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ong Kong’s handover fromBritish to Chinese sovereignty came at midnight on July 1, 1997. But China’s makeover of Hong Kong began exactly 23 years later, midnight July 1, 2020. Over the past nine months, China’s Communist Party rulers in Beijing have launched a wholesale transformation of nearly every aspect of life in this prosperous territory – in the schools, the courts, the civil service, the media, the elected legislature, and even the relatively powerless local neighborhood councils. Only the local business community has been largely spared – but not untouched – by the changes.
As a result, in less than a year, this once freewheeling city known for its frenetic energy, lively debates, rambunctious local media, and long tradition of street protests has become hardly recognizable. This longtime British colony which once embodied the perfect blend of East and West now resembles every other sprawling megacity on the Chinese mainland, marked by soaring skyscrapers and impressive infrastructure, but stifled by repression and fear. The vehicle for Hong Kong’s rapid transformation is the new draconian national security law (“NSL”) imposed by Beijing and handed down last year. Hong Kong’s China- appointed local government was supposed to draft and implement its own version of the national security law immediately after the ‘97 handover, but successive leaders repeatedly demurred in the face of intense local opposition. Finally, Beijing’s leaders decided to step in and do it themselves. The proximate cause was a series of large-scale and often violent anti-government protests that erupted here in June 2019 and continued unabated for the next seven months, until the arrival of the
coronavirus pandemic early last year brought a ban on all public gatherings. The demonstrations were sparked when the city’s Beijing-appointed administrator, called “Chief Executive,” Carrie Lam, introduced an ill-conceived criminal extradition bill that would have allowed suspects arrested in Hong Kong to be shipped over the border to stand trial in China’s opaque and unjust legal system. In the face of government intransigence and increasingly brutal police tactics, the demonstrations soon morphed into a broader movement that began to challenge China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. The 2019 protests saw unprecedented scenes of masked, black-clad demonstrators armed with rocks, slingshots, Molotov cocktails, and even bows and arrows battling riot police who fired tens of thousands of rounds of tear gas, water from a spray cannon, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. High-end shopping malls, subway stations, university campuses, and even the upscale financial district of Central came to resemble a single fluid and shifting battle zone. Thousands were arrested under the charge of “rioting,” which carries a lengthy prison term.
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