How the national security law is changing Hong Kong
Beijing imposed a wide-ranging national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020. Since then the government has cracked down on the city's education sector, its media and political life. The FT's Hong Kong correspondent Nicolle Liu looks at how the law is being used to change civil society
Filmed and produced by Tom Griggs. Written by Nicolle Liu and Primrose Riordan. Graphics by Kari-Ruth Pedersen. Additional footage by Getty and Reuters.
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Mass rallies have been a feature of Hong Kong's political calendar for decades, but nothing prepared the city for what happened in 2019. Hong Kongers were already angry at China for its perceived erosion of the city's autonomy. So when Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, proposed an extradition law to send criminals to the mainland for trial, it kick-started a series of protest marches, with the biggest drawing an estimated 2m people.
The police cracked down hard, and the protests escalated into the biggest rebellion on Chinese soil since the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989. One year on, on June 30, Beijing hits back, introducing a national security law over the heads of the territory's legislators. More than 90 people have been detained under the law, including Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Jimmy Lai. As well as arresting opponents, authorities have used the law to target civil institutions, such as the education sector, the media, and political life.
Pro-Beijing politicians like to put some of the blame for the protests on disloyal children who don't understand China. The Hong Kong government has taken this as a cue and is changing the curriculum in schools and universities. In particular, they have focused on liberal studies, a subject taught in schools to encourage critical thinking. But it hasn't stopped there. The government is investigating hundreds of teachers for allegedly radicalising their pupils. At least two primary school teachers have been struck off the register.
At the start of 2020 press conferences in Hong Kong were raucous affairs and local leaders faced sharp questions. The popular Chinese-language tabloid, Apple Daily, stands out for its anti-government editorials and fierce criticism of China. In August, its owner, the outspoken media tycoon Jimmy Lai, was led away in handcuffs during a high-profile raid of the newsroom.
However, it was the November arrests of Bao Choi, an investigative journalist from public broadcaster RTHK, that really spread fear through the local press pack. She's being charged with making false declarations for ticking the wrong box on a government database. Critics say using legal technicalities is a tactic often used in mainland China to silence criticism.
The street protests of 2019 were organised anonymously, which meant opposition politicians were not immediately in the firing line. That changed when the pro-democracy camp won a crushing victory with a record turnout in the municipal council election in November.
Fast-forward to September 2020, Hong Kongers' next opportunity to express themselves through the ballot box, this time, in a general election. The vote was postponed because of the pandemic. But critics say the government feared more heavy losses.
Since then, the government has cracked down. In November, four pro-democratic legislators were disqualified for not being sufficiently patriotic. All but one of the other opposition lawmakers resigned in solidarity. Then, on January 6, 53 politicians and activists were arrested in dawn raids for participating in an unofficial primary ahead of the delayed September election.
Beijing claims the security law has stopped the protests and protected the country's sovereignty. Among Hong Kongers, reactions have varied. Some are relieved at the return of stability, while others feel under pressure to keep quiet, and thousands have left the country already. The UK Home Office expects as many as 150,000 Hong Kongers and their dependents will move to the UK this year.
There is, however, one pillar of Hong Kong's civil society that has mostly been left alone, the legal system. Judges have faced criticism from pro-Beijing media and Chinese authorities. But as yet, there have been no official attempts to undermine court decisions. The rule of law, a key aspect of what makes Hong Kong an attractive place to do business, no longer appears quite as impregnable as it once did.