How to Watch for Freedom Disappearing in Hong Kong

The national security law is just the start of oppression.

Police clear a footpath as protesters gather in Hong Kong
Police clear a footpath as protesters gather in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong during a pro-democracy protest on June 12. Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Last month the Chinese government unexpectedly unveiled plans to authorize the the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to draft national security legislation that would be imposed on Hong Kong, short-circuiting the city’s own lawmaking process.

The forthcoming legislation is expected to criminalize “separatism,” “subversion of state power,” “terrorist activities,” and foreign interference—the very restraints that Hong Kongers have been protesting against for a year. It would also allow mainland China’s domestic security services to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time. This could facilitate increased surveillance, intimidation, and possibly even rendition of Beijing’s critics in a city that has long enjoyed significantly greater freedom of expression and civil liberties than the rest of China.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Beijing officials have tried to reassure Hong Kongers that the law will target “an extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts” and that the “basic rights and freedoms of the overwhelming majority of citizens will be protected.” However, experts on China’s legal system such as Jerome Cohen of New York University have predicted an increase in mass arrests. The territory’s residents appear to agree: Inquiries on emigration options for Hong Kongers have spiked, and greater self-censorship has already begun to take hold.

The following are six possible effects to watch for after the law’s implementation, which will probably come before the end of the summer. If some or all of these scenarios actually unfold, then Hong Kongers’ fears will have been justified.

  1. Jailed journalists: Since mass protests over a proposed extradition bill broke out last summer, violence against journalists has increased in Hong Kong, occasional arrests have occurred, and Jimmy Lai, a media owner who is critical of Beijing, has been prosecuted for participating in demonstrations. Still, so far no journalists have been convicted for their work or appeared on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ global tally of jailed reporters, which China leads with 48 journalists behind bars. Watch for any signs that mainland-style imprisonment of journalists—and the egregiously unfair trials that go with it—is being introduced to Hong Kong.
  2. Penalties for critical news outlets: The public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), founded in 1928, is editorially independent according to its charter and is a widely respected source of news and diverse viewpoints in the territory. But its autonomy is already being threatened. In late May, days before the security legislation was announced, RTHK canceled the popular satirical and current-events show Headliner under suspected direct or indirect pressure from the government. The station is currently undergoing an unprecedented review of its management and activities.On June 10, a government-appointed advisor urged the network to report on the national security legislation “positively” to enable citizens to form a “correct understanding” of it. Watch for whether RTHK is either slowly or abruptly transformed into a government mouthpiece, and whether the new legislation enables fines or suspensions of privately owned media outlets for their coverage of sensitive topics such as Hong Kong’s autonomy, calls for universal suffrage, the ongoing protests, or the national security law itself.
  3. Retroactive charges: As news of the forthcoming legislation broke, many Hong Kongers moved to purchase virtual private networks in order to circumvent any future website blocking and protect the privacy of their digital communications. Others began closing social media accounts on services such as Telegram, which has been used to organize protests, because they feared their posts could be used to charge them with separatism or subversion under the new law. Watch for whether anyone is charged for speech or actions that predated the legislation’s enactment. Such retroactive application would signal a dangerous violation of the rule of law in Hong Kong.
  4. Declining digital freedom: In addition to the prospect of criminal prosecutions for legitimate and peaceful online speech, there are a number of ways in which the national security law could be used to curtail internet freedom. Charles Mok, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council who represents the technology sector, told Freedom House that under the new national security law, “internet service providers, telecommunication operators, those who manage social networks and online platforms, and potentially those operating the numerous data centers in Hong Kong” could face greater liability for user content, meaning they would be obliged to censor their platforms. They may also be required to hand over user data to authorities.Indeed, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has expressed concern about the law’s effects on his company’s ability to provide services in Hong Kong, including through its WhatsApp encrypted messaging application. Mok noted that after the nearby semiautonomous territory of Macao introduced its own national security law in 2009, a separate cybersecurity law followed, imposing real-name registration for SIM cards and other mainland-style controls. Watch for any internet-related laws or implementing regulations addressing topics like data localization, intermediary liability, real-name registration, or designation of “fake news” that may follow in the wake of the new national security law.
  5. Restrictions on artistic and academic expression: Hong Kong is home to a thriving and politically outspoken arts community. Statues depicting heroic protesters and murals mocking Carrie Lam and Chinese President Xi Jinping regularly pop up on buildings, in cafes, and at other venues. Such forms of expression are suppressed on the mainland, and Hong Kong artists are now wondering whether their work will be prosecuted as “separatism” or “subversion.” More than 1,500 members of the city’s arts scene signed a petition to one of Hong Kong’s representatives in the National People’s Congress that eloquently voiced these fears. Even prior to the law, some cultural venues have been reluctant to display anti-government art for fear of negative economic repercussions from China. Academic freedom in Hong Kong has already deteriorated somewhat in recent years, and Hong Kong scholars have also raised concerns that Beijing will use the new law to further rein in the city’s universities and undermine their strong international reputation. Mainland academics such as Ilham Tohti have received heavy prison sentences and other penalties for work that is deemed contrary to Beijing’s political priorities.
  6. Crackdowns on religious communities: Various religious groups that face persecution in China enjoy comparative freedom in Hong Kong. Many residents—including protesters—are practicing Protestant Christians or Roman Catholics. The territory is also home to a modest number of locals who practice Falun Gong, the spiritual discipline that is banned in China but legally registered in Hong Kong and practiced openly. All have engaged in activities that could fall afoul of the national security legislation: Some churches offered refuge to protesters fleeing police and tear gas, several Catholic churches held mass and candlelight vigils commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and Falun Gong activists regularly set up booths and marches to raise awareness of Chinese government rights abuses and convince visiting Chinese to symbolically renounce their association with the Communist Party and affiliated youth organizations. All have voiced fears that the new law will bring restrictions on worship or even the kind of arbitrary detention and torture their co-religionists endure in China. In one telling case, pastor Wang Yi of Sichuan province was sentenced in late 2019 to nine years in prison on charges of inciting subversion after he publicly condemned forced abortions and the 1989 massacre. Watch for any indications that the national security law is being deployed to restrict not only upon the rights of Hong Kong’s religious believers to practice their faith, but also to infringe upon their rights to free expression, assembly, association, and political participation.

It is a troubling sign of Beijing’s intentions that the central government’s own allies in Hong Kong were apparently not told about the legislative plan until 48 hours before it was announced. News reports have described remarks from pro-establishment politicians saying they were “caught off guard,” including those who were attending the National People’s Congress session as the territory’s representatives. If the Communist Party leadership does not trust Hong Kong officials even this much, it seems highly unlikely that it would defer to local practices and institutions on the enforcement of its security law.

Legislation in mainland China is often vaguely worded to give authorities maximum discretion. What is tolerated or even officially sanctioned today may be banned as “sedition” or “subversion” tomorrow, without any change in the law. This is why it is so crucial to carefully monitor the new national security measure’s implementation, and to know how far down the slippery slope of vague criminal offenses and arbitrary law enforcement Hong Kong‘s political system will fall.

This piece was originally published in Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin. 

Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.

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