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In just one year, Beijing enveloped Hong Kong in a massive national security complex

Police officers disperse supporters of pro-democracy activists outside a courthouse in Hong Kong.
Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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  • Mary Hui
By Mary Hui

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In the year since Beijing enacted its draconian national security law just an hour before July 1, 2020, authorities in Hong Kong have arrested, detained, censored, raided, banned, and persecuted. But this crackdown on the protest movement and civil society at large has not happened in a vacuum. It has been accompanied and enabled by the construction of a massive national security complex, restructuring the sociopolitical landscape and rewriting fundamental rules of engagement.

Here’s the thing to remember when assessing Hong Kong. A new security structure now sits atop existing institutions, in many cases directly altering the institutions’ original functions and imposing a new priority upon them: upholding national security, as defined by Beijing.

“It’s inevitable that they will keep expanding [national security] activities, because it’s the logic of bureaucracy.”

“Once they created this apparatus…it’s inevitable that they will keep expanding the activities, because it’s the logic of bureaucracy: once you have a bureaucracy, the bureaucracy has to do things to justify its own existence,” said Ho-fung Hung, professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University. The national security complex, he added, will target an endless list of enemies and ultimately “devour itself.”

“Nobody is safe, just like in the Cultural Revolution,” said Hung.

A parallel national security complex

Fundamentally, the new national security institutions exist in the shadows, alongside the “normal” government establishment:

  • There is a national security committee in the upper echelons of the government, staffed by top Hong Kong officials as well as an “adviser” appointed by Beijing. The committee’s decisions are not subject to judicial review.
  • There is a secretive national security office, funded by and answering directly to Beijing, and headed by a hard-line figure. Significantly, the office and its staff are explicitly not subject to Hong Kong law when conducting their work.

It’s against the backdrop of this national security complex that we can try to understand the dizzying changes in Hong Kong over the past year. It’s hard to encapsulate the full scope of the city’s authoritarian transformation, but the numbers and charts below hopefully provide a cross-sectional glimpse of the real life, day-to-day effects of Beijing’s crackdown.

Speech and expression are targeted as national security crimes

Since the national security law took effect, 113 people have been arrested by the police force’s national security unit, according to figures from the Hong Kong police. Of those, 61 individuals (link in Chinese) and three companies have been charged for endangering national security. Only one person among those charged is charged with a violent crime, after allegedly driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers while displaying a protest flag calling for Hong Kong’s independence. Tong Ying-kit’s trial for terrorism started this week after he lost an appeal against a no-jury trial.

The overwhelming majority of the defendants are being prosecuted for a purely political act: participating in an informal opposition “primary” to help select the strongest candidates for legislative elections that were later indefinitely postponed. For that, essentially an opinion survey with a performative aspect, they are being charged with conspiracy to commit subversion.

The youngest to be arrested by national security police is a 15-year-old member of a student activist group, Returning Valiant, that aims to “continue the flames of revolution.” The oldest to be arrested is a 79-year-old American lawyer and longtime Hong Kong resident who was among the dozens swept up in January’s mass arrests of democracy activists.

Several others are accused of secession or incitement to secession, essentially a speech crime for making comments demanding Hong Kong’s independence from China. Numerous are charged with foreign collusion, which much like other offenses under the national security law is an ill-defined term.

For example, in the case of media mogul Jimmy Lai his active Twitter account, media interviews, and meetings with foreign officials are considered as possible evidence of collusion. His pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was forced to close this week after national security police raided its offices, froze its assets, and arrested top editors and executives, charging two with foreign collusion over dozens of articles that allegedly advocated foreign sanctions on Hong Kong and China. (The exact articles leading to the arrest have not been disclosed.)

One in 10 people arrested by national security police have ties to Next Digital, Jimmy Lai’s media company.

National security police this week also arrested an Apple Daily editorial writer as part of its expanding probe into the publication. By now, more than one in 10 people arrested by national security police have ties to Next Digital, Lai’s media company that publishes Apple Daily.

In many cases, people who have been arrested and charged for allegedly unlawful speech or acts have not been told what exactly they said or did that constituted a crime.

A radio host, for instance, is charged with sedition under a colonial-era law separate from the national security law that criminalizes spreading “hatred or contempt” against the government, but authorities have not disclosed details of his seditious behavior. Two other people are charged under the same colonial-era law for conspiring to produce seditious leaflets. 1

Taken together, 60 of the 61 individuals currently charged for allegedly endangering national security are being prosecuted—and in the majority of cases denied bail—for making or publishing political comments, or taking political action.

Protests are increasingly banned, criminalized, and punished

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year effectively put an end to mass public assemblies, as authorities largely banned gatherings of more than four people, citing public health concerns.

Even as cinemas and gyms have reopened, and rush hour traffic on the subway has slowly returned to pre-pandemic levels, the government has continued to prohibit outdoor assemblies. The annual June 4 vigil to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen massacre was banned for a second year in a row on public health grounds, even as officials threatened lengthy jail sentences for attendees and refused to say if the vigil violates the national security law.

In a chart first published by Bloomberg, using data from the police, the percentage of public assembly applications rejected by police has shot up from near 0 to over 30% last year. Will that change once the pandemic is under control? Probably not.

Meanwhile, peaceful unauthorized assembly is being punished more severely. Where two decades ago defendants were slapped on the wrist with a civil measure designed to prevent a specific behavior, punishments have since escalated to fines, suspended jail sentences, and outright prison terms of as many as 18 months in the most recent sentencing of a case related to a peaceful march in October 2019.

There’s a special $1 billion fund for the national security crackdown

The government’s budget this year had a new line item: a HK$8 billion ($1 billion) fund for “safeguarding national security.”

What that entails is unknown. The government has refused to disclose how the money will be used, saying details on the national security budget are akin to “war secrets.”

Other parts of the budget also indicate ways in which the government intends to finance its campaign of repression, however. That includes ballooning expenditure on internal security, which includes things like government security policies, law and order, and crime prevention.

Books censored, teachers banned

Seventy-two books have been removed from Hong Kong public libraries since the national security law took force, pending further review as to whether their content are in breach of the security legislation, according to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Among the censored titles (link in Chinese) are two Chinese-language books by imprisoned activist Joshua Wong, and one co-authored by (link in Chinese) jailed academic Benny Tai, who provided inspiration for the Occupy Central protests in 2014, according to local media reports. Another banned book is one titled “Hong Kong Nationalism,” published by the University of Hong Kong’s student union in 2013, and one of whose contributing authors is now an exiled activist wanted by Hong Kong authorities.

More books will likely get censored: local outlet Citizen News reported that authorities this week removed 20 books by Lai (link in Chinese), the media tycoon, on suspicion that the texts violate the national security law.

And it’s not just books that are being scrubbed. This month, the government imposed new rules empowering authorities to censor films that are deemed to potentially endanger national security.

While authorities are busy censoring politically sensitive content, they are also devoting resources to pumping out their own publications. The education bureau is distributing to all schools a 48-volume set of books titled “My Home is China” as part of an official push to instill patriotism in students. The books cover topics including commerce, education, and culture, and feature excerpts like:

  • “Getting bored of Hollywood and Disney movies or animations? Wonderful movies from the Belt and Road are available.”
  • “It would be cheaper to import goods from the Belt and Road countries. The quality and variety will be better.”

And in a sign of how schools are seen by officials as a crucial front in the campaign to shore up national security, four teachers have been given lifelong bans from Hong Kong schools for their alleged links to the “social turmoil” of 2019. Meanwhile, the government had set aside (pdf) 900 million Hong Kong dollars ($116 million) each academic year for schools to “organize diversified learning activities on national education and national security education.”

Policing at the core of government

Days ahead of the security law’s anniversary, Hong Kong shuffled its cabinet. Secretary of security John Lee is now chief secretary, Hong Kong’s No. 2 official after chief executive Carrie Lam, while Chris Tang, who was appointed police chief last year, replaces Lee.

“If it’s a police state, why not? I don’t think there’s any problem with a police state.”

Lee’s elevation marks the first time a former police official has been appointed to a top administrative position, and comes just days after he championed the raids on Apple Daily, and called on other Hong Kong journalists to keep a distance from the paper. Unlike the previous chief secretary Matthew Cheung, whose past roles included running the department for economic development and labor, and serving as a public relations officer, Lee only brings law enforcement experience to his role. Lam dismissed a question on the appointment, saying that a wide range of other experience was “not one of the most important factors.”

A pro-Beijing lawmaker was much less circumspect in response to a question on the new cabinet.

“If it’s a police state, why not? I don’t think there’s any problem with a police state,” said Alice Mak.  “When we say a police state, I will view the other side, that is the emphasis on security.”

This post has been updated to include the latest figures on books removed from public libraries for review. It has also been updated to reflect three companies that have been charged under the national security law.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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