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Hong Kong’s tough top cop overshadows embattled leader Lam as China cracks down

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.