Hong Kong authorities tried to distance the newspaper’s shutdown from what they called “normal journalism” and claimed the insurgent, pro-democracy publication posed a threat to national security.
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The move was “a shot across the bow and a reminder of the ambiguity of national security law,” said Tara Joseph, president of the US Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. The law bans any activity Beijing considers sedition, secession and subversion, and allows Chinese state security to operate in the territory.
“It’s not just the shutdown of Apple Daily,” she told CNN Business. “It is the new normal and the change that Hong Kong is going through from its era as a post-British colony to an era where it has increasingly become a part of China.”
“Try not to accuse the Hong Kong authorities of using the national security law as a tool to suppress the media or stifle freedom of expression,” Lam said at a news conference on Tuesday.
A sensitive time
Hong Kong has been a crucial hub for foreign companies looking to partner with China for decades. While Beijing largely regulates how foreign companies do business on the mainland, Hong Kong allowed them to operate without severe restrictions on investment and other operations.
“If you have sensitive data and if you don’t want Hong Kong police to be at your door sooner or later, get your sensitive data out of Hong Kong,” said Stefan Schmierer, managing partner at Ravenscroft & Schmierer, a Hong Kong-based law firm that advises international companies.
Facebook, Twitter and Google confirmed on Friday that there had been no change in their stance.
Self-censorship has also become more apparent. Last year, the German Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong wanted to organize a seminar on national security legislation, but could not find any law firms willing to participate, Schmierer said. The room did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Kevin Lai, chief economist for Asia excluding Japan at Daiwa Capital Markets, said he had also noticed a shift among fellow analysts and economists, adding that many are “quieter than before.”
“Maybe there is self-censorship,” he said.
Safety for some, discomfort for others
Schmierer said he did not expect the mounting repression to affect everyone, adding that “it is not that Beijing will destroy Hong Kong’s affairs.”
“If you buy some machines in China and sell them to the United States, what’s the problem with? [the] national security law?” he added.
Frederik Gollob, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, echoed that sentiment.
While “in some sectors it has become more political … I don’t believe you can say this for all industries and sectors,” he said.
Yet the general unease was not limited to media and technology. In the past few months a feeling of unease has fallen over the city, with various institutions coming into the limelight.
Police alleged that Hui embezzled money raised through a crowdfunding campaign and alleged that he violated national security law by collaborating with foreign powers to undermine national security.
HSBC said at the time it must “abide by the laws of the jurisdiction in which we operate”.
The bank continued to experience tension in Hong Kong’s largest market. For example, the bank this week had to apologize to customers in the city after confusion over a reported change to the terms of service.
HSBC later clarified that there was “no plan for any changes to the services”.
“HSBC Hong Kong customers can continue to access banking services through online banking and outdoor mobile banking [the city]’ said a statement. “We apologize for the inconvenience caused.”
The perfect storm’
In some ways, “we’ve had a perfect storm for the past few years,” said Joseph, AmCham’s president.
The government has also faced increasing criticism of the city’s largely closed borders and strict quarantine rules, which have made international travel nearly impossible for many people.
According to Gollob, this has increased the fear of a “brain drain”.
“I am concerned about companies and people leaving in greater numbers and unlikely to return due to the inability to move freely,” he said.
Gollob said he was more concerned about the city’s reopening than about political tensions.
“In some areas of business [the mood] is certainly almost desperate,” he said.
“We have a big job ahead of us to restore Hong Kong’s image to where we think it should be, and that’s, I think, a pretty tough job to do at the moment.”
— Eric Cheung, Jadyn Sham, Nikita Koirala, Jenni Marsh and CNN’s Beijing office contributed to this report.
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