BEIJING — It took just one year for China's national security law to completely remake Hong Kong's decades-old institutions.
Apple Daily newspaper had to shut down. Universities have been muzzled. Prominent activists are either in prison or in exile. And protesters who took part in Hong Kong's largest demonstrations ever against Beijing's rule are facing sentences of up to life in prison.
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed on the eve of the national security law's implementation last year that it would "only target an extremely small minority" of crimes, but basic rights and freedoms and most citizens would be protected.
While the absolute number of people brought to trial has indeed been low, the law has been used to arrest people for a broad variety of offenses — a strategy legal experts say is designed to create a chilling effect to prevent all future dissent, and discourage political activity, across all levels of civil society.
New data collected by legal scholars at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law in Washington shows the National Security Department has made at least 130 arrests since it was created by the new law within the Hong Kong Police Force last year.
Only about half of those arrested have actually been formally charged, however. Being arrested under the law alone is enough to halt a person's activism.
"This is putting the Chinese playbook on the Hong Kong situation," says Lydia Wong, one of the researchers who compiled the data. "You have very high cash bail, and you also will need to hand out [your] travel document. You need to stay away from social media. You cannot give public speeches."
Secession, terrorism and more
Chinese leader Xi Jinping signed the law on June 30, 2020, at a time when he and the Communist Party have sought to expand control in China and over the semi-autonomous territory of Hong Kong, a former British colony. The sweeping rules toughen punishment for activities the authorities deem to be subversion, secession, terrorism or foreign collusion.
The law has also weakened Hong Kong's once-formidable rule of law court system, which had provided strong protection for civil liberties and commercial rights, independent from mainland China's Communist Party-ruled system. These legal protections are in part what have made Hong Kong a popular destination for international business.
There is the case of Tong Ying-kit, a delivery worker arrested a year ago after flying a "Liberate Hong Kong" protest flag on his motorbike and crashing into several police officers. On June 23, he pleaded not guilty to the charges of terrorism and incitement to commit secession, in the first case to go to trial under the new national security law. The judge denied his request for a trial by jury, even though Hong Kong's courts have traditionally allowed it, saying the security law says his case can only be heard by a judge, according to the South China Morning Post.
And pro-democracy supporters worry that the 10,000 protesters arrested since 2019 could now face harsher sentences on rioting charges dating back to when Hong Kong was a British territory, from 1841 to 1997.
"China is including those colonial-era laws under the national security law system, so we are actually seeing a lot of cases brought in by the National Security Department but then charged by this kind of colonial period law," says Wong.
The 130 arrests so far under the law cluster around issues or organizations Beijing has publicly excoriated, suggesting the law is being used to target the Communist Party's opponents, according to the Georgetown researchers.
In March, 47 activists were charged under the national security law for subversion. It was the largest round of charges so far. Their alleged crime was to organize an informal poll in 2020 to identify a coalition pick of opposition candidates for legislative elections in December.
Beijing's top office on Hong Kong affairs had warned organizers the poll was an attempt "to seize the ruling power of Hong Kong and ... carry out a Hong Kong version of 'color revolution,'" referring to the wave of anti-authoritarian protests that began in 2011.
"The government does not want to face the reality. They are not the majority," says Owen Li, an elected district council member with an opposition party in Hong Kong.
Li won his seat in an election in 2019, which attracted record turnout from Hong Kong voters. It was also the last before Hong Kong postponed legislative elections and then changed its election law to ensure a pro-Beijing majority in the legislature.
"They are saying that you cannot oppose China from imposing any law, that the [National] People's Congress have the right to impose laws on Hong Kong based on national security," said Gwyneth Ho, one of the 47 activists charged under the law, referring to China's top legislative body. NPR spoke to the former journalist before she was charged and detained again in March.
Think before speaking
Imprisonment is a cost that few Hong Kongers can shoulder.
"Every time when I go to any public speaking [engagement], I think very forcefully before I say something," Lo Kin-hei, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Party and a district official, told NPR by phone. "I am very cautious in that."
Hong Kong's once-freewheeling press has also been quieter.
In April, Bao Choy, a former journalist with the public broadcaster RTHK, was convicted of making false statements over her reporting to expose authorities' failure to stop a pro-Beijing mob from attacking anti-government protesters in 2019.
Now newsrooms and their lawyers are struggling to figure out whether talking with sources abroad or interviewing the political opposition could land themselves in court.
"The law was very vaguely defined. A lot of terms in it were left very ambiguous," says Hari Kumar, who was a senior editor for the broadcaster's English service until last year.
Kumar says one of the issues discussed in the newsroom was whether the law prohibited news services from publishing pictures or video that depict activity that police could construe as secessionist or subversive.
"If we publish a picture of somebody with a flag saying 'Hong Kong independence,' is that promoting Hong Kong independence?" he asks. "We don't know. We still don't know."
A big bite out of Apple Daily
Apple Daily is the latest casualty of the tough legislation. The paper stopped printing after the authorities froze its assets and arrested its top editors and executives. On June 24, it printed its final edition. Readers waiting in long lines quickly bought up all 1 million copies.
The evisceration of Apple Daily, the colorfully combative newspaper beloved by hundreds of thousands of readers in Hong Kong, may hold instructive lessons for other outlets.
Apple Daily has been a prime target under the national security law. So far, 17 executives and editors associated with the paper have been arrested for "colluding with foreign forces," including the paper's billionaire founder Jimmy Lai, his son, and the editor-in-chief. Two Apple Daily columnists were arrested on national security grounds days after the paper's closure; one was apprehended at the airport as he was trying to leave Hong Kong.
This month, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it will honor Jimmy Lai with an award for being a "press freedom warrior."
The arrests sent a stark message to Apple Daily's supporters, and the city's security chief recently pointedly noted that anybody found supporting the tabloid's leadership could end up in political hot water as well.
"I hereby solemnly declare that: don't associate with these criminals endangering national security, you will pay a hefty price," said John Lee, the Hong Kong security chief. "Cut ties with these criminals."
Within days, several columnists for other English and Mandarin outlets across the territory quietly resigned.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In 2019, massive protests against Beijing's rule rocked Hong Kong. Now that kind of dissent could be punished by up to life in prison under a national security law. It's been one year since Beijing imposed that law in the region of Hong Kong. NPR's Emily Feng looks at how it's been applied and the effect it's had on civil society.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hong Kong's political opposition was cautiously optimistic in 2019. Despite a crackdown on protests, they'd notched a landslide win in local district elections that October. So they set their sights higher. They would poll voters to identify the best candidates for upcoming legislative elections. It was not to be.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).
FENG: This March, 47 activists who organized that poll were charged under the national security law for subversion, the largest round of charges under the law.
LYDIA WONG: I'm not totally surprised. I think is more like putting the Chinese playbook on the Hong Kong situation.
FENG: This is Lydia Wong. She's one of the legal researchers tracking every national security case. She and the Georgetown Center for Asian Law found that, so far, the law has been used to arrest about 130 people, not just for subversion, but also crimes like collusion with foreign forces or secession. Of those arrested, only about half have been formally charged. So while the absolute number of people being brought to trial has indeed been low, the law has been used to arrest people for a broad variety of offenses, a strategy legal experts like Wong say is designed to scare off all future dissent.
WONG: They have very high cash bail, and also, they will need to hand out their travel document. You need to dismiss your organization. You need to stay away from social media. You cannot have, like, public speech.
FENG: So far, the law has been used to detain influential academics, to threaten senior lawyers and, perhaps most prominently, to charge business tycoons like publisher Jimmy Lai. Last week, the prominent pro-democracy paper he founded, Apple Daily, abruptly closed. The government used the law to arrest most of the investigative outlet's top editors and freeze the paper's bank accounts. This kind of retribution is something few Hong Kongers can shoulder. Here's Lo Kin-hei. He is one of the few remaining opposition politicians left.
LO KIN-HEI: Every time that I do any public speaking, I think really forcefully before I say something. I'm very cautious on that.
FENG: Hong Kong's freewheeling press has also been more quiet after Apple Daily's closure. Newsrooms and their lawyers are struggling to figure out whether talking with sources abroad or interviewing the political opposition could land them in court.
HARI KUMAR: The law was very vaguely defined. A lot of terms in that were left very ambiguous.
FENG: Hari Kumar was a senior editor for the Hong Kong public broadcasters' English services until last year.
KUMAR: If we publish something or rebroadcast something where people are shouting something, is it antinational to let that go on air? Should we edit out that one? Or if we publish a picture of somebody with a flag saying Hong Kong independence, is it promoting Hong Kong independence? We don't know. We still don't know.
FENG: What is clear is that Beijing is calling the shots. Gwyneth Ho is one of the 47 activists who was charged for organizing the poll. NPR spoke to the former journalist before she was charged and detained under the law in March. She says even opposing the law itself could be seen as subversive.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BORADCAST)
GWYNETH HO: They are saying that you cannot oppose China from imposing any law, that the People's Congress have this right to impose laws on Hong Kong based on national security.
FENG: And so in 2021, Hong Kong has become exactly the kind of place anti-government protesters feared when they took to the streets in 2019, a place with a hobbled press corps, a weekend court system and where any opposition to Beijing's rule is not tolerated - in short, a place that increasingly resembles mainland China.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN JORDAN'S "I CAN FEEL IT HUMMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.