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China crushes dissent in Hong Kong with draconian national security law

China's national security law has extinguished even a semblance of democracy in Hong Kong (Pic: Courtesy wikimedia commons)

China's national security law has extinguished even a semblance of democracy in Hong Kong. Instead, Beijing’s totalitarian outreach, by turning the territory into a “police state” is visible in plain sight.

The national security law that China imposed a year ago to crack down on legitimate dissent, “decimate” the territory’s freedoms and create a climate of fear, says an Amnesty International report released on June 30.

‘In the Name of National Security’ details how the law enacted on 30 June 2020 has given the authorities free rein to illegitimately criminalise dissent while stripping away the rights of those it targets.

“In one year, the National Security Law (NSL) has put Hong Kong on a rapid path to becoming a police state and created a human rights emergency for the people living there,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director.

“From politics to culture, education to media, the law has infected every part of Hong Kong society and fomented a climate of fear that forces residents to think twice about what they say, what they tweet and how they live their lives. Ultimately, this sweeping and repressive legislation threatens to make the city a human rights wasteland increasingly resembling mainland China, “she said.

The broadly-worded National Security Law punishes activities deemed subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession with up to life in prison.

On the ground the impact of the new law is devastating. Among those held under the NSL are Jimmy Lai, the retail tycoon turned media mogul who founded the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily. After being briefly allowed bail under strict conditions that amounted to house arrest, 73-year-old Lai was returned to jail in December. The Apple Daily itself shut down in the last week of June after its editor and top executives were also arrested under the NSL and the company’s assets frozen. The closure of Apple Daily is a flagrant attack on press freedom.

In the past year, students have deleted their social media accounts; restaurants have pulled down protest posters; thousands have made the heart-wrenching decision to emigrate. Many share the same fear: being deemed a threat to national security and the potentially lengthy prison sentence that comes with it.

This is because the arbitrary application of the national security law, together with the imprecise definitions of its so-called crimes, prevent anyone from knowing how and when they might transgress it.

People have been arrested for the content of their tweets or the slogans on their T-shirts and mobile phone stickers. One former opposition lawmaker’s WhatsApp chat with journalists were cited as evidence against her.

Obviously, this sweeping definition of “national security”, which follows that of the Chinese central authorities, lacks clarity and legal predictability and has been used arbitrarily as a pretext to restrict the human rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and liberty, as well as to repress dissent and political opposition.

The NSL’s arbitrary application and imprecise criminal definitions effectively make it impossible to know how and when it might be deemed as violated, resulting in an instant chilling effect across Hong Kong from day one.

China and Hong Kong said the legislation was necessary to restore stability to the semi-autonomous territory after pro-democracy protests in 2019 that sometimes turned violent and that only a small number of people would be affected.

But in its report, Amnesty said at least 118 people had been arrested concerning the NSL since it came into force and that the government had “continued to arrest and charge individuals under the NSL solely because they have exercised their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association”.

Most of those arrested are pro-democracy activists and politicians including a group who were arrested for organising a primary to choose their own candidates for Legislative Council elections that were later postponed. In November, four pro-democracy members of the territory’s legislature were disqualified from their seats in the chamber – accused of “endangering national security”.

In this time, the government has repeatedly used “national security” as a pretext to justify censorship, harassment, arrests and prosecutions. There is clear evidence indicating that the so-called human rights safeguards set out in the NSL are effectively useless, while the protections existing in regular Hong Kong law are also trumped by it.

People charged under the law are denied bail unless they can prove they will not “continue to commit acts endangering national security” and Amnesty said that 70 per cent of those officially prosecuted under the security legislation are being held on remand. It noted that the presumption of innocence is an “essential part of the right to a fair trial”.

As the space for freedom of expression continues to fade away, teachers have lost their licences for promoting class discussions on subjects such as independence for Hong Kong. Books critical of China and Hong Kong have been pulled from public libraries. Children have been warned not to express political opinions at school.

Faced with government repression, Hongkongers will adapt as they find other ways to express themselves. As Apple Daily shut down its publications, people flocked to newsstands to buy up every copy of the paper’s last edition they could.