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This is the sort of thing which puts you off teaching media law in Hong Kong. In March last year when the 47 National Security group defendants first appeared in a magistrate’s court, there was some discussion in court as to whether reporting was allowed.

Reporting of committal proceedings – basically all the hearings before the start of the actual trial – is restricted to bare details of names, charges and decisions on bail. But the restrictions can be lifted under some circumstances.

Magistrate Victor So, one of our – or rather their – national security specialists, supposed he had complete discretion in the matter and announced that the usual restrictions on reporting would remain.

This was an error, and I wrote a piece to this effect a few days later. This is not an obscure or controversial matter. The law is of considerable antiquity and it is quite clear. If the defendant – or if there is more than one defendant any one of them – wishes to have the reporting restrictions lifted then they must be lifted. But of course national security judges should not be swayed by the scribblings of a non-lawyer like me, and nor were they.

All subsequent applications for reporting restrictions to be lifted were refused, most recently by another national security star, Principal Magistrate Peter Law. This is a small personal embarrassment, because I taught this stuff for years, and always included the bit about restrictions being lifted if the accused person wished it.

However one recent victim of the new policy, barrister Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, took the matter to the High Court by seeking judicial review of the decision. It appears that Ms Chow, unlike many of our learned magistrates, can read the Magistrates Ordinance and has done so.

The application was a complete success. Judge Alex Lee ruled that the magistrate had exceeded his authority by refusing to lift the restrictions. “The magistrate has no discretion but to lift the reporting restrictions at the instance of the accused,” said the judge, adding that the magistrate’s approach to the matter was “totally in opposition to the principles of open justice.”

Disgracefully, the magistrate’s arbitrary action was defended by counsel for the Secretary for Justice, who contended that “lifting the restrictions would frustrate the ultimate aim of doing justice.”

It seems that both Mr Law and the Department of Justice were under the impression, shared by The Standard’s reporter, that the restrictions on reporting are intended for the protection of prosecution witnesses. This is not the case.

The purpose of the restrictions is to protect the defendant. In the old days the prosecution evidence was given in great detail during committal proceedings, while for tactical reasons the defence said little. The unintended but inevitable result of this arrangement was that reports of the proceedings were heavily biassed against the defence.

So the idea of the restriction is to prevent the defendant from being disadvantaged at his trial. You can actually report all the committal proceedings after the trial has taken place, which is occasionally useful if the defendant pleads guilty and the prosecution evidence is not needed at the full trial.

Clearly this arrangement conflicts with the principle that justice should be public. So the defendant is given the choice. He or she may – if convinced that this will help, or not harm, the defence – ask for the committal hearing to be reportable as other hearings are. There are a variety of reasons why the defence might think publicity helpful, though discouraging prosecution witnesses is not usually given as one of them.

But the court has no discretion in the matter, however dubious the defendant’s decision may be. In one notorious English case a defendant was paid by an eager newspaper to get the restrictions lifted. And they were.

Actually in Hong Kong these days the restrictions on reporting of committal proceedings have become pointless. The prosecution submits its case on paper and witnesses are not heard.

Moreover the defendant has often already been prejudiced because soon after his arrest the police generally outline what is effect going to be the prosecution case in a press briefing. This used to be harmless, at least in theory, because names or other identifying details of those arrested were not included. Times have changed.

So all this is not going to make a great deal of difference. It does mean we shall be able to read reports of the prosecution’s limp excuses for not being ready for trial months or years after the date of the alleged offence.

I gather from a recent speech by the new Secretary for Justice that his department now recognises that this is a problem. This enlightenment also has been much delayed.

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One of my students who has emigrated, as alas many have, recently brought me a curious present. It was a tin of biscuits from Fortnum and Mason. F and M is the grocery shop for people who think the Harrods Food Hall is middle class. The biscuits were delicious.

The tin, part of the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee, had a Coat of Arms on it: not the Royal one, a made-up job. If you wound it up by turning the base it also played the National Anthem, God Save the Queen – or King as appropriate. And this, it seems, is still about as far as patriotic passion gets in the UK these days.

In Hong Kong we do things differently. I am not sure what a court would make of a biscuit tin which played March of the Volunteers when wound up. But I am sure if such a thing appeared then some government zombie would point out that it “might” be a violation of the national security law.

There are similar differences with regard to flags. The UK has the Union Jack. Flag pedants love to point out that it is strictly only a Union Jack when flown on a jack staff, a small flag pole at the front of a ship. The rest of the time it is the Union Flag. Whatever you call it, it has no legal protection at all, and routinely appears on underwear, supermarket bags, American sports shoes and in other dubious places. The SAR flag, on the other hand, is a closely guarded virgin of the flag world and may, like the name of the Polytechnic University, only be displayed with permission.

The SAR is now rolling out further innovations which appear a bit on the weird side for those of us raised in places where patriotism was an assumption rather than an aspiration. All university students will be required to undertake some sort of short course on legality in general and the charms of the national security law in particular.

Early indications are that this requirement will be met with a variation on e-learning, culminating in a multiple-choice examination which can be graded by a computer. The whole thing can then be run without the intervention of a human brain. The idea behind this seems to be a sort of educational homeopathy, in which a tiny squirt of machine learning cleans and corrects a whole personality.

More exciting is the proposal, outlined in a recent on-line post from the Secretary for Education, for compulsory mainland study tours as part of the required subject formerly known as Liberal Studies and now – liberalism being off the menu – known as Citizenship and Social Development.

According to the bureau this will involve the government paying (the tours will be free for the tourists, at least for now) for some 50,000 trips a year. A total of 21 itineraries have been arranged, ranging from three days in Macau to five days in more distant spots like Hunan and Guizhou.

There are some interesting legal questions ahead about this. Will the tours be compulsory for international schools, or for international schools following the local curriculum, or for students in international schools who happen to have chosen the local curriculum rather than the IB? Will they be compulsory for local students who are not Chinese, and may indeed be citizens of countries which specifically advise their nationals against visiting China?

I leave these questions for more legal pens. What bothers me is the practicalities.

I should insert here that I have considerable experience of study tours. Early in my career as a university teacher I had a careless moment during an alcohol-fuelled gathering for journalism teachers and hatched a plan with an Australian academic to run a study tour of Queenslend for my students.

This was an insanely expensive ambition but as nobody had, apparently, done such things before my university coughed up a generous subsidy. The students made a splendid video of the proceedings which went down well at JUPAS briefings for some years – although we never managed to do Australia again – and the idea spread to other departments and in due course to other universities.

When my department sprouted an MA course we found there was a well-established price cartel which required us to charge far more than we needed for the programme. So we tagged on an optional but heavily-subsidised week in London, later moved to Prague.

I imported some rules for the conduct of study tours from a course for Scout leaders taking kids on camps which I had attended. One of these was that there should always be at least two adults present, so that in moments of crisis one could go to the hospital, police station, consulate or whatever, while the other could stay with the rest of the group.

This modest requirement was enough to create a permanent shortage so I had several trips to Boston for an annual Model UN and was even roped in once to make up the required number in Shanghai. Of course I knew nothing of Shanghai and noticed after a few days that the student who had organised the whole thing had arranged for two people to keep an eye on me every day and ensure I did not get bored or, more importantly, lost.

One thing all these trips had in common which will not, I fear, be a feature of the Education Bureau’s brainwave: they were voluntary. All the students attending wished to be there. They might be as interested in the tourism possibilities as the educational ones, but they were volunteers, not conscripts.

The same could be said of the reachers who went along. One of my colleagues managed, by heroic economies, to organise a trip to London for our journalism undergrads. This involved a week in a youth hostel which achieved an ambience somewhere between a Russian barracks and an Iranian prison. It was, though, only two minutes walk from Piccadilly. Nobody complained.

It is difficult to believe that this will be true of the government’s compulsory visits to China.

Let us start with the question of staff. Depending on the ages of the children, prudent organisers arrange a ratio of students to staff. For very small kids the ratio is 2:1, so that if necessary each adult can hold a child by each hand. For primary kids when I was doing these things it used to be 6:1. For university students you probably don’t have to worry too much as long as you have the necessary two staff but I think in practice we always ran around 20:1.

This suggests that a reasonable compromise for senior secondary students might be about 12:1. And this in turn means the Bureau will need to find some 4,000 teachers every year who are willing – or can be compelled – to go along on one of these jaunts. In my experience this sort of thing is not popular – though I quite enjoyed it – even when the destination was somewhere quite attractive.

Then there is the question of travel and accommodation. Rooms for students in mainland universities are … well rather along the lines of Piccadilly youth hostels. Boarding schools are, I imagine, even more Spartan. Is the Education Bureau proposing to pay for hotels?

I suppose inter-city travel will be on the high-speed rail network, which should be a boost for national pride. But who is making arrangements on arrival? Many Chinese universities have a department specialising in entertaining visitors. The woman from the relevant department of Fudan University who helped out in Shanghai was wonderful. But the tours will presumably involve more interaction with schools, which are not so well equipped.

The Education Bureau claims that they have lots of cities willing to entertain Hong Kong study tourists. You have to wonder why. Frankly if our government is waving gazillions of money around the place for study tours there will be some enthusiastic applicants who are not primarily concerned with education, patriotic or otherwise.

And the results…? People on the mainland have a rather different approach to education from the one traditionally adopted in Hong Kong. It is very solemn, didactic and traditional. No doubt Hong Kong students will be happy to behold the natural and manmade wonders of the mainland but will the experience generate enthusiasm, attraction … or profound relief that Hong Kong still has some differences.

I understand what is being wished for here, but compulsory exercises have a poor record of inducing change, precisely because they are compulsory. Encourage and subsidise visits to the mainland by all means. If they are a requirement they will turn people off.

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It’s the little things that give you away. I mean $140,000 is not a lot of money in terms of government spending, but it is our money, and the way in which it slipped through our collective fingers tells you a lot about how things are run these days.

The story starts last October, when a “community group” (which has so far managed to remain nameless, but is I suppose one of those small birds which eats the fleas off the DAB’s black rhinoceros) decided that it wished to see PRC and SAR flags hanging from New Territories lamp posts to celebrate National Day.

The time-honoured way of gratifying wishes of this kind was to get the local District Council to pay for it. The Transport Department’s charge for the use of its lamp posts was paid for by the council funds and was simply a transfer from one government account to another. Flying the flag was a piece of costless performative patriotism.

However the district councils have effectively been abolished. After the purge produced by the oath-taking requirement and official lies about what would happen to councillors who were disqualified, very few councillors were left. The by-elections required by law were unlawfully postponed by Carrie Lam on the grounds that the government was too busy with the Legco and CE elections. Mr John Lee has no such excuse but there is still no sign of by-elections.

We do not have the rule of law. We have the rule of selected laws.

Anyway, here we have our nameless group of rural superpatriots suddenly confronted with a bill for the use of lamp posts, running to $147,670. Apparently the transport people charge $6 per post per day. I have no idea whether that is reasonable but there is a safety angle because errant flags will presumably drop onto passing traffic.

The plight of our lamp post lovers came to light when a columnist, Chris Wat, wrote a piece about it in a pro-Beijing freesheet, Headline Daily. It was, Ms Wat opined, “ridiculous” that people should be charged for “patriotic behaviour”.

The following day two legislators wrote to the Director of Highways about the matter, posting the letter on Facebook for maximum brownie points. And the day after that the Chief Executive announced, also on Facebook, that he had “instructed administrative and inspection fee exemptions for national and SAR flags hung on lamp posts”.

The Highways Department then promised that the flag fanciers would get a refund.

As a piece of public expenditure this represents an interesting departure from traditional procedure. No budget, no Finance Committee, no quibbling. The decision-making flow goes from pro-Beijing columnist to DAB legislator to Chief Executive to the relevant department.

And henceforth, patriotic adornments to lamp posts will be free of charge. Who knows what other variations on “patriotic behaviour” will attract spontaneous support from public funds. May I charter an airship to float over the SAR for ten days flying the flags?

Actually it seems a bit backhanded to insist that patriotism should be free of charge. It ought to be a pleasure for a true patriot to fork over $140,000 for the honour of being the sponsor of the celebration. If it is not costing them anything, where is the virtue?

But it is a serious mistake to expect deep thought, or even superficial thought, from our legislators these days. Consider Mr Chu Kwok-keung, who now sits for the Education functional constituency.

Mr Chu was consulted by local media about a curious little scandal involving mermaids.

Wah Yan College, a fairly up-market boys school (it’s the one across Waterloo Road from Kwong Wah Hospital) has a swimming pool. In the summer, like most similarly supplied schools, it lets outsiders rent its pool, which would otherwise be idle and produces a small income.

Some parents were surprised to discover that one of the uses to which the pool was being put was a “mermaid movement experience class”. People were swimming in mermaid costumes and were allowed to take photos in the pool.

Parents characterised this as renting to an organisation that “claimed to be a sports group”. The school promptly collapsed in a heap, announcing that “someone had violated the school’s rental terms and the school had immediately terminated the rental contract.”. I am sorry the rental term was not specified. No fishtails?

Enter Mr Chu. Schools had the right to let their facilities but “the school must review the background and activities of the organisations, otherwise it will lead to irresponsibility. The affected school received complaints from parents and their opinions and concerns are reasonable.” Mr Chu has a condition commonly found in senior teachers: he talks to adults as if they were children and happily orates about matter of which he knows nothing.

Because the fact is that the parents concerns are not reasonable. There is nothing indecent or illegal about mermaid movement classes, which are offered by several organisations in Hong Kong. Not my cup of tea but it makes exercise, which is fundamentally boring, more interesting for some people.

I quote from one website: “Mermaid Dance is different from typical swimming and can be used as a unique form of exercise. Because both legs are held together in an iridescent fishtail, kicking really develops the core and leg muscles to develop an overall healthy body. It also teaches grace and is a fun way to express yourself creatively underwater!”

Some people offer it as a variation on yoga; some simply see it as a form of exercise likely to appeal to girls, many of whom do not warm to more traditional sports.

Mr Chu had a chance to stand up for freedom, reason and common sense, by pointing out that if people wish to be photographed disguised as fish then that is their own business and does not justify ill-informed parental puritanism. He blew it.

The new-look patriots-only Legco: living down to expectations.

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You would think our leaders were aware that the last thing Hong Kong needs at the moment is another piece of vague, indiscriminate legislation which will provide a whole new plethora of opportunities for toxic interactions between officials and the public they are supposed to serve.

Is there, one wonders, a bureaucratic disease called national security law envy. If there is, treatment is now required in the Environment and Ecology Bureau, which unveiled its latest stroke of genius at a recent meeting of the legislature.

The bureau, I do not dispute, has a problem. Wild pigs occasionally intrude in the urban area, attracted by the soft suburban life and the insecure dustbin, as many smaller animals have been before them. However a wild pig is a rather alarming thing to find in your housing estate, and the pigs are in danger from traffic.

The current policy, inaugurated by an interesting coincidence after a wild pig bit a policeman, is to capture pigs found in the urban area and kill them. This goes down badly with a lot of people, including me.

The bureau believes that the reason the pigs frolic in urban areas is that misguided people are feeding them. I do not dispute that this takes place sometimes, but there are some doubts as to whether it is really the main source of the problem. A lot of urban estates put their rubbish out for collection in the morning in plastic bags, which are not much of a challenge to a peckish pig.

Indeed the Agriculture and Fisheries Department’s supposedly animal-proof litterbins are not much of a challenge either. During the period when restaurants were forced to close at 6 pm many people picnicked in or around their cars in the carpark at the top of Sui Wo Road. I am a regular nocturnal visitor here for dog reasons.

These visitors were respectable folk who put their rubbish in plastic bags and put the bags into the animal-proof bin provided, until it overflowed and the bags were then stacked beside it. I suppose it took a day before our local wild pig (I have never seen more than one) discovered this bounty and another night before he found his way into the “animal-proof” bin.

After that I saw him most nights until the restaurants resumed evening service. A pig with the smell of rubbish in his nostrils is resourceful and determined. No doubt people should not feed them, but we seem to be picking an easy target here which will not solve the problem.

Anyway, what is the bureau’s preferred legal solution to the pig feeding problem? Will it ban feeding wild pigs in the urban area, ban feeding them in other places, attempt something like “feeding wild pigs in places whereby the general public is likely to be inconvenienced”, ban feeding wild pigs at all?

Too timid, apparently. The bureau wants to ban feeding any wild animal anywhere in Hong Kong. It also wishes to raise the maximum penalty (there is currently a law against feeding monkeys in some places) for feeding anything to a year in jail or a $100,000 fine.

Apparently officials believe the present level of fines is too small. I rarely find myself defending local magistrates against charges of excessive leniency, but perhaps the fines are small because they ought to be. Feeding a monkey in a country park is not an offence of moral turpitude or financial gain and does very little public harm because the places where feeding is banned are the places where monkeys congregate anyway. So there is no obvious victim.

The bureau would also like to institute a system of fixed penalty tickets – on-the-spot fines, in effect — with the specified fine to be $5,000.

I am not sure which parts of this are most objectionable. In the first place the making of a new law should not be an opportunity to blanket the territory with unwarranted prohibitions. The bureau says that the sweeping new law will reduce the “difficulty in enforcement” expected if the new law merely covered the things it is supposed to stop. This is not the way the Rule of Law is supposed to work.

The new law will cover, or threaten, lots of stuff currently regarded a harmless and perfectly legal. What is a “wild animal,” for example? Will it cover feral cows, feral cats, feral cats only outside official feral cat colonies recognised by the Society for the Protection of Animals?

Our local minibus drivers often eat their lunch outside our estate and toss the odd bit of bread to the local birds. This has allowed some residents to become quite well-informed about the local birdlife. We sometimes spot examples of the Eurasian Magpie, the Red-whiskered Bulbul, and an interesting grey thing which some observers say is a wood pigeon but I think is a wild dove. Having said which the vast majority of our birds are Eurasian Tree Sparrows, which are quite cute but very common.

No doubt spokespeople will say that of course such trivial peccadilloes will not be prosecuted, even if theoretically illegal. But citizens should not have to depend on the discretion of officials to keep them out of trouble.

A government which wants to ban feeding pigs should ban feeding pigs and leave other possibly more deserving animals alone.

As for the on-the-spot fines, this is another item which is hardly compatible with our oft-repeated dedication to the Rule of Law. Citizens are supposed to be able to go about their lives without worrying about being instantly fined by some officious flunky of the government for a minor offence.

Fixed penalty tickets are acceptable if the offence is simple and unlikely to be disputed, and if the fine is modest. The thin end of this wedge was of course the ticket for motoring offences, which had the advantage that anyone who was driving a car could be presumed to be a person of means. As the idea has spread to other areas the acceptable level of instant fine has increased exponentially.

A fine of $5,000 for many Hong Kongers is about half a month’s wages. According to the Census people about 10 per cent of workers earn less than $10,000 and about 25 per cent less than $20,000 a month. Most Social Security recipients get less than $5,000 a month, as do all the Fruit Money eligible.

This is too heavy a penalty to be thrown about without at least the possibility of a trial. I know we have had $5,000 on the spot fines for COVID-related offences, but that has not been a happy experience. There have been far too many cases in which the exact requirements of the offence were not explored in sufficient detail, and some in which the only offence involved appeared to be failure to offer to police people the deference to which they believe themselves entitled.

Levelling this blunderbuss at domestic workers on their days off was not a good look, and the penalty looks incoherent compared with the case of the restaurant which entertained a birthday party for 100 people, including a lot of bigwigs, and was fined only $6,000.

Perhaps the Environment and Ecology Bureau could benefit from a word with our new Secretary for Justice, who seemed to admit the other day that it was difficult or impossible to define “sedition” and may not want another legal Rubik’s cube to play with.

Or they could talk to the Housing Authority. Among public housing residents the urge to adopt wild animals is easily explained by the ban on tenants keeping dogs.

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A snake in the grass

I have been walking the dog on the same Country Park path for 25 years. Over the years different dogs have come and gone. The path remains pleasant, and a few years ago the District Board paved the whole thing, which is probably offensive to serious hikers but suits my aging legs fine. The resulting warm relationship with Nature was rudely disrupted last Saturday when a large snake emerged from the undergrowth and made a grab for the current dog.

This was a distressing moment for everyone concerned. Lemon gave a pained yelp. The snake, though silent, must have been disappointed. Lemon is large and agile so the snake was clinging only to a back leg. I was bewildered.

I have since been told by my son, who takes an interest in these things, that on occasions like this you should grab the snake’s tail and crack it like a whip. This is clearly intended for smaller snakes than my antagonist, which was about six feet long and as thick as a drain pipe. But no doubt if you follow this advice the snake’s head will eventually stop what it is doing and come back to sort you out.

However having no relevant training I just did what came naturally and grabbed the snake’s head. The snake retaliated by coiling its bottom half around my left leg and squeezing. There followed an inconclusive passage in which I tried in vain to find some way of discouraging the snake by working on its head. Then I had a moment of inspiration – I still had the dog’s lead in my hand. So I made a loop with this round the snake’s neck, held it down with the still free right foot and garroted it.

This did not produce any immediately obvious results but the snake got the message, and opened its mouth. The dog retired to a safe distance, and at that point everyone just wanted to go home. I retrieved the lead, the snake unwound itself from round my leg and we all left.

The dog needed stitches and I have some interesting new scars. Whether the snake was injured I don’t know and don’t much care. It left under its own steam. No doubt the snake was just doing what comes naturally to a wild carnivore. Nature, as we used to be told, is red in tooth and claw. But I also have instincts, and they include a violent dislike for anything that tries to eat my dog.

Clearly this snake is potentially dangerous. It let me pass unmolested but Lemon is quite an ambitious target – she is a big dog, about two foot six tall at the shoulder, and weighs 40 pounds. A snake which is hungry and big enough to tackle that might well be tempted by a small child, or even by a small adult.

So I sent an email to the government’s all-purpose hot email line and got a reply half a week later saying that if personally threatened by a snake I should call 999 and if I thought this one was generally dangerous I should report it to Shatin Police Station. It’s a bit late for that. Anyway I rather suspect that the snake has little to fear from the Law as long as it doesn’t bite a policeman.

But if any collectors are listening, go up the path from Wong Chuk Yeung Village, turn right and you may find a somewhat chastened python. Approach with care. He’s probably hungry.

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We have repeatedly been told by fans of the National Security Law that it may seem a bit mysterious at the moment but we will discover soon enough where the “red lines” are – presumably when someone else trips over them.

So I suppose it behoves those of us who retain writing ambitions to pay close attention to cases as they come up, in the hope that the “red lines” will be revealed.

Here is the prosecution in the case involving publication of children’s books about a mythical “sheep village”:

The prosecution argued on Monday that the books about sheep and wolves were alluding to 2019 extradition bill protests, the arrests and detention of 12 Hong Kong fugitives by the Chinese authorities, and a strike staged by Hong Kong medics at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The books were said to have “indoctrinated” readers with separatism, incited “anti-Chinese sentiment,” “degraded” lawful arrests and prosecution and “intensified” Hong Kong-China conflicts.

This all seems rather heavy stuff for a kids’ book. It is difficult to do nuances in an animal story. I also noticed a complaint that the book gave the impression that China was a “surveillance state ruled by a brutal dictator”. Shocking. Quite how you would do that in an animal fable is a puzzle.

Anyway in the light of this guidance on the “red lines” I have been wondering what would be an acceptable animal story, which you could publish without legal anxieties or fears of an early morning knock on the door.

Clearly separatism should be mentioned only to be condemned, if it is mentioned at all. Encouraging protest, whether lawful or the other kind, is out. Legal process must not be degraded – whatever that means – and conflicts between Hong Kong and China must not be intensified, or better still not be mentioned either. What is left?

Something like this:

One upon a time there was a great Sheep Empire. One day it was beset by a pack of Jackals who wished to fleece the sheep by selling them addictive sheepdip. In order to keep the Jackals quiet it was agreed that they should be allowed to run one small Sheep Village for themselves.

Many years went by. In time the small Sheep Village became a big Sheep Village, the great Sheep Empire became the Sheeples’ Republic, and the Jackals fell out among themselves and no longer impressed anyone. So it was agreed that the Sheep Village should be returned to the Sheeples’ Republic.

But the Jackals, being devious and nasty creatures, tried to sell the Sheep Villagers the idea that after the handover they could run the Sheep Village themselves. This made it very difficult to run the Sheep Village smoothly and in time the Sheep Villagers became very disorderly.

At this time the Sheeple’s Republic was run by a sheep of great wisdom and benevolence known as Sheep Jinping. He decided that what the Sheep Village needed was a return to order and mutual affection. Unruly lambs should get the chop, and the village would then continue to make a mint.

So a few recalcitrant sheep were locked up, and many others were baaed from office. This had the desired effect. The Sheep Villagers learned to love each other, the Sheeple’s Republic and Sheep Jinping. And they all lived happily ever after.

I believe (but who knows) that this passes muster from a national security point of view. It seems to lack a certain flavour as a possible children’s book. Where are the bad guys? Would we be allowed an over-zealous sheepdog taking over the village?

Probably not. But in fairy stories, unlike present-day Hong Kong, anything is possible.

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Well according to the official media we have all been celebrating 25 wonderful years in the bosom of the Motherland. “Stability, prosperity and opportunity” are the catchwords and they are apparently being pursued in that order.

Clearly the word has gone out from some very persuasive quarter that celebrations must occur. And a variety of freebies have been offered by a variety of companies and organisations to cheer up the city, which has also seen a great efflorescence of flags – large PRC ones and somewhat smaller SAR ones. We know our place.

The only discordant note, or at least the only one to make it into media reports, came at Ping Shek Estate. This is an elderly public housing estate near Choi Hung MTR station. Like many estates of its vintage it consists mainly of high-rise blocks built as hollow squares. Inside the square is a balcony going all the way round on each floor, and the tenants’ front doors open onto the balcony.

One of the local United Front astroturfs decided it would be a nice expression of patriotic fervour to decorate the balconies with flags – as above, big for PRC small for SAR – and this was done on a generous scale, so that every flat on every floor had at least one flag hanging right outside the front door.

With hindsight this was perhaps asking for trouble. Within a day or two it was noticed that some of the flags had been vandalised – or as the government’s poodle press put it “desecrated” – and one or two had simply disappeared.

All the flags were then removed, and the estate was allowed to spend the rest of the anniversary celebration period without bunting. For some mysterious reason – full report here – the ground floor courtyards were also closed “for cleaning” after the deflagging.

From the pictures supplied this seems rather a minor matter. Someone seems to have sprayed black paint on the big star on a PRC flag, which is an offence these days, though I have some theological misgivings about the use of the word “desecrate” in this context. One flag had come loose at one end, which with so many to put up may have been an accident.

I would not be surprised if one or two had been stolen. Putting so many flags within easy reach of passers-by is a bit inviting. Better if they are safely up a pole.

It may be that there is no political angle to this at all. Whatever the legal position may be I expect tenants feel a certain sense of ownership of the part of the public balcony immediately outside their front door. Having a political symbol hung there without consent or consultation might seem provocative.

The fence between the gardens of the houses on my estate and the main road is, as far as I know, entirely the province of the estate management, who look after it and hang cameras or lights on it where necessary. Still, if someone hung a banner on my bit without asking I would feel put upon, and might well desecrate or remove the offending flag myself.

On the other hand we have to consider the possibility that there was a political angle: residents of Ping Shek Estate, and indeed of other parts of Hong Kong, are not feeling as jubilant as our leaders would have us believe.

After all many of us have seen changes which we did not ask for and maybe did not welcome. Readers of the territory’s once most popular newspaper have had to change their reading habits.

The district council member you elected in the last election has probably been disqualified, jailed, or conned into resigning on the basis that he or she might otherwise be presented with a bill for a million dollars. There was no legal substance to this threat, but as Vaclav Havel observed, in a totalitarian society you have to choose to live in truth or to live in lies. Not everyone makes the right choice.

Many residents of Shek Pik Estate probably know a few of the 10,000 or so people arrested for public order offences in the last three years and will have heard stories of robust policing. Indeed many people who were not among those arrested may also have stories of robust policing.

Then there is the changing legislative scene. Many people have found that the person they voted for before was not on the ballot in the last election. Instead they were offered a choice which was no choice.

We have also seen the disappearance of some traditional public gatherings. This was presented as a public health measure but few believe the passing of COVID will see a revival. Too many of the people who used to organise such things have been jailed.

In fact quite a lot of people have been jailed, in many cases without the formality of a trial first. Not all of them, no doubt, are household names in Ping Shek Estate, but their former Legco representative is on the list.

Independent trade unions and other grassroots organisations have been disappearing. This may be good for stability but all these clubs had members…

I do not suggest that any of these things can justify or excuse inflicting damage or theft on a flag. But flags are symbols and damage to flags is usually a symbolic act. The protests in 2019 started as an objection to the proposed extradition law and became an objection to robust policing. Now the author of the extradition law has been replaced as our leader by the author of the robust policing.

Stability and prosperity are wonderful things but they come more easily to governments which enjoy the affection and respect of the governed. We are, I fear, a long way from there.

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The approach of July 1 – the anniversary of our transition from not being a colony to not being even less of a colony and the date when our new Chief takes over – has produced an outburst of over-the-top behaviour.

First we were told that police were scouting Wanchai for places to station snipers. Two hotels were then requisitioned – guests expelled, bookings cancelled – to make room for official visitors who would, we were coyly told, probably include “state leaders”. Hordes of police would be deployed for the occasion.

It was then announced that many of our own senior leaders would be expected to go into quarantine for a week before the happy event. Meetings of the 90 nominated nobodies, or Legco as we are supposed to call it these days, were cancelled.

Even more intriguingly, it emerged that a local school was recruiting 12-year-olds who would also go into a week’s quarantine – living in hotel, lessons by Zoom – in preparation for the “rare honourable mission” of greeting state leaders at the airport and farewelling them when they left.

A surreal note crept in with a Standard report that “a number of disciplinary services’ craft had been patrolling the area” of the Convention and Exhibition Centre. The report continued: “eleven vessels of the Marine Police, the Immigration Department, Customs, Fire Services and the Correctional Services Department patrolled the area for 30 minutes from noon.”

What on earth was that all about? This can hardly be a security precaution. If they want a standing patrol off Wanchai for the length of the official visit that can safely be left to the Marine Police. Subversive fish can be left to the Ag and Fish Department.

It appears we may be treated to some sort of float-past, with the senior officer present taking the salute from a base on the shore. This would be a COVID-conscious alternative to the traditional guard of honour, because the distinguished guest would be a long way from the passing troops.

The thing that bothers me about all this is the continuing refusal of all concerned to admit the obvious, which is that all this trouble is being taken for a visit by President Xi Jinping. All the official voices agree that such a visit would be nice, but may not be on the cards.

A third possibility has been floated recently – a minivisit. This would presumably involve one anniversary ceremony, the anointment, coronation, investiture or whatever of Mr John Lee, and a hasty retreat to Beijing. But we are still warned that the “state leaders” may or may not include Mr Xi.

There seem to be two important points being overlooked here. The first is that a great deal of trouble has been taken, and money spent. Normal government has been disrupted, police leave cancelled and so on. If after this huge fuss we are visited only by a few bigwigs of whom most of us know nothing, there is going to be disappointment. Nobody minds pushing the boat out for Mr Xi – it is what is expected – but a visitor who causes so much fuss could reasonably be expected to be upfront about whether he is coming or not.

The second important point is that Hong Kong people are not stupid. We all understand that Mr Xi has many responsibilities. Even if he genuinely expects to come, the visit may properly be cancelled if the public health situation takes a turn for the worst. Or Mr Xi may be confronted by some major event – an earthquake, World War 3 – which will have to take priority at the last minute over what is after all a ceremonial occasion.

But Hong Kong people are not children who need to be treated to a bout of phony suspense over whether Santa will come down the chimney with presents this year. Mr Xi has evidently been booked. There are good reasons why he might have to cancel at the last minute but preparing to say “well we never said he was coming” if that happens is unnecessary and dishonest.

This does actually illustrate the advantages enjoyed by countries like the UK and Sweden which have constitutional monarchs, or countries like Germany and Ireland which have a president who is above the mundane political fray. The full-time figurehead can do the anniversaries and enthronements, while leaving the real leader to get on with the job of running the country.

It would take a brave man to argue that this arrangement produces greater efficiency. But it is more entertaining.

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The inauguration of the Chief Executive’s new fleet of apparatchiks provided the occasion, as such events usually do, for some exceptionally depressing official photography. Here is Mr Lee’s new team, in the smaller version.

Several things stand out immediately. Firstly, the exalted reaches of government service are not a uniformed branch but somebody has done his best to make them look like one. Every visible male is wearing a standard single-breasted working suit in shades of dark blue or black except the Chief Secretary (dark grey) and the Deputy Secretary for Justice (double breasted).

Every visible male is wearing black shoes (understandable given the suiting rules) a white shirt and a blue tie. Were orders given on this last point, one wonders? Is this a subliminal sign of support for our glorious cops? Face masks in any colour you like as long as it’s white.

All our males have one jacket button done up – the same one – and stand in the same pose: hands by sides, feet close together, toes slightly apart.

It would of course be difficult to impose this degree of uniformity on the ladies, a problem effortlessly solved by relegating them to the back row where they can barely be seen. Inclusivity on this point was clearly not a major consideration in the selection process because only five of the 21 “political appointments” are women.

Somebody seems to have noticed that this was not a good look, because there is a second photo on the Government web site, in which the number of victims rises to 28.

Two of the ladies from the back row of the first photograph have been moved to the second row – albeit on each end of it. The three remaining in the back row have been joined by two more, also on the ends of the row, bringing the gender balance to seven out of 28. This could be considered disappointing, at least if you had unreasonably high hopes.

Looking at the accompanying verbiage you can see the way in which an unchanging law can lead to very different outcomes. The Basic Law says that the central People’s Government shall appoint the “principal officials” of the Hong Kong SAR.

In 1997 if I remember correctly this was interpreted to mean the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary and the Secretary for Justice. Other heads of departments and bureaus were civil servants who were allowed to swim up to the surface of the administrative cesspool in the usual way.

Mr Lee thanked the Central authorities for accepting no less than 26 nominations. These comprised the 21 “political appointments”, who are supposed to work under the “accountability” system and are subject to the searching scrutiny of our tame Legco, plus the heads of the disciplined services (police, fire, immigration) the ICAC and the Audit office. Who’s next?

I notice also that in his speech Mr Lee, in what may have been a Freudian slip rather than a premeditated change of policy, hailed the success of “one country” without putting the “two systems” on the end of it. Not much of a loss, perhaps. Many of us do not believe in that stuff any more.

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Another election error comes over the horizon. Offence, admitted by the perpetrator, was failure to submit in time forms filled in by people whose support he was claiming. Is this fodder for another complaint about the justice machinery clogging itself up with trivia? No.

The interesting thing about this particular case is that the person concerned is our anointed Chief Executive John Lee. His lawyers have filed a writ on his behalf in the High Court, asking the court to waive the penalties prescribed by law, and also to let him off the legal costs which would usually be charged.

The requirement concerned, which applies to Hong Kong elections generally, is that a candidate or his team must, within one working day of an advertisement appearing claiming somebody’s support for his candidacy, file with the Electoral Affairs Commission a Consent of Support form signed by the person concerned.

Mr Lee or his flunkies failed to do this in respect of three ads, printed on the 13th, 17th and 18th of April, claiming the support of a table tennis coach, a legislator and an artist. The relevant forms were in fact handed in on the 21st.

The forms are then displayed on the EAC’s website. The earlier absence of said forms was noticed and reported by Ming Pao. Would we have heard anything of this if that report had not appeared? I dare not speculate.

Hardly a major offence anyway. Clearly no harm was done. The supporters were willing, and in any case the Chief Executive selection process was more of a coronation procession than an election as the term is understood in most places. There could be no question of gaining an unfair advantage because there was no rival candidate.

But this is Mr Lee we are dealing with. Mr Lee is a sanctimonious prig (see footnote), ever willing to denounce breaches of the law committed by other people. It could be considered rather tactless for such a person to apply to the High Court for, in effect, a dispensation from the law as it applies to him.

No doubt it will be pleaded on his behalf that the whole matter was left up to some hapless underling. But this is a disturbing thought. If Mr Lee cannot pick an election agent who can read and follow the rather simple and well-established requirements for elections in Hong Kong, why should we feel any confidence in his picks for more demanding tasks like solving the housing problem or feeding the poor?

It will also be said, quite accurately, that there was a similar case recently concerning a candidate in the (later postponed) Legco election of 2020. The judge in that case did agree to impose no penalty after the errant candidate pleaded “inexperience and inadvertence”. The guilty candidate was, however, required to pay court costs amounting to $25,000.

The candidate in that case, Mike Lam, admitted failing to have printed on his election leaflets the name of the printer and the date of printing. He is one of the 47 democrats now awaiting trial over the democratic primary held when the 2020 election was still expected to take place. Why prosecute someone in this predicament for a trivial election offence? Because they can.

No doubt the judge considering Mr Lee’s application for a complete absolution will bear in mind the possibility that his decision will be compared with the one in Mr Lam’s case.

I remain a little puzzled why Mr Lee’s advisers did not tell him to wait until the case came to court, plead guilty with the usual apologies and pay whatever was requested. Admitting a minor offence is one thing. Applying publicly for a pre-emptive declaration of immunity is another.

After all Mr Lee can afford to take a complacent view of financial penalties. His salary as Chief Executive is reckoned to come to $5 million a year, with a lot of fringe benefits and, I suppose, his police pension as well. Boris Johnson has to get by on $1.5 million, Joe Biden on $3.1 million. Pay up, pay up and play the game.

Footnote: prig “a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others.” I would not wish it to be thought that this was a misprint for “pig” or “prick”.

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