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The Chief Secretary, John Lee, seems to have selected himself as the government’s specialist in the campaign against “false news”, probably culminating in some upcoming legislation on the topic.

This means, I fear, that his own efforts in the journalism direction are likely to be subjected to careful scrutiny. His latest effort was a letter to the editor of The Economist. Alas it is not in this week’s edition. Perhaps it was too late. Perhaps not, for it had some problems.

The Economist, possibly freed from inhibitions by the fact that its Hong Kong correspondent had already been expelled, roundly condemned the recent Legco election as “rigged”, and “a travesty of democracy”.

Mr Lee characterised this as “a baseless accusation”. He pointed out, according to RTHK, that free speech and the right to run for election are protected by the Basic Law. I don’t know what that might have done for the international reader but it would have been greeted with hollow laughter in Hong Kong.

His more interesting offering was that no country would allow “treasonists, traitors, foreign agents or other forms of non-patriots to take part in its political system”. Really? No country? Has Mr Lee checked with all 193 countries in the United Nations that they have adequate mechanisms to purge their political system of “non-patriots”?

Critical readers of The Economist might be expected to notice that there is an important word missing here. That word is “convicted”. Countries which bar traitors and foreign agents from their political systems generally leave the question of who that might be up to the courts. It is not left to the discretion of the returning officer, a committee of uniformed government minions, or a committee of non-uniformed big-wigs with the unofficial advice of the local Liaison Office.

Can we think of a country which does not bar traitors, etc. from its political system? Easy. The people barred from running for seats in the London Parliament come in four categories: prisoners serving their sentences, lunatics, priests of the Anglican Church and Lords.

The reason for the last two is that the church is represented by its bishops, who are ex officio members of the House of Lords. And the Lords, of course, have their own arrangements.

What, no ban on traitors? Well to be fair that was not a practical problem for a long time. Convicted traitors and spies were decapitated or shot, which effectively prevented them running for election. Non-patriots have never been barred. Irish Nationalists were elected in the 19th century, Welsh and Scottish ones in the 20th.

Sinn Fein candidates run in Northern Ireland on a platform of explicit preference for their province to be transferred to the Irish Republic. They do not take their seats when elected, because to do so they would have to swear an oath of allegiance to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless they run, are elected, do not take their seats, and run again.

English by-elections regularly attract a variety of eccentric candidates, of whom perhaps the most celebrated called himself Screaming Lord Sutch. He repeatedly stood as the candidate of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. After his death in 1999 the party carried on, and has had some successes in local elections. Its manifesto for parliamentary constituencies is deliberately satirical rather than practical, although some policies it pioneered, like all day pub opening, have been implemented by more respectable parties.

So I’m afraid Mr Lee is quite wrong in supposing that no country bars “other non-patriots” from its political system and indeed even traitors and spies, having served their time in prison, would be allowed to try their luck. Avoiding false news is harder than it looks.

For a more subtle catastrophe we can turn to Mr Grenville Cross, who has evolved from defending the government’s legal brainwaves to defending everything. As a result his offerings have become more frequent and less interesting, but I was drawn to the headline (repeated in all pro-government print channels) “Electoral reform: hypocrites in glass houses should not throw stones”. I remind readers, as usual, that newspaper headlines are not written by the reporter. But this one sums up Mr Cross’s drift accurately enough. His targets are two conservative MPs and Benedict Rogers, who is not yet an MP but clearly has hopes.

Mr Rogers’s criticism of the new electoral arrangements was comprehensive and colourful: a “rubber stamp, puppet, zombie, quisling, Hong Kong branch of the National People’s Congress”.

Deplorable stuff, no doubt. But where comes the hypocrisy? Mr Cross complains that Conservative candidates are “thoroughly vetted” before they can be considered by local associations, and the qualities sought include “core beliefs and values”, which Mr Cross interprets as excluding independent thinkers.

He points out, quite truely, that MPs who dissent from the party line are sometimes expelled from the party, which means they cannot run as Conservatives again. He adds, also accurately, that people so excluded are rarely successful in running as independents, or under another label.

But at this point he has torpedoed his own argument. These unlucky people are not unelected because they have been excluded from the polls by the Conservative Party, the returning officer or a government vetting committee. They are free to run and who wins is decided by the electorate.

It is entirely normal and common for parties to decide who may be allowed to run under their flag. I do not doubt that there are similar mechanisms in the DAB, although one wonders whether they are necessary in view of the recurring rumours that such matters are decided in the Liaison Office.

Of course if you have run the Conservative flag up your mast the electors may be a bit suspicious if you reappear under another banner. Mr Cross’s colourful history might also be a political liability if he ever ran for office.

But parties everywhere try, with varying degrees of success, to ensure that their election candidates support the party’s aims and ideology. And getting the bum’s rush from the Conservatives is not always the end of the line. Enoch Powell survived the experience and returned to parliament as an Ulster Unionist. Nor is the party’s blessing for a “safe” seat a cast-iron guarantee of success. In 1997 a particularly seedy conservative MP was unseated by a crusading journalist running as an independent.

I am not personally a fan of Mr Rogers, nor of Mr Cross’s other targets, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss. But they must be acquitted of the charge of hypocrisy. Mr Cross is not comparing apples and oranges. He is comparing apples and unicorns.

The fact that British parties decide who may run on their behalf does not in any way excuse or explain the new Hong Kong system, in which the government in effect chooses its own legislature. Mr Cross’s version of this is that candidates had “to show they were capable of shouldering the responsibilities involved in running an advanced Chinese metropolis”.

Looking at our new Legco, can you repeat that without giggling?

Last Christmas I was very kindly invited to a carol service. I have always had a soft spot for carol services but in Hong Kong there is apparently a great shortage of traditional ones so it seemed unfair for me to intrude on a rare commodity.

I am not, you correctly infer, a very religious person. At least as far as organised religion is concerned I was inoculated by my boarding school, which required us all to troop down to the local church every Sunday.

I suspect this had more to do with giving the staff a morning free from us than with the attractions of religion, but the ritual had to be observed. We had two sets of clothes, the latest ones for Sunday and the others for weekdays. As the weekday ones expired the Sunday ones were demoted and replaced.

The service was always the same, except for the hymns and the sermon. We followed the Book of Common Prayer, which despite centuries of adjustment was still recognisable as the masterpiece penned in the 16th century by the political weasel and literary genius Thomas Cranmer.

When I started work at the then Baptist College I was surprised by the prayers which preceded all Faculty and Senate meetings. The surprise was not that there were prayers – I had been warned about that – but that the prayers were delivered extempore in more or less modern English. Where was Mr Cranmer?

Well he had not of course forseen this particular requirement. The Book of Common Prayer does not actually have a suggestion under the title A Prayer for Wisdom at the Meetings of Academic Bodies. So the Chaplain had to make up his own. And indeed this seems to be the way it is done these days.

The other literary delight on offer in the Midhurst Parish Church on Sundays was the Bible in the Authorised Version. This is also a masterpiece. Although it was produced by a committee they had the good sense to follow much of the solo translation which William Tyndale had produced a century or so earlier.

Owing to the inspiration provided by one of my primary school teachers I had developed some facility in public reading and as a result was often called on to read the lesson. In early outings at Midhurst this was an unalloyed pleasure. The church owned an enormous Bible which sat on an eagle lectern. The acoustics were, by church standards, quite good. A bit of stage fright added spice to what was otherwise a rather repetitive occasion.

Later the church sprouted a trendy new vicar, who introduced a trendy new translation of the New Testament, which did not impress me at all. The other regular reader and I both tried to get the Old Testament assignment but for some reason my style was considered more suitable for the modern stuff.

Anyway the purpose of this digression is to make it clear that though I am rarely seen in a church these days I am quite familiar with the ritual, at least as it was done in rural English churches in the late 1950s.

Returning to the latest carol service I was dismayed to find that not only had the Bible been fixed, but someone had been at that other mainstay, Hymns Ancient and Modern. This used to be so universal in Anglican churches that they had a sort of notice board into which you could only insert numbers. These indicated the numbers of the hymns to be attempted, always from the same book.

It seems that some of the traditional carols no longer pass doctrinal tests and have been modified accordingly. I am told by a connoisseur of these matters that this work is ongoing and new versions are promised with more “inclusive” language. I tremble at the thought of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentle Persons”, or “We Three Monarchs”.

The Bible had also undergone numerous changes. Some of the readings were not familiar to me but I can almost recite from memory the second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, the one which starts with the announcement that “all the world was to be taxed”, and finishes with “there was no room at the inn.”

Both these phrases have now disappeared. I realise that the “tax” was actually a census so changing that improves comprehension. I am less happy with inserting “the Roman world” instead of the world, because while that may be helpful it is not what Luke wrote. The room at the inn has also been changed. I hope this was not just from puritan horror at the thought that Our Lord narrowly missed being born in a boozer.

Anyway this raises a serious question, which I am probably not qualified to ask, but here we go anyway: is it really a good idea for a religion to express itself in the most everyday language it can find?

This is, after all, by no means the usual practice.

Here is a passage from Nassim Taleb (usually considered a business writer, but versatile)

“Keep a [religious] language away from the rationalisation of daily life and avoid the corruption of the vernacular… the Catholic Church translated the services and liturgies from Latin to the local vernaculars; one may wonder if this caused a drop in religious beliefs. Suddenly religion subjected itself to being judged by intellectual and scientific, without the aesthetic, standards. The Greek Orthodox Church made the lucky mistake, upon translating some of its prayers from Church Greek … of choosing classical Arabic, an entirely dead language. My folks are thus lucky to pray in a mixture of dead Koine (Church Greek) and no less dead Koranic Arabic.”

Fooled by Randomness pp 76-7

The whole point of religious texts is that they are unchanging. Consequently serious believers have plenty of time to establish what they mean, even if the language is archaic or foreign. And there is something about exotic language. It suggests learning, authority, mysticism.

Other professions shamelessly take advantage of this. When my tonsils were untimely ripped from my throat because the medical profession had not discovered that they do actually have a useful function, the operation was performed by an ear, nose and throat specialist.

You will not find such a person today. He or she will now be an otorhinolaryngologist. Which means exactly the same thing. Lawyers are worse, with their voire dire, eiusdem generis, mens rea and such like. As for officials, don’t get me started.

Anyway the thing which makes me sad about all this is that the standard of writing in a society is affected by the standard of reading and hearing. In the days when most English people were regularly subjected to the Bible as translated in the early 1600s and the Book of Common Prayer more or less as written even earlier, they were nudged in a useful direction.

One was not encouraged to revive archaisms like the use of “thou” and “art”, but to write in a simple, graphic, and often monosyllabic way, which as much rhythm and music as the meaning could bear. The loss of this helpful influence must I suppose be born in the interests of doctrinal clarity. It still seems a shame.

Now here is a puzzle. On the one hand we have government officials assuring us that all is well with the Hong Kong media. Carrie Lam says recent troubles at some outlets have had no “chilling effect”. The Secretary for Justice says the government is merely enforcing the law and “cherishes press freedom.”

At the same time there are unmistakable symptoms of media misery. Journalists say they have gone from “Fear” to “Son of Fear” to “Fear Unchained”. Before the next sequel some of them are leaving the theatre.

Indeed, even as officials were assuring us that all was well, three media outlets closed their doors, saying that after the swoop on Stand News they no longer felt safe in the business. Reporting the last two departures the Standard, ignoring the official line that all this has nothing to do with politics, cheerfully announced the “End of the road for two more pan-dem outlets”.

At the end of the week the Economist stated that “the last significant independent news outlet in the city is Hong Kong Free Press”, an accolade which supporters of that publication might find flattering but also a bit ominous.

How did this big gap in perceptions arise? There is a general tendency, with which many journalists are familiar, for people like lawyers, academics and senior civil servants to think they know all there is to know about the media.

This starts from the view that “I could have done this if I had wanted to”, which is true. News work requires a variety of different qualities but anyone who is literate and interested can find a slot to suit him or her somewhere.

Hong Kong newspapers were particularly eclectic in the old days. I worked with people who had been policemen and people who had been convicts. Some of my colleagues had left school at 16 and some of them had PhDs. Many of the expats had been English teachers, because this was the traditional second job of fresh grads arriving in Hong Kong to try their luck. The first job was bar work while they did the British Council teacher training course.

But journalism does require training and practice. The fact that you could have done it does not mean you have an informed opinion about it now. You could have been a brain surgeon but if you didn’t do the training that doesn’t make you an authority on the matter.

Of course all media consumers are entitled to their own views of journalists’ output. You’re paying for it. As Johnson wrote: “The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give, for we that live to please, must please to live.”

Knowledge of the way the business works, on the other hand, must be acquired, not assumed. It is almost axiomatic that if you listen carefully to the judgment in a media case there will be a moment in which it becomes quite clear that the judge has no idea how we work.

It is all very well for the Secretary for Justice to say that the national security law is perfectly clear. That may, for lawyers, be true.

The view from the sub-editors’ desk is different. I have dabbled in journalism for nearly 50 years and for most of those years I knew the applicable law well enough to keep out of trouble. I was an investigative editor for three years; as a columnist my comments on the colonial government were sufficiently critical to prompt a deliberately planted rumour that I was a Communist, a pleasing irony. I have never been successfully either sued or prosecuted.

I have read the national security law and seen what lawyers have done with it. I no longer feel able to tell one way or another whether a story may safely be published or not.

True, this is a new law, and new laws often go through a period in which people are not quite sure what they mean. Hints arise from the early cases, but owing to the Dickensian speed at which the Department of Justice operates we haven’t really got any of those yet. Even the exact meaning of “Free Hong Kong; revolution of our times” awaits an appeal, pending which just putting it here produces a little frisson of anxiety.

In the meantime the weight of the law appears to fall particularly heavily on some media outlets and not on others. It is quite understandable that distant observers, deprived of a close-up view of the department’s commitment to fairness and human rights, should jump to the conclusion that the government is simply suppressing critical voices.

This is reinforced by some procedural eccentricities which have crept in of late. What they amount to is that for a media organisation just being accused of a violation is a death sentence.

Ronny Tong made one of his less inspired observations after the demise of Stand News that the government had not closed it, and he was a bit puzzled as to why it had closed itself.

Let me try to help out here. The chief editor has been arrested and jailed. The computers and other office equipment have been seized by the police. The bank account has been frozen, so it is impossible to pay the surviving staff. It is impossible to continue publishing with no computers and no staff.

It may be that the government hopes to see an independent media sector manned by eager volunteers dispensing news via flocks of highly trained pigeons. But news web sites deprived of their equipment, money and staff are bound to close. What else are they to do? This is an alarming development because it occurrs before anyone has been convicted of anything.

It is interesting to compare this with the experience of other places which, as we are constantly reminded, have their own national security legislation and also legal limits on media.

The last time an editor in the UK was jailed was, I think, in 1949, when the editor of the Daily Mirror served three months for contempt of court. The newspaper had described the acid bath murderer as a murderer while the trial was still in progress.

Oddly enough in the same year the then editor of the Morecambe Visitor – later the scene of my first dip into journalism – was prosecuted for seditious libel. He was acquitted by a jury.

In both cases no equipment was confiscated, no accounts were frozen, and no employees had to be fired. Both the newspapers concerned are still with us.

Try though one must to impute the kindest possible motives to our government it is difficult to believe that officials are unaware of the effects of their actions. Knowing that a mere accusation can result in the immediate closure of a media outlet is intimidating for the staff of any organisation in the business, and also perhaps a dangerous temptation to people who disapprove of it.

I agree that this is not adequately described as a “chilling effect”. It is more like a big freeze. A cherished freedom is being dismantled before our eyes. We do not have capital punishment for people, even after a trial, but we have capital punishment for news media on mere accusation.

The arrest of sundry journalists on sedition charges was followed, as such events usually are these days, by a barrage of prejudicial comment from the police person in charge. I promised to stop complaining about this, so enough said.

However this time we also had a surprising offering from the Secretary for Security, John Lee.

Offending paragraph here: ‘When asked why former directors of Stand News who had already resigned were also arrested, Lee said that “anyone who breached the criminal law… will be pursued for their life time.” He said he strongly supported the police’s “appropriate action” based on “evidence and necessity.”’

Not only is that the sort of thing which used to get reporters into trouble – the quality of the evidence or necessity is a matter for the courts, once an arrest has been made – it also includes a legal error.

The relevant part of the Crimes Ordinance goes like this:

Legal proceedings

(1)No prosecution for an offence under section 10 shall be begun except within 6 months after the offence is committed.

Crimes Ordinance Section 11

Section 10 lists the possible offences and includes conspiracy. So the situation is actually not that offenders will be pursued for their lifetime. As long as they stick to sedition, once six months have passed they are off the hook.

This brings us to an interesting question which will no doubt come up in the proceedings sooner or later. Some of the directors now facing sedition charges are among the six who resigned following the police raid on Apple Daily on June 17. The newspaper closed on June 24 and Stand News then announced the resignations, among other changes.

Yesterday’s arrests took place on December 29. That is more than six months after June 24. I suppose it is possible that the directors’ resignations did in some legal sense not take immediate effect. But it seems rather unlikely that in their short period as ex-directors in everything but name they had anything to do with Stand News content.

Has the effect of the six month deadline been (ahem) overlooked?

There is putting a brave face on bad news, there is spin, and there are lies. All three were on offer after the latest Legco elections, spurned by more than 70 percent of the registered voters.

The South China Morning Post treated the whole exercise as if it was a real election, with uncertain results, and hailed DAB leader Starry Lee as the “Queen of Votes” for collecting 96,000 of them.

Ms Lee seems a decent sort as DAB members go. She is at least neither nasty nor stupid. So I hope this accolade works out better for her than it did for the last Monarch of Votes, Chu Hui-dick, who is now in jail. Dictatorial regimes do not like politicians with their own popular following.

The Standard’s front page headline was “DAB remains dominant force”, which must have come as news to many people, including Michael Shum, the reporter who wrote the front page story. Paragraph 2 said: “Despite its numbers, however, the DAB does not have enough seats to become the dominant party.” Mr Shum’s interviewees thought the new Legco would be guided behind the scenes by the Liaison Office, a plausible theory after they had done so much to guide voters.

RTHK interviewed all the usual people, stumbling on what seemed to be the party line, that “it’s a new electoral system” so a low turn-out is OK. This consolation prize was offered by Ms Lee, Regina Ip and Maria Tam. The tradition of independent journalism still produces occasional post-mortem twitches in Broadcast Drive, so we were also treated to an academic who thought the government’s protestations that the turn-out really did not matter clashed with its frantic pre-poll efforts to get voters to put in an appearance.

Carrie Lam came out with an interesting reply to a reporter who recalled that she had congratulated voters on turning out for the 2019 District Board polls, in which the pro-government candidates were routed.

“Things and people change a lot over a decade. During my four-and-a-half-term, I have braved many storms. I have fully realised the political situation in Hong Kong. So if you asked me today about what I said in 2017, 2018, 2019 as chief executive, I can tell you it’s meaningless,” she told reporters, according to the station.

The implications of this are a bit worrying. Does it mean that what she says now will be meaningless in 2023? Today’s quotes will self-destruct in two years?

Looking at the reactions as a group we can draw one other conclusion. The people who thought spoiling your ballot would be a good way of protesting were wrong. All the defensive comments concentrated on the turn-out, which included the crowds of people who turned up only to spoil their ballots.

The Beijing-owned press solved the turn-out problem by ignoring it, and reporting instead on the turn-out of the election committee, which was very high.

Officials carefully avoided some of the results. Chen Dong, of the Liaison Office, said that the “the legislators-elect came from all walks of life”, which was at best an exaggeration. Much was made before the vote of the fact that two of the election committee candidates came from unmistakably “grassroots” backgrounds. But they both lost. The two token foreigners were also passed over.

The most innovative post-election comment came from the Beijing government, which produced a White Paper the day after. It ran to 140,000 words and Ms Carrie Lam, who often seems to live on a different planet from the rest of us, expressed the hope that many people would read it in full.

Shorter version from Liu Guangyan, of the local Foreign Ministry outpost: “The central government has never wavered in its commitment, changed its sincerity or stopped its efforts to support Hong Kong in developing democracy. Any rational observer can clearly see that since Hong Kong’s return to China, its people have gained much greater access to political participation and enjoy more democratic rights than ever before. Democracy in Hong Kong is flourishing in full swing,”

That’s either a vigourous spin or a pack of lies, depending on your point of view. But it is a good deal more defensible than this, from the China Daily: “Under more than 150-year British colonial rule, Hong Kong did not have democracy and of course there were no elections. Only after Hong Kong returned to the motherland did the city have democracy and elections.”

A brief time-line:

  • 1952 First Urban Council elections
  • 1956 Half of UC members elected
  • 1960 Official Liao Chengzhi warns that China will invade Hong Kong if proposed democratic reforms are implemented.
  • 1982 Partly elected District Boards
  • 1985 First elections to the Legislative Council fill 12 functional constituency seats
  • 1986 Regional Council set up to do UC things in the New Territories
  • 1991 New-look Legco with 18 directly elected seats
  • 1994 UC, RC and District Boards become wholly elected. Everyone gets a vote.
  • 1995 First entirely elected Legco
  • 1997 Handover. Wholly appointed Provisional Legco takes over, reverses all changes after 1994.

It can certainly be argued, and cannot be disputed, that colonialism is a fundamentally undemocratic system. Hong Kong people had no voice in the choice of the Governor. They don’t have much of a voice in the choice of the Chief Executive either.

It has also been suggested that Britain showed little interest in democratic developments until it became clear the territory was soon going to be handed over to someone else. On the other hand the argument against democratic reform in Hong Kong routinely advanced for 30 years was that China would not accept it.

We are now, according to Mr Chen, upon the path of “good-quality democracy.” This seems to involve democratic rights in homeopathic doses combined with newspeak in industrial quantities. Enjoy.

This joke has gone on long enough. I am prepared to believe that the system of government on the mainland is effective in many ways. It can certainly be argued that most of the population are content with it, although in view of what happens to those who express discontent this is hard to establish.

By no sensible stretch of the meaning of the word can the Chinese system be described as democratic. Yet that seems to be the current line.

Of course it is “democratic” with a prefix. There is a long history of this sort of thing. When military take-overs were frequent events in the 1960s it was noticed that the resultant regimes frequently described themselves as a new variation on Democracy, dignified with a prefix: Authoritative, Developmental, Alternative, or in one case just New.

These interesting concepts were generally dismissed outside the country where they were the official theory of government, as a mere cosmetic effort to keep a despotic regime in the “Free World” where it would continue to receive American largesse.

This however is not the explanation for what has come over explainers of the Chinese system, of which this (from the China Daily) is a representative example: “The Chinese mainland is well known for putting the concept of “whole process democracy” into real practice. Our country has successfully converted the vision and values of democracy into a scientific, institutionalized system.”

And how does that work, one wonders? Here is the Global Times (spotted by Hemlock): “Whole-process democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state.”

Well democracy is an easy-going lady, willing to consort with a wide variety of systems and habits, but I don’t think she is as broad-minded as that. It’s a fuzzy concept and nobody suggests that there is a clear dividing line. But that does not mean the difference between democracy and non-democracy is a trivial matter.

Most writers come up with three or four accepted variations: direct or participatory – the town meeting or the Athenian assembly; elitist – where leaders are chosen by the public from a limited group; and pluralist – where groups compete with each other to influence policy.

Some people have a separate category for “social democracy”, meaning the idea common in Europe that the state has a wide range of responsibilities for the health and well-being of citizens.

The longest list I could find is from an Indian student who gets up to eight: Direct democracy, Representative democracy, Presidential democracy, Parliamentary democracy, Authoritarian democracy, Participatory democracy, Islamic democracy and social democracy.

Authoritarian democracy looks like a contradiction in terms. It is reserved for two polities: Russia under Putin and Hong Kong. Yes, and I’m a bit dubious about the Islamic one too. But of Whole Process Democracy there is no sign.

Nor is there any sign of that commonplace of mainland propaganda, often preceded by “so-called”, the spurned “Western democracy”.

It seems that defenders of democracy have the same problem as defenders of medicine, who struggle to get over the message that there is no such thing as conventional medicine, or alternative medicine, or traditional medicine. There is just medicine, which is the stuff which can be shown to work.

There is nothing particularly Western about democracy. The largest example is India. In some ways the most successful one is Japan. Dare we mention Taiwan?

While it may be difficult to define exactly what is democracy, it is easy to identify some characteristics which are incompatible with it. Aristotle, who gets some of the blame for originating the idea, said that “the basis of a democratic state is liberty”. John Locke, who gets some of the blame for the American revolution, said that no government could be legitimate unless it enjoys the consent of the governed, and that consent cannot be rendered except through majority rule. John Stuart Mill said that restrictions on the expression of opinions are never justified. The 20th century political theorist Robert Dahl concluded that “because democracy is not only a political system of ‘rule by the people’ but necessarily also a system of rights, a government which infringes those rights is to that extent undemocratic.”

Mr Dahl also offered a set of requirements for a democratic system. It should include:

  • Free, fair, and frequent elections.
  • Freedom of expression.
  • Independent sources of information.
  • Freedom of association.

I do not think it is possible to see China meeting these requirements, even if you are prepared to overlook what the Economist recently described as “a form of tyranny in which individuals are crushed for displeasing the party, whether feminists, human-rights lawyers, gay activists, creators of art deemed “unhealthy”, underground Christians or Uyghurs.”

It is natural for countries to aspire to democracy, or if that is inconvenient for the democratic label.

Mr Dahl again:

History—particularly 20th-century history— demonstrates that democracy uniquely possesses a number of features that most people, whatever their basic political beliefs, would consider desirable: (1) democracy helps to prevent rule by cruel and vicious autocrats; (2) modern representative democracies do not fight wars with one another; (3) countries with democratic governments tend to be more prosperous than countries with nondemocratic governments; and (4) democracy tends to foster human development—as measured by health, education, personal income, and other indicators—more fully than other forms of government do.

We must recognise that countries following non-democratic paths may also achieve the happy results of avoiding cruel autocrats, not fighting wars, getting rich and fostering human development. Good for them.

But there is a simple logical trap here. Just because all dogs have four legs it does not follow that all animals with four legs are dogs. Achieving peace, prosperity and development while avoiding viciousness is praiseworthy, but does not demonstrate democracy.

We must all hope that the mainland has found its way to an effective and successful system of government, if only because that system is the gift which is now being bestowed on us. But democracy it is not.

Our Chief Executive seems to be trying to confuse us. Earlier last week she gave an exclusive interview to the Global Times.

Why would a busy official like Mrs Lam waste her time on a publication which few people in Hong Kong read? She’s a woman of the people, folks. The Global Times is a sort of National Inquirer without the UFO stories. I’m sure she reads it every day.

The pearl extracted from this unpromising oyster by local reporters went like this: “There is a saying that when the government is doing well and its credibility is high, the voter turnout will decrease because the people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government. Therefore, I think the turnout rate does not mean anything.”

Really? Day after day we have been bombarded with printed exhortations to “Vote for Hong Kong”. Senior officials, including Ms Lam, begged us to do our duty. National security enthusiasts warned that urging people not to vote was a recently created criminal offence.

Where did this unlikely “saying” come from? It is apparently beyond the reach of Google. Can it be that Ms Lam made it up? Cynics will suspect that our leaders expect the turnout to plummet and are now trying to get their excuses in first.

But the implications of the new view are rather depressing. Are we now to suppose that the law against urging people not to vote is superfluous? If refraining from voting is a way to express approval of the job the government is doing, why should people be prosecuted for urging their fellow citizens to offer their support in this way?

We should have some specialised parties to make the most of this opportunity to put your opinion painlessly. We could have Lam Loving Layabouts, Couch Potatoes for Communism, Sun-bathing Supporters of the Status Quo. Non-voters could gather in some convenient pub and have a real political party.

Mind you Ms Lam does not seem to have thought out the implications of the “saying” very carefully. If you vote for a government-approved candidate (the only kind on offer these days) you will be supporting the government. If you don’t vote you will be congratulating the government on doing well and having high credibility.

Voters have only one way to express disapproval of the government, and that is to spoil the ballot paper. I don’t suppose this is quite what Ms Lam was hoping to encourage, but that is the clear implication. No doubt the ICAC will be looking into it.

We occasionally hear complaints that the Immigration Department takes very little interest in what happens to domestic helpers once the employment contract on which the department insists has been signed and implemented.

This now appears unfair. The department is not interested in the parts of the contract which concern such trivia as the helper’s hours, accommodation, food or pay. But it is manfully struggling to enforce one item – the duration.

Because of COVID there is currently, it appears, a shortage of helpers. This has led to some potential employers offering terms better than the minimum required, and some helpers wishing to change their employer as a result.

This, you might suppose, is the normal operation of economics at work. A commodity is scarce, so those offering it become more valuable. This is an example of market forces at play, something of which our government has traditionally been fond.

Not, it seems, where foreign ladies on the standard contract are concerned. The Immigration Department, according to a local tree carcass, is determined to combat “job-hopping, which is when domestic helpers prematurely terminate their employment contracts or deliberately perform poorly to force their employers to fire them to change employers.”

Statistically this is apparently a growing problem, if it is a problem. In the first ten months of this year the department approved 340,000 domestic helpers visas, of which 10,153 involved “premature” changes of employer.

Some 4,400 cases were “suspected of job-hopping”, (compared with 1,776 cases last year) and 1,748 were actually denied visas on this ground, compared with 319 last year.

The example offered by the department spokesman went like this: “For example, the department received a premature termination of the contract earlier, claiming that she was treated poorly …after contacting the original employer, the officers found that the helper asked for a pay rise and resigned after finding a new employer. Therefore, both her compensation and visa application were denied.”

As a way of detecting abuse this is distressingly one-sided. “In suspicious cases,” the department spokesman said, “the department will contact the employer to find out the reason for early termination and will deny visa applications in cases of confirmed job-hopping.”

Surely this is a rather naive way of settling the matter. After all the employer has his own interests to consider. He wishes to employ another helper. So if contacted by the department he is not going to say “I don’t know why she left. But the fact that we expected her to work 16 hours a day and sleep with the dog may have had something to do with it.” Much easier to say she had another job offer, although why the helper should have shared this interesting piece of information with her ex-employer is a puzzle.

The standard contract is interesting on the matter of termination. The employer has a wide range of options – disobedience, conduct “inconsistent with the true and faithful discharge of his/her duties”, dishonesty, is “habitually neglectful in his/her duties, and any other ground on which the employer would be entitled to terminate without notice at common law.

The employee’s options are more limited. They start with: “if he/she reasonably fears physical danger by violence or disease which was not contemplated by his/her contract of employment expressly or by necessary implication.”

I do not know what was going through the mind of the person who wrote this, which comes from the Immigration Department’s “Explanatory Notes”. Does the department think that some contracts expressly or implicitly require domestic helpers to put up with violence or disease?

Then we are offered “ill-treatment”, which is not defined, and the common law thing.

This, however, appears to be rather a poor explanatory note. In the Department’s FAQs for employers it says that “An employer and his helper alike may terminate the contract prior to its expiry by giving not less than one month’s notice in writing or by paying one month’s wages to the other party.”

This is the usual arrangement for most of us and I do not see why the department should be abusing its powers over work visas to make it difficult for foreign domestic helpers to do the same thing. No doubt it is very inconvenient for some employers to lose their helper early. But this is a hazard of employment generally. Just when you’re happy with the new recruit you get a slap from the invisible hand and she leaves for another job. As Saki quotably wrote: “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.”

Rich people have been complaining for centuries about the difficulty of finding and keeping servants. It is not the job of the Immigration Department to protect the interests of employers by punishing employees who resign to go to a better job. Job-hopping is not illegal. Paying a helper more than the stipulated minimum is not illegal either.

And in view of the government’s lamentable record in protecting, or rather failing to protect, the interests of foreign domestic helpers, so that the provisions of the standard contract are in many households an entertaining work of pure fiction, the right to change employers is probably the best protection they have.

The search for national security frequent flier miles is leading some of our leaders to strange places.

While nobody was looking the Security Bureau has hatched the interesting idea that all the government’s uniform-wearing departments should sprout uniformed youth groups. This is an attempt at a “do-it-yourself” patch for the education system, which in the view of security fanatics is failing to inculcate acceptable quantities of discipline and patriotic enthusiasm.

I stumbled across this by accident. In a government press release on a Customs and Excise event it said that “Customs Youth Leaders” had run a game stall. Who they?

Over to the department’s website, where all is revealed: “The Customs Youth Leader Corps is a new youth uniformed group established by Customs under the ‘Customs YES’ programme. It aims to help members boost their self-confidence and develop team-oriented leadership skills through disciplinary training, regular drills and different education-oriented activities, thus paving the way for them to become distinguished youth leaders in the community.”

The Customs YES programme has been running for 10 years or so – easily predating current political strains — and involved the usual sort of visits, excursions and such for school or youth groups. No doubt the original intention was to boost recruiting. The uniformed bit is the new thing.

The atmosphere pervading the new activity can be gauged from this report in the pro-government media of a visit to a local PLA base: 

“Customs hopes that, through this visit, members of the CYLC would have a more comprehensive understanding of the motherland and the people’s army, as well as a deeper understanding of the splendid civilisation and magnificent achievements of the Chinese nation. Moreover, by viewing the models of the PLA’s military equipment, the members could witness closely the PLA’s advanced development in military equipment and its glorious history in maintaining Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability. All of the members also expressed their excitement and deep encouragement after the visit, which has enabled them to correctly understand national affairs and strengthen their recognition of national identity.”

It’s magnificent, but it’s not journalism, to paraphrase General Bosquet.

Well naturally I wondered, who else is getting up to this sort of thing; surely not the Correctional Services Department? Oh yes. “Rehabilitation Pioneer Leaders is a youth uniformed group established in July 2018. Youngsters with leadership potential are recruited, brought together and offered diversified training with a view to broadening their horizon, developing their potential and discipline as well as strengthening a sense of social responsibility. They are also encouraged to actively contribute to the society in future by helping promote law-abiding and inclusive values for a better Hong Kong.”

The possibilities in this one look really interesting. The department offers visits to “institutions” (prisons) and chats with PICs (persons in custody or, as we used to say, prisoners). Also the inevitable summer camp only lasts three days, which suggests that the usual orgy of foot drill may be omitted.

With a sinking heart I turned to the Immigration Department, which offers this: “… the Department has launched a new youth training programme, namely ‘Immigration Department Youth Leaders’. It aims at providing disciplinary and leadership training to students of Secondary 3 to Secondary 6 so as to help them foster positive values and the spirit of serving the society, as well as to widen their horizons.”

And eventually, to where all this should perhaps have started, the meeting of the Legco Security Panel last September, which actually had a menu item on the subject of uniformed department youth groups, and a government paper on the subject. In which, further horror, we find the Fire Services Department: “FSD aims at recruiting about 200 students for the uniformed group in the 2021/22 school year. FSD plans to arrange regular foot drill and various training programmes for the uniformed group.”

The Security Bureau also notes that the Civil Aid Services and Auxiliary Medical Service both have cadet branches. These have been around for a long time and are not really quite the same sort of thing.

Why, you may wonder, is the Government Flying Service not roped in for the cause? It seems they get off the hook because it’s a very small department and they already do a lot of cooperative stuff with the Air Cadet Corps.

Apart from the GFS it is evidently the bureau’s view that every department in its territory should have a uniformed youth wing. The Security Panel, as far as one can tell from the minutes, swallowed all this happily and asked for more.

In a sense all this is nothing new. The Police have had a youth wing for a long time, the Junior Police Call, for which they rather implausibly claim an active membership of 170,000. For a long time this has performed the useful function of providing young people with a friendly encounter with the Force before they reach the prime age for being stopped and searched in MTR stations.

Even by other standards the new bodies are quite small. Those launched in the other departments only run to about 800 members altogether. The Boy Scouts, who are generally considered the largest of the civilian (or at least non-government – they are all pretty militaristic) uniformed groups, have 95,000 members. The CAS and AMS have over 6,000 between them.

No doubt the departmental groups, which seem to have no financial constraints and can offer interesting experiences beyond the reach of civilians, will grow and prosper. Nor is this the upper limit of the Bureau’s plans: “Security Bureau is considering establishing an elite youth leadership corps by selecting outstanding members from various uniformed groups. More diversified and valued events, such as training camps specially designed for elite youth leaders, becoming work shadows of government officials or summer internship opportunities, will be provided to them, with a view to grooming them to become the pillars of our future society.”

And the question which all this raises, or at least the big question, is whether we want the national security people to have a side gig running youth organisations, and whether in particular the Security Bureau is the right place to be selecting and grooming the “pillars of our future society”.

Ibsen wrote that “The spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom … are the pillars of society.” These do not seem to be a major preoccupation of the Security Bureau.

And after all bureaucratic government is based on the notion of division of labour. Education is a matter for the Education people and Security is a matter for the Security bods. The care and feeding of uniformed groups, as it happens, has hitherto been left to the Home Affairs Bureau, which subsidises 11 of them. Other services to youth come under the Social Welfare Department.

If another bureau is going to trample in this area we may see disputes over fairness and equity. Will the Young Customers, or the Young Immigrants, be seen to be spoiled compared with the Boys Brigade and the Girl Guides? Will established organisations be happy to see an influx of lavishly-supported competitors, possibly followed by the departure of their “outstanding members” to the new super-group?

The needs of youngsters are already inconveniently split between Home Affairs, Social Welfare and Education. Bringing a fourth party in is perhaps going to lead to confusion and incoherence. We may also wonder about the effect on the departments concerned. The CAS and AMS have cadets because they have useful work for cadets to do. Merely showing the future pillars of society the departmental ropes may become a nuisance.

I also have other worries. Let me insert here that I used to be a youth leader and, later on, a trainer of other youth leaders. Training is necessary. There is a difference between leading a youth group and training new departmental recruits. Fundamentally a youth leader has to convince his charges that he is there to serve their needs, not for them to meet his or someone else’s.

Then there are other possible problems. No doubt everyone involved appears to be propelled by the highest motives, but that is what we used to think about the Catholic Church.

Many years ago a HKU scholar actually did a research project on uniformed groups in Hong Kong and concluded that “participation in uniformed groups was associated with higher levels of social skills, helping attitudes, and leadership”. But that does not help us very much in deciding what to do with our young members. Do people with helping attitudes etc gravitate to uniformed groups or do group members become more helpful?

The only curriculum item which seems to be of universal interest to the new groups is foot drill. A tactful choice, as the Secretary for Security, John Lee, recently expressed the view that “Marching is an important part of discipline and team spirit training.” But is it?

Some people enjoy foot drill and some people enjoy watching it. I am in both categories. But during many hours of watching this activity between bursts of providing the music for it, I did not see any particular educational merit in it. It has the obvious practical attraction that one adult can keep 50 kids busy simultaneously, and the uniformed departments have plenty of people qualified to teach it. This is not the usual way of choosing your teaching programme.

Anyway I have retired from the parade music business. To Europeans of my generation the idea of teaching kids to goose step is obscene.

If I may make a parting suggestion though, the kids – and the musicians – would find life easier if local parade organisers dropped the ambition to march at a Napoleonic 120 paces a minute. The French Foreign Legion achieves high levels of discipline and team spirit marching at 88.

Some sort of surreptitious purge seems to be going on in Hong Kong universities. People are mysteriously resigning, for “personal reasons” which seem just as spurious as the “business reasons” which are usually adduced to explain corporate departures.

Large numbers of people whose political loyalties did not fit the new regime have been fired, sometimes for rather unconvincing reasons, sometimes for no stated reason, and sometimes for explicitly political offences.

The pro-government press is still baying for more blood, naming individuals suitable for culling with a cheerful disregard for the inhibitions imposed on the less favoured media by the laws of libel.

The justification for all this is the fear that local students have been or may be “radicalised” by the university experience. They arrive, fresh-faced simpletons, in local lecture theatres, only to be corrupted and led astray by secretly subversive professors. Or that’s the story.

This is actually a most unjustified fear. Many years ago the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Lancaster was provoked by repeated complaints about the effect of university life on the morals and politics of students into writing a spirited defence.

Charles Carter, the VC concerned, was an interesting character. He was a devout Quaker who had been jailed during World War 2 for refusing to participate. He was entitled to both Prof and Dr but refused to use either. He firmly vetoed the suggestion that the university’s new campus should include a presidential palace and lived in a rented house in the town nearby.

Charles and I became, rather inconveniently, friends. Student leaders in those days were expected to be at loggerheads with the university administration but we managed occasionally to disappoint both our sets of supporters by failing to disagree.

Charles’s response to the complainers was supposed to be delivered to a dinner for local worthies and supporters… and the press, who of course seized on the most controversial bit. This was where he said that students spent 18 formative years living with their parents and at least 12 in the school system before they arrived at a university. So it was most unlikely that the three years at tertiary level were responsible for any personal or political deficiencies with which they emerged.

The press had, as a matter of course, been supplied with an advance copy of the speech. To the horror of the Lancashire Evening Post, who had already filed his story, when Charles came to the fighting talk his distaste for warfare woke up and he missed it out.

This led to a lengthy discussion of journalistic ethics. Was the LEP reporter obliged to call his office and cancel the story or could we charitably suppose that the omission of the best news material was an accident, and its inclusion in the press would still be welcome?

Well it’s not really relevant here but having got this far I can’t stop without telling you what happened: in the end the story was left as it was. The VC did not complain.

However, the important point for our purposes is that critics of student behaviour often grossly over-rate the influence in any direction of university education. This delusion has sometimes afflicted university administrators as well.

Some years before my retirement there was a campaign to persuade us all that every lesson should have “intended outcomes”. These in turn would slot into “intended outcomes” of the course, and those in turn would relate to the “intended outcomes” of the whole university.

This was never a success. The people actually concerned with delivering classes never believed in it. This disbelief was reinforced by the rule that all “outcomes” had to be measurable. So such important but unstatistical matters as wisdom and judgement were ruled out altogether.

Actually opportunities for radicalisation rarely come up. Attempts to provide “breadth” in education commonly involve taking a wider range of subjects, but these are still taught by people whose qualification is extremely specialised. In the vast majority of classes the merits of petrol bombs and teargas simply do not come up.

Indeed many of my colleagues were reluctant to engage in any interaction with students outside the subjects they were teaching, on the grounds that they had no qualification relevant to personal problems and did not wish to risk possible legal repercussions if they erred. The contrary view was that, after a conscientious plug for the professionals in the Counselling Service and the eager amateurs in the Chaplaincy, we should accept that students had a right to the sympathetic ear of their choice and if you were so honoured it was up to you to do your best.

Nobody was looking for a chance to explain the merits of dialectical materialism, or indeed of Jacksonian democracy.

So I felt a certain lack of enthusiasm for the news that students at my old stamping ground are now subjected to a compulsory two-hour lecture from some government stooge on the merits of the national security law. This featured no less than 200 Powerpoint slides, according to reports, which I would respectfully suggest is too many. There is also a multiple choice exam – the easiest kind to run, because it can be graded by a computer.

The idea that this is going to make any difference seems rather far-fetched, in the light of the failure of much more serious efforts to change student views.

I remember a brief row in student circles over a mainlander who ran for a student office at City U. This was in the days when student unions were still allowed. It then emerged that he had been a member of the Young Communists. The other members of his “team” dropped out, complaining that this should not have been concealed from the voters.

Some of my students turned up the next day in red scarfs. They explained that they were protesting at this discrimination, not because they were communists but because membership of the Young Communists was effectively compulsory if you were selected. They had all been in it. It should not be regarded as evidence of any political view.

In the 1940s a British government, concerned at the decline in religion, decreed that every schoolday should start with a “non-denominational act of worship”. This provision was faithfully observed at every school I attended. The decline in religion continued unabated.

Changing people’s minds is harder than it looks. It is quite easy, on the other hand, to produce an appearance of agreement by suppressing the expression of views you don’t agree with. This is, though, hardly compatible with the life of a university, which is based on the principle first enunciated by Pierre Bayle, that “everyone has the right to be mistaken and to hold ill-founded views.”

The characteristic of a university, if I may borrow a concept from Pirsig’s fascinating book on motorcycle maintenance, is that its purpose is the pursuit of truth and its method is the use of reason.

If the first of these is abandoned and the second disdained, then what you have left is a nice building and a lot of nice people. But, though it may look like a university, and talk like a university, it is no longer a university. And that is the destination towards which some people are urging us.