Chinese secret police have established a towering new presence in a high-rise Hong Kong hotel overlooking previous protest hotspots, a move that speaks of Beijing’s intent to keep a commanding view over the semi-autonomous city under new security legislation.
The Causeway Bay hotel has been quietly converted to house Beijing’s newly established national security office in the heart of the city’s teeming shopping precinct. Long-stay guests were given short notice without explanation earlier this month to check out of their rooms.
They have since been adapted as police offices and holding facilities. News first broke on Tuesday night that an advance regiment of well-trained and vetted Chinese agents would be based in the hotel to help enforce the new Beijing-imposed security law.
Security officers and scaffolding contractors were working since last weekend on renovations, including the installation of flagpoles and plaques at the hotel-cum-office’s entrance.
The new office was formally unveiled on Wednesday morning when Beijing envoys and local officials streamed out of the MetroPark Causeway Bay Hotel’s lobby and opened it as a repurposed security office with a giant Chinese national emblem on the building’s main door.
The opening ceremony saw a rousing parade attended by mainland officers in front of the hotel on a road cordoned off by local police to stop traffic and repel protesters.
The agents will apparently enjoy luxury amenities, including piped in music, fine restaurant delicacies, jacuzzis and rooftop infinity pools while keeping tabs on the city below. Rooms before the renovations featured ambient moonlight designs.
Standing in the front row of a phalanx of office towers along the harborfront, the 33-story hotel is renowned for its unobstructed, panoramic vistas of Victoria Harbor and the skylines of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula.
The hotel also overlooks densely built-up residential areas and the green space of Victoria Park, the traditional starting point of the city’s pro-democracy marches and the venue of annual vigils commemorating victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing.
Between May and June this year, Asia Times’ reporters stayed in the hotel to cover the Victoria Park vigil and demonstrations in Causeway Bay, a protest hotspot. But they were told to leave in mid-June due to “renovation works,” when online bookings were also suspended. The hotel’s website was no longer accessible by press time today.
The hotel’s owner is HKCTS Hotels Co, a property arm of the Hong Kong-listed China Travel International Investment, which is under the umbrella of the state-owned conglomerate China Tourism Group.
Details of the conversion, including whether the hotel has been leased or sold, were not made publicly available. Nor has the corporate parent of the hotel’s owner released any information about the deal.
There is speculation that the hotel’s owner has been compensated for the conversion, while other reports suggest the security office and its agents will move out after it finds a permanent location elsewhere.
The hotel’s owner did not reply to Asia Times’ emailed inquiries for comment.
The sudden, surprise conversion of an entire hotel into a security office has raised concerns among certain local and foreign businesses, with some wondering if Beijing could command arrangements over their properties in name of national security.
Beijing’s new legislation to nominally outlaw secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with external adversaries has raised concerns in Hong Kong’s business community about the law’s vaguely worded provisions.
The new security law stipulates that local and foreign-invested businesses must help with investigations conducted by local and state agents, raising new police state concerns. Companies committing offenses under the law can be fined and have their business permits revoked.
Those living close to the converted hotel are among the first to be affected. Some Hongkongers living in Causeway Bay say they are surprised to now have mainland agents as neighbors.
Clarisse Yeung, chairwoman of the Wan Chai District Council which has jurisdiction over the neighborhood, said many residents fear the mainland agents will install equipment to intercept communications. Others are concerned that agents would carry or store weapons in the hotel or that suspects arrested under the law could be interrogated or detained there.
Some opposition members allege Beijing’s choice of a downtown hotel aims to deter Hongkongers from joining new rallies at Victoria Park, due to fears Beijing may be watching and surveilling from above.
Others argue the high-profile and public presence of Beijing’s agents offers unusual visibility into a facet of China’s usually shadowy intelligence and national security apparatus.
Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily cited sources as saying that the security office would set up dedicated divisions to oversee intelligence, anti-terrorism and international affairs to counter the alleged “systematic” infiltration of the city by hostile forces from the West.
Still, Beijing has given Hong Kong the power to investigate and try most cases prosecuted under the new law, saying it will step in only under extraordinary circumstances, including when the city cannot tackle a “nation-led” bid to infiltrate and interfere.
Beijing has maintained the new law respects Hong Kong’s freedoms, autonomy and common law system. But Beijing’s new eye-in-the-sky view over the city has raised symbolic questions about China’s intent under the new law.