The final days of free speech in Hong Kong

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Tucked beneath the summit of Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak lies the ‘Lions Pavilion’ – a pavilion with a view. Hundreds of metres above the city, standing on the observation deck the metropolis shimmers below, the lights of Victoria Harbour and Kowloon lighting up the sky.

For over a quarter of a century, Hong Kong has enjoyed a unique way of life. Unlike on the mainland, Hongkongers enjoy unfiltered access to the internet, without the need to use a VPN. The territory is free from China’s strict capital controls, enjoys its own currency – the Hong Kong Dollar – and has basked in the freedoms enshrined in the region’s Constitution, the ‘Basic Law’.

Now, with the sentencing of 24-year-old pro-democracy activist Tong Ying-kit on Friday, the first person sentenced under Beijing’s National Security Law, Hong Kong’s status as a shining beacon of liberty flickers dangerously dim. Tong, who was arrested during protests on the first day of the Law’s enforcement last July, was found guilty of committing ‘terrorism’ and incitement to ‘secession’ after crashing a motorbike into police. He faces nine years in prison.

Hong Kong’s status as a shining beacon of liberty flickers dangerously dim

The preponderance of Tong’s trial, however, focused upon his secession charge, brought against him for trailing a large black protest flag behind him at the time of the crash. It read: “LIBERATE HONG KONG, REVOLUTION OF OUR TIMES“. Once a mantra bellowed by tens of thousands of Hongkongers during 2019’s pro-democracy protests, Tong’s case sets the precedent that the mere utterance of these words can now lead to prosecution under the National Security Law. 

In many ways, Tong’s imprisonment represents a watershed moment, the first victory for Beijing over the rule of law and a grim preview of what lies ahead for the many dozens of activists awaiting their fate within the city’s prison cells. Nonetheless, Tong’s ordeal is only the most recent in a series of relentless authoritarian advances by Beijing in the year since the National Security Law was passed. 

Tabloid newspaper Apple Daily, the vehemently pro-democracy brainchild of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, had its assets frozen and its newsroom raided twice, before being forced to print its final edition on 24th June. After over 25 years of publication, just one year under the suffocating atmosphere of the law brought the paper to its knees. Mr Lai finds himself behind bars, awaiting trial.

Education is also being remodelled by Beijing in accordance with the new law. In February, a ‘patriotic curriculum’ was unveiled, with children as young as six required to memorise the four offences criminalised by the law: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion.

A ‘National Security Education Day’ was also held, with children playing with toy guns in mock conflict scenarios, taking pictures with riot weaponry, and being sold plush teddies dressed in police riot gear. By conflating the cute and cuddly with the brutal and repressive, Beijing’s message is clear: if they can’t change the minds of the current generation, they shall change the minds of the next. 

The prospects of Beijing altering its course are slim, if non-existent

The prospects of Beijing altering its course are slim, if non-existent. For one, in the year since the law passed the Hong Kong and Chinese economies have thrived, with Western firms among those reaping the rewards. As a global financial centre, Hong Kong exerts a gravitational pull for investment, as does the mainland, which attracted the most multinational investment in the world last year. Further, China’s status as the ‘workshop of the world’ – producing 22% of global manufacturing exports – has resulted in a dependence on Chinese goods that renders total Western disengagement with China a high-risk, and possibly self-destructive strategy. 

Despite this, US President Biden has continued Donald Trump’s intensely oppositional rhetoric, pledging that China shall “never become the leading country in the world”. Presenting Chinese advances in Hong Kong as part of a colossal ideological battle between autocracy and liberal values, however, brings its own problems. Notably, China is the largest trading partner of nearly double the number of nations as America. If Biden forces emerging nations such as India and Indonesia to choose between them, it isn’t certain they shall side with the United States.

For now, China’s mixing of economic stability with political suppression in Hong Kong seems a winning recipe. Chinese encroachments into the territory will doubtless continue, and whilst Tong Ying-kit may be the first victim of the new National Security Law, he will by no means be the last.

Image: Robert Lowe via Flickr

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