By Shirley Lau
Hong Kong, Dec 22 (efe-epa).- China has rapidly increased its control over Hong Kong this year, approving a stringent and controversial national security law to curb protests, which has significantly cut down the freedoms enjoyed by the former British colony until now.
Numerous activists and lawmakers have been arrested, jailed or fled abroad, while the city’s mini-parliament is now left with practically no opposition.
In the space of just 12 months, Hong Kong has changed so drastically that it is no longer deemed a free place it used to be by many.
“The conclusion for the year is that Hong Kong has been going to the dogs. Things have been deeply worrying in 2020,” political commentator and businessman Lew Mon-hung told EFE.
Critics have said that the national security law – which carries sentences of up to life imprisonment for charges such as secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities and foreign collusion – has effectively ended freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
Drafted behind closed doors in Beijing – as not even Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was involved – the law took effect on the night of June 30, one hour before the ex-British colony marked the 23rd anniversary of its return to China in 1997. Overnight, a sense of fear and uncertainty took hold of the territory.
The legislation was Beijing’s reaction to months of sustained protests – which at times escalated into violence – against the government of Hong Kong and the growing influence of the Chinese government.
The protracted movement, which first erupted in June 2019, plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades, with frequent clashes between protesters and the police.
Lam said the law “is a crucial step to ending chaos and violence that has occurred over the past few months.”
However, the harsh sentences and unprecedented power that it gives Beijing has led to politicians such as prominent activist Joshua Wong and ex-lawmaker Claudia Mao equating it to “the end of Hong Kong”.
The law criminalizes acts that provoke “hatred” towards the Chinese government, although what constitutes hatred has not been clearly defined.
The protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolutions of our times”, heard in almost every protest last year, is now deemed secessionist and damaging public transport facilities can constitute “terrorism.”
The law – which also applies to people living outside Hong Kong – allows authorities to tap the phones of suspects.
Some trials can be heard behind closed doors, while a security office set up by Beijing in Hong Kong can send cases to be tried in mainland China if it deems fit.
“The national security law has crushed many existing values in Hong Kong. It is to the detriment of Hong Kong’s prosperity and will greatly jeopardize the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” Lew said.
Shortly before the law’s enactment, pro-democracy political groups disbanded, restaurants removed pro-protester paraphernalia and social media users deleted anti-government posts over the fear of repercussions.
Over the past few months, a growing number of activists, including ex-legislators Nathan Law and Ted Hui, have gone into self-exile abroad.
So far, more than 30 people have been arrested under the security law and four have been charged for violating it.
The detainees include 73-year-old Jimmy Lai, a renowned media mogul and staunch critic of Beijing, who has been charged with colluding with foreign forces over some comments he purportedly made on Twitter and sent into custody until a hearing in April 2021.