I am not sure how “national security” crept up on us. It was not, as far as I remember, mentioned at all in the 2000s, or for that matter in 2014. It is not mentioned in Article 23 of the Basic Law. Yet in the last couple of years it has become something like heresy in 16th century Spain – an all-purpose offence of which anyone can be accused, with dire consequences for the convicted, offering an opportunity for vigorous virtue-signalling by amateur witchfinders.

Many years ago I signed up for what King’s College London, with an admirable scorn for euphemisms, still calls War Studies. In those days “national security” was a favourite concept in what we called “strategic waffle” – the penning of lengthy op-ed style pieces full of recycled news reports and unverifiable predictions couched in learned language.

A banner inside the Hong Kong government headquarters promoting the national security law. Photo: GovHK.

It played a murky role in justifying governments’ interests in spots outside their jurisdiction, like the Austrian Empire’s preoccupation with the ownership of the mouth of the Danube, or the British government’s supposed national interest in the neutrality of Belgium.

The idea that “national security” required the rigorous suppression of dissenting voices or the criminalisation of criticism did not come up.

It has now become a rising tide which threatens to engulf us all. The latest manifestation of this came with a spasm of concern in the Legislative Council about the credentials of social workers. Members professed alarm that some social workers had been accused, and in some cases convicted, of public order offences which suggested that they had supported the 2019 “insurrection.”

This was a danger to national security. Such people might indoctrinate or subvert the clients in their care, who might include impressionable people or children. The destination to which we were invited to proceed at the best possible speed was a purging of the profession, in which the politically unreliable would be deprived of the right to work in it.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaking at the National Security Law Legal Forum on July 6, 2021. File photo: GovHK.

Something similar seems to be in the offing for teachers who, we were told last week, will all have to take an examination in the finer points of the Basic Law, and perhaps later the national security law as well. This was combined with a broad hint that the school network was due for pruning because Hongkongers are not producing enough victims to fill local classrooms. No doubt performance in the new examinations will be considered when choosing which institutions will be surplus to requirements.

A large cloud also hangs over the future of the Bar Association. Will it be purged of the unruly, or perhaps combined with the solicitors, whose obsequious majority will swamp it? Some form of unfrockment for lawyers of a disputatious disposition can then be wheeled into place with the consent of the profession.

Then, or perhaps first, it will be the turn of the journalists. Expect the “false news” legislation, when it comes, to include some form of exclusion from the profession for people who perpetrate untruths, or refuse to parrot the government ones.

Journalists in Hong Kong. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

It seems that being “unsound” on national security is going to be like being a sex offender in California: after you have served your sentence, if any, you do not return to your former life. You have to conform to a variety of restrictions on where you may live, work and socialise. The irony is that Hong Kong has not got round to a sex offenders register yet. So it appears that our legislators regard anyone who was caught up in an illegal assembly as a worse threat to society than a decent honest paedophile.

Indeed they were falling over themselves last week to complain that prosecutions for public order offences were not happening in the desired quantities.

The Secretary for Justice admitted there was a backlog of cases, but denied that her department was the bottleneck. Actually this is not good enough. As the government’s senior law officer the Secretary has wider responsibilities than just running her own department. If there is a bottleneck it behoves her to identify the problem and obtain its solution.

Teresa Cheng at the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year 2021. Photo: GovHK.

As it is I find myself in the rare and uncomfortable position of agreeing with Elizabeth Quat. It is a scandal that cases are taking so long in coming to a hearing. The time is now measured in years rather than months, which is unfair to everyone concerned. Memories fade, witnesses become unavailable, evidence disappears… Detailed discussion of international standards in this matter here.

In many jurisdictions cases expire altogether if the prosecution without a good excuse fails to bring the case in a reasonable time. Hong Kong has no similar rule.

The problem is exacerbated by the prosecutorial habit of throwing juveniles into adult courts. This led to a scandalous case the other week in which a defendant was convicted of engaging in a fracas with a policeman at a protest against parallel traders. When the offence took place the defendant was 15, and consequently a “young person” within the meaning of the relevant ordinance.

By the time the trial was finished he was 18, and so too old for the facilities intended for juveniles. The judge had no choice but to sentence him to an adult prison. This is not the way the system is supposed to work.

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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.