How China used Hong Kong’s police to crush democracy in the city

Armed with the Beijing-imposed National Security Law, the once-respected force risks losing the ‘trust’ of the people

Teenagers are stopped and searched, pro-democracy activists are arrested and jailed, while media critics are muzzled.

Hong Kong is rapidly turning into a police state under the guise of China’s draconian National Security Law.

In a massive show of strength, 500 police officers raided the influential Apple Daily newspaper on Thursday.

It was the latest crackdown on free speech and the city’s independent media. It also followed a wider clampdown that saw a “reorganization” at RTHK or Radio Television Hong Kong. 

“In the Asia-Pacific region, the ‘censorship virus’ [has] spread beyond China, in particular to Hong Kong, where the National Security Law imposed by Beijing seriously threatens journalists,” Reporters Without Borders pointed out in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

The facts:

  • The police launched a dawn raid on Apple Daily before seizing “journalistic material.”
  • Assets worth HK$18 million, or US$2 million, from three companies linked to Apple Daily, were frozen.
  • Police officers also arrested the editor-in-chief and four other executives at their homes.
  • It was the second time police had raided Apple Daily’s headquarters in Hong Kong.
  • Last year, 200 officers arrested the newspaper’s owner and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces.”
  • He has since been detained, denied bail, and is now serving several prison sentences for taking part in pro-democracy protests in 2019.

What was said: “The arrests … under Hong Kong’s Orwellian National Security Law destroy any remaining fiction that Hong Kong supports freedom of the press,” Steven Butler, a coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program, said as reported by news agencies.

Millionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai during a court appearance in Hong Kong earlier this year. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Blatant attack: “They’re arresting the top editorial [executives]. This is a blatant attack on the editorial side of Apple Daily,” Mark Simon, an adviser to Lai, said as reported by the Reuters news agency.

Free the five: The Apple Daily executives arrested were Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law, parent company Next Digital’s Chief Executive Cheung Kim-hung, Chief Operating Officer Chow Tat-kuen, Apple Daily Publisher Chan Pui-man, and Director Cheung Chi-wai.

Media blitz: RTHK, a critically acclaimed television and radio network, has also be targeted. Founded in 1928 when Hong Kong was still under British rule, it was guaranteed editorial independence in a legal charter. But that has changed dramatically.

Muzzled and muted: In the past six months, news programs have been taken off the air and senior staff forced to quit. A journalist who became a household name for grilling Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has also been fired.

People power: “The establishment does not understand the meaning of public broadcasting. Many of them think that RTHK should not bite the hand that feeds it … but public broadcasting does not serve the government, but the public,” Allen Au, a media commentator, said as reported by the BBC.

Delve deeper: More than 10,000 people have been arrested in connection with the pro-democracy protests since the summer of discontent in 2019, effectively crushing the movement. It has also left the “One Country, Two Systems” policy looking shop soiled. The model was a crucial part of the Joint Declaration agreement between the United Kingdom and China before the 1997 handover of power.

Stop and search: Ahead of the annual vigil for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the police rolled out a random “stop and search” strategy. Teenagers were especially targeted in a broader move to stop people from gathering to commemorate the anniversary earlier this month.

Lack of trust: The Hong Kong police force was considered one of Asia’s finest. But not now. In a poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in late 2019, more than half of the population admitted they had “zero trust in the police.”

China Factor comment: The flickering embers of the pro-democracy movement have been extinguished, replaced by fear and loathing for the Beijing-imposed National Security Law. Asked how long he thought Apple Daily could survive, Lai’s advisor Simon said: “It’s not up to us. It’s up to them. There are 100 police officers in our newsroom. They decide, not us.” It is a view that prevails across Hong Kong when it comes to the basic right of free speech.