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Hong Kong: Are China's intimidation tactics working?

William Yang Taipei
January 8, 2021

Activists say that this week's mass arrest of pro-democracy figures under a Beijing-imposed security law signals the beginning of the end for the territory's civil liberties.

Activists say the latest arrests show Beijing wants to further tighten its control on the city
Activists say the latest arrests show Beijing wants to further tighten its control on the cityImage: Kin Cheung/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Following coordinated arrests on Wednesday targeting more than 50 Hong Kong opposition figures under a security law, local civil society observers told DW that an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty had descended upon the pro-democracy movement in the territory.

Although most of those arrested were released on bail by Thursday, the crackdown on Hong Kong's opposition is widely seen as a warning to all Hong Kong residents from the Communist Party in mainland China.

"Beijing sent a very clear message to Hong Kongers that as long as you are associated with the opposition, you are on the radar no matter who you are," said a Hong Kong political scientist who asked to be identified as John over fears for his safety.

"With the national security law, I think it's very clear that Beijing and its acolytes in Hong Kong can use any tools to suppress you," John told DW. " It is not a law in a conventional sense; it's a political tool that can be deployed at any time when Beijing sees fit."

The national security law was handed down by Beijing in response to massive ongoing protests in Hong Kong over the steady encroachment of China's Communist Party on the city's rights as a semi-autonomous territory.

End of 'one country, two systems'

Since being given back to China from Great Britain, Hong Kong has been governed under the "One Country, Two Systems" framework, which is supposed to last until 2047. The framework allows Hong Kong to retain its own economic, administrative and judicial system under a de-facto constitution called basic law.

However, since the implementation of the controversial national security law in June 2020, Beijing can arrest anyone suspected of "secession, subversion, terrorism of collusion with foreign forces." The law has drawn international criticism for jeopardizing the relative freedom in Hong Kong that has allowed it to flourish as an Asian business hub.

More than 90 pro-democracy politicians or activists have been arrested for violating the law's vague criteria. Four of them have been formally charged, including Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and former student activist Tony Chung. Space for dissent is quickly disappearing.

In November 2020, four legislators from the pro-democracy camp were disqualified by Hong Kong authorities over allegations that they were "endangering" national security. The move prompted mass resignations from remaining pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong's legislative council.

Wang Huiyao on Conflict Zone

Beijing instills fear

Activists and experts say the latest arrests show Beijing wants to further tighten its control on the city.

"Beijing has now cast the net so wide that it can catch as many people as it wants to," Albert Ho, a former pro-democracy legislator, told DW.

"Even moderate pro-democracy members can't escape arrest now," Ho added.

Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California, says the difference between arrests of activists on mainland China and Hong Kong is diminishing.

The crackdowns that happened before and after the implementation of the national security law are not only different in size, but also in terms of the range of people that are targeted by the Hong Kong government, Wasserstrom said. "The goal seems to be to strike fear into as many groups as possible, all at once."

Ho notes that in the past, people arrested in Hong Kong were freed quickly, and that they could also speak to the press after being released, but after the enforcement of the new security law, the process of arrests and prosecution has become more "abusive."

"They arrest you first and then put you in detention overnight in an attempt to intimidate you," Ho said. "After that they formally prosecute you. It's unfortunate that the government has become so paranoid."

Self-censorship on the rise

Activists worry that after targeting lawmakers, Beijing will now shift its focus to other sections of society, mainly the education sector. Academic John identifies social workers and the judiciary as other potential targets.

John says that some Hong Kong academics are already exercising self-censorship due to safety concerns. "They don't want to self-censor; they have to do it because of many uncertainties," he explained.

John says the fear is forcing people are avoid confrontation with authorities. "I don't think there will be a major resistance in Hong Kong in the foreseeable future because the space for doing that is shrinking," he said, adding that the crackdowns will continue and the situation in Hong Kong will continue to deteriorate.