For Hong Kongers living outside of China, the global implications of Beijing’s national security law are beginning to take shape.
While several countries are trying to provide support by loosening visa restrictions, offering pathways to refugee status or sanctioning Chinese officials, Japan is looking to entice financial professionals interested in trading Hong Kong for Tokyo.
Experts say it’s a good first step — albeit opportunistic — but that the country must do more to help those fleeing authoritarian rule.
William Lee, a 26-year-old Hong Kong native, has organized and participated in dozens of pro-democracy demonstrations in Japan. In November, he was arrested in Hong Kong for taking part in a pro-democracy demonstration there.
He was released on bail and able to return to Tokyo, where he has been living for more than two years. Despite using a pseudonym to protect his identity, Lee is afraid that police will be waiting for him at the airport if he returns to Hong Kong.
When the Chinese Communist Party enacted the national security law on June 30, it bypassed the Hong Kong legislature and gave itself the means to punish anything it deems subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Article 38 of the new law stipulates: “This Law shall apply to offenses under this Law committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.”
In the past year, Chinese officials and Hong Kong police have resorted to drastic methods to pressure or coerce pro-democracy activists who have gone into hiding or fled abroad, in some cases communicating vicariously through family members — by phone or video call — to urge them to return and answer for their alleged crimes.
While Lee and his family have not experienced this, he’s concerned that his continued participation in protests in Japan could lead to a backlash.
“The stakes are higher, but to become silent is to give China exactly what it wants,” Lee said. “Now is the time for Hong Kongers in Japan and everywhere else in the world to stand up and speak out for those who no longer can.”
Proponents of the new law say it will bring order to the city following a turbulent year of violent protest and police brutality. But pro-democracy activists, lawmakers and critics spread across the international community say it’s the latest in Beijing’s efforts to extend authoritarian rule over the former British colony, and beyond.
The first arrest made under the new law was of a young man wearing a “Free Hong Kong” shirt in public.
A string of high-profile arrests last week, including the detainment of famed activist Agnes Chow and pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, marked the beginning of Beijing’s assault on critical press and public dissent in Hong Kong.
The day after the law was passed, Samuel Chu woke up to media reports that China had issued a warrant for his arrest and that of five pro-democracy activists.
The founder and managing director of Hong Kong Democracy Council, an advocacy group based in Washington, Chu has been a United States citizen for 25 years.
He’s thought to be the first foreign citizen issued an arrest warrant under the new law.
The warrant carries dangerous implications, he said, namely the implicit threat that those who communicate or associate with the suspect could find themselves in the crosshairs, too.
Chu said it was unclear to what extent China could or would try to enforce the law beyond its borders.
Still, he said, “it’s preposterous to think (China) can assert or enforce any of this on foreign soil against a foreign citizen.”
Several countries have begun to offer protection to fleeing Hong Kongers.
The U.K. — which maintained colonial rule over Hong Kong for more than 150 years — suspended its extradition treaty with the territory and promised citizenship to about 3 million Hong Kongers soon after the new law was enacted.
In Taiwan, the Taiwan-Hong Kong Services and Exchange Office was established to streamline proceedings for those seeking asylum.
In July, the United States Senate passed a bipartisan bill known as the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which allows further sanctions on Chinese officials and provides refugee status to Hong Kongers living in the U.S. who are at risk of political persecution.
Efforts by Japan, however, have been fixated on economic gains.
The day after the new law was passed, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party began discussing possible tax breaks as well as shortcuts for visas and permanent residency specifically targeting financial professionals looking to leave Hong Kong.
“Wealth, education, skill level and profession can’t be the only criteria,” Chu said. “We need a menu of options — a whole spectrum — but I support any immediate action that the Japanese government can consider and implement, and if it starts with financial professionals, let’s start there.”
Like the U.K., Germany has already suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and France said in August it would stop proceedings to ratify a 2017 agreement to establish such a treaty.
Japan does not have an extradition treaty with Hong Kong.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesperson, said during a news conference last Tuesday that Japan remained “gravely concerned” about the situation in Hong Kong. But he also reiterated familiar diplomatic language and emphasized that Hong Kong was regarded as a “very important partner” in terms of economic trade.
Experts say Japan’s position has changed little since last year, when the country was heavily criticized for prioritizing its relationship with China amid ongoing violent protests in Hong Kong.
“Human rights have never been a central pillar of Japan’s foreign policy, so the country’s stance on Hong Kong is shaky,” said Tomoko Ako, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “Japan should make it clear to China the law is not to be used selectively as a political tool.”
Japan could help fleeing Hong Kongers, Ako added, by forgoing visa expirations or expediting renewal applications for those already living in the country, or by temporarily loosening application standards for asylum-seekers.
“Japan will likely create a pathway for financial professionals but it should do so for those who are at risk of political persecution as well,” she said.
When the U.K. ceded Hong Kong to China in 1997, the Sino-British Joint Declaration that defined the terms of the handover guaranteed preservation of the pillars of Hong Kong’s way of life — the freedom of speech, trade, assembly and thought — for 50 years under a policy of “one country, two systems.”
Opponents say Beijing has been working to undermine that promise ever since.
In 2003, mass protests forced Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to abandon an attempt to pass legislation that banned sedition, secession and treason against the CCP.
In 2014, a decision to institute selective screening for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive sparked a wave of democracy protests, which are now referred to collectively as the “Umbrella Movement” after protesters used umbrellas to protect themselves against police using pepper spray.
After Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced a doomed bill in June 2019 that would allow authorities to extradite fugitives to mainland China, peaceful protests quickly descended into a violent, yearlong police crackdown that engulfed the former colony in a symbolic fight against authoritarian rule.
More than a year later, proponents say the new law is a major victory in Beijing’s quest to bring Hong Kong into the fold, and a devastating loss for democracy advocates who say Hong Kong’s unique culture and character should stand apart from mainland China.
But not all hope is lost, said Mandy Tang, a 20-year-old Hong Kong native living in Tokyo.
Tang has been frequently participating in Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations in Tokyo since last year. Her willingness to speak out against the Chinese Communist Party, both in public and through social media, has caused friction in her relationships with family, friends and peers.
She’s studying music but still isn’t sure what kind of career is best for her. Meanwhile, back home in Hong Kong, artists and their right to free expression are under siege.
“It’s not the government that will create an independent Hong Kong, but its people,” she said. “I miss Hong Kong, not so much the place, but my family, my friends, the food.”
Tang carries in her heart a poetic vision of Hong Kong’s future: a free press, unrestrained political debate, an education system that teaches the truth — not a convenient version of it — and an unapologetic, thriving culture built upon the tenets of civil liberty.
All of that, Tang said, remains attainable so long as Hong Kongers and their allies remain optimistic.
“I wasn’t afraid before the law was passed so why should I be afraid now?” she said. “This isn’t the end.”