It is not only the fact of demonstrating that can, at the end of 2020 in Hong Kong, lead to prison. At the end of a year of unprecedented decline in freedoms in the former British colony, one can also be sued for a slogan or a tweet.
• Read also: Hong Kong pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai in court
• Read also: Hong Kong activist convicted of contempt of Chinese flag
China had undertaken, before recovering Hong Kong in 1997, to preserve the freedoms and the semi-autonomy of the territory during 50 years, in application of the principle “One country, two systems” negotiated with London.
But scalded by the vast movement to challenge their supervision in 2019, the Chinese authorities have this year undertaken a strong takeover of the territory, reneging on the commitment made 23 years ago.
It is now Beijing which sets its agenda in Hong Kong, where certain opinions are now liable to life imprisonment.
The turning point came in the middle of this pivotal year, on June 30, when China imposed a new national security law on its turbulent region, without even submitting it to the Legislative Council (LegCo), the local parliament.
For the pro-Beijing camp, this law was necessary to restore calm in a territory heckled by more than six months of protests in 2019.
“Whether we like it or not, it has been effective in bringing peace and stability to Hong Kong,” observes MP Regina Ip.
The stability of a grave
But for the detractors of the text, it is the last nail in the coffin of semi-autonomy, a way to definitively bury these freedoms that have made Hong Kong prosperous.
“This” stability “is the one you experience when you are in your grave,” quips Philip Dykes, outgoing president of the Bar Association.
“The offenses defined in the National Security Act are about what people say, not what people do.”
Even before the law was imposed, the city had already changed significantly in six months.
The restrictions imposed on the coronavirus have had the effect of prohibiting any possibility of demonstrating.
The courts are crumbling under the weight of the litigation inherited from the mobilization of 2019.
The LegCo, of which only half of its members are elected by universal suffrage, has been deprived of any dissenting voice since the pro-democracy elected representatives resigned in solidarity with their colleagues who had been ousted for their opinions.
Local authorities have also banned several opposition figures from standing for legislative elections scheduled for September. Then, citing the pretext of the coronavirus, they outright postponed for one year these elections which risked being marked by a new pro-democracy tidal wave.
“Freezing of accounts”
The most effective instrument of this repression will have been the law on security which, on paper, targets four crimes: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
In fact, its very vague formulation makes it possible to continue the expression of certain opinions such as advocating Hong Kong independence, greater autonomy, or defending international sanctions.
The vast majority of files opened by the police under the law thus relate to crimes of opinion.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai, a figure in the pro-democracy camp, is being sued for tweets and interviews.
Also detained, student activist Tony Chung, 19, is being sued for secession in a case related to his social media posts.
Last month, several people were arrested for chanting banned slogans at a small campus rally.
Another concern is the end of Hong Kong’s sovereignty in judicial matters, since Chinese justice now has jurisdiction in Hong Kong over certain crimes and that for the first time its agents can legally operate there.
The authorities have stepped up the freezing of suspects’ bank accounts.
In response, the United States revoked its special trade arrangements with the city and imposed sanctions on local officials like Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
But the speed of the Chinese repression surprised even within the ranks of the establishment.
“With each passing day, I recognize a little less the city where I was born”, wrote in early December in the South China Morning Post Michael Chugani, a columnist known for his pro-Beijing views.
The city, he continued, is now perceived as a city “where we limit freedom of expression, where we restrict the right to demonstrate, where we muzzle the media, where we crush the opposition with arrests, where we freeze bank accounts ”.
However, the anger expressed by the population in 2019 has not subsided, says political scientist Derek Yuen. But “Beijing is trying to clean up Hong Kong as soon as possible,” he said.
Proof of this is that after a series of acquittals, a senior mainland Chinese official called for judicial reform.
Mme Lam has become more and more combative over the months.
She, who seemed to play the conciliation card at the start of the year by promising to “listen humbly” after months of chaos, told the SCMP in November that she had “regained confidence” and did not regret any of her decisions.
“I’m myself again,” she trumpeted.