HONG KONG — A museum that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is rushing to digitize its archives, afraid its artifacts could be seized. Booksellers are nervously eyeing customers, worried they could be government spies. Writers have asked a news site to delete more than 100 articles, anxious that old posts could be used against them.
And on Wednesday, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control — a day usually observed by huge pro-democracy marches — a scattered crowd of protesters tried to rekindle that energy, only to be corralled by the police and arrested over offenses that did not exist a day earlier.
The Chinese government’s new security law for Hong Kong is less than a day old, and already the city is feeling its chilling effect. The law was designed to stamp out the anti-government demonstrations that have wracked the semiautonomous territory for more than a year. But it also threatens the fabric of life that has made Hong Kong, with its freewheeling cultural scene and civil society, distinct from the rest of China.
“You can say this law is just targeting protesters and anti-Chinese politicians, but it could be anyone,” said Isabella Ng, a professor at the Education University of Hong Kong who founded a charity that helps refugees in the city.
“Where is the line to draw?” said Professor Ng, who worries that her charity could one day come under scrutiny. “Everything becomes very uncertain.”
The law, which went into effect as soon as it was released Tuesday night, confirmed many residents’ fears that a range of actions that they had previously engaged in had become hazardous. Though the law specifically bans subversion, sedition, terrorism and collusion, its definition of those crimes could be interpreted broadly to include various forms of speech or organizing.
Lobbying foreign governments or publishing anti-Beijing viewpoints could be punished by life imprisonment in serious cases. So could saying anything seen as undermining the ruling Communist Party’s authority. As a few thousand people gathered in a major Hong Kong commercial district on Wednesday, the police forced them off the streets and arrested more than 180 people, including at least seven for new offenses created by the security law. One of the seven was a 15-year-old girl waving a Hong Kong independence flag, the police said.
Officials insist that the law will affect only a small group of offenders, but many fear the government could use the law’s expansive definitions to target a wide array of people and organizations. In the mainland, the party has virtually eliminated independent journalism and imposed onerous restrictions on nongovernmental organizations.
Even before the law was passed, activists, journalists, bookshop owners and professors said they had begun second-guessing any speech that could be labeled political. The human rights group Amnesty International said it had drawn up a contingency plan.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese control in 1997. It found success as a bridge between the mainland and the rest of the world, serving as a haven for Chinese dissidents and a base for academics, journalists and researchers to chronicle, unfettered, the country’s modernization.
But reminders of Chinese control were never far. The abductions of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015 by the mainland authorities rattled others who had openly marketed salacious Chinese political thrillers or modern historical volumes. Though Hong Kong was long a sanctuary for books banned in the mainland, tighter border checks have recently choked the flow of books between Hong Kong and the mainland.
Now the security push has accelerated panic and a sense of foreboding.
“If you haven’t tasted what tyranny is, be prepared, because tyranny is not comfortable,” said Bao Pu, the founder of New Century Press, one of the city’s few surviving independent publishers.
Albert Wan, the co-owner of Bleak House Books, an independent bookstore, said that he closely tracked all his book shipments, regardless of whether they could be considered political, watching for any sign of delay.
He said that he had also grown wary of unfamiliar customers, and tries to decide if they are browsing for books or seemingly “building a profile” of him and his employees.
“We are being paranoid,” Mr. Wan said. “I don’t know how else to put it.”
For those who built their lives and livelihoods around Hong Kong’s unique freedoms, the security law has forced them to balance two seemingly irreconcilable goals: preserving their own safety, without giving in to fear.
The June 4 Museum, which chronicles Beijing’s bloody military crackdown on student protesters in 1989, has not made plans to move its artifacts overseas for safekeeping. The Chinese government has tried to quash any memory of the massacre, so to hide the archives would be to admit premature defeat, said Lee Cheuk-yan, of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which runs the museum.
But reality has also forced the alliance to start an online fund-raiser in support of digitizing the museum’s archives, which include video footage of the protests and letters that protesters wrote to their families.
“We of course are racing with time,” Mr. Lee said.
The chill is not limited to local groups. Large international organizations are also evaluating their future in the city. The new law specifically said that the government would “strengthen the management” of foreign nongovernmental organizations and news agencies.
Amnesty International, the human rights group, has drafted plans for leaving Hong Kong, though it does not currently intend to move any employees, said Nicholas Bequelin, the director for Amnesty’s East and Southeast Asia operations. “The rule of law is going to come under very severe stress in Hong Kong,” he said.
Concerns about the security law’s reach have also forced many writers and protesters to scrutinize their digital footprint for anything that might now be deemed subversive. Activists deleted their accounts on Twitter and on Telegram, a messaging app popular with protesters.
In recent weeks, around a dozen writers asked the editors of InMedia HK, a site that posts articles supporting democracy, to take down some or all of their archives, said Betty Lau, the site’s editor. Editors deleted more than 100 articles, Ms. Lau said.
Hong Kong’s reputation for press freedom has long stood in contrast with the mainland’s censorship regime and routine harassment of journalists. But the new security law has thrown the future of the city’s lively news media into question.
The Hong Kong News Executives Association, a group representing the top editors of the city’s major news outlets, expressed concern about the far-reaching impact of the security law ahead of its release. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club urged the government last week to guarantee that the authorities would not seek to interfere with the work of reporters. The government has not responded, but officials have sought to reassure the public that the city’s civil liberties will be protected.
During a recent end-of-semester meeting at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, staff members wondered aloud where the red line would be and whether certain topics would be off limits, said the center’s director, Keith Richburg.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t think twice about posting something on Twitter before pushing the button,” said Mr. Richburg, a former foreign correspondent with The Washington Post.
One of the starkest indicators that the national security law was already having its intended effect came on Tuesday, directly after lawmakers in Beijing unanimously approved it.
Joshua Wong, the 23-year-old who is perhaps Hong Kong’s best-known activist, announced on social media that he would withdraw from Demosisto, the youth political group that he founded in 2016, citing fears for his safety. Demosisto, which has called for greater autonomy for Hong Kong, was for many the face of the protest movement’s future.
Soon after, three other leading members of Demosisto also resigned. A few hours later, the group announced it was disbanding altogether.
In a note explaining his decision, Mr. Wong wrote, “Nobody can be sure of their tomorrow.”
Austin Ramzy, Elaine Yu and Tiffany May contributed reporting. Bella Huang contributed research.
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