Last September, Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Sunny Cheung was due in court for a case related to his participation in a banned vigil the previous June to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Instead of appearing as a defendant, he announced on Facebook that he had gone into exile at an undisclosed location, fearing for his own safety.
When, in February this year, 47 people who participated in an unofficial primary election organised by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy sector were charged for “conspiring to commit subversion”, Cheung – a candidate in that election – knew he could well have been among those detained.
The 47 were arrested under the sweeping national security law (NSL) introduced for Hong Kong by China a year ago, which critics say restricts basic freedoms including the rights to free assembly and free expression.
“I think under the law, all political rights are in danger because the government can arbitrarily deprive citizens of their basic rights while allowing Hong Kong’s police and judicial department to have substantial power to crack down on civil society,” Cheung (25) told The Irish Times.
The security law came into effect on June 30th last year. Under its provisions, the national security department under the Hong Kong Police Force has arrested 113 people up until May 3rd this year, according to data collected by the Centre for Asian Law at Georgetown University in the US.
People living in Hong Kong say there is now no room to voice any anti-government sentiments publicly, as that could be punishable under the NSL.
Nancy, an accountant in her late 30s who used to participate in all kinds of demonstrations, said soon after the NSL was enacted last year people like her knew the days of protesting on the street were over. “While we knew the government would intensify crackdown on civil society, we didn’t expect them to do it so blatantly and shamelessly,” she said.
The latest target of Hong Kong government’s crackdown under the NSL was the city’s most popular pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily. The paper was forced to cease operation after police froze its assets and six former employees were arrested for allegedly colluding with foreign forces.
“This is really alarming because it shows that all the freedom and rights that we cherish in Hong Kong will perish under the NSL,” said Cheung. “The law has evolved from its original purpose in a negative way because the government is launching crackdowns at a larger scale.”
Many civil society organisations have also been affected by the chilling effect that comes with the law. Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), one of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy groups that used to organise major demonstrations and rallies, has announced that it won’t seek to hold the annual rally on July 1st for the first time in 19 years.
Wong Yik-mo, the former vice-convenor of CHRF, has been in exile in Taiwan since last May and he said the NSL had spread a deep sense of fear across Hong Kong.
“The government wants to target all opposition voices in Hong Kong by criminalising a wide range of activities or behaviours in society,” he told The Irish Times. “People can be arrested for chanting slogans on the street or simply raising a piece of white paper in public. If a government can kill a media outlet, I think that should be enough for the world to understand the level of threat people are facing in Hong Kong.”
Freedom of expression
Apart from shrinking the space for freedom of expression and basic rights, the NSL has also set off one of the largest exodus of locals in Hong Kong's recent history. Many Hong Kongers have applied for immigration visas to the United Kingdom through their British National Overseas (BNO) status. According to a report by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford in May, 34,000 Hong Kongers have applied to live in the UK in the first three months of 2021.
Nancy said many people in Hong Kong with the ability to emigrate were now actively exploring options. This was especially true of families with children. “Before the NSL was enacted, people were already planning for emigration,” she said. “Since the law came into force, people have been actively taking real actions to emigrate sooner than they originally planned.”
“We are prepared to leave the city we love, but we are not planning to continue the way of life in Hong Kong in those new places. We know there will never be another Hong Kong,” she added.
Cheung thinks the political crackdown on civil society will likely continue in Hong Kong, as Chinese president Xi Jinping tries to use it as an example to maintain the legitimacy of his rule over China. "As Xi Jinping may run for another term next year, he has to show that he has successfully repressed Hong Kong's civil society and he has to show that he has successfully eliminated the whole political opposition in the city," he said.
Despite the worsening conditions in Hong Kong, Cheung thinks civil society will still try to disseminate defiant messages and spirits. “They can’t have any large-scale mobilisation right now, but it doesn’t mean they are not trying to do something to consolidate the energy within civil society,” he said.
But for now, he sees no sign that Beijing plans to ease the repression in Hong Kong. "We are going to witness a much more brutal political crackdown in the coming year," Cheung predicted. "Sadly speaking, shutting down Apple Daily is just the first move."