Hong Kong's anti-Beijing activists are considering an unofficial parliament-in-exile to reflect the views of Hongkongers, many of whom have removed all references of their opposition to the ruling Communist Party from their social media.

Memo papers with protest slogans are seen outside a
Memo papers with protest slogans are seen outside a "yellow", or anti-government, restaurant after the new national security law legislation in Hong Kong, China July 3, 2020. (Reuters)

China has appointed a hardliner known for stamping out protests on the mainland as the head of Hong Kong's new security agency, days after imposing a sweeping law on the territory that criminalises dissent.

Zheng Yanxiong will take the helm of the controversial national security agency set up under the legislation that empowers mainland security agents to operate inside Hong Kong openly for the first time, unbound by the city's laws. His appointment was announced by state media on Friday.

The office – which has investigative and prosecutory powers – will monitor intelligence related to national security and process cases, in some circumstances handing them over to mainland authorities.

Hong Kong was rocked by several months of huge and sometimes violent anti-China protests last year, a movement which Beijing is keen to suppress through the new law.

Zheng rose through the ranks of the local government in southern Guangdong province which borders Hong Kong, to serve as secretary-general of the provincial Communist Party committee.

The 56-year-old is known as a hardliner who stamped out often-violent anti-corruption protests that erupted in Wukan, a village in the province, in 2011.

READ MORE: US Congress passes bill to sanction China over Hong Kong

The new national security commission team

On the same day, the State Council also named Luo Huining – currently director of Beijing's Liaison Office in the semi-autonomous city – as the national security adviser to the city's newly-formed national security commission chaired by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

The State Council on Thursday also appointed veteran Hong Kong official Eric Chan Kwok-ki as the commission's secretary-general.

The commission – also created by the new law – will oversee policy formulation relating to the national security law in Hong Kong.

Chan previously served as the director of Hong Kong's Chief Executive's Office, before which he was the territory's head of immigration.

Shadow parliament in exile

Hong Kong anti-Beijing activists are discussing a plan to create an unofficial parliament-in-exile to keep the flame of democracy alive and send a message to China that freedom cannot be crushed, campaigner Simon Cheng said.

Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen, worked for the British consulate in the territory for almost two years until he fled after he said he was beaten and tortured by China’s secret police. Cheng, who has since been granted asylum by Britain, describes himself as pro-democracy campaigner.

“A shadow parliament can send a very clear signal to Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities that democracy need not be at the mercy of Beijing,” he said from London. “We want to set up non-official civic groups that surely reflect the views of the Hong Kong people.”

He said that while the idea was still at an early stage, such a parliament-in-exile would support the people of Hong Kong and the protest movement there. He declined to say where the parliament might sit.

“We are developing an alternative way to fight for democracy,” Cheng said. “We need to be clever to deal with the expanding totalitarianism: they are showing more powerful muscle to suppress so we need to be more subtle and agile.”

He said more and more people were “losing hope that it is effective to go out on to the streets or run for election” to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or mini-parliament.

Residents scrub social media accounts

Hongkongers are scrubbing their social media accounts, deleting chat histories and mugging up on cyber privacy.

Despite assurances from Beijing that political freedoms would not be hindered, many Hongkongers moved to delete digital references of their opposition to China's ruling Communist Party, which uses similar laws on the mainland to crush dissent.

"I changed my profile name and switched to a private account so that my employer will not be able to see future posts which they deem to be offensive to China or have breached the national security law," said Paul, an employee of a large company whose management he described as "pro-Beijing".

He said he would be "very careful" about posting in the future, fearing colleagues or even friends might report him and asked not to be identified.

READ MORE: China's security law in Hong Kong explained

VPNs and deleted chats 

After the law came in, many Hongkongers took to Twitter and other social media platforms, such as Telegram and Signal, to either announce their departure or share tips on internet safety.

"We will clear all the messages for your safety," one popular Telegram group used by protesters wrote. "Please watch out for what you say."

One lawyer with anti-Beijing leanings messaged a journalist asking for their entire WhatsApp history to be deleted.

Another announced they were moving all communications to Signal, which they felt was a more secure messaging app.

READ MORE: China's security law in Hong Kong explained

Wider powers

Beijing has said some serious cases will be prosecuted on the mainland, dismantling the legal firewall that has existed between Hong Kong's judiciary and China's Communist Party-controlled courts since the 1997 handover from Britain.

Local police have been granted wider surveillance powers to monitor suspects, including wiretapping and accessing digital communications, without a judge's approval.

Beijing says it can now prosecute national security crimes committed outside its borders – even by foreigners – raising concerns that people visiting or transiting through Hong Kong could be arrested.

Companies providing virtual private network (VPN) tools – which can make internet access more secure – have reported a spike in downloads since the law was announced.

Billie, a 24-year-old assistant to a district councillor, said he started using a VPN in May when China announced plans for the new law.

KC, owner of Mainichi restaurant, poses for a photo in front of a
KC, owner of Mainichi restaurant, poses for a photo in front of a "Lennon Wall" filled with post-it notes, in Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, China, April 29, 2020. (Reuters)

'Lennon Walls' removed 

It is not just digital walls being scrubbed.

Several restaurants and shops have taken down their "Lennon Wall" displays expressing support for protests or criticism of China's leadership.

Gordon Lam, an anti-China activist prominent within the city's catering sector, said at least one restaurant sought his advice after police visited and warned their display "might violate the national security law".

"It seems the government is using the national security law to put pressure on the yellow economic circle," Lam said, using a local phrase to describe businesses that support calls for democracy and are popular with protesters.

The first arrests under the new security law were made during protests on Wednesday when thousands defied a ban on rallies, many chanting slogans.

Most were arrested for having flags and leaflets in favour of Hong Kong independence, a clear signal that even possession of such items was now illegal.

Others vowed to avoid censoring themselves.

"It's not that I am not at all worried," Chow Po-chung, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote on Facebook.

"I just don't want to be overly worried and live in fear all the time.
Because once fear takes root in our minds, we can't live up to what we want for ourselves."

READ MORE: Hong Kong arrests hundreds protesting China's national security law

Source: TRTWorld and agencies