Let me introduce you to Mr Richard O’Halloran. Mr O worked for a company called China Aviation Leasing Service (CALS). This company was based in Dublin but owned by a mainland businessman called Min Jiedong.

Mr Min got into trouble in his home country over suggestions that he had collected money from China investors and exported it through the usual murky channels to buy an aircraft in Dublin which, it appears, is the only asset of CALS. The plane has been rented out on a long lease to a Finnish airline.

China immigration border airport chinese travel entry exit
Photo: Mr.Son.Photo via Flickr.

Mr Min was eventually prosecuted and jailed. Some influential investors, it seems, wanted their money back. Mr O’Halloran, who was not working for the company when the dubious deals – if they were dubious – were done, was sent to Shanghai in February 2019 to try to resolve the situation.

After two weeks of negotiation he headed to the airport to return home to his wife and four children, and was there told that he was not allowed to leave. And so, for the ensuing two years, he has been an involuntary resident of Shanghai – at first in a hotel and later, for economic reasons, in a flat.

From time to time Mr O’Halloran has responded to hints that some action from him would result in his being freed. In response to one such suggestion he resigned from his job. Another was that a look at his personal bank details would be interesting. In January he was told he could leave, turned up at the airport and was refused again.

The current directors of CALS then tried sending $200,000 to the Chinese court which is now in charge of Mr Min’s case. This provoked a fierce police interrogation of Mr O’Halloran, apparently aimed at finding out how much his colleagues might be good for. He was then told that the price of freedom was US$36 million.

The judge in the case, in which Mr O’Halloran is – at least in theory – a witness, told him at the last hearing that there was no exit ban (?) but he should expect to stay in China “for a long time.” It appears that someone in Shanghai is very determined to get the aeroplane, even if they have to wait for the lease to run out. Meanwhile Mr O’Halloran is a hostage.

Unsurprisingly his health has suffered and his family have become increasingly distressed by his absence. Last December they decided to ignore the official advice – diplomats usually argue that the smooth flow of international relations is too important for it to be disrupted by noisy complaints about abuse of individuals, however heinous the abuse may be – and raised a public stink in Ireland.

The case has now become a small noisy part of the argument over whether the European Union’s recent trade deal with China should be ratified by the EU Parliament. Whether that will help remains to be seen.

I am told that Mr O’Halloran’s case is not unusual. Generally the official advice is not to make too much noise. Victims may well suppose – at least for the first year or two – that complaining publicly will only make matters worse. So ransoms of one kind or another are quietly paid, and the victims quietly return home.

This could not happen in Hong Kong. At least not yet. But this sort of thing is why there are serious drawbacks to the government’s proposed new legislation, which will give the Director of Immigration power to prevent people from leaving Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific plane airplane grounded
Grounded. File Photo: GovHK.

We are still missing a lot of details. One of the details missing is a convincing reason for the new law. An earlier suggestion that it was intended to improve the handling of asylum claimants and refugees was obviously a work of the imagination. Our government’s dearest wish for refugees is that they should depart at the earliest opportunity to anywhere, or better still not come in the first place.

The freedom to travel where and when you wish is an important freedom, and it was entirely proper for the Bar Association to point out the impropriety of reducing it to the whim of a civil servant. Unfortunately the Bar Association seems to have shot to the top of the DAB’s “reform” agenda lately, so advice from it may not be well received.

One does not, of course, attribute improper motives to the Director of Immigration. But he is a civil servant who has taken the oath of loyalty to the Liaison Office. If he or she is told that somebody should be prevented from leaving our shores it will take a brave – or suicidal – individual to say ’no’ … or even ‘why?’

So it appears the new law would place us in the same perilous legal category for visitors as Shanghai: you may transition at any time from visitor to hostage. This could be discouraging.

No doubt we will be told, as we were about the national security legislation, that only a tiny minority of people will be affected. I don’t think you can expect people to buy that pie twice. Our real rulers, these days, are seasoned mainland apparatchiks who have demonstrated their loyalty to Pooh by trampling on the few remaining civil liberties of their fellow citizens.

To their local sycophants and supporters who have ascended the social pyramid by assisting in the demise of Hong Kong’s autonomy, I can only recommend a quotation from Bear Grylls in yesterday’s Guardian:

“There’s no point getting to the summit if you’re an arsehole.”

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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.