Curious piece in the Standard the other day about drinking, or, as the paper cheerfully put it, “boozing”. This reported the results of a large survey conducted in October and November into local drinking habits.

This has the unfortunate result that the information contained is already outdated, because the legislature has just passed a ban on selling alcoholic drinks to people under the age of 18. We do not know what effect this ban will have, but presumably it will produce some change in local drinking habits.

The survey was conducted by the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society, which is interested in the matter because alcohol is a “known carcinogen”. One rather got the impression that they would like to see it banned completely.

The chairman of the society’s cancer education committee, one Rico Lu King-yin, from asserted flatly that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption”, which was well ahead of the evidence the society was offering.

As so often happens with crusades of this kind, righteousness triumphed over accuracy. I presume the society was responsible for the catchy line in the first paragraph of the story saying that “more than a third of people in the SAR binge drink”.

Further down the story we were told that almost 70 per cent of respondents had “been drinking” in the past three months. Of these, 45 per cent were binge drinkers. I take the “almost 70 per cent” to be a euphemism for 69 per cent. Then 45 per cent of that will get us to 31 per cent of the population as a whole, which is not more than a third. It is less than a third.

Still 30 per cent of the population binge drinking seems an awful lot. You would expect on most evenings to find the streets littered with comatose alcoholics, the gutters running with blood and vomit.

But the society’s definition of binge drinking explains why it is so popular. A binge, apparently, consists of drinking “five cans of beer, five glasses of wine or five shots of liquor in one session”.

You cannot be serious. Five cans of beer is not a binge, it’s an aperitif. The ancient university which I attended was often the scene of formal dinners in the traditional style. This involved a glass or two of sherry beforehand, white wine with the fish, red wine with the meat, Madeira with dessert and brandy with the coffee. Oblivious of the fact that everyone present was now a binge drinker, we passed on to the port. And some of us were only 18.

Looking back at my lifestyle in England I suspect there were long periods when I had a “binge” every night. I doubt if I ever went down to the pub and had less than three pints of bitter, which would be more than equivalent to five of the “sex in a canoe” stuff which comes in cans around here.

I am sure the Anti-cancer Society intends well, but there is something to be said for treading lightly when condemning other peoples’ pleasures for which you have no taste.

Drinking is a certainly potentially dangerous. In excess it can lead to a variety of diseases and also to hazardous behaviour. People need to control themselves.

On the other hand human beings have been drinking alcoholic drinks for as long as historians can remember. Some of the oldest writings are lists of wine jars. Yet we are not extinct.

The question about risky activities is not just are they risky, but is the risk worth it? People like to drink. It brings pleasure to hard lives. As the old Irish song puts it “It makes me feel content and happy.”

So drinking is dangerous. Crossing the road is dangerous, Living is dangerous.

As an old German poem put it (translation by Bernard Levin)

If you smoke and if you drink

Life is shorter than you think.

If such things are not your game

You will snuff it just the same.

People vary greatly in their enthusiasm, and ability to digest, alcohol. They also vary in their appetite for risks. More information is always a good thing, as long as it’s accurate. But lay off the propaganda please.


Pissed off at the Post

The finer points of journalistic ethics are rarely discussed in Hong Kong media, so it was nice to see one surface the other week.

The spark was provided by a piece by Steve Vines in the Hong Kong Free Press, stating that he had, after some trivial dispute to which we were not introduced, decided not to write any more for the South China Morning Post.

He went on to say that he should have made this decision in February, when the Post published an interview with Gui Minhai, the Hong Kong bookseller who was abducted by Chinese agents from Thailand, and has been in prison ever since.

The interview was conducted in what we may politely call a custodial setting. Mr Vines thought this was simply a print version of those coerced televised confessions which have become a feature of the People’s Secret Police at work in recent years; he spent the rest of his column denouncing the practice and arguing that media organisations should refuse invitations to participate in it.

The following day brought a response in the South China Morning Post, written by Alex Lo.

Mr Lo was ill-served by his editors. The headline “Some people mistake egoism for bravery” captured the venomous tone of Mr Lo’s opinion of Mr Vines quite well, but there was nothing in either article about bravery.

Mr Vines did not claim to be brave – he is a big cheese in the food business so giving up Post work is neither a financial sacrifice nor a professional risk for him – and Mr Lo did not accuse him of cowardice. The headline was, as we put it in sub-editing circles, crap.

A second deck of headline “Long-time columnist Stephen Vines has decided to stop writing for the Post, but not before discomforting those of us he left behind,” contained the sort of error which convinces former Post sub-editors like me that the paper has gone downhill.

(Note to subs: “Discomfort” is the noun. The verb you wanted is “discomfiting”.)

A couple of generalisations to warm up, then Mr Lo spends four paragraphs attacking Mr Vines, before the bookseller interview comes into view. Mr Lo’s take on this is “It could have been handled better and I hope everyone has learned a lesson”, which looks suspiciously like a way of translating “I didn’t agree with it but I want to keep my job.”

Mr Lo then says that Mr Vines’s timing leaves a puzzle. If the interview was objectionable, why not say so at the time? This is a valid point. Should Mr Vines perhaps have entitled his piece “What I thought about the Gui interview but didn’t say at the time”?

On the other hand Mr Lo’s work also leaves us with a question. If you are writing an article denouncing egotism, would it perhaps be a good idea not to use the word “I“ five times in 11 paragraphs, one of which starts “In my 20 years at the Post”?

Well, the interesting point in all this for me is not the Gui Interview, which presents no ethical dilemma at all – it shouldn’t have been done – but the question whether a columnist should hold him- or herself responsible in any way for what appears in the rest of the newspaper.

This is a point which is neglected in most media ethics writing, which tends to look at the problems of individual stories as they present themselves to individual editors, or less often to individual reporters.

The only exception I could find when I was teaching this stuff was a gentleman called John Merrill, who seemed to be engaged in a single-handed attempt to persuade the journalism profession, or at least journalism teachers, to take up existentialism as a philosophical key to ethical questions.

Mr Merrill wanted journalists to be aware of and responsive to the doings of their media organisation, as well as their role in those doings. Indeed this view has a great deal to commend it. Media production is usually a team game (blogs and columns excepted), and if there is guilt, it should be shared.

However it is not a widely-shared view among  journalists, most of whom are willing to work for anyone who is willing to pay them, provided they are not asked to transgress ethical limits, which are drawn quite broadly.

Freelance reporters will regard their responsibility as being limited to the story they are working on. Editors generally regard themselves as neutral technicians, administering a process which makes material publishable without changing it. Window or Whippet News: the skills are the same.

Whether this is applicable to opinion writing does not, for most of us, come up. If you stick to news the facts should be the facts.

Editorial writers, who are accustomed to writing down opinions expressed by someone else – the editor, proprietor, or perhaps a committee – have sometimes taken a pride in their versatility.

One man wrote, according to legend, for two New York newspapers with diametrically opposed political views. Sometimes he would write a piece for one denouncing as unmitigated bilge the opinion he had expressed in the other the previous day.

But that is not really relevant here. The question is what are the rules for the columnist who is allowed, and expected, to express his own opinion, and what he should do if the rest of the newspaper does not agree with him?

Personally I have always looked at this in a backwards sort of way. News media should be encouraged to provide platforms for the widest possible range of views. An outlet which only puts out stuff it agrees with is failing its readers.

But a wide range of opinions is only possible if a wide range of opinion writers are willing to see their work on the same page as things they thoroughly disagree with. The more odd or unpredictable your views the more you need to find an editor who believes that diversity is a virtue.

When Alan Castro was editor of The Standard this belief was implemented with enthusiasm. Although Mr Castro was an early pioneer of the “Beijing is beautiful” school of thought he made a conscious effort to include pro-Taiwan columnists, and happily tolerated loose cannons like me.

I still remember his horrified reaction to a piece I wrote urging the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which at that time was still illegal in Hong Kong. But he printed it.

Unfortunately this view of media obligations was not universal in those days, and is almost extinct in Hong Kong now.

This is not a personal complaint. As a columnist or reviewer you find that opportunities come and go. Different page editors want to implement their own ideas, which may or may not include you. Individual pieces may hit a nerve somewhere and you read to your surprise in your usual slot that “Tim Hamlett is on holiday”. Best not to ask what went wrong. You never know whether the reason given is the real one.

I try to remember that your departure is the last thing people are going to recall about you. Better to go quietly into that good night than to go whingeing. A thought which Mr Frederick Fung might usefully have considered a few months ago.

Anyway I no longer need the money. But it does seem that Hong Kong media are becoming increasingly separated by ideology. And if you try to create a space where a variety of views are expressed you find that the holders of those views are not prepared to participate.

Pro-government people will not write for independent publications, and independent people will not write for pro-government ones, which indeed do not want their output. The historic practice of Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei, which only print stuff which they – and the Liaison Office – agree with, is spreading.

People in one camp will raise eyebrows if they just agree to be interviewed by publications in the other. Where is the marketplace of ideas where different opinions can contend, can be compared and contrasted? RTHK is still trying, bless ‘em, but it’s a government department.

So I am sorry Mr Vines is absenting himself from the pages of the Post, though not very sorry, because I stopped reading it years ago. Mr Lo says “none of us has noticed”, without saying who “us” is in this context. Did he go round the office asking or is it him and his dog?

I fear a lot of other people will not have noticed either, because they no longer expect to see a wide range of views in the Post. This is not a criticism of the Post, which is in this respect much like most of the other Hong Kong media.

They really should do something about the headlines, though.

If you live anywhere near Shatin you have seen his face. A young man, wearing glasses, apparently going for the Harry Potter look. Sometimes he shares the poster, or minibus ad, with another gentleman, who is our District Board representative. Also present, the DAB logo.

The young man is not a District Board member. What is going on here?  Well basically the DAB is cheating, though without breaking the law. The same thing happened in the last Legco election.

Posters and publicity for people appeared long before the campaigning period began. There were no explicitly political slogans attached to them, but in due course it turned out that the person whose picture you had been seeing every day was in fact the pro-government candidate in your constituency.

This is an expensive way of getting some extra name recognition. It is, though, perfectly legal. The limit on election expenses starts when you are nominated. Before that you are merely a “prospective candidate” and if you like seeing your face on the side of a minibus that is OK as long as you don’t describe yourself as a “candidate”.

In the old days when the list of candidates was not censored by government officials you could say there was nothing unfair about this. Pro-government candidates, or prospective candidates, were only doing what any other candidate could do.

Of course less well-heeled candidates might struggle to afford large public displays, but there are cheaper options. However times have changed. Potential candidates who do not enjoy the support of the government do not know whether they are candidates or not until the Returning Officer has pruned the list.

Pro-government candidates do not have to worry about this. They are in no danger of disqualification. Candidates who are not pro-government, on the other hand, may find that they are also not candidates. So efforts made before the nomination period will be wasted.

This is unfair. No doubt people who like the arrangement will say that it makes no difference, because the advertising is all removed when campaigning starts.

But this is not true. It is true of posters, hoardings and such like, because when you stop paying for them the owner of the space takes them down. The owners of minibuses are not so quick. If you plaster your picture on a minibus it stays there until someone else pays for the space.

One of our local minibuses is still advertising the Liberal losers from the last Legco election. On a minibus there is a good chance that the ad you paid for will stay long after the period you booked.

This is only one of the ways in which Hong Kong’s elections look increasingly bent.

The trouble with fixing the elections is that if people cannot express their views legitimately through elections then they will resort to other means. I recall warning after the end of the Umbrella thing that the young people who had discovered that street protests were ignored might turn to other measures which the government would find even less acceptable.

In fact, being a non-violent and generally respectable group, most of the former leading Umbrella-wavers turned to electoral politics. Indeed this was a course urged on them by many older commentators, who wrote that street protests were mere playing at politics; those who wished to change society should engage in the real thing and get elected, which they did.

Many of them have now been unelected. Now, to official horror, people are asking the US Senate to reconsider its recognition of Hong Kong as a separate entity from China. This is a desperate measure, but you cshouldn’t complain if you have frustrated the non-desperate measures.

Can you hear the people sing? Not if your ears are glued to the liaison office keyhole.


Well well. No less than 38 academic economists were reported last week as having signed a petition in support of the government’s “Lantau Tomorrow Vision”, which might be more honestly labelled as “Carrie Lam’s plan to dump a lot of dirt in the Western Anchorage for some future government to build housing on.”

The petition described the dream archipelago as “affordable and an ideal investment”. The economists also attacked opponents of the plan as “emotional slogans with pre-supposed stance, and even political manipulation of populism by inciting public anger.”

The Standard said this was the “first time academics have come forward in support of the government”, which I found difficult to swallow. Individual academics have often supported the government. If this was supposed to mean academics as a group supporting the government it was over-stated.

Actually the signatories of the petition are quite a small portion, even of academic economists. The academic populations of the departments teaching economics in five publicly-funded universities are: City U 21, UST 24, HKU 35, BU 18, Ling Nan 20.

The PolyU certainly has academic economists but their website does not disclose names or numbers, at least to me. The new Hang Seng Business University has at least 24 economists, Shue Yan 11 and the OpenU five.

I infer that making a reasonable allowance for the reticent PolyU and for economists who are plying their trade in departments under other labels, like business or finance, there must be something in excess of 200 people who could be called academic economists in Hong Kong.

This means there are about 160 economists who either do not share their colleagues’ rosy view of the proposed dirt dump, or think that academic economists are not as well qualified as some of them think they are to assess the financial merits of investments which reach 30 years into the future.

This last belief is quite widely shared. Economics, it now appears, is not a science but a narrative discipline like history. Economists do a good job of telling convincing stories about the past, but this does not equip them to make accurate predictions.

Or as a Canadian academic put it: “An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.”

Rupert Murdoch has said that the purpose of economics is to make weather forecasting look respectable. This looks like a rip-off of the economic historian John Kenneth Galbraith, who said that the purpose was to make astrology look respectable.

For a more scientific view we can look at the work of Philip Tetlock, who interviewed 284 assorted commentators and pundits, including economists, and collected from them more than 80,000 predictions. The results were not impressive. Tetlock concluded that overall they would have scored better results by throwing dice.

More qualifications and experience did not produce more accurate predictions. It just increased the subjective confidence of the person making them.

Nissam (“The Black Swan”) Taleb lumps economists into a larger group of people whose predictions are worthless because they suffer no penalty if the prediction turns out wrong.

Danny Kahneman (“Thinking fast and slow”) takes the more charitable view that “It is wrong to blame anyone for failing to forecast accurately in an unpredictable world. However it seems fair to blame professionals for believing they can succeed in an impossible task.”

So I think on general principles we are entitled to some misgivings when confronted with a gaggle of economists touting an “affordable and ideal investment.” Better than “my uncle in Nigeria needs to hide a million bucks under your mattress.” But not much.

There are also some question marks over the way this particular recommendation emerged. The petition, apparently, had two more or less memorable names. One was Professor Richard Wong, a leading light in the Our Hong Kong Foundation, which is Tung Chee-hwa’s contribution to public cogitation. Prof Wong may be regarded as a recent convert to the cause of avoiding “political manipulation … by arousing public anger.” It is not so long ago that he wrote a piece comparing people protesting at increased tourism in Sheung Shui to the Ku Klux Klan.

The other is Prof Sung Yun-wing, also a think-tanker, who swims in the private thoughtful pool of Ronny Tong, the interesting political chameleon who now sits in the Executive Council.

So a lot of political connections here. One wonders, naturally, whose idea this was, a point on which the local media did not enlighten us.

Well I suppose we should not be too discouraging. It is nice of academics to share their investment advice with us, even if the cautious among us do not take it.

What seems to me a bit out of academic economists’ territory is the opinions and motivations of those who disagree with them.

Economics concerns the economy. Whether slogans are emotional, stances pre-supposed (whatever that means) populism is manipulated or the public angered is not a matter on which academic economists speak with any particular authority. If you guys think the numbers add up, fine. Criticism of people who have other concerns about the project should be left to other authors.

In any case, my personal suspicion is that all this is beside the point. The purpose of the Lantau Vision is not to build anything. When accused of slighting the work of the working party looking at land supply matters, Ms Lam said that Hong Kong people would have been disappointed if there had been nothing in the policy speech about housing.

To avoid this disappointment we have a visionary project which will remain pie in the sky for decades. Or will it? The Vision has performed its function of preserving us from a policy speech let-down. It will now spawn some studies, at modest cost. And then at some point in the future, when property prices are at last falling and Ms Lam has retired, I expect it will quietly disappear into the mist.

Mike Rowse has offered the hilarious suggestion that the project needs a more sexy name, and suggested “Freedom Island”. I think Freedom might object to that in view of what is happening to her in Hong Kong. May I suggest “Lantau Tomorrow Mirage”? Now you see it. Later … who knows?

Why, people wonder, do so many Hong Kong students elect to go to university in the UK? Is it a colonial hang-over, a misguided nostalgia for London as the mothership? Or is it due to a misguided aversion to the local tertiary facilities?

Not exactly. Part of the reason is cultural. Studying overseas have become a part of what you may call the standard middle class educational package. As a result many Hong Kong kids do it and anyone who refuses an affordable offer will fear that he or she is missing out.

Partly it is anthropological. Young people have always, at a certain age, felt the urge to establish their status as individuals outside the family. This led, in different periods, to desperate expedients like emigration to America, running away to sea, joining a passing circus or taking the Queen’s Shilling.

Nowadays it is reflected in an almost universal feature of university life in developed countries: students do not attend their home town university, however prestigious it may be. Brilliant students who live in Oxford go to Cambridge, and vice versa.

Unfortunately attempts to reproduce this bid for independence in Hong Kong are necessarily unconvincing. Our universities build residence blocks and try hard to create a social milieu called “hall life”. But this is all a bit artificial when the student can easily go home every weekend if she wishes to, and indeed in most cases can conveniently go home every night.

Then there is the matter of economics. Here we must take a brief detour through Hong Kong’s educational history. Soon after 1997 it was decided that Hong Kong universities should switch from three-year degrees to four-year degrees. But the government had no intention of treating everyone to an extra year of education. The extra year at university would simply replace the last year at school.

Accordingly the old school-leaving exam, commonly known as A Levels, was abolished, and replaced by a new thing, called the Diploma of Secondary Education, which was to be taken at the end of the sixth secondary year, instead of the seventh.

A problem then arose. If no students took A Levels then it appeared it would be very difficult for them to secure admission to UK universities, which had traditionally required this qualification.

This was a problem for Hong Kong, but it was also a problem for the UK universities, which make more money out of overseas students than they do from local ones, and value their extensive Hong Kong customer base.

The solution, which pleased everybody, was for the English universities to accept that the DSE was entirely equivalent to an English A Level (Scotland has a separate system) despite the fact that the student had spent a whole year less in obtaining it.

But this led to another oddity. English universities were still working what we may conveniently call the old Hong Kong system, under which students got their degrees after three years of study. And there was no question of them changing it.

So the way this adds up if you are a parent goes like this. if your student studies in Hong Kong then he or she will pay the local fees of HK$42,000. According to one of our local university websites living costs for a student living in hall (rather than at home) will come to about $80,000 a year. So for a degree someone is going to have to cough up $122,000 x 4, which is $488,000 or, in round figures, half a million bucks.

If the student goes to England the fees for an overseas visitor start at GBP10,000 a year, They go up to  much higher figures for some subjects. Living costs, according to the Times Higher Ed, are GBP9,000 a year. Which means you will pay GBP19,000 but this will be multiplied only by three, which gets us to GBP57,000, or at current rates HK$570,000.

So for the rather modest extra outlay of $70,000, plus some air fares, you save a year of your kid’s life and have something you can tell your friends about with pride.

From the point of view of the potential student this is good news for another reason. Having glued an extra year on the front of their courses Hong Kong universities decided that this should be spent on a sort of academic forced shopping labelled “general education”. The student is required to choose courses from a variety of different places and also subjected to some requirements, usually involving languages.

As UK universities only have three years with their students this sort of thing has never caught on there. For some students this is a shame. Some applicants to university have only the vaguest idea of what they want to do. When I was interviewing people who had applied to Baptist U I could see the list of courses they had applied for and was often stunned by the sheer variety. Applicants were apparently willing to leave their final choice from a wide range up to the joint efforts of the examiners and the JUPAS computer.

If, however, you are a student who has a very clear idea of what he wants to study at university than there is a lot to be said for a system in which a Physics degree consists entirely of Physics and a History degree consists entirely of History.

Well, Hong Kong universities have never been too bothered by what their students wanted. Places were in short supply so it was a seller’s market. Say what you like about UK universities, at least they try to please. They need the fees.

All this is a bit rough on local parents. If you are at the airport on certain evenings after Christmas you see a lot of parents trying not to shed visible tears until their offspring have safely disappeared down the Immigration channel and left them to return to their empty nests. But our universities are not too bothered what parents think either.


Mr Grenville Cross was at one time our Director of Public Prosecutions. He is still a law professor and a senior counsel. After his retirement from the government service he campaigned, for a while, for the introduction of a prosecutions system insulated from the political considerations which properly engage the attention of the Secretary for Justice.

He seems to have concluded after some time that this proposal was no more appealing to our current colonial authorities than it had been to their predecessors.

More recently his writings have tended to demonstrate to the general public why some recent official decision was legally right, and even inevitable, although in one or two cases this view of the matter was not shared by the Court of Final Appeal.

This is all well and good. But his latest effort in this vein is quite outlandish.

This is a piece in the China Daily explaining why it was perfectly acceptable for the Returning Officer to reject the nomination of Ms Lau Siu-lai to the current by-election, without giving her the opportunity to make representations on the matter.

Mr Cross starts with the resoundingly platitudinous observation that the right to run for election is not unqualified, and recites the legal requirements, which as well as age, residence and such like include a “declaration of willingness to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR”.

He then states that in the interests of the integrity of the system “false declarations need to be weeded out”. This is an interesting point, but I would have thought the need, if any, was met by the law which allows prosecution of anyone who makes a false declaration.

This would no doubt bring the disqualification of the candidate concerned in its train, but with this procedure the disqualification would be preceded by a proper trial in which the government had to prove its case and the alleged falsifier would be able to make such defence as she or he had available.

The current arrangement, in which the Returning Officer (who in our system, unlike the UK one, has no claims to impartiality) decides the matter on his own, was, Mr Cross notes, approved by Mr Justice Au in the High Court, on two conditions: that the evidence of falsity was “cogent, clear and compelling”, and that the affected person was given a “reasonable opportunity” to respond to it.

Mr Cross then goes through the evidence adduced by the Returning Officer, and loves it. We thus arrive at the point that Ms Lau has complained about not being given a chance to respond, and in a most unlawyerly way Mr Cross says that “as a matter of common sense Au’s guidance should be seen as directory, rather than mandatory. If Kwok [the Returning Officer] was satisfied on all the material before him that the case for exclusion was overwhelming, there would have been little point in inviting Lau’s comments.”

Dear me. The opportunity to respond is not just a matter of Mr Justice Au offering a little fatherly advice to Returning Officers. It is an application of the part of the Common Law known confusingly as ”natural justice”. What this states is that if a person or body is making a decision of a vaguely judge-like nature than he or it should observe some minimal judge-like standards.

What those standards are varies. For some purposes courts have held that the accused should have the right to see the evidence, cross-examine witnesses and call his own. In less fraught circumstances you may be entitled to a hearing and a lawyer, or a friend who is not a lawyer, or just a hearing, or just a chance to write in your defence.

The right to respond conferred by Mr Justice Au could be considered in this light as a bare minimum. Generations of Common Law practitioners would twirl in their graves if they could hear a senior counsel dismissing it on the grounds of “common sense”.

Let me at this point turn the microphone over to Mr Justice Robert Megarry, giving his view of the matter in John v Rees. If you wish to read the whole thing, it can be found at [1996] All ER 274,309.

It may be that there are some who would decry the importance which the courts attach to the idea of natural justice. ‘When something is obvious,’ they may say, ’why force everyone to go through the tiresome waste of time involved in framing charges and giving an opportunity to be heard? The result is obvious from the start.’

Those who take this view do not, I think, do themselves justice. As everyone who has anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not; of unanswerable charges which, in the event, were completely answered; of inexplicable conduct which was fully explained; of fixed and unalterable determination that, by discussion, suffered a change.

Nor are those with any knowledge of human nature who pause to think for a moment likely to underestimate the feeling of resentment of those who feel that a decision against them has been made without their being given any opportunity to influence the course of events.

A briefer statement of a similar point from US Supreme Court judge Felix Frankfurter:

No better instrument has been devised for arriving at truth than to give a person in jeopardy of serious loss notice of the case against him and opportunity to meet it. Nor has a better way been found of generating the feeling, so important to a popular government, that justice has been done.

So, Ms Lau was entitled to be heard. She was not. This was wrong. Mr Cross is wrong. I am also cross.

When I was at school we were all encouraged to read a book by Arthur Koestler called “Darkness at Noon.” This was an attempt to answer, in a novel, a question on many minds at the time: how were veteran revolutionaries caught up in Stalin’s purges persuaded to confess to capital crimes at their show trials?

Koestler had a highly intelligent and persuasive interrogator convincing his victims by argument that they really were guilty of treason. This was something of an intellectual game. The book carefully avoided mentioning any names – it was set in a dictatorship ruled by “The Party”, which was headed by “Number One” – and one has to suspect that in real life Stalin’s methods were somewhat cruder.

Many of his victims, one imagines, were offered the sort of deal which the Nazis later imposed on Erwin Rommel: if you jump then you jump alone; if we have to push you then your family goes too.

For many years this matter slumbered in the back of my memory as being entirely irrelevant to daily life in England, or Hong Kong. But with the increasing mainlandisation of Hong Kong the question of how people can be persuaded to produce voluntary-looking confessions looks increasingly relevant.

There are two schools of thought on this topic. One, identified with Donald Rumsfleld and the writers of “24 Hours”, maintains that the best results are obtained by torturing the prisoners until they confess in order to end the ordeal. There is a victim’s diary here: http://issuu.com/canongatebooks/docs/slahi_unclassified_manuscript_scan?e=11163753/13005384

This idea has traditionally been popular with police, army and clerical interrogators, but it is open to several criticisms. One is that it is a violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, so if your country is caught at it some embarrassment will follow. It is also, in most nice countries, against the law.

There is also the practical objection that the quality of the resulting information is poor. You cannot torture someone into telling the truth. In the end you can only torture him into telling you what you wish to hear.

The other school of thought maintains that better results can be obtained without violence or duress, by an interrogator who forms a relationship with the victim. There is a victim’s eye view of how this works here: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2018/05/13/son-everything-china-forced-lawyer-wang-yu-denounce-human-rights-award/

On the face of it, it is difficult to see why a prisoner would form a relationship with a jailer. A certain amount of manipulation is necessary. From a practical point of view, if you are caught up in the system the process goes something like this:

In phase one they will be rough. You will be deprived of sleep, disorientated, and physically abused. This is done for two reasons: there is a hope that at this stage the victim is shocked and confused. Being captured or arrested is alarming and frightening in itself. He or she may, if pushed a bit, collapse completely and comply with his interrogators’ wishes.

Indeed you should seriously consider doing this, if they are not asking for too much. Signing a written confession has been much devalued. Many alert Hongkongers warn their friends before visiting the mainland that any confession they may sign should be disregarded.

For foreign correspondents, the police station visit and confession signing has become a sort of rite of passage. If you haven’t done it after a year or two in the job people will suspect that you are not trying hard enough.

The second reason for giving you a hard time is that this sets a low standard which will allow later interrogators to appear humane and friendly, even though they are, as you know, still your jailers.

The second stage is a bit different. After all your Chinese police people do not have to worry about the UN Declaration of Human Rights, or indeed about the law. They can do what they like with you. On the other hand they can’t do much with a written confession these days. News has to be digital. A video report of a confession by a quivering heap of human wreckage is not going to work.  Visible willingness is required.

So after the rough phase you will be moved. This is done in a disorientating way. You will be masked or hooded. Nobody will tell you where you are going and if some hint is dropped you will not know whether to believe it. At the end of the trip you will not know if you have moved hundreds of miles or just driven round the block a few times and returned to the cell next door to your old one.

You will have a cell to yourself. It will be padded. These things are not for your benefit. Solitary confinement is stressful and debilitating. The padded walls are to prevent suicide.

Here you will be left to stew for a bit. When interrogations resume you will meet Mr Nice Guy.

Mr NG is friendly, sympathetic. He can secure small improvements in your living conditions, and supply snippets of news from the outside world. Your encounters serve two objectives: he needs to establish himself as your only accessible friend in the world, and he needs to discover the hook with which he will draw you into compliance with his wishes.

So some discussion will be devoted to what you miss, or who you worry about. Your anxiety will be subtly encouraged. “Your father was taken to hospital last week but he is fine,,,” “I expect your son misses you…”

And then Mr NG makes his play. “I can make this go away and get you out of here, but you will have to help me. My boss wants you to make a video…” Of course, he says, nobody else will ever see it. This seems from the outside rather implausible but you desperately want to believe that Mr NG is a truthful person with your interests at heart. So maybe you make the video.

This gets you out of prison but when they play the video on national television it will horrify your friends and associates, which is of course the object of the exercise.

It should be clear by now that no blame attaches to people who succumb to this treatment and make the video. Indeed it could be considered a tribute to the effectiveness of this method that China uses it, despite a long tradition of torture and the complete absence of any safeguards against it. People do what works because it works. I expect it would work on me.

This comparatively non-violent part of the Gulag Archipelago is, however, still an abuse of human rights. Innocence is no protection. Nor is having a foreign passport. Staying in Hong Kong works for most of us. For now.