Despite pledges from top Hong Kong officials that China's draconian national security law, which contains 66 articles and criminalizes succession and subversion, to terrorism and collusion, would only impact a small fraction of its 7 million residents, almost every facet of the once independent enclave – from education to civil society to technology – has been radically transformed in just over a month.
Annie Boyajian, director of advocacy at Freedom House, told Fox News that things in Hong Kong have been developing so rapidly that it is "hard to keep track of all the flagrant violations of rights.
"And things have gotten worse by the day," she said. "Authorities are undertaking an intense and widespread crackdown on pro-democracy voices and expressions of dissent, and there is also widespread self-censorship. As time progresses and Beijing further tightens its grip in Hong Kong, we will see Hong Kong look much more like the mainland, with a greater number of arrests for anything that offends the government or – in the minds of Chinese officials – jeopardizes their grip on power."
The arrests for "colluding with foreign forces" have been swift.
Prominent rights activist advocates Agnes Chow was apprehended earlier this week, along with pro-democracy media baron Jimmy Lai – as well as two of his sons and four employees. Chow and Lai have since been released on bail, and join the ranks of dozens of others who have been arrested since the law went into effect.
In a subversion to Beijing's seeming squashing of a free press, hundreds in Hong Kong hurriedly rushed out to purchase copies of his Apple Daily newspaper while protesting his arrest, sending shares for parent company Next Digital temporarily soaring, as per the Wall Street Journal. The crackdown on Lai and his publication – which were also subjected to an office raid – have prompted critics to decry that this marks the very beginning of a news media suppression.
As part of the new law and the guise of national security, Hong Kong police are now permitted to execute search and seizures without a warrant.
Moreover, 12 opposition politicians – including former journalist turned freedom advocate Gwyneth Ho – have also been prohibited from participating in legislative elections, which have now been postponed for at least a year. The city's chief executive, Carrie Lam, citied the coronavirus pandemic as the reason to invoke emergency powers. Murky reasons given for their ban entail "obstructing government proceedings."
The new law also contains abroad extraterritorial reach – meaning that their laws apply to anyone in the world, even those who have never gone near Hong Kong – and authorities have wasted no time in putting the provision to practice. Samuel Chu, a Hong-Kong born U.S. citizen who is based in Washington and lobbies politicians on issues related to Hong Kong immigration to America and the limitation of Beijing's rule, is now wanted – 6,500 miles away – by his homeland government.
"The arrest of Jimmy Lai was a big deal, clearly meant to chill media freedom and to show no one is above this new law. But charging Samuel Chu, an American citizen living in the U.S., even though, of course, he will never be tried is a bigger deal," said Walter Lohman, director of The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center. "It demonstrates an intention to apply the law exterritoriality and thereby force critics to self-censor."
He further emphasized that people like Chu are also important links between Hong Kong and Washington.
"The idea is that by targeting him, you make Hong Kongers living in the U.S. think twice before getting involved in what's going on in Hong Kong," Lohman conjectured.
Police in Hong Kong are also putting their newfound powers into practice, and have searched the homes of at least ten individuals – including lawyers – on "suspicion of inciting subversion."
Schools have also seen startling amendments in just a few weeks as Beijing purports to reform its reputation and consolidate a sense of forced national pride. Scores of reports have surfaced with regard to the sudden censorship of textbooks to teachers being probed by authorities for using "improper speech" when discussing the situation.
The Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union lamented that almost 200 teachers over the past year had been placed under investigation due to anonymous complaints pertaining to posts made of their private social media accounts. Last month, authorities took things one step further and fired Benny Tai, an esteemed professor at the University of Hong Kong, who served time behind bars for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations.
"What vigorous enforcement of the law is meant to do is change the political environment," Lohman explained. "And it has had that effect even before it was passed, with people taking down their social media accounts, books being removed from library shelves, etc. So far, I have to say the situation is unfolding exactly as Beijing intended. And Beijing does nothing that is not carefully considered."
Even students have been arrested and charged with secession for social media posts deemed critical of Beijing's clampdown.
"Protesters are being arrested for simply wearing t-shirts or holding signs with pro-democracy slogans, 'sensitive' books are being removed from libraries and students are at-risk for discussing certain political topics in classrooms," noted Marion Smith, an international human rights activist and executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC).
Education institutions – along with the rest of the territory – as of this week are also prohibited from flying China's national flag upside down, and Beijing has further decreed that the flag must play a pivotal part in the class subject of patriotism.
Observers also underscore that Hong Kong's technology sector is – and will be – one of the most drastically altered components of society.
"The social design of Hong Kong has now changed. The 'freedoms' that people once enjoyed, like being able to express themselves, have disappeared," surmised Abishur Prakash, a geopolitical futurist at Center for Innovating the Future (CIF), a strategy consulting firm in Toronto. "(And) many technology firms are rethinking their presence in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was the gateway to Asia for many firms. After that, it became a hub for innovation. Now, there is a 'tech exodus' taking place. Uber is no longer moving its Asian HQ to Hong Kong."
Indeed, several technology companies have already placed up and left since the law – which opens the floodgates to further surveillance and subjects even VPN servers to potential charges – was enacted in early July. Others have gone to extreme lengths using encryption techniques to protect personal and professional data, although the physical hardware could still be seized.
On Thursday, attorneys for five former lawmakers connected to opposition political parties filed a court order to stop authorities from scouring their captured phones after an earlier magistrate endowed unlimited police access. High Court Judges are reserving judgment until the end of the month.
Washington's once-tight relationship with Hong Kong has also significantly soured.
This week, the U.S. ordered that imports from Hong Kong now all be labeled as "Made in China," as of September 25. This blow comes on the heels of the U.S. government imposing sanctions on a number of Hong Kong's top brass – Lam is one of them – for diminishing political freedoms. This prompted retaliation from Beijing on Monday, which then slapped sanctions on 11 U.S. citizens, including Republican lawmakers Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
The fast outflow of people fleeing the former British colony is also said to be happening in frenetic strides. The Wall Street Journal highlighted earlier this month that the expatriate community is shrinking, and recruiters are unable to sway workers to remain in or relocate to the city swathed in tumult and uncertainty. The number of visas issued by Hong Kong's immigration department for professional employment reportedly fell more than 60 percent from January to June compared to the same time period last year, due both in part to the unrest and the global pandemic.
Yet from Beijing's lens, residents in Hong Kong are "seeing changes for the better" since the security law came to fruition. State media has illuminated numerous cases in which locals "have likened the national security law for the Hong Kong Special Administration Region to a silver bullet or a guardian able to protect their peaceful daily life and freedom to speak up," and put an end to the many months of protests, turmoil and "rioters' violent actions (which) disrupted ordinary people's lives too much."
But what will become of what was once a bastion of freedom, and intended to remain that way for decades to come, is yet to be determined as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) makes no secret of its will to stifle political activism and free speech to the full extent of the new law, which also means that dissidents can be summoned to the mainland to go before the courts.
"The takeover of Hong Kong provided a proper test case, and its global ambitions are gaining ground," Smith added. "Taiwan is likely the next target of Beijing's oppression."