Hong Kong Security Law Redraws Lines, Making Some Ideas Dangerous – Smart Media Magazine

Hong Kong Security Law Redraws Lines, Making Some Ideas Dangerous


HONG KONG — A barge draped with enormous red banners celebrating China’s new security law was sailing across Hong Kong’s famed Victoria Harbor only hours after the legislation passed. The police now hoist a purple sign warning protesters that their chants could be criminal. Along major roads throughout the city, neon-colored flags hailing a new era of stability and prosperity stand erect as soldiers.

In recent days, as China took a victory lap over the law it imposed on the city Tuesday, the defiant masses who once filled Hong Kong’s streets in protest have largely gone quiet. Sticky notes that had plastered the walls of pro-democracy businesses vanished, taken down by owners suddenly fearful of the words scribbled on them. Parents whispered about whether to stop their children from singing a popular protest song, while activists devised coded ways to express now-dangerous ideas.

Seemingly overnight, Hong Kong was visibly and viscerally different, its more than seven million people left to navigate what the law would mean to their lives. The territory’s distinct culture of political activism and free speech, at times brazenly directed at China’s ruling Communist Party, appeared to be in peril.

For some who had been alarmed by the ferocity of last year’s unrest, which at times transformed shopping districts, neighborhoods and university campuses into smoke-filled battlefields, the law brought relief and optimism. For others, who had hoped the desperate protest campaign would help secure long-cherished freedoms, it signaled a new era of fear and uncertainty.

“This is home,” said Ming Tse, sitting in the cafe he manages, which once loudly supported the protesters. “But I don’t think this place loves us anymore.”

For months, Mr. Tse’s love for his home was advertised at his shop in the working-class neighborhood of North Point. The oat milk carton at the cash register sat behind postcards of protest art. A poster condemned the police shootings of two student demonstrators. Even after opponents of the movement threatened to vandalize the shop last fall, the decorations stayed.

But this one felt more perilous, with crimes under the security law punishable by life imprisonment in the most serious cases. A Chinese official said Wednesday that the law was meant to hang over would-be troublemakers like the sword of Damocles.

The police collected DNA samples and searched the homes of the 10 people arrested on suspicion of inciting subversion — measures that seemed excessive when applied to people accused only of possessing pamphlets, said Janet Pang, a lawyer who is helping some of them.

“You’re supposed to only use power that is necessary, and that’s how the law should be,” she said.

Shortly after noon on Thursday, a pro-democracy activist, Tam Tak-chi, emerged from the station, where he had spent the night after being detained. Mr. Tam met a young man inside who said he had been arrested after the police found a banner in his bag reading “Hong Kong Independence, the Only Way Out.” The man wept on his shoulder, Mr. Tam said.

The Hong Kong government has insisted that free speech is not under threat. But on Saturday, the city’s public library system said that books by some prominent activists had been removed from circulation while officials reviewed whether they violated the new law.

The censorship has crept even into private homes.

In June of last year, Katie Lam took her two young sons to a large rally. Her older son wore a cap that read “Hong Konger” and raised a handmade sign saying, “Don’t shoot us.”

Now Ms. Lam, a data analyst, is anxious about what her sons say at home. One of them is having a birthday party in two weeks, and Ms. Lam wondered if she should hide a print displayed on the piano that reads “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” a slogan that the government says could be considered subversive.

The boys loved singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the unofficial anthem of the protest movement. She worries that the neighbors will hear it.

“Even though we all knew it would happen one day,” she said of China’s intervention, “it’s still painful.”

Xu Zhe, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, said the law was needed to address the “terrorism” committed by some protesters. He had been horrified by a clash in November, when some demonstrators poured gasoline on a man who had scolded them, then set him ablaze.

But Mr. Xu also worried that the law could be used to clamp down on dissent, including speech. Mr. Xu, who grew up on the mainland before attending university in Hong Kong, had never had a chance to protest at home. Last year, he attended his first demonstration, a small gathering against violence.

If Hong Kongers lost the right to protest, he said, “I would feel deeply, deeply regretful.”

Few people in the city know the price of protest better than Rowena He, a historian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. For more than two decades, Professor He has studied the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, when Chinese troops gunned down protesters in Beijing.

Her office is an informal museum of the massacre, with a miniature replica on her bookshelf of the “Goddess of Democracy” statue that the Tiananmen protesters erected shortly before the killings.

On Wednesday, the day after the security law was enacted, one of Professor He’s students decided to walk around Hong Kong, documenting a city on the cusp of change. He sent her a photo of a row of Chinese flags, flapping in the wind. On a sidewalk railing nearby, a banner supporting a pastor imprisoned on the mainland had been ripped in half.

“You are a real historian,” Professor He responded.

Even as old markers of resistance have come down, subtler ones have surfaced. Some protesters have turned to puns and created new meaning from well-worn phrases, a tactic long adopted by mainland internet users to skirt government censorship.



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