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Hong Kong: How life has changed under the national security law

Hong Kong: How life has changed under the national security law

On 30 June 2020, China introduced the National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong in response to massive pro-democracy protests that had swept through the city the previous year.

The controversial law reduces Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy and makes it easier to punish demonstrators and activists. It criminalises secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Since it was enacted more than 100 people – including protesters, pro-democracy politicians and journalists – have been arrested under its provisions.

Beijing insists that the law is needed to bring stability to the city, but critics say it violates the “one country, two systems” principle under which the former British colony was handed back to China.

The one thing many Hong Kongers do agree on however, is that in the year since the law was enacted, life has fundamentally changed. We spoke to seven of them to find out how.

Names have been changed where indicated to protect identities.

The civil servant who fled

Sander* gave up his highly coveted civil servant job to move to the UK under a scheme it introduced in response to the NSL.

Sander and son
image caption – Sander says starting a new life in the UK is a challenge
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It allowed holders of British National (Overseas), or BNO, passports, which were issued to Hong Kong residents before 1997 – when Hong Kong was handed back to China – to apply for a special type of visa that puts them on a fast track to settlement and citizenship.

Sander decided to move to Manchester under the scheme when he opted to resign instead of taking an oath that would require all civil servants to swear allegiance to the Hong Kong government.

He says he was worried that civil servants would have to carry out political tasks against their conscience to serve an increasingly authoritarian government.

“The national security law is to purge all the people Beijing doesn’t like, including the pan-democrats and the Hong Kong people who don’t support the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.

A young woman holds a BNO passport
(image copyright – AFP) (image caption – Hong Kongers with BNO passports can apply for a special visa to the UK)

Sander is grateful for the opportunity to start a new life in the UK, but says there are new challenges and difficulties.

“Hong Kongers often have difficulties applying for national insurance and driving licences,” he said. Both documents are essential in job-seeking. He spent two months looking for jobs, but didn’t hear back from anyone.

Sander says he misses Hong Kong, especially food like beef brisket noodles. But he is pessimistic about its political future and isn’t even sure he will ever visit.

The café owner who welcomes the law

Kate Lee, a vocal supporter of Hong Kong police
(image copyright – BBC / Lo Kwan Long Curtis) (image caption – Kate Lee says the law has restored peace to the city)

For Kate Lee, a single mother who owns a café in the fishing village of Lei Yue Mun, the law has changed things for the better.

A vocal supporter of the police, every day she wears a blue t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I love Hong Kong police”. Her café walls are filled with pro-police posters and photos she has taken with senior police officials.

Ms Lee says her pro-police stance led to a massive drop in business during the 2019 pro-democracy protests. The police were accused of using disproportionate force against protesters and were viewed as “traitors” by the pro-democracy movement.

“My regular patrons told me they did not dare to come any more because they feared that they would be filmed. One day I made only HK$80 [$10.30; £7.40].” Before the protest, she said her café usually made about HK$1,000 a day.

Protesters also filed a slew of complaints against her business, which meant that for days the only people who went there were government officials investigating complaints related to food hygiene, fire safety and even tax compliance.

Kate Lee's cafe in Lei Yue Mun
(image copyright – BBC / Lo Kwan Long Curtis) (image caption – The walls of the cafe are full of pro-police slogans and photographs)

The situation took a toll on her family life too. Her son, whom she had raised alone since he was four, told her he no longer loved her because she supported the police. “I was never so heartbroken before,” she said. “How could more than 20 years of love be overturned in months?”

She credits the national security law with changing things for the better, saying that young people who protested had been exploited.

“People are easily affected by the atmosphere. If there were protests or protesters blocked the streets again, young people could get easily excited. But now nothing is happening, so that atmosphere is gone. My son also focuses on working and other areas of his life.”

The court observer losing faith

Ann* visits different courts across the city at least three times a week.

“I want to provide emotional support to the protesters and their families. Because I have spent so much time at court, we have built trust. So they are willing to talk to me,” she said. “I have visited some of the convicted protesters in prison. We were total strangers before the court proceedings.”

The homemaker had little idea about court proceedings or legal jargon when she started attending sessions a year-and-a-half ago. At every hearing, she jots down notes so that she can follow legal arguments. Now, six notebooks later, she says she has developed a more nuanced understanding.

But the national security law has dealt a blow to her faith in the city’s judicial system. Many of those arrested under it are denied bail, and the first trial of someone charged under the law proceeded without a jury. Ann says these are departures from the common law system.

Ann's court hearing notebook
(image copyright – BBC / Lo Kwan Long Curtis) (image caption – Ann takes copious notes of every hearing she goes to)

Yet she says she will continue watching the hearings, including national security trials, if they remain open to the public. The national security law states that trials will be closed to the public if the cases involve “state secrets or public order”.

“In the worst-case scenario, the court proceedings might be similar to those in the mainland. Even foreign diplomats are not allowed in, and everything is kept in the dark,” she said.

The friends supplying snacks to the detained

Hei of Jimmy Jungle
(image copyright – BBC / Lo Kwan Long Curtis) (image caption – Hong Kong has very specific requirements about the kinds of snacks and items people in custody are allowed)

Jimmy Jungle, an online store founded by four friends, supplies free daily necessities and snacks to protesters in custody.

In the beginning, they saw Jimmy Jungle as an addition to the “yellow economy”, a loose collective of pro-democracy small businesses that popped up in 2019. But later, they realised that they could actually make inmates’ lives a little better.

Hong Kong has very specific requirements about the kinds of snacks and items people in custody are allowed. For instance, they can have only eight kinds of snacks – including beef jerky and M&M’s. Brands and sizes are also specified.

“During Chinese New Year 2020, I visited the family of a friend who was detained after joining a protest,” founder Michael* said. “His parents told me how difficult it was to buy those items.”

“Snacks are the small luxuries they can enjoy inside,” he added. “I know the inmates have created different ‘dishes’ using snacks and food provided by the prison. It’s a little joy for them to not eat the same food every day.”

Disinfectant tissue
(image copyright – BBC / Lo Kwan Long Curtis) (image caption – This is one brand of disinfectant tissues allowed in prisons)

Before the national security law came into force, Jimmy Jungle provided supplies to between 40 and 60 arrested protesters. After it was enacted, however, numbers jumped.

“The chance of being remanded in custody has become much higher,” Michael said, recounting a week in early March when 47 activists were remanded to custody. “That week, we had to work non-stop to make sure we had enough stock.”

Michael’s co-founder Hei* is not optimistic that freedom will be restored in Hong Kong in their lifetime – but says it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.

“Our freedom is fading away, so we have to hold onto the things we still have.”

The liberal studies teacher who wants to quit

Teaching is Mr Fung’s* passion. But he is unsure about continuing.

“The national security law has led to a chilling effect across society,” he said. “I no longer know if I can still analyse controversial matters with students… How can I teach any more?”

Political issues are unavoidable in liberal studies, which he has been teaching since 2009 when it was introduced as a compulsory subject for senior students.

The subject covers topics ranging from “Hong Kong today” to “modern China”.

The Umbrella Movement in 2014
(image copyright – Getty Images) (image caption – Many students joined the large-scale protests in 2014 and 2019)

“Liberal studies reflect the social facts from multiple angles,” Mr Fung said. “It helps students develop rational thinking so that they don’t blindly follow others… it’s a valuable quality for Hong Kong.”

But ever since the 2014 Umbrella Movement – when demonstrators demanding the right to pick their own leaders brought the city to a standstill – the establishment has blamed liberal studies for sparking defiance against the government.

Some teachers have been banned for life over what they discussed in class.

A culture of informing on teachers is also quickly developing. Between June 2019 and December 2020, complaints have been raised against more than 200 teachers for misconduct relating to “social turmoil”. There are talks about installing surveillance cameras inside classrooms.

“Trust between people has crumbled,” Mr Fung said. “We have to be careful with every sentence. It’s like walking on thin ice.”

The lawmaker who welcomes order

Eunice Yung of the New People's Party
(image copyright – BBC / Lo Kwan Long Curtis) (image caption – Eunice Yung says China has delivered “a combination of punches” that would lead Hong Kong back to stability)

Eunice Yung has been a lawmaker since 2016. To her, the national security law has reversed the “chaos and disorder” of the 2019 protests.

“The law has been very effective. It has had a deterrent effect as residents know that national security offences are serious, and the punishment will be harsh.”

She said that the law had managed to stop people from openly provoking or attacking the central government, but insists that it doesn’t curtail freedom in any sense.

Ms Yung also praised electoral reforms introduced by Beijing which ensured that only those loyal to the mainland would be able to be elected to its legislative council.

She called it “a combination of punches” that would lead Hong Kong back to stability.

“There is no more meaningless filibustering,” she said. “No one throws stuff inside the legislative chamber… and no one disparages the chief executive or senior officials any more.”

*All names apart from Kate Lee and Eunice Yung have been changed.

Source – https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57649442

Image Credit – BBC / Lo Kwan Long Curtis


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