Hong Kong’s future under China’s new security law, explained

July 1 in Hong Kong has always been a day of protest. It marks the anniversary of the territory’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. This year, 23 years later, Hongkongers protested again — but this time, there was far more at stake than at perhaps any other time since.

That’s because July 1, 2020, was the first full day that China’s new national security law, which gives Beijing broad powers to crack down on political dissent against the Chinese Communist Party, was in full effect in Hong Kong.

The full details of the legislation weren’t known until it went into effect. The law specifically criminalizes “secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”

What falls under those categories is vague, according to experts. That’s a recipe for broad application of the law, one that also carries steep penalties, including up to life imprisonment for the most serious of offenses.

When Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, it was with the promise that Beijing would honor Hong Kong’s quasi-independence until at least 2047, under the rule known as “one country, two systems.” The Chinese government has slowly eroded Hong Kong’s autonomy in the years since, while still rhetorically committing to the principle.

The imposition of the national security law rips away that facade completely, directly threatening Hong Kong’s civil society, independent press, and, most obviously, the territory’s sustained pro-democracy movement.

The law means the “complete and total control of Hong Kong and total destruction of Hong Kong’s system,” Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a political science professor at Notre Dame University, told me.

Pro-democracy protesters I spoke with expressed similar sentiments.

“I guess we have all seen this coming, but it just feels very surreal to everyone that Hong Kong is truly under ‘one country, one system,’” Fung, a 27-year-old protester who asked to be identified by only her surname name out of concern for her safety, told me.

Fung said that she and many of her friends awakened, bit by bit, to the totalitarianism of the Communist Party. Yet she still held on to a little hope, a kind of dream, that the Chinese Communist Party could become more liberal, more free. Until now.

“Today, with this law passed, me and my friends think that we can never go back to what things were. Now we’re just another city, like Guangzhou or Shanghai or Beijing, one of the cities under mainland China’s control,” Fung said.

But the new threat of being arrested or prosecuted for speaking out didn’t stop Fung and thousands of others from protesting on July 1 (nor did the city’s ongoing ban on public gatherings due to the coronavirus). According to the Hong Kong Free Press, some protesters scattered joss papers — a custom at Chinese funerals — on the streets to represent the death of “one country, two systems.”

“It’s really the first time that I had a genuine feeling that I would be arrested just because of speaking aloud a slogan or holding a poster on the street,” a 22-year-old protester, who asked to remain anonymous for their safety, said via WhatsApp.

But the protester said that some friends decided not to join the demonstrations, considering it much more dangerous to speak out or take to the streets now because the power of the Chinese Communist Party “is too strong to confront or even revolt against.”

And Hong Kong’s authorities wasted no time with enforcement. At least 10 people were arrested Wednesday under the national security legislation. That included a man arrested for having a Hong Kong independence flag, a woman arrested for holding a sign calling for Hong Kong’s independence (which also featured British and American flags), and a 15-year-old girl arrested for waving a Hong Kong independence flag, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

An additional 370 people were also detained, according to Hong Kong police, who used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to try to break up the demonstrations, relying on the same heavy-handed tactics that galvanized Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters last year. But one 24-year-old protester, who also wished to remain anonymous, said they believe the new law gives police even more “justification” to carry out police brutality.

So while demonstrators have for years taken to the streets on July 1 to protest China’s interference, this July 1 felt like a turning point for the territory.

“This time is different,” Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist, told US lawmakers during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday. “So much is now lost in the city I love: the freedom to tell the truth.”

China has long dreamed of asserting more direct control over Hong Kong

Last spring, Hong Kong’s legislature tried to pass an extradition bill that critics feared would allow the Chinese government to arbitrarily detain Hongkongers. That ignited massive protests, leading to months of unrest that sometimes turned violent. The bill was withdrawn in September, but the demonstrations continued as the fight transformed into a larger battle to protect Hong Kong’s democratic institutions.

The coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures put some of that public activism on hold. But Beijing has used the pandemic to further crack down on the pro-democracy movement, including by arresting pro-democracy lawmakers in April.

Then, in May, China announced its plan to impose a new national security law intended to curtail foreign interference or activities that undermine the state. The specific details of the law weren’t known, but there was little doubt about its purpose.

That’s because such a law has long been a dream of the Chinese government. In 2003, the Hong Kong legislature attempted to pass a national security law under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (the closest thing Hong Kong has to a constitution). This would have established rules against subverting the state and foreign interference, but the law got shelved after mass protests.

The difference then was that Hong Kong’s quasi-democratically elected legislature was taking up the proposed law, giving it the veneer of legitimacy. Now China has decided to just go ahead and impose the law on its own, direct from Beijing, without bothering to even pretend to involve the local institutions.

“The way this was done — not through the local authorities, but rather from Beijing — and with China having asserted authority that it had not previously asserted in that way, suggests that it’s very much the mainland basically saying, ‘We have the bottom line on things we consider national security, and that includes political security for the [Chinese Communist Party] and the regime,” Jacob Stokes, a senior policy analyst on China at the US Institute of Peace, told me.

Even Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the nominal leader of Hong Kong whose close ties with Beijing have led critics to portray her as little more than a puppet of the Chinese government, reportedly didn’t know the full details of the new national security law until it was unveiled to the public this week.

And the law is extensive. It contains 66 articles, some of which are very detailed and specific and others that are much more vague — which almost certainly means they’ll be subject to interpretation.

What the new law says — and what it purposely doesn’t say

The law prohibits four broad activities: secessionism, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces. (Read the full text of the official English translation of the law here.)

Under each of these activities are some specific offenses. For example, damaging government buildings could qualify as “subversion,” a serious-enough offense that could result in life imprisonment. On July 1, 2019, Hongkongers stormed and defaced the Hong Kong Legislative Council to protest the extradition bill, making this provision look very much like a response to previous protest tactics.

Another example: Under the “colluding with foreign forces” provision, the law says Hongkongers could be arrested and prosecuted if they lobby or work with foreign entities against the Chinese government, including “enacting laws and policies that cause serious obstruction or serious consequences to Hong Kong or China,” according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

This could implicate human rights groups, or even individuals who have called for sanctions or increased pressure on China to stop its intervention on Hong Kong. The Chinese government has blamed outsiders, specifically those in the West, for fomenting opposition against its rule in Hong Kong, and this looks to be a way to silence its critics.

Of course, these expansive definitions are kind of the point.

“If mainland practice to date is any guide — and it is — then the definitions don’t matter that much. Anything can be stretched as necessary to cover something done by the person being targeted,” Donald Clarke, an expert on Chinese law and professor at the University of Washington School of Law, writes in an analysis of the legislation. “As the old cliché goes, 欲加之罪何患无辞.” (That translates roughly to, “If you are determined to convict, you needn’t worry about the lack of grounds.”)

Another remarkable feature of this law is its reach: Not only does it apply to Hongkongers, it could potentially also apply to foreigners who speak out for Hong Kong or oppose China’s interventions there, regardless of where in the world they do so, should they ever set foot in Hong Kong.

This is beyond even the laws in mainland China, and as Clarke puts it, this asserts “extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet.” This is basically saying that speaking out against China or supporting pro-democracy protests — maybe in a column, or a video, or a tweet — could put that individual at risk in the future, no matter their location at the time of the “offense.”

Finally, the law also gives China more power to interfere directly in Hong Kong’s legal system, fully undermining its rule of law. As NPR notes, “The law empowers China to set up a ‘National Security Committee’ to oversee the investigation and prosecution of any violations. This committee is subject neither to judicial review nor Hong Kong law — meaning it operates without any local checks or balances.”

The law also allows for Chinese judges in mainland China to try the most serious or complicated national security cases, or an extradition bill by different means.

“It’s the end … a very formal, total end of Hong Kong’s system,” Notre Dame’s Hui told me.

What happens to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement?

Those massive pro-democracy marches, where millions of Hongkongers demonstrated — those may never happen again, Fung told me. There isn’t much space for freedom of speech in the city anymore, and she doesn’t feel that will change. The options left to her and her fellow citizens, she said, are limited.

“We can continue to live in the city [and] choose to forget about the freedom and values and demands that we believe in,” she said. “Or maybe we will have to just leave the city to continue this kind of spirit somewhere else.”

That is the dilemma facing many young Hongkongers I spoke to, who see themselves as democracy’s last gasp in the territory. They aren’t sure if there’s still a place for them there.

As the generation born right around the time of the territory’s handover from Britain to China, they’ve grown up enjoying Hong Kong’s freedoms, even as they watched them slowly begin to slip away. This generation fueled Hong Kong’s resistance to the extradition bill, demanded democracy, and did it powerfully enough that Beijing fought back.

“In the long term, I anticipate the law would turn HK [Hong Kong] into China — no democracy, no freedom, and, HK people would live under fear,” a 24-year-old protester who asked to remain anonymous, said via WhatsApp. “Our next generation might receive brainwashing education stating China [is] the best.”

Some Hongkongers are already deleting their old social media posts or changing their names online, just in case. Betty Lau, the editor of InMedia HK, which posts pro-democracy articles, told the New York Times that writers had asked her to delete old posts. The site has since removed more than 100.

A prominent pro-democracy group, Demosisto, also disbanded in the wake of the law. One of its leaders, Joshua Wong, said on Twitter that he was leaving the group. “If my voice will not be heard soon, I hope that the international community will continue to speak up for Hong Kong and step up concrete efforts to defend our last bit of freedom,” he wrote.

Soon other prominent leaders of the group, including Nathan Law (who testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday) and Agnes Chow, another prominent pro-democracy activist, said they were stepping down. The group then dissolved. Activists like Wong and Chow have been targeted before by Hong Kong authorities; for example, they were arrested last year for allegedly participating in an “unauthorized” assembly during the summer protests. Given their prominence, are likely are risk under this new law.

The chilling effect is the point.

Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow on China at the Heritage Foundation, told me that China’s most useful approach is “to impose a condition of self-censorship, where you learn not what to say.” Activists disbanding their groups or taking down their pro-democracy social media posts because they fear repercussions — with good reason — is exactly what Beijing wants.

“The [Chinese Communist Party] is very, very practiced at political control. They have very developed theories of how to do that,” Stokes, from the US Institute of Peace, said. “And they believe it works in the mainland.” The way China’s leaders see it, he added, the problem with Hong Kong is simply that the government there hasn’t implemented Beijing’s “successful” system.

Protesters did come out into the streets in defiance of the new law on Wednesday. But the ones I spoke to all expressed nervousness, fear, and confusion about whether they will keep doing so if it becomes dangerous. Fung said she thinks she will continue to post online, and maybe support other protesters who do go out in the streets by serving as a driver, offering to help people flee if police crack down. But that is dangerous, too.

The pro-democracy movement goes beyond just protesters and activists, though. The citizenry of Hong Kong has largely been divided in two factions: the “yellow” camp — those who sympathize with the pro-democracy movement, and the “blue” camp — those seen as supporting the police and the Hong Kong government.

Many in the “yellow” camp, though they supported the protesters’ aims, didn’t participate in the protests themselves. So while the hardcore protesters may continue to take to the streets and speak out publicly despite the risks, the fear is that many others — young professionals, those with families, people who feel they have a lot to lose — may begin to rethink about whether they will continue to do so publicly.

Peter, a 28-year-old Hongkonger, never considered himself a hardcore protester. He sympathized with the movement and attended some demonstrations, but he wouldn’t consider himself part of the frontlines. He, and others like him, are at that crossroads.

“A lot of moderate protesters like myself are going to step back, because a lot of us still have a job here, we have families,” he said. “One thing that’s really scary,” he said, is that “if you’re accused under this new law, they have all the authority to send you back to China.”

“Be like water” became a slogan and a strategy of the Hong Kong protests, a way to move fluidly and adapt to police tactics and to the government’s response. When the Hong Kong government denied a permit for the annual vigil honoring the Tiananmen Square massacre in June, for instance, organizers instructed people to instead light a candle, wherever they were, to show their support.

Hui told me she sees the protests taking on an even more decentralized form and finding new methods for Hongkongers to signal their solidarity. An independence flag may be banned, but officials can’t outlaw a candle. Maybe people just take a walk — all together, at the same time. Taking even small acts of resistance, whatever they are, and making them part of daily life.

“One country, two systems” might be dead, but whether that means the end of Hong Kong is a different question, Hui said. “Hong Kong is not dead unless the people let it.”

Hongkongers are looking to the rest of the world. But will help come?

“I know the whole world is watching us,” Fung told me. “And one of the key objectives today is to let the whole world see that Hong Kong people are still willing to go out and protest even under this kind of threat.”

China’s national security law has been broadly condemned internationally — including by the United States. The Trump administration had already declared last month that because of the new national security law (which was expected to pass soon), Hong Kong was no longer considered autonomous from China. Shortly after, the United States also announced that it would be removing Hong Kong’s special trade status, which gives it slightly different treatment from the rest of mainland China.

“The United States will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday.

The US, he said, had taken other steps to pull back Hong Kong’s special status, including imposing visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party officials involved in “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy” and ending defense and some technology exports to the territory. Pompeo added that “per President Trump’s instruction,” the US would be eliminating most of the “policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment, with few exceptions.”

How much further the Trump administration will go is an open question. Trump has taken an aggressive stance toward China on a number of issues, particularly on trade, and, more recently, for failing to stop the coronavirus from spreading into a pandemic.

But when it comes to China’s human rights abuses, Trump has been far less critical.

The US Congress has backed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement with strong bipartisan support, though. Last year, Trump signed into law the Hong Kong Freedom and Democracy Act, which, in addition to evaluating Hong Kong’s autonomous status, calls on the president to impose sanctions on officials who violate human rights in Hong Kong.

That support remains strong. On Wednesday, the House unanimously passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which would impose mandatory sanctions on entities that violate either the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty between the UK and China that allowed for the handover and laid out the “one country, two systems” principle until 2047, or Hong Kong’s Basic Law (its de facto constitution.) On Thursday, so did the Senate, sending the bill to Trump’s desk. The White House has not said whether he will sign it.

A bipartisan group of senators has also introduced a bill that would grant refugee status to Hong Kong residents who face persecution under the new national security law, including those who might have participated in the pro-democracy and anti-extradition bill protests.

If passed and signed into law, it would be a powerful statement on human rights and democracy from the United States. But it would also show a disconnect in the federal government, as the Trump administration has drastically cut the number of refugees coming from just about everywhere else.

Other countries are taking steps to help Hong Kong as well. The United Kingdom will grant additional rights to Hongkongers who are are British Nationals Overseas passport holders. Previously, they could stay in the UK for six months, but the UK government extended to the five years, after which the possibility for residency and later citizenship is available.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would allow the UK to “uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong.” It could apply to as many as 3 million people.

Taiwan — which has a particular stake in standing up to China — just on Wednesday unveiled a new office explicitly created to help Hong Kong asylum seekers.

Offering an escape route from Hong Kong will protect many, and leaving is an option that many Hongkongers said they would consider if life in the territory becomes untenable.

At the same time, though, it is still a fraught decision. Hong Kong is home, and leaving feels a bit like a surrender, giving up on preserving Hong Kong’s democracy and letting China win.

And some worry that a failure to taking action against China to stop or punish it for its power grab in Hong Kong would encourage China to become even more aggressive, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Or, as one protester put it: “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow the world.”

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