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There is a curious down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, Alice in Wonderland quality to Hong Kong these days. Maybe it is caused, or helped, by the massive purge of independent sources of information that has happened over the last two years. Whatever the reason, welcome to the new surrealism.

Let us start with reports of an overseas expedition to the US, UK and Singapore by four leading members of the Law Society. President Chan Chak-min said it was not their role to “tell a good Hong Kong story” (sorry, Mr Lee) but they had been dispelling misconceptions such as “all local judges are appointed by Beijing”, and that “there is no judicial independence, fair trials or free speech” in Hong Kong.

Reading this (it’s an RTHK story) you have to wonder which foreign lawyers they were talking to. I do not know anyone who supposes that “all local judges are appointed by Beijing”. There are substantial concerns about the increased influence the government exerts on judicial appointments and promotions, and equally substantial concerns about the increased influence which Beijing exerts on the government. But Beijing appointing all local judges? Fiction.

There is a similar lack of nuance to the other three “misconceptions”. Nobody believes that judicial independence has entirely expired, though it is certainly looking a bit under the weather. Some trials are fairer than others but nobody believes that there are “no fair trials”. Free speech is not an on-off switch, an either you’ve got it or you haven’t thing like pregnancy or being able to ride a bike. There are degrees of freedom and Hong Kong has moved the dial in the wrong direction quite a lot.

President Chan added a priceless observation about himself: “’I really can’t see under the current environment, we are not allowed to criticise the government. We criticise the government all the time,’ he added.”

Come off it Mr Chan. One thing we have not seen in the past few months is a stream of criticism of the government, or indeed anything else, from the Law Society. This may have something to do with the fact that the last set of elections to the society’s council were a triumph for the “professionalism” slate, warmly endorsed by Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

This in turn may have had something to do with threats by the then Chief Executive that if the Law Society elected a more critical council it might lose its authority over the profession. Talk of this “reform” subsided after the election had produced the desired result.

We cannot say, of course, what happens in private. But if the Law Society is providing a stream of public-spirited criticism they are doing it in a surreptitious way which does not help to dispel suspicions about freedom of speech.

Still on freedom of speech we have an astonishing article by Junius Ho and a co-author, about this very topic. Much of this is a survey of the legal and philosophical arguments for freedom of speech which could usefully be shared with one’s students, and indeed with the Secretary for Security.

What, though, is the outrage which has spurred Mr Ho into the lists on behalf of a threatened freedom. Is it one of the slaughtered media outlets or jailed journalists he is worried about, the use of sedition charges, the censorship of libraries? No. The victim, in Mr Ho’s eyes, is himself.

This is weird. Mr Ho is a legislative councillor whose words of wisdom are often reported lavishly by the media. He also has a regular gig on the China Daily op ed page. He is not on the mysterious but influential list of non-people who must not be interviewed by government-friendly media.

Mr Ho’s beef is with a retired banker, Mark Peaker, who wrote a letter to the SCMPost in 2021. This contained a “dictatorial remark” in which “the torch of freedom of expression is being threatened by the brutal attempts of Peaker to forcibly bend the public discourse toward his LGBTQ-based viewpoints.”

Goodness, the torch of freedom of expression in danger! What did Mr Peaker say?

“In a letter dated June 11, 2021, he criticized Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, one of the co-authors of this article, for referring to the Gay Games as disgraceful. He further called on Ho to shut up and apologize.”

I have not personally participated in discussions of the Gay Games, for which I do not qualify, but I can see why people might be offended by a writer who characterised them as “disgraceful”. Whatever you think about this, a response on a newspaper letters page which urges Mr Ho to shut up and/or apologise is neither brutal nor forcible. Indeed since 2021 Mr Ho has been voluble on a variety of topics. And he has not apologised. No force, no brutality. Jimmy Lai should be so lucky.

Mr Ho’s quarrel with the Gay Games, it turns out further down the article, is the fear that they will be used to “promote same-sex marriage as a special right in Hong Kong.” This is turn takes on a national security tinge: “Spiritual pollution knows no frontiers. To safeguard cultural security on the Chinese mainland, we should guard against the spread of corrosive cultures across the boundaries.”

Goodness, the Chinese mainland is so sensitive! Which brings us to the great Anthem Bandwagon, which agitated so many defenders of cultural security last week.

Rugby Sevens started life as a little end-of-season thing which rugby clubs did for the entertainment of their own members, in much the same spirit as rowing clubs mark the end of the season by having short races in which the crews are picked by lot. No practice, just a fun thing.

This sprouted a national version which was held at Twickenham every year, and in turn led to the Hong Kong Sevens, a carnival of booze and ball games which compensated the city’s foreign inhabitants for the fact that we don’t have real internationals here because our team is not good enough.

After years of success in Hong Kong, Sevens became a thing in itself, sprouting a sort of international circus which circulates the globe, stopping at other places and coming here (public health restrictions permitting) as one stop on the circuit.

Most of the teams are “national”, which provides the opportunity for a good deal of flag-waving and anthem playing. Sevens matches are quite short so there is plenty of time to fill.

And so to South Korea where, at the latest iteration, the Hong Kong team was serenaded with the protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong, instead of the Chinese national anthem, the March of the Volunteers. This seems to have been the result of a simple error. As Hong Kong does not have an anthem of its own, if you Google “Hong Kong anthem” you do in fact get Glory to Hong Kong.

This sort of error happens occasionally. But…

Cue outrage. The Hong Kong Rugby Union had “extreme dissatisfaction”, the Hong Kong government said it “strongly deplores and opposes the playing of the song”, Chief Executive John Lee said it was “unacceptable”.

The Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism said the song was “closely associated with the riots that promoted Hong Kong independence” which is untrue both in respect of the song and the riots. Junius Ho, unsilenced by his brutal experience on the SCMPost letters page, opined that the only solution was to dissolve the Hong Kong team. Nobody told him to shut up.

An FTU lawmaker called on the government to unleash the national security police (in South Korea?) and Ronny Tong said omnisciently that the playing of the song was “definitely not unintentional”. Regina Ip thought the sinner involved should be charged with a criminal offence and could then be extradited to Hong Kong. Generally countries will not extradite people for offences commited in their own country which are not offences there. Extradition proceedings would also raise the question whether the person concerned could get a fair trial in Hong Kong.

An alternative offered by the secretary general of the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong was that South Korea should be punished by being banned from holding rugby matches, or if possible any international sporting events, “for a while so they can reflect on their actions”.

Meanwhile a queue of increasingly obscure legislators were dipping their bread: Steven Ho discerned an “insult to the nation” and urged to government to “strengthen its efforts on national security matters”, while Tommy Cheung said it was a national security threat “in the flesh”. Lilian Ho called for more resistance to “foreign influences” and claimed, a surprise, that there were still “books about Hong Kong independence” in Hong Kong public libraries.

It seems to me that it would be better for everyone concerned to make less of a fuss about this. The idea of a Hong Kong “national” team is looking increasingly tricky as we snuggle into the bosom of the motherland. The older ball games, like rugby, will not complain because they have accommodated “national” teams from Wales and Scotland for years. Other sports may wonder why, if Hong Kong’s anthem is the March of the Volunteers, China should in effect be allowed two entries to everyone else’s one.

Anyway Glory to Hong Kong in the instrumental version is not a song, it is a tune. A set of pro-popo words for it was written but did not catch on. Tunes are adaptable. Haydn’s “Austrian hymn” for Catholics famously became the Methodist hymn Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, and the German national anthem. The original words for that last purpose – Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles – have now been replaced with a less bombastic set.

Another conclusion we might draw from the latest calamity is that Hong Kong could usefully have its own anthem, at least for sporting purposes. Was there a tune to “Below Lion Rock”?

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Local lawyers and judges have for many years enjoyed the opportunity to tell us all how lucky we are to have them, at the ceremonial opening of the Legal Year. This is always marked by assurances from sundry legal bigwigs that the rule of law is vital to our stability and prosperity, alive and well, etc.

In the last three years we have also had a Legal Week, held in November, when much the same people can sing much the same song. Cue speech from the Chief Justice which you can read here.

The one point I agree with (he said it twice) was that “the rule of law is not static”. Hear hear. The description of it is wonderful, but seems to have little connection with what happens in local justice factories.

Consider the case of Ms Paula Leung, who appeared last week in a Kwun Tong magistrates’ court, acting Principal Magistrate Amy Chan as the woman with the whistle, charged with insulting the national anthem.

Ms Leung was in a shopping mall in July last year (only 16 months ago; this is the new normal) where a large number of people were watching the Olympics, and enjoying the success of Hong Kong’s gold medal winner. After the medal ceremony the PRC national anthem was played.

At this point Ms Leung waved a copy of the old colonial flag and then draped it over her head. There was booing, about which accounts differ. The more patriotic media suggested that the booing was directed at the colonial flag; others suggested it was directed at the national anthem.

Some of those present called the police, but by the time they arrived it was of course impossible to establish who had booed or why. Ms Leung, however, had been asked to identify herself by mall staff, and instead of recommending the pleasures of self-taxidermy had complied. So in due course she was arrested and charged with insulting the national anthem.

Readers of a legal disposition may have some doubts at this point about whether an entirely silent symbolic act in front of a giant television really meets the requirements of this offence, but Ms Leung prudently pleaded guilty so we shall not explore that.

However Ms Chan was not left to consider this point without assistance. The Standard’s man in the press box wrote:

According to an expert report from Lingnan University history professor Lau Chi-pang, the colonial-era flag is a connection between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom and had not been used since the handover in 1997. Waving the flag is an insult to the national anthem, Lau said in the report presented at the hearing.

Standard Nov 11

And I am now going to protest again at the sloppy legal thinking which allows non-experts to supply “expert reports”.

To start with, history is a wonderful subject to study but it simply does not produce the hard nuggets of scientifically certifiable fact which you get from a forensic pathologist, or the lab which analyses your suspicious white powder. Historians should not be giving “expert evidence” about anything.

If you were looking for an expert historian, moreover, you would not choose Professor Lau. He is not currently a professional historian at all, being laudably engaged in the administration of Ling Nan University where he is, according to the university’s web site,

  • Associate Vice President (Academic Affairs and External Relations), Lingnan University
    Professor, Department of History, Lingnan University
    Co-ordinator, HK & South China Historical Research Programme, Lingnan University
    Director, Jockey Club Hong Kong History Learning Programme, Lingnan University
    Director, Hong Kong Local Records Office

The History Professor title is now aooarently a bit of an ornament. Indeed the university also notes other hobbies:

  • He had served the Tuen Mun District Council, Heung Yee Kuk, Antiquities Advisory Board, Advisory Committee on Revitalisation of Historic Buildings, Town Planning Board, History Museum Advisory Panel, Lord Wilson Heritage Trust. He is currently a member of the Legislative Council, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Built Heritage Conservation and member of Advisory Council on the Environment.

Clearly Professor Lau is regarded as a safe pair of buttocks by the government’s seat-filling machinery, but what does he know about colonial flags?

Professor Lau’s academic interests include the intellectual history of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, Hong Kong history, as well as the study of Chinese Local Records. He has focused on the research and teaching of local history in recent 20 years, publishing more than 20 books on a wide range of topics such as: the development of Tuen Mun, the New Territories and other places; oral history records of residents from So Uk Estate and Chung Ying Street, local artists from 1960 to 1975, Shandong policemen in the last century, Hong Kong people during Japanese Occupation, etc.; as well as the history of the bar-bending industry, Ta Teh Institute, Hong Kong International Airport, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and so on.

LU website

I fear that Prof Lau’s supervisor, when he had one, would have worried that he was spreading himself rather thin. Some historians would regard the intellectual history of the “Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties”, which span nearly 1,000 years, as enough to keep a man busy. Or might say the same thing about the history of Tuen Mun.

The result is a shortage of outputs. When I was in the academic business we were encouraged to produce at least one refereed journal article a year. Prof Lau has six to his name, the last one appearing in 2014. Since then he has produced two refereed book chapters, both on the Hong Kong maritime industry. Well I suppose ships have flags.

Regular consumers will recall that I was not happy with Prof Lau’s appearance in the case of Tong Ying-kit, the motorcyclist with banner who was accused in Hong Kong’s first national security law case. But at least on that occasion Prof Lau had been asked to research and pronounce on a specific point: the meaning of “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.

This seemed to me an elusive concept – phrases rarely have exact and indisputable meanings – but they are least more subject to learned interpretation than the act of waving a flag. And if it were to be interpreted, one might have more confidence in the result if it came from someone without another of Prof Lau’s side hustles: he is an Executive Member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, a well-known venue for professorial pro-Party pompom-waving.

We now come to Ms Chan’s contribution to the proceedings which, in the light of the guilty plea, was limited to passing sentence.

Ms Chan thought the accused could have brought about a “dangerous situation” by waving the flag. The thought behind this, I suppose, is that rival members of the yellow and blue camps might have come to blows over it.

This is not very plausible, but even if it were likely the general rule in these matters is that non-violent expressions of opinion should be protected, and violent reactions to them suppressed, not the other way round.

Ms Chan went on to show a worrying tendency to imitate one of the worst features of recent political cases: a mysterious compulsion to dismiss at length and in detail anything offered by way of mitigation.

Ms Leung, according to her lawyer, has autism and a low IQ. She attended a school for children with special needs and left it after Form 3. She had worked as a security guard for ten years but had recently been unemployed. Not an easy life, you might think.

But (Standard again) “Chan said she would not impose a lenient sentence since Leung did not suffer from illness, but had a different mental and physical condition compared to other people.”

And at this point I don’t know whether to laugh or scream. After all if you are run over by a truck and lose both legs you are not ill, but have a different physical condition. Most people would still regard this as a decent claim to leniency. A chronic problem is still a problem, and mental problems can be just as disruptive as physical ones.

It is true that autism covers a wide range. Some “high-functioning” autistics have compensating advantages, and indeed may not discover that they are autistic until adulthood, like neurologist and financial guru Michael Burry, one of the heroes of “The Big Short”, or like the owner of this interesting Youtube channel.

The advantages may include a flying start in the academic obstacle race: the other day I read that 80 per cent of early readers are autistic, a disconcerting thought for anyone who was an early reader before autism was discovered. Like me.

However, lucky or less unlucky though some autistic people may be, the fact that Ms Leung needed to attend a school for children with special needs and was diagnosed as having a low IQ suggests that she is at the unlucky end of the autism spectrum and describing her condition as “different” doesn’t do justice to her situation.

Ms Chan’s thoughts on this topic may have been more nuanced than the (legitimately) compressed version offered to newspaper readers. Still, she would do well to try harder to avoid giving the impression that she is an arrogant berk prone to jumping to conclusions about matters on which she is ill-informed.

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The Hong Kong government has done a good job so far of keeping Jimmy Lai in prison for one reason or another. No doubt it will continue to discharge this important function. This does, though, require some logical and legal gymnastics.

Remember the row about British judges making guest appearances on the Court of Final Appeal? This arrangement was, in the official view, a gratifying endorsement of the Hong Kong legal system. Nobody was bothered by the undoubted fact that the CFA will from time to time have to rule on cases involving the National Security Law, or that the overseas judges did not speak Cantonese. Nor indeed that they were likely to rule on laws which they had not previously encountered in their various home jurisdictions.

They were a great asset; the withdrawal of those who withdrew was lamented, and the announcement that others would not withdraw was hailed as an endorsement of our legal system.

Yet the question of local knowledge and language skills were the things which bothered the DoJ when Mr Lai wished to be represented by a British KC (a KC is a QC whose Queen has died and been replaced by her son) Tim Owen.

If you want to employ an imported barrister you have to get the permission of a High Court judge. Such applications are routinely opposed by the local Bar Association on the grounds that suitably qualified locals are available.

Actually I suspect the suitably qualified locals were rather pleased that the routine opposition did not succeed; many of our comrades north of the border do not understand that barristers are expected and indeed required to represent people they do not approve of or agree with. A defence, particularly a successful defence, of Mr Lai would not go down well with the large group of commentators who call for judicial reform every time a court makes a decision they disagree with.

The DoJ also opposed Mr Lai’s application, and persisted in this opposition by appealing against the original judge’s ruling. This is harder to explain. Did the department not wish to import David Perry QC (the Queen then still being alive) to prosecute Mr Lai in another case, just last year?

I do not remember the point coming up at the time but I rather fancy Mr Perry does not speak Cantonese either. His decision to withdraw from the case may have been due to a storm in British political circles, or to some belated research into Hong Kong’s quarantine rules at the time for arriving travellers.

His withdrawal was roundly condemned by the usual chorus as a lost opportunity, an affront to the rule of law, and a demonstration of ignorance of Hong Kong’s many merits in British government circles.

The DoJ’s approach appears to be that it may usefully employ Mr Perry to prosecute Mr Lai in one case, but Mr Lai may not employ Mr Owen to defend him in another. Years of training allow lawyers to float undisturbed past such paradoxes. To the layman it looks unfair.

Similarly we shall no doubt soon be told that having one foreign judge at a time on the CFA is a useful protection of human rights, legality and other platitudes, but having a foreign barrister defending a local accused is an affront to the legal system and an insult to the legal profession.

Indeed Mr Leung Chun-ying, a reliable source of oratorical overkill, has already jumped into action. The three appeal judges who approved Mr Owen’s visit were “inviting British people to ‘develop’ national security law in Hong Kong China.”

This is the same Mr Leung who said that when two British judges withdrew from the Court of Final Appeal roster it was “a stain on the independence of the British judiciary” which had made Britain “a laughing stock.” The CFA has already ruled on national security cases.

He had no complaints about the invitation to Mr Perry. Now he complains that the judges who decided to admit Mr Owen have “humiliated” the local legal sector. Why a total of four judges should have agreed to do such a thing he did not say. Anyway Mr Leung, a serial offender against the building regulations, is an unlikely authority on the rule of law.

Indeed we seem to have a serious surplus of people in Hong Kong for whom the rule of law is a mere slogan, to be deployed when expedient and discarded whenever a judge produces a decision which they do not like. With defenders like this, who needs enemies?

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Please believe me I am not a Luddite.

True, I was watching the check-out ritual at Taste the other day, which seemed to consist of a multiplicity of cards, coupons and receipts going back and forth. And I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if there was one piece of paper which was accepted in all shops. And then I realised I was reinventing money.

But seriously, I may be old enough to remember when London telephone exchanges had names, and your school desks had a hole in it where you would keep your ink pot. But I have moved with the times.

I had a long stint on a borrowed Apple II in 1980, met my first newspaper production computer in 1982 and had my own computer at home – a real IBM – in 1984. Like everyone else I fell for the fax machine, the pager and the mobile phone as they got cheaper. I acknowledge the importance of the microchip. But there should be limits.

Lately I have noticed restaurants are dispensing with the services of the attendant who used to take your order. In one place, which I like, they have a tablet computer fixed to each table and you order through that. Some of the food arrives on a sort of conveyor belt. Japanese restaurants seem to like this sort of thing.

The Hong Kong idea, now that you can’t enter a restaurant without your phone for COVID purposes, is to have a QR code on the table with which you can get on the restaurant’s web site, and the menu, with your mobile.

But, you may think, someone still has to show you to your seat and deliver your food. Not any more they don’t.

Last week I visited a restaurant which had taken automation to new heights. The entrance screening was on the “honour” system. There was the official QR code and a mobile phone (securely fixed to the furniture) to which you could show your vaccine pass and get a “ding dong” of approval.

You were then left to find your own seat which, of course, had another QR code in front of it. Your order disappeared into the system and was delivered by a mobile gadget which looked like a sophisticated variation on the Hong Kong litter bin, or if you have a long memory like a small Dalek with two shelves where the “exterminate” gadget used to be.

There were several of these machines floating about, politely making way for each other and stopping whenever they thought they might collide with a human. On the shelves would be your food. You were then supposed to press a little button to tell your robot to go home. I did wonder how long it would stand there if you missed this point.

We were invited to pay by phone, and that concluded your meal, consumed with no contact with a human at all. Actually this did not quite work for us, because we needed a paper receipt to qualify for free parking. But they are trying.

And the question which now arises is of course whether the depersonalised dining experience is a Good Thing.

I note with dismay that this is presumably going to destroy a large number of fairly unskilled but usefully flexible-hours jobs. No doubt the management will announce as the first robot comes in through the door that this will enable the team to provide a whole new dimension of excellent service. Do not believe this.

During my early years as a journalist the microchip was gradually taking over newspaper production. On every occasion we were told that the new technology would make lives easier and the output better. There would be later deadlines and more special editions.

This is not what happened at all. Newspaper proprietors were able to make enormous savings by sacking a lot of typesetters and compositors. The deadlines remained the same and so did the number of editions. Profits increased.

So if you are a waiter you need to face the possibility that you are going to be replaced by a wired litter bin on wheels.

From the diner’s point of view I suppose it depends. In cafeteria-style places, where you order, collect and pay at different places, there isn’t much human contact anyway. Teahouses may be reluctant to go in for service robots, if only because they will require wide aisles and step-free dining spaces.

In more up-market establishments … we shall see. In my experience a friendly and well-briefed server adds pleasure and value to the experience. This is particularly the case if you are a regular customer and your restaurant is a place where people know you by name.

I suppose it is only a matter of time before artificial intelligence advances to the point where your waiter Dalek can slide up to you and say “Hi Tim! Are you having the usual?” But it won’t be the same.

In the meantime this will undoubtably enchant your kids, at least the first time. If you can’t find fully automated service near you try Oliver’s in New Town Plaza Phase 3, Shatin. Don’t tell the robot I sent you. I don’t trust them.

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Freedom of the Press? Our government not only does not care for it; it does not know the meaning of the words.

Consider the current prosecution of two journalists and the production company of Stand News. We must not, while the case is ongoing, explore the legal peculiarities of the case. We can, though, deduce a great deal from the policing techniques.

As soon as Apple Daily had been killed, a policeman was assigned the task of collecting items from Stand News’s website. He collected more than 300. Of these 17 were selected as a basis for prosecution, and a further 13 were disclosed to the defence. The existence of the other 270 only emerged during the trial.

None of the 17 articles selected was prosecuted as subversive in itself. The selection is supposed to show the subversive intentions of the two editors on trial.

And this really will not do. It is an important function of a news outlet to report the existence of a wide range of points of view, including many with which it may not agree. If you are allowed to take half a per cent of a website’s output and construct a “line” with it then you can show that it agrees with almost anything.

I would not be surprised to hear that Stand News was broadly sympathetic to the democratic cause, but this cannot be shown by picking out 17 articles. What was in all the other stuff?

It would be interesting to know if one of the national security cops is now working on a similarly selective approach to Ming Pao, which has been getting some stick from the Security Bureau lately.

The latest spat concerns CBD (cannabidiol for scientists), on which the government intends to impose a total ban. Imports and possession will be treated as drugs offences and will attract accordingly draconian sentences.

The bureau was offended, apparently, by a commentary written by Lun Chi-wai, former chairman of the Hong Kong Social Workers General Union. Brevity is not among the bureau’s virtues but the heart of its complaint goes like this:

“When commenting on the publication of a gazette notice for bringing CBD under the control of the First Schedule to the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, the article seriously distorts the intent of safeguarding public health by controlling CBD through legislation, and purposely misinterprets such legislation as relating to the policy of the Mainland, which may sow discord between the Mainland and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The Government has repeatedly explained the hazards of CBD and its scientific justifications for controlling the substance as a dangerous drugs to the Legislative Council, members of public and the sectors concerned. The welfare sector has also voiced its support. The article turns a blind eye to these facts, downplays the harmful effects caused by drug abuse and irrationally associates our legislation with the Mainland. The content may cause dissention between the two places, and may confuse the public as well as affect their vigilance against drugs. We are deeply regret over it.”

Now it may be true that the government has repeatedly explained the hazards of CBD and the alleged scientific justifications for treating it as a dangerous drug, but that does not – in places which enjoy press freedom — require op ed writers to assume uncritically that the hazards are real and the scientific justifications can be substantiated by a look at the evidence.

The government’s view of the matter may be compared with that of the World Health Organisation, which is that “In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential…. To date, there is no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”

The nameless enthusiast who compiled CBD’s very substantial Wikipedia entry has this: “In 2022, the HKSAR Government proposed a ban on any use of cannabidiol (including for academic research and by medical professionals) within the Hong Kong territory, making Hong Kong the first jurisdiction in the world to have complete prohibition of cannabidiol, starting from Feb 1, 2023, in part due to the possible presence of THC which is illegal in Hong Kong..” THC is the active ingredient in the cannabis fun leaves.

We’re unique. This suggests that there may be something eccentric about the official local view of the matter. This is tough luck for some people. A CBD drug called Epidiolex has been approved in both the US and Europe for the treatment of some rare forms of epilepsy found in young children.

Studies continue on the use of CBD for adults to treat anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain and addiction to booze and tobacco. In Canada there is a committee on cannabis products, which “unanimously agrees CBD is safe and tolerable for short-term use (up to 30 days) at doses from 20 milligrams per day to … 200 mg/day via oral administration for healthy adults, provided they discuss the use of all other medications and substances used with their pharmacist.”

In 2020 the Therapeutic Drugs Administration of Australia decided to “allow TGA approved low-dose CBD containing products, up to a maximum of 150 mg/day, for use in adults, to be supplied over-the-counter by a pharmacist, without a prescription.”

Back in Canada a subcommittee also agreed that “there was sufficient evidence regarding the efficacy of CBD for the treatment of pain associated with osteoarthritis in dogs.”

All these careful musings concerned the use of CBD as an internal medicine. Adding a bit of it to face creams and such like seems to be entirely uncontroversial in most places.

Under the circumstances it seems at least arguable that Hong Kong’s proposed blanket ban is a hysterical over-reaction to the fact that CBD comes from the evil cannabis plant, although it is well established that you can’t have illlicit fun with it.

What really puzzles me, though, is the bureau’s indignant denial that the legal situation on the mainland had anything to do with the decision. This is odd. Surely any responsible government would consider the problems which have emerged when things obtainable in Hong Kong were not available on the mainland – from racy books to dependable supplies of baby formula.

Anyway, whatever you think of CBD there is an intimidating conclusion to the Security Bureau’s diatribe, which goes like this:  “The SB expressed grave concern about the misleading articles published by Ming Pao recently, including the commentary on the Immigration Department’s handling of screening of Trafficking in Persons cases and the newspaper cartoon about the police officer’s handling of requests for assistance by schools.”

Big Brother really is watching you. Me too, probably. Can’t say I feel as free as I used to.

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We are often told that national security judges are just like the other judges – same oath, same impartiality and all that. In the light of recent performances we must fervently hope that this is not the case.

Consider, for example, the latest outing by Judge Kwok Wai-kin. Judge Kwok is a generous source of material for writers of observations on the local legal scene, for which we are duly grateful.

His latest spot in the limelight involved four kids charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, an offence under the national security law. Their real offence seems to have been to be office-bearers or spokespeople for Student Politicism, a dissident group.

The prosecution complained of street booths in favour of causes like supporting the 12-man speedboat crew who were caught fleeing to Taiwan, and “resisting anti-COVID measures”, but we shall not explore this part of the case further because the four pleaded guilty, as one does these days if one wants to be tried before 2024.

Pleading guilty did not produce a great acceleration in this case, however. They pleaded guilty in July, sentencing in October. So it goes.

Judge Kwok’s first task was to classify the offence. National Security offences come in three sizes, like MacDonalds fried potato portions: small, medium and large, with prescribed sentence ranges accordingly. This case was, the learned judge decided, in the minor category.

So far so good. He then went on to explain why, as seems to be the norm in Nat Sec cases, he was declining to be influenced by the points made in mitigation by the defendants’ lawyers. At this point the case involved “very serious crimes”.

And this, it seems to me, leaves Judge Kwok with a problem. Having used “very serious crimes”, for a minor offence what is he going to use for a major one? This is a mere linguistic difficulty which I shall leave with him but it could be very confusing for defendants. What bothers me is what came next. The defendants, Judge Kwok complained, had been promoting the concept of a “Hong Kong nation”.

“Since ancient times, Hong Kong has been a part of China, and Hongkongers belong to the Chinese nationality. ‘Hong Kong nation’ is only a concept constructed by those promoting Hong Kong independence, it has no historical or legal basis,” Kwok said.

This is a dip into a tricky area which judges do not need to enter and would be well advised to avoid. To start with it is manifest nonsense to say that Hong Kong has been part of China since ancient times, if only because for parts of that long historical period there was no China to be part of. Either there were multiple Chinas in what we now consider China or China itself was part of someone else’s empire, as it was between 1644 and 1911.

There is also more sophistication in the idea of a “Hong Kong nation” than your average judge may be well up with. “Nation” in modern parlance may mean “nation state”, a political entity with a flag, anthem, government, army, UN seat, World Cup team and so on. Without the “state” bit it is commonly used for groups which cherish a distinctive history, language, culture and perhaps religion, but have not acquired the political structure, or in some cases sought it.

Some “nations” have never translated themselves into states, like the Kurds. Some have had a patchy history, like the Armenians, currently a small state. Some are more or less happy parts of a bigger state but still regard themselves as nations, like the Scots.

The idea that a state should also contain a nation, rather than being the personal property of a hereditary monarch, really dates as an idea only to the 18th century, as a popular aspiration to the 19th and as a widespread arrangement only to the 20th.

It is hopelessly anachronistic to transfer the idea of the nation state, or citizens’ nationality, back to ancient times. Judges should beware of sounding like Vladimir Putin’s line on Ukraine.

This brings us to Mr Peter Law, Principal Magistrate, National Security choice, and presiding genius in the trial of members of the organisation which used to run the Tiananmen Massacre commemoration in Victoria Park.

Mr Law had to adjudicate on a little procedural hiccup. Defendant Chow Hang-tung, who is defending herself but is a barrister so that’s OK, was cross-examining a witness from the Nat Sec Police when she used the phrase “Tiananmen Massacre”. Prosecuting counsel objected to the wording and suggested “June 4th Incident” instead. Mr Law decided that “massacre” was too political for use in court and forbad its use.

He proceeded later to proscribe the use of “killings” as well.

This will be good news for some people. Fans of Herod the Great can rehabilitate the old tyrant as he only perpetrated the “Incident of the Innocents”. Members of the Clan MacDonald need no longer resent or avenge the “Glencoe Incident”. There may even be some hope for Adolf Hitler; shall we say 6 million involuntary suicides?

Observers who suspect that Mr Law’s procedural puritanism has its own political patina will wonder if he would also have objected to “Nanjing Massacre”.

Judges who have succeeded in not sounding like Mr Putin also need to avoid the example of the president of Turkey, Mr Recep (Armenian genocide? Never happened!) Erdogan. Stick to the law and do not dabble in history.

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Well, President Xi Jinping’s report to the National People’s Congress clearly ticks one important box: it has given pleasure to a lot of people.

Some of the responses in Hong Kong bordered on ecstatic: Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung was “thrilled” that the speech had pointed out the need for the country to “adhere to the development path of socialist culture with Chinese characteristics.” DAB chair Starry Lee saw the Congress as a “historic milestone”. Chief Executive John Lee thought “We should learn from the spirit of the 20th National Congress. We should unite in our fights and struggles to better integrate into the country’s development and contribute to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!”

Reports of the actual speech suggest that there was nothing new. Xi’s reference to Hong Kong was in Partyspeak, a language which wraps reality in illusion: “In the face of turbulent developments in Hong Kong, the central government exercised overall jurisdiction over the special administrative region as prescribed by China’s constitution and the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and ensured Hong Kong is administered by patriots,” he said, adding that Hong Kong had gone from “chaos to governance.”

We know what the “turbulent developments” were. The next bit is a long-winded but polite way of saying “you thought you were getting a high degree of autonomy? Welcome to reality, suckers.” Ensuring Hong Kong is administered by patriots means replacing more or less genuine elections with more or less fixed ones.

The official narrative, which Mr Lee also trotted out, is that Hong Kong was rescued from perdition by the benevolent intervention of Mother, and the imposition of the National Security Law took us from, as Mr Xi put it, “chaos to governance”.

This is an abuse of history. “Chaos” was ended partly by frustration and exhaustion, but mainly by the arrival of the COVID virus, which enabled the government to ban, on public health grounds, any public gathering of more than four people.

The vast majority of those arrested during the “chaos” were charged under existing laws with existing offences and dealt with in the regular courts. The contribution of the National Security Law to the proceedings was to destroy Hong Kong’s flourishing civil society, before the ensuing changes to the election system destroyed its political life.

Mother’s contribution to “governance” was to put Hong Kong affairs into the hands of two seasoned apparatchiks who were experienced and comfortable with the idea of suppressing inconvenient opinions by imprisoning anyone expressing them, preferably without the prior formality of a trial.

Mr Xi hailed the “strong vitality” of the One Country Two Systems concept – “a great innovation of socialism with Chinese characteristics”. But it is still not entirely clear whether this great innovation means anything more than Deng Xiaoping’s reassuring observation that we could “still have dancing and horseracing.”

It is difficult to reconcile with the way the Hong Kong government is behaving, which seems to involve reducing any differences between the SAR and the mainland as quickly as possible. If that is what they want it seems to be working, in a way. International comparisons of human rights and press freedom have Hong Kong converging rapidly with China, down at the bottom of the table with paradises like Belarus and Cuba.

Consider, for example, recent changes to the junior secondary school curriculum. Out go such trivia as “the values and attitudes that underpin the local society, including rights and responsibilities, freedom, rule of law, social justice, democracy.” In comes “China’s constitution, the meaning of national security and the importance of the national security law, as well as developing a sense of national identity.”

What is going on here? The highest objective of education used to be to help students to identify and pursue goodness, truth and beauty. This is replaced by the objective of spreading lies about an ugly and brutal system. Many local teachers have already had second thoughts about their career choices. They will not be the last.

If political integration is a questionable pleasure, what of the economic kind, or, as Mr Lee puts it, better integrating with the country’s development? The potential problem with this is that, as with the new political arrangements, it makes Hong Kong’s future entirely dependent on decisions made in Beijing.

And the decision made in Beijing these days seems to be that the Party knows best about everything and will accordingly run the economy by issuing instructions on whatever takes its fancy. But we have seen this movie before.

If the history of the 20th century teaches us anything it is that unbridled capitalism produces great wealth and great inequality, and unbridled economic dictatorship by party or person produces great equality … and poverty, usually with a side dish of stagnation and corruption.

There is a danger that we shall be dragged into a doomed replication of an experiment which has already been tried elsewhere with catastrophic results. The message of the 20th congress seems to be that “we have done wealth; now we can do socialism.” That is not, I fear, the way these things work.

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Some time ago a Hong Kong judge threatened to install closed circuit TV cameras in his courtroom, so that he could keep an eye on what happened in his absence.

At the time I wrote that this was an unnecessary and legally unjustified proposition, and had the reprehensible feature that it might discourage members of the public from attending court cases, which they are perfectly entitled to do.

However it seems that this judge’s remark was merely the tip of an iceberg of judicial paranoia, which has now blossomed (if an iceberg can blossom) in plans for whole court buildings to be subject to electronic surveillance, a pre-trial recording warning court-goers of the powers which judges can wield over them, and screening for court visitors.

This is all rather implausibly justified as necessary for “security”, although there has been no sign that security as such might be a problem.

Judges are strange creatures. Some of them are sweet and nice people. But the job can go to their heads. Judges bullying the inhabitants of their courtrooms have now become such a problem in England and Wales that a hotline has been set up on which people can report abuse anonymously.

Some of our new measures will no doubt be justified on the basis of experience elsewhere. I understand that people arriving at UK courts these days are routinely asked to open their bags. This did not happen when I was a reporter and it did not happen in colonial Hong Kong either. Times have, no doubt, changed.

It is reported, on the other hand, that people will no longer be allowed to carry water. Why on earth not? The Wanchai District Court is not an aeroplane which can be destroyed by a cunning mixture of liquids detonated in a toilet. Water is harmless.

There appears to be a general failure to appreciate the danger of appearing like one of those paranoid despotic regimes which sees a subversive behind every bush. Every citizen is a suspect and every bag a potential bomb.

Video cameras in courtrooms bring other perils. To start with there is the danger that judges will inflate their powers to an unjustified and indeed unlawful degree. The powers they exercise over events in their own courtrooms extend as far as is necessary to permit the orderly conduct of court proceedings. And no further.

If the judge is not in the room then no proceedings are in progress and the judge has no more powers over the waiting audience than any other citizen. Similarly once the case is over the law reverts to its everyday form, as a judge in Liverpool discovered when, after discharging a prisoner who had been acquitted, he told the miscreant he had been lucky in his jury. This was not part of the proceedings, the defendant threatened to sue, and the judge was constrained to make a grovelling apology in open court.

The purpose of the cameras is apparently to curb disorderly behaviour in the public gallery. This is an extremely expensive solution to a minor problem. Most cases attract no public interest at all. During the three years when I was a regular court reporter I do not remember the number of people in the gallery ever exceeding five. Usually there was nobody.

A tiny number of recent cases in Hong Kong have attracted much larger numbers. People whose friends are enduring long periods of imprisonment without trial for nakedly political offences do tend to turn up and offer moral support.

Occasionally this take the form of waving, or even talking, during pauses in the progress of the legal juggernaut. On other occasions speeches of explanation or mitigation have been greeted with applause, which is improper but hardly a major disruption of the proceedings.

Most of the interaction between public and prisoner takes place during the interval – commonly quite long – between the time when everyone is ready for the kick-off and the time when the judge arrives and takes the field. There is another obvious opportunity at the end when his or her lordship disappears and there is a pause while the correctional van is lined up.

So when Big Brother is watching he is, I fear, going to see a lot of conduct of which he disapproves but to which there is strictly speaking no legal objection. Why then, are we pursuing a “deterrent effect”? Well of course it depends what you wish to deter.

It is painfully offensive to some people in the national security industry that people charged with national security offences do, during their long periods of imprisonment without trial, receive the moral support of their friends and sympathisers. One of the ways in which this support is provided is by turning up for court appearances.

We cannot ban this, alas. Court hearings are supposed to be public. We can however discourage it by assuring said supporters that their attendance and activity are being recorded and the resulting evidence may be used against them in another court later.

An interesting legal milestone was passed recently when two people were charged with “sedition” on the basis of their behaviour in a courtroom public gallery. Be careful what you clap for.

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We do not enjoy the rule of law; we enjoy the rule of selected laws. Consider the District Councils Ordinance. This is an admirably clear effort. The relevant parts go like this:

If a vacancy arises in the office of an elected member, the Designated Officer must, by notice published in the Gazette, declare the existence of the vacancy within 21 days after becoming aware of the vacancy. S32 (1)

District Councils Ordinance S32 (1)

Following this:

The Electoral Affairs Commission must, in accordance with regulations in force under the Electoral Affairs Commission Ordinance (Cap. 541), arrange for a by-election to be held in the following circumstances… (a) on the making of a declaration as to the existence of a vacancy in the membership of a District Council under section 32.

Same Ordinance S33 (2)

Notice that, unlike regular District Council elections, there is no role for the Chief Executive in the timing of this process, which is entirely automatic. However since July 2021 there have been some 200 vacancies on District Councils, none of which have been filled.

The government, dissatisfied with the results of the elections the previous year, persuaded most of the winners to resign by circulating baseless threats that anyone who was disqualified for a dearth of patriotic enthusiasm would be presented with a bill for $1million.

At that time we were provided with an entirely unsatisfactory and unlawful explanation for the absence of by-elections by the then Chief Executive, Carrie Lam: the government was too busy. She cited the then upcoming elections to the election committee, the Legislative Council and for her replacement.

These turned out to be less strenuous than expected. Most of the electorate did not bother with the Legco election and there was only one candidate for Chief Executive. This did not, however, produce a return to the paths of by-election righteousness. We were left only with Ms Lam’s last word on the subject, which was that “We do not feel there is sufficient room and time for another set of by-elections, especially of this magnitude, because of the number of seats involved. So I could say that it will be almost impossible for us to mount a by-election of any district council vacancies between now and the end of this term – that is the Government’s term between now and June.”

That was, of course, the following June, which was June 2022. Which was three months ago. The new regime has not had to run any election of any kind. Yet still, no sign of by-elections.

What has the Electoral Affairs Commission to say about all this? Nothing. It is apparently happy to follow orders. It is frustrating to find an organisation headed by a retired judge which is happy to ignore the laws which are supposed to govern its activities, which ironically include:

The Commission shall not be regarded as a servant or agent of the Government.

Electoral Affairs Ordinance S 15

All this is not just a matter of legal pedantry, although it must surely take a certain gall for a government to preach about the rule of law while ignoring its own constitution. District Councils have functions and those functions are not being performed. They used to advise District administrators and government departments about what people wanted and did not want.

Government departments are now free to improvise and I do not doubt that in many places they are doing this is ways which do not go down well with the people they are supposed to serve.

We have a very fine example just down the road from my home.

A bit of background: Sui Wo Road is a long snake-like affair which climbs up the hills north of Shatin in a series of long bends. The Home Ownership estate of the same name is near the bottom and has a bus station. The rest of us – six housing estates, two schools (Caritas for special needs, ESF for prosperous parents) a few very expensive solo houses and the HKBU staff quarters – depend on green minibuses.

It is a curious feature of the arrangements for bus stops that as you get towards the top of the road there are no bus shelters for people queueing to go down, but shelters are provided for people waiting to go up, of whom there will in the normal way of things be very few.

This tide in the affairs of bus stops recently arrived at Greenwood Terrace, the last of the large estates and very near the end of the road. There is one more estate, the very small one (40 odd terraced houses) where I live. We have neither a bus stop nor a shelter but the minibuses stop outside the gate anyway.

Arrangements at Greenwood Terrace have been roughly the same for 30 years. The minibuses going up stop across the road from the entrance to the estate. Those going down stop at the entrance, or just before it so as not to obstruct the drive.

However there is no end to traffic titivation in Sui Wo Road. A few weeks ago work finished on a bus shelter opposite the drive entrance. This is the stop for minibuses going up and it is safe to say that nobody will ever wait for a minibus there, because it is only about 200 metres from the end of the road, and there is nowhere to go except chez moi.

After some cogitation a popular theory is that this shelter is provided for Greenwood residents who find it raining unexpectedly. They can shelter from the rain while they summon a servant with an umbrella to take them home.

The opposite side of the road has an informal rain shelter provided not by the government but by the estate management, which a few years ago hit on the idea of planting one of those big garden umbrellas just inside the entrance to the estate, so that it shelters the bus stop queue.

This arrangement has now been sabotaged by the people who decide where bus stops should be put. They have moved the Greenwood Terrace downhill stop 30 yards up the road so there is no longer any shelter next to it.

This is very inconvenient. Regular users are up in arms. A petition has been raised. Protests will be voiced. This is the sort of thing which was avoided when we had functional district councils. People were asked if they wanted something and if you said “no” loud enough you didn’t get it.

The District Councils now have no role in the election of the Chief Executive or anyone else. But that was not their main purpose anyway. They were there to give people a voice in the local matters which affected them. We are now back to the old colonial system as practised in 1980. You get what you are given.

Do not expect gratitude.

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Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, who for more than two years was the Government’s leading voice on daily COVID matters, has achieved the extraordinary feat of combining the roles of official government spokesperson and popular public figure.

This has no doubt made some people jealous, and not only colleagues. Her last press conference (the daily ritual has been abandoned, thank goodness, as the disease subsides) was greeted by an astonishingly ungenerous and carping editorial in the Hong Kong Standard, over the name of Mary Ma.

Ms Ma (we will come to the question of who she is later) wrote that it was “most unfortunate that Dr Chuang … has become a COVID icon.” Noting that Dr Chuang had said she hoped it would be the last time she met the press the writer continued “And so do I.”

There follows a long burst of bitching: there was not enough on the science, there was not enough of a “human touch”, there were too many details of individual patients, there were not enough details about officials who had caught COVID, the media were “unable to obtain additional information…”

There seems to be a fundamental confusion at work here. An official press conference is an opportunity to get the official line on the situation and the actions which the government is taking to deal with it. It is not supposed to provide a complete kit for daily COVID coverage; media organisations which wish to provide scientific background or human interest stories have to do their own digging. A press conference is an opportunity to be informed, not spoonfed.

I cheerfully admit that when the epidemic was still a growing and largely mysterious threat Dr Chuang’s daily performances were faithfully watched in the Hamlett household. Even if you didn’t understand a lot of the proceedings it was reassuring.

Dr Chuang has a soft and melodious voice which makes even plain statements of fact in Cantonese sound like a song in the making. She also has the valuable medical habit of transmitting in a wordless way the idea that the situation is serious but under control, your physician understands what is ailing you and is going to fix it.

This is no doubt sometimes a bit optimistic. But hope is a helpful medicine.

Having sat through plenty of press conferences I was impressed by the way she also navigated skillfully round the pitfalls. If the didn’t have an answer to a particular point she said so. If the question should have been addressed to another department she politely declined to trespass. If the information was available but not to hand she promised to produce it.

When the question answered in Cantonese was repeated in English she answered without complaining, as a press spokesman should. The English media want your words in your voice. Repeating your answer in English is a way of avoiding the hazards of translation, subtitles or reportorial paraphrasing.

If the question seemed to be a criticism or a preparation for one, she answered it in the same calm way, and did not take it personally – a trick which some of our leaders have yet to master.

Press conference performers need to grasp the fact that reporters will seek their reaction to criticisms and comments made by other people, whether the reporter agrees with them or not. This is not an attempt to embarrass you, it is an attempt to be fair by giving you the right to reply to the things other people are saying to reporters.

Actually for a long time it seemed to many of us that Dr Chuang’s press conference performances were the only part of the government’s COVID campaign which was going well. By now she has racked up more than 700 of them – which would be two years if there were no days off.

Sometimes there were in fact very few days off. At one point she had notched up 72 continuous days. A reporter suggested she could consider a holiday, which she found amusing.

This formidable workload was borne under a burden of private grief. Her husband died at the end of 2020 after a long illness.

In short for many of us Dr Chuang is an authentic Hong Kong heroine. She is a shining exception to a generally unloved leadership. She has a Facebook fan page with more than 20,000 followers. The government could do a lot worse than make her an official role model for press handlers.

Now as to Mary Ma, Mary does not exist. The column is written by different people on different occasions and is supposed to replace the editorial. This would be a perfectly acceptable arrangement on one condition: that the writers used the pronoun “we” to describe themselves. Using “I” is dishonest and deceptive.

Personally I think the particular “I” who penned this piece needs to give some serious consideration to what he is doing. Writing editorials for newspapers is an honourable pursuit. I used to do it myself. It is an opportunity to write thoughtfully about the issues of the day. It is not an opportunity to publish snarky put-downs of popular public figures anonymously.

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