Surveillance and wiretapping without a warrant, internet censorship, freezing of assets and control of data of users of social networks, including those from abroad. These are the prerogatives that the Chinese-imposed National Security Law gives to the Hong Kong Police, which were approved on Monday night at the first meeting of the Commission to implement it, led by the local government’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.
The former British colony, which was one of the freest cities in Asia, is losing its privileges under the authoritarian Communist Party regime 23 years after its return. Although Beijing pledged to maintain its autonomy and freedoms until 2047 under the One Country, Two Systems’ formula, it imposed this law last week to crush the violent protests that have been calling for democracy for a year.
With a very vague language that punishes practically everything and leaves the sentences to the interpretation of the judges, this legislation punishes subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference with between three years’ and life imprisonment. Such a draconian law, which did not pass through the autonomous Parliament and whose content was not known until it was enacted almost at midnight, has unleashed fear among activists and Democratic supporters.
Scared by its harshness, as it criminalizes even carrying a flag for independence, many Hong Kongers are erasing their political comments from social networks. Although the legislation has no retroactive effect, such views from the past can be used as an aggravating factor if someone is arrested in the future. In addition, fears are growing that the police may spy on telephone conversations and text messages, now that such practices are not required to be authorized by a court but by the head of the local government herself “in special circumstances” that are not specified. To avoid this, Hong Kongers are resorting to encrypted applications whose downloads have skyrocketed in recent days, such as Signal, or VPN connections to foreign Internet servers. For social networking, messaging and email applications, the new law also makes it mandatory to provide information required by the police.
Major platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and Google have put the request on hold while they further evaluate the regulations, including whether it violates freedom of expression and human rights. Meanwhile, the Telegram messaging service, widely used by protesters to organize their protests, has already said it will not provide information on its users to the authorities. But these technology companies are facing fines of HK$100,000 or two years in prison. They can even be banned as in mainland China, where they are censored.