Mass arrests and intimidation of the judiciary signal a gloomy 2021 for Hong Kong’s freedoms

It was a depressing end to the year. Nothing tells me 2021 will be any better. I know many share my gloom. Instead of hope, there is only despair.

I am not talking about the coronavirus. Time and vaccines will take care of that. The cause of my despair is seeing the city I was born in morphing into something alien to me.

Neither time nor vaccines can reverse Beijing’s tightening grip. It seems like almost every day something happens that slices off a part of Hong Kong which makes it distinct from the mainland.

Just yesterday I woke up to the news that police had arrested more than 50 former opposition lawmakers and activists for alleged violations of the national security law. The mass arrests dampened the glimmer of hope I had a day before when retiring Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li made it clear an independent judiciary was crucial for our rule of law and freedoms.

His farewell remarks came after scathing attacks by state media against a judge who granted bail for media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying. It was heartening to see Ma rebuff calls by loyalists for judicial reform if the intent was to produce rulings they wanted.

Our status as a global financial centre could not be possible without free speech, freedom of assembly, a freewheeling media and, most importantly, an independent judiciary. To me, the national security law erodes these values.

Free speech and media freedom now involve second-guessing to avoid the law’s red lines. Freedom of assembly is virtually non-existent. It was comical to see the police warn three activists staging a mini-protest atop a van on New Year’s Day even though the police had earlier told them social distancing does not cover people inside vehicles.

What depresses me most is my belief that our independent judiciary will erode over time despite Ma’s pleas to preserve it. The judiciary is our last line of defence. In no way should it be reformed the way loyalists want. We could lose our status as a financial hub if it is perceived that judicial independence is losing ground.

Western countries have already expressed concern over what they see as Beijing’s redefining of “one country, two systems”. Many have ended extradition treaties with us. The United States no longer considers Hong Kong as having sufficient autonomy. Other Western countries have offered refuge to Hongkongers.

It was surreal to see Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday labelling state media attacks against the judge who granted Lai bail as free speech. Lam defending free speech? Whatever happened to her mantra that free speech has limits?

The fiercest attack came from Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, which many believe represents Beijing’s views. The paper urged judges to “make the right decisions” and punish “insurgents” like Lai.

To me, that is intimidation, not free speech. Ma rightly refrained from commenting on state media attacks ahead of Lai’s bail hearing next month. Mainland mouthpieces should learn from Ma.

Do not expect Lam to learn from anyone. She believes she is always right. In labelling the state media’s attacks as free speech, she said if anyone expressed a view based on their understanding of the law, it is freedom of speech.

Based on my understanding of the national security law, nowhere does it state that chanting “five demands, not one less” is a crime. Will Lam likewise defend my free speech if I chanted the slogan without doing anything to threaten national security?

I will not hold my breath, not when Lam now uses mainland-style language such as “quarrels” and lack of “social harmony” to criticise Hongkongers. She did that in her New Year’s Day message, blaming the people for holding up the Central-Wan Chai Bypass by legally challenging it.

That criticism alone shows she does not understand or accept the people’s right to challenge projects they disagree with. My 2021 message to her is that Hongkongers will continue to “quarrel” and disrupt “social harmony” in defending their rights. (South China Morning Post)

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