The fear was palpable on social media. Days before Hong Kong’s National Security Law was passed people started to delete their Twitter accounts.
“It is already corroding our freedom and rights,” wrote Alex Lam, a reporter for Apple Daily, who remained on the platform.
The fear was felt by journalists. “I’m keeping a low profile” people told Index as they refused to be interviewed “on the record”. Soon the word “anonymous” appeared with great frequency on articles from the city.
And the fear was felt in the streets, as far fewer took to them to protest, in stark contrast to last year when threat of a similar bill saw millions on them.
The National Security Law, which Beijing announced in May and passed today, has already done exactly what it intended – it has paralysed pro-independence and pro-democracy advocates in the city.
The opacity of the law is part of its success. It criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, but none of these have yet been clearly defined. Anthony Dapiran, a lawyer in Hong Kong and author of City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, told Index that “no Hong Kong lawyer will be in a position to advise on the law and its impact with any certainty, which is clearly a concern for Hong Kong’s rule of law.”
Mainland China, of course, provides some clues.
“On the mainland, national security laws are routinely used to arbitrarily detain, prosecute and jail a wide range of critical voices, including journalists. Right now we have no guarantees beyond some vague assurances from an authoritarian one party state with a dismal track record of respecting press freedom,” a journalist told Index. The journalist works for a major global media organisation. They requested anonymity for fear of retaliation on themselves or their company.
Echoing their views, writer and Hong Kong resident Tammy Lai-Ming Ho wrote in a letter published yesterday on Index’s site that “we only have the worst case scenarios to look forward to”.
“A similar law has been used in mainland China to attack dissidents, including democracy advocates such as the late Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and human rights lawyers such as Wang Quanzhang, not to mention academics and labour activists who are not household names,” she said.
“For decades Hong Kong has been a major media hub for Asia. But international media will have to think long and hard about whether Hong Kong can remain a safe and viable place to host regional headquarters or major newsrooms. If foreign and local journalists start having to self-censor, watch what they write or who they interview, what talks they host or attend or which organisation they work for, then many organisations may well relocate to freer environments with stronger legal protections,” added the anonymous journalist.
David Schlesinger, former chairman of Thomson Reuters China, who lived in Hong Kong on and off between 1982 and 2017, concurs. He told Index:
“It will certainly affect coverage of Hong Kong itself. It’s been a completely free reporting environment, whereas now people will have to look over their shoulders. They will have to treat it like they would if they were reporting in Shanghai or Beijing.”
Schlesinger says local reporters will be most affected. Reporters from Ming Pao and Apple Daily, for example. But he also says it will affect where international news organisations base their headquarters. Schlesinger cites the case of Bloomberg. In 2012, while researching an explosive story on the wealth of incoming president Xi Jinping’s extended family, key members of Bloomberg’s normally China-based staff left Beijing and researched out of Hong Kong itself, and then, once the story blew up, moved to the territory as a safe refuge, something that now would be unimaginable.
One thing is clear: it deals a devastating blow to Hong Kong’s autonomy as promised under the “one country, two systems” framework, the terms of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese control in 1997 which were meant to last until 2047. Over the last week a meme has spread online by the city’s youth. It reads: “I expected to be older when 2047 came”. Beneath the humour lies sadness and desperation.
Chinese cartoonist Badiucao told Index: “The passage of the National Security Law in Hong Kong marks the end of a free city and may just as well open the curtain of the new Cold War between China and the world.”
For those who have been watching Hong Kong closely over the years the law has not come out of nowhere. In a special for Index on Censorship magazine in January 1997, just ahead of the handover on 1st July 1997, Index noted:
“Beijing’s strident policies on Hong Kong seems to be confirming some darker fears about the continued protection of freedom of expression after 1997. Over the past year the Chinese authorities have shown themselves to be concerned not with protecting the right to freedom of expression, about which they have grave misgivings, but with eroding it.”
Index has raised concerns periodically since. A major turning point was 2014 when Beijing issued a decision regarding proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system that challenged Hong Kong’s political autonomy. The reforms sparked the Umbrella Movement. Back then, Index reported on how self-censorship had become “insidious” in the city.
“It’s a creeping, insidious type of thing. If you want to keep your job, you tow the line. I work with guys who are pro press freedom, but they are still censoring constantly,” said a reporter from a prominent local newspaper.
It wasn’t just self-censorship. The same article spoke of violent attacks on journalists who were critical of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, including Kevin Lau, former chief editor of Ming Pao, who was stabbed in his back and legs as he got out of a car.
We reported on the forced disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers in 2015 and how the city had gone from a place that would publish daring, critical books on China to somewhere where editors said no.
Then in 2018 we investigated a novel intimidation tactic that was moving beyond Hong Kong. Specifically, threatening letters were landing on the doorstep of people in the UK who were critical of the human rights record in Hong Kong. And not just them, their neighbours were receiving letters too. Hong Kong native Evan Fowler, himself a recipient of threatening letters, told Index how Hong Kong was “a city being ripped apart”.
2018 was the same year that the FT journalist Victor Mallet had his working visa denied after chairing a talk with Andy Chan, a pro-independence political activist. This marked the start of more aggressive action towards journalists at international media, who until then had mostly been shielded from the threats that their local counterparts had faced. Two years on and, as Index has covered in its map on media violations during Covid-19, China recently expelled a handful of journalists at the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal whose credentials were up for renewal this year. In an unprecedented move, they were not allowed to work from Hong Kong or Macau either.
But no matter how bad it has become in the city over the years, it has always remained far more free than across the border in China. The city was not, and is still not, behind the Great Firewall. The city is a place where until this year large-scale Tiananmen Square vigils are held, a place that even had a museum dedicated to the massacre (read our article with the curator here). It is a place where millions come out year after year to fight for their freedoms.
“Protest remains a fundamental part of the Hong Kong identity,” said Dapiran, who believes that this “spirit will continue”.
And even as peaceful protest turned into scenes of police violence, the demolition of freedoms was not a given. Until now.
Hong Kong matters. It matters to the more than seven million who live there. The offer by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grant visas to three million people from Hong Kong is a welcome gesture, but moving is not an option for most. What of those who speak little or no English? What of those without the financial means to move abroad? What of those who have elderly relatives in Hong Kong? What of those who see Hong Kong as their home?
Hong Kong matters to the 1.4 billion just across the border. If people in Hong Kong can’t speak up then what hope is there for those in mainland China?
“Throughout the decades Hong Kong has always been a clearing house for information to make its way back into the mainland news ecosystem,” Louisa Lim, who reported from China for a decade for NPR and the BBC, told Index.
Last year, the Chinese journalist Karoline Kan wrote in the magazine that despite the best attempts by the Chinese government to block news on the Hong Kong protests word was still reaching people in China. And the news was sending a powerful message. These messages end if Hong Kong is silenced.
And Hong Kong matters to the rest of the world. On 27 January a cartoon by Niels Bo Bojesen appeared in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten that portrayed coronavirus particles in place of the stars on the national flag of China. The Chinese embassy in Copenhagen demanded a public apology. Fortunately Danish politicians were vocal in their defence of the paper. Will we continue to see such defences of free expression? Or will acquiescence when it comes to Hong Kong embolden China further and erode our resilience?
Ma Jian wrote in the 1997 Index special that “from 1 July, the drift begins: Hong Kong becomes a floating island, migrating on the map.”
Today is a terrible day, but tomorrow is a new one. We all need to make sure that we raise our voices – individually and collectively – so that Hong Kong remains an island both spiritually and physically separated from China’s mainland.