Hong Kong

Hong Kong Police Can Now Conduct Warrantless Searches and Covert Surveillance Under New Law

Despite recent developments spooking observers and tech giants like Facebook and Google, local leader Carrie Lam claimed the law is "not doom and gloom for Hong Kong."
07 July 2020, 10:35am
carrie lam jul 7 - 2
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam defends the city's controversial new national security law at a regular press conference on July 7, 2020. Photo courtesy of HK Gov

Starting on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s police will enjoy sweeping new powers under the territory’s controversial national security law, prompting fears among observers even as local leader Carrie Lam insisted in a press conference that the widely criticized legislation is “relatively mild.”

Hong Kong’s Beijing-drafted national security law—which criminalizes in broad terms any act of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with external forces—was passed at 11pm on June 30, effectively immediately, and in the week since, a string of incidents only appears to have confirmed observers’ worst fears that it would be used as a cudgel against dissent.

The first security law-related arrests were made within hours of the law’s passage, pro-democracy figures abandoned party politics and in some cases fled the city, pro-democracy books have been pulled from libraries, and the Hong Kong commissioner of police appeared on state-run mainland TV appearing to cheer the law’s already-chilling effect.

One key provision of the law mandated the establishment of a new commission, headed by Lam, to oversee the law’s enforcement, with the body meeting for the first time on Monday.

In a statement late Monday night, the government disclosed that the 11-person Committee for Safeguarding National Security had established rules for the implementation of Article 43 of the law, which outlines the powers law enforcement agencies can exercise in investigating crimes surrounding national security.

Under the new rules, police investigating “urgent” alleged national security offenses can now conduct warrantless searches, force publishers and web platforms to remove or block offending messages, and conduct covert surveillance of suspects without the oversight of a court.

One provision not only empowers the secretary of security to seize property suspected of relating to national security threats, it also mandates that anyone who knows of any such property “is obliged to make a disclosure to the Police Force as soon as is reasonably practicable.”

Another provision enables the police, in conjunction with the secretary for security, to compel “a foreign political organisation or Taiwan political organisation, or a foreign agent or a Taiwan agent” to disclose its personal particulars, assets, sources of income, and expenditures in Hong Kong.

Noncompliance with the new rules can carry a prison term of up to two years, and fines of up to HKD100,000 (nearly $13,000).

The law, meanwhile, stipulates that decisions made by the committee “shall not be amenable to judicial review.”

“This is a serious, major development,” Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE News, noting that police are now effectively “empowered… [to] do everything.”

“So it is scary, and it is a very serious situation here,” he added.

Hung also pointed out that the “huge expansion of power” of the police should be a concern not just to Hong Kongers, but to people everywhere, given that Article 38 of the law stipulates that it also applies to alleged offenses committed by non-residents anywhere in the world.

The law already appears to have sparked concerns among Western tech giants, who could find themselves in the crosshairs of new police powers allowing authorities to remove or restrict access to online messages or platforms deemed to endanger national security.

If a publisher or platform does not immediately cooperate, the rules state, police officers can apply to a magistrate to seize the electronic devices involved and “take any action” to remove the information, or request the service provider hand over records or assist with decryption.

Just before the new measures were announced, AFP reported that Facebook and its encrypted messaging subsidiary WhatsApp said that they will not be fielding requests for user data from Hong Kong officials “pending further assessment” of the new law and “consultations with human rights experts.” Google and Twitter also said they had temporarily halted processing such requests.

“We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Despite those well publicized concerns—not to mention those that have been flying thick and fast in Hong Kong since the law was first proposed—Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday morning continued to insist that that the new law was no cause for alarm.

“I’m pleased in the last few days that there has been an increase in the positive view of this legislation,” she said, pointing to market gains. “Surely this is not doom and gloom for Hong Kong.”

“This national security law is actually relatively mild,” she added. “Instead of spreading fear, the law will actually remove fear.”

Lam, however, dodged questions about the concerns expressed by Facebook and Google, and said she would not offer any guarantee that the law would not curtail freedom of the press.

“If the [Foreign Correspondents Club] or all the reporters in Hong Kong can give me a guarantee that they will not commit any offenses under this legislation, then I can do the same,” she said.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.