July 8, 2020 / 3:27 AM / a month ago

UPDATE 1-China converts Hong Kong hotel into new national security office

* Beijing security office opens near Hong Kong protest park

* Agents have powers and immunities beyond pre-existing laws (Adds comment from speech, details)

By Yanni Chow and Donny Kwok

HONG KONG, July 8 (Reuters) - China opened its new national security office in Hong Kong on Wednesday, turning a hotel near a city-centre park that has been one of the most popular venues for pro-democracy protests into its new headquarters.

The office, in the bustling shopping and commercial district of Causeway Bay, near Victoria Park, will oversee the Hong Kong government’s enforcement of the sweeping national security legislation that China imposed on the city last week.

The law empowers the office to take enforcement action beyond existing city laws in the most serious cases. The legislation allows agents to take suspects across the border for trials in Communist Party-controlled courts and specifies special privileges for its agents, including that Hong Kong authorities cannot inspect their vehicles.

The newly appointed chief of the office, Zheng Yanxiong, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and Luo Huining, the head of China’s Liaison Office in the city - Beijing’s top representative office - attended the opening ceremony at the former Metropark Hotel, which was popular with tourists for its harbour views.

Luo said the office was “the gatekeeper of national security” and people who loved China and Hong Kong welcomed it.

“Those with ulterior motives and who are anti-China and seek to destabilize Hong Kong have not only stigmatized the office, but also smeared the legal system and rule of law in the Chinese mainland in an attempt to stir up unnecessary worries and fears among Hong Kong residents,” Luo said.

Security was tight around the hotel, with tall barriers raised and numerous police on duty nearby.

‘LEGITIMATE RIGHTS’

The law has pushed China’s freest city onto a more authoritarian path and drawn condemnation from some Western governments, lawyers and rights groups.

It punishes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison. Police have arrested at least 10 people, including a 15-year-old, under it for suspected threats to China’s national security.

Critics fear it will crush coveted freedoms in the Chinese-ruled city, while supporters say it will bring stability after a year of sometimes violent protests that plunged the former British colony into its biggest crisis in decades.

Zheng said the office would enforce the law strictly “without infringing on the legitimate rights and interests of any individual or organisation”.

A Communist Party cadre prominent during a 2011 clampdown on land rights protesters in a south China village, 57-year-old Zheng most recently served as secretary general of the Communist Party committee of Guangdong province, bordering Hong Kong.

Leaked footage during the 2011 dispute showed him berating villagers and calling foreign media “rotten”.

Zheng has never held a post outside Guangdong and has extensive experience in propaganda, having worked at the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily in its southern regional bureau for four years. He was vice minister in charge of propaganda for Guangdong from 2013 to 2018.

But in a reflection of the widespread unease over the legislation, major U.S. internet companies including Facebook , Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Zoom have announced they have suspended the processing of requests for user data from the Hong Kong authorities while they study it.

Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok, which only operates outside China, said on Tuesday it would exit the Hong Kong market within days. Its departure means Hong Kong users, like those in mainland China, will be cut off.

The United States has begun removing Hong Kong’s special status in U.S. law as Washington no longer deems the global financial hub sufficiently autonomous from mainland China.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s top advisers weighed proposals to undermine the Hong Kong currency’s peg to the U.S. dollar, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter, although the idea did not appear to gain traction. (Reporting by Donny Kwok, Yanni Chow and Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Marius Zaharia Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

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