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How Activists Are Fighting Back Against China's Controversial Hong Kong Security law


The Chinese government is preparing a new national security law for Hong Kong. Critics say it's intended to trammel the territory's autonomy and fatally weaken the pro-democracy movement. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on how activists propose to fight back.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The Hong Kong government, which parrots Beijing, touts the national security law in this public service message...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It will also ensure that Hong Kong becomes a safer, more stable city.

MCCARTHY: ...As a benign way to strengthen One Country, Two Systems. To suggest that governing formula is improved by a law aimed at punishing sedition, subversion and foreign interference is nonsense, says activist historian Jeffrey Ngo. He says it's more accurate to say Hong Kong is being pushed toward the cliff.

JEFFREY NGO: It is not an exaggeration to say that if the national security law does go through, then this will be the end of One Country, Two Systems.

MCCARTHY: Which means Beijing walks back its promise to allow Hong Kong its quasi-democracy - independent courts, rule of law and free speech. Opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo says Beijing's law may succeed in its design to neutralize Hong Kong's democracy movement.

CLAUDIA MO: The kind of a reign of terror, right? Watch out what you say. Watch what you do. So many people would be unsettled.

MCCARTHY: Veteran organizer Lee Cheuk Yan says activists are strategizing how to avoid getting charged under the impending law, how to navigate COVID-19 disease controls that ban public gatherings.

LEE CHEUK YAN: Someone would be saying that, oh, we have to resist even more harder. Someone said that, oh, maybe we should lay low for a while. I think the people of Hong Kong have shown we are very much flexible, pragmatic and, at the same time, creative and imaginative.

MCCARTHY: Lee, a trade union leader, commends strikes as a form of resistance, like the medical workers who struck over government mismanagement of COVID-19 and attracted thousands to the cause. Nathan Law, one of the more prominent younger democracy campaigners, says it's no time to pull back. He says if millions marched to preserve basic freedoms last summer, this past June 4...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

MCCARTHY: ...Shows they are not wavering this summer. Thousands massed for the annual vigil for victims of Tiananmen Square, despite a police ban.

NATHAN LAW: It shows how Hong Kong people are tenacious in regards to defending their core values and defending their freedom. So I think it was actually an encouraging moment.

MCCARTHY: Democratic organizer Michael Mo, however, supports a tactical retreat. The newly elected district councilor tells supporters to stay off the streets and even consider going abroad.

MICHAEL MO: I will try to be responsible for their safety and to tell them that - stay safe. And there's still a long way to go.

MCCARTHY: Jeffrey Ngo says the pro-democracy movement could take on characteristics of the against-the-odds struggle of Poland after martial law in the 1980s. Like the Poles, Ngo says Hong Kong must resist when it can and solicit help from abroad when it must.

NGO: It's very, very difficult for Hong Kongers us to say, well, we're going to do X, Y and Z and this is going to deter China. I think it requires the support and cooperation from freedom-loving countries around the world to stand with us and explore different options.

MCCARTHY: The G-7 has urged Beijing to reconsider its national security law, now on a fast track for approval. But historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom says in a world distracted by a pandemic, Hong Kong is not a priority.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's hard, especially now at this moment, for there to be the kind of sustained attention that there needs to be for Beijing to feel that there's a real cost to pay for reneging on the promises that they made.

MCCARTHY: This week, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam called opponents of Beijing's impending security law enemies of the people. Lee Cheuk Yan says Hong Kongers are united in their belief that their city is worth fighting shoulder to shoulder for.

CHEUK YAN: We are one facing China, and we are one that hopefully will change China before China changes us.

MCCARTHY: The National People's Congress in Beijing could approve the new security law as early as this month.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.