Hong Kong’s police force resurrected the colonial-era Special Branch and renamed it “N Division” at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday when an overarching new national security law was imposed upon the territory by Beijing.
The new branch and its squadron of specially vetted and trained officers will work to ensure the new law is enforced to the letter, including in putting down street protests that are already bubbling up against it.
Police were quick to arrest at least nine protesters on Wednesday evening for the “crime” of waving pro-independence flags or chanting related slogans, while running battles between demonstrators unbowed by the new law and constables in riot gear returned to the streets.
Hong Kong’s Security Minister John Lee confirmed that the police force’s dedicated national security law enforcement branch, to be headed by a deputy police commissioner, had been “all out” on day one.
He stressed that violators of the law may get life in prison and that lingering secessionists are fooling themselves if they thought they could carry on as previously.
At the same time, the Department of Justice has not yet worked out a legal framework regarding police searches, arrests, detentions and interrogations under the new law.
Hong Kong newspapers on Thursday cited sources saying that while enforcing the Beijing-decreed law against a breadth of crimes, including secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with external forces, “N Division” officers still did not know if they need court warrants to conduct searches, both for places or information storage devices.
This is because the new law, rubber-stamped by the National People’s Congress on Tuesday, does not specify on the matter.
The Ming Pao daily noted that warrants would be among a host of “nitty-gritty matters” pending a decision by Hong Kong’s top leader and the government’s committee for safeguarding national security, which has yet to be formed.
There are also questions about the new N Division’s activities, funding and whether it will be exposed to sufficient checks and balances.
Hong Kong’s former security chief Regina Ip has said that N Division’s funding should bypass the scrutiny of the city’s lawmakers, citing article 19 of the law stipulating that the government should set aside funds for related operations and expenditures and that such appropriation must not face any delays.
But the article does not make clear if the city’s legislature will still approve such funding. Ip said the stipulation was not meant to evade any public oversight but could ensure financing would not be held up by opposition filibustering.
“Being an overarching law drafted and passed by the Chinese parliament, related funding to enforce the law in the city should not be included in annual budgets tabled to the legislature,” said Ip.
“You will never know how much funding the [United States] CIA gets or how many agents it employs, so the nature of national security dictates that funding and other aspects of the law’s enforcement must be carried out in a different way,” she added.
Ip’s failed attempt to enact a national security clause for the city back in 2003 is cited by Beijing to justify its unilateral move to foist the new law on the city.
Hong Kong police may have to fill in the gap while Beijing prepares to dispatch its own N Division agents to set up shop in the city. Article 48 of the law states that Beijing will establish an agency in the heart of the city to safeguard national security.
A source familiar with the preparatory work being carried out in the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen noted that shortlisted state agents – some selected from related state security departments in Shenzhen and other cities in Guangdong province – would not finish their training and move to Hong Kong within this month.
The N Division’s deployment comes amid new revelations by Time magazine, which reported that the little-known US Agency for Global Media had bankrolled protesters in Hong Kong since last year and also helped them with technical support to evade surveillance and crackdowns by law enforcement agencies.
According to the report, the US agency that oversees funding for news and information operations including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia planned to earmark US$2 million for the protest movement in Hong Kong.
But the funding is now frozen due to a general overhaul and restructuring of the agency. It has also been reported that at least one payout to local protest groups, originally to be made allegedly via the Washington-based Open Technology Fund, had been affected.
One canceled project was to set up “a cybersecurity incident response team” to provide protesters with “secure communications apps” after analyzing “Chinese surveillance techniques.”
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, now owned by Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba, noted Time’s revelation would probably be “the tip of the iceberg” in its forthcoming follow-up report.
Neither Beijing nor Hong Kong’s government has responded to the latest revelation, but it is safe to assume that the Time report will give Hong Kong police’s new N Division a lead to investigate.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing broadsheet Wenweipo has already predicted that a dragnet will soon close in on “a handful” of key organizers of last year’s anti-government rallies as well as pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is frequently accused by Beijing of acting to instigate unrest with US support.
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