New Hong Kong Security Law Prompts Rise In Self-Censorship

le 2 July 2020




Ordinary citizens who supported peaceful protests remove posters and online comments to avoid falling afoul of authorities

By Natasha Khan and Joyu Wang – The Wall Street Journal

HONG KONG—The chill from the sweeping national-security law China imposed on Hong Kong is sending shudders through a city where people are used to speaking freely.

Despite official assurances the law would apply only to an “extremely small minority,” alarm has spread beyond the activists, journalists and teachers accustomed to authorities’ scrutiny.

The antigovernment movement has enjoyed broad popular support—pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in district elections last November—and anxiety is extending to regular people who have been purely peaceful supporters, prompting them to quickly change behavior for fear of becoming targets.

Jonathan Chan, a co-owner of a restaurant that openly supports the movement, removed all posters and materials that referenced independence for the city—a formerly fringe idea that in recent months gained support among more-radical protesters.


“The movement is still going on, but our focus has been shifted away from the streets” Mr. Chan said. “We need to protect our lives first before we can do more.”

Above, a bubble-tea shop in May with its ‘Lennon Wall,’ covered with protest posters and sticky notes—a common way for businesses in Hong Kong to show support for the antigovernment movement. Below, the same shop on Wednesday, with the wall cleared for fear of the new national-security law.



It now is a criminal offense to give practical support, such as rides or money, to anyone engaged in what Beijing deems terrorism. The law carries penalties of up to life imprisonment, and calls for some cases to be tried on the mainland, with its opaque and sometimes brutal legal system.

“The scope of the law exceeds the wildest of expectations,” said Cora Chan, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, who co-edited a book on how China conceives of its national security and the position of Hong Kong. “The definitions of the four crimes are very broad and vague, and are bound to exert a serious chilling effect on freedoms.”

Many businesses that have publicly backed the protests—a citywide network called the “yellow economy”—removed posters and colorful sticky notes with supportive messages as the law took effect.

Around 10 a.m. Thursday, four police officers inspected a restaurant in the Shau Kei Wan neighborhood, after receiving reports its display was still up, according to Gordon Lam, the convener of a small restaurant federation and friend of the restaurant owner.

Restaurant employees working to remove the protest-related materials declined to comment, but Mr. Lam said they told him the police issued a warning, saying they would take legal action against the shop if the posters were still up when it opened its door for business.

2013: Artist Kacey Wong’s ‘Attack of the Red Giant,’ symbolizing China’s rising influence in Hong Kong, joined the annual July 1 protest march, marking the day Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.

On its Facebook page, the restaurant, called the Bowl and Plate, said it was open only for takeout, with no nonemployees allowed inside—technically obeying the police order.

“The freedom of speech and business is a core value of Hong Kong,” Mr. Lam said. “Hong Kong will no longer be Hong Kong if it loses its core value, and will be no different from Shanghai or Shenzhen.”

A police spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement Wednesday, the force said it would resolutely enforce the law.

Some observers say the law may widen the city’s stark divisions as supporters of the government turn in friends, teachers or colleagues who back the protests. One former top official has offered a bounty of one million Hong Kong dollars ($129,024) for anyone who aids in the arrest of national security offenders.

On Wednesday, police arrested a man on a U.K.-bound plane for allegedly stabbing an officer in the arm during a street clash earlier in the day. Local media reported the man was turned in by a relative.

Carmen, a mother of two in her late 30s who says she did nothing more than join peaceful demonstrations last year, has nonetheless adopted a paranoid routine associated with dissidents across the mainland border. She has deleted social-media posts, used disposable SIM cards when using a phone to talk with fellow supporters and even stopped talking politics with friends.

“The fear in our hearts is so heavy nowadays, no one wants to speak out anymore,” she said. She has made arrangements to migrate to Canada by the end of the year.

The city’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has said the law targets only an extremely small minority, leaving “the overwhelming majority of citizens” to enjoy their “legitimate basic rights and freedoms.” But ads playing incessantly on TV and billboards installed across the city remind everyone of the law and their duty to uphold it.

Some fear it will be used to restrict watchdogs, as well as curb academic and media freedoms.

“This clamps down on the space for human-rights advocacy and asking the government to respect human rights,” said Claudia Yip, a spokeswoman for Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. “The uncertainty of the law makes it difficult for us to conduct ourselves. We have to constantly worry about breaching the law, being caught and charged.”

People might be reluctant to donate to organizations seen as opposing the government, she added, and foreign funding for these groups might come into question. The law specifically targets collusion with foreign or external forces.

Others believe opposition can continue, by finding new ways of expression.

Artist Kacey Wong usually spends July 1—anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China by the U.K.—in the middle of a mass protest, delivering a blunt political message with his work. One year it was a large cardboard figure called “Attack of the Red Giant,” symbolizing China’s rising influence in the city.

This year he showed up in the Causeway Bay shopping district—where thousands had defied a police ban to rally—carrying a more agile work: “Shop Like There’s No Tomorrow,” made up of shopping bags bearing words like “not at peace” and “subversion,” expressing people’s unease. Mr. Wong expects his work to grow more abstract under the new law.

“The voice of protest cannot be silenced; there is always a way to overcome restrictions,” he said. “We just need to be creative.”