China’s state security apparatus has largely worked in the shadows while the Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, expanded it over recent years into a bulwark against threats to party rule, public order and national unity.
Hong Kong could change that low profile.
Under a national security law that went into force this week, China will openly station security officials in Hong Kong to subdue opposition to the party’s rule. The law authorizes these agents to investigate cases, collect intelligence, and help oversee enforcement of the rules across schools, news outlets, and social organizations. Until now, Chinese agents operated covertly in Hong Kong.
“When I was abducted to China, it was done in secret. Now it can be done openly,” said Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong book store owner who was snatched in 2015 and spirited to mainland China. He said that security officials placed him in solitary confinement for five months and interrogated him about publishing gossip-laden books about Mr. Xi and other party leaders.
“Now that the Chinese national security agencies have official protection in Hong Kong, essentially Hong Kong will be no different from any part of China,” said Mr. Lam, who now lives in Taiwan.
The new law for Hong Kong has drawn criticism for introducing ambiguously defined crimes such as separatism and collusion that can be used to stifle protest. On Wednesday, the first full day that the law took effect, the city’s police flexed its new muscle by arresting mostly peaceful demonstrators over behavior deemed to challenge Chinese rule over the territory.
But the law also extends China’s security state into Hong Kong, where it will operate beyond the scrutiny of local laws and courts. The open yet untouchable nature of these forces signals a drastic shift for the territory, which has promoted itself as an oasis for the rule of law.
For Mr. Xi, Hong Kong represents a logical next step for his expansion of the party’s grip over society. Since coming to power in 2012, Mr. Xi has overseen a crackdown that has extinguished political dissent, worker protests, student activism, and ethnic unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, several experts said.
“There’s a lot of parallels between what China has domestically and what they’re imposing on Hong Kong,” said Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. When Mr. Hass was a director for China at the White House National Security Council from 2013 to 2017, he dealt with members of China’s national security apparatus.