The effect of Hong Kong’s new national security laws has been felt significantly this week as it saw the first person to be trialed under the new laws, Tong Ying-kit, and the shutting down of its largest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily.
The trial of Tong follows him allegedly driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers during a protest a few hours after the new laws came into force. He is charged with terrorism and inciting secession as well as a charge of dangerous driving. Tong asked for a trial by jury because he faces a life sentence if convicted, but this was rejected, setting aside a long history of trial by jury. Tong’s trial is a test case for more than 100 people who have been arrested under the new laws.
Apply Daily faced no option but to shut down on Thursday as police had already frozen its accounts, raided its offices, and arrested its chief editor and executives. Apple Daily’s founder, Jimmy Lai, a longstanding critic of the Chinese Communist Party, is in jail facing multiple charges. The newspaper was targeted due to allegations that it had breached the new security laws.
Professor Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong stated, “it is clear that the law will have a severe impact on freedom of expression, if not personal security, on the people of Hong Kong.” Marise Payne, Australia’s Foreign Minister, said “the eyes of the world were on Hong Kong, and that the legislation undermined the ‘one country, two systems’ model adopted when the UK handed back control of the city to Beijing.” Dominic Raab, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, agreed the laws violated the model and joined the EU, Japan, and America in condemning the law. Chan continues, “Effectively, they are imposing the People’s Republic of China’s criminal system onto the Hong Kong common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fall into which system.” Whereas Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, claims mainland national security laws have been “long overdue.” Instead, she says the laws should not be seen as “a tool to suppress the media or to stifle the freedom of expression.”
It is clear the laws were not about Hong Kong’s security, rather they were aimed at quashing dissent and broadening China’s power in Hong Kong. This was consolidated by the decrease in judicial autonomy, which has made it easier to punish activists and protesters. While national security laws are not new and Hong Kong has always had these laws, one of these had not been passed because of its unpopularity. However, this was passed in “unique circumstances” in response to pro-democracy demonstrations proving the real motive of the law was to hinder any serious challenge to China’s authority. This is evidenced by how the details of the law were kept secret until after it was passed challenging Hong Kong’s system, including the Basic Law that is supposed to be a mini-constitution protecting certain freedoms.
China introduced the new law in June last year and according to the BBC, “criminalizes secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces with the maximum sentence life in prison.” The new law “broadens the power of local and mainland Chinese authorities to investigate, prosecute, and punish dissenters, while granting mainland security agents the power to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time.” The laws have also introduced teaching national security education in schools, greater police wiretapping powers, and stronger government management of non-government organizations (NGOs) and foreign news outlets. Since its enactment, more than a hundred people have been arrested awaiting the result of Tong’s trial. This will allow for an assessment of the law’s impact on Hong Kong’s judicial system based on the British common law principles of independence and fairness and how the law will be interpreted and enforced.
The new law authorizing a spate of arrests and crackdown measures has eventuated at a dizzying speed. This was previously unthinkable in a seemingly protected Hong Kong with its “one country, two systems” deal. Further, the arrests and shutdown of media outlets are just the beginning. While it is comfortable to say the world is watching Hong Kong, this is not enough. The new law has had the effect of stopping pro-democracy activists from organizing any means of protest, meaning there is no representation of the fear residents feel about their future.
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