Jan 24, 2023 - World

Beijing's grip on Hong Kong tightens

Illustration of a gavel cracking the Hong Kong flag

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

From press freedom to the judicial system, Beijing is seeking to erode the traditional political rights that once made Hong Kong the only free Chinese city.

The big picture: Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement has already been crushed, but the city's institutions are not yet as compliant as those in mainland China.

  • In 2020, Chinese authorities imposed tough national security legislation on Hong Kong that gave local authorities sweeping powers to detain and arrest people for broadly defined national security charges, making it nearly impossible for residents to push back against widening government repression.

What's happening: Hong Kong authorities are reshaping the city's judicial system to ensure a guilty verdict for pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is on trial for “colluding with foreign forces" under the national security law, The Wire China reports.

  • Hong Kong has traditionally allowed foreign lawyers to represent defendants at trial. When Lai chose a British lawyer who doesn't face the same pressures as local lawyers, Hong Kong authorities appealed to Beijing to block the selection, and immigration authorities denied the lawyer a visa.
  • That appeal granted Beijing the power to block foreign lawyers from representing Hong Kong defendants in the future. A previous ruling in the lead-up to Lai's trial also gave the government power to deny him bail.
  • Hong Kong Chief Justice Andrew Cheung defended the city's judiciary last week, saying judges there "have all faithfully applied the law to the best of their ability, in accordance with the evidence presented before them."

Speech and press freedoms continue to deteriorate as well.

  • On Dec. 30, Hong Kong immigration authorities denied entry to a Japanese photographer who had photographed the 2019 protests in the city.
  • Six people were arrested last week for selling a book about the 2019 protests and other materials that authorities deemed "seditious."

What to watch: Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said last week that the Hong Kong government plans to enact a national security law in 2023 that will expand the range of activities prohibited under the current law.

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