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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



I received a letter last week from a Mr Wong See-man. I do not know Mr Wong and he evidently does not know me. The whole letter had been written by a computer including his signature. Mr Wong is a Chief Electoral Officer, apparently, which means he is a senior official in the Registration and Electoral Office, which as well as more mundane electoral tasks tries to exclude politically undesirable candidates. So I was prepared to be peeved. This letter, though, was only peripherally about elections, it was a grovelling apology for the inconvenience and distress caused to me (eh?) by the Case of the Lost Laptops.

This goes back to the election, such as it was, of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which was held last month. You would think that this was a fairly easy election to organise as there were only 1,200 electors. However, haunted as organs of our government often are these days by the fear that some sort of protest would keep the electors from the polling station, which was of course in a convenient central spot, the election people decided to pick a “fallback” site. Here electors could cast their ballots while the riot continued round the original venue. The fallback site was well out of the way, in the exhibition centre next to the airport. During the preparation of this predictably superfluous facility two “notebook computers” were, it seems, left in a locked room at the centre. And when the electoral flunkies went to collect them, they had disappeared. Quelle horreur!

It transpires that one of the missing microchips contained only the names of the actual electors, which were already public. The other, however, contained the names, addresses and ID card numbers of all the Hongkongers — there are nearly 4 million of us — who have registered to vote in the other elections, in which we peasants are graciously allowed to vote. The electoral office has reported the whole matter to the Police, who have, the letter says, classified the case as theft, which I suppose is a start. The REO, the letter says “has all along been handling the voter registration particulars very carefully”, which hardly seems to be born out by this incident. It also says the information is vigorously encrypted, password protected etc. This is no doubt true, but I suppose a computer is rather like a safe — if you can take it back to the Batcave and take as long as you like you will get into it eventually.

The electoral people also reported the matter to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data. And naturally they followed the office’s advice, which was apparently to provide details of the incident to the data subjects — who include me — and also to inform “government departments and relevant organisations from various sectors about the incident and called upon them to adopt appropriate measures to protect their own interest and also the interests of data subjects”. And at some point in this interesting dialogue between the election fixers and the privacy freaks, common sense went out the window.

What is the point, one wonders, of telling government and other agencies about the incident and calling upon them to “adopt appropriate measures”. Is this an attempt to tell people who may not already know this that things left in ordinary locked rooms for a few days may disappear? May “relevant organisations” not feel that the Registration and Electrical Office, in the light of this cock-up, might be better advised to consider its own deficiencies before offering advice to other people? The only reason offered for all this is that the electors concerned are being told “to increase public awareness and mitigate the potential damage”. I am not clear why the public needs awareness of the dangers of leaving computers loaded with millions of people’s personal information lying about. And what are we supposed to do to mitigate the damage? There is no point in changing your ID card number, which without the card attached is worthless. Changing your address could be considered rather a drastic approach in these circumstances. I realise that privacy enthusiasts get excited about these things but people’s names and addresses used to be routinely published in a thing called the telephone book. This never did us any serious harm.

What really seems excessive, though, is the idea that the information and apology should be sent in a personal letter to each elector. The REO spurned even the basic economy to be secured by sending electors living at the same address their copies of the letter in one envelope. Indeed these days the use of an envelope could be considered rather antiquated for a duplicated communication of this kind, which might easily be folded and adorned with an address label. This exercise has consumed some three and a half million pieces of A4 paper. It has also consumed some three and a half million envelopes. A small forest has been sacrificed somewhere to provide the necessary tree carcasses. And the envelopes were not the free “on Government service” envelopes either. Mine had a chop saying postage had been paid. Nice bit of business for the Post Office.

Now look, people, here in the 21st century we have a variety of ways of communicating with the public. These are not infallible but they are perfectly sufficient for a case like this where the interest of the individual recipient in the matter is negligible or non-existent. Actually the whole case was lavishly reported in the usual media. A grovelling apology from the head of the REO would have been reported as well. Sending out three and a half million individual letters was an egregious waste of money, paper and time. If that was what the Privacy people suggested then the suggestion should have been ignored. I note also that the letter makes no attempt to answer the one question left hanging about the whole affair, which is why the second laptop was needed at all. The election only concerned the 1,200 members of the election committee. Who thought they would need the names and addresses of the entire voting population, and what for?

And if by any chance you are reading this, Mr Wong, I do not like being addressed as Dear Sir/Madam.

My last excursion on freedom of speech produced a variety of reactions. Some people thought it too long. Some people thought it too short and simplistic. I have actually taught this topic and I can do two or three hours on the history and theory of the concept. I generally do not, however, explore recent efforts to justify curtailing the freedom of people whose views you disagree with, because I don’t agree with them. Hooting a speaker off the stage or having his visit preemptively cancelled is an infringement of freedom, whether the person concerned is a saintly Buddhist or a neo-Nazi. Frankly I think in Hong Kong’s circumstances this sort of hair-splitting is a luxury we cannot afford. Freedom of speech is in serious danger here.

Consider two contrasting cases. In August 1997 a Legislative Councillor of the pro-government persuasion took issue with two columnists who had disagreed with him. Both of them had day jobs at local universities so he wrote to the two universities urging that the two men concerned should be fired. When this became widely known it was made clear to him, even by fellow pillars of the establishment, that this sort of thing was not acceptable. He apologized. One of the academics, who happened to be a distinguished visitor from America, returned home. The other, who happened to be me, continued to write columns unmolested.

Compare this with the case of Mr Edward Yau. Mr Yau used to write a blog on his own Facebook page, and also occasionally contributed pieces to the media under the pen-name Kursk. Many of these contributions were to Apple Daily or the HK01 website, so we may take it that Mr Yau is of a progressive disposition.

On the day after the Great Police Rally Mr Yau wrote a commentary on the matter, suggesting that the orator at the rally who had mentioned Nazi Germany had made a poor choice of analogy, and one might wonder whether policemen who gassed or beat demonstrators believed that they were “only following orders,” a defence once popular with retired SS men. This was perhaps controversial, but hardly off the piste for acceptable public discussion. Supporters of the police could not really complain of rhetorical overkill after their own hero had compared peaceful demonstrators to Nazi death squads. I seem to remember writing something rather similar myself.

However Mr Yau was unlucky enough to be selected as a target by the Silent Majority, a downmarket pro-Beijing group, proprietor Mr Robert (They could kill this city) Chow Yung. The SM criticized Mr Yau on their website, as they were perfectly entitled to do. However as the Silent Majority are widely regarded as a bunch of dimwitted paid puppets this no doubt did not have the desired effect on public opinion. So they decided to go after Mr Yau personally.

It happens that Mr Yau in his day job is a teacher at a secondary school in Chaiwan. So the SM people tried to contact the principal, clearly in the hope that he would give Mr Yau a hard time. The principal did not return their calls, so a troop of SM people then turned up at the school, claiming to be reporters, and demanded an interview. Drawing a blank with the principal, they then turned up at the clinic of the school’s supervisor, and tried to interrogate him. Other members of the school’s board of governors have reportedly also been harassed.

Mr Yau has now decided to give up blogging “to protect the people he loves”. He will in future concentrate on writing for Catholic publications. He said he had not had any pressure from the school. The principal reportedly said that what his staff said in their personal capacity as bloggers was their business alone, and the school would not interfere. He also said he would like some peace and quiet. This, actually, is what gives actions of this kind their chilling effect. Somebody who has a day job and writes part-time will wonder, even if his employer says the right thing, as Mr Yau’s did and mine did, whether he ought to continue to expose his colleagues and students to harassment and possible violence.

This is a shameful episode. The Education Bureau, however, did not think so. Its reported comment was that society set high expectations for the behavior of teachers, and “teachers need to be responsible for their words and actions.”

This was eerily similar to an unrepentant comment from the Silent Majority on Sunday, which said that “events prove that a person cannot escape responsibility for his words and actions.” Which leaves you wondering who was inspiring who here.

The SM also said that “their visits to Yau’s school were not threatening in nature, and they can be described as just the actions of concerned citizens.” No they can’t. Ordinary concerned citizens do not turn up at the workplace of a blogger and demand to interview his employer, masquerading as reporters. Clearly the people who turned up at the school were not reporters. So they were liars. The SM went on to criticize sections of the media for publishing “slanderous” accounts of its activities. A little legal knowledge required here. If it’s in the media it’s libel, not slander.

While we are on the law let us also visit the Basic Law, which says that Hong Kong people enjoy freedom of speech, and the Bill of Rights Ordinance Article 16, which goes into some detail about the permitted limits of such freedom. Exceptions may only be “such as provided by law”. There is no law which says that perpetrators of opinions deemed “malicious thoughts” by “concerned citizens” may be subjected to having a band of goons visit their employer masquerading as reporters. I infer that the actions of the SM were a clear breach of the rights accorded by law to Hong Kong citizens. This thought has apparently not occurred to relevant parts of our government, which is ominous.

It was nice having freedom of speech. Is it now time for this lovely song? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9KO0ZtLoDM




The legal status of the Occupy movement in Hong Kong has a curious history. Before September 28 2014 the official line was that, as C.Y. Leung, put it, the protest would be “neither peaceful nor legal.” The Secretary for Security urged potential participants to consider their “personal safety and legal liability”. The Commissioner of Police said that “any collective attempt to hold up traffic unlawfully” would not be tolerated.

These were not the most lurid predictions, of course. On the internet your mistakes go on for ever. Readers who would like to hear the unmistakable voice of Mr Robert Chow Yung engaged in a piece of terrifying fiction can still find his short video “They can kill this city!” here:


After the tear gas extravaganza on the night of September 28, spontaneous non-Central occupations sprung up in two other places. Violent repression as a strategy was then discarded. The Commissioner of Police was muzzled; other top officials disappeared from view. Occupations continued for three months, during which the legal scene was tranquil. The Mong Kok occupation was finally cleared at the end of November, at the behest of a rather unlikely paladin of legality, the minibus owners’ club. On December 3, 75 people who had at various times been involved in organizing Occupy turned up at a police station and confessed. They were not arrested or indeed charged. Other Occupy sites were cleared later in the month and most of the occupiers went back to their day jobs.

The Commissioner of Police emerged from the teapot to say that 950 people had been arrested during the occupation, but as the cases emerged it became clear that they had been involved in scuffles of one kind or another. Actually occupying as such had not been treated as an offence.

This seems to have come as a surprise to the organisers, who had expressed willingness to be prosecuted for unlawful assembly. It is an offence in Hong Kong for more than three people to meet without the permission of the police. A charge of obstruction under the Summary Offences Ordinance was also considered a possibility.

But for more than two years … nothing. This could be considered controversial in itself. Someone who is to be charged with a criminal offence is entitled to know in reasonable time what it is. He or she may wish to organize witnesses, collect evidence, go over his own recollections. If you are charged with an offence and it doesn’t come to trial for two years that is bad enough. If you have to wait two years to discover what the alleged offence actually is then that is even worse. I do not know why it took the government so long to get round to the idea that organisers as such should be prosecuted. To wait so long and then wheel out an unexpected mediaeval relic charge, abandoned in other jurisdictions, may look legal but is it fair? The rule of law requires more than an indiscriminate and selective prosecution of people the government disapproves of, using whatever legal pretext comes to hand.

It will be interesting to see what comes of “causing public nuisance” as an offence in this context. Public nuisance is, at least to the lay person, a slippery concept. If you live in Happy Valley, a race meeting may be a public nuisance. People ringing you up and asking you to participate in surveys may be a public nuisance. People double parking in Central are indisputably a public nuisance, but all they get is a cheap ticket. Some people certainly did not think Occupy was a nuisance at all. Two of my friends who work in Central thought the travel problems were more than compensated by the resulting clean air. Indeed we may wonder why, if the occupations were a serious public nuisance, the government did nothing about them for three months, leaving the eventual evictions to the private efforts of public transport interests.

Then we have the prospect of some people being charged with “conspiracy”. This is difficult to understand, under the circumstances. Conspiracy is a useful concept if the miscreant is prevented from committing the fell deed he intended. If a protester is found in the basement of Legco the night before a meeting with a pile of barrels of gunpowder we do not exonerate him on the grounds that he did not actually succeed in blowing the place up. But we cannot charge him with mass murder either. A charge of conspiracy catches the murderous but unfulfilled intention. However in the case of Occupy the gunpowder did, as it were, explode. Central was occupied, so those who conspired to do it can presumably be charged with the actual deed.

No doubt all will become clearer when the cases come to trial. In the meantime we can note the further erosion of the rule of law as it is supposed to apply to the media. It is a serious offence, known technically as strict liability contempt, to write anything, once someone has been charged, which implies the innocence or guilt of the accused. This is particularly important when there is a possibility of trial by jury. The law assumes that judges do not read newspapers, but naturally future jurors do not yet know the fate that is in store for them. The consequence of this is that in the old days you were not allowed to write “There seems to be at least some evidence that the nine charged had helped organise and incite people to protest. It was all captured on TV. Maybe they did it for what they thought was a noble cause…” Nor were we allowed to write such things as “If you do the crime, you do the time. If you call your crime civil disobedience, then plead guilty and accept the consequences. Maybe these fakes believe the law does not apply to those who paralyse streets and clash with police for 79 days.” The first quote is from Alex Lo and the second from Michael Chugani. Both were published in the SCMPost. God knows what has been going on in the Chinese press. But I have a pretty good idea what has been going on about this matter in the Department of (ahem) Justice. Nothing.

The row over the Po Leung Kuk’s so-called leadership training camps casts an interesting light on Hong Kong’s obsession with militarism and uniforms. Overseas readers: students who have been to the camp complain about being made to eat grass as a punishment, lay in mud, and be grabbed and shouted at.

Actually the camps are clearly not doing leadership training. If you want to get a grant to take your students away for a few days (but not far enough away to call it a study tour) the easiest thing is to say you are offering leadership training. Nobody knows what it means but it sounds like something useful. I must admit to perpetrating this innocent deception myself.

Fortified by the training provided by the Hong Kong Scouts, for whom I was a voluntary leader, I decided to take all my journalism students who were willing away for a few days, so that the editors of the student newspaper might forge relationships with the reporters in a context less fraught than working on stories. We called it a leadership training camp on the grant application because I couldn’t think of anything else.

After the first one I ditched formal sports and one or two other things which had not worked too well, and consulted some books on educational camps. In following years we settled on mostly team-building exercises, which are fun, physical, interesting and useful if you want people to get to know each other in an uncustomary environment. Team-building exercises involve giving a large group a task and letting them get on with it. If facilities permit you can have two or more groups and make a competition of it, but this is not essential. On the many videos posted by survivors of the Po Leung Kuk camp I found some of my old favourites.

Leadership training is quite different. For this you need a much smaller group with a designated leader. After completing the task you examine the way the group performed, how the leader helped, or didn’t, and what worked, or didn’t. The result should be that members of the group have some idea of what effective leadership would look like in a small group. You then repeat the exercise with different tasks, and leaders. Some European universities offer leadership courses. Oxford actually offers a Diploma in Leadership. This is not done at a camp in the country.

So it’s not leadership. What the Po Leung Kuk has fallen for is the supposed advantages of military training. Nor should this come as a big surprise. When the Jockey Club announced it would pay for an upgrade of the camp site, the club’s website said the facilities would include “a three-storey, 196-bed hostel block with lecture halls, an assault course (!), a parade ground with flag podium, and camping and barbeque facilities.”

I don’t know what it is about Hong Kong people. They seem to love this stuff. My age group in the UK, saved from conscription only because it was abolished just before we reached it, regarded the military as a trap from which we had been rescued just in time. Hong Kong people, on the other hand, seem to enjoy wallowing in it.

As we do not have an army (the PLA garrison spends most of its time in Shenzhen) the “patient zero” for this disease is the Hong Kong Police Force. Their parades are magnificent. They have two full-time professional bands. And they are assiduously copied.

The only uniformed government department which does not have a band for parade purposes is the Fire Brigade. They borrow the police one. All the uniformed groups do parades except the English-speaking part of the Scouts, who are allowed to be pacifist. The biggest band in Hong Kong belongs to the Saint Johns Ambulance Service. Nurses do passing out parades in the full Florence Nightingale. Large numbers of adults dress in uniforms of their own devising and disappear into the countryside to shoot polystyrene pellets at each other. We are a city of reluctant civilians.

So we get the PLK camp offering, as the PLK Grandmont Primary School tells its parents, “marching, leadership training, self-management and self-challenge training.” Parents at PLK Ngan Ko Ling College are told that “we sincerely invite parents to join the passing out ceremony.” Parents at PLK Tong Nai Kan College are told of “marching training.”

And we get pictures like this:

Clearly there is a fundamental misunderstanding at work here. Basic military training is not leadership training; it is followership training. The recruit is stripped of his civilian identity. He is relieved of his possessions, his clothes, even his hair (resemblances to the induction habits of our Correctional Services are not a coincidence). His time is not his own; everything is decided for him by the organization, and his personality is reconstructed with its central feature his relationship to and membership of the unit. The procedure can be seen in all its dubious glory here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3kyZsijUWo

Harsh treatment is justified by the need for the recruit to learn, as one general put it, that life includes pain and hardships, most of which are not distributed fairly. Clausewitz said that war is the domain of exertion, suffering and danger. The more of these you can import to the training, the better prepared the troops will be.

This approach, even in a very attenuated form, is totally inappropriate to the education of Form Five students, and if inflicted on primary kids is in my opinion difficult to distinguish from child abuse. That is not to say that there is no place for challenging experiences. I used to take my scoutlets on a vessel called the Adventure Ship Huan. The captain was a very impressive character with advanced qualifications in both navigation and youth leadership. The kids would have walked through fire for him and so would I. Among other attractions was a sort of climbing course which led round the rigging. This was quite intimidating; I tried it. The kids were also encouraged, at one point, to jump off the highest part of the ship into the water. There was no shouting, no punishment, and no suggestion that refusal would be something shameful, but as far as I remember everyone managed both tasks in the end, and walked a bit taller when they got off the boat as a result. You don’t have to be a drill sergeant.

Another objection to the military paradigm is that it is technically illegal. I am indebted to one of my legal friends who pointed out to me that under Section 18 of the Crimes Ordinance it is an offence if a person “trains or drills any other person in the use of arms or the practice of military exercises or evolutions” without the permission of the Governor or the Commissioner of Police. Clearly this covers foot drill, which is a military exercise, if an obsolete one. The name of the assault course speaks for itself. Many weeks ago I did try asking the Police Public Relations Bureau if anyone in Hong Kong had been given the necessary permission but I have not yet had a reply. So this may be another of those laws which the Department of Justice no longer thinks it worth enforcing.

A further point which may worry parents is that it seems the camp, at least as supplied to Po Leung Kuk schools, incorporates what some of us call national education and some of us call brainwashing. The Tong Nai Kan School website, for example, promises “marching training, national education and field-trip challenges to develop students’ leadership skills, team spirit and further foster a sense of belonging to the school and our nation.” Lo Kit Sing College says to parents that “The aims of the training are to arouse students’ patriotism and nurture their leadership and team spirit.” Po Leung Kuk Number One W. H. Cheung College says that “The training camp aimed at enhancing self-confidence, discipline and cooperation among students through national education and outdoor adventure activities such as wall climbing.” Whatever you think of national education as a school subject, the sort of teaching approach which is appropriate for citizenship education is totally different from that used in “outdoor activities such as wall climbing”, and the two are unlikely to cohabit happily.

We are told that a committee of the Po Leung Kuk is now reviewing the training programme. So some suggestions:

  1. People with unfulfilled military ambitions should be kept well away from the kids.
  2. Skip the politics. See above.
  3. This activity is listed by all the schools I could find expressing an opinion on the matter as compulsory. It should be voluntary. This sort of thing is not for everyone.
  4. Not for primary, please.










Before the blogger’s trembling feet lies a lethal minefield. I did not intend to write about the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission and a startlingly ill-chosen address at an International Women’s Day event. But we have now been treated to an entertaining piece of self-flagellation by the SCMPost, which published a provocative piece on the subject of women’s dress choices and felt obliged not only to withdraw and obliterate it (too late – on the internet your blunders go on for ever) but also to provide a cringe-worthy explanation. This included the astonishing announcement that its “editorial and company values”, include “We welcome diverse views and never shy away from controversial issues.” This will be news to the many former Post columnists in Hong Kong.

So to work. By sheer coincidence I have been reading a book called “Singled out”, by a lady previously unknown to me, Virginia Nicholson. This is not so much a history book as the sort of thing you can write after you have researched a television programme. Which doesn’t make it any less interesting. Ms Nicholson’s topic is a sociological by-product of the First World War. Britain suffered no invasion or air raids worth speaking of, so the threequarters of a million or so people killed, and the roughly equal number so seriously wounded as to carry the effects with them for the rest of their – probably short – lives, were concentrated in one age group. And they were, overwhelmingly, men. The effect of this on the surviving women was, by the standards of the time, devastating. One of Ms Nicholson’s interviewees recalls the headmistress of a girls’ secondary school in Bournemouth addressing the sixth form in 1917: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can hope to marry … It is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed.”

By 1921 this had been confirmed by the official census, leading to newspaper headlines referring to “2 million surplus women”. Some writers saw this as a threat. The Daily Mail – even in those days staking out the low ground of journalism – said the “superfluous women are a disaster to the human race”. It was not, though, a disaster for those who thought women should have choices rather than being condemned, as they had traditionally been, to marriage at all costs and in all circumstances. With so many “surplus” women it was inevitable that many of them would seek other outlets, and at least some of the predictable opposition was muted by the realization that the answer to the question “Why don’t you get married?” was probably lying under a headstone in Flanders.

The upshot of this was a widespread smashing of barriers. In the two decades between the wars women became engineers, scientists, stockbrokers, university teachers, barristers, archaeologists, and many other things which they had never explored before. This was not to every man’s taste, of course. At a safe distance one can be charmed by the story of the university lecturer who insisted that women students should sit behind the podium so that he could not see them. But this, along with the vote, was the first Great Leap Forward, at least in the UK.

The second one I was actually around for. When I was very small my mother took the view that the way to keep small boys out of mischief was to teach them useful things, so I was instructed – with various degrees of success – in all the varieties of housework. In those days this was done with very few mechanical aids, none of which were electric. Much of it was very time-consuming. So I did the daily stuff, lay and light fire, deal with resulting layers of dust, shopping – which involved a daily visit to some or all of the fresh food specialists who provided meat, fish, vegetables and bread – make beds, (the duvet had not been discovered) beat carpets and so on. Washing was traditionally done on Monday and hung in the garden. Other more occasional items included darning socks (at which I was not good) and making the Christmas pudding, which for some reason was done in September so that the pudding could meditate on its coming fate for three months, preserved from rot by the copious quantities of booze which were part of the recipe. The unmistakable effect of all this work was that unless you could afford servants being a housewife was virtually a full-time job. This gradually changed as many of the jobs were mechanized and in due course my mother happily returned to the world of work, liberated by the fridge, the Hoover, the washing machine, the electric fire and the supermarket.

This brings me to the EOC head, Professor Alfred Chan Cheung-ming and his speech on International Womens Day. In case you were wondering, Chan is a professor of social gerontology (whatever that is) at Lingnan University. The professor said that women have two possible careers in Hong Kong, in the workplace or at home. I wouldn’t dispute the truth of that, but a prudent speaker would at this point be aware that he was playing with fire. Professor Chan proceeded to ignite himself. Men did not treat women equally in the workplace (which could charitably be taken as a complaint) but women were not concerned about equal pay (cue sirens). He went on with the point that elderly people tend to be cared for by women, because they are more attentive, and he expected to be cared for by his daughter, not his son, because “men need to work”.

Seven women’s groups promptly started a petition calling for Prof Chan to be fired. There is certainly something to be said for the idea that the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission should be at the forefront of thinking on the matter of gender equality, rather than merely describing it, even if we acquit him of encouraging prejudice.

I suppose there may have been a respectable point buried in the speech somewhere. It is true that prejudices endure, and not all of them unambiguously favour men. A married woman with no job is a homemaker. A married man with no job is unemployed. But this hardly qualifies as a suitable theme for International Women’s Day. It would be interesting to know what Prof Chan’s daughter thinks of the idea that she is going to be a geriatric nurse when he needs one. Surely the lady has plans of her own?

The piece in the Post by Mike Rowse (formerly of HKinvest, Harbourfest etc) was I fear a deliberate provocation. Mr Rowse was perfectly well aware that it would go down very badly with some people. The idea of the piece was to praise ladies whose cold-weather clothes choices allow Mr Rowse to admire their legs. I am not sure what the Post’s apologists mean by “objectification”, but it appears to be what happens every Sunday in the more fashion-orientated parts of the Magazine section, where the female clotheshorse of the weekend is referred to in captions simply as “model”. Evidently the Post got a lot of complaints about Mr Rowse and collapsed in a heap. This did not happen on other occasions when the Post got a lot of complaints. Some collapses come easier than others.

Hong Kong is not the only place where people get into this sort of trouble. I remember the President of Harvard being unseated because of some rather technical statistical observations about the dearth of women in science. This was an affront to his staff because it did not repeat the obvious truth of the matter, which was that the scarcity was due to rampant discrimination by male pig scientists. Then there was the Home Secretary in the UK who was propelled from office after making the rather obvious point that some rapes were more serious than others and this might explain some of the observed variation in sentences.

What these events have in common is a preoccupation with words rather than actions. One American writer recently complained that this seemed to be a matter of replacement rather than addition – that people of a progressive disposition spend time eagerly policing the public discussion which might more usefully be spent on useful political work. Or to put it another way, if half of the energy spent on “denying platforms” had been spent on denying Donald Trump…

Well perhaps that is an American problem. What bothers me is the creeping encroachment on the borders of what we used to call free speech. Noam Chomsky has said that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” And if Chomsky is too subversive for your taste his remark is a near-paraphrase of the US Supreme Court judge who stressed the importance of “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” Clearly by these standards calling for the suppression of a speech or the firing of its author because they do not reach the highest standards of inter-gender fairness and impartiality is an over-reaction. We can all see that freedom of speech is diminished when some bandit chief in Beijing announces that it does not include the freedom to discuss independence. No doubt the freedom to discuss the attractions of the miniskirt to elderly men is not as important as the freedom to discuss independence. But it is the same freedom, and those who attack it do the same injury.

And the injury is not just theoretical. It has become very difficult to discuss some issues. Here are two which I suggest columnists should avoid unless they are, like me, safely retired and writing for pleasure. The first one is, does the disadvantage attached to being a woman as such still need the attention which it rightly attracted when society’s norm for the female sex ran mostly to “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen?” We have woman prime ministers, a woman Chancellor of Germany, we have woman presidents, or had until two of them came unstuck recently. A majority of Americans voted for a woman president, though that was not what they got. Then there is the looming prospect of Carrie Lam… This is not to say, of course, that the playing field is entirely level. I was personally rather shocked by the bias against women academics, or at least the more feisty ones, which lurks in Hong Kong universities; in newspapers, where everyone’s work can be seen by everyone else, people are taken on their merits, at least in the humble strata where I worked. The main complaint about what 19th century liberals called “a career open to the talents” now seems to centre on the shortage of women in company boardrooms. Well if you look at the top of organisations what you see reflects decisions made 30 years ago, when things were perhaps a bit different. But it is surely too simplistic to say that since 50 percent of the population is female, any employment area with a lower figure is a festering hotbed of discrimination. There may be some jobs which appeal more to men than to women. Women may rightly feel that there is not a lot to be said for a career in the business world, which is in Nassim Taleb’s memorable summary “inelegant, dull, pompous, greedy, unintellectual, selfish and boring.”

I am not trying to persuade you that the time has come to stop worrying about prejudice against women in appointments of various kinds. What I urge you to worry about is that when the time does come it will be very difficult for anyone to say so. And this has costs. Most people only have so much time and energy to spend worrying about social issues and what is spent on one topic is not available for another.

Let us take another potential problem. In the days when protesting women flung themselves under racehorses and chained themselves to the Downing Street railings it was clear that the many egregious injustices inflicted on women were manmade in the most literal sense of the word. Arguments about “women’s nature” were clearly spurious then and there is a curious antiquarian whiff to Prof Chan’s assertion that women are more suited to caring activities because they are “more attentive”. Still, as equality marches forward and science increases its understanding of human nature, we can expect to find some differences, possibly quite trivial, which are inherent in the physiological structures of the two genders. The man or woman who makes this discovery will I fear be deterred from announcing it by the near-certainty of a storm of abuse. In modern societies there are advantages to being an oppressed minority and they will not be relinquished lightly.

Now it will be said in defence of the critics of Prof Chan that they are not seeking to suppress his opinions, they just think that his opinions are incompatible with his job as the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission. And we can go along with that, while wondering if the same people would have said the same things had his tactless observations related to, say, Pakistanis.

Mr Rowse is a more difficult case in some ways, because he was obviously enjoying the thrill of provocation. It’s like those young people who wave the colonial flag at demonstrations, not because they support colonialism but because the flag annoys people they don’t like. I would not have written what Mr Rowse wrote but defenders of freedom of speech cannot pick and choose. Mr Rowse’s opinion was legal and honest. The SCMPost is free, if it wishes, to dispense with his services to avoid further embarrassment. But trying to delete the piece retrospectively protects one “value” at the expense of another. For years sundry Post columnists have been telling us that there is no self-censorship in Hong Kong. Well there is now.


The Great Police Rally on February 22 was missing two things usually found on occasions of this kind. The first was the letter of no objection to a public protest from the police. Several commentators noticed this, though I am not sure it was necessary. The Police Sports and Recreation Club, where the rally was held, is open to policemen and their families. It is also open to former policemen and their families, auxiliary policemen and their families, civilian employees of the police and their families, and even some civil servants with police-related duties … and their families. So long is the list that it once, many years ago, included me. If the members of what is legally, I suppose, a private club, wish to hold a large meeting on a matter of public concern on the premises I am not sure that this needs anyone else’s permission.

On the other hand it seems that the rally was open to the public. The only people specifically excluded were journalists. So perhaps they should have had the letter. Michael Chugani, in one of his bursts of hypocrisy-hunting, said that anyone who objected to the meeting but did not object to Occupy must be a hypocrite. But surely this must cut both ways. Anyone who objected to Occupy but did not object to the police rally must also be a hypocrite, which suggests that Mr Chugani could get his hypocrisy hunt off to a flying start by looking in the mirror.

The other thing missing from the proceedings on February 22 was the usual report from a police wet blanket that the attendance was much smaller than that claimed by the organisers. The organisers claimed an attendance of more than 30,000. Well in the absence of an official figure let us see what we can do. The crowd was spread over two pitches, one soccer and one rugby. Both of these are quite small, though. If you look on Google earth you can see that they are small compared with the public pitch next door, let alone the nearby pitch in the Mong Kok Stadium.

Football pitches vary. But using the tennis courts on the nearby club roof as a yardstick I estimate the two pitches as about 50 yards by 70, which means the space available was altogether about 6,500 square yards.

Looking at the many news pictures of the happy event it is apparent that once you got away from the stage the crowd was quite dispersed, and in distant corners there were no people at all. So I suggest we can reckon a bit over one person per square yard on average, which would give an attendance on the grass of about 8,000. A lot of faces can be seen at windows in the buildings which overlook the pitches, but these are only four stories high, so it is difficult to believe that there are more than maybe a couple of thousand altogether there. This would give us a total actual attendance of about 10,000, which has about the usual relationship with the number claimed by the organisers, who tend on these occasions to be optimistic.

Of course not all of these people were members of the force. In fact the reporter from the SCMPost, who was apparently not excluded with the other journalists, possibly because he was a foreigner, wrote that most of these present seemed to be retired.

This is not to deny the strength of the feelings expressed at the rally. But we need some perspective. Not all the people there were police people. Those present were not a majority of the force, either. It is reassuring to know that the taste for mass chants of “Fuck your mother” is a minority one. A more modest figure might also have spared us the item in one of the international agencies which reported without comment that organisers claimed 38,000 of Hong Kong’s 22,000 police had attended.

The point of this excursion is not to minimise the levels of dissatisfaction and resentment in police circles, which I understand are quite high, and relate to a number of causes besides the sentences passed on the errant seven officers. The point is that the rally, and some eager editorials in the more leftish media, have been used to give the impression that the sentences concerned have met with widespread disapproval.

I do not think this is the case. Most Hong Kong people seem to think that the convictions were inevitable and the sentences reasonable even if one might, as a soft-hearted layman, have passed less stringent ones oneself. But this sort of deception has real consequences, because people in places like Beijing do not have access to independent media and may confuse coverage in the sort of media which you can access over the boundary with the truth.

This brings me to Professor Tian Feilong, the author of an extraordinary piece of work published in Ming Pao and the Post the other week. Prof Tian is a pillar of the Beihang University’s Law School. Readers who are familiar with my opinion of what passes for the Chinese legal system will understand why I found this choice of career intriguing. So desperate are news websites for pictorial material that we were even treated to a picture of the professor. Let me gratify those feminists who complain that only women in the news get their appearance reported by noting that the professor seems to have a weight problem and a face made for radio. This of course has nothing to do with the merits of his opinions. Socrates, in his day, was also described as fat and ugly.

Prof Tian started with the idea that the sentencing had sparked a public backlash, and ascribed this to the fact that the police miscreants were in jail while the protestor they beat up was not. This sent a “strong message that the presiding judge’s moral support lay with the protestor.”

He went on to say that “The excessive punishment for the seven officers, at a time when Hong Kong society is in chaos, has prompted a rethink of the value of the rule of law and how it can support the city. Then there are questions about the nationality of the judge, the rationale behind the ruling, impartiality, and possible political motives behind the ruling.”

This is nonsense. Let us start with the “strong message”. The sentences meted out to protesters and errant policemen are not related to each other. They are related to the crimes of which the person concerned has been convicted. For a protester to resist arrest is illegal but not a major crime. For a policeman having arrested a suspect to tie him up, carry him away to a dark corner and beat him up, on the other hand, is a serious affront to law and order, which requires that those in charge of enforcing it should themselves obey the law.

The judge in the policemen’s case had to consider a number of factors in passing sentence. There is the “tariff” which provides an indication of what sentences for particular crimes should be. There are the points made in mitigation by defending counsel. There is the attitude of the accused, who did themselves no favours by seeking to elude responsibility for their actions by trying to discredit the overwhelming evidence against them. But the sentence imposed on the victim was not and is not relevant. If policemen beat up a suspect who has been guilty of some trivial offence it does not mean that the sentence for them must also be trivial.

Prof Tian has some odd ideas about the law, as you would perhaps expect in view of the rather odd features of the Chinese legal system on which he is no doubt an expert. Social protest movements are extraordinary events, he writes, so “the judge should have differentiated the powers that police are allowed to use in such situations from those normally allowed.”

This is not really a legal argument at all. The judge should follow the law. If the law specifies some police power and not others this is a matter for the legislature, not for judicial inspiration. It is also totally inconsistent with the facts of the case on which Prof Tian was commenting. We all understand that in major public events the police need and use powers which would not be appropriate in their everyday work. Most people, even most demonstrators, accept that at times when a lot of people are trying to go one way and the police are trying to make them go another there will be some application of force, not all of it in entire accordance with police general orders or the law. In moments of excitement people on both sides of the barricades may lash out.

This, however, has nothing to do with the case of the seven policemen. Their crime was not a bit of over-enthusiasm with the boot or the pepper spray in a moment of public order crisis. Their victim was securely in police custody. Social protest movements are not so extraordinary that they require us to allow policemen to truss people in custody, carry them away to dark corners and kick the crap out of them. The rule of law requires obedience from policemen as well as protestors. The seven knew they were doing something illegal. That is why they posted a look-out.

Prof Tian now has the wind in his sails, though, and proceeds to complain that judges in Hong Kong are inadequately monitored and supervised. And at this point it becomes clear what his problem is: he knows nothing about the Hong Kong legal system at all, and supposes it to be like the mainland one.

In Hong Kong, unlike the mainland, all trials are public. They are open to the scrutiny of any citizen and the press is admitted as a matter of course. In Hong Kong, unlike the mainland, the defendant is allowed a lawyer who places his interests first, and does not have to fear that doing so will put him in the same predicament as his client. Said defending lawyer will, if the judge in the case does not come up to scratch, or even if he does, advise a convicted defendant to appeal, whereupon the case will be considered afresh by three other judges. This hearing also will be public. The judgment will be published and will appear on the Judiciary website.

In short Hong Kong has an excellent “oversight mechanism”. It is called publicity. Prof Tian makes the astonishing claim that Hong Kong’s legal system “deviates from what a modern legal system should be like”. I fear he thinks it should be more like China’s. Perish the thought.