China demands foreign diplomats provide floor plans of Hong Kong missions

China has demanded the floor plans of all properties rented by foreign missions in Hong Kong, in a move diplomats believe reflects Beijing’s paranoia about overseas interference in the Asian financial hub’s turbulent politics.

The order has brought the city in line with how China treats embassies and consulates on the mainland and sparked fears in the diplomatic community that Beijing could use the information to plant listening devices, according to three people familiar with the matter.

China has claimed that foreign powers, particularly the US, were behind the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, one of the greatest challenges to Chinese rule on domestic soil since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.

In the wake of that unrest, Chinese authorities implemented a sweeping national security law, prosecuted political opponents and vastly curtailed civil liberties. They now appear to be placing greater restrictions on diplomats in the financial hub.

“Before the changes of 2019 and 2020, China’s foreign ministry usually took a minimalist approach and mostly avoided the sort of [tight control of diplomats] seen in the mainland, because their goal was to have foreign missions that could operate easily in Hong Kong to help China do business with the world,” said Kurt Tong, who was formerly the US consul-general in Hong Kong and now a managing partner at the Asia Group.

“Now, the mindset seems to be that some foreign missions are not welcome.”

The foreign ministry has asked diplomats for an array of details about the official premises of foreign missions, as well as the homes of staff, in the past few months, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Officials want floor plans, details of rental or sale terms, as well as lease or sale agreements. According to the people familiar with the matter, the ministry has asked for new premises to be vetted before staff move into the building.

“Beijing clearly wants diplomats to feel uneasy,” another former diplomat said.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the international agreement that governs diplomacy, is vague on whether a foreign government can make such requests. Article 24 of the agreement, however, states that the “documents of the mission shall be inviolable at any time”.

Diplomats said that they were considering how to respond to the requests, and added that handing over floor plans was a particular concern because it exposed their properties to espionage. The Chinese foreign ministry in Hong Kong did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The request came after China demanded that the US obtain permission before it sold a set of residences in Hong Kong island’s upscale Shouson Hill to a local developer for HK$2.6bn last year, complicating the transaction.

Under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, Hong Kong’s foreign affairs are managed by the mainland, but China has previously taken a more hands-off approach. Diplomats said that over the past few years, Beijing has slowly increased its supervision of foreign missions.

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