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A taxi drives past a big banner featuring the Hong Kong National Security Law, in Hong Kong, on June 29, 2020.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Hong Kong will spend more than $1.2-billion on “safeguarding national security” in the coming years, but lawmakers and the public will have little oversight of how that money will be used, the government confirmed this week.

The black box budget is similar to vast “stability maintenance” expenditures in China, used to fund wide-ranging crackdowns on dissidents and civil society groups, particularly in the border regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

It represents another way in which Hong Kong, once one of the freer societies in Asia, has come to resemble mainland China since Beijing imposed a national security law on the city last year. The law, which criminalizes secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces, has already been used to prosecute dozens of prominent activists and former lawmakers.

Under the law, the Hong Kong government is required to establish a special fund, primarily to pay for the operation of the Committee for Safeguarding National Security, a body “under the supervision of and accountable to the Central People’s Government.” The fund can also be used to help pay for a specialized department of the police force and a prosecution division set up by the justice department to handle national security offences.

In February, Financial Secretary Paul Chan revealed that HK$8-billion ($1.2-billion) had been appropriated for the special fund under the annual budget, noting that it was “for multiple years.”

“The expenditure is not just for the police, it is for national security purposes, and there are other government departments involved,” Mr. Chan told reporters at the time. “So it is a fund, a special fund, set aside according to the national security legislation for that purpose.”

He refused to answer any further questions about the expenditure, saying only that he would “submit information to the Legislative Council this year as required.”

This week saw the first such report, but if Hong Kongers were hoping for more information, they were disappointed.

In a statement, Mr. Chan’s office said expenditures under the fund included “salaries and allowances, expenses on engaging specialized services, rents and other operating and administrative expenses,” as well as one-time construction and set-up costs for the various national security bodies.

But it noted that per the law, information relating to its work shall not be subject to disclosure.

“Therefore, we will not disclose further details concerning the use of the Special Fund,” the statement said.

Official statistics for the police national security department are not available, but local media have reported that it will employ about 4,000 officers, making it among the largest divisions in the 30,000-strong force. The HK$8-billion appropriation is equivalent to about 30 per cent of the HK$23.4-billion police budget for 2021-22 and greater than the total budget for the fire department, which has some 10,000 employees.

These comparisons are imperfect, however, as the government has not revealed how many years the special fund is expected to cover.

Hong Kongers are left largely in the dark on how the government is spending this chunk of taxpayer money, something Eric Lai, Hong Kong law fellow at Georgetown University, said was “unusual before the imposition of the [national security law].”

Mr. Lai noted the law “creates an exception in terms of public finance in Hong Kong,” which is usually relatively transparent.

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, noted that information has been held back by the government from lawmakers in the past on the grounds of “public interest immunity.”

“But when PII claims are invoked, the courts have a role to play to consider the material, balance the relevant interests and decide the extent to which the public interest requires the withholding of the information,” he added.

In the case of national security expenditures, however, the law specifically states that no local body has oversight, nor is the work of the Committee for Safeguarding National Security subject to judicial review.

Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, compared the Hong Kong fund to “stability maintenance” expenses in China, “since they serve similar purposes and are equally opaque.”

The term applies to a wide range of activities, from detaining prominent dissidents ahead of key anniversaries to cracking down on protests and policing religious and ethnic minorities. According to researchers Yuhua Wang and Carl Minzner, since the 1990s, stability maintenance has “become a top priority for local Chinese authorities,” with local governance “increasingly oriented around the need to respond to social unrest.”

Just how much money is spent on this is unclear, with some estimates claiming it has at times exceeded funding for the People’s Liberation Army. In the most recent national budget, public security expenses, which include money spent on stability maintenance, totalled $35.4-billion, about $3-billion more than was budgeted for education.

This dwarfs Hong Kong’s $1.2-billion national security fund, but of course the city has a population of just 7.6 million, compared with the mainland’s 1.4 billion.

Ms. Wang, the HRW researcher, said the Hong Kong fund “is a huge amount considering the fact that it isn’t for protecting legitimate national security, but repression.”

Nor is it the only money going toward national security work in Hong Kong. According to the statement submitted to lawmakers this week, it does not cover “any expenditure” by the Office for Safeguarding National Security (OSNS).

That office, established by the national security law, is staffed by mainland security personnel and is funded by – and reports directly to – Beijing. Currently based in two large hotels on Hong Kong Island, appropriated for this purpose, the OSNS announced plans this year to move to a permanent, 11,500-square-metre facility in Tai Kok Tsui, on the Kowloon Peninsula.

According to the national security law, OSNS staff “shall not be subject to the jurisdiction” of Hong Kong, nor are they subject “to inspection, search or detention by law enforcement officers of the Region.”

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