Hong Kong police warn of terrorist threat but some are sceptical

Hong Kong politics updates

A policeman stabbed almost to death on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China. A group of youths as young as 15 accused of planting explosives around the city.

Hong Kong’s role as a regional business hub hinges on its reputation as a stable and safe city. But the two incidents this month, which authorities branded terrorism, have left experts asking if the suppression of dissent following anti-government protests in 2019 is fomenting a violent underground resistance.

Others questioned whether officials were exploiting isolated events to build a case for a Xinjiang-style security crackdown, moulding Hong Kong into a police state. A Hong Kong man was convicted of terrorism on Tuesday in the first trial under the national security law, in a sign that the courts will take a tough stance in implementing the sweeping legislation imposed on the city by Beijing last year.

“We could see a similar application of the ‘counter-terrorism’ model developed in Xinjiang used in Hong Kong, albeit with greater emphasis perhaps on the surveillance and legislative elements rather than brute repression,” said Michael Clarke, an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and the editor of a book on Chinese domestic security policies.

A stabbing shocks Hong Kong

July 1 has always been a sensitive day in Hong Kong, but this year it was particularly significant. The date marks the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule, but in 2021 it also commemorated a year since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party.

When Leung Kin-fai, a 50-year-old man who lived with his parents, attacked a policeman with a knife before stabbing himself, the incident was labelled a “lone wolf-style act of domestic terrorism” by Chris Tang, the city’s security chief.

The officer survived, but Leung died in hospital.

A policeman is treated after being attacked by Leung Kin-fai, who later stabbed himself, on July 1 © AP

He has been portrayed as a martyr by some anti-government activists. Posters and paintings of him grabbing his bloodied chest proliferated online. A student union at the University of Hong Kong held a moment of silence in his honour and Hong Kongers laid flowers at the site of the incident.

Security hardliners at the top of Hong Kong’s government responded furiously. People who posted comments online about violence towards police have been arrested and national security police raided the university union. Vitasoy, the soy milk company where Leung worked, has even faced a backlash in mainland China after a manager offered condolences over the death.

“Those who try to play down terrorism will be ‘sinners for 1,000 years’,” said John Lee, Hong Kong’s second-highest ranking official and former security secretary.

Analysts cautioned, however, that it was not clear if Leung’s attack could be defined as terrorism and questioned the motives of Hong Kong authorities.

Lydia Khalil, an expert on global terrorism at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank, said it was “in the Hong Kong government’s interests to amplify the terrorist threat, as it can then be used as an excuse to further crack down on civil disobedience, delegitimise the opposition and enact even more restrictive security laws to placate China and further consolidate control”.

Arrests of youths spark alarm

Police arrested at least 14 people this month, some as young as 15, who they alleged were part of a group called “Returning Valiant” that was planning to plant explosives in the cross-harbour tunnel, court houses and rubbish bins.

During the 2019 protests, “valiants” or the yuhng mouh, were activists that took a more confrontational approach, frequently clashing with police.

Police detain a woman during a protest in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong in 2019
Police detain a woman during a protest in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong in 2019 © Bloomberg

Police said they found a makeshift laboratory for producing triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, a volatile explosive.

Steve Li, the police senior superintendent overseeing the bust, accused the youth of plans to exact “maximum damage to society” by targeting public infrastructure such as the cross-harbour tunnel.

“We are at the cusp of a modest and small-scale insurgency by indigenous pro-independence groups, a small number who are heavily radicalised,” said Steve Vickers, a former Hong Kong police officer who works as political risk consultant. He added that the extensive reporting of the police officer’s stabbing could spur copycat incidents.

But another professional risk consultant described the alleged plot as “amateur hour”. The person added that the volume of chemicals found was insufficient to cause significant damage. “They clearly had no idea what they were doing,” the person said.

That sentiment was echoed by a Hong Kong representative to National People’s Congress, China’s annual rubber-stamp legislature. “It’s a couple of students, they are no threat,” the representative said.

Even Tang, the security chief, has since said he had “no specific intelligence” of a possible terror attack.

Some analysts also said that the crackdown on dissent could itself further radicalise Hong Kongers.

Michael Adorjan, a criminologist at the University of Calgary and expert on youth crime in Hong Kong, warned of the dangers of a backlash. Since the protests, hundreds of Hong Kongers sympathetic to the movement have been arrested and the government has been accused of over-reach and political prosecutions. 

“Youth may well come to feel that their ostracisation from society is a marker of legitimacy, given their perception of the Hong Kong government and its arm, the police, to be themselves illegitimate,” he said. “Despite the intention of punishment to quash dissent, this may backfire.”

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