Speech crime is now the new reality in Hong Kong under the shadow of the national security law

Officers from Hong Kong’s national security agency carried out their first major arrest on Wednesday evening, as they arrested four students between the age of 16 and 21. Hong Kong writer and activist Kong Tsung-Gan said he thinks the Hong Kong government is hoping to use Wednesday night’s arrest to show that they have no tolerance for behaviors and speeches advocating for secession and sedition.

Question: On Wednesday night, four student activists were arrested by officers from the national security agency. How do you view this incident?

Kong Tsung-Gan: My feeling seeing all that unfold was simply how ridiculous it is for what the authorities were doing. I saw them leading away Tony Chung, who is a scrawny young guy that hardly looks like a national security threat. His previous organization, Studentlocalism, is a group of young people, so what kind of threat can they pose?

However, the biggest authoritarian government in the world brought all its weight to bear on these kids in Hong Kong. You just marvel at how absurd the whole situation is.

Question: How do you assess the reasoning provided by the Hong Kong police at the press conference? They claimed that the arrest was not targeting any organizations, but they were targeting specific behaviors. They also accused the group of four for inciting secession online by spreading Hong Kong independence ideologies.

Kong Tsung-Gan: Ever since Beijing enacted this “edict”, which is like an imperial edict handed down from the rulers, I think the problem for Xi Jinping is that he has adopted the hardline. He has done that on all fronts for years, and once you do that, you are caught by your own dynamic. You constantly fear that if you don’t follow through on the hardline, you are showing weakness to your enemies.

When they brought this in, they had to show that they meant business. On July 1st, which was the next day after the national security law came into effect, Hong Kong police arrested 10 people under the law. Most of those arrested have flags or bags with words on them. The other guy was arrested for driving a motorcycle recklessly with a flag that had words on it.

These people who were arrested last night were arrested essentially for social media posts, rather than a particular action that they’ve taken. From the authorities’ point of view, I think what they are trying to show is that they have no tolerance for anything even remotely associated with what they called secession. I think that’s what they are trying to show.

However, what they really showed is just how utterly incapable they are of dealing with any sort of political problem except in the harshest and most ham-handed way. I think the arrest last night was the government setting the whole new bureaucracy in Hong Kong into motion. We often see this with the military, where they were given all the stuff and they have to use it. I think now Hong Kong has a unit in the police force that is tasked with national security crimes so they need to do stuff. The result of that was they end up going around and arresting people who are just no threat to anybody in my view.

I think it’s also the fact that having set up that bureaucracy, the Hong Kong government needs to crank it into motion. I think the message they want to send is that they have no tolerance for even speech. One thing that needs to be stressed is that all the 15 arrests that have been made under the national security law are essentially speech crimes. It’s just utterly preposterous to say that any of these people who have been arrested were engaged in activities that could pose any kind of security threat.

Question: After last night’s arrest, including how the police emphasized the extra-territorial jurisdiction of the national security law, how do you think the situation in Hong Kong could develop?

Kong Tsung-Gan: The very nature of the national security law is its arbitrariness. It has been promulgated to allow the Chinese Communist Party to act however it pleases, wherever it pleases and whenever it pleases. It has this disguise of being a law in terms of the terminologies it uses and the way that it has been presented.

The arbitrariness of the law is meant to keep everyone on their toes. When the law was rolled out, the top Hong Kong officials had no idea what was in the law. On the first day, they deployed the police to go around and arrest people for texts on their flags and banners. The other target was the popular protest slogan from last year, which was “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time.”

The arbitrary way to go about things is intentional and it’s meant to make Hong Kong people afraid.

Question: Additionally, two pro-democracy Hong Kong professors both lost their jobs after the school fired one and decided not to renew the contract for the other one. Even though these events were not directly related to the national security law, they happened after the law came into effect. Do you think the concept of rule of law in Hong Kong has been changed?

Kong Tsung-Gan: The examples you just mentioned plus the arrests from last night show that the crackdown is happening on so many fronts, and in some cases, the national security law was invoked but in other cases, the law was not invoked. There has been so much focus on the law that maybe the other elements of the crackdown have been overlooked.

The national security law was just meant to be one weapon among many that could be employed. Protests have been banned since the beginning of 2020. When we look at the cases of the two professors, one thing it shows is that universities are one of the main fronts. The other thing it shows is that the government wants to send a message that “it doesn’t matter who you are, we are coming after you.”

It doesn’t matter if you are a radical or you are the most moderate type. They have arrested more than 60 pro-democracy leaders who have been the most moderate. One thing that needs to be stressed is that the crackdown is happening on so many fronts, including universities and education.

The government is also using the law in many of these areas to crack down. One element of the national security law is that it’s meant to undermine judicial independence. The Chief Executive is appointing judges to rule on national security cases and that’s clearly an attack on judicial independence.

This interview was first published on DW’s Chinese website.

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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.