I am not sure how “national security” crept up on us. It was not, as far as I remember, mentioned at all in the 2000s, or for that matter in 2014. It is not mentioned in Article 23 of the Basic Law. Yet in the last couple of years it has become something like heresy in 16th century Spain – an all-purpose offence of which anyone can be accused, with dire consequences for the convicted, offering an opportunity for vigorous virtue signalling by amateur witch-finders.

Many years ago I signed up for what Kings College London, with an admirable scorn for euphemisms, still calls War Studies. In those days “national security” was a favourite concept in what we called “strategic waffle” – the penning of lengthy op-ed style pieces full of recycled news reports and unverifiable predictions couched in learned language.

It played a murky role in justifying governments’ interests in spots outside their jurisdiction, like the Austrian Empire’s preoccupation with the ownership of the mouth of the Danube, or the British government’s supposed national interest in the neutrality of Belgium.

The idea that “national security” required the rigorous suppression of dissenting voices or the criminalisation of criticism did not come up.

It has now become a rising tide which threatens to engulf us all. The latest manifestation of this came with a spasm of concern in the Legislative Council about the credentials of social workers. Members professed alarm that some social workers had been accused, and in some cases convicted, of public order offences which suggested that they had supported the 2019 “insurrection”.

This was a danger to national security. Such people might indoctrinate or subvert the clients in their care, who might include impressionable people or children. The destination to which we were invited to proceed at the best possible speed was a purging of the profession, in which the politically unreliable would be deprived of the right to work in it.

Something similar seems to be in the offing for teachers who, we were told last week, will all have to take an examination  in the finer points of the Basic Law, and perhaps later the national security law as well. This was combined with a broad hint that the school network was due for pruning because Hongkongers are not producing enough victims to fill local classrooms. No doubt performance in the new examinations will be considered when choosing which institutions will be surplus to requirements. 

A large cloud also hangs over the future of the Bar Association. Will it be purged of the unruly, or perhaps combined with the solicitors, whose obsequious majority will swamp it? Some form of unfrockment for lawyers of a disputatious disposition can then be wheeled into place with the consent of the profession.

Then, or perhaps first, it will be the turn of the journalists. Expect the “false news” legislation, when it comes, to include some form of exclusion from the profession for people who perpetrate untruths, or refuse to parrot the government ones.

It seems that being “unsound” on national security is going to be like being a sex offender in California: after you have served your sentence, if any, you do not return to your former life. You have to conform to a variety of restrictions on where you may live, work and socialise. The irony is that Hong Kong has not got round to a sex offenders register yet. So it appears that our legislators regard anyone who was caught up in an illegal assembly as a worse threat to society than a decent honest pedophile.

Indeed they were falling over themselves last week to complain that prosecutions for public order offences were not happening in the desired quantities.

The Secretary for Justice admitted there was a backlog of cases, but denied that her department was the bottleneck. Actually this is not good enough. As the government’s senior law officer the Secretary has wider responsibilities than just running her own department. If there is a bottleneck it behoves her to identify the problem and obtain its solution.

As it is I find myself in the rare and uncomfortable position of agreeing with Elizabeth Quat. It is a scandal that prosecutions are taking so long in coming to a hearing. The time is now measured in years rather than months, which is unfair to everyone concerned. Memories fade, witnesses become unavailable, evidence disappears… Detailed discussion of international standards in this matter here.

In many jurisdictions cases expire altogether if the prosecution without a good excuse fails to bring the case in a reasonable time. Hong Kong has no similar rule. 

The problem is exacerbated by the prosecutorial habit of throwing juveniles into adult courts. This led to a scandalous case the other week in which a defendant was convicted of engaging in a fracas with a policeman at a protest against parallel traders. When the offence took place the defendant was 15, and consequently a “young person” within the meaning of the relevant ordinance.

By the time the trial was finished he was 18, and so too old for the facilities intended for juveniles. The judge had no choice but to sentence him to an adult prison. This is not the way the system is supposed to work. 

It would be nice if a government proposing to legislate against “false news” was itself scrupulously truthful. Nice, but perhaps a bit too much to hope for. Consider the latest exchanges on this topic between a reporter and our Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.

“The reporter … asked whether rumours that district councillors who were disqualified would be asked to hand back salaries and subsidies they had received since the beginning of their term would qualify as ‘fake news,’ and why the government did not clarify if the rumours were not true.

Regular readers will recall a piece in August in which I said that the idea that the government could reclaim salaries and allowances from people who were disqualified for refusing an oath which was not required when they were elected was legally nonsense. It seems that the government’s lawyers agree. Nothing has been heard of the idea since the first disqualifications took place last month.

“‘I don’t know where the rumours came from,’ said Lam. ‘We have a lot of rumours every day, if we have to clarify messages circling in society every day, [we] won’t be able to do anything else.’”

Well let me help Ms Lam out a bit. On July 21 the SCMPost reported that “Government insiders had earlier told the Post that authorities were well aware they had a weak legal case for such a demand, but that the ‘tactic’ of floating the possibility ‘had worked’”. 

I take that to mean that the idea that councillors would be liable for a million bucks or so if they were disqualified, and this liability could be avoided if they resigned first, was deliberately aired as a tactic by Ms Lam’s minions, with the intention that it would induce a large number of resignations, and allow the government to avoid the odium which would be attracted by an avalanche of simultaneous disqualifications.

I would like to believe, and no doubt Ms Lam would also like us to believe, that this deliberate dishonesty was perpetrated without her knowledge. But alas this was not the case. The Post’s revelation about the tactic which had worked was tacked on the end of a report on a “meet the press” session held on July 20.

On this occasion Ms Lam was asked about the mass resignation of councillors, and at that time had every opportunity to torpedo the “rumour” that there would be a million dollar penalty for District Councillors who failed to jump before they were pushed.

The Post reported, “Asked if her administration would deal with the repayment issue in a ‘humane’ manner, she said: ‘Handling this according to the law is the only way out.’

The Standard had “For those who have been disqualified, Lam said, authorities will handle the issue of their pay in accordance with the law, and leniency is out of the question.”

I do not see how you can infer from these statements anything but that Ms Lam was perfectly well aware in July of the “rumour” and was actively engaged in fostering it.

After all saying that the government will deal with the matter “in accordance with the law” could be considered a statement of the obvious. In some jurisdictions it would hardly be worth reporting. Even in Hong Kong I do not suppose many readers interrupted their breakfast to say, “Look, Mabel, the Hong Kong government says it is going to follow the law.”

Perhaps Ms Lam felt it necessary to provide this assurance because she had just announced that the government was going to flout the law on the filling of vacancies on District Councils.

But what are we to make of “leniency is out of the question”? Clearly this would be understood to mean, and Ms Lam intended it to mean, that the government had a strong legal case for taking a million bucks off councillors who were slow to resign, and that no pound of flesh would be left uncollected.

So this was not some vague rumour which bubbled up from who knows where. It was a deliberate tactic employed by the government, of which Ms Lam was perfectly well aware, and in the circulation of which she actively participated.

Maybe the poor lady is losing her memory. I hope so, because the alternative is rather distressing.

I would like someone to tell Ms Lam that we do not expect her to “clarify messages circulating in society every day”. It would be welcome if she could just sort out the mendacious government ones. 

There was a reception last week for the “media sector”. This gave a little foretaste of what the media sector is likely to consist of when the national security police have finished pruning it.

Organisers included Patrick Li, who has presided over the obedience training at RTHK, a bigwig from the Ta Kung Wen Wei Media group, and a big cheese from Xinhua. Independent news outlets were not invited and two reporters from such outlets who turned up, supposing the event to be newsworthy, were refused admission.

Carrie Lam addressed the assembled throng as “media friends”. You get the picture.

Ms Lam took the opportunity to repeat a line which has, to put it politely, been getting a bit tired lately. “The national security law.” she said, “targets only an extremely small minority of people that endanger national security.”

Well it is not for us to say what Beijing officials “targeted”, but this formulation obscures the flagrant fact that if it was only supposed to affect an “extreme minority of people” then the national security law was “targeted” very badly.

The obvious victims of the new law are the unlucky minority who find themselves jailed for months awaiting trial. But it has an affect much wider than that.

Unintended (perhaps) targets include Hongkongers who find their favourite newspaper or website is no longer available, people who find organisations of which they were members or whose services they enjoyed have suddenly ceased operation, people who are eased out of jobs by employers who fear legal liability for something they might say, people who supported regular public events like the June 4th commemoration which will, we may surmise, never happen again.

Many Hongkongers, including me, find that since the national security legislation was passed none of the people we voted for on various occasions are still in office, or indeed still in politics. Government fans are now desperately trying to rustle up some plastic pro-democracy politicos, to disguise the fact that life has become impossible for the real thing.

I am not the only writer who has lamented the effective disappearance of the public sphere, the evisceration of debate, castration of the media, systematic bullying of dissenters. That may not have been the intention of the national security law but it has palpably been its effect.

We are now told by Tam Yiu-chung that local legislation to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law will only affect “a small group of people”. Do you really expect us to buy this lemon twice?

What we are being offered here, in exchange for the freedoms which Hong Kong used to enjoy, is a new narrative of history. In this official version the resistance to the extradition bill was entirely the work of a tiny minority of the population, who had been duped or bribed by the CIA. Everyone else supported the government. This is nonsense.

It has become almost impossible for people to express views critical of the government. Anything which used to be said in the street in 2019 has become a national security offence. Organisations through which non-violent sympathisers could offer support and encouragement have been hounded out of existence. We are told that things have returned to “normal”. Well, to what was normal in Stalin’s Russia or Ceausescu’s Rumania, perhaps.

If this fantasy is repeated often enough, though, some people will manage to believe it. Perhaps Ms Lam and Mr Tam have already managed to convince themselves that this is the true story. 

But if that’s the case, why are they so reluctant to face an audience which has not been purged of potential critics? Even the “media sector” had to be decaffeinated before consumption. 

From time to time we are told, sometimes in a tone of rather self-righteous condescension, that we must respect China’s legal system. We haven’t, however, heard any of this since the release of the “two Michaels”.

The pair, surnames Kovrig and Spavor, were arrested in China and charged with various crimes, soon after extradition proceedings against Ms Meng Wanzhou started in Vancouver.

Outsiders who complained that the Michaels had been grabbed as hostages to be exchanged for Ms Meng were firmly told that no such thing was possible in the mainland’s new and shiny legal system. The two Canadians were genuinely suspected of espionage offences and the law must take its course.

Then Ms Meng’s legal team reached an agreement with the US Department of Justice, which had been seeking Ms Meng’s extradition to face a charge of violating US sanctions against Iran. Ms Meng admitted committing the offence, the department agreed to defer prosecution, and she was free to leave.

This is perhaps as good place as any to note that Ms Meng’s three-year incarceration in Vancouver took the form of what is apparently known in Canada as “open house arrest”. This means she could live in her own house, which I dare say is fairly palatial, and even go out during the day. No M&Ms, no hair clip rationing, no correctional food.

Ms Meng then flew to China and, mirabile dictu, the two Michaels were on the same day suddenly free to leave and fly home.

Even China’s ever-zealous internet defenders did not take seriously the official suggestion that the two Michaels had miraculously, on the same day, qualified for “medical parole”. They said that the Michaels had been hostages and so was Ms Meng, so that was fair.

In other words, the “legal proceedings” to which they were subjected were a total sham.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said much the same thing about the proceedings against Ms Meng, but this is difficult to substantiate from the facts.

In the first place Ms Meng has now admitted that she did, in person, at length and with Powerpoint, mislead a bank about the status of Huawei’s subsidiary in Iran. This is an offence against American law even if you do it in Hong Kong.

Readers may be surprised that the American courts claim any jurisdiction over acts done in Hong Kong, but as our courts claim jurisdiction over national security offences committed in America we can hardly complain about that.

A more substantial complaint about the Meng case is that previous prosecutions for violating sanctions – and indeed for many other commercial crimes – have generally been directed at the companies concerned, not at individual executives. Indeed some people have been complaining about this for a long time. The fines levied are effectively a punishment of shareholders while the people who actually did the offending deed go free.

It is difficult to see why the Department of Justice should have departed from its usual policy in the case of Ms Meng. But such departures are not unprecedented. Michael Milken did time. Two Enron executives were prosecuted. The theory that Ms Meng was picked on in response to the Trump administration’s hostility to China and China tech companies in particular remains a theory. 

What seems beyond dispute, though, is that the proceedings in Canada were not political in any way. The government refused to intervene, as governments must in countries which take the rule of law seriously.

The judge correctly held himself bound by the extradition agreement between Canada and the US. Two countries sharing a long and fairly transparent land border must have effective extradition arrangements and they must be taken seriously.

China’s beef with Canada seems to be that the proceedings should have been stopped on political grounds, either because the original prosecution was politically motivated (a point Ms Meng’s legal team were free to make in court) or because China is a big important country and Canada is not.

China’s Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “Canada should draw lessons and act in ways that serve its own interests.”

No doubt Canada will. The lesson appears to be that China does not have a legal system and does not recognise the constraints imposed on other governments which do. The judges are party puppets and nobody is safe from arbitrary incarceration. That now includes us. Thanks. 

Some interesting news is leaking out of local prisons, followed by lurid reactions from officials and their supporters.

The actual event occurred in a women’s prison at Lo Wu. The wardens staged a surprise raid on some inmates’ cells, and discovered some “prohibited items”.

Sources vary on what the “items” were. It appeared from the Security Secretary’s comments on the subject that they comprised M&M chocolates (the only kind prisoners are allowed) and hair clips. Later versions of the story replace the hair clips with “stationery”, which I suppose in this context means writing paper and possibly envelopes.

The six inmates concerned, who apparently included Tiffany Yuen Ka-wai (once a district councillor) were then “disciplined”. No details of this have emerged yet.

Then 18 other prisoners engaged in some kind of protest at the unfairness of the discipline. Cue the arrival of the anti-prison riot squad (The “Black Panthers” – our boys do love those macho nicknames) and dogs. The 18 inmates were then “withdrawn from association”, which sounds like a euphemism for solitary confinement. Ms Yuen was also reported to be in solitary. Naturally this exciting event was reported.

This modest incident turned out to be the mere tip of an iceberg – a pyramid of paranoia over the possible results of putting large numbers of political prisoners inside with the usual customers.

In an ensuing interview Commissioner of Correctional Services Woo Ying-ming said that some inmates held over national security or public order offences were exercising “unprecedented influence” in local prisons.

It transpired later in the interview that the only evidence for this on offer was that Ms Yuen, on being returned to the women’s prison for a second tour of the legal machinery, received a “hero’s welcome”. Or to be more precise, five other inmates hugged her and held up welcome signs. She has, in words of one syllable, made friends.

But that is not how Mr Woo saw it: “This is how groups begin, like terrorist groups recruiting followers. They help you play tricks in prisons and follow you upon release,” he said, according to the SCMP. “Like triads, they don’t promote the ideology in the beginning. The triads recruit people and take care of them. Then they gradually teach these followers how a triad is run and start spreading the ideology. It is subliminal.”

It is difficult to see why Ms Yuen attracts so much hostility from government supporters. Perhaps her being young, pretty and popular is offensive to people who are none of these things.

Mr Woo went on to complain that prisoners on remand for political offences received “insane” numbers of visitors. He solved this problem by banning all non-official visits on COVID grounds. This seems rather unfair to prisoners who merely wish to be visited by their families but Mr Woo has somehow got the idea that his men are on the “front line” of the fight for national security, so perhaps anything goes.

He also complained that visitors helped prisoners to air complaints. This was intimidating for prison staff. Clearly there are some real problems here, though they have very little to do with national security and nothing at all to do with how terrorists are recruited.

Mr Woo’s orderly realm has been disrupted by an influx of young, articulate members of the educated middle classes. This has led to much more public attention being given to the finer points of the correctional regime than it is accustomed to.

Mr Woo himself made this problem worse by decreeing that all the political prisoners should be dispersed among his prisons to reduce their contact with each other. The unintended consequence of this is of course that they have more contact with other inmates of the ordinary decent criminal type.

The idea that they are recruiting hordes of followers by judicious manipulation of the prison market in M&Ms, hairclips or stationery, is ridiculous. Every poll, whether of the academic sampling variety or the old-fashioned we-can-all-vote type, has told us that a clear majority of the Hong Kong population supported the aims of the 2019 protests, if not always approving the methods. This is particularly true of the young.

It follows that in any large selection of Hongkongers, whether in prison, university, office or factory, there will be a majority of sympathisers. National security defendants do not need to recruit followers. After all the only crime most of them are accused of is trying to get elected to Legco. Now that the elections are fixed and democrats are banned, why bother?

This has not prevented commentators from picking up Mr Woo’s fears and playing on them. Consider a lengthy piece by Mr Greville Cross, formerly Director of Public Prosecutions and now recycled as our friendly local Lord Haw Haw, called “Prisoner radicalisation: Protecting inmates and reforming fanatics.” Note that in Mr Cross’s view these two categories cover the entire prisoner population: they are either ordinary decent criminals or fanatics who participated in, or approved of, the 2019 “insurrection”.

After a few paragraphs about local prisons which could have come from the annual report, Mr Cross goes international: “In 2015, Penal Reform International reported that it had been aware for some time that ‘prisons can play a critical role in both triggering and reinforcing the radicalisation process’. In some places, prisoner radicalisation is now a huge problem, and internal arrangements have been reformed. In Europe, for example, many penal institutions have become breeding grounds for Islamic extremism, and this has resulted in terrorist outrages.”

How is this relevant to Hong Kong? Mr Cross says that in a recent book Joshua Wong has confirmed “in terms” that nefarious radicalisation is already happening here. “In terms” seems to be a euphemism for “in my lurid imagination”, because none of the quotes Mr Cross supplies bears this out at all.

Then we come to this: “It would, however, be a mistake to assume that radicalisation only comes about through open practices, and not to acknowledge that softly, softly tactics also play their part. On Aug 27, for example, it was reported that the ex-legislator and national security suspect, Claudia Mo Man-ching, was teaching English to fellow inmates at the Lo Wu Correctional Institution. However surprising, it must be hoped that English is all she is teaching them, and that they are not also being exposed to the vile political ideas which caused such harm in 2019.” 

I have two quarrels with this passage. The first one is that Ms Mo is a remand prisoner. She has not yet been tried for anything and consequently is for the moment presumed to be innocent. She is entitled to a fair trial and that means she in entitled to be protected from grossly prejudicial newspaper commentaries. It is both inaccurate and unlawful to imply in print that she is some sort of cross between Rosa Luxemburg and Osama Bin Laden.

I realise that the law on this subject has been much neglected of late, but Mr Cross is a Senior Counsel. Does this not impose some obligations?

I am also surprised by the use of the word “vile”. I presume the political ideas referred to are the subversive notion that Hong Kong should have real elections in which anyone can run and everyone can vote. I realise that many people now maintain that this is an effete Western system inferior to Stalinism with Chinese characteristics, and some of them really believe it. But “vile”?

Is that the best we can do for the ideals of Pericles and Pitt, Lincoln and Locke, in defence of which two generations of my ancestors were willing to “go to their graves like beds”, as the Bard put it? 

What seems to be going on here is a form of divide and rule. Anyone who believes in the ideals of 2019 is a fanatic and potential violent terrorist, however harmless he or she may appear. A disinclination to violence, or even a commitment to non-violence, is dismissed as a front.

We are all urged to regard the national security defendants as a tiny militant minority, nothing to do with us, though, Mr Cross charitably urges, in need of enlightenment and reform. “If,” he says charmingly, “hardened robbers, thieves and sex offenders are considered capable of reformation, there is no reason to despair of hardcore fanatics and ideologues.”

I can see little hope of reconciling our little local differences unless government spokespeople official and voluntary can be persuaded to be a little more polite. Not everyone who supported the “five demands” was a fanatic or an ideologue. If we still have a civil society, as the Chief Executive maintains, then its members should be civil. 

You may find this as puzzling as I do, but the one thing which really seems to annoy our national security enthusiasts is if an organisation which has been roundly denounced on all channels decides to close itself down before the cops come to the door.

This invariably produces accusations of cowardice and dark warnings that closing the organisation will not protect it or its members from later prosecution. Individuals who flee abroad before proceedings start are also accused of cowardice and promised that the hunt for them will never end.

It seems that political persecution is like bull-fighting. The victim is expected to stay on his feet and tottering forward until the matador has finished. This is not a clumsy way of producing a pile of stewing steak; it is art. If the bull is so inconsiderate as to expire while the man on horseback is still sticking a spear in the back of his neck then the artistic impression is lacking and the sport is spoiled.

So it is not entirely surprising that the announcement that the Next media group’s listed arm, Next Digital, was winding itself up produced a lengthy statement from the Security Bureau denying that the campaign against Jimmy Lai and all his works had anything to do with this development.

On this I have no comment. Buried in this diatribe, though, was an interesting paragraph. This was apparently intended to address the directors’ complaint that they still did not know exactly what Mr Lai and the sundry people and companies charged with him were alleged to have done.

Said the bureau, “The prosecution case (covering acts, statements and articles alleged to be relevant to the charge) has already been stipulated clearly in the allegations submitted by the prosecution to the court in writing during the legal proceedings and supplied to the defendants. During the stage of mention hearing, the prosecution case will only be disclosed to the defendants (including their legal representatives) but not the general public. It is the prevailing arrangement in criminal proceedings, so as to ensure that future hearing could be conducted fairly.”

Now whether this is a reasonably answer to the directors’ problem I am not sure. Are they expected to visit Mr Lai in prison and ask him what he has been charged with?

What surprised me, though, was the suggestion that in the early hearings the prosecution case is not disclosed  to the general public, and this is the prevailing arrangement in criminal proceedings, to ensure fairness in later trials.

To which one can only answer “you must be kidding.”

True, the law is that, once a person has been arrested, the media may not inform the public of the detailed allegations against this person. There is a law of contempt of court which covers the period before the defendant appears in court, and there are statutory restrictions on the reporting of the ensuing proceedings. It is also true that these arrangements are intended to ensure fairness. It is not, however, true that these rules are observed as the “prevailing arrangement”.

To start with, they are not observed by Chinese officials, who routinely greet the arrest of anyone they disapprove of with speeches indicating not only that the miscreant is guilty as charged, but that he is also probably guilty of much else. These speeches are often extensively reported in Hong Kong even if they are made elsewhere.

Secondly there are similar breaches of the rules in China’s Hong Kong-based state media. Ta Kung Pao and its stable mates do not apparently regard themselves as covered by this part of the law. This is irritating but of little practical effect because few people read those papers and fewer still believe what they say on topics of this kind.

But violations have now become routine. Consider some recent cases.

There was a traffic accident in Taipo in which a taxi drove into a pedestrian refuge. Several people were injured, of whom one later died. There was much media interest, understandable because one person was trapped under the taxi, and was rescued by the united efforts of passing strangers, who lifted the taxi off him.

The taxi driver was charged immediately with causing death by dangerous driving, the routine police response to a fatal road accident. This did not stop newspapers from reporting his name and giving extensive details of what was supposed to have happened. One newspaper even included three paragraphs of comment from an “expert” who had apparently viewed the video and thought the taxi driver had been guilty of “crazy driving”.

Another case concerned a man accused of sex offences with juveniles. Again his surname, age and occupation were provided, along with a good deal of personal history and much detail surrounding the offences. This included suggestions that he had been guilty of other offences.

A third case involved a barrister, two solicitors and some other people accused of a scam involving URA flats. Again lavish detail was provided, including the names of the lawyers. The barrister has an unusual surname and I have no doubt the legal fraternity in its entirety now knows who he is and has been exposed to a one-sided version of the points to be decided at trial.

The latest one concerned a man accused of harassing judges with spurious phone calls and faxes. OInce again we were told his age, occupation and surname, along with a detailed exposition of what will presumably become the prosecution’s case. In this case we do not have to wonder who was providing the information, because it was not the usual anonymous police source, it was Acting Superintendent Tse Tsz-kwan, who also offered some of the suspect’s previous convictions, which are not supposed to feature in early proceedings.

Interestingly Supt Tse was joined in this story by District Judge Stanley Chan Kwong-chi. I hope Judge Chan did not realise that the identity of the perpetrator was going to be revealed when he said that “the perpetrator has committed several offences, Including harassing judicial officers, contempt of court and perverting the course of justice.” Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Clearly it is no longer the case that political offenders alone cannot depend on the right to a fair trial. The parts of the law intended to ensure fairness have been neglected for so long that no offender is safe, and it would be more accurate to say that no defendant in Hong Kong can rely on protection from a wave of prejudicial publicity, much of it emanating from police sources.

Still, you political offenders should be good sports. Do not flee, do not dissolve your subversive organisation, and deny everything right up to the last minute. The jury may then be graciously disposed to award the prosecutor both ears and the tail.

One of the depressing characteristics that our government has inherited from its colonial predecessor is a tendency, when the circumstances require that someone should make sacrifices, to pick on the smallest kid in the class.

There is no appetite for challenging vested interests. All too often this means that the burden of adjustment to new needs falls on those least able to handle it.

Consider the vexed question of land for public housing. In the long run this will be solved by building a huge reclamation engulfing Cheung Chau. But this will take years. In the meantime the government has been hunting for alternative solutions, of which there is no shortage.

We could, for a start, politely seek to persuade the People’s Liberation Army that their inheritance from the British Ministry of Defence rather exceeds their needs. After all the British garrison was thousands of miles from its home in Blighty, or Nepal. There was a need for married quarters, schools, clinics, sports facilities, and shops selling the kind of food the troops were used to. Our PLA garrison sensibly spends most of its time in Shenzhen. At least, you would think, they could find somewhere else for their firing range. But we are not going to try that.

We could hold the Hong Kong Jockey Club to its long-broken promise to return the Happy Valley Racecourse to other uses in return for the rolling acres devoted to horse matters in Shatin. But we’re not going to do that either.

We could consider whether the Hong Kong Golf Club really needs three courses, and indeed whether catering so generously for such a space-consuming sport is really a sensible move for a crowded territory. But that is not going to happen.

We could take action on the observation by an NGO with, perhaps, more determination than the relevant government departments that there are some 2,000 hectares of “brownfield” land in the New Territories,  much of which is being used for non-agricultural purposes in violation of lease conditions, and sometimes of the law. But this means disturbing those rural bandits who are patted, if not petted, by the cops, so we won’t do that.

We could look again at the suggestion for some sort of floating estate in the Kai Tak Nullah, which would probably be outstandingly cheap now that COVID has shipwrecked the cruise industry. We could, perish the thought, pursue C.Y. Leung’s idea for a trimming of the Country Parks.

But wait! Our bureaucrats have come up with a better idea. In the last policy speech Ms Carrie Lam suggested looking at factory estates which could be redeveloped as housing. You might think this was a reference to the considerable number of factory buildings which now house a variety of non-industrial uses, or sit empty. But those are private.

The government, however, does own some factories itself. These are a local invention that used to be called “flatted factories” in official terminology. A large number of small units are combined in one building. The early ones, like the early housing estates, only ran to five stories. The more recent one down the road from me, now condemned, runs to 24 stories.

These buildings are seedbeds for the Small and Medium Enterprises which are always pushed forward whenever some scheme that might increase the expenses of big enterprises is in the wind. But nobody really cares about SMEs, as we can now clearly see.

These factory blocks are not empty. The occupancy rate, according to the spokesman for tenants in the Fotan one, is 97 per cent.

Four of them are to be demolished to make way for housing. This will leave more than 2,000 tenants looking for somewhere else to go. Many of them will probably find it easier to drop out of business altogether.

Spokesmen for the tenants stress that they are not against public housing. But it should surely be possible to find land for it which is being devoted to some less worthwhile purpose than allowing enterprising but poor people to start a business.

What happened to the Lion Rock Spirit, to “We’re all in this together”, to Hong Kong as a paradise of free enterprise? Well that was always a bit of a con trick.

One of the more amusing aspects of Hong Kong politics is the number of people with no affiliation to or taste for democracy who take it upon themselves to offer advice and instructions to the democratic movement.

There was a particularly hilarious example the other week when Mr CY Leung took up arms in defence of the right of members of the Professional Teachers Union to a vote on the closure of their union rather than have the committee decide it. 

More recently we heard from Mr Lo Man-tuen, occupant of the previously obscure post of vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, a United Front appendage. Mr Lo opined in a newspaper piece that the Democratic Party would face a “dead end” if it did not participate in the upcoming Legislative Council elections.

Mr Lo’s theory is apparently that if the Democratic Party boycotted the election it would become a subversive organisation and all those of its members who were currently District Councillors would consequently be disqualified.

As a legal proposition this looks rather dubious. And of course most of the party’s district councillors have already been arrested or persuaded to resign anyway.

Perhaps for these reasons Mr Lo’s idea was not endorsed by another person taking an unexpected interest in the future prospects of the Democratic Party, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam. She said that besides discussion and debate, participation in politics was the “purpose of existence” of a political party.

“A political organisation must have a wish one day to enter the political system to make changes,” she said. A member of the Democratic Party might respond that they did have a wish to make changes. They planned to use the constitutional procedure provided for the purpose to get rid of her. And look where it has got them. 

It appears that under the national security regime entering the political system to make changes is a criminal offence. The only legally acceptable reason for entering the system is to support the government.

Mrs Lam proceeded to her usual trick, in which she demolishes an argument which nobody has offered. “If a political organisation said it will never take part in elections … that is bizarre.” The question of never taking part in elections has not come up. Only anarchist groups, and not all of them, reject all elections on principle.

What the Democratic Party has to decide is whether to take part in one particular upcoming election. The one during which most of its members will be in prison, leading to some scepticism about Mrs Lam’s supposedly reassuring observation that the political system in Hong Kong “can surely accept people with different political stances to run in the election.”  And in an elegant exercise in combining two incompatible principles she said that “Improving the legislative system is not intended to create a legislature without a plurality of voices in Hong Kong, but to require every candidate to fulfil the requirements as a patriot.”

I am reminded of the British politician who, rebuked for expressing two incompatible ideas in the same sentence, replied that “if you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the circus.”

In any case there is clearly a feeling among our lovely leaders that it would be nice to have a few democrats in the new-look Legco. Nothing too ostentatious – single figures, perhaps. No need to provide committee chairmanships or time to debate motions. The Civic Party and the Social Democrats have already decided to give this election a miss. Things are getting a bit desperate.

The trouble is that it is difficult to see the attraction for the Democratic Party. Neither power nor influence are on offer. There will be opportunities to make speeches, but as the media massacre continues will they be reported?

The pay is good, if elected, but the new legal regime presents hazards. A careless word could lead to disqualification. Disqualification could lead to prosecution. Prosecution could lead to prison. This is not a theoretical concept for Hong Kong democrats these days.

And after all a party committed to democracy must have some standards. Looking at the new-look Legco many democrats will behold elections carefully designed to produce a political poodle, a Potemkin parliament, a counterfeit council, a constitutional fig leaf obscuring the reality of one-party rule. The Liaison Office is planning a political pantomime, and the part on offer is the back end of the horse.

Why, one has to wonder, is a fig leaf required? Every day we are told that the rule of the Communist Party has done wonders for the rest of China while Hong Kong was wasting time on political bickering. You would think that the likes of Mr Lo and Mrs Lam would be telling us that we were now entering a new Golden Age in which Hong Kong also would benefit from democracy with Chinese characteristics, in which the Party decides everything.

This is not really compatible with a “plurality of voices” and we see every day another voice silenced, another contributor to “discussion and debate” threatened, assaulted or jailed. Clearly this is a necessary part of the new era and should be defended and explained in those terms.

Similarly it is a necessary part of the system that the electoral arrangements should exclude undesirable candidates not only by manipulating the nominations and voting but also by political vetting of any hopeful who survives this process.

The only remaining question, which Mrs Lam seems to have overlooked, is this: could a serious democrat vote for anyone who has got through the sieve and onto the ballot? Groucho Marx said he would not join a club which would have someone like him as a member. Looking at our new political arrangements democrats may feel something similar.

We often hear about politicians’ concern for the grass roots. A word this week for the rest of the grass.

Grass is not a native plant in Hong Kong and, as every groundsman and bowling club knows, keeping up any sort of a lawn requires a certain amount of continuing care and maintenance.

The patch of grass I visit at least twice a day – for dog reasons – provides an interesting barometer indicating how much care and maintenance is being lavished on municipal vegetation in our part of the world.

When Sui Wo Road was first built in the 70s the adjacent hilltops were lopped off and used to turn the Shing Mun River from a series of meanders surrounded by paddy fields into a straight line surrounded by housing estates. The resulting series of platforms was used to accommodate two schools, the Baptist U staff quarters,  and several housing estates, of which ours is one.

The builders of our estate did not need the whole platform, and left a strip of grass round the outside of two sides of the estate, varying in width from about five yards to about 20. A footpath goes about half way round and leads to the Lions Lookout, a popular spot for tourism (in daylight) and romance (in the evening). 

When we moved into the estate this strip was still plain grass and trees. The only other concession to decorative urges was a clump of large rocks which the developers had, I suppose, considered too large to be trucked down to the valley. They were left in a little cluster, which might charitably be described as a shot at something in the Japanese garden line.

In the ensuing years there were attempts at further adornment. A lot more trees were planted, mainly of a type ill-chosen for a typhoon-swept hilltop. Few of them have survived. A hedge was inserted between the edge of the grass and the uncouth hillside which starts beyond it. Some ornamental bushes were also installed around the rocks.

Then about four years ago something went wrong. The trimming of the grass lapsed to two or three times a year. Between mowings it grew long and lank: a jungle deep enough to conceal my dog. We were warned of snake sightings.

The hedges were also neglected and some of the bushes left to their own devices turned into small trees. Some of the “hedges” were now big enough to conceal me. Fly tippers took the hint and piles of abandoned building debris appeared.

Then an interesting change. A mere day or two after the 2019 District Board elections there was a burst of activity. The grass was trimmed, and the bushes were cut back more than they had been for a long time. An abandoned motorcycle which had been lying behind the rocks for years was finally taken away.

In the ensuing year the up-keep of the area returned to the old standard. The grass was cut and the bushes trimmed every month or so, which is necessary in the summer. Abandoned rubbish was cleared, unruly bushes cut back. An unnecessary fence which had been quietly collapsing was tidied away.

Then another change. Like other district councils ours has been gutted by the government campaign to exclude from public office everyone but its admirers. Last time I looked at the council’s website half of the councillors had gone, including the one who represents us. There may have been more since.

Those who remain are clearly not as influential as they used to be. After all if the Chief Executive announces that she is going to ignore the district councils we can hardly expect her underlings to take any notice of them. And, to my surprise and distress, this has been immediately reflected in the standards of municipal maintenance. The grass grew long and rank again, the bushes ran wild, snake warnings resumed. 

The grass was finally cut last week. I am not sure if this was the first time since March or the first time this year but it was clearly overdue. The bushes were pruned, but the ones which are not on the way to the lookout point were left to do as they wished.

I suppose there may be an entirely innocent explanation for the variation in grass maintenance round our way, but it seems to me that this highlights a problem which has been neglected.

No doubt it was very inconvenient to have large numbers of unruly district councillors potentially voting in the “election” of the next Chief Executive. But the changes in the election system have fixed that. And the district councils did do other things.

CE Carrie Lam has defended her (plainly unlawful) decision to leave retiring or disqualified district councillors unreplaced, saying that the government has other ways of consulting public opinion. But providing the government with a source of public opinion on major matters was not the councils’ only function.

Their main job was to supply a way in which local wishes and thoughts could be translated into local policies and actions. This cannot be done by some replacement group of people who, owing their elevation to an office of prestige and profit to the government, will feel bound by both gratitude and self-interest to support it.

It is true that, before 2019, some councils did not make a very good job of this. Some councillors concentrated on securing repeated electoral success and adopted a “bread and circuses” approach in which electors were plied with food and drink (paid for by the councillor) and festivals and competitions (paid for from public funds).

Some of this got fairly sleazy. When I first started public bagpiping the band carefully excluded me from (unpaid) performances for one district councillor because they thought if the band was involved in the confidently expected legal brawl it would be embarrassing for someone of my age and eminence. Happily when the legal droppings hit the fan bagpipes were not involved, but the councillor did end up in jail.

One-party rule often ends in cronyism, complacency and corruption. In fact the change of regime in 2019 might have done everyone good – at a local level. But our government seems to have decided to abandon all attempt at elected local administration. This will, ironically, get us back to the colonial pre-1980s arrangement, but without the Urban Council.

Well it’s an ill wind blows nobody any good. Local snake spotters can be offered a happy hunting ground in a month or two. Take the 69K minibus and ride to the end of the line. Wear boots.

Last week was a paradise for collectors of courtroom curiosities. To start with we had the case of Mr Ma Ka-kin, a previously blameless worker in a noodle shop. Mr Ma was asked by a friend and colleague, Mr Hung Chi-him, if he could have a parcel from Brazil sent to Ma’s address.

There are a variety of explanations for a request of this kind, and at least some of them are legal. Mr Ma is in any case, as we shall see, not one of the sharpest tools in the shed. He agreed to allow his address to be used.

The parcel was intercepted on its arrival in Hong Kong by the Customs. It contained a kilogram of cocaine. Police officers then searched Mr Hung’s home and found a stash of cocaine there. Mr Ma did not have his own supply, and initially maintained that he had been misled by his colleague and did not know the parcel contained drugs.

The two men were jointly charged with possession, trafficking etc., and then an odd thing happened. Mr Hung offered Mr Ma the services of his solicitor. Mr Ma then met the solicitor’s clerk, whose acquaintance with the law, it later emerged, included a string of previous convictions including rape and robbery. He persuaded Mr Ma that it would be a good idea to offer to plead guilty, on the condition that Mr Hung was let off the hook.

Surprisingly, to me, to the trial judge, the Court of Appeal, and sundry other people who have considered the matter, the Department of Justice agreed to this arrangement. Mr Ma would admit everything, Mr Hung would go free.

Later Mr Ma reconsidered the deal, which involved him volunteering for one of those multi-decade jail sentences which judges believe, however often the superstition is refuted by experience or sociology, are the only way to discourage potential criminals. He changed his legal team and his plea.

When the case came to trial the judge had misgivings. It appeared to him, as it may well appear to you, that Mr Hung and his mysterious associates were the moving spirits behind the whole enterprise and the prosecution of Mr Ma was unfair and possibly unjustified.

The judge actually asked the prosecutor to check with his superiors. Did the Department of (ahem) Justice wish the trial to go ahead? They did. Mr Ma was convicted by the jury – hope you guys are feeling pleased with yourselves now – and the trial judge suppressed his misgivings sufficiently to pass a sentence of 23 years.

Mr Ma subsequently appealed, with success. The conviction was overturned and the sentence cancelled. So why was the whole matter before the Court of Appeal again? Because the prosecution applied for a new trial. The Court of Appeal described the application as “extraordinary and disappointing”. 

They were not happy with the original deal with Mr Ma and they found it disturbing that a solicitor’s clerk had such a criminal background. This last item shows you what sheltered lives judges lead. The problem of shady characters touting for business on behalf of our less finicky solicitors has been around for decades. I remember doing a story about it in 1985.

In one of the local recycled tree carcasses my former colleague Cliff Buddle suggested that there was a problem in the Department of Justice, which often adopted a “win-at-all-costs mentality, taking every point, appealing every defeat and stopping at nothing to secure a conviction,” This may well be true sometimes, but we have another case to consider.

I refer here to a website called Real Hong Kong News, which clearly shares my interest in legal oddities.

In 2020 a 22-year-old woman appeared in a local magistrates’ court charged with drug possession. She had been arrested when she collected a package from the Post Office. The parcel was addressed to her and contained a quantity of ketamine.

The Department of Justice then applied to withdraw the charges on the grounds that a conviction was unlikely. The magistrate demurred, pointing out that defendants were routinely charged with possession if the drugs were simply found in the flat they rented. The question of how much the defendant knew about the contents of the package was a matter for a jury and a conviction was quite likely.

The Department of Justice nevertheless insisted on dropping the case and the magistrate had no choice but to comply. No doubt it was entirely irrelevant that the lady concerned lived in the Tsing Yi Police Married Quarters, because her daddy was a cop.

What is going on here? Looking at these cases one struggles, and I think fails, to believe that this is simply a matter of error or carelessness. It seems that wheels are turning unseen and considerations which cannot be defended in public are being considered behind the scenes. This is not the way the law is supposed to work.

Last year the then Director of Public Prosecutions, David Leung, resigned, telling his colleagues in a farewell email that he ”could not agree with the Secretary for Justice, and the situation has not improved with time”. Perhaps it is a pity he did not go into more detail about what the disagreements were.

There is a more detailed account of the Ma case by Neville Sarony QC here. Mr Sarony concludes that “heads should roll”. But I don’t think we are doing accountability any more.