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The satellite base monitors natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Photo: Handout

Hong Kong disaster relief base becomes unlikely target of Donald Trump’s national security law sanctions

  • The Satellite Remote Sensing Ground Receiving Station was set up to monitor natural disasters, but the US now says it will suspend ‘continued cooperation’ from an expired protocol
  • The founder of the institute that runs the base says the sanctions are ‘funny’ and there is nothing secret about its work

A satellite station at the Chinese University of Hong Kong that monitors natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes has become an unlikely victim of US sanctions.

The university’s Satellite Remote Sensing Ground Receiving Station, an enormous sphere on a hilltop overlooking the campus, was meant to be an important symbol of international scientific cooperation through the city known as the bridge between mainland China and the world.

The Institute of Space and Earth Information Science, which runs the satellite station, is one of the targets of the sanctions imposed by Donald Trump following the imposition of a sweeping national security law in the city.

The US says it will suspend the “continued cooperation” from a now-expired protocol between the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the institute.

“I find the so-called sanctions totally inconceivable and funny. This agreement we had with the US had nothing to do with national security or secret information,” Lin Hui, the founding director of the Institute, said.

The USGS and officials who signed the agreement in 2009 have not responded to requests for comment.

The current director of the institute did not answer a question about how or whether its work would be affected, apart from saying the agreement“expired” last year and was “not renewed”. Meanwhile, Lin said there would not be any impact at all.


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Lin, who graduated from Beijing’s top state research institute – the Chinese Academy of Sciences – before getting his PhD from the State University of New York, has headed the institute since its establishment as a joint-laboratory between the Beijing-based institute and CUHK in 1997 until last year.

“It was the time of the handover when everyone was talking about all kinds of cooperation between the mainland and Hong Kong,” Lin said.

“We focused on monitoring natural disasters in southern China, and also at that time the Chinese government was eager to develop the Pearl River Delta economy so there was great interest in the region.”

The protocol with the US was intended to “enhance cooperation in remotely sensed data acquisition and management, conduct Earth and environmental science research and application”.

The CUHK satellite station collects and integrates real-time satellite images for environmental monitoring and the areas it monitors stretch from southern Japan to India and Indonesia.

The Hong Kong-based institute has been under the direction of the mainly Chinese ministry of science and technology since 2005 and is officially designated “the Hong Kong base of the National Remote Sensing Centre of China”.

“There were two main purposes for the cooperation [between us and the US], one is to join efforts on curbing natural disasters, second is for training. And in order to do this, there was a need for data-sharing,” Lin said.

He said the US data was useful for areas such as the Pacific Islands that the CUHK satellite did not cover, but the level of cooperation had diminished over the years.

National security law: Beijing vows to retaliate

The centre has close data exchange and cooperation with the Chinese government, but when asked if the information could be used for national security purposes, he replied: “This is like asking: does owning a knife mean you will go on to kill?

“As teachers from the CUHK, we are not interested in military development. We are an academic institution, what we do is not secret. Also we focus on environmental and disaster relief.”

Lin added that China now has another station in Hainan province, which is able to provide similar data.

“The country has a much bigger database than we have. The data shared by the United States is also nothing secret,” Lin said.

Lin said the satellite station also depended on real-life images received from the European Space Agency.

Lin, who left CUHK last year to take up a post at Jiangxi Normal University in his home province said he thought the current chill in relations between China and the US would hinder scientific cooperation, but not end it.

“I have worked with many US scientists all my life, and I know many of them do not share their government’s views [on cooperation with China and Hong Kong],” he said.