In June 2020, following months of pro-democracy protests and unrest, Beijing inserted the national security law directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The move gave police sweeping new powers, criminalising subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts.
While the government has repeatedly said that the legislation restored stability to the city, it prompted the US to impose sanctions on several Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials, and sparked criticism internationally for being vague, broad and targeted at dissent.
By mid-2022, almost 200 people had been arrested for allegedly endangering national security, police said. Put another way, one person has been arrested for endangering national security every 3.7 days.
National security arrests by month
In January 2021, officers from the National Security Department arrested 57 people – the highest monthly figure since the law was implemented. Fifty-five of them were democrats who took part in an opposition primary election the previous July.
Of those 55, 47 were charged, with 34 currently in custody awaiting trial.
National security arrests became more frequent in June and July, when the politically sensitive anniversaries of the Tiananmen crackdown and July 1 pro-democracy rallies traditionally occur.
In almost two years, there have been just three months when no one was arrested for endangering national security – October 2020, last October, and January.
National security vs sedition
There have been an increasing number of arrests under the recently resurrected colonial-era sedition law over the past two years. From April 2021, the number of arrests for sedition has outweighed those made for national security offences.
The sedition law outlaws treason, incitement to mutiny and disaffection, and other offences against the administration. While it carries a shorter jail term than violations of the national security law – up to two years compared to life in prison – it is broader.
Examples of sedition arrests:
- A property manager was charged over seditious posters that insulted and threatened security law judges. He got eight months behind bars.
- Two employees of a bubble tea shop were arrested after posting signs encouraging people to refuse Covid jabs. They received six and seven months in prison.
- Over 20 police were deployed to arrest a man for alleged sedition over a protest flag spotted in his window.
- Five members of a speech therapists’ union were charged with “conspiring to publish seditious publications” after publishing a series of pro-democracy kids’ books about sheep.
Most of those arrested for national security offences are not granted bail, with around 23 per cent given bail.
Last February, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that those accused under the national security law will not be granted bail unless there are “sufficient grounds for believing that they will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
For those who do get bail, conditions for national security-related offences are much stricter than for regular cases. Security law defendants are banned from media interviews, posting on social media, and from running in elections.
“Making the defendants socially dead” is how the girlfriend of one detained defendant described the tough bail rules.
Many of those accused of national security offences are prominent figures from Hong Kong’s once-vibrant civil society – some of them are reputed lawyers, journalists, former lawmakers, high-profile scholars and even a cardinal.
Those arrested under the security law face hand-picked judges, closed-door trials and, potentially, life in prison.
At least 108 of the 198 people arrested were political civil society figures.
Defunct news outlets
There have been a number of media industry workers arrested by the National Security Department – all of whom worked for prominent pro-democracy news outlets Apple Daily or Stand News. Both were forced to close when their founders, chief editors, and board members were detained for allegedly violating the national security law or sedition legislation.
Apple Daily and Stand News, as well as other defunct outlets, were once among Hong Kong’s most influential media – particularly on Instagram – with more followers than 13 local outlets put together.
Almost 60 civil organisations, including unions, newspapers, political parties and humanitarian funds, have disbanded since the security law came into force. Many activists who used to apply to hold political gatherings worked for such organisations.
Most are currently in jail or in detention.
During the 2019 protests and unrest, the man in charge of the city’s security was John Lee. On Friday, the ex-police officer will become Hong Kong’s next leader after a small circle of elites selected him in a one-horse race.
With the national security law having restored “stability” to the city, Lee has vowed to unify the city under the slogan “we and us.” But, after one of the last pro-democracy parties left in the city, the League of Social Democrats, announced on Tuesday that some of its volunteers had been summoned for meetings by the national security police, it seems as though political divides could be hard to bridge.
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