Not a single umbrella in sight. Three years after the gigantic pro-democracy demonstrations in the streets of Hong Kong, the protest movement has almost been extinguished by the authorities. “Lhe civil society, which was still so dynamic in 2019, has been gagged”sums up Michael Vidler, a British lawyer who lived on the island for thirty years. And, according to human rights activists and observers, there is no hope of improvement in sight.
The new chief executive of Hong Kong, close to the Chinese government, takes office on Friday July 1. A symbolic date since it marks the 25th anniversary of the territory’s return to China. “The agreement reached in 1997 with the United Kingdom provided for a high level of autonomy for Hong Kong and, ultimately, the election of all elected officials by direct universal suffrage”recalls Maya Wang, researcher specializing in China at the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). “But the people were not included in these negotiations and the regime in place was semi-democratic. In short, Hong Kong passed from one colonial power to another.”
This transition has come at the expense of freedoms in Hong Kong, denounces Nathan Law, leader of the opposition now in exile in the United Kingdom. In two decades, the “semblance of democracy” on the island “eroded and is now non-existent”, abounds Maya Wang. Since the Umbrella movement in 2014, Hong Kongers have regularly taken to the streets to denounce Beijing’s stranglehold on this territory of 7.5 million inhabitants.
“Political awareness grew rapidly among the people, as they wanted the autonomy they were promised in 1997.”Maya Wang, researcher for Human Rights Watch
In 2019, Hong Kong saw the birth of a protest movement of unprecedented magnitude, after a bill authorizing extraditions to mainland China. “For the protesters, it was sort of the last attempt to preserve human rights and democracy”, explains Maya Wang. But the authorities are repressing the protest. Over the months, many rallies turn into clashes with the police, accused by Amnesty International “of senseless and illegal tactics against the population during the demonstrations”.
A new step was taken in mid-2020, with the adoption of a national security law giving Beijing unprecedented judicial power on the island. “This text is written in such a way as to allow anyone who criticizes the government to be arrested and to obtain convictions without difficulty”, analyzes Nicholas Bequelin, guest researcher at Yale University and former director of Amnesty International for East Asia. The law “creates new offences, in particular sedition, revises the modality of trials and transforms the judicial bodies into a tool at the service of politics”he explains.
Police surveillance powers are extended and dozens of political opponents are arrested. “None of them have a fair trial and many remain imprisoned despite the rule of law.continues Nicholas Bequelin. Pro-democracy organizations are dismantled or decide to dissolve themselves, for fear of reprisals.” At the same time, the electoral system is reformed and the legislative elections are postponed for a year, officially due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“With the law on national security, it is a new political order which is essential in Hong Kong. A regime modeled on that in force in mainland China, without freedom of the press or of expression.”Nicholas Bequelin, China specialist
In the impossibility of “continue to work in such an unstable environment”Amnesty International announces that she is leaving Hong Kong in October 2021. “The environment of repression and perpetual uncertainty created by the national security law makes it impossible to know what activities could lead to criminal sanctions”then underlines the NGO for the defense of human rights.
Pro-democracy media are also targeted. Lily*, a Hong Konger who works as a freelancer for several local media, is present “the evening of the closing ofApple Daily“. Muzzled by Beijing, the illustrious pro-democracy daily saw its assets frozen and several of its leaders arrested in June 2021. “It was surreal to tell myself that this newspaper, which I had known since childhood, was going to disappear from the newsstands”, says the journalist. But it is not “not a surprise either”. “Since 2019, I have seen censorship and self-censorship at work in the media for which I was working”she continues.
“I myself began to wonder if I should edit or remove some critical testimonials from my subjects, because the people who spoke to me risked ending up in jail.”Hong Kong journalist Lily
The closure, at the end of 2021, of the Stand News information site, with which Lily collaborated, ended up discouraging the young woman. She leaves Hong Kong to travel and must integrate a master’s degree in journalism in Europe, in the fall of 2022. “This will allow me to work for foreign media and continue to tell what is happening there.she explains. Because freedom of the press no longer exists in the local media.”
After the political opponents and the media, the repression extends to other targets. “A few months ago, a magistrate cited my firm in a judgment because we offered legal aid to protesters. He implied that we encouraged ‘unlawful assemblies’, testifies the British lawyer Michael Vidler. Suggesting that a lawyer induces clients to commit crimes because he advises them is worrying.”
Affected by “increasing attacks in the pro-Beijing press”Michael Vidler resigned himself to closing the firm he had been running for nineteen years. “In May, one of these media accused me of conspiring against the government. I realized that my arrest was imminent”continues the lawyer, who had notably defended the opponent Joshua Wong in 2014. Forty-eight hours after the publication of this article, the Briton left Hong Kong.
“Over the past three years, I have watched in horror as the rule of law was gradually dismantled in Hong Kong. Not only could I no longer do my job, but my family and employees were also at risk. decided it was time to leave.”Michael Vidler, lawyer
Michael Vidler is not the only one to have made this choice. For two years, Hong Kong has been facing a “mass exodus”notes Nathan Law. “More than 100,000 people have applied for a UK visa in 2021. And thousands more have settled in Canada, Australia, the United States or other countries.” emphasizes the Hong Kong opponent.
Nathan Law himself left in early 2020, shortly before the National Security Act came into effect. “It is very difficult to see civil society crumbling, my friends being imprisoned, he confides. I also had to publicly cut all ties with my family, to protect them from possible reprisals.” For the militant, exile was the only solution for “continue to defend democracy in Hong Kong”. “By explaining the reality of what is happening there, I am in a way preparing for my return to my city, the day when freedoms will be restored there”insists the opponent.
“There is a widespread fear of repression because, with this law, anyone can be arrested, insists Maya Wang, of HRW. You can be denounced by your neighbor because you wear yellow [couleur des militants prodémocratie]losing your job because you are critical of Beijing on Facebook or ending up in prison for comments made with a friend in a café… Everyone is forced to be wary.
The inauguration of Hong Kong’s new chief executive on Friday July 1 could lead to a new “escalation of repression”according to the researcher. “I rubbed shoulders with John Lee when I was an MP and he was responsible for security in Hong Kong. I think he was chosen because he is one of the most bellicose pro-Beijings”confirms Nathan Law, who recalls that John Lee was at the head of the police during the repression of the protest in 2019.
Under his governance, the new executive should, for example, try to strengthen his control over the internet and social networks, reports the American magazine. The Atlantic (in English). “The objective is to reproduce the situation in mainland China, but the authorities do not necessarily have the means.shade Maya Wang. On the island, the population has enjoyed certain freedoms, including access to free internet, for many years. Many will circumvent these blockages.”
“Hong Kong is an extremely important financial center, including for China. There is hope that Beijing will maintain some freedoms in the city, with the aim of allowing financial institutions to continue to operate,” adds Nicholas Bequelin. For the researcher, Hong Kong is nonetheless proof that China is “ready to renege on its international commitments”. “When Beijing wants to consolidate its power, it makes efforts at conciliation, he assures. But once this is over, China does what it wants.”
*Name has been changed.