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One year on, here’s how China’s national security law has changed Hong Kong

The government has used the law to crack down on freedoms of protest, speech and academic research, using the judiciary to maintain social control.

Pedestrians in Hong Kong take selfies with the flags of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on Wednesday ahead of the anniversary of the territory’s return to China. (Lam Yik/Bloomberg News)
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In the past month, under mounting government pressure, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily closed — eliminating the city’s most influential pro-democracy newspaper. China banned two annual democratic traditions — the June 4 vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre and the July 1 march commemorating Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China — on public health grounds, although most coronavirus restrictions have been lifted. Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to say whether such protests would be categorically banned by the national security law (NSL) passed a year ago. But since the law has been used as a pretext to silence critics of the government’s authority, activists worry that any mass protests would trigger arrests and punishment under the NSL, since the protests, by their nature, are criticisms.

And the NSL has been wielded heavily. Hong Kong’s government has arrested peaceful protesters, prominent academics and journalists, curtailing freedoms of protest, speech and academic research. In the year since the national security law’s passage, Beijing has systematically erased the city’s judicial independence, controlled its elections and constructed new security institutions to penetrate and monitor Hong Kong society.

The national security law uses the judicial system to maintain social control

Hong Kong’s judiciary has been hit hard by the NSL’s mandates. According to the NSL, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) is the final authority on the interpretation of all laws. Through that committee, Beijing issues its interpretations of which activities fall under the NSL’s ban on activities that threaten national security by advocating “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” or “collusion with foreign forces.” The standing committee has ruled that such threats include decorating a cellphone with a sticker featuring a protest slogan, organizing or participating in the unofficial pro-democracy primary, and penning editorials challenging Hong Kong and Beijing authorities.

Since July 2020, 128 people have been arrested for alleged violations of the NSL, and 65 of them have been charged. These actions include such high-profile cases as that of the media mogul Jimmy Lai, owner of Apple Daily, and 47 pro-democracy activists involved in last year’s primary. Anyone accused of NSL offenses is investigated by the National Security Department, a special unit within the Hong Kong police, in a separate legal process in which Hong Kong’s chief executive and secretary of justice handpick the prosecutors and judges. The process does not offer such procedural protections as the possibility of bail, a public trial and a jury trial, which were normally available under Hong Kong’s previous legal system. Many have been detained while awaiting trial, with the longest detention lasting more than eight months.

The first NSL trial kicked off on June 23. The defendant was charged with inciting secession and terrorism for flying a flag with the now-illegal slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” and for allegedly driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers. This trial will proceed without a jury, a departure from Hong Kong’s legal tradition.

Judicial independence also is threatened in the lower courts. Judges have accepted inconsistent police testimonies and appeared prejudiced against protesters. On many occasions, the Department of Justice has appealed when defendants were acquitted or received what the department perceived as lenient sentences for protesting.

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Electoral reform bill gives Beijing control over the legislative and executive branches

Beijing also pushed an electoral reform bill through Hong Kong’s legislature, giving Beijing effective control over Hong Kong’s legislative and executive branches. Under the new arrangement, an Election Committee, with members appointed by Chinese authorities or elected by pro-Beijing corporations, vets potential candidates to weed out anyone it deems “unpatriotic.” The bill also charges Hong Kong’s National Security Department with performing background checks to ensure candidates are loyal to Beijing. These barriers make any genuine pro-democracy opposition next to impossible.

The law ensures that Beijing’s interests are secured at all stages of the electoral process. Under the reform, the number of seats in the Legislative Council increased from 70 to 90, with 40 elected by the largely pro-Beijing Election Committee, 30 by the functional constituencies that comprise only members of various business sectors, and only 20 elected directly by Hong Kong voters. That reduced the proportion of seats open for direct election from 50 percent to 22 percent.

Hong Kong’s next legislative election is scheduled for Dec. 19. Under the new electoral framework and with many pro-democracy parties struggling to continue operating, the election is likely to be little more than window dressing, a tool by which Beijing can co-opt elites and manage coalitions.

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The rise of the police state

To address mass unrest like the 2019 protests, the Chinese government has built inclusive and cohesive security institutions to penetrate, monitor and control society. In Hong Kong, the police have gained sweeping new powers to uphold the NSL. These include conducting raids without warrants “under exceptional circumstances,” freezing and confiscating assets of those suspected of national security offenses, secretly monitoring suspects, ordering the takedown of online material that authorities consider a threat to national security, and barring people under investigation from leaving Hong Kong.

The expansion of power is accompanied by an increased budget for the police. Hong Kong added an item to its 2021-2022 budget: “safeguarding national security,” with a price tag of $1 billion (HK$8 billion). It has given few details on how it will be spent. This new spending comes on top of a $3.3 billion budget for policing, an 8 percent increase over the 2020-2021 budget. In a recent cabinet reshuffling, Lam named Secretary for Security John Lee as the chief secretary, the No. 2 job in the government, and named police chief Chris Tang to replace Lee as the head of the Security Bureau. Both were central figures in the crackdown on opposition protests, signaling that police will play a larger role in controlling the city.

Want to know more? Check out TMC's Classroom Topic Guide on China, listing scores of articles under a variety of topics.

Erosion of Hong Kong’s political foundation

The NSL’s grip extends beyond Hong Kong’s key institutions. The government also has used the law to reshape the city’s civil service, education sector, and film and art industries. An upcoming “fake news” bill will further muzzle dissent and restrict free speech. With autocratic institutions in place, Beijing is incrementally nudging Hong Kong toward full compliance with China’s authoritarian governance.

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Maggie Shum (@MaggieShum3), research and program associate at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, is a native of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on contentious politics, transnational ties, and diaspora political behavior.