A hundred days after Hong Kong adopted a sweeping national security law, residents in a leafy middle-class neighbourhood appear to have taken in their stride the presence of a mysterious new institution in their midst, even as some expressed uneasiness about frequent police patrols.
The Metropark Hotel Causeway Bay in Tai Hang was converted into the new headquarters of the Office for Safeguarding National Security – a new Beijing outpost in the city – seven days after the law came into force late on the night of June 30.
Neither the local Hong Kong government nor Beijing’s liaison office in the city had made it known that renovation work would begin at the hotel run by a subsidiary of the state-owned China Travel Service. But local media sniffed out a vague announcement on the hotel website that week saying the establishment, just 10 minutes by foot from Causeway Bay, one of the world’s busiest and most expensive shopping districts, was under maintenance.
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The hotel’s logo was removed, its parking space was boarded up, and in the small hours of July 8, it was gussied up for a heavily guarded opening ceremony early that morning, at 7am.
After more than three months of getting used to the intelligence agency as a new neighbour, Tai Hang residents said its staff members had kept a low profile and the 33-storey building did not stand out from among the high-rise homes that had popped up there in recent years.
Local resident Leung Yung-sang, 75, said the agency made him feel safer with a heavy police presence and constant patrols.
“When it was a hotel, there was a complex mix of people: mainlanders and foreigners. Now, it’s just like an office,” the retiree said.
Throughout a day of observation by the Post, at least eight police special constables, recruited from disciplined services other than the police force, were seen patrolling the areas around the office at any one time.
In groups of two, the special constables from Hong Kong customs were stationed at the front entrance and a 50-metre flight of stairs from the side of the office. Two constables patrolled the busy Tung Lo Wan Road at the front of the office, and another two along the sleepy Dragon Terrace at the back.
But the heavy police presence made some uncomfortable. Secondary school student Amy Yip Ka-yee, 17, felt she was constantly being surveilled.
“It’s very strange. They’re staring at you. It was just a hotel, but suddenly it was made into an intelligence agency,” said the Form Six student who goes to school nearby.
She said she often passed by the office, but seeing men in blue polo shirts made her uneasy.
When the Post visited, at least six men in such outfits were standing at the entrance of the national security office, allowing only recognised personnel to enter.
One of them said they were security guards. The Post was not allowed to enter the building.
Together with police, the men also ensure pedestrians do not loiter in front of the agency and prevent photography of the building’s facade.
Since the day of its opening, the glass doors to the former hotel lobby have been covered with white boards. Drapes lined much of the glass walls facing out.
The national security office’s functions remain as mysterious as its headquarters.
The national security law that established the agency criminalises acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with external forces. According to the law, the office is responsible for assessing Hong Kong’s national security risk, analysing intelligence, handling national security crimes in exceptional circumstances and monitoring the city’s duty to safeguard national security.
Twenty-six people have been arrested under the new legislation thus far, but only one man has been charged. Tong Ying-kit was charged with terrorism and inciting secession after allegedly driving his motorcycle towards police at a protest while carrying a flag bearing “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”, a protest slogan.
But save for a few speeches, the office’s management have been keeping a low profile, unlike Beijing’s liaison office in the city, which has recently been more prominent in commenting on local affairs.
Ip Kwok-him, a member of the Executive Council, the de facto cabinet of Hong Kong’s leader, said the nature of being an intelligence agency meant it would not interact with or be up for scrutiny by locals.
Agencies in other places and countries, including the US’ CIA and the Soviet Union’s KGB, are all very mysterious
Ip Kwok-him, executive councillor
“Agencies in other places and countries, including the US’ CIA and the Soviet Union’s KGB, are all very mysterious,” Ip, who is also a delegate to the national legislature, said.
But Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said the agency was keeping a facade of secrecy to maintain its control through fear.
“The more confidential they are, the harder for us to hold them to account,” he said, adding that the public now could not know if authorities behind the office had exceeded their remit.
The agency should publicise information on its personnel, expenses, methods for internal regulation and operational standards, he said.
In Tai Hang, many also declined to talk about the agency. Multiple property agents whose clients had houses facing the former hotel also preferred to keep mum.
“I don't know about the situation. I will not respond to anything related to this,” one said before abruptly ending the call.
Another accepted an interview before calling back to withdraw her comments, citing fears that the reputation of her agency might be harmed by her remarks.
But to Chan, a 40-year-old florist who declined to give his full name, such fears were exaggerated.
“I'm a good citizen. I'm not afraid of the office,” he said while working in the back alley next to the agency.
As Chan was trimming his pot of pink orchids, two special constables walked past him to the other end of the narrow alley.
“If you behave well and don’t stir trouble, then there's nothing to fear.”