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What Hong Kong’s National Security Law Means for Its Pro-Democracy Movement

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For months, the mosaics of sticky notes, posters and artwork that dotted Hong Kong told a story of resistance. Pro-democracy protesters and supporters affixed messages of hope, solidarity and demands for greater political freedom to so-called Lennon Walls as protests rocked the city in 2019. But after June 30, when Beijing passed Hong Kong’s national-security law, the walls came down.

Books written by pro-democracy leaders like Joshua Wong disappeared from public libraries. Activists deleted social-media accounts. Demosistō, Wong’s political party, disbanded. Nathan Law, a prominent activist and another key member of Demosistō, fled the city, saying his effort to draw international attention to the movement would likely be considered a crime under the new law. “It has already brought a chilling effect … and the politics of fear to Hong Kong,” he tells TIME.

The legislation’s full text—which targets secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces—was not made public until after it became law. It was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, outside the normal legislative process that semiautonomous Hong Kong was granted under the “one country, two systems” arrangement created when the U.K. retroceded the city to China in 1997. It gives authorities sweeping powers to crack down on dissent. Some cases can now be tried in mainland courts, and mainland security agents will operate openly for the first time. Since its passage, local authorities have expanded the reach of the law even further, adding warrantless searches and the power to ask Internet providers to remove posts that violate the security law.

The Hong Kong government, and officials in Beijing, have argued that the law is necessary to restore order after violent protests over an extradition bill last year caused millions of dollars worth of damage and plunged the city into its first recession in a decade. Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who admitted she wasn’t privy to the full text of the law until it was passed, has said the law will be used only against “an extremely small minority of people.” She added, “Surely this is not doom and gloom for Hong Kong.”

But even as the legislation’s impact is felt on the ground, the full extent of its consequences remains to be seen. Some experts say it’s a devastating blow to the rule of law and unique freedoms that differentiate Hong Kong from mainland China and made it a global hub for business and banking. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a University of California, Irvine, history professor specializing in China, says the law “amounts to a de facto form of martial law limiting speech and action.” Other experts are adopting a wait-and-see approach, and many businesses say they simply want to get back to work.

And where does the democracy movement go from here? Even before the security law, the coronavirus pandemic and mass arrests sapped protests of their 2019 energy, when millions of people took to the streets.

Protesters say that the law will make attending street gatherings even riskier but that they will find other ways to continue to fight for democracy. Rick, a 16-year-old student who asked to use a pseudonym for his safety, says he disbanded a group supporting the protest movement that he ran at his school. He says he’ll hold meetings in secret instead. “What has changed is the strategy I will use to express my views,” he says.

Law, speaking from an undisclosed location, says he will continue to fight for democracy from abroad. However, the security legislation also says anyone who violates it anywhere in the world could be prosecuted.

Pro-democracy lawmakers are hoping public disapproval of the law will translate into victory in Sept. 6 elections for the city’s Legislative Council. But some experts say the law could be used against candidates who do not demonstrate loyalty to Beijing, since anyone convicted under the new legislation will be barred from office. Wu Chi-wai, chair of the Democratic Party, says results “may not be accepted by the central government,” and he does not know “whether our nomination will be disqualified, whether we will be disqualified during the election campaign, [or]whether we will be disqualified even if we get elected.”

The effects will also be felt outside Hong Kong, says Wasserstrom, and could deter professionals from moving there. Governments across the world have begun to implement punitive measures. Canada suspended its extradition treaty with the territory. The U.K. has offered millions of Hong Kongers a path to citizenship, and several other nations are considering changes to help them relocate. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump Administration will largely eliminate policy exemptions that underpin Hong Kong’s special trade status with the U.S. Global tech companies including Google and Facebook have announced they’ll temporarily halt processing requests for user data from Hong Kong police, pending review of the law.

For now, authorities are already using the new legislation on protesters. Ten people were arrested for offenses under the law on July 1, including several holding pro–independence flags and leaflets (most were granted bail). But quashing the ideals that Hong Kongers hold in private won’t be so easy. Says Rick, the student: “My will to fight against the government did not change.”

This article appears in the July 20-27 issue of TIME.

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Write to AMY GUNIA / HONG KONG at amy.gunia@time.com