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China's new Hong Kong security agency pops up in four-star hotel

Building by Victoria Park becomes base for secretive operations overnight

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveils the new security office on July 8 with Chinese officials and pro-Beijing heavyweights.   © Jiji/FP

HONG KONG -- Overnight, a four-star hotel near Hong Kong's prime shopping district has become the command center for a newly established national security office.

The swift transformation was carefully planned and executed on Tuesday night, not unlike the way Beijing's national security law itself was formulated in secrecy and thrust upon Hong Kong at the end of last month.

Local media sniffed out late on Tuesday that the Metropark Hotel Causeway Bay, owned by a branch of state tour agency China Travel Service, would be turned into the Office for Safeguarding National Security, a creation under the new law.

The street running in front of the building was closed to traffic by police while the conversion took place. Rooms in the hotel look out over Victoria Park, where candlelight vigils commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown take place every June 4.

"Today's unveiling ceremony is a historic moment," the city's chief executive, Carrie Lam, said at an opening ceremony early Wednesday morning in front of the hotel. The assembled group included two major generals of the People's Liberation Army's Hong Kong garrison and her predecessors Tung Chee-hwa and C.Y. Leung, both of whom now serve as vice chairmen of China's top government advisory body.

The new office is headed by Zheng Yanxiong, a top Communist Party propaganda official in the adjoining province of Guangdong, best known for his leading role in quieting an uprising against local officials in the village of Wukan in 2011.

At Wednesday's ceremony, Zheng stressed that the new institution will "accept supervision in conformity with the law and will not infringe on legal rights of any individual or organization."

Zheng's organization will be working in close coordination with the committee for safeguarding national security, another entity spawned under the new law.

The committee is headed by Lam and staffed with high-ranking cabinet-class members of the Hong Kong government. But Luo Huining, head of the Beijing government's representative office in the territory, officially sits in as her security adviser.

Luo on Wednesday insisted that the law, which has reshaped the city's political structure, marks a "significant turning point from chaos to governance," and that the establishment of the new institution is a "major move."

A sign at the Metropark Hotel Causeway Bay on July 8: Reached by phone, a receptionist said no rooms were available. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Even before the opening of the office on Wednesday, the security committee convened on Monday and resolved to allow police to raid premises without warrants, freeze assets, tap phones, order internet companies to delete content, and demand information from foreign governments.

The institutions established under the new law sit atop the existing governance of Hong Kong. Since, according to the legislation, they are handling "state secrets" which are "too complicated" for the local authorities to handle, their decisions cannot be challenged in Hong Kong courts.

"In post-National Security Law Hong Kong, HKSAR-based mainland cadres could be calling the shots above the heads of CE Lam and her ministers," said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, assessing the state of the special administrative region in a note for the Jamestown Foundation.

The national security law sets out the possibility of life imprisonment and trial in mainland China for the crimes of secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

It is unclear how long the security agency will stay in the hotel, when the building may return to its prior use, and whether the agency is paying rent.

The official website of China Travel Service (Hong Kong), one of the key Hong Kong-based Chinese state-owned enterprises, no longer quotes the room rate. A receptionist at the hotel on Wednesday said in response to a telephone inquiry that "we don't have any rooms right now."

Asked when rooms might be available, she replied, "We don't know."

The hotel assets fall under the balance sheet of China Travel International Investment Hong Kong, a locally listed subsidiary of China Travel Service (Hong Kong). According to its latest annual report published in April, the facility is 100% owned and is operated on a long-term lease. There is no separate disclosure of the financial standing of the hotel, but the listed company's hotel operation segment, which included three other locations, logged revenue of 710.75 million Hong Kong dollars ($91.7 million) and profit of HK$81.16 million last year.

The listed company had issued a profit warning last Friday, revealing a net loss of more than HK$400 million for the first six months of 2020, versus a net profit of HK$419 million for the same period last year. It blamed the "significant decrease in number of tourists in Hong Kong, Macao and mainland China brought by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic."

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