There were no slogans and no words, just blank white sheets that trembled in the hands of a few dozen Hong Kongers who stood in a mall and said nothing.
The police arrived in full combat gear and waved a flag that read, "You are breaking the law." They arrested eight people, searched others, and dispersed the rest.
The local artist Kit Man made a caricature of the confrontation, which drew a satirical and foreboding comment and expressed China's determination to suppress even a whisper of dissent: “A state that can be undermined by a blank piece of paper – exists from tofu? "
Less than two weeks after a new national security law passed by Beijing, Hong Kong residents are already feeling a curtain of control over a city that has long been a brazen and defiant home for intellectuals, capitalists, artists, and democracy-friendly activists.
Mass protests consumed the semi-autonomous former British colony for much of the past year and escalated when the Hong Kong government let the police run free and refused protesters' demands. Now the central Chinese government, which has been exacerbated by the global diversion from the COVID 19 pandemic, is pushing ahead with stopping what it calls "secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces".
Suddenly words and even the imaginary intention behind them have become crimes.
Pro-democracy lawmakers are raising white papers to protest during a meeting and to discuss the new national security law in the Hong Kong Legislative Council.
(Vincent Yu / Associated Press)
Since the law came into force, hundreds of people have been arrested for unlawful assembly. Some have been charged with violations, including wearing items with protest slogans and Bible verses. Nobody knows what is safe. Even the word "conscience" on a sticker can get you in trouble in a scary and increasingly surreal atmosphere.
The first protester with blank paper on July 1 was a young woman who told reporters that she had held up white paper because she was unsure of what would be illegal under the new law.
She had remembered a joke she had read from the Soviet Union: An official once arrested a person who was handing out leaflets in Red Square and found that the leaflets were empty. The officer, unimpressed, had shouted, "Don't you think I know what you were going to write?"
"I suddenly wanted to see if this seemingly absurd joke became a reality," said the woman.
Since then, the mainland Communist Party has received a steady hint of authority across the city: the protest slogan "Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time" has been classified as illegal and subversive. Books by democracy-friendly lawmakers and activists, including Joshua Wong, have been removed from public libraries. The protest hymn "Glory to Hong Kong" was banned in schools.
Earlier this week, the night before the pro-democratic primaries, police raided the Public Opinion Research Institute, an election organizer, and a prominent electoral group that had published studies that showed widespread dissatisfaction with the police and government. The police confiscated computers and informed local news agencies that they had a warrant for "dishonest use of computers".
Hong Kong has become a different world overnight, said Lee, a coffee shop owner who asked not to use her full name to protect her from the authorities.
Stickers with messages of the democracy movement are attached in Hong Kong.
(Kin Cheung / Associated Press)
"Everything seems to be going on as usual, but you know that nothing is the same as before," she said. "You feel this constant pressure as if an invisible hand is placed over your mouth."
The night before the law was implemented, Lee was standing in her café, looking at the works of art that she had had on the walls for months. On a poster were demonstrators in yellow helmets and face masks with their chin raised in front of a tear gas cloud with the inscription: "We create our own destiny."
Lee started tearing the posters down.
"I have no choice," she said. Their business was one of many that showed protest works of art that had been harassed in the past few months for having bad licenses or blocking public space. Restaurant workers who openly supported demonstrators had been attacked in broad daylight and their businesses destroyed at night.
But the recent move felt different.
Police arrest a protester who was sprayed with pepper spray during a protest in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong on July 1.
(Vincent Yu / Associated Press)
The new law established a national security office in Hong Kong staffed by agents who were not bound by Hong Kong local custom. The office could override Hong Kong's jurisdiction in special cases. Some criminals could even be extradited to mainland China for trial – the very fear that sparked the Hong Kong protests last year.
The police had also been given new powers to ransack premises, confiscate property, intercept communications, and order Internet companies to remove confidential information.
The law would only address "an extremely small minority of people," said Carrie Lam, general manager of Hong Kong. However, the legal text extended its scope to residents and non-residents of Hong Kong inside or outside of Hong Kong.
These actions triggered a small wave of wordless resistance. Pro-democracy stores have torn down their famous Lennon walls – massive collages of protest messages and images that covered the city last year – to replace them with colorful walls made of blank sticky notes.
Caricaturists drew demonstrators with empty speech bubbles, made emoji versions of their slogans, and wrote the melody for "Glory to Hong Kong" in numbers that marked the notes. Everywhere in the city a new graffiti theme appeared: eight empty squares, each with space for a slogan, the absence of which seemed to speak loudly.
A cartoon by Hong Kong artist 365.dllmy shows a demonstrator speaking in empty speech bubbles after the promulgation of a new national security law.
In independent bookstores, sellers said they were busy refilling political titles when customers started buying panicked books, just like they did in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak for rice and masks.
Five of the top 10 bestsellers were sold out on Hong Kong Reader. Many of the titles were about Hong Kong's protests, including a compilation of letters that Chan Kin-man, a leader of the democracy-friendly umbrella movement, wrote from prison.
"Our role is becoming increasingly important as censorship increases in popular bookstores," said Amy Lam, an employee at Mount Zero Books.
There was no formal list of prohibited titles – like in mainland China, censorship in Beijing requires subjects to find out what may or may not be "sensitive" and train them in preventive self-censorship.
"Nobody knows where to draw the line," said Sidney Lui Chi-kong, a retired school librarian who runs an advisory network in Hong Kong and advises librarians on keeping high-quality book collections.
With the new law, he proposed that school librarians judge which books should be removed. Many books about Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Cultural Revolution came straight from the shelves, but some also removed books about protest movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong's colonial history.
"This is essentially a cultural cleanup," said Lui.
Lee thinks so too. Back in her café, she poured coffee beans into a grinder. The new Hong Kong would make it more difficult – even dangerous and criminal – to be a "decent person," she said. It would be so much easier to just give in, comply with the new laws, drop your ideals, and stay alive.
"But could you live with yourself?" She asked.
Two days after the white paper protest, one of the arrested women was photographed leaving the police station. According to local news reports, she was charged with illegal assembly and police disability.
She paused, her belongings hung over each shoulder, her eyes firmly between her face mask and hat, and raised the blank paper again.
The Times employee, Su, reported from Beijing and the special correspondent Cheung from Hong Kong.