The Hong Kong we know is dead

Hong Kong’s first handover to China, in 1997, came with fireworks, lion dances and a mood of cautious optimism that this former British colony would enjoy ‘a high degree of autonomy’ for at least the next 50 years.

Just 23 years later, Hong Kong’s second handover to China—punctuated by a draconian new national security law that proscribes much protest activity and free expression—has seen fearful citizens deleting their Twitter accounts, political parties disbanding, and some activists and ordinary people planning to flee abroad. The optimism of 1997 has been replaced by a sense of foreboding and dread.

In a fitting coda, Beijing’s Communist Party rulers chose the exact anniversary of the handover, midnight on 30 June, to impose their new security law on Hong Kong and unveil its strictures on an unwilling population. After 23 years, China seems to be publicly affirming that the ‘one country, two systems’ experiment has failed and that Hongkongers were not sufficiently imbued with a patriotic love of the motherland and its authoritarian communist one-party system.

Now Hongkongers who had enjoyed a wide range of freedoms and a tiny taste of democracy will be subjected to the same sweeping constraints on their liberties as any Chinese citizen living on the mainland.

Over the past month, the new national security law was drafted behind closed doors in Beijing with no input from Hong Kong officials or citizens, who were not even allowed to see the text until a few minutes before midnight on the day it took effect. There was still some small hope that the law might not be as sweeping as some here feared, perhaps tailor-made for Hong Kong owing to this city’s special history and common-law traditions. Various leaks in the media in recent days appeared designed to assure people that their daily lives would not be greatly affected.

But the final text of the law was more severe and more detailed than the most optimistic here envisaged. Many when they saw it were aghast—shocked, they said, but not surprised.

The law establishes an entirely new infrastructure in Hong Kong to enforce a national security regime. Beijing will set up a national security agency in Hong Kong which will operate independently as it sees fit. China’s agents operating here, with special ID cards, and their cars, ‘shall not be subject to inspection, search or detention’ by local Hong Kong police. They are above the law.

Hong Kong will set up its own separate national security committee, chaired by the chief executive and including a ‘national security adviser’ appointed by Beijing. Its work will remain secret and not subject to judicial review. The law specifies that Beijing’s national security adviser will attend meetings of the committee.

The Hong Kong Police Force will establish its own national security department to collect intelligence and conduct operations. The law gives police wide powers to conduct searches, eavesdropping and surveillance without court oversight and to order people to turn over their electronic communications, and it appears to suggest that internet service providers must cooperate with probes. The law compels suspects to ‘answer questions’ and turn over information, although Hong Kong law gives people a right to stay silent.

The law also says that when there’s a conflict between this new edict and Hong Kong’s existing laws, the national security law takes precedence.

The law sets up a new section in the Justice Department to prosecute national security cases, and trials can be conducted entirely in secret, without a jury, and without the presumption of bail. Serious or ‘complex’ cases can be tried in mainland China.

The law says the Hong Kong government will ‘strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation’ of national security matters, including those relating to ‘schools, universities, social organisations, the media, and the internet.’

The law vaguely defines four categories of national security offences—secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with a foreign country. Appearing in Washington DC to advocate for sanctions against Hong Kong or ‘provoking hatred towards the central government’ are all now considered national security law violations.

Penalties for national security offences range up to life imprisonment, although a person who ‘conspires’ with a foreign country ‘shall be liable to a more severe penalty’.’ The Hong Kong justice secretary told a press conference on 1 July that if a suspect were handed over to mainland authorities to face trial, Hong Kong would have no say in whether the death penalty was imposed.

In a sweeping claim of extraterritoriality, the law also says it will cover offences ‘from outside the region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the region’.

The vagaries of the law for now leave it to the local Hong Kong police to interpret and enforce it. Their actions on 1 July—the handover anniversary when activists traditionally stage mass protest rallies—showed the police are taking an expansive view, arresting people for carrying flags promoting Hong Kong independence.

Police raised banners warning demonstrators that chanting the slogans and displaying the flags that had become a staple of the last 12 months of protest could now be considered a national security violation.

‘The law is so broadly written it could include almost any form of behaviour, such as waving an independence-themed flag today’, one longtime resident told me.

This is not the end of Hong Kong. It remains a global financial centre, its stock market is still the world’s largest and more capital is set to flow in if Chinese ‘red chip’ companies forced to delist from the New York Stock Exchange decide to relocate here. Multinationals whose business operations focus mainly on China’s massive market would be reluctant to decamp for faraway Singapore. Taipei and Tokyo are making overtures to lure businesses and hedge funds, but neither is as attractive an international English-speaking base as Hong Kong.

But it is the end of Hong Kong as we knew it. I was recently reminded how when I would leave after a lengthy reporting trip in China and cross the border into Hong Kong, I would almost literally feel a breath of fresh air. Unlike the mainland, reporting here was easy. People were willing to talk and express their views strongly. They gave you their names to be quoted. You didn’t have to hide your notebooks or constantly be looking over your shoulder if you pulled out a camera for a photo. Here I did not have to use multiple sim cards and disposable ‘burner phones’ to meet with sources.

That is all now changing. With the new law and the new national security infrastructure, Hong Kong now is becoming like every other mainland city under an authoritarian police state. Citizens scrubbing their social media accounts and scraping pro-democracy stickers off their shops is a sad but telling sign.

The Hong Kong we knew is dead. This is the new normal.