Former Hong Kong Observatory director Lam Chiu-ying has never forgotten how alarm bells rang out when the weather forecast agency wanted to buy a state-of-the-art supercomputer from the United States in 1999.
The CRAY SV1 would be the fastest supercomputer the city had ever seen, with dual-use technology capable of not only predicting the weather but also designing nuclear weapons, according to a Wall Street Journal report at the time.
A group of US congressmen even tried to block the sale, happening barely two years after the British had returned Hong Kong to China.
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“Everybody panicked,” recalled Lam, who was then assistant director. “It was the first time after the handover that the city wanted to buy near-military grade technology.
“We needed an export licence from the US government and the Hong Kong government was very eager to help us. The financial secretary’s office even called to ask how they could help.”
The city’s administration regarded the Observatory’s HK$10 million (US$1.3 million at the time) purchase as a test case of the “one country, two systems” principle, under which Beijing guaranteed the city would preserve its distinct political and socio-economic systems for 50 years.
“It was also a very symbolic move to show Hongkongers that nothing had changed after the handover,” said Lam, who was director of the Observatory from 2003 to 2006.
In more recent years, the weather agency has had no trouble buying from America. It said it bought four high-performance computers from the US over the past 10 years without needing an export licence.
This may change soon. The US said on Monday that it intended restricting exports of dual-use technology to Hong Kong, in response to Beijing passing the controversial national security law for the city.
“We can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
We can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
The restrictions mean the city would be subject to the same controls as Beijing if it tried to import sensitive dual-use technology or military equipment.
That would likely mean more red tape, Lam said. “There will probably be more scrutiny or paperwork,” he added.
Even in 1999, there were hurdles to overcome before the Observatory got its supercomputer.
“I had to answer questions from an official at the US consulate general here,” he said. “The official asked what I would do if the People’s Liberation Army asked to use the computer. Of course, I responded I would not let them.”
Despite the Observatory’s reassurances that the computer would be used only to improve weather forecasting, conservative US congressmen tried to block the sale after being spooked by a US government report which claimed that Hong Kong was being used as a transshipment hub for strategic goods.
Thankfully, the manufacturer Cray was determined to proceed with the sale and Lam recalled that it hired lobbyists who helped prevent the congressmen’s bill from passing.
The Observatory finally received the supercomputer in July 1999, but the sale came with conditions.
It had to spend HK$1.2 million to build a high-security room to house the computer, which was the size of a few large refrigerators. It was surrounded by metal bars to prevent unauthorised use.
Only six scientists were allowed into the room. “Even the director of the Observatory was not allowed in,” Lam recalled.
The computer also had a live link to the US, so that everything done on it could be monitored by the Americans.
These days, Lam said, the Observatory no longer needed to go to such lengths for the latest technology, as it was possible to link several weaker computers and achieve the same computing speed as a supercomputer. The agency had also bought one from China.
The Observatory is in the process of buying a new supercomputer through open tender. “Potential suppliers from different economies will be invited to submit tender proposals,” it said.
Lam, who is now involved in climate change initiatives of the Sustainable Development Council, was not concerned that new US restrictions would affect the Observatory.
“There will always be alternative sources,” he said.
More from South China Morning Post:
- National security law: US ends exports of defence equipment and restricts dual-use tech to Hong Kong
- US weather supercomputer for six scientists' eyes only
- US sanctions on tech sales doomed to fail