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How Beijing’s National Security Crackdown Transformed Hong Kong in a Single Month

8 minute read

After Beijing enacted a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong, the city’s leader tried to allay fears of a broad crackdown on dissent by promising the measure would affect only a very small minority of people.

But throughout July, the first full month under the new legislation, the measure featured prominently in a sustained effort to quell political upheaval in the enclave, while also ushering in a transformative climate of fear and uncertainty.

The law’s provisions — which punish crimes related to secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces — have been used as grounds for disqualifying political candidates, arresting students over social media posts and banning common protest slogans.

The blows to the city’s democracy movement over the past few weeks have extended beyond the far-reaching law itself. Academics who are key figures in the protests were fired from their posts, police raided the office of an opinion pollster and some vocal members of the political opposition have fled.

The drama-packed month was capped off in its final hours with the year-long postponement of the Sept. 6 elections. While authorities cited the spiraling coronavirus outbreak for the move, opposition candidates saw it as an attempt to thwart their efforts to capitalize on the months-long protest movement and simmering public discontent with success at the ballot box.

For much of last year, demonstrations shattered the city’s reputation as a stable financial hub. Sparked by fears over Beijing’s encroachment on the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms and judicial independence, the protests morphed into an increasingly bold and often violent challenge of the Chinese Communist Party’s authority, prompting Beijing to reassert control.

The new security legislation, which was drafted behind closed doors and imposed without public consultation, encompasses crimes committed abroad and stipulates sentences of up to life in prison. It allows China’s state security agents to operate openly in the city for the first time, and permits extradition to the mainland for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.

Shrugging off international criticism and sanctions, Beijing and its allies say they will take all necessary steps to safeguard sovereignty and restore stability in Hong Kong. They also insist the city’s freedoms remain intact, even as activists warn of an aggressive attack on their long-cherished civil liberties.

Here is a timeline of the major events over the last month:

July 1

Hong Kong Marks 23 Years After Its Handover To China
Police detain a man as they raise a warning flag during a demonstration against the new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.Getty Images—2020 Getty Images

July 2

  • The government bans the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” due to the perceived connotation of separatism and subversion of state power, an interpretation protesters deny, saying it draws on China’s history and aims for political freedom. Legal experts have questioned the validity of the ban
  • Police warn that so-called “Lennon Walls” made of Post-it notes with pro-protest messages may violate the national security law
  • Prominent activist Nathan Law reveals he has left Hong Kong over concerns that his lobbying of foreign governments to impose sanctions on the city falls foul of the new law
  • July 3

  • The Education Bureau instructs all schools to teach students about the national security law with a “positive approach” to help foster a “correct” understanding of the relationship between “our country and Hong Kong.”
  • U.K. foreign secretary Dominic Raab announces that anyone with British National Overseas (BNO) status — and their dependents — can come to the United Kingdom and potentially receive citizenship, an offer that extends to an estimated three million Hongkongers
  • July 4

  • Several books written by pro-democracy activists, including Joshua Wong, are reportedly removed from circulation at the public libraries pending an investigation into whether they violate the national security law
  • July 6

  • Law enforcement agencies are given expansive new powers to enforce the national security legislation, including the ability to conduct warrant-less searches, carry out online surveillance, intercept communications and require internet service providers to remove information
  • Facebook, Google and Twitter say they are suspending the processing of any government requests for user data in Hong Kong, while TikTok announces it will quit operating in the city
  • July 8

    Police walk past the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong after its official inauguration on July 8, 2020.Anthony WALLACE—AFP/Getty Images

    July 9

  • Hong Kong’s constitutional affairs minister warns that the pro-democracy camp’s election primaries may breach the new national security law, which outlaws obstruction of government duties. Several of the pro-democracy candidates had vowed to veto the government’s budget and force democratic reforms demanded by protesters if they secured a majority of seats in the lawmaking body
  • July 10

  • Police stage an overnight raid on the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, an independent pollster helping the pro-democracy opposition conduct a primary election. Police said they were responding to a citizen’s report that the pollster’s computers had been hacked, prompting a suspected data leak of personal information
  • July 14

  • The New York Times announces that it is relocating its Hong Kong-based digital news operation to Seoul after challenges securing work permits and amid concerns over “new era under tightened Chinese rule”
  • President Donald Trump signs a law to sanction individuals and banks deemed to have aided the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and approves an executive order ending the preferential economic treatment that Hong Kong has enjoyed. China’s foreign ministry says Beijing will impose retaliatory sanctions
  • July 21

  • While clearing out a demonstration in a mall that violated coronavirus restrictions, police arrest District Councillor Rayman Chow on suspicion of breaching the national security legislation. He reportedly held a banner featuring banned protest slogans, including “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”
  • July 25

  • At least 10 candidates from the democracy camp, including activist Joshua Wong, receive questions from electoral officers reviewing their eligibility. The candidates are asked to clarify their stances on issues like the national security law and sanctions
  • July 28

  • Long-time pro-democracy campaigner Benny Tai is fired from his post as associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong, sparking fears for academic freedom. In a statement about the dismissal, the university did not name Tai and only cited termination for “good cause.” The firing overruled the university’s senate, which found Tai had committed misconduct that did not warrant firing. Tai is currently appealing a 16-month jail sentence related to the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign he co-founded in 2014
  • July 29

  • Police arrest four people aged 16-21 on suspicion of inciting secession in what appears to be the first such arrests outside of street demonstrations. At a press conference, a senior superintendent of the newly established national security department says the students are suspected of involvement in an online group supporting Hong Kong independence
  • July 30

    Former Demosisto Members Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow Make Court Appearance
    Activist Joshua Wong poses for a photograph in Hong Kong on July 6, 2020.Paul Yeung—Bloomberg/Getty Images

    July 31

  • Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of a Beijing-aligned think tank, tells Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK that Beijing was behind the banning of the 12 election candidates in order “to prevent hostile forces from taking over” the city’s legislature
  • Director of public prosecutions David Leung resigns from his post and reportedly reveals in an email to colleagues that he was sidelined from decisions related to the national security law
  • All four students arrested under the national security law are granted bail and ordered by police to remove messages from a Facebook group allegedly pledging support for a “Republic of Hong Kong”
  • Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam postpones the city’s Sept. 6 elections for one year citing the severity of the resurgent coronavirus outbreak. At a press conference, she announces that she asked the Central Government in Beijing to determine what will happen to the Legislative Council in the gap before the poll can be called. Critics call the delay a “naked election manipulation” and accuse the government of using the public health crisis as an excuse to avoid a repeat of the district council polls last year when the opposition won 86% of seats up for grabs
  • Chinese state media reports that Hong Kong police have ordered arrest warrants for six “troublemakers” overseas on suspicion of violating the national security law, including Nathan Law and U.S. citizen Samuel Chu
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    Write to laignee barron / Hong Kong at Laignee.Barron@time.com