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Hong Kong Repression’s True Cost

Ominous ‘National Security’ Budget Increase Spotlights Growing Abuse

A protester is tackled by riot police during a demonstration outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 12, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

The Hong Kong government’s budget for this year, released on Wednesday, has a new line item: “safeguarding national security.” It carries a price tag of HK$8 billion (USD$1 billion). It also comes on top of a HK$25.8 billion (USD$3.3 billion) budget for policing, a 25 percent increase compared to last year’s budget.

No evidence suggests Hong Kong is suddenly awash in common crime. Rather, the dramatic increase follows Beijing’s imposition of the draconian National Security Law on the city last June. Asked how the money would be dispersed, the Hong Kong finance chief declined to give details, saying, “It is inconvenient to discuss further.”

In mainland China, public security spending figures have been useful indicators of repression, especially when examining differences in yearly spending between majority Han Chinese and ethnic minority areas. While Chinese authorities have increased security spending over the past decade, the increase has been much greater in minority areas.

Such spending may actually exacerbate vicious cycles of resistance and repression. In 2011, Human Rights Watch’s analysis of security spending in the Aba prefecture in Sichuan province, a Tibetan area, suggested that an increase in security spending, accompanied by provocative policing techniques such as the mass detentions of monks, may have escalated tensions.

We may be seeing similar dynamics in Hong Kong. During the 2019 mass protests, the previously disciplined Hong Kong police transformed into a repressive apparatus of the Chinese government. Officers beat, pepper-sprayed and teargassed protesters, some already subdued on the ground. They shot and blinded several people, including a journalist. At press conferences, they gave patently improbable explanations about their actions.

Indicative of the police’s growing power and corresponding lack of accountability, the Hong Kong government’s budget for the Independent Police Complaints Council — which lacks real investigative power — went down 4 percent compared to its spending last year.

The HK$8 billion national security budget is a heavy price tag, not least because Hong Kong is experiencing a record budget deficit under Covid-19. But it is the human cost, which will likely only escalate given the history of repression along China’s peripheries, that is truly alarming.

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