By criminalizing global activism, Hong Kong’s security law is a serious threat to not only Hong Kong international students, but all McMaster students.
By: Mark Choi*, Contributor
*Names and identifying details have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals*
The words that you are reading right now could land me in prison for life.
This may seem absurd — life imprisonment for writing a political opinion in a newspaper. However, as a Hong Kong international student, this is a very real risk that I face under China’s sweeping new Hong Kong security law.
In June, the Chinese government imposed a draconian national security law upon Hong Kong after months of pro-democracy demonstrations. The law criminalizes vague offenses such as “subversion” or “collusion with foreign forces” and establishes a new secret police unit for its enforcement. This bloodless coup has been internationally condemned as a desecration of Hong Kong’s treaty-guaranteed autonomy.
This crackdown on dissent is unprecedented. Hundreds were rounded up the first day the law came into force. Books are being banned, educators are being purged and political persecution is on the rise. The first political figure arrested under the law was 19-year-old student Tony Chung, who now faces up to life in prison for allegedly writing subversive posts on Facebook.
For Hong Kong international students at McMaster University, this law is terrifying. It severely restricts what we are able to say or do. The law’s offenses are intentionally vague, in order to encourage self-censorship.
The security law also imperils other outspoken McMaster students: Article 38 of the law says it covers literally everyone on Earth. This means anybody at McMaster — not just those with Hong Kong citizenship — risks prosecution simply for criticizing the Chinese government. In fact, the first foreign national hit with an arrest warrant through Article 38 is activist Samuel Chu, an American citizen based in California; more such warrants are likely coming.
For Hong Kong international students at McMaster University, this law is terrifying. It severely restricts what we are able to say or do. The law’s offenses are intentionally vague, in order to encourage self-censorship. The security law also imperils other outspoken McMaster students: Article 38 of the law says it covers literally everyone on Earth.
Canada has even issued an official travel warning for Hong Kong. Canadians transiting through Hong Kong’s airport now risk arbitrary detention and life imprisonment for “activities that are not considered illegal in Canada and that occurred outside of Hong Kong”.
Faculty and students at McMaster who are interested in issues deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese government must now choose between permanently avoiding Hong Kong, or dropping such research altogether. In other words, the security law’s extraterritorial overreach degrades academic freedom at McMaster.
Additionally, as a student activist at McMaster, I have previously spoken up about Hong Kong. In May, other Hongkonger students and I successfully lobbied the Student Success Centre to take down job postings for the Hong Kong Police Force.
I also want to spend time supporting others who similarly experience oppression, such as Uyghurs experiencing genocide in China’s concentration camps, and protests against police violence and systemic anti-Black racism right here at McMaster. Our struggles are not solitary sojourns — rather, we get strength from solidarity with one another.
Unfortunately, while this is what I want to do, such activism will make me a target. Until now, Hong Kong had been a vibrant hub for social justice organizers, queer folks and climate activists focused on China. However, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both recently warned that such activism is now seriously threatened by the security law.
After all, the security law criminalizes more than just pro-democracy slogans, it criminalizes dissent. The Hong Kong government, having lost all political legitimacy, now relies solely on its state security apparatus to maintain power. In such a scenario, a free society is inherently an existential threat.
McMaster therefore needs to strengthen academic freedom and space for student activism. There should be particular focus on safety for international students who will not be based in Canada for the online Fall 2020 term.
For starters, McMaster should ban the institutional use of Zoom and use more secure platforms instead, such as Teams (which we already pay for). McMaster’s security guidelines for Zoom are, disappointingly, unabashedly ignorant of the fact that not all students will be based in Canada for Fall 2020. For Hong Kong students like myself, we could find ourselves prosecuted for participating in political discussions online if McMaster does not take our safety seriously.
Zoom’s facilitation of Chinese gov’t censorship & surveillance makes it a serious threat to student safety.
— McMaster Stands with Hong Kong 😷 (@McMaster_SWHK) July 20, 2020
McMaster also needs to improve safety for student activists. Last May, three students were ticketed while protesting on campus. This kind of harassment creates a chilling effect, as the threat of police violence discourages students from organizing. Instead of deterring student activism, McMaster should be actively facilitating it.
As Hongkongers face down a grim, authoritarian future — one where political persecution, arbitrary arrest and torture in police detention go from the exception to the norm — I feel conflicted.
On one hand, the danger to me and my family is real. In mainland China, the Chinese Communist Party silences dissent by not only targeting activists, but also their families. However, the state wants to silence us due to fear — fear of what we would say if Hong Kong was truly free. For that reason alone, we Hongkongers must keep speaking.