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This question has lately become so mainstream that social scientists and politicians are weighing in. Unfortunately much of the discussion has been along rather crude lines. The matter in dispute is whether Hong Kong youngsters consider their identity to be Chinese, and if not, is this a problem?

Mr C Y Leung’s offering on the subject was, like so much that falls from that particular pair of lips, difficult to square with reality. Governments, he said, would regard you as Chinese if you had a Chinese name and face, whatever passport you held. This is, to put it politely, not the way it usually works. A passport is an official document issued by a government, and governments are of all possibilities the one most likely to take it seriously. Indeed those comfortable countries whose passports are regarded as most attractive often make a point of disregarding the ethnic origin of their citizens, and many of them have laws against discrimination on that basis. I wondered, actually, if Mr Leung’s remarks had been distorted in translation and he had actually meant “the government”, rather than governments in general. For there is one government of which Mr Leung’s observation is palpably true: the PRC regards all ethnic Chinese as subject to its control, wherever they may be and whatever passport they carry. Such people can be kidnapped in foreign countries and carted back to the People’s Paradise, to face charges relating to “crimes” which were not offences in the place where they were committed. In the eyes of their government Chinese people are not served, they are owned.

Possibly sensing that his master’s voice had been enjoying one of its less lucid moments, Michael Chugani repeated the point, but with a subtle difference. In Mr Chugani’s version it was not governments which would refuse to recognise a different national identity from that of your face, but “other people”. Apparently Mr Chugani’s fellow-Americans often insist that he is “really” Indian because he looks that way. This seemed rather a poor argument for recognising yourself as Chinese rather than a Hong Konger. After all many Americans are lamentably misinformed about “abroad”. One gets used to explaining that Hong Kong is not in Japan. Also it is generally considered that the main determinant of a person’s identity should be that person’s choice, and other people’s failure to recognise that choice should be resisted rather than appeased.

But this is all rather unsubtle. It assumes that identity is something unitary, logically consistent and permanent. This seems rather unlikely. In tolerant countries, after all, one person does not have one identity. He or she has a variety of identities in different contexts. Someone who is born and raised in London, and spent most of his life there, will certainly identify himself as a Londoner. That does not mean he is a traitor or a seeker of independence. In the World Cup he supports England, in the Olympics he supports Great Britain, and in the Ryder Cup he supports Europe. Besides this geographical onion, she may have other loyalties or memberships. Some of these are within national boundaries, like the National Trust or the Boy Scouts of America, while some of them cross it, like the Catholic Church or the Freemasons. In Hong Kong this is still allowed. It is an arrangement we rarely think about. We have multiple identities which are not mutually exclusive. Someone who thinks he is a Hong Konger may also consider himself Chinese, Muslim, and a member of Amnesty International. Asking people which identity they prefer is asking for trouble. The answer depends on the time and the context. Consequently we should not draw too many conclusions from it. A young Hong Konger who considers Hong Kong her most important identity is not necessarily rejecting all the alternatives out of hand.

Totalitarian regimes are different, alas. Multiple loyalties are not allowed. We are supposed to have “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer” as one unhappy precedent had it. One people, one country, one leader. And this trinity, like its religious counterpart, is not supposed to be divisible. It has to be swallowed whole. If you do not admire the leader you are also betraying the country and the people. The difference between Hong Kong and China on this point was not covered in the Basic Law. I suppose the drafters thought that having provided for a high degree of autonomy and capitalism continuing for 50 years they had dealt with the matter. Clearly Mr Leung has had the necessary brain surgery to meet the standards of devotion required. The prospect of the rest of us having to go the same way may explain some of the disillusionment among young people contemplating a future here.

In fairness to Messrs Leung and Chugani we should perhaps note that ethnic identities have a unique characteristic: they are the first thing people see. When you meet a stranger, before either of you says anything, and without conscious effort on either side, you have an initial impression of gender, age, ethnicity and perhaps other superficial things. People I meet in lifts occasionally comment on my height. If you met President Obama in the street the first thing that would register would be that he is black, more or less. A man interviewing potential students is deceiving himself if he thinks he does not notice that some of the ladies are pretty. This initial impression quickly fades into the background as you get to know other things about the person concerned. Your first unconscious thought may be “This kid is Chinese”. But once you have discovered that he is a gay vegetarian anarchist who supports Manchester United the ethnic classification is overwhelmed. Of course there are people for whom it remains a problem. No matter how well they know the person the ethnic category still obliterates everything else. This is known as racism and it should be opposed, not accepted as an unavoidable fact of life.

Sometimes two decisions, made separately by different people but trying to apply the same rules, come out with disturbingly different results.

Consider two announcements which both came out last week, about the aftermath of unexpected collapses of part of buildings. One of these concerned the collapse of one wall of the Police Married Inspectors Quarters Building, which is part of the old Central Police Station. In fact it is among the oldest parts; construction started in 1862. The wall collapsed on May 29 last year.

The other case which came to fruition at the same time concerned the roof of the Chan Tai Ho Multi-purpose Hall, which is part of a sports centre at the City University. The whole roof fell down on May 28 last year. The hall was practically brand new.

Both these cases had been the subject of inquiries, the conclusions of which were in due course transmitted to the Department of Justice. And the department has decided, it announced last week, that the contractor who was in charge of the married quarters work will be prosecuted. The first charge will be carrying out building works in a manner “likely to cause a risk of injury to any person.” On the other hand, the Justice people have decided that in the City U case “no prosecution was warranted”, according to the Standard.

And where, you wonder, is the justice in that? It may be that there are further nuances in the Married Quarters matter which will emerge in court. But on the face of it the contractor seems to have been rather unlucky. Dismantling or renovating a building more than 150 years old is always going to be tricky. There are probably no plans, and if there are plans the building will have been modified, and it was certainly not designed with a century and a half in mind.

Certainly the falling wall presented a risk of injury, but this was not entirely surprising. The risks involved were known and resulted in precautions not found in City U sports halls – the public were not admitted, workers were expected to wear hard hats, and so on.

The City U situation is rather different. The sports centre was in use while the university decided to add a lawn to the roof. Students played underneath it oblivious of the risk to which they were exposed. Indeed the university was in a sense lucky. If it had not been for the alertness and initiative of a security guard who organised an evacuation just in time, there would have been many people under the roof when it succumbed to Sir Isaac Newton’s great invention and tried to merge with the floor. If the roof had chosen another time to demote itself the casualties could have been in three figures.

Now I realise that there are regular arguments in educational circles about whether and if so to what extent universities are in loco parentis – whether they have parental or pastoral obligations as well as academic ones. But I think everyone who has discussed this would agree that universities do at least have an obligation to provide premises in which the roofs stay where roofs should be, rather than descending on the defenceless heads of their students.

The inquiry into the City U roof collapse attributed it to three causes: “the screeding of the roof structure was thicker than the original design, laying of greenery cover on the roof, and localised water ponding on the greenery cover.” This is not very helpful. I presume that the heavier screeding was necessary to support the greenery. And once the lawn was up there it should not have been difficult to predict that it would get wet in wet weather and it would then weigh more than it did dry. In fact, to put the matter in plain English, it appears that the City U put a lawn on the roof without giving due consideration to whether the roof was strong enough to support it.

City U has a Campus Development Office – duties “providing comprehensive services covering campus master planning and space allocation, capital and renovation projects, repair and maintenance of building services and estates of the entire campus.” The office has seven sections, supervising 17 “units” which in turn overlook 18 teams. Plenty of relevant talent there, then.

The university also has a Department of Physics and Materials Science, and a Division of Building Science and Technology. So the roof in question was surrounded by a great many people who knew, or should have known, that putting a roof on your garden is much easier than putting a garden on your roof.

It appears from the comments supplied by Edward Yiu, who represents the relevant functional constituency in Legco, that the decision not to prosecute arises from a “grey area as to whether green roofs are building works that require plans to be submitted to the Buildings Department.” But if this explains the Department of Justice’s action, or non-action, then the department is surely taking too legalistic a view of the matter.

The question is not whether sabotaging your own building requires the approval of the Buildings Department, but whether it is legal to turn a boring hall roof into an exciting death trap waiting for a Black rainstorm to spring it. If the government cannot be bothered to consider this, why are harmless householders all over Hong Kong routinely threatened with prosecution for minor changes to their buildings which – if they threaten anyone – threaten only themselves?

The City U students were lucky this time. Nobody was under the roof when it came down. But the way we prevent serious accidents is by taking narrow escapes seriously. I do not doubt that if a few students had been squashed the Department of Justice would have found a way to swing into action and prosecute someone for something. So as traditional school reports used to put it, they “could do better if they tried.”

 

Mr Hoo, whose interesting version of the problem presented by the need for customers on the new Express Link to go through mainland customs and immigration inspired my last outburst, now claims that he was misquoted in press reports of what he said. This is, if true, a pity, because what he now says he said is even funnier.

In a letter to the South China Pravda Mr Hoo now says that what he said was that Hong Kong “asked to be plugged into the high-speed railway network of the mainland.” This is an interesting way of putting it. Some Hongkongers might prefer to say that this expensive political erection was rammed down their reluctant throats by an unelected government. Given that we have asked for it, though, Mr Hoo says that “it is agreed” — he does not say by whom — that this can only be done by having all the immigration and customs clearance done at the West Kowloon terminus. If the train stopped in Shenzhen for this purpose then “This would mean the Shenzhen-Hong Kong journey was no longer high speed and that the money spent building the high-speed tunnel had been wasted.”

A few words are in order here about the technicalities of high-speed railways. Trains with a high maximum speed do not depart the station like a Saturn rocket in a burst of skull-bursting acceleration. This would be bad for the passengers and require an unnecessarily vigorous power plant. Similarly it takes them a long time to stop.  So our part of the express link will never be a high-speed tunnel. The trains leaving Kowloon will still be accelerating when they reach the border and the arriving ones will be slowing down before they get to Shenzhen. Second point: the purpose of a railway is to provide convenience to the passengers, not to provide an exciting life for the train driver. The passengers will have to go through customs and immigration somewhere. The time this takes, unless it is done on the moving train, will be added to the time taken actually moving on the journey. The timetabled time will be shorter if the clearance is done in Kowloon, but the journey time will be the same because passengers will have to reach the station earlier.

Mr Hoo also seems to have missed the numerous reports that the Shenzhen authorities are very keen to have all trains stop at their station because their express rail link is losing money — as ours no doubt will — and they would like the ongoing trains to be more full.

But Mr Hoo is more entertaining on legal matters.  He now says that there was no underground development in West Kowloon in 1997, but the basic law grants “implied rights” for underground development. He says that the new area underground raises “complicated questions of land sovereignty”. It must, he says, be recognised that “the autonomous area at West Kowloon under the Hong Kong SAR has not decreased because of the West Kowloon underground development, but increased.” He suggests that the SAR government should “not claim all of the underground development as its territory.”

Unaccustomed as I am to defending the Hong Kong government, this idea that new underground spaces are a sort of vertical reclamation, new territory which can be allocated as convenient to one jurisdiction or another, is based on a large legal error. The idea that the SAR government is being greedy by keeping all this new territory to itself is preposterous.

I am indebted to my mole in the legal profession for an alert to some matters which Mr Hoo has apparently forgotten since he left law school. The fundamental Common Law rule about structures over or under the ground is of great antiquity, and being of great antiquity it is embodied in a burst of Latin, which goes like this: Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos. This may be roughly translated as “if you own the land you own the air above it up to heaven, and the ground beneath down to hell”.  It is usually ascribed to an Italian lawyer employed by the English King Edward I, who reigned between 1272 and 1307. The principle is confirmed by the 18th century textbook writer Blackstone: “Land hath also, in its legal signification, an indefinite extent, upwards as well as downwards.” The principle still applies, though the indefinite extent has been somewhat pruned in modern times to accommodate civil aviation in the celestial direction and fracking in the infernal one. But it leaves no room for doubt that any underground railway development in West Kowloon, along with Henry Tang’s basement, the Lion Rock Tunnel, and the South Island Line, are in fact legally and without complication part of Hong Kong, and they do not increase the territory’s size. The SAR government is not “claiming” the space in the express rail station – it owns it, and cannot avoid owning it unless it positively gives it away.

This brings me to the part of Mr Hoo’s letter which needs to be taken seriously, because it tells us what to expect. Apparently there has been talk of a “Shenzhen model” under which the SAR would lease a piece of territory to the mainland security services, allowing it to come under mainland jurisdiction. This would cover, presumably, the relevant floor in the station basement and the trains. Mr Hoo thinks this is “constitutionally unviable”, though he does not say why. After all the Chinese government does not take its constitution very seriously.

The better approach, he says, would be for the State Council to designate part of the station as a “border defence area” and the tunnel as a “restricted zone”. This would mean that the areas so designated would become mainland territory. It would only apply in the identified part of the station “and the sealed tunnel”. I don’t know why Mr Hoo thinks the tunnel would be “sealed”. It will need maintenance, ventilation and emergency exits. Also if the tunnel is unusable for some reason the trains will be diverted to an emergency siding on the surface.

Personally I think the lease idea is the better one because a lease comes with conditions. The lease could specify who was to be stationed in the station and what powers they would exercise. If part of the station becomes effectively China then there are no restrictions at all.  This option would make it much easier to kidnap booksellers and other undesirables, which may be why some people like it. I fear, though, that this is the option we are going to get, and Mr Hoo is just doing his bit to soften us up for the bad news, and wrap it in a constitutional smokescreen.

The “co-location” debate, a euphemism for public disquiet at the mainland secret police having an office in the Express Rail Link station in Tsimshatui, took an interesting turn last week. One of the questionable features of the proposed arrangement, though not perhaps the most important one, is that it is a violation of the Basic Law, which stipulates that mainland law shall not be enforced in the Hong Kong SAR.

Mr Alan Hoo, who is a lawyer but perhaps more relevantly a warm supporter of the government, explained that the stationing of mainland officers, and the enforcement of mainland law, in the station basement would not be a violation of the Basic Law, because the basement was not in Hong Kong. You what? According to Mr Hoo the official map of the SAR, published in 1997, states that the SAR consists of its land and sea surfaces.

“Who does the underground belong to?” wondered Mr Hoo on an RTHK programme, “That’s a very complicated legal question. The earth is round. Why does the underground belong to [Hong Kong]? If we find oil beneath Hong Kong, [China] does not have to ask your permission before drilling it.”

Hoo employed a metaphor of a doctor inserting a tube into a patient: “The tube is inserted into your body, but it is the property of the Hospital Authority – not you – and it has administrative rights [over the tube].”

Now let us dispose of the medical metaphor first. The Express Rail Link is not the property of the mainland government. We are paying for it and it belongs to a company set up for the purpose. Property rights in the tube are not relevant here. If a mainland bus crosses the boundary into Hong Kong then it becomes subject to Hong Kong law, regardless of who owns it. Trains the same.

I also find the oil well comment rather unhelpful. Actually in most common law countries the ownership of land includes the ownership of any valuable deposits underneath it. The national government has no special status in the matter.  Nor is the roundness of the Earth an objection to this arrangement. Quite how this affects railway tunnels varies because the construction of a new line is usually preceded by a law specifically authorising the work and stating the conditions under which it must be carried out. In the early days of the London tube the companies were required to obtain permission from the owner of any property they tunneled under. To avoid the resulting endless paperwork the early tube lines were all built under existing streets, with occasionally odd results. In Hong Kong the situation is unusual: everyone who “owns” land actually holds it on a lease from the government — except, for historical reasons, the site of St Johns Cathedral. So if we strike oil the owner would presumably be the Hong Kong SAR government, not the unfortunate landowner who was going to get a drilling rig in his back garden. I see no reason to suppose that the mainland government would have a pre-emptive right to preside over the resulting well.

That leaves us with the most entertaining part of Mr Hoo’s argument, the idea that the SAR consists only of the land and sea surfaces, and consequently anything underground is still part of the mainland. The implications of this are quite mind-bending. If you are driving your pregnant wife to hospital and she delivers early in the Lion Rock tunnel, is your offspring entitled to a Chinese passport? If you are charged with a crime committed on the platform of the (very deep) Homantin MTR station can you avoid being charged by pointing out that the Hong Kong courts do not have jurisdiction because the underground is not part of the SAR? Travelling on the MTR, indeed, now acquires a whole new international dimension. The East Rail line is mostly in Hong Kong, but visits China when it goes under Lion Rock. The Kwun Tong line is mostly in China but visits Hong Kong when it surfaces between Diamond Hill and Choi Hung. Prepare to be asked for your passport.

The other direction also presents problems. If the SAR only comprises the surface, at what point in IFC2 do you leave the SAR and where are you then? Is someone who is required to leave the SAR before his visa can be renewed meeting the requirement if he travels on the Ocean Park cable car?

The most economical solution to these problems is to conclude that Mr Hoo was talking through his hat. Human beings are not lichens which can exist in a thin sheet on a “surface”. The SAR must be three-dimensional and we must suppose that the drafters of the official map intended this to be the case.

Whatever you think of this matter, though, you have to be a very legal person to suppose that finessing the Basic Law objection would produce general happiness with the proposed “co-location.” The objection to having the mainland Gestapo lurking in the bowels of West Kowloon are not just legal. You have to be very naive to believe that officials stationed there will be exclusively drawn from the mainland government departments dealing with customs and immigration. And you have to be very optimistic to suppose that the others, who are not primarily concerned with customs and immigration, will never emerge from their subterranean home and interfere with matters which should be no concern of theirs.

There is also the question of what happens if the mainland officials find someone on the train who in their view should not be in Hong Kong. Will this person be manacled, drugged, bagged and put in the luggage van? How long will it be before we see United Airlines-type scenes of reluctant and bleeding passengers being dragged on or off trains by thugs in uniform?

All this fuss is quite unnecessary. It is well established that all the trains are going to stop in Shenzhen anyway. Mainland officials can do their thing there. Some ingenuity may be required to find a way of doing this which avoids long delays. Solving this problem would be a more constructive contribution than developing new legal fantasies, however entertaining.

 

 

 

Are you 50-odd years of age and looking for something lucrative and not too demanding to do for five years before you retire to somewhere with cleaner air and a nicer climate? Then I have news for you. Our new Chief Executive is trying to recruit policy secretaries and it seems the hunt is not going well. Distress signals are flying in all directions. Some of these ominous signals may just be an attempt to soften us up for the discovery that most of the new policy secretaries will be the senior civil servant who is next in the queue, which is precisely how the system was NOT supposed to work. But judging by the number of people who claim to have been invited and refused, sincere efforts are being made to recruit outside the usual circle. Get your application in now.

The attractions are considerable. Let us start with the salary. The average remuneration of ministers was reported last year to be just under $300,000 a month. At the time the government was proposing to raise this by 12 per cent for the next term. This will keep you at the levels to which our ministers are accustomed, which is that they are better paid than any president or prime minister you can think of, including President Trump and Mr Xi Jinping. The only officials in the world who are better paid than ours are senior ministers in the government of Singapore. But to get those jobs you have to live in Singapore. Yawn.  Back in Hong Kong, copious unaudited expenses are also offered.

You can select and appoint a political assistant for up to $100,000 a month. The government will supply you with a deputy who will do the less attractive parts of the job, a driver and car, secretary, press relations person, and other flunkies. You will have a luxurious office in Central with its own toilet and free parking. Which of course you will not need because your official car will take you everywhere, unless you are in a serious hurry, in which case you can ask for the official helicopter.

Numerous trips abroad beckon, for which you will take the VIP channel to your First Class seat and relax in your personal suite at the destination when “fact-finding” gets too strenuous. Be picky. Geneva or Paris offer interesting facts and informative conferences. Leave Tashkent to your deputy.

In theory, you will be expected in return for all these nice things to come up with policies. It will be your pleasant task to tackle Hong Kong’s numerous problems and make the people happy and grateful. In practice there is no need to lose any sleep over this. The really important decisions are made in the Liaison Office. The less important ones will be made by Carrie Lam, who is notoriously impervious to other people’s suggestions. The trivial stuff can be left to your civil servants, who have been working in the field for many years and understand it better than you do anyway.  Your job is to foster the illusion that the government knows what it is doing and where it is going.

This may seem a difficult task, but remember there is no penalty for failure. When the “responsibility system” was first introduced we were beguiled with the prospect of people who messed up actually being held responsible and maybe fired. This is not how it has worked out in practice. It is in fact quite difficult to think of anything short of being investigated by the ICAC which can dent the confidence which Chief Executives place in their chosen ministers. This is of course because ditching a minister implies that the original appointment was an error. So ministers can survive lack of popularity, manifest incompetence, serial scandals … just keep out of the criminal courts.

You may be discouraged by frequent complaints in the local off-shoots of the People’s Daily that the “political atmosphere” deters people from taking up ministerial jobs. Do not be. This is nonsense. True, on your rare visits to Legco you may be subjected to hostile questioning. You may be the target of flying fruit or other objects. But these are rare showers in a long summer of unstinted admiration. You will, on appointment, become a JP, which is meaningless but looks nice on a business card. A Bauhinia bauble will follow in a few years. You will be invited to numerous events, not all of them boring, at which you will be an honoured guest. They may ask you to make a short speech. Your political assistant will write it; this is what she is for. You can fill your evenings with as many balls or dinners as your liver can stand. Exclusive clubs will seek you as a member. The media will want to interview you and most of the media, these days, are on your side. Subversive website offerings can be dismissed as “fake news”.

The only drawback, actually, is that you may think you are serving the Chief Secretary or the HK SAR government, but really you are working for the Liaison Office. So you will need to draw to your speech writer’s attention the need for periodic obeisance to Beijing: approving mentions of Belt and Road, denunciations of independence advocates, warm approval for flakey petitions from the Silent Majority, strong support for the police force, stern disapproval of Occupy Central, Joshua Wong, etc. Embarrassing incidents like kidnappings from Hong Kong hotels should be greeted with calls to wait until all the facts are revealed. With any luck you can get through your term of office before this happens.

Last but not least, remember that while you may not be doing much as a minister you are laying the foundations for a lucrative post-retirement career in business. You will make a lot of useful contacts and some of them will suppose  — I hope erroneously — that they owe you a favour. Of course after five years in a publicly-funded shower of gold you may feel that further work is a less attractive prospect than sitting on a beach somewhere. We try to discourage this: before taking office you are supposed to give up you overseas passport. But don’t worry. This prohibition does not apply to your wife and the desirable destinations are happy to admit spouses. This means that you need to be on good terms with the lady and that in turn means forgoing the erotic possibilities which will certainly come you way in the corridors of power. So have a good time, but behave yourself.

Check this Bill

The Public Order (Amendment) Bill 2017, a draft prepared by three pro-government legislators who want to make it illegal to insult a policeman, makes riveting reading. The trio of drafters are all lawyers. One of them, indeed, teaches law in a local university. But the Bill is gibberish.

You do not have to take my word for it. The thing is quite short. Here it is, in its lovely entirety:

17H. Offence against insulting a law enforcement officer

(1) Any person acts with intent towards a law enforcement officer in the execution of the officer’s duty__

(a) utters abusive or insulting words;

(b) behaves in a disturbing or insulting manner: or

(c) exhibiting a disturbing or insulting slogan,

commits an offence.

(2) Any person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable on summary conviction to a fine at level 1.

(3) Any person commits the offence repeatedly or maliciously under subsection (1) in repetition is liable to a maximum fine at level 2 and imprisonment for 12 months.

(4) No offence is committed under this section unless the person knows or ought reasonably to know that the victim was acting in the capacity of a law enforcement officer, as the case may be.”

Leaving aside the merits, if there are any, of the new offence, what bothers me is that three people licensed to practise law in Hong Kong, one of whom habitually teaches it, could come out with something so nonsensical. They have reportedly submitted it to the Law Draftsman section of the Department of Justice, where it must have occasioned a great deal of mirth. In fact I imagine the professional law draftsmen are rolling on the floor laughing.

The poor drafters couldn’t even get past the title without making a mistake. It is not an “offence against insulting a law enforcement officer” that we are dealing with here. The offence IS insulting a law enforcement officer. The title would make sense if it said “Offence of insulting …” or if it started “Prohibition on insulting …” As it is it is meaningless.)

The next subsection is the most important one, because it defines the new offence. Unfortunately this does not make sense either because a vital word has been omitted. That word is “who”. The standard way of constructing the definition of an offence is to say that “a person who” does whatever we now wish to criminalise “commits an offence”. If you miss out the “who” you finish up with a non-sentence: “a person acts … commits an offence.  Somebody seems to have fallen asleep between sub-paragraphs (b) and (c), because after our ban on a miscreant who utters, or a miscreant who behaves, we suddenly find a miscreant exhibiting.

Subsection (2) is a standard piece of legislative boilerplate. An unkind observer might speculate that as the vital “who” is still present here the whole paragraph was lifted from some existing ordinance. Subsection 3 on the other hand was clearly composed without help, and as a result is dangerously ambiguous. I suppose the writers intended it to mean that on a second conviction for the same offence the upper limit on the penalty should be higher. But the “repeatedly” or “in repetition” bit could be subject to another interpretation. Saying “fuck your mother” once qualifies for the fine, twice for the jail sentence.

This brings us to subsection 4 where, once again, the intention is clear but the writing is not. What are we to make of the curious mixture of tenses. The person “knows” that the victim “was” a law enforcement officer. Is this supposed to cover retired policemen as well?

In fact if this were passed as it is — which mercifully is highly unlikely — the question of who is or was a law enforcement officer might well give some difficulty. Policemen, obviously. I suppose this phrase was intended to cover other uniformed guardians of the government, like Immigration and Customs Officers. How far can it stretch, one wonders… Environmental Hygiene inspectors, traffic wardens, meter readers, Legco security guards, private security guards employed by the government, park attendants … your watchman? But not, presumably, firemen.

Connoisseurs will also be surprised by the inclusion of “disturbing” as a punishable quality of behaviour or slogans. Many of us are no doubt quite happy with the idea that our policemen should not be insulted. But disturbed?

Overall this is such a shoddy piece of work that it would hardly be acceptable coming from a student. The most senior drafter was actually Dr Hon Priscilla LEUNG Mei-fun, SBS, JP, as the official Legco guide has it, adding the stunning afterthought that besides representing the fortunate electors of Kowloon West the honourable lady is an Associate Professor in the City U Law School. In support we have Horace Cheung (DAB: Hong Kong Island) who is a solicitor trained at the City U Law School. Also on my list of lawyers from whom I would not now buy a used draft bill is Junius Ho, another solicitor, trained in England.

But let me make it clear that I am not complaining about the English. It is unfair and inconsiderate to chide local politicians for any deficiency in  their English language skills. The language of local politics is Cantonese. Lawyers, though, need to know that law draftsmanship is a specialised skill and if they haven’t got it they shouldn’t fake it. We can perhaps have a useful debate on whether it should be a criminal offence to insult a policeman. This is not the place to start.

It is nice to see local academics probing important social topics, so I found an unexpected gem in the latest issue of “Horizons”. Horizons is one of those occasional magazines which our universities put out for the entertainment of staff, parents and anyone who might be persuaded to buy a new building for them. Horizons is the Baptist U version and the cover story in the latest version is an interview with Dr Odalia Wong (I did not make up this name), whose current contribution to sociological inquiry is a probe into the implications of tiny flats.

Dr Wong is concerned by stories about miniflats in which you can have a bed or a table, but not both, and the toilet is so small that you have to sit with your feet out the door. I can claim some relevant experience here because a few years ago I stayed in a hotel in Singapore. This place was cheap, and had a lot to be cheap about. When you came in you passed the toilet door on your right, and then collided with the bed. And that was it. The bathroom was so small that all the facilities overlapped. If you were in a hurry you could have a shit, a shower and a shave simultaneously. This was all right for a night or two, but in Hong Kong people will seriously offer you something similar as the home of your dreams, with a price tag of two or three million bucks.

Dr Wong, being a sociologist, has a statistical take on the situation as well as the anecdotal one. It is forecast that the annual number of new units built in the next few years will be 18,000, about 60 per cent more than we managed over the last decade or so. But the total square footage will be the same, and according to some predictions will actually shrink. So the average flat size has dropped by more than half and is continuing in the same direction.

Dr Wong blames the steady shrinkage of the Hong Kong flat for the disturbing delay in most people’s marriage plans. The median age of first wedding for males is 31, and for females 29. Having tied the knot the happy couple will then wish to think twice about reproduction, because a microflat which would be crowded with two people will certainly not be a success for three. Indeed inhabitants of very small flats may actually be worse off than they would be in public housing. At this point Horizon offers a cherishable quote: ”Such mosquito-sized units are actually high-end subdivided flats. The only things that set them apart are the existence of a deed and compliance with the Fire Safety Ordinance.”

Well quite. Dr Wong goes on to worry about the possibility that if the property market stabilizes these tiny flats will become unsaleable. I have two doubts about the reality of this danger. One is that there is no sign of our government having the gumption to do the sort of things which might lead to the property market “stabilizing”, let alone declining. It may be, of course, that the bubble will eventually burst of its own volition, but I am not holding my breath. And after all, Adam Smith’s great invention will put its invisible paws in here; if flats become cheaper buyers will become more numerous.

What worries me is what this situation tells us about the life and times of ordinary 20-somethings in Hong Kong. Miss Yau Wai-ching, who did not become the surprise success of the last Legco elections without an ability to hear what people were worried about, caused a little stir a few weeks ago by saying that young people in Hong Kong had no space, even for sex. There ensued one of those massive exercises in missing the point which commonly follow any public mention of sex. Much attention was devoted to the actual word Miss Yau had used, a Cantonese expression which apparently comes somewhere between “bonk” and “fuck” on the acceptability for public oratory scale. Nobody entertained the possibility that this might be a serious point. But it is.

In A.J.P. Taylor’s volume of the Oxford History of England he notes that in the 1920s and 30s people had far fewer babies than they had in earlier periods, yet this drop in fertility was achieved well before practical contraceptives became widely available. It follows, he inferred, that most people limited their output by abstaining. Historians should bear in mind, he wrote, that in this period they are dealing with a frustrated population. Maybe people who complain about the resentment and ingratitude displayed by our youngsters should bear this in mind as well.

This is actually only one aspect of the generally distressing situation facing young people in Hong Kong. The BBC recently quoted a survey as concluding that 80 per cent of the population aged between 18 and 29 would like to emigrate. I do not think China was the destination they had in mind — more likely the prospect that they will be migrated to China without actually moving anywhere. We seem to be embarking on a dangerous sociological experiment, designed to determine how much disillusionment and dissatisfaction a society can generate in its young people and still function. Besides its ominous implications for Hong Kong as a going concern, this involves inflicting a great deal of personal unhappiness.

I conclude that the new Chief Executive needs to attach a good deal more urgency to this than her unlamented predecessor did. I suppose the provision of private places for young people to meet their erotic needs is perhaps not a plausible project for government action. But tinkering with the MPF and MTR fares is not going to crack this problem.