Hats off to legislator Lai Tung-kwok, whose attempts to think of creative ways to waste our money led him to suggest that there should be a commissioner for national security education, to make sure the Good News is spread to adults as well as the helpless victims of the education industry.

lai tung-kwok
Pro-establishment lawmaker Lai Tung-kwok. Photo: Lai Tung-kwok, via Facebook.

This would be a challenging role, but at least it might lead to some careful thought about the arguments used to defend the national security law, which at the moment are often strangely remote from the complaints.

We are, for instance, often told that other countries have national security laws, so there should be no objection to Hong Kong and China having one. But nobody has suggested that it is wrong in principle for a country or territory to have a national security law. This is an answer looking for a question.

The critics, most of whom are prudently located outside Hong Kong, do not think that a national security law is a bad thing in itself. They think there are good national security laws and bad national security laws.

This is a point which also seems to have eluded former police chief Tang King-shing, who warned this week that people who are thinking of emigrating because of the national security law should think twice, because it is very likely that the country they go to will also have a national security law.

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

True indeed. And any large city you move to will have an MTR. But will it be large and modern, ancient and dirty, convenient and spacious or creaky and crowded? Will it be like ours or like Glasgow’s, a single line which always looks to me like an underground version of the old Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park monorail?

National security laws are like toilets. There is a wide range, from the shed over a hole in the back garden to an ensuite Japanese electrified job which does everything for you except wipe.

International comparisons are difficult because most countries do not have “national security law” as a separate category. This has what citizens of those countries may feel is the happy consequence – that there is no role for “national security approved judges” – but it is inconvenient for spectators.

One is reduced to tabling a series of questions, like: are national security offences clearly defined, is non-violent political speech protected, are the rights of those accused of offences protected, are the punishments available proportionate to the harm done, is there a special police force with extraordinary powers, and is there, indeed, a part of the government which depends for its future prospects of promotion and prosperity on finding a steady stream of national security cases?

October 1 Police purple flag causeway bay national security banner
A police banner warning against potential violations of the national security law. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

I added this last question because one of the curious things about national security cases in other places is how rarely they come up. It used to be my job to introduce students to the Official Secrets Ordinance and its ancestor the British Official Secrets Act.

There had at that time been no official secrets cases in Hong Kong at all. Such cases in the UK had been so rare that I could briefly go through the whole lot since the passage of the original act in 1911. Some of them took very little time. Many of them did not involve spying – or journalism – but merely failure to take proper care of secrets in a person’s custody, usually involving naval officers leaving briefcases full of interesting papers in bars.

Similarly in other common law countries internal national security was a cottage industry, although Putin’s efforts of late have done wonders for it.

The problem is that national security precautions can be overdone. Mary Wollstonecraft commented on the French Revolution, which she had observed at close range, that “every political good carried to the extreme must be productive of evil.” Or as Vanessa Place puts it in a rather different context and more modern language, “Laws passed with good intentions and historic justification may snap together to create a legal terror.”

national security
Photo: GovHK.

We must all accept that security and public peace are desirable objectives, and that the national security law was intended to be a good thing for everyone concerned. The question remains whether those good intentions have been realised, in a law which is much more specific about punishments than the offences to be punished.

So how can we advise people who are thinking of leaving to get away from the national security law? Well of course they are mistaken. Our national security law is wonderful. We don’t want to lose you but if you must go…

I think the easiest way to guide migrants in the right direction is to avoid countries which signed an address to the UN Secretary General last year expressing unqualified approval for our new national security law, which suggests that their versions will be as bad as ours, if not worse.

National security law newspaper
Hong Kong government’s front page advertisements in local newspapers. Photo: GovHK.

Here they are: Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, China, Comoros, Congo, Cuba, Djibouti, Dominica, North Korea, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, Tonga, Tunisia, UAE, Uganda, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

You can, as the old poem has it, “tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses.”

If that is not quite the sort of country you were thinking of migrating to, then you should be OK.

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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.