I understand why Hong Kong officials feel the need to respond to every adverse or critical report or comment from overseas bodies on their doings. Silence may be misinterpreted as indicating agreement. Or at least indifference. We do, though, need to be more aware of the perils of this approach, especially if the refutation goes into detail.

Secretary for Justice Paul Lam
Secretary for Justice Paul Lam speaks at the Ceremonial Opening of Legal Year 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Firstly it may attract widespread attention to allegations which might otherwise have fallen with a soundless plop into the deep well of public indifference. Secondly the refutation may do more harm than the original charge. Consider the recent efforts of the Secretary for Justice, Paul Lam, to defend Hong Kong’s national security legislation, much criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee.

According to RTHK, “Lam said with fewer than 30 people convicted since the legislation was introduced nearly three years ago, everyone would agree that the law affects only an extremely small number of people, when compared to the local population of seven million.”

No they would not. Indeed even Mr Lam did not put it quite that way; RTHK were trying too hard. It is clear from the fuller report provided elsewhere that Mr Lam realised the law had also “affected” the “less than 250” people who had been arrested (a curious way of putting it – the figure is 249).

He also accepted that the new law had also had some impact on the victims of his department’s enthusiasm for sedition charges under the Crimes Ordinance. As well he might; they are treated to the National Security Law’s procedural provisions, which means they get a judge selected by the government and are usually refused bail. But still: “Hong Kong has a population of seven million. Comparatively, I think everyone would… agree that only a very small number of people have actually been affected,” Lam added.

National Security Education Day banner
Outdoor advertisement for the 2022 National Security Education Day. Photo: GovHK.

It does not seem to have crossed Mr Lam’s mind that a situation in which 249 people have been arrested and fewer than 30 have had their cases disposed of might be considered evidence of some deficiency in the legal system. Two possibilities immediately spring to mind. One is that some, or many, of these arrests were unjustified, caused by incompetence or the desire to intimidate. The other is that Mr Lam’s department works at a pace which would shame a reasonably fit snail.

But there is a more fundamental objection to his argument. You cannot judge the “effect” of a piece of legislation by the number of people convicted under it. I know of nobody who has been convicted of accepting a free plastic bag from a supermarket in defiance of the new law on the subject, and if any supermarket has been prosecuted for issuing such a bag the case passed by unreported. Yet we have all been “affected” by the bag ban.

More seriously only 60 people were convicted of homicide (murder, manslaughter etc) last year. But we all depend on the fact that killing people is illegal, so we do not have to worry that if we get an argument with a stranger we will be in danger of our lives. 

Hong Kong Police
The Hong Kong Police Force emblem outside the police headquarters in Wan Chai. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Well, you can argue that long-standing laws of this kind are obeyed for a variety of reasons, and most of us do not need a legal deterrent to discourage us from killing people. With the national security law, though, the effects on people who have not been arrested are clearly visible.

Since the passage of the law about half of the population has been deprived of the media of its choice because the organisations concerned closed, either because their staff and/or owners had been arrested or because they thought they would be next. More than 60 non-government organisations have folded. Independent trade unions have disappeared, Respected opinion leaders are barred by bail conditions from writing. Books have been banned from schools and libraries. These may be worthwhile sacrifices that we all have to make on the altar of national security but to claim that very few people have been affected is obvious nonsense.

Indeed Mr Lam’s colleagues seem to be quite willing to extend the “effect” of the national security law by using it in ways that could be seen as a threat to silence critics of the police.

Consider the reaction of Secretary for Security Chris Tang to criticism of the requirement that demonstrators in street processions should wear number plates: “… unfortunately some people stirred up other’s emotions and smeared the government on purpose,” he said. “I believe some of those people aim to incite discontent and hatred against the government, in a bid to endanger national security and make Hong Kong no longer peaceful.”

Chris Tang
The Secretary for Security Chris Tang met the press on March 2, 2023. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

Parts of this read like a direct quote from the sedition part of the Crimes Ordinance, and many people would regard the mention of national security as an open threat.

There is no question of a smear here. Protesters were required to wear number plates and whether you regard that as a reasonable public order measure or an intolerable imposition is a matter of opinion and evaluation. On this matter Mr Tang can hardly be regarded as an impartial judge. Retired policemen should be less pugnacious.

Citizens have the right to criticise the actions which government departments take for their benefit. We may criticise the way the Transport Department sites bus stops, the way the Drainage Services Department disposes of sewage, and the way the Information Services Department creates it. It is the job of the Police Force to regulate demonstrations and to preserve the right to take part in them. How the force discharges this duty is a legitimate topic for public discussion.

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.