Authorities in Hong Kong commandeered a tourist hotel in the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay, closing off nearby streets overnight, and installing an emblem of the ruling Chinese Communist Party on a building that will serve as temporary headquarters for Beijing's feared state security police.
The street outside the Metropark Hotel, Causeway Bay was cordoned off by regular police, while tall men in black gym clothes with buzz-cuts unloaded several trucks of two-meter high barriers around the front entrance and lining the street outside.
Following an all-night operation overseen by several high-ranking officers in the Hong Kong police force, the new headquarters is now gearing up to enforce a draconian security law that includes online content and peaceful forms of public expression within its dragnet.
Journalists were repeatedly told to back away from the site by men in unidentified green uniforms, while local police sealed off the area from traffic, according to social media posts and live video streams from the scene.
The headquarters is just a few streets away from Victoria Park, which has been a focal point for mass public rallies and anti-government protests ever since the People's Liberation Army (PLA) put down the 1989 student-led democracy movement in Beijing with machine guns and tanks.
Causeway Bay was also a major protest site during the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, and has frequently served as the starting point for mass protests against exactly the kind of national security legislation that has now been imposed on the city by Beijing.
The Metropark Hotel is now the headquarters of Beijing's Office for Safeguarding National Security, and will be used by agents of China's feared state security police who have been allowed to operate in the city to enforce the new law.
The office's director, Zheng Yanxiong, who previously handled a mass popular uprising against official corruption in Guangdong's rebel village of Wukan, said his office would work together with Beijing's Central Liaison Office and the PLA's Hong Kong Garrison.
Luo Huining, Beijing's representative in Hong Kong, said it would function as the "gatekeeper for national security operations."
Chief executive Carrie Lam said the opening of the office was a 'historical moment,' and that her administration was committed to sharing information and carrying out joint operations with the new office, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
"A national flag has also been hoisted outside the building and a national emblem has been placed on the building," RTHK reported.
Officers enforcing the law were empowered on Monday to search homes and businesses without a warrant, and to issue takedown notices to online service providers for any content deemed to be in breach of the new law, which bans anything that may "cause misgivings among the people of Hong Kong" about their leaders.
Journalists have warned that the media will become a direct target of police enforcing the national security law, which was imposed on Hong Kong on June 3 by decree from Beijing, with any reports or commentary that oppose the authorities likely to be subject to takedown orders.
News and commentary could soon become evidence in the prosecution of national security offenses, while journalists fear for the confidentiality of their sources, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association said in an annual report on Tuesday.
Hong Kong Information Technology Federation honorary chairman Francis Fong said that while the authorities are currently focusing on removing critical content from the internet, this could be a stepping stone towards the imposition of a more direct form of censorship on the city's internet, which has been beyond the reach of Chinese censorship until now.
"That would be a very extreme way of handling it, but the situation is still developing," Fong told RFA on Wednesday. "A lot of U.S. [technology] companies have said they won't be handing over user data to the police, so we will have to see how things pan out."
"Technologically speaking, it's totally possible [to bring Hong Kong within China's Great Firewall]," he said. "There are only a few dozen internet service providers in Hong Kong ... so all the government needs to do is to purchase a firewall and install it at their entrance and exit gateways."
"It won't be hard, if they decide that's really what they want to do."
Great Firewall in Hong Kong's future?
Charles Mok, a lawmaker who represents the information technology industry in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo), said that even the current powers to issue takedown notices had effectively extended the Great Firewall to include Hong Kong, however.
"It's not just a question of asking service providers to remove certain messages; it also means that internet service providers that only deliver access to these services will be required to cooperate," Mok said.
"For example, if there is content that I can't remove, because it's outside the [.hk] domain, will these suppliers, the intermediary service providers and other internet companies be expected to intervene to prevent people from viewing it; that's to say, will they be expected to carry out filtering operations?"
Education minister Kevin Yeung on Wednesday also signaled a crackdown on protest-related activities in the city's schools, banning students from singing, playing, or broadcasting the protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong, or any other overtly political song.
"Schools must not allow their students to play, sing or broadcast any songs which will disrupt the normal operation of schools, affect students' emotions or contain political messages," Yeung said in a statement, citing Glory to Hong Kong in particular.
"The song Glory to Hong Kong originated from the social incidents since June last year, contains strong political messages and is closely related to the social and political incidents, violence and illegal incidents that have lasted for months. Therefore, schools must not allow students to play, sing or broadcast it in schools," he said in a written reply to a question from lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen.
"The Education Bureau (EDB) and schools are obliged to stop these acts," Yeung wrote, adding that human chains shouldn't be allowed in schools, either.
He said some 1,600 children have been arrested during the past year, after being "incited to participate in violent and unlawful activities."
"Students must understand that they are responsible for their behavior," he said.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan, Gao Feng and Tseng Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.