Defiance and fear as Hong Kong establishes a new normal after China-backed law takes hold

While they were not close to the size of the previous July 1 protests, there was disruption and disorder in at least four districts, tying up thousands of police and causing traffic chaos. Police said about 370 people were arrested Wednesday, including 10 people under the new national security law.

In a statement, a Hong Kong government spokesman said “some people owned and waved flags and printed materials that contained the words ‘Hong Kong independence’ and chanted ‘Hong Kong independence’ slogans.”

“These people are suspected of inciting or inciting others to commit secession,” the spokesman said. Such a charge could carry a life sentence and a minimum of 10 years behind bars for major criminals, or three years for those who “actively participate” in the crime. One of those arrested was a 15-year-old girl.

What happens to those 10 arrested people could define how the law is applied in Hong Kong and the degree of chilling effect or repercussions it has on society in general. Will prosecutors seek the harshest punishments, or even transfer cases to Chinese jurisdiction, as allowed by law? And what legal challenges will the law face as cases make their way in court?

Tam Yiu-chung, the only Hong Kong member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, who drafted the security law, said that “the police will, of course, follow up on these cases to assess whether it is necessary to file charges. ”

He added that some people may have “intentionally defied the law.”

“Also, it could be because they didn’t understand the content of the law,” Tam said. “We feel very sad that some young people and teens have broken the law. We really don’t want to see such cases.”

Of the 15-year-old, he added that “we hope we can help her so that she can better understand the law in question and not violate it again.”

Authorities are likely prepared for those early test cases, as evidenced by the fact that the police received advance instructions to arrest anyone who promoted Hong Kong’s independence. While crowd size made complete control difficult, police largely responded to Wednesday’s protests, firing pepper spray at crowds, boiling protesters and using water cannons.

Videos shared online showed the water cannon used against journalists apparently without cause. Police said several officers were injured by the protesters, including one who was stabbed in the arm.

The 24-year-old and four-year-old suspect in that case was caught in a dramatic midnight arrest while boarding an international flight to London. Police said he was detained on suspicion of injury, a charge that carries a possible life sentence.

Former lawmaker and longtime activist Lee Cheuk-Yan is seen addressing a crowd in Causeway Bay as riot police stand in the background.  He was arrested soon after.

“I’m very scared, but I’m still here”

The severe nature of the punishments under the new law had an immediate and widespread chilling effect after its approval, with the dissolution of political parties, the removal of people from their social networks and WhatsApp chat history, and companies who rejected prior support for the protest movement. Even the size of Tuesday’s protest could be considered a measure of its effectiveness. But fear alone was not enough to keep people from going out entirely.

“I’m very scared, but I’m still here,” said Lawrence Lau, an attorney and district councilor. While he said he never had any doubts about participating in Wednesday’s protest, he added that “if you are a rational being, you must fear and you must fear the adverse consequences.”

District Councilman and attorney Lawrence Lau holds a sign in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay district, shortly before police began cleaning up the area on Wednesday.

Many people were still wary of the possible repercussions, even when exposed to possible arrests. A woman who declined to give her name said, “It will be difficult not to censor yourself when something like this happens.”

“I feel like most people would be more cautious with what they say,” he added.

One thing he said would change would be how Hong Kongers uses the Internet, adding that he planned to use a VPN and secure apps more frequently. Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at London-based internet research firm Top10VPN, said in an email that there had been a 321% increase in VPN demand on June 30 compared to the rest of the month’s daily average .

Tam, a member of the NPC, said that “social media should not be used to incite crime or fear or other forms of chaos and turbulence in society.”

Police with riot gear are seen outside Hysan Place, a luxury shopping mall in Causeway Bay, ordering people to disperse.

The limits of national security law are still very unclear, given the broad nature of the crimes and the lack of jurisprudence.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Hong Kong Bar Association said it was “seriously concerned both about the content of the (law) and the form of its introduction.”

He added that the crimes created by law are “widely worded” and lack “basic guarantees regarding legal certainty and fair treatment, (and) they can be applied arbitrarily and that disproportionately interferes with fundamental rights, including freedom of conscience , expression and reunion “.

Presumably, there will be clarity when prosecutions for Wednesday’s arrests begin, although it is unclear how prepared the judiciary is for such cases. A controversial element of the law is that the city leader must nominate selected judges to hear national security cases. They can be removed if they make statements that are deemed detrimental to national security, something that, according to the Bar Association, impaired judicial independence.

Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council of China, confirmed another controversial element of the law on Wednesday, saying suspects prosecuted by Chinese agents operating in the city will be tried in the continent, effectively allowing extradition. of Hong Kong residents across the border, the problem that sparked widespread protests in the city last summer.

Passers-by and protesters gather in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.  A protester is seen carrying a flag that says

International reaction

The passage of the law on Tuesday received widespread criticism from the international community.

In a statement, the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, criticized the “draconian national security legislation” and the “paranoia of Beijing and fear of the aspirations of his own people” that, according to him, “led him to gut the foundations of success (of Hong Kong). ” “

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, rejected foreign critics, arguing that the law was a “crucial step to end the chaos and violence that have occurred in recent months” in the city.

“The national security law is the most important development to secure ties between China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since delivery,” he said, framing criticism of the law as “vicious attacks.”

Washington has said it will move ahead with visa restrictions against law enforcement, and has finalized a series of deals with Hong Kong that ranked the city more favorably than China.

On Wednesday night, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill “to impose mandatory sanctions on entities that violate China’s obligations to Hong Kong.” Now he will go to the Senate for approval.
A family is seen in Causeway Bay with signs and yellow paraphernalia, the color of the pro-democracy movement.
The United Kingdom, which ruled Hong Kong as a colony for 150 years, also condemned the law, saying it would offer a path to citizenship for eligible Hong Kong residents.

“We made it clear that if China continued down this path, we would introduce a new route for those with British National Overseas (BNO) status to enter the UK, granting them limited permission to remain with the ability to live and work in the UK and subsequently apply for British citizenship, and that is precisely what we will do now, “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday.

The UK Foreign Office said in a press release that “this new tailor-made immigration route” would mean that eligible Hong Kong residents could move to the UK without the current six-month limit, and would have a limited permit five years to stay, with the ability to live and work in the UK.

As of February 24, 2020, there were 349,881 BNO passport holders and the UK government estimates that there are currently around 2.9 million BNOs in Hong Kong.

China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, criticized the plan on Wednesday and called it “serious interference in China’s internal affairs.”

“China remains firm in its determination to safeguard its interests in national sovereignty, security and development,” Liu said in a statement. “The Chinese side urges the British side to immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs.”

He said Beijing reserves “the right to take appropriate action,” without specifying what those measures entail.

Australia also suggested that it could offer some form of refuge to Hong Kongers, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday “We are considering it very actively and there are proposals that I asked to be submitted several weeks ago.”

On Wednesday, Canada updated its travel advice for Hong Kong, warning its citizens that “they may be at increased risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds and possible extradition to mainland China.”