May 22, 2024

Twenty years ago, Fermi Wong embarked on her first ever protest against the government. Little did she expect she was to be joined by at least half a million other demonstrators.

In July 2003, Hong Kong people took to the streets to fight the imminent passage of security legislation linked to Article 23, part of the territory’s mini-constitution known as the Basic Law. They feared the law would snuff out the civil liberties they enjoyed as residents of the former British colony that had reverted to Chinese sovereignty six years before.

The show of people power – at that time the largest ever in the city – not only beat off the legislation but also started a push for democracy that would gather momentum in the next 15 years.

“It was empowering and consciousness-raising,” Wong recalled. “For the first time ever we banded together and voiced out and realized how mighty that could be.”

That was then.

Now, the legislation is being resurrected by Hong Kong officials even though the National Security Law (NSL) imposed by Beijing in June 2020 has all but extinguished criticism and decreed most civil rights and fundamental freedoms. Official data shows someone has been arrested every four days for security offenses over the past three years and most have been denied bail.

Protesters in Hong Kong in 2003 burned a Chinese flag
Protesters burned a Chinese flag during the 2003 protests [File: screengrab via AP Photo]

There may be worse to come.

“The NSL was something that Beijing rammed down Hong Kong’s throat; the optics was bad. Any new law promulgated by the local authorities is likely to be harsher than the NSL as Beijing can shrug it off as Hong Kong’s own decision,” said Ching Cheong, a long-time commentator on Chinese politics.

Until recently, Hong Kong, a predominantly Han Chinese metropolis, recognized as a safe harbor for many fleeing political persecution and other turmoil in mainland China, like Wong, her family and as many as 3 million other Chinese.

Others also made the move for a better livelihood and fuller stomach, but Beijing saw the territory as a base for subversion.

In April 1989, Hong Kong people overwhelmingly cast their lot with the pro-democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and sustained the movement with donations for many more weeks until Chinese tanks rolled in and crushed the uprising.

The crackdown coincided with the drafting of the Basic Law, which was to lay out the post-handover administration of Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China.

In the final stages, the Beijing-appointed drafters toughened up Article 23 by tacking on an anti-subversion clause and prohibitions on foreign political entities. Under the framework of “one country, two systems”, Article 23 stipulated that the future Hong Kong government should “enact laws on its own” to satisfy those requirements.

In a belated attempt to safeguard the territory’s political freedoms, the colonial Hong Kong legislature in 1991 passed the Bill of Rights Ordinance by incorporating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, codifying the civil liberties enjoyed by Hong Kong’s residents.

‘Core values’ wiped out

In the years leading up to the 1997 handover and until 2003, Hong Kong society largely trusted Beijing’s promise to maintain the status quo for at least 50 years. That was why the government’s gambit to push through the legislation struck activist Jay Chan as a bolt from the blue. Chan had supported the Tiananmen protests as a college student and, like Wong, joined the million-strong march of 2003.

Heartened by their initial success and even though Article 23 remained, to quote Wong, “hanging, like the sword of Damocles”, activists resolved to keep fighting.

In 2014, thousands of pro-democracy protesters threw themselves into Occupy Central, camping out in parts of the city center for nearly three months in a last-ditch attempt to pressure Beijing into allowing universal suffrage as guaranteed in the Basic Law.

“At the time we had the hopes and dreams for that government,” Chan recalled. “And that if we came out in force we could effect change.”

Then in 2019, 1 million people again flooded the streets to oppose an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong’s courts to extradite suspects for trial to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

Even after a further 1 million protesters hit the streets, then-Chief Executive Carrie Lam would not withdraw the bill until a few months later. The protests, calling for accountability and democracy, would rage on and turn violent; they dissipated only when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.

By June 2020, Beijing had imposed the NSL, criminalizing activities deemed to be secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces. Within a few months, a slew of arrests aimed at pro-democracy activists and media outlets had effectively quashed all dissent.

Succeeding Lam, current Chief Executive John Lee, a former security chief and ex-cop who has just completed his first term in office, feels powerful enough to do what his predecessors could not.

He has promised to pass the territory’s own security legislation as early as the end of this year.

In an interview with local tabloid The Standard last month, Lee said: “We need a suitable and effective law to safeguard national security”. He added that there was still “soft resistance.”

In addition, Hong Kong authorities have also turned to the once seldom-used colonial-era Sedition Law, which allows for a maximum sentence of two years.

Carole J Petersen, a legal scholar at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the United States, expects that the new local law could also increase the penalty for sedition. Petersen was on the law faculty of the University of Hong Kong from 1989 to 2006 and has kept research there.

And while Hong Kong authorities are taking the lead in writing the legislation, there is little doubt about the central government’s influence.

“No one would think the Hong Kong government is truly exercising autonomy in drafting the law,” Petersen told Al Jazeera. “Beijing’s definition of national security is extremely broad.”

Police outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts.  One is facing the camera.  He is wearing a white shirt with a black vest and hat, as well as a face mask and is holding a walkie-talkie.  Other officers are behind him and there is a queue of people standing behind a red tape to get into the court.
Police stand guard in February outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court’s building during a hearing of the 47 pro-democracy activists charged with subversion under the National Security Law [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

A case in point: An amendment to China’s counter-espionage law to cover online attacks, defects and other spying activities went into effect this week.

Recalling the horror of her girlhood in Mao’s last years and weighing the risk of facing prosecution for her activism, Wong left behind her life’s work and emigrated to the United Kingdom in 2021, the year after the China imposed NSL became the law of the land.

“Literally overnight the core values ​​of our society were wiped out,” said Wong. “So swiftly that there wasn’t even time to mourn our loss.”

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