Hong Kong Students Fear for Safety Under New Law

‘Legal system ripped up in front of me,’ student says

By: Nina Milhaud

Hong Kong’s new national security law, imposed by China with no input from the territory and against the majority’s wishes, has the city’s students worried, as well it should. Students have been at the forefront of strikes and boycotts since the so-called Umbrella Movement began six years of sporadic pro-democracy protest against the government in Beijing.

Now they can be certain that when they return to campus for a new school year, they will be the target of draconian legislation that grants unprecedented new powers to punish acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces.

“I feel like the whole image of Hong Kong’s legal system has been ripped up in front of me,” said Fafa, 22, a student in Chinese medicine and biomedical science at Hong Kong Baptist University who asked to remain unnamed. “The bill is so unfair to many of us, but it’s not just the content itself that makes me feel disappointed but the way it was passed.”

The new legislation came a little over a year after the beginning of protests against a proposed extradition law that would have allowed for Hong Kong residents to be transported over the border to face Chinese courts. Those protests, which defeated the law, later expanded into the wider student-led pro-democracy movement which shook Hong Kong for eight consecutive months. At some schools including Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Baptist University and others, the confrontations evolved into building-by-building combat as police sought to take the schools back from the rebellious students.

“China obviously has its interests in curbing the protests and limiting the successes of the pro-democracy camp in the upcoming legislative election, but how the law could be used unknown,” said a recent journalism graduate from the University of Hong Kong who declined to be named.

Breaches of the new law can be punished to up to life imprisonment, with Beijing having the final say in how the law should be interpreted in case of inconsistencies with Hong Kong’s Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution. It also gives Hong Kong’s chief executive the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases and allows trials to be heard behind closed doors.

“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't terrified. Knowing China's past behavior within their own legal spheres, I'm concerned about the arbitrariness of how cases would be tried,” said Wasi Anjum, 24, a young journalist who recently graduated from the University of Hong Kong.

“How they define the law is so unclear and I feel so insecure,” said Fafa. “The law itself I think is hindering the willingness of people to speak out and express their opinion. Before this law passed, people posted on Instagram and Facebook but I don’t see people doing that now,” she added.

According to the new text, people suspected of breaking the law can be wire-tapped and put under surveillance. The law applies to locals and foreigners alike, and whether or not they hold permanent residency. “As a journalist, I'm definitely more cautious on what I'm putting out into the world,” said Anjum, who is originally from Pakistan.

Concerned about their safety and the deterioration of Hong Kong’s freedoms and values, some students see the new national security law as a push factor to leave the city. “I came to Hong Kong in 2015 thinking it was one of the safest places in the world,” said Anjum. “Depending on who gets tried and under what circumstances, Hong Kong in 2025 might be worse off than Pakistan when it comes to the power of the state,” he said.

“I wasn't intending on staying in Hong Kong long term when I first moved here, but with the national security law, what were at first just casual thoughts on where to go next and what to do have now become concrete conversations with plans to leave within the next few years,” added Anjum.

More Hongkongers are seeking opportunities to migrate, to countries such as the United Kingdom or Australia. “I want to escape, I can’t see a prosperous future in Hong Kong, so I am considering leaving,” said Fafa.

On July 11 more than 600,000 Hong Kong residents voted in a primary to determine who would stand as pro-democracy candidates in September’s elections for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament. Despite officials’ warning that the participation in the primaries could violate the new law, the turnout exceeded the organizers’ expectations. Government officials, backed by Beijing, are seeking ways to nullify the vote.

Fafa was among those who cast a ballot. “What if this is our last chance?” she asked. “I don’t know what will happen next.”

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