By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague
HONG KONG (Reuters) - As Hong Kong fretted over tough new national security legislation Beijing was fashioning earlier this year, Chris Tang enthusiastically supported the move. It was needed, Hong Kong's combative police chief said, to extinguish calls for the city's independence and restore order.
Last week he got his wish. Just an hour before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China on July 1, the ruling Communist Party imposed the law, in the process arming Tang with a range of powerful tools to quell popular dissent. The effect was immediate.
Within 24 hours, Tang's officers had arrested 10 people under the new law along with about 360 others suspected of existing offenses as protests erupted over Beijing's move. China's most open and free-wheeling city began to clam up. Political groups disbanded. Activists fled overseas. Shops ripped down posters supporting the protests that convulsed the city last year. And public libraries pulled books written by some pro-democracy authors from their shelves.
The sweeping legislation, which punishes crimes related to secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, expands the powers of Tang and his officers. Their new tools will include enhanced powers of searching premises and electronic devices, freezing or confiscating assets and demanding people and groups provide information. With the approval of Hong Kong's political leader, rather than its courts, police will be able to conduct electronic surveillance and intercept the communications of an individual suspected of endangering national security. And Tang's police aren't operating alone: Mainland China's feared secret police are now operating inside the city.
With Beijing stepping in to crush Hong Kong's democracy movement, Chris Tang has become the dominant figure in a city administration whose top priority now is regaining control. Tang will be responsible for a new police unit - the Special National Security Unit - that will tackle threats to national security, run by one of his deputies. He will also sit on a new Hong Kong body, supervised by mainland officials, that will coordinate actions against national security threats.
Bolstered by the new law, the 55-year-old Tang is moving to douse any efforts to revive a movement that began as a protest against an extradition bill and morphed into a call for greater democracy, posing the biggest popular challenge to the Chinese Communist Party since the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. With his aggressive tactics, he is overshadowing the city's embattled political leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam. She ignited the crisis last year with proposed laws that would have allowed extradition of people from Hong Kong to the mainland for trial. She later withdrew the bill under intense pressure from the street, battering her own authority and delivering a blow to her chief backer, Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
"China won't take any chances anymore with national security, and Chris Tang is someone they trust," a senior police source, who deals regularly with Tang, told Reuters ahead of the new law being imposed.
Along with Tang, Secretary for Security John Lee and Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng have emerged as key local players in Beijing's imposition of a harsher law-and-order regimen in Hong Kong. The three joined Lam when she visited the Chinese capital last month to discuss the security law with China's leaders.
A police spokesperson, responding to questions for Tang from Reuters, said violent attacks by protesters last year - including the use of "sharpened instruments, metal rods, bows and arrows, petrol bombs, corrosive liquid and explosive substances" - had put "national security" at risk. This threat to public safety and "forces" advocating independence, the spokesperson said, required "effective measures to prevent the situation from deteriorating."
The police force, the officer said, will "fully perform its duties and strictly enforce the law to restore social order and ensure the effective implementation of the National Security Law" in Hong Kong.
Explaining the need for the new law, a Hong Kong government spokesman said that in addition to "frequent violence over the past year," there had also been "actions in pursuit of independence." The spokesman was responding to questions sent to Lee and Cheng.
Lam did not respond to questions about the increasingly dominant role played by Tang. Mainland authorities did not respond to questions from Reuters for this story.
Though the new law came into effect last week, Tang had already begun spearheading the crackdown in Hong Kong months earlier. In mid-November, the city was in open revolt. Months of protests had shattered the authority of the local government and demoralized its 30,000-strong police force. As the demonstrations reached a climax, Beijing announced the appointment of Tang.
He moved into the Commissioner of Police's office in November, just as a pivotal showdown was underway. Demonstrators, some armed with Molotov cocktails and bows and arrows, had barricaded themselves inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University. It was a tactical blunder. Police pounced.
In earlier protests, demonstrators were able to melt away through the labyrinth of Hong Kong streets and regroup elsewhere. This time they were trapped. Hundreds of police sealed the entrances to the campus and seized any protesters attempting to leave. More than 1,100 were eventually arrested. It was a turning point for the embattled authorities. For the first time in months, beleaguered police officers had outmaneuvered the protesters.
At the end of Tang's first day in the top job, he went straight to the front line to congratulate his officers. Dressed in a dark civilian jacket and trousers, he stood out. He shook hands and chatted with weary riot police in helmets and heavy protective gear.
Tang has since remained on the offensive, aided in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, which effectively shut down the protests for several months. He has used pre-emptive arrests and stop-and-search measures to prevent protests, and issued blunt rallying cries to buoy his officers. After police thwarted a protest in late May at the city's Legislative Council, Tang took to police radio to congratulate the force.
Pro-democracy lawmakers, academics and foreign diplomats say that the new security law signals the death of the "one country, two systems" model used to govern Hong Kong. In place since the 1997 handover of the city to China, the arrangement has afforded Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and has protected a wide array of freedoms enjoyed by the city's residents, such as freedom of expression and the press, that don't exist on the mainland.
Many say the city is increasingly being run from Beijing. Mainland Chinese officials have been appointed as the city's top national security adviser and head of a new national security agency in Hong Kong that will have overarching authority, including an enforcement role in the most serious cases.
"We are in a situation where the Chinese Communist Party controls the police, and the police controls Hong Kong," said veteran pro-democracy legislator James To, who has monitored policing and security matters for decades. "It is not the way Hong Kong is supposed to work, or has worked up until recently."
Hong Kong, he added, has become "a security police state."
The new law quickly sent a chill through the city. Hours before it was imposed, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said that Demosisto, a group he led, was disbanding, while a prominent member of the group, Nathan Law, departed the city. Wong told Reuters the group took the decision because it was concerned about the safety of its members.
A man carrying a popular protest slogan – "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our times" - drove his motorcycle into a police line last week knocking over three officers in protest against the security legislation. He became the first person to be charged with incitement to secession and terrorist activities under the law. The man, who has yet to enter a plea, was later denied bail and remanded in custody. The city government said the slogan connoted separatism or subversion under the new law.
The legislation, Tang said this week, was doing its job. He told China's state broadcaster CCTV that the enactment of the law was already having a "positive effect" on the stability of Hong Kong. It appeared to have led to some people dropping out of the protest movement, he said, without naming anyone.
Tang has likened the actions of some of the protesters to terrorism - a line that the leadership in Beijing has used to justify the legislation. In a May 25 statement, he said that police had uncovered 14 cases involving explosives and five cases where genuine firearms and ammunition were seized since the protests began.
And he highlighted the threat of what he called "home-grown terrorism" in a video published on a government-backed website in mid-April. The video included footage of explosions during the siege at Polytechnic University, where protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and fired arrows at police. It also shows a plane slamming into one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, as Tang is heard explaining to viewers that the incidents involving explosives in Hong Kong are "very similar to these overseas cases."
Critics of the video called the comparison ludicrous. The Hong Kong protests grew out of broad, grassroots opposition in the city to the extradition bill. The 9/11 attacks, which killed thousands of people, were carried out by members of al Qaeda.
A police spokesman said that Tang, "by no means, compared peaceful protests to terrorism."
Tang makes no secret of where his loyalties lie. In December, he made his first official trip to Beijing as police chief. On a crisp and clear December morning, he was in Tiananmen Square to watch soldiers raise the Chinese national flag, in a choreographed appearance that senior colleagues say is typical of his working style.
"Today is the first time I've watched the flag-raising ceremony at such close range," he told state television. "In my heart I felt very emotional to see our country's national flag fluttering. I could feel our country's power."
Tang's visit to the capital was widely seen as unusually high profile for a Hong Kong police commissioner. While he was in Beijing, top Chinese leaders toasted his success. Public Security Minister Zhao Kezhi told Tang that the central government and the security ministry were fully behind the Hong Kong police, according to the ministry's website. Tang was quoted as replying that his force would "throw all of its energy" into curbing the violence and unrest in Hong Kong.
When China's State Council in November announced Tang's appointment, the message communicated from Beijing was clear, a senior Hong Kong police officer said. "Tang had to act fast," the officer said. "The police were near mutiny, they were so angry at Lam" for not resolving the political impasse.
Another senior police officer said another message came down from the Chinese leadership. As he put it: "You can't compromise with the protesters anymore," a reference to situations last year where demonstrators had been allowed to escape when police could have arrested them.
Like all of his predecessors in post-colonial Hong Kong, Tang was carefully vetted by the Communist Party for loyalty and ability, several senior police officers told Reuters. Tang's official biography details his international connections along with his stints at elite party and security schools in mainland China. It also includes spells at Interpol headquarters in the French city of Lyon, the Royal College of Defence Studies in London and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's training academy in Quantico, Virginia.
What is not mentioned is a domestic role that was key in his rise. Promoted to senior superintendent of the Hong Kong force in 2007, Tang returned from Lyon and began working at the Liaison Bureau, a small office in one of the most secure wings of the police headquarters building. Tang helped ease lingering suspicions between what had been an anti-communist British colonial force and mainland police loyal to the Communist Party, say those who knew him at the time.
Tang played a key role in forging new working-level ties between Hong Kong and mainland police, establishing joint investigation protocols and an electronic information-sharing network. In a 2016 academic paper published by Hong Kong researcher Sonny Lo, Tang was cited extensively after being interviewed on his liaison work in the 2000s with Chinese law enforcement, including criminal investigation, intelligence sharing, evidence collection and tactical training. Tang lectured to the force on this work and how to foster close relationships with mainland counterparts as ties expanded, according to an account in an internal police newspaper.
Tang studied at the elite school for Communist Party cadres on the outskirts of Shanghai, known as the Chinese Executive Leadership Academy. He later attended the People's Public Security University in Beijing.
By 2015, Tang was promoted to assistant commissioner, and then, in 2017, to the powerful role of operations director, considered a stepping stone to the top job.
Tang has made a concerted effort to be seen as the public face of the force since he got the top job. Senior officers who have worked with him say Tang insists on tight control over media appearances. He's always perfectly groomed, even if called out late at night, as he was when he visited police at the Polytechnic University showdown last year.
On the day he took office, Tang introduced a new police motto, altering its communal focus: "We Serve with Pride and Care" became "Serving Hong Kong with Honour, Duty and Loyalty."
The Hong Kong government has lavished resources on Tang's force. In March, the police won a 25% budget increase to recruit an extra 2,500 officers and procure the latest surveillance tools and protective gear.
Some rank-and-file cops say Tang's hard-charging approach has revived morale in the force, shattered last year by the protests and a barrage of public complaints about police brutality. Amnesty International accused the Hong Kong police of carrying out "arbitrary arrests" and "brutal beatings."
The police chief is confronting his critics. A massive backlash against pro-Beijing parties in the aftermath of the extradition bill delivered control of 90% of local district councils to pro-democracy forces in elections last November. Tang endured hostile questioning from some of these councils when asked to explain police tactics and answer allegations of police brutality. He stood his ground. It's the protesters who should "apologize," not police, he told one council meeting in January where members criticized the police.
Tang's higher-octane approach was on display when he took to the radio to congratulate his officers after they foiled the late-May protest at the Legislative Council, allowing for a debate over a bill outlawing insults to the Chinese national anthem to proceed. The law ultimately passed.
"As long as the upper and lower ranks of the police force share the same spirit, victory will come," he told his officers. Tang was quoting from the ancient sage of Chinese military strategy, Sun Tzu, author of "The Art of War."
(Reporting by Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague. Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree, Clare Jim and Jessie Pang in Hong Kong. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)