been used to tighten control over education, media, and information in general.

A man walks past a government public notice banner for the National Security Law in Hong Kong on July 15, 2020. (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)
(Source: Time)

The Attack on Freedom of Expression, Opposition, and Participation

Targetting information and freedom of expression is at the center of China’s plan to suppress democracy and align Hong Kong to the Chinese model. The national security law is an efficient tool thanks to its broad and vague definitions, allowing it to easily be used to silence and condemn any voice which goes against China. Expressions such as “subversion” “secession” and “terrorism” can be attributed to any political expression or opinion. This creates an arbitrary application of the law at the discretion of the central government. In fact, the government did not hesitate to abuse the law from day one, in order to suppress freedom of expression. 

Today, one can say that press freedom is non-existent. Journals, magazines, and news media reporting information related to pro-democracy, pro-independence, or that is in any way compromising to the image of China, are silenced and closed, mainly with the accusation of “subversion”. Particularly significant was the closure of Apple Daily, one of the biggest autonomous journals in the region. As the Guardian reports, this journal has been the symbol of independence, rebellion, and democracy, with its investigations into government issues and its extensive coverage of the past protests. For this reason, the media outlet was one of the first targets of the government.

The oppression was gradual; it started in August 2020 with the arrest and imprisonment of the founder Jilly Lai, who was accused of multiple charges including “conspiracy to defraud,” “terrorism” and “colluding with foreign elements”, and continued with the recent arrest of five senior Apple Daily executives. In May 2021, the government froze the company’s finances and on June 24, Apple Daily officially closed due to financial distress.  

A vendor handles a copy of the Ta Kung Pao newspaper in August. 11, 2020. The day before, Hong Kong police arrested Next Digital Ltd. Chairman Jimmy Lai and several of his top executives for allegedly violating the National Security Law, and sent hundreds of officers to search the Apple Daily newspaper’s offices. The Ta Kung Pao front headline reads, “Very Happy!”  (Photo by Bloomberg via Getty Images)
(Source: Human Rights Watch )

Freedom of the press is under attack, not only in terms of censorship of pro-democracy media outlets such as Apple Daily, but also in the way China reports on the protests to its Mainland citizens. DW demonstrated that as soon as the protests broke out in 2019, China denounced Western media for being biased, instilling mistrust of outside voices. The People’s Daily painted the protests as a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle and deemed it a terrorist attack on the rule of law and the freedom of Hongkongers. Despite this, many observers claim the opposite regarding China, when talking about China’s intention to revert to a de facto  “one country, one system.” To instill fear and confusion in Chinese readers, Chinese media created parallelisms between the violence of the Islamic State and the protests, going as far as to affirm that the protestors commit suicide bombings against the modern city of Hong Kong. 

Moreover, as BBC reported, Chinese media outlets kept silent during the first days of protests and started covering the events only once the protestors broke into Hong Kong’s parliament, without contextualization any of the acts, focusing mostly on lawlessness. The attack on freedom not only involves the press and information but also popular participation and opposition. A Human Rights Watch report investigates how protests and movements of civil society are being suppressed, with accusations of “collusion with a foreign power”, attempts of “secession” and “sedition.”

The people involved are targeted and can face criminal charges for simple participation or for slogans calling for Hong Kong independence. According to BBC, more than 50 pro-democracy activists and politicians have been arrested with the accusation of trying to “overthrow” the government. These include activists such as Joshua Wong, human rights lawyers, academics, and the most prominent voices of the 2019 protests. Moreover, peaceful protests have been prohibited, using the excuse of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

(Left) The police display leaflets that led to the arrests of three women for violating the National Security Law during a protest on July 1, 2020. One leaflet simply says “Conscience” (良知), another satirizes Chinese President Xi Jinping for being an emperor who spread Covid-19, and another says, “Resists the Chinese Communist Party, Liberate Hong Kong.” (Right) A Government worker paint over graffiti on Des Voeux Road Central the morning following a protest on January 2, 2020.  (First Photo by Hong Kong Police Twitter, Second Photo by Bloomberg/Getty Images).
Source: Human Rights Watch

 What is the Future of Democracy in Hong Kong? 

China’s goal of aligning Hong Kong with the Chinese model is clear, however, this time the strategy is different from the one enacted in China in the 1990s, during the Tiananmen Square Massare. Abrupt, bloody oppression through a military intervention like the one in Tienanmen Square would be ineffective for Hong Kong because it would only end up highlighting explicit authoritarianism and promote a negative image of China. Today, China aims for an implicit control of power and more gradual and strategic oppression, which targets information, freedom of expression, education, and patriotism. By shaping people’s cultures and minds, this strategy is even more effective, with the risk of inculcating China’s values and principles from within.   

The destiny of Hong Kong is in the hands of its people. Hongkongers have to make the decision to escape to places where they can maintain a life of freedom and democracy for themselves and their children. But escaping will not save Hong Kong, it will only give victory to China. The people of Hong Kong will have to fight in order to resist China’s cultural propaganda, by maintaining the memory of the past struggles and people that have made it a democratic, free, and dynamic country. This is going to be a difficult challenge, especially in refusing to conform and facing the risk of legal repercussions. They will have to enact the same strategy as China, with memory and values being the weapons they use to fight for their democracy. 

Hong Kong residents turned out for protests against a proposed extradition law on June 9, and the demonstrations have continued.
(Photo by Lam Yik Fei)
(Source: New York Times)
  • Escaping or resisting: what will prevail among Hongkongers?
  • Given that social media has been a double-edged sword in Hong Kong, will Hongkongers manage to use it as a tool against Chinese authoritarianism and cultural propaganda?

Suggested Readings

(Podcast) Hong Kong Silenced – The Telegraph

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One Year of The New Secur…

by Filippo Angeli time to read: 6 min