Hong Kong saw its first “patriots-only” legislative race in December following the implementation of the national security law, which recorded a historic-low voter turnout. And another pro-democracy media outlet folded following a national security police raid, as Tiananmen Massacre monuments were purged from universities. HKFP continues its monthly roundup of developments as the city heads into the new year.

Press freedom ‘in free fall’

The latest report from Reporters Without Borders’ on China, published in early December, said that press freedom in Hong Kong was in “free fall,” and that the Beijing-imposed national security law as “a crackdown on independent media” in the city.

Photo: GovHK.

The month had begun with media tycoon Jimmy Lai – currently behind bars – and his now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper winning the Golden Pen of Freedom award from the World Association of News Publishers.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang wrote a letter threatening the Wall Street Journal over an editorial it published about Hong Kong’s first “patriots-only” legislative race, saying that the article contained “factual inaccuracies” and “baseless assumptions.”

After Christmas, the city also saw another newsroom raided as over 200 national security police officers searched the offices of non-profit outlet Stand News and arrested six former directors and staff members, as well as a former journalist from the now-defunct Apple Daily, for allegedly publishing seditious material.

Police hauled out boxes from Stand News’ office on Wednesday. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Stand News, founded in December 2014 with a pro-democracy slant, announced that it was ceasing operations hours after the police raid and arrests, and all content, including its website and YouTube channel, were deleted that evening. Its two former chief editors were formally charged the next day and both were denied bail by a national security judge.

The seven-year-old newsroom became the second media outlet to be charged under the colonial-era anti-sedition law after Apple Daily folded in June.

Just one day before authorities raided Stand News, Lai and six former staff members of Next Digital and Apple Daily charged under the national security law, were told that they will face an additional charge under the anti-sedition legislation, which was last amended in the 1970s. The High Court also ordered that the parent company must be wound up.

Tiananmen Massacre monument purge

Three Hong Kong universities, including the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Lingnan University, tore down Tiananmen Massacre monuments from their campuses within a 48-hour period before Christmas.

The removals – carried out whilst students were on break – came just after the sentencing of eight pro-democracy figures, including former leaders of the now-defunct Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, over last year’s banned Tiananmen Massacre vigil.

A before-and-after shot of the scene. Photo: HKFP.

Lai, along with the former vice-chair of the Alliance Chow Hang-tung, and activist Gwyneth Ho, were convicted of participating or inciting others to take part in the banned rally. The trio, along with five other democrats who pleaded guilty, including former chair of the Alliance Lee Cheuk-yan, received jail sentences ranging from four months and two weeks to 14 months.

Simon Leung, a former standing committee member of the Alliance who was also jailed over the 2020 banned vigil, also pleaded guilty to refusing a national security police data request, and was handed a three-month jail prison term.

Court decisions

The month of December also saw the approval of bail applications from two defendants pending national security trials.

A 16-year-old boy charged with conspiracy to incite subversion was granted bail after close to three months of custody. However, the student faced a long list of bail conditions, including not sharing, commenting on, or “liking” social media posts or otherwise expressing any opinion related to politics and current affairs.

Wong Ji-yuet, who was the former spokesperson for the disbanded student activist group Demosisto and one of the 47 democrats accused of conspiring to commit subversion, was granted bail on winter solstice.

Court of Final Appeal. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Aside from bail decisions, the city’s top court also confirmed that the stricter standard for granting bail to national security suspects also applied to those charged under other laws, if the case involves acts endangering national security.

The confirmation came after the Court of Final Appeal rejected an application to challenge a lower court’s bail refusal to a speech therapist, who was accused of publishing seditious children’s books about sheep.

China hails election ‘success’

Following Hong Kong’s first “patriots-only” legislative race with a historic-low turnout and only one self-proclaimed non-pro-establishment candidate elected, China claimed credit for developing democracy in the city in a white paper published hours after polls closed.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang (second from left) and Chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission Barnabas Fung (second from right) pour ballots from a ballot box in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on December 20, 2021. Photo: GovHK.

The document also said the overhauled electoral system provided “advantageous conditions” for the ultimate goal of implementing universal suffrage, and that Hong Kong had no democracy under British colonial rule which ended in 1997. It also claimed colonial authorities had “implemented highly suppressive policies for a long period, closely controlling news publications, and clamping down on freedom of speech.”

Ahead of the race, the chairperson of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party, Lo Kin-hei of the Democratic Party, came under fierce attack from the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper. It accused him of blocking members from standing in Sunday’s “patriots only” election and urged party members to “clean its house.”

The city’s security chief Chris Tang also hit out at former lawmaker and self-exiled activist Nathan Law for accepting an invitation to speak at the Summit for Democracy in the US. Tang accused the 28-year-old of violating “the Elections Ordinance, and possibly even the national security law” for allegedly inciting voters to ignore the Legislative Council election.

Hong Kong Free Press

Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.