The National Security Law, passed on 30 June 2020, was issued by China to ensure Hong Kong has a legal framework for future stability. Any challenges to authority would be criminalised, such as terroristic damage to public transport, subverting the central government, and colluding with foreign forces. These crimes are punishable with a maximum sentence of lifetime imprisonment . With this new law, Beijing can establish a security office in Hong Kong and its enforcement personnel. A Beijing advisor is also appointed to enforce laws in Hong Kong, and Beijing has the power to interpret them.
Ever since the National Security Law came into effect, Hong Kong’s press media has been strictly monitored. Newspaper content seen as promoting secession or subversion would be deemed punishable. On 17 June 2021, 500 police officers entered Apple Daily’s newsroom, claiming the pro-democratic tabloid breached the National Security Law. The officers also accused the tabloid of publishing more than 30 articles calling countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China. Three of the tabloid’s assets worth £1.66m were frozen and the tabloid was later forced out of business on 23 June 2021. Hans Tse Tsz-Fung, a Chinese University’s master student, claims the publication is controversial. It used sensational headlines that often dramatised reporting. Apple Daily’s “practice lies in the gray area of social and media ethics. It uses a different and controversial way to enter the public’s view.”
Apply Daily’s workers have been arrested and removed, including the founder of the newspaper, Jimmy Lai, and the managing editor and chief opinion writer, Fung Wai-Kong. The former Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) chairman, Chris Yeung, points out press freedom in Hong Kong is now in “free fall”. HKJA’s chairman, Ronson Chan, agrees with Yeung’s statement about the bleakness of Hong Kong’s journalism. Chan, who was once a deputy assignment editor for Stand News, an online news service, claims articles are being deleted to avoid arrests. The political tension around the law and media is escalating, affecting ways of reporting by Hong Kong journalists.
The European Union responded to the closing of Apple Daily, stating it “clearly shows how the national security law imposed by Beijing is being used to stifle freedom of the press and the free expression of opinions.” Sharron Fast, a lecturer from the University of Hong Kong, also responds to the closure as a threat to freedom of speech. She states, “when the result of your writing can lead to lifetime imprisonment – you are being censored. Apple will not be the last – just the latest.”
“Every journalist in Hong Kong now has a metaphorical gun pointed at their heads.”
This metaphorical gun not only points to journalists but also Hong Kong dissidents. The Guardian records “more than 10,000 people have been arrested in relation to the protests, and at least 128, including journalists and politicians, in relation to new national security offences.” With fears of arrest and lack of freedom, pro-democrat activists scramble to leave. In 2020, the UK has offered Hong Kong residents who hold British National Overseas passports to enter Britain. They can also gain citizenship after six years of work or study. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, stated the security law has “violated Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and threatens the freedoms and rights protected by the joint declaration” made in 1985.
On 12 June 2021, Hong Kongers who work or fled to the UK united to protest in London. They marched from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square, waving opinionated slogans that would have violated the security law at home. Members of Parliament, Iain Duncan Smith and Stephen Kinnock, spoke for the protest, showing their support to the “Global Campaign for Hong Kong” and standing with the protestors.
However, dissidents who did not leave Hong Kong were put on trial. Recently Leon Tong Ying Kit was found guilty of terrorism and secession. Last July, he drove his motorcycle through a group of policemen and injured three of them. He was also detained for waving a flag that read “liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.” The judge claimed Tong had picked 1 July to perform this crime, which is the anniversary date of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. This shows he was bearing secessionist motives and deliberately challenged the security law. Tong has since been sentenced to nine years imprisonment.
On 2 July 2021, the UN Rights Official and special rapporteur, Clement Voule, requested a fact-check on Hong Kong. From censored journalist articles to arrests of dissidents, Voule inquired about the local press freedom, believing the rights to freedom need to be safeguarded. He raised concerns about the security law, which was used to arrest activists with “flags or signs or symbols related to the pro-independence movements.”
Voule expressed “the only way to move forward is for the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to let us [visit Hong Kong]” to assess the impact of the law on Hong Kong a year after its implementation. The UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, also stated the law on Hong Kong had a “chilling impact” on democratic space and the journalism media industry. Yet, a senior Beijing diplomat responded to Voule’s request and clarified the request would not be taken into account. The diplomat also claimed the national security legislation prevents any foreign powers from stepping foot on China’s affairs.
As Beijing’s control over Hong Kong grows, social media apps and tech companies are finding their way to retreat Hong Kong’s territories. They are concerned the law would give China the authority to control media sharing, and feared semi-autonomous activities online would be deemed criminal. With over 315 million downloaders, the popular social media app Tik Tok halted its operations in Hong Kong. It banned Hong Kong’s access due to privacy concerns, fearing that the law gave China the power to oversee users’ information.
A year later, in 2021, Facebook, Twitter, and Google also threatened to quit Hong Kong after newly proposed data laws under the security law were announced. These apps believed the morals of social platforms were violated. The Asia Internet Coalition warned these data laws, targeting individuals for commiting doxing, are “severe sanctions” and do not align with global trends.
There has been a rise in doxing cases in Hong Kong since 2019. Several digital forums, such as The Telegram and LIHKG, have caused personal information to be leaked online. Those who support the Hong Kong government have doxed masked protestors, meanwhile, protestors doxed policemen and their families. These actions can target specific people and invade their privacy. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the proposed data laws would target only illegal doxing, saying “the privacy commissioner is empowered to take action and carry out investigation – that’s it.” According to the Hong Kong Free Press, approximately 1,000 cases were referred for criminal investigation and eight people were arrested for doxing police officers.
AIC is not against the measures taken to tackle doxing, but Hong Kong’s legislation should be “built upon principles of necessity and proportionality” without curtailing free expression. Under the National Security Law, journalistic and technological platforms face restrictions in reporting and sharing. Hong Kong dissidents voice their worries on freedom of speech and expression at Beijing’s upcoming seizure of Hong Kong. The law has been “slandered and defamed” stated Carrie Lam, but its unpopularity does not determine the effectiveness of the law – it brings prosperity and stability to the city.
Eunice Yung, a lawmaker in Hong Kong since 2016, asserted the security law has been effective in restoring the safety of Hong Kong. “It has had a deterrent effect as residents know that national security offences are serious, and the punishment will be harsh.” There would not be “meaningless filibustering”, or destroying legislative chambers, and disparaging the chief executive and senior officials. From the 2019 anti-government protests, protestors have vandalised and tampered with government facilities such as security cameras, brick roads, and metal railings. In the end, the government spent around £6 million to repair these damaged facilities, with at least 740 sets of traffic lights being repaired. To Yung, the law sustains order and lowers the chances of chaos.
Kate Lee, a single mother and owner of a Lei Yue Mun cafe is content with the law, believing it has settled political unrest from 2019. She is an activist for Hong Kong policemen and hence faced constant threats from pro-democrats. Named as a ‘traitor’, dissidents bombarded her cafe with all sorts of complaints. She also had a drop in business during the 2019 protests, when dissidents boycotted the cafe, and regular patrons refused to eat there because they were afraid they would be filmed. Now the tension is gone from the streets, she expresses her relief.
Alice Wu, an opinion writer for the South China Morning Post, proposed the Olympics as a getaway from political tension. “Can’t we rise above our political polarisation, even though we recognise the deep social wounds left by our divisive politics?” This polarisation is exacerbated by Hongkongers who identify themselves as either camp blue (pro-government) or yellow (pro-democracy). Rather than doing so, “we could begin by realising how twisted and defeatist it is to get so worked up over the colour of a shirt or even a surgical mask.” Wu encourages Hongkongers to unite and not let colours draw lines between them.