Hong Kong tight­ens grip on dis­sent

Kuwait Times - - Analysis -

As Hong Kong’s govern­ment hews closer to Bei­jing, of­fi­cials are tak­ing a tough line on per­ceived na­tional se­cu­rity threats, even de­ploy­ing an elite po­lice unit for po­lit­i­cal mon­i­tor­ing and sur­veil­lance - a sharp es­ca­la­tion in rhetoric and ac­tion. In just the last few months, the spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion has banned the Hong Kong Na­tional Party, which es­pouses sep­a­ra­tion from China, and barred some ac­tivists from stand­ing in lo­cal elec­tions. The Ed­u­ca­tion Bu­reau sent all sec­ondary schools in the Spe­cial Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion let­ters on Sept 24 say­ing they must pro­hibit “the pen­e­tra­tion” of the Na­tional Party or risk prose­cu­tion.

And this month, Hong Kong re­fused to re­new the work visa of Vic­tor Mal­let, Asia news ed­i­tor for the Bri­tish-based Fi­nan­cial Times news­pa­per, af­ter he hosted a speech by an in­de­pen­dence ac­tivist. “We can see them (the govern­ment) be­ing much more as­sertive in us­ing these pow­ers and in shap­ing their pol­icy de­ci­sions to re­flect the na­tional in­ter­ests,” said Pro­fes­sor Si­mon Young of the Univer­sity of Hong Kong’s law school, say­ing the courts may be a last line of de­fense against govern­ment over­reach.

Serv­ing and re­tired po­lice of­fi­cers, lawyers and law­mak­ers de­scribe in­ten­si­fy­ing po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tions by the po­lice force’s Se­cu­rity Wing, an elite unit that of­fi­cially han­dles sen­si­tive tasks in­clud­ing VIP pro­tec­tion and counter-ter­ror­ism in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Sources fa­mil­iar with the wing’s work say it led sur­veil­lance and mon­i­tor­ing op­er­a­tions against the Na­tional Party and more than a dozen other groups. The Hong Kong Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion re­cently de­scribed the prospect of tougher na­tional se­cu­rity en­force­ment as “a sword dan­gled above the heads” of re­porters.

The Fi­nan­cial Times said it was ap­peal­ing the de­ci­sion deny­ing Mal­let a work visa. In his role as first vice pres­i­dent of the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents’ Club of Hong Kong, Mal­let in Au­gust hosted Andy Chan, head of the Na­tional Party. The party was banned last month as an “im­mi­nent threat to na­tional se­cu­rity” as the govern­ment in­voked lit­tle-known clauses of a law reg­u­lat­ing pri­vate groups and so­ci­eties. Au­thor­i­ties have so far re­fused to ex­plain their de­ci­sion on Mal­let, ex­cept to say that no in­de­pen­dence ad­vo­cacy will be tol­er­ated. Chan, a be­spec­ta­cled 28-yearold in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor, says that his ide­ol­ogy springs from China’s bro­ken prom­ises to­wards Hong Kong and that claims he might desta­bilise China are pre­pos­ter­ous. But Hong Kong’s govern­ment is treat­ing even the con­sid­er­a­tion of in­de­pen­dence as a vi­tal threat. “Wor­ry­ingly, they have been par­rot­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal and au­thor­i­tar­ian line of Bei­jing ... ir­repara­bly un­der­min­ing their rep­u­ta­tion,” one diplo­mat said of the city’s govern­ment.

In the let­ter to schools last month, the Ed­u­ca­tion Bu­reau said, “should stu­dents have er­ro­neous and ex­treme thoughts, prin­ci­pals and teach­ers should cor­rect them with facts.” Some teach­ers de­scribed this to Reuters as a “gag­ging or­der”. That ap­pears to run con­trary to Hong Kong’s mini-con­sti­tu­tion, known as the Ba­sic Law, which stresses free­doms of speech and as­sem­bly. Some youths who drove the pro-democ­racy “Um­brella Rev­o­lu­tion” street demon­stra­tions in 2014 say there is a grow­ing sense of de­spair at the pres­sure on civil so­ci­ety and in­di­vid­ual rights.

Daniel Che­ung, a 29-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher who worked on “Chron­i­cle of a Sum­mer,” a doc­u­men­tary on ac­tivists such as jailed in­de­pen­dence leader Ed­ward Le­ung, said the sit­u­a­tion was wors­en­ing fast. “Put sim­ply, if you see Hong Kong as a house built by the Bri­tish, this house is now crum­bling and leak­ing. It has been hit by a ty­phoon and close to top­pling over,” Che­ung said.

‘Back to the fu­ture’

The Ba­sic Law re­quires the city to cre­ate laws against trea­son, se­ces­sion and sub­ver­sion of the na­tional govern­ment, ef­fec­tively up­dat­ing those from the colo­nial era. The laws from Bri­tish rule, while broad, do not outlaw calls for in­de­pen­dence or self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. Pre­vi­ous at­tempts to draft a harsher new na­tional se­cu­rity law, known as Ar­ti­cle 23, were met with mass protests and aban­doned. Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Car­rie Lam, who took of­fice last year, has not yet pro­posed a new ver­sion, a re­flec­tion in part of lin­ger­ing pub­lic con­cern.

But many ob­servers say the govern­ment is us­ing the Se­cu­rity Wing to tighten its grip even without Ar­ti­cle 23. The wing’s of­fi­cers were deeply in­volved in pro­duc­ing the 700-page dossier the govern­ment used to jus­tify ban­ning the Na­tional Party. The doc­u­ment tracked its state­ments, pub­lic ap­pear­ances and ac­tiv­i­ties. For some, that has echoes of the colo­nial-era Spe­cial Branch, which mon­i­tored po­ten­tially sub­ver­sive Chi­nese and Rus­sian com­mu­nist ac­tiv­ity across Hong Kong dur­ing the Cold War. The agency was dis­banded in 1995, two years be­fore Bri­tain handed Hong Kong back to China.

“It is clear it (Se­cu­rity Wing) is do­ing much more po­lit­i­cal work now,” said James To, a vet­eran democ­racy ad­vo­cate who has spent much of his 27 years in the city’s par­lia­ment scru­ti­niz­ing the govern­ment’s se­cu­rity poli­cies. “My worry is that when you mon­i­tor peo­ple’s po­lit­i­cal life and thoughts you are go­ing against the spirit of the hu­man rights pro­vi­sions of the Ba­sic Law. There is a need for bal­ance,” To said. To said the govern­ment had re­peat­edly re­fused re­quests by Hong Kong’s leg­is­la­tors to dis­cuss the Se­cu­rity Wing’s op­er­a­tions in de­tail. — Reuters

Govt heed­ing China’s call

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