Article 23 has changed Hong Kong - possibly forever

The new national security law gives the government new powers to crack down on any form of dissent, ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports

Hong Kong looks no different.

It still appears to have all the allure that has won it the reputation as the ‘Pearl of Asia’.

Walking around the Central business district there is a buzz on the streets and its sleek silver skyscrapers look as iconic as ever, set against the green mountain peaks and hugging the water’s edge.

But to regular visitors, the city feels and sounds different.

In recent years, and again on this visit, we noticed many more Chinese visitors.

Beijing has expanded a travel scheme allowing more mainland tourists and tour groups, so in the city centre Mandarin is commonly heard.

Chinese is its official language, alongside English, but the common language of Hong Kong is Cantonese.

On Tuesday the waterfront was busy with runners, tourists and locals enjoying the fine weather.

None of them appeared to be keeping an eye on the marathon special legislative council meeting called to wrap up the debate on Article 23, the new national security law that gives the government new powers to crack down on any form of dissent.

We’d arranged to meet with Dickson Chau from the League of Social Democrats.

They are one of the few pro-democratic groups still operating in the city and even dared to stage a three-person protest when Article 23 began its first reading.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu after the Basic Law Article 23 legislation passes at the Legislative Council on March 19. Credit: AP

A far cry from the half a million people who took to the streets in 2003 when the bill was first proposed and ultimately shelved due to the strength of public opposition.

Dickson was nervous about the location on the waterfront, close to the Legislative Council headquarters, and as we were talking he could see some plain-clothed officers gathering in the background.

They didn’t intervene until the end of our interview, when they approached Dickson.

They didn’t ask his name but addressed him as "Mr Chau" and asked him what he was doing and when he’d be finished.

We’ve become used to seeing this kind of interaction in China, but it's new in Hong Kong.

Credit: ITV News

Although Dickson spoke to us honestly, I could tell that he was watching what he said, careful not to go too far in his criticism of Article 23 or the loss of free and open discourse in Hong Kong.

He admitted that the risks are getting higher, and it is no longer safe for people to express their views on political matters because there might be consequences for your job, your studies or your future.

When we tried to talk to people on the street to gauge knowledge and opinions on Article 23, we struggled to get anyone to speak.

‘’Better not’’ was the common response and we came across one man who was only in the city to visit his parents – he’d moved to England two years ago due to the political climate.

We agreed that the city felt like a changed place. One woman did tell us that she felt it was good for the city to be peaceful again.

ITV News tried to talk to people on the street to gauge opinions on Article 23, but struggled to get anyone to speak. Credit: ITV News

I’ve been based in Beijing for eight years and reported in Hong Kong several times over those years, almost monthly during the 2019 protests.

We have covered Xi Jinping's visits and handover anniversaries and it used to be somewhere we could come to talk to NGOs who were unable to operate in China.

Now most of those NGOs have left Hong Kong too.

The introduction of Article 23 is worrying local journalists, who have seen their operating environment greatly restricted and who were already poring over every word they wrote fearing the national security law imposed by Beijing.

There is now a whole new set of regulations regarding state secrets, treason, insurrection, and sabotage for them to navigate.

One of the new offences contained in Article 23 relates to the unlawful use of a computer or electronic system to endanger national security. It is punishable by 20 years in jail.

Like many sections of the bill the terms are extremely broad and intentionally vague.

Credit: ITV News

The pro-democracy supporters who we have still been able to talk to in Hong Kong remain hopeful that the tide will change.

Dickson talked about keeping the League of Social Democrats running for the sake of his colleagues who have been imprisoned. Most for their roles in past protests.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee described the passing of Article 23 as an historic moment, and told the legislative council that they had accomplished an honourable mission together.

I admire the hope and determination in people like Dickson Chau and he undoubtedly knows Hong Kong better than me.

But my experience in China, and the evidence so far, suggests there is no turning the tide when Beijing has assumed control.

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