Scared silent: Hong Kong national security law forces Penn students to rethink future plans


Protests against an April 2019 bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China have occurred throughout Hong Kong for over a year.

In early June and throughout the last year, Penn students from Hong Kong have protested in the crowded streets, chanting, “Liberate Hong Kong! The revolution of our times!”

Now, less than a month later, the streets of Hong Kong are silent.

Beijing passed a new national security law on June 30 as part of its campaign to intervene in Hong Kong’s legal system. The law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign countries. While there are no clear definitions for these four categories, a man in Hong Kong was arrested for carrying a protest sign within 48 hours of the law’s passing — charged with inciting terrorism under the new law. Those tried under the new law and found guilty may face life in prison. 

For Penn’s Hong Kong students, returning home and speaking out against the law incites fear and leaves them with questions about their identity and their home. Many of the students interviewed in this story requested anonymity in fear of facing legal repercussions for their statements. 

“I have a friend who was still protesting until a few weeks ago, but after the national security law was passed he felt he’d be targeted by the regime, so he returned to the United States prematurely,” a College junior from Hong Kong said. 

Their friend was not alone as many Hong Kong citizens have disbanded social media accounts and fled the country following the national security law.

Another rising College junior said one of their main concerns is that the law will exacerbate  economic inequalities in Hong Kong.

“A lot of the rhetoric I’ve seen from liberal democracies is that they will offer citizenship, they are welcoming financial professionals and highly trained Hong Kongers with college degrees,” they said. “This places the value of Hong Kong people solely on their economic merit. People living below the poverty line but who still believe in [democratic] ideals are not able to enjoy the benefits of these Western countries.”

Many students from Hong Kong are now afraid to speak against the government and also show their faces at protests.

“People wearing masks now — for privacy, not even COVID — is a common theme,” a rising Wharton junior said. “They’re scared. You don’t wanna hold up a sign that says ‘Down with China.’ It’s for that reason I’m speaking anonymously”

Thousands of protesters took to the streets dressed in all black on July 1 and went shopping along the route of the 2019 protests, the 2020 College graduate said. They said police have matched the protesters’ attempts to be stealthy.  

“There are now plainclothes police around the city,” they said. “You see more random searches on trains targeting young people, anyone that police deem ‘threatening.’ I haven’t been searched yet because they don’t typically search in rush hour, but it could happen.” 

The rising junior added that the new law has seeped into aspects of everyday life. 

“People are much more reticent to discuss politics in restaurants since now there’s a stigma attached to it,” they said. 

Hong Kong police now walk around the city in plainclothes.

A rising College senior who lives in Hong Kong agreed and said that they are “extremely cautious” around their friends from Mainland China, certain friends in Hong Kong, and even their parents. 

It also has made them completely rethink their career path, they said.  

“Some of my friends who’ve graduated from Penn are joining the civil service ranks, and I don’t know if I can do that since public servants must swear an oath saying that you’re essentially loyal to the Chinese government,” the rising College senior said.

Under the new national security law, all civil servants must now pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China and swear to uphold the Basic Law, including the national security bill. 

Like the rising senior, the rising junior is also rethinking their career path.

The rising junior said that for much of their life they wanted to join Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, but they are uncertain if they will do so since pro-democracy Parliament officials may be silenced under the new law. Since they inherited a British passport from their parents, they might leave Hong Kong to live in the United Kingdom after graduating from Penn.

The 2020 College graduate said they are rethinking the usefulness of their entire major in light of Hong Kong’s new law.

“My political science degree is worthless except for proving I can write in English and do research,” they said. “I can’t go into politics without fearing being thrown into jail or risking my family’s safety.” 

Even worse, they said, are the rising Sino-American tensions that may make attaining a policy-centered job in the U.S. difficult as citing President Trump’s declaration that “Hong Kong will now be treated the same as Mainland China” in a July 14 speech.

Corporate recruitment is already changing, the rising College junior said. They noted that LinkedIn recently updated their and other students’ locations from “Hong Kong” to “Hong Kong, China.” 

“All the vehicles we use to market ourselves now recognize us as being from China,” they said.  

The rising College senior has been actively searching for a job in the U.S., Europe, and Australia as they believe getting a renewed visa for graduate studies may become even harder as a result of the new law. 

“I don’t know what 21-year-old spends hours reading immigration laws and finding out how to get different citizenships, but I’ve gone so far that I might learn French next to open up my possibilities,” they said.

Others, such as the 2020 College graduate and Hong Kong national Carolynne Liu, are worried that seeing family members in China will now be even more difficult.

Liu wished to spend a couple of years after graduation living in Hong Kong or China to be closer to her family, but is now rethinking that plan due to the new law. 

Individuals and large companies, such as the New York Times’ Hong Kong Bureau, have already announced they are relocating from Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea. 

While companies have made decisions to move, individuals living in Hong Kong remain concerned about their ability to speak out against the government.

“It’s forcibly silenced a lot of people in a way that reveals the cowardice of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s evident that regardless of all the rigging that they already put in the Hong Kong government and the challenges that they put upon the Hong Kong people, the people were going to win the fight,” Liu said. “They use this law to scare people into silence.” 

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