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In Hong Kong, residents self-censor to steer clear of China’s crackdown

United Nations human rights officials are blasting the national security law China imposed two months ago on Hong Kong. Beijing says the crackdown was necessary to bring stability to the semi-autonomous city after months of protests, some of which became violent. But pro-democracy activists and other residents say they are now tormented by fear. Special correspondent Divya Gopalan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A letter released by U.N. human rights officials today blasted a new national security law in Hong Kong imposed two months ago by China.

    And with its now customary fire, Beijing shot back, telling the U.N. to — quote — "stop meddling."

    Special correspondent Divya Gopalan tells us now what has changed in Hong Kong and what has not.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    This is one of the few places where evidence of months of anti-government protests last year is still displayed openly.

    The Yau Lei Fong restaurant is known for its traditional roast meats and a timeline of the 2019 protest movement. But look a little closer, and you will find black tape covering the slogans that became the anthems for the protests.

    Restaurant owner Jerry Chong says they have obscured anything which could be defined as subversive, after China's Communist Party imposed a wide-ranging national security law on July the 1st.

  • Jerry Chong (through translator):

    Not a single person could tell us or define what was against the law. What can you say? What can't you say? It's really hard to say how I feel, but there's fear in everyone's hearts.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Beijing says the law is necessary to bring stability, after months of sometimes violent anti-government protests last year.

    It targets crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers.

    One of the leaders of the democracy movement here, activist Joshua Wong, says he is in the crosshairs of the law. He disbanded his pro-democracy political party hours before it came into effect.

  • Joshua Wong:

    My life is in risk. And I am not sure, will Hong Kong police knock on my door at 5:00 a.m., storm into my house, and arrest me suddenly?

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Also raising fear, the newly set-up Beijing- controlled security agency, which operates outside of the city's legal system.

    Officers can investigate and extradite suspects to the communist-controlled courts of mainland China.

  • Grenville Cross:

    There is a particular clause which, in very rare circumstances, will enable a case which occurs here to be transferred to the mainland for trial.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Grenville Cross was Hong Kong's longest serving chief prosecutor and is now an honorary professor at two of the city's top universities.

  • Grenville Cross:

    Now, as I understand it, that will only happen extremely rarely and in very clearly defined circumstances, circumstances where Hong Kong itself is not able to handle the case.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    The law marks Beijing's full takeover of Hong Kong, which was promised 50 years of relative autonomy after the British handover in 1997.

    In response, the Trump administration removed the special trade and economic privileges granted to Hong Kong, saying it's now just like any other part of China.

  • Felix Chung:

    We have our independent legal systems. We have our independent currency. We have — we are using common law as our legal system, the rule of law. It's still very different from China.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    Pro-Beijing legislative councillor Felix Chung, who represents the textile and garment industry, says the United States is complicit in stripping away the city's highly regarded international status.

  • Felix Chung:

    I don't think Hong Kong is changed by that law. Hong Kong is changed by the international conflict, especially between the U.S. and China.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    But, according to the American Chamber of Commerce, the national security law is affecting the business environment. Forty percent of U.S. companies surveyed had plans to move capital, assets or operations out of the city.

    Police can raid premises without a court warrant, and they can order Internet firms to remove content or seize their equipment. Online media giants like Facebook and Google say they have stopped responding directly to data requests from the Hong Kong police.

    A number of activists, students, and protesters have already been arrested for social media posts. And with no clear wording of what exactly is illegal, any activity, secessionist, demanding independence, saying Hong Kong is not China, could be prosecutable.

    At stake is the city's freedom of speech and vibrant media industry, which doesn't exist anywhere else in China. According to the Hong Kong government, the national security law only targets a small minority of lawbreakers, but it has triggered widespread unease.

    We have certainly felt it while putting together this report, with a number of previously outspoken figures on both sides of the political divide refusing our interview requests, due to concerns that what they say could potentially be used against them, although it is here in the local press where the most chilling effect of the law can be felt.

    The Apple Daily is the city's most-read pro-democracy newspaper. On August 11, 200 police stormed the newsroom in a raid that was livestreamed to a shocked city. They arrested top executives, including the paper's billionaire owner, Jimmy Lai, who has strong ties in Washington.

    He faces charges of colluding with foreign countries, a charge he's told the "NewsHour" late last month that's open to interpretation.

  • Jimmy Lai:

    They are very strict about collusion with a foreign power. Even now, accepting your interview could be collusion with foreign power. So, I have to be cautious of what I say, you know, so, this is the fact of life here now.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    The political landscape is also rapidly changing, after a dozen democratic candidates who do not support the law were disqualified from legislative council elections.

    Then, in an unprecedented move, the September vote was postponed for a year, authorities say due to the pandemic, but the opposition says it's to wipe out democratic support.

    Art, culture and academics are also under pressure to become more Beijing-friendly. Public libraries have pulled books by democracy advocates, while many publishers and bookstores have started self-censoring.

    Bookshop owner Daniel Lee says there's still demand for books about the protests, and he will keep them on the shelves as long as he can.

  • Daniel Lee:

    The greatest worry is surely that they come in one day and tell me that those books — even there has not been on the book list banned from being sold, and I have already breached the law.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    But on the streets of Hong Kong, there are still pockets of defiance, even as it's adapting to the law.

    Lennon Walls, named after the singer for their messages of solidarity and democracy, were a distinct feature of the protests which disappeared when the law came into effect. They are now sprouting again in many places across the city, this time as a blank mosaic.

  • Joshua Wong:

    I would say that national security law tried to kill Hong Kong, but it can't kill Hong Kong people. With the spirit of Hong Kongers, we will continue to resist and fight back.

  • Divya Gopalan:

    A message that, while Beijing can force the city in line with the rest of the country almost overnight, it will take a lot more than a law to change the people of the city.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Divya Gopalan in Hong Kong.

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