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In the days when I was sometimes invited to address large groups of police people about their relations with the press the recurring complaint which came up was that there was no body to which complaints about the press could be addressed.

My usual reply, that we would be quite happy to have a complaint arrangement like the police one, did not go down well. The problem clearly continues. Last week the Force was reduced to writing a letter containing a series of complaints to the four organisations which between them represent most journalists.

This was (I hope this did not come as a surprise) widely reported. So we can console the Force with a response to their gripes which will be at least as forthcoming as their usual response to our gripes about them.

The first complaint was that a woman arrested “on suspicion of illegal assembly” had been “disguised as a reporter”. Apparently she was wearing a press vest. RTHK’s report on the matter could not resist adding at this point that the police did not say why the existence of a non-reporter in a press vest had anything to do with the real reporters to whom their epistle was addressed.

This is a good point. After all police people have dress obligations. They are supposed to display their numbers and/or warrant cards, though they often do not. They  are not supposed to adorn their uniforms with badges and logos of their own devising, though they often do. Journalists, on the other hand, can wear what they like.

Since the days of the trench coat, notebook and fedora with a press pass tucked into the hatband have long gone, it is very difficult to be “disguised as a journalist”.

And the press vest, handy though it may be, has no formal status at all. We know this because whenever someone complains about journalists being injured when covering street protests, the Force’s response is always that journalists have no special status. Along with first aiders, social workers, human rights observers and wandering members of the public they are liable to be shot, soaked, sprayed or peppered any time they are in the wrong place at the wrong time in one of the Force’s shooting galleries, or streets as we used to call them.

So I’m afraid this complaint must be unsubstantiated.

The next one (I quote RTHK) goes like this: “Police also accused some online media of taking close-up shots of protesters’ pamphlets that contained personal information on officers. The force described this as ‘extremely unprofessional’, adding that such shots may breach a court injunction that prevents the doxxing of police officers.”

I deplore the making of unfounded legal threats. Taking a picture of a leaflet is not “doxxing”. Of course “may” is a weasel word. President Trump may win the Nobel Peace Prize. Who knows?

I would also dispute the “unprofessional” label. If you are a reporter who is going to report the existence of a leaflet the least you are expected to do is to take a picture of one. This is not for publication, but as evidence for the truth of your story.

Now for the third complaint, which is in some ways more interesting.

“The police’s next complaint was that online media had ‘glorified’ the behaviour of a man suspected of stabbing a police officer by identifying him as a ‘resident’ who had ‘driven back’ the police during the protests. The force claimed the man was not an ordinary resident but ‘a criminal’ and said it was despicable for the outlet to confuse right and wrong.”

There is a legal point lurking here. Once legal proceedings are imminent it is a serious offence (known technically as contempt of court) for a media outlet to report events in a way which implies that the person or people arrested, or soon to be arrested, are guilty … or for that matter innocent. For that reason reporters are trained to report alleged offences using neutral language, of which “resident” and “driven back” are examples, and “a criminal” is not.

It is sadly true, as I have been complaining for years, that this rule is often broken. The reason why it is often broken is because the Department of Justice, unlike the old colonial Legal Department, does not keep an eye on the news media to spot infringements.

From time to time I have written to the DoJ pointing out conspicuous breaches of the rule. Their polite, but unhelpful, reply is that they only initiate prosecutions on receipt of suggestions from the police. This is unhelpful because the usual origin of prejudicial information is a police source, sometimes informal and sometimes in an official press conference.

As it happens the case of the resident accused of stabbing a police officer provided a good example. Within hours of his arrest it was reported on all channels, citing “police sources”, with a variety of details about the arrest which clearly implied an attempt to flee.

As some media were careless enough to report his name we must suppose this was among the information supplied. Indeed as some media managed to interview his family in time for the morning editions we must suppose that his address was supplied as well.

So there you go. Photographing the personal information of a police person is “unprofessional”. Leaking the personal information, and some highly prejudicial snippets of evidence, about an arrested suspect is business as usual for police people.

There is one rule for us, and one rule for them, as readers will no doubt already have deduced from the case of the motorcyclist alleged to have driven into a group of policemen. Initially charged with “furious driving”, he has now also been charged with “terrorism”, apparently for no better reason than that it will mean he will not get bail.

The policeman who drove a motorcycle into a group of protesters was not charged with anything.


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Slavery was, and is, a terrible institution. Discrimination against people on the grounds of their race is indefensible. Black Lives do matter. These ethical positions now seem obvious. It was not always so.

Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature) has documented the way in which, over centuries, the degree of sympathy which people could feel for other people gradually increased, leading to an equally gradual decline in violence, brutality and indifference to suffering.

In the middle ages suspects were tortured; witches were burned; heretics were tortured and then burned. Women were treated like chattels. Rape and pillage were considered acceptable compensations for the hardships of military life. Mutinous sailors were flogged to death and traitors were disembowelled.

Name any early national hero, and you can assume he – or she – participated with varying degrees of willingness in this sort of thing. We do not expect people to have subscribed then to the notions of what is acceptable now.

Elizabeth II would not order the execution without trial of a potential rival to the throne. The first Elizabeth gets a free pass for the decapitation of Mary Queen of Scots because that was what people did in those days. Her father had used the same method to dispose of inconvenient wives.

In the light of this I wonder if it was entirely fair to dunk the statue of Edward Colston in the River Severn on the grounds that some of the considerable wealth he devoted to good works in Bristol came from the slave trade.

Mr Colston was not a Confederate general who might be supposed to have considered the merits of the “peculiar institution” in whose defence he was fighting. Colston was born in 1636. At that time slavery was not controversial. Indeed it seems to have been more or less universal.

All the ancient empires of which we have records had slavery. This is so commonplace as to suggest that where it is not documented this is due to the absence of records, not the absence of slaves. Asian empires were no different.

There was no particular racial discrimination about this, though religion often intruded. The largest slave market in the world was in Istanbul. In the intermittent wars between the Turks and Christendom both sides enslaved their captives, and often swept up unlucky civilians as well.

All Mediterranean sea powers had fleets of galleys powered by slaves. Coastal settlements lived in fear of visits by pirates for whom potential slaves were a lucrative item of plunder.

There were few, if any, slaves in England in the 1630s, but educated men in those days were exposed to two sources of authority. One was the writings of ancient Greece and Rome. Both societies took slavery for granted. Nobody complained then – and indeed few complain now – that Pericles’s famous oration on the merits of democracy was delivered to a men-only audience of slave owners.

Aristotle’s opinion on the matter was that slavery was natural and useful: “That some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” He accepted that this did not satisfactorily apply to people who were enslaved because they were on the losing side in a war, which was just a “social convention”.

The other source of authority to which Colston was exposed at considerable length was naturally the Bible. This is an embarrassing topic for modern scholars. Two of St Paul’s epistles include exhortations to slaves to obey their masters. This is sometimes obscured by using “bondservant” as a euphemism for “slave”. It is also sometimes questioned whether the letters concerned actually came from Paul, a point which had not been raised in the 1630s.

The Old Testament leaves less wriggle room. Consider for example these three verses from Leviticus: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”

In short it is, I think, unfair to blame Colston for sharing the moral blindness of his time. The Royal Africa Company, in which he was certainly an investor and for a year a senior executive, had a curious history.

The famous Royalist cavalry commander Prince Rupert spent a period in exile after losing the Civil War. During his wanderings round Europe he heard stories of a legendary gold mine in West Africa. The Royal Africa Company was founded after the Restoration of Charles II to exploit this opportunity, and favoured individuals, including the king himself, subscribed.

It will not perhaps come as a complete surprise that when the first fleet arrived in West Africa it found that the stories of mountains of gold had been greatly exaggerated. The only commodity on offer from the locals was slaves, a well-established trade which had been pioneered years before by the Portuguese.

This was no bar to continued investment by respectable citizens, including the political philosopher John Locke, and everyone’s favourite 17th century diarist, Samuel Pepys.

The question then becomes: when did the moral status of slavery become so questionable that It must be considered a blemish on the record of those involved? The significant date here, as far as England is concerned, is probably 1772, when the leading judge of his day, Lord Mansfield, held that slavery was “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England.”

This seems to have come to many people as a surprise on the scale of a Supreme Court decision today that meat eating was illegal. Mansfield himself protested at wider interpretations, pointing out (technically quite correctly) that his decision was only binding on the point before the court, which was whether a slave’s master could export him for sale in another country.

But his judgment was generally interpreted as implying that slavery was and had always been illegal in England. Opponents of the practice, who were now appearing in substantial numbers, seized on it to accuse owners of overseas slave plantations of hypocrisy.

Certainly by 1830, when slavery was formally abolished throughout the Empire, it had been in bad odour for a long time. Looking askance at the list of those hold-outs who were still in the business and claimed compensation for the loss of their “property” is entirely justified.

Still, you have to wonder whether this preoccupation with grievances two centuries old is distracting people from more immediate problems. Could it be that, as Jarett Kobek puts it, “These lessons in ethics and morality were conveyed through computers and cellular phones built by slave labour in China”?

Slavery is not over. And dunking Mr Colston is not going to change that.

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Mr Jimmy Lai seems to have suddenly become a major focus for the law and order industry. Far be it from me to offer any opinion on the merits of any or all of the charges he faces, but there do seem to be a surprising number of them for someone who has reached the age of 70 without clocking any previous convictions.

For starters there is a case of intimidating a reporter three years ago. I am sure all journalists will be delighted by the discovery that this is an offence and that the Department of Justice is taking it with becoming seriousness. Those of my colleagues who do street reporting will look forward to similar efforts in defence of journalists who have been obstructed, abused, pepper-sprayed, shot, gassed or beaten up in the last year or so.  

Then there are three variations on unlawful assembly, with another one to follow when the cops have finished the paperwork. There was also a story last week about some legal problem involving a factory being used as an office.

I live in Fotan, where there are many factory buildings. As there is very little demand for factories these days many of the units in them are used for other purposes: shops, restaurants, art studios, and even, surreptitiously, residences.

It appears that Mr Lai, who by sheer coincidence owns a newspaper which is often critical of the government, may be outstandingly unlucky.

His run of bad luck continued last week in the High Court, where Mr Lai applied unsuccessfully for the lifting of a condition of his bail, that he not leave Hong Kong, so that he could visit his daughter and do some business in the US.

In the saddle on this occasion was Mr Justice Alex Lee. You might have supposed that the learned judge would have been particularly careful, in view of the legal avalanche dropping on Mr Lai’s head, to avoid any appearance that some sort of campaign was in progress. Alas, not careful enough.

Lee J correctly stated the applicable principle, which is that the defendant has a right to bail pending trial, so it is not up to the defendant to prove that his trip, if as in this case he asks for permission to make a specific trip rather than a general freedom from restrictions, is necessary.

Two paragraphs later Lee J gets down to his reasons for refusing the application and kicks off with “I am unable to be satisfied that the applicant’s proposed trip to US is really necessary.” This point is expatiated on at some length.

It appears that the judge has managed to forget his own advice. It is not for a defendant to prove that the exercise of his freedom is necessary; it is up to the prosecution to prove that a restriction is necessary. We are all innocent until proven guilty. Mr Lai is entitled to leave Hong Kong if he wishes to, whether his purposes impress a judge or not, unless the prosecution can demonstrate a serious risk that he will not return to face trial.

The judgement goes on to some rather inconclusive muttering about the temptations for defendants outside the jurisdiction of the court to refrain from returning, and then comes catastrophe.

I quote the offending passage in full: “I agree with Mr Bruce’s submission that account should also be taken of the attendant risks of the applicant contracting CONVID-19 while he was travelling.  The United States is now the country with the highest number of confirmed cases of the pandemic and that the applicant’s proposed itinerary would require him to travel extensively in those parts of that country which are worst hit by it.  There is yet to be any vaccine available for the disease and the remedies for which are still being tested. For all we know, the virus is highly infectious.  Thus, the risk of inflection whilst in the United States or on plane journey cannot be ignored.  This is especially so when the applicant happens to fall within the age group of people who are most vulnerable.  Moreover, if and when the applicant returns as proposed, he will be subject to a 14-day quarantine, the end of which is just about two weeks before the trial.  In the unfortunate event that the applicant is confirmed to have caught the disease whilst he is still in the United States, then the likelihood is that he would ‘fail to surrender to custody as the court may appoint’, albeit unintentionally.  Furthermore, should he be confirmed to have the virus after return, the trial would almost definitely have to be derailed. The said attendant risks, which in my assessment is real rather than fanciful, would have an adverse effect on the due administration of justice.”

Mr Bruce was the brief for the Department of Justice and he is, of course, entitled to advance whatever arguments he think will help his case. On the other hand the finer points of epidemic statistics are not a matter on which three expensive lawyers deploying the knowledge they have gleaned from the newspapers are likely to come to a very satisfactory conclusion.

Alternatively they may come up with a load of garbage. Lee J would have done a service to the cause of justice and his own reputation if he had told Mr Bruce that if counsel wished the court to consider the chances of Mr Lai catching an infectious disease he should call an expert witness on the subject.

Let us look at Mr Lai’s chances of catching COVID-19 if he had been allowed to travel to the US for two weeks. For the sake of simplicity let us assume that he will spend the whole time in New York State, though actually the second week was to be in Virginia, which is less dangerous.

The latest figures for the incidence of COVID-19 in New York State give us just under 2,000 cases per 100,000 people in the population. This means that if you had been in New York since January your chances of catching the virus would be two per cent. Of course if you are only staying two weeks it drops considerably lower, to something like 0.2 per cent.

But even this is unfair to New York State, which has made considerable progress since the days when it was “the part of the country worst hit” by the virus. Currently, according to CNN Health, New York State is discovering just over 600 cases every two weeks.

The population of New York State is in round numbers 20 million. This allows us to say with some confidence that the chances of Mr Lai catching the virus in two weeks are 0.003 per cent, or three for, 100,000 against. This is probably an over-estimate because the virus disproportionately affects the poor and non-Caucasian, who generally live in parts of the state which are unlikely to feature on the itinerary of visiting millionaires.

Lee J also perpetrates an elementary layman’s error by adopting the idea that “the applicant happens to fall within the age group of people who are most vulnerable.” The official position according to the WHO is that: “People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus. Older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.”

In other words your age has nothing to do with your chances of catching the virus. We older folk are more likely, if we catch it, to get very ill, though whether that is due to age or because we are more likely to have asthma etc. remains to be seen.

So “The said attendant risks, which in my assessment is real rather than fanciful” is wrong on two counts. It is unjustified, because the risks are in fact fanciful. And it is ungrammatical, because the risks are plural so ‘is’ is an error.

Do I need to remind Your Lordships generally that people are watching? Or, in what is perhaps the preferred legal terminology, people is watching.

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Hong Kong passed another small sad landmark on the path to perdition last week with the beginning of the political purge of the education business which has featured prominently on the Liaison Office’s wish list lately.

The latest victim was a Miss Lee, who pushed the Powerpoint, or did until recently, at the Heung To Middle School in Kowloon Tong. Miss Lee’s offence was a curious one.

She is, or was, a music teacher. One standard method for Hong Kong music teachers to assess the progress of their students which (according to a useful academic article by BU’s Marina Wong) they do twice a year, is to ask the students to perform a tune of their own choice on whichever instrument they are torturing their neighbours with.

Last January Miss Lee was summoned to see the principal, who is apparently a man with a future, though perhaps not as Hong Kong’s most popular school principal, and she was told that concern had been expressed that her political views were not aligned with those of the school.

This is a rather alarming notion. During my brief career as a schoolteacher I made no secret of my disreputable political views, and my department head gleefully introduced me to a pupil who shared them. Neither of us was expected to align with the school.

The evidence of Miss Lee’s turpitude was that a student or students had chosen for the purposes of their assessment the tune “Glory to Hong Kong”, a spirited march often sung in shopping malls by people in black and their sympathisers. And Miss Lee had allowed them to go ahead and warble the controversial ditty.

I must say it is not entirely clear to me what else she could have done. The student is not apparently required to give advance notice of the chosen tune. So it would hardly be fair to rule out politically contentious choices at the last minute, when it was too late to prepare something else.

Whatever the procedure, though, Miss Lee has now found herself out of a job. Some of her students protested politely round the school last week. I have no doubt this will be ignored.

The Education Secretary, no less, has said on radio that “Glory to Hong Kong” should not be played in schools because it is “propaganda”. The song “Love the Basic Law”, on the other hand, is allowed because it is “rule of law education”. This is the sort of thing  you get when you put an accountant in charge of education.

There are several things about this little scene that bother me. The first one is that there is apparently no distinction between a song, which may be political because it has words, and a tune, which can not because it consists only of notes.

There are a variety of songs which could be considered unsuitable for music education, or anything else, because of their words, like the Horst Wessel Song (which glorifies Nazism), We’re all off to Dublin in the Green (terrorism) or Thank Heaven for Little Girls (don’t ask).

But a tune is an innocent thing. The Horst Wessel Song, banned in Germany, actually used an existing hymn tune. Most Irish rebel songs are sung to old folk tunes. Glory to Hong Kong as a tune is simply a succession of notes. The political implications are in the ear of the paranoid listener.

Also, what is wrong with singing in praise of Hong Kong? There is nothing in Glory to Hong Kong about separatism, independence, or resisting one-party rule. There is quite a lot about freedom and democracy. Are these now regarded as subversive political values?

Last summer I spent some time in the south of Germany. This is generally known as Bavaria and is a state in the German federal system. Bavaria has its own flag, coat of arms and state anthem. It has a distinctive history (it was more or less a separate kingdom until 1870) its own version of the conservative party, and some other differences, which are cherished but in no way diminish the loyalty of Bavarians to Germany.

Well I knew about that. The King Ludwig who had a restaurant in Tsimshatsui named after him (recently closed, alas) was the last King of Bavaria, noted for extravagant tastes in architecture (see pic) and for supporting the work of Richard Wagner.

What I did not know was that people in some parts of Bavaria indignantly deny being Bavarian. They identify themselves as Franconian. Franconia (badge, song) was a region of statelets which survived for centuries before the upheaval caused by the arrival of Napoleon, during which it became part of Bavaria. This happened between 1803 and 1806, with finishing touches put by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

This surviving local loyalty does not mean that Franconians, any more than Bavarians, think of themselves as less German. If a large group of young people gathered in a shopping mall in Nuremberg and sang “Glory to Franconia” nobody would turn a hair. It would not be seen as subversive or secessionist. It would be seen as a legitimate expression of local loyalty, perfectly compatible with patriotism at the national level.

The poison which our Secretary for Education is eagerly importing on our behalf is the Communist Party of China’s fear of any focus of loyalty other than itself: church, city, club, family, ideal. It doesn’t matter. The CCP, like the Old Testament God, is a jealous God who requires that you should have no other Gods.

Even an extravagant affection for your home is a deviation from the required passion for Pooh.





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I try not to get into fights with other columnists. We are all entitled to our own view of matters. But I am occasionally roused to protest when enthusiasm for propaganda leads to a collapse in quality control and the perpetration of untruths about things I take seriously.

Consider Nury Vittachi, who was once a harmless joker but of late has been making an honest living from a stream of rather cheap gibes about protesters, interspersed with equally cheap gibes about pan-democrats, and occasional excursions for a poke at other targets, like Joshua Wong or “Western journalists”.

No doubt this goes down well in the Standard these days. But lurking in last Monday’s offering was this:

“From Daniel Dumbrill, ‘another fun fact, in the 156 years of British rule there was no free speech law.’ The laws which protect Hong Kong’s freedom of speech date back to the 1997 change of sovereignty.”

Dear me. Let us overlook as a bit of a historical backwater the part of the Crimes Ordinance on sedition, which specifically exempts from prosecution for sedition some kinds of political speech. Passed in the 1930s, but a bit trivial.

Let us also leave aside as a plaything for academic lawyers the point that the comparison is rather unfair. Britain itself for centuries had no law protecting free speech, relying on a largely unwritten constitution which had no place for positive rights of this kind. Free speech law only arrived when the UK joined the European community and became subject to the European human rights system in the 1980s.

Why would we expect the Brits to export something they hadn’t got themselves?

But even a dumb journalist, or a dumb specialist in whatever Mr Dumbrill does for a living, should have done enough research, before inflicting his conclusions on the public, to discover the Bill of Rights Ordinance, which was enacted in 1991 and contains specific provisions on freedom of speech, among other cherished rights.

So Mr Dumbrill’s fun fact is in fact a fun lie. Not a happy inclusion for a column called “Reliable Sauce”.

Never mind. Mr Vittachi has achieved the Valhalla of pro-regime columnists, a slot in the China Daily English language edition. He celebrated this elevation with a piece so hilarious that I nearly did myself a painful injury laughing at it.

The high point: “In recent days, I have been told repeatedly that unrestrained, loudmouth commentators like me will be the first to be silenced. This week, I had an article full of inconvenient truths censored — not by China, but by Americans. On the same afternoon, China Daily offered me this space. There’s a lesson in open-mindedness right there.”

Really, repeatedly? How many people can there be out there whose idea of an “unrestrained loudmouth commentator” is Nury Vittachi? The “first to be silenced” will be those who called for independence, followed by those who called for freedom and those who called for an end to one-party rule. Those who specialise in a poke at the powerless may even survive and prosper.

I understand the “article full of inconvenient truths” was not censored because of truths, inconvenient or otherwise, but because someone who was named in it complained that he did not wish to be identified.

As for the open-mindedness of the China Daily, in my experience that does not extend to tolerating a wide range of views in contributors.

Well I wish Mr Vittachi every happiness in his new role. But contemplating his flow of partisan giggles I fear there is a problem, pithily summed up by Dorothy Parker: “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”


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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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