The list of crimes liable for arrest and potential life sentences in the former British colony expanded dramatically. Beijing imposed sweeping national security laws on what was once China’s most liberal territory, criminalising pro-independence chants and secessionist banners with foreign flags.
The impact was immediate: up to 300 Hongkongers were arrested on Wednesday, the first day the new powers came into force. Pro-democracy leaders resigned en masse, disbanded their political parties, their supporters purged their social media posts.
One man was detained for holding a flag emblazoned with “Hong Kong independence” on it. In tiny letters he had scribbled “no” before the subversive statement. Mainland lawyers gave him no quarter.
Chinese lawyer Gong Jingyi told state media that the man’s behaviour was akin to “hanging a sheep head to sell dog meat”. “His intention of ‘Hong Kong independence’ was already very obvious, and he could not escape the law,” she said.
An activist was reportedly arrested after injuring a police officer while attempting to leave Hong Kong airport for London on a one-way ticket.
Nathan Law, the former legislator who co-founded the now defunct Demosisto democracy party, made it out before he could be charged with offences that he believed were inevitable if he continued to speak out.
“I bade my city farewell. As the plane took off the runway, I gazed down at the skyline I love so much for one last time,” he wrote on Friday from an undisclosed location.
The legislation, first floated at China’s National People’s Congress in May, was released on the 23rd anniversary of the British handover. Its final contents shocked observers.
“I was expecting this full law to be really bad news,” said Bing Ling, a founding member of the Faculty of Law of the Chinese University of Hong Kong who now works at the University of Sydney.
“But it is something that is menacing and threatening to the whole world. It is a draconian and heavy-handed piece of legislation,” he said.
The Chinese government maintains the powers will restore order to Hong Kong after 15 months of protests that often turned violent. They include setting up a mainland national security agency in Hong Kong to investigate acts that threaten the Chinese state and appointing judges to courts that can extradite the accused to China.
The terms are so broad that even anti-Chinese Communist Party sentiments expressed overseas could be prosecuted once people arrive or transit through Hong Kong.
The warning posted on the Department of Foreign Affairs smart traveller website on Thursday was ominous.
“This law could be interpreted broadly. You can break the law without intending to. The maximum penalty under this law in Hong Kong is life imprisonment.”
The legislation and the day of arrests that followed it triggered an emotional response from leaders around the world.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the laws “eviscerated the very foundation of Hong Kong’s success”. In London, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said they “represent a flagrant assault on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly”, and announced plans to offer safe haven visas to up to three million Hong Kong residents.
Watching events unfold in Canberra, Prime Minister Scott Morrison moved ahead of the work the government was doing in the background to declare Australia was ready to step up and offer pathways for resettlement.
Hong Kong is also home to the second-largest group of Australian expatriates in the world, with more than 100,000 living in the city.
“We do find these events very concerning and we have been very clear about our statements to that in concert with many other nations,” Morrison said.
Morrison, aware of the inflammatory potential of offering refuge to citizens of Australia’s largest trading partner when the bilateral relationship has reached its lowest ebb, made clear it was a multinational response.
“This is not a position Australia has commented on in isolation,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry was unimpressed. “We urge Australia to treat Hong Kong’s National Security Law in an objective manner, immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs through the so-called Hong Kong issue and do not go further on the wrong path,” its spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing on Thursday night.
Migration agents say the number of inquiries from Hong Kong residents looking to leave the Chinese territory had been surging since last year. Australia, due to its proximity, time zone, climate, and relatively low-level of coronavirus infections, is seen by many as a more attractive destination than Britain, despite its historical links with its former colony.
The Australian government is weighing up using the existing humanitarian intake or fast-tracking setting up a separate stream for Hong Kong migrants. The measures could also include offering refuge to the up to 20,000 Hong Kong visitors already in Australia. The proposals are expected to be presented to cabinet on Wednesday.
Both sides of politics regard Hongkongers as highly attractive migrants. Highly educated, native English speakers, with many STEM specialists among them, thousands could fill Australia’s skills gaps across the economy.
Hong Kong’s position as an intermediary between the West and China for more than a century allowed it to flourish as a global financial hub. London-based multinational bank HSBC and investment firms Swire Group and Jardine Matheson have effectively made it their home throughout the 20th century [all three have now signed up in support of the national security law]. One in seven Hong Kong residents is a millionaire, according to Citibank, which took into account deposits, mutual funds, stocks, bonds and property, and the city has the highest concentration of billionaires in the world.
Guy Hedley, the former chief executive of Macquarie Private Bank, who now helps bring Chinese business to Australia as executive chairman of Atlas Advisors, said the largest potential gain could come from its strong investment community.
“The really important,” he said. What we see in the Australian market is a lack of investment capital. What is Hong Kong really good at? That’s it. Venture capital, small and medium enterprise capital, that is their core competence. They are financially literate and understand how capital flows work.
“It is a huge opportunity. A massive opportunity,” he said.
The government’s investor stream – the Business Innovation and Investment Program (BIIP) – is capped. Last year, only 7000 out of 160,000 migrants came to Australia under the scheme, which encourages migrants to invest between $1.5 million and $5 million in Australia as a pathway to permanent residency. This year it was paused in March amid the coronavirus pandemic but the number of applications routinely exceeds the quota.
“The states have not been able to accept any more,” said Hedley. “That is an own goal. Hong Kong is happening now, it is not happening in six months time when the Australian government gets around to opening its quotas again.
“This is a category of visa you can open up tomorrow and bring in naturally entrepreneurial Hong Kong citizens who will jump at it.”
Hedley suggests the investment requirements could be better targeted to the regions, where businesses are falling over.
“We are investing in agricultural-tech robotics, drone systems to monitor wildlife, all of those small businesses need capital but people in Australia are not ponying up saying I’m going to going to put money into [a] new venture,” he said.
“We know that the demand is there for these migration programs. All the government has to do is allocate resources and it becomes self-fulfilling.”
The Australian opportunities, however, are unlikely to be little comfort to the hundreds of protesters in Hong Kong jails.
Some, including Nunan, appear determined to continue to fight what they see as the death of democracy in the Chinese territory.
“Please do not give up on hope. Even though things seem bleak right now, it is always darkest before the dawn,” Nunan wrote this week.
“Don’t be afraid. We are on the right side of history.”
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Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.