The Beijing-imposed national security law is reshaping Hong Kong’s political landscape as authorities clamp down on acts deemed to violate its broad provisions.

This month, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung took to the international stage to praise the controversial legislation for restoring “stability” to Hong Kong, despite accusations from activists and foreign officials of a tightening noose on free expression.

National security law explainer
A man walks past a government public notice banner for the National Security Law in Hong Kong on July 15, 2020. File photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

The sweeping but vaguely-worded legislation criminalises subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism, which is broadly defined to include interruptions to transport and damage to infrastructure. Having previously examined changes to the city in July and August, HKFP summarises developments in September.

China detains 12 Hongkongers

Chinese authorities detained 12 Hong Kong activists for allegedly crossing the border illegally, in a case that has prompted a public backlash and concern from US officials.

The group – dubbed the “Hong Kong 12” – were intercepted by Guangdong marine police while attempting to flee from Sai Kung to Kaohsiung in Taiwan on a speedboat at the end of last month. Seven of those on board were involved in criminal cases, according to local authorities, including pro-democracy activist Andy Li, who was arrested on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces – an offence under the security law.

Relatives have said that family-appointed lawyers had been repeatedly denied access to their clients, while mainland authorities said the detainees had chosen new lawyers.

New law breaches int’l obligations – UN experts

UN special rapporteurs on human rights warned the security law would pose a serious risk to Hong Kong’s freedoms and violates international legal obligations, in a letter made public on September 4: “[The law may] impinge impermissibly on the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and of peaceful assembly.”

police mask coronavirus covid masks
File photo: May James/HKFP.

The advisers urged that a fully independent body be appointed to review whether the legislation complies with Beijing’s international human rights obligations.

Activist arrested for ‘seditious words’

Hong Kong police from the national security squad arrested a prominent pro-democracy activist on September 6 for “uttering seditious words,” but not under the new security legislation.

Top brass said officers initially suspected Tam Tak-chi – an ex-radio presenter known as “Fast Beat” – of committing “incitement to secession” under Article 21 of the new law, hours after it came into force, but decided that Section 10 of the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance would be more suitable. Tam, the vice-president of political party People Power, was arrested at his home in Tai Po.

School to teach security law

St. Paul’s Convent School in Causeway Bay – an elite secondary school – plans to set aside four sessions of its ethics course to discuss the security law, according to an internal class timetable leaked on September 11.

St. Paul’s Convent School in Causeway Bay. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Previously, school authorities had asked students to throw away flyers about last year’s large-scale unrest.

Top foreign judge resigns

An Australian judge resigned from a local top court in early September, citing unspecified reasons related to the security legislation. Justice James Spigelman – who has served as an overseas non-permanent judge in Hong Kong since 2013 – told Australian media his decision to step down from the Court of Final Appeal was “related to the content of the national security legislation,” but did not explain further.

US warns citizens in Hong Kong

Washington on September 15 issued an alert – placed at the second-highest level – advising US citizens to reconsider travel to Hong Kong. It cited the threat of arbitrary law enforcement following the enactment of security legislation, saying that Americans now face the same risks of arbitrary arrest and detention in the city as in mainland China.

“Since the imposition of national security legislation on July 1, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] unilaterally and arbitrarily exercises police and security power in Hong Kong,” it read. “The new legislation also covers offences committed by non-Hong Kong residents or organisations outside of Hong Kong, which could subject US citizens who have been publicly critical of the PRC to a heightened risk of arrest, detention, expulsion, or prosecution.”

Activist confirms departure

Another prominent pro-democracy activist has left Hong Kong owing to security concerns. Sunny Cheung, 24, was widely speculated to have fled the city following a report from the state-affiliated Wen Wei Po but he did not publicly confirm the news until September 15, when he failed to appear in court. “I was being followed more frequently, my partner and family were incessantly harassed. I felt it was escalating and [so], as many had advised, I left Hong Kong unwillingly in August due to security concerns.”

sunny cheung
Sunny Cheung. Photo: Sunny Cheung, via Facebook.

He followed other campaigners to have left, including former lawmaker Nathan Law, the ex-chairman of the now-disbanded political group Demosisto.

Cheung is a former spokesperson for the Hong Kong Higher Institutions International Affairs Delegation and spoke at a US Congressional Hearing last September to lobby for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. He resigned from his role as a spokesperson for Network DIPLO and disbanded the lobbying group before the enactment of the security law.

Pair investigated over ‘inciting secession’

The Hong Kong police’s national security unit has taken over an investigation into a mother and son arrested on suspicion of selling weapons on social media, saying the pair may have “incited secession.” Officers raided their home in Fanling on September 24, where they found a pepper ball gun, an expandable baton, three airguns, a bullet-proof vest, two knifes and 15 respirators. The mother was not charged and was released on police bail but the son remains in custody.

Press freedom concerns

Hong Kong police announced a controversial decision last Tuesday to redefine “media representatives” as government-registered and “internationally recognised” agencies, newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations. Press cards issued by local journalist groups would no longer be accepted as valid accreditation.

The force said the proposed change to the Police General Orders would help facilitate frontline policing and reporting. It would also help identify members of the press and bar “self-proclaimed” journalists from protest sites. Chief Executive Carrie Lam gave her backing to the new rules, which mostly affect freelancers and student journalists.

Support HKFP  |  Policies & Ethics  |  Error/typo?  |  Contact Us  |  Newsletter  | Transparency & Annual Report | Apps

legal precedents hong kong
security law transformed hong kong
contact hkfp

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.