Whilst local authorities promised the security law would only affect a small minority of people, few corners of the city’s social and political landscape have remained untouched by the multi-billion dollar clampdown. From libraries to the legislature, from campuses to the courts – swathes of the city’s public and private spheres have faced a major upheaval in what the government describes as an effort to ensure peace and prosperity after the 2019 protests and unrest.
In two parts, HKFP explores the many ways that the Beijing-drafted legislation – which criminalised secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism – has reshaped the city since it took effect at 11pm on June 30, 2020.
Vanishing public votes amid electoral overhauls
Soon after the national security law took effect, Hong Kong announced that the 2020 Legislative Council (LegCo) election – originally scheduled for September – would be delayed “to protect public safety and public health” amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
But before the postponed poll was held, Beijing took what it called “necessary steps to improve the electoral system” and remove “loopholes and deficiencies” in the existing system which had been revealed by “rioting and turbulence… in the Hong Kong society.”
In March 2021, China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress, approved an overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure that the city was governed by “patriots.”
Under the “reforms,” the number of directly elected seats to the legislature was slashed from 35 to 20, while the total number of seats rose from 70 to 90. A vetting mechanism – which saw candidates subject to checks by the police National Security Department, the city’s national security committee and a separate reviewing committee – was also introduced to ensure that only “patriots” could be in the running to lead the city.
The existing Election Committee – an already powerful panel tasked with selecting the city’s leader – was expanded and further empowered to choose 40 of the legislature’s 90 seats, and its composition was altered so it became stacked with government appointees and organisations with mainland Chinese ties.
The changes effectively excluded what remained of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp – those who had not been detained under the security law – from the ballot when the city headed to the polls on December 19, 2021. Only one self-styled non-establishment candidate secured a seat and voter turnout was just 30.2 per cent, the lowest in the history of LegCo elections.
The overhaul also encompassed the chief executive selection process, raising the threshold for nomination to 188 votes from Election Committee members, and requiring at least 751 votes to win. To run, candidates must also receive at least 15 votes from each of the committee’s five sectors, including the recently added sector comprising members of “national organisations.”
In the end, there was only one candidate to become the city’s next leader, with former security minister and chief secretary John Lee selected by 1,416 members of the Election Committee in May 2022.
Local-level administration was also identified as an area in need of “improvement,” with Lee announcing in May proposed changes to how District Councils were appointed. Although historically dominated by establishment players, the pan-democratic camp swept 17 of 18 local councils in the 2019 elections amid the anti-extradition bill unrest that year.
Pending legislative approval, the number of democratically elected seats to the local bodies in the next election slated for sometime this year will be reduced from 452 to 88, 179 seats will be appointed by the chief executive, and the remaining 176 will be appointed by elections within three government-appointed committees.
“The black riots and Hong Kong version of a colour revolution in 2019 were a warning for Hong Kong,” Lee claimed when announcing the proposal. Again, the changes were described as necessary to plug “loopholes in the system to prevent the District Councils from again becoming a platform for [advocating] black riots, Hong Kong independence and mutual destruction. We must prevent those who opposed China and stirred up chaos in Hong Kong from hijacking, manipulating, paralysing the District Councils.”
In the immediate aftermath of the security law, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement seemed unperturbed. Pan-democrats held unofficial primaries in July 2020 to identify candidates for the upcoming LegCo election that would, it was hoped, help the camp seize a controlling majority in the legislature in the wake of the District Council triumph.
However, more than 50 were arrested during pre-dawn raids the following January over their involvement in those polls and 47 were charged with conspiring to commit subversion under the security law – for which they could face life in prison. Most have been held behind bars since being denied bail in early March 2021 as the trial against the 16 who pleaded not guilty continues.
Key figures who led the city’s annual candlelight vigils for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown have been charged with inciting subversion under the security law and remain on remand while awaiting a trial date, while others have been convicted of unauthorised assembly related to the banned 2020 commemoration.
Before mass arrests wiped out active members of the opposition camp, pro-democracy lawmakers had resigned en masse from LegCo in November 2020 after four were ousted from the legislature over their “unpatriotic” stance. Former legislator Claudia Mo – who is among the 47 facing a subversion charge – said at the time it was “the death-knell of Hong Kong’s democracy fight.”
A number of prominent democrats have been among a wave of Hongkongers opting to emigrate, including former lawmakers Ted Hui, who left while on bail and has been convicted and sentenced in absentia to three-and-a-half years in jail, and Fernando Cheung, who departed after completing a three-week prison term for contempt.
In May, the pro-democracy Civic Party voted to dissolve itself after it could not find anyone to fill vacant executive committee posts. Chairperson Alan Leong – who in 2007 had become the first democratic candidate to succeed in joining the chief executive selection process – also cited the party’s financial constraints.
Having few avenues left open for fundraising, the League of Social Democrats (LSD), one of the last active remaining pro-democracy parties, told HKFP last year it was becoming harder to survive. In March, LSD chairperson Chan Po-ying was fined for collecting money in public without a permit. Three months later, the group revealed that HSBC had closed the accounts it used for collecting donations, as well as the personal accounts of four members.
Shrinking civil society
Around 60 civil society groups – including unions, churches, student bodies, and political parties – have disbanded in the wake of the national security law. The trend accelerated in the second half of 2021, when bastions of the decades-long pro-democracy movement disappeared within months.
Many said they were unable to continue given the political climate.
Among the best-known were the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organised annual vigils in Victoria Park to remember the hundreds, perhaps thousands, who died when the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Members voted to disband in September 2021 after its leaders were arrested and the group’s assets frozen.
Pro-democracy labour and political group the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions also disbanded in September 2021, citing threats against its members. The decision came amid rumours propagated by Chinese-backed media that it would be the next target of a national security probe.
Last September, the government announced that any trade union applying for registration would have to declare that it would not engage in acts that endangered national security. The requirement was introduced just days after five members of the defunct General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were each sentenced to 19 months in jail for publishing a series of “seditious” children’s books.
The status of civil society in Hong Kong has been the subject of discussion at the United Nations, with Michael Windfuhr, rapporteur for China on the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, asking how the city could ensure the security law would not be used as a “pretext to suppress civil society and severely undermine the… fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights.”
In response, Cheung Hoi-shan, assistant commissioner of the Labour Department, said Hong Kong’s trade union rights were “strong and intact as ever.”
National security newsroom raids
Hong Kong’s media landscape has changed irrevocably since the imposition of the national security law. Established outlet Apple Daily – a popular tabloid known for reporting on political scandals as well as crime and celebrity news, and later for its pro-democracy stance during the 2019 protests – printed its last edition on June 24, 2021, and ceased operations after its newsroom was raided by police for a second time and its assets were frozen.
The newspaper’s founder Jimmy Lai has been detained since December 2020 and was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison last December for fraud charges linked to a violation of the lease of Apple Daily’s headquarters. He also faces two counts of conspiring to commit foreign collusion under the national security law and one count of sedition, with proceedings adjourned until September.
Six former Apple Daily employees – including its CEO, top editors and publisher – pleaded guilty last November to conspiring to collude with foreign agents, with some expected to testify against Lai.
Independent online media outlet Stand News was also forced to close after hundreds of national security police officers raided its newsroom in December 2021 and several senior staff members were arrested on suspicion of breaching the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance by conspiring to publish seditious publications.
Former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen, former acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam, and the outlet’s parent company have been accused of conspiring to publish seditious publications.
During the trial, which began last October and was expected to last 20 days but only wrapped on June 28, the prosecution presented 17 articles and op-eds as evidence that Stand News published “seditious materials,” among them profiles of self-exiled activists, commentaries by veteran journalists and a news report about activist Chow Hang-tung being awarded a human rights prize.
The 17 allegedly seditious Stand News articles – click to view
- Profile of Gwyneth Ho, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on July 7, 2020.
- Profile of Owen Chow, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on July 27, 2020.
- Profile of Fergus Leung, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on August 12, 2020.
- Commentary by Chan Pui-man, Apple Daily’s former associate publisher, criticising speech crimes, published on September 12, 2020.
- Commentary by Nathan Law, a former lawmaker now in self-exile, on “how to resist” under the national security law, published on September 20, 2020.
- Profile of Law on his “battlefront” of calling for sanctions on the Hong Kong government in the UK, published on December 9, 2020.
- Commentary by Law on “resilience in a chaotic world,” published on December 13, 2020.
- Feature interview with Ted Hui, a former lawmaker in self-exile, after he fled Hong Kong with his family, published on December 14, 2020.
- Feature interview with Baggio Leung, a former lawmaker in self-exile, as he called for sanctions on Hong Kong and a “lifeboat scheme for Hongkongers,” published on December 15, 2020.
- Commentary by Sunny Cheung, an activist in self-exile, responding to being wanted by the Hong Kong government, published on December 28, 2020.
- Commentary by Allan Au, a veteran journalist, on “new words in 2020,” which included “national security,” “disqualified” and “in exile,” published on December 29, 2020.
- Commentary by Au calling a national security trial a show, published on February 3, 2021.
- Commentary by Law paralleling the mass arrests of candidates in the democrats’ primaries to mass arrests during Taiwan’s white terror period, published on March 2, 2021.
- Commentary by Au accusing the authorities of “lawfare” in usage of the sedition law, published on June 1, 2021.
- Commentary by Au describing Hong Kong as a disaster scene after the implementation of national security law, published on June 22, 2021.
- Feature about CUHK graduates’ march on campus to mourn the second anniversary of the police-student clash in 2019, published on November 11, 2021.
- Report on Chow Hang-tung’s response to being honoured with the Prominent Chinese Democracy Activist award, published on December 5, 2021.
Another independent outlet, Citizen News, announced its closure in the days after Stand News’ demise, citing “the drastic changes in society and the worsening of the media environment.” A year later, all of its online content was removed as the company wound up.
In what was hailed as a rare victory for press freedom, journalist Bao Choy had her conviction for making false statements linked to a documentary she made on a mob attack in Yuen Long in 2019 overturned by the city’s top court in June. However, in an interview with HKFP she warned that the “damage [to the media industry] has already been done.”
Courting judicial firsts
The promulgation of the national security law has led to a number of firsts for Hong Kong’s judicial system.
In a departure from common law traditions in place since 1845, according to which most criminal trials heard by the Court of First Instance are tried by a jury, the security law states that a jury can be excluded if there is a need to protect state secrets or the safety of jurors and their families, or if “foreign forces” are involved.
Under such circumstances, judges handpicked by the government to handle national security cases will oversee proceedings. To date, no national security trial in Hong Kong has been heard by a jury. Tong Ying-kit, the first person convicted under the security law, was sentenced to nine years in jail after losing a legal challenge against his non-jury trial.
Bail applications in national security cases must also go through a stricter assessment. Judges consider not only the defendant’s risk of absconding or obstructing justice, but also whether there are sufficient grounds for believing they “will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
As a result, many defendants have been denied bail pending trial. In the case of the 47 democrats, some were detained for almost two years before proceedings against those who pleaded not guilty began in February. They remain in custody pending the end of the trial and sentencing.
The sedition law has been revived after lying dormant for more than half a century. Although not part of the security law it is increasingly used against supposed threats to national security, with arrests often made by the police National Security Department.
Like national security cases, those involving sedition are handled by handpicked judges, and the stricter standards for granting bail also apply.
Evolution of education system
At kindergartens and primary and secondary schools across the city, national security education has been inserted into the curriculum. The aim is to “deepen students’ understanding of the country’s development and national security, enhance students’ sense of national identity, nurture students as good law-abiding citizens, and create a peaceful and orderly school environment and atmosphere,” according to the Education Bureau.
During National Security Education Day on April 15, the authorities seek to make the topic fun, which this year meant giant board games and a carnival.
According to local media, kindergartens in 2021 received reference books on the security legislation so youngsters can begin their education on the legislation early, an education that continues throughout “key learning stages.” Since the 2022-23 school year, all schools must hold weekly flag-raising ceremonies at which China’s national anthem is sung, with penalties for those who “disrespect” the raising of the flag.
Even university students are not exempt, with undergraduates required to pass an introductory course on the Beijing-imposed law to graduate. Students at the University of Hong Kong told HKFP that while they did not feel like they were being brainwashed by the course, it failed to clarify where the “red lines” were drawn.
Censorship and creative crackdown
Hong Kong’s public library system made headlines at home and around the world in May, when local media reported that hundreds of books had been quietly removed from their collections since the onset of the security law.
Responding to lawmakers’ questions on the topic, Lee said the city would not recommend books with “bad ideologies,” after earlier saying that the titles removed from libraries were still available in stores.
It was not the first time public libraries had garnered unwanted attention, with HKFP reporting in November 2021 that titles about the Tiananmen crackdown had been removed. However, the scope of disappearances has since widened. While most listed in recent local media reports were political titles, some were more innocuous, including romantic essays and travel writing penned by pro-democracy figures.
Also among those whose work was banished was political cartoonist Wong Kei-kwan, better known as Zunzi. After publishing his satirical takes on current affairs in Ming Pao for 40 years, the newspaper axed his cartoon strip in May following criticism from government officials.
Zunzi was one of the last remaining political cartoonists in the city. Many left since the security law was implemented, citing shrinking freedom of expression.
Filmmakers, too, have become subject to more stringent censorship, with films needing approval from the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA) to be screened in the city.
Since amendments to the city’s Film Censorship Ordinance were passed in October 2021, allowing the government to ban films deemed contrary to national security, several independent directors have been asked to remove scenes, while showings have been cancelled after movies failed to obtain approval from OFNAA.
Four filmmakers spoke to HKFP last year about navigating the new era of censorship, and why some of them had opted to enjoy freedom of expression overseas rather than operate within unclear red lines in the city.
After several mix-ups at international sporting events, in which the 2019 protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong was played instead of China’s national anthem March of the Volunteers, Hong Kong authorities appealed to tech giant Google to help fix search results for “Hong Kong national anthem.”
And the government has since sought a legal injunction to ban unlawful acts relating to the protest song, the lyrics of which contain the phrase “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” In July 2021, the courts ruled the slogan to be secessionist during the city’s first national security trial.
The injunction hearing was adjourned until July 21 to give objectors time to prepare their challenges, with the Hong Kong Journalists Association announcing that it intended to seek an exemption for media reporting.