Hong Kong will expand the scope of its anti-espionage ordinance to tackle activities that present a “threat” to national security.

Security Secretary Chris Tang said in a Legislative Council meeting on Wednesday that an amended ordinance would prepare Hong Kong to face “the kinds of things we have seen since 2019.”

Secretary for Security Chris Tang attends the delivery of the Policy Address 2021 in the Legislative Council on October 6, 2021. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The Hong Kong SAR government must handle espionage acts and offences in a targeted manner to prevent incidents endangering national security,” Tang said. He made reference to “certain countries” that attempted “to foment a ‘colour revolution’ in Hong Kong,” adding that the “serious violence since June 2019 is a vivid example of this.”

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. The Hong Kong and central government have maintained that the demonstrations were a result of foreign interference.

Hong Kong’s existing Official Secrets Ordinance, he said, was enacted years ago and “cannot fully address the criminal acts of espionage and theft of state secrets at present.”

“We are now actively studying with the Department of Justice on enhancing the Official Secrets Ordinance in the context of legislation on Article 23 of the Basic Law, so as to better prevent acts of espionage and theft of state secrets,” Tang said.

Demonstrators clash with police at a protest in 2019. Photo: Jimmy Lam/USP & HKFP.

“We seek to… introduce an amendment bill to the council by the end of this year,” Tang said.

Tang added that foreign government intelligence agencies, including the US’ CIA and the UK’s MI6, had stepped up “infiltration” of Chinese affairs.

“The CIA set up a China mission last year to address the global challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China, as is so claimed… the CIA has to consolidate various resources and capability it possesses in its work against China, and especially recruit and train up Mandarin-speaking agents,” the top official said.

Official Secrets Ordinance

Tang was reponding to a question posed by lawmaker Lee Chun-keung, a member of the pro-Beijing party Liberal Party.

Lee said there was reportedly a “large number of foreign spies” who were “doing their work” in Hong Kong, and asked if the government would amend the relevant legislation to combat espionage.

Introduced in 1997 to replace the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, the Official Secrets Ordinance consists of three categories of offences: spying and espionage, unlawful disclosure of intelligence by members of the relevant services, and unauthorised disclosure of information by a public servant or government contractor.

A pro-democracy march held on January 1, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Last June, then-security secretary John Lee suggested in an interview that the ordinance might not be sufficient when dealing with serious offences.

In response to lawmaker Kennedy Wong’s follow-up question, Tang said that the government would work on educating schools, professional organisations and the public about the risks posed by espionage activities.

Wednesday’s Legislative Council meeting was the third since the newly elected legislature took their seats this month following a “patriots-only” poll that reduced democratic representation, tightened control of elections and introduced a pro-Beijing vetting panel to select candidates.

The Hong Kong government said the overhaul would ensure the city’s stability and prosperity. But the changes also prompted international condemnation, as they made it near-impossible for pro-democracy candidates to stand.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.