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31 August 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 11:38am

One year on from China’s national security crackdown, Hong Kong is a changed place

The legislation has amounted to a full-spectrum assault by China on the city’s vibrant civil society.

By Louisa Lim

Earlier this month, which marks the second anniversary of a series of protest marches attended by millions of people, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper printed a front page with a picture of a black-clad protestor and a fill-in-the blank caption, stating: “I will stay in Hong Kong and continue to…”

Within two weeks, the paper itself was gone.

Apple Daily is the most recent casualty of the national security legislation, which was imposed by Beijing on 30 June 2020. The paper has reluctantly shuttered itself, unable to function after the authorities froze its bank accounts and raided the newsroom. Six staffers were arrested on suspicion of collusion with foreign nations over articles that called for sanctions on Hong Kong. Since then, another senior journalist has been arrested at the airport as he tried to board a plane to the United Kingdom.

For Hong Kongers, Apple Daily was more than just a newspaper. Its outspoken brashness and unabashed pro-democracy stance embodied the city’s freewheeling spirit and the freedoms that distinguished it from mainland China. The impact of its disappearance is most pithily summed up by Lee Yee, one of Hong Kong’s most respected public intellectuals, in his final Apple Daily column: “the totalitarians are now in command”.

George Orwell himself would have struggled to write a more darkly symbolic scene than the arrival of the mysterious Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong, just over a week after the national security law came into effect in 2020. It materialised out of nowhere, after mainland security services commandeered a four-star hotel in the middle of the night. By dawn, it had been transformed into their first Hong Kong outpost, with a mainland-style flag-raising ceremony, held promptly at 7am and attended by the territory’s Beijing-backed leaders. The office’s activities are not bound by local laws.

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[Listen to: Hong Kong democracy after one year of the national security law]

“Speech crimes” have arrived in Hong Kong, according to the popular Stand News website, which has begun removing online content following anonymous threats. From the day the legislation was enacted last year, it was clear that speech would be targeted. That first day ten people were arrested at the annual 1 July protest march, as it emerged that the popular protest slogans millions had yelled for months were now outlawed. Days later, eight people were arrested after holding up blank placards.

This dynamic has, over the past year, become increasingly obvious: the more absurd the action taken by the authorities in the name of national security, the more chilling its effect.

The legislation’s stated aim was to outlaw secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, though it never clearly defined these offences. Instead, it has been used to dismantle, at an accelerating pace, the freedoms so cherished by Hong Kongers, destroying the promise laid out in the Basic Law to allow the city’s way of life to continue unchanged until 2047.

Each of the territory’s institutions has undergone its own metamorphosis. The power of the executive has drained awayto security officials and the Liaison Office, Beijing’s representative in the territory. It’s a measure of the new normal that last week’s reshuffle, elevating security officials and police officers to the top ranks of government, was greeted favourably by one pro-Beijing lawmaker, Alice Mak. “If it’s a police state, why not? I don’t think there’s any problem with a police state,” she told local journalists.

[See also: The minimum effect of sanctions over Hong Kong]

Meanwhile, the Legislative Council has been transformed from a feisty – if somewhat toothless – body to a rubber stamp, after what was effectively a purge of the pan-democratic camp. They will not be returning any time soon; a huge overhaul of the electoral system guarantees that via vetting of election candidates, only “patriots” sit on the body. Many are already in prison: 47 Democrats were arrested on subversion charges after organising unofficial “primary” polls to choose election candidates. Even this political landscape, dominated by pro-China forces, is changing, with a new China-backed party moving in, potentially threatening the positions of Hong Kong’s traditional pro-Beijing politicians.

The judiciary has fared no better, with its prized independence and neutrality undermined by the legislation. Last week, the first national security trial opened, sweeping away the 176-yeartradition of trial by jury, and pro-Beijing politicians intervened in a judicial appointment for the first time. The changes are coming quick and fast in every sector, enabled by the relative lack of international response.

The aim is to reformat Hong Kong by putting national security at the centre of every activity. It is an ideological education campaign using the same strategies as the Patriotic Education Campaign rolled out after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The first targets have been the media and educational institutions, with university student unions cut off, teachers disbarred and schoolbooks rewritten with a national security focus.

The preoccupations of the pro-Beijing media signal that the legal sector, non-governmental organisations and churches could be next. The changes amount to a full-spectrum assault on Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society, rolling out in slow motion. Websites have already been blocked, amid fears that Hong Kong may soon have its own version of a Great Firewall.

This has sparked an exodus, with 34,000 Hong Kongers in two months applying for British National Overseas (BNO) visas, which give them a pathway to settle in the UK. Underwriting Apple Daily’s call for people to persevere in Hong Kong is the painful knowledge of the fate of its founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, who vowed to continue to do what he believed to be right. Now he’s in jail on national security charges of illegal assembly. In today’s Hong Kong, the cost of principles could not be higher.

[See also: How the UK’s Hong Kong visa offer could still fail refugees]

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