In July my neighbourhood of Tai Hang was picked as the site for Beijing’s Office for Safeguarding National Security, a secretive agency mandated by the new security law for Hong Kong. Since then my strolls to the supermarket have involved sidestepping police and private security, who stand outside, guarding what was once a mediocre state-owned hotel favoured by mainland tour groups.
As new neighbours go, the security office hasn’t been all that bad. Early fears of huge water barricades blocking the entrance have so far been unfounded and, like many of us, the building’s new occupants seemed to discover their green fingers during the pandemic: the flagpole outside is surrounded by a fetching array of healthy-looking pot plants. Nevertheless this leafy location is nothing short of a show of strength.
A former British army officer I spoke to recognised the strategy as straight out of Belfast, where he served during the Northern Irish Troubles. British troops planted a flag in symbolic districts as a stamp of authority, both literal and metaphorical. The Chinese have done the same in the spiritual home of Hong Kong’s protests: Tai Hang is moments away from Victoria Park, starting point of the city’s major pro-democracy marches.
The power play escalated last week: a red banner went up outside the security office marking the 71st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Police also set up a roadblock alongside Victoria Park, where motorists were pulled over while some passers-by were accosted by eager officers in riot gear. I moved out of Tai Hang this weekend – for unrelated reasons. A period of peace and quiet in Quarry Bay now beckons; I hope my old neighbourhood can look forward to the same.