China could set up Hong Kong intelligence agency under security law -former leader

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s new national security legislation may be used to establish a domestic intelligence agency in Hong Kong similar to the colonial-era Special Branch, the territory’s former leader, Leung Chun-ying, said on Saturday.

China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, announced on Thursday a draft decision on “establishing and improving a legal system and enforcement mechanism for Hong Kong to safeguard national security”.

Leung’s comments could give weight to concern among some Hong Kongers and Western governments that national security legislation will herald a new era of political surveillance and law enforcement controlled from the mainland. Washington called the law a “death knell” for the city’s autonomy.

“There is a possibility ... of the central people’s government authorising Hong Kong law enforcement bodies, such as the police, to enforce the law,” Leung told Reuters in an interview.

He noted that the British had a Special Branch in Hong Kong to deal with national security threats, dismantled before Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“All jurisdictions in the world, including the ones in the West, have laws that protect national security,” Leung said.

“Singapore has a Special Branch. We don’t. America has all kinds of law enforcement agencies that are tasked to deal with national security threats. We don’t. So it’s not surprising that as part of the efforts to fill the national security legal gap, we need to have a body,” he said.

Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive from 2012-2017, is now a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top advisory body in China.

Hong Kong already has an elite 700 officer-strong Security Wing that serving and retired police say has been increasingly replicating the work of the colonial-era Special Branch, including monitoring of some political and student activists.

Senior wing officials liaise with mainland security and intelligence services, who have no enforcement powers in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong democracy activists say the national security legislation is evidence of Beijing’s encroachment on freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong under its “one country, two systems” style of governance. Many worry it could lead to Chinese troops on the streets, concerns Leung said were unfounded.

“I think the Western world should drop their prejudices when it comes to Hong Kong being part of the mainland of China. Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy, but Hong Kong definitely is not independent from China,” Leung said. “Hong Kong is part of China, and therefore, Hong Kong has an obligation to protect the national security of China.”

The legislation is targeted primarily at pro-independence movements and terrorism, he said.

Months of anti-government protests last year plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis in decades and posed the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Additional reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Tony Munroe