Hong Kong is rapidly becoming a police state after a hotline was launched for residents to report breaches of the new national security law.
The controversial China-imposed legislation was rolled out during the summer to clamp down on pro-democracy protests in the city.
Still, this latest move will tighten Beijing’s grip on the former British colony.
Images, audio and video files sent anonymously of people allegedly breaking the law can be posted via text message, email and on the heavily-censored Chinese social media app WeChat.
“Informants may use this hotline against people who they dislike or are in a different political camp,” Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the AFP news agency.
How did we get here?
It started last year during the summer of discontent. Massive demonstrations sprang up across the city, demanding that the Hong Kong government scrap a highly-inflammatory extradition law to China.
As the protests continued, the pro-democracy movement gathered pace. It was fuelled by fears that Beijing was trying to renegade on parts of the Basic Law hammered out by China and the United Kingdom before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.
National security law
In the end, the legislation was scrapped.
So, what happened next?
Like the rest of the world, Hong Kong was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in the winter and went into lockdown.
By July, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party had rolled out a contentious national security law. Critics immediately argued that the legislation would strangle the city’s basic rights and freedoms.
“The National Security law is being used to disenfranchise the majority of Hong Kong’s citizens,” Chris Patten, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, said at the time.
“It is obviously now illegal to believe in democracy … This is the sort of behavior that you would expect in a police state … an outrageous political purge,” he added.
Where do we stand now?
Autumn elections across Hong Kong for the legislative council were pushed back a year because of another wave of coronavirus infections. Pro-democracy politicians have also been banned after the police hotline targeting anti-Communist Party sentiment was launched.
Opponents have even drawn parallels with the Cultural Revolution in mainland China. During a turbulent period under Chairman Mao in the 1960s and 1970s, millions were purged by authorities.
Often, they were denounced by family, friends and neighbors.
“By encouraging people to report on their friends and neighbors, the Chinese government is replicating in Hong Kong one of its most successful tools for social control: an informant culture,” Wang, of Human Rights Watch, said.
”This is one of many chilling recent developments in Hong Kong, where the authorities are pulling out new tools to punish and tame the city’s pro-democracy movement.”
Has Hong Kong embraced this “informant culture?”
Within hours of going live, more than 1,000 people called the hotline with allegations of residents breaking the new law, which criminalizes secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.
Numerous activists have already been arrested in a move to silence protesters. If they are found guilty, they face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Hundreds of comments were posted on the police’s Facebook page in a matter of minutes. The response was mixed. “It’s really shocking. You’ll be able to immediately report a false case,” one person wrote.
Another said: “Great! Now the cockroaches [referring to pro-democracy protesters] have nowhere to run.”