When Sarah Bernhardt came to London for the first time in 1879 she starred in a play called Medea, a bloodthirsty melodrama inspired by the story of a mythical Ancient Greek queen who, betrayed by her husband, killed his new wife and her own children by him.

Asked by a reporter what she thought of the performance a member of the audience said that it was “so unlike the home life of our own dear Queen!”

I had a rather similar reaction when, browsing the internet’s obscurer pastures, I came across Judge Frank Caprio. His Honour is the staple diet of an unusual television programme, sample here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORc0xXiJNd0  which follows his work as a rather humble judicial functionary, dealing mainly with minor traffic violations and occasional remands in custody.

There have been notoriously humane and gentle magistrates in Hong Kong, but the general trend runs more to the 17th century precedent which (recorded in the mixture of French and English which lawyers were affecting at the time) went like this: the prisoner “ject un Brickbat a le dit Justice que narrowly mist. & pur ceo immediately fuit Indictment drawn by Noy envers le prisoner, & son dexter manus ampute & fix al Gibbet sur que luy mesme immediately hange in presence de Court”.

Judges have the undisputed right to exercise considerable power in keeping order in their own courtrooms. The relevant offence is known as “contempt in the face of the court”. Offenders can be fined and jailed in a most summary manner. It is a feature of Hong Kong courtrooms that this power is exercised with very little thought to its potential drawbacks.

In a case last week, for example, the judge took exception to the fact that a member of the public in the accommodation reserved for such people was wearing a scarf with a political slogan on it, which the judge took as a violation of an earlier order from her that there should be no displaying of banners or slogans.

Reports of this incident have as usual been sketchy. I hope there was something missing in the report that had the hapless defendant, a 62-year-old local lady, trying to explain herself and being told that her guilt had already been decided, the only point at issue was the sentence.

Well the case was adjourned and so must be considered to be still active. So we should not consider its merits in detail, or at all.

Some general points arise, however. The first is that, as the UK Law Reform Commission put it, “if … the procedure by which the court seeks to impose its authority lacks the basic features of justice which apply to criminal proceedings, then it undermines rather than enhances the rule of law.”

Or as an English judge put it when invited to exercise these powers: “When a judge deals summarily with an alleged contempt he may at once be a victim of the contempt, a witness to it, the prosecutor who decides that action is required and the judge who determines the matter in dispute and imposes punishment.”

Clearly this does not inspire a great deal of confidence. More seriously from the English legal point of view it is generally recognised that, as a recent commentator put it: “there are concerns that the summary enquiry procedure, although swift and robust, does not comply with the requirements of article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Article 6 is the one that concerns fair trials. It does not, of course, apply in Hong Kong. However the Bill of Rights Ordinance does, and it stipulates in language strikingly similar to that of the Convention that anyone accused of a crime should have the right:

  • to be informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him;
  • to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing;
  • to be tried without undue delay;
  • to be tried in his presence, and to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing; to be informed, if he does not have legal assistance, of this right; and to have legal assistance assigned to him, in any case where the interests of justice so require, and without payment by him in any such case if he does not have sufficient means to pay for it.

In other words you have a right to a detailed explanation of the charge, time to think about it, and a lawyer, if necessary at the public expense, before the judge consigns you to the nearest dungeon.

Hong Kong judges might care to consider the relevant Practice Direction for English judges exercising their “great power”. They should:

  Tell the respondent of the possible penalty that the respondent faces;

  inform the respondent in detail, and preferably in writing, of the actions and behaviour of the respondent which have given rise to the committal application;

  if the judge considers that an apology would remove the need for the committal application, tell the respondent;

  have regard to the need for the respondent to be –

  • allowed a reasonable time for responding to the committal application, including, if necessary, preparing a defence;
  • made aware of the possible availability of criminal legal aid and how to contact the Legal Aid Agency;
  • given the opportunity, if unrepresented, to obtain legal advice;
  • if unable to understand English, allowed to make arrangements, seeking the court’s assistance if necessary, for an interpreter to attend the hearing; and
  • brought back before the court for the committal application to be heard within a reasonable time;

  allow the respondent an opportunity to –

  • apologise to the court;
  • explain the respondent’s actions and behaviour; and
  • if the contempt is proved, to address the court on the penalty to be imposed on the respondent; and

  where appropriate, nominate a suitable person to give the respondent the information.

It used to be a requirement that the judge considering a summary conviction of this kind should refer the matter to another judge who was not already involved in the case. Judges have more recently taken the view that this is not always necessary and may involve unnecessary delay. Still, where an adjournment is required anyway judges might consider a recent observation from the UK Court of Appeal:

“…the power to impose summary punishment for actions which one has oneself witnessed and is oneself the victim does appear to place the judge in the position of being witness, prosecutor and judge… In many cases where there has perforce to be a delay between the alleged contempt and the summary trial, it will be wise for the judge to refer the matter to one of her colleagues if for no other reason than to avoid the risk that this argument will be run.”

Having urged judges to be more circumspect in the use of their power to convict for contempt in the face of the court I must express some puzzlement at the apparent complacency over the matter of people taking pictures in court.

This has always been a notorious no-no for news purposes. The possibility of tourists taking pictures for their own amusement has not previously come up. This suggests that in the two recent cases in which “tourists” from the mainland were caught taking pictures of the jury and in one case uploading the results onto the internet, something more than mere curiosity was involved.

So it is disturbing that the perpetrators were released without penalty and without, apparently, any serious inquiry as to whether they were who they said they were, or were doing what they said they were doing.

We must all sympathise with the judge who thought a procession of celebrites appearing in the part of the public gallery reserved for Donald Tsang’s friends and family might influence the jury. The answer to this problem is to abandon the practice of reserving seats in the public gallery for the rich and famous. A seat for the defendant’s wife is reasonable; a court hearing is not a social occasion.

A jury may perhaps be influenced by a parade of harmless local bigwigs. Possibly not in the intended direction. It can surely be terrified by the discovery that pictures of members are being taken in circumstances which suggest that such pictures may end up in the files of the Secret Police of our northern neighbour.

Yet this does not seem to bother judges at all.







It is impossible to write anything about what happens in America without being accused of some nefarious bias. It is almost as bad as writing about Israel. So let me start with a little story.

When I was about six weeks old I was taken to Westminster Cathedral to be baptised. This sounds rather a grand place to be baptised, but my father was working there as the assistant organist at the time so I suppose this was a perk.

The event was intended to be a tandem christening – I have a twin brother – and our uncle Philip was going to be godfather to both of us. At the last minute the officiating priest announced that it was against the rules for both of us to have the same godfather. No other men were present except my father, who then ran outside in search of a man — any man — who would be willing to stand in at no notice as my godfather.

The man who answered the call on the pavement outside was an American serviceman by the name of Floyd Puckett, who was still in London having done his bit in the licking of Hitler. In honour of his kindness I was given his name as my middle one. So I am reminded of the American gift for spontaneous generosity every time I look at my full name.

Having said which, you guys are crazy about guns. Have you noticed, by the way, that while “mankind” has been outlawed as a bit of male chauvinism, “guys” has become a perfectly acceptable downmarket replacement for “people” even though in its original usage it meant men. In “Guys and Dolls” the women are the dolls.

But I digress. Guns. The latest school massacre brought bubbling to the top of my Youtube feed some things I had not realised were going on before.

Many American schools now hold an “active shooter drill” about as often as they hold a fire drill. In an active shooter drill you rehearse procedure for shots being fired in your school.

The teacher is supposed to lock the classroom door, block the window in it, if there is one, and usher you all to the far side of the room. This does not actually guarantee safety. The high-powered rifle sported by serious active shooters will put a bullet straight through the door and anyone who is cringing on the far side of the room behind it. But at least he has to guess.

The problem with this is that the active shooter drill is the converse of the fire drill. In case of fire you are to leave the building as quickly as possible. In the active shooter incident this is a possibly fatal mistake. In the latest case the active shooter took advantage of this by setting off the fire alarm before he started, thereby creating what might in less lethal circumstances be considered an interesting dilemma.

A more developed variation on the “active shooter drill” is the “active shooter exercise”, a dress rehearsal for the local police force. This has teenagers splattered with stage blood playing dead in the school corridors while cops in full SWAT gear stride over them in search of a culprit.

I find all this quite shocking, to be honest. Nothing at all like this went on in the rural grammar school where I passed my high school years. The depths of Sussex are quiet. But is there another country in the world where schoolchildren are prepared as a matter of course for the arrival of a deranged gunman in the hall?

Watching this buzz-cut Pasionaria tearing verbal lumps out of her local politicians through a veil of tears – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxD3o-9H1lY – I felt the distant internal disturbance of a few long-neglected memory cells climbing reluctantly to their feet.

After a few days I remembered that when I was roughly her age, I also participated in a school protest. This was against the Cuban missile crisis, which is now a distant piece of history for most people but at the time was seasoned with the knowledge that if it all want pear-shaped we on the wrong side of the Atlantic would get four minutes warning of the arrival of Russian missiles.

Of course this was in a sense not so personal. We had not lost friends . But I think there is a common underlying theme. If adults are going to exhort us to plan and work and sacrifice for the future then they have an obligation to ensure with some degree of certainty that there will be a future and we will be in it. Otherwise what is the point?

Well it would be an abuse of language to imply that America’s schools are a war zone, despite the President’s appalling suggestion that the answer to the active shooter problem is to arm teachers. Florida is not Syria.

But then you look at calm collections of the facts like this one: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/2/21/17028930/gun-violence-us-statistics-charts – from which I purloined the following chart:

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence.Javier Zarracina/Vox

And the interesting additional snippet that according to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”

You then have to conclude that America’s gun laws are crazy. Then you will be told that it is none of your business, that you don’t understand American culture, and the right to bear arms is protected in the Constitution, so that is that.

Well it is none of our business. But then the way things are in Hong Kong is none of your business. Generally we both enjoy the right to comment, subject only to the hope that the comment will be well-intentioned.

This is not really a cultural matter. The obdurate fact is that international comparisons show very clearly the incidence of gun violence in a country is directly proportionate to the number of guns in circulation. If you have on average more than one gun per person then the levels of gun violence will be stunningly high. There is nothing cultural about this. The workings of cause and effect are obvious.

I understand people who find guns exciting and interesting, as I do myself. But if this thought leads to the conclusion that everyone should have one then it’s a killer.

As for the Constitution, well, nothing is perfect. Amendments can be amended. Laws can be changed. Numbers can be reduced. Lives can be saved. And until, that happens I am afraid overseas observers will look at your beautiful country, shake their heads, and say, “wonderful place … nice people … pity about the gun thing.”


One of my more piratically inclined friends has slipped me a copy, no doubt illicit, of Hidden Figures. This is a nice feel-good movie about the women, all in the terminology of the time “coloured”, who operated calculating machines for NASA before the agency’s first computer arrived.

In particular it concentrates on three of them: one who defies several prejudices by qualifying as a rocket engineer, one who is seconded to the unit which calculates orbits and re-entry points, and turns out to be a mathematical genius, and one who studies the inner workings of computers in her own time, and becomes the only person who understands the new IBM machine.

Cynical observers may detect an attempt to dispose in one movie of two complaints about Hollywood: that it offers no meaty heroic parts for ladies, and has a similar deficiency with regards to the “coloured” population.

But it seemed a reasonably honest job to me. If I was a critic I would suggest that it would have been more successful as a film if the director had picked one of the three ladies and concentrated on her.

I know Aristotle’s three unities are now out of style, but having three lead characters still seems like maybe two too many.

Never mind. The thing which disturbed me about all this came early in the movie when the future genius is moved to her new department. There is a room full of white men wearing shirts and ties. No doubt in a cooler climate they would have worn jackets as well.

And there is a coffee pot, from which everyone helps themselves. After a day or two this is joined by a second, smaller coffee pot, labelled “colored” (Americans cannot spell) for the exclusive use of the future genius.

I find this bit painful to believe. The NASA staff were, I suppose, recruited on a nation-wide basis. Some of them must have been from parts of the country where the idea of a separate coffee pot for black people would have seemed as outlandish as it seems to me. Yet nobody says anything.

Well I realise that this was a long time ago and even then opinions about the matter were changing. The film’s only whiff of violence comes in the scene where Kevin Costner takes a sledgehammer to the sign over the “Colored Ladies” toilet.

Before I incurr a storm of abuse from American readers I must point out that in the interests of making a feasible movie out of a long book some “facts” were telescoped and some made up. It is quite likely that the “colored” coffee pot never existed, at least at NASA in the 60s.

What worries me is what this tells us about the way things are done today. Six decades ago the idea of segregated toilets or coffeepots struck some people as perfectly normal. Those who complained were told, as the philosophical cow in “Babe” puts it: “you will never achieve lasting happiness unless you accept that the way things are is the way things are.”

Which, I wonder, of the things which we now accept as “the way things are” in Hong Kong will have future cinema audiences gasping in disbelief or squirming in their seats?

Will they suspect that the part of the movie in which an 80-year-old lady is collecting cardboard boxes in a handcart to make ends meet was … made up, exaggerated?

Will they wonder what went through the heads of employers of live-in domestic helpers on terms barely distinguishable from slavery?

Will the author of the book “soon to be a major motion picture” (I have never seen a book which was turned into a minor motion picture) have to provide a foreword in which he says that, yes – people in Hong Kong did sleep under fly-overs, men did sleep in cages and developers did sell mini-flats so small that no self-respecting zoo would have approved them as accommodation for a family of small rodents?

And all this went on while the government was wallowing in an unbudgeted surplus big enough to finance a white elephant on a grand scale. I confidently await the announcement that the Express Rail Link will have solid gold toilets. We have to spend all that money on something.

I don’t know what the future will make of us. And the people who confidently answer questions of this kind — one way or the other — don’t know either.

All I draw from these questions is the thought that there is no virtue in silence or conformity in the presence of something wrong. We cannot solve all of Hong Kong’s problems. Let us at least be able to say, when our grandchildren ask us how these things were tolerated, that some of us did actually complain.


Minding your languages

Some weeks ago there was as row between students and staff at Baptist University (where I used to work; if that is an interest consider it declared) over a Putonghua requirement.

This quickly became a political football, Putonghua being the language sanctioned by Beijing and consequently much loved by local apologists for despotism.

There was, according to reports, an extended confrontation between some students and some staff of the language centre, not over the requirement as such, but over a test which you could take, thereby escaping the Putonghua course and doing something else instead… if you passed.

Predictably the hostile comments concentrated not on the substance of the dispute but on the protest methodology. Some staff apparently felt intimidated. Some students swore. I am assured by connoisseurs of Cantonese obscenities that the “swearing” was pretty thin stuff.

As far as the substance of the matter was concerned I was puzzled by one thing. The students wanted to know the marking scheme of the test. The Language Centre apparently would not produce it. When I was still working at BU we were required to produce a marking scheme and share it with students so I would have thought this would be public as a matter of course.

Anyway this case is still working its way through the disciplinary machinery so we should perhaps not explore the merits of the two sides.

I would like instead to ponder a broader question: what do local universities think they are doing teaching languages?

I ask this because when I went to university there were, of course, language requirements. But these had to be met before you got in. The academic dinosaur which was kind enough to accept me still required historians to offer Latin and one modern language.

These were assessed as part of the entrance exam, whether you had the relevant GCE or not. But once you arrived, that was it. Historians had one paper in the first term which required you to read part of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the whole of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in their original languages. These papers were taught by historians, not linguists.

The requirement for scientists was different. They were spared Latin but required to offer German. How this arrangement had survived two world wars in which Germany was the enemy, the second of which was at that time quite recent, is a mystery, at least to me. It seems when the course was founded there was a lot of scientific literature in German.

But again, this was a language to be learned before you arrived. Of course you could do degrees in French and some other modern languages. But these were devoted to literature, culture and other worthy topics. Knowledge of the language concerned was assumed.

Even the classicists were expected to have mastered the relevant languages at school, including ancient Greek. One of my crew colleagues in the rowing fraternity actually composed an ode in ancient Greek to honour one of our rare triumphs. I could not understand a word of it so it may not have been a very good ode. But it gives you an idea of the standard required.

The view at the time seems to have been that a university education was very expensive in money and time. It should be devoted only to things which could not be done anywhere else. As most children manage to master a language between the ages of two and six, this is clearly not an achievement which requires a great deal of brain power and experience.

Hong Kong universities have, I suppose, one good excuse for teaching English. Local employers commonly complain about the English standards of graduates. Indeed it sometimes seems as if fluent English is the only thing many employers expect of degree holders.

Having accepted the need to provide compulsory English, a university will then find that the people teaching Chinese want a bit of the action. They allege that the students’ Chinese is at least as bad as their English, if not worse. I always found this difficult to believe, but Chinese courses duly sprouted.

Then we have the enthusiasm for “liberal education”. This is a flexible term. It used to comprise in ancient times grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. In modern academic parlance it means a system in which a student is required for a year or two to take courses all over the university, before he or she is allowed to settle on a desired subject.

“Ideally,” says its Wikipedia page, “a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds. Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than conform to higher authorities.”

In the real world, it protects administrators and academics from the vagaries of student choice, and provides the opportunity for universities willing to game the system to improve their apparent research output.

Research output is measured by counting the number of learned articles and dividing it by the number of staff expected to do research. The main obstacle between these staff and a higher research output is the irritating requirement that they should do the job they are paid to do: teaching students.

Well we have to amuse the students for 16-18 hours a week, in our system. But if the students are in a language class then they do not have to be entertained by someone who is expected to do research and appears in the calculation. So we find language courses taught by “instructors”, “assistant lecturers”, or even “visiting scholars”, classifications which share the attraction that they do not count for research purposes.

This is a cheap and cheerful solution to financial strains. These non-research people can be worked for much longer hours than their aristocratic colleagues and be paid less. In fact the whole thing has become so popular that other languages are offered on a “start from scratch” basis, to meet some liberal education requirements.

This has led to some difficult choices for people advising students. Students are attracted to basic language courses, especially if they have already studied the language elsewhere, because they can expect to get a good grade. On the other hand many of my colleagues thought that such subjects lacked intellectual content, and students should be encouraged to do something more challenging.

Being able to order noodles in three languages is a useful accomplishment, but not perhaps the sort of thing people should be picking up in publicly-funded universities.

This piece is already getting too long, so I conclude with two points.

First: liberal education is a fine thing but it has its drawbacks. Reading a history of the early 60s the other day I was amused to find complaints that the British system was too liberal, and neglected the demands of the practical world. The person running a factory in Germany usually had a doctorate in a relevant science or technology. His English counterpart had a BA in Comparative Literature, or something equally irrelevant. Arts subjects are cheaper, but there is a danger that a preparation for life-long learning will merely be camouflage for a preparation for life-long unemployment.

Second: the problem at the root of the language question is the disappointing outcome of language teaching in schools. The British Army’s Interpreters’ School used to teach a foreign language to interpreter standard (not simultaneous, but useful) in three months, or – in round numbers – 500 classroom hours. Hong Kong kids spend much longer than that on English and many of them emerge from this ordeal barely able to buy a stamp.

Many European countries, like Finland, Holland or Iceland, have languages known to few foreigners. Visitors invariably find that most of the natives can speak two languages and many can manage three or more. It can be done. But here in Hong Kong it seems it cannot be done by us. I wonder why.






Mind your marching styles

One of the puzzling things about Hong Kong is the widespread enthusiasm for foot drill, even in organisations for which it hardly seems relevant, like the Red Cross or the Auxiliary Medical Service.

No well-intentioned youth organization is complete, it seems, without the formal ritual of a passing out parade, and the consequently necessary hours of practice in an arcane military art, which passed out of practical use some 150 years ago.

This is a matter about people feel surprisingly strongly. So I was not surprised to read that the Liaison Office had met some resistance to a recent campaign to persuade youth groups and others to switch to the “Chinese style of marching”.

This is apparently an obscure prong in the on-going de-Westernisation of Hong Kong. Our boys and girls are marching in a non-Chinese style! The horror!

Actually this approach incorporates a good deal of chauvinistic nonsense. There are

three “styles of marching” available in the world, and none of them is particularly Chinese.

The one which is used in China but not in Hong Kong is technically known as the Stechstritt (literally “piercing step”) and is a German invention.

It is usually credited to, or blamed on if you wish, a colourful military character called Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, later known (to distinguish him from several sons who also became generals) as the Old Dessauer. Leopold married his childhood sweetheart in the teeth of family opposition and had ten children.


Leopold had a long career and by the end of it had a fine collection of historic names to drop: he was at the Battle of Blenheim with Marlborough, in Italy with Prince Eugene, defeated Charles XII of Sweden (who was heavily outnumbered at the time) in Germany and finished his career in the service of Frederick the Great.

A charming legend has it that before his last battle Leopold (a devout Lutheran) prayed: “O Lord God, let me not be disgraced in my old days. Or if Thou wilt not help me, do not help these scoundrels, but leave us to try it ourselves.”

Leaving such delights aside, Leopold’s lasting contribution to Prussian military culture was his work on drill. Foot drill was a matter of life and death on 18th century battlefields, where the infantry needed to move smoothly between lines (if under bombardment by artillery) squares (to resist cavalry) and columns (to move about).

Leopold adopted the Stechstritt because it made it easier for a large body of men, in different sizes, to cover the same distance with each step, and so keep whichever formation they were in. It involves the legs being kept straight, the leg being put forward swinging up before being plonked down with the gratifying sound of jackboot meeting concrete.

This is hard work and extreme versions take a lot of practice.  From Germany it spread to the large numbers of countries which sought to emulate Prussian military prowess, including Russia, whence comes this picture.


The Soviet army kept it up, and it now appears in all the armies of the former Communist world, and many other places, though not in Germany where it is associated with an unhappy period.

During World War II there was a lot of Allied propaganda alleging German militarism, and the “piercing step”, by its more familiar barrack room name as the “goose step”, was depicted as part of this.


George Orwell wrote that “the goose step is only found in countries where the people are too frightened to laugh at their military.”

The alternative used in Hong Kong does not seem to have a name of its own but it is shared by the North American, British and European militaries. The leg only becomes straight when the foot hits the ground, a more natural movement, but there is a lot more emphasis on the arms. For the sake of completeness we may also mention what is called the “high step”, in which the leg is raised before coming down, but with the knee bent. It looks like this:



So the choice before us is basically this. We can have the Prussian/Russian/Chinese look, as demonstrated below by a unit which seems to have attracted a lot of internet enthusiasm for some reason:

t_1Women Militia2

Or can have the British/European/American look as demonstrated below by our beloved Police Force. Note big arm swing and restrained height of feet.

hk cops

And the truth of the matter is that it really doesn’t matter at all which is chosen, or even whether everyone chooses the same one. French military parades happily accommodate the French Foreign Legion, which marches at 88 paces a minute instead of everyone else’s 120. British parades include Highland regiments, who for some mysterious reason prefer 112. Many armies which use the goose step confine it to particular occasions or elite units.

From a practical point of view the spring from which all drill flows in Hong Kong is the police force. If they change to a Chinese style then all other uniformed groups will follow sooner or later. And if not, not.

The only other thing to say about this interesting but essentially trivial matter is that it is a textbook example of the sort of thing which should be no business at all of the Liaison Office. There is absolutely no reason, in the Basic Law or outside it, why this should be a matter for anyone but Hong Kong people.

No doubt the Liaison Office would say that they were only expressing an opinion.

This will not do. This year’s Liaison Office opinions have a disturbing habit of becoming next year’s government policy. You boys need to learn when to shut up.


This is a hard time to be Secretary for Justice, and would still be even if you hadn’t turned up with a large collection of illegal structures and an ethically dubious tax dodge. So I hesitate to join the chorus of complaints about the new secretary’s department.

On the other hand, errors which go uncorrected are likely to be repeated. So…

The Department of Justice seems to have stumbled into a serious misunderstanding about its privileges with regard to answering questions. The legal political issue of the day concerns why Returning Officers might reject the candidacy of people who meet the stated formal requirements for running in an election, and whether they have the right to do so.

In defence of the Returning Officers concerned, who in the Hong Kong system are all District Officers, so full-time card carrying members of the central Civil Service, officials have assured us that they were acting on legal advice. However a nameless spokesman added last week that the content of this advice cannot be disclosed, due to “attorney-client privilege”.

Actually this is the American term. In the English legal system it is known as legal professional privilege. In her latest Legco appearance the Secretary for Justice used neither term, but seemed to be relying on the concept when she said that the legal advice given to Returning Officers could not be disclosed because it was confidential.

The idea of legal professional privilege is that communications between a client and his or her lawyer cannot be disclosed … by the lawyer. The obligation on the lawyer is absolute, and in order to help observance a court will not compel the parties to a case to give evidence on what passed between them and their lawyers, much less compel the lawyers themselves.

Readers may think that this is a preposterous idea when applied to the advice the Department of Justice gives to other government departments. The idea that government lawyers are independent thinkers giving professional advice to a “client” who is the rest of the government is popular with government lawyers. It enables them to conceal from themselves the fact that they have forsaken the excitements and hazards of private practice for the tedium and security of the Civil Service.

But in practice there is no more reason to regard the lawyers as separate from the government than, say, the slope engineers or the sewage works designers.

However this line of thought is erroneous. The House of Lords, no less, has determined that in-house lawyers are still in a lawyer-client relationship with their employers. They just happen to have only one client. So in principle it will not do for a government lawyer to tell us what advice he or she gave the rest of the government.

But, and it is a big but, you will notice that this obligation of confidence does not apply to the client. The client is free at any time to discuss his legal situation in whatever detail he wishes, or to “waive the privilege” as the jargon has it, and authorise his lawyer to tell all on his behalf.

So where a government department or official seeks legal advice from the Department of Justice there is an obligation on the lawyer consulted to keep the matter under his hat. But that does not mean a blanket ban on disclosure. If lawmakers are taking an interest in the matter there is no legal bar to the government, as the client, telling them what the legal advice provided was.

I realise that this places the Secretary for Justice in a tricky ambiguous position. Is she the lawyer, the client, or both? And it would be quite understandable, if this ambiguity was too painful, if questions were referred to some other official who was clearly on the client side of the fence.

But I’m afraid as an excuse for keeping secret what should be public, this excuse does not fly. If officials are taking controversial steps on legal advice, then of course the public and its representatives have every right to know what that advice was.

Actually we are only in this situation because the legal system has displayed a curious anomaly when dealing with election matters. When the government wishes to disqualify elected legislators, the law is a rocket-assisted hare. When it is invited to protect the rights of candidates and electors from arbitrary interference by officials, on the other hand, the law is a paraplegic tortoise.

One of the candidates disqualified last year filed an immediate challenge in the High Court and the case was heard in May. Since then no judgement has materialised. Another challenge was filed in October last year. It has not yet been heard.

Probably whichever side loses will wish to appeal. At the rate we are going the terms of office of those elected in the last election will have expired before the judiciary gets round to a final verdict on the validity of the election. This is the rule of law … as depicted in Bleak House.


Our government triumphantly announced this week that the Police Force will, some time this year, receive three riot control vehicles mounting water cannons. These are being imported specially at a cost of $9 million each.

Eh? That comes to $27 million for the three. This is a lot of money. It is, by a cherishable coincidence, almost exactly the price of a palace in the New Territories, festooned with illegal structures, fit for the accommodation of a Secretary for Security willing to do anything for the Rule of Law except obey it herself.

Each of the new vehicles will cost twice as much as the most expensive Ferrari. Yet the essence of the creature appears rather simple. We are looking, or should be, at a heavy goods vehicle chassis carrying a water tank, a pump, and a few steerable nozzles.

Consider, by way of comparison, a street sweeping vehicle, which offers roughly the same combination with the nozzle in a different place. You can buy one in Australia, new, for between HK$100,000 and HK$800,000, depending on the level of luxury you want and particularly if you want it to vacuum as well as wash.

If you really want to spend a lot then De Luxe Cleaning Systems in Pune, India, has a model which sells for HK$2.4 million. A rival Indian firm, Nature Green Tools and Machinery, has one for $330,000.

But wait, what about the China price? What indeed! This is easy to research because Ali Baba advertisers are encouraged to give a price. Guangdong Heavy Industries will sell you a street cleaner powered by a Cummins diesel engine for $880,000. Or you can get one based on an Isuzu chassis and engine from Hubei Jiangmen Special Automobiles. Prices start at HK$180,000.

Prefer patriotic local content? Try Hubei Chongje Special Automobiles (they seem to be very hot on clean streets in Hubei) whose completely indigenous models start at $290,000.

Of course I am not suggesting that our police can use street sweeping vehicles as crowd control devices. This just gives you an idea of what might be considered a reasonable price.

Actually the earliest use of water cannon for crowd control involved borrowed fire engines, which already have the tank, pump etc. They also provide some guidance on what might be a reasonable price for a law-enforcement water wagon.

There is a whole website devoted to the price of fire engines in the US (no doubt because many fire services are provided by amateur or very local organisations who need the advice) and it suggests that a basic fire engine – tank, pump, nozzle, special equipment – should run to something between HK$1.9m and HK$3.1m.

Here again we can conveniently consider a China price. An upmarket option, the Iveco Tracker, retails for 230,000 Euros, or HK$2.2 million. here it is:

But for a basic piece of kit you can consider the Dong Feng, which goes for a mere HK$200,000. True it only has one nozzle, but these can be bought separately for a mere US$200. Most users find two nozzles sufficient though, as we shall see later, our boys are an exception.

The Dong Feng, below left, may seem to be a cheapskate solution, but consider that for what we are paying you could get a large fleet. You could afford, for example, to have one in each police station.

Another thought. Boris Johnson, while he was still Mayor of London, agreed to stump up for three water cannon trucks to be used by the Metropolitan Police. Their use, unfortunately, was banned by the Home Office, for reasons which we shall come to later.

So the three water cannons have sat about until now; the current mayor is trying, without much success, to find a buyer for them. Boris has been excoriated publicly for the cost of this little caper, which amounted to GBP300,000, or in round numbers a million Hong Kong per machine. People in London don’t know how lucky they are.

A curious feature of Boris’s water cannon trucks is that they were fitted with CD players. This is an interesting thought. Were the crews to go into action to the strains of some suitable Wagnerian music as in Apocalypse Now? Clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQoBE3VbSNI. Or was the idea that they should be treated to some uplifting constabulary music like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEHzmjCOZ5Q or this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cn89PSPSJlM

Never mind. I digress. What seems to have happened is that the Force budgeted HK$9million because what they really wanted was this:

This is a product of German ingenuity and engineering called the Wasserwerfer, or WaWe for short. The abbreviated version sounds less facetious if you remember that in German the Ws are pronounced as Vs. This is the Rolls Royce of water cannon wagons.

Among other entertaining features, you don’t just get a nozzle or two steerable from inside the cab: you get a light and a video camera on each nozzle so that the operator can, in theory at least, take accurate aim at a target. You also get a lot of armour plating – the appearance of a water cannon brings out the vandal in some people.

Also you are not restricted to shooting water. You can add colour, which will in theory make it easy to arrest people later or in practice will add vandalised clothing to your deterrent effect. Or you can add what security enthusiasts demurely call “pepper”, a noxious chemical distantly related to the stuff you put on your steak.

The retail price of a new WaWe, according the Daily Mail (not a source on which I am keen but why should they lie about this?) is GBP 800,000, or about HK$9 million in 2014 when the machines were ordered.

It is a characteristic of government ordering procedure that you cannot simply pick the item you want. There has to be a specification, tendering etc. And this brings me to an illustration which some media outlets have treated as a picture of the upcoming vehicles:

Actually when this first appeared the newspaper concerned made it clear that this was not a picture of the vehicle: it was a picture of the specification. A certain resemblance to the WaWe is noticable. The captions indicate some of the requirements which people hoping to sell three large trucks to the Hong Kong taxpayer for $27 million were expected to meet.

What may puzzle some readers is the extraordinary number of water cannons specified. Many police forces make do with two on the roof. One at the back for self-defence is optional, and only likely to be needed in unusual circumstances. Our wagons are going to have no less than 15 cannons.

Three of these are the usual. Two on the side and an extra one on the front are perhaps a concession to luxury. The other nine are “underbody” and not steerable at all. Their purpose apparently is to sweep off his feet any civilian rash enough to approach the vehicle itself while it is in action.

Alternatively, of course, their purpose is to make the whole vehicle so unique that it will be as fabulously expensive as the budget specified.

Most police forces do not have extra nozzles for self defence on their water wagons because if the situation is so fluid that civilians can get near it then the vehicle shouldn’t be there anyway.

Water cannons are not suitable for situations where the police and protesters are mixed up with each other. The cannon are too indiscriminate and the risk of running someone over in a confused situation is too great.

Water cannon are properly deployed behind police lines. This has led to some speculation (published in the New Scientist of all places) that the whole concept may become obsolete. Police lines belong to the days when protest sites were chosen and advertised in advance. Now that protesters can communicate on the hoof with mobile phones the traditional sort of confrontation may be replaced by “flash mobs” appearing and disappearing in unexpected places.

This brings us to another question, which is when, or even whether, these expensive innovations will ever be used in Hong Kong. Not every public order problem is amenable to this approach. There will be no question of a rapid response – the water trucks will live at the PTU place in Fanling.

And though the law and order industry no doubt found Occupy very frustrating, the fact remains that on average a major street confrontation happens less than once a decade.

The example of the existing crowd control vehicles is not encouraging. Yes the police do already have crowd control vehicles, and here they are parading in Fanling.

The reason you have not seen them in action is because parading in Fanling is the only thing they have done in living memory.

We must also note that the use of water cannons is fraught with dangers, to police/public relations and also to anyone who is unlucky with the water jet.

The reason why Boris’s purchases were never deployed in London is that the Home Office, at that time under the rule of Theresa May (yes, her) refused permission. She told MPs that exhaustive medical and scientific tests had suggested that water cannons could cause serious injuries including spinal fractures. Also it was considered that the deployment of such a weapon would harmfully affect policing generally.

We can here introduce Mr Dietrich Wagner, pictured with the white stick he now uses.

Mr Wagner is a retired engineer who participated in a demonstration in Stuttgart in 2010. He is not a radical: the protest was against a proposed development which would have involved the removal of a lot of mature trees.

Mr Wagner caught a water cannon blast full in the face. His eyelids were torn and some of the bones around his eyes fractured, causing his eyeballs to fall out of their sockets. He has had six operations on his eyes, and is still almost completely blind.

Mr Wagner is not the only victim of exuberant nozzle work. A 2013 report by the British government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory found “good evidence … to indicate that serious injuries have been sustained by people subjected to the force of water cannon”. Although water cannon are banned in the mainland UK they are used in Ulster.

A 69-year-old South Korean man died in 2016 as the result of a water cannon blast

In Zimbabwe three people died after the deployment of water cannons caused panic in a peacefully demonstrating crowd of 10,000.  During the Gezi Park protests in Turkey chemical-laced water loaded into cannons caused severe burns and eye injuries

In Indonesia, in 1996 “British-made armoured vehicles were used in a violent assault on a university campus, which resulted in many injuries and three student deaths.” The Independent reported, “Paramilitary police drove British-made armoured water cannon onto the campus and sprayed the students with an ammonia solution” causing dozens to suffer severe skin burns.

Last week a police spokesman told hk01.com that it may be better if usage instructions and deployment of the water cannons are left unknown to the public. Until the first inquest, maybe.

Well there is nothing really new in any of this. We have a government which spends money like a drunken sailor and a police force whose solution to every problem is more force.

Looking desperately for a bright side in all this I see that many WaWe’s in Germany compensate for their ample downtime by working for the local municipality as giant self-propelled watering cans in local parks. We do not have rolling acres of parks which need this sort of thing. But our threesome are going to be stationed in Fanling, just down the road from three golf courses. A happy coincidence. Keep those greens green.