How Hong Kong went from zero to 29 terrorism arrests in 18 months

The Counter Terrorism Response Unit in an inter-departmental counter-terrorism exercise in Hong Kong on Nov 19, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - When Louis Lo was arrested at the height of Hong Kong's 2019 pro-democracy protests and accused of masterminding the city's largest bomb plot in decades, the authorities chose not to prosecute him for terrorism.

At that time, the city had never charged anyone with trying to carry out a terrorist act under a law passed years earlier for just that purpose. Instead, the independence activist, who the trial judge said sought to create "terror among citizens", was charged with keeping explosives. He pleaded guilty in April and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Yet Hong Kong has shown a greater willingness to level terrorism charges since China imposed powerful national security legislation on the city last year. The authorities began using its sweeping provisions to round up members of the opposition in the former British colony, arresting 29 people on terrorism-related allegations in the past 18 months - the first just hours after the security law took effect on June 30 last year.

Some of the cases involve activities that would probably meet most international definitions of terrorism, such as a group of 14 accused in July of stockpiling explosives to attack public infrastructure. Others, however, might fall short of such standards, including a waiter sentenced to nine years in prison for driving a motorcycle into a group of cops and four university students charged with advocating terrorism for commemorating a man who stabbed a police officer.

The cases have been accompanied by a flurry of warnings by government officials that radicals could be planning more attacks, with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in October declaring the "prevention of terrorist activities" a policy priority for next year.

Meanwhile, the city's top security official, Mr Chris Tang, ordered the authorities to step up vigilance to stop attacks by independence activists and a new publicity campaign is urging the public to report signs of terrorism.

While the government defends the approach as necessary to prevent a return of the unrest that rocked the city two years ago, the strategy brings risks to an Asian financial hub of 7.4 million people long seen as one of the world's safest places to live and work. Not only could the effort deepen worries about Hong Kong's stability, it could erode faith in city authorities to take apolitical and measured approach to meting out justice.

"There are concerns about how the national security law will effect Hong Kong's status as a financial hub and international business and banking destination," said Ms Lydia Khalil, a research fellow specialising on terrorism at the Lowy Institute. "And by officials playing up the threat of terrorism, it will impact business's political risk assessments of the territory and their ability to do business there."

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Security Bureau declined to comment on individual cases, saying in a Dec 7 statement that local law enforcement actions were based on evidence and free from political considerations. Although the authorities have no intelligence suggesting a likely attack, the authorities cannot rule out threat that "radical or violent extremists" might launch one in the future, the spokesman said.

Flyers are being stuffed into mailboxes telling residents how to spot terrorism. Posters warning passengers to "run, hide and report" violent attacks are plastered across tram cars. Counter-terrorism exercises have been held at the airport and rail stations. School children were introduced to the bomb disposal units and allowed to handle replica guns at this year's National Security Education Day.

The warnings mark a departure for Hong Kong, where incidents of politically motivated violence had been relatively rare since a leftist-led uprising against the British colonial government in the 1960s.

Until September, the government had never used the anti-terrorism ordinance it enacted in 2002 in the wake of the Sept 11 attacks in New York and Washington. And authorities have kept the official terrorism threat level at "moderate" since 2003.

Rescue workers taking part in an anti-terrorism drill involving a bomb plot in Hong Kong on March 20, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

The decision to prosecute Lo for a non-political offence - possessing explosives with intent to endanger life or property - was consistent with that more restrained approach. During the sentencing hearing, Justice Andrew Chan said the member of the pro-independence National Front group came close to "declaring war" on Hong Kong and sought to create "terror among citizens".

"Hong Kong officials are making more use of the terrorism charge because doing so carries with it a strong political stigma," said Professor Thomas Kellogg, executive director at Georgetown University's Centre for Asian Law. "Governments around the world often seek to label their political enemies as terrorists, and now the Hong Kong government is no exception."

Hong Kong's counterparts on the mainland have long invoked the threat of terrorism to justify crackdowns against groups seeking greater political autonomy in places such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

After a series of attacks on public sites in China in 2013 and 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered officials to "strike first" against terrorism in Xinjiang, prompting a vast expansion of a system of surveillance, detention and social control.

Mainland officials led the way in extending the term to Hong Kong's dissidents, with then-Liaison Office Director Zhang Xiaoming denouncing participants in a 2016 riot as "radical separatists" who were "inclined toward terrorism".

The Hong Kong authorities now appear to be adopting Beijing's playbook, said Dr Steven Tsang, director of SOAS University of London's China Institute.

"Hong Kong people, even though they aren't a minority, they have to be brought in line," Dr Tsang said. "You use the label of 'terrorism' as a way to do that, so they know how harsh a punishment awaits them if they cross it."

While the term terrorism implies an intent to create widespread fear, more than half of the 29 arrested by Hong Kong have been accused of supporting violence against police officers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. At least 12 of those arrested were aged 19 or younger at the time of their detention.

The security law handed down by Beijing last year includes a broad definition of terrorism, including "serious interruption" of public services and "other dangerous activities which seriously jeopardise public health, safety or security".

The law carries sentences as long as life in prison and gives the authorities the power to deny suspects bail or a jury trial or transfer the case to mainland courts. The Hong Kong police used it to make their first terror arrest hours after the text was released, detaining Tong Ying-kit for driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers - causing injuries to three - while brandishing a now-banned protest slogan. The authorities opted to prosecute Tong for terrorism and inciting secession, rather than a less political offence, such as causing grievous bodily harm by dangerous driving.

Tong's actions wouldn't have risen to a terrorist offence under the latest United Nations guidelines, said Prof Kellogg. "Such actions should be taken seriously, but they are the stuff of day-to-day criminal law cases, and not of high-level - and, in Hong Kong's case, first-ever - counter-terror prosecutions."

Of the city's 29 terrorism-related arrests, 28 have come in the past six months. The authorities stepped up warnings about the threat after an activist stabbed a police officer on the first anniversary of the security law's enactment and then committed suicide by stabbing himself in the chest.

"I have said on many occasions that local terrorism is breeding in Hong Kong," the city's No. 2 official, Chief Secretary John Lee, wrote days later. "People who are radicalised by extreme ideologies may often appear normal, but may suddenly commit lone-wolf terrorist attacks."

In subsequent weeks, the police charged four members of the University of Hong Kong student council with advocating terrorism over a motion the body passed paying tribute to the man who stabbed the police officer.

The police also announced arrests of members of pro-independence group, Returning Valiant, accusing them of producing explosives and recruiting students with the intent to attack transportation facilities including train stations and tunnels. The arrests have not yet changed the government's official assessment that threat remains "moderate".

"If there is any change of circumstances in the relevant domains, the police will provide an update of threat assessment for the government to examine," the Hong Kong Police Force said in a statement.

The discrepancy between the official alert level and the rise in arrests stems from Hong Kong's expansion of the definition of terrorism to include all anti-government violence, said Mr Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow specialising in terrorism at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

"After the national security law, they are going after all those who act on violence and those who appear to support it because, 'That way, we'll stomp on this problem," Mr Pantucci said.

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