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. 

National security law explainer
Illustration: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Over the past years, we have seen the effectiveness of the National Security Law – it does not only deal with the ‘black riots’ that started in 2019, but also curbs the chaos in Hong Kong

CHIEF EXEC. CARRIE LAM on August 17, 2021.

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.

YouTube video

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.

Roy Tam 47 democrats
Roy Tam raises his thumb up as he is being transferred in to a prison van on March 3, 2021. Photo: Studio Incendo.

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:

Bail application

Most of those arrested for national security offences are not granted bail, with around 23 per cent given bail.

National security is a serious offence. Have you heard that any suspected murderer, or rapist, or bank robber, being given bail?

Senior Counsel ronny tong on june 20, 2022

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.

47 democrats Kalvin Ho
One of the 47 democrats Kalvin Ho. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“Making the defendants socially dead” is how the girlfriend of one detained defendant described the tough bail rules.

Civil society

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.

Cardinal Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen arriving at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on May 24, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

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.

Stand News acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam was arrested by national security police on Wednesday.
Stand News acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam was arrested by national security police on Wednesday. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

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.

I think for those organisations and people who have been recklessly touching the red line in the past, closing or disbanding would be their only option

Chief Exec. CARRIE LAM on August 17, 2021.

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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Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.