As the son of democracy activist and newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, Sebastien Lai says he frequently saw his father take big risks to advance the cause of freedom in Hong Kong.

Sebastien recalls one day in 2014, watching television with his family, when news of major pro-democracy protests led newscasts. His dad was not at home. Instead, he was somewhere in the fray of the demonstration.

“Suddenly on the TV—there was breaking news that my dad had been attacked,” Sebastien says. “I still remember to this day we were all freaking out, and our apartment door slams open, and we just smelled this horrible smell.” It was Jimmy. He was safe, but someone had dumped pig entrails all over him.

“He just looks at us and says, ‘Well, I guess I have to take a shower.’”

Other wild things would befall the Lai household in the years after that story. Their house was firebombed several times, and Jimmy was once rammed by a car. It all culminated with Jimmy’s arrest in August 2020 by Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) police. His bail was revoked on Dec. 31, 2020, and he’s been in custody ever since.

Jimmy Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was shut down in 2021, and he is one of roughly 1,800 people now held as political prisoner in Hong Kong.

So why was Jimmy Lai arrested and his newspaper shut down? It has to do with the imposition of the National Security Law, a vague, expansive piece of legislation developed by Beijing and imposed on Hong Kong largely to quash all dissent.

The Hoover Institution’s China’s Global Sharp Power Project brought together Sebastien Lai and several other speakers with deep ties to the unique city-state for a talk on May 14 about how the National Security Law has ended most forms of political freedom there.

Passed in 2020 and reinforced with new, related legislation this year, the National Security Law allows law enforcement to conduct searches without warrants. It criminalizes virtually all forms of peaceful protest and allows detention without trial for up to two weeks.

Lai said Hong Kong police and other officials appear to prosecute even people of Chinese ethnicity who have never had a Hong Kong or People’s Republic of China (PRC) passport, if they set foot on Hong Kong soil and engage in any of a myriad of things now considered to be subversive.

“They will treat you as a Chinese national even if you’ve never had a Chinese passport—so long as your descent is Chinese—and then they will deny you all consular access.”

James Cunningham, who also participated in the discussion, was the US consul general for Hong Kong and Macau from 2005 to 2008. He said the National Security Law can serve as an eerie preview of Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s aspirations for any place China influences.

“If you want to see in the real world what Xi Jinping’s vision of the future is, wherever China can influence, you have only to look at Hong Kong.”

Even more ominous, some have interpreted the National Security Law to apply even to those who never set foot within Hong Kong.  “Those of you in the room are likely in violation of the National Security Law and Article 38 just by being in the room. I apologize,” said Cherie Wong, founder of Alliance Canada-Hong Kong.

Article 38 is the part of the National Security Law that specifically states people who perform “subversive” acts outside of Hong Kong are still subject to the law.

Wong said her worry about the future of Hong Kong began early, when she was a child in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I had one question growing up: What happens after fifty years of ‘one country, two systems.’ And people would say, ‘It’s not our problem, it’s your problem,’” she said, referring to the fifty years of relative autonomy Hong Kong was promised by Beijing after the territory was handed over to it by the United Kingdom in 1997.

For Wong and others, the National Security Law represents an incursion and violation of the “one country, two systems” understanding that was supposed to guide the relationship between the PRC and Hong Kong.

Sophie Richardson was the China director at Human Rights Watch from 2006 to 2023. She said the UK Foreign Office has repeatedly cited the breakdown of the “one country, two systems” arrangement in its report about Hong Kong, saying the Hong Kong government “continues to be in a state of noncompliance” with the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration governing the handover of Hong Kong.

“That kind of language doesn’t give Xi any heartburn,” Richardson said.

Richardson said that it may take much more than diplomatic pressure to help release Jimmy Lai and other political prisoners, but there’s plenty more room to pressure Hong Kong in terms of trade.

“There’s room to leverage the Hong Kong government’s interests in economics and tie it to the release of political prisoners.”

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