Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Sunny Cheung was scheduled to appear in court last September on a case related to his participation in a banned vigil last June to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Instead of appearing as a defendant, he announced on Facebook that he had gone into exile in an undisclosed location, fearing for his own safety.
When in February this year, 47 people who participated in an unofficial primary election organized by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy sector were charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion,” Cheung – a candidate for that election – knew that he could very well have been one of those detainees.
The 47 were arrested under the sweeping National Security Law (NSL) introduced for Hong Kong by China a year ago, which critics say restricts basic freedoms, including the rights of free assembly and expression.
“I believe that under the law all political rights are at risk because the government can arbitrarily deprive citizens of their basic rights while still allowing the police and the Hong Kong judiciary to have substantial power. to suppress civil society, ”said Cheung (25). Irish time.
The security law entered into force on June 30. Under its provisions, the National Security Department of the Hong Kong Police has arrested 113 people until May 3 this year, according to data collected by the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University in the United States. United.
People living in Hong Kong say there is now no room for publicly expressing anti-government sentiments, as this could be punishable under the NSL.
Nancy, an accountant in her 30s who participated in all manner of protests, said that shortly after the NSL was passed last year, people like her knew that the days of protests in the street was over. “While we knew the government would step up the crackdown on civil society, we did not expect it to do it so blatantly and shamelessly,” she said.
The latest target of the Hong Kong government’s crackdown under the NSL was the city’s most popular pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily. The newspaper was forced to cease operations after police froze its assets and six former employees were arrested for alleged collusion with foreign forces.
“This is really alarming because it shows that all the freedoms and rights that we cherish in Hong Kong will perish under the NSL,” Cheung said. “The law has evolved negatively from its original purpose as the government launches larger-scale crackdowns. ”
Many civil society organizations have also been affected by the deterrent effect of the law. The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), one of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy groups that has organized major protests and rallies, has announced that it will not seek to hold the annual rally on July 1 for the first times in 19 years.
Wong Yik-mo, the former vice president of CHRF, has been in exile in Taiwan since last May and said the NSL has spread a deep sense of fear across Hong Kong.
“The government wants to target all opposition voices in Hong Kong by criminalizing a wide range of activities or behavior in society,” he told the Irish Times. “People can be arrested for chanting slogans in the street or for simply waving a piece of white paper in public. If a government can kill a media outlet, I think it should be enough for the world to understand the level of threat people face in Hong Kong. ”
Freedom of expression
In addition to reducing the space for free speech and fundamental rights, the NSL has also triggered one of the largest exoduses of locals in recent Hong Kong history. Many Hong Kong people have applied for UK immigration visas through their British National Overseas (BNO) status. According to a report by the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory in May, 34,000 Hong Kong people applied to live in the UK in the first three months of 2021.
Nancy said that many people in Hong Kong with the possibility of emigrating are now actively exploring options. This was especially true for families with children. “Before the adoption of the NSL, people were already planning emigration,” she said. “Since the law came into effect, people have actively taken concrete steps to emigrate sooner than originally planned. ”
“We are ready to leave the city we love, but we do not plan to continue the Hong Kong way of life in these new places. We know there will never be another Hong Kong, ”she added.
Cheung believes the political crackdown on civil society is likely to continue in Hong Kong, as Chinese President Xi Jinping tries to use him as an example to maintain the legitimacy of his rule over China. “As Xi Jinping could run for another term next year, he must show that he has successfully suppressed Hong Kong civil society and he must show that he has succeeded in eliminating all political opposition in the city.” , did he declare.
Despite the worsening conditions in Hong Kong, Cheung believes civil society will still try to spread provocative messages and spirits. “They can’t have a large-scale mobilization right now, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to do something to consolidate the energy within civil society,” he said. .
But for now, he sees no sign that Beijing is considering easing the crackdown in Hong Kong. “We are going to see a much more brutal political repression in the coming year,” Cheung predicted. “Unfortunately, shutting down Apple Daily is just the first step.”