Hong Kong’s government has deployed an elite police unit for political monitoring and surveillance as it tightens the political screws and moves closer to mainland China.
Serving and retired police officers, lawyers and legislators told Reuters news agency of intensifying political operations by the police force’s Security Wing, an elite unit that is supposed to handle sensitive tasks – including VIP protection and counterterrorism investigations.
Sources familiar with the Wing’s work say it led surveillance and monitoring operations against the National Party and more than a dozen other groups.
“We can see them [the government] being much more assertive in using these powers and in shaping their policy decisions to reflect the national interests,” said Professor Simon Young of the University of Hong Kong’s law school, adding that the courts may be a last line of defence against government overreach.
In the past few months, the territory has banned the Hong Kong National Party, which wants separation from China, and barred some activists from standing in local elections. Earlier this month, it refused to renew the work visa of Victor Mallet, a journalist with the Financial Times, after he hosted a speech by an independence activist.
The National Party was banned last month as an “imminent threat to national security” as the government invoked little-known clauses of a law regulating private groups and societies.
Authorities have so far refused to explain their decision on Mallet, except to say no independence advocacy will be tolerated. The Financial Times has said it will appeal the decision.
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, stresses freedoms of speech and assembly.
Some of the young people who led 2014’s pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution street protests say there is a growing sense of despair at the pressure on civil society and individual rights.
Daniel Cheung, a 29-year-old photographer who worked on Chronicle of a Summer, a documentary on activists such as jailed independence leader Edward Leung, said the situation was worsening fast.
“Put simply, if you see Hong Kong as a house built by the British, this house is now crumbling and leaking. It has been hit by a typhoon and [is] close to toppling over,” said Cheung.
The Basic Law requires the city to create laws against treason, secession and subversion of the national government, effectively updating those from the colonial era. Legislation from British rule, while broad, does not outlaw calls for independence or self-determination.
Some observers say the government is using the Security Wing to tighten its grip even without Article 23, a national security law that was withdrawn after mass protests. The government has yet to propose a new version.
The wing’s officers were deeply involved in producing the 700-page dossier the government used to justify the National Party ban. The document tracked the party’s statements, public appearances and activities.
Headed by an assistant commissioner, the Wing has more than 700 staff, according to government information provided to legislators in recent years.
Police declined to comment on whether other activists or groups, including those calling for greater autonomy in the longer term such as Joshua Wong, were being targeted, saying the department wouldn’t “disclose details of operations and investigations.”
James To, a veteran democracy advocate who has spent much of his 27 years in the city’s parliament scrutinising the government’s security policies, said the government had repeatedly refused legislators’ requests to discuss the Security Wing’s operations in detail.
“It is clear it [Security Wing] is doing much more political work now,” he said.
“My worry is that when you monitor people’s political life and thoughts you are going against the spirit of the human rights provisions of the Basic Law. There is a need for balance.”