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The Infinite Heartbreak of Loving Hong Kong

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Twenty-three years after the end of colonial rule in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has announced that it is imposing a long-dreaded “national security” law on the territory, effectively criminalizing dissent. Just as stunning as the content of the law is how it will be passed: Instead of moving through Hong Kong’s legislature—which is already rigged in favor of the city’s unpopular pro-Beijing establishment—the law will be enacted unilaterally by China’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. It’s a declaration of both the law’s incontestability and Beijing’s total authority over Hong Kong and its people.

Something profound has been lost. It is not democracy, because Hong Kong was never democratic. It is not autonomy, because Hong Kong never enjoyed self-determination. It is certainly not the will to resist; as I write this, activists are already planning a full calendar of mass protests, determined to fight until the bitter end.

What is lost is the feeling that Hong Kong’s future could be an open question. China’s apparent answer marks the beginning of a new disorientation.

In the near term, Hong Kongers’ greatest concern is safety. The law could be approved by next week and enacted by June. Officials close to Beijing suggest the law may be enforced by state security agents, the same group known for “disappearing” mainland activists without trial. This will have wide-reaching consequences in Hong Kong. The city is not only home to pro-democracy activists (and recently, a burgeoning union movement), it has long been a refuge for China’s labor organizers and dissidents, and a base for groups fighting to protect migrants, refugees, queer folks, sex workers, and other communities, both in Hong Kong and across the border. The city also headquarters journalists from all over the world, including many from mainland China.

Until recently, all of these people worked relatively freely in Hong Kong. They were able to speak critically of authorities without fearing government reprisal. But if the new law is anything like its mainland counterpart, those days will soon be over. Already, Hong Kongers anticipating increased surveillance have rushed to download VPNs, lock down their social media accounts, and scrub their public profiles of any traces of political opposition.

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