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You may find this as puzzling as I do, but the one thing which really seems to annoy our national security enthusiasts is if an organisation which has been roundly denounced on all channels decides to close itself down before the cops come to the door.

This invariably produces accusations of cowardice and dark warnings that closing the organisation will not protect it or its members from later prosecution. Individuals who flee abroad before proceedings start are also accused of cowardice and promised that the hunt for them will never end.

It seems that political persecution is like bull-fighting. The victim is expected to stay on his feet and tottering forward until the matador has finished. This is not a clumsy way of producing a pile of stewing steak; it is art. If the bull is so inconsiderate as to expire while the man on horseback is still sticking a spear in the back of his neck then the artistic impression is lacking and the sport is spoiled.

So it is not entirely surprising that the announcement that the Next media group’s listed arm, Next Digital, was winding itself up produced a lengthy statement from the Security Bureau denying that the campaign against Jimmy Lai and all his works had anything to do with this development.

On this I have no comment. Buried in this diatribe, though, was an interesting paragraph. This was apparently intended to address the directors’ complaint that they still did not know exactly what Mr Lai and the sundry people and companies charged with him were alleged to have done.

Said the bureau, “The prosecution case (covering acts, statements and articles alleged to be relevant to the charge) has already been stipulated clearly in the allegations submitted by the prosecution to the court in writing during the legal proceedings and supplied to the defendants. During the stage of mention hearing, the prosecution case will only be disclosed to the defendants (including their legal representatives) but not the general public. It is the prevailing arrangement in criminal proceedings, so as to ensure that future hearing could be conducted fairly.”

Now whether this is a reasonably answer to the directors’ problem I am not sure. Are they expected to visit Mr Lai in prison and ask him what he has been charged with?

What surprised me, though, was the suggestion that in the early hearings the prosecution case is not disclosed  to the general public, and this is the prevailing arrangement in criminal proceedings, to ensure fairness in later trials.

To which one can only answer “you must be kidding.”

True, the law is that, once a person has been arrested, the media may not inform the public of the detailed allegations against this person. There is a law of contempt of court which covers the period before the defendant appears in court, and there are statutory restrictions on the reporting of the ensuing proceedings. It is also true that these arrangements are intended to ensure fairness. It is not, however, true that these rules are observed as the “prevailing arrangement”.

To start with, they are not observed by Chinese officials, who routinely greet the arrest of anyone they disapprove of with speeches indicating not only that the miscreant is guilty as charged, but that he is also probably guilty of much else. These speeches are often extensively reported in Hong Kong even if they are made elsewhere.

Secondly there are similar breaches of the rules in China’s Hong Kong-based state media. Ta Kung Pao and its stable mates do not apparently regard themselves as covered by this part of the law. This is irritating but of little practical effect because few people read those papers and fewer still believe what they say on topics of this kind.

But violations have now become routine. Consider some recent cases.

There was a traffic accident in Taipo in which a taxi drove into a pedestrian refuge. Several people were injured, of whom one later died. There was much media interest, understandable because one person was trapped under the taxi, and was rescued by the united efforts of passing strangers, who lifted the taxi off him.

The taxi driver was charged immediately with causing death by dangerous driving, the routine police response to a fatal road accident. This did not stop newspapers from reporting his name and giving extensive details of what was supposed to have happened. One newspaper even included three paragraphs of comment from an “expert” who had apparently viewed the video and thought the taxi driver had been guilty of “crazy driving”.

Another case concerned a man accused of sex offences with juveniles. Again his surname, age and occupation were provided, along with a good deal of personal history and much detail surrounding the offences. This included suggestions that he had been guilty of other offences.

A third case involved a barrister, two solicitors and some other people accused of a scam involving URA flats. Again lavish detail was provided, including the names of the lawyers. The barrister has an unusual surname and I have no doubt the legal fraternity in its entirety now knows who he is and has been exposed to a one-sided version of the points to be decided at trial.

The latest one concerned a man accused of harassing judges with spurious phone calls and faxes. OInce again we were told his age, occupation and surname, along with a detailed exposition of what will presumably become the prosecution’s case. In this case we do not have to wonder who was providing the information, because it was not the usual anonymous police source, it was Acting Superintendent Tse Tsz-kwan, who also offered some of the suspect’s previous convictions, which are not supposed to feature in early proceedings.

Interestingly Supt Tse was joined in this story by District Judge Stanley Chan Kwong-chi. I hope Judge Chan did not realise that the identity of the perpetrator was going to be revealed when he said that “the perpetrator has committed several offences, Including harassing judicial officers, contempt of court and perverting the course of justice.” Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Clearly it is no longer the case that political offenders alone cannot depend on the right to a fair trial. The parts of the law intended to ensure fairness have been neglected for so long that no offender is safe, and it would be more accurate to say that no defendant in Hong Kong can rely on protection from a wave of prejudicial publicity, much of it emanating from police sources.

Still, you political offenders should be good sports. Do not flee, do not dissolve your subversive organisation, and deny everything right up to the last minute. The jury may then be graciously disposed to award the prosecutor both ears and the tail.

One of the depressing characteristics that our government has inherited from its colonial predecessor is a tendency, when the circumstances require that someone should make sacrifices, to pick on the smallest kid in the class.

There is no appetite for challenging vested interests. All too often this means that the burden of adjustment to new needs falls on those least able to handle it.

Consider the vexed question of land for public housing. In the long run this will be solved by building a huge reclamation engulfing Cheung Chau. But this will take years. In the meantime the government has been hunting for alternative solutions, of which there is no shortage.

We could, for a start, politely seek to persuade the People’s Liberation Army that their inheritance from the British Ministry of Defence rather exceeds their needs. After all the British garrison was thousands of miles from its home in Blighty, or Nepal. There was a need for married quarters, schools, clinics, sports facilities, and shops selling the kind of food the troops were used to. Our PLA garrison sensibly spends most of its time in Shenzhen. At least, you would think, they could find somewhere else for their firing range. But we are not going to try that.

We could hold the Hong Kong Jockey Club to its long-broken promise to return the Happy Valley Racecourse to other uses in return for the rolling acres devoted to horse matters in Shatin. But we’re not going to do that either.

We could consider whether the Hong Kong Golf Club really needs three courses, and indeed whether catering so generously for such a space-consuming sport is really a sensible move for a crowded territory. But that is not going to happen.

We could take action on the observation by an NGO with, perhaps, more determination than the relevant government departments that there are some 2,000 hectares of “brownfield” land in the New Territories,  much of which is being used for non-agricultural purposes in violation of lease conditions, and sometimes of the law. But this means disturbing those rural bandits who are patted, if not petted, by the cops, so we won’t do that.

We could look again at the suggestion for some sort of floating estate in the Kai Tak Nullah, which would probably be outstandingly cheap now that COVID has shipwrecked the cruise industry. We could, perish the thought, pursue C.Y. Leung’s idea for a trimming of the Country Parks.

But wait! Our bureaucrats have come up with a better idea. In the last policy speech Ms Carrie Lam suggested looking at factory estates which could be redeveloped as housing. You might think this was a reference to the considerable number of factory buildings which now house a variety of non-industrial uses, or sit empty. But those are private.

The government, however, does own some factories itself. These are a local invention that used to be called “flatted factories” in official terminology. A large number of small units are combined in one building. The early ones, like the early housing estates, only ran to five stories. The more recent one down the road from me, now condemned, runs to 24 stories.

These buildings are seedbeds for the Small and Medium Enterprises which are always pushed forward whenever some scheme that might increase the expenses of big enterprises is in the wind. But nobody really cares about SMEs, as we can now clearly see.

These factory blocks are not empty. The occupancy rate, according to the spokesman for tenants in the Fotan one, is 97 per cent.

Four of them are to be demolished to make way for housing. This will leave more than 2,000 tenants looking for somewhere else to go. Many of them will probably find it easier to drop out of business altogether.

Spokesmen for the tenants stress that they are not against public housing. But it should surely be possible to find land for it which is being devoted to some less worthwhile purpose than allowing enterprising but poor people to start a business.

What happened to the Lion Rock Spirit, to “We’re all in this together”, to Hong Kong as a paradise of free enterprise? Well that was always a bit of a con trick.

One of the more amusing aspects of Hong Kong politics is the number of people with no affiliation to or taste for democracy who take it upon themselves to offer advice and instructions to the democratic movement.

There was a particularly hilarious example the other week when Mr CY Leung took up arms in defence of the right of members of the Professional Teachers Union to a vote on the closure of their union rather than have the committee decide it. 

More recently we heard from Mr Lo Man-tuen, occupant of the previously obscure post of vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, a United Front appendage. Mr Lo opined in a newspaper piece that the Democratic Party would face a “dead end” if it did not participate in the upcoming Legislative Council elections.

Mr Lo’s theory is apparently that if the Democratic Party boycotted the election it would become a subversive organisation and all those of its members who were currently District Councillors would consequently be disqualified.

As a legal proposition this looks rather dubious. And of course most of the party’s district councillors have already been arrested or persuaded to resign anyway.

Perhaps for these reasons Mr Lo’s idea was not endorsed by another person taking an unexpected interest in the future prospects of the Democratic Party, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam. She said that besides discussion and debate, participation in politics was the “purpose of existence” of a political party.

“A political organisation must have a wish one day to enter the political system to make changes,” she said. A member of the Democratic Party might respond that they did have a wish to make changes. They planned to use the constitutional procedure provided for the purpose to get rid of her. And look where it has got them. 

It appears that under the national security regime entering the political system to make changes is a criminal offence. The only legally acceptable reason for entering the system is to support the government.

Mrs Lam proceeded to her usual trick, in which she demolishes an argument which nobody has offered. “If a political organisation said it will never take part in elections … that is bizarre.” The question of never taking part in elections has not come up. Only anarchist groups, and not all of them, reject all elections on principle.

What the Democratic Party has to decide is whether to take part in one particular upcoming election. The one during which most of its members will be in prison, leading to some scepticism about Mrs Lam’s supposedly reassuring observation that the political system in Hong Kong “can surely accept people with different political stances to run in the election.”  And in an elegant exercise in combining two incompatible principles she said that “Improving the legislative system is not intended to create a legislature without a plurality of voices in Hong Kong, but to require every candidate to fulfil the requirements as a patriot.”

I am reminded of the British politician who, rebuked for expressing two incompatible ideas in the same sentence, replied that “if you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the circus.”

In any case there is clearly a feeling among our lovely leaders that it would be nice to have a few democrats in the new-look Legco. Nothing too ostentatious – single figures, perhaps. No need to provide committee chairmanships or time to debate motions. The Civic Party and the Social Democrats have already decided to give this election a miss. Things are getting a bit desperate.

The trouble is that it is difficult to see the attraction for the Democratic Party. Neither power nor influence are on offer. There will be opportunities to make speeches, but as the media massacre continues will they be reported?

The pay is good, if elected, but the new legal regime presents hazards. A careless word could lead to disqualification. Disqualification could lead to prosecution. Prosecution could lead to prison. This is not a theoretical concept for Hong Kong democrats these days.

And after all a party committed to democracy must have some standards. Looking at the new-look Legco many democrats will behold elections carefully designed to produce a political poodle, a Potemkin parliament, a counterfeit council, a constitutional fig leaf obscuring the reality of one-party rule. The Liaison Office is planning a political pantomime, and the part on offer is the back end of the horse.

Why, one has to wonder, is a fig leaf required? Every day we are told that the rule of the Communist Party has done wonders for the rest of China while Hong Kong was wasting time on political bickering. You would think that the likes of Mr Lo and Mrs Lam would be telling us that we were now entering a new Golden Age in which Hong Kong also would benefit from democracy with Chinese characteristics, in which the Party decides everything.

This is not really compatible with a “plurality of voices” and we see every day another voice silenced, another contributor to “discussion and debate” threatened, assaulted or jailed. Clearly this is a necessary part of the new era and should be defended and explained in those terms.

Similarly it is a necessary part of the system that the electoral arrangements should exclude undesirable candidates not only by manipulating the nominations and voting but also by political vetting of any hopeful who survives this process.

The only remaining question, which Mrs Lam seems to have overlooked, is this: could a serious democrat vote for anyone who has got through the sieve and onto the ballot? Groucho Marx said he would not join a club which would have someone like him as a member. Looking at our new political arrangements democrats may feel something similar.

We often hear about politicians’ concern for the grass roots. A word this week for the rest of the grass.

Grass is not a native plant in Hong Kong and, as every groundsman and bowling club knows, keeping up any sort of a lawn requires a certain amount of continuing care and maintenance.

The patch of grass I visit at least twice a day – for dog reasons – provides an interesting barometer indicating how much care and maintenance is being lavished on municipal vegetation in our part of the world.

When Sui Wo Road was first built in the 70s the adjacent hilltops were lopped off and used to turn the Shing Mun River from a series of meanders surrounded by paddy fields into a straight line surrounded by housing estates. The resulting series of platforms was used to accommodate two schools, the Baptist U staff quarters,  and several housing estates, of which ours is one.

The builders of our estate did not need the whole platform, and left a strip of grass round the outside of two sides of the estate, varying in width from about five yards to about 20. A footpath goes about half way round and leads to the Lions Lookout, a popular spot for tourism (in daylight) and romance (in the evening). 

When we moved into the estate this strip was still plain grass and trees. The only other concession to decorative urges was a clump of large rocks which the developers had, I suppose, considered too large to be trucked down to the valley. They were left in a little cluster, which might charitably be described as a shot at something in the Japanese garden line.

In the ensuing years there were attempts at further adornment. A lot more trees were planted, mainly of a type ill-chosen for a typhoon-swept hilltop. Few of them have survived. A hedge was inserted between the edge of the grass and the uncouth hillside which starts beyond it. Some ornamental bushes were also installed around the rocks.

Then about four years ago something went wrong. The trimming of the grass lapsed to two or three times a year. Between mowings it grew long and lank: a jungle deep enough to conceal my dog. We were warned of snake sightings.

The hedges were also neglected and some of the bushes left to their own devices turned into small trees. Some of the “hedges” were now big enough to conceal me. Fly tippers took the hint and piles of abandoned building debris appeared.

Then an interesting change. A mere day or two after the 2019 District Board elections there was a burst of activity. The grass was trimmed, and the bushes were cut back more than they had been for a long time. An abandoned motorcycle which had been lying behind the rocks for years was finally taken away.

In the ensuing year the up-keep of the area returned to the old standard. The grass was cut and the bushes trimmed every month or so, which is necessary in the summer. Abandoned rubbish was cleared, unruly bushes cut back. An unnecessary fence which had been quietly collapsing was tidied away.

Then another change. Like other district councils ours has been gutted by the government campaign to exclude from public office everyone but its admirers. Last time I looked at the council’s website half of the councillors had gone, including the one who represents us. There may have been more since.

Those who remain are clearly not as influential as they used to be. After all if the Chief Executive announces that she is going to ignore the district councils we can hardly expect her underlings to take any notice of them. And, to my surprise and distress, this has been immediately reflected in the standards of municipal maintenance. The grass grew long and rank again, the bushes ran wild, snake warnings resumed. 

The grass was finally cut last week. I am not sure if this was the first time since March or the first time this year but it was clearly overdue. The bushes were pruned, but the ones which are not on the way to the lookout point were left to do as they wished.

I suppose there may be an entirely innocent explanation for the variation in grass maintenance round our way, but it seems to me that this highlights a problem which has been neglected.

No doubt it was very inconvenient to have large numbers of unruly district councillors potentially voting in the “election” of the next Chief Executive. But the changes in the election system have fixed that. And the district councils did do other things.

CE Carrie Lam has defended her (plainly unlawful) decision to leave retiring or disqualified district councillors unreplaced, saying that the government has other ways of consulting public opinion. But providing the government with a source of public opinion on major matters was not the councils’ only function.

Their main job was to supply a way in which local wishes and thoughts could be translated into local policies and actions. This cannot be done by some replacement group of people who, owing their elevation to an office of prestige and profit to the government, will feel bound by both gratitude and self-interest to support it.

It is true that, before 2019, some councils did not make a very good job of this. Some councillors concentrated on securing repeated electoral success and adopted a “bread and circuses” approach in which electors were plied with food and drink (paid for by the councillor) and festivals and competitions (paid for from public funds).

Some of this got fairly sleazy. When I first started public bagpiping the band carefully excluded me from (unpaid) performances for one district councillor because they thought if the band was involved in the confidently expected legal brawl it would be embarrassing for someone of my age and eminence. Happily when the legal droppings hit the fan bagpipes were not involved, but the councillor did end up in jail.

One-party rule often ends in cronyism, complacency and corruption. In fact the change of regime in 2019 might have done everyone good – at a local level. But our government seems to have decided to abandon all attempt at elected local administration. This will, ironically, get us back to the colonial pre-1980s arrangement, but without the Urban Council.

Well it’s an ill wind blows nobody any good. Local snake spotters can be offered a happy hunting ground in a month or two. Take the 69K minibus and ride to the end of the line. Wear boots.

Last week was a paradise for collectors of courtroom curiosities. To start with we had the case of Mr Ma Ka-kin, a previously blameless worker in a noodle shop. Mr Ma was asked by a friend and colleague, Mr Hung Chi-him, if he could have a parcel from Brazil sent to Ma’s address.

There are a variety of explanations for a request of this kind, and at least some of them are legal. Mr Ma is in any case, as we shall see, not one of the sharpest tools in the shed. He agreed to allow his address to be used.

The parcel was intercepted on its arrival in Hong Kong by the Customs. It contained a kilogram of cocaine. Police officers then searched Mr Hung’s home and found a stash of cocaine there. Mr Ma did not have his own supply, and initially maintained that he had been misled by his colleague and did not know the parcel contained drugs.

The two men were jointly charged with possession, trafficking etc., and then an odd thing happened. Mr Hung offered Mr Ma the services of his solicitor. Mr Ma then met the solicitor’s clerk, whose acquaintance with the law, it later emerged, included a string of previous convictions including rape and robbery. He persuaded Mr Ma that it would be a good idea to offer to plead guilty, on the condition that Mr Hung was let off the hook.

Surprisingly, to me, to the trial judge, the Court of Appeal, and sundry other people who have considered the matter, the Department of Justice agreed to this arrangement. Mr Ma would admit everything, Mr Hung would go free.

Later Mr Ma reconsidered the deal, which involved him volunteering for one of those multi-decade jail sentences which judges believe, however often the superstition is refuted by experience or sociology, are the only way to discourage potential criminals. He changed his legal team and his plea.

When the case came to trial the judge had misgivings. It appeared to him, as it may well appear to you, that Mr Hung and his mysterious associates were the moving spirits behind the whole enterprise and the prosecution of Mr Ma was unfair and possibly unjustified.

The judge actually asked the prosecutor to check with his superiors. Did the Department of (ahem) Justice wish the trial to go ahead? They did. Mr Ma was convicted by the jury – hope you guys are feeling pleased with yourselves now – and the trial judge suppressed his misgivings sufficiently to pass a sentence of 23 years.

Mr Ma subsequently appealed, with success. The conviction was overturned and the sentence cancelled. So why was the whole matter before the Court of Appeal again? Because the prosecution applied for a new trial. The Court of Appeal described the application as “extraordinary and disappointing”. 

They were not happy with the original deal with Mr Ma and they found it disturbing that a solicitor’s clerk had such a criminal background. This last item shows you what sheltered lives judges lead. The problem of shady characters touting for business on behalf of our less finicky solicitors has been around for decades. I remember doing a story about it in 1985.

In one of the local recycled tree carcasses my former colleague Cliff Buddle suggested that there was a problem in the Department of Justice, which often adopted a “win-at-all-costs mentality, taking every point, appealing every defeat and stopping at nothing to secure a conviction,” This may well be true sometimes, but we have another case to consider.

I refer here to a website called Real Hong Kong News, which clearly shares my interest in legal oddities.

In 2020 a 22-year-old woman appeared in a local magistrates’ court charged with drug possession. She had been arrested when she collected a package from the Post Office. The parcel was addressed to her and contained a quantity of ketamine.

The Department of Justice then applied to withdraw the charges on the grounds that a conviction was unlikely. The magistrate demurred, pointing out that defendants were routinely charged with possession if the drugs were simply found in the flat they rented. The question of how much the defendant knew about the contents of the package was a matter for a jury and a conviction was quite likely.

The Department of Justice nevertheless insisted on dropping the case and the magistrate had no choice but to comply. No doubt it was entirely irrelevant that the lady concerned lived in the Tsing Yi Police Married Quarters, because her daddy was a cop.

What is going on here? Looking at these cases one struggles, and I think fails, to believe that this is simply a matter of error or carelessness. It seems that wheels are turning unseen and considerations which cannot be defended in public are being considered behind the scenes. This is not the way the law is supposed to work.

Last year the then Director of Public Prosecutions, David Leung, resigned, telling his colleagues in a farewell email that he ”could not agree with the Secretary for Justice, and the situation has not improved with time”. Perhaps it is a pity he did not go into more detail about what the disagreements were.

There is a more detailed account of the Ma case by Neville Sarony QC here. Mr Sarony concludes that “heads should roll”. But I don’t think we are doing accountability any more.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Council of the Hong Kong University has, in effect, expelled 32 students in defiance of the university’s own rules, citing legal and reputational risks.

The students were the student union council which passed a motion tactlessly praising the man who stabbed a policeman and then killed himself. After the ensuing row – indeed the next day – they apologised, withdrew the motion and resigned en bloc.

The Chief Executive then called for further action, which presumably meant the now ongoing police investigation. Why the council felt the need to engage in this controversy, having already cut all ties with the student union and expelled it from its offices, remains a mystery.

The concern about legal and reputational risks is looking in the wrong direction. The expulsion is a flagrant violation of the university’s own rules, which in turn embody a legal principle known as “natural justice”, which requires that people subjected to penalties should be given a chance to put their side of the matter to the tribunal making the decision.

The senior lawyer on the council, who was apparently not present at the “emergency meeting” which made the decision, promptly resigned from the body. Seven other members, who I suppose were not at the meeting either, wrote a letter urging reconsideration. The legal hazards attached to the decision are worse than the ones it seeks to avoid.

The university is not liable for the actions of its student union, and was not even before the union was effectively disowned, dehoused and discouraged. It is liable for the acts of its council. Legal humiliation looms.

The concern for “reputation” makes even less sense. The reputation of a university does not depend on its students avoiding occasional outrages, which is just as well because occasional outrages do occur. Fortunately the public has rather low expectations of students.

In any case the reputation of a university is measured primarily by its reputation among academics, and their expectations of students are even lower. Most of them regard teaching as a tedious distraction from their proper function, which is producing academic micro-scoops which will get them promoted.

During my time at Oxford student celebrations often culminated in groups vandalising their colleges or climbing university buildings to put embarrassing items on inaccessible pinnacles. One student was convicted of taking and driving away a fire engine (it’s a long story) and another tried to poison his roommate but was spared prosecution on the grounds of his mental state. The university’s reputation survived, as it survived the antics of the future prime minister Mr David Cameron and his fellow toffs, who reportedly did unspeakable things with pigs’ heads.

While I was studying in London the London School of Economic actually closed for a few weeks to reinforce its defences against potential student occupiers. The Principal of Kings College London, across the road, seemed rather disappointed that his own students were so docile by comparison. LSE’s reputation suffered no long-term harm and it has prospered mightily since.

I infer that no sensible person is going to hold against Hong Kong U the fact that some of its students had a questionable moment. Where large numbers of young adults are gathered together some of them will engage in conduct which is illegal, immoral or in awful taste. This is not welcome, but it is expected. Hong Kong is lucky that its students do not drink as much as students in many Western countries.

So the main risk to Hong Kong U’s reputation is not the students; it is the council. We have already seen the council meddle in matters which should be none of its business, like academic appointments. It appears now to be totally out of control. This is an interesting spectacle which will not have gone unnoticed on the international circuit.

If the council is really concerned about the university’s reputation it should follow a couple of simple rules. Firstly, before dabbling in legal matters, or potentially legal matters, consult a lawyer. Secondly try to avoid looking as if you are taking political directions from the Chief Executive. I know nobody enjoys real autonomy any more round here but a university’s international reputation is important. So try to look autonomous, at least.

The Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region used to be a person of some consequence: a framer and explainer of government policy, a senior voice in Legco, an international defender and explainer of Hong Kong’s point of view.

Well we were warned that the office would face some changes with the appointment of John Lee Ka-chiu, whose only relevant experience was as a dogged defender of brutal policing. Mr Lee, said Chief Executive Carrie Lam, would concentrate on national security matters, leaving such trivia as housing and the economy to her.

The trouble with this arrangement is that the voice of our red brothers over the border is rather loud in security matters, so it is not clear that there will be very much for Mr Lee to do. After all we have to justify a six-figure salary, plus a full soup-to-nuts set of fringe benefits – the chauffeur driven car, the Peak residence, the personal office toilet; you name it, he gets it.

Some enlightenment on the labours of Mr Lee was provided last week when he gave press interviews about what seems to be his main function, which is chairing the vetting committee which will decide whether any eager participant in Hong Kong politics is patriotic enough to be allowed into the game.

The committee – there are six other people on it – will apparently sort potential candidates for office into two lists: the sheep who have displayed “patriotic behaviour”, such as “safeguarding national security interests and upholding the country’s exercise of governance over Hong Kong”. 

Patriots will also, he said, have to “support and defend the country’s system and constitutional order, as well as maintain Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity as well as respect one’s own nation.” This seems a very long-winded way of saying that active support of one-party rule is a must.

Then we come to the second list, of the goats who will not be allowed to run for anything. Here Mr Lee was less clear. It will include those who “do the opposite” of the sheep list. Examples offered are advocating independence, insulting the flags and anthem, or seeking foreign sanctions on Hong Kong. But these are already crimes, so it seems unlikely that any candidate will emerge with this in his or her background.

Then we are offered “If that person had done something to damage national security, of course, he or she is not a patriot.” But national security is a notoriously flexible concept these days.

The vetting will be thorough. The committee will look into the person’s past, including what the candidate said and the person’s views. “This includes the content of interviews and who you associate with,” said Mr Lee. He then added, rather implausibly, that the committee would not rule out a candidate just because he criticises or holds opposite opinions from the government.

So you are free to hold opinions different from those of the government…. Really? On topics like the merits of national security legislation, or Taiwan, Tibet. Tienanmen, the Xinjiang Gulag? Does Mr Lee believe this? Do you?

Well the sheep list will be gazetted, and the goats will, he said “know why they failed”. Interesting to see how that works out.

Mr Lee believes that this new system will  ensure that “all obstacles to administration are cleared,” a heartwarming thought. The government will then “work on social, housing and livelihood issues after the obstacles are gone.” This suggests a rather naive and simplistic view of Hong Kong politics. After all we have been waiting for 20 years for the promised swoop on social, housing and livelihood issues, and it is hardly plausible that the reason for the absence of progress was the “obstacles” provided by an opposition minority in Legco.

Anyway there we have Mr Lee’s new job, and it looks a bit trivial. After all there is no need for a fine-tooth comb to go through the candidates for the election committee. Two fifths of the committee will be appointed by the Hong Kong and Central governments, which can I suppose be trusted to know a “patriot” when they see one. Most of the others will be filled by small groups who are on the mainland in spirit, or in some cases literally.

The idea that we need a high-powered committee chaired by the government number two to ensure that no dissident black sheep slips into this huge flock of white woolies is preposterous. An office boy would suffice.

After all it is easy enough to see how this is going to work. Into the outer darkness goes anyone who has ever said or written “A high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong, constitutional amendment for our time”, or some snappier version of it. Also fatal to your political ambitions will be “five demands and not one less” or “end one-party rule.”

Pan-dems or members of more frisky parties in the same vein need not apply. Same goes for anyone who has “associated” with Apple Daily, the Professional Teachers Union, any student union, and. to be on the safe side, any speech therapist. 

From a human rights point of view this is all rather ominous. The committee is apparently going to look not just at your recent attitudes and activities but at anything they can find, however old or out of date it may be. And since the requirements for sheep are rather detailed and positive, the default decision is going to be rejection.

You can appeal. The appeal must be lodged within a week of the notice in the Gazette and it goes to a magistrate. Whether you actually get a hearing or the beak just reviews the paperwork was not stated. Good luck.

My mobile phone is getting a bit past its sell-by date. I can browse the internet at home or in the office, but it frequently announces “no connection” when on the MTR. So I am forced back to the ancient habit of surreptitiously observing my fellow passengers.

This is not as interesting as it used to be. There is no visible variety in what people are doing – more than nine out of ten have their noses in their mobile phones. There are some clues to different activities: people with earphones are watching movies, people with frantically active thumbs are playing games, people who look depressed are probably reading the news…

Having exhausted these rather meagre possibilities I moved down to feet and made a surprising discovery. The shoe wars are over. Competition to flatter your feet has finished. Everyone – often whole carriages offer no exceptions – now wears trainers.

I do not criticise, I only observe. This is a highly practical trend and a triumph for practicality over convention.

Still it seems a bit surprising that it has largely escaped comment. When I was a kid a shoe was a leather thing with a sole, an upper and a lace. One of the first things you learned at about the same time as you learned to talk was how to tie a bow.

Every household had a shoe polishing kit, or rather two shoe polishing kits because you had to have one for brown shoes and one for black ones, with a separate pot of coloured polish and two brushes – one for applying and one for polishing off. Brown and black were the only acceptable colours for men’s shoes.

Shoes for sporting purposes that you could wear in the street came in two varieties: gym shoes – white canvas uppers and rubber soles – and basketball boots – the same but running up the ankle a few inches. Shoes for games played on grass could not be used for everyday wear because they had studs or spikes.

Skinheads and other flouters of convention could wear “work boots”, which had more ankle protection and often also had reinforced toe caps. Students wore things called “Hush Puppies”, which were laceless and made in a durable suede-like material which did not need polishing. A lazy choice.

As a young sports reporter who spent a lot of time standing in wet fields I was pleased to discover that in Lancashire you could still buy clogs. These were not like Dutch clogs, which are carved from a single piece of wood – Lancashire clogs have a leather upper and a thick wooden sole, usually fortified with a sheet of rubber or a sort of metal horseshoe stuck to the bottom.

And that was it. I am not sure where the trainer thing came from. It appears, though the memoirs of Phil Knight are not very forthcoming about this, that it started with flashy basketball shoes. Then the young person in the street discovered trainers, which were initially simply intended to allow serious runners to run in the street for practice. 

Clearly trainers are now worn by people who have not spent a lot of time training recently, to put it politely. They have become part of the local male’s unofficial uniform, along with long shorts, a tee-shirt and a backpack.

I suppose the trainer habit is a great improvement for women, who used to be expected to wear uncomfortable and even dangerous shoes in the interests of elegance. You rarely see high heels these days, except in Central at lunchtime.

I suspect that even those ladies who are expected or required to wear high heels at work do not travel in them. They either keep the shoes in the office or take them back and forth in a bag and wear something practical on the bus.

In the light of this it seems odd that a few places are still using footwear as a sign of respectability.

When I first came to Hong Kong one of our more prestigious department stores still had a sign at the entrance saying “No Slippers”. This was a puzzle – slippers in the UK are those soft things you wear only indoors. I later learned that many older or more traditional Hongkongers still wore the sort of slippers sported by Bruce Li in his more historical films – a black lightweight slip-on usually paired with white socks – and this was the local “slipper”. The sign was a way of saying, as Basil Fawltey might have put it, “no riff-raff”. Or to put it in more sociological terms, “no poor people, thank you.”

Any institution which refuses to admit people wearing trainers is in danger of being regarded as trying to say the same thing. 

We should perhaps, before hot-footing it away from this topic, consider the implications of the change from shoes, usually made of leather, to trainers, often made of plastic.

You would think that leather would be plentiful and environmentally neutral because the meat industry produces a steady stream of unwanted cow parts, of which the skin is one. It has been suggested that some ranching in Brazil is encouraged by the market for leather, but this seems implausible. As with so many commodities the price paid to the producer of the raw material is a very small part of the eventual cost.

A more serious complaint about leather is that the production process is polluting – tanning factories also stink – and unless care is taken poisonous for the workers. A lot of leather production takes place in countries which are not known for worker safety.

On the other hand a cared-for pair of leather shoes will last for a long time, with occasional running repairs. Unfortunately in a fashion-conscious society that may be regarded as a drawback.  

The Rule of Law, says the relevant government information sheet, is one of Hong Kong’s greatest strengths, and the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s success. “Any perceived threats to the integrity of Hong Kong’s legal system have been vigorously debated and analysed,” it says. OK. Analyse this.

Come with me, gentle reader, to a minor by-way in the great web which is the Hong Kong legal system. Chapter 547 of the Laws of Hong Kong (it’s a long book) is called the District Councils Ordinance. Strolling down it we pass the freshly modified and now quite long Clause 24, which includes the disqualification of members whose patriotic credentials have failed to pass muster.

And we pass Clause 27, which gives the Chief Executive power to decide the date of general elections, within limits.

And so we come to Clause 32, which concerns by-elections to fill vacancies, and goes like this: “If a vacancy arises in the office of an elected member, the Designated Officer must, by notice published in the Gazette, declare the existence of the vacancy within 21 days after becoming aware of the vacancy.”

The following clause states what happens next: (1)The Electoral Affairs Commission must, in accordance with regulations in force under the Electoral Affairs Commission Ordinance (Cap. 541), arrange for a by-election to be held in the following circumstances and not otherwise—(a)on the making of a declaration as to the existence of a vacancy in the membership of a District Council under section 32.

That is it, an admirably concise piece of legal draftsmanship. Notice what is there: the verb is “must”, not “may”. And what is not there: the procedure is completely automatic, with neither the Designated Officer nor the Electoral Affairs Commission having any discretion in the matter. There is no mention of, and no role for, the Chief Executive.

Now, recently resignations from District Councils have been falling like rain. More than half of the winners in the last general election to the councils have resigned, fled, or been jailed pending trial. You would think, having visited the law on the subject, that by-elections would be pending in droves. But this is not the case.

What has our leader to say on the subject? Miss Lam told one of her weekly press briefings that it would be “almost impossible” to hold all the by-elections before the administration’s term ends in June. Why the administration’s term is in any way relevant she did not say. No doubt the next administration will be equally adept at fixing elections.

Hong Kong, said Ms Lam, would be holding three sets of elections in the next ten months, for the Election Committee, the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. “We do not feel there is room or time for another set of by-elections…”

As a practical excuse this is fairly pathetic. Elections to the Election Committee are not what they were: the electorate has shrunk by about 90 per cent under recent changes. Moreover elections by the Election Committee are not the government’s problem: it will have a Convenor to organise such things. Many of these elections are likely, given the new arrangements for screening candidates, to be uncontested.

The only ones in which most people have any chance of a vote is for 20 seats on the Legislative Council. But given the conditions attached to being a candidate it is quite likely that many of them will be uncontested, or if they are contested attract few voters.

In any case this is beside the point. The law is the law. Ms Lam has only herself to blame for the flood of resignations because it is a response to the government’s threat that any district councillor who is unseated for failure to take the loyalty oath, or disqualified from taking it, will be required to pay back all the pay and allowances he or she has received since the 2019 election.

As this implies a bill for about $1million per head it has prompted a lot of councillors to leave politics. Three district councils are said to be down to three members each.

Yet the threat is legally dubious and morally indefensible. Ms Lam said that the question would be handled “in accordance with law and there would be no leniency”. This suggests a distressing deficiency in the quality of the government’s legal advice. “Leniency” has nothing to do with it. It is not a criminal matter, simply an issue of whether the money was paid in error and whether, if it was, the government has the legal right to recover it.

The regime’s lawyers seem to have mixed things up here. When the first disqualifications were made from the Legislative Council it was on the basis that the oath of office which they had taken was not done properly for one reason or another, and consequently was invalid. So those unseated had never been councillors and the Government was entitled to its money back, although whether it actually recovered very much is doubtful.

The case of district councillors is quite different. They were not required to take an oath when they took office. The Ordinance does not say when a disqualification should be regarded as taking effect. In the rather similar case of an election petition to the High Court, though, it does say that if the petition is upheld then the removal of the erroneously seated councillor takes effect from the day of the decision. It is not backdated to the day of the election.

In any case using this as a threat to blackmail inconvenient councillors into resigning is a deplorable descent into Mafia-like behaviour. They were elected and took up office in good faith, following the law in force at the time. There is no suggestion that the money was mis-spent.

Well, except for a newspaper article by Regina Ip, which offered “Tales abound of actions and resolutions, bordering on the absurd, if not criminal, made by the district councils dominated by self-proclaimed democrats.”

Wonderful. Are we to be offered examples? Well, two district councillors of the fresh crop displayed in their office a notice saying “members of the blue camp and dogs not allowed”, which was tactless of them, but not an “action or resolution of a district council”.

Then we are offered another individual “offence”: one district councillor posted on her billboard a poster suggesting that China was responsible for spreading coronavirus to the world, not an extreme view in some places.

Last we have an incident in which a District Officer was besieged in her office by councillors incensed by one of her rulings, regrettable, no doubt, but not an official council activity.

Possibly sensing that this is a bit thin as a stick with which to beat 17 pan-democrat dominated district councils, Ms Ip then descended into generalities: “Since these bogus democrats took over, funding for popular community activities was axed, and local public works projects approved by their predecessors overturned. Yet funds were approved by several district councils to a pro-independence organisation, Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, to organise competitions in “essay-writing” in Cantonese”.

This may have passed by the education in democracy which allows Ms Ip to discern “bogus democrats” but she should really get her head round the idea that newly elected councillors are entitled to the view that they know what activities are popular, and their predecessors’ views on the matter cannot be regarded as the last word. And if asked to offer examples of municipal depravity, Cantonese essay-writing competitions don’t really count, even if they are organised, as Ms Ip alleges, “to keep out mainland cultural influence.”

Anyway, there we are. Hong Kong cherishes the rule of law but the law means whatever Ms Lam finds convenient. The government, she said, would “seek other ways to gauge public opinion, such as the area committees appointed by the Home Affairs Department”. And “officials will approach issues through the work of district management committees.” In other words the government will listen only to people it has itself selected.

The Hong Kong government’s view of public opinion can be briefly put in a phrase once used of the old Hollywood studios: “if you’re not praising them they’re not listening.”

Like most people I am in two minds about the Olympics. It’s a commercial circus run for the television companies and administered by a corrupt bunch of elderly men. All the performers are professionals or hope that scoring a medal will enable them to become one.

The founding Baron thought athletics might function as a replacement for war, but the Olympics are more of a bloodless supplement to it. National flags are waved with abandon and some countries cheat furiously.

And yet… it is still a thrill to see someone who lives in the same town coming out in front of the world. The coverage tends to human interest stories rather than the actual details of the sports, and some of the resulting tales are genuinely inspiring. It is nice to see unfeigned joy on a face.

However the constant search for novelties leads to some strange places. Who, in the real world, takes three-a-side basketball seriously? It seems there is a trend towards the invention of “beach” variations on existing sports which will allow the organisers to insist on bikinis.

The new thing which really shocked me, though, was Street Skateboarding. It sounds like a contradiction in terms. Olympic Street Skateboarding? Many respectable members of the middle classes do not regard street skateboarding as a sport so much as a form of juvenile delinquency.

Skateboarding in a proper skateboarding park designed for the purpose offends nobody. In the street it is noisy, disturbing and dangerous. What are they trying to encourage?

So to Youtube, where I discovered that in the organised version they do not do it in the street. In the X Games, whatever they are, they have an extensive space like a normal skateboard park, with some street-like obstacles – ramps, stairs, railings – scattered about it. The performer does a succession of tricks on them.

For the Olympics the matter was simplified. There was one slope, decorated with a variety of stairs, bannisters, and such, on which each performer did one trick. This was repeated several times with, as you might imagine, scores for difficulty of item and smoothness in performance, as well as a swift exit from the medal running for anyone who falls flat on his or her face.

The so-called “women’s” event was in fact dominated by children. The winner, Momiji Nishiya, was 13. The silver medalist was the same age. The bronze medalist was a crone of 16. The skill and courage on display were remarkable, but…

Most of the tricks were variations on that Youtube staple in which the skateboarder leaps up, the skateboard mysteriously following the soles of his feet, and tries to slide down a railing by a flight of stairs. When attempted by the inexperienced this often leads to a nasty accident. The one in which the skateboard flies out of the picture and the skateboarder lands with one leg each side of the pole is particularly hard to watch.

And the question which then arises is, if you had a 13-year-old daughter, would you want her to be watching this? I assume for the Olympics they build the fake streetscape from some forgiving material but in real streets you are dealing with steel and concrete. Also in real streets there are cars.

Watching the very small ladies fly through the air, and occasionally crash land, I imagined orthopaedic surgeons all round the world rubbing their hands and upgrading the plans for their next BMW. We all want young people to be inspired to do more sports, but is this really a good choice?

In the Olympics they do wear crash helmets (which is more than you can say for the X games) but no other protection features. It seems skateboarders are not encouraged to such effete precautions as gloves, knee pads or elbow protection.

The result is predictable. If you look at the pictures of the triumphant winner which accompany this story you can see the visible part of what must be an extensive collection of scars.

Perhaps the risks are acceptable for the talented and properly taught. But if kids all over the world are going to be inspired to attempt this sort of thing in their back gardens, many of them are going to qualify … for the paralympics.