(HONG KONG) — As tension runs high in Hong Kong, Thursday marked 24 years of the former British colony’s return to China, and one year since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in response to months of unrest and challenge to its authority.
In stark contrast to the mood in Hong Kong, Beijing has been in a celebratory mode, with patriotic shows, military flybys and cannon salutes to memorialize the founding of the Communist Party 100 years ago.
Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in front of tens of thousands gathered in Tiananmen Square that foreign powers attempting to bully his country will “get their heads bashed” and that they’ll be met with a “great wall of steel.”
In a defiant hourlong address, Xi said there was no room for so-called “sanctimonious preaching.”
China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong also made an “unshakeable” commitment to unification with Taiwan, which China sees as a wayward province. “No one should underestimate the resolve, the will and ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi said.
Beijing’s emphasis on security and territorial integrity isn’t lost on the citizens of Hong Kong, who’ve witnessed authorities carry out an intensive crackdown in the city over the last year since the introduction of the security law. Peaceful mass protests against Beijing’s encroachment erupted in the Asian financial hub in mid-2019 garnering global attention. However as the protest began to grew increasingly violent over the course of months, Beijing became determined to paint them as a Western-backed revolution laying the groundwork for the security law.
It now appears that any hint of resistance in Hong Kong is met with a heavy hand. Police say they can’t allow people to gather because of COVID-19 restrictions, but non-political gatherings seem to have been tolerated in other situations. Hong Kong’s malls on July 1 were packed.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International said the national security law has created a “human rights emergency” and that Hong Kong is “on a rapid path to becoming a police state.”
Beijing has also promoted Hong Kong’s top security official John Lee to become the number two leader in the city, ostensibly rewarding him for enforcing the security law.
When it was first introduced, Beijing insisted the security law would only be used to target an “small minority,” but 12 months on, activists say the law is being weaponized into wiping out the opposition entirely, to stamp out dissent and to curb the city’s freedoms.
The law has sent a chill throughout Hong Kong, and radically transformed its political landscape. Hong Kong police have arrested more than 100 people and charged dozens under its provisions, including almost the entire pro-democracy camp of lawmakers and media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Last month Lai’s paper Apple Daily was forced to close after its editorial staff were arrested and assets frozen.
On the day Apple Daily closed, in response President Biden released a statement saying, “It is a sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world.”
“Through arrests, threats and forcing through a National Security Law that penalizes free speech, Beijing has insisted on wielding its power to suppress independent media and silence dissenting views,” the statement continued.
Most prominent figures who’ve come to define the Hong Kong democracy movement have fled the city or are in jail. One of them is Albert Ho, who spoke with ABC News just days before he was sent to prison in May. “It’s just a matter of time,” Ho said, “You know, when Hong Kong is now facing such a setback and so many of my friends are already behind bars.”
Albert Ho was sentenced to 18 months in prison for inciting people to participate in an unauthorized assembly back on China’s National Day on October 1, 2019 when an unauthorized protest march later turned violent.
The judge who sentenced Ho and nine of his fellow pro-democracy activists said the harsher than normal sentence was to serve as a “deterrent” and “was necessary in maintaining public order.”
For many, the only response has been to leave, with the United Kingdom and other countries offering an easier pathway to citizenship for some Hong Kongers.
Ronny Tong, a top adviser to Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, said that Hong Kongers will have no problem living in the city, as long as they respect the fact that the territory is part of China. “If you do understand the one country, two systems, which involves Hong Kong being a place which is a little bit different from other places, that we are part of China, that is a fact that you can’t change. Not only is it a fact you can’t change, but it’s a fact you need to respect,” Tong said.
“The other thing I would like to say is that I have confidence in the judiciary,” Tong added.
But there are now also questions hanging over whether the integrity of Hong Kong’s judiciary, which is based on the English common law system, might become caught in the crosshairs.
China’s head of security Zheng Yanxiong recently said that the city’s courts should derive power from Beijing. “[Hong Kong’s] independent judiciary’s power is authorized by the National People’s Congress. It must highly manifest the national will and national interest, or else it will lose the legal premise of the authorization,” said Zheng.
Zheng’s comments come as Hong Kong courts start to hear the national security cases of the past year.
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