China converts Hong Kong hotel into new national security office

A police officer walks past barriers in front of the temporary national security office in Hong Kong on July 8, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - In a strategic move to show its presence in the territory, Bejing's new office for its intelligence agents was launched yesterday morning (July 8) after a new sweeping security law came into effect a week ago.

The new office, reported to house some 200 to 300 staff, is temporarily located at the Metropark Hotel in Causeway Bay - the heart of many demonstrations in the city over the years - and is opposite the Victoria Park, a popular venue for rallies including the annual vigil that marks the Tiananmen crackdown and pro-democracy protests.

Speaking at the launch of the new base for the Office for Safeguarding National Security, its chief Zheng Yanxiong stressed that his agents will not infringe on the rights of residents, adding that "we will fulfil our responsibilities and exercise our power to defend national security firmly in accordance with the law".

Mr Zheng, 56, appointed last week by Beijing to head the agency, is known for his hawkish handling of the Wukan protests in neighbouring Guangdong province.

Echoing a similar sentiment was the chief of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong Luo Huining, who said those who questioned the judicial system and rule of law in the mainland were deliberately trying to cause "unnecessary panic and fear".

Also addressing the dozens of local government officials and pro-Beijing figures at the half hour ceremony was Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who lauded the new security law as "a historic moment".

"Having a law to follow is the starting point for maintaining national security. We must ensure that law enforcement is strict and violations of the law will be investigated," she said.

The new office is responsible for supervising and guiding the Hong Kong government's enforcement of the legislation, but lawmakers and some in the finance and legal sectors have questioned what they say is the office's unsupervised powers.

Its agents can breach privacy and confidentiality - something Hong Kong has been very protective of - when gathering intelligence in Hong Kong and are not subject to local courts. Agents and the vehicles of the new office used in carrying out duties are also not subject to checks by Hong Kong law enforcement agencies.

In the past week since the new security law took effect, authorities have moved swiftly to put the pieces together, from setting up the national security committee that is chaired by Mrs Lam, and the appointment of the head of the national security department under the police department, to having the Secretary of Justice appoint the first batch of full-time prosecutors.

Separately, in a sign of a tougher stance in Hong Kong, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung yesterday banned students from singing, playing, or broadcasting the protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong on campus. The ban also covers all other explicitly political songs.

Mr Yeung had warned last month that schools cannot allow songs of such nature to be played. Yesterday, the song Glory to Hong Kong was specifically banned.

He noted that the protest anthem "originated from the social incidents since June last year, contains strong political messages, and is closely related to the social and political incidents, violence and illegal incidents that have lasted for months".

"During the past year, some individuals and groups with ulterior motives have deliberately misled and incited students to express their political stance in different ways in order to achieve their political objectives," said Mr Yeung.

He was referring to students boycotting classes, chanting slogans, forming human chains, and posting slogans or singing songs which contain political messages in schools.

He did not mention how schools should handle students who violate the ban.

The new security law requires Hong Kong to "promote national security education in schools and universities and through social organisations, the media, the Internet".

The protest anthem ban came shortly after public libraries removed books by some prominent pro-democracy figures from their shelves and a ban was placed on popular protest slogans.

The Civil Service Bureau, meanwhile, has suggested that all civil servants need to pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong government and declare to uphold the Basic Law.

In a document submitted to the Legislative Council, officials said the move would enable civil servants to have a clearer awareness of their responsibilities, so all new civil service recruits after July 1 have to confirm that pledge in writing.

Existing workers will also have to make such pledges as well, although this will be done in stages.

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