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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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District Court judge Stanley Chan has a way of uncovering parts of the law that other judges don’t reach.

His latest innovation came in the sentencing earlier this week of Tam Chak-ti, a democrat and former DJ, who had earlier been convicted on a variety of sedition charges.

When someone with a lot of friends who has been in custody for a long time has his day in court, the public gallery tends to be full. Hand signals, smiles are exchanged, possibly the odd oral message. National security judges, of whom Stanley is one, like to discourage this, in case it gets political.

The others do not, though, go as far as he did, saying that he had asked the prosecution to set up surveillance cameras pointing at the public gallery. “The court is the court, even if the judge is not inside the courtroom, it is still a court,” he said. And added that he would not allow any noise or “political promotion”, presumably even if he was not present.

This is not acceptable. From an architectural point of view, certainly, the court is a court, whether the judge is there or not, just as a stable remains a stable if there is no horse in it, and a sewer remains a sewer even if there is no poop floating down it.

From a legal point of view the situation is rather different. Judges are endowed with sweeping powers to keep order in their courtrooms. They can order instant arrest and unlimited detention. Senior judges are perfectly well aware that this sort of summary procedure does not meet the usual standards and appeal courts have often urged restraint in its use.

The purpose of these powers is to ensure that the proceedings can go on in an orderly fashion. If the judge is not there then there are no proceedings taking place.

The implication of Chan’s remarks were quite clear. They were a threat. If the prosecution’s cameras revealed something to which he took exception he would use the power to commit for contempt. For “use”, read “abuse”.

It is difficult, though not impossible, to imagine a case where a judge might legitimately use the power to commit for contempt in connection with actions outside the court, and indeed outside the time of the hearing.

There was, for example, a case in England in which an alert court official spotted a man on the roof of the court engaged in arranging to pipe laughing gas into the air conditioning system.

In the absence of this sort of technical innovation, though, people in a court public gallery outside the time of the actual hearing are in the same legal position as they would be in the street. You cannot disrupt a trial which is not taking place. If lawyers still in the courtroom – whether the prosecution or defence – take exception to what is said or done their proper recourse is to call the police, not show the judge a video.

In fact is it normally unlawful to take video in a courtroom and I have some doubts about the propriety of a judge making an exception for his own purposes.

There is also the question what happens to the video afterwards. As our courts are under a great deal of international scrutiny these days it is important to avoid the impression that people attending a trial as spectators – as we are all perfectly entitled to do – are being discouraged by having their attendance recorded by government officials connected with the national security industry.

No doubt it could be argued on Chan’s behalf that a church remains legally a church, even if no priest is present. Sacrilege would still be sacrilege if the building was empty. This is because God is present. Judges are not gods, a point which Chan seems to have some difficulty with, because his all-seeing eye perceives things which were not, and indeed could not, be demonstrated by the evidence presented in his court.

Consider this comment on Mr Tam’s political ambitions: “The defendant’s multiple grandstanding … there is only one purpose without a doubt, that is to enter the Legislative Council, enter Hong Kong’s administrative structure, and ‘enjoy’ the income, power, and social status given to him using government funds.”

Most of this is unexceptionable. Of course politicians in the old days when anyone could run for election hoped to get into Legco, just as soldiers aspire to be generals and judges, we suppose, hope one day to sit in the Court of Final Appeal. But where did the “using government funds” come from?

I presume there was no expert evidence from a psychologist – or a government-friendly retired historian – as to the motivation for Mr Tam’s political ambitions, so there was no reason to suppose that they are as venal as the judge implied.

The judge took a more modest approach to the defence’s claim that Mr Tam had a “genuine ideology”. Citing excerpts from Tam speeches the judge said he “could not see where it included his so-called ideology”.

This is a dangerous way of putting it. Unbidden the disrespectful mind contemplates answers like: not in that part of the speech perhaps. Or maybe some familiarity with political theory is required. Or intelligence.

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Sad story last week about a man who set out to rob a local bank. He waved a gun-like object at the cashier, who emptied the till into a bag. Apparently this only amounted to $14,000; banks are just not a pile of cash waiting to be collected these days.

Anyway the robber exited the bank. The cashier, a conscientious person, gave chase from a safe distance and observed the robber get into his getaway vehicle: a public bus!

Naturally the proverbial hue and cry was raised and the police met the bus when it got to Sham Shui Po. Alas our robber may have been parsimonious but he was not stupid, and had already got off at an earlier stop.

I suppose the entire bank robbery industry will be horrified at this decline in standards. A get-away car is usual, departing on the back seat of a motorbike makes sense in traffic-clogged cities, but hopping on the 85D for a couple of stops is letting the profession down.

More seriously, the robber was no doubt a first-timer with very little in the way of working capital, driven to desperation by the disruption to life in general and the economy in particular caused by the COVID virus and the government’s efforts to combat it.

People are hurting. So this is not an auspicious time for our leaders to engage in a spectacularly wasteful exhibition of conspicuous consumption.

Which is why it seems a shame that the processing of our sole candidate for Chief Executive, Mr John Lee, is taking such an expensive form. The government apparently budgeted a cool $228 million for this exercise. When it was postponed because of COVID we were told that this change of date would cost a further $50 million, making a grand total of $278 million for an “election” whose result is already a foregone conclusion.

This is not a criticism of the electoral system; whatever system you use to choose, or choose to use, if there is only one candidate there is surely no need to go through the whole ritual, especially if the whole ritual is as expensive as this one.

The cost comes to a little over $190,000 per elector. This is an astonishing figure and could surely be trimmed vigorously. It is of course wildly in excess of comparable figures for elections elsewhere, but they commonly involve so many more electors than our 1,454 that comparisons are meaningless.

Officially the money goes on “hiring venues, manning polling and counting stations, mailing, and renting storage space”. I take it from all these plurals that the $278 million includes the election of the election committee itself.

But the election committee elections were all done and dusted when the CE election was postponed, so we are left to wonder what the extra $50 million is for.

I suppose we shall have to mail the electors a polling card of some kind, with a notification of the place and date of voting. After that?

Well clearly nobody has turned his or her mind to possible economies. Apparently the voting will take place in the Convention and Exhibition Centre, which is neither convenient nor cheap, and will go on all day, which is quite unnecessary.

This is surely an opportunity for Mr Leung Chun-ying, the Election Convenor, to make his mark as a man with an eye to eliminating wasteful expenditure. The government owns plenty of large indoor spaces which could be used for the election without paying. The poll could be held in the Government House Ball Room, the Express Rail station, the Queen Elizabeth Stadium… the list is endless.

There is no need for it to go on all day. All we have to do is to assemble the electors in a large space. The national anthem is played. Mr Leung stands up and delivers a suitably localised equivalent of

“The motion before the House is that Mr John Lee should be nominated to the Beijing authorities as Hong Kong’s choice for the office of Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR Government. Those in favour say ‘Aye’. (pause) Those against say ‘No’ (silent pause). The Ayes have it. I declare Mr John Lee duly elected.”

This would save a lot of paper, time and expense. If we ever have two candidates in the future it may need to be elaborated a bit. But for the time being it should enable Mr Leung to save about $49 million of the budgeted expenses, and star on an unusual bit of television.

You’re welcome.

Don’t clap; throw money.

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The current status of Mr John Lee Kar-chui has presented one of those linguistic problems which delight retired sub editors: how do you describe a man who is clearly going to win a fixed election?

My regular free newspaper tried “chief executive hopeful”, realised that wasn’t really capturing the reality of the situation – “chief executive certainty” would have been more accurate – and retreated the next day to “sole chief executive candidate”.

A local columnist offered “chief executive-in-waiting” which captures the “not yet but definitely soon” aspect of the situation, at the risk of making Mr Lee sound like a minor palace official, as in “lady-in-waiting”.

Foreign publications were less inhibited about the manipulations behind the scenes: one offered “the central government’s selection”, but this will hardly do for Hong Kong purposes.

Digging into an on-line thesaurus provides some suggestions, but they all have problems. The “embryonic chief executive” is too medical. The “chief executive presumptive” (as in “heir presumptive”) works, but involves confusing local readers with an adjective which is for some reason always put after the noun, instead of in the usual place in front of it.

The word used in English elections for candidates who do not yet wish to be counted for election expenses purposes is “prospective”, probably a technical leap too far for most of us. The “putative candidate” sounds vaguely Russian.

Well having raised the question I suppose we must offer some sort of answer. Mr Lee is the “future chief executive”. This involves treating the election as a formality, albeit one costing a mind-blowing total of $278 million. But it is a formality.

This is just as well. Mr Lee’s efforts to look like a man running for a real election are worthy of Dr Johnson’s comment on women preaching “like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It’s not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Mr Lee has been nominated by more than half of the election committee. Presumably all these people will vote for him. Nevertheless he is now diligently working on a “manifesto”. He has also recruited a large crew – mostly “heavyweights” you have never heard of – to work on his “campaign”.

Well a few words of advice is Mr Lee wants to start his chief executive career in a warm glow of public approval – or at least not in an icy depth of public hostility. Putting “national security legislation” as a top priority is not a crowd pleaser. Nor, alas, is “closer integration with the Greater Bay Area”. We know you have to work on these things, but they are not going to endear.

Your mainland minders are convinced that Hong Kong will roll over on its back with its legs in the air if its housing problems are solved, so put that up in lights. Social security, pensions, improvements to aged homes, health services are all neglected topics which might properly engage the attention of a benevolent chief. Avoid ‘education reform”. You may mean something completely innocent by this but the person in the street will interpret it as a promise of better brainwashing.

Prepare to be asked about all sorts of things in press conferences. Some of your early performances were not inspired. When asked about the jailing of journalists it will not do, for example, to point out that since the Handover not one word of the Basic Law has been changed.

This is like saying that since the 1930s not one brick of the Peninsula Hotel has been removed. The bricks are all there, but someone has plonked a high-rise eyesore with a helicopter pad on top of them. Likewise the Basic Law is now subordinate to the National Security Law. And the Bill of Rights Ordinance is subordinate to both of them.

The Pen then (above) and now (below). Unchanged, but not unchanged.

I am afraid you can hardly avoid some appearances in public within touching distance of the ordinary people who do not have a vote in your election, because this is what real politicians do. Fortunately because of the COVID situation you do not have to really kiss real babies. You could do worse, though, than follow the example of your predecessor Tung Chee-hwah, who had the habit of shaking hands with everyone within reach whenever he turned up anywhere.

The result of this was that having never been within shouting distance of a colonial governor I wound up getting a limp handful of Mr Tung twice. I did not melt completely but I was impressed. These little things shouldn’t make a difference but they do.

On the other hand when on your walk-abouts try to discourage your underlings from reserving lifts for your exclusive use. I am told that some civil servants still cherish the memory of unexpected encounters with Mr Chris Patten, as he then was, in an official elevator.

Try to avoid faux proletarian gestures like buying vegetables. We all know you have a cook.

Finally a word about a rather delicate period ahead, in which you will have won the election but have to wait for official approval from Beijing. Meanwhile you will have to wait about and watch someone else doing what you will by now think of as your job.

Some consoling thoughts: Prince Charles has been in this position for decades.

It may help to remember that generations of Hapsburgs had a similar problem. The Holy Roman Emperor was the product of a small circle election, with only seven electors. The electors always chose (with one exception over 400 years) the next Hapsburg in the queue.

But the winner of the election did not become Emperor – he had to content himself with the title of King of Rome – until he was crowned by the Pope, presumably to ensure an acceptable quantity of holiness.

This involved a trip over the Alps and took months, sometimes years. Your flight to Beijing will be a doddle by comparison.

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I don’t mind Elon Musk taking over a chunk of Twitter. You Twits can still go on enjoying yourselves after all. But what is he doing in the Sui Wo Estate Shopping Centre Car Park?

Six spaces are now reserved – and this is the first time I have seen one actually used – for purchasers of Mr Musk’s expensive electric chariots.

This does not look like a good business move. Sui Wo Estate was the first Home Ownership Estate built in the New Territories back in the 80s. It is quite nice as public housing erections go, but the flats are small and, of course, now old.

The shopping centre is quite basic. There is a ParknShop of the grassroots kind: 12 kinds of rice and only one of cheese. There are two convenience stores, two chain bakeries, the usual two ETC machines, Fairwood, Mannings, Japan Home Stores … you get the picture. This is not natural Tesla territory.

Also drivers of other brands may not welcome the new arrangement. The disabled space has been moved to a place even further from where a disabled person might wish to be:

The space required by the Tesla electrical infrastructure has led to another parking slot being put out of action, because otherwise a pedestrian exit is blocked whenever someone parks there.

And you are not welcome in a Tesla parking space, even if all the others are full and all the Musk boxes are empty.

I have my doubts about the threats of impounding or towing. I have never seen the slightest sign in a Hong Kong car park of any facilities for impounding, much less towing, delinquent cars. I imagine making such arrangements would be quite expensive, and also the entrance to an interesting legal maze.

Still, this arrangement seems to raise an important general issue, which is: granted that we wish to encourage electric vehicles by providing the necessary charging points, is it really a good idea for such facilities to be specific to one brand only?

After all I regularly read that every car maker in the world is concocting an electric offering, and in many cases giving up the old fossil fuel arrangement. Electric cars made in China are, according to The Economist, now competitive in quality with their Western counterparts and, I presume, much cheaper.

Clearly the present advantage of petrol cars is that you can get petrol anywhere. Petrol stations are distinctive and all the petrol on offer – despite efforts to persuade you that some brands will put a Tiger in your Tank and others will be “with you all the way” – is much the same.

As far as I know electricity has the same boring quality: Hong Kong Electric’s is much like China Light and Power’s. The only difference between the electricity supplied to different electric cars is the plug used. I would have thought it made sense to have all electric charging points generic, so that owners of electric cars may have to search for a top-up, but at least they do not have to search for a Toyota top-up, or whatever.

Well this is a commercial decision and nothing to do with me. Our government may care to encourage a more convenient arrangement or it may not bother. The success or failure of charging points is a new and fresh mystery, at least to me. The set in New Town Plaza is a roaring success and often has a queue; the set under Festival Walk is often empty. Personally I think a hybrid car makes more sense anyway.

Given the general shortage of parking spaces in Hong Kong we should all, perhaps, be pondering a new question of driving etiquette: under what circumstances, if any, is it acceptable for the driver of a petrol-powered dinosaur to park in a charging space.

Some years ago a writer in the SCMPost published a bitter denunciation of drivers (well the one driver who, when she protested, told her to lump it) who park in charging spaces they do not need. At the same time there is no requirement that the electric user should actually plug in and absorb electricity. I suppose the point of a charging facility for the mall proprietor is to make money, which can most easily be done by charging usurious rates for power. All the Tesla owners I know have a plug in their car ports. May they still use the Tesla spaces without being towed?

Petrol powered people will not doubt look at the matter differently. Car parks do not start charging you when you find a space; they start charging as soon as you drive in. Some of them have elaborate arrangements to stop new arrivals when they are full and direct the homeless to vacancies, but most of them don’t.

If the alternative is to pay $50 an hour for the pleasure of circulating in search of a space then I fear a good many drivers are going to say that Mr Musk can kiss my posterior and I am going to use one of his reserved spots.

I remember there was a time when the Smart people were pursuing the idea of special spaces reserved for their little cars. Don’t see them now, do we?

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Disappointing to see no official response so far to an interesting offering in the HK Free Press. This was written by Winnie Tam, a 17-year-old student who is preparing for the DSE examinations to be held later this month.

The DSE examination is a cross between O and A Levels, taken at the end of form six and combining the toxic features of both. It was intended as a suitable exam for all school leavers but doubles as Hong Kong’s hukao, the key to university entrance.

As a result of this hybrid construction it has one curious feature. The original design featured five grades: 1-5 with 5 being the top. The universities complained that this would produce too many people with lots of 5 grades so a further two grades were added: 5* and 5**.

This, combined with some internal changes introduced by universities when they switched to four-year degrees, allows the universities to conduct admissions on a labour-saving basis. Most of the decisions are untouched by human brain. The computer does it all on the basis of exam results. So for would-be undergraduates the DSE is a big deal.

An obvious objection to holding mass exams at this juncture is the danger of COVID wafting through the hall. Our student author notes that the relevant officials have unveiled a solution to this: every examinee will be tested on the day of the exam and those who test positive will not be allowed to take the exam. Instead they will be given a grade based on their school work.

But this emergency grade will be capped at 5. No matter how excellent your school work or flattering your teachers’ assessments you will not be able to score 5* or 5**. For students aiming for the more exclusive programmes this will be a major setback.

This restriction is supposed to be in the interest of “fairness”. Well there is nothing fair about examinations. People are subject to a variety of changes in mood and medical condition. Ladies have the monthly thing. Some people handle stress better than others.

Little accidents can have big consequences. I once had to explain to a student that his answer to one question (fortunately in a mock exam) would get no marks because he had offered an excellent essay on Charles XII (Sweden has a lot of kings called Charles) when the question called for an answer on Charles XIII.

Anyway, if giving credit for school work is acceptable it is difficult to see why we should be confident in the difference between 4 and 5 but reject the difference between 5 and 5*.

Moreover the procedure is odious. Ms Tam argues, and I agree, that it will be a traumatic experience for a student to arrive for an exam and be turned away at the last minute for failing a RAT test. There could be tragic consequences.

This is neither necessary nor desirable. The examination is supposed to meet student needs, not the other way round. The university I attended (Oxford) had a very stressful arrangement at the time and was appropriately accommodating for people who succumbed to it.

Students with mental health problems were admitted to a specialist hospital called the Warneford. Every year, at the cost of what must have been considerable inconvenience, a full set of examinations was offered to people in the Warneford. A recurring joke had it that the Warneford produced better results than Balliol College – the target of many unkind jokes because its occupants were thought to be a bit too fond of themselves.

The obvious solution to our little local difficulty is to provide a separate room in each school for students who test positive to write their exams in. This doesn’t need to be in a quarantine camp – a classroom will do as long as it is spacious and well-ventilated. After all, unless things have changed since I went through the system, each session only lasts two or three hours.

No doubt this will make extra work for some people, but still. This is war, as we are often reminded, and requires sacrifices from all of us.

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Heartwarming to see to many tributes to the splendour of Hong Kong’s legal system, following the news that two UK judges are withdrawing from their role as occasional participants in the proceedings of our Court of Final Appeal.

Other overseas judges are apparently still up for this gig. More attention is needed in some places to the difference between political impartiality and political ignorance, I think. Or these overseas people could try looking at the detailed working of the system which they adorn and endorse.

An example: this week Mr Leung Kwok-hung, once my local Legislative Councillor, appeared in a magistrates court and was convicted of an offence committed six years ago. This Dickensian legal process culminated in a punishment of 14 days in prison. A mountain has laboured to bring forth a mouse.

This will be of little concern to Mr Leung, who is already serving a jail term for being in Victoria Park at the wrong time, and if he was not already in prison would be waiting in custody for his trial for participating in a primary for an election which was cancelled.

Some 40-odd primary participants are still consuming the correctional M & Ms, even though the primary took place in 2020 and the arrests in January last year.

Mr Leung’s six-year wait for a decision is probably some sort of record. Do not be deceived by excuses like the 2019 unrest or the subsequent COVID outbreak. Mr Leung was originally prosecuted in magistrates court soon after the offence (disorder in Legco) and he was acquitted.

There matters rested until 2020, when there seems to have been a change in prosecutorial policy to something along the lines of identifying government critics and throwing anything at them that will stick. The Department of Justice (sic) appealed the acquittal. The matter then percolated up the system to the Court of Final Appeal, which sent it back to the magistrate with some legal notes.

It must seem to anyone with a sense of proportion that this was a shocking waste of time and money for everyone concerned. Mr Leung is hardly a threat to order in the legislature now that we have an improved electoral system in which members are effectively chosen by the government. I suppose with the usual discount he will serve ten days.

I note with interest that one of our now resigned overseas judges was on the panel which considered Mr Leung’s case and seems to have been somewhat resistant to arguments based on the right to freedom of speech.

Another example: delving into the lower reaches of the legal system we can consider the case of Mr Samuel Bickett. Mr Bickett was walking through an MTR pedestrian tunnel when he came across two people beating up a kid. It appears from the video, quite a lot of which has appeared on the internet, that Mr Bickett and other people commented orally on this spectacle, in the midst of which the kid wriggled free and escaped, followed by his attacker.

The attacker, who turned out to be an off-duty cop, then returned and the sequel can be viewed here: https://twitter.com/HKer9000/status/1203288950627979264

Does that look to you like a plainclothes cop being interrupted in the course of an arrest by a man trying to steal his baton? That is what the magistrate made of it.

Mr Bickett appealed in vain to a High Court judge who seems to have supposed that the purpose of the proceedings was to exonerate the policeman. Having served his sentence he was then promptly deported. We have ways of making you wish you had pleaded guilty.

Finally we can consider the plight of two people who were arrested last week on sedition charges. The law on media reports on pending court cases is quite clear and in Hong Kong has been unenforced for so long that it is now followed only by media who think the authorities might seize any chance to give them a hard time.

You must not print, broadcast or whatever, anything which implies that the arrested person is guilty or innocent of the charges levelled. This means that you must also not state or imply that the luckless accused is also guilty of other offences. This is the sin for which, when I was very young, the editor of the Daily Mail was actually jailed.

The day after our sedition suspects were arrested we were treated to what I suppose might be considered in contempt of court circles the full Monty: the full names, ages and occupations of the two arrestees, followed by accusations, attributed to an official police briefing, that the pair were (besides printing seditious material, the offence charged) recruiting a Black Army to violently rebel against Chinese rule in Hong Kong.

Clearly the inaptly named Department of Justice does not see its role as including any protection for the prospect of a fair trial for arrested people. We are transitioning to a mainland-style system in which everyone who is arrested is guilty. The role of the court is to read the confession and pass sentence.

I don’t know what overseas judges make of all this. Perhaps they don’t read the Hong Kong newspapers. But if I was one of them I would not wish to touch the Hong Kong legal system with a barge pole.

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Many local organisations have been seriously inconvenienced by the rules against public gatherings. Some people have been fined for breeches of the rules. Yet one organisation continues to organise events at which large numbers of people breathe the same air.

The following pictures were all eagerly circulated on the Government news webpage. Here we have our Chief Executive in action:

Some familiar faces here
Anyone for noodles?
Do I see social distancing?

But we must not pick on Carrie. Here we have the Chief Secretary for Administration:

Open the box!

Here we have the Secretary for Security:

Then we put them in here until they confess…

And no selection of pictures of officials ignoring the rules would be complete without a contribution from the Commissioner of Police.

And the winner of the humorous hat competition is …

I am not too concerned about whether all this is legal or not. Clearly if you are the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR that is not in practice a worry.

But it does seem that senior government officials are still eagerly engaging in all the usual visits, “inspections” and opening ceremonies, at a time when the rest of us are being urged to stay at home and avoid contact with our fellow beings, for health reasons.

No doubt they will say that these are important functions, that they are good for staff morale, and give top bureaucrats an opportunity to see on the ground the effect of their stratospheric deliberations on strategy. And this is important.

But it is really? In my working days I remember visits, inspections and ceremonial occasions as rather an extra burden than a pleasure. Days of work on preparing to make a good impression, much of it wasted, followed by the mysterious appearance of all sorts of people otherwise rarely seen.

The government visits are by all accounts even worse – though somewhat shorter – than that gruesome academic ritual the “validation visit”. Professors did not, at least, require a lift and a toilet to be reserved for their use while they were in the building.

I realise it is difficult to follow the rules if you are accompanied everywhere by two bodyguards. You are over the COVID limit as soon as you step out of the car. Also when you are touring someone else’s building quite a lot of people will wish to be present.

On the other hand this means that an awful lot of people are not doing their usual work, whatever that is, while they are showing you round. You are, in effect, just an interruption. And I doubt that there will be any compensating boost to morale from visits by officials whose popularity – or lack of it – has plumbed depths unexplored even by Mr CY Leung.

Also, whatever you can say for these occasions, there is a painful discrepancy here. At a time when organisations of all kinds have had to suspend their activities, when children facing important exams are studying via Zoom, when underpaid helpers are being fined a month’s salary for meeting in a group of three, is it acceptable – is it nice? – for senior government officials to be pictured touring their empires in large groups, accompanied by shoals of assistants, deputies, pilot fish and small horses of all kinds?

We all have to make sacrifices. We are, after all, at war, as Ms Lam regularly reminds us. This is not the time for official tourism.

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