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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well it has taken a long time but there is more joy over one sinner that repenteth, etc, so let us welcome our government’s discovery of the word “sorry”.

During the last three months of disorders apologies have been thin on the ground. First aiders, reporters and other by-standers have been shot, and suspects beaten on live television. Guantanamo-worthy stories have emerged from a mysterious detention centre in the New Territories. Suspects have been pursued into hospital casualty departments, apparently in accordance with the time-honoured theory that anyone who has been injured in a protest should be charged with something, in order to discredit the subsequent complaint.

Yet the only apology, from the Chief Secretary, was for the occasion when the police walked away from a gang attack on an MTR train. And the reaction to this from the police unions was so vigorous that the CS then apologised for apologising.

All this left me quite unprepared for the official reaction to the police water cannon bombarding the front steps of the Kowloon Mosque with blue die. Suddenly spectacular apologies were the order of the day. The Chief Executive in person turned up, with the Commissioner of Police in tow, at the afflicted installation.

In fairness to other religions there was also an apology somewhat later, and somewhat less enthusiastic, to St Andrews Church, just down Nathan Road, which was also treated to a new blue colour scheme.

Police spokesmen managed to look contrite, although I was not impressed by their follow-up idea, which was to dig a superintendent out of a department which has nothing to do with riots or water cannons to offer an unlikely excuse. This was apparently based on the idea that Muslims would be more likely to swallow a cock and bull story if it was related by someone surnamed Mohammed.

Unfortunately no officer surnamed Christ was available to explain the dousing of St Andrews.

In fact it seems that the Kowloon Mosque is getting a unique level of service: visit from police PR lady, apology in person from Carrie, detailed if implausible explanation at police press conference. You wouldn’t get that if they had doused you, and neither would I.

I will not explore the evidently peculiar feelings that our leaders nurture about Muslims.

One must, though, sympathise with one of the people who was standing in front of the Mosque at the wrong moment, who refused to accept the explanation that it was entirely “an accident”. I realise we should be slow to rush to judgement on the basis of video clips, but the one in this case (visible here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPsgFws3-ic) doesn’t leave much room for doubt. The water cannon truck lumbers up the road, it stops, it squirts, it lumbers on.

The mosque is a large and distinctive building. Clearly it was not the target. The target was the people standing in front of it. They were not protesting, still less rioting. Some of them were reporters, some of them Muslims who were there to protect the Mosque.

Just a routine dousing of by-standers then. Nothing to see here. Move on.

We are left with some further evidence of a fact which has been obvious for some time. Contending with street protests is difficult, but not as difficult as our police people sometimes make it look. This is because their training and practice puts more emphasis on gung ho applications of force than on restraint and self-control.

Clearly there is some awareness of this. One of the recurring themes of those videos on which we are urged not to rush to judgement is the spectacle of sergeants and mates restraining colleagues who are about to lose it.

Translated into water cannon terms this means that there is a temptation to ramp up what is going down the nozzle. Water is harmless. So water is for wimps. Why squirt water when you can squirt blue die laced with pepper spray?

Well actually there is a good answer to this question. Pepper spray is not dangerous to healthy adults, but if it is sprayed randomly in open spaces there is no guarantee that healthy adults will be the only recipients. So it should be used sparingly, if at all.

Similarly the blue die looks spectacular, and no doubt is more satisfying if you are watching from inside the truck, but it has the disadvantage that it will impose pollution on people and buildings who have done no harm and are not breaking the law.

It was nice of the police to volunteer help with cleaning the Mosque, but how many other buildings have been arbitrarily treated to the blue rinse? Again, nobody will say there are no circumstances in which blue die is useful, but they are heavily outnumbered by the circumstances in which it is unnecessary and resoundingly tactless.

One of the guardians of the Mosque now says he has changed his view of the Hong Kong police, of whom he used to be a loyal supporter. He has, alas, plenty of company.

 

 

 

 

 

An ominous new tune has appeared in the repertoire of the Hong Kong government’s chorus of approval.

Organisations of all kinds are being told that it is not enough to be silent on Hong Kong’s current problems. They have an obligation to speak out against violence. This is a polite way of saying they should speak out against rioters. The other violence is acceptable.

This started, I think, with a Mr Edwin Choy, who tried to get the Bar Association to issue a formal condemnation of violence and, having failed, resigned as Vice Chairman of the Association to take his complaint to the general public.

This idea has now been taken up by less learned pens, and directed in an increasing number of directions.

I must say that Mr Choy, though I respect his willingness to stand up publicly for his views, seems to have some odd ideas. The Bar Association is a fine body of men and women, no doubt, but I do not think there are many people in Hong Kong who regard it as a persuasive source of ethical advice.

Will the average rioter, on hearing that the Bar Association disapproves of his activities, feel compelled to drop his plastic pole and go home? Will the proverbial man on the Shau Kei Wan tram be swayed from his sympathy for the water people by the thought that his views are not shared by some of Hong Kong’s most expensive lawyers?

I realise the Bar Association is near the beginning of the alphabet, so we may be seeing the mere tip of an iceberg, as the forces of obedience work their way from the Automobile Association to the Zoological Gardens Fan Club in search of societies they can persuade to take a stand for law and order.

The consensus among contributors to the pro-Carrie press seems to be that the disorders are subsiding gradually, and this process can be speeded up if the general population is persuaded to be turned off by violence.

A rather up-market version of this thesis appeared in the China Daily under the name of Ms Christine Lo. It was quite persuasive, until you got to the authority for the theory that things were quietening down, which turned out to be none other than that model of sanity and sagacity Mr Donald Trump.

Well I have two misgivings about the latest trend, one concerning the Bar Association and one concerning societies generally.

As far as the Bar Association is concerned it is, as Mr Choy would presumably argue, a buttress and supporter of the Rule of Law, and should be against activities which break the law.

As no doubt it is. We have not, though, been treated to regular, or even occasional, comments from the Bar Association on the iniquities of whichever felonies are currently fashionable, and I do not think we should.

As officers of the court, it behoves barristers to observe the polite fiction that anyone arrested by the police is innocent until found guilty in a court of law. As there have been few completed trials for violent offences committed in the course of the current disturbances Mr Choy seems to be asking for a mass jump to conclusions on the strength of media reports.

I am not personally in favour of violence and I am too old for that shit anyway, but if I was an alleged rioter I would prefer not to be told in advance of the hearing that the Bar had arrived at a joint view that I and people like me were guilty.

As far as societies in general are concerned, no doubt some of them lean one way politically and some of them lean the other. But quite a lot, I am sure, would rather be allowed not to explore their members’ views on such matters.

If people join your club to explore shared interests then it is a good idea to avoid divisive topics not relevant to those interests. I do not know who is working his way down the list of societies but I would like to save him a letter: the Hong Kong Scottish Piping and Drumming Association is not willing to express a view on political topics.

There is a serious point here. We are constantly told that there must be some restrictions on freedom of speech, which is true. But we do not need restrictions on non-speech. The suggestion that people must speak out on a particular topic in a particular way is reminiscent of one of the many depressing periods in China’s history, when the Party demanded not only obedience but adulation.

A victim at the time observed that he was not only not free to speak; he was also not free not to speak.  Let’s not go there.

Personally I hate violence. The problem with condemning it in our situation is that you need to offer an alternative to people who think the present leadership of Hong Kong is incompetent and dangerous, a view widely shared.

They tried non-violence on an epic scale. It was water off a duck’s back. Eventually a selection of alleged “ring-leaders” were jailed. Then we had an attempt at using the political machinery. It was repelled by a barrage of disqualifications.

So here we are. I wish I had an alternative I could suggest to the people who are now blocking streets and smashing the MTR’s Octopus machines. I don’t. Does Mr Choy, I wonder?

 

 

I note what I think is an interesting new ritual. When the government holds a press conference it is preceded by what is technically known as a photo op.

This means that all the top officials present – it usually seems to be either the entire Exco or the entire collection of secretaries – line up in two rows to be photographed by the assembled press people.

The photographers present all obligingly flash away. I am not sure why – most media outlets have plenty of pictures of these people as individuals and the group shot is very uninspiring.

This is partly because it is the sort of group pose that serious news photographers are taught to avoid: two rows of people, shoulder to shoulder, looking in front of them. This is barely acceptable for a picture of a victorious football team.

Unfortunately the assembled official line-up does not look like a victorious football team. Of course they must all look serious. But when forced to gaze at the assembled papparazi the odd hint of hostility creeps in. Suits in shades of grey do not help.

The overall effect is not so much of an efficient team ready for action as a casting call for bit parts in the next Resident Evil movie.

This seems to be connected to a change in the oratorical style of our leader. It seems Mrs Carrie Lam has restrained her ambition to be a “proactive official doing good things for Hong Kong.” All new initiatives are now attributed to lengthy and profound thought by “the government team”.

I am not sure that this produces a great increase in confidence. Beholding the assembled team brings back so many happy memories. There is the Financial Secretary (“blame my wife”) the Secretary for Justice (“what swimming pool?”) the Chief Secretary (“I apologise for apologising”) and of course the Chief Executive (Ou est le papier?)

This little squirt of French, if I may digress for a moment, is from what I am fairly confident is the only song about the absence of toilet paper. Words and music here: https://www.horntip.com/mp3/1960s/1963_why_was_he_born_so_beautiful__sportsdisc_records_(LP)/06_a_frenchman_went_to_the_lavatory.htm

The government team, like Mrs Lam, has moderated its ambitions of late, and now aspires, it seems, only to an end to violence, on the dubious assumption that after this has happened Hong Kong will be like it was before June.

Well we all deplore violence, though not enough, I fear, to listen in comfort to hearing it denounced by the police spokesman at their daily press do. Hearing a senior policeman denouncing violence is like hearing Hannibal Lector denouncing cannibalism. We agree, of course, but…

Anyway there is a point which seems to have escaped the “government team”, or at least that part of it which stays to sit behind a desk and do the actual press conference. About half the team mysteriously disappears after the photograph, which as a result seems to be a rather serious waste of some people’s time. Is it intended just to share the blame?

You cannot, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, step into the same river twice. We now know what we did not know before: about Cathay Pacific, about the MTR, about the police force, and of course about Mrs Lam and her team.

The violence and vandalism are not the disease – they are symptoms. The disease is a government which has lost the consent and approval of the people it governs. The cure for this is to reform abuses and redress grievances.

There must be some members of the “government team” who are perfectly well aware of this. From time to time we are treated to carefully phrased explanations that decisions have to consider “the China factor”, or the Chief Executive is “not responsible only to Hong Kong.”

In other words, they know what ought to be done but they are not allowed to do it. It is perhaps a tribute to the care and caution which goes into the selection process that the entire team seems to be willing to go on working, or pretending to work, on this basis.

Is there none among you, one might ask, with the gumption to stand up and say out loud what many are no doubt thinking in private, which is that Hong Kong is going to hell in a handbasket because the decisions made in Beijing have very little connection to the facts on the ground here?

This would of course have to be followed, or perhaps preceded, by a resignation, leading to loss of earnings, no more free parking in Central, much diminished chance of Bauhinia Medal in any colour you haven’t already got and no hope of a regular free trip to Beijing for the NCPCC meeting.

It might, though, do something for one’s self-respect. Many years ago reluctant recruits were urged to consider their future answer to “what did you do in the war, Daddy?”

Career civil servants can of course say that they did their duty. It is harder to defend so-called policy secretaries, who are supposed to be at the helm of the ship of state, but are going to have to tell their grandchildren, if they are honest, that ”I followed orders”.

This excuse has an unhappy history.

There was a shooting in Hong Kong on Tuesday night. The victim turned out to be a schoolboy. The shooter was a policeman.

There is video. But we should not jump to conclusions. Different people, as a police spokesman pointed out the other day, see different things in the same video.

Anyway, Hong Kong is a city enjoying the Rule of Law. This means it behoves us, as concerned citizens, to bide our time and wait until the usual procedures have run their course.

Those procedures comprise a careful and impartial investigation, followed by submission of findings of fact to lawyers, and the legal consequences which flow from the facts carefully and impartially discovered.

At this point we come to a major fly in the proverbial ointment. Generally we expect, in a society which enjoys the Rule of Law, that this careful and impartial investigation is conducted by our police force, who have the necessary skills and experience.

No doubt the police persons conducting such an investigation will strive manfully, if perhaps not with complete success, to suppress the thought that the suspect is a colleague and there, but for the Grace of God, could any police person have gone.

We need to feel confident that possible offences by police persons will be investigated with the same skill and diligence as similar offences committed by lay people.

It is difficult to maintain this level of confidence if the result of the careful and impartial investigation is announced before it has even begun.

And this is what happened on Tuesday. The blood had not dried on the pavement when the police spokesman was assuring the assembled media that the shooting was justified because the shooter felt that he or someone else was in mortal danger.

In case we were still in any doubt, the Commissioner of Police followed up, while the victim was still in the operating theatre having a police bullet extracted from his lung, with the observation that the shooting was “reasonable and lawful”.

Where does that leave Concerned Citizen, who has carefully refrained from jumping to conclusions in the expectation that the police will diligently gather the relevant facts and pass them to the lawyers, who will decide their legal implications?

It leaves him, I fear, with the distinct impression that the police force, at least in its own view, is above the law, free to decide complex legal questions on the simple basis that Our Boys Can Do No Wrong.

We must try to be understanding about this. Shooting someone is a traumatic experience, at least the first time, for the shooter – though not, obviously, as traumatic as it is for the victim.

The shooter’s friends and colleagues will, as friendly and collegial people, try to cushion the shock with some such formulae as “You just did what you had to do”, “You followed the rules”, “Any of us would have done the same thing,” and in circles where colourful language is accepted, perhaps “The mother****er was asking for it.”

This is to be expected and accepted … in private. Both those offering these assurances and the recipient will be aware at some level that in the long run an investigation may not take the same view. This can be handled later.

It is also understandable that the police management feel the need to put their side of the story after complex and confused events spreading over wide areas of Hong Kong. The video – and these days there is always video – may well be misleading. The cameras focus on the photogenic.

But these two activities should not be confused. Where an individual case is concerned it is unacceptable for the police to anticipate their own investigation by announcing the result in advance.

We may hope that the shooting will still be investigated. But the person handed this tricky job will undertake it knowing that his superiors want a particular result. Producing the wrong outcome may well blight his or her prospects in the force.

Also the police tribe can be vengeful and vindictive against those who violate its code, as in different ways John MacLennan and Yacoub Khan discovered.

Yet we need a proper inquiry by someone who will not be putting his career on the line if the result does not coincide with the Force PR line or the Commissioner’s leap to judgement.

It appears that the shooter, or his employers, are abandoning in advance the idea that the shooting was an accident, and propose to rely on self-defence or the defence of someone else in mortal peril.

This is a well-ploughed legal field. The issue does not come up often, but when it does the defendant is often expensively lawyered at the expense of a police union. As a result, self-defence or necessity as a justification for lethal force have become one of those needles on which a thousand lawyers can dance.

So we can hardly suppose that the hasty responses from the PR department or the Commissioner were based on a careful examination of factual evidence, still less a thoughtful consideration of its legal consequences.

I take no pleasure in pointing out that those responses have nevertheless done irreparable damage. Citizens who suspect that this particular shooting may have been unlawful will not be deflected from that view by swift unresearched assurances from police people who have an obvious stake in the matter. And as a result of those assurances they will have no faith in the results of whatever further investigation is undertaken.

One can only hope that the Force will bear in mind that if they actually manage to kill a schoolkid there will be an inquest, however happy they may be with their version of events.