Beijing’s public security authority has vowed to “fully guide” Hong Kong’s embattled police force in safeguarding stability, raising eyebrows over what this would mean amid a raging controversy sparked by plans to impose a tailor-made national security law on the city.
The Ministry of Public Security made the undertaking through its online news portal on Thursday, but provided no details, prompting questions from local scholars, commentators and security experts as to how the guidance, if any, would take shape.
“We will conscientiously study and implement the decision of the National People’s Congress on establishing a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security in the Hong Kong special administrative region, fully guide and support the Hong Kong police force in curbing violence and chaos, restoring the order, and resolutely safeguarding the stability of Hong Kong,” the statement read.
It came in a report documenting a meeting chaired by security minister Zhao Kezhi, which hailed the passage of a resolution tasking the NPC Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body, to draw up the new law for Hong Kong.
The law will aim to “prevent, stop and punish” acts and activities amounting to secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.
It follows months of often-violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong and has prompted the US government to threaten retaliation through sanctions.
In an interview with state broadcaster CCTV, Hong Kong police commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung pledged to “adopt different measures” to enable the application of the law in the city, but did not elaborate.
“Despite the absence of law enforcement details, Hong Kong police fully support the legislation in order to maintain national security. We will perform duties fully to safeguard national security and ensure the city’s safety and stability,” Tang said.
He also spoke of a national security loophole in Hong Kong, citing protest violence and the emergence of what police have characterised as “local terrorism”.
Tang said the new law would tackle crimes that posed a threat to the country, but would not undermine the “one country, two systems” policy under which the city is promised a high degree of autonomy and basic freedoms.
While opposition lawmakers saw it as tantamount to Beijing’s direct involvement in running Hong Kong’s 30,000-strong police force, others disagreed.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of Beijing-associated think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the use of the word “guide” suggested Beijing would only provide guidance, not “command” the local police force.
Intelligence gathering would become important under the new law, he said, and it would make sense for more experienced mainland agencies to advise Hong Kong police officers.
“There is nothing so unusual about it,” he said.
Former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee did not see any cause for concern either, noting that during colonial rule, Hong Kong police officers regularly trained with British police.
“Instruction by the Ministry of Public Security is the mirror image of instruction by Metropolitan Police before [the handover of sovereignty to China] in 1997,” said Ip, now a pro-establishment lawmaker.
Security expert Steve Vickers said: “The comments suggest to me that, looking ahead, the authorities on the mainland will direct policy and will perhaps provide additional support to the Hong Kong Police Force – most likely with the provision of actionable information and electronic support, training and such other assistance they may perceive are needed based on a wider national perspective.”
Sociologist Lawrence Ho Ka-ki, who specialises in policing at the Education University, noted that it was the first time mainland authorities had stated they would “guide” the local police force. But without further details, he said, it was hard to speculate whether Beijing was signalling a “top-down” command approach.
Opposition lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said it proved his camp had been right about mainland Chinese involvement in local policing.
“This is just a reinforcement of what our observation has been, which is that the police force in Hong Kong is not part of the Hong Kong government. Its real master really is the national security system,” said the Democratic Party chairman.
Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man's rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.