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Continuing our study of the growth of Newspeak in government circles, we come this week to Mr Edward Yau Ting-wah, who is the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development.

Mr Yau was answering questions in Legco about the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal.

This should not be a difficult task. Although many Hong Kongers are sceptical about the terminal and few of us have actually visited the thing, it is shaping up to be a bit of a success story.

Planned targets in number of ships visiting and number of passengers disembarking to sample local attractions, such as they are, have been exceeded long before expected dates. The terminal is apparently busier than comparable facilities in China or Singapore.

It is incontestably in an awkward place. The government pays for free buses to nearby shopping malls, following the established principle that the purpose of tourism is to enrich local landlords by filling shops with eager customers, thereby doing little for most of us but justifying higher commercial rents.

Local visitors, however, have to pay to get there, and the new Kai Tak MTR station is neither close by, nor open yet. In the distant future the terminal will be one end of a monorail, if this dubious project ever sees shovel put to dirt. In the meantime there is a minibus from the Kowloon Bay MTR. The public park on the roof of the terminal is well spoken of.

Mr Yau’s performance was prompted by questions from two Liberal Party councillors, who complained that the terminal was bereft of moored ships much of the time, shops there were in consequence not making as much money as they would no doubt wish, and suggested government action to remedy these deficiencies.

Most of Mr Yau’s reply was routine stuff: number of visits, number of passengers, number of events held, government promotes such events and will continue to do so, etc.

But he couldn’t resist a comeback at the claim that the terminal is shipless for half of the time.

The terminal had ships there “virtually every alternative day,” he said, “Therefore it is not factual to say that the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is vacant most of the time.”

An unfortunate choice of words, I fear. If the terminal is occupied “virtually” every alternative day on average, what does this mean? “Virtually” in contexts of this kind does not mean “exactly”, or “more than”. It means “a bit short of”, If we say the theatre is “virtually” full we mean there are only a few seats left. If we say a glass is “virtually” full we mean there is only room for a little more beer.

So I take it that when he says the terminal has an occupant “virtually” every alternative day he means it has hit 49 per cent of days, which by a happy coincidence was the prediction given in a Legco answer early last year.

This means, unfortunately, that it is factual – though certainly unkind – to say that the Terminal is empty most of the time. Mr Yau might have complained with some justice that “most of the time” was not the most illuminating way of describing emptiness on 51 per cent of days, but it was not factually inaccurate.

No doubt staff of the terminal would say that 49 per cent occupancy was a good figure, and days on which there are no boats are offset by days on which there are two of them. The merits of the terminal are not at issue here, only Mr Yau’s way of seeing off its critics.

Mr Yau might be more successful at disarming critics generally if he was less prone to lecturing them on the obvious. According to the Standard, the only English medium to report on this little exchange, Mr au also explained that “the cruise terminal was built mainly for cruise ships to berth.” Who would have guessed?

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It is all too easy for people who work for a Party poodle paper to believe that independent, truth-seeking journalism is rare and over-rated, if not impossible.

So we have Mr Alex Lo, writing in the paper formerly dubbed, if only by itself, “one of the world’s great newspapers” (times have changed) announcing that the local media are split into two hostile camps, with the implication that they are both as incurably biassed as each other.

Mr Lo’s ire was aroused by the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association. But given his incurable preference for tackling the man rather than the ball, we had to wait to hear what the association had done while we were told that it was “closely aligned with the anti-mainland and anti-communist ideologies of the yellow-ribbon localist movement and some anti-China publications”. So it had lost all authority.

Then we get to the beef, which concerns a story in HK01. This consisted of an interview with a Taiwanese heavy metal musician and politician, Freddy Lim, who had been barred from Hong Kong.

HK01 put at the end of this a little note stating that HK01’s editorial stance was against independence for Taiwan.

The HKJA comment on this was, apparently, “We hold the view that it is unnecessary for HK01 to state their position in their news report. Doing so will give rise to worries that the media might have something to fear when they report sensitive issues.”

Mr Lo says that if HK01 wants to put little notes at the end of its stories this is none of the HKJA’s business, with which I agree. People who are easily worried shouldn’t be in the news business.

He then goes on to say that it is not unusual for “responsible news groups or any public institutions to clarify their stances while dealing with controversial issues.” Not relevant.

Leave the public institutions out of it. Public institutions only come across controversial issues in their work, so clarification is an obligation.

The situation of the news media is rather different. Readers are entitled to expect that the news will not be bent to suit the “stance” of the publication on controversial issues. In order to make this graphically clear it is usual to separate the opinion pieces from the news pieces. The newspeper’s own opinion is expressed in editorials, not in the news coverage.

If the opinion is from an outsider he may ask for a small note saying that the opinion expressed is his, and not that of his employer or an organisation he belongs to. But we do not put a little note at the end of each news story saying that the views expressed by interviewees may not coincide with our editorial stance. The readers expect that anyway.

When Mr Lo’s newspaper reported Junius Ho’s notorious dialogue – “kill them all … no mercy” there was no little note at the end informing readers that the newspaper’s editorial policy did not support mass murder of political opponents.

Trailing in at the end of this little scandal we come to the conclusion that, in Mr Lo’s words, “the local news industry has been bifurcated into opposing camps.” This is interesting. One camp, presumably, is the “yellow-ribbon localist movement and some anti-China publications.” And what shall we call the other camp? The “blue-ribbon anti-localist movement and some pro-China publications”?

And to which camp would we allocate Mr Lo?

I believe that Hong Kong still accommodates publications and people in a third camp: those who believe in the possibility and value of independent, truthful journalism. And those who were in it, and now find themselves not in it, should take their 40 pieces of silver and shut up.

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It is said that people who hear that a loved one has a terminal illness go through five stages of grief, starting with denial – the assertion that this is not happening.

Something similar seems to be going on in the heads of those people who are inflicting terminal injuries on Hong Kong’s reputation as a haven of human rights in an otherwise dictatorial China.

Consider the government representative – as usual A. Spokesman – who put out a long comment on the disqualification of Mr Eddie Chu from a village representative election.

Much of this was technical stuff about the justification provided by the Returning Officer who did the deed. This was of no interest and nobody believes it anyway.

At the end, though, we lurched into Wonderland, with this sentence: “There is no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community.”

The reference to political censorship is a red herring. No member of the community has claimed political censorship was involved, and any who did so would be wrong. Political censorship is the prevention of the publication of disapproved views, and we are not there yet.

To claim there is “no restriction on free speech” involved, on the other hand, is to perpetrate a manifest untruth.

In the light of Mr Chu’s case it is clear that if you express a certain opinion – in favour of independence – then you will suffer certain disadvantages: disqualification from running in any election, even a pipsqueak one for a rural minicommittee.

Indeed it appears that in his case disqualification followed not from advocating independence (which he had prudently avoided) but from expressing the belief that people who wished to advocate independence should be allowed to do so.

This is clearly a restriction on free speech. The expression of a particular view is discouraged by imposing unwelcome consequences on those who express it. There is no room for argument here. If “restriction on free speech” means what it says then it is present here.

A. Spokesman could have argued, if he or she wished, that the restriction is a trivial one. Independence is not a practical prospect for Hong Kong so preventing people from advocating it constitutes a minor contraction in the sphere of what can be discussed in public.

Or he might have argued that the restriction is a justified one, on the grounds that the advocacy of independence is inconsistent with the Basic Law. This would not cut much ice with constitutional lawyers but it would at least be coherent.

Instead we get flat denial. The fact is that freedom of speech in Hong Kong is now curtailed. You can call for the confiscation of wealth, capital punishment for homosexuals, the expulsion of Jews, the legalisation of paedophilia or the installation of pictures of CY Leung in the lower parts of all public urinals to aid accuracy. But you are not free to advocate independence because such advocacy earns a life ban from politics. Free speech is to that extent restricted.

Clearly we are in the same delusionary territory when we consider the spokesman’s claim that “there is no question of deprivation of the right to stand for election.”

Of course there is. How dumb can you get? Mr Chu wished to run for election. He is not allowed to do so.

Once again we might have been offered the argument that some restriction of the right to run for election was justified, or even legally compulsory. This is a matter about which people could argue endlessly, particularly if they were paid by the hour, as senior lawyers often are.

But telling us that the right to run for election is not affected at all is a simple refusal to face reality. It is like saying black is white, up is down, death is life. The temptation to quote Orwell on “Newspeak” is almost irresistible. In fact it is totally irresistible.

According to the Ministry of Truth in “1984” Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, and the aim of newspeak is to “make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it”.

Coming soon to a government press release near you: “A. Spokesman said that the recent Black Thunderstorm Warning from the Observatory had nothing to do with water falling from the sky, or loud noises and flashes of light being encountered, as alleged by some members of the community. The government remained committed to providing bright sunny weather at all times. And especially at night.”

 

 

 

 

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It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Last week a Chinese citizen was suddenly arrested. Spokespeople for her company complained that her human rights had been infringed, she had been handcuffed, and was not getting the medical treatment she needed.

Well, you might think, this happens to Chinese people all the time: human rights lawyers, Uighurs, Tibetans, protestant pastors, labour agitators, young women who splash paint on pictures of President Xi…

But this case was different. Because it happened in Canada, and the complaining spokespeople were in fact speaking for the Chinese government.

We must applaud the self-control of the Canadian diplomats who refrained from the obvious retort that if China wished other countries to protect the human rights of its citizens it should respect those rights itself.

The lady concerned, Meng Wanzhou, is variously described as the daughter of the founder of Chinese tech company Huawei, and the company’s Chief Financial Officer. Neither of these are government posts, Huawei is a private company. So quite how this qualifies an an international incident is a bit of a puzzle.

It seems that nothing will dissuade the People’s Daily from the view that no Canadian or American court does anything without the knowledge, approval and indeed instructions of their respective governments.

Chinese officials not only disapprove of autonomous legal systems, they cannot recognise one when they see one. Curiously they seem to share this affliction with President Trump.

Well Ms Meng is now confined to a luxurious Vancouver property, while legal proceedings continue and China arrests a few Canadian citizens with a view, perhaps, to a future exchange.

The only part of this schemozzle which really concerns Hong Kong was the discovery that Ms Meng was the proud owner of no less than three SAR passports. The later two are described as “replacements” for the first one. It seems the Hong Kong government does not require “replaced” passports to be returned, or to be mutilated in a way which would preserve visas but make it clear that the passport is not current.

Well we can leave that to the usual people. I note only that the reproductions of the passports for public view had some numbers blacked out but left the lady’s date of birth visible, which seems ungalant.

The other local offering came from legislator Regina Ip, who expressed dismay at the turn of events and said that in protest at the victimisation of the lady she was going to switch her phone purchases to Huawei.

This is the same Regina Ip who assured us recently that an appeal panel consisting of three Exco members would give a “faIr and impartial” hearing to the Hong Kong National Party’s attempt to remain a registered society. Does she think Ms Meng will not get a “fair and impartial hearing” in a Canadian court?

Then came the sequel, in which Ms Meng soon featured in a procedure unknown to Chinese jurisprudence: she appeared before an impartial judge, in a courtroom open to the press and public, with the lawyer of her choice to speak on her behalf.

If I was a Canadian I would be rather offended by the assumption that the whole incident was engineered in Canada for political purposes. Countries have extradition treaties and these impose obligations.

It would be nice if Chinese officials could get their heads round the idea that other countries’ legal systems differ from theirs. And the “we have been offended; arrest a Canadian or two to teach them a lesson” move is a bad look.

Also, complaints about human rights violations elsewhere from a regime which tramples them daily will not be taken very seriously. Except perhaps by Beijing’s supporters in Hong Kong.

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Curious piece in the Standard the other day about drinking, or, as the paper cheerfully put it, “boozing”. This reported the results of a large survey conducted in October and November into local drinking habits.

This has the unfortunate result that the information contained is already outdated, because the legislature has just passed a ban on selling alcoholic drinks to people under the age of 18. We do not know what effect this ban will have, but presumably it will produce some change in local drinking habits.

The survey was conducted by the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society, which is interested in the matter because alcohol is a “known carcinogen”. One rather got the impression that they would like to see it banned completely.

The chairman of the society’s cancer education committee, one Rico Lu King-yin, from asserted flatly that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption”, which was well ahead of the evidence the society was offering.

As so often happens with crusades of this kind, righteousness triumphed over accuracy. I presume the society was responsible for the catchy line in the first paragraph of the story saying that “more than a third of people in the SAR binge drink”.

Further down the story we were told that almost 70 per cent of respondents had “been drinking” in the past three months. Of these, 45 per cent were binge drinkers. I take the “almost 70 per cent” to be a euphemism for 69 per cent. Then 45 per cent of that will get us to 31 per cent of the population as a whole, which is not more than a third. It is less than a third.

Still 30 per cent of the population binge drinking seems an awful lot. You would expect on most evenings to find the streets littered with comatose alcoholics, the gutters running with blood and vomit.

But the society’s definition of binge drinking explains why it is so popular. A binge, apparently, consists of drinking “five cans of beer, five glasses of wine or five shots of liquor in one session”.

You cannot be serious. Five cans of beer is not a binge, it’s an aperitif. The ancient university which I attended was often the scene of formal dinners in the traditional style. This involved a glass or two of sherry beforehand, white wine with the fish, red wine with the meat, Madeira with dessert and brandy with the coffee. Oblivious of the fact that everyone present was now a binge drinker, we passed on to the port. And some of us were only 18.

Looking back at my lifestyle in England I suspect there were long periods when I had a “binge” every night. I doubt if I ever went down to the pub and had less than three pints of bitter, which would be more than equivalent to five of the “sex in a canoe” stuff which comes in cans around here.

I am sure the Anti-cancer Society intends well, but there is something to be said for treading lightly when condemning other peoples’ pleasures for which you have no taste.

Drinking is a certainly potentially dangerous. In excess it can lead to a variety of diseases and also to hazardous behaviour. People need to control themselves.

On the other hand human beings have been drinking alcoholic drinks for as long as historians can remember. Some of the oldest writings are lists of wine jars. Yet we are not extinct.

The question about risky activities is not just are they risky, but is the risk worth it? People like to drink. It brings pleasure to hard lives. As the old Irish song puts it “It makes me feel content and happy.”

So drinking is dangerous. Crossing the road is dangerous, Living is dangerous.

As an old German poem put it (translation by Bernard Levin)

If you smoke and if you drink

Life is shorter than you think.

If such things are not your game

You will snuff it just the same.

People vary greatly in their enthusiasm, and ability to digest, alcohol. They also vary in their appetite for risks. More information is always a good thing, as long as it’s accurate. But lay off the propaganda please.

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Pissed off at the Post

The finer points of journalistic ethics are rarely discussed in Hong Kong media, so it was nice to see one surface the other week.

The spark was provided by a piece by Steve Vines in the Hong Kong Free Press, stating that he had, after some trivial dispute to which we were not introduced, decided not to write any more for the South China Morning Post.

He went on to say that he should have made this decision in February, when the Post published an interview with Gui Minhai, the Hong Kong bookseller who was abducted by Chinese agents from Thailand, and has been in prison ever since.

The interview was conducted in what we may politely call a custodial setting. Mr Vines thought this was simply a print version of those coerced televised confessions which have become a feature of the People’s Secret Police at work in recent years; he spent the rest of his column denouncing the practice and arguing that media organisations should refuse invitations to participate in it.

The following day brought a response in the South China Morning Post, written by Alex Lo.

Mr Lo was ill-served by his editors. The headline “Some people mistake egoism for bravery” captured the venomous tone of Mr Lo’s opinion of Mr Vines quite well, but there was nothing in either article about bravery.

Mr Vines did not claim to be brave – he is a big cheese in the food business so giving up Post work is neither a financial sacrifice nor a professional risk for him – and Mr Lo did not accuse him of cowardice. The headline was, as we put it in sub-editing circles, crap.

A second deck of headline “Long-time columnist Stephen Vines has decided to stop writing for the Post, but not before discomforting those of us he left behind,” contained the sort of error which convinces former Post sub-editors like me that the paper has gone downhill.

(Note to subs: “Discomfort” is the noun. The verb you wanted is “discomfiting”.)

A couple of generalisations to warm up, then Mr Lo spends four paragraphs attacking Mr Vines, before the bookseller interview comes into view. Mr Lo’s take on this is “It could have been handled better and I hope everyone has learned a lesson”, which looks suspiciously like a way of translating “I didn’t agree with it but I want to keep my job.”

Mr Lo then says that Mr Vines’s timing leaves a puzzle. If the interview was objectionable, why not say so at the time? This is a valid point. Should Mr Vines perhaps have entitled his piece “What I thought about the Gui interview but didn’t say at the time”?

On the other hand Mr Lo’s work also leaves us with a question. If you are writing an article denouncing egotism, would it perhaps be a good idea not to use the word “I“ five times in 11 paragraphs, one of which starts “In my 20 years at the Post”?

Well, the interesting point in all this for me is not the Gui Interview, which presents no ethical dilemma at all – it shouldn’t have been done – but the question whether a columnist should hold him- or herself responsible in any way for what appears in the rest of the newspaper.

This is a point which is neglected in most media ethics writing, which tends to look at the problems of individual stories as they present themselves to individual editors, or less often to individual reporters.

The only exception I could find when I was teaching this stuff was a gentleman called John Merrill, who seemed to be engaged in a single-handed attempt to persuade the journalism profession, or at least journalism teachers, to take up existentialism as a philosophical key to ethical questions.

Mr Merrill wanted journalists to be aware of and responsive to the doings of their media organisation, as well as their role in those doings. Indeed this view has a great deal to commend it. Media production is usually a team game (blogs and columns excepted), and if there is guilt, it should be shared.

However it is not a widely-shared view among  journalists, most of whom are willing to work for anyone who is willing to pay them, provided they are not asked to transgress ethical limits, which are drawn quite broadly.

Freelance reporters will regard their responsibility as being limited to the story they are working on. Editors generally regard themselves as neutral technicians, administering a process which makes material publishable without changing it. Window or Whippet News: the skills are the same.

Whether this is applicable to opinion writing does not, for most of us, come up. If you stick to news the facts should be the facts.

Editorial writers, who are accustomed to writing down opinions expressed by someone else – the editor, proprietor, or perhaps a committee – have sometimes taken a pride in their versatility.

One man wrote, according to legend, for two New York newspapers with diametrically opposed political views. Sometimes he would write a piece for one denouncing as unmitigated bilge the opinion he had expressed in the other the previous day.

But that is not really relevant here. The question is what are the rules for the columnist who is allowed, and expected, to express his own opinion, and what he should do if the rest of the newspaper does not agree with him?

Personally I have always looked at this in a backwards sort of way. News media should be encouraged to provide platforms for the widest possible range of views. An outlet which only puts out stuff it agrees with is failing its readers.

But a wide range of opinions is only possible if a wide range of opinion writers are willing to see their work on the same page as things they thoroughly disagree with. The more odd or unpredictable your views the more you need to find an editor who believes that diversity is a virtue.

When Alan Castro was editor of The Standard this belief was implemented with enthusiasm. Although Mr Castro was an early pioneer of the “Beijing is beautiful” school of thought he made a conscious effort to include pro-Taiwan columnists, and happily tolerated loose cannons like me.

I still remember his horrified reaction to a piece I wrote urging the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which at that time was still illegal in Hong Kong. But he printed it.

Unfortunately this view of media obligations was not universal in those days, and is almost extinct in Hong Kong now.

This is not a personal complaint. As a columnist or reviewer you find that opportunities come and go. Different page editors want to implement their own ideas, which may or may not include you. Individual pieces may hit a nerve somewhere and you read to your surprise in your usual slot that “Tim Hamlett is on holiday”. Best not to ask what went wrong. You never know whether the reason given is the real one.

I try to remember that your departure is the last thing people are going to recall about you. Better to go quietly into that good night than to go whingeing. A thought which Mr Frederick Fung might usefully have considered a few months ago.

Anyway I no longer need the money. But it does seem that Hong Kong media are becoming increasingly separated by ideology. And if you try to create a space where a variety of views are expressed you find that the holders of those views are not prepared to participate.

Pro-government people will not write for independent publications, and independent people will not write for pro-government ones, which indeed do not want their output. The historic practice of Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei, which only print stuff which they – and the Liaison Office – agree with, is spreading.

People in one camp will raise eyebrows if they just agree to be interviewed by publications in the other. Where is the marketplace of ideas where different opinions can contend, can be compared and contrasted? RTHK is still trying, bless ‘em, but it’s a government department.

So I am sorry Mr Vines is absenting himself from the pages of the Post, though not very sorry, because I stopped reading it years ago. Mr Lo says “none of us has noticed”, without saying who “us” is in this context. Did he go round the office asking or is it him and his dog?

I fear a lot of other people will not have noticed either, because they no longer expect to see a wide range of views in the Post. This is not a criticism of the Post, which is in this respect much like most of the other Hong Kong media.

They really should do something about the headlines, though.

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If you live anywhere near Shatin you have seen his face. A young man, wearing glasses, apparently going for the Harry Potter look. Sometimes he shares the poster, or minibus ad, with another gentleman, who is our District Board representative. Also present, the DAB logo.

The young man is not a District Board member. What is going on here?  Well basically the DAB is cheating, though without breaking the law. The same thing happened in the last Legco election.

Posters and publicity for people appeared long before the campaigning period began. There were no explicitly political slogans attached to them, but in due course it turned out that the person whose picture you had been seeing every day was in fact the pro-government candidate in your constituency.

This is an expensive way of getting some extra name recognition. It is, though, perfectly legal. The limit on election expenses starts when you are nominated. Before that you are merely a “prospective candidate” and if you like seeing your face on the side of a minibus that is OK as long as you don’t describe yourself as a “candidate”.

In the old days when the list of candidates was not censored by government officials you could say there was nothing unfair about this. Pro-government candidates, or prospective candidates, were only doing what any other candidate could do.

Of course less well-heeled candidates might struggle to afford large public displays, but there are cheaper options. However times have changed. Potential candidates who do not enjoy the support of the government do not know whether they are candidates or not until the Returning Officer has pruned the list.

Pro-government candidates do not have to worry about this. They are in no danger of disqualification. Candidates who are not pro-government, on the other hand, may find that they are also not candidates. So efforts made before the nomination period will be wasted.

This is unfair. No doubt people who like the arrangement will say that it makes no difference, because the advertising is all removed when campaigning starts.

But this is not true. It is true of posters, hoardings and such like, because when you stop paying for them the owner of the space takes them down. The owners of minibuses are not so quick. If you plaster your picture on a minibus it stays there until someone else pays for the space.

One of our local minibuses is still advertising the Liberal losers from the last Legco election. On a minibus there is a good chance that the ad you paid for will stay long after the period you booked.

This is only one of the ways in which Hong Kong’s elections look increasingly bent.

The trouble with fixing the elections is that if people cannot express their views legitimately through elections then they will resort to other means. I recall warning after the end of the Umbrella thing that the young people who had discovered that street protests were ignored might turn to other measures which the government would find even less acceptable.

In fact, being a non-violent and generally respectable group, most of the former leading Umbrella-wavers turned to electoral politics. Indeed this was a course urged on them by many older commentators, who wrote that street protests were mere playing at politics; those who wished to change society should engage in the real thing and get elected, which they did.

Many of them have now been unelected. Now, to official horror, people are asking the US Senate to reconsider its recognition of Hong Kong as a separate entity from China. This is a desperate measure, but you cshouldn’t complain if you have frustrated the non-desperate measures.

Can you hear the people sing? Not if your ears are glued to the liaison office keyhole.

 

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