Hong Kong filed its first charges under a new security law while declaring illegal a key slogan chanted by hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters over months of rallies, the latest sign that the provision will be used to limit free speech.
In what it called a “solemn statement” late Thursday, the Hong Kong government said the rallying cry “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” was now illegal under the legislation barring secession, terrorism, subversion of state power and collusion with foreign forces. On Friday, police cited the text of the slogan to charge a 24-year-old man with inciting secession.
The man was also charged with committing terrorist acts under the security law, after earlier being accused of driving a motorcycle into a group of officers, police said. The nine others detained under the law were released on bail pending investigation, but could still be charged later.
The sweeping law imposed by China, which carries sentences as long as life in prison, was made public only as it took effect late Tuesday. Hong Kong police had arrested 370 people at protests against the legislation on Wednesday, the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. A separate protester was also arrested for stabbing a police officer.
The slogan about liberation was just one of several — including “Hong Kongers, build a nation” — deemed a threat to national security in guidelines issued to police, according to a person who has seen the document. The rules also barred the waving of flags that advocate independence of Tibet, Taiwan, Shanghai and East Turkestan as similar offenses under the law.
The national security law has already had a chilling effect on speech in Hong Kong, which was guaranteed “freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, procession and demonstration” before the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. Several high-profile pro-democracy activists have dissolved groups or attempted to leave the city in recent days, and the U.S. and U.K. have accused Beijing of violating its promise to maintain the city’s “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years.
Authorities had said earlier Thursday that banners and chants calling for “Hong Kong independence” were illegal, without specifying that that prohibition also applied to the more widely used “Liberate Hong Kong!” slogan. Independence was never included among the five main demands sought by the city’s historic protest movement last year, only meaningful elections.
“The slogan ‘Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times’ nowadays connotes ‘Hong Kong independence,’ or separating the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from the People’s Republic of China, altering the legal status of the HKSAR, or subverting the State power,” the government said.
Unsure of what counts as secession and subversion — offenses that lawyers have described as “deliberately vague” — some people in Hong Kong scrubbed their mobile phone chat histories and deleted social media accounts ahead of the law’s promulgation. The move is also exacerbating concerns about self-censorship by Hong Kong’s economists and business analysts.
“Until the offenders are charged and tried, it is unclear to both police and the public whether their behavior does in fact violate the new law — and if so, how steep the penalties will be,” Eurasia Group political risk analysts Andrew Coflan and Allison Sherlock wrote in a note to clients. “In the meantime, officers seem to be targeting demonstrators making direct calls for independence, while others continue to be arrested for violating public order.”
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The Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper published a graphic Friday explaining how the law was already changing the behavior of well-known activists. Those identified as “Hong Kong secessionists” — a crime that potentially carries a life sentence — named former student leader Joshua Wong, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan and former lawmaker Martin Lee, who helped draft the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The new police guidelines banned people from waving “nine independence flags,” which Hong Kong protesters had used to demonstrate solidarity. The Hong Kong Police Force declined to discuss the legal advice guiding their arrests under the new law.
“Details will not be disclosed due to operational considerations,” the police said in a statement. “However the objective of enforcement action is not to target any flags or slogans, whilst to interdict people’s behavior on inciting and/or abetting others for the commission of secession or subversion.”
The first man arrested under the new security law was accused of possessing a “Hong Kong Independence” banner in his possession, while another was alleged to have waved a similar banner.
Two other women were arrested for possessing pro-independence stickers that said “Resist Beijing, Liberate Hong Kong,” “One Nation, One Hong Kong.” A sticker featuring a satirical cartoon of Chinese President Xi Jinping with a coronavirus-like head was among those featured in a Facebook post by police.
Hong Kong officials have defended the new law, saying it didn’t threaten the city’s cherished freedoms and would only target a small minority of criminals who sought to undermine the government.
“Hong Kong should be able to continue to enjoy the freedom of speech, freedom of press, of publications, protest, assembly and so on,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters after it took effect, adding international agreements on civil rights allowed restrictions to ensure national security. “Where it is for the protection of national security, then sometimes some of these rights could be restrained in accordance with the law.”
The Hong Kong Bar Association said this week it was “gravely concerned” about the law and its broadly defined criminal offenses.
“These are widely drawn and absent a clear and comprehensive array of publicly accessible guidelines and basic safeguards as to legal certainty and fair treatment, are capable of being applied in a manner that is arbitrary, and that disproportionately interferes with fundamental rights,” the group said in a statement. “Lawyers, judges, police and Hong Kong residents were given no opportunity to familiarize themselves with the contents of the new law, including the serious criminal offenses it creates before it came into force.”
— With assistance by Jing Li, Lucille Liu, and Daniel Ten Kate
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