Editorial: Freedoms fade

Hong Kong is still China’s wealthiest, most capitalist city. Its vistas of skyscraper and sea framed by dragon-backed emerald peaks are as stunning as ever.

But a year after Beijing imposed a harsh national security law on the former British colony, the civil liberties that raised hopes for more democracy among many of its 7 million people are fading.

The 30 June, 2020, rollout of the law accelerated a rolling back of freedoms promised to Hong Kong when China took over in 1997. That process was punctuated earlier this month with the shutdown of the city’s last pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily. The authorities first came for Apple Daily’s outspoken billionaire founder Jimmy Lai. He’s in jail serving a 20-month sentence and facing charges of foreign collusion to endanger national security.

Last week, some 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s headquarters. At least seven of its journalists and executives have been arrested and USD 2.3 million worth of assets linked to the paper frozen, preventing it from paying salaries and other costs.

For its final edition, Apple Daily printed a million copies more than 12 times its usual print run. It sold out to crowds who lined up at newsstands for hours. Apple Daily’s coverage was often sensationalist, but it also uncovered corruption and won awards for its investigative reporting, Yuen Chan, a journalist lecturer at the University of London and formerly head of Hong Kong University’s journalism school, said in a commentary on online news portal Citizen News. It also was a barometer of Hong Kong’s press freedom and freedom of expression, she wrote.

The paper’s closure comes as the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding in Shanghai in 1921 by Mao Zedong and others. Over the last year the Chinese government has tightened its grip over semi-autonomous Hong Kong following months of anti-government protests that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.

The demonstrations against proposed extradition legislation that would have allowed suspects to face trial in mainland Chinese courts sometimes turned violent, and encompassed other demands, including calls for universal suffrage and investigation into police tactics.

Now, protesting or publishing anything that might be construed as a violation of the security law can land them in jail in Hong Kong. Traditionally, the city has been considered one of the most attractive places for expatriates, thanks to its low tax rates and ease of doing business.

It’s still a major business and financial hub. But some multinational companies have begun relocating their operations and staff. The American Chamber of Commerce says 2 out of 5 expats it surveyed in May were considering leaving the city. The top concern was the national security law.

In private conversations, many in Hong Kong lament the loss of their freedoms, but life goes on. On the weekends. shopping malls are still crowded. People still line up for hours to get seats in popular dim sum and noodle restaurants or take weekend strolls on scenic Victoria Peak. On the surface, daily life hasn’t changed much. What has changed are the special privileges that Hong Kong was promised for a half-century after control of the territory was handed to Beijing on July 1, 1997 the autonomy of its courts and legal system, civil liberties that included a free press, freedom of speech and the leeway to take to the streets and other public spaces in protest.

 

NT Bureau