Hong Kong Blocks June 4 Vigil as National Security Law Looms

Hong Kong police filed a letter of objection on Monday against the territory’s traditional June 4 vigil, effectively banning the annual commemoration of the infamous 1989 crackdown on protesters in Beijing. The move has been criticized as the latest effort to erode the territory’s autonomy under cover of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, following recent arrests and the announcement of national security legislation which could reportedly be enacted within the month. The latter sparked a resurgence of last year’s protests in defiance of the disease control restrictions. An earlier attempt to pass national security legislation was abandoned in 2003 in the face of public protest. From The Wall Street Journal’s Natasha Khan:

Citing health concerns and social-distancing regulations to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the police force said in a letter of objection Monday that it couldn’t allow the vigil to be held this year and that anyone who violated its decision could be subject to imprisonment and fines.

[…] Opposition groups have accused the government of exploiting social distancing laws by extending them to June 4 to prevent street protests against China’s planned legislation and memorials to mark the Tiananmen anniversary, which Beijing has thus far tolerated.

[…] The candlelight vigil has been a landmark event in the city, a symbol of peaceful opposition and dissent. A somber event where participants attended even during thunderstorms, torrential rain and the city’s tropical heat, it features a moment of mourning for the victims. While attendance has waxed and waned over the years, the number of people was often seen as a barometer of wider public opinion on China’s rule.

[…] The decision comes after a decision by Beijing last month to unilaterally impose legislation targeted at quelling violent protests that gripped the city last year. The law has yet to be drawn up but targets seditious behavior that analysts say would put into question the legality of calling for the end of authoritarian rule in China and denunciations of the Communist Party that are common at such events. [Source]

Despite any ulterior motives and Hong Kong’s relative success in containing the pandemic, the risk of COVID infection at large public gatherings is real. Similar concerns have arisen over the past week regarding widespread unrest surrounding protests against racist police brutality in the United States, where the pandemic is still rampant. Public health experts told The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer that these protests would “almost certainly set off new chains of infection,” although some emphasized that they saw the protests as justifiable or necessary nonetheless. Masks might help mitigate the risk, one noted, but their use during public assemblies was banned in Hong Kong amid last year’s anti-extradition, pro-democracy movement.

South China Morning Post’s Kimmy Chung and Holly Chik reported on reactions to the ban, and fears that the new law may make it permanent:

The vigil’s organiser, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said alliance members would still enter Victoria Park to observe a moment of silence that night, and called on the public to light candles across the city and join an online gathering to commemorate the June 4, 1989, crackdown.

At least 60 booths will be set up across the city in the afternoon to distribute candles with the help of opposition lawmakers and district councillors, according to the alliance.

[…] Veteran pan-democrat Lee Cheuk-yan, who chairs the alliance, previously called the government’s extension of the restriction on gatherings a political one, pointing out it was in the process of reopening schools and allowing larger religious gatherings.

[…] “By banning us this year and banning us maybe in the future, they are telling the world what the people of Hong Kong have been worrying about all these years. ‘When are they are going to ban the June 4 candlelight vigil?’ … They are doing it now. With the national security act, we cannot be optimistic.” [Source]

New York University’s Jerome Cohen commented on his blog:

[…] The Hong Kong Government and the Central Government plainly do not want to give Hong Kongers the opportunity to express themselves about either June 4th, 1989 or June 4th, 2020.

Will Hong Kongers be able to hold the vigil next year? A year is an eternity in politics, and predictions are hazardous. Yet, unless there is an unexpected change in leadership in Beijing, it surely seems likely, especially in light of the forthcoming legislation of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the recent NPC Decision, that Hong Kong might follow Macao in succumbing to the Amnesia that has long been forced upon the Mainland. [Source]

Cohen had previously written that the law “will not be the formal end of ‘One Country Two Systems,’ but it is surely a mortal wound to the living, meaningful system that many had been misled into hoping for. The people of Hong Kong should prepare to cope with the varieties of arbitrary detention that have been inflicted on compatriots elsewhere in China who have tried to exercise freedoms of expression.” The Financial Times’ Christian Shepherd highlighted six such cases on Monday: those of rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che, Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and citizen journalist Huang Qi. The Guardian’s Verna Yu and Lily Kuo discussed the law’s implications on the newspaper’s Today in Focus podcast last week. In an op-ed at The New York Times, Hong Kong-based newspaper owner Jimmy Lai warned that “the new national security law goes much further” than the extradition law that sparked last year’s mass protests.

Apologists for China, led by the Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, claim that the new legislation will only cover subversion, calls for secession, terrorism and other acts that truly threaten China’s national security. But the Hong Kong people are not fooled.

[…] I joined Twitter recently, and started posting messages about the new law last weekend, just after the Chinese Communist Party first mentioned it[.]

Within a day, an article in the official Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times, citing experts, called my tweets “evidence of subversion” under the proposed national security law — this, even before the National People’s Congress formally endorsed the legislation on Thursday.

I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong. But for a few tweets, and because they are said to threaten the national security of mighty China? That’s a new one, even for me. [Source]

Global Times is not as authoritative a voice as Lai’s description might imply, but anxiety over the freedom of the city’s online environment appears widespread, as The Financial Times’ Yuan Yang discussed on Monday:

[…] On the day of the announcement, Hong Kongers’ interest in commercial VPN subscriptions surged, according to several providers. They were looking for a way to encrypt and thus protect their internet traffic from government surveillance, as well as to get it out of Hong Kong in case the Great Firewall is extended.

[…] Some Hong Kong students who otherwise pay little attention to politics said that fear of the Great Firewall motivated them to join the protests. Only a minority may be interested in the security law itself or the legal somersaults required to pass it.

But the idea of having access to one’s favourite apps vanish overnight is a much more immediate and practical problem for a populace that relies on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

[…] If Hong Kong’s internet starts being censored, this will affect not only residents and businesses but also those on the mainland who have relied on it as a safe haven for their data traffic. [Source]

In an edition of the Chinese Storytellers newsletter focused on prospects for journalism in Hong Kong under the new law, HK01’s Selina Cheng wrote:

Last year, when we learned that Chinese paramilitary troops closed in near the mainland-Hong Kong border, I gathered my hard drives and notebooks to stash them in a safe spot, worried our homes and offices might get raided. We took out a stack of foreign currency from the bank and discussed places we could flee to with our pets, should an arrest become imminent. Hong Kong reporters have long been used to informal censorship — having our stories suddenly retracted, headlines changed, or pitches dismissed by editors. Still, we were not prepared for the new reality of possibly losing an eye, being physically assaulted, or getting arrested for doing our job.

Hong Kong used to be the place where stories, books, and publications otherwise banned in the mainland found refuge and flourished. But with the National Security Law, we may be forced to follow the path of our mainland peers and forerunners who, over the past 30 years, have been sentenced to years in prison for endangering national security.

While press freedom is so far still intact, we joke that perhaps we no longer have to prepare for the Hong Kong legislative election coverage in September. We also cherish every story we report on together because we never know which might be our last. [Source]

Hong Kong authorities have tried to ease fears surrounding the national security law, as SCMP’s Gary Cheung and Chris Lau reported on Monday:

Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah pledged on Monday that the Hong Kong government would raise its concerns with China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, if common law principles and human rights safeguards were not observed in the legislation before its implementation in the city.

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, she also said the new law would not be retrospective in principle, and open trials would be conducted “in general”, although exceptions could be allowed under international and common law practice.

Cheng sought to allay fears that mainland prosecutors might lay charges against suspects after the national security law was passed, saying “the best answer is Article 63 of the Basic Law, which states that the Department of Justice shall control criminal prosecutions”.

[…] Asked if there would be exceptions for politically sensitive cases, the justice secretary said: “I don’t see it in Article 63, do I?” [Source]

These assurances have met some skepticism. Jerome Cohen has highlighted “disturbing” reported plans for special national security courts and the “surprise public pledge of China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to ‘fully direct and support Hong Kong police’ to stop violence and chaos,” noting that this would likely “maximize anxiety about the forthcoming national security legislation.” SCMP’s Sum Lok-kei, Gary Cheung, and William Zheng reported on Tuesday that discussion of the law had been barred from a Legislative Council session this week:

[…] Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, in a letter to all legislators on Monday night, banned Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai from raising a question about the law at Wednesday’s full council meeting.

Wu had asked officials to explain what measures would be taken to protect Hong Kong residents’ rights and freedoms under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, after the national security legislation was implemented.

Leung, citing views from Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, ruled that the matter was “not part of the Hong Kong’s government work” because issues of defence and foreign affairs were under the purview of the central government.

Cheung told the Legco president in writing that it would be premature to take Wu’s question as details of the bill were not available.

Wu said the ban on his question signified a “formal rejection” by the Hong Kong government of consultations with lawmakers and the public over the legislation. [Source]

WSJ’s Jeremy Page and Chun Han Wong examined the rationale for pushing through the inflammatory legislation:

“We must pursue our country’s development in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world,” Mr. Xi was quoted by state media as telling government advisers last Saturday. “We must work hard to nurture new opportunities during crises.”

[…] “For Xi Jinping, the pandemic was initially a disaster,” said Deng Yuwen, a former deputy editor at the Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School, which trains China’s political elite. “But reversals in the contagion situations between the East and West have now strengthened his authority.”

Before the long-simmering rivalry between China and the U.S. escalates further, Mr. Xi wants to “plug all gaps and fix all shortcomings, and in the case of Hong Kong, the shortcomings are in national security,” Mr. Deng said.

Mr. Xi’s actions on Hong Kong in particular have helped to reinforce his self-styled image as an ardent nationalist and decisive leader. The party’s main newspaper embellished that image this week, taking the unusual step of hailing him on its front page as “commander-in-chief.” [Source]

The New York Times’ Alexandra Stevenson and Vivian Wang also reported on Beijing’s geopolitical calculations on Wednesday:

Other countries are threatening to retaliate in ways that could leave Hong Kong a shadow of its former self. The United States has vowed to end the special economic treatment it has long granted the territory. Britain has said it could open its doors to three million Hong Kongers, laying the groundwork for a dramatic brain drain.

But Beijing sees its position as strong at a time when the rest of the world is divided and still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. The United States will hurt itself more by coming down hard against Hong Kong, officials believe. Hong Kong’s protest movement, at least for the moment, seems demoralized.

[…] “There will be some unhappy people for some time,” said John L. Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs who has longstanding ties with China’s leadership. “But the drum rolls, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. That’s the political judgment. They have had a fair amount of empirical evidence that the concerns will disappear.”

[…] “‘We expect foreign condemnation for everything we do’ basically is their attitude,” said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University. “‘You guys can bark all you want but you can’t bite, so what do we care?’” [Source]

Hong Kong has become one of several flashpoints in the increasingly fractious relationship between China and the United States. Besides threatening to end Hong Kong’s special status, the U.S. has raised the possibility of sanctions on officials from China or Hong Kong who are “directly or indirectly involved in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy.” China, in turn, has ordered state-owned firms to stop purchases of American pork, soybeans, corn, and cotton.

Chinese officials have also highlighted the past week’s unrest across the U.S., accusing their American counterparts of exercising a double standard in criticizing Hong Kong police’s supposedly restrained actions but cracking down aggressively at home. Elsewhere, Donald Trump‘s threats of an even harsher military response have prompted some comparisons with the Tiananmen crackdown itself as well as other authoritarian actions.


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