This is a tale of two cities over two dates. Fred Frankfurter lives in New York, where he works as a stock chooser, or securities analyst as they call it in the industry.

Being an outspoken person with strong views, he is often invited to appear on the sort of television programme in which punters are encouraged and advised about their efforts to invest, or gamble as they call it in the casino business, in the stock market.

stock shares market new york exchange
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

On one of these occasions he is asked to comment on prospects for investment in Asia. He says, among other things, that Taiwan looks a promising bet and will continue to be one as long as it remains independent of China.

This would normally be lost in the cacophony of multi-channel mass media but as luck would have it, the snippet is picked up by an enthusiastic supporter of the current Taiwan government, translated into Chinese, and turned into a tweet.

This is retweeted by other fans of Taiwan, which of course brings it to the attention of people who are not fans of Taiwan, who also retweet it, with derogatory comments attached. A small Twitter storm ensues.

This attracts the attention of a few of the real newspapers (sorry, I’m a pre-digital). So Mr Frankfurter, who is blissfully ignorant of these goings-on, has 15 minutes of fame in Taipei — where he is praised as a perceptive reader of the international tea leaves — and in Beijing — where he is lambasted as part of the American plot to dismember China.

taiwan china
Photo: HKFP remix.

Our hero is then invited to address a business conference in Hong Kong. At this point, he becomes aware of his modestly controversial status in the China-watching world, and consults his company’s legal advisor, Hiram Hamburger, about the possible hazards of visiting Hong Kong. The year now becomes critical.

If this story was happening in 2019 Mr Hamburger’s advice would be clear and simple. The Hong Kong legal system is like the American one. You cannot be prosecuted for expressing a political opinion. Also you cannot be prosecuted for anything you said or did in New York. Any Hong Kong magistrate will throw the charge out in the first hearing because the courts do not have jurisdiction over things that happen in New York.

“Go ahead,” Mr Hamburger will say. “Nothing bad can happen.”

West Kowloon Magistrates Court Law Courts Building
West Kowloon Magistrates Courts. File photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Now let us suppose the story is happening now, in 2020 under the national security law. Mr Frankfurter’s invitation is to come as soon as virus travel restrictions are lifted.

This time, Mr Hamburger’s reply goes something like this. “We have heard a lot about recent legal changes in Hong Kong and I have not yet had time to study all of them. But look, here is a letter in The Economist from Matthew Cheung, who describes himself as the Chief Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong Government.

“Mr Cheung says that the new national security law is not sweeping. It focuses on four clearly defined activities, and there is nothing to fear. He says that Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms remain intact under the Basic Law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So, it seems nothing has changed. You go ahead. What could go wrong?”

Matthew Cheung
Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung. File photo: GovHK.

Well quite a lot, actually. Mr Frankfurter steps off the plane and is promptly arrested by the section of the Hong Kong police force which seems to spend most of its time chasing subversive kids.

He is charged with secession. As with all national security cases, the presumption is that bail will be refused. “Just a minute,” he tells the magistrate, “surely I cannot be prosecuted for things said in New York.” The magistrate gently points out that the new national security legislation applies everywhere and to everyone, whether Hong Kong residents, Chinese citizens, or neither.

At this point, the US government complains that one of its citizens is being prosecuted for something which was not an offence in the jurisdiction within which it took place. A diplomatic tussle begins.

Anxious to save the Hong Kong government from being involved in this rumble, the mainland authorities decide that it would be more expedient if Mr Frankfurter’s offence was dealt with in a mainland court. He is handed over to mainland security agents in Hong Kong, who take him across the border.

may 27 national anthem bill causeway bay arrest
File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Here, he is introduced to an extremely uncomfortable chair and invited to sign a confession. He is tried and convicted. The conviction rate in mainland criminal trials is well over 99 per cent. Mr Frankfurter serves his term in a Chinese jail and is deported as an undesirable.

Returning to New York he has a poignant meeting with his colleague, Mr Hamburger.

Hard words are exchanged. Hamburger says he relied on the best information available at the time. Frankfurter says that many of the people he met in his Hong Kong prison thought it was hilarious that he had apparently decided to risk the trip on the basis of assurances from the Hong Kong government that nothing had changed.

Their boss, Ben Burrito, says they have both been foolish and gullible. You cannot rely on statements by officials. You cannot rely on what you read in the news publications. Statements by officials for news publications are good for only one thing. In fact, it’s not even that good for it. Real toilet paper is softer.

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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.