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Suspicions that our government is no longer running anything very much in Hong Kong these days will not have been allayed by an interview this week with the Dear Leader, Ms Carrie Lam.

We should perhaps note here that the interview was not conducted by me, so this version of it depends on the alert ears and nimble pen of the Standard’s Michael Shum.

Ms Lam was asked to comment on a strange suggestion from the Hong Kong Real Property Federation (whoever they are) which involved 60 square kilometres of reclamation to solve the housing shortage.

This reclamation should take place, the federation suggested, round Guishan Island. There are two obvious drawbacks to this suggestion. One is that the island is off the south western tip of Lantau. It would be a long commute to almost anywhere.

The other problem is that the island is not currently part of Hong Kong. It is not in Hong Kong waters and is administratively part of Zhuhai.

These points did not, curiously, come up. Ms Lam’s first objection to the plan was that “President Xi does not favour reclamation due to environmental concerns”. This is heartening news, which will no doubt be a cause of rejoicing to endangered species everywhere. President Xi’s concern for the environment is nice, though a bit like hearing that Hitler was kind to dogs … true, but maybe beside the point.

Apparently, though, the presidential concern for the environment does not extend to the Lantau Tomorrow plan, which envisages a huge reclamation in the Western Anchorage.

This is a puzzle because, obviously, there is only one environment. A reclamation east of Lantau should, you would think, be just as damaging as one south of Lantau. No man is an island, as Mr Donne had it. In environmental terms, no island is an island.

Ms Lam went on to say that she had heard various proposals for mainland spaces of one kind or another being used to enlarge Hong Kong, but she had “never heard the central government mention such a plan”. Has anyone asked?

Then we came to the big surprise. I quote: “These suggestions would mean wrecking the central government’s policy for Hong Kong housing problems, as Beijing attaches great importance to the environment”.

Leaving the environment out of it for the moment, the question which now arises is of course why the central government has a “policy for Hong Kong’s housing problems”. No doubt the central government is entitled to have opinions, make suggestions, or offer advice. But have we now reached the stage where the role of the Hong Kong government’s Housing Department is merely to carry out a policy determined in Beijing?

I realise that the “high degree of autonomy” we were once led to expect has been much eroded over the years but if we no longer control such manifestly local issues as housing then there seems little left for the expensive and elaborate machinery of consultation and government to do.

Well, Ms Lam is apparently concentrating on “mid- to long-term policies”. On these it seems she has some decision-making power still, but it is not being shared with the rest of us: “As we would need to solve a lot of problems to develop land, regardless of the size, I therefor chose to develop 1,000 to 2,000 hectares of land at one go.”

The problems to be solved? Those pesky people who share President Xi’s affection for the environment. Here is Ms Lam on the shifting political sands: “In the past, society was not that concerned about Victoria Harbour, the wetlands and conservation in general. But now, people will rail against the government for these issues, causing delays to development plans. Developing land is at least eight to 10 times tougher compared to 1997.”

Never let it be said, though, that Ms Lam has not picked up the proper buzzwords: “If we solve land problems by rezoning sportsgrounds and building houses wherever we see a gap, it would be highly unsustainable. It is only a short-term pain-killer.”

Ms Lam appears to think that the rezoning of sports grounds and filling of gaps would eventually run out of sports grounds and gaps. This is not what people usually mean by “unsustainable”. What they mean by unsustainable is projects which inflict irreparable damage on the environment, like … well reclamation.

Really whether the grounds and gaps approach is sensible depends on the size of the grounds and gaps concerned. People who want less space devoted to sport do not have their eye on what we usually mean by a sports ground: a football pitch or a tennis court. They are referring to the rolling acres devoted to golf and horses.

Filling in the gaps does not really do justice to the large areas of the New Territories which are devoted to mysterious small industries, or the even larger areas which are occupied to no good purpose by the PLA.

There is also the question of timing. Lantau Tomorrow will not, in fact, appear tomorrow. Like most mega-projects run by the government it will take longer than expected. In the meantime Hong Kong people will continue to pay ludicrous prices for tiny flats. “Choosing” to go for 2,000 hectares is choosing a long wait.

Still, help is at hand. The central government has a policy for solving our housing problems and Ms Lam knows what it is. Any chance of the rest of us being told?

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Jacques Mallet du Pan was an 18th century journalist who is now remembered mainly for observing as the guillotine reaped a bloody harvest in Paris that “Like Saturn, the revolution devours its children.”

This adage has since been applied to other revolutions, as well as the Spanish civil war and even the Brexit campaign in the UK. I did not expect to see it applied in Hong Kong but we are seeing a lot of unexpected things these days.

Consider the sad fate of Mr Kevin Yeung, the Secretary for Education. Mr Yeung has loyally followed the local descent into despotism with Chinese characteristics. He has condemned what he is supposed to condemn, hounded the people he is supposed to hound, and generally repeated the words he is expected to repeat.

That has not kept him safe from bitter criticism from the local ayatollahs of political correctness, in whose view he is dragging his feet in organising a sweeping purge of the teaching profession.

It is not enough that he has procured the de-registration of a teacher for producing a lesson plan which may have explored the topic of — horror – independence, over-ruling the teacher’s colleagues and superiors, who thought the lesson plan educational. The actual de-registration was conducted by the Permanent Secretary for Education.

Mr Yeung must have realised at some point that this was going to put the final kiss of death on his reputation with a majority of local educators. But we all have to make sacrifices.

He has nevertheless come under fire from Mr C.Y. Leung, who wants to see more heads roll, and Mr Tam Yiu-chung, who objected to Mr Yeung’s suggestion that if children asked about independence they should be told that it was unfeasible, and so not worth discussing.

I should perhaps warn readers that this part of the proceedings was conducted in Cantonese; some publications translated the offending word as “impractical”.

This was not enough for Mr Tam. Indeed it is difficult to see what would have been enough for Mr Tam. I suppose independence should, in his view, be roundly condemned as irrational, unlawful, unpatriotic, heretical and malicious. Any student who utters the word should be required to wash his mouth out. Only a moment of carelessness as Moses descended the mountain deprived us of the 11th commandment, which of course should have been “Thou shalt not discuss independence in the classroom.”

Still it is a pity that Mr Yeung’s suggestion was not more warmly received. It has the merit of being true, which means that people with a wide range of different views on independence will be able to offer it to students without feeling that they are betraying anything.

Certainly independence is unfeasible. Or if you prefer impractical. We are a colony of a nasty police state whose attitude to its borders is, as the old saying has it, “anything which is not nailed down is mine; anything I can tear loose is not nailed down”.

We have a puppet government, a garrison, and a local branch of the secret police. Independence is a dream, or if you prefer a nightmare, but it is certainly impractical. This is a conclusion towards which you could nudge your students with a clear conscience

Indeed I imagine that any teacher who was covering this topic in Life Education would probably find that the class reached this conclusion without his assistance. The sin, in the eyes of Messrs Tam and Leung, is not in the danger of coming to an improper conclusion, but in discussing the idea at all.

The result of this approach is that the penalty is far too ferocious for the crime. After all the lesson plan only covered 50 minutes. Nobody has suggested that a campaign was in progress. If this particular teacher was considered too controversial on current political topics he or she could have been moved to one of the many less sensitive topics covered in primary education.

The de-registration, shockingly, is a life sentence. According to the lady who made the decision, Permanent Secretary for Education Michelle Li, “There is no provision on the validity period of the cancellation, so that means once cancelled it’s cancelled… we consider the cancellation of registration an appropriate and reasonable penalty.”

Appropriate and reasonable? One of the results of being de-registered, apparently, is that you are barred from every school campus in Hong Kong. You cannot be employed as a secretary, a school bus aunty, a janitor or a security guard unless the school has obtained the written permission of the Secretary for Education for you to set foot in its territory.

So here’s the deal: if you are a fraudster, a rapist, a murderer or a pedophile, then education officials are happy to leave it up to the school whether it wishes to employ you or not. You may be a religious nut who believes the world is flat or a rightwing fanatic who believes the world is run by a secret global network of Jews. You may refuse to teach evolution, or insist on teaching that Mao was a superman who didn’t really kill 50 million people. It doesn’t matter. You may be registered, and you may stay registered.

Draw up a lesson plan which goes down badly with Ta Kung Pao, on the other hand, and you face banishment for life from the profession.

Mr Yeung, who is rapidly learning how to say that two plus two equals five when the political parameters require it, stoutly denied that the fate of this teacher would have an intimidating effect on others.

This roughly coincided with the news that the English Schools Foundation had circulated a warning to member schools that the classroom should no longer be regarded as a “safe space” where any topic of interest could be discussed without fear. Indeed they might have said the same about the rest of Hong Kong while they were at it.

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I had resolved a few weeks ago to stop complaining about violations of the law on contempt of court, but my resolution wilted in the face of a specimen from a very senior lawyer.

Mr Henry Litton, a former QC and a retired judge of our top court, has taken to airing criticisms of his successors on the Bench in the pro-government press. His latest effort started with the observation that the judgement of the High Court in a named case should “send alarm bells ringing in the Judiciary”.

Unfortunately Mr Litton was so distracted by the alarm bells that he overlooked an important detail. The case about which he was complaining – Tong Ying Kit v the HKSAR – concerned whether Mr Tong would be admitted to bail.

Clearly Mr Tong will in due course face a trial – that is why he is in custody. It accordingly behoves media performers not to publish material which suggests that he is guilty, or for that matter innocent.

The sub editor of the page on which Mr Litton’s masterpiece appeared, a mere journalist, followed the rules in his caption on a picture of Mr Tong, saying that he “allegedly rammed a motorcycle into a group of police while sporting a ‘Liberate Hong Kong’ flag”.

Mr Litton, on the other hand, cheerfully committed the offence known as strict liability contempt of court, by saying that the case concerned the man (already named in the previous paragraph) “who, on July 1st, furiously drove a motorcycle at police lines, eventually seriously injuring police officers. He was carrying a rucksack, from which protruded a black flag…” and so on. Not an “alleged” or “accused” to be seen.

It is not yet certain, but it is quite possible, that Mr Tong will be tried by a jury. Any juror who has read Mr Litton’s view of the matter has already been polluted by a prejudicial account.

After all it is quite likely that part of the proceedings will concern the question whether Mr Tong did drive “furiously” and whether he intended to hit the policemen. I have no idea what the defence might say about any of this: Mr Tong swerved to avoid a dog, was distracted by a bee which had found its way into his helmet, or more plausibly that he was aiming for a gap in the police line but the policemen threw themselves into his path in their eagerness to arrest him. I do not know, you do not know, and Mr Litton does not know. But Mr Tong is entitled to a trial which is not preceded by newspaper copy which assumes and states his guilt.

Under the circumstances it could be considered that Mr Litton was in some danger of complaining about motes in other eyes while ignoring a beam in his own.

He does not, and nor do I, dispute the correctness of any of the court’s decisions concerning Mr Tong, who was in fact refused bail. The Tong legal team applied for a writ of “habeas corpus”, an unusual way of seeking to overthrow a decision about bail, and as it turned out not an effective one.

However counsel for Mr Tong also contended that there were deficiencies in the new National Security law which meant that it should not apply yet, or at least should not have been applied on July 1st.

The court rejected all these arguments, but Mr Litton is not happy with this. He is not happy because the court devoted 25 pages to giving its reasons for rejecting them.

In Mr Litton’s view it is unacceptable for a Hong Kong court to even consider that there may be a constitutional problem with a law emanating from Beijing, and judges have a “prime constitutional responsibility” to “nip the mischief in the bud”.

The idea that Hong Kong courts have no jurisdiction over mainland legislation may well be an entirely accurate description of the law, and an entirely accurate description of the practical situation. Any failure to follow the Party line will be over-ruled or ‘reinterpreted”. I have some difficulty with the idea, though, that this is in all cases so self-evident that judges should simply refuse to entertain any argument on the matter.

It is an important principle that judges should explain the reasoning behind their decisions and when the arguments are long and complex the reasoning will be long and complex as well.

After wading through some details of the particular case, and a long quote from the Chief Justice about the importance of open justice, you get a rather worrying indication of where Mr Litton is coming from.

He says the court in Mr Tong’s case has “failed to discharge its constitutional function.” This function comes in a long string, starting with “to judge effectively”, with which we can all agree, “clearly”, which is ambiguous in the context, and “in a manner which the ordinary citizen can understand.”

Surely not? Judges have never had a constitutional obligation to state their conclusions in a manner which the ordinary citizen can understand. My acquaintance with constitutional matters is of some antiquity, like Mr Litton’s, but I think I would have remembered an obligation to be understandable to the ordinary citizen, because it is so often flouted.

Some judges, like Lord Denning, accept a moral obligation to phrase their conclusions, as far as possible, in language which the litigants will be able to understand. Most judges, though, feel that reaching the right decision is hard enough without abandoning the technical language of the law, so they leave explaining their mysterious craft to the legal advisors of the people involved in the case.

Of course we all agree with the need for open justice, but I do not think even the Chief Justice, or perhaps anyone except Mr Litton, believes that this requires all judgements to be written in a manner which will be instantly comprehensible to the man in the street. How many ordinary citizens read High Court judgements, however snappy?

The destination to which Mr Litton’s “constitutional function” is heading is “ensuring the resolute, full, and faithful implementation of the policy of one country, two systems.”

I respectfully disagree totally. It is not the constitutional function of the courts to implement government policy, resolutely, fully, faithfully or otherwise. The relevant principle is usually attributed to Lord Mansfield’s judgement in the case of John Wilkes in 1768, and like so many legal antiques it is in Latin: “fiat justitia ruat caelum”, which means “let justice be done though the heavens fall”.

This is the standard to which judges should aspire. Under the circumstances it is something of a relief that Mr Litton is no longer one of them.

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Hong Kong’s white elephants are, if you will forgive a mixed metaphor, coming home to roost. Extravagant projects were launched on the dubious basis that tomorrow will be much like today, only more so. Well we have changed all that.

Much writing about the pandemic assumes that when it is all over – a vaccine or a dependable cure having appeared – we will all go back to doing what we did before. 2002, or whenever the happy year is, will be like 2019, but without the protests.

The more plausible alternative, though, is that this will not happen. Some of the changes made by Covid will not reverse themselves. There will be a new normal, and for some people this may not be pretty.

In particular the old idea of travel as an entertaining diversion without a downside as long as you could afford it has been decisively quashed. People have found themselves trapped by distant diseases in countries where they only intended to stay a few days.

There is no point in going on holiday if you have to self-isolate for a fortnight when you get back. Nipping across the boundary for a few cans of baby food is not going to make sense if you have to pay for a medical check-up first.

Then again, some of our compatriots may have got the message that they are not entirely welcome.

The breeze has already been felt at Ocean Park and Disneyland. The former is being kept afloat on a government hand-out, the latter has been told that it will never expand to what Walt’s heirs thought was its full size.

Well both these establishments have been going a long time and given a great deal of pleasure. We must not discourage fun palaces. What are we to make, though, of more recent innovations, intended to be practical?

There is, for example, the cruise ship terminal. This has never been very busy, though it was increasing patronage steadily until this year. But now? Cruise ships are being moth-balled or scrapped all over the world. This is due to the discovery that your oceanic experience may include being trapped in your cabin for a week or two while the crew desperately searches for a port which will let your disease-laden vessel drop its anchor.

Cruise ship passengers have traditionally been elderly folk who were not looking for adventure. They have been put off.

This is good news from the pollution point of view. In what now seems a stroke of prescient parsimony the government dismissed as too expensive the suggestion that the cruise terminal should be equipped to supply visiting ships with shore power. So they all run diesel generators all the time. Fewer visits, fewer fumes.

Then there is the third runway, still under construction and a monument to the view that air travel could only go onwards and upwards. At the moment we do not even need two.

What the new normal post-pandemic will be remains to be seen, though it will not be seen by some of the more financially fragile airlines currently on government life-support. An interesting suggestion is that passengers will no longer be willing to change planes. Large hub airports will lose business as the airlines switch to running direct flights between more places.

Another possibility is that people will simply rearrange their lives so that they do not need to fly so much. It seems quite likely that we will never actually need the third runway. We will not get our money back.

Same goes for the most elephantine project in Hong Kong history, the express rail link. Before Covid there was some discussion of whether it would make a profit. This was an abuse of language. The express rail link will never make a profit because it will never repay the enormous cost of building it, which the government effectively wrote off as a donation to national unity.

The question was actually whether the income from fares would cover the running costs. I infer from the prolonged silence on this point that it was not doing so before January, and six months of care and maintenance with no passenger income at all have certainly not helped. No doubt further donations from the government will be needed. The link is the gift that keeps on taking.

These examples are monuments to the planning fallacy: the misguided notion that we know what the future will look like and can make massive investments in the confidence that they will pan out. Actually the record of short-range predictions is pretty rough and the long-range ones are hopeless.

This brings us to the one grandiose project which we can still hope to see cancelled: a monstrous reclamation between Hong Kong and Lantau, construction to be spread over 30 years.

I do not know, you do not know and the planners do not know what will happen to Hong Kong’s population figures in the next 30 years. Perhaps – perish the thought – the place will become less attractive, a project which seems to be dear to the heart of the Liaison Office. Perhaps increasing wealth will lead as it usually does to lower population growth.

Or perhaps the sea level will rise by a couple of metres, putting the whole project underwater either literally or financially, which ever you prefer.

Nobody can be blamed for failing to prophesy the future in a complex and changing world. They can be blamed, in this uncertain environment, for making massive bets on one view of the future being correct.

Covid should have taught us one thing: that we do not know what will happen next and should act accordingly, rather than “planning” for a future which may never come.  

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I came across an unusual spectacle in the Tsimshatsui underground station: a little group of policemen were handing out small packets to passers-by.

This was intriguing. So I passed by and was in my turn awarded a small packet, which turned out to be a wallet-like item in blue plastic. The policeman who gave it to me misunderstood my puzzled look completely.

“I’m a policeman,” he said. “Yes, I know,” I replied. And went on my way home. On closer examination the wallet-like object turned out to contain two tissues. It was printed with messages in two languages urging citizens to join the fight against crime.

In English this message was rather generic and included a couple of phone numbers for reporting your suspicions to. I am told the Chinese part was rather more specific about the risk of having your pocket picked, which I imagine is quite high in TST.

I will leave to more fanatically environmental pens the question whether distributing pieces of plastic is a planet-friendly way to fight crime. I thought I might find a use for the little wallet and the two tissues will come in handy.

As I wandered on I felt a wave of nostalgia. When I was a kid it was considered acceptable, and indeed healthy, for mothers to shoo their children out of the house on sunny days to play in the fresh air with their mates in the neighbourhood.

I do not remember any serious harm resulting from this practice but people are more timid about children in public places these days. Anyway there was one problem, which was how your offspring would know when it was time to come home.

In those days watches were far too expensive and fragile to be entrusted to children, at least in my family’s income bracket. Outside town centres there were few public clocks. One useful indicator was the “lighting up time”.

In those days the street lights did not have the light-sensitive switches which turn them on in the middle of the day if it gets too gloomy. They were on a timing arrangement; the time to switch them on was fixed in advance and they all came on together.

Because in European latitudes the length of the day varies considerably through the year the timing of the lighting up also varied and the current week’s time was published in the newspapers. When the street lights came on you went home.

The trouble with this was that in the summer the lighting up actually came quite late. The other recourse which we were recommended was to ask a stranger politely for the time.

Actually in those days many strangers did not have a watch either, but there was one group for whom it was a professional requirement: policemen. Policewomen had not been invented. Policemen also had the advantage of being respectable and generally helpful. Parents thought it useful for their kids to be accustomed to friendly encounters with The Law.

So we were frequently reminded – and the catch phrase became so common it was eventually turned into a song – that “if you want to know the time ask a policeman.”

Your policeman in those days had a distinctive dark blue uniform, topped with a historic helmet: think Rorkes Drift movie but in dark blue. Paramilitary policing had not been invented either so when you were old enough to go to demonstrations and public protests you encountered the same uniform, for which many of us had learned an instinctive respect.

Well times back in the UK have changed. All kids have mobile phones these days. The police helmet has gradually disappeared because it is awkward for an increasingly car-born force. And some people have developed a pretty prickly relationship with the forces of order.

This was a slow process. Hong Kong’s claim to historical fame is the rapidity with which our cops managed in just over a year to pass from somewhere close to “If you want to know the time ask a policeman” to “if you don’t eat your spinach I will call a policeman who will take you away to be tortured at a black site in the New Territories”.

And the Force is still, it seems, picking unnecessary fights. The fuss about who is a reporter is hopelessly old-fashioned. In this age when everyone effectively has a small camera in his pocket, anyone can be a reporter. This is a fact of life.

No doubt it is very offensive to the constabulary’s feelings that a shopping mall should be filled with a handful of protesters and 250 “reporters” filming them. But if there were only a handful of protesters perhaps the best solution would have been to reduce the number of policemen.

Let us give some thought to curbing over-violent policing methods. Clearly the complaints mechanism is going to be no help here. Could there be some subtle change which would encourage a less macho approach without offending the law and order industry?

It is well established that people are surprisingly responsive to small cues in their environment. So it would help if we did something about those uniforms. Do riot squads have to be in black? I realise the young men wearing the gear probably do not make the visual connection to Hitler’s SS, but black is the colour of piracy, Death’s Head Hussars, Darth Vadar’s cloak, the bad guy’s hat in the Old Westerns…

Surely the gear would be just as good at protecting the wearer and much less likely to put unhelpful ideas into his head if it was all pink. This might require a name change but I was never happy with “Raptors”. We do not need a predatory police force. They would be much nicer as Pink Panthers.

Alternatively we could take the new tolerance of unauthorised badges to its logical conclusion and sell the space on the riot gear for advertising. Police people would then be like Formula One racing cars, in which the underlying colour is barely visible under all the salesmanship.

Alas this presupposes that the Force wishes to be loved rather than feared, which on present form seems unlikely. The management seems quite happy to be the dogs in our local Animal Farm, loyally supporting the ruling pigs.

They should remember that in that famous closing scene, when the pigs are entertaining humans in the old farm house and the other animals can no longer tell the two groups apart … the dogs are left outside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Henry Litton’s op-ed piece attacking Hong Kong judges for failing to conform to our new constitutional realities has caused something of a stir in the legal community. So I shall leave the legal points raised to them. A hostile view here.

What surprised me was the paragraph in which Mr Litton considered what he considers “the big picture”. It goes like this “For hundreds of years, the Middle Kingdom was the undisputed economic and cultural centre of the world. It fell into decay during the latter days of the Qing dynasty but is now resurrecting, through much agony and hardship, its central role. It is also re-establishing, through the Belt and Road Initiative, the ancient trade connections between the Middle Kingdom and the other great civilisations, this time on a much wider scale.”

This is a big picture all right, but I am not sure that it is really the sort of thing which ought to be going through judges’ heads while they consider applications for judicial review.

Apart from its other disadvantages it has the serious drawback of not being particularly accurate. I am reminded of Napoleon’s comment that “History is a series of lies about which we agree.”

For most of China’s history there was, after all, not really a world to be the centre of. Great empires rose and fell in Africa and America unnoticed on the Eurasian continent and unconscious of the rest of the world. There was a flourishing trade, at times, along the Silk Road, but China was one end of it, not the centre.

Modern historians assert that China in 1500 was the most prosperous and cultured civilisation in a world which was becoming aware of itself. Europe was divided and quarrelsome in a most undignified way.

But the ensuing two centuries suggest that perhaps a decentralised hubbub was more effective than a monolithic empire. While Europeans took over large swathes of the world the Chinese empire succumbed to a Manchu invasion and became part of someone else’s empire, which it remained for 400 years.

The idea that there is some natural gravitational force which dictates that China’s “natural” position is at the centre of anything is deeply unhistorical.

I have lately been reading Simon Winder’s entertaining history of Lotharingia. This antique state dates back to Charlemagne’s grandchildren, who agreed to divide his empire into three pieces. One piece in the West corresponded roughly to what is now France. A second piece in the east corresponded roughly to what is now Germany.

The third piece was a belt, starting in Holland and sweeping south down both banks of the Rhine to terminate in the northern part of what is now Switzerland. This was an awkward construction and its history consisted largely of attempts to make something of it, hampered by attempts by the two obvious contenders to encroach on it. The region is particularly rich in historic battlefields.

The moral of this story is that no political entity is eternal and no frontier should be regarded as fixed beyond amendment.

One of the benefits of Youtube is that you can find animations which show the changing political landscape over time. European ones (specimen here) are fun if you know your history. And you get the same message. The frontiers in 2020 are only distantly related even to the frontiers in 1914. Whole countries appear and disappear.

Similar efforts are offered for Asia, though as I know much less of the history they are less entertaining. Specimen here. I used to show my masters’ students one of these as an indirect answer to their questions about some contemporary issues.

The area now occupied by China is not the same as the area occupied by any of the previous Chinas. The triumphant China of 1500, for example, did not include Xinjiang, Tibet or Taiwan, which may inspire a certain nostalgia in those places. Dynasties came and went, leaving gaps filled by a patchwork of smaller states. The geographically largest dynasties were not necessarily the longest-lasting ones.

Countries do not, as Mr Litton puts it “fall into decay”. They confront challenges, with varying degrees of success. Some of the challenges are natural – floods, earthquakes – but the most tricky ones involve relations with other people. Luck plays an important role.

Well, no doubt the willingness of at least one senior Hong Kong judge to trot out the Party line on Chinese history will go down well in Beijing. But I fear Mr Litton is chasing a mirage if he thinks Hong Kong judges can be “trusted” in Beijing without ceasing for all practical purposes to be judges.

The central government knows nothing of law, common or otherwise. Its requirement for trustworthy judges is that they should find for the Party, whatever the details of the case.

Hong Kong judges are in the same bind as the Chief Executive. If they are liked and admired in Hong Kong they will for that very reason be distrusted in Beijing. If they are trusted in Beijing they will for that very reason be regarded with scorn and contempt in Hong Kong.

This dilemma is the joke which history has played on them and Mr Litton’s preferred solution is just to impale himself vigorously on one horn of it.  

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It is nice to see Hong Kong become a global talking point, but perhaps this could be done in a more flattering way than Sunday’s eye-catching video – broadcast on all international stations, Fox News (not a Hong Kong-obsessed channel usually) version here – of the Hong Kong Police laying down the law on a 12-year-old girl.

One tries not to jump to conclusions from video clips, but this leaves little room for interpretation. If a duck looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Here we see several adults bullying a child. If a parent did this to his daughter he would be prosecuted.

Some of the sting might have been drawn from this catastrophe by a tactful apology. Confused situation … people get excited … not necessary to use the full anti-cockroach technique on a minor … sorry.

Instead we got the usual, untouched by human brain – our boys can do no wrong – from the usual spokesman. The victim had run “in a suspicious manner” and had been subjected only to “minimum necessary force”. Self-righteous hogwash.

I fear my education missed out on running in a suspicious manner. In primary school we were encouraged to stand like a tree, waving in the wind, or run like a horse, galloping across the prairie, but somehow running suspiciously never came up. Looking at the video, though, the runner does not look suspicious. She looks terrified.

As for the minimum force, surely the minimum force required to subdue someone so small would involve one person and one person only. Some compromise on the “flat on the pavement” front would also have been appropriate.

Then we got the prosecution. It is sadly a recurring feature of police excess that the victim must be charged with something, in order to discredit the expected complaint. So our 12-year-old victim, who apparently answers to Pamela, was treated to an on-spot fine for a social distancing violation.

Just a cotton-picking minute. Leaving aside the question whether Pamela, who lives in the area and was just shopping with an elder brother, actually violated the rules, there is a little legal hitch involved here.

I quote from the Law Reform Commission report on the age of criminal liability: “The law … presumes that a child between the ages of seven and 14 is incapable of committing a crime, unless the prosecution proves beyond reasonable doubt that, at the time of the offence, the child was well aware that his or her act was seriously wrong, and not merely naughty or mischievous.” 

So there is a legal presumption that Pamela cannot break the law. This can only be overthrown by proof of knowledge and motives. So the issuing of the on-the-spot fine was unjustified and unlawful.

This little detail had passed unnoticed by the Hong Kong government, which cheerfully announced on Sunday night that “Police discharged their rightful duties today and took prompt and decisive actions to apprehend the offenders.”

We were also treated to this: “In a later statement police said: ‘Police attach great importance to integrity. If any person considers he or she is affected by police misconduct, he or she may lodge a complaint to the Complaints Against Police Office. It will be handled in a fair and impartial manner according to established procedures.’” It would be subversive to giggle at this point.

Oh, how fair and impartial the established procedures can be! Oddly enough this phrase cropped up later in the week when the Complaints Against Police Office starred in a rare court case. The complainant (arrested in a theft case: nothing political) pleaded guilty to making a false complaint and was jailed for four months.

Apart from the usual bit about CAPO handling cases in a “fair and impartial manner” the triumphant CAPO spokesman, Chief Inspector Chau Kwok-Kuen, also said that the prosecution had been approved by the Secretary for Justice.

Quite why the Secretary had been involved in such a trivial matter we were not told. Can it be that someone thought that prosecuting a complainant, after so many complaints had fallen on stony ground, might be considered ironic, even satirical?

But satire wilts before the reality of justice Hong Kong style these days. On Monday, according to Wednesday’s Standard, the Department of Justice asked a court to order one Billy Chiu Hin-chang to pay a total of $171,000 to four police officers who were allegedly injured by him during a protest.

The protest took place on October 17, 2014. How can any court be expected to determine liability for events so long ago? Does Mr Chiu have $170,000? Did the relevant file get lost for six years?

One wonders if Mr Chiu, a former member of a subversive minigroup called Hongkong Priority, is just the latest victim of a drive to dump on dissidents of any kind with whatever legal implement comes to hand.

This brings us to Mr Tam Tak-chi, also known as “Fast Beat” (whatever that means) who appeared in court on Tuesday charged with uttering seditious words under the old Crimes Ordinance definition. In other words after years of complaining that Hong Kong had no sedition law the forces of order have now discovered that it was there all the time.

The prosecution line is that Mr Tam, a leading figure in People Power – an organisation we can I think assume the Liaison Office is not fond of — incited hatred of the government by uttering the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.

This is a stunning revelation. Numerous people have been shouting this slogan for more than a year without being prosecuted. Now we are expected to believe that it was illegal all the time? Was the Secretary for Justice asleep then? Or is justice asleep now?  

The degradation of the rule of law goes on. Also on Sunday a bus driver was arrested for dangerous driving. After reviewing his dash cam the man’s employers seem fairly confident that that charge is not going to stick.

The assembled Sherlocks also charged him with having an offensive weapon, because they found a spanner in his bag. Now apparently bus drivers often carry a spanner. It is used to adjust the rear-view mirrors. But this gentleman has no need to explain his possession of a spanner.

The law is quite clear. A blunderbuss or a bazooka are offensive weapons in themselves. When it comes to ordinary civilian objects they will only be offensive if the context suggests that they were going to be used offensively. If you are driving a bus there is no such context so this charge was a simple abuse of process.

The bus driver spent 24 hours in custody. It seems his real offence was to suppose that policemen scattered over the road would welcome warning of his approach. Our force is a sensitive force. Hoot at your peril. 

 

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So Jimmy Lai has been acquitted on the charge of criminally intimidating a reporter. This is good news in at least one respect. The case has been beyond comment while awaiting trial.

This means everyone concerned has been waiting for three years. This comparatively simple matter should not have taken so long, but this is the level of efficiency we find these days in the Department of so-called Justice.

I draw attention again to the passage in the department’s guidelines for prosecutors which points out that defendants are entitled to be tried within a reasonable time. In some American states a summary offence like this one would have been time-barred after three years.

An interesting anomaly is that the complainant, a reporter from the Oriental Daily, was allowed to remain anonymous. As the magistrate seems to have found his evidence very unreliable this seems a bit generous.

It seems that Mr Lai threatened to “mess with” the reporter concerned. The suggestion that he would find someone else to do this was not supported by the video. There is often a video these days. Why do prosecutors not look at it?

Anyway now that the matter is no longer sub judice I have a few words for the anonymous and unreliable witness.

If you are going to call yourself a reporter this involves rather more than chasing elderly businessmen with a camera and a notebook. You are expected to accept some of the hazards which go with the territory.

Reporting worthy of the name is not always welcome. When I was teaching journalism I used to show my students a video of the sort of situations which might arise. Some interviewees attacked the reporter; some of them attacked the cameraman.

A reporter who asked a professional wrestler whether wrestling was faked was treated to a demonstration: an “open-handed slap” which floored him. Serve him right for asking a stupid question. Everyone has known that professional wrestling was fake since the publication of Mick Foley’s “Have a nice day”, which I warmly recommend.

The point is that none of these episodes was followed by a complaint to the police and court proceedings. Sensible reporters accept that their attentions are sometimes extremely unwelcome. People whose private sins are about to become public will get excited.

Attempts at intimidation are commonplace. We accept it as something which goes with the job.

This is not a matter of physical courage, unless you want to be a front-line war reporter. The conclusion that I drew for my students was that when setting off for work you should always wear shoes you can run in. But we don’t complain.

Personally I was generally lucky in this matter. I was in the press box at Millwall FC, a club notorious for supporter violence, when an irate elderly gentleman staggered in with a view to rearranging the local reporter with his walking stick. While the local reporter tried to calm his antagonist down the rest of us laughed hysterically.

I cannot recall being threatened with violence personally. When I was running an investigative team we were occasionally threatened with writs. I discovered a curious paradox. Innocent people were happy with a discussion, explanation, and occasionally a clarification putting their side of the story. Crooks on the other hand wanted to sue you.

I cherish the memory of the company spokesman who was trying to put me off a modest microscoop with the warning that some of his company directors were Jockey Club stewards. It is not done to wisecrack on these occasions but I had great difficulty in resisting the temptation to reply “I am not a horse”.

So, back to Mr X. If you are going to continue in our disreputable profession you must get used to the idea that you will on occasion be threatened, warned off, sworn at or told to do unspeakable things to your mother.

If you have really spent the last three years in a state of psychological disarray because of Mr Lai’s threatening words, then you are too fragile for reporting, and I can only suggest that you switch to a less abrasive way of earning a living.

If you have not, and were persuaded to participate in the left-wing campaign to hang something – anything — on Mr Lai, then you lack another basic qualification for journalism, an attachment to the truth.

 

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Our glorious leader seems to have inherited from her predecessor the knack of coming up with a response to a question which is not only unsatisfactory but almost completely irrelevant and deeply offensive.

Consider her response last week when asked to respond to the refusal of some medical experts to take the “universal but voluntary” (?) Covid test, which the government is offering in September.

Note that none of them actually said that people should not take the test. They said, for a variety of reasons, that they were not themselves going to volunteer. The reasons were technical and medical. No political overtones intruded.

But for Mrs Lam, these days, if the political overtones are not inserted by someone else then they will be inferred by her. Mrs Lam said she could not figure out why some experts were not keen on the test. They were politically motivated, she said.

There followed this: “The so-called experts, doctors or members of the public kept finding excuses to stop citizens from participating in the test… There is only one intention behind this: political calculation. They are smearing the central [Beijing] government and it’s an effort to sever Hong Kong’s relations with the central government.”

“So-called experts” is an ill-chosen phrase in this context. The people concerned are all doctors and many of them are indisputably experts in relevant areas. None of them is, as far as we know, part of any political movement and this is not, actually, a political matter.

In fact if anyone in this controversy is politically motivated it appears to be Mrs Lam herself. The idea that a mass testing programme cannot be organised in Hong Kong without the central government’s help is not very convincing. Is the purpose of bringing Beijing into it to improve the service, or to make a political point: that our motherland loves us even if it has vandalised our constitution and perverted our police force?

Let us see if we can “figure out” what the problems might be in rolling out a mass testing programme for a condition which is, in all likelihood, still quite rare. They are not political; they are statistical.

We start with the assumption that the test is 99 per cent accurate in detecting the disease in people who have it. This is an ambitious target but maybe the mainland genius team can manage it.

To get a high detection rate, though, you have to accept that there will be some “false positives“ – people who fail the test but who do not, actually, have the disease. The only way to reduce the number of false positives is to make the test less sensitive and reduce the detection rate. So let’s not go there. Say the false positive rate is three percent, which is a really good figure for a mass testing programme.

The other interesting variable is how many people in the population we are testing actually have the disease. So far Hong Kong has seen less than 5,000 cases in a population of seven million, which suggests a possible infection rate of 0.02 per cent. But let us suppose there are a lot of undetected cases out there and put the infection rate at one percent.

Now we test 1,000 people and consider the outcome. In that group, assuming it is typical, there will be ten people with the disease, and the test will detect nine or ten of  them. The undetected person, if there is one, will go home reassured and breathe the virus all over his friends and family members.

There will also be the unavoidable 30 false positives: people who are told they have the disease but actually do not. This is a distressing moment for them, and a dangerous moment for us. It is easy to suppose that someone who tests positive in a 99 per cent accurate test has a 99 per cent chance of having the virus.

But this is an elementary error. We have 39 or 40 people who tested positive, only nine or ten of whom have the virus, and we still do not know which nine, or ten, are the genuine cases. The chance of you having the virus if you are one of this unfortunate group are actually only one in four.

But there will be a temptation to put them all on a bus together and send them off to a quarantine centre.  And if you have not been exposed to the virus when you get on the bus you may well have been exposed to it by the time you get off.

This is the sort of calculation which makes doctors wary of testing whole populations for diseases which very few people have. A positive test is distressing and disturbing. It may lead to mental health problems, disruption to work or recriminations in the family.  It is also quite likely to lead to unnecessary medical procedures.

The rarer the disease, the worse the problem. If the figure for Covid cases so far is typical, and the actual incidence is 0.02 per cent, then our 1,000 tests will produce only one or two positives. And the 30 falsies will still be there to muddy the waters.

Mrs Lam’s hysterical resort to political explanations for criticism is disappointing, if only because we have all become used to the daily performances of Dr Chuang Shuk-wan, the head of the Communicable Diseases Branch of the Centre for Health Protection.

Dr Chuang deploys a soft melodious voice and a reassuring bedside manner which makes even the worst news sound like a manageable ailment. Her response to a similar question about mass testing was that it would be useful to find the “silent carriers” who were still among us, because some of the cases being detected were not traceable to known clusters.

Clearly there is an interesting technical issue here on which well-intentioned experts could disagree with each other: Is it better to try to test everyone, or does it make more sense to concentrate on the most likely groups? Mrs Lam needs to dial down the political paranoia and listen more carefully to people who know what they are talking about. We do not need a Hong Kong Mrs Trump.

 

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For weeks we have been told that some rich Hong Kong businessmen are colluding with overseas organisations to perpetrate the manifest untruth that our city should not be regarded as part of China.

Names and details were not forthcoming… until last week, when the Standard named names. The two gentlemen involved in this nefarious plot were Mr George Leung Siu-kay and Mr Mohamed Butt. They are respectively the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce and the Executive Director of the Hong Kong Productivity Council.

They have urged the Hong Kong government to appeal to the World Trade Organisation, clearly an external body within the meaning of the National Security law, against the notion that Hong Kong is part of China.

It is also suggested that the International Organisation for Standardisation should be involved in the dispute, which revolves round the question whether goods manufactured in Hong Kong should be described as “Made in Hong Kong”, or “Made in China”. The “Made in Hong Kong” label was traditional, but some people overseas now wish to see it replaced by “Made in China”.

The two plotters concerned wish to continue with the “Made in Hong Kong” label. No doubt some confusion has arisen as to what the patriotic line on this topic should be, because the new requirement that Hong Kong manufactures should be described as “Made in China” comes not from the People’s Pooh, but from the US government.

Still, have these two gentlemen not been reading the newspapers? Surely it is time for Hong Kong manufacturers to step up to the standards of patriotic enthusiasm now expected of all of us, and wear the “Made in China” label with pride.

I am sure no prudent Hong Kong person would argue that China manufacturers have a reputation for copying, low quality and using slave labour. These slurs are unjustified and unsubstantiated, of course.

Some readers may be surprised to hear that Hong Kong still has any manufacturing industry worth complaining about. It seems that our manufactured exports amount to “only” $3.7 billion worth a year, which seems quite a lot to a lay person but is apparently regarded as trivial in business circles.

However, more than half of those exports consist of jewellery, so there is an industry complaining vocally that this is a matter of life and death.

We must in fairness to Mr Leung and Mr Butt note that there are some inconveniences attached to the introduction of the new arrangements. It seems that, according to the US Customs, our Hong Kong exporters will still be expected to report for some purposes that their wares were made in Hong Kong, which sounds potentially confusing.

Also exporters were given only 45 days notice of the new arrangements. Because of the delays to shipping caused by the Covid virus there is some danger of consignments sent before the change was announced arriving after it has come into effect. You would think there would be enough flexibility in the Customs procedure to avoid actually having to send these goods back. But we should not under-estimate the rigidity of which bureaucrats are capable.

Well I understand and share the suspicion that the new rules have less to do with the search for accuracy and more to do with one of Mr Trump’s nocturnal Twitter brainwaves. Mr Trump does not seem to have a passionate attachment to truthfulness.

Still this complaint is hardly going to fly in international circles, I fear. China is not really in a position to urge zealous compliance with World Trade Organisation rules.

And after all, have we not been told on numerous occasions that Hong Kong is part of China? So the new labelling will merely reflect the facts: that the Beijing government enjoys comprehensive sovereignty over Hong Kong, legislates for it when moved to do so, deploys its army and police here, and appoints our senior officials.

Hong Kong now enjoys less autonomy than Texas or Saxony. Regions generally do not have their own “made in …” label anyway. Can we retaliate by insisting that American microchips should have “Made in California” on their labels?

It is true that people are not always rational about these things. But if it is a criminal offence to wave a banner saying “Hong Kong is not China”, as I suppose it is, then surely we can hardly complain if people overseas take us at our word and insist that Hong Kong is part of China, and its exports should be labelled accordingly.

 No doubt there is something in the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s Future about the territory being allowed to be separate for customs and labelling purposes. But the Joint Declaration, as we have so often been reminded, is a historical document of no practical significance for present purposes.

 

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