Home / US & World / ‘Palpable fear’: 3 years after Beijing tightened control, Hong Kongers speak in cautious whispers

‘Palpable fear’: 3 years after Beijing tightened control, Hong Kongers speak in cautious whispers

Four years ago, millions in Hong Kong took to the streets to protest the influence of China. But signs abound that Beijing is tightening its control over the only part of its territory where elements of democracy have been tolerated.

China's harsh national security law was imposed on the territory in 2020

People do an martial arts demonstration on grass.

If the setting was anywhere else in China, no one would have given it a second glance.

Red banners and breathless speeches extolling Beijing's leadership. Music glorifying the police. A pageant featuring smiling youngsters in martial arts gear.

"Remember, dear children," a local security official announced during the April event, "our nation must be secure for our homes to be safe."

But it was Hong Kong, where four years ago, millions took to the streets to protest against exactly this — Beijing's influence and the police. Even today, the reason behind this "celebration" choreographed by the Communist Party is widely disliked.

It was a ceremony — cheerfully hyped — to mark the imposition of China's harsh national security law on the former British colony, a means to tighten Beijing's control over the only part of its territory where elements of democracy have been tolerated.

Using a vaguely defined but sweeping ban on sedition, subversion and incitement, along with a prohibition on "collusion with foreign and external forces," the law has stifled free speech and political opposition.

This despite China's promise, enshrined in the territory's 1997 Basic Law, that Hong Kong's "way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years."

"For Hong Kong people, who are used to a very different Hong Kong, a city with a lot more freedom, with a lot more space to do whatever you want to do, to say whatever you want to say, obviously, the development has been something rather like a heart attack," said Francis Lee, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Speaking out can be 'dangerous'

Lee is among the very few here who are willing to speak publicly about the law's impact.

Since it came into effect three years ago this week, the national security law has been used directly to take some 250 Hong Kongers to court. Many more have been sent to jail with related convictions, including colonial-era laws against printing "seditious" material, fraud and pandemic restrictions on gatherings.

Beijing also changed Hong Kong's electoral system, only allowing candidates designated as "true patriots" to run.

People protest on the street.

Critical media outlets have been raided by the police and shut down, including Stand News and Apple Daily, whose founder, Jimmy Lai, has been in prison since 2020, after being the first prominent Hong Konger to be charged under the national security law. More than a dozen other Apple Daily editors and executives were also jailed.

Meanwhile, 47 pro-democracy politicians, academics and activists are still on trial, accused of multiple crimes and infractions, a process that has kept them in custody and tied up in court for years.

"They promised us that we can be free, be safe and to fight for democracy. But now, of course, people are very frightened," said Emily Lau, a former journalist and pro-democracy councillor first elected to the Hong Kong legislature in 1991 and now retired.

She has been speaking out regularly, saying she wants to keep using whatever room for free speech is left, just to preserve it. She admits it means walking a "dangerous" line.

"[I] try to say things, but be careful not to cross the line, because if you do cross the line, then you could be arrested," Lau said. "Trouble is, you don't know where the line is."

Hong Kong a different, emptier place

What Lau describes as a "palpable fear" has chilled Hong Kong's atmosphere.

In its once-jammed downtown core, streets seem emptier. Businesses have fled to Singapore, leaving soaring vacancies and fewer regional head offices in Hong Kong. There are fewer flights in and out of the city. And a far greater percentage of visitors is from right next door, with the Mandarin of mainland visitors eclipsing the city's traditional English chatter.

A busy cityscape with people and streetcars.

Up to 200,000 people have moved abroad, many ending up in Canada's large Hong Kong expatriate communities in Toronto and Vancouver. Hong Kong students have made Canada their top destination.

That includes Derek Liu, 25, who says he was nervous even as he boarded his flight for Toronto last December.

"I had no choice," he said. "I couldn't bear the risk. I was afraid to be arrested every day and night." He has no plans to return.

WATCH | Many Hong Kong residents are making their way to Canada:

Hong Kong residents want easier passage to Canada

6 months ago

Duration 2:24

Hong Kong is seeing a mass exodus of residents and many people who'd like to leave or who have left want Canada to make it easier to immigrate.

Liu was the student council president at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the site of one of the last and biggest standoffs between police and students in late 2019. Protesters threw bricks and petrol bombs, while the police responded with more than a thousand rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets. So many were injured, hospital emergency rooms were overwhelmed for days.

He blames the Hong Kong government for the escalating violence, by ignoring the demands of millions of peaceful protesters throughout 2019 when they worried about China's growing influence.

Beijing supporters endorse limits to freedom

Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who sits on Hong Kong's Executive Council, its cabinet, blames the pro-democracy forces for the clashes with police, and praises Beijing for its "help," which includes the national security law.

"Order and security are back to Hong Kong," she said, during a recent interview in her office at the legislature. "The political violence stopped."

Does she think Hong Kongers will keep the fundamental freedoms they've come to expect?

"They will remain, so long as they understand that no freedoms are absolute," she said.

She rejects suggestions that closing media outlets "has anything to do with freedom of speech" or that free speech has been "unduly affected" for anyone else.

Ip also doesn't expect Hong Kong to allow major protests ever again, since the police would be "extra careful" in case the events "turn into political violence."

Chiu Loy has seen the new constraints and consequences up close. He runs a community help office in the distant outskirts of Hong Kong, after spending eight months in jail for organizing an unauthorized gathering.

"The game's over," he said. "There's no more criticizing the government in public. We speak in whispers."

A man types on a laptop in an office.

Chiu's crime was to call for a candlelight vigil for those killed in Beijing's 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters. Though strictly banned throughout mainland China, it was an annual event held in Hong Kong's Victoria Park before the security law was invoked.

This year, police filled the park with officers, detaining anyone with a candle or who looked like they had Tiananmen on their mind.

'Struggle will continue,' say activists

While standing in Chiu's office, which was cluttered with books and a mini Statue of Liberty like the one used at the protests, I asked if he was worried about talking to the CBC.

"Even though I am afraid, I have this chance and I have to express my opinion," he said. Besides, he said, "the government cannot jail all the millions of people who disagree with government policy."

Police arrest a young protester.

Chiu said Hong Kongers will keep holding private protests through conversations at their kitchen tables or park benches.

"I believe the struggle, the social movement, will continue at this level. That's why I keep this office for community service," he said, smiling.

Indeed, many activists believe they can wait Beijing out, that its tightened grip may loosen as political stability in Hong Kong sets in.

That's the new normal, as the former British colony gets on with life under tighter control by another remote power.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.

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