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It really is depressing to watch Hong Kong officials trying to act as if they were part of a democratic government … and failing. Consider the latest performance from Mr Law Chi-kwong, who rejoices in the title of Secretary for Labour and Welfare. Mr Law was asked in the last Legislative Council meeting whether the government had conducted any assessment of whether tear gas could affect people with disabilities.

The short answer might well have been “no“, but we must not expect miracles. Mr Law said that tear gas “only causes mild respiratory and skin irritation” and no serious cases had been reported to the relevant government departments. He then cited academic papers finding that dioxins rarely cropped up in tear gas, and offered the resounding red herring that the amount of toxins released during a barbecue is “much higher” than in tear gas.

This led rather predictably to headlines suggesting that there was more dioxin in barbecue smoke than in tear gas, which is not true. The health hazard from barbecue smoke is things called Volatile Organic Compounds, which are a result of meat being raised to a high temperature. There is a great deal of variation in the danger from barbecuing, depending on your fuel and choice of equipment and food. Some writers get astonishing figures for barbecue pollution by including the environmental effects of raising beef cattle. However, dioxin does not come up.

According to the US Environmental Protection Authority consumers in that country get about 119 pico grams a day of dioxin, nearly all of it from consumed food. Inhalation of all kinds only amounts to 2.2 pg per day.

Anyway, whatever you make of the science part of this there is an important difference in principle, which Mr Law is overlooking, between risks voluntarily run by an individual, and risks imposed on helpless citizens by the actions of a government agency. If people wish to poison themselves with barbecue smoke that is their business. It does not excuse the government itself poisoning them. Perhaps dioxin is rare in tear gas. On the other hand, according to the EPA there is NO safe level for exposure to dioxin.

Mr Law went on to say that “protesters burning road barriers would have been a big cause of dioxins in the air recently”. Burning road barriers would produce dioxins hundreds of times more than burning other objects, he said, because the barriers were PVC.

This observation would be deeply offensive to the PVC industry, which maintains that “When PVC does combust, its contribution of toxins is “insignificant,” according to third-party organizations that have conducted research on the combustion toxicity of vinyl products. According to the Vinyl Institute, ‘most fire scientists recognize that the largest hazard in a fire is carbon monoxide… The mix of gases produced when vinyl products burn, including hydrogen chloride, is very similar in terms of combustion toxicity to those of other common building materials when they burn.’ Though hydrogen chloride is an irritant gas, it is nowhere near as dangerous as the chemical dioxin or carbon monoxide, the release of which is often, and wrongly, attributed to vinyl.”

Again this is not really relevant. If protesters are poisoning us it is a bad thing. It does not excuse the government doing the same thing.

Here we come to a follow-up question from impeccably pro-government lawmaker Kenneth Lau — representing the Heung Kee Kuk rotten borough — who suggested that the government could “sweep away public concerns” by telling us all exactly what is in tear gas.

But Mr Law was having none of this. “The composition of tear gas is part of police operations and the government has no plans to reveal such information.” And this is really not good enough. Of course we know the main ingredient of tear gas, or tear smoke as we are supposed to call it because gas brings back unhappy memories of Wilfred Owen:

“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

This might remind some people that the stuff our policemen throw about with such enthusiasm is actually banned for military purposes.

The main ingredient is a chemical with a long technical name usually abbreviated to CS. There is no reason to suppose that much else is in there. Nor is it likely that after so many years some amateur will dream up a combination of ordinary household chemicals which will make tear gas innocuous. So the idea that the actual content needs to be kept secret because it is a part of police operations is nonsense. Police operations would not be affected in any way if the exact composition of their tear gas was known to the public.

Mind you I think Mr Lau may be a bit optimistic in supposing that publication of a detailed recipe would allay all fears. Quite a lot of people, including me, suspect that if you have an existing allergy then tear gas residues are likely to bring it leaping into action. Cases which generate “serious reports” to Mr Law’s colleagues are not the only possible medical effect.

But there is a larger principle involved here. In a society enjoying the rule of law we expect the police to be supervised by and accountable to our elected representatives, such as they are.  Refusing them basic information on the basis of flimsy excuses about “part of police operations” suggests that the police are accountable to nobody and our government is quite happy with that state of affairs. This is an increasingly popular view, alas.

 

 

Was there ever really a Phantom of the Opera? No doubt the Paris Opera was and is a complicated building. Also 19th century theatres went in for complicated effects requiring extensive space and machinery under the stage.
But all the same, where would such a person obtain the necessities of life? How would he eat, bath, and toilet?

I have similar misgivings about the idea of a Hunchback of Notre Dame, hiding in an impenetrable maze in one of the towers with his girlfriend. A romantic idea, but the cathedral is surely not that complicated.

When it comes to the Polytechnic University, recently surrounded by policemen, I am not so sure. During my career as a judge of student debates (qualifications: native speaker, car, persuadable) I visited all Hong Kong’s universities. The Poly U stood out as an easy place to get lost in (and having the most outrageously expensive car park).

It is not an easily navigable structure. I am quite prepared to believe that someone could elude detection more or less indefinitely on the campus. He (it is always a he in this sort of story) would be able to nip out at night in search of food and plumbing, returning at dawn to his place of concealment, and await his chance to drop a chandelier on an unsuspecting audience.

After the major evacuation of the campus we were offered a variety of figures for the number of people still in residence, ranging from zero to about 30. It was also reported that some people were still finding their way in, and hence, perhaps, also out. Every time it was announced that the campus was now empty reporters managed to find an interviewee who was still inside.

The traditional way of ending a siege was through negotiation. The besiegers would bombard or undermine the defences until there was in their view a “practicable breach” through which an assault, if attempted, would probably succeed.

At this point the besiegers would invite the defenders to surrender, usually with some added inducement: they would be allowed to leave, possibly with their weapons, or at least with their flags, and go free, possibly with the condition that they took no further part in the war.

The situation at the Poly U was more difficult, because there was no visible leader of the defenders with whom to haggle, if indeed there still were defenders. The police besiegers nevertheless followed the historical precedent by offering a dignified exit: names and pictures to be taken but no arrests.

That is a reasonably carrot. The stick, in the traditional arrangement, was that if the attackers were forced to assault the breach and succeeded then they would massacre the garrison. This was hardly possible in the case of the Poly U, if only because we did not know whether there was actually a garrison or not. What the police offer does show is that it is possible to negotiate with a group which has no visible leader. You announce a move, and wait to see what the response is.

This has proven beyond our political leaders, who have wailed frequently over the last six months that the protesters have no leaders that they can hold talks with. Well the latest elections have fixed that.

Our glorious leader Carrie Lam has commented that the election results have attracted “various analyses and interpretations”. She added that “quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.”

Well quite. The question is which aspects of the current situation are the problem. And now there is no need for this to remain a mystery to Mrs Lam. More than 300 district councillors now exist who were elected with the “five demands” on their programme, and in some cases with nothing else.

So she has plenty of people to talk to, if talking is what she wants to do, and plenty of people to listen to, if she would like a new experience.

Meanwhile the pro-government group in Legco managed to insert a measure of venomous fatuity into the proceedings by punishing the two universities which had the misfortune to be geographically convenient to major roads. Funding bids for two projects – one at Chinese U and one at the Poly U – were withdrawn after legislators had expressed “concerns”.

Which legislators? The government is not saying. We were treated to a bit of doublespeak from Ho Kai-ming, of the Pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Ho Kai-ming. “The Federation of Trade Unions and I support the development of universities,” he said.

But he was concerned that the new buildings proposed at the Chinese University of Hong Kong would be close to the University MTR station and a highway, and thus posed dangers. He was apparently referring to previous protests at the university, at which protesters threw items onto the railway and the Tolo Highway.

This is silly. There must be easier ways of avoiding future student disorder than redesigning all the local campuses with a view to reducing the opportunities for undergraduate disruption of key transport links. Would Mr Ho like to move the Poly U? It would probably be cheaper to move the tunnel.

No doubt the management of the Poly U are lamenting the unlucky stroke of urban planning which placed them astride the Cross-Harbour tunnel when other urban universities can only aspire to blockages of trivial streets like Junction Road or Tat Chee Avenue. Among the country dwellers, denizens of the Chinese University are now paying a price for their convenient proximity to the railway and possession of their own station.

On the other hand I have listened for years to staff of the University of Science and Technology complaining that the campus is in the middle of nowhere, miles from the urban fleshpots and even from decent shopping. Well every cloud has a silver lining and you folks are now looking at one. Middle of nowhere; nothing to sabotage. Give that university some money.

One of the distressing features of the past few months has been the increasing resemblance seen by many people between our police force and an occupying army.
Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps it is unavoidable. That it has happened is beyond dispute. A recent speech by the outgoing Commissioner of Police assured some newly minted cops that they were beloved by the Hong Kong public, citing surveys taken last year.
More recent figures are less encouraging. One recent survey asked respondents to rate their confidence in the Hong Kong force on a scale from zero to ten. Slightly more than half of the respondents chose zero.
People’s view of the police force depends heavily on their most recent encounter with it. When that consisted of a squad of faceless (and numberless) people in head to toe black armour storming into their estate and tear-gassing their dog, well… Not so much an occupying army as an invading one.
Unfortunate and inevitable though this may be, it does mean that this is a most unfortunate time for a renewed emphasis on the paramilitary tone of local police culture. Which brings me to the new C of P’s decision to change the force’s motto.
This used to be “Serving with Pride and Care”. Pride is a nice thing in a uniformed force, and “serving with care” carried the pleasing implication that the force was there to help people, care being something not required by corporations or machines.
The new catchphrase is “Serving Hong Kong with Honour, Duty and Loyalty”. The first part of this is dangerously ambiguous. Which possible Hong Kong are we serving. Is it the people, the government, or the liaison office?
The “honour, duty and loyalty” bit do not help. From a style point of view there is always a feeling that you get a nice rhythm with three items: faith, hope and charity; hatred, ridicule and contempt; liberty, equality, fraternity; fish, chips and peas…
But why this particular trio? According to the some frenzied googling, the phrase first surfaced in a historical novel by one G. P. R. James, published in 1832 and called “Henry Masterton, or the adventures of a young cavalier”. The three qualities cross the mind of a lady contemplating her next move with Mr M.
The trio appears again in an article in the Edinburgh Review of 1855. I cannot resist quoting the whole sentence: “It would be well for us if all our rulers were possessed with the same high feelings of honour, duty, loyalty and devotion which are eminently the characteristics of the country gentlemen of England.”
Very flattering, but no connection with police work. Also off topic is the appearance of the same trio in early editions of “Scout8ing for Boys”.
In 1995 we have a book called “Honour, Duty and Loyalty”. But I do not think the Commissioner of Police had this book in mind because the second deck of the title is “Introduction to National Socialism”. The motto of the SS was “my honour is called loyalty”, a near miss.
We may also exclude a chapter “Honour, Loyalty, Duty” in what appears to be a dungeons and dragons type of game, published in 2017, and an academic effort called “Honour, Duty and Loyalty to Tradition as a ‘Tragic Flaw’ in Titus Andronicus”, for which I have been unable to establish a date.
We will let pass as too obscure for our purpose the motto of the Mexican navy, which happens to be “honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism”.
So where did this trio come from? I suppose it is an adaptation of the well-known motto of West Point (the American training establishment for army officers), which is “duty, honour, country”. If this had been left unchanged the “country” bit would have caused a problem.
The West Point motto was the theme of a famous speech by General MacArthur, much Youtubed, usually with a specially composed but rather dull piece of military music in the background. It was also adopted with approval by both President Bushes. GW, in a lucid moment: “Leadership to me means duty, honour, country.”
The US Army’s official motto is quite long, but often abbreviated on tee-shirts to “Honour, duty, loyalty”, which is where we came in. Our police force now wants to be known as a paragon of military virtues.
I find this a bit disturbing. Many years ago I was invited to give a little seminar on media matters to a group of police people who were on the brink of becoming inspectors. This must have given satisfaction because I was invited back a few times to address embryo superintendents.
After I had done my thing about the media we usually had a general discussion, in which people complained bitterly of being misquoted and I explained that accurate quoting is harder than it looks. Then I was usually told that there should be a body to which people could complain about iniquitous journalism, to which I replied that I would be “quite happy to have a complaints procedure as long as it is modelled on yours”, which did not go down too well.
Another recurring topic was the question, which was floating about at the time, whether the police force should be renamed a “police service” to reflect the post-colonial change of emphasis from control to service. To my surprise everyone, or at least everyone who dared to speak, was violently against the change.
I was assured that the force really liked being paramilitary and had no intention of changing. At the time this seemed rather an academic question. I should perhaps have suggested, but didn’t, that this was a matter which should be decided by what Hong Kong needed rather than what most police people preferred.
Anyway this has now become a highly relevant question. People calling for the abolition or reform of the police force do not want a society with no police. They want a force dedicated to law as well as order, to service as well as force. There are police forces in the world which can keep an acceptable measure of control over street turbulence without resort to constantly rising levels of violence and the deployment of increasingly intimidating weapons. Why can’t we have one?
There is nothing wrong with serving Hong Kong with honour, duty and loyalty; the problem is the things which are left out. Unlike army officers, police people have a duty to the law and the people as well as to the government. Unlike for army officers the question of relations with civilians is not an optional skill for police people; it is the heart of the job.
The job of the military is, as a US Marine memorably put it on his arrival in Iraq, to “do what we are trained to do: blow things up and kill people.” Police people should have other priorities and the motto on their wall should reflect them.

Well, said my friend when Wednesday night’s race meeting was cancelled, now things are getting serious. As indeed they are. When “public events” generally started on Friday night and subsided gradually around midnight on Sunday, many people were really not much inconvenienced.
Like most Hongkongers I had occasional encounters: a whiff of stale tear gas here, a tricky drive over a debris-strewn road there, a moment of anxiety at a junction which usually has traffic lights but doesn’t any more.
This week, though, the New Territories have become almost as cut off as they were in pre-railway days. Some much-contested roads have become unnavigable. The former KCR has stopped for the first time since the Tai Wai bridge collapsed in, I think, the 50s.
A lot of people are having trouble getting to work, shops are staying closed, whether from apprehension or simple lack of staff, deliveries are not getting through, and buses to some places are unobtainable.
The protests are becoming more “effective”, if the effect you want is to disrupt normal life. This should have been expected. Over the months people have had plenty of time to sort out what doesn’t work, what works and what works even better.
Of the active protesters, the timid and half-hearted have dropped out of the scene; the rash and careless have been arrested or injured; the survivors are careful, bold and keen. This also should have been expected.
This escalation has been matched by a trend to rhetorical excess among the government’s supporters. Last week saw two long diatribes, both by lawyers (which explains the length – conciseness is not a virtue when you are billing by the hour) calling for fiercer action against protesters.
Both started by assuming what they sought to prove. In one the protesters were referred to throughout as “thugs”, in the other as “terrorists”.
Now look, people, it is unavoidable that the groups engaged in nightly conflict should generate rude names for each other. To the police, all protesters are “cockroaches”, to the protesters all police are “triads”. This is a normal human impulse.
It should not, though, be imported into public discussion of policy. With thousands of people milling about the street, intermittently clashing with each other, there will be individuals who make bad choices.
Not all protesters set people on fire; not all policemen shoot people. We need to distinguish between the dramatic and the typical. Most protesters have a pretty good idea of how far they are prepared to go, and turning people into human torches is not on the list. Similarly most policemen want nothing more than to restore order in the way that their training and leadership have told them is correct and lawful.
It may help to keep things in perspective if we remember the Stanford prison experiment. Like most experiments with uncomfortable conclusions, this has come in for a good deal of nit-picking, but the basic story goes like this: a group of 24 students were randomly assigned the roles of guard and prisoner, and put in a simulated prison in a university basement.
The guards had uniforms and mirror sunglasses. The prisoners had humiliating clothing and very basic cells. The experimenter, who played the role of the Warden, admitted afterwards that he may have overdone it a bit. The experiment was supposed to go on for two weeks, but after six days the levels of psychological abuse of prisoners by guards were so high that the whole thing was called off.
The lesson is that people respond to expectations, to circumstances and to uniforms. Particularly, it seems, if the uniform confers anonymity. Your local student protester, if a few years older, might have found himself in a police uniform. It is a popular choice for graduates, especially women who want a career which doesn’t involve desks: many of my students signed up.
The police person, if the disturbances had come a few years earlier or his birth a few years later, might have been out on the streets throwing things. We are all, as Henry Fielding put it, no better than God made us and many are a great deal worse.
The important thing is that our current troubles are not like a war, where the two sides can eventually call it a day, go to their respective homes and have very little to do with each other until passions have cooled a bit.
We are all Hongkongers and we will have to live together when this is over. We need to recognise that the majority of people on both sides sincerely believe that they are pursuing a good objective in the right way.
Our police people believe that order is the foundation of society and their work is vital to maintaining it. Our protesters believe that this campaign is the last chance for Hong Kong to avoid becoming Xinjiang with a seafront.
Whether you disagree with the premises or the conclusions of either side, you must still accept that a well-intentioned citizen may take a different view from yours. There is no need for insults. Lawyers, at least, should know better.

These are hard times for billionaires, or so I must suppose because the latest edition of The Economist contained two articles in their defence. Apparently in both the US and the UK politicians of a progressive disposition have been rude about billionaires.

Bernie Sanders says they “should not be allowed to happen”. Jeremy Corbyn says that “every billionaire is a policy failure”. A tax increase for plutocrats is in the wind in both countries. Clearly billionaires have a problem, not least the uninspiring example set by the one in the White House.

The Economist, which clearly knows which side its bread is buttered on, says billionaires are OK, but admits to some misgivings about “rent-seeking”. This is the economist’s term for people who get rich by exploiting markets which are hard to enter, or their connections with the government.

If competition is allowed then profits will in the long run be driven down by it, and anyone who clocks a billion has done so on his own merits. With a bit of luck, perhaps.

This does not seem to me to dispose of the matter, unless you subscribe to the rather depressing, and now discredited, Chicago school of economics, which says that the only function of a company is to obey the law and maximise profits.

After all the first quality required to become a billionaire is greed. People who are not blessed with this foible will find other things to do long before they get to their ninth zero.

As Taleb puts it, the advantage of capitalism is that we all benefit from some people’s greed. That does not mean we have to admire them for having this characteristic.

Before wealth became easily confused with virtue it used to be said that behind every great fortune is a great crime. This may be putting it a bit strongly, but we can all think of ways of getting your first billion which do not involve rent-seeking, are not illegal, and of which we profoundly disapprove.

We could start with getting your raw materials from the “South American towns where the miners work almost for nothing,” as the old Dylan song puts it, and come up to date with the merits of having your gadgets put together by child slaves in China.

Bearing in mind that this implies a broader definition of unacceptable behaviour than the economists’ (or The Economist’s) and that the latter magazine admits that a quarter of the world’s great fortunes were acquired unfairly, this suggests that some suspicion of great wealth might be useful and justified.

This is an interesting observation from a Hong Kong point of view. In the opinion of some people, at least, all our local great fortunes come from rent-seeking, because they derive from real estate, an industry which is shamelessly rigged by the government.

No doubt the 12 or so families who are the major beneficiaries of this system are lying low and quietly thanking their lucky stars that the agenda of the Resistance does not, or does not yet, include an attack on “developer hegemony”.

With one resounding exception. Ms Annie Wu aroused the ire of protesters by making a special trip to Geneva to enlighten the UN Human Rights Committee about Hong Kong matters.

Ms Wu came by her wealth honestly. She inherited it from her father. As it includes a large chain of eateries the company concerned has been desperately, and in vain, pointing out that she does not actually run the enterprise. This has not protected it from vandalism and boycotts.

Remarkably, one local commentator thought that Ms Wu’s visit to Geneva showed “courage”. Well no doubt standards of courage are pretty low if you are contributing a controversial column from the safety of Vancouver. Shouldn’t it be called “My Take-off”?

Anyway I do not buy this. Ms Wu flies to Geneva, First Class. She puts up in a five-star hotel, rides in a suitably luxurious limo to the Human Rights Committee meeting and there reads a script which several people – the Liaison Office, the Xinhua News Agency, the SAR Government’s Information Services Department – would be very happy to supply. And then she returns the same way to her Hong Kong home, or palace, to await the arrival of a suitably grateful medal in the mail.

I have more sympathy for the view that boycotting enterprises owned by political pariahs is unkind to their staff. No doubt the innocent youngster who signed up as a trainee barista with Starbucks did not realise that he was entering a political minefield.

On the other hand the people complaining about this were not so vocal when businesses were blacklisted or otherwise persecuted by the Chinese government or its more excitable people. This has been going on for years.

The most conspicuous victim is the Apple Daily. Companies which wish to remain in good odour on the mainland do not advertise in this newspaper. Conversely mainland companies are nudged in the direction of friendly forces, which has resulted in some professionals of modest abilities acquiring much wealth and fame.

When Cathay Pacific was forced into a political purge of its staff by shameless abuse of “safety”, we were told that “if you want to do business in China you have to play by the rules”.

Well it seems that now there are some rules attached to doing business in Hong Kong. It is becoming difficult to be neutral. As the old saying goes, a nun can become a whore and a whore can become a nun. But no woman can be both at the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know if there is any truth in the entertaining rumour that the Hong Kong SAR government tried to recruit a PR agency to rescue it from public scorn and contempt, only to meet with flat refusals from plausible image-polishers. The story is not unlikely. It would be a challenging assignment.

Last week, another own goal: Joshua Wong, an international media darling, was disqualified from running in the Southern District Board election.

This looks very like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If Mr Wong had been allowed to run there were two possible outcomes. If he lost it would put a big dent in his claim to speak for large numbers of Hong Kong people. If he won he would be immersed in a stream of local trivia, surgeries, committee meetings and such like, which would keep him out of other mischief.

The disqualification, in fact, will make several people happy. The District Officer concerned has established her status as a loyal foot soldier in the forces of darkness. Her superiors have enhanced the government’s claims to follow whatever orders Mr Xi issues, the law be damned.

And Mr Wong gains added credibility in Resistance circles without having to go to prison or to dabble in the politics of the parish pump. After all for a man who has addressed committees of Congress and working parties of the United Nations, time may seem to pass very slowly in meetings of the Southern District Board.

Being the only candidate disqualified is a back-handed compliment. He’s democracy’s danger man. Allowing him to run in an election would cause a constitutional Chernobyl. Politicians in other countries would kill for such a reputation.

So everyone is happy. Except me. My unhappiness is not caused by the outcome, but by the government press release which immediately followed it. Three paragraphs into this I came down with a nasty case of déjà vu. It starts “ In response to media enquiries regarding the 2019 District Council (DC) Ordinary Election, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government today (October 29) replied as follows:”

There follow three paragraphs which are exactly the same, word for word, as the replies given to media inquiries regarding the “2019 Rural Ordinary Election”, from which Mr Eddie Chu Hoi-dick as was disqualified.

A couple of paragraphs have been inserted next which are specific to the latest case, and then we go back to the familiar script.

As the only things changed in the first paragraph were the date and the name of the election we can see that some nameless government person was achieving a significant economy of effort here.

In fact it appears that very much the same press release was also offered after media inquiries about the 2018 Legislative Council By-election and the 2016 Legislative Council Election. So many of these sentences have been thrown to the media dogs four times.

This would be all right – I am all for government spokesmen not wasting their time when the official policy is well-established – if the original press release stuck to the government’s view of the constitutional position. But it ends in a lie.

The last sentence goes like this: “There is no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community.”

Readers of long standing will recall my rage when this paragraph of Orwellian doublespeak appeared in connection with Mr Chu and I am gob-smacked that this error is apparently regarded as a suitable piece of boiler plate to be slapped on the end of a press release whenever there is a dust-up over disqualification.

Still, having been here before I will try to be brief.

Listen, spokesman, whoever you are, the bit about political censorship is irrelevant. The next bits are plain wrong. Of course there is a question of freedom of speech. People are being disqualified because they have advocated independence, or even because they have defended the right of other people to advocate independence.

You may if you wish defend this as a trivial restriction. Most Hong Kong people think of independence the way they think of life after death: it would be nice, but they don’t expect to see it, and the outcome is in any case entirely out of their hands.

You may defend disqualifying independence advocates as a desirable restriction, or as a legally required one. But don’t tell us it’s not a restriction because that just makes you look delusional.

Similarly there is clearly a question of deprivation of the right to stand for election. Mr Wong wishes to stand and he is not allowed to. What do you think “deprivation” means? Again, you may say this is a trivial matter. It seems Mr Wong is the only person in Hong Kong under this disability.

Or you may defend it as legal, even compulsory. But don’t keep telling us that nobody is being deprived of the right to stand for election because someone very clearly is.

May I suggest writing a new press release from scratch next time?

Much excitement last week over High Court Action number 1957 of 2019, in which the government is seeking an injunction against “doxing”. This is a hobby pursued by some netizens of putting on the web the names, addresses and other details of people they disapprove of, in the hope that readers will give the disapproved a hard time.

During the last three months there have apparently been some examples of this happening, with ensuing harassment or disparagement of police officers’ family members and particularly their kids.

This is clearly unacceptable. Most of us will have a sort of sliding scale which indicates whether the personal information of a person is important. We expect to have access to information about major public figures because it is relevant to their work. Elected representatives are a legitimate interest.

Similarly readers are occasionally told that a media writer offering prescriptions for Hong Kong has a passport which allows him or her to evade the consequences of his advice, or may indeed actually live in Canada. A relevant point.

On the other hand the fact that the spouse of Police Inspector X is a teacher at Hong Kong U clearly can be abused and should be of no interest to most of us. Prof X may get undeserved stick from students. And there can be no defence for revealing that the X offspring go to a particular school. We do not have the privilege of choosing our parents.

Standards in these matters seem to be changing. In the old days many people published their name, address and phone number. The resulting tome was known as the telephone directory and copies of it were widely available.

Civil servants, including policemen, were even more visible. There was a Government telephone directory, which anyone could buy and many people did. The annual budget document included an update on all official pay scales. There was a Blue Book, which listed all civil servants by department with some further details like date of joining, date of appointment to present rank etc.

Using these together you could find out a great deal about any individual civil servant, including his or her salary. I once wrote a piece about this, and demonstrated the process with an example. For this I picked a famous RTHK broadcaster, on the grounds that he was likely to be of more interest than some unknown bureaucrat. He was furious.

It turned out that this gentleman had been less than honest with his wife about how much his official salary was. This illustrates an important point about privacy, which is that it can be used to conceal what should not be concealed. A balance is required.

Still, the invention of the internet has rather changed the game. All sorts of information can be collected and broadcast in a way which was not available when the necessary data could only be culled from thick books available in a few libraries.

“Doxing” has thus become a problem, though it is not clear that the problem is a legal one. The practical problem is that you can “dox” anonymously on an overseas server, leaving the forces of order helpless. And, as a great American judge once said: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent.”

This brings us back to Action number 1957. This is a civil action. That is to say nobody is being prosecuted for a crime. It is a characteristic of civil actions that they involve at least two people. The person who brings the action is known as the plaintiff (lawyers love these little oddities) and the person at whom it is targeted is known as the defendant.

So if Mr Smith, believing that Mr Jones sold him a lemon, sues to seek his money back Mr Smith will be the plaintiff, Mr Jones will be the defendant, and the case will be known as Smith v Jones. By another of those little quirks beloved of lawyers, if Mr Jones loses and decides to appeal, the case will become Jones v Smith. But do not worry about that. Just remember – plaintiff brings the action; defendant is the person targeted.

Now Case 1957 has multiple plaintiffs (which is allowed) led by the Secretary for Justice – which means the taxpayer is picking up the tab for this one. Also in action is the Commissioner of Police “(suing on his own behalf and on behalf of all other police officers and auxiliary police officers as defined in the Police Force Ordinance…)”.

This is an interesting innovation. Were all these police officers asked if they wished to be sued on behalf of, one wonders? No doubt it would take a brave officer to turn up in court and say that he did not wish to be served by the C of P in this way. But some police officers may wonder whether opening another front for contention with the general public is really a helpful move at this juncture.

More interesting still is the defendants, who are “Persons unlawfully disclosing and/or using the personal data of any police officer or auxiliary officer as defined in the Police Force Ordinance.”

And here, I fear, we see the ghost of Mr Justice Cocklecarrot rising from the tomb. Mr Cocklecarrot was a satirical figure who used to preside over amusing cases in the pages of the Daily Express. The cases were, I hope, fictitious.

If these people are unlawfully disclosing and using data, surely the answer to this problem is for the victims to call the “police officers and auxiliary officers as defined in the Police Force Ordinance” and have the perpetrators arrested and prosecuted.

If, on the other hand, the injunction is intended to apply to people who are not unlawfully using and disclosing data, why should a judge be invited to make something unlawful which is not unlawful, by supplying an injunction.

Clearly the procedure from here is going to be a problem. Usually if you apply for an injunction then the injunction is temporary while the writ is served on the defendant, who then has an opportunity to be heard before the injunction becomes permanent.

Here we have an unidentified defendant(s) with no address. Anyone who turns up claiming to be the defendant will presumably, since by doing so he admits to “unlawfully disclosing etc” be subject to arrest. So the plaintiff is going to have an easy time.

This is a pity, because the plaintiff is asking rather a lot. The main burden of the writ is a list of things it asks the court to ban, which goes like this:

“Injunction restraining defendants from using, publishing, communicating or disclosing to any other personal data of and concerning any Police Officer and/or their family, including their spouse and children, including but not limited to their name, job title, residential address, office address, school address, email address, date of birth, personal address, Hong Kong ID card number or identity number of any other official identity documents, Facebook account ID, Instagram Account ID, car plate number, and any photograph of the Police Officer(s) and/or their family members (including their spouse or children) without the consent of the Police Officer(s) and/or their family member(s) as the case may be concerned.”

The problem with this is that it contrasts rather unfavourably with the law on the matter, which is contained in the Data Protection (Privacy) Ordinance. This contains a similar level of protection, but limits it in a variety of ways where it might be held to conflict with other rights, like free speech and the right to draw attention to malpractices.

These limits are not reproduced in the sought injunction, which accordingly appears to provide for police officers a level of protection far exceeding that enjoyed by the population in general. Indeed it appears that our police people aspire to a level of secrecy that would have been the envy of the KGB.

Also missing is the principle established long ago in the Eastweek case, that taking a picture of someone in a public place, providing no other data is gathered at the same time, is not an act of data collection and does not require the subject’s permission.

Media organisations are left wondering about a variety of situations, starting from police press conferences (is permission to take pictures implied?) and running on to street protests, where it appears that if the officer is not displaying his number, as alas he often isn’t, then video is OK but if he is complying with the rules then it is perhaps not.

One might hope that these questions had occurred to the person in the Department of Justice (sic) who was in charge of this matter. On the other hand there is some evidence that he or she was not concentrating.

After the paragraph detailing the injunction sought we get two others of interest only to lawyers. And then we get one request which comes down to one word: “4. Costs.”

Normally this is a routine matter. In civil suits the loser pays the costs of both sides, subject to some supervision to restrain greed. But how is anyone, ever, going to extract costs from “Persons unlawfully disclosing and/or using the personal data of any police officer or auxiliary officer as defined in the Police Force Ordinance“? Good luck with that.

So here we are. The injunction is, for the time being, in effect. So it appears that it would be a violation simply to report that Mr Stephen Lo Wai-chung is the Commissioner of Police, even though this information is on a government website. So perhaps I should be on the safe side and warn you that Mr Lo may or may not be the Commissioner of Police.

And this brings us to a point which the relevant court seems to have overlooked. Civil servants are public employees exercising unusual powers on behalf of us all. Their rights to privacy must accordingly be somewhat less than those enjoyed by the rest of us. Someone who is entitled to carry and use lethal weapons on our behalf cannot claim that the way in which he carries out this duty should be immune to scrutiny.

I have no trouble with the idea of providing some extra protection to wives and children at a time when the police force is a controversial institution, but officers are exercising powers which cry out for supervision and publicity. Does the “identity number of any other official document” mean that we cannot report the number of a police person?

In the light of this it could be considered surprising that the temporary injunction was granted at all. True there was no opposition, but surely judges are expected to consider obvious possible objections off their own bat, as it were?

This brings us to a delicate question. Lawyers often complain about judges. They do not do this in public because, after all, their future careers depend on persuading judges to agree with them. So some thoughts remain unreported for a long time.

Here is one of them, which may or may not be relevant to this case. It is convenient in some ways for similar cases to be heard by the same judge. The law is a wide field and some measure of specialisation is helpful. Also the approach which is appropriate to, say, family matters may legitimately differ from the practice in other areas where the interests of the participants and their kids are less important than finding a legally defensible outcome.

However, if some small nook only attracts a small trickle of cases, you may finish up with them all being heard by the same single judge. He or she will, of course, try to approach each one with an open mind. But litigants and their lawyers will wonder if they got a fair hearing if the judgement in their case is rather similar to one in a case last month.

A judge may, having decided a matter one way, feel that he will be accused of inconsistency if he decides a superficially similar one in a different way. He may get in an intellectual rut.

Lawyers apparently are aware of the utility of having a judge who is familiar with the battlefield, as it were. But many of them prefer to have a “fresh judge” who has no commitment to any particular view in the area of law where the conflict will take place.

I am not going to name any names but it seems that cases in some rare categories always finish up before the same judge. No doubt he does his best. But this is not good for public confidence in the system.