Early Wednesday, under a heavy police presence and before any public announcement about the matter, officials inaugurated the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region at a ceremony that took place behind water-filled barricades. They played the Chinese national anthem and raised the Chinese flag, although local media weren’t invited. When the ceremony was over, reporters were finally able to photograph the building’s front door.
The Metropark Hotel on the edge of the city’s Causeway Bay district will be the initial base for the new agency, staffed by Chinese security officials. It will be tasked with collecting intelligence and implementing a new law that sharply curtails political freedoms as Beijing takes greater control of the territory after anti-government protests last year.
It’s the first time the Chinese government’s state security apparatus has been permitted to operate in Hong Kong, marking a milestone in officials’ efforts to dismantle the firewall that separated the city from the authoritarian mainland.
The security law, which took effect July 1, specifies four broadly defined crimes against national security that can invite punishment of up to life imprisonment: subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. In practice, lawyers and other experts say, it effectively extends mainland legal provisions to Hong Kong, ending the autonomy that China promised the financial center would enjoy until 2047.
The new office is headed by Zheng Yanxiong, a senior Communist Party official known for quashing popular unrest on the Chinese mainland. Luo Huining, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, has been appointed as an adviser to the agency.
Addressing delegates at the opening ceremony Wednesday, Luo rejected criticism of Beijing’s moves. The United States and its allies have condemned the crackdown as a breach of the Sino-British handover agreement and a serious blow to Hong Kong’s autonomy and political rights.
“While people who love China and [Hong Kong] are welcoming the establishment of the office, 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 the Hong Kong residents,” Luo said. “The Chinese mainland has a healthy legal system and a sound environment for the rule of law.”
Zheng told the few dozen attendees that his agents would abide by the law and would not infringe on “the legitimate rights and interests of any individual or organization.”
“Regardless of whether you are here for business or leisure, we would offer a helping hand to make your stay a memorable one,” the company’s website says of the Metropark, which has 266 guest rooms.
The hotel overlooks Victoria Park, a key protest zone and the starting point for many of the huge rallies last year calling for greater political freedoms and police accountability, among other demands.
For decades, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have assembled in the park every June 4 to commemorate the anniversary of Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on democracy activists in Tiananmen Square. Officials tried to ban the vigil this year, citing social distancing measures, but activists gathered in defiance for what many worry could be the last time.
“It used to be a tranquil neighborhood with many small businesses. It’d be hard to imagine what will it become of after today,” tweeted Rachel Wong, an academic researcher and a local news reporter, as the security cordon went up around the security agency’s new headquarters.
Hotel reservation websites showed the Metropark no longer had availability through the end of the year.
The hotel had mostly positive ratings online, with reviewers praising its location and spectacular views over Hong Kong. Some reviewers noted, though, that it appeared to have a problem with dampness.
“Service was excellent but the hotel room had an unpleasant smell,” remarked one reviewer.
Shibani Mahtani contributed to this report.