More than 190 countries and territories are now in various stages of their battle with the novel coronavirus, which is probably not novel – I expect the bats have had it for centuries – but which we must not call Chinese flu.

As far as I can tell from the usual sources only one of these 190 countries and territories proposes to ban the sale of booze: Hong Kong. Clearly this must mean one of two things: either the epidemic in Hong Kong has some unique feature not found elsewhere, or our leaders are doing something stupid.

Personally I like bars. Long ago when I was a young man far from home, some of them became a second home to me. Indeed Arthur and Betty at the Ring o’ Bells in Lancaster became a sort of surrogate parents. I have passed many happy hours in a variety of bars since starting illegally young in the “jug and bottle” (carry-outs) department of a pub in Midhurst.

 Old-school Hong Kong journalists still cherish the memory of the Sing Bar in Luard Road, long since demolished for redevelopment. This establishment, usefully for late shift sub editors, stayed open until 6 am. At that time, if you were still thirsty, you could move round the corner to the Barrel Bar, which didn’t close until 7 am, after a rowdy hour of entertaining everyone else’s bar staff for a quick one and a few finger-guessing games before they went home.

So my view of the government’s proposal to ban the sale of alcoholic drinks, even in bars, for consumption on the premises is perhaps predictable. I accept that if the need arises we may have to close all restaurants and bars, to discourage going out of any kind.

But restrictions on booze look craven, the mark of a government which – crippled by awareness of its own lack of legitimacy — is “willing to wound but yet afraid to strike”, as Pope put it. The proposed ban has attracted a wide variety of interpretations.

One theory doing the rounds on the internet is that the government would like to close bars and restaurants, but to do so would involve claims for help or compensation. Banning the sale of their most profitable item will have the same effect. It will kill them off cheaply.

A more elaborate variation has it that the ban is a favour to the government’s friends in the insurance industry, who would have to pay up if establishments were forcibly closed, but escape liability if the government merely restricts the varieties of goods which can be sold. Do many people really have this sort of insurance?

A more interesting theory, outlined here, blames a story which has been amusing readers of the local tabloids, though it has all the hallmarks of an urban legend. This has it that an expat lady, having achieved an advanced state of inebriation in Lan Kwai Fong (our local Gomorrah, for readers of the tabloids) started a generous distribution of sexual favours.

This theory draws some support from Ms Carrie Lam’s introduction to the move, which went on from the obvious point that people drinking have to remove their face masks to do so, and concluded with “in bars, people sometimes get intimate after drinking, and this increases the risk of cross-infection.”

Get intimate? Since when did our chief executive talk like a court report from the old News of the World? It seems that Ms Lam not only has trouble with the word “withdraw” but also with the word “sex.” I shall leave the exploration of this interesting coincidence to more ribald pens.

Some people, as Hemlock observes, have discerned a “boozy rutting ageing gwaipo” stereotype. This may be a fair comment on the tabloids but not, I hope, on our leaders. There may well be a suspicion in some upmarket local circles that expat men have a predilection for booze and adultery. It is curiously common for despised groups to be accused of sexual potency and even abnormally large equipment. But I have never heard of the idea that middle-aged expat ladies are free with their favours.

A kinder explanation is that Ms Lam, who seems to be taking a personal interest in this topic, was horrified by a picture used by several newspapers of people in a Lan Kwai Fong bar. This was hardly worthy of Hieronymus Bosch at the height of his powers, but did include a large number of people in a small space, many of whom appeared to be shouting at each other.

And this brings us to the rather obvious deficiency in the proposed ban, which is that it is ludicrously indiscriminate. In the vast majority of places where booze is sold people currently sit quite a long way from each other. Customers are cherished rarities; there is plenty of room. And it is quiet, so nobody has to shout.

A small minority of bars like to have live music. This leads to a problem. The musicians wish to be heard, and use electric amplifiers for this purpose. People who wish to hold conversations have to raise their voices to get through the music. This makes the venue noisy so the music is turned up further. The escalation continues until the conversation people are shouting in each other’s faces because that is the only way to be heard at all, and the band are suffering self-inflicted ear damage.

The solution would be to ban not booze, but electric amplification. The band could play acoustic instruments and patrons who did not wish to listen to it could whisper.

But getting the government to change its mind once the latest brainwave has had Carrie’s endorsement is an uphill struggle. Prepare to drink at home.

Meanwhile a word about the “Chinese virus”. I am not the man to pass up lightly an opportunity to empty a bucket over Mr Donald Trump but the fuss about this label is ludicrous.

It is common for diseases, and many other things, to be named after places or countries, often for completely erroneous reasons. There is nothing French about “French leave”, nothing Dutch about “Dutch courage” and indeed the “French letter” (one of the numerous nicknames for a condom) is known in French as a “capote Anglaise”. Or is that a “Dutch cap”?

“Chinese whispers” is a harmless game and a “Chinese gybe” is a rather complicated mishap when running before the wind with a gaff-rigged sail. Goodness knows where these labels come from. A “Chinaman” is a technical term used in cricket which, like most of that game, I do not understand. It seems to be a kind of slow bowling.

A Turk’s head has nothing to do with Turkey (it’s a knot) and the Molotov Cocktail was not invented by Mr Molotov, who has enough to atone for. Brussels sprouts do not come from Brussels and Scotch eggs do not come from Scotland. “Old Spanish customs” (the printers’ term for various rackets which used to flourish in Fleet Street) had nothing to do with Spain. Yankee means American, except when it means the foremost sail on a cutter-rigged yacht.

Was the Brazilian invented in Brazil? Who knows? Who cares?

No doubt Mr Trump’s intentions in insisting on “Chinese virus” are unkind, but to label them racist is to take his babblings too seriously. To give offence is his aim. The most wounding response is a yawn.

I am not writing any more about That Virus. There’s enough out there already. So let’s talk about eyeballs.

I was not in the front row when the eyeballs were dished out. In fact my parents had an enduring memory of the doctor they consulted about mysterious features of my baby behaviour, who opened the conversation with “How long have you known your son was blind?”

Eventually I was subjected to a rather disgusting operation involving the removal of both eyeballs from their sockets, which worked. I could see. This was followed shortly after by the discovery that I could not see very much without glasses.

Of course I was too young to register most of this, but all of the numerous family photographs of me as a young thing have spectacles, so I must have started early. The matter was never discussed, but I now realise that this eventful history explains why I could not catch or hit flying balls, a source of great frustration to a growing boy.

Anyway let us fast forward a few decades. I am now slightly older than Donald Trump, a bit younger than Joe Biden and quite a bit younger than Bernie Sanders. Why any of these three old geezers thinks it is a good idea to apply at this time of life for a strenuous job with a four-year contract is a complete mystery to me.

Like most of us mature people I take a few pills every day to keep various blood test levels in the green zone, but so far none of the machinery had actually needed replacement, until this January.

During my annual vision checks the eye guy had been murmuring politely for some years that I had cataracts on the way. I did the things one does to slow their progress: peaked hats, sunglasses, avoid bright sunlight. But this only gets you so far.

Apparently quite a lot of people get cataracts sooner or later. I do not know why this is rarely written about. Axel Munthe says at the end of “The Story of San Michele” that he is now banished by eye problems from his beloved Capri and confined to a darkened room, which I suppose means that the connection between sunshine and cataracts had already been established, but in those days there was no treatment.

What happens is that the lens in your eye turns brown, or white in appearance, and eventually becomes opaque. This is one of those problems which makes you glad you were not born 50 years earlier because the remedy is now quite routine. The ailing lens is removed and replaced by a plastic one.

I know the time had come when I started seeing circular rainbows and other oddities round bright lights at night. According to Wikipedia this is a fairly standard symptom. The eye guy could see what was going on and we decided on immediate action.

This coincided with the first wave of the Wuflu scare, so you have to imagine my visits to the palace of optometry featuring hand sanitizer, temperature checks and compulsory wearing of masks.

Compared with this the actual operation was rather lacking in medical drama, at least for the victim. They do one eye at a time, for obvious reasons, and the procedure only takes 20-25 minutes.

Some nervous customers apparently prefer to sleep through this, but they are missing an interesting experience, though not perhaps one you would want to repeat too often.

The uncomfortable bit is at the beginning, when they put in your eye a gadget which, I presume, prevents you from blinking at an inopportune moment. Then they cut a couple of small holes in the eyeball under discussion with a laser, which from your point of view means a rather spectacular light show, projected right into your eyeball.

After this you move to the theatre proper, where the old lens is liquidized with ultrasound and the new plastic one inserted. The view from your operated eye at this point is rather odd – the other eye is covered up in case of splashes – but it’s all on a local anaesthetic so you don’t really feel anything.

You keep the new eye covered for a few hours and wear a plastic cover on it in bed for a day or two. And that’s pretty much it. If you are approaching this little landmark in life’s rich pageant it’s nothing to worry about.

The interesting bit for me came afterwards. I did not realise that the cataracts had turned my view of the world yellow. The first eye to be fixed presented a new blue world. So for a while I had one eye seeing yellow and one seeing blue, an accidental piece of political symbolism.

The drawback of the plastic lenses is that they are fixed, not flexible like the original equipment. So you have to decide whether you want them to be short-sighted, and wear glasses for driving, or long-sighted, and wear glasses for reading.

I opted for long, which means that most of the time I do not need glasses. This is disconcerting. I have been wearing them all the time for so long that I still feel naked without them.

On the other hand the reading glasses are a snip compared with the complicated ones which compensated for the deficiencies of my old eyes. A perfectly good pair of reading specs from Japan Home Stores costs a princely $89.

Curiously I find things in the far distance much more interesting now that I can see them effortlessly. I find myself captivated by the lacy silhouette of trees on a distant crest, or the subtle variations in the slope of the hills on the other side of the Shing Mun River Valley.

And everything still looks more blue than I expect. There is, perhaps, a lesson here. We tend to think that the way we see things is exactly how they are. Clearly in more areas than simple vision this is an illusion. There are different ways of seeing the same thing and we should try to be humble about our own.



I don’t know whose idea it was that Hong Kong’s spokesman at a recent UN Human Rights Council meeting should be a Deputy Commissioner of Police, but the implications of this unusual arrangement are rather disturbing. I wonder what the council members thought of it.

Let us take a little detour. Many years ago I pursued a master’s degree in military matters which had been designed with an eye to attracting serving officers who might be interested in the intellectual aspects of their profession. As a result it included a compulsory course in Civil-Military Relations.

This has been a tricky topic for as long as there have been such relations. Sun Tzu cannot have endeared himself to potential employers with the suggestion that “If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding.”

And the question has come up in different times and places ever since. How far should the civilian powers dictate to the military, if at all, and under what circumstances can the military authorities appeal to some higher good than the sovereign’s will?

Sometimes a tricky variation was added by the presence of the ruler on the battlefield, giving orders to more experienced men with occasionally catastrophic results. On the other hand a ruler who was also a military genius – like Napoleon or Frederick the Great – could solve the problem by uniting the civil and military powers in his own person.

As far as the theorists are concerned the matter was eventually settled by the great Carl von Clausewitz: “At the highest level the art of war turns into policy – but a policy conducted by fighting battles rather than by sending diplomatic notes… No other possibility exists, then, than to subordinate the military point of view to the political.”

Clausewitz’s idea that war is a part of politics, and that consequently in the last analysis the political authorities must take precedence over the military ones, is piously preached on officers’ training courses throughout the world. In Marxist contexts it is phrased slightly differently, in terms of the primacy of the Party, but the effect is the same.

However this was only a fruitful field for academic cultivation because while everyone agrees on the theory, it is frequently not followed in practice. During the Cold War the military establishment in various countries often took over the state completely. They were egged on by whichever of the two contending sides disliked the existing civilian regime. The whole thing became almost routine.

There was even a short practical textbook (Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, by Edward Luttwak) which outlined the usual procedure: tanks on the Presidential Palace lawn, take over the radio and TV stations, close the airport, etc. In small countries it often turned out to be surprisingly easy. The leader of the coup was usually at least a Colonel, more often a general. But one West African government was overthrown by a mere Sergeant.

Flat-out takeovers do not concern us here, and indeed since the end of the Cold War they have become much less common.

But this is not the only way civil-military relations can go wrong. In a slightly less toxic but still deplorable variation the military stay, ostensibly, in their barracks but usurp the power of the civilian politicians, so that the army becomes more powerful than the supposed civilian government.

The finest example in our region, for the historically erudite, would be Japan in the 30s, with Indonesia perhaps a more recent specimen. The classic European case was Germany during World War 1, with power only handed back to the civilians so that they could preside over the surrender. In Turkey for many years the army appointed itself the guardian of the legacy of Ataturk and civilian regimes were bullied, and occasionally overthrown, if they did not satisfy military views of what that legacy required.

The army as over-mighty subject is a more difficult disease to spot than a simple coup. After all in an open society the military has a perfect right to explain itself and agitate for what it needs and wants. The question is when this becomes excessive.

And the response is usually found in the answers to a series of questions. Is the relevant minister in the government actually a current or former military man? Does the military effectively control its own budget? Does it help itself to as much manpower as it wants? Does it run its own foreign policy? Does it shrug off – or persecute – civilian critics? Are its members subject to a separate judicial system?

Now of course Hong Kong has no armed forces about whom we can ask these questions. But if you apply them to our own fine Police Force you get some worrying answers.

The Secretary for Security is a former cop. The Force has just achieved a 25 per cent increase in a budget which is already, by international standards, extremely generous. It will recruit another 2,500 bodies (if it can – given the present state of police relations with the public this may be a bit ambitious) in the coming year to add to its size, which is also, by international standards, large. Consider also that some of the things done by police people in other places have been hived off elsewhere in Hong Kong: graft to the ICAC, copyright to customs, hawker control to food and hygiene, and so on.

The Force cannot, or cannot yet, entirely ignore civilian politicians. But it is notable that all of them – pro- and anti-government alike – called for a proper Commission of Inquiry into last year’s disorders, a routine response to colonial riots. And they called in vain.

Then there is the matter of policemen who may have abused their powers, brutalised suspects, used weapons on harmless passers-by etc. In the majority of cases these incidents are investigated only by other policemen. The only punishment of which we hear is “a reprimand”, which doesn’t sound too swingeing. The minority of cases which reach the IPCC do not produce results which inspire confidence. In effect the force is answerable only to itself.

Now we have a policeman turning up at a meeting of a UN body to push a line which differs in both tone and content from the government’s.

I fear I gave offence the other day by saying on an RTHK programme that our police force was beginning to look like the Pakistani Army. This is what I meant. The Pakistani Army is a power in the land. Civilian politicians cross it at their peril. It takes what it needs and runs its own foreign policy, to the occasional embarrassment of the civilian authorities.

In this respect the Hong Kong Police Force is beginning to look quite similar: it has escaped from civilian control. Our Chief Executive Ms Lam does not control it. On matters about which it has a view it controls her. Under her protection it need fear no scrutiny of its budget, its policies or its misbehaviour.

Chairman Mao famously said: “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.” Well at least in one respect we do seem to be moving towards one country two systems.


This face mask business is getting really confusing. Should we all wear one, and when, and how often, if at all, should we change it?

The line on face masks has varied according to which authority you listen to. At one extreme we have the view that you should not wear one at all because it makes very little difference and the mask you are wearing could be used by a health professional who really needs it.

At the other extreme is the view that you are dicing with death unless you have at least two new face masks a day.

Then there is the rather backhanded view that the mask is useful, but only because it stops you touching your face with your hands, which apparently quite a lot of us do without noticing it.

The WHO’s advice is ambiguous, like so much about that busy body. Face masks are only effective if combined with other measures, like frequent hand washing and avoiding contact with other people, some of which are not in the power of face mask wearers to change, like closing schools and sports venues.

The popular notion seems to be that face masks are an important protection against breathing air which has been breathed by strangers. But that hardly explains some things you see, like people hiking in face masks.

A similar confusion reigns over what mask is best, and what to do with it. Doctors recoil with horror at the idea of reusing one, but then they are a prosperous bunch. For the less prosperous among us the alternative to reusing a mask may be not using a mask at all.

A bewildering variety are on offer. Reading some of the comments on recycling disposable masks it is difficult to see how it could be acceptable to use a non-reusable mask with a replaceable filter inside it. But they are widely available.

Some of the confusion may result from the fact that different people use masks in different contexts. If you are going to open a patient’s bonnet and conduct running repairs inside then you want the whole room to be a sterile as possible. Clearly in this case the solution is to have a brand new mask taken out of its wrapper by a sterile nurse just before you use it.

The purpose of the mask in this context is to ensure that you do not cough microbes all over your victim’s appendix. In other words the important filtering is from inside to outside.

If you are working in a ward with patients who have an infectious disease, on the other hand, the shoe is on the other foot. Lethal microbes are floating about and the purpose of the mask is to filter what is going from the outside to the inside, so that the air you are breathing is not polluted by whatever the ailing patients are exhaling.

In this particular context it clearly makes sense to tell people not to touch the outside of the mask once you have used it, and to dispose of the thing promptly and carefully when you have finished with it. The outside of the mask has collected the poison. That is what it is there for.

The question which then arises is how many of the rules which rightly govern the use of masks in these medical contexts need to be transferred to a situation in which everyone is wearing masks whenever they go out in public.

Some people would, it seems, like to apply them all. I felt a rare twinge of sympathy for Carrie Lam (I know she has a shit job but the pay and perks are unbelievable) when she was scolded by commentators for mask abuse. In a press conference she had taken off her mask, sipped some water and put it back on again.

Those of us who still visit restaurants do routinely doff the mask, eat, and put it back on again. What else are we expected to do?

It does appear that the wearing of masks in public is not primarily, at least for a lot of wearers, a matter of avoiding Wuflu. After all there isn’t that much of it about. The wearing of a mask has become a way of wordlessly communicating that you are a public-spirited person supporting the effort to repel new viruses. And whatever you’ve got, you are taking some care to ensure that nobody gets it from you. The mask has become a signal of virtue.

Of course if almost everyone wears one this does not really work. Not wearing a mask becomes the signal, and it suggests that the non-wearer is not public-spirited, not with the programme, not a team player.

Some people have taken this to its logical conclusion. They wear a mask of the “reusable but change the filter” kind, leave the filter out and wash the mask every night. Only the most gross pollution will be intercepted but public respectability is achieved.

Other people wear masks which are clearly intended as fashion items and presumably do not meet the famous European Union standard for surgical masks.

This brings us to the controversy over Ann Chiang’s suggestion that people should sterilise used masks and use them again. I am not accustomed to agreeing with Ms Chiang about anything, but the abuse heaped on this suggestion seems unwarranted.

The Centre for Health Protection adamantly opposes the idea, and says used masks are “contaminated with pathogens” and should be disposed of in a bin with a lid. This seems a bit pessimistic. Unless you have been very unlucky in your choice of travelling companions the only pathogens in the mask are the ones which emerged from you.

It is apparently generally accepted that the usual surgical masks are intended to be disposable. But it is also known that in poor countries where there is a shortage they are commonly reused.

Like Ms Chiang I agree it would be best if everyone had enough face masks to put on a fresh one every day. But this may not be an affordable solution for everyone.

Given this state of affairs I am not sure that it is a valid criticism of other solutions that they do not meet the EU’s standards for medical face masks, which are intended for masks to be used in surgical contexts, not social ones.

But this is a tricky area for non-scientists. We lay people may at least, perhaps, plead for a simple and realistic explanation of what to do and what for, instead of the current out-of-tune chorus of contradictory advice and opinions.





As the only member of the Hong Kong Free Press team who qualifies to benefit from the probably spurious association of grey hair with wisdom I am sometimes asked for advice about stories with legal implications.

The arrest of Jimmy Lai and two other people for public order offences the other day presented no difficulties as far as the law is concerned, but some practical problems.

I explained, as one does, that once a person has been arrested it is contempt of court to publish anything which implies that the arrested person is guilty, or for that matter that he or she is innocent.

I added, however, that this law had fallen into disuse since the handover, and was frequently infringed without consequences. I recommended that as the HKFP is not a publication much loved by some people it would be prudent to follow the law anyway, even though this was likely to result in our piece being much less dramatic than other people’s.

And so it transpired. The Post (on-line version here) led with the US State Department comment on the arrests, which was carefully phrased:

“We expect the Hong Kong authorities not to use law enforcement selectively for political purposes, and to handle cases fairly and transparently in a manner that preserves the rule of law and the Hong Kong people’s universal rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”

You could charitably categorise that as a statement of principle rather than a comment on the merits of an individual case. But it provoked a fierce reply from the China Foreign Office in Hong Kong, offering the usual threats.

Then there was a statement from the Department of Justice, “a rare move” denying political influence, a canter through the prosecution case with “a police spokesman”, and an assurance from the Security Bureau that the arrests were based on evidence and law.

Then we got to the people who had said or implied that the arrests were not based on evidence and law: former governor Chris Patten – “outrageous” – and US Congressman Michael McCaul – “blatant political oppression”.

Now the gloves are off we get another dollop from the Foreign Ministry, in which it is implied that the men arrested are “anti-China plotters who messed up Hong Kong”.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister is quoted as Tweeting sadness, and Leung Chun-ying is quoted as Facebooking that Apple Daily, Mr Lai’s newspaper, is “the symbol of the abuse of freedom, and is the culprit for the deteriorating media landscape in Taiwan.”

The Post’s effort ends as it began, with a careful bit of diplomatic phraseology: The EU’s office in Hong Kong is “monitoring the situation.”

Clearly this article is a laudable attempt at balance. But I do not think that complies with the law. If it is unlawful to imply that the arrested person is innocent or guilty it must surely be against the law to imply both with attribution to different sources.

The saddest part of the whole thing is the appearance of the “rare move” from the Department of Justice. It is a shame that the DoJ feels the need to assure us that cases are decided impartially. That ought to be expected. We do not expect to get “rare moves” from the Fire Brigade saying that they try to put all fires out impartially.

The other sad thing about this statement is that the vast majority of the population will not believe a word of it. This is where we have been brought by years of lies and evasions.

Talking of lies and evasions brings us back to Leung Chun-ying, who stars in the Hong Kong Standard’s piece on the arrests with a quote so flagrantly prejudicial that I dare not repeat it. At the time of writing it is still in the on-line version. Third paragraph.

The Standard’s piece, headlined without irony “Beijing warns against meddling in Lai case” has the disadvantage that the first half of it is entirely attributed to Xinhua, whose scribes are not inhibited by any need to worry about Hong Kong law. Or indeed to avoid meddling in the Lai case. So we are told that the arrests are “the arrival of long-awaited justice.” We get the quote from Mr Leung, and one from a DAB bigwig who thought the arrest was “encouraging news.”

Then we meet a Mr Willy Fu, spokesman for a bit of United Front work called the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, who thought the arrests were based on “sufficient evidence”. Is this man not a lawyer?

And we have a mini-protest outside the Next Media office (20 people) whose organiser says Mr Lai has “been taking action that disturbed the country and Hong Kong.”

Just in case you thought the “state media” were being a bit defensive we get a final round-up of the more critical views: the State Department, Mr Patten and Amnesty International get a paragraph each.

And there you are. Government-friendly publications can do what they like. Actually  the discussion of Mr Lai is not the worst example, even in Monday’s newspapers. On the same page as the Standard’s coverage of the Lai case is another one headlined “Jobless man ‘burned MTR bins on impulse’”.

This consists entirely of a detailed account of the prosecution’s case running over 12 paragraphs, including the interesting detail that “under Police caution, he admitted to committing arson during a moment of impulse,” according to Chief Inspector Jack Mok Tsz-wai.

I can remember a newspaper being fined $80,000 for a comment piece which implied that a man on trial had made a confession. Mr Mok “warned that arson is a serious offence.”

So it is indeed. Contempt of court, on the other hand, appears to have been repealed by neglect.






You remember that procedure for handling police complaints which was repeatedly and vigorously proffered as a perfectly satisfactory alternative to a proper public inquiry into the policing of recent disorders?

Well however keen you may be on the Independent Police Complaints Council you probably did not realise that more than half of complaints about police matters never reach it.

This is the import of a story in the Hong Kong Free Press about the outcome of two of the most famous complaints: the one about a police person throwing a litter bin at protesters from a Wanchai footbridge, and the one concerning a police motorcyclist who repeatedly aimed his speeding machine at protesters. In both cases there is video evidence.

It has been decided, we were told, that both complaints were “outside the purview of IPCC”. This means the IPCC does not consider them at all. And these are not the only ones.

Complaints to the police are placed in two categories. Some are “reportable” and some are “notifiable”. If they are reportable they get the full IPCC treatment, such as it is. The council gets a detailed report on the investigation by the Complaints Against Police Office (part of the Force, alas, but there we are) including its conclusions and recommendations. The IPCC can reject the report and ask for further inquiries or actions.

If the complaint is classified as notifiable, on the other hand, this is a polite way of saying it has been consigned without ceremony to the nearest wastepaper basket. The IPCC is told that it exists, but nothing more.

Since the beginning of major social events six months ago there have been 1,639 complaints of various kinds about the handling of the protests. Of these 1,338 – more than 60 per cent – were classified as notifiable. May they rest in peace.

It seems – there is some mystery about this because even the IPCC is not told why a case had been classified one way or the other – that the problem lies in the IPCC Ordinance, which says that a complaint must be reportable if it has certain characteristics, which include the complaint coming from the injured victim of the alleged abuse.

The ordinance does not say that the complaint must not be reportable if it does not come from the alleged victim, but that is apparently the interpretation which the police put on this part of the ordinance.

So if you had been standing on a footbridge with a Bishop, a High Court Judge and the chairman of the UN Human Rights Committee, and you had all seen and filmed the motorcycle incident, your complaint would still as it were “fall stillborn from the press,” another reminder that “many a flower is born to blush unseen”. Nothing would come of it.

For the victim, as a former IPCC member put it, there is a fear that “lodging a complaint against the force would have repercussions, such as being charged for taking part in an unlawful assembly.”

The former member, Eric Cheng, inferred that for this reason many cases “were unreported or not followed up”. And so “This reflects the system used in monitoring the police is not adequate in responding to current situations.”

No doubt the thought of “repercussions” does bother some people. A more universal deterrent to potential complainers may be the copious evidence of history, both recent and ancient, that your chances of seeing any meaningful result from a complaint put through this machinery are roughly on a par with your chances of winning the Mark Six.

I realise that some people believe the conduct of the police during the recent disturbances was laudable, and many more no doubt take the more realistic position that it was no worse than you might expect in the circumstances.

But to stand up in public and say that there were no cases of abuse at all requires a measure of wilful self-deception of which an ostrich would be ashamed, though our Chief Executive manages it.  See collection of interesting videos here. Not all forgeries, surely?

The fact is that it would be better for everyone concerned, including the police force itself, if there was a mechanism which commanded public trust to deal with cases of apparent or possible abuse. All we have at the moment is a rather elaborate and expensive way of ensuring that the vast majority of complaints, whether justified or not, are painlessly euthanised.







The temporary closure of Hong Kong’s universities has accidentally highlighted the very old-fashioned way in which they operate in normal times. In the Middle Ages, when books were scarce and expensive, it was necessary for students to gather round the feet of an established scholar and gather the pearls which supposedly fell from his lips.

Nowadays this is hardly necessary. Unfortunately the one topic which attracts little attention and less research in universities is their own internal doings. Education departments – where some relevant expertise lurks — are regarded as very much the bottom of the prestige pyramid; comments from them on the way more eminent people operate are neither welcomed nor heeded.

So the tools used to insert knowledge into young heads remain for the most part what they were hundreds of years ago: tutorials, seminars and lectures.

The difference between these is the number of people present. The classical tutorial is one and one: student and tutor. In practice the number of students, at least in the early years of the degree course, may creep up to two or three.

What happens is that the student or students read out their essay on the set topic, and there is then a discussion. The tutor, if she is a good tutor, will try to make this a conversation of equals, while guiding the students in fruitful directions. The friendly atmosphere does not detract from the fact that this is a very demanding exercise for the student.

The seminar is bigger, and used to go up to about 12. This is the number up to which, according to the anthropologists, it is still possible to have a conversation, with some guidance from a leader. People speak spontaneously, interrupt (politely, we hope) and interact with each other. As in the tutorial one person reads out his thoughts on the set subject, and these are then discussed.

This is an ordeal for the individual doing the reading. The other people may be tempted to sit back and say little. A good instructor will try to draw everyone into the conversation.

After this we get to the lecture. Up to about 40 this can operate rather like a well-run school class: the teacher will set the topic, advise on readings and other resources, will set out his own views and invite questions and comments, to which she or he can respond.

Above 40 (another landmark for the anthropologists, for reasons we need not go into here) we are in the territory of the mass lecture. In this the instructor really has no choice but to perform. Meaningful two-way interaction with the audience is desperately difficult. Many of them will be unwilling to speak before such a large gathering, even if invited.

This has been a popular method since the 1700s and the only concession to modernity usually offered is a Powerpoint presentation.

Two points to note here. In various subjects there are other requirements: scientists do lab work, law students argue in moots, journalism people produce newspapers, medics have clinical practice and so on. But the basic diet is still as above.

Secondly there has been some inflation in the language used to describe these events. Many so-called “tutorials” are really seminars, “seminars” are so big they should properly be called lectures, and lectures have in some courses become so large – 300 and up students – that they are more like a very sleepy pop concert.

Clearly there are economic forces at work here, as there were at my secondary school, which switched from football to rugby on the very simple grounds that a teacher running a football game only occupied 22 boys, while a rugby match would engage 30.

Universities are propelled by competitive forces to do more research. The league tables measure little else. And this is congenial to their staff, for whom teaching is a chore, while research is what allows them to cherish the hope of being headhunted by Harvard.

So there is a temptation to reduce teaching hours, and spread them further by packing more students into the room. Against this is the dilution of the effect on students. As the number of people in the room goes up the temptation and opportunity to doze, wool-gather or Wechat to fellow-victims on your mobile phone increases.

People who knew which university I had been to would console me at this point with the reminder that the “Oxbridge method” demanded huge numbers of staff which we did not have. I was told this so often that I believed it.

Then one day I tackled a puzzle which had been bothering me for a while: why, if your staff:student ratio is, say, 1:14 do you not find that the average class has 14 people in it? Take it from me: you don’t.

After some struggling – my algebra had lain unused for 30 years and was never very good – I came up with the formula which determines your average class size, and to my surprise the staff:student ratio barely featured. The two important factors were the number of contact hours required of students and the number of teaching hours required of staff.

So actually you have a choice. I found that at our staffing levels we could provide a real weekly hour-long tutorial for an average of two students, with the staff conducting 12 of them a week, which was rather less time than we were supposed to be spending on teaching already. This would drop the students’ workload to one very strenuous session a week.

This was, of course, of no relevance to life as it was then lived at my university, or any other in Hong Kong. But it has become increasingly relevant. Because what the current crisis has revealed is that many of the current interactions between staff and students are unnecessary.

Threatened with a lethal new virus, everyone can retreat to their computer screens. At which point it becomes transparently unnecessary for a lecturer to read his notes to an audience. He can put them up on the internet and save his time for dealing with queries.

Indeed, trying to read them to an audience is emerging, as everyone plunges into on-line learning, as a big mistake. The days have gone when watchers were mesmerised by A.J.P. Taylor lecturing, straight to camera, one take, without notes, or by Brian Horrocks re-enacting the Battle of Arnhem with no more props than a sand-box and two expressive hands.

Modern audiences are accustomed to all-singing, all-dancing entertainment, with lights, action and moving pictures. Faced with a talking head for 40 minutes they lapse into a somnolent state, or start surreptitious conversations on their cellphones.

Teachers at the university level perhaps need to face the fact that talking to large bodies of students is no longer our thing. They don’t need us to impart the basic information which our course requires. It’s all on the net anyway. Students who were not happy with my version of Clausewitz could find the version taught at West Point.

You may think that they could always do this by making proper use of the library, but generally we have never had much confidence in this theory. University systems are usually constructed on the basis that students will devote all their time to sport, booze and the pursuit of the opposite sex unless their noses are kept to the grindstone by constant tests and examinations.

Libraries have other problems. If 300 people are told to read the same book in the same week there are not going to be 300 copies of it there. They hate buying multiple copies because books go out of date. Your copies of Aristotle’s “Politics” may suffice for the next generation, but publishers of text books take a pride in producing new editions which can be advertised as making their predecessors obsolete.

Electronically this is no longer a problem. Indeed Aristotle has been available for years.  Nor are we limited to the classics.  Click here for an introduction to “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.”

I feel the need at this point, first articulated by Bernard Levin, for a printer’s mark like the asterisk signifying that the writer did not make that last one up.

Given, then, that students can browse the globe in search of information and usually will find it, what are the teachers here for? We have an important new function, which is to teach them how to distinguish, as they forage the global information market place, the gold from the garbage.

We still also have the important old one, to transmit through personal example the approach which will help them in the outside world: curious, sceptical, engaged, tolerant, informed and humane. The challenge for universities is to develop a new approach which fits both what is now possible for the first time and what has always been necessary.

We have not seen much progress on this in Hong Kong. Perhaps the present epidemic, by kicking everyone out of their educational ruts, will have done some useful service.