One Saturday afternoon in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong’s bustling shopping district, it all seemed like nothing had happened.
In the midst of many buyers in the region, flags with images of pro-democracy politicians floated in the hot summer air. Politicians shouted into the microphones, urging people to vote for them in an informal poll to choose candidates for the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections in September.
A closer inspection showed that things were not quite the same as before.
Anti-government banners and graffiti have disappeared from the streets. The wall outside a small tea room that was once covered with colorful sticky notes with protest slogans has been exposed.
Under a tree, a young volunteer for one of the candidates spoke through a loud megaphone: “Precisely because of the law on national security, we must make use of the freedom we still have. “
“Let’s not forget these eight characters! He said, euphemistically referring to a slogan of popular protest now banned by the government as “secessionist” under the National Security Law, which was passed two weeks ago on the 1st July.
A police van was parked a few meters from street kiosks – a brutal reminder to activists that they are under the watchful eye of the authorities.
Welcome to the new Hong Kong.
The city’s atmosphere, proud of its tradition of rule of law and civil liberties, has radically changed since the promulgation of the national security law imposed by Beijing. He punishes the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with a sentence which can go as far as life imprisonment.
Several young political groups have dissolved. A 26-year-old opposition politician, Nathan Law, fled to the United Kingdom, becoming Hong Kong’s first dissident in exile under the new law. The government has declared the protest slogan “Free Hong Kong; revolution of our time ”pro-independent, secessionist, subversive, and therefore illegal under the new law.
Ten people were arrested during a demonstration for possession of documents deemed “subversive”. Authorities have ordered schools to remove books that could “endanger” national security. Public libraries have suspended books of opposition figures. Police no longer need search warrants and can restrict the movements of suspects, freeze their assets and intercept communications for national security matters. The national security headquarters started operating last week from a building converted into a hotel.
Fear has set in, but the atmosphere of challenge is still strong. Colorful pro-democracy messages on the “Lennon Walls” across Hong Kong were mostly destroyed after police warnings, but have been replaced in many places with blank notes. Instead of putting up slogans that are now considered “sensitive” during demonstrations, people are brandishing blank pieces of paper. Euphemistic expressions are invented every day online to express dissatisfaction.
An estimated 600,000 people went to the primary elections for the pro-democracy camp over the weekend, hoping to gain a majority in the legislature, despite threats by officials that the exercise may violate the law on the national security and the candidates who oppose it. may be disqualified.
China declared the primaries illegal on Monday and city officials have opened an investigation into the vote. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam warned that they could “fall into the category of overthrowing state power” if the Democrats’ goal was to obstruct government policies.
The owner of the Causeway Bay tea shop said that even though she and her partners had decided to suppress the display of pro-democracy messages for fear of breaking the law, she deeply felt it.
“I feel discouraged, heartbroken, helpless and completely helpless,” said Ms. Liu, who refused to give her full name. “But even without the display, the spirit is in everyone’s heart. “
One day after the law was promulgated, a number of restaurants were notified by the police that political posters and pamphlets should be removed.
Lawrence Lau, the lawyer for the first national security case in a Hong Kong court, said the government’s interpretation of certain slogans as violating the national security law had no legal basis.
His client, a 23-year-old motorcyclist who ran into a police officer while carrying a flag saying “Free Hong Kong, revolution of our time” during the July 1 demonstration, is the first person charged with incitement secession and terrorism under the new law. . Bail was denied under the new law, which says judges would only grant it if they had reason to believe that the accused would not continue to threaten national security.
Lau said that this went against the common law presumption of innocence principle that Hong Kong has always practiced.
“The law does not tell us what is and what is not allowed. People don’t know when they will hit the red line, ”he said. “It is the rule of fear. “
Lam, argued the opposite. She said the law was necessary because the protesters posed threats to national security and the residents “lived in fear”. Officials hailed the law for “restoring stability in Hong Kong” after months of sometimes violent protests for democracy.
Pro-democracy politicians say they have no choice but to continue, even if it means being disqualified and going to jail.
“Hong Kong has become really abnormal in the past two weeks. The government is spreading fear. Whatever you do, they say it’s illegal, whether it’s voting, posting online, being on the street, “said Ted Hui, a lawmaker who staged protests at LegCo meetings, acts which could now constitute subversion under the new law and possibly lead to its disqualification.
“Yes, they could all disqualify us. We have to follow a fine line in everything we do now, but our goal of fighting for democracy is unchanged, “said Hui, who emerged as the candidate with the highest number of votes in his constituency.
Some say that even if they have to be quiet for the moment, their aspirations for democracy will not be crushed and believe that things will eventually change.
“I look forward to this day,” said Liu. “History does not lie. “