HONG KONG —
In 1993 President Bill Clinton called Hong Kong “a catalyst of democratic values.” This rosy outlook seems far removed from the reality in Hong Kong today.
When the former colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997, it was promised a degree of autonomy and freedoms under the “One Country, Two systems” framework.
But under the new national security law, Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy and freedoms hang in the balance.
The law targets what China calls crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. The law carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and in some cases suspects could be sent to mainland China for trial. Beijing says it’s necessary to stop the city’s unrest.
In the wake of the law being introduced, slogans calling for independence were banned, books were removed from library shelves and activists scrubbed their digital history.
One of the most well-known faces of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Nathan Law, fled Hong Kong a day after the new law came into force.
The 27-year-old told ABC News, “it was definitely a very tough choice,” knowing he could be leaving his home forever.
Law is now in self-imposed exile in London so he can freely lobby foreign governments. Just this week, he met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, something which is considered a crime under the new law.
The new law also appears to be rattling the business sector in Asia’s international finance hub. A recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong showing most U.S. firms operating in the city are “seriously concerned.”
Chamber President Tara Joseph told ABC News, “people are worried about the ambiguity of the law and the lack of definitions in particular areas.”
“They’re worried as well about whether Hong Kong’s rule of law, which is absolutely key in distinguishing Hong Kong from China, is actually going to remain intact,” Joseph said.
International condemnation of the law from Western countries has been swift and unanimous, with the United States also moving to scrap Hong Kong’s special economic status.
Ronny Tong, advisor to Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, told ABC News the international scorn is unfounded.
“A lot of the criticism seems to be clouded with the fact that it was done by China and that itself is a sin,” Tong said.
Unlike Nathan Law, activist Joshua Wong says he will stay in the city.
“I will continue to fight until the last minute,” Wong told ABC News, “Now is not the time to surrender. Actions speak louder than words … we will continue our campaign.”
But what shape or form that will take is unclear.
The mass protests and unrest that defined Hong Kong last year have largely disappeared, particularly amid coronavirus restrictions.
However, demonstrators are getting creative, using blank pieces of white paper and post-it notes as a symbol of resistance against the national security law.
Just a couple of weeks after the law came into effect, democrats held an unofficial poll to narrow down their field of candidates for the upcoming legislative council election.
Despite warnings from officials that the poll may violate the new law, more than 600,000 people turned out to vote.
Hong Kongers will go to the polls on Sept. 6.