There may be those in the government or the police force who gave a huge sigh of relief when Zhang Dejiang’s plane took off from Hong Kong after the Belt and Road Summit this week. However, any Hong Kong citizen who appreciates real freedoms should be very worried about what we have just witnessed and the dark precedent that has been set.

Contrary to the official line, the enormous operation to protect China’s No. 3 was never about terrorism and the safety of a VIP. Instead, it was all about suppressing political dissent in the city.

hong kong police
Photo: Todd Darling.

Certainly, some of the police commanders may have bought into the convenient but entirely fictional notion that Zhang faced an imminent terrorist threat and that it was the police’s very thick blue line that saved him from certain doom. But the reality was that every facet of the enormous security operation was designed to create a sanitized Hong Kong, where any form of uncontrolled political expression was virtually impossible. This is a chapter taken straight out of the Authoritarian Handbook: create fear to suppress freedoms. We should all be worried about what it portends.

hong kong police
Photo: Todd Darling.

The official line was that the chance of a terrorist incident was quite high. Therefore, the full might of the police force went into play. In the media we were shown theatrics like police divers searching the harbour for scary underwater mines and cute dogs eagerly searching for explosives, yet the actual terrorist threat for Hong Kong remained just ‘moderate’. The glaring contradiction between how the police were acting and Hong Kong’s real threat level, as recognized by the international community, stands as proof that this huge operation was never really about terrorism.

You can’t just put up these internationally recognized threat alerts willy-nilly, without causing jitters across the region, so the police could only act as if a threat was imminent, even though the reality was that it was moderate. Globally accepted threat warnings are not political tools to be turned up and down when convenient. So the police had just to hope that no-one took too much notice of the gulf between the two.

police zhang
Photo: Dan Garrett.

On top of this, if this really was a terrorist alert and the police did have credible information that a terrorist plot was at hand from either localists or ISIS then the actual response was nothing short of a shoddy, half-baked attempt to protect the city. Both in and around the perimeters of the so-called security zones, rubbish bins were left open everywhere. Given that we have already had an attempt to set off explosives in a rubbish bin in the city and that any real terrorist could use a rubbish bin to quickly place a bomb and walk away, why were they not closed or removed as is the standard practice in real high alert areas?  I passed along pedestrian walkways from Wanchai to Central on multiple occasions, where police were actively blocking all access to the sides of the passage, yet the bins were open.

hong kong police
Photo: Todd Darling.

How could the security situation be so critical that each bridge required 15 police officers to keep people moving along like cattle to the slaughter, yet, the bins were left open? The answer is simple. The police, weren’t there to protect anyone from bombs or terrorism. They were there to prevent you from expressing yourself politically by throwing a banner over the side of a bridge, for example. At any given time throughout Zhang’s visit a real terrorist could have easily blown up a bridge while his motorcade passed by as the police were too preoccupied to stop it. But if an activist tried to pull out a banner, they would have been mobbed by police and arrested within seconds.

Think I’m obsessed with rubbish bins? What about playing frisbee in the security zone at the foot of Central Plaza on Zhang’s first night? In general, I haven’t seen anyone play frisbee in the city, ever. So, it’s sort of unusual even for a normal day, which this certainly wasn’t. Yet, we played frisbee for more than an hour without a single person coming up to us to find out who we were and why we had chosen Hong Kong’s most secure zone to play a game that isn’t suited for the city. Were we a diversion for a terrorist plot? Well, no one bothered to even ask our identities. Something that should have set off alarm bells if the focus was terrorism was ignored. The police around us weren’t bothered. Why? Because we weren’t expressing ourselves politically. There was no security awareness by the police, only political awareness to prevent protest.

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Still not convinced about the shoddiness of the operation? What about an associate being able to get right inside the convention centre, the night before the summit? On the few occasions he was taken to task by police his retort was, “Do you know where the toilet is?” To which the police repeatedly replied, no, and let him continue to walk around unhindered. Admittedly, he didn’t pass through any checkpoints or metal detectors, but if the security wasn’t preventing unknown people from freely walking around the convention centre the night before the summit then when would it kick into operation? Were the police on the lookout for suspicious characters or actions or not?

In fact, the three-day security circus just wasn’t a credible anti-terror operation at all. Any determined terrorist could have found openings for attack throughout the security zone as we ourselves easily did. In reality, the operation was a very effective and successful way to shut down the city and hide or quash by force any political dissent. Both the police and government will be encouraged by their success in doing this, and we can expect more of the same in the future.

Richard is a freelance writer and long term resident of Hong Kong. He has a Master's Degree in Chinese Studies from CUHK and describes himself as a noisy muser on all things China. He has travelled extensively in Western China and once owned a trekking lodge high on the Tibetan border. He has a raw style of Opinion Journalism, with special interests in the South China Seas and deciphering Hong Kong's Localist/Independence groups.