Unaccustomed as I am to agreeing with American Secretaries of State (and surprised as I am to break this duck with a Trump appointee) I must reluctantly concede the truth of Mr Mike Pompeo’s ruling that Hong Kong can no longer be considered a separate entity from China.

The Joint Declaration – you remember, an international agreement lodged with the United Nations – has been dismissed as of purely historical significance. And now the Basic Law is going the same way.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Article 23 is quite specific: Hong Kong shall legislate on its own for national security purposes. Passing a law in Beijing specifically for Hong Kong would be a major dent in Hong Kong’s autonomy anyway.

But by-passing the Hong Kong legislature on the national security topic makes it quite clear that the Basic Law no longer counts for anything if the Party wants something that Hong Kong cannot deliver instantly.

Giving Hong Kong a separate seat in any international organisation must now be considered the equivalent of giving China two votes. It will be interesting to see how this bit of news percolates through, and to what effect, in those organisations.

China has had a lot of success in persuading people to pretend that Taiwan is not a separate country, which for practical purposes it is, so perhaps it will be equally successful in persuading them that Hong Kong is an autonomous territory when it clearly is not.

Persuading Hong Kong people that this is all going to be good for them will be a harder sell. The barrage of approval from assorted time-servers, lickspittles, fellow travelers and people who are easily blackmailed is not going to change opinions.

Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

Honestly, if the Controller of the Government Flying Service feels it necessary to put out a statement endorsing the national security legislation that tells us much more about the controller than it does about the legislation.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s comforting news for freedom of expression – you can say what you like “for the time being” – is not going to broadcast a great deal of happiness either.

What the practical effect of the legislation will be remains to be seen. It depends on details not yet clear and how the whole package is implemented. Criminalising “acts” of secession, subversion etc, would be comparatively harmless if “act” means what it usually means.

At least, one hopes, prosecutions will take place in Hong Kong courts where defendants will enjoy such decadent Western luxuries as bail, the presumption of innocence, a lawyer who is on their side and, in serious cases, a jury.

What frightens me is the idea of mainland Chinese “security agencies” having a presence in Hong Kong. I do not buy the reassuring notion that they will “only be doing intelligence work.” Bullshit. That’s like saying there’s a shark in the swimming pool but it only eats sardines.

Photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

Mainland security agencies are not inhibited on their home turf by what passes for the Chinese legal system. There is no reason to suppose that they will be in any way inhibited by ours. Indeed even when they were explicitly not supposed to operate here we were treated to occasional kidnappings.

Hongkongers can, in the near future, look forward to counter-subversion with Chinese characteristics: the 4 am knock on the door, followed by a few weeks of solitary confinement, torture, an appearance on Confessiontube, and a long holiday in Heilongjiang. At some point in this sad story there may be something faintly resembling a trial.

Foreigners may feel this is unlikely to apply to them. On the other hand they have another hazard: being chosen as hostages if their home government does something which displeases the Party bosses in Beijing, like the two Canadians who are quite shamelessly and explicitly being kept in the hope of a future exchange for Ms Meng Wanzhou.

I have never believed that anything that happened in Hong Kong could seriously affect China’s national security. “Terrorism” is a mere excuse. The occasional swoop on micro-groups who have assembled sundry chemicals with possibly fell purposes tell us only that there are a lot of undercover police officers out there.

File photo: Aidan Marzo/HKFP.

The other week police found in one of these chemical factories a large quantity of “sodium chloride.” The horror! Sodium chloride is better known as “salt.”

We all need plenty of salt these days, to accompany bogus assurances like “most people have nothing to fear.” Of course, they do. I used to think that people who left Hong Kong in 1997 were being rather timid. We were promised 50 years unchanged after all.

Times have changed. Nowadays I fear if you have a choice and are not considering alternative homes then you haven’t been paying attention.

I personally find this intensely distressing. Nothing in this world is forever, but I always thought that the Hong Kong I liked so much would last longer than me. Two years ago I was telling people that it was “still THE fun place to live.” I can only hope nobody took that too seriously.

There is no upside to this situation. In return for snuffing out a non-existent security threat and adding a mere pimple to the swathe of territory where Winnie the Pooh is a subversive topic, China will supply the capital of all the nice countries in the world with a community of embittered Hong Kong exiles eager to tell anyone who will listen that anything said by or on behalf of China will be a load of lies.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Will it still be possible to write this sort of thing? Will it be prudent? I remember Clint Eastwood, when asked if it was not a bit daring to make a film about Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view, replied: “What can they do to me at my age?” A good question, but I have friends and family members who may be less waterproof.

And after all residence rights must now be considered as fragile as all the others we were supposed to enjoy for at least 50 years. The other week, in a rare and rather unreported piece of good news, we were told that international air travellers had voted the Hong Kong Immigration Department the most efficient and welcoming of its kind in the world.

Keep working on that, please.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.