China to set up new 'special branch' in Hong Kong

Elizabeth Beattie
Riot police stand guard near a pro-democracy protester, who was stopped with others before being fined for breaking government-imposed social distancing rules - ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP

China will be able to establish an intelligence agency in Hong Kong similar to the colonial-era Special Branch when its rubber-stamp parliament signs off on sweeping new powers this week, according to the city's former leader.

Speaking yesterday, Leung Chun-ying and pro-Beijing city politicians raised the prospect of new investigative powers for Beijing in comments likely to further enrage campaigners fearing the end of the financial hub's treasured autonomy.

It came as Hong Kong was on edge, with an eerie calm settling over the city ahead of the first mass demonstrations planned since lockdown buried a year of turmoil and pro-democracy demonstrations.

The city's hidden network of protesters and activists told the Sunday Telegraph they were gearing up for the banned march, raising fears of a return to violent scenes and running street battles with the authorities that rocked the city for much of last year.

One protester, who asked not to be named, said: “We must keep it up and not break stride. They want to crush us in body and spirit. We need to focus.”

"Obviously we can see why the Chinese Communist Party hates Hong Kong’s freedom so much. [China] should have just left Hong Kong alone,” they added.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, has pledged to enact the new Beijing laws - Justin Chin/Bloomberg

The Chinese Communist Party is set to "vote" on the new national security legislation at its annual National People's Congress this week. The result is a foregone conclusion, however, and Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, has already pledged to enact the controversial changes in the city.

The legislation would criminalise behaviour deemed as subversion, terrorism, separatism and foreign interference, “or any acts that severely endanger national security.”

There is concern among some Hong Kongers and Western governments that the law will herald a new era of political surveillance and law enforcement controlled from the mainland. Washington called the law a "death knell" for the city's autonomy.

The proposal includes an article that would allow mainland national security agencies to set up offices in Hong Kong - which has its own police force and judicial system. 

Pro-Beijing politician Maria Tam, who advises China's parliament on her city's constitution, said on Saturday that investigations "could be joint efforts" between mainland and Hong Kong authorities once the law is passed.

Mr Leung, the city's former leader, added: "There is a possibility ... of the central people's government authorising Hong Kong law enforcement bodies, such as the police, to enforce the law."

Over the past few days the mood has grown sullen in the city. Hong Kongers turned to social media to express their heartbreak as many grieved what they referred to as the death of the city should Beijing’s national security law be passed.  

Prospects look bleak for many who have fought hard to retain autonomy from the mainland through street protests that often turned violent last year.

Pro-democracy protests peaked last year, leading to street battles with police and demonstrators - Edgar Su/REUTERS

Although the demonstrations were brought to a swift end by the coronavirus outbreak, demonstrators told the Sunday Telegraph they were returning to their black helmets and face masks to take to the streets once again.

One protester warned that the move from China could prompt a "next level" response from activists who have been at the front line of running street battles with authorities. "Everything is possible, but the purpose is clear - to recall mass rally," the 23-year-old designer said.

"I can’t be sure what’s gonna happen [on Sunday], but there will definitely be a restart of a rally with a next-level skirmish."

Meanwhile other protesters said they were scrubbing their social media history to get rid of anything that may lead any Chinese police newly-stationed in the city to their door.

"We're thinking about this in context of self-censorship," one said.

They must now tread a careful line between staying out of sight and keeping up a message to the outside world, another 20-year-old student protester said, adding that Hong Kongers can’t fight Beijing’s clampdown alone.

“Tibet couldn’t, the Uyghurs [Muslim minority] couldn’t,” they said, adding that they appreciated overseas governments who had spoken out against the legislation, but they hoped this would lead to concrete action.

“I do believe we are standing at the frontline of the free world to protect our liberty — ‘our’ as in the entire free world. We still have to fight both inside and out of Hong Kong,” they said.

On Saturday a cross-party international coalition of 186 parliamentarians and policymakers from 23 countries, Led by the former Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, joined calls for governments to unite against this "flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration" that established Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status.

Downing Street has already condemned China's power grab, while Donald Trump has warned the US will "act strongly" if Beijing goes through with the move.

China is almost certain to push through the legislation, presenting Mr Trump and the West with a major test as tensions remain high over the perceived mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak. A US-China trade war, and disputes over Huawei in 5G networks across the globe, are compounding pressure on world leaders to stand up to Beijing.

China hit back at "meddling" countries as it defended its plans.