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Hong Kong’s national security law could make spying more tricky

The national security law could jeopardise and compromise existing intelligence collection by foreign countries, particularly those pertaining to human sources and technical collection.

Hong Kong’s national security law could make spying more tricky

Banners on a barge in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020 welcome the national security law imposed on the city by the Chinese government.

Following the passing of Hong Kong national security Bill last month, a number of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada expressed concern at Beijing’s actions, saying they run against the commitments made under the Sino-British joint declaration. 

According to a statement made by the foreign ministers of the four countries, the national security law would undermine the “one country, two systems framework” and “existing commitments to protect the rights of the Hong Kong people”.

On July 8, the Chinese government opened an “Office for Safeguarding National Security” at the former Metropark Hotel in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district.

The location of the office opposite Victoria Park — a key site of protest movements over the past year — is highly symbolic. 

It represents efforts by Beijing to strike at the heart of what it sees as the efforts by Western governments using Hong Kong to gather intelligence and subverting its political system.

Indeed the foreign ministers of the four Western countries above (plus New Zealand) had discussed the law during a conference call the past week on “international peace and security”, suggesting that what is at stake is not just about the well-being of Hong Kong anti-Chinese protesters, but more importantly for them, intelligence activities that are being conducted in Hong Kong.

As members of the Five Eyes Alliance, a multilateral arrangement which facilitates the sharing of classified signals intelligence, the law could potentially affect intelligence collection activities in Hong Kong.

According to Daniel Fung, Hong Kong member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the idea of the security law was to establish a security agency similar to the Special Branch when Hong Kong was a British colony.

Back in those days, Hong Kong was a hotbed of intelligence activities with agencies attempting to use the city as a base with which to spy on the developments on the mainland.

These include key players such as the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the then Soviet Union's KGB and even the Israeli Mossad.

All these agencies attempted, through a mixture of covert and overt means, to obtain information about China and other countries within the region.

Given Hong Kong’s reputation as a generally open-minded, liberal and highly cosmopolitan city but with the advantage of a strong legal system, it was an ideal environment for intelligence agencies to operate within.

Spies could easily blend in with the local population — using front companies — without calling too much attention to themselves or their actual businesses.

At the same time, they could operate in relative security and did not have to worry too much about their personal safety and security in the course of their daily work.

According to leaks by the former CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the United States had been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland for years.

Since the late 1990s, the interconnectivity between China and the rest of the world means that countries no longer have to rely exclusively on Hong Kong to conduct their spywork and are able to operate, albeit with more restrictions and danger, on the mainland.

At the same time, growing Chinese power and competition with the US (and the West) have resulted in a crackdown on intelligence operations on the mainland in the past decade.

According to the New York Times, the Chinese government had systematically dismantled CIA spying operations in the country since 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward.

While there have been no publicised cases of other Western intelligence agencies being compromised on the mainland, given Beijing’s suspicion of the West, it would not be surprising if members of the Five Eyes are given greater attention by the Chinese domestic security apparatus.

Given these challenges of operating on the mainland, Hong Kong retained its value of being a gateway in and out of China.

All these would change significantly with this enactment of the national security act.

For one thing, it allows China to set up intelligence bases in Hong Kong thus giving it greater leverage and oversight on spying activities there, and consequently, the ability to constrain and disrupt the work of foreign operatives.

More importantly, as a result of the law, Beijing is able to prosecute intelligence gathering activities (whether it does or not is another matter) with greater legal force while in the past it was unable to do so (under the provisions of the Basic Law).

Also with this law in place, there is a likelihood that Beijing would step up its surveillance work in Hong Kong, including the number of spies and counter intelligence operatives working there.

While Chinese spies may well already have their own existing intelligence networks in Hong Kong in place prior to the law, its enactment would further strengthen China’s hands as it provides a more direct — and thus the need to be less secretive — approach to combating threats to Chinese interests in the city.

This would have an effect of intimidating activities especially those that are deemed sensitive or hostile to Beijing’s interests.

While spy agencies will continue to develop new techniques of evading Beijing’s security forces, obtaining good intelligence becomes potentially more difficult and risky given the greater presence of Chinese spies.

Lastly, this national security law could also jeopardise and compromise existing intelligence collection, particularly those pertaining to human sources and technical collection.

Sophisticated means of electronic collection can be dismantled by Beijing if it so wishes, and information leaks by mainland sources to Hong Kong can now be plugged, thus allowing the Chinese Communist Party greater control of the information domain.

The presence of Chinese security apparatus in Hong Kong could potentially change the information terrain of the city.

The Chinese saying that “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” has traditionally afforded Hong Kong and its people substantial autonomy from the political influence of Beijing, but this may all change with the enactment of the national security act. 

US President Donald Trump hinted at the increased risk of traveling in the future to Hong Kong — which ostensibly also covers travels made by spies — referring to the “increased danger of surveillance and punishment by the Chinese state security apparatus”.

All these would mean we are likely to see significant changes in the political composition of Hong Kong society in the coming years.

As the 2016 impounding of Singapore’s motorised infantry vehicles in Hong Kong had shown, it is well within Beijing’s rights to use Hong Kong and the city’s institutions to carry out its political decisions. 

With this national security act, spy work in Hong Kong is likely to come under greater Chinese scrutiny and with greater risk.



Benjamin Tze Ern HO is an assistant professor at the China Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This is adapted from a piece which first appeared in The Politburo magazine, a website that looks at foreign policy and security developments in China. 

Related topics

Hong Kong China spy security

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