This article originally appeared on VICE US.
With fears running high in Hong Kong over the implementation of a Beijing-mandated national security law, the territory’s top security official disclosed that the Hong Kong Police Force is creating a new branch tasked with enforcing the controversial legislation in conjunction with mainland authorities.
Hong Kong’s secretary for security, John Lee, revealed the plans for the new unit in an exclusive interview published today in the South China Morning Post, but declined to go into detail as to how it might function — beyond saying it would be ready to hit the ground running on the “very first day” of the law’s implementation.
“Hong Kong police will have to set up a dedicated unit to learn how to apply the law to actual situations, and to gather intelligence and evidence in respect to activities or acts described in the law as unlawful,” Lee told the SCMP on Tuesday. The interview coincided with the one-year anniversary of the start of last year’s pro-democracy protests, which rocked the territory for months.
Fears over the future of the city’s special status have only been exacerbated by the new national security law, which was called for late last month in a resolution by China’s rubber-stamp legislature.
The law, a previous iteration of which was thwarted in 2003 by mass protests, would outlaw acts of subversion, terrorism, foreign interference, and secession — China’s term of art for advocating for Hong Kong independence.
It would also give mainland security agencies the go-ahead to operate in the city “as needed.”
Beijing previously said it will work with Hong Kong authorities in implementing the new legislation, which Lee appeared to acknowledge was an unfamiliar remit for the city’s police force.
“While I have very strong faith in the ability of Hong Kong police to enforce the law, national security is a relatively complex subject. And now, the force is mainly dealing with crime and public order,” he said.
“I’m sure that the mainland authorities have a much wider network of intelligence gathering and also a much higher level of analysis,” Lee added.
“And there may be good methods that have been built because of [the mainland authorities’] experience.”
However, mainland authorities’ “experience” has emerged as a chief cause for concern in a city where Beijing’s tightening controls have led many to fear for the end of Hong Kong’s cherished special freedoms, enshrined under the One Country, Two Systems framework.
Last year’s tumultuous pro-democracy protests were sparked by the introduction of a widely loathed extradition bill that would have empowered the local government to render criminal suspects to the mainland to face trial in China’s notoriously opaque courts. Many Hong Kongers still bristle at the memory of the dissident booksellers who disappeared from the city in 2015, only to reappear in the custody of mainland officials.
Political commentator and Chinese University of Hong Kong senior lecturer Ivan Choy Chi-keung told Vice that the lack of clarity surrounding the provision was cause for concern, and that with trust in the Hong Kong police already in tatters after months of heavy-handed policing, creating a new unit within the force would only “create more suspicion.”
He also warned that the formation of the new police unit ran the risk of “politicizing” the force as a whole. Indeed, in his interview, Security Secretary Lee acknowledged that guidance on how “international politics” play into the implementation of the law “will have to come from the national level.”
Human Rights Watch’s director for China, Sophie Richardson, raised concern about impunity for police and said the developments are “worrying.”
Choy, meanwhile, noted that “with public trust in the police going to the bottom, the timing is quite sensitive.”
“No matter whether it is a local unit or a mainland unit, people feel like the liberties they have enjoyed for a long time will be limited.”