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Hong Kong’s Sedition Law Is Back

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Hong Kong’s Sedition Law Is Back

Instead of using the more provocative national security law, Hong Kong is turning to colonial-era ordinances to crack down on free speech.

Hong Kong’s Sedition Law Is Back
Credit: Depositphotos

While George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” remains one of the best-selling allegories in history, two children’s books that are seen as Orwell-style allegories of the Hong Kong protests were recently banned by the government. The authors have become criminals under the sedition laws that are part of Hong Kong’s colonial legacy.

Five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were arrested a month ago for having published a series of children’s books about sheep defending their villages from the threats posed by wolves. Earlier this week, they were finally charged by the Hong Kong police and taken to court. The unionists were charged with conspiracy to “print, publish, distribute, or display seditious publication,” for inciting hatred of the government and the judiciary among kids. In addition, US$20,600 of the union’s fund was frozen by police order, and copies of the children’s books, as well as the arrestees’ electronics, were taken for further investigation. They were all denied bail.

Such prosecutions can be seen as the latest example of a literary inquisition in Hong Kong, where enjoyment of free speech and the rule of law  was previously the norm. In mainland China, by contrast, intellectuals and activists have long suffered from jail sentences and suspected torture solely because of their writings or speech. The late Liu Xiaobo, for example, was imprisoned because of his involvement in publishing the 08 Charter, which humbly asked for constitutional reform and good governance.

Speech crimes were not uncommon in Hong Kong during the colonial era of British rule. As early as 1914, the Seditious Publication Ordinance was introduced to Hong Kong by the colonial government to silence anti-colonial activists. Later, the passages of Emergency Regulation Ordinance in 1922 and Sedition Ordinance in 1938 also empowered the executive government to censor Chinese publications and imprison political dissents. A famous example were the riots of 1967. When supporters of China’s Cultural Revolution organized industrial actions, rallies, and violent attacks against the British authorities, the government charged the managers of three pro-China newspapers and one printing company with displaying seditious speech and sentenced them to three years in prison.

However, after that trial the colonial government ceased to apply the same law in Hong Kong. The Seditious Publication Ordinance and Seditious Ordinance were abolished, but sedition offenses remained in the Crimes Ordinance, punishable by fines and up to three years’ imprisonment.

While sedition offenses remained on the books, the new Hong Kong administration after 1997 continued the tradition of refraining from pursuing such charges. After all, the Basic Law, the mini-constitutional document of the city, assured the protection of basic human rights in compliance with international human rights conventions. Nevertheless, the government changed its mind after the enactment of the new national security law in June 2020.

Tam Tak Chi, an outspoken pro-democracy activist, was arrested for uttering seditious words a few months after the implementation of the national security law. He was denied bail for more than 10 months and is facing 14 charges of seditious offenses in the upcoming trial. The prosecutor accused Tam of chanting anti-police slogans as well as the conventional protest slogans being used in the 2019 anti-extradition bill movement.

According to the prosecutor, that amounted to spreading “hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the government” or counseling “disobedience to the law” among citizens. Tam became the first defendant charged with sedition charges since the end of the colonial era. Several unknown citizens were also arrested for merely displaying flags or stickers with the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” in public.

Such arrests and prosecutions amount to a literary inquisition. International standards require that only expression intended to incite imminent violence can be punished for endangering national security. But none of the above cases caused imminent violence in Hong Kong. Their alleged crimes are simply expressing dissent through slogans and public statements. Undoubtedly, these charges were politically driven to repress anti-government opinions that would further de-legitimize the state authority. The goal is to create a chilling effect, where everyone needs to think twice before publicly criticizing the government, or otherwise suffer from months of pre-trial detention like Tam and the unionists.

Two implications stem from the revival of the sedition law in Hong Kong. First of all, it represents an expansion of the city’s censorship regime. Self-censorship has been present for many years among the local media. Yet since the enactment of the national security law, the political authority has become more active in censoring dissenting opinions in various fields.

Apart from the above arrests, books authored by activists have been removed from public libraries; university professors have been attacked by state-owned media for claiming “Hong Kong belongs to the world” or giving moderate comments about a stabbing attack against a police officer; films that might endanger national security can now be banned from screening under new government guidelines; sellers at the city’s annual book fair have received warning letters about several books that are alleged to endanger national security; and anti-government websites have been blocked under the order of the Security Bureau. These restrictions have been imposed by both legal and extra-legal means, constituting a Leviathan of comprehensive censorship mechanisms in academia, civil society, and public life.

The use of sedition laws also implies that Hong Kong society will be further securitized by the integration of the new national security law with the many preexisting draconian laws. While the departed colonial administration had refrained from enforcing the sedition law since the 1970s, the new government of Hong Kong finally gave up that self-restraint to resurrect this draconian law. In April 2021, Luo Huining, Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, requested that the local government “strike down hard resistance and regulate soft resistance” by law.

It is clear that Beijing is not content to rely on the new national security law to safeguard its power in Hong Kong, but also will to use other legal measures to regulate opposition voices in the city. The deployment of the sedition law works hand in hand with other colonial laws, such as the Societies Ordinance, which criminalizes unlicensed civil organizations, and the Education Ordinance, which empowers government bureaucrats to revoke the licenses of teachers who discuss sensitive political issues with students. Using preexisting laws to silence dissenting opinions and censor publications is a cost-effective way to enhance the national security regime without attracting too much attention from foreign parties, who would have strong reactions to the frequent use of the national security law.

The rule of law in Hong Kong was further damaged by a court verdict a month ago, when Tong Ying Kit became the first protestor found guilty of inciting secession under the national security law. The verdict asserted that the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” is capable of inciting secession, and this verdict has binding power over the lower courts, which are going to handle the sedition cases described above. Those who were charged for merely displaying or chanting the slogan will now bear the legal consequence of committing speech crimes.

The resurrection of a literary inquisition in Hong Kong symbolizes the deterioration of rights-based constitutionalism in Hong Kong. The government is moving unreservedly to wipe out all opposition voices step by step, irrespective of its international human rights commitments.

A vibrant and trustworthy global financial hub requires creativity, transparency of information, and plurality of opinions. Hong Kong will eventually lose these core elements when protection of free speech becomes lip service. The revival of the sedition law alongside the new national security law is leading to a tightening of thought control in schools, the internet, and everyday lives. Ironically, what happened in “Animal Farm” is becoming a reality in Hong Kong. Both residents and expatriates may only have two choices for survival: to exercise self-censorship or to be censored.