CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Hong Kong plays up the terror threat

HONG KONG (UCAN): On June 28, the day prior to the arrival of the president of China, Xi Jinping, in Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of the British colony to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, police were busily filling the tanks of the two-ton barricades lining streets around sensitive spots with water.
Bricked paving along footpaths was glued in place and windows in the Grand Hyatt Hotel where the president was to stay in Wan Chai were being fitted with bullet-proof glass, leaving people wondering if the city had become obsessed about terrorism, even though police consistently maintained there was no evidence of even a potential threat.
During May, police did say that there may be a threat of an attack by a lone wolf inspired by the Islamic State and there was an alert out to this affect, but they denied any specific intelligence that indicated such an attack may be imminent.
A detailed series of anti-terror drills was also organised across the city in May which, in the face of the continued denials of any threat, left many people questioning the cost and real purpose of the tight security net.
Since January, the special Counter Terrorism Response Unit has been monitoring the city’s underground rail system, the first time the network had been marked as posing any particular danger.
But if, as police announcements indicated, there was no evidence of any particular danger or threat, why would it have taken a 29,000-strong security detachment simply to ensure the safety of the Chinese president.
“While it is not unreasonable to be prepared for all sorts of possible threats to public safety, it is worrying to suddenly hear so much talk about the terrorism threat in Hong Kong, since China has a history of enacting enormously disproportionate security measures and coercive social controls in the name of fighting terrorism,” William Nee, from Amnesty International, wondered out loud.
However, high security in the face of little to no threat leaves plenty of space for wonder and the talked-up claims of terrorism have been interpreted by some as just one more indication of the mainlandisation that is taking place in Hong Kong.
Coming on top of a long history of refusal of permits for members of pro-democracy groups to visit the mainland and a statement from the new chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, that she would not promise freedom of speech to those who promote independence for the city, there is fear that the human rights enshrined in the Basic Law may be under further attack in days to come.
“It is important though that terrorism is not used as an excuse to undermine human rights,” Maya Wang, from Human Rights Watch, noted. “There is a worry that counter terrorism is being used to prevent the freedom of expression, particularly when there is no comparable effort to ensure it.”
But what must be asked in the face of such precautions against what is not considered likely, is exactly whose backsides are being protected.
The banning of protest banners and images that could be perceived as challenging to Xi during the celebration of the handover anniversary is more likely to have been to protect local authorities from presidential displeasure than the president from harm.
“There seemed to be subtle actions on behalf of the Hong Kong government to prevent actions in locations that would be seen or heard by the Chinese government,” Wang said.
While the situation in Hong Kong is a far cry from the brazen denial of civil rights experienced in the troubled province of Xinjiang in China, the anti-terrorism security measures are alarming, especially in the face of the assurance that there is no evidence of any particular threat.
However, the underlying worry is that by ramping up the fear level, the government could be poised to usurp more blanket powers, despite the promised freedom of speech and expression of Article 27 of the Basic Law.
“In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for example, we see the threat of so-called religious extremism, separatism and violent terrorism—three very different things—all being lumped together in a vague and amorphous blob known as the Three Forces, which the entrenched security apparatus and policy-makers can go after in crude ways that violate human rights,” Nee explained.
“It would be a shame, although perhaps not unexpected, if the Chinese government is trying to rhetorically pave the groundwork for carrying out similar policies in Hong Kong in the long run,” he continued.
During the recent month of Ramadan, gross human rights violations were reported to have piled up in Xinjiang, as Beijing cracked down on Muslim customs, in order to maintain what it perceives as stability.
Forcing Muslims to break their fast by eating during the daytime, confiscating Qur’ans and restricting access to mosques, as well as banning minors from having non-Chinese names, while at the same time staging pro-Communist rallies across the province, are all ways of suppressing freedom of speech and expression.
Nor has the implication by the police that rumblings in Xinjiang can somehow be linked with the peaceful and nonviolent Muslim community in Hong Kong been missed by the chairperson of the Muslim Council, Adeel Malik.
During May, he called the police suspicions of a terror attack disturbing to the core and accused police of sowing the seeds of Islamophobia where there is no evidence to show they would grow.

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