Hong Kong: One year after security law imposed

Photo: Website of 2021 Hong Kong Charter. Photo: 2021 Hong Kong Charter, via screenshot.

Explainer: Hong Kong’s national security crackdown – month 12

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong almost exactly a year ago. A tumultuous few months culminated recently with the forced closure of the city’s last pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, after senior executives and staff were arrested under the law as the government tightens restrictions on the media. HKFP continues its monthly roundup of how the legislation has transformed Hong Kong.


Photo: GovHK.

Apple Daily

Pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily’s headquarters were raided as part of a police operation involving 500 officers after five senior executives from Next Digital and Apple Daily were arrested for allegedly conspiring to collude with foreign forces.

Those arrested included Next Digital CEO Cheung Kim-hung, Chief Operating Officer Royston Chow, Apple Daily’s Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law, Associate Publisher Chan Pui-man and Cheung Chi-wai, who manages the newspaper’s online news platform.

Apple Daily headquarters cordoned off by the police on June 17, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Cheung Kim-hung and Law were later charged under the national security law. The pair were denied bail and remanded in custody.

In the days following the raid, two editorial writers, Yeung Ching-Kei and Fung Wai-kong, who was also the former editor-in-chief of Apple Daily’s English news section, were arrested.

The newspaper published its last edition on June 24, after its board decided to cease all operations in Hong Kong as a result of the Security Bureau freezing HK$18 million worth of assets belonging to three companies linked to Apple Daily.

Apple Daily’s final edition on June 23, 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Local media reported that as the bureau requested “sensitive materials” from the company, including the personal information of employees, after Apple Daily asked the bureau to unfreeze its assets.

First national security trial

The first national security trial began in late June after the Court of Appeal upheld a decision to try the city’s first national security suspect, Tong Ying-kit, without a jury.

Tong filed an application for leave to launch a judicial review against a certificate from Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng. The court rejected Tong’s application and said that a jury was not an “indispensable element” in a fair trial.

The 24-year-old later pleaded not guilty as the trial began, and the prosecution argued that the “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” slogan was used with an intention to separate the city from China.

Tiananmen Massacre vigil

Following a police ban on the Tiananmen Massacre vigil citing Covid-19 health concerns, Hong Kong people found other ways of commemorating the victims on the 32nd anniversary of the crackdown.

A person holds an electric candle outside police barricades around Victoria Park on June 4, 2021. Photo: Jimmy Lam/HKFP.

Barrister Chow Hang-tung was detained on the morning of the anniversary, after police arrested her on suspicion of publicising the unlawful assembly. Hundreds of police officers sealed Victoria Park ahead of the scheduled time for the banned rally, as black-clad activists roamed the streets around the park holding electronic candles.

Student leaders arrested

Two student activists from Student Politicism were arrested for planning to set up street booths on the second anniversary of a violent clash between police and pro-democracy protesters outside the government headquarters on June 12.

Wong Yat-chin, 20, and spokesperson Alice Wong, 19, were arrested for allegedly inciting others to participate in an unlawful assembly and publicising and publishing information about an unauthorised assembly.

Police arrest Student Policism member Wong Yat-chin. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Wong was arrested on the evening of June 4 after his group set up a street booth in Mong Kok to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre by playing a BBC documentary about the bloody crackdown.

Legal proceedings

Owen Chow, who is one of the 47 democrats charged with subversion after they participated in a primary election for the since-postponed Legislative Council election, was granted bail by High Court judge Esther Toh.

After being detained for almost four months, activist Owen Chow left the High Court on Tuesday evening, hours after Madam Justice Esther Toh approved his latest application for bail pending trial under the national security law. Photo: Kelly Ho//HKFP.

A total of 12 defendants in the case have been granted bail, as Chief Magistrate Victor So refused bail to seven other democrats, Ben Chung, Gordon Ng, Henry Wong, Andrew Chiu, Lau Chak-fung, Gary Fan and Winnie Yu.

The prosecution has also asked for the case to be moved to the High Court, where the group of activists could face life imprisonment if convicted.

In a separate case, the Court of Appeal refused bail to Lester Shum and Tiffany Yuen, pending an appeal against their prison terms over a banned vigil last year to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.

Shum and Yuen had been sentenced to six and four months behind bars respectively in May after pleading guilty to taking part in an unauthorised assembly on June 4 last year.

Tiffany Yuen and Lester Shum. Photo: Facebook.

Baroness Brenda Hale, one of 13 foreign judges currently sitting as non-permanent members of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, announced she will quit Hong Kong’s top court when her term ends. She reportedly said that there were “all sorts of question marks” over Beijing’s new national security law.

Film and book censorship

The government updated the Film Censorship Ordinance to instruct the Film Censorship Authority to be “vigilant” against the depiction of “any act or activity which may amount to an offence endangering national security” in vetting whether films are appropriate for public screening.

Hong Kong Book Fair 2019. Photo: GovHK.

Organisers of the Hong Kong Book Fair said they will notify the police if it receives complaints about exhibits suspected of violating the national security law, while books written by media tycoon Jimmy Lai had been removed from a public library.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department said that a total of 72 collections were suspended as their content were suspected of breaching the national security law.

A US-based advocacy group, Hong Kong Liberation Coalition, co-founded by former lawmaker Baggio Leung, said that their website was taken down by US web-hosting company WordPress upon the request of Hong Kong police on national security grounds. WordPress denied the claim, saying only that the group had broken their rules.

Website of 2021 Hong Kong Charter. Photo: 2021 Hong Kong Charter, via screenshot.

Israel-based web host Wix said that they made an error in pulling a Hong Kong democracy website, www.2021HKCharter.com, from its servers following a takedown request made under the national security law by the Hong Kong police.

SIM card registration

Users of pre-paid SIM cards will be required to provide their name, identity card number, date of birth, and a copy of their identification document by February 23, 2023. The government said the new regulations were necessary to plug “gaping loopholes” in current regulations and allow law enforcement officers to better investigate crime.

Seditious materials

A 17-year-old secondary school student was remanded in custody over an alleged conspiracy to produce seditious publications along with a 45-year-old woman.

The pair are accused of conspiring to print and distribute materials last year to excite Hong Kong inhabitants to “attempt to procure the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any other matter in Hong Kong as by law established, or to counsel disobedience to law or to any lawful order.”

Photo: StandNews.

The police also deployed more than 20 officers to arrest a 40-year-old man in connection with the displaying of a protest flag outside the window of a flat in Mong Kok. A 36-year-old woman was also arrest over alleged “seditious intentions” for the same incident.

In another case,  a 37-year-old man was arrested under British colonial-era laws for allegedly “doing acts with a seditious intention” after protest stickers were found on the security gate of a flat in Chai Wan. Police said that the stickers were also in alleged breach of the national security law

Hong Kong freedoms fade as security law muzzles dissent

30 June 2021 | ZEN SOO and ELAINE KURTENBACH | AP via ABC News

HONG KONG — Hong Kong is still China’s wealthiest, most capitalist city. Its vistas of skyscraper and sea framed by dragon-backed emerald peaks are as stunning as ever. But a year after Beijing imposed a harsh national security law on the former British colony, the civil liberties that raised hopes for more democracy among many of its 7 million people are fading.

The June 30, 2020, rollout of the law accelerated a rolling back of freedoms promised to Hong Kong when China took over in 1997. That process was punctuated earlier this month with the shutdown of the city’s last pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.

The authorities first came for Apple Daily’s outspoken billionaire founder Jimmy Lai. He’s in jail serving a 20-month sentence and facing charges of foreign collusion to endanger national security.

Last week, some 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s headquarters. At least seven of its journalists and executives have been arrested and $2.3 million worth of assets linked to the paper frozen, preventing it from paying salaries and other costs. For its final edition, Apple Daily printed a million copies — more than 12 times its usual print run. It sold out to crowds who lined up at newsstands for hours.

Apple Daily’s coverage was often “sensationalist,” but it also uncovered corruption and won awards for its investigative reporting, Yuen Chan, a journalist lecturer at the University of London and formerly head of Hong Kong University’s journalism school, said in a commentary on online news portal Citizen News.

It also was a “barometer of Hong Kong’s press freedom and freedom of expression,” she wrote.

The paper’s closure comes as the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding in Shanghai in 1921 by Mao Zedong and others. Over the last year the Chinese government has tightened its grip over semi-autonomous Hong Kong following months of anti-government protests that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.

The demonstrations against proposed extradition legislation that would have allowed suspects to face trial in mainland Chinese courts sometimes turned violent, and encompassed other demands, including calls for universal suffrage and investigation into police tactics. Now, protesting or publishing anything that might be construed as a violation of the security law can land them in jail in Hong Kong.

Traditionally, the city has been considered one of the most attractive places for expatriates, thanks to its low tax rates and ease of doing business. It’s still a major business and financial hub. But some multinational companies have begun relocating their operations and staff. The American Chamber of Commerce says 2 out of 5 expats it surveyed in May were considering leaving the city. The top concern was the national security law.

In private conversations, many in Hong Kong lament the loss of their freedoms, but life goes on. On the weekends. shopping malls are still crowded. People still line up for hours to get seats in popular dim sum and noodle restaurants or take weekend strolls on scenic Victoria Peak. On the surface, daily life hasn’t changed much.

What has changed are the special privileges that Hong Kong was promised for a half-century after control of the territory was handed to Beijing on July 1, 1997 — the autonomy of its courts and legal system, civil liberties that included a free press, freedom of speech and the leeway to take to the streets and other public spaces in protest.

With the space for dissent shrinking, the online news platform Stand News said it would remove commentaries published on its site before June, stop its fundraising efforts and stop accepting new subscribers.

With the handover 24 years ago, Hong Kong became a semi-autonomous territory, promised independent economic and legal status under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that led many in the city to expect more, not less democracy despite the Communist Party’s lack of tolerance for dissent across the border in the Chinese mainland.

Like millions of others who left the mainland seeking more opportunity in Hong Kong in past decades, 40-something Wang Wai says she migrated there because wages were “in the thousands but in China still in the hundreds.”

“The health care system, education and work to be found in Hong Kong is much better than in China,” said Wang, who is married with two children.

Ever since its days as a hub in Britain’s trading of opium from India for silk, tea and porcelain from China, Hong Kong has mainly been about moneymaking. The city flourished in the years after the 1949 Communist Revolution, as industrialists from Shanghai relocated to the colony, bringing what they could of their salvaged fortunes.

After the city’s garment and electronics manufacturing moved across the border, back into China, Hong Kong’s colonial legacy left it well placed to thrive as a financial center for what has become the world’s No. 2 economy. For many in the city, the handover to Beijing was just a welcome switch of flags.

Hong Kong was meant to help lead China’s ascent as an economic power, enjoying the best of both East and West, as its first chief executive, shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, often would say. It remains home for scores of billionaire business people and many other wealthy Chinese who have invested in choice property after prospering on the mainland.

Despite the massive pro-democracy protests that paralyzed parts of the city in 2019 and the blows to tourism and trade from the pandemic, the city’s stratospheric property market has surged still higher.

Even modest apartments under 100 square meters (1,100 square feet) have more than doubled in price since 1997, said Derek Chan, head of research at real estate firm Ricacorp Properties.

“Even though prices have soared, the wealthy in Hong Kong are still willing to buy property at these prices, making it increasingly inaccessible for regular residents to buy homes,” Chan said.

Such costs have made the city unaffordable for many: the share of Hong Kongers living in poverty has doubled to 1 in 5 since the handover.

Such pressures have added to frustrations as Beijing has tightened the screws.

Even before the handover, China and Britain quarreled over how much democracy Hong Kong should have. When election results made it clear that the public preferred more, Beijing moved to ensure it would stay in control, mandating less.

Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, left the territory declaring that, “Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong.″

“That is the promise — and that is the unshakeable destiny,″ he said as he boarded the Royal Yacht Britannia and sailed away after the handover.

A city of Chinese people accustomed to a free press, rule of law, freedom of assembly had hoped in time to gain more say over how they were governed. Instead, one distant ruler has replaced another.

The weakening of the city’s civil liberties is “not a good thing,” said Wang, who moved to Hong Kong from her hometown in southeastern China’s Fujian province. “I came to Hong Kong also because it had freedom, and there is rule of law and more democracy. Now it is looking more and more like a city in China.”


Kurtenbach, who has lived and worked in Hong Kong and China at times since 1981, contributed to this report from Bangkok.


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