China opens national security office in Hong Kong in wake of new security law

The new security legislation in Hong Kong punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Image: An opening ceremony for the China's new Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong
China's new Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People's Government was unveiled in Hong Kong on Wednesday amid heavy security. Hong Kong Government Information Services / AP

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By Yuliya Talmazan

China opened its new national security office in Hong Kong on Wednesday, a week after Beijing imposed national security legislation that critics fear will erode the freedoms promised to the former British colony.

The Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People's Government — headquartered next to Victoria Park, which has been a frequent site of pro-democracy protests in the city — will oversee the Hong Kong government’s enforcement of the new law.

The newly appointed chief of the office, Zheng Yanxiong, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and Luo Huining, the head of China’s Liaison Office in the city, attended the opening ceremony at the Metropark Hotel amid heavy security.

Luo was quoted by China's Global Times newspaper as saying the office was an “envoy for safeguarding Hong Kong” and “gatekeeper of national security.”

The new security legislation, which punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with sentences of up to life in prison, has been criticized by some Western governments and human rights groups for paving the way for Beijing to tighten its grip on the semi-autonomous territory and crush any dissent.

Hong Kong police arrested at least 10 people under the new law during pro-democracy protests last week.

A journalist takes video through water filled barriers after the opening ceremony of the national security office in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the law targets “troublemakers” and will not affect the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kongers. China sees the new law as necessary for stability in Hong Kong to prevent protests that have rocked the city since last year.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures, including activist Joshua Wong, the face of the so-called Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong in 2014, said some of their books have become unavailable in the city’s public libraries.

Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, responsible for public libraries, told NBC News the libraries must ensure that their collections are in compliance with the stipulations of the new security law and review whether certain books violate it.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Hong Kong’s Education Bureau said in a statement that should the content of school materials provoke students to commit crimes mentioned in the new law, the school management is “obliged” to remove them from the school library or the recommended reading list unless teachers use the materials “for highlighting the paramount importance of national security.”

Hong Kong authorities on Wednesday also banned students from singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” the unofficial anthem of the pro-democracy protest movement, Reuters reported.

Additional details of the new security law released Monday indicated that police will have sweeping powers to conduct searches without warrants, and order internet service providers and platforms to remove messages deemed to be in violation of the legislation.

Amid worldwide criticism, Google, Twitter and Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, said they were putting a hold on sharing information with Hong Kong law enforcement.

Also Tuesday, the short-form Chinese-owned video app TikTok said that it was withdrawing from Hong Kong.

After it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy significant autonomy from the communist government in Beijing for 50 years, under the terms of a 1984 agreement between China and the United Kingdom, known as the Sino–British Joint Declaration.

That autonomy was to include protections for free speech and self-rule under what China has termed a "one country, two systems" policy.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.