In the year since China passed a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong, the mainland government has steadily tightened its grip on the city, quashing the pro-democracy movement.
Officials said they would censor Hong Kong films that they considered a threat to Beijing’s sovereignty, a sharp slap to the city’s artistic spirit. In March, Pro-Beijing lawmakers called for work by the dissident artist Ai Weiwei to be barred from a museum. Courts have sentenced pro-democracy activists to prison. And last week, the police raided Apple Daily, the biggest openly pro-democracy newspaper in the city, arrested its top editors and froze its bank accounts. Today, the newspaper said it would close this week.
Vivian Wang, who covers Hong Kong for The Times, updates us on the situation.
Claire: Last time we talked with you about Hong Kong in this newsletter was in March. What’s happened since?
Vivian: A lot has changed, but all in line with a general trend: increasingly harsh, and overt, suppression of the rights that made Hong Kong different from mainland China. An annual vigil on June 4, to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre against pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, was banned.
Tell us about China’s involvement in Hong Kong’s elections.
China has overhauled Hong Kong’s election system. Before anyone can run for office, they will have to pass a screening committee set up by Beijing. The central government had gotten worried that pro-democracy residents were going to try to sweep the upcoming legislative elections. So Beijing passed another top-down order, as it had with the security law.
There are a few major changes. Only “patriots,” defined by a screening committee, will be allowed to run for office.
Also, in the past, half of the seats in the legislature were directly elected (the other half were reserved for representatives of industry groups, often dominated by pro-Beijing candidates). Now, less than a quarter will be directly elected.
Many pro-democracy leaders are in prison. What does that mean for the movement?
Those sentenced range from some of the most veteran pro-democracy leaders to people in their 20s who had been considered the next generation. The government is sending a message: Anyone who becomes too prominent, or too vocal, is putting themselves at risk. These figures were definitely important in boosting public morale and giving people someone to rally around.
On a logistical level, this may not change much. There basically haven’t been any protests or organized pro-democracy events in the past year, and the pro-democracy political parties are limited in what they can do, especially with the new election system.
You mentioned censorship. What does that mean for pop culture in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has historically had a strong film industry, and it’s been trying to turn itself into an arts hub. But with the new rules around movie censorship, and other recent attempts to get artwork banned from museums, it’s hard to imagine how the city could keep up the reputation it wants.
There are still attempts to keep Hong Kong’s cultural world alive, notably through independent bookstores. But the mainland Chinese market is so big that many creators, especially in the corporate world, don’t want to alienate it. That will probably mean a shrinking space for anything critical.
What’s the mood inside the pro-democracy movement?
It’s still bleak. Some people say protesters will come out again when the pandemic fully ends and social distancing rules can’t be used anymore to ban public assembly. But many people I talk to say they are really scared.
For more: A 23-year-old protester is the first person charged under the security law to stand trial. He could face life in prison.
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