Michael Mo, a sanctuary scholar at the University of Leeds and former Hong Kong district councillor, argues that the National Security Law, enacted by Beijing in 2020, has become a convenient tool for the Hong Kong authorities to crack down on free speech...
Three years have passed since Beijing enacted the National Security Law of Hong Kong (NSL). And throughout this period, the city’s authorities have been using the law in parallel with established laws, such as one prohibiting “seditious intent,” to target dissidents. As of July 2023, 71 arrests had been made based on the sedition law, and 46 of them were subsequently charged. Last week, the law was used to prosecute a new victim, demonstrating how aggressively the city’s public prosecutor is applying this draconian law.
The Hong Kong Magistrate Court last week sentenced Zeng Yuxuan, a 23-year-old mainland Chinese law student to six-months in prison for planning to publicly display a banner depicting a sculpture that had commemorated the victims of the Tiananmen massacre. For context, the physical sculpture, the Pillar of Shame by Jens Galschiøt, was removed from the grounds of the University of Hong Kong amid much controversy in 2021.
In the hearing, Zeng pleaded guilty to attempting or making any preparation to carry out an act or acts with seditious intention. The prosecutor told the court that Zeng had received the Pillar of Shame banner from a source in the US. Messages retrieved from Zeng’s mobile phone indicated that she had planned to display the banner on June 4, the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.
Zeng was first arrested on January 1, accused of having carried out a “seditious act” by displaying a sketch of a man who had assaulted police and committed suicide in 2021 in the same place where she intended to
show the banner. The prosecutor ultimately dropped this charge, which was brought before the court with Zeng’s banner case.
Before the enactment of the NSL, Hongkongers used to participate in the vigil to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen massacre in Causeway Bay. Students at the University of Hong Kong, where the Pillar was once situated, would also clean and paint the statute.
Following the enactment of the law in June 2020, vigil organisers were charged and convicted under the NSL, and the police seized the Pillar of Shame after it was removed by the University management.
The Hong Kong authorities have been using the NSL and the sedition provision, a British colonial-era law, to reshape political and civic institutions and life in the city. Under Hong Kong’s Crimes Ordinance, seditious intention means “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against a person of the government, against the administration of justice, or with the aim of raising discontent or disaffection amongst inhabitants of Hong Kong.”
The ambiguous nature of the law gives the Hong Kong authorities — specifically the National Security Department of the Police Force — an overarching power to arrest and charge any person who made speeches deemed “seditious” online and offline. The threshold was so low that retweeting posts expressing dissatisfaction towards the Chinese Communist Party and the Hong Kong Police Force, as well as praising the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests’ songs, slogans and flags, could trigger prosecutions. In another case, a person criticised the judge and judicial independence at the court and got convicted with seditious intention instead of contempt of court. While the judge declared not to intervene in the charges brought to the court, the authorities did not hesitate to make politically motivated charges to exert a chilling effect upon the public who dared to dissent.
It is worth noting that those speeches and actions criticising both Beijing and Hong Kong authorities involved in the aforementioned cases were not illegal before the NSL was in force. Since Beijing took over the sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997, the city’s authorities never arrested anyone with seditious intentions until March 2020, months before the NSL was enacted.
Since seditious intention has been brought back alive by the Hong Kong authorities, only individuals who had already made speeches or actions deemed to breach the law have been brought to the court. The recent conviction of Zeng, however, has brought the use of such vague and politically motivated charges to an unprecedented level – Zeng had only possessed a banner, discussed the plans to display it with Chinese dissidents through messaging apps and had never actually displayed it.
Zeng’s prosecution and conviction depict a worrying trend of the city’s NSL police arresting and charging individuals for increasingly trivial perceived infractions — from mere criticisms of the regime, to plans to display dissenting images in private spaces. Paired with the seditious intent law, the NSL has become a convenient tool for the Hong Kong authorities to crack down on free speech.
Michael Mo is a sanctuary scholar at the University of Leeds. He was an elected district councillor in Hong Kong, with a decade of involvement in pro-democracy activism in the city. His research focuses on elections, civil liberties and civil society across East and Southeast Asia.
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