Taiwanese students studying in Hong Kong hold a Taiwanese flag during a rally. Photo: Facebook

The Hong Kong Police Force has been granted sweeping powers to probe and penalize local and overseas individuals and entities suspected of violating the new national security law Beijing is imposing on the city.

The force’s operation directives for implementing the legislation were gazetted earlier this week. While the enforcement guidelines are ambivalent about the legality of the local activities of foreign influences and how the force should respond, the set of rules is clear on issues involving Taiwanese political outfits.

The detailed implementation rules for the force were released despite a chorus of protest by the United States and United Kingdom and their allies against what they call Beijing’s callous move to impose “a draconian, uncalled-for law” they say is intended to trample on Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.

The national security legislation passed by the Chinese parliament on Beijing’s ukase to outlaw secession, subversion, terrorism and conspiring with external hostile forces has also sent some Hongkongers fleeing. Many residents are packing for destinations like Taiwan, which was among the first places to offer a safe haven.

Yet with the security law’s glaring extraterritorial overreach and the Hong Kong Police Force’s guidelines focusing on Taiwan, it has dawned on the self-ruled island that it is not just Hongkongers that it needs to help.

Taiwan has already cautioned its people about the law’s “catch-all clauses” that apply not only to permanent Hong Kong residents but also expatriates, including Taiwanese residing in the city, warning that they could be punished for activities outside the city deemed detrimental to Beijing’s security and interests. Now Taiwan also finds itself in the crosshairs of the latest police guidelines.

This is because section 5 of the document stipulates that if the police commissioner reasonably believes it is necessary for the prevention or investigation of an offence undermining national security, he/she can ask any Taiwanese political organizations or agents to provide information on their Hong Kong-related activities, such as personal particulars, finances, assets, income and expenditure, within a specified period.

Section 7 states that any Taiwanese political organizations or agents failing to furnish information or produce materials will be liable to a fine of HK$100,000 (US$12,900) and imprisonment for six months, as well as a HK$100,000 fine and imprisonment for two years for providing false, incorrect or incomplete information.

Beijing’s imperative to target Taiwan’s presence and influence in Hong Kong is writ large in these stipulations, since the whole set of rules was passed by the Hong Kong government’s national security commission, presided over by Beijing’s top envoy in the city.

A billboard promoting the national security law in a street in Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook

In response, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has assured her people, especially those still working, living or studying in Hong Kong, that “powerful countermeasures” such as a travel warning and the evacuation of Taiwanese are being formulated, and that she maintains close contacts with foreign leaders to analyze the implications of the security law and the Hong Kong police’s implementation guidelines.

“If necessary, we will issue warnings and advisories to Taiwanese groups and people [in Hong Kong],” Tsai said.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council has blasted the rules, calling them “vague” and “extremely unfriendly” toward Taiwan’s political parties, NGOs, businessmen and students based in Hong Kong, and that non-locals and the groups and subsidiaries of non-local companies and organizations should not be covered by the law and its annexes.

“The new rules will kill normal exchanges and interactions between Taiwan and Hong Kong, while causing panic among Taiwanese living in the city,” said the council, stressing that the government would do its best to protect the operations of Taiwanese organizations and the rights and safety of Taiwanese there.

“While we watch closely the developments in Hong Kong, Taiwan has never intervened in its affairs, which is in line with the agreements between the two places,” the council said.

A statement from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party noted the island had never been under the jurisdiction of China or Hong Kong, and that the Taiwanese government would never comply with laws that would violate human rights.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s de facto consulate in Hong Kong has declined to comment on the issue.

Hermes Chow, a deputy project supervisor with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office Hong Kong, told Asia Times that while the Taiwanese government was still evaluating the situation and discussing how it should respond, the representative office in the city and all its staff had been instructed by the Foreign Ministry to halt most of its ongoing programs and exchanges as a precaution.

She also refused to say if any of the office’s staff would cooperate with Hong Kong police if requested by the force, saying she was not in a position to answer “hypothetical questions.”

Still, some political heavyweights have pointed out that Taiwan’s own national security clauses, amended by the independence-tilting Tsai administration to fend off China’s infiltration, are just as harsh.

Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, with the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party, said the plethora of amendments introduced by Tsai were “no less restrictive” compared with the law in Hong Kong, Ma’s birthplace.

Ma’s eldest daughter Ma Wei-chung, an art curator, now lives in Hong Kong and has the right of abode in the city, and thus she will be made punishable if she commits any offenses under the new law.

Meanwhile, Taiwan this week banished two mainland journalists for allegedly undermining its national security, and it has been rumored that more reporters and students from the mainland could also have their long-stay visas revoked. The move is Tsai’s warning to Beijing that her government can take countervailing measures against the latter’s coercion, either via direct military posturing or by targeting its people living in Hong Kong.