Chris Tang has been pivotal in dousing the protest movement in Hong Kong as a new security law gives him the tools to quell dissent, write Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Like all of his predecessors in post-colonial Hong Kong, Tang was carefully vetted by the Communist Party for loyalty and ability, several senior police officers told Reuters.
Tang’s official biography details his international connections along with his stints at elite party and security schools in mainland China. It also includes spells at Interpol headquarters in the French city of Lyon, the Royal College of Defence Studies in London and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s training academy in Quantico, Virginia.
What is not mentioned is a domestic role that was key in his rise. Promoted to senior superintendent of the Hong Kong force in 2007, Tang returned from Lyon and began working at the Liaison Bureau, a small office in one of the most secure wings of the police headquarters building.
Tang helped ease lingering suspicions between what had been an anti-communist British colonial force and mainland police loyal to the Communist Party, say those who knew him at the time.
Heplayed a key role in forging new working-level ties between Hong Kong and mainland police, establishing joint investigation protocols and an electronic information-sharing network.
In a 2016 academic paper published by Hong Kong researcher Sonny Lo, Tang was cited extensively after being interviewed on his liaison work in the 2000s with Chinese law enforcement, including criminal investigation, intelligence sharing, evidence collection and tactical training.
Tang lectured to the force on this work and how to foster close relationships with mainland counterparts as ties expanded, according to an account in an internal police newspaper.
He studied at the elite school for Communist Party cadres on the outskirts of Shanghai, known as the Chinese Executive Leadership Academy. He later attended the People’s Public Security University in Beijing.
By 2015, Tang was promoted to assistant commissioner, and then, in 2017, to the powerful role of operations director, considered a stepping stone to the top job.
Tang has made a concerted effort to be seen as the public face of the force since he got the top job. Senior officers who have worked with him say Tang insists on tight control over media appearances. He’s always perfectly groomed, even if called out late at night, as he was when he visited police at the Polytechnic University showdown last year.
On the day he took office, Tang introduced a new police motto, altering its communal focus: “We Serve with Pride and Care” became “Serving Hong Kong with Honour, Duty and Loyalty.”
Tang’s higher-octane approach was on display when he took to the radio to congratulate his officers after they foiled the late-May protest at the Legislative Council, allowing for a debate over a bill outlawing insults to the Chinese national anthem to proceed. The law ultimately passed.
“As long as the upper and lower ranks of the police force share the same spirit, victory will come,” he told his officers.
Tang was quoting from the ancient sage of Chinese military strategy, Sun Tzu, author of “The Art of War.”