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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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According to the usual anonymous and unattributable sources the Secretary for Justice, Teresa Cheng, has decided to call it a day. Not being fired; she’s jumping for “personal reasons”, we’re told, as we usually are. Replacement? Nothing definite yet, but rumoured front-runner is a pillar of the Independent Police Complaints Council, so don’t expect too much.

However, whoever it is, I hope he or she will do something about the speed at which the Department of Justice operates, which in some cases seems to be a violation of the defendants’ human rights in and of itself.

I realise that persuading the members of a profession built on the concept of billable hours to treat other people’s time as valuable may be a struggle. Learned professions are generally prone to the illusion that their time is more important than yours. But the occasional wait for a busy doctor or an absent absent-minded professor is nothing compared with the treatment you get from the courts, where everyone is instructed to turn up at 9 o’clock, the magistrate doesn’t start sitting until 10, and the matter you are involved in may not come up until the afternoon, if it isn’t moved to another day altogether.

For senior judges time to be served can be measured in decades, so keeping you in suspense for a month or two doesn’t count. However prosecutors ought to be different. I will not bore you with a repetition of my previous complaints about the time it takes to get a case into court in Hong Kong, but, take it from me, it is by international standards a disgrace.

No doubt it would be a major task for a new Secretary for Justice to persuade his troops to work faster. But they could at least perhaps be persuaded to be a bit more discerning in the cases which they take to court.

There is not much point, for example, in taking some political target into court when the outcome is going to add a few days to the multiple months he is serving already, or the years he is likely to be facing when the trial he is awaiting (in custody) finally crawls before a judge or three.

Recently, though, the trend to meaningless prosecutions reached its logical conclusion: a prosecution which has no practical function at all.

This brings us to the case of Mr Ted Hui. Mr Hui was, in the old days when we had such things, a rather critical and disorderly legislator. He was also conspicuous in attempting to sooth irate protesters and police people during the anti extradition bill protests, and ate a lot of pepper spray as a result.

Nothing makes you a target of the law and order industry like being a victim of police abuse. So Mr Hui was one of the first victims of the post-2019 trawl through the previous lives of likely suspects for items on which a belated prosecution could be constructed.

When the number of counts charged reached nine (further items are still promised) Mr Hui decided that his future in Hong Kong would feature a long stint on the correctional M & Ms diet. Nothing in this piece should be interpreted as expressing an opinion on Mr Hui’s innocence or guilt of these or any later charges.

He seems to have come to the deluded conclusion that someone with his background could not expect a fair trial from the national security machinery. This is an unwarranted criticism of the national security machinery which, without fear or favour, provides unfair trials to all its victims. It was designed to make prosecutions easier.

Well, like most suspects Mr Hui had been required to surrender his passport. However with the aid of two Danish fans he persuaded a Hong Kong court that he had been invited in his official capacity to attend an environmental gabfest in Copenhagen.

The prosecution complained that this did not look very official. A sympathetic Danish MP then added a timetable of official chats to the fictitious globe-rescuing proceedings and Mr Hui flew to Denmark. After a few days to allow his family to leave Hong Kong he announced that he was not coming back, and went on to the UK. He later moved to Australia, where he still is.

So what was the point, one wonders, of inviting a Hong Kong judge to convict him, in his absence, of contempt of court… four counts, no less. Sentence adjourned for the judge to think about it.

The fact is that Mr Hui is neither stupid nor a masochist. There is no real prospect of his returning to Hong Kong, in the absence perhaps of some exotic mid-air emergency producing an unlucky emergency landing in a human rights haven like Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Mr Hui is, accordingly, outside the jurisdiction of Hong Kong courts and outside the reach of Hong Kong policemen, to the great irritation of our new Chief Executive. Short of a cross-border kidnapping which would spark an international diplomatic explosion we must accept that we are going to enjoy, or suffer, a Hui-free Hong Kong for the foreseeable future.

If Mr Hui does come back he can of course be charged again with all the nine pending matters, as well as jumping bail and, if we must, contempt of court for misleading a judge. I am not sure that this is a normal reaction to people jumping bail, which they do all the time. Anyone who has been freed on bail has implicitly promised to turn up for trial but those who do a runner are not usually prosecuted for contempt.

Mr Hui can also be charged with whatever else the Department of Justice can come up with. In the meantime, though, surely government lawyers have more important things to do with their time than asking a judge to convict someone in his absence and pass a sentence which will in practice not be served?

Waiting for the unlikely return would free resources, both prosecutorial and judicial, for matters with immediate practical effects for the people concerned. It would also coincide neatly with the passage in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 14 3 (d) on the rights of people accused of criminal offences, which includes the right to be present at their trial.

The judge in Mr Hui’s case said that his successful deception posed “a real risk that public confidence in the due administration of justice will be undermined.” Well we can’t have that can we? So I would urge the public not to read the rest of the ICCPR, which also includes the subversive notion that “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” Those were the days.

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Warfare, as the Israeli General Moshe Dayan observed, is at once the most deplorable and most exciting of human activities. Traditionally watching it without participating was not on the menu. Either you attended and ran the consequent risks or you had to be content with dispatches.

Television offered the illusion of spectatorship. You cannot do much in a 90-second standard report. Also television crews found that one of the unmentionable problems of war reporting was to find images which were not so gruesome that they would be vetoed as unfit for family viewing. Feature films were of course fiction.

But now all this has changed. Every phone owner is a potential camera person, and the internet is available to all. You can get as much of the fighting in Ukraine as any reasonable person could want.

Much of the resulting footage illustrates the old truism that killing is much less disturbing from a distance. Rockets flit across the landscape and tanks erupt in a volcano of flames and smoke. We do not see what happened to the three people who were inside the tank.

Sometimes the all-seeing drone looks down on an apparently peaceful scene. A few distant ant-like figures move about. The drone releases an alarmingly amateur-looking projectile, which wobbles visibly as it sets off for the ground. Puffs of smoke erupt. Some of the ants are now no longer moving.

A lot of this footage clearly came from the Ukrainian military, no doubt keen to show its supporters what they are getting for their money, though a surprising amount of it is circulated under the logo of The Sun, a change from that newspaper’s usual hot and salty tastes.

The bits that stay with you are usually those with people you can see in them. I was much moved by the video of a lady playing a last tune on her piano – surrounded by the ruins of her flat, wrecked by a near miss – before she left to join the flood of refugees.

Then I stumbled on a piece in which a Ukrainian reporter interviewed a Russian soldier in a Ukrainian military hospital. Would the interviewee mind of the interview was taped? The interviewee would not. We went through some of his recent experiences and he expressed concern that his family did not know where he was.

Our reporter then offered to telephone the family, which he did. Again the polite request for permission to record. Then he passed the phone to the prisoner, who talked to his sister. She had, of course, heard nothing from the Russian Army but had drawn ominous conclusions from the interruption in the usual flow of calls and messages.

So she was pleased to hear from him, and took calmly his other piece of news, which was that he was now minus one leg. Perhaps she thought this sacrifice was worth it if it ensured that he would not be fit for further military service.

Indeed the Ukrainians seem to have tapped a rich vein of disillusioned calls home by members of the invading force, who all seem to be understandably miserable. At least that is the impression you get from the ones chosen for broadcasting, carefully sub-titled with the profanities replaced by asterisks, of which they need plenty.

Altogether it’s a sad picture, made all the worse for those optimists who supposed that, at least in the more developed parts of the world, we had put this sort of thing behind us.     

In Hong Kong we have had the interesting spectacle of various writers trying to wriggle round the basic fact that we are here dealing with an unprovoked invasion motivated by the desire to impose on Ukrainian people a regime they do not want. And this controversial enterprise appears to be supported, in a tacit sort of way, by China.

One suggestion is that Russian paranoia is justified by the continuing enlargement of Nato, and the potential threat this presents. The problem with this idea is that the last substantial enlargement (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) took place in 2004. The only countries to join since then have been militarily inconsequential and a long way from Russia: Albania and Croatia (2009) Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020). So this looks like an excuse.

A more learned offering points out that Russia was invaded by France in 1812, and Germany in 1914 and 1941. Well not actually – in 1914 Russia invaded Germany, though this did not go well. With more success they invaded Galicia, then a province of the Austrian Empire. In two years in control they introduced the full colonial kit: Russian as the official language, secret police, censorship of the media, jailing of suspected dissidents, loyalty oaths required of civil servants and teachers, and so on. Galicia is now part of Poland and part of Ukraine

On the other hand we must in fairness also record the Swedish invasion of Russia in 1707 and the Anglo-French invasion of the Crimea in 1854.

What this misses out is the considerable traffic in the other direction. Russia participated in the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) two Turkish wars (1768, 1787) invaded Italy in 1799 and Switzerland (Switzerland!) in 1800. It invaded Finland in 1808, France in 1814, had another Turkish war in 1828 and intervened in Hungary in 1849. It invaded Manchuria in 1858, and there was yet another Turkish war in 1877. 

After the end of World War 1 the Russian Empire, now under new management, shrank a bit. But it continued to be a worrying neighbour. It invaded Poland in 1939, occupied the Baltic States and then invaded Finland. There was also a brief and rather neglected invasion of Manchuria in response to incidents involving its Japanese occupiers. The Russians also continued to control many non-Russian parts of the old Tsarist empire, including Georgia, Armenia and much of Central Asia. 

After the Second World War the Soviet Union effectively adopted as colonies all the countries later known as the Warsaw Pact. This was generally not a happy experience for them and there were revolts in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, all put down by force. Since the collapse of the old Soviet Empire, Russia has on various pretexts inserted garrisons or supported separatist movements in Moldova, Georgia and Central Asia. And of particular relevance to current conflicts, it invaded Ukraine in 2014.

Russian expansionism is sometimes put down to some in-built geographical force which compels them to seek a warm-water port. And indeed for a long time Russian statesmen made no attempt to hide their ultimate ambition, which was to take Constantinople from the ailing Ottoman Empire. But this is just a retrospective excuse, like the suggestion that Louis XIV was aiming to give France “natural frontiers”, or that the British Empire was acquired in a “fit of absent-mindedness”. A better explanation for Russian behaviour is provided by Thucydides: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Mr Putin, like his predecessors, will grab whatever he thinks he can get away with.

Readers will gather that I am not very impressed by attempts to exonerate Mr Putin’s activities as either a natural response to the CIA’s perfidy in seducing Montenegro from the paths of neutrality, or an attempt to fend off a potential invasion. Why do aggressive dictators, like abusive husbands, always want to pose as victims?

But these arguments are at least relevant. What are we to make of the local columnist who wondered why human rights enthusiasts were neglecting the outrages inflicted on Russian citizens in Europe, where individuals had been abused in the street, millionaires had been expropriated and (if you have tears to shed prepare to shed them now) Russian tennis players had been barred from Wimbledon.

Well abuse of innocent individuals in the street is wrong. But the only examples of this offered came from Poland and the Czech republic. These are places which were Russian colonies for a long time in recent memory. Russians would probably be unwelcome to some people whether there was a war or not.

Some memories last for a long time. English visitors to Yugoslavia in the 60s flaunted conspicuous Union Jacks to avoid being mistaken for Germans. It was noticeable in those days that the Eurovision Song Contest involved a national jury in each country, and some of those juries would not have voted for a German entry if Beethoven had risen from the grave and penned it personally. Brits in my age group still feel a bit twitchy about Argentina. So it goes.

These legacy prejudices should not, though, be confused with “Russophobia” as allegedly revealed by opinion poll surveys of what people think of different countries. People are entitled to superficial opinions about different countries and Russia has no shortage of things to dislike.

As for the yacht-deprived millionaires and the Russian tennis players (who are also millionaires) their treatment is certainly unfair. They did not start the war and may actually oppose it. But losing your yacht or you chance to add to your prize-money pile is not the worst thing that can happen to you in wartime.

As Max Hastings observes in a recent work we tend to think of our wars as uniquely horrible but all wars always have involved suffering. And that suffering is of course not fairly distributed. Some civilians are traumatised, terrorised and driven from their homes. Others are not. Soldiers, if they survive, are haunted by terrible memories, lose their friends and suffer injuries they will carry for the rest of their lives. Distant mothers and sweethearts get awful news. Equally blameless individuals find the military experience enjoyable. War is the province of chance, as Clausewitz put it.

As far as warfare is concerned Hong Kong has led a sheltered existence. This is why we are treated to casual abuse of war as a description of social afflictions like the COVID epidemic. The real thing is a parade of horrors. Being prevented from playing pro tennis in London is not one of them.

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I have been struck lately by the difficulty of reconciling happenings in the real world with the way they are described in official verbiage. Our new Chief Executive says press freedom needs no defence in Hong Kong even as we drop to the murky depths of international rankings; the Chief Justice says we enjoy unquestioned judicial independence (well … Warren Buffet says you should never ask a barber if you need a haircut) while the government simply refuses to appoint to the Judicial Officers Recommendations Commission any “representative” it does not like the look of.

The Hong Kong Trade Office in London says that democracy will develop in the city but it will be “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics”. This apparently means democracy in defiance of the relevant laws, as the District Council by-elections have been postponed illegally and indefinitely. Whatever you think of the arrangements now used to select legislators and senior leaders, local democracy has simply been abolished

We are supposed to enjoy freedom of speech, but some outspoken commentators have taken to putting their Wordle score on their Facebook page every morning so that friends and fans can see they have not been arrested. Yet. Every democratic politician you have heard of is in prison or has been recently, except Emily Lau. This is not a criticism of Ms Lau, who was just lucky in her choice of retirement date.

A clue, perhaps, from a book I have been reading recently. This is “Power of the powerless” by Vaclav Havel – a noted Czech dissenter during the Communist years and later the President of the country. He wrote it in 1978, when Czechoslovakia was still effectively a Soviet colony. The question which fascinated sympathisers outside the country and restless spirits inside it was how this status was maintained with at least a facade of complicity and contentment, despite the widespread knowledge of the invasion and installation of a puppet regime ten years earlier.

One answer goes like this:

“The … system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of freedom of expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of worldviews; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive of its own lies if must falsify everything. It falsifies the past, it falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

Individuals need not believe in all these mystifications, but they must behave as if they did…”

Some parts of this look specific to the Soviet empire before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some parts of it look distressingly familiar. For this reason I am sceptical about the argument advanced by several respectable writers recently, that Hong Kong’s problems could be solved by better PR.

What we see, after all, is a drastic divergence between the “inside view” of Hong Kong, as propagated on its behalf, and the “outside view” as perceived in other places. No doubt both the official view – nothing has changed – and the outside one – Xinjiang-on-Sea – are too extreme to be accurate. But certainly some things have changed.

As the makers of Coca Cola found out to their cost, no amount of PR or advertising will do any good if you vandalize the product. Hong Kong used to be known as a place where you could do and say more or less what you wished, subject to the sort of legal restrictions to which citizens of free countries are accustomed. Any serious consideration of our local problem must start with the recognition that this particular parrot is dead. This parrot, as the famous sketch has it, has expired and gone to meet its maker; it has ceased to be. It is an ex-parrot.

What we are to put in its place I really don’t know. Roll up for the super-patriotic legislature, the opportunity-rich Greater Bay Area, the super national security? Come to sunny Hong Kong, where the prisons are full and the airport is empty? See the world’s most expensive legislative erection?

If I may make a humble suggestion this is perhaps not the time for a PR offensive anyway. COVID is currently the public health issue in the public eye so countries and territories are judged by how they handle it. This is another international league table in which we have slipped from the top spots recently, but this can be remedied. At the moment we sit uneasily between the economic revival produced by “living with it” and the clean bill of health produced by “dynamic zero”.

We have the disadvantages of both approaches without their compensating advantages. If this problem were sorted out then an improved reputation would ensue. And if not, not.

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I was dismayed and a bit puzzled by your “open response to Mr Sebastian Lai, son of Jimmy Lai”. It ought to be possible to pose as one of Hong Kong’s most patriotic people without also appearing as one of its nastiest. More work seems to be needed on this point.

I was puzzled as to why you bothered. The young Mr Lai’s response to his father being honoured by a Catholic university in America was not reported in Hong Kong, indeed I did not see anything about the award itself. No doubt some American newspapers reported the award, and the speech, but they will not have printed your response.

You do seem to have a bit of a thing about Mr Lai senior. You claim to have read all of his articles and interviews. I presume this was not in search of enlightenment. This seems rather an unhealthy preoccupation. I can only think of two people of whom I can say I have read their entire output – C.S. Forester and Stieg Larsson – and they are both dead.

Still, this Jimmy preoccupation hardly excuses a serious lapse in taste. Mr Lai Junior (who spells his name Sebastien, by the way) wishes, as we all do, to think and speak well of his father. He must also be aware of the strong possibility that he will never see his father again, or that if he does it will be in the form of a brief encounter in a prison visiting room.

Under these circumstances it seems to me entirely inappropriate to bombard him with a critical and public interpretation of his father’s life and work, if indeed it ever is. I may think a Hong Kong politician is a five-star shit but I would not publicly scold his daughter if she did not agree with me.

You take issue with the statement that Jimmy Lai “stayed in Hong Kong with the full knowledge of what the consequences could be.” In fact you flatly say “No he didn’t”. Why? I presume you are not disputing that he stayed in Hong Kong. As to knowledge of the possible consequences, I note that you believe Jimmy “doesn’t understand Chinese politics”. But you do not need a profound study of Chinese politics to know that people who oppose the Communist Party often find themselves in prison.

I will pass over your evidence-free assertions that Jimmy Lai was some kind of UK government agent trying to foment a revolution in Hong Kong “and beyond”.

But I must take issue with your version of Hong Kong media history. Over the years Next and Apple Daily were not “sued left, right and centre for defamation by all walks of life”. They were occasionally sued, as most news organisations are, with varying results. They also got threatening letters from lawyers for various people, including you.

Next Media’s published accounts showed, you complain, “a huge reserve for legal fees and damages.” I am not sure what “huge” means in this context. Have you compared it with the reserves kept by other media organisations for this purpose? It is normal for newspapers and magazines to have a reserve for possible legal catastrophes. The Standard had one when I worked there and found, as one does, that it needs to be bigger than you think.

Apple Daily did not bring “papparazzi culture” to Hong Kong. Popular tabloid journalism was pioneered by the Oriental Daily, and the libel lawyers’ friend title still belongs to Tin Tin, now no longer with us.

The fact that Jimmy Lai has an overseas passport does not make him “a foreigner in Hong Kong politics” and Sebastien Lai does indeed, as you say “know better than I do how democratic countries treat foreigners who fund and mastermind political campaigns.” It is in fact generally perfectly legal in most democratic countries for foreigners to donate to political parties and to run political campaigns.

A point which you seem to have overlooked when penning this piece is the relevant law. Mr Lai Sr is currently awaiting trial on national security charges directly relevant to the assertions in your paragraphs three and six. As such it is a serious offence to publish, as you have done, material suggesting that he is guilty, or for that matter innocent, of the matters charged.

As you are a diligent, not to say compulsive, student of all matters relating to Jimmy Lai I must suppose you to be aware of the fact that these matters are sub judice and consequently not an appropriate matter for comment. Catholicism doesn’t legally absolve crimes, you say. You’re not on the legal high ground here, I’m afraid.

It is true that this particular branch of the rule of law has been much neglected of late and it would be hard to argue with a defence that people had been allowed to infringe it for so long that an errant publisher supposed it to be extinct.

That does not dispose of the question whether anyone with a concern for fairness would, whether faced with legal hazards or not, wish to publish a damning summary of the defendant’s career and motives in the period approaching his trial.

Theologians will not be impressed by your suggestion that Jimmy Lai cannot be a good Catholic because he has been known to use “foul language”. Most of us have met foul-mouthed Catholics. No doubt this is a fault, but it is hardly a mortal sin. And I don’t know why you find it significant that Mr Lai became a Catholic in 1997.

Catholicism is a demanding religion and keeping it up for 25 years is not to be sneezed at – certainly, at least, not to be sneezed at by those who are still falling short of admission to the ranks of civil gentlemen.

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Judges, or at least the more junior ones, are to be subjected to an annual performance review by more senior colleagues. This is described by enthusiasts as a response to complaints.

You will notice that although most of the complaints came from government supporters wishing to see protesters hung, and preferably drawn and quartered as well, none of those complaints was actually substantiated. So in search of an example of a real complaint the Standard was reduced to citing the case of the judge who expressed sympathy for a man who in a moment of patriotic fervour had knifed a non-violent protester, an innocent by-stander and a lady reporter.

We were also told the way this was handled: the judge was kept on a restricted diet – no politicals – for a year or so and has now been reinstated as an all-purpose wig-warmer. Nice.

Well let us hope that the performance reviewers get on to one matter in which Hong Kong is dragging well below international standards, and that is the amount of time it takes before cases are concluded.

As it happens we have some recent data on this, thanks to a Legco question by Tik Chi-yuen, the only blemish in an otherwise uniformly pro-government chamber. The Secretary for Security, Chris Tang, responded.

His reply, which included a great deal of fluff, culminated in this: “Operational experience from some 90 anti-EAB cases concluded at the District Court (DC) over the past two years indicates that the processing time from their date of first appearance at the Magistrates’ Courts to the date of conclusion at DC generally ranged from 300 to 400 days or so, which is about 30 per cent longer than other criminal cases.

“The median time it took for cases to be dealt with by the Magistrates’ Courts was about 100 days. The median time taken for cases that were transferred from the Magistrates’ Courts to the District Court was 21 days.

“At the District Court level, it took a median of around 200 days for cases to be concluded for defendants who pleaded guilty. For cases that went to trial, the median time was approximately 380 days.”

It would perhaps be churlish to complain that this did not actually answer Mr Tik’s question. He asked for the average and the maximum times taken. This is a pity, because it means we cannot compare with the figures for England and Wales. According to the National Audit Office, for example, the average time between first appearance before magistrate/s and trial in Crown Court was 123 days, which does not compare well with a “general range of 300 to 400 days or so”.

Why did Mr Tang offer a barrage of medians? A short statistical digression is in order here. There are three standard ways of compressing a range of values – height, intelligence, number of monkeys on Monkey Hill, number of cars illegally double parked in Pedder Street at 5 pm – into one figure. They are the average, the mode and the median.

The average, known technically as the mean, is the one we are all familiar with: add up the numbers, divide by the number of cases. The mode is the most popular number, so if we are considering the number of wheels on vehicles going through the Cross Harbour Tunnel the mode is four. The median is the number which has the same number of cases above it as below it.

Let us say there are nine people in a bar, average income $20,000 a month. If Elon Musk replaces one of them the average income will immediately zoom up like one of Mr Musk’s rockets. But it will be meaningless. It will be grossly in excess of the incomes of the nine originals and much less than Mr Musk’s. So if you are considering whether you should stock six types of champagne the median – the income of the fifth patron in order of wealth – will be more helpful, and it will still be about $20,000.

This is the advantage of the median: it insulates you from extreme values. This is helpful in our bar case. In Mr Tang’s, on the other hand, it allows him to conceal the fact that some cases take much longer than 400 days.

In recent days, for example, we had Leung Kwok-hung convicted of disorderly behaviour in Legco, an offence committed in 2016. Time from magistrate to final decision six years, which comes to 2,100 days … or so.

Also in Bleak House territory we have Mr Benny Tai, in court last week to plead guilty to an election offence, also committed in 2016, which consisted of advertising his “Thundergo” plan for tactical voting. The judge in his case expressed some polite dismay that the proceedings had only started last year. Prosecutor replied that the Thundergo plan was a large one and it took a long time to gather evidence.

Which is bullshit. When the offence consists of placing large advertisements in newspapers the investigation is the forensic equivalent of a penalty kick with a blindfolded goalkeeper. It is difficult to suppress the suspicion that at some time last year a decision was made somewhere to throw any handy legal implement at the government’s critics.

Consider the case of Lee Cheuk-yan. Mr Lee is a venerable (he is 65) landmark of our political scene, already serving a sentence for participating in an unlawful gathering. Last week he was in court again, accused of releasing a balloon in Central and obstructing a policeman who wished to arrest the balloon.

The outcome of this trivial triumph for the law (which was late as usual – offence committed in January 2021) was that Mr Lee was fined for releasing the balloon and sentenced to 30 days in prison for the obstruction, 20 days to be served concurrently with his present term. So he serves an extra ten.

Mr Leung was slightly less lucky. He got an extra 14 days.

With prosecutors busily engaged in this sort of thing it is hardly surprising that major cases take for ever. The long wait for a court decision is a palpable infringement of the human rights of the defendants concerned, whether or not they are – as they generally are these days – kept in custody pending the trial.

A long piece by me on the relevant international standards here.

It this all seems rather abstract, let us consider the arrangements now used in English trials, which revolve round a thing called Custody Time Limits. The basic idea is that people should only be kept in custody pending trial for a limited period, 56 days for a trial before a magistrate and 182 days (an odd number? Six months) for a Crown Court trial. If the prosecution has not got its ducks in a row by the end of that time the defendant is entitled to bail regardless of the reasons why it was refused in the first place.

There are the usual legal bells and whistles – exceptions, definitions, which days count and so on. Summary for lay people: “All trials are listed within the Custody Time Limits. If the trial, for whatever reason, has to be adjourned to a date beyond those limits the prosecutor must publicly apply to extend the CTL to ensure that the defendant remains remanded until the new trial date. The legal test for extending the CTL requires that the court must be satisfied that the prosecution has acted with ‘due diligence and expedition and that there is good and sufficient cause…’”

Failure to observe the time limit is regarded in prosecutorial circles as a major embarrassment so you may not be surprised to hear that prosecutors in the Crown Prosecution Service, under-funded and under-staffed though it notoriously is, generally manage to get their cases started within the limit.

The conclusion we can draw from this is that those cases which took 300 to 400 days” here would have been completed in about half the time elsewhere. The “median time for cases to be dealt with by the Magistrates Courts” was roughly twice the maximum usually allowed in England.

There is no prospect of a formal time limit being introduced here, but there is clearly scope for a good deal of acceleration, if judges can bring themselves to require it.

Also in the court pages recently we had the Director of Public Prosecutions appearing in person to further the case of fraud (using part of a factory building as an office) against Jimmy Lai. This case first appeared before a magistrate in December 2020; the trial started yesterday. Par for the course.

Actually this case shouldn’t be a high priority, given that Mr Lai is already up to his ears in enough legal excrement of the national security variety to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

It might be useful if the DPP left the pursuit of Mr Lai to some junior person and concentrated on putting a rocket under her subordinates.

I do not subscribe to the view, reported to be widely held among residents of the Lai Chi Kok Detention Centre, that long delays pending trial are a deliberate ploy to encourage guilty pleas. But the alternative explanations are not much more decorative: indifference, indolence or incompetence.

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Hats off to legislator Lai Tung-kwok, whose attempts to think of creative ways to waste our money led him to suggest that there should be a commissioner for national security education, to make sure the Good News is spread to adults as well as the helpless victims of the education industry.

This would be a challenging role, but at least it might lead to some careful thought about the arguments which are used to defend the national security law, which at the moment are often strangely remote from the complaints.

We are, for instance, often told that other countries have national security laws, so there should be no objection to Hong Kong and China having one. But nobody has suggested that it is wrong in principle for a country or territory to have a national security law. This is an answer looking for a question.

The critics, most of whom are prudently located outside Hong Kong, do not think that a national security law is a bad thing in itself. They think there are good national security laws and bad national security laws.

This is a point which also seems to have eluded former police chief Tang King-shing, who warned this week that people who are thinking of emigrating because of the national security law should think twice, because it is very likely that the country they go to will also have a national security law.

True indeed. And any large city you move to will have an MTR. But will it be large and modern, ancient and dirty, convenient and spacious or creaky and crowded? Will it be like ours or like Glasgow’s, a single line which always looks to me like an underground version of the old Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park monorail?

National security laws are like toilets. There is a wide range from the shed over a hole in the back garden to an ensuite Japanese electrified job which does everything for you except wipe.

International comparisons are difficult because most countries do not have “national security law” as a separate category. This has what citizens of those countries may feel the happy consequence that there is no role for “national security approved judges”, but it is inconvenient for spectators.

One is reduced to tabling a series of questions, like: are national security offences clearly defined, is non-violent political speech protected, are the rights of those accused of offences protected, are the punishments available proportionate to the harm done, is there a special police force with extraordinary powers, and is there, indeed, a part of the government which depends for its future prospects of promotion and prosperity on finding a steady stream of national security cases?

I put this last question in because one of the curious things about national security cases in other places is how rarely they come up. It used to be my job to introduce students to the Official Secrets Ordinance and its ancestor the British Official Secrets Act.

There had at that time been no official secrets cases in Hong Kong at all. Such cases in the UK had been so rare that I could briefly go through the whole lot since the passage of the original act in 1911. Some of them took very little time. Many of them did not involve spying – or journalism – but merely failure to take proper care of secrets in a person’s custody, usually involving naval officers leaving brief cases full of interesting papers in bars.

Similarly in other common law countries internal national security was a cottage industry, although Mr Putin’s efforts of late have done wonders for it.

The problem is that national security precautions can be overdone. Mary Wollstonecroft commented on the French Revolution, which she had observed at close range, that “every political good carried to the extreme must be productive of evil”. Or as Vanessa Place puts it in a rather different context and more modern language, “Laws passed with good intentions and historic justification may snap together to create a legal terror.”

We must all accept that security and public peace are desirable objectives, and that the national security law was intended to be a good thing for everyone concerned. The question remains whether those good intentions have been realised, in a law which is much more specific about punishments than the offences to be punished.

So how can we advise people who are thinking of leaving to get away from the national security law? Well of course they are mistaken. Our national security law is wonderful. We don’t want to lose you but if you must go…

I think the easiest way to guide migrants in the right direction is to avoid countries which signed an address to the UN Secretary General last year expressing unqualified approval for our new national security law, which suggests that their versions will be as bad as ours, if not worse.

Here they are: Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, China, Comoros, Congo, Cuba, Djibouti, Dominica, DPRK (North Korea), Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Lao PDR (Laos), Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, Tonga, Tunisia, UAE, Uganda, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

You can, as the old poem almost has it, “tell a man who abuses by the company he chooses”.

If that is not quite the sort of country you were thinking of migrating to then you should be OK.

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