Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

It is said that people who hear that a loved one has a terminal illness go through five stages of grief, starting with denial – the assertion that this is not happening.

Something similar seems to be going on in the heads of those people who are inflicting terminal injuries on Hong Kong’s reputation as a haven of human rights in an otherwise dictatorial China.

Consider the government representative – as usual A. Spokesman – who put out a long comment on the disqualification of Mr Eddie Chu from a village representative election.

Much of this was technical stuff about the justification provided by the Returning Officer who did the deed. This was of no interest and nobody believes it anyway.

At the end, though, we lurched into Wonderland, with this sentence: “There is no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community.”

The reference to political censorship is a red herring. No member of the community has claimed political censorship was involved, and any who did so would be wrong. Political censorship is the prevention of the publication of disapproved views, and we are not there yet.

To claim there is “no restriction on free speech” involved, on the other hand, is to perpetrate a manifest untruth.

In the light of Mr Chu’s case it is clear that if you express a certain opinion – in favour of independence – then you will suffer certain disadvantages: disqualification from running in any election, even a pipsqueak one for a rural minicommittee.

Indeed it appears that in his case disqualification followed not from advocating independence (which he had prudently avoided) but from expressing the belief that people who wished to advocate independence should be allowed to do so.

This is clearly a restriction on free speech. The expression of a particular view is discouraged by imposing unwelcome consequences on those who express it. There is no room for argument here. If “restriction on free speech” means what it says then it is present here.

A. Spokesman could have argued, if he or she wished, that the restriction is a trivial one. Independence is not a practical prospect for Hong Kong so preventing people from advocating it constitutes a minor contraction in the sphere of what can be discussed in public.

Or he might have argued that the restriction is a justified one, on the grounds that the advocacy of independence is inconsistent with the Basic Law. This would not cut much ice with constitutional lawyers but it would at least be coherent.

Instead we get flat denial. The fact is that freedom of speech in Hong Kong is now curtailed. You can call for the confiscation of wealth, capital punishment for homosexuals, the expulsion of Jews, the legalisation of paedophilia or the installation of pictures of CY Leung in the lower parts of all public urinals to aid accuracy. But you are not free to advocate independence because such advocacy earns a life ban from politics. Free speech is to that extent restricted.

Clearly we are in the same delusionary territory when we consider the spokesman’s claim that “there is no question of deprivation of the right to stand for election.”

Of course there is. How dumb can you get? Mr Chu wished to run for election. He is not allowed to do so.

Once again we might have been offered the argument that some restriction of the right to run for election was justified, or even legally compulsory. This is a matter about which people could argue endlessly, particularly if they were paid by the hour, as senior lawyers often are.

But telling us that the right to run for election is not affected at all is a simple refusal to face reality. It is like saying black is white, up is down, death is life. The temptation to quote Orwell on “Newspeak” is almost irresistible. In fact it is totally irresistible.

According to the Ministry of Truth in “1984” Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, and the aim of newspeak is to “make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it”.

Coming soon to a government press release near you: “A. Spokesman said that the recent Black Thunderstorm Warning from the Observatory had nothing to do with water falling from the sky, or loud noises and flashes of light being encountered, as alleged by some members of the community. The government remained committed to providing bright sunny weather at all times. And especially at night.”






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It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Last week a Chinese citizen was suddenly arrested. Spokespeople for her company complained that her human rights had been infringed, she had been handcuffed, and was not getting the medical treatment she needed.

Well, you might think, this happens to Chinese people all the time: human rights lawyers, Uighurs, Tibetans, protestant pastors, labour agitators, young women who splash paint on pictures of President Xi…

But this case was different. Because it happened in Canada, and the complaining spokespeople were in fact speaking for the Chinese government.

We must applaud the self-control of the Canadian diplomats who refrained from the obvious retort that if China wished other countries to protect the human rights of its citizens it should respect those rights itself.

The lady concerned, Meng Wanzhou, is variously described as the daughter of the founder of Chinese tech company Huawei, and the company’s Chief Financial Officer. Neither of these are government posts, Huawei is a private company. So quite how this qualifies an an international incident is a bit of a puzzle.

It seems that nothing will dissuade the People’s Daily from the view that no Canadian or American court does anything without the knowledge, approval and indeed instructions of their respective governments.

Chinese officials not only disapprove of autonomous legal systems, they cannot recognise one when they see one. Curiously they seem to share this affliction with President Trump.

Well Ms Meng is now confined to a luxurious Vancouver property, while legal proceedings continue and China arrests a few Canadian citizens with a view, perhaps, to a future exchange.

The only part of this schemozzle which really concerns Hong Kong was the discovery that Ms Meng was the proud owner of no less than three SAR passports. The later two are described as “replacements” for the first one. It seems the Hong Kong government does not require “replaced” passports to be returned, or to be mutilated in a way which would preserve visas but make it clear that the passport is not current.

Well we can leave that to the usual people. I note only that the reproductions of the passports for public view had some numbers blacked out but left the lady’s date of birth visible, which seems ungalant.

The other local offering came from legislator Regina Ip, who expressed dismay at the turn of events and said that in protest at the victimisation of the lady she was going to switch her phone purchases to Huawei.

This is the same Regina Ip who assured us recently that an appeal panel consisting of three Exco members would give a “faIr and impartial” hearing to the Hong Kong National Party’s attempt to remain a registered society. Does she think Ms Meng will not get a “fair and impartial hearing” in a Canadian court?

Then came the sequel, in which Ms Meng soon featured in a procedure unknown to Chinese jurisprudence: she appeared before an impartial judge, in a courtroom open to the press and public, with the lawyer of her choice to speak on her behalf.

If I was a Canadian I would be rather offended by the assumption that the whole incident was engineered in Canada for political purposes. Countries have extradition treaties and these impose obligations.

It would be nice if Chinese officials could get their heads round the idea that other countries’ legal systems differ from theirs. And the “we have been offended; arrest a Canadian or two to teach them a lesson” move is a bad look.

Also, complaints about human rights violations elsewhere from a regime which tramples them daily will not be taken very seriously. Except perhaps by Beijing’s supporters in Hong Kong.

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Curious piece in the Standard the other day about drinking, or, as the paper cheerfully put it, “boozing”. This reported the results of a large survey conducted in October and November into local drinking habits.

This has the unfortunate result that the information contained is already outdated, because the legislature has just passed a ban on selling alcoholic drinks to people under the age of 18. We do not know what effect this ban will have, but presumably it will produce some change in local drinking habits.

The survey was conducted by the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society, which is interested in the matter because alcohol is a “known carcinogen”. One rather got the impression that they would like to see it banned completely.

The chairman of the society’s cancer education committee, one Rico Lu King-yin, from asserted flatly that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption”, which was well ahead of the evidence the society was offering.

As so often happens with crusades of this kind, righteousness triumphed over accuracy. I presume the society was responsible for the catchy line in the first paragraph of the story saying that “more than a third of people in the SAR binge drink”.

Further down the story we were told that almost 70 per cent of respondents had “been drinking” in the past three months. Of these, 45 per cent were binge drinkers. I take the “almost 70 per cent” to be a euphemism for 69 per cent. Then 45 per cent of that will get us to 31 per cent of the population as a whole, which is not more than a third. It is less than a third.

Still 30 per cent of the population binge drinking seems an awful lot. You would expect on most evenings to find the streets littered with comatose alcoholics, the gutters running with blood and vomit.

But the society’s definition of binge drinking explains why it is so popular. A binge, apparently, consists of drinking “five cans of beer, five glasses of wine or five shots of liquor in one session”.

You cannot be serious. Five cans of beer is not a binge, it’s an aperitif. The ancient university which I attended was often the scene of formal dinners in the traditional style. This involved a glass or two of sherry beforehand, white wine with the fish, red wine with the meat, Madeira with dessert and brandy with the coffee. Oblivious of the fact that everyone present was now a binge drinker, we passed on to the port. And some of us were only 18.

Looking back at my lifestyle in England I suspect there were long periods when I had a “binge” every night. I doubt if I ever went down to the pub and had less than three pints of bitter, which would be more than equivalent to five of the “sex in a canoe” stuff which comes in cans around here.

I am sure the Anti-cancer Society intends well, but there is something to be said for treading lightly when condemning other peoples’ pleasures for which you have no taste.

Drinking is a certainly potentially dangerous. In excess it can lead to a variety of diseases and also to hazardous behaviour. People need to control themselves.

On the other hand human beings have been drinking alcoholic drinks for as long as historians can remember. Some of the oldest writings are lists of wine jars. Yet we are not extinct.

The question about risky activities is not just are they risky, but is the risk worth it? People like to drink. It brings pleasure to hard lives. As the old Irish song puts it “It makes me feel content and happy.”

So drinking is dangerous. Crossing the road is dangerous, Living is dangerous.

As an old German poem put it (translation by Bernard Levin)

If you smoke and if you drink

Life is shorter than you think.

If such things are not your game

You will snuff it just the same.

People vary greatly in their enthusiasm, and ability to digest, alcohol. They also vary in their appetite for risks. More information is always a good thing, as long as it’s accurate. But lay off the propaganda please.

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Pissed off at the Post

The finer points of journalistic ethics are rarely discussed in Hong Kong media, so it was nice to see one surface the other week.

The spark was provided by a piece by Steve Vines in the Hong Kong Free Press, stating that he had, after some trivial dispute to which we were not introduced, decided not to write any more for the South China Morning Post.

He went on to say that he should have made this decision in February, when the Post published an interview with Gui Minhai, the Hong Kong bookseller who was abducted by Chinese agents from Thailand, and has been in prison ever since.

The interview was conducted in what we may politely call a custodial setting. Mr Vines thought this was simply a print version of those coerced televised confessions which have become a feature of the People’s Secret Police at work in recent years; he spent the rest of his column denouncing the practice and arguing that media organisations should refuse invitations to participate in it.

The following day brought a response in the South China Morning Post, written by Alex Lo.

Mr Lo was ill-served by his editors. The headline “Some people mistake egoism for bravery” captured the venomous tone of Mr Lo’s opinion of Mr Vines quite well, but there was nothing in either article about bravery.

Mr Vines did not claim to be brave – he is a big cheese in the food business so giving up Post work is neither a financial sacrifice nor a professional risk for him – and Mr Lo did not accuse him of cowardice. The headline was, as we put it in sub-editing circles, crap.

A second deck of headline “Long-time columnist Stephen Vines has decided to stop writing for the Post, but not before discomforting those of us he left behind,” contained the sort of error which convinces former Post sub-editors like me that the paper has gone downhill.

(Note to subs: “Discomfort” is the noun. The verb you wanted is “discomfiting”.)

A couple of generalisations to warm up, then Mr Lo spends four paragraphs attacking Mr Vines, before the bookseller interview comes into view. Mr Lo’s take on this is “It could have been handled better and I hope everyone has learned a lesson”, which looks suspiciously like a way of translating “I didn’t agree with it but I want to keep my job.”

Mr Lo then says that Mr Vines’s timing leaves a puzzle. If the interview was objectionable, why not say so at the time? This is a valid point. Should Mr Vines perhaps have entitled his piece “What I thought about the Gui interview but didn’t say at the time”?

On the other hand Mr Lo’s work also leaves us with a question. If you are writing an article denouncing egotism, would it perhaps be a good idea not to use the word “I“ five times in 11 paragraphs, one of which starts “In my 20 years at the Post”?

Well, the interesting point in all this for me is not the Gui Interview, which presents no ethical dilemma at all – it shouldn’t have been done – but the question whether a columnist should hold him- or herself responsible in any way for what appears in the rest of the newspaper.

This is a point which is neglected in most media ethics writing, which tends to look at the problems of individual stories as they present themselves to individual editors, or less often to individual reporters.

The only exception I could find when I was teaching this stuff was a gentleman called John Merrill, who seemed to be engaged in a single-handed attempt to persuade the journalism profession, or at least journalism teachers, to take up existentialism as a philosophical key to ethical questions.

Mr Merrill wanted journalists to be aware of and responsive to the doings of their media organisation, as well as their role in those doings. Indeed this view has a great deal to commend it. Media production is usually a team game (blogs and columns excepted), and if there is guilt, it should be shared.

However it is not a widely-shared view among  journalists, most of whom are willing to work for anyone who is willing to pay them, provided they are not asked to transgress ethical limits, which are drawn quite broadly.

Freelance reporters will regard their responsibility as being limited to the story they are working on. Editors generally regard themselves as neutral technicians, administering a process which makes material publishable without changing it. Window or Whippet News: the skills are the same.

Whether this is applicable to opinion writing does not, for most of us, come up. If you stick to news the facts should be the facts.

Editorial writers, who are accustomed to writing down opinions expressed by someone else – the editor, proprietor, or perhaps a committee – have sometimes taken a pride in their versatility.

One man wrote, according to legend, for two New York newspapers with diametrically opposed political views. Sometimes he would write a piece for one denouncing as unmitigated bilge the opinion he had expressed in the other the previous day.

But that is not really relevant here. The question is what are the rules for the columnist who is allowed, and expected, to express his own opinion, and what he should do if the rest of the newspaper does not agree with him?

Personally I have always looked at this in a backwards sort of way. News media should be encouraged to provide platforms for the widest possible range of views. An outlet which only puts out stuff it agrees with is failing its readers.

But a wide range of opinions is only possible if a wide range of opinion writers are willing to see their work on the same page as things they thoroughly disagree with. The more odd or unpredictable your views the more you need to find an editor who believes that diversity is a virtue.

When Alan Castro was editor of The Standard this belief was implemented with enthusiasm. Although Mr Castro was an early pioneer of the “Beijing is beautiful” school of thought he made a conscious effort to include pro-Taiwan columnists, and happily tolerated loose cannons like me.

I still remember his horrified reaction to a piece I wrote urging the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which at that time was still illegal in Hong Kong. But he printed it.

Unfortunately this view of media obligations was not universal in those days, and is almost extinct in Hong Kong now.

This is not a personal complaint. As a columnist or reviewer you find that opportunities come and go. Different page editors want to implement their own ideas, which may or may not include you. Individual pieces may hit a nerve somewhere and you read to your surprise in your usual slot that “Tim Hamlett is on holiday”. Best not to ask what went wrong. You never know whether the reason given is the real one.

I try to remember that your departure is the last thing people are going to recall about you. Better to go quietly into that good night than to go whingeing. A thought which Mr Frederick Fung might usefully have considered a few months ago.

Anyway I no longer need the money. But it does seem that Hong Kong media are becoming increasingly separated by ideology. And if you try to create a space where a variety of views are expressed you find that the holders of those views are not prepared to participate.

Pro-government people will not write for independent publications, and independent people will not write for pro-government ones, which indeed do not want their output. The historic practice of Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei, which only print stuff which they – and the Liaison Office – agree with, is spreading.

People in one camp will raise eyebrows if they just agree to be interviewed by publications in the other. Where is the marketplace of ideas where different opinions can contend, can be compared and contrasted? RTHK is still trying, bless ‘em, but it’s a government department.

So I am sorry Mr Vines is absenting himself from the pages of the Post, though not very sorry, because I stopped reading it years ago. Mr Lo says “none of us has noticed”, without saying who “us” is in this context. Did he go round the office asking or is it him and his dog?

I fear a lot of other people will not have noticed either, because they no longer expect to see a wide range of views in the Post. This is not a criticism of the Post, which is in this respect much like most of the other Hong Kong media.

They really should do something about the headlines, though.

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If you live anywhere near Shatin you have seen his face. A young man, wearing glasses, apparently going for the Harry Potter look. Sometimes he shares the poster, or minibus ad, with another gentleman, who is our District Board representative. Also present, the DAB logo.

The young man is not a District Board member. What is going on here?  Well basically the DAB is cheating, though without breaking the law. The same thing happened in the last Legco election.

Posters and publicity for people appeared long before the campaigning period began. There were no explicitly political slogans attached to them, but in due course it turned out that the person whose picture you had been seeing every day was in fact the pro-government candidate in your constituency.

This is an expensive way of getting some extra name recognition. It is, though, perfectly legal. The limit on election expenses starts when you are nominated. Before that you are merely a “prospective candidate” and if you like seeing your face on the side of a minibus that is OK as long as you don’t describe yourself as a “candidate”.

In the old days when the list of candidates was not censored by government officials you could say there was nothing unfair about this. Pro-government candidates, or prospective candidates, were only doing what any other candidate could do.

Of course less well-heeled candidates might struggle to afford large public displays, but there are cheaper options. However times have changed. Potential candidates who do not enjoy the support of the government do not know whether they are candidates or not until the Returning Officer has pruned the list.

Pro-government candidates do not have to worry about this. They are in no danger of disqualification. Candidates who are not pro-government, on the other hand, may find that they are also not candidates. So efforts made before the nomination period will be wasted.

This is unfair. No doubt people who like the arrangement will say that it makes no difference, because the advertising is all removed when campaigning starts.

But this is not true. It is true of posters, hoardings and such like, because when you stop paying for them the owner of the space takes them down. The owners of minibuses are not so quick. If you plaster your picture on a minibus it stays there until someone else pays for the space.

One of our local minibuses is still advertising the Liberal losers from the last Legco election. On a minibus there is a good chance that the ad you paid for will stay long after the period you booked.

This is only one of the ways in which Hong Kong’s elections look increasingly bent.

The trouble with fixing the elections is that if people cannot express their views legitimately through elections then they will resort to other means. I recall warning after the end of the Umbrella thing that the young people who had discovered that street protests were ignored might turn to other measures which the government would find even less acceptable.

In fact, being a non-violent and generally respectable group, most of the former leading Umbrella-wavers turned to electoral politics. Indeed this was a course urged on them by many older commentators, who wrote that street protests were mere playing at politics; those who wished to change society should engage in the real thing and get elected, which they did.

Many of them have now been unelected. Now, to official horror, people are asking the US Senate to reconsider its recognition of Hong Kong as a separate entity from China. This is a desperate measure, but you cshouldn’t complain if you have frustrated the non-desperate measures.

Can you hear the people sing? Not if your ears are glued to the liaison office keyhole.


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Well well. No less than 38 academic economists were reported last week as having signed a petition in support of the government’s “Lantau Tomorrow Vision”, which might be more honestly labelled as “Carrie Lam’s plan to dump a lot of dirt in the Western Anchorage for some future government to build housing on.”

The petition described the dream archipelago as “affordable and an ideal investment”. The economists also attacked opponents of the plan as “emotional slogans with pre-supposed stance, and even political manipulation of populism by inciting public anger.”

The Standard said this was the “first time academics have come forward in support of the government”, which I found difficult to swallow. Individual academics have often supported the government. If this was supposed to mean academics as a group supporting the government it was over-stated.

Actually the signatories of the petition are quite a small portion, even of academic economists. The academic populations of the departments teaching economics in five publicly-funded universities are: City U 21, UST 24, HKU 35, BU 18, Ling Nan 20.

The PolyU certainly has academic economists but their website does not disclose names or numbers, at least to me. The new Hang Seng Business University has at least 24 economists, Shue Yan 11 and the OpenU five.

I infer that making a reasonable allowance for the reticent PolyU and for economists who are plying their trade in departments under other labels, like business or finance, there must be something in excess of 200 people who could be called academic economists in Hong Kong.

This means there are about 160 economists who either do not share their colleagues’ rosy view of the proposed dirt dump, or think that academic economists are not as well qualified as some of them think they are to assess the financial merits of investments which reach 30 years into the future.

This last belief is quite widely shared. Economics, it now appears, is not a science but a narrative discipline like history. Economists do a good job of telling convincing stories about the past, but this does not equip them to make accurate predictions.

Or as a Canadian academic put it: “An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.”

Rupert Murdoch has said that the purpose of economics is to make weather forecasting look respectable. This looks like a rip-off of the economic historian John Kenneth Galbraith, who said that the purpose was to make astrology look respectable.

For a more scientific view we can look at the work of Philip Tetlock, who interviewed 284 assorted commentators and pundits, including economists, and collected from them more than 80,000 predictions. The results were not impressive. Tetlock concluded that overall they would have scored better results by throwing dice.

More qualifications and experience did not produce more accurate predictions. It just increased the subjective confidence of the person making them.

Nissam (“The Black Swan”) Taleb lumps economists into a larger group of people whose predictions are worthless because they suffer no penalty if the prediction turns out wrong.

Danny Kahneman (“Thinking fast and slow”) takes the more charitable view that “It is wrong to blame anyone for failing to forecast accurately in an unpredictable world. However it seems fair to blame professionals for believing they can succeed in an impossible task.”

So I think on general principles we are entitled to some misgivings when confronted with a gaggle of economists touting an “affordable and ideal investment.” Better than “my uncle in Nigeria needs to hide a million bucks under your mattress.” But not much.

There are also some question marks over the way this particular recommendation emerged. The petition, apparently, had two more or less memorable names. One was Professor Richard Wong, a leading light in the Our Hong Kong Foundation, which is Tung Chee-hwa’s contribution to public cogitation. Prof Wong may be regarded as a recent convert to the cause of avoiding “political manipulation … by arousing public anger.” It is not so long ago that he wrote a piece comparing people protesting at increased tourism in Sheung Shui to the Ku Klux Klan.

The other is Prof Sung Yun-wing, also a think-tanker, who swims in the private thoughtful pool of Ronny Tong, the interesting political chameleon who now sits in the Executive Council.

So a lot of political connections here. One wonders, naturally, whose idea this was, a point on which the local media did not enlighten us.

Well I suppose we should not be too discouraging. It is nice of academics to share their investment advice with us, even if the cautious among us do not take it.

What seems to me a bit out of academic economists’ territory is the opinions and motivations of those who disagree with them.

Economics concerns the economy. Whether slogans are emotional, stances pre-supposed (whatever that means) populism is manipulated or the public angered is not a matter on which academic economists speak with any particular authority. If you guys think the numbers add up, fine. Criticism of people who have other concerns about the project should be left to other authors.

In any case, my personal suspicion is that all this is beside the point. The purpose of the Lantau Vision is not to build anything. When accused of slighting the work of the working party looking at land supply matters, Ms Lam said that Hong Kong people would have been disappointed if there had been nothing in the policy speech about housing.

To avoid this disappointment we have a visionary project which will remain pie in the sky for decades. Or will it? The Vision has performed its function of preserving us from a policy speech let-down. It will now spawn some studies, at modest cost. And then at some point in the future, when property prices are at last falling and Ms Lam has retired, I expect it will quietly disappear into the mist.

Mike Rowse has offered the hilarious suggestion that the project needs a more sexy name, and suggested “Freedom Island”. I think Freedom might object to that in view of what is happening to her in Hong Kong. May I suggest “Lantau Tomorrow Mirage”? Now you see it. Later … who knows?

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Why, people wonder, do so many Hong Kong students elect to go to university in the UK? Is it a colonial hang-over, a misguided nostalgia for London as the mothership? Or is it due to a misguided aversion to the local tertiary facilities?

Not exactly. Part of the reason is cultural. Studying overseas have become a part of what you may call the standard middle class educational package. As a result many Hong Kong kids do it and anyone who refuses an affordable offer will fear that he or she is missing out.

Partly it is anthropological. Young people have always, at a certain age, felt the urge to establish their status as individuals outside the family. This led, in different periods, to desperate expedients like emigration to America, running away to sea, joining a passing circus or taking the Queen’s Shilling.

Nowadays it is reflected in an almost universal feature of university life in developed countries: students do not attend their home town university, however prestigious it may be. Brilliant students who live in Oxford go to Cambridge, and vice versa.

Unfortunately attempts to reproduce this bid for independence in Hong Kong are necessarily unconvincing. Our universities build residence blocks and try hard to create a social milieu called “hall life”. But this is all a bit artificial when the student can easily go home every weekend if she wishes to, and indeed in most cases can conveniently go home every night.

Then there is the matter of economics. Here we must take a brief detour through Hong Kong’s educational history. Soon after 1997 it was decided that Hong Kong universities should switch from three-year degrees to four-year degrees. But the government had no intention of treating everyone to an extra year of education. The extra year at university would simply replace the last year at school.

Accordingly the old school-leaving exam, commonly known as A Levels, was abolished, and replaced by a new thing, called the Diploma of Secondary Education, which was to be taken at the end of the sixth secondary year, instead of the seventh.

A problem then arose. If no students took A Levels then it appeared it would be very difficult for them to secure admission to UK universities, which had traditionally required this qualification.

This was a problem for Hong Kong, but it was also a problem for the UK universities, which make more money out of overseas students than they do from local ones, and value their extensive Hong Kong customer base.

The solution, which pleased everybody, was for the English universities to accept that the DSE was entirely equivalent to an English A Level (Scotland has a separate system) despite the fact that the student had spent a whole year less in obtaining it.

But this led to another oddity. English universities were still working what we may conveniently call the old Hong Kong system, under which students got their degrees after three years of study. And there was no question of them changing it.

So the way this adds up if you are a parent goes like this. if your student studies in Hong Kong then he or she will pay the local fees of HK$42,000. According to one of our local university websites living costs for a student living in hall (rather than at home) will come to about $80,000 a year. So for a degree someone is going to have to cough up $122,000 x 4, which is $488,000 or, in round figures, half a million bucks.

If the student goes to England the fees for an overseas visitor start at GBP10,000 a year, They go up to  much higher figures for some subjects. Living costs, according to the Times Higher Ed, are GBP9,000 a year. Which means you will pay GBP19,000 but this will be multiplied only by three, which gets us to GBP57,000, or at current rates HK$570,000.

So for the rather modest extra outlay of $70,000, plus some air fares, you save a year of your kid’s life and have something you can tell your friends about with pride.

From the point of view of the potential student this is good news for another reason. Having glued an extra year on the front of their courses Hong Kong universities decided that this should be spent on a sort of academic forced shopping labelled “general education”. The student is required to choose courses from a variety of different places and also subjected to some requirements, usually involving languages.

As UK universities only have three years with their students this sort of thing has never caught on there. For some students this is a shame. Some applicants to university have only the vaguest idea of what they want to do. When I was interviewing people who had applied to Baptist U I could see the list of courses they had applied for and was often stunned by the sheer variety. Applicants were apparently willing to leave their final choice from a wide range up to the joint efforts of the examiners and the JUPAS computer.

If, however, you are a student who has a very clear idea of what he wants to study at university than there is a lot to be said for a system in which a Physics degree consists entirely of Physics and a History degree consists entirely of History.

Well, Hong Kong universities have never been too bothered by what their students wanted. Places were in short supply so it was a seller’s market. Say what you like about UK universities, at least they try to please. They need the fees.

All this is a bit rough on local parents. If you are at the airport on certain evenings after Christmas you see a lot of parents trying not to shed visible tears until their offspring have safely disappeared down the Immigration channel and left them to return to their empty nests. But our universities are not too bothered what parents think either.


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