SVA Comment on Hong Kong Terrorism Tip Line

Hong Kong launches terrorism tip line ahead of expected Xi visit

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong launched a terrorism-reporting hotline Wednesday as authorities tighten their security squeeze on the city, while mainland China also rolls out a cash-for-tipoffs program to report suspected threats to national security.

The dual security measures come as Hong Kong gears up for a possible visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping on the July 1 anniversary of the former British colony's handover to Beijing a quarter of a century ago.

The program rolled out in Hong Kong -- routinely ranked as one of the world's safest cities -- offers up to 800,000 Hong Kong dollars ($102,000) for information that assists in detecting terrorism-related crimes, said Leung Wai Ki, head of the city's counterterrorism unit.

The hotline is an "upgraded" version of one that the counterterrorism unit launched in 2019, when Hong Kong was the scene of mass street protests. Its launch comes two years after Beijing imposed a sweeping security law on the city that criminalized dissent and squashed the pro-democracy movement.

A separate hotline, rolled out months after the security law was adopted, received more than 200,000 tips in its first year of operation, according to authorities, who said Wednesday that the new reporting line was aimed at nabbing "local extremists (who) have turned underground and become more covert."

The city's outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam also warned that, despite the security law, there were "hidden threats" to the city, just weeks before Xi's unconfirmed visit.

"Every time there is a large-scale event or certain sensitive days, it is likely to be used to incite these members to come out and sabotage the events," Lam told her regular news briefing Tuesday.

Incoming Hong Kong leader John Lee, the city's former security chief, has said that adopting a local version of the national security law to cover espionage, treason and other "loopholes" will be a priority, signaling a harder stance on security.

Years after the street protests, Hong Kong authorities are still on alert and have bolstered the police force's equipment, including taking on anti-riot vehicles and tactical buses.

Terrorism-related arrests have shot up from zero to more than 20 in the past two years, despite Hong Kong having never suffered a major attack, unlike some other cities in the region, including Tokyo, Jakarta and Bangkok.

"Conflation of the term 'terrorism' with unauthorized protests or criminal damage offences makes it more difficult to make meaningful comparisons to other cities and is not helpful," said Steve Vickers, CEO of political and corporate risk consultancy SVA.

"Any threat is less likely to involve violence -- although this is still possible -- but will more likely be calculated to cause embarrassment and to gain media space for their cause."

The security expert said there was a "very, very small sub set of radical protestors" who could be capable of "limited attacks" in Hong Kong. But he dismissed the notion that the city was at risk for a major attack.

"The threat from stand-alone terrorism, as conventionally defined, is...low," Vickers added.

However, authorities' definition of terrorism appears to be broad.

During last year's handover anniversary, a man stabbed and injured a police officer before killing himself with the knife, in what the police described as a "lone-wolf terror attack."

Since then, authorities have arrested several people for alleged "bomb plots," though few details have so far emerged.

This week, China's Ministry of State Security launched a new program that offers more than 100,000 yuan ($15,000) for verifiable tipoffs on breaches of national security.

Rewarding tipsters who report suspected foreign spies or other security threats is not new. But the updated measures standardize rewards on a four-level system for reporting acts that allegedly threaten national security and would help strengthen anti-espionage laws, the ministry said.

"Foreign espionage, intelligence agencies and various hostile forces have significantly intensified their infiltration and stealing activities with more diverse and broader means, posing a serious threat to our national security," the Ministry for State Security said, according to local media.

China's national security and anti-espionage laws are broadly defined as anything that authorities deem to be a threat to the country's sovereignty and security.

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has previously described China's national security apparatus as a "highly expansionist political-ideological construct that has come to subsume nearly all elements of policymaking and political considerations."