It was approaching midnight on June 30, 2020, when news broke that Beijing had promulgated a national security law in Hong Kong, effective immediately.
Since China’s rubber-stamp parliament revealed its plans for such legislation the month before, Hong Kongers had been nervously awaiting the details of a law that would reshape their legal, political and media landscape.
Now, the full text was here – and it was broader, vaguer and gave Beijing more power than many expected.
The bill was drafted almost entirely in closed-door meetings in Beijing that even Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, was not a part of. It came after months of anti-government, pro-democracy protests that infuriated the Chinese leadership, who saw it as an open challenge to their national sovereignty.
The result was a law that criminalized acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security – with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for all four.
Immediately, people voiced alarm that the loosely worded law could be used to stifle any type of dissent.
Chinese and Hong Kong leaders assured the public the law would target a minority of individuals, and not diminish freedoms in the semi-autonomous city.
One year on, while some have welcomed the law for restoring stability after the violence and political unrest of 2019, others feel their worst fears have been confirmed.
Crackdown measures that would have been previously unthinkable have arrived at a dizzying speed, with 117 people arrested under the security law and 64 charged as of June 27. Once an open international hub with a freewheeling press, rich protest culture and limited democracy, Hong Kong is looking increasingly like other Chinese cities under Beijing’s tight grip, subject to Chinese laws and censorship.
A newspaper has been closed down, public protest appears to be banned, and nearly all of the city’s leading pro-democracy figures, including activists and politicians, have either been jailed or forced into exile. Tens of thousands of citizens are emigrating to democratic countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, which have offered safe harbor from the law. Even schools, universities, libraries, movies and internet access have been impacted.
In just one year, the city has been transformed, leaving many residents stunned and grieving. Here’s a look at how the change unfolded.
The 2019 protests
Facing pressure from China, Hong Kong authorities have tried to pass a national security law before, most notably in 2003. They backed down then after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, arguing that such a law would give the Hong Kong government similar powers to suppress dissent that exist in mainland China.
Fears of Chinese encroachment on the city’s freedoms drove another round of mass protests in 2019, this time sparked by a bill that would have allowed extradition to China.
That unrest evolved into a massive pro-democracy, anti-government movement which at times grew violent. The city legislature was stormed, a university campus was held under siege for days, a man was set on fire and another shot and critically injured by police.
All that was too much for the Chinese government, which until then had left the crisis for local authorities to handle.
When the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on mass gatherings, Beijing swiftly used a back door in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution to bypass the city’s independent legal system and pass the controversial law.
Even before the law passed, a chilling effect could be seen throughout the city, with political and activist groups disbanding and many citizens hastily deleting social media posts and accounts prior to June 30.
The crackdown begins
Hong Kong awoke on July 1, the anniversary of the city’s handover from British rule to China, to the new reality of the national security law.
Hundreds turned out to protest, clashing with riot police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Police made their first arrests under the national security law that day – and haven’t stopped since.
In the first month of the law, schools were ordered to remove textbooks that could violate the law; authorities set up a national security office, allowing mainland Chinese agents to operate in the city for the first time; student activists were arrested for social media posts; and pro-democracy candidates were barred from standing in legislative elections on national security grounds.
The changes drew immediate backlash from the global community. The United States revoked Hong Kong’s special trade status, instead implementing the same restrictions that are in place with China. Numerous countries suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong, including the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and more.
In August, more than 200 police officers raided the headquarters of Apple Daily, a popular pro-democracy, anti-Beijing tabloid. They arrested top executives, including the paper’s owner, media tycoon Jimmy Lai; later that day, police arrested a prominent 23-year-old pro-democracy politician under the security law.
By then, many activists and former lawmakers had already begun fleeing abroad and applying for asylum. In August, 12 Hong Kong residents – including a 16-year-old – were arrested for attempting to reach Taiwan by boat, and detained in the mainland for months without access to lawyers. Several have since been released back to Hong Kong, where at least one was charged under the security law.
One of the biggest blows was in November, when Beijing granted Hong Kong authorities the power to expel elected lawmakers for not being “loyal,” or refusing to acknowledge Beijing’s sovereignty. Four lawmakers were immediately expelled – prompting all the remaining elected pro-democracy lawmakers to resign in protest.
To many, this marked the end of Hong Kong’s organized political opposition, with few avenues left to voice their dissent. That feeling only strengthened in December when three leading pro-democracy activists – including Joshua Wong, who had been the face of the 2014 protests – were sentenced to prison for organizing a protest police refused to authorize.
‘All rights are not absolute’
If there was any hope a new year would bring an end to the crackdown, it was soon dismissed.
On January 6, 2021, at least 53 former lawmakers and opposition activists were arrested for “subverting state power.” They had taken part in an unofficial primary election the previous summer, designed to field the strongest pro-democracy candidates in a legislative election that, in the end, never took place, ostensibly due to coronavirus.
In February, authorities ordered schools, including kindergartens, to implement national security into their curriculum across a range of studies, from history to biology and music. In a circular to schools, the city’s Education Bureau said that “as far as national security is concerned, there is no room for debate or compromise.”
The Chinese central government also continued to rejig Hong Kong’s electoral framework, passing a law in March that changed the make-up of the city parliament to be dominated by government-appointed or influenced seats. Even if pro-democracy candidates could be elected – now much harder with a new committee to vet candidates – they’d be far outnumbered.
As the one-year anniversary of the law loomed – along with the all-important landmark of 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 – there was one remaining figure from the pro-democracy movement still at large: the Apple Daily newspaper.
In June 17, 500 police officers raided its newsroom for a second time, seizing journalists’ materials and arresting the paper’s directors. National security police then froze the company’s assets. Less than a week later, the newspaper announced it would shut down and cease all digital operations due to the untenable environment. A former journalist at the paper tried to leave Hong Kong on June 27, only to be arrested at the airport under the security law.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian denied the raid had been an attack to press freedom, calling it a “just move” done in “strict accordance with the law.”
Already, the knock-on effects are palpable; Stand News, another pro-democracy outlet, announced shortly after the Apple Daily shutdown that most of its board directors had resigned, and that it would remove op-eds from its website unless writers give their consent to leave them online.
Censorship fears have also proved true on other platforms. Websites have been blocked on national security grounds, and the film censorship guidelines revised to abide by the law. The annual book fair, to be held this year in July, warned that the police would be called if any exhibits or materials were found to violate the security law.
Through it all, as authorities have detained journalists and activists, unseated opposition lawmakers, and arrested those who still dared protest, they have insisted that the security law does not diminish any civil or social liberties.
“The objective is to maintain long-term stability and prosperity in Hong Kong,” said Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, several days after the Apple Daily raid. “The enforcement of the National Security Law and its implementation is to maintain national security.”
The law acknowledges that human rights have to be “respected and protected,” she said – then added, “but all these rights are not absolute.”
New security law sparks protests in Hong Kong
Last week, Security Secretary John Lee, a former police officer who made the decision to freeze Apple Daily’s assets, was promoted to chief secretary – the second-highest position in Hong Kong. The city’s police chief was also promoted to take Lee’s place as new security secretary.
When asked why two of the city’s most important positions were both given to officials with policing backgrounds, Lam dismissed concerns, saying it was “all about meritocracy.”
Pro-Beijing legislator Alice Mak was more blunt. “If (Hong Kong is) a police state, why not?” she said last Friday, according to public broadcaster RTHK. “I don’t think there’s any problem with a police state.”
An uncertain future
One year on, Hong Kong looks very different from the raucous, rebellious city of protest it had been for decades.
Since the city’s handover, it has had a history of mass protests, sometimes stretching into hundreds of thousands of participants – and in 2019, reaching two million, according to organizers. These mass demonstrations are now nowhere to be seen; there are occasionally small flash protests, but these are quickly shut down and the organizers punished.
During the 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Revolution, activists and pro-democracy leaders had been hopeful that real change was possible, though the movement ultimately failed to bring about any electoral reform.
There is little of that hope now. With Hong Kong increasingly being brought under Chinese rule, many local residents are looking overseas – tens of thousands are expected to relocate to Britain, under a new scheme implemented by the UK government for holders of British National (Overseas) passports. Both Australia and Canada have also announced new pathways for Hong Kong citizens to gain permanent residency.
Many families have already left, citing fear for Hong Kong’s future and a desire for their children to grow up in a free and democratic society.
The threat of arrests and asset freezes has also thrown into question Hong Kong’s viability as a base for international businesses. Not all industries or sectors will be affected, experts have said, and business continues as usual for many companies; some residents feel the law has made the city safer, in contrast to the violent street clashes of 2019.
Still, a sense of apprehension persists, and some firms have reduced their presence in Hong Kong due to the political upheaval.
“It’s not just the closure of Apple Daily,” said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. “It’s the new normal, and the change that Hong Kong is going through from its era as a post-British colony to an era where it is, more and more, part and parcel of China.”
Others have also decided to stay, even at the risk of arrest or imprisonment. And many continue to resist in whatever ways they can, throwing their support behind the crumbling bastions of free press and political dissent.
Last Wednesday, people began lining up behind newsstands by midnight to buy the final Thursday issue of Apple Daily before its closure, with lines stretching down the street and around the block. A crowd gathered outside the newspaper’s headquarters in a show of solidarity, holding placards and flowers. Many waved flashlights and tied yellow ribbons – the color of the pro-democracy movement – to the building’s gates.
When journalists came out to thank their supporters and hand out free copies of the last issue, they were met with cheers and applause. “Thank you, Hong Kongers,” the group of journalists shouted in unison, before taking a deep bow and waving farewell.
“Thank you, Apple Daily people – ga yau,” the crowd shouted back, using a Cantonese phrase that has been a rallying cry throughout the protests. It translates to “add oil,” and it means: keep going, work hard, and above all else, persevere.