IT is comforting to learn that China's Public Security Minister Mr Tao Siju is opposed to organised triad activity and to the secret societies' participation in crime. Everything else he has said about triads shows either a lamentable ignorance about what Hongkong's ruthless criminal gangs really stand for or a wilful distortion of both their present activities and their history of corruption, murder and exploitation. Exactly a year ago, Mr Tao raised a storm of outrage by claiming that many triads were patriotic and good and were allowed into China to set up businesses there. On Thursday he repeated those ill-chosen comments, saying Beijing was willing to accept Hongkong's triads as long as they were patriotic and renounced their past. In suggesting that triads would be an acceptable element after 1997, he undermines all the months of painstaking repair work that has gone into salvaging Hongkong's international reputation as a determined campaigner against triad activity since his last public pronouncement on the issue. To compound matters, he also believes Hongkong could take in more mainland visitors to prevent any massive influx after 1997. Presumably he was trying to relieve pent-up demand when Hongkong reverts to Chinese rule. However, instead of a reassurance, this will be seen by many as an invitation to open up the floodgates to illegal immigrants. How then are the immigration authorities to respond as they struggle to prevent a flood of illegal immigrants? How are the police and their counterparts overseas expected to respond as they struggle to combat the triad menace from being exported from Hongkong and mainland China? Canada has introduced a new policy of refusing entry to anyone suspected of being a triad member, based on Hongkong police intelligence instead of criminal records. Suspects are returned to Hongkong to be kept under observation. If China seeks to protect triads after 1997, Canadian police will rightly be concerned that their policy could be undermined. The post-1997 Special Administrative Region may not provide intelligence information and returned suspects will be free to attemptto emigrate again later, perhaps under a new identity. Anti-triad work in the United States, Australia, Britain as well as South Africa, Italy and Austria will also be undermined without Chinese and SAR co-operation. Mr Tao talked specifically of triads who had renounced crime. However as Hongkong knows, itis mainly the small-fry who renounce their triad links. The big fish do not come forward. It is true that the triads grew out of the patriotic resistance to the conquering Manchu Ching dynasty in 17th century China. However, like many a modern liberation movement the triads were forced to live off funds raised from illegal and often immoral means. They have long since degenerated into a self-perpetuating and violent mafia. Individual gangs may indeed be self-defence groups, as Mr Tao claims, but the protection they offer is conditional on members toeing a brutal and immoral line. Their purposeis to shield wrongdoers and their dependents from the law or from other, rival gangsters. Fortunately, Mr Tao's views are not shared by all his colleagues. Former Minister for State Security Mr Qiao Shi - now National People's Congress Chairman - recently said triad gangs would never be allowed to exist in China and warned the country's police would not rely on triad organisations to maintain law and order. One then wonders whether Mr Tao was speaking with the sanction of his superiors or commenting without adequately thinking through the impact his words would have in Hongkong and among crimefighters internationally. Yet it is Mr Tao's words that will be seized on both by the international community and those most concerned about the rule of law here after 1997. Coming, as they did, on the same day as Mr Justice Kempster's report on Hongkong's failure to protect witnesses from intimidation, his remarks will raise real questions about the mainland's determination to help maintain law and order in Hongkong and keep corruption under control.