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opinion

There was a brief hope, last year, that the pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong would help preserve the freedoms of the 7.5-million people who live in the former British colony.

The protesters forced the Hong Kong government to back off a proposed law that would have allowed residents to be arrested on a whim, and extradited to mainland China for what passes there for a trial.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, apologized for the law’s introduction. And in elections in the fall, pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory that threatened to wrest the territory’s governance out of Beijing’s control.

That hope is gone, possibly forever.

As of July 1, Hong Kongers are subject to a new law imposed on them by Beijing that criminalizes talk of independence and essentially outlaws criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. The law allows Chinese national security agencies to operate openly in Hong Kong; anyone charged under it can be extradited to the mainland.

The law targets secession, sedition, terrorism and colluding with a foreign power, but it does so in broad terms that will be interpreted in the interests of the Communist Party. Anyone who merely mentions the issues that have electrified Hong Kong for the past year could find themselves charged with crimes that carry sentences of up to life in prison.

Already, people and organizations in Hong Kong are closing their social media accounts and scrubbing their internet presence. Bookstore owners are purging their catalogs. The anti-Beijing protests of the past, which once drew millions, have been reduced to remnants.

On Wednesday, the first day of the law’s implementation, just 1,000 people protested on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. Among those arrested was a 15-year-old girl who carried a pro-independence flag, an act that was legal one day earlier.

Beijing argues that the law’s only goal is to stop the rioting that at times closed down much of the city over the past year. But no one is fooled.

The Communist Party can now exert the same fear over the people of Hong Kong that it imposes on the mainland. While quieter streets might be welcomed by some Beijing loyalists, the truth is that anyone in Hong Kong who commits one of the new crimes of thought and speech risks being trapped in the same wide net.

Even Ms. Lam and her colleagues on the executive council could theoretically find themselves carried away by police for failing to show the required enthusiasm for the new law, which was forced on them by Beijing, without consultation. No one is safe anymore.

Beijing insists that the “one country, two systems” handover agreement it signed with the United Kingdom in 1997 is still intact. In a sense, that’s true. On paper, Hong Kong’s government remains separate from that on the mainland.

But the idea of “two systems” always meant more than simply giving Hong Kong residents a minimal say in local governance. It was a bargain that meant Hong Kong would continue to enjoy all the civil liberties that Canadians enjoy, notably free speech and impartial courts. The two systems were, in a nutshell, unfreedom in China, and freedom in Chinese Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is no longer free. Its vibrant political life is over. Its media will stop writing about such taboo subjects as the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Chinese government’s cover-up of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Its residents will no longer dare to state their beliefs, not at the cost of life in a mainland gulag. Foreigners traveling there will risk being charged with national security offences and being held hostage to Beijing’s foreign policy machinations, as Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been.

There is little the rest of the world can do, other than to protest, and to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and businesses deemed to have violated Hong Kong’s autonomy, as the United States did this week.

But China is not the former Soviet Union; it is not shut off from world markets. Instead, it is at the centre of them. China is an economic superpower, with fingers in almost every part of the global supply chain. The swift and brutal evisceration of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms is the boldest signal yet that the Communist Party has decided that it is now too powerful to have to keep its bargains.