Hong Kong on Thursday banned the most resonant slogan of its protest movement as those who had taken to the streets over the past year appeared to be laying low the day after the introduction of sweeping draconian national security laws prompted demonstrations, violence, and mass arrests.
A statement from the city government declared that “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” had separatist connotations and was “subversive”, and that anyone using it risked prosecution under the new security legislation.
More than 370 people were arrested on Wednesday, including 10 under the new laws imposed directly by Beijing and without the involvement of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous legislature.
The swift use of the laws to crack down on protests appears to have had a chilling effect already, with social media and encrypted channels that usually buzz with alerts for new demonstrations going conspicuously quiet and no protests planned for the coming days.
“Due to the imminent implementation of the national security law, the operation of this channel has been suspended until further notice,” said one channel. “Please forgive us for the inconvenience.”
Others remained active but instead of calls to action, there were mournful posts about Lennon walls being torn down, websites removing potentially illegal stories and posts, and a few rumours of further arrests.
Lennon Walls at “yellow” businesses and institutions – those in favour of the pro-democracy protest movement – had become a fixture across the city, but business owners were warned by police on Thursday that displaying such material was now potentially illegal.
I visited a very openly Yellow establishment today. I actually stopped dead when I saw the walls completely stripped bare of all previous decoration. I gave my order & simply asked, "No more Wall?" The cashier nodded & smiled sadly at me, but did not elaborate further.— Conius of Moo 林冬青 (@coneymoo) July 2, 2020
The opaque process under which the law was brought in meant no Hongkonger had seen the detail of it until it was formally enacted at 11pm on Tuesday and much of the past days’ discussion has been that it was far worse than critics expected.
One protester, who asked that her name not be published, said it wasn’t until the text of the law came out on Tuesday night that the reality of the situation sunk in.
“It was and still is really scary, because a large part of what is important to me is now illegal to even talk about,” she said.
“I think people will continue to protest, and if possible I will try too, but I think 1 July also made me realise that this law is going to change how the protests go forward because marching is kind of no longer our main substance.”
She said she was determined to stay in Hong Kong and was waiting to see how the movement evolved.
Hong Kong-based reporter Mary Hui told Australian television she believed Hong Kong would “definitely see much more crackdown”.
“I think one thing to make clear is the difference between Tuesday this week and Wednesday is that we went from a partially free society here in Hong Kong to one that, overnight, became a city under authoritarian rule. Everything around the city still looks the same – the trappings of your daily life … but underneath it all, everything has changed. There is no longer protection of speech, expression, of assembly.”
Thousands marched on Wednesday, also the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British rule, in defiance of protest bans and police warnings that chanting pro-independence slogans or waving banners could see them charged.
The Hong Kong parliamentarian Ray Chan was among those detained, but said on Thursday he had been released. “I was released from North Point police station about an hour ago, after spending the night there with about 180 arrestees,” he said on Twitter. “My phone is kept in police custody. Home to freshen up now; I’ll be back to work.”
The majority of those arrested were for unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct in public, dangerous driving and possessing offensive weapons, police said. One man was arrested while attempting to board a plane late on Wednesday over the stabbing of a police officer. Local media reported the man had bought a last-minute ticket to London and had boarded without luggage, but was removed from the plane by riot police.
Police did not provide information on the six men and four women arrested under the national security law, but earlier reports said those arrested included a 15-year-old girl and a man who held a “Hong Kong independence” flag, later revealed to have the words “no to …” written in tiny lettering before the slogan.
Tam Yiu-Chung, the only Hong Kong delegate on China’s National People’s Congress standing committee, was asked by CNN about the arrest of a 15-year-old girl on Thursday.
“We really don’t want to see such cases but unfortunately in the last year many youths and teenagers violated the law,” he said.
Tam said police would not be laying charges based on just a single speech, but that speeches or banners would be used as primary evidence to investigate if there was “certain organisations, any planning, or any other actions”.
Another man was seen being detained after police discovered a number of Taiwan flags in his possession. It is not clear if the two flag-bearing men were among the final 10.
Hong Kong police have been contacted for comment.
The Hong Kong Bar Association said on Thursday it was “gravely concerned” by both the contents of the new law and the manner of its introduction, saying the law claimed to prevail over existing Hong Kong laws, which would include the bill of rights. It also said the law undermined the independence of the judiciary.
“The chief executive designates a list of approved judges for national security cases (Article 44). Appointment is on a yearly basis,” the Bar Association’s statement said. “Judges chosen by the executive can be removed from the list if their words or deeds endanger national security.”
However Hong Kong’s chief justice responded on Thursday, apparently seeking to allay fears of political interference.
In a rare statement, Geoffrey Ma said judges appointed to national security cases would be chosen on the basis of judicial and professional qualities, not politics.