Chinese officials offered to install bugs and surveillance equipment in the homes of foreign journalists in Hong Kong in 2016, as part of a bail-out offer to the Malaysian government's 1MDB fund that is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.
Citing minutes from "a series of previously undisclosed meetings," the paper said ruling Chinese Communist Party officials had offered to use Beijing's clout to get third countries to drop their investigations into allegations that officials close to then-Prime Minister Najib Razak had appropriated money from the fund.
The minutes show that the Chinese officials also offered to bug the homes and offices of WSJ reporters writing about the scandal from Hong Kong, in a bid to discover their sources, it said.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing in the 1MDB affair. Yet the former Malaysian PM signed off on U.S. $34 billion of rail, pipeline and other deals with Chinese state companies, to be funded by Chinese banks and built by Chinese workers as part of President Xi Jinping's One Belt, One Road infrastructure project.
The project is controversial, with U.S. officials and other overseas analysts warning that Beijing is using the project to advance its strategic and military goals, while getting other developing countries deeply in its debt and boosting its hold over their governments.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said the offer reflects Communist Party attitudes to journalism.
"It is totally normal for the mainland authorities ... to monitor journalists, to obstruct their work, and to hide [things] from them," Lui said. "If this report is accurate, it would be entirely in keeping with [those methods]."
"There are many areas in which 'one country' trumps 'two systems'," he said, referring to China's promises that Hong Kong would remain a separate jurisdiction under the "one country, two systems" formula after the 1997 handover to Beijing, however.
Democratic Party lawmaker James To, deputy chair of the security committee of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo), said the report was a matter of concern.
"The central government does have the ability to act in this way in Hong Kong, but under Hong Kong's system, it has no right to go looking for journalists' details, whether or not it's to advance their diplomatic interests," To said.
"This is a crime under laws governing the use of communications," he said.
RFA contacted the offices of chief executive Carrie Lam and the secretary for security John Lee on Tuesday, but neither had responded to requests for comment by the time of writing.
‘The lovely people at Wen Wei Po’
The revelations come after Kevin Carrico, a lecturer at Macquarie University in Australia, reported being followed throughout a trip to Hong Kong by the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper, which ran a front-page story about his visits to local political figures.
"The lovely people at Wen Wei Po stalked me for a week and wrote a cover story about me once I left HK," Carrico wrote after returning to Australia.
"Another overseas ‘pro-independence’ scholar comes to Hong Kong to teach ‘independence theory’ in the name of tourism!" the headline read.
Hong Kong was formerly regarded as a bastion of press freedom, with many international news organizations stationing regional editors and correspondents in the city.
But the rejection last October of a visa renewal application from Victor Mallet, the Financial Times' Hong Kong-based Asia editor, after he hosted a lunch event at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) at which pro-independence politician Andy Chan was the speaker signaled a sea change for journalists there.
Mallet defended the FCC event in the face of open criticism and requests to cancel Chan's appearance. His visa renewal was later rejected without explanation, and he was given just seven days to leave the city, and later turned away when he tried to re-enter as a visitor.
Alvin Yeung, who heads Hong Kong's Civic party, called on the Hong Kong government to clarify the situation.
"We are talking about public security officials in mainland China, who think that they are free to enter ordinary offices and homes in Hong Kong to set up surveillance," Yeung said. "Does the Hong Kong government know nothing about this, or is it acquiescing in their actions?"
Yeung said agents of the Chinese state have already engaged in suspected cross-border law enforcement, citing the case of U.K. national Lee Po, who was removed from his place of work in Hong Kong in 2015 and later showed up in police detention across the internal border in mainland China.
"If this report is true, it indicates that [the Chinese authorities] couldn't care less about 'one country, two systems'," he said.
A U.S. State Department policy report on Hong Kong said last May that the ruling Chinese Communist Party says one thing and does another when it comes to Hong Kong, often acting in ways that are inconsistent with the city's promised freedom to govern its own affairs.
Repeated comments from Chinese officials asserting the supremacy of the Chinese constitution last year served to "dilute" the concept of a "high degree of autonomy" enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British handover treaty and the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the report said.
Hong Kong's Causeway Bay Books store made world headlines in 2015 when five of its staff members went missing in the course of two or three months.
Swedish national Gui Minhai, who headed the Mighty Current publishing house that owned Causeway Bay Books, "disappeared" under murky circumstances from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand on October 2015, only to reappear in China "confessing" on video to a decade-old alleged drunk-driving offense.
He now faces further charges of spying after being snatched from a train as he traveled to Beijing in the company of Swedish diplomats.
In the months that followed, store manager and British national Lee Bo, 65, went missing from his workplace in Hong Kong, and the group's general manager Lui Bo (also spelled Lui Por) and colleagues Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kei were also all detained.
They later resurfaced in China, which accused them of selling "banned books" in Hong Kong to customers across the internal border in mainland China.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.