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On May 5 the Hong Kong government announced that it would provide every citizen with a free face mask. Lots of people, I suppose, duly applied. They then received a mask, as I did. But so far I have not seen anyone else wearing one. What is going on?

There is nothing seriously wrong with the mask itself, a reusable fabric job with a filter layer between two slices of cloth. As masks go it is quite comfortable, especially when you have washed it a couple of times. Also it has a three-dimensional shape. It is not just a flat thing like the disposable jobs most of us use.

This means there is a bit of breathing space inside it and you don’t feel in danger of inhaling the mask if you take a deep breath.

Drawbacks? Nothing serious. Mine is a bit small for me. This is not a fault in the mask; I happen to be a large person. The rubber bands which go round your ears are the flat ones rather than the round cross-section ones I prefer, but if you are careful they are quite comfortable.

If you follow the instructions, hand wash it in warm water and lay it out flat to dry you will not be able to wear it every day. In my experience the Hong Kong humidity makes drying it this way a slow process which doesn’t take place overnight.

Some people do not like the fabric used for the outer layer. Indeed when I unpacked mine I said I thought it looked like half a bra. That shows you how much I know about ladies’ underwear. It does not look like a bra, according to my wife, it looks like knickers.

In fact I suppose it looks like a particular part of the knickers. We will not get too anatomical here but once this thought has occurred to you it’s a bit discouraging. Still there is nothing to stop you taking a felt-tip pen to the thing and decorating it with a smile or a slogan if the appearance bothers you.

So why is nobody wearing the damn thing? Once this thought came into my head I started looking out for one. No dice. Nobody seemed to be wearing the things except me… on alternate days. This is a puzzle. The mask is free. If you can solve the drying problem it means you will never have to pay for a mask again. Yet most people are not using it.

Then I came across a picture of a government press conference. There was our glorious leader, surrounded by her subordinates and small horses. And every one of them was wearing the free mask.

And this leads me to a rather disturbing possible explanation. It appears that our leaders have now become such a toxic brand that nobody wants to wear an item which has become identified with them, even if it is a purely functional item given away for free.

The first duty of a leader is to see things as they are. But it appears that our supposed leaders have difficulty in getting their heads round how much disliked they have become.

We are still getting letters from Lam about the joys of a future with national security legislation drafted in Beijing and a local office of the Chinese Gestapo. We are still seeing TV ads urging us to be non-violent and rational, smile under the masks, save Hong Kong…

And I’m afraid the only communication many people want from this crew would be a mass resignation. Messages from people you don’t respect are generally ignored. It might do more for mask wearing if senior officials went back to performing without them.

There’s nothing wrong with the government mask. It’s the faces behind it that give it a bad name.

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Unaccustomed as I am to agreeing with American Secretaries of State (and surprised as I am to break this duck with a Trump appointee) I must reluctantly concede the truth of Mr Mike Pompeo’s ruling that Hong Kong can no longer be considered a separate entity from China.

The Joint Declaration – you remember, an international agreement lodged with the United Nations – has been dismissed as of purely historical significance. And now the Basic Law is going the same way.

Article 23 is quite specific: Hong Kong shall legislate on its own for national security purposes. Passing a law in Beijing specifically for Hong Kong would be a major dent in Hong Kong’s autonomy anyway. But by-passing the Hong Kong legislature on the national security topic makes it quite clear that the Basic Law no longer counts for anything if the Party wants something that Hong Kong cannot deliver instantly.

Giving Hong Kong a separate seat in any international organisation must now be considered the equivalent of giving China two votes. It will be interesting to see how this bit of news percolates through, and to what effect, in those organisations.

China has had a lot of success in persuading people to pretend that Taiwan is not a separate country, which for practical purposes it is, so perhaps it will be equally successful in persuading them that Hong Kong is an autonomous territory, when it clearly is not.

Persuading Hong Kong people that this is all going to be good for them will be a harder sell. The barrage of approval from assorted time-servers, lickspittles, fellow travelers and people who are easily blackmailed is not going to change opinions.

Honestly, if the Controller of the Government Flying Service feels it necessary to put out a statement endorsing the national security legislation that tells us much more about the controller than it does about the legislation.

Carrie Lam’s comforting news for freedom of expression – you can say what you like “for the time being” – is not going to broadcast a great deal of happiness either.

What the practical effect of the legislation will be remains to be seen. It depends on details not yet clear and how the whole package is implemented. Criminalising “acts” of secession, subversion etc, would be comparatively harmless if “act” means what it usually means.

At least, one hopes, prosecutions will take place in Hong Kong courts where defendants will enjoy such decadent Western luxuries as bail, the presumption of innocence, a lawyer who is on their side and, in serious cases, a jury.

What frightens me is the idea of mainland “security agencies” having a presence in Hong Kong. I do not buy the reassuring notion that they will “only be doing intelligence work”. Bullshit. That’s like saying there’s a shark in the swimming pool but it only eats sardines.

Mainland security agencies are not inhibited on their home turf by what passes for the Chinese legal system. There is no reason to suppose that they will be in any way inhibited by ours. Indeed even when they were explicitly not supposed to operate here we were treated to occasional kidnappings.

Hong Kongers can, in the near future, look forward to counter-subversion with Chinese characteristics: the 4 am knock on the door, followed by a few weeks of solitary confinement, torture, an appearance on Confessiontube, and a long holiday in Heilongjang. At some point in this sad story there may be something faintly resembling a trial.

Foreigners may feel this is unlikely to apply to them. On the other hand they have another hazard: being chosen as hostages if their home government does something which displeases the Party bosses in Beijing, like the two Canadians who are quite shamelessly and explicitly being kept in the hope of a future exchange for Ms Meng Wanzhou.

I have never believed that anything that happened in Hong Kong could seriously affect China’s national security. “Terrorism” is a mere excuse. The occasional swoop on microgroups who have assembled sundry chemicals with possibly fell purposes tell us only that there are a lot of undercover policemen out there.

The other week police found in one of these chemical factories a large quantity of “sodium chloride”. The horror! Sodium chloride is better known as “salt”.

We all need plenty of salt these days, to accompany bogus assurances like “most people have nothing to fear”. Of course they do. I used to think that people who left Hong Kong in 1997 were being rather timid. We were promised 50 years unchanged after all.

Times have changed. Nowadays I fear if you have a choice and are not considering alternative homes then you haven’t been paying attention.

I personally find this intensely distressing. Nothing in this world is for ever but I always thought that the Hong Kong I liked so much would last longer than me. Two years ago I was telling people that it was “still THE fun place to live.” I can only hope nobody took that too seriously.

There is no upside to this situation. In return for snuffing out a non-existent security threat and adding a mere pimple to the swathe of territory where Winnie the Pooh is a subversive topic, China will supply the capital of all the nice countries in the world with a community of embittered Hong Kong exiles eager to tell anyone who will listen that anything said by or on behalf of China will be a load of lies.

Will it still be possible to write this sort of thing? Will it be prudent? I remember Clint Eastwood, when asked if it was not a bit daring to make a film about Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view, replied “What can they do to me at my age?” A good question, but I have friends and family members who may be less waterproof.

And after all residence rights must now be considered as fragile as all the others we were supposed to enjoy for at least 50 years. The other week, in a rare and rather unreported piece of good news, we were told that international air travelers had voted the Hong Kong Immigration Department the most efficient and welcoming of its kind in the world.

Keep working on that, please.

 

 

 

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Have you read the Independent Police Complaints Council’s “Thematic Study on the Public Order events arising from the Fugitive Offenders Bill since June 2019 and the Police actions in response”? Don’t.

The government line was that the IPCC’s effort would be an acceptable substitute for a formal Commission of Inquiry into police activities. The critics of this line were right. The IPCC is the cultural Chernobyl of complacency. Looking at the police force it combines the virtues of the three wise monkeys, contriving to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

It is not true that the report “exonerates the police force”. In fact on most of the questions which you would want answered about the policing of disorder in Hong Kong it refuses to make a decision, though giving generous space to police explanations for some unhappy episodes.

It is also, alas, not true that the report is impartial. Protesters are routinely labelled as “violent protesters” whatever they are doing, except in the section on the Prince Edward MTR brawl, in which someone else seems to have grabbed the word processor because the protesters are labelled “mobsters”.  Junius Ho’s heroes in Yuen Long are just “men in white shirts”.

The sympathies of the authors seep into the phraseology. Protesters “throw hard objects” and “attack ferociously”; in response teargas is mysteriously and antiseptically “deployed”. Readers should be prepared to tackle a forest of euphemistic acronyms for the sub-lethal weapons armoury. There is a glossary at the end of the last volume.

The council’s researchers are clearly unhappy with some of the details of police conduct, but their idea of criticism reminds you of the politician who said that being criticised by Sir Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep.

Picking carefully through their account of the San Uk Ling Centre, for example, you will find answers to two questions of general interest: were protesters subjected to delays in the provision of medical treatment and in obtaining access to a lawyer? The answer to both is yes, but this is never said in so many words. And were people tortured? No complaint was received so this topic is not explored.

This is a long job. During my mis-spent youth I conducted a lengthy study of violence at demonstrations – this did not produce a publishable outcome because violence at demonstrations in the UK at the time was so rare – so I read a good many reports of this kind.

The IPCC is not going to break the length record, which I imagine is still held by the Walker Report, an encyclopedic analysis of the Democratic Convention disorders in Chicago in 1968, still available on Amazon, a hefty paperback.

I have to say also that the IPCC would probably be disqualified by the Guinness Book adjudicators for cheating. Everything in the report is said at least twice and some things are said far more.

There is a summary of the six-month period at the beginning. Each of the major incidents covered is given a detailed prose account, with pictures, and a tabulated version of the same thing, with the same pictures. A “conclusion” makes many points for the fourth time. No effort has been made to spare the rainforest.

Unfortunately the purpose of all this research is apparently mainly to help the IPCC in dealing with complaints. If something has happened but nobody has complained then the matter is of no interest.

For example, none of the people shot with real bullets by police has apparently complained. This could be considered a worrying indication of general lack of faith in the complaints system, but the IPCC has no interest in exploring that. So the topic is cursorily dismissed with the happy thought that all the victims are out of hospital and all the perpetrators were found by a police inquiry to be either in mortal danger or in fear of having their pistols snatched.

It is curious that the IPCC insists that the use of force by a police officer is a matter of individual responsibility, but no similar discrimination is offered to protesters, who are treated as an amorphous lump in which everyone is to blame for everything, including – in the list of specimens of “vigilantism” – acts of violence perpetrated by their opponents.

This brings us to the rather numerous incidents in which arresting officers seem to be administering on-the-spot punishment. The IPCC says it is not interested in individual cases: “This Study does not deal with matters of individual officer’s accountability for over-stepping the law or for insufficient supervision in specific cases. They are for the complaints system and the system of supervision within the Police Force.”

The trouble with this is that where the toxic effects of the para-military policing model appear they do not result in changes in the official arrangements, Force guidelines, chains of command and such like. They manifest themselves in an increasing incidence of abuse and misbehaviour, tolerated by those who do not themselves engage in it. Arrestees are beaten up and people beaten up are transformed into arrestees to discredit any possible complaint.

The report’s most fertile feature is its ability to find reasons for not making a decision about complaints. Whole incidents can be ducked if litigation is in progress. If someone complains about his arrest we can skip that because the manner of arrest will come up at his trial. Various problems should properly be “left to the complaints system”. If the complainant is not the victim it is “outside our purview”. If there is a pending trial the complaint cannot be investigated at all until the trial is over.

What people want to know about our police is why in recent months it has apparently become a common procedure to hold the freshly arrested protester face-down on the floor with two people sitting on his head, two people beating his legs, and six people standing round pepper-spraying anyone who appears to be recording the proceedings.

The IPCC’s thoughts on this are “Where no complaints have been made but there is evidence on reliable video footage or other reliable sources to show overstepping the mark in the use of force, the Commissioner would be expected to put his house in order.”

Note the beautiful use of the subjunctive. The Commissioner would be expected… So the system is, folks, that if you throw a brick at a policeman you will get, and deserve, four years in prison. If he shoots you in the face he can look forward to a taste of the Commissioner’s housekeeping.

The IPCC repeatedly says that whenever force is used “the officer will be held accountable”. Is that so?

The only people who come out of this well are the overseas experts, who after a short period as advisers decided to collectively “withdraw” from the proceedings. I notice that the suggestion that this might be temporary has not been much heard from lately.

The underlying impression of this report is that a number of querulous old men find the whole public order problem baffling. They don’t understand the internet, or the “internet web” as it is sometimes put, they don’t understand young people, they don’t understand contemporary politics and above all they don’t understand why trust in the police force has collapsed when the cops were only doing their job.

Consideration of this last item might usefully start with the thought that confidence in the police complaints system collapsed first. The IPCC is not the solution. It’s part of the problem.

I take no pleasure in criticising the police force, which does many things well and employs a number of my friends and former students. But there is an interesting excerpt in this report from the “public order core principles” of the College of Policing in the UK:

“Peaceful intentions should be presumed unless there is compelling evidence that those organising or participating in a particular event will themselves use, advocate or incite violence. Police action should, therefore, target only those persons responsible for the breach of the peace. An action taken which is not directed at the person committing the breach will generally be unlawful…

“Where and only where there is a reasonable belief that there is no other means whatsoever to prevent a breach of the peace, the lawful exercise by innocent third parties of their rights may be restricted by the Police. This is a test of necessity, which can only be justified in truly extreme and exceptional circumstances…

“Before the Police can take any steps which in any way restrict the lawful exercise of rights by innocent third parties, they must take all other possible steps (including making proper and advance preparations) to ensure that the breach, or imminent breach, is prevented and the rights of third parties are protected.”

That may be a Platonic ideal rather than a description of what happens, even in London. But could anyone seriously assert that it is what happens in Hong Kong?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From time to time there are bitter complaints from legislators and motoring organisations about the way the price of petrol moves when the price of oil changes.

They say that the price of petrol moves up quickly when the international oil market is on the up, but comes down rather slowly when the movement is in the other direction.

This charge is vigorously contested by the oil companies, who say that any change in prices at the oilwell takes its time to reach them down a long supply chain, and in any case the cost of raw crude is only part of the price of petrol, which has to include processing, transport, running costs of petrol stations and so on.

I am an agnostic on the question whether petrol retailers are as diligent in reducing prices as they are in increasing them. I did notice that when the price of oil futures briefly went negative – that is to say people would pay you to take the stuff off their hands – we did not see petrol stations offering free petrol, let alone bidding for tank space. No doubt there are technical reasons for this.

What cannot be disputed is that the petrol people do not have a mechanism specifically designed to keep prices up when they are trying to go down.

The Hong Kong government, on the other hand, resists reductions in land prices by simply withdrawing from sale any piece of real estate which does not meet its expectations when put up for bids.

Last week, for example, the Lands Department announced the non-sale of a large piece of the former airport at Kaitak, giving as an explanation that bids for it “failed to meet the government’s reserve price”.

Note that in no case has the government ever withdrawn a plot from sale on the grounds that the bids were so high that the ensuing building would be outrageously expensive. Prices can go as high as they like.

They are, on the other hand, not allowed to come down. This was the fourth incident of its kind in the last two years. One of the others was a residential plot. Do you wonder why Hong Kong housing is so expensive?

In the latest case there were actually four bids. Bidders included some of the usual suspects: Cheung Kong, Sun Hung Kai and Sino Land.

So this was not a case where there was a single bid of $5, offered in the faint hope that nobody else would bid at all. The bids offered were a result of serious consideration of what a commercial plot was worth these days.

Reporters found several property people willing to complain that the reserve price was too high and the government was “out of touch” with conditions in the market. Between the ongoing political turmoil and the COVID-19 situation this is not a promising time for commercial mega-projects.

But there is a serious question whether the government ought to have a reserve price at all. The government is a major player in the market for new sites and if it withdraws items from sale then the effect, whatever the intention, is to prop up prices.

When the vendor of something is a private individual it is of course up to him whether he wishes to sell for whatever he can get, or prefers to sell only if the price reaches a certain level. Auctioneers will recognise that if a price is very low the owner of an item may prefer simply to keep it, or to try again later when market conditions have improved. Hence the minimum price.

But the government is not a private landowner and the purpose of land sales is not to fill the relevant account, which is already bulging and which the government refuses to spend on anything useful. The purpose of land sales is to get land into use as soon as possible.

The Kai Tak airport site actually became vacant when the airport moved out in 1998. That is to say the plot in question has already been waiting for the Lands Department to get its act together for 22 years. People who were in kindergarten when this site dropped into the government’s lap are now doing postgraduate work. It should be sold for whatever a buyer is willing to pay.

Meanwhile on the other side of the ledger it seems that Ocean Park is turning into something like the Express Rail Link: a hole into which you can pour spectacular amounts of money which you will never see again.

For the last four years the park has lost money. Now it is asking for $5.4 billion, or it will have to close. We must note in fairness that it has been totally closed to the public since January for virus reasons, an expensive arrangement. On the other hand $3 billion of the requested rescue is “to help the park repay commercial loans”, which sounds more like a long-term problem.

The money will keep the park afloat for another year, during which it proposes to spend $13 million on a survey of “the way forward”, and open the new indoor Water World, of which much is hoped.

Like most Hong Kongers I have many happy memories of Ocean Park, which I have visited many times with sundry young Hamletts. I also played at a couple of celebrations when new bits were finished; one of the Park’s senior management was a Scot who liked bagpipes on these occasions.

So I would be sorry to see the place closed.

On the other hand this hardly seems a defensible long-term line of expenditure for a government which fails to provide its citizens with basics like pensions, unemployment insurance, or a health service which doesn’t expect you to wait two years to see a specialist.

Dare I suggest a merger with the Hong Kong Jockey Club? The club can afford it; their reserves are reported to be even bigger than the government’s and much better hidden.

And think of the “sports entertainment” – or as we plebs put it gambling – opportunities. Anyone for penguin races? Sweepstake on which dolphin will be next to die of despair? Guess the sex of the panda cub? Number of fingers left on the hand of the guy who feeds the sharks?

 

 

 

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I have drafted a letter to my friends and family members in the UK. But perhaps a few cheerful words from a happier place would not be welcome. So I’ll park it here.

Hi, folks,

Look, I get it, this is none of my business. Five years ago I passed a landmark of no significance to anyone else but me: I had spent more than half of my life in Hong Kong.

But I still wish you well. I visit, occasionally, the websites of the newspapers I used to work for and, often, the websites of the Guardian and the BBC. I care about what happens in England and – to a somewhat less extent, in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

And I need to ask, from one crowded island to another, what the hell have you been getting up to. My Facebook feed is bulging with lockdown stories. And it is horrifying to read the news that total deaths from Covid 19 in your place have passed, at the time of writing, 30,000.

It seemed to me entirely irrelevant that, the week before, the total casualty toll had passed the tally of British Army deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. When two highly industrialised nations put hundreds of thousands of young men in a field with instructions to kill each other you expect the blood to flow.

But we are all, give or take a few civil wars a safe distance away, at peace at the moment. And the excuse that this massacre is all inevitable, the result of a medical problem which nobody could have foreseen and for which there was no immediate remedy, doesn’t wash because the consequences have been so variable.

I understand it is too early to say whether the UK will achieve the unwanted distinction of the highest death rate in Europe. But why is it even in the running for this title?

At the moment the number of deaths in Hong Kong, whose government enjoys neither democratic legitimacy nor a reputation for unusual efficiency, is four. Not 4,000, not 400, not 40. Four, as in number of gospel writers.

This is in a territory with a land border to the mainland, where it all started. So we had less warning and more opportunities for imported infections. Taiwan and Thailand, similarly disadvantaged, have also managed strikingly low numbers, and Viet Nam claims to have no cases at all.

There is a theory that Western countries were slow to take the whole thing seriously because of a racist indifference to Asian viruses. I am dubious. The possibility of an epidemic has been noised about for years. Should there not have been contingency plans, stashes of essential supplies, draft regulations, provision for relevant emergency changes?

This may not be immediately obvious from close up, but from a distance it looks like a massive failure of your government, which had made no preparations and, as the relevant Horseman of the Apocalypse galloped towards it, reacted like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car.

No doubt standards of national leadership on this topic have been lowered by the antics of the lethal buffoon in the White House, but a failure on this scale, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, surely should have consequences?

There is an interesting irony here, at least for the moment. It seems your government is not getting the blame it has richly earned. Ours, which has had a good epidemic so far, is not getting much credit.

Partly this is because of events in the year before the arrival of the new disease. Our Chief Executive has trodden in too many political cowpats to have a shot at the Hong Kong’s sweetheart title, whatever she does about viruses.

It is also partly because the government was propelled towards some precautions, like closing the border, by public agitation.

But I think the main reason is because Hong Kong people, while they do not trust the words of their government, and still less those of the government over the boundary on the mainland, did not need to be persuaded to take the whole matter seriously. This made a big difference.

 Why so serious? We participated extensively in the SARS epidemic in 2004, still fresh in many memories. Indeed I imagine many households, like mine, still had a box of face masks which were tucked away when that epidemic subsided. Hygiene was already a thing.

In countries that have not seen a real epidemic since the Spanish flu in 1918 this awareness would of course be absent. But this is where, in a democratic society with a literate population and free media, public information should have come in. Instead governments dithered, at best, or denied there was a problem, at worst.

I do not allow the defence that they were relying on scientific opinion. This is a contradiction in terms. Science, in its slow, tentative way, produces factual observations.

The opinions of scientists about matters on which science has not yet determined the facts are not scientific. They are just opinions. You may think they are expert opinions, but expert opinions about the future (see the works of Philip Tetlock) are lamentably unreliable.

I do not think you can blame scientists, or politicians, for failing to foresee what Covid-19 would be like. There was much we didn’t know about it then and there still is now. What you can blame them for is failure to look at the places where it arrived first, and to see what worked, and copy it.

Too late now, of course. But if I may venture a word of advice: when they let you out, get a face mask and wear it.

 

 

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As a long-time observer, and occasional critic, of Hong Kong judges I must congratulate Mr Kwok Wai-kin on making my previously eccentric hobby a mainstream activity.

Judge Kwok, who exercises his doubtless Solomon-like qualities in the district courts, has been reassigned to non-political matters after much criticism of his remarks when sentencing a man who attacked three people with a knife during an argument at a Lennon Wall in Tseung Kwan O.

The assailant, an unemployed tour guide, blamed the then-current protests on his predicament. But no protest was in progress at the time. Two of the victims of his knife attack were women. One of the women was a journalist, not a protester.

Judge Kwok’s sentence (45 months in prison) has attracted a variety of assessments: endorsed by Greville Cross (a rare excursion in the direction of judicial clemency), criticised by sundry democratically inclined people, who thought it inadequate.

Well sentencing is not an exact science. The perpetrator was perhaps lucky not to be charged with attempted murder. The reporter nearly died.

What cannot be disputed, though, is that the remarks which accompanied the sentence exhibited a rampant political bias. The easiest way to check this is to contemplate what luck you would have with similar arguments on behalf of a protester who threw a brick at a policeman.

My Lord, my client may have thrown a brick at a policeman, but he showed “noble qualities” by writing a letter to the court hoping that his trial would make the victim feel better. Try again.

My Lord, my client had been out of work for two months. He was a “bloodstained victim hanging by his last breath” and overcome by emotion. Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Was there not a Hong Kong judge who said, when sentencing some rioters, that “The courts will not get involved in political debate, nor judge on right or wrong in political ideals, as that is not the role of the courts”?

Indeed there was. In fact it was Mr Kwok himself, in 2016. Times have apparently changed. Or something has. It would be incurably idealistic to expect judges to be entirely free from political influence. But if they can’t manage impartiality they should at least fake it.

I am unable to agree with the learned observers who said that there is nothing in the Hong Kong Guide to Judicial Conduct relevant to this occurrence. “Impartiality is the fundamental quality required of a judge”, says para 18, and in para 19 we have “Impartiality must exist both as a matter of fact and as a matter of reasonable perception,” which pretty much wraps it up as far as Judge Kwok is concerned.

Well there is no point in kicking a dead horse. Mr Kwok’s removal from the judicial end of the political fray, or the political end of the judicial one if you prefer it, is clearly not the end of the story.

The removal of a judge is rightly a difficult matter. Judges should be able to go about their business without worrying about job security. And if it were easy to remove judges this power would rarely be exercised in defence of the vulnerable or politically controversial.

However, in the genteel world of judgeship, matters are not allowed to come to anything as crass as dismissal proceedings. The fact remains that a judge who cannot be let loose on a category of cases in case he loses his rag and comes out with a mitigatory diatribe not previously mentioned in court is no use as a judge.

Judge Kwok is irreparably damaged goods and he knows it.

His switch to a low-controversy diet is the judicial equivalent of the old arrangement by which disgraced officers were left alone in the study with a loaded revolver and the expectation that they would “do the right thing”.

In due course Judge Kwok will no doubt express the wish to spend more time with his family, or deal with a pressing medical issue, or explore other career options, and step down from the bench.

If necessary the People’s Poodles will be happy to find a job for him somewhere. He could perhaps join Mr Cross on the op ed page of the China Daily.

 

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I find this difficult to believe, but at a time when adults are being required to gather in groups of no more than four, and a lot of traditional gathering places like bars, parks and gyms are closed because of Covid-19 fears, thousands of local schoolkids are being herded into halls and classrooms where they can all breathe the same air for two hours.

Of course precautions are being taken. Health declarations and temperature taking are required, everyone will wear masks, the desks will be further apart than usual. But this may not be enough. Keep your fingers crossed. It’s a risk.

The reason why we are running this risk is a sacred educational cow called the Diploma of Secondary Education, an exam which all Hong Kong students take at the end of Form Six.

I am not personally happy with this. Doing an exam in a sort of purdah is going to affect performance and it will affect some people’s performance more than others. Some students who have diligently prepared for months will be turned away at the door because they have a temperature, which will be an experience to remember for the rest of your life.

So why bother? After all there are other ways of assessing students’ readiness to face the world. The reason slipped out in a news bulletin the other day in which the DSE was described as “the university entrance exam”.

The Examination Authority, an independent non-government body but one which tries to please, has been under tremendous pressure to hold the exam. Most of this pressure, I believe, has come from universities.

We may note in passing that the DSE was not originally supposed to be a “university entrance exam”. It was supposed to be an end-of-schooling qualification for everyone. In practice, to be of much use to universities, it has to be pretty useless for other purposes.

This means that many students who have already discovered that university is not for them are required to take an exam which will do nothing for them, and in which they may well fail every subject. Many of them know this in advance, which must be depressing.

And why, you may wonder, are the universities so addicted to the results of this particular ordeal? This is a good question. In the old days, when students were admitted by the course they were going to study, the teachers presiding over admissions could and did administer tests and interviews. Exam results were part of the system but they did not dominate it. The absence of A Levels because of an epidemic would have been inconvenient but not catastrophic.

Then came four-year degrees. With four-year degrees came the idea that the extra year at the beginning of the degree should be wasted on a lot of general stuff, with students choosing their major at the end of it. A corollary of this was that admission should be by faculty or school, not by course or programme, so as to cater for students who were not sure what they wanted to do.

The result of this is that applications now come in batches of a thousand, or several thousands for a popular offering, and you are not allowed to consider what the student actually intends to choose at the end of the first year, if he or she knows what it is. So it is nobody’s job to consider admissions in detail. They must be processed in bulk.

This rules out all consideration by a human brain. The only significant inputs now are the students’ choices and the DSE results. A computer puts them together and spits out one offer per student.

University staff can spend the whole summer doing research, and levels of student demand for different courses are conveniently over-ruled by having quotas at the end of year one. Everyone is happy. Well everyone whose opinion is taken seriously is happy. The students are not consulted.

I am not sure we can blame the people who devised this system for the fact that it really doesn’t suit a society in a state of lockdown because of a virus epidemic. Like so many computer-based innovations it is capable but fragile.

Still, this rather worrying situation is a mere symptom of a disastrous development which has been going on for a long time. Universities have abandoned the idea that their major activity is preparing young people for their lives in the outside world. Their major activity now is preparing the next generation of university staff, and teaching undergraduates is just a lucrative sideline extracting large sums of money from taxpayers or parents.

I did not expect this to lead to life-threatening innovations, but life in a time of pandemic is full of surprises.

So let us pass on to a more amusing one. It appears there is a hospital in Paris which still has the time and the capacity to do a full medical history for each virus patient, and they noticed a curious anomaly.

The proportion of people in one category was much smaller in the patient population than in the population at large. This category with a mysterious resistance to Covid infection was … smokers.

It seems that, in this respect at least, the much-maligned weed is good for you. It may increase your susceptibility to everything else from athlete’s foot to Zarathustra’s elbow, but where Covid is concerned smokers get a health boost.

The French doctors said, and I hasten to pass this on, that smoking is so bad for you in other ways that they do not recommend taking it up as a virus defence. But they are experimenting with nicotine patches to see if that helps.

My experience of smoking in France was that most people, at least at the grassroots level, smoked a cigarette called “Gauloise” which was ferociously strong, an abrasive throat experience that put in the shade anything you could get in England, even the notorious and expensive unfiltered “Capstan Full Strength”.

So it may be that French smokers’ lungs are so used to being assailed by poisons that they take the odd virus in their stride.

Still if you want to try protection without poison, nicotine patches are a prescription item but I think you can buy nicotine chewing gum in chemists’ shops. Snuff would be the easiest solution but the Hong Kong government banned it years ago.

If it were legal you could (nudge, wink) order it on-line here: https://www.snuff.me.uk/Gawith-Hoggarth-Snuff.asp

Far too early to say if this helps, of course. But better for you than injecting Dettol, at least.

 

 

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