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1 July 2020

“Hong Kong is gone”: How Beijing’s new security law is already changing lives

For many young Hong Kongers, China’s tightening grip is forcing the question: stay or go?  

By Jessie Lau

It’s a beautiful evening in London, and the light from the window casts a gorgeous glow over the foot of my bed. The air, too, is cool and crisp – but I barely feel it. I’ve been lying under the covers for most of the day, arms wrapped around my knees, eyes swollen from crying.

Every so often, my phone buzzes with a news notification from Twitter or Telegram. “The end of Hong Kong,” one reads. “It’s an official death sentence,” says another. I know I should ignore them, but I scan each one anyway, as if paying penance for being away from home in a foreign country, half the world away. The only messages I can bear to respond to are those from another Hong Konger in London, similarly shaken by the turn of events. We cling to one another in this virtual space, trying to make sense of our shock.

This was the day after Beijing announced plans to impose a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong that will grant China’s state security agents broad powers to operate in the city, potentially paving the way for political crackdowns. Now, the legislation has officially been passed and came into effect on 30 June, the day before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China (1 July), on which a pro-democracy march is held each year.

The new law criminalises separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces. Beijing will set up a national security office in the city to supervise and enforce the law, and offenders can face up to life imprisonment. While Chinese officials have stated that the law will only be used to punish a small number who endanger national security, it is being widely viewed by activists and pro-democracy residents as the most serious threat to the city’s relative freedoms since the 1997 handover.

The legislation comes after more than a year of massive pro-democracy protests that have torn apart the city and challenged Chinese rule. The unrest began last summer, when a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China plunged the city into chaos. The campaign has since blossomed into a larger pro-democracy, anti-police and anti-authoritarian movement that has resulted in escalating violence.

Last year, protesters stormed the legislative council on 1 July, the handover anniversary. In the months that followed, thugs targeting demonstrators assaulted travellers in a local train station, and the airport was brought to a standstill by protesters. In November, police shot a 21-year-old protester, a man arguing with demonstrators was set on fire, a bystander died after being hit on the head by a brick in a clash between government supporters and protesters, and universities were turned into battlegrounds in a 12-day siege. Thousands have been injured or arrested – including more than 1,707 children and 5,640 people between 18 and 30 years old – and hundreds have been charged with rioting, which carries a sentence of up to ten years.

With the passing of the national security law, many pro-democracy Hong Kongers previously seeking to weather the unrest are now having to confront the reality that the city may no longer be safe for them. As I write, journalists are telling me they’re concerned about certain bylines on stories they’ve written, activists are anonymising the member pages of their organisations, friends are asking me for advice on applying to overseas programmes, and many are purchasing VPNs in preparation for the potential upping of surveillance. Several activists including Joshua Wong, one of the most recognised faces in the pro-democracy movement, have disbanded their political parties or moved their operations overseas. Today, a man was arrested during protests after he unfurled a Hong Kong independence flag. Those who have built their lives in Hong Kong are asking themselves: should I stay, or should I go?

The city’s brain drain has been happening for a while now. In a September poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, more than 40 per cent of respondents said they would emigrate if they had the chance. An earlier survey showed that half of those aged 18-30 wish to leave the city. In the latter half of last year, at the peak of the protests, applications for police certificates required for migration grew by nearly 80 per cent to almost 21,000, the Washington Post reports. Following the national security law announcement in May, there was a spike in Chinese Google searches for “immigration,” “VPN” and other related terms.

In response to Beijing’s move, the British government announced that Hong Kongers with the British National Overseas (BNO) passport will be allowed to live in the UK for 12 months, which could create a pathway to citizenship. The BNO, offered to residents before 1997, grants the right to consular assistance but not the right to live or work. Boris Johnson has said he would offer these rights to any of the estimated 3 million Hong Kongers eligible for the passport. Migration consultants have since been flooded with emigration enquiries.

There have also been reports of Hong Kongers seeking asylum in the UK, the United States, Canada, Germany and other countries. Former UK consulate worker Simon Cheng, a BNO status holder who was detained for 15 days in mainland China by authorities, was recently granted asylum by the British government. “The UK government recognised the whole case has been politically motivated. I believe the whole system is fair,” Cheng said in a digital press conference. “I’m very grateful and pleased to see this result. But I’m worried about others and my family.”

[See also: Where now for the UK and China]

Recently, I spoke to Alice (not her real name), a 22-year-old with British citizenship who recently started her first job at home in Hong Kong, but is already looking to leave. When I asked her why, she said it was because she felt unsafe after participating in the 2019 protests and witnessing the government’s subsequent crackdowns. She returned to Hong Kong last summer after studying abroad, hoping that things would take a turn for the better. Instead, she watched the city burn around her.

With a wistful tone, she told me that her parents took her to her first protest when she was four years old. Submerged in a sea of colourful banners, she, her parents and her siblings held hands and marched for two hours along Hennessy Road, a major thoroughfare connecting two of the busiest districts on Hong Kong Island, protesting a proposal to enact a national security law in 2003. The rally drew half a million to the streets, and resulted in the bill being shelved.

The victory marked a moment in time when Hong Kong’s future was still relatively bright. Now, for Alice, the law’s revival feels like the very last straw – a cataclysmic turning point that finally shattered her illusions of things ever reverting back to the way they were before. “It’s not that I want to leave, or that my heart isn’t here,” she said. “But it’s just been so terrible these past few weeks. I don’t feel like there can be a turnaround. Hong Kong is gone.”

Among those who have left, some feel guilty for “abandoning” their home and loved ones, as well as isolated in their trauma. As in Hong Kong, the diaspora community is politically divided, making it sometimes difficult to find people who share your views. Many have told me they feel the city is no longer a good place to raise children and build a family, particularly since Beijing has signaled it would strengthen efforts to push forward “patriotic education” in schools.

Above all, there is a profound sense of loss. Everyone I spoke to said they resented that their decision to leave was determined by political forces out of their control. “There’s a general sentiment about people who move overseas, that they’re escaping or have stopped caring. But that’s really not true,” said a Hong Konger in her twenties who recently moved to Canada. “Before, there were more people staunchly committed to staying. But a lot have slowly changed their tone.”

[See also: Why Hong Kong could be the flash point for a new financial war

Not everyone is pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future. On 30 June, supporters of the law took part in a rally, waving banners and shouting slogans as they marched to the US embassy. When the law was first announced, various local celebrities also expressed their support on social media, sharing videos and voicing the slogan: “If you never commit treason, you do not need to be afraid of the legislation.” Hong Kong has long been ideologically split between the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps, with the former supporting further integration with the mainland, and the latter campaigning for wider democracy in both Hong Kong and the mainland. While the number of Hong Kong residents critical of Beijing has grown in recent years, there are also many who remain supportive of Chinese rule.

Jacky, a 30-year-old law student, told me it’s too early to speculate on how the law will affect daily life. Moving forward, he’s more concerned about the ramifications of the China-US rivalry on Hong Kong, yet still believes that the territory will still be able to maintain the status quo as long as it continues to serve mainland interests.

“I think Hong Kong is still the primary place I want to live in,” he said, explaining that the city is still a better place to build a family than its international counterparts, as long as things do not change too drastically. “At the moment, I’m still optimistic that the doomsday scenario will not occur.”

Today, 1 July, those who do not share Jacky’s optimism took to the streets in an illegal march. Thousands protested the national security law on the roads of Hong Kong, which were heavily policed by officers who deployed tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Protesters who shouted pro-democracy slogans and banners advocating for separatism received warnings from police that they were breaking the law, and at the time of writing nearly more than 300 have been arrested. Officers unfurled a new special purple flag cautioning protesters that flags, slogans, banners and certain conduct may result in arrest and prosecution under the new law.

Donning black clothes and a face mask, Alex Wong (not his real name), was one of the pro-independence demonstrators who marched in today’s protest. Although he knows that going out on to the streets and advocating for separatism will put him into serious danger moving forward, he told me he remains committed to fighting and will stay in the city.

“[For us] Hong Kong is the place that you owe your life to. Even [before] I was prepared to be thrown in jail. These sorts of things will happen,” Wong says. As Wong dodged police and chanted slogans along with fellow protesters, he noticed a slight chill in the air. “I just hope nobody dies after things are done.”

[See also: Why the Taiwanese are thinking more about their identity]

Jessie Lau is a writer and journalist from Hong Kong covering identity, human rights and politics. She tweets @_laujessie

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