Much ink has been spilled over the “threat to national security” allegedly generated by Hong Kong National Party founder Andy Chan Ho-tin’s speech about Hong Kong inde­pendence at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on August 14. That such unprecedented official panty-wetting was caused by the leader of a tiny fringe group – a mildly spoken, bespectacled, 27-year-old Mr Average – had to be witnessed to be believed.

Unrealistic calls for Hong Kong’s inde­pendence from the mainland to one side, possibly the most damaging thing that Chan’s speech has done – so far – is shine a spotlight on unsettling aspects of contemporary Hong Kong life that many prefer to deny or ignore.

The sheer amount of publicity generated by the increasingly frantic official attempts to get the whole thing called off was extra­ordinary. In terms of fuss, responses resembled a Bessemer furnace; repeated blasts of impurity-burning oxygen rapidly transform unpromising pig iron into steel. Even former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s most divisive civic figure to date, manfully worked the bellows, adding his own rude gusts of stale wind to the flying sparks.

Echo-chamber opponents unwittingly poured accelerant on the dry fuel of Chan’s underlying assertions. Warnings by the usual pro-establishment cheerleaders to not “provoke” or “anta­gonise” Beijing simply reinforced Chan’s sharply articulated belief that, as far as the mainland regime is concerned, being different is the same as being wrong.

The haste with which Hong Kong government officials queued up to toe the official Beijing line sharply underscored Chan’s remarks about steadily diminishing local autonomy. Previously, local admin­istrators mostly did as bidden behind closed doors – now, they must be seen to publicly tremble and obey their ultimate masters. And so they did. Hours after the event, the inevitable, thundering official Chinese denunciation followed – “the feelings of 1.4 billion people have been hurt”. Were they all asked for their personal views, one wonders, and within such a short space of time?

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear
George Orwell

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837) immediately springs to mind regarding Chan’s sharper utterances about the modern Chinese state’s unlovely realities. Not being content, like the little boy in the story, to merely cry out that “the emperor was naked”, while the sycophants queued up to gush over his marvellous new robes, the little boy followed it up, metaphor­ically speaking, with the observation that “his belly sags, those fangs are yellow, and you can smell his rank breath from here”. None of these observations are readily forgiv­able. And why? Because they are both deeply unflattering and observably true.

In one of his essays, George Orwell noted: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Seldom in Hong Kong has this observation been truer, or more urgent.

Elsewhere, the British author wrote that “the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it”. Chan’s remark that Hong Kong is becoming less and less different from the mainland is an easily observed fact.

Speech by Hong Kong independence activist leads to Beijing fury

The merits (or otherwise) of this ongoing political evolution remain something for future historians to squabble over. Nevertheless, with every passing year, the city’s former distinctiveness perceptibly alters.

Only the most wilfully blind – and there is no shortage of these people – continue to deny that Hong Kong is not a very different place to what it was only a few years ago. Politically, the ground continues to shift under the feet of those who have no choice but to live here, with almost no meaningful influence over where that process may ultimately lead.

Will Chan’s grimmer prophecies about Hong Kong’s future be proven right? Only time will tell.