Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (Image: AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Barely a month after China foisted new national security law (NSL) upon Hong Kong, Beijing has laid to rest any thoughts the new legislation would be relatively benign or only target a select few.

A coordinated police swoop on Monday August 10 saw 10 people arrested, including media billionaire and long-time Beijing critic Jimmy Lai, and activist leader Agnes Chow. Police have said that the operation is still underway.

Two of Lai’s sons and a number of his executives were also arrested, as well as journalist Wilson Li, a freelancer for Britain’s ITV. Charges for the detainees range from foreign collusion to corruption. Chow was charged on sedition charges.

Lai’s arrest — his second this year after charges were dropped in March over a protest that took place in August 2019 — is just the latest in a series of moves by Beijing that have seen the NSL implemented with brutal speed and intent.

Last week four young political activists were arrested for online posts, a day after 12 pro-democracy candidates for Hong Kong Legislative Council elections were barred from competing. Those barred included Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 “umbrella” protests which were a precursor to last year’s street marches.

“The excuse they use is that I describe national security law as a draconian law,” Wong, 23, wrote on Facebook. “Clearly, Beijing shows a total disregard for the will of the Hongkongers, tramples upon the city’s last pillar of vanishing autonomy and attempts to keep Hong Kong’s legislature under its firm grip.”

Beijing promptly “postponed” the city’s September poll under the cover of COVID-19. A group of nations including Australia protested the move, but the die is cast. Many believe the poll will never be held; if it is, it will be a sham event.

Hong Kong professor Benny Tai, one of the organisers of the 2014 umbrella protests, was sacked from Hong Kong university, and the city’s well regarded director of public prosecutions David Leung resigned, triggering fresh fears about the precarious state of Hong Kong’s legal system. Schools have been handed a laundry-list of nationalistic rituals, and Hong Kong’s anthem has been banned in favour of the mainland’s.

Beijing is now very firmly in charge.

While Lai was widely expected to be one of the first targets of the NSL, police raids on the offices of Lai-owned media outlets Apple Daily and Next Digital were nevertheless a reminder that press freedom in Hong Kong is on life support.

Lai is unlikely to be the last person in the media to be scooped up and spirited away to the mainland for trial — probably in secret and with no legal representation.

“The arrests, and the raid on the newsroom are a direct assault on Hong Kong’s press freedom and signal a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation,” a statement from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong read. “Today’s events raise worries that such actions are being used to erase basic freedoms in Hong Kong.

“Just as troubling as the arrests was the subsequent police action at the Next Digital offices, where uniformed police entered and set up cordons with orange tape, questioned journalists and took down their identifying information, and were seen rifling through notes and papers on reporters’ desks.”

Following the raid, police blocked a range of international media organisations including newswires Reuters, Agence France Presse and Associated Press from attending a news conference on the arrest.

A major shake-up of media in Hong kong is already underway. The New York Times recently announced it is shifting its Asian HQ to Seoul, while other international media organisations are expected to be well-advanced with their own contingency plans.

Some international journalists have already had trouble gaining visas back to Hong Kong. Expatriate media representatives fear the imposition of the mainland’s system, where journalists must apply each year for fresh working permits.

Contrary to some Pollyanna-esque commentary in the Australia media, notably a piece by John Menadue slamming Australian government travel advice to avoid Hong Kong because of the NSL, the new legislation is widespread cause for concern.

Chinese laws are capricious and used vengefully by the Chinese Communist Party, to which scores of targeted Australian business people can attest. Australian businesses in Hong Kong (as well as any visitors) would do well to be wary.

The NSL is, like all laws from Beijing, very broadly worded open to any interpretation that the Communist Party chooses.

Surveys of American businesses in Hong Kong by the US Chamber of Commerce have already shown that many are planning to leave — most especially those in the technology sector due to the pitched battle for tech supremacy now underway between the US and China.

The situation is only going to get worse, with China yesterday threatening retaliation against American companies for the imposition of US sanctions on officials, including Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Make no mistake, Australians are just as on the nose in Beijing’s books. As recent history tells us, with China trapped into buying Australian iron ore and other hard and soft commodities, Beijing will let its retribution play out elsewhere.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off