Large-scale unrest returned to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday for the first time since the coronavirus epidemic disrupted life in the territory earlier this year, as pro-democracy protesters and riot police squared off over a proposed new national security law.
Police fired tear gas, deployed armoured vehicles and targeted protesters with water cannons, rounding up scores in mass arrests in an effort to disperse thousands of demonstrators who blocked roads in one of the city’s busiest shopping districts.
“I am here because of the national security law,” said one protester, a 40-year-old woman who asked not to be identified.
“Hong Kong will have no more freedoms” she added. “You will be punished for what you say. I fear that Hong Kong will just become another Chinese city.”
Members of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp also worry that the new national security law will erode Hong Kong’s prosperity and undermine its status as one of the world’s leading financial centres.
On Thursday China’s legislature, now meeting for its annual session, will pass a resolution authorising its standing committee to draft the legislation for Hong Kong. The law would prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets, while also allowing China’s state security services to maintain a formal presence in the territory.
Jimmy Lai, publisher of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, warned that the property market could “collapse” if the new law, which will be drafted by China’s parliament and inserted into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, scares off investors from mainland China.
“Mainlanders come to Hong Kong to buy real estate for our rule of law, freedom and safety,” Mr Lai, who is awaiting trial for participating in a peaceful but unauthorised protest last year, said on Twitter. “Now mainlanders fear the national security law.”
A local fund manager said that the surprise move by Beijing, announced just hours before the National People’s Congress formally convened on May 22, “will definitely threaten Hong Kong’s status as a financial centre”.
“What’s the difference between Hong Kong and the mainland if this national security law is being imposed directly by Beijing,” said the fund manager, who asked not to be identified. “It sends a very strong signal that Beijing can do anything it wants in Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, or Basic Law, requires the city’s government to draft and pass national security legislation to replace similar laws that lapsed when the former UK colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. But it has failed to do so, which Chinese officials say has left them with no choice but to impose them directly, especially after large-scale pro-democracy protests erupted last year.
“The interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong will continue to be protected in accordance with the law,” the Chinese foreign ministry’s representative office in the territory said, adding that the “one country, two systems” formula that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s civil freedoms “will remain unchanged”.
“Hong Kong will remain a very free society where freedom of expression, protest and press will stay because these are Hong Kong’s core values and are protected by the Basic Law,” said Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.
Despite such assurances, providers of virtual private network internet services used by people in mainland China to evade the government’s internet censorship regime, or Great Firewall, reported a surge in new purchases by Hong Kong residents.
On Friday, NordVPN said that within 24 hours of the NPC’s decision downloads of its consumer VPNs in Hong Kong were 120 times higher than normal, while interest in its business VPN services tripled. Another VPN provider, Surfshark, said 42,000 Hong Kong residents visited its website over the same timeframe, as it sold a week’s worth of VPN subscriptions in one hour.
“We saw a surge of user growth in Hong Kong directly after the [national security law announcement] was made public,” said Naomi Hodges, a cyber security adviser at Surfshark. “It’s clear that the people in Hong Kong feel their freedom is being directly threatened.”
Any expansion of the Great Firewall to include Hong Kong could disrupt operations for multinationals in China, as many of them route their internet traffic through Hong Kong to circumvent mainland censorship.
Additional reporting by Yuan Yang in Beijing