HONG KONG - As Hong Kong fretted over tough new national security legislation Beijing was fashioning earlier this year, Chris Tang enthusiastically supported the move. It was needed, Hong Kong's combative police chief said, to extinguish calls for the city's independence and restore order. Last week he got his wish. Just an hour before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China on July 1, the ruling Communist Party imposed the law, in the process arming Tang with a range of powerful tools to quell popular dissent. The effect was immediate. Within 24 hours, Tang's officers had arrested 10 people under the new law along with about 360 others suspected of existing offenses as protests erupted over Beijing's move. China's most open and free-wheeling city began to clam up. Political groups disbanded. Activists fled overseas. Shops ripped down posters supporting the protests that convulsed the city last year. And public libraries pulled books written by some pro-democracy authors from their shelves. The sweeping legislation, which punishes crimes related to secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, expands the powers of Tang and his officers. Their new tools will include enhanced powers of searching premises and electronic devices, freezing or confiscating assets and demanding people and groups provide information. With the approval of Hong Kong's political leader, rather than its courts, police will be able to conduct electronic surveillance and intercept the communications of an individual suspected of endangering national security. And Tang's police aren't operating alone: Mainland China's feared secret police are now operating inside the city. With Beijing stepping in to crush Hong Kong's democracy movement, Chris Tang has become the dominant figure in a city administration whose top priority now is regaining control. Tang will be responsible for a new police unit - the Special National Security Unit - that will tackle threats to national security, run by one of his deputies. He will also sit on a new Hong Kong body, supervised by mainland officials, that will coordinate actions against national security threats. Bolstered by the new law, the 55-year-old Tang is moving to douse any efforts to revive a movement that began as a protest against an extradition bill and morphed into a call for greater democracy, posing the biggest popular challenge to the Chinese Communist Party since the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. With his aggressive tactics, he is overshadowing the city's embattled political leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam. She ignited the crisis last year with proposed laws that would have allowed extradition of people from Hong Kong to the mainland for trial. She later withdrew the bill under intense pressure from the street, battering her own authority and delivering a blow to her chief backer, Chinese leader Xi Jinping. "China won't take any chances anymore with national security, and Chris Tang is someone they trust," a senior police source, who deals regularly with Tang, told Reuters ahead of the new law being imposed. Along with Tang, Secretary for Security John Lee and Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng have emerged as key local players in Beijing's imposition of a harsher law-and-order regimen in Hong Kong. The three joined Lam when she visited the Chinese capital last month to discuss the security law with China's leaders. A police spokesperson, responding to questions for Tang from Reuters, said violent attacks by protesters last year - including the use of "sharpened instruments, metal rods, bows and arrows, petrol bombs, corrosive liquid and explosive substances" - had put "national security" at risk. This threat to public safety and "forces" advocating independence, the spokesperson said, required "effective measures to prevent the situation from deteriorating." The police force, the officer said, will "fully perform its duties and strictly enforce the law to restore social order and ensure the effective implementation of the National Security Law" in Hong Kong. Explaining the need for the new law, a Hong Kong government spokesman said that in addition to "frequent violence over the past year," there had also been "actions in pursuit of independence." The spokesman was responding to questions sent to Lee and Cheng. Lam did not respond to questions about the increasingly dominant role played by Tang. Mainland authorities did not respond to questions from Reuters for this story. PIVOTAL SHOWDOWN Though the new law came into effect last week, Tang had already begun spearheading the crackdown in Hong Kong months earlier. In mid-November, the city was in open revolt. Months of protests had shattered the authority of the local government and demoralized its 30,000-strong police force. As the demonstrations reached a climax, Beijing announced the appointment of Tang. He moved into the Commissioner of Police's office in November, just as a pivotal showdown was underway. Demonstrators, some armed with Molotov cocktails and bows and arrows, had barricaded themselves inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University. It was a tactical blunder. Police pounced. In earlier protests, demonstrators were able to melt away through the labyrinth of Hong Kong streets and regroup elsewhere. This time they were trapped. Hundreds of police sealed the entrances to the campus and seized any protesters attempting to leave. More than 1,100 were eventually arrested. It was a turning point for the embattled authorities. For the first time in months, beleaguered police officers had outmaneuvered the protesters. At the end of Tang's first day in the top job, he went straight to the front line to congratulate his officers. Dressed in a dark civilian jacket and trousers, he stood out. He shook hands and chatted with weary riot police in helmets and heavy protective gear. Tang has since remained on the offensive, aided in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, which effectively shut down the protests for several months. He has used pre-emptive arrests and stop-and-search measures to prevent protests, and issued blunt rallying cries to buoy his officers. After police thwarted a protest in late May at the city's Legislative Council, Tang took to police radio to congratulate the force. Pro-democracy lawmakers, academics and foreign diplomats say that the new security law signals the death of the "one country, two systems" model used to govern Hong Kong. In place since the 1997 handover of the city to China, the arrangement has afforded Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and has protected a wide array of freedoms enjoyed by the city's residents, such as freedom of expression and the press, that don't exist on the mainland. Many say the city is increasingly being run from Beijing. Mainland Chinese officials have been appointed as the city's top national security adviser and head of a new national security agency in Hong Kong that will have overarching authority, including an enforcement role in the most serious cases. "We are in a situation where the Chinese Communist Party controls the police, and the police controls Hong Kong," said veteran pro-democracy legislator James To, who has monitored policing and security matters for decades. "It is not the way Hong Kong is supposed to work, or has worked up until recently." Hong Kong, he added, has become "a security police state." The new law quickly sent a chill through the city. Hours before it was imposed, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said that Demosisto, a group he led, was disbanding, while a prominent member of the group, Nathan Law, departed the city. Wong told Reuters the group took the decision because it was concerned about the safety of its members. A man carrying a popular protest slogan,
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