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PoliticsHong Kong

Have China's security laws changed Hong Kong forever?

William Yang in Taipei
June 30, 2023

Three years ago, Beijing imposed a set of new laws on Hong Kong that dissolved many civil liberties. "We've lost our freedom and all forms of protests are now criminalized," a former Hong Kong legislator told DW.

People hold signs next to a tape barrier
Under China's security laws, these protesters in Hong Kong are required by law to wear numbered tags Image: Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

Three years after the controversial national security law came into effect in Hong Kong, previously known for its high level of autonomy and civil liberty, the city looks and feels very different.

Since 2020, more than 100 people have been arrested and imprisoned under national security charges, several pro-democracy political parties and large civic organizations have disbanded, and books and movies considered sensitive have been censored.

In the latest case, Hong Kong's Department of Justice attempted to ban a popular protest song from being circulated online.

Hong Kong's Beijing-aligned authorities maintain the law has brought "stability" back to the territory following the months-long citywide protest in 2019.

Some Hong Kong activists abroad, however, told DW the law has "completely destroyed" all forms of freedom and most civil liberties.

"We've lost our freedom in the parliament, we've lost our freedom in the judiciary, we have lost the freedom in choosing the chief executive, all forms of protests are now criminalized, and even soft expressions like movies and arts are now banned under the law,” said Ted Hui, a former pro-democracy legislator in Hong Kong who now lives in exile in Australia.

How China’s crackdown has changed Hong Kong

The dramatic changes that sent shock waves across Hong Kong began with the arrest and detention of prominent political and civil society figures, including 47 pro-democracy activists and prominent media leaders like Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai.

The crackdown expanded to other realms of civil society, including the forced closure of pro-democracy media outlets such as Apple Daily and the Stand News, and the removal of books on sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

"This crackdown is a secondary-level autocratization that targets civil society and infiltrates everyday life," said Maggie Shum, a political scientist at Behrend College at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). 

Kenneth Chan, an expert in politics at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), told DW that activities such as commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre or raising funds for NGOs or political groups have been banned.

"Hong Kong authorities have introduced new red lines to further strengthen control over all aspects of the city," said Chan.

Despite widespread criticism of the law, Hong Kong's justice minister Paul Lam said in a recent interview that the law hasn't affected citizens' freedom of assembly.

Last month, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee also refused to clarify whether attending June 4th commemoration events would violate the law or not. "Everybody should act in accordance with the law and think of what they do, so as to be ready to face the consequences," Lee said during a regular press briefing.

'Second return to China'

With rights and freedoms that used to be guaranteed under the "One Country, Two Systems" vanishing rapidly in Hong Kong, Chan from HKBU said the current process is Hong Kong's "second return" to China.

In 1997, Hong Kong was handed over back to China by the United Kingdom. 

According to Chan, key institutions in Hong Kong are being stacked with pro-Beijing members, while the city's judicial system, which has long been known for its independence, is coming under increasing pressure.

Jimmy Lai wearing a mask
Activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai once ran a pro-democracy newspaper. Now he is sitting in prisonImage: Kin Cheung/AP Photo/picture alliance

"We are losing checks and balances and democratic guardrails that formerly existed in Hong Kong, and instead, there are more top-down networks," he told DW.

In 2021, Hong Kong approved amendments to its electoral system that allow pro-Beijing institutions to appoint most of the legislators while requiring all candidates to go through a vetting process controlled by a pro-government committee.

In April, the Hong Kong government announced that the electoral overhaul would be extended to the district council, where most seats are chosen through direct election.

On the judicial front, the law has allowed national security cases to be heard by government-appointed judges. The legislative council passed an amendment in May to grant the Hong Kong government the power to ban overseas lawyers from handling national security cases.

Shum from Penn State said China's "hard-line campaign" to crush any sign of dissent in Hong Kong has been "very successful."

"The Hong Kong government is now saying they want to plug the legal holes that exist in the law by passing Article 23 in the Basic Law," she told DW, adding that such a move would stamp out any form of collective actions to regain control in Hong Kong.

Last week, Chief Executive Lee told a local media outlet that Article 23 would be enacted in 2023 or 2024 at the latest.

"With this legislation, I hope the entire process will consist of careful and thorough considerations, resulting in a successful law," he told Hong Kong China News Agency.

Hong Kong diaspora targeted by Beijing

The Hong Kong diaspora community has also become targets of crackdowns under the law. In April, a 23-year-old university student, who normally studies in Japan, was arrested over posts she shared on social media, which Hong Kong police described as "inciting Hong Kong independence."

Hong Kong's free press in peril

Exiled Hong Kong activist Hui told DW that the incident has sparked widespread fear within the diaspora community, as overseas Hong Kongers begin to realize the potential risk of being arrested when they return to the semi-autonomous city.

"Nowadays, when Hong Kong people talk about returning to the city, they will talk about the potential risk of being arrested or having their passports confiscated by authorities," he said, adding that most Hong Kong people abroad will adopt precautions such as bringing spare phones when they are returning to the city.

Despite some overseas organizations' efforts to help sustain the resistance in Hong Kong, Shum from Penn State said the national security law is aimed at severing ties between the diaspora community and Hong Kong.

"I feel that in the long run, Hong Kong is going to become more isolated," she told DW.

Edited by Sou-Jie van Brunnersum