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Hong Kong politician whose book was yanked from shelves says, "I don't know how I can protect myself"

Pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan answers the questions from media outside Hong Kong's High Court on October 31, 2019. PHILIP FONG/Getty Images

Hong Kongers are deleting social media posts and making plans to emigrate because of China's new "national security" law that came into effect earlier this month, one prominent pro-democracy lawmaker told CBS News. The law, which came into force on July 1, outlaws a variety of vaguely defined offenses like "sedition," which can be tried in mainland Chinese courts and carry sentences of life in prison.

"Originally in Hong Kong, we were supposed to have rule of law. But now it's rule by law, or even rule by fear," Tanya Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker and lawyer in the semi-autonomous Chinese region, told CBS News. Her book, "My Journeys for Food and Justice," which was published in 2014, and written, she said, when she was not serving on Hong Kong's legislative council, has reportedly been placed "under review" by libraries and schools in Hong Kong.

"I'm really worried," Chan said, adding that she isn't sure why her book, which outlines some of her thoughts on politics and travel, has been placed under review. "You don't know when you will step into these traps or even you will step on these red lines, because red lines are everywhere, and they move constantly. Constantly. So the only thing that you can do is just lead a normal life and be yourself."

"National security" and broad new powers

China's new "national security" law for Hong Kong saw Beijing extend broad new powers over the former British colony, which had been semi-autonomous since it was handed over in 1997 by the U.K..

The "one country, two systems" approach, which enshrined Hong Kong's independent judicial system, along with freedoms of speech, assembly and the press until 2047, allowed the city to become a major international economic hub. The new law, which was drafted in secret by Beijing, means Hong Kongers can now be tried in mainland Chinese courts on loosely defined charges including sedition, subversion, or colluding with a foreign power — all of which can result in a life prison sentence.

"National security laws are meant to be written in a way that is as narrow as possible and is proportionate to the threat that a state faces. This law is the absolute opposite," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told CBS News. "It's a textbook case of what the state should not do if you want to be compliant with international human rights standards, because it essentially means Beijing is the full arbiter of what is and isn't legal whenever it feels like it. And you know, if you're an authoritarian regime, that's an awfully convenient tool to have tucked away."

Previous attempts by Beijing to encroach on Hong Kong's autonomy have resulted in large-scale protests. Last year, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets week after week in protests sparked by a proposed new extradition law with mainland China. 

Protesters arrested in Hong Kong as Chinese national security law takes effect 02:37

The new normal

"We are somewhat pessimistic about the universe, and this law is so much worse than even we expected," HRW's Richardson said of the new security legislation.

Chan said she's still trying to live as normally as possible, but because of the new law's vague wording, it's hard to know what is and what isn't a risk.

"We need to adjust ourselves in order to test some boundaries, but at the same time, we need to test it safely. So, it's weird, because I'm still trying to adjust myself emotionally, psychologically, as well as physically," she told CBS News.

She said she sometimes finds herself self-censoring, wondering if anything she says or does will run afoul of the new legislation.

"I do question myself before taking interviews or even expressing myself. It becomes like a new normal. But I'm really scared about this part, because freedom of speech, freedom of expression, why do I do this to me, to myself? I think this is totally unacceptable. So this is like a hurdle that I think all Hong Kong people need to get over."

Chan said some of her friends who are financially able to are moving abroad, or at least securing homes in other countries so that they could flee Hong Kong at a moment's notice. She said other countries should respond to Beijing's move by examining what values they hold to be important.

"China is not just exporting products or technology, they also export their way of thinking and their ideologies. On one hand is economic benefits or convenience. On the other side is democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, rights, rule of law," Chan told CBS News. "When they are consistent, when they are working hand in hand, of course it's OK. But when these two sides are in conflict, which part do you treasure more?"

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