I am still worrying about the implications of a story the other week, which recorded that a shop selling face masks had closed because of fears that its wares might contravene the new national security law.

One of the controversial items was a yellow mask (a subversive colour?) bearing the initials FDNOL.

yellow factory face masks
Photo: Yellow Factory, via Facebook.

It appeared from the attached picture that these letters were so small as to be barely visible to the naked eye. But some national security enthusiast had noticed them, and deduced that they were supposed to stand for one of last year’s popular slogans: Five Demands Not One Less.

I do not recall that the five demands actually included anything hostile to national security. One of them, the withdrawal of the extradition bill, had already been conceded. The withdrawal of the word “riot” in official descriptions of one event was a purely verbal request, and the idea of an inquiry into policing was quite popular even in pro-government circles.

Lots of countries have occasional amnesties without imperilling their security and democracy is, after all, described as a desirable destination in the Basic Law. So the slogan seems to suffer from guilt by association with the people who like it, rather than any intrinsic legal problem.

Anyway I shall leave that question to more learned pens. What bothers me is the ambiguity involved in criminalising a set of initials. These are always ambiguous. There was a good example the other week: someone who ended a sympathetic email to a bereaved friend LOL, thinking it meant Lots of Love, only to discover that the recipient decoded it as Laughing Out Loud.

After all FDNOL could stand for a variety of things besides five demands etc. Fidel’s Definitely Not Our Leader, perhaps. Or Fearful Ducks Nest On Lampposts. How about Fairies Dance Near Our Lodgings?

I quite see that you might jump to a conclusion on this matter if you saw the fatal letters waved at a protest demonstration. But in tiny letters on a face mask? The national security law is frighteningly ambiguous, but is there not a venerable legal principle (encased, as such principles tend to be, in a bit of Latin), which goes “De minimis non curat lex”, usually translated as “The law does not concern itself with trifles”?

"November 9" rally Tamar Park Alex Chow protest pro-democracy Admiralty
A “Free Hong Kong” sign. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The other sensitive slogan presents even more problems. This is “Free Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” whose Chinese version has already sprouted a variety of interesting disguises.

The English initials present an opportunity for serious ambiguity. In the first place the “Free” character in Chinese is sometimes translated as “Liberate”. Hong Kong in some publications is one word. So for this part of the slogan we could have FHK, LHK, FH or LH.

The revolution part has other possibilities. Anyone for a patriotic tee-shirt urging us to ROOT for Hong Kong?

The trouble with getting excited about subversive abbreviations is that some people will regard it as a challenge. New formulations will appear. For DAB haters we could have FTDAB. Fans of our glorious leader might like OLIASC. For the footloose: IM OK BNO.

Whether these would be acceptable as number plates is an interesting question. As it happens I was a member of the number plate vetting committee for many years (an underpaid but entertaining job) and I cannot recall any plausible pretext for refusing BE WATER. The Transport Department has banned it anyway.

protest slogan flag
Demonstrators hold a flag featuring the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” during a protest on July 1, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Well of course the times are a-changing, and this is happening quite fast. The ink was barely dry on my piece about the need to consider when to leave when it emerged that people migrating to the UK under the BNO scheme would not be able to take their MPF money with them. Or as a number plate might put it BNO NO $$$.

The news that various people’s bank accounts have been frozen also had a chilling effect (sorry).

It would be nice if our leaders discouraged amateur witch-hunters from looking too zealously for possible national security violations. Initials have a meaning only to people who are already politically activated one way or the other. We were told when the national security law first appeared that of course nobody would be prosecuted merely for waving a banner or shouting a slogan. 

Well, that turned out to be a good joke. But we are not ROFL-ing.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Tim Hamlett

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.