Just hours after Chinese President Xi Jinping signed Hong Kong’s controversial new national security bill into law, it’s already having a chilling impact on pro-democracy activists.
In the space of a few hours on Tuesday morning, some of the most prominent activists resigned and the groups they led, which had spurred more than a year of sometimes-violent protests, disbanded. Social media posts were erased, pro-democracy protest art was removed from buildings, and one pro-China lawmaker offered huge rewards to anyone willing to snitch on protesters who had fled the city.
And the impact of the new law could be seen even more starkly on Wednesday, when Hong Kong’s annual pro-democracy march was supposed to take place. It’s been banned by police for the first time in 17 years, setting up a clash between protesters and authorities.
Demosisto, the pro-democracy group led by prominent activist and politician Joshua Wong, announced on Facebook that it would be disbanding with immediate effect. The move followed an announcement from Wong and other prominent members — Nathan Law, Agnes Chow, and Jeffrey Ngo — that they’d be stepping down after China’s top legislative body passed a law that criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference in Hong Kong.
Wong said the new law put the lives of those who spoke out against Beijing at risk, citing the threat of extradition to China and 10 years of political imprisonment.
“No one can be sure [what happens] tomorrow,” Wong said on his Facebook page. “I believe at this moment, there are countless pairs of eyes in the world caring about Hong Kong, and gazing at my personal situation under the national security legislation. I will continue to defend my home — Hong Kong — until they silence, obliterate me from this piece of land.”
Demosisto was not the only group taking steps to ensure the safety of its members.
The pro-independence group Hong Kong National Front has disbanded its local group, adding that overseas divisions in Taipei and the U.K. would take over the work of promoting independence.
Studentlocalism, which also advocates for an independent Hong Kong, plans to establish overseas divisions in Taiwan, the U.S., and Australia to handle the organization’s ongoing work toward the cause.
The law came into effect at 11 p.m. local time on Tuesday (11 a.m. ET), and the full text of the law was finally released. But by that stage, it was too late for opponents of the law to do anything about it.
Earlier on Tuesday morning the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the law by a unanimous vote. Xi then signed a presidential order approving the law, and the Standing Committee inserted the legislation into the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs Hong Kong.
In a warning to opponents of the move, Beijing warned protesters not to “underestimate the party center’s determination to safeguard Hong Kong’s national security” or its willingness and ability to enforce the new rules.
The situation could ignite Wednesday if crowds gather for the Hong Kong’s annual pro-democracy march, which has been taking place since 2003. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organizes the march, said this was the first time it had been banned by the police. But despite the ban, the march is expected to attract large numbers.
READ: Hong Kong residents are erasing their own internet histories before China’s big crackdown
Ahead of the national security law being passed, many Hong Kong citizens had censored their social media posts, scrubbed chat histories in WhatsApp groups, or even deleted accounts completely.
On Tuesday, many more reported doing the same as the reality of the threat posed by the national security law became a reality. The social media accounts of the pro-democracy groups have also been deleted as comments made up to two years ago could be used in prosecutions brought under the law.
One video posted on social media showed an employee of a diner removing protest art from the front of his workplace.
In a particularly chilling escalation of the threat against those who oppose the law, former Hong Kong Chief Executive Cy Leung said he is willing to pay people up to HK$1 million ($130,000) to provides clues that aid the arrest of “national security law offenders,” or to those who have information on “anyone who has fled the city.”
Cover: Protesters gather at a shopping mall in Central during a pro-democracy protest against Beijing’s national security law in Hong Kong, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)