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Well, the Occupy legal saga grinds on. Latest update on the trial of nine defendants here: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2019/04/10/just-sentencing-delayed-9-convicted-umbrella-movement-activists-court-seeks-report-tommy-cheung/

Basically these are the people who in disciplinary circles would be labelled “ringleaders”. The charges were some interesting legal antiques involving “inciting to commit a public nuisance”, and even “inciting to incite a public nuisance”.

All this has been much commented on. Having been convicted, the defendants made extensive mitigation speeches, readable here: https://www.hongkongfp.com/?s=in+full. The judge deferred sentencing pending reports.

Lurking in reports of the proceedings was an interesting legal issue. All or most of the defence lawyers commented, it appears, on the length of time taken by the prosecution to charge and try the defendants, as a factor which should mitigate the resulting sentences.

The delay was as follows: the offences took place in September 2014. Some of the defendants were not arrested until January 2017, and charged a further two months later. There followed a further two-year delay before the trial.

This produced a response from prosecuting counsel David Leung Cheuk-yin. Why he was allowed to offer this is a bit of a puzzle. Defence mitigation usually comes last, just before sentencing. The prosecution has had plenty of opportunities to express its bloodlust. Judge Johnny Chan would have given his reputation for fearless independence a timely boost if he had told Mr Leung to shut up.

However this did not happen. Mr Leung proceeded to say that the delay in prosecution should not be considered a factor in sentencing and “the defendants should not benefit from it”.

Mr Leung explained this long delay as being because “the police arrested 1,003 people in relation to the movement and had to go over 335 research reports, 300 witness statements and 1,133 videos”.

This is a little strange. Since “incitement” is a matter of public speech it is difficult to believe that 335 “research reports” were really necessary. Surely a few selected videos would have sufficed? As a taxpayer one must wonder if this huge investigative effort was worth it, when most of the defendants had effectively volunteered to plead guilty to unlawful assembly in 2014, while Occupy was still in progress.

Leaving aside the merits of Mr Leung’s claims to Stakhanovite levels of investigative enthusiasm, though, I would like to point out that legally it is not up to the defence to prove that it has been disadvantaged by a delay in bringing criminal proceedings. The delay is in and of itself a violation of their human rights.

As one of the standard textbooks puts it: “According to article 14 (3)(c) of the International Covenant and articles20 (4)(c) and 21 (4)(c) of the respective Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, every person facing a criminal charge shall have the right “to be tried without undue delay”. In the words of article7 (1)(d) of the African Charter, article 8(1) of the American Convention and article 6(1) of the European Convention, everyone has the right to be heard “within a reasonable time”.

This point is also recognised in the Department of Justice’s own Code for Prosecutors, which says that “The prosecutor must be alert to the rights of an accused which are relevant to the prosecution process, including equality before the law, the rights to have confidential legal advice, to be presumed innocent, and to have a fair trial without undue delay.” These rights are attributed to Basic Law Articles 25, 35 and 87, and  Bill of Rights Articles 10 and 11.

Of course this is because a delay is intrinsically hard on the defendant. His or her chances of mounting a successful defence are likely to diminish as memories fade and witnesses die or disappear. The prospect of an upcoming trial is itself stressful and disruptive of one’s normal enjoyment of life. So how long is a “reasonable time”?

Over to the UN Committee on Human Rights, of which it is reported: “The Human Rights Committee has examined numerous … cases involving alleged violations of this right … In one case, the Committee concluded that a delay of 29 months from arrest to trial was contrary to article 14… A delay of two years between arrest and trial was also considered to violate article 14. The judicial authorities were … responsible for the unreasonable delay of the proceedings contrary to article 6 in the case of Yagci and Sargin … In all, the proceedings lasted a little less than four years and eight months.”

The European Court of Human Rights has spent an astonishing 30 per cent of its caseload dealing with violations of the right to a speedy hearing. “it is for the Contracting States to organise their legal systems in such a way that their courts can guarantee to everyone the right to a final decision within a reasonable time in the determination of his civil rights and obligations”.

After so many cases of this kind the Court has developed the idea that states must also provide effective remedies for litigants or defendants subjected to unreasonable delays. These may include an arrangement in which  “the length of proceedings had been taken into account when reducing the sentence in an express and measurable manner.”

The European Court examines each case on its merits, and does not have a stated time limit. The Supreme Court of Canada is less timid. It “rejected the framework traditionally used to determine whether an accused was tried within a reasonable time under section 11(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and replaced it with a presumptive ceiling of 18 months between the charges and the trial in a provincial court without preliminary inquiry, or 30 months in other cases.”

Similar limits are operated in many American states, They require, for all but the most serious felonies, prosecutions to begin within three years of the offence.

In the UK the National Audit Office expressed concern in 2016 that the average waiting time between first appearance before magistrates and the actual trial had increased by 23 per cent since 2010, and was now 132 days, or about four and a half months. This is an average and no doubt is sometimes greatly exceeded. I doubt, though, if these legal marathons commonly end with a plea from prosecuting counsel for inordinate length to be disregarded in sentencing.

Let us return to the Occupy nine and put their ordeal in an international perspective. Since the overall period between September 2014 (start of Occupy) and March 2019 (start of trial) was just short of five years it seems unavoidable that some of the defendants either were not charged until three years after the offence (which would let them off the hook in Oregon, etc) or were charged but not tried for 30 months (which would mean an automatic acquittal in Canada). We may also note that in countries signed up the European Convention on Human Rights a reduction of sentence to compensate for prosecutorial  ponderousness is not only allowed but expected.

I suppose Mr Leung would say in his defence that the delay was unavoidable because of the complexity of the case and the number of defendants. The easy answer to that is that these features were both chosen by him. There was nothing inevitable about the decision to drag a legal blunderbuss out of its grave, or to point it at nine defendants simultaneously.

We must also note that the length of a case is not only a matter of legal complexity, the need to gather large quantities of evidence, or the number of defendants. It is also controlled by the amount of resources and manpower devoted to the matter, and the degree of haste.

Consider a historic case from 1945: a new law, 24 defendants on war crimes charges. Evidence gathering could not really start until the war in Europe ended in May because before that the prosecutors had no access to Germany. Proceedings began in Nuremberg on November 20 and concluded in October of the following year. Speed can be achieved if it is wanted badly enough.

I suppose with so many offensive smells coming from this case the fact that it was pursued at a pace which was itself a violation of the defendants’ rights is rather a side issue. It does, though, suggest that the Department of Justice’s standards in these matters, as in others, are rather out of line with those in the rest of the world.



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I keep putting off writing about Global Warming. It’s too big a topic for a journalist. One feels like a pavement artist suddenly recruited to redecorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

My professional education included the notion that any story worth telling could be told in ten paragraphs. We might run to 12 for the Second Coming, but only if this happy event occurred in our circulation area.

Any young cub who ignored this rule through ignorance or over-indulgence would swiftly discover that his art had been severely pruned before printing by the sub editors, who had a lot more hours in their logbooks than he did and consequently were not receptive to complaints about their work.

A journalist who reflects on his output soon realises that this insistence on brevity is both a blessing – it makes you concentrate – and a curse – some topics just do not lend themselves to the “news treatment”.

Now that our words are no longer committed to paper there is, in theory, no objection to extra length. On the internet you can rabbit for ever. Unfortunately the desire to reduce the damage inflicted on Scandinavian fir forests by the demand for newsprint has been replaced by apprehension about on-line readers’ ability to concentrate on any topic for more than five minutes.

As this piece contains no pictures of cats, or naked ladies, it is doomed to the sort of minority status enjoyed by chamber music or the more exotic East European liqueurs. But duty calls.

It called, in fact, in the shape of a demonstration by Hong Kong school kids, coinciding with similar manifestations around the world, protesting that global warming was a threat to their future and adults were not doing enough about it.

I was, I must admit, glad to see that strikes in schools had been reinvented, having long ago participated in one myself (see cutting). There were only 40 of us, apparently. I remember we excluded Forms Five and Seven on the grounds that they were preparing for exams and left the Form Fours out as too young.

Despite the tiny numbers involved the event attracted a surprising amount of media attention. As a result everyone who was not incurably shy got a media organisation to him or herself. Robin Marriner got the Daily Mirror; I got the BBC.

This leaves no particular problem for me in contemplating the idea that perhaps the protesting youngsters were right.

It has surely become impossible to doubt that global warming is taking place. We may feel that committees of scientists on fat UN salaries have a long history of wolf-crying. Can you name a food between Apple Pie and Zebra steaks which the WHO has not at some time condemned as hazardous to health?

Still, sometimes there is a real wolf. And the evidence has piled up. How many retreating glaciers, melting ice caps, dying coral reefs and record-breaking heat waves do we need before we concede that something is up. Like the global temperature.

And in view of our status as the biggest and busiest species on the planet it is very difficult to avoid the blame. Anyone who still disputes that global warming is taking place and that our activities have a great deal to do with it is either very stupid or in the pay of the coal industry.

What that means for the future is of course a matter for speculation, as the future always is. A variety of predictions are offered.

Many of us, perhaps lulled by a succession of Hollywood movies in which threats ranging from wandering asteroids to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms are seen off in two hours by a handsome young American scientist and his generously-bosomed girlfriend, may still nurture the hope that “something will turn up”.

The scientists who say that things have already passed some mysterious tipping point which will in due course see most of the world become uninhabitable may be pessimists. But sometimes the pessimists are right.

Also, if there is such a mysterious tipping point and we have not yet reached it, we are certainly still ploughing towards it. Biologists now doubt the legend that lemmings occasionally, in moments of mass hysteria, fling themselves off Norwegian cliffs. But human beings have a long record of self-destructive behaviour.

The most drastic predictions are not necessarily the most likely. But when the possible outcomes include an uninhabitable planet it behoves us to take the matter seriously. As Yuval Harari said in a rather different context, those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.

This brings us to the second matter, which is, given that global warming is taking place and represents a serious threat to future generations, are our leaders doing enough about it?

I say this is a matter for our leaders because this seems so clearly to be an issue which demands collective action.

The students’ protest unleashed a flood of helpful suggestions from various quarters of ‘things you can do to help instead of protesting’. We are all urged to stop using straws, recycle bottles, eat less meat, take the stairs instead of the lift, take our own cutlery to school and so on and on.

Many of these things are good things to do. But as a way of dealing with global warming this sort of advice looks like the captain of the Titanic giving all the passengers a cup each and telling them to start baling if the ship hits anything.

Those who hog the steering wheel have the responsibility to avoid collisions. So how are our leaders doing? Well never mind the global circus. How are our local leaders doing?

Not so good. Taxed with neglecting environmental matters, that speaker for all seasons A. Spokesman said that the last budget included subsidies for the provision of electric charging points, which would encourage people to switch to electric cars.

This does not look like an environmental measure at all. It looks like another example of our government suffering from the delusion that it is up to them to foster the up-take of the latest gadget, however irrelevant and unwanted it may be. Remember digital radio?

The fact is that an electric car is not a solution to pollution. It merely transfers the pollution from on the street to the nearest power station. If most of your power comes from dams or windmills then electric cars do not pollute. If most of it comes from coal-fired power stations, as ours does, then I have some bad news for you.

Scientists at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute calculated the CO2 emissions from plug-in electrics, depending on the energy sources used to generate electricity in various countries, and then translated that into miles per gallon.

They found that an electric car recharged by a coal-fired plant produces as much CO2 as a gasoline-powered car that gets 29 miles per gallon.

And that, as a contribution to reducing pollution, is pathetic. Any prudent Prius driver can get 50 miles from a gallon and the tuning of an engine to charge a battery rather than push a car allows a considerable reduction in the other pollutants emitted.

Actually most of us will never buy an electric car because it would be foolish to do this if you depended on finding a public charging point when it wants to be fed. You want to be able to charge it at home. So you will only buy one if you own, or at least have the exclusive use of, a parking space. Government money spent on this is a subsidy for millionaires.

The government will no doubt say that the removal of some pollutants from the immediate environment is an improvement. You can walk down the street without being gassed even if our power stations are still poisoning the planet.

Not so. The smallest pollution particles are the most dangerous. They do not come from the exhaust pipe. They come from the brake pads and tyres, which are the same on electric cars as on petrol ones.

Actually from both a global and local perspective the responsible thing to do would be to discourage car use altogether, as some European cities are now doing. But our legislators, supine sycophants when invited to trash some cherished civil right which offends Beijing, find a streak of stubborn resistance when it comes to any official proposal which might make motoring more expensive.

So we cannot expect anything from there.

I conclude that the students are quite right. Rome is burning and the emperor is fiddling. They will pay the price. But our leaders, it has become obvious over recent years, do not care what young Hong Kongers think.


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More on birds

You will not believe this. A faithful reader of mine lives in Morecambe, Lancashire, the seaside town on whose local paper I had my first journalist job. The newspaper is still there, and the passage which follows is a slightly trimmed version of a story about a gentleman known as the Morecambe Birdman, who was sent to prison for feeding pigeons. The local paper reported as follows:

“When John Wilkinson told his fellow prisoners he was in jail for feeding pigeons, they burst out laughing.

‘Some of them were in for murder or robbery with violence, and they couldn’t believe I was in for feeding birds,’ he said.

‘They thought I was winding them up.

‘Then they came to me a week later and said they realised I was telling the truth, because they’d seen me on TV.’

Mr Wilkinson, known as the Morecambe Birdman, was sent to prison for breaching an ASBO restricting his love of feeding pigeons, after years of complaints by neighbours.

He was jailed for six weeks and served just under half the sentence.

Hundreds of thousands flocked to social media to support the pensioner, many complaining that his punishment did not fit the crime.

The Visitor also began a campaign to Free the Morecambe Birdman.

Mr Wilkinson, 65, said being sent to prison will not stop him from feeding birds in Morecambe in future.

‘I regard being sent to prison as excessive and unjust’ he said.”

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Brighton, the south coast town to which I used to resort for fun and diversion when I lived 20 miles up the road, has few claims to historical fame. The Prince Regent slept there, and rarely slept alone.

But in 1862 it was the scene of a historically important accident. Trains leaving Brighton in the general direction of London have to face a long climb up the South Downs, before they reach the Clayton Tunnel, which gave, and still gives, access to the more easy-going scenery of the Weald.

In the 1860s trains operated on the “time interval” system. A train leaving the station would be given a five-minute start before another one would be sent after it. And that was it. The trains were quite slow.

On the day in question three trains left the Brighton station and headed for the tunnel (picturesque north portal pictured below). Train number one passed the signal box before the tunnel and entered the portal. The signal at that point should have automatically moved to “stop”. It did not. A gadget was provided to warn the signalman that this important event had not occurred but by the time he realised what was going on train number two had passed the signal. So he waved a red flag from his window as the train went by.

Minutes passed. Train number three appeared, and waited at the signal which he had manually moved to “stop”. At this point the signalman made a serious mistake. He sent a message to his counterpart at the other end of the tunnel asking if the tunnel was clear. This gentleman, having just seen train number one storm past his box, replied that it was.

So our signalman duly sent train number three into the tunnel. Unfortunately the driver of train number two had seen the red flag. He had stopped his train, a procedure which took some time in those days. And then he started reversing back towards the tunnel entrance.

The resulting collision inside the tunnel caused 300 casualties. As generally happened with coal-burning engines and wooden carriages the wreckage caught fire. Rather surprisingly only 23 people died but the railways were in their infancy – in its day this was the worst accident ever.

The accident achieved instant fame because it was the inspiration for a popular ghost story by Charles Dickens, “The Signalman”. The tunnel is still rumoured to be haunted.

More seriously, in consequence of the crash the time-interval system was rapidly abandoned, and replaced by what was known as the “absolute block” system. Under this the track is divided into sections called “blocks” and the signalling system is set up so that only one train is ever allowed into a block at a time.

Of course this did not prevent all accidents, or even all collisions between trains running on the same track. Human beings can be very ingenious, or very careless.

Times have changed, signal boxes have disappeared, equipment has become more sophisticated and knowledgable. But still the block system has been a fundamental feature of safe railway operation for some 150 years.

So I was a little disturbed to read, after the latest MTR incident, that the corporation was testing some software which would abandon this fundamental principle, and allow the trains to chase each other round the network, saved from disaster only by an omniscient computer.

I understand that this is a way of increasing the capacity of the system, but the latest accident was on what is known as a scissors crossing. Most of the time an MTR train is following another MTR train and has another following behind it. The worst likely problem is that one driver will have to brake sharply to avoid his predecessor.

A scissors crossing has more exciting possibilities, because it is a junction where trains can go in one direction or the other but not both. You can, as it were, have a train going Route A-to-Route B or a train going Route B-to-Route A. If two trains attempt this simultaneously they will collide.

Unfortunately a network like the MTR needs a lot of these. If a train arrives at the end of the line in, say, Kennedy Town driving on the left it cannot simply go back the way it came. It needs to switch to driving on its new left. This can be done in a number of different ways but the easiest and cheapest is to have a scissors crossing just outside the station so that trains can go from the in-bound track to the out-bound one either before or after visiting the station.

Clearly this is a problem from a signalling point of view, because this gives us eight possible routes through the resulting junction (four in each direction) of which two pairs do not conflict with each other and four involve a possible collision.

It would, I suppose, be surprising if we could not find a computer somewhere capable of managing this tricky situation. But because of the consequences of error, it will have to be extremely reliable, which rules out any of the computers of my acquaintance.

One wonders why they did not avoid this complexity by separating the cross-overs. The scissors looks good on a model but it is really just two cross-overs super-imposed. The left-to-right one doesn’t have to be in the same place as the right-to-left one. Perhaps that would be more expensive.

Well I suppose they know what they are doing. It is nice to hear that the MTR is trying to improve things. You have to wonder, though, if this is a good time to introduce a spiffy new system when they seem to be having so much trouble operating the present one.



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It is not often that a government press event has me rolling on the floor laughing. So I would like to thank Secretary for Development Michael Wong for his priceless performance on the Lantau Vision thing.
Reclamation for the first new island, he said, would begin in 2025. The first residents “may” move in by 2032. That allows seven years for the lot: the whole transition from placid patch of sea to completed public housing estate.
I am reminded of the United States Senator who greeted a particularly rosy official forecast by asking if he was expected to believe in the tooth fairy as well.
Let us look at our government’s record as a user of a large piece of reclaimed land. In 1998 the Kai Tak airport closed, leaving some 300 hectares free for new uses. If Mr Wong had been in charge the first tenants “might” have been moving into the resultant new housing in 2005. He wasn’t.
In fact, so far, two public housing estates have materialised. In both, according to the government website, the first tenants moved in in 2013. That’s 15 years after the government inherited a piece of land already reclaimed.
The rest of the Kai Tak site contains two completed projects – a new office block for the Trade and Industry people and the famous Cruise Ship Terminal. These take up very little of the space, of course. The rest is at various stages in the progression from “temporary” outdoor par park through building site to completed project.
The new Kai Tak MTR station looks almost finished from a distance. As it is completely surrounded by construction deserts of various kinds I suppose the corporation must regard not having to operate it yet as the sunny side of the delays to the Shatin to Central link.
In the light of the lamentable performance on the Kai Tak site it appears that even if the Lantau Vision reclamation starts in 2025 the first residents might move in about … oh … 2040? This is a very long-range project. Do we detect a hint of hubris in the assumption that the government has the faintest idea what Hong Kong, or indeed the world, will be like by then?
I notice also that roads will be installed by the time the residents move in – so thoughtful! – but the railways “might not run until three or five years later”. Come, Sir, do not be so constipated in your imaginings. If the railways follow recent precedents they might not run until ten years later, if at all.
I fear the government is going to repeat the mistake made in turn in Shatin, Tsing Yi, Cheung Kwan O, and Tin Shui Wai at different times. In each case residents were moved in when the only public amenity was one of those bus stops KMB makes by sticking a pole in a recycled wheel. Epic tales of misery and tedium ensued.
There will be roads. Will there be markets, parks, teahouses, malls, cinemas, a Town Hall, even perhaps the odd dai pai dong? Or will all these things have to wait while the new estate is filled with public housing applicants who cannot refuse an offer without losing their place in the queue?
Well I still think the whole thing will be ripe for cancellation at some future date “in the light of changing circumstances”. After all the price has already zoomed from “about $500 billion”, (nameless source explaining the budget) to $624 billion (Mr Wong’s latest estimate). If it eventually reaches $1 trillion (educated guess from Chu Hoi-dick) it will have done no worse than the Express Rail did, though on a larger scale.
But we are surely not that stupid. It’s not the Lantau Vision. It’s the Lantau Mirage, shimmering in the distance as we slog through the desert. Don’t drink too much of your water.

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What is the nature of a university? Since the times of the great Prussian educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt it has been regarded as a community of scholars and students who on a basis of freedom and equality pursue knowledge together.

Clearly this is not the way they see things at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The students had a noticeboard. Some of the notices which appeared on it aroused the disapproval of the Poly U management. They had the notice board covered in red paper and announced that they had “resumed” control over it.

The students protested. Some of them tried to visit the university’s top administrators to protest personally. The university backed down and restored the noticeboard to the students’ union.

It also brought disciplinary proceedings against four students who, it said, had “misbehaved by assaulting school staff, refusing to comply with orders, and exhibiting conduct in detriment to the school’s reputation.” Some of them had “defamed” an administrator.

The four were a master’s degree student, who was expelled, the past president of the student union, who was suspended for a year, the student member of the university council, who was sentenced to 120 hours of community service, and the union’s external affairs person, who got 60 hours.

How these decisions were made we do not know and we are not going to know. The relevant committee meets in private and the Poly U refuses to discuss the matter out of respect for the privacy of the condemned students, a convenient refuge.

Now I have a sort of personal interest in this, which I had better insert briefly here. I was myself, at different times, a master’s student, a student union president, and an elected student member of a university council. I was also, for a while, the chairman of a university disciplinary panel.

This was all in another country and another century, and it certainly feels like it when compared with recent events here. While I was a master’s student I participated in a weekend-long occupation of the entire London School of Economics. Nobody was hauled before a tribunal of any kind as a result, though the school did decide to upgrade its gates.

While I was a student union president the students occupied the administrative building of our university for the best part of a week. This might have led to a chasm opening between staff and students, as it did to some extent at LSE.

We nevertheless managed, due to hard work by people on both sides of the dispute who thought it was important, to remain on speaking terms generally and, again, there was no disciplinary action of any kind.

While I was the student rep on the council there was an academic strike. Again, no sequel, at least for the student participants.

No doubt some people in Hong Kong will regard this history generally, and the fact that I was not personally expelled, as examples of that laxity which leads to chaos in decadent Western democracies. How much more bracing it would have been if everyone concerned had been sent to a re-education camp!

This is unfair. The idea of a university education is, as Humboldt put it, to “enable students to become autonomous individuals and world citizens by developing their own reasoning powers in an environment of academic freedom…  Knowledge should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism rather than authority, tradition, or dogma.”

These aspirations have implications for the way a university is run. It is not a kindergarten, nor even a secondary school. Students are adults who are entitled to their own opinions and also to human rights, of which freedom of speech is one.

If these opinions are expressed strongly or physically, that is a problem which the university as a community needs to work on. Swift resort to punishing a few individuals is not a solution; it is a contribution to the problem.

I realise there is an unfortunate history here. When the polytechnics were polytechnics they were managed in conformity to a long if rather inglorious tradition imported from the UK: students were regarded as passive raw material being processed down the production line by a staff of academic serfs under the rule of a despotic management. Becoming a university should have changed all that. Did it?

There may also be a cultural problem. Maybe some of the more conservative administrators think that staff-student relations should proceed along the lines indicated by the old geezer with the white beard in Kill Bill who punishes a cheeky pupil by poking her eye out.

Or it may be that some people are trying to get ahead of mainlandisation, as it were.

Whatever the reason, it cannot be disputed that the Poly U is not looking good at the moment. It seems that the arrival of ten students in administrative territory is regarded as an invasion, and that the reaction of senior administrators to a student knocking on the door is to lock the door and dive under the desk.

There is no need for this. Students can be unreasonable and noisy but they don’t bite.

Some serious thought is needed to the matter of discipline. In academic matters it is clear that a university’s teaching staff have to exert the powers needed to uphold standards: to prevent cheating, to ensure fair assessment, to design the curriculum, to keep exam papers secret and so on.

In non-academic matters the situation is rather different. All members of the university community have a stake in the preservation of peace and property. There is no reason to suppose that academics are particularly good at this. In our system – where the JUPAS system gives one take-it-or-leave-it offer – we can hardly say that a student’s admission implies consent to being subject to the forensic fumbling of a bunch of amateurs.

If the complaint is of a crime then it should be passed to the police unless everyone concerned agrees to an internal solution. Defaming a vice president is not a crime; it is an exercise of free speech and if the vice president objects he should be left to sue like everyone else.

The offence of “conduct in detriment of the school’s reputation” is a piece of nonsense. People conduct themselves in ways detrimental to their schools’ reputations all the time. Professors fake their research records, fake their current activities, have affairs with other professors’ wives or – worse – with students.

It is often said in university PR circles that every university in Hong Kong has an undiscovered scandal it is sitting on in the fervent hope that it will never surface. Most of us would have forgotten about the Poly U’s little fracas if allowed to do so.

Sentencing people to hours of community service should be left to proper judges unless the Poly U’s disciplinary panel is prepared to go the whole hog in preserving the legal rights of potential convicts, up to and including the right to legal representation.

This whole affair would be a disaster without the whiff of politics hanging over it, but alas whiff there is. The Poly U’s sudden enthusiasm for censorship followed student enthusiasm for Hong Kong independence.

This matter of independence is a minority pursuit of no practical significance and its main attraction is that it gets up the nostrils of politicians, mainland officials and other people for whom students rightly have little respect.

It is an exercise of free speech. No doubt exercising this right for the purposes of provocation could be considered immature behaviour. The response to it should not be equally immature. The answer to incorrect speech is correct speech, not censorship.

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I was passing the north face of the Central Market in Des Voeux Road the other day when I noticed a new set of signs had appeared on the wall outside the public toilet.

One of these was clearly modelled on a road sign: a red ring with a mysterious black silhouette inside it and a diagonal red line to indicate that something was forbidden. It was difficult to make much of the silhouette, but any mystery in the matter was cleared up by the next sign. This, in a less graphic and witty way, urged passers-by not to feed pigeons and warned of a possible fine if you were caught doing so.

In case the fear of official disapproval was not enough to deter degenerate pigeon-fanciers, the third sign carried a set of warning cartoons about the evil consequences of feeding pigeons, notably a grossly over-weight pigeon and a grossly inflated pigeon population. Presumably these were alternatives.

This came as something of a shock. In my neck of the woods, near a country park, we are used to signs urging us not to feed things. The most general one, just down the road, says “Do not feed wild animals. Nature can meet their needs.” Very trusting.

From time to time we are treated to more specific signs urging us not to feed monkeys. Lately we have also been treated to one urging us to avoid feeding – or indeed any other interaction – with wild pigs.

I understand the rationale for this. Wild animals belong in the wild, and it is better that they should not be encouraged to forsake their traditional hunting and/or gathering lifestyle for an easier life foraging through suburban dustbins.

We have the awful example of the Sacred Ibis, an outstandingly beautiful bird native to Australia which, finding its traditional boggy habitat shrinking under human impact, found a new lifestyle as an urban scavenger. It is now known informally as a “bin chicken”

ibisStill I was a bit shocked by the idea of an official ban on birdfeeding. This is, after all, something of a cultural tradition. It has a song of its own in Mary Poppins, to be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHrRxQVUFN4

A darker variation by Tom Lehrer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhuMLpdnOjY

When I was a kid young Londoners were regularly taken to Trafalgar Square, where it was traditional to feed the pigeons, and hawkers offered food for the purpose. This is usually described in reminiscences as “grain” though as far as I remember it was dried peas.

Anyway you bought your little bag of food. Pigeons gathered at a respectful distance. Then if you dropped some on the floor they would gather to pick it up. More daring feeders would hold out a handful and the birds would come and perch on your wrist to eat it. Exhibitionists could put a little heap on their head and “wear pigeons”, though there was a risk of getting an unwanted type of shampoo doing this.

trafalgarHealth watchers regularly warned that the pigeons were carriers of, as one writer put it “every disease from Athlete’s Foot to Zarathustra’s Elbow”. But nobody I knew of ever caught anything. Still the Health and Safety experts won in the end. In 2001 the food hawkers were banned, and pigeons are now deterred from the square by a large tame falcon.

This certainly saved a good deal on the maintenance of Nelson’s column, which stands in the middle of the square. The Admiral regularly had to be rescued from a growing pile of bird poop.

Elsewhere, the feeding of birds is still regarded as a benevolent interaction with nature. People who have gardens erect “bird feeders”, which will attract wild birds and are carefully designed to protect diners from the attentions of predatory cats.

In short, the desire to interact in a mutually satisfying way with wild animals is generally regarded as one of our nicer characteristics. There are, of course, numerous anomalies in human relations with animals – as friends, as food, as spectacles – but throwing the odd crumb to a sparrow has generally been given the green light.

Well, we all understand that in an urban context you can have too much bird life. On the other hand I can think of few less likely venues for a bit of irresponsible bird feeding than Des Voeux Road, which is hideous with traffic and has no seats. As far as I could see it had no pigeons either.

Hong Kong is not a great place for outdoor eating, and there is no tradition of food sharing here. Moreover it is too late to regard the local pigeon as a wild bird to be protected from the temptations of city life. Any pigeon which has found its way to an urban park is probably already past that.

I take particular exception to the suggestion that feeding a pigeon may subject you to a $1,500 fine. There is no mention of pigeons, or bird feeding, in the Laws of Hong Kong (which are, thank goodness, electronically searchable) so I suppose the authors of the poster had in mind the offence of littering.

Well the relevant ordinance defines litter at great length. Take a deep breath:

  • (a) any earth, dirt, soil, dust, ashes, paper or refuse;
  • (b) any glass, china, earthenware or tin;
  • (c) any mud, clay, brick, stone, plaster, sand, cement, concrete, mortar, wood, timber, sawdust, plastic, construction material or excavated material;
  • (d) any rubble, rubbish or debris;
  • (e) any filth, manure, dung, excretal matter and any other offensive, noxious or obnoxious matter or liquid; and
  • (f) any substance likely to constitute a nuisance.

No doubt the official hope is that (f) can be extended to a substance which is likely to encourage or enlarge the bird population. This is a long shot. The usual rule of statutory interpretation is that where a general term follows the specific ones it is held to refer only to the specifics already mentioned. As there is no mention of bread, birdseed etc. this should be a serious obstacle.

Well we must not underestimate the willingness of local magistrates to connive at prosecutorial abuses of the law. But there is another problem. It is surely in the nature of litter that it stays in the place where it is dropped, thus frustrating the purpose of the law, which is to provide cleaner pavements.

But, My Lord, I only dropped the piece of bread in the confident and justified expectation that a bird would immediately pick it up and eat it. So it was not litter. Case dismissed?


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