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Hong Kong security law's long arm forces travel rethink

Burner phones and scrubbed PCs on packing lists as governments issue warnings

HONG KONG -- The national security law imposed on Hong Kong is prompting a global reassessment of travel to the city, due to the legislation's international scope.

In a rare case for Hong Kong, the law asserts extraterritoriality, meaning it applies to perceived offenses committed outside the city, including those by non-residents, under its Article 38.

"It shows that Beijing is extending its policing globally," said Sharron Fast, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong, adding that anyone deemed to have breached the law could face arrest upon setting foot in the territory.

The national security law, which took effect in the former British colony on June 30, provides for criminal penalties of up to life imprisonment for secession, subversion of state power, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces. Violators can also be extradited to mainland China for trial.

One government after another is warning citizens about flying to the city.

"I certainly personally would be very cautious about going to Hong Kong or China now," said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the U.K. parliament's foreign affairs committee and one of a growing number of China hawks in the ruling Conservative Party, in an interview with Times Radio last week.

"I know that if I were a businessman who had attended a meeting with somebody who has criticized the Chinese state, or who has been in any way vocal even in a local jurisdiction, I would be extremely cautious about going to any of these jurisdictions," he said. "The possibility of arbitrary detention is now very high."

The U.K. government has updated its travel guidance on Hong Kong, noting the risk of being detained and taken to mainland China. Meanwhile, Taiwan's government has urged its citizens to avoid unnecessary visits to or transit through Hong Kong.

Canada and Australia have issued similar notices about broad interpretations of the law. "You may be at increased risk of detention on vaguely defined national security grounds," Canberra said in an alert issued Thursday, advising, "Do not travel to Hong Kong."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison the same day announced his government would suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, following Canada's footsteps.

Even boarding a plane now raises uncomfortable questions. Technically, the security law applies to all Hong Kong-registered aircraft, including those operated by Cathay Pacific Airways.

A chill is spreading through the business community.

Pilots at Hong Kong's airport: Some business travelers are not ruling out trips to the city after the COVID-19 crisis, but they plan to take precautions.    © Reuters

"It certainly makes me hesitant to travel to Hong Kong and I'm sure it makes everybody else too," said Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research, a U.S.-based short-seller and investment company that has published negative reports on several Chinese companies.

"The precautions you take in the mainland, you would need to take in Hong Kong now. You don't carry certain books and you don't take certain clothes," she said. "You treat it as a hostile environment."

While not ruling out trips to Hong Kong when COVID-19 controls are relaxed, some said they would take extra precautions for their electronic devices from now on.

"I am certainly more concerned, [so] that I will not bring my [regular] PC or smartphone but I will likely still come," said Fraser Howie, a Singapore-based analyst often critical of China's markets who has frequented Hong Kong.

"We can't ignore Hong Kong just like that, as we have several investments in the region and there are more in the pipeline," said a New York-based executive at a global private equity fund. "I assume I'll have to take a lot more precautions. Maybe the same level of caution I take when I travel to the mainland."

He said those precautions include a burner phone, scrubbed devices, a sanitized contact list and a deep clean upon return. "We don't yet have a companywide policy for Hong Kong but I won't take any chances."

Human rights activists and international journalists are likely to face more pitfalls in the post-security law era. Even before the legislation was enacted, foreign correspondents and activists had been denied entry to the city in recent years.

In 2018, Hong Kong authorities abruptly declined to renew the work visa of Victor Mallet, a Financial Times journalist, after he hosted a talk at the city's Foreign Correspondents' Club by a pro-independence party leader. Earlier this year, Kenneth Roth, the head of U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, was barred from entering Hong Kong.

Sharron Fast of the University of Hong Kong said it remains to be seen whether local authorities would arrest foreign nationals or simply reject them at the border. "There are too many uncertainties now," she said.

"Arresting foreign nationals involved in political life would be such a stupid diplomatic move," said Luke de Pulford, a U.K. Conservative Party activist and founder and coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a new international group of legislators seeking to coordinate tougher policies toward Beijing.

"I fully hope that I can return soon with a group of politicians to precipitate a diplomatic crisis. I would consider it a great badge of honor to join friends and colleagues on Carrie Lam's blacklist," he said, referring to Hong Kong's chief executive.

Additional reporting by Zach Coleman and Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong and Rhyannon Bartlett-Imadegawa in London.

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