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To sink or swim in the Fragrant Harbour

“It’s a very fluid situation,” said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong earlier this year. Water has always been fundamental to Hong Kong for trade and its name comes from a phonetic translation of the Cantonese for Fragrant Harbour – Heung Gong ( 香港 ). In the 1980’s, the UK government Mandarins who negotiated the handover of Hong Kong knew the Chinese government literally had them over a barrel, as over 70% of the water supply came from Guangdong province across the border. It was a no-win trading position for the British, so they made the strategic business decision to exit the colony.

Joseph was describing the tension in the Hong Kong business community today amid the continuing implementation and implications of the new National Security Law (NSL), which came into operation on 30 June 2020 and under which 128 people have already been arrested. The Chinese delegation to the UN responded to criticism of the NSL at the Human Rights Council session on 22 June 2021 saying that,  

“Since introducing the National [Security] Law, Hong Kong has witnessed a change from chaos to rule, Hong Kong people are accessing their rights and freedoms in a safe environment.”

After the pro-democracy protests subsided in 2019, there was an influx of new investment into the city. Yet, with the arrival of such a draconian security crackdown there is also a growing tide of companies scaling back their operations or moving to other Asian hubs like Singapore. 

Witnessing the impact of the NSL, the European Parliament called on the EU Commission this month to “assess the long-term commercial impact for EU firms operating in Hong Kong … with reference to the changing rule of law and free flow of information and capital in the city.”

Tara Joseph was echoing Hongkongers and the international community alike when she said there were “lots of unanswered questions and that’s worrying because everyone’s trying to figure out how hard the security laws are going to be.” International trade ebbs and flows in Hong Kong and Joseph reflected on the dilemma for businesses,

“Nobody wants to run for the exit or throw the baby out with the bath water.”

However, it is an on-going conundrum for businesses; stand up for the city’s rights and freedoms, put their heads down and kowtow to the new Chinese clamp down or, for those that can, quietly leave the ex-colony. The Asia Internet Coalition, which includes tech giants Google, Facebook, Apple Inc. and Twitter, was one group who raised concerns with Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner this month over new privacy laws. Aimed at curtailing doxing – the public sharing of some individual’s private information – the new laws could introduce undefined “severe sanctions … not aligned with global norms or trends.” 

Another tech giant, Microsoft, was at the heart of a very public co-ordinated admonishment of the Chinese government this week by the US, European Union, NATO, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan who accused China of engaging in a cyber-attack that crippled thousands of computers globally in March. The group said it was “with high confidence,” that they could attribute the breach to cyber attackers affiliated with China’s state security ministry. Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, counterattacked, demanding the group to “stop pouring dirty water,” and saying that the allegations were “solely [to] serve the political purpose of smearing and suppressing [China].”

On 22 July, the latest attack on freedom of speech in Hong Kong saw the new national security police unit arrest five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists charging them with sedition and freezing the funds of the union. The alleged crime was for writing a series of children’s books, which featured sheep protecting their village from wolves, to explain the pro-democracy protests of 2019. The police justification was that “Residents must see the facts clearly, must not condone or beautify violence and should not let the next generation be incited and misled by untrue and biased information.”

The next generation are already being shielded from books and educational materials, which are being vetted based on NSL principles, or removed if they mention anything derogatory about China, the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the pro-democracy movement. Academic research has also been doctored to distort history and remove any unsightly citations.

This clampdown comes only a week after the Hong Kong Book fair had a greatly reduced offering of books that might be deemed politically sensitive or have anything to do with the pro-democracy movement. Sellers, publishers, distributors and import/exporters practiced self-censorship in fear of reprisals under the national security law. Jimmy Pang, a local publisher, told Associated Press,  

“We don’t want to get into trouble that will affect the operation of the book fair, so we self-censor a lot this time. We read through every single book and every single word before we bring it here.”

The authorities have also set up a helpful NSL whistle-blower hotline to encourage people in Hong Kong to report on each other so that the police can then follow up on any potential violations of the national security legislation. Consequently, it is not surprising that self-censorship is the new trend at the book fair, as others might just do it for them otherwise.

However, the book sellers may find some comfort in a joint resolution from the European Parliament on 8 July which voiced its concern on the human rights situation in Hong Kong. The resolution clearly laid out its condemnation of attacks on freedoms of speech and the undermining of the independence of the judiciary. It raised alarm at the arrests of politicians, pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders, journalists and the closure of Apple Daily on the grounds that its activities constitute a threat to national security. Its founder Jimmy Lai was imprisoned for 20 months, and 800 staff laid off with the freezing of its Euro 2 million assets at the end of June. The European Parliament called on EU member states,  

“to ensure that the silenced people of Hong Kong are given a voice once more by assisting with the archiving, publicising and documenting of human rights violations, and to counteract the PRC by making books that are banned in Hong Kong widely available online;” 

The joint-resolution also calls for the introduction of an EU lifeboat scheme for Hongkongers which was echoed by a plea from a coalition of exiled pro-democracy activists in the U.S. In a letter, the group called on the U.S. Congress to grant Priority 2 Refugee Status to Hong Kong’s peaceful pro-democracy protesters seeking resettlement, Temporary Protection Status to Hong Kong citizens already in the U.S. and an extension of visas “to high-skilled Hong Kong residents with an associate degree or above.” This is to try and save others from an ‘exit ban’ due to come into force on 1 August 2021 under the new immigration law in Hong Kong. This could restrict the ability for those who are on the security authorities “wanted list” from escaping persecution and leaving the territory. 

Pro-democracy supporter, Joey Siu, who fled Hong Kong in the protest aftermath said, 

“there is almost no room for Hongkongers to continue to express themselves in a safe way.”

Interviewed at a Frontline Club screening of ‘Do Not Split’, a film of the pro-democracy protests by Anders Hammer, Siu explained, 

“Now we see that not only the very prominent democratic activist politicians have been arrested and kept behind bars but they have also made use of the national security legislation to arrest and charge random protesters who were simply holding banners with a slogan saying ‘Free Hong Kong’.”

At the UN Human Rights Council on the 22 June, the Chinese delegation reminded fellow states that the, 

“Chinese constitution has laws to guarantee that its citizens enjoy various rights including freedom of speech. At the same time, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute. It must be exercised within the legal framework, and must not harm the country’s societal collective, and other citizens.”

The rallying cry of the pro-democracy Umbrella movement was ‘Be Like Water’ to flow around the obstacles set up by the police and security forces. However, that fluidity seems to be running dry as the Chinese communist party seeks to stop the flow of all those who stood for the freedoms enshrined in ‘one country-two systems’. Siu reminded the audience, “almost every promise made by China under the international treaty of the Sino British Joint Declaration has been violated. It is a responsibility for not only China to uphold his promises but for the British government and all the international community stakeholders to hold China accountable.”

But although the treaty is registered at the United Nations to keep the unique freedoms of Hong Kong intact until at least 2050, it was clear from the Chinese delegation rebuffs at the Human Rights Council in June that this is not going to be honoured. 

“The affairs of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet are China’s internal affairs,”

said the Chinese representative to the UN, “which brooks no outside interference. We will safeguard our sovereignty, we will ask your countries to stop using human rights as a pretext to intervene in internal affairs. We will not let anybody [have] their way in injuring the interests of China.”

So, as the authors of a children’s book about sheep face jail, it remains to be seen if the international community will stand up to a wolf in sheep’s NSL clothing and start to give shelter to the lost sheep from the flock.

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