China's Tough Hong Kong Law Hushes Media And Activists In Its 1st Year Apple Daily was closed, universities were muzzled and prominent activists were either jailed or exiled. The national security law has surely made an impact in Hong Kong in its first year in force.

China's Tough Hong Kong Law Turns 1 Year Old — And It's Already Grown Teeth

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 2019, massive protests against Beijing's rule rocked Hong Kong. Now that kind of dissent could be punished by up to life in prison under a national security law. It's been one year since Beijing imposed that law in the region of Hong Kong. NPR's Emily Feng looks at how it's been applied and the effect it's had on civil society.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hong Kong's political opposition was cautiously optimistic in 2019. Despite a crackdown on protests, they'd notched a landslide win in local district elections that October. So they set their sights higher. They would poll voters to identify the best candidates for upcoming legislative elections. It was not to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

FENG: This March, 47 activists who organized that poll were charged under the national security law for subversion, the largest round of charges under the law.

LYDIA WONG: I'm not totally surprised. I think is more like putting the Chinese playbook on the Hong Kong situation.

FENG: This is Lydia Wong. She's one of the legal researchers tracking every national security case. She and the Georgetown Center for Asian Law found that, so far, the law has been used to arrest about 130 people, not just for subversion, but also crimes like collusion with foreign forces or secession. Of those arrested, only about half have been formally charged. So while the absolute number of people being brought to trial has indeed been low, the law has been used to arrest people for a broad variety of offenses, a strategy legal experts like Wong say is designed to scare off all future dissent.

WONG: They have very high cash bail, and also, they will need to hand out their travel document. You need to dismiss your organization. You need to stay away from social media. You cannot have, like, public speech.

FENG: So far, the law has been used to detain influential academics, to threaten senior lawyers and, perhaps most prominently, to charge business tycoons like publisher Jimmy Lai. Last week, the prominent pro-democracy paper he founded, Apple Daily, abruptly closed. The government used the law to arrest most of the investigative outlet's top editors and freeze the paper's bank accounts. This kind of retribution is something few Hong Kongers can shoulder. Here's Lo Kin-hei. He is one of the few remaining opposition politicians left.

LO KIN-HEI: Every time that I do any public speaking, I think really forcefully before I say something. I'm very cautious on that.

FENG: Hong Kong's freewheeling press has also been more quiet after Apple Daily's closure. Newsrooms and their lawyers are struggling to figure out whether talking with sources abroad or interviewing the political opposition could land them in court.

HARI KUMAR: The law was very vaguely defined. A lot of terms in that were left very ambiguous.

FENG: Hari Kumar was a senior editor for the Hong Kong public broadcasters' English services until last year.

KUMAR: If we publish something or rebroadcast something where people are shouting something, is it antinational to let that go on air? Should we edit out that one? Or if we publish a picture of somebody with a flag saying Hong Kong independence, is it promoting Hong Kong independence? We don't know. We still don't know.

FENG: What is clear is that Beijing is calling the shots. Gwyneth Ho is one of the 47 activists who was charged for organizing the poll. NPR spoke to the former journalist before she was charged and detained under the law in March. She says even opposing the law itself could be seen as subversive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BORADCAST)

GWYNETH HO: They are saying that you cannot oppose China from imposing any law, that the People's Congress have this right to impose laws on Hong Kong based on national security.

FENG: And so in 2021, Hong Kong has become exactly the kind of place anti-government protesters feared when they took to the streets in 2019, a place with a hobbled press corps, a weekend court system and where any opposition to Beijing's rule is not tolerated - in short, a place that increasingly resembles mainland China.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN JORDAN'S "I CAN FEEL IT HUMMING")

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