Hong Kong, changed overnight, navigates its new reality

By Vivian Wang, Elaine Yu and Tiffany May

A barge draped with enormous red banners celebrating China’s new security law was sailing across Hong Kong’s famed Victoria Harbor only hours after the legislation passed. Police now hoist a purple sign warning protesters that their chants could be criminal. Along major roads throughout the city, neon-colored flags hailing a new era of stability and prosperity stand erect as soldiers.

In recent days, as China took a victory lap over the law it imposed on the city Tuesday, the defiant masses who once filled Hong Kong’s streets in protest have largely gone quiet. Sticky notes that had plastered the walls of pro-democracy businesses vanished, taken down by owners suddenly fearful of the words scribbled on them. Parents whispered about whether to stop their children from singing a popular protest song, while activists devised coded ways to express now-dangerous ideas.

Seemingly overnight, Hong Kong was visibly and viscerally different, its more than 7 million people left to navigate what the law would mean to their lives. The territory’s distinct culture of political activism and free speech, at times brazenly directed at China’s ruling Communist Party, appeared to be in peril.

For some who had been alarmed by the ferocity of last year’s unrest, which at times transformed shopping districts, neighborhoods and university campuses into smoke-filled battlefields, the law brought relief and optimism. For others, who had hoped the desperate protest campaign would help secure long-cherished freedoms, it signaled a new era of fear and uncertainty.

“This is home,” said Ming Tse, sitting in the cafe he manages, which once loudly supported the protesters. “But I don’t think this place loves us anymore.”

For months, Tse’s love for his home was advertised at his shop in the working-class neighborhood of North Point. The oat milk carton at the cash register sat behind postcards of protest art. A poster condemned the police shootings of two student demonstrators. Even after opponents of the movement threatened to vandalize the shop last fall, the decorations stayed.

But on Thursday, Tse, 34, took everything down. News reports said police officers had interrogated owners of restaurants with similar protest paraphernalia. The security law criminalizes “subversion” of the government, a crime that the police say encompasses speech such as political slogans.

All that remained was a small plastic dinosaur on the counter, wearing a yellow hard hat. That inexpensive yet tough headgear, worn by protesters who fought with police, had become a symbol of their scrappy fortitude.

“I don’t know if they are so sensitive,” Tse said. “It’s just a helmet on a dinosaur.”

He paused, then reconsidered: “Actually, everything is sensitive.”

That the lines of criminality had been redrawn became clear Friday, when authorities charged a 24-year-old man with terrorism and inciting separatism — the first person to be indicted under the new law. With a “Liberate Hong Kong” flag mounted on the back of his motorcycle, the man careened into a group of police officers on Wednesday, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China from British rule.

Most years, that holiday draws large pro-democracy rallies. But this time, they were banned. Protests were scattered, and police swept in and arrested hundreds. Ten people, including a 15-year-old girl, were accused of “inciting subversion,” a vaguely defined crime under the new law; some had merely waved flags, bearing slogans that had never been explicitly outlawed.

A few dozen relatives and social workers waited Thursday outside a police station in North Point where more than 100 of those arrested were being held. Such vigils had become a rite for protesters’ loved ones.

But this one felt more perilous, with crimes under the security law punishable by life imprisonment in the most serious cases. A Chinese official said Wednesday that the law was meant to hang over would-be troublemakers like the sword of Damocles.

Police collected DNA samples and searched the homes of the 10 people arrested on suspicion of inciting subversion — measures that seemed excessive when applied to people accused only of possessing pamphlets, said Janet Pang, a lawyer who is helping some of them.

“You’re supposed to only use power that is necessary, and that’s how the law should be,” she said.

Shortly after noon Thursday, a pro-democracy activist, Tam Tak-chi, emerged from the station, where he had spent the night after being detained. Tam met a young man inside who said he had been arrested after police found a banner in his bag reading “Hong Kong Independence, the Only Way Out.” The man wept on his shoulder, Tam said.

The Hong Kong government has insisted that free speech is not under threat. But Saturday, the city’s public library system said that books by some prominent activists had been removed from circulation while officials reviewed whether they violated the new law.

The censorship has crept even into private homes.

In June 2019, Katie Lam took her two young sons to a large rally. Her older son wore a cap that read “Hong Konger” and raised a handmade sign saying, “Don’t shoot us.”

Now Lam, a data analyst, is anxious about what her sons say at home. One of them is having a birthday party in two weeks, and Lam wondered if she should hide a print displayed on the piano that reads “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” a slogan that the government says could be considered subversive.

The boys loved singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the unofficial anthem of the protest movement. She worries that the neighbors will hear it.

“Even though we all knew it would happen one day,” she said of China’s intervention, “it’s still painful.”

But in some corners of the city, China’s move has been welcome.

The successive blows of the unrest, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, emptied malls and grounded flights, eviscerating Hong Kong’s economy. The security law, however unpopular, seemed poised to end the monthslong impasse over the protests.

It was Hong Kong’s prosperity and worldliness that drew Harry He, 33, to the city from mainland China 10 years ago. He earned master’s degrees in finance and engineering and fell in love with his new home: its efficient public transportation, its high food-safety standards. He got married, found work as an insurance agent, bought a home, had a daughter.

Last year shattered that serenity. Once, while he was eating at a restaurant with friends, masked protesters smashed a nearby sushi restaurant owned by a company seen as pro-Beijing, he said. His mainland clients began avoiding Hong Kong.

He said he had supported the protesters at first. But he soon grew convinced that authorities needed to restore stability, and that the security law would do so.

“I just don’t want to see violence again,” he said in an interview in his office tower in Tsim Sha Tsui, a luxury shopping district that was battered by street fighting. “I just want Hong Kong to be as developed and prosperous as before.”

Even as old markers of resistance have come down, subtler ones have surfaced. Some protesters have turned to puns and created new meaning from well-worn phrases, a tactic long adopted by mainland internet users to skirt government censorship.

On Wednesday, in one of the city’s commercial hubs, someone had spray-painted “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves” — the opening line of China’s national anthem.

And one shop, in place of protest slogans, hung up nearly two dozen posters of propaganda from Mao-era China, including one that proclaimed: “Revolution is not a crime, rebellion is reasonable.”

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