‘Beginning of the Nightmare’: Hongkongers See a Bleak Future Under National Security Law

June 17, 2020 Updated: June 19, 2020

Since Hong Kong, formerly a British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, Hongkongers have feared that the regime would one day take away their cherished freedoms.

That fear culminated in the 2015 dystopian film “Ten Years,” which imagined a grim future for the decade ahead, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hiring triads to stage an assassination plot that would fuel panic and provide a pretext for the regime to issue a “national security” law.

The film eerily predicted that such an event would happen in May 2020.

There was no assassination plot in real life. But in late May, Beijing’s rubber-stamp congress bypassed Hong Kong’s local legislature to enact a national security law that would criminalize activities connected to subversion, succession, terrorism, and foreign interference.

To many Hongkongers, the move signified the end for the city’s freedoms.

The film, a collection of five vignettes helmed by five directors, also foretold a future in which the Chinese regime’s official language, the Mandarin dialect, would be mandated in the Cantonese-speaking territory; Beijing would deploy troops to quash protests calling for Hong Kong’s independence; and youth similar to the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guards would harass dissident thinkers.

The film was conceived to be “what we don’t want our future to be at the time,” said Jevons Au, director of the latter vignette. But it had turned out to be “really realistic.”

To Au, the Chinese regime’s introduction of a national security law is “just the beginning of the nightmare.”

Once the law is fully implemented, “the game is over,” he said. “I can tell myself that okay, Hong Kong is still Hong Kong, you can still write what you want, [but] it’s already changed—it’s no more Hong Kong again.”

No Choice

Five years after the film’s release, Au, as well as many others, are considering leaving their homeland.

Even though he may not get into trouble immediately, the fear of retaliation looms, he said. Though the film won top prize at the city’s film awards in 2016, it was banned in mainland China and branded a “thought virus” by the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times.

“In Chinese there’s an idiom called ‘to take revenge when the time is ripe.’ … After everything is done, they will get you and arrest you even though it’s in the past,” Au said.

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Jevons Au, at a screening of his 2019 film about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, held in Kwun Tong, Hong Kong, on June 2, 2019. (Guo Weili/The Epoch Times)

Au has received threatening comments on his Facebook page, that he could be “jailed for life after the national security law,” for openly supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, he said.

Recently, two investors with business interests in China pulled out of his film project because he was “somehow so sensitive.” The law may shut off the already narrow window for artistic freedom, he said.

Au has not set foot in the mainland since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when protesters occupied city streets to call for universal suffrage in elections for the city’s top official. Now, Au is dreading the prospect of leaving his homeland forever.

As Hong Kong becomes subsumed by mainland China, “I can’t be under this system,” he said, noting how mainland Chinese actors have to declare loyalty to the Party in order to stay in the industry. “I don’t have a choice.”

A poll carried out by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in late May found that more than 37 percent of Hongkongers are interested in immigrating. Hong Kong’s democratic neighbor Taiwan has promised to welcome fleeing Hongkongers with open arms. The UK, which ruled the territory until its handover to China in 1997, is offering extended visa rights to almost 3 million Hongkongers, with a prospect of possible citizenship.

Talent Flight

Hong Kong will soon see a mass exodus of talent—as Beijing further tightens its grip and erodes the city’s freedoms that have contributed to Hong Kong’s international status, experts said.

“Many investors/companies have invested or operated in Hong Kong, or are considering to do so, partly because they trust or feel protected by Hong Kong’s rule of law,” said a representative for the Accounting Bro’Sis Labour Union, a pro-democracy union for the city’s accountants.

Eventually, firms will “inevitably” reconsider their investments when they “view Hong Kong the same as Mainland China,” it said.

By bypassing the Legislative Council to impose the law, the union said the Chinese central government also set “a very bad precedent” that could diminish privacy property protections in the city. “It is not difficult to imagine that the CCP government may try to pass whatever legislation in the business law domain in a similar fashion,” it said.

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Mourners place flowers during a memorial vigil to commemorate the death of local protester Marco Ling-kit Leung at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, on June 15, 2020. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Adding to the concerns is the Chinese regime’s broad definition of “subversion,” which could jeopardize the future of accounting workers. As Beijing currently classifies the accounts and financial records of Chinese companies as “state secrets,” the union fears that in the future, auditors in Hong Kong may have to face a choice between penalties from foreign regulators and CCP government prosecution.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong warned that the law would make it harder to retain top tier talent in the city. In its survey of 180 members about their attitudes on the security law, over half expressed pessimism about the city’s outlook, including investor sentiments and stability of Hong Kong currency.

Given the legal ambiguities, the union estimated that 40 percent of accounting professionals may resettle in other countries.

I Will Stay for ‘as Long as I Can’

While becoming political refugees may be a last resort for some, not everyone is willing—or able—to take up the offer.

Cyrus Lau, a registered nurse and member of the election committee for the city’s top official, said he plans to shut down his social media accounts for fears of censorship once the law is implemented.

While his peers have discussed renewing their BNO passports and immigrating to Australia or New Zealand, the South Korea-educated Hongkonger said he wishes to “live as long as I can in Hong Kong.”

“I will be cautious at all times, and I’m not going to the frontlines of the demonstration,” he told The Epoch Times.

Local activist Ventus Lau (no relation), who has organized several mass protests in the past year, is on bail after being charged for inciting an illegal assembly last July. Lau, 26, appeared in court last week and was handed new rioting charges.

While legally he won’t be able to leave Hong Kong, Lau said the “best choice right now is still to stay.”

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Ventus Lau, pro-democracy activist, pictured at a studio in Hong Kong, on Dec. 18, 2019. (Gordon Yu/The Epoch Times)

“It’s my homeland,” he said. “If I leave, the possible cost is that I can never come back to Hong Kong again in my whole lifetime. I don’t think I want to see this consequence.”

The Fight Will Go on

Steve, a protester in his late 20s, said he is cautiously optimistic about the future of the protest movement and will see what he can do to contribute. Although “if things turn really bad,” his foreign passport would come in handy, he told The Epoch Times.

“We felt that if we keep the momentum, if we keep our determination, then there’s still hope that we’re not alone in the fight against the communist regime—in terms of trying to combat this spread of authoritarianism,” he said.

The repression may escalate, but the fight will go on, he said. He added that it will spur Hongkongers to put more on the table—“to try to maintain their original way of life,” he said.

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A pro-democracy supporter is detained by riot police during a rally in Hong Kong, on May 24, 2020. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

For himself, Steve started from being an attendee at marches, to helping the local district council election campaign in November and translating at protesters’ press conferences. Now, he is providing emotional support as a volunteer at a protester-run wellness center.

What Hong Kong has experienced over the past two decades, according to Steve, is a dark reminder for the whole world that “you cannot trust the Chinese Communist Party.”

“They may make all sorts of grand promises,” he said. “But as long as it serves their self-interest, as long as they are confident enough that they can do it without much consequences—they can go back on these promises.”

Au, meanwhile, called for unity and support from all overseas Chinese and Hong Kong people. Many among the older generation in Hong Kong, after all, are mainland Chinese who fled communist rule, he noted.

“We are all victims of the Chinese Communist Party. I wish that we all can stay together,” he said. “The journey is still a long way to go.”

Follow Eva on Twitter: @EvaSailEast