Hong Kong’s protest movement extends beyond a domestic issue — rather, it is “a global fight against democratic recession”, said human rights activist Johnson Yeung.
Yeung, a Human Rights Foundation Freedom Fellow, said that sectors disseminating information related to the protests such as academia, media, and the digital space “are all particularly vulnerable now” toward government suppression.
Yeung’s statement follows recent events in Hong Kong, ranging from pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai’s arrest and detention among “numerous other activists” to instances of teachers attempting to teach critical thinking skills to students being fired from their jobs.
“As predicted, the government has begun by attacking free media, and will seek to use propaganda campaigns to spread cynicism as a means to suppress political participation,” he said.
Yeung noted that Hong Kong’s press freedom has dropped to the same level as that of Kyrgyzstan, with many publishers now refusing to print books related to the 2019 protest.
“Likewise, teachers and academics who do not adhere to the regime will be disciplined. Participating in protests or even holding dissenting opinions will come at a greater risk,” Yeung told HRF.
Civic space in Hong Kong, he warns, will “continue to shrink”.
Hong Kong’s national security law, passed by China’s top legislature and came into effect on 30 June, said Yeung, has also given a green light to “more arbitrary arrests”.
“Each day, I wake to the news of another friend or fellow protester being arrested for all sorts of random, and falsified, reasons: unlawful assembly, money laundering, inciting hatred of the government, fraud, and more,” he said.
The law, which was passed merely weeks after it was first announced without going through the Hong Kong local legislature and without public consultation, punishes those who are found guilty of “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces”.
Those found guilty under the law may face severe penalties such as life imprisonment.
Amnesty International said in July that individuals in Hong Kong have been arrested “for possessing flags, stickers and banners with political slogans” following the passing of the law.
“Police and officials have also claimed that slogans, T-shirts, songs and pieces of white paper could endanger national security and lead to criminal prosecution,” said Amnesty International.
Yeung said that while the potential passage of the national security law “had long loomed as a threat, the implementation of the current national security law came as a shock”.
“It took the Chinese government less than a month to impose the law on Hong Kong, and the full text of the law was not even made available until a few days after its passage,” he added.
The terms “secession, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces”, said Yeung, “are ambiguous and subject to abuse”.
The Chinese Communist Party and the Hong Kong government, Yeung said, had “nullified Hong Kong’s long-respected judicial independence by handpicking judges to hear cases, granting disproportionate and unchecked power to the police and the national security bureau”.
“The blatant lack of respect to Hong Kong’s separation of powers marks a new era of free-reign Chinese leadership,” he warned.
What surprised him the most, however, said Yeung, was how the Hong Kong “elites” — business tycoons, bankers, high-ranking civil servants, leaders in higher education, heads of religious groups, and legal academics — had reacted to the law.
“These individuals’ careers and businesses thrive because they benefited from a city with a clear set of rules and procedural justice, yet the majority of them could not find the courage to criticize the law. Some even rallied around Beijing’s move,” he said.
Yeung, however, remains optimistic about the future of democracy in Hong Kong.
“This all sounds gloomy, and it is. But I see this as another step on the journey the Hong Kong democracy movement has to take.
“We have to continue to be more resilient, more prepared, and more creative in resisting authoritarianism. I am hopeful that freedom will eventually win,” he said.