This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Hong Kong’s government on Wednesday earmarked more than U.S. $1 billion to pay for “national security” operations, amid an ongoing crackdown on peaceful dissent and political opposition under a draconian national security law.
The city’s financial secretary Paul Chan said the government would set up a special fund for “safeguarding national security in the coming years,” but gave no details of what they would be spent on.
Government broadcaster RTHK cited an appendix to the budget as saying that the fund was “aimed at meeting the expenditure for safeguarding national security and approving the establishment of relevant posts, which are not restricted by Hong Kong laws.”
It quoted Chan as saying that he had arrived at the figure after discussing the manner with the “relevant national security authorities.”
Chan also announced a 7.7 percent rise in the policing budget for the coming year, setting total police spending at U.S.$3.2 billion.
The move comes amid growing fears that the city’s seven million residents are rapidly losing freedoms promised to them under the terms of the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
A February poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) found that public perception of several different measures of freedom in Hong Kong were at their lowest level since the handover.
Academic freedom, freedom of association, and freedom of movement all dropped to their lowest ebb in the survey, while press freedom and freedom of speech also returned low scores.
HKPORI deputy chief executive Chung Kim-wah has said the freedom of movement figure reflects people’s concerns over growing entry and exit controls at Hong Kong’s borders, particularly after China said it would no longer recognize the British National Overseas (BNO) passport.
He said rumors continue to circulate that people may not be allowed to leave under planned changes to immigration laws.
Hong Kong’s government is seeking to amend the city’s immigration laws to enable security chiefs to ban passengers from taking any form of transport in or out of the city, sparking concern that the authorities may be getting ready to stop people from leaving.
Airport under surveillance
The move comes amid growing fears that the city’s airport is already under routine surveillance by national security police, after a Hong Kong-based Youtuber filmed a group of unidentified people with no luggage lingering in the departure hall and watching passengers board their flights.
The planned amendment to the Immigration Ordinance has been billed by the government as a crackdown on asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants, making easier for the authorities to deport them.
But it also includes a clause enabling border guards to prevent a person from boarding a flight or any other form of transportation out of the city, paving the way for exit bans on any of Hong Kong’s seven million residents or visiting foreign nationals.
On Feb. 13, a spokesman for the Security Bureau said the right of Hongkongers to enter or leave the city was “guaranteed.”
He said an advance passenger information (API) system would only apply to people traveling to the city, rather than those leaving it.
“The right of Hong Kong residents to enter or leave Hong Kong is not affected,” the spokesman said.
The policy, which once pledged not to share passenger data with third parties without the person’s express consent, now warns that the data could be released in many more circumstances than before.
It also warns that passenger data may be turned over to the authorities if required “as and when necessary for the purpose of safeguarding aviation and airport security.” The earlier version had required the authorities to implement equivalent privacy protections before data could be handed over.
A clause in the earlier policy promising to anonymize passenger data, and to delete all personal data within seven days of the passenger’s flight, has also been dropped.
The Airport Authority refused to disclose the identity of its third-party partners when contacted by RFA on Wednesday, but said it operates a very strict data security policy, using encrypted local servers rather than cloud-based storage.
It said that all identifiable passenger information would still be automatically deleted from the system seven days after the departure of the passenger, adding that third-party service providers are also required to follow the same policy.
The Airport Authority uses established procedures to tender and appoint contractors, it said.
“Passengers are free to decide whether to use traditional checkpoints or the self-service facilities,” it said.
Hong Kong data scientist and democracy activist Wong Ho-wa said he was concerned about the changes, however.
“Actually this is very scary,” Wong said. “Anonymization is there to protect people’s personal data, and its purposes are clear and understandable, for example to compile statistics or optimize business operations.”
“But while the previous version emphasized anonymization and the use of data for statistical analysis, that part is no longer there,” he said. “Could that mean [people’s] data is less secure? It’s possible.”
Wong said facial recognition scans could also enable the authorities to track a person’s whereabouts once they landed.
Last year, state security police in mainland China used nationwide camera-linked facial recognition technology to track down dissident Xu Zhiyong, who is facing charges of subversion for writing essays critical of ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping.
Gathering more information
“It’s pretty sneaky not to disclose who the third parties are,” Wan said. “It’s very different from the transparency that previously surrounded the disclosure of departing passengers to commercial partners.”
“It’s a bit of a black box, so it’s hard to know if they are hiding something,” he said. “Maybe these facial recognition checkpoints can also be used as a form of surveillance technology.”
Financial secretary Paul Chan reported a record fiscal deficit in Wednesday budget, blaming “ups and downs” faced by the city in the past two years, including the Sino-U.S. trade war, the 2019 protest movement, and the coronavirus pandemic.
Hong Kong economist Law Ka-chung said the city’s resilience had once been linked to its status as a free-wheeling, international port.
“Now, it is gradually being cut off from the rest of the world and becoming more like mainland China,” he said, adding that the city has lost its former status as a financial center attractive to foreign investors.
“The common travel area with the Greater Bay Area [cities in southern China] wasn’t something that Hong Kong asked for … and it’s all about turning Hong Kong into a city like Shenzhen for political reasons,” he said.