25th April 2024 – (Hong Kong) In the bustling streets of Hong Kong, a vibrant global financial hub, the right to free speech has long been cherished as a cornerstone of its identity. However, this fundamental freedom has increasingly become a double-edged sword – one that, when wielded irresponsibly, can inflict deep wounds upon the city’s social fabric and stability.

As the recent enactment of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance has demonstrated, the Hong Kong government is now tasked with the delicate balancing act of preserving this vital liberty while safeguarding the city’s autonomy and prosperity from those who would seek to exploit it for nefarious purposes. It is a challenge that requires nuance, restraint and a clear-eyed understanding of the responsibilities that accompany the privilege of free expression.

In the wake of the 2019 social unrest, Hong Kong found itself at a crossroads. The city had long prided itself on its robust tradition of free speech, with citizens unafraid to voice their dissent and challenge the status quo. Yet, as the protests descended into violence and disruption, it became evident that this cherished freedom had been hijacked by those with a more sinister agenda.

Radical elements, some with alleged ties to foreign powers, had skillfully manipulated the language of protest to sow discord, undermine the rule of law and even call for the city’s secession from China. The result was a dangerous cocktail of disinformation, hate speech and blatant incitement that threatened to tear Hong Kong apart at the seams.

It was against this backdrop that Beijing intervened, imposing the National Security Law in 2020 – a move that, while controversial, was seen by many as a necessary firewall against the erosion of Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. The law, which outlaws acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, was designed to restore a semblance of order and reinforce the principle of “one country, two systems” that had underpinned Hong Kong’s success.

The subsequent enactment of Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, has further solidified this framework. The Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, which came into effect in March 2023, expanded the legal arsenal against threats to national security, covering a range of offences from treason and insurrection to the theft of state secrets. Yet, as the government moves to safeguard Hong Kong’s stability, there are legitimate concerns that the pendulum may have swung too far, compromising the very freedoms that have long defined the city’s unique identity. The spectre of self-censorship looms large, as individuals and businesses tread carefully, wary of inadvertently running afoul of the law.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” observes Ronny Tong, a member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council. “The government knows the law cannot be used frequently or it would just ‘fulfil Western prophecies’.”

Indeed, the delicate balancing act requires nuance and restraint. As Tong suggests, the true test will lie in how the authorities wield this new legal arsenal – whether it is deployed judiciously to address genuine threats to national security, or wielded as a blunt instrument to stifle legitimate dissent and criticism.

This is a challenge that extends beyond the realm of politics and the law. It is also a matter of individual responsibility and civic maturity. For free speech to truly thrive, Hong Kong’s citizens must recognise that it comes with commensurate duties – the obligation to express themselves with care, to eschew the temptation of inflammatory rhetoric, and to maintain a steadfast commitment to the rule of law and the city’s broader interests. Regrettably, not all have heeded this call. In the aftermath of the 2019 unrest, Hong Kong has witnessed a troubling proliferation of hate speech, misinformation and attempts to undermine the city’s stability through the misuse of free expression.

The case of the 47 pro-democracy figures charged under the national security law for allegedly conspiring to subvert state power serves as a sobering example. These individuals, many of whom were already serving prison sentences for their involvement in the 2019 protests, now face the prospect of longer incarceration due to the new provisions in Article 23 that restrict the granting of sentence remissions for those convicted of national security offences.

The irony is that these same individuals had, in the past, championed the virtues of free speech, only to allegedly abuse it in pursuit of their political objectives. Their case highlights the delicate balance that must be struck – the recognition that free speech is not an absolute right, but one that must be exercised with responsibility and respect for the broader well-being of the community.

Equally troubling is the growing evidence of foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, with certain external actors seeking to leverage the city’s cherished freedoms to undermine its stability and prosperity. Under the guise of “supporting democracy” or “protecting human rights”, these forces have provided succour and encouragement to local opposition figures, emboldening them to engage in acts that flirt dangerously close to the boundaries of the law.

The closure of the Hong Kong bureau of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia, citing safety concerns in the wake of the new security law, is a case in point. Similarly, the decision by some companies to take precautionary measures, such as reviewing employee screening and supplier due diligence, emphasises the palpable sense of unease that has gripped the business community.

“Most sizeable foreign enterprises in Hong Kong have established footholds in mainland China over the years,” observes a European diplomat. “High emphasis on national security is nothing new for them.”

Yet, for all the justified concerns, the Hong Kong government has struggled to strike the right tone in its response to international criticism. The initial hardline approach, typified by the combative rhetoric of officials like security chief Chris Tang and justice secretary Paul Lam, only served to deepen the perception of heavy-handedness and further alienate the city’s global partners. More recently, however, there are signs that the government has adopted a more nuanced and reactive strategy. The emphasis, it appears, has shifted towards redirecting the narrative to focus on Hong Kong’s economic development and unique advantages, rather than issuing further warnings about the security law.

This measured approach, embodied in the words of Executive Council convenor Regina Ip, who has advocated for a “people’s diplomacy” to address Western misunderstandings, reflects a recognition that the battle for Hong Kong’s image cannot be won through confrontation alone. Instead, it requires a deft combination of strategic messaging, targeted engagement and a demonstration of the city’s resilience and vitality.

The government’s decision to earmark HK$100 million (US$12.8 million) to boost promotions for mega events over the next three years, is a case in point. The goal, as a government source explains, is to offer foreigners the opportunity to “experience a safer Hong Kong, contrary to warnings they might have heard.”

“Seeing is the best way of believing,” the official adds. “Let them spread good Hong Kong stories by word of mouth.” Yet, for all the government’s efforts, the ultimate success of this balancing act will hinge on the actions and choices of Hong Kong’s citizens themselves. As the city navigates this delicate phase, it is incumbent upon each individual to exercise their right to free speech with the utmost care and responsibility. This means eschewing the temptation of inflammatory rhetoric, the spread of unsubstantiated rumours, or the deliberate undermining of the city’s stability. It requires a recognition that free speech, while a fundamental right, is not an absolute licence to say or do anything without consequence.

As the philosopher Voltaire famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This sentiment encapsulates the essence of a mature, democratic society – one where disagreement and dissent are tolerated, but where the boundaries of acceptability are clearly defined and respected.

In Hong Kong, this delicate balance has never been more crucial. The city stands at a crossroads, its future hanging in the balance as it navigates the treacherous waters of geopolitical tensions and the legacy of past unrest. The choices made by its citizens in the years ahead will not only shape Hong Kong’s destiny, but also determine whether its unique identity and cherished freedoms can be preserved for generations to come.

As Hong Kong grapples with this challenge, the government must strive to strike the right chord – projecting strength and resolve in the face of genuine threats to national security, while demonstrating a nimble and responsive approach that is attuned to the nuances of free expression.

This will require a deft combination of clear-eyed legal enforcement, strategic communication and a genuine commitment to engaging with Hong Kong’s diverse communities. It means recognizing that the true battle is not against free speech itself, but against its malicious misuse by those who would seek to undermine the city’s stability and prosperity.

Equally important is the role of Hong Kong’s citizens. They must rise to the occasion, embracing the responsibilities that accompany their cherished freedoms. This means cultivating a culture of civic maturity, where dissent and debate are channeled through constructive, lawful means, and where the temptation of hate speech and disinformation is firmly rejected.