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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, center, who founded newspaper Apple Daily, is arrested by police officers at his home in Hong Kong, Monday, August 10, 2020. © AP Photo

The Hong Kong government has wasted no time in using its new national security law to arrest critics and attack press freedom.

Monday’s arrest of 10 Hong Kong pro-democracy figures, including 71-year-old Jimmy Lai, founder and owner of the pro-democracy tabloid, Apple Daily, is Beijing’s latest effort to intimidate and punish Hong Kong people who advocate for their rights.

Hong Kong police put on an extraordinary show of force, with 200 officers raiding the newspaper’s headquarters. They also arrested Lai’s two sons and several top executives of Next Media, Apple Daily’s parent company.

They didn’t stop there. Police also arrested 23-year-old pro-democracy activist and politician Agnes Chow, along with activists Wilson Li and Andy Li, for operating a group that “calls on others to sanction Hong Kong.”

The raid on Apple Daily and its company executives should give foreign businesses operating in Hong Kong serious pause. The transparent, rule-based and accountable environment that set Hong Kong apart from mainland China has attracted foreign investment and talent.

But as Lai told the BBC recently, the Hong Kong security law “spells the death knell of democracy in Hong Kong. Without the rule of law, people who do business here will have no protection.”

The national security law creates deliberately vague offences that can be conveniently applied to those who dare to criticize Beijing. These include elastic concepts like “colluding with foreign elements,” calling for sanctions, or engaging in “hostile activities” against the Hong Kong or Chinese governments.

The wording is broad enough to include many forms of peaceful activism and exercise of fundamental rights, such as petitioning foreign governments to press Hong Kong or China to respect rights guaranteed under their laws.

Many of these crimes carry a maximum of life in prison. People can be tried in secret or even forcibly transferred to the mainland, where dissidents get unfair trials and torture in police custody is common.

The law also empowers the authorities to create specialized secret security agencies, provides sweeping new police powers, and weakens judicial oversight by Hong Kong’s - until now - independent judiciary.

The intention is clear: the agreement with the United Kingdom for “one country, two systems” until 2047 is dead. Instead, Hong Kong is now to be ruled like the rest of China.

Just months ago, Hong Kong had freedoms that Australians would recognize and take for granted. Those days are over.

China’s leader Xi Jinping has decided that there will be no space for peaceful protests, human rights, or democratic ideals.

Along with the arrests, Beijing sanctioned 11 Americans, including Human Rights Watch’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, for “having behaved badly in matters related to Hong Kong.” This was partly retaliation for last week’s US government announcements of sanctions for 11 Chinese and Hong Kong government officials, including chief executive Carrie Lam and the chief of police, for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The aim of Hong Kong’s national security law is to produce a climate of fear to stop Hong Kong people from asserting their rights. But Hong Kongers have reacted to the assault on their freedoms with stoic and creative resistance.

After Jimmy Lai’s arrest, people queued around the block in the early morning to buy copies of Apple Daily. Next Media’s stock price soared to a seven year high as people purchased shares to express solidarity with fearless reporters. One columnist wrote a single line in his column, leaving the rest of the page blank, “You can’t kill us all.”

Following passage of the national security law, Australia’s government has sensibly suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Last Friday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne joined with foreign ministers of Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States in expressing “deep concern at Beijing's imposition of the new National Security Law, which is eroding the Hong Kong people's fundamental rights and liberties." 

The government has provided some, though not enough, visas to Hong Kong citizens and pathways to permanent residency.

The Australian government should work with other governments on a collective strategy to uphold human rights in Hong Kong. That should involve targeted sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong government officials involved in human rights violations and undermining Hong Kong’s democracy.

The Australian government should also use its seat on the UN Human Rights Council to support the call by 50 United Nations human rights experts to hold a special session on China at the UN Human Rights Council and establish a new monitoring mechanism for China.

An Apple Daily reporter described to me how the events of Monday left him filled with anger. “What we are taught at school is that we [the media] are the fourth estate. We are supposed to be independent. We could be challenged, but not threatened…They want us to fear and give up our pen. I still need to tell the world the truth. We work as usual. What I can do is only to write the news as long as Apple Daily still exists.”

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