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Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, who for more than two years was the Government’s leading voice on daily COVID matters, has achieved the extraordinary feat of combining the roles of official government spokesperson and popular public figure.

This has no doubt made some people jealous, and not only colleagues. Her last press conference (the daily ritual has been abandoned, thank goodness, as the disease subsides) was greeted by an astonishingly ungenerous and carping editorial in the Hong Kong Standard, over the name of Mary Ma.

Ms Ma (we will come to the question of who she is later) wrote that it was “most unfortunate that Dr Chuang … has become a COVID icon.” Noting that Dr Chuang had said she hoped it would be the last time she met the press the writer continued “And so do I.”

There follows a long burst of bitching: there was not enough on the science, there was not enough of a “human touch”, there were too many details of individual patients, there were not enough details about officials who had caught COVID, the media were “unable to obtain additional information…”

There seems to be a fundamental confusion at work here. An official press conference is an opportunity to get the official line on the situation and the actions which the government is taking to deal with it. It is not supposed to provide a complete kit for daily COVID coverage; media organisations which wish to provide scientific background or human interest stories have to do their own digging. A press conference is an opportunity to be informed, not spoonfed.

I cheerfully admit that when the epidemic was still a growing and largely mysterious threat Dr Chuang’s daily performances were faithfully watched in the Hamlett household. Even if you didn’t understand a lot of the proceedings it was reassuring.

Dr Chuang has a soft and melodious voice which makes even plain statements of fact in Cantonese sound like a song in the making. She also has the valuable medical habit of transmitting in a wordless way the idea that the situation is serious but under control, your physician understands what is ailing you and is going to fix it.

This is no doubt sometimes a bit optimistic. But hope is a helpful medicine.

Having sat through plenty of press conferences I was impressed by the way she also navigated skillfully round the pitfalls. If the didn’t have an answer to a particular point she said so. If the question should have been addressed to another department she politely declined to trespass. If the information was available but not to hand she promised to produce it.

When the question answered in Cantonese was repeated in English she answered without complaining, as a press spokesman should. The English media want your words in your voice. Repeating your answer in English is a way of avoiding the hazards of translation, subtitles or reportorial paraphrasing.

If the question seemed to be a criticism or a preparation for one, she answered it in the same calm way, and did not take it personally – a trick which some of our leaders have yet to master.

Press conference performers need to grasp the fact that reporters will seek their reaction to criticisms and comments made by other people, whether the reporter agrees with them or not. This is not an attempt to embarrass you, it is an attempt to be fair by giving you the right to reply to the things other people are saying to reporters.

Actually for a long time it seemed to many of us that Dr Chuang’s press conference performances were the only part of the government’s COVID campaign which was going well. By now she has racked up more than 700 of them – which would be two years if there were no days off.

Sometimes there were in fact very few days off. At one point she had notched up 72 continuous days. A reporter suggested she could consider a holiday, which she found amusing.

This formidable workload was borne under a burden of private grief. Her husband died at the end of 2020 after a long illness.

In short for many of us Dr Chuang is an authentic Hong Kong heroine. She is a shining exception to a generally unloved leadership. She has a Facebook fan page with more than 20,000 followers. The government could do a lot worse than make her an official role model for press handlers.

Now as to Mary Ma, Mary does not exist. The column is written by different people on different occasions and is supposed to replace the editorial. This would be a perfectly acceptable arrangement on one condition: that the writers used the pronoun “we” to describe themselves. Using “I” is dishonest and deceptive.

Personally I think the particular “I” who penned this piece needs to give some serious consideration to what he is doing. Writing editorials for newspapers is an honourable pursuit. I used to do it myself. It is an opportunity to write thoughtfully about the issues of the day. It is not an opportunity to publish snarky put-downs of popular public figures anonymously.


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While the world was watching the Royal funeral and the Hong Kong police were advancing the fight against subversive harmonica music, one comment caught my attention. The author wondered why the media were paying so much attention to the death of Queen Elizabeth and so little to the pending death of the planet, which was announced at roughly the same time.

Well there was a whiff of republicanism about this – the author was Australian – and I am not sure that the coverage of the expired Queen was excessive. If you are going to have a King or Queen – which I certainly accept is optional and possibly not a good idea – you might as well recognise an outstanding performance in the role.

Also the funeral may have seemed a bit over the top, but it was a mere vestige of the ceremonies with which hereditary monarchs used to buttress their authority when they really had some.

Hapsburg Emperors, for example, had very elaborate funerary rites because they were buried in three different Vienna churches: the body in the crypt of the Capuchin church on New Market Square, the heart in the Augustinian Church next to the Hofburg Palace, and their guts in copper canisters under Saint Stephens Cathedral, where visitors of a ghoulish disposition can still see them.

So I do not begrudge the dear lady her parade. The point about the planet, though, is a good one.

It seems we are approaching, with no signs of serious braking, several points at which current climate problems – floods, fires, droughts – will be joined by much more serious manifestations of planetary indisposition.

Any day now, for example, the Greenland ice cap may slither bodily off the top of Greenland into the North Atlantic, producing an instant and drastic reduction in the amount of dry land available. Good news for some, bad for others. Residents in first floor Tsim Sha Tsui flats will be able to step directly from their windows into their Uber gondolas. The shops below will be submerged.

This sort of thing ought to be occupying a lot of media space and it is worth wondering why it isn’t.

Clearly part of the problem is the way the news business works. Thoughtful journalists have known for a long time that there is a bias in favour of stories which fit the “news treatment”, which meant in the old days that they could be boiled down to 12 crisp paragraphs and now means that they will make the sort of splash on the internet usually reserved for appealing cat videos.

It is a commonplace these days that the news consumer is a fickle creature, who if not grabbed firmly by the first five seconds of your report/stream/video will wander elsewhere in search of more excitement. But it was always thus. The disproportionate attention lavished on the headline and the first paragraph of the printed news story was motivated by the fear that the reader who had not been hooked by them would swim away.

In search of things which work when presented in this breathless way the news business prefers events over processes, single events over developing ones, named individuals – preferably already known to our consumers – over abstract crowds like “mankind” or “the future”.

Climate change was not put on most people’s mental map by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a voice crying in the wilderness for decades – but by Greta Thunberg. And yet most of us still sit paralysed: rabbits in the headlights of an oncoming catastrophe.

Of course we make changes. We fiddle with thermostats, switch on the “Eco” option which most cars seem to offer these days, experiment with meatless meat and fishless fish, recycle what can be recycled and reuse what can be reused … and then we blow the savings by flying to Europe.

But I think the key to public apathy is that the danger is too big for individual efforts, heartwarming though they may be to those who make them. If scientists discover that onions are bad for you we can give up onions and look forward to longer, healthier lives. Giving up beef because it is climatically catastrophic seems like an empty gesture: the cow industry is a juggernaut which will roll on whatever an individual consumer does.

Saving the planet, in short, is a collective problem which requires collective action. So the important question we have to ask is: what is Hong Kong as a territory with some control over its environmental impact doing to reduce it?

And the short answer, alas, is not very much, or at least not very much in proportion to the magnitude of the threat, which could in a decade or two make Hong Kong uninhabitable, at least in the summer, even if most of it has not been submerged.

Climate change did not feature conspicuously in the Chief Executive’s election campaign and it doesn’t seem to have been much on his mind since. Legco seems to be drifting towards a bigger plastic bag levy. We are going to be charged for rubbish collection, but that owes more to a shortage of landfill than to a desire to reduce waste.

Hong Kong Electric has had a toy windmill on its building in Wanchai for years, and seems to have concluded from the experience that Hong Kong wind is not suitable for power generation.

Every year or two we get another story about an electric bus which a bus company is experimenting with. Somehow these buses all come … and go. Electric taxis? Don’t hold your breath.

Or do hold your breath – the air pollution was so bad last week that on some days you could not see Ma On Shan from Fotan.

Our priorities do not seem to fit the circumstances. What is required, I submit, is some variation on panic. “Security” is all very well. But if your house is on fire then the danger of burglary should not be your first concern.

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The case of Kwok Wai-yin was a tragic one. The wife he had been married to for more than 30 years fell prey to a fatal and painful form of cancer. Eventually, with her consent, Mr Kwok helped her end the struggle by burning charcoal in the bedroom.

Two and a half years of remand in custody ensued before he finally came before a judge for sentencing last week. He then became the first person – and the way things are going he will not be the last – to spend a long time in prison on remand, only to receive a non-custodial sentence.

The judge did say, in sentencing Mr Kwok to probation, that he took into consideration the fact that the defendant had already in effect served two and a half years. Which might have been a reasonable sentence, I suppose, for manslaughter with extenuating circumstances.

Media coverage of this tragedy concentrated, quite understandably, on the mercy killing aspect. Judge Albert Wong solved a difficult problem with dignity and humanity. Other defendants may not be so lucky. We must also wait to see whether Mr Justice Wong’s solution will provoke an appeal from the part of the Department of Justice which mass produces appeals against lenient sentences.

But the delay is also noteworthy. Obviously we cannot know what would have happened if Mr Kwok’s case had come up within a reasonable time, which in many Common Law jurisdictions would be something less than six months.

The despair-inducing thing about this case is that none of the usual excuses – detective work, assembly of evidence, sharing it with defence, need to timetable a long trial – is operable at all. On the same day he helped his wife into the afterlife Mr Kwok walked into a police station and told the officers therein what he had done.

Preparation? The prosecution barely even needed a lawyer. And yet the legal machinery still managed to keep Mr Kwok waiting for two and a half years. A spell in prison this long can ruin a person’s life.

The right to a speedy trial is recognised in all the international human rights instruments. It also features in the Department of Justice’s guidelines for prosecutors. Yet even when the defendant flings himself unresisting into the gaping maw of the legal system it still can’t manage a decently swift process.

No doubt there are excuses – the backlog of riot cases, the epidemic – but these will not wash. If the system is under strain for some reason then there must be priorities. And the first of these should be to resolve the cases of people who are in prison awaiting trial.

Oddly enough Mr Kwok appeared in court on the same day as the speech therapists convicted of publishing seditious children’s books which, according to Judge Kwok Wai-kin, led young readers to “not to trust the administration of justice in Hong Kong.”

We’re supposed to trust the administration of justice in Hong Kong, are we? Also on the same day Judge Kwok Kai-on (as far as I know none of the Kwoks in this piece are related) convicted a 46-year-old woman of rioting (nearly three years ago, normal service) because “a first aider can also be a rioter and cannot rule out the possibility that she participated in the riot.”

Cannot rule out the possibility? Can also be a rioter? Could one of those mysterious “workshops” at which judges are told what is expected of them perhaps be devoted to the implications of this quote from a famous lawyer:

The possibility of guilt is not enough. Suspicion is not enough. Probability is not enough; likelihood is not. A criminal matter is not a matter of balancing probabilities and deciding in favour of a probability. If the accusation is not proved beyond reasonable doubt against the man accused in the dock then by law he is entitled to be acquitted, because that is the way our rules work. It is not a concession to give him the benefit of the doubt. He is entitled by law to a verdict of not guilty.

Trust cannot be enforced. It must be earned.

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The Hong Kong government’s rather complicated relationship with the rule of law rarely provides amusing moments, so we must make the most of what comes along.

Readers of the Standard (everyone else appears to have missed it) were treated the other day to a story headed “Mooncake raid at Democratic Party workshop”. This concerned a raid by representatives of three government departments on what seems to have been a mooncake shop in Tai Wai.

Actually the place is not a Democratic Party workshop. It is owned by a former Shatin district councillor, Kodama Ng Ting-lam, who was disqualified during the government purge of district councils last year.

It was being used by an organisation called Staymunity, whose main current activity is to raise funds to support Lam Cheuk-ting, formerly one of the more frisky pro-dem lawmakers and now a remand prisoner awaiting trial, along with almost every democratic politician you have heard of, and a few you probably haven’t. They have all been in jail for 18 months. I infer that both Ms Ng and Mr Lam can safely be regarded as politically hors de combat.

Accordingly the shop, or workshop, is neither owned nor run by the Democratic Party and it would be interesting to know who stuck this label on it. I am uneasily aware that it may have been a sub editor. But being labelled “democratic” these days is dangerous, as we shall shortly see.

The government departments concerned managed to be a bit confused about what had actually happened. The only thing that they agreed on was that it was not a “joint operation”. Perhaps someone was embarrassed.

According to the police they received reports of illegal employment at the workshop, and sent a team to investigate. Reports? I am getting a bit sceptical about these mysterious complaints that trigger police descents on places or people labelled “democratic”. Is someone churning out politically motivated “reports”. Or do some of them exist only in the Force’s fertile imagination?

Anyway officers did not, according to the Force, find illegal employment activities. Did the story then proceed in the usual way: “Sorry to have troubled you, Miss, it seems we were fed a bum lead”? Not at all.

Readers who were surprised at the police interest in illegal employment – usually a matter for Immigration or Labour, depending on the violation suspected – can prepare for another surprise. The case was “referred to other departments given the workshop was suspected to be used as a food manufacturing plant”.

Enter the Food and Environmental Hygiene troops, who know the food regulations. To the disappointment of all concerned, I fear, this also failed to disclose anything illegal. The moooncakes are made perfectly legally in properly licensed premises elsewhere, and all that happens in the workshop is the addition of a wrapper, presumably with a picture of Mr Lam on it.

Or perhaps not. These days, support for Mr Lam may not be something you want to advertise.

The Government’s uniformed minions had not run out of inspiration yet, though. “Officers from the Customs Department later arrived to see if there was any violation of the Trades Descriptions Ordinance.” The Standard’s intrepid reporters did not establish exactly whose idea that was.

Anyway the mooncake workshop finally achieved a complete legal triumph. “No one was arrested and no evidence was seized,” as the Standard put it delicately. What, did nobody think of inviting the Buildings Ordinance people to check for illegal extensions?

I would like to believe that politics had nothing to do with this story, but I am not that stupid. Do you think, if I made a spurious report that cocaine was being smoked in a local DAB office, there would be such a diligent search for something – anything – which could be used to give the operator a hard time?

This story has its bright side. We can relish the thought of the one female worker who was present when the troops arrived greeting a succession of official requests and questions, eventually to see the bloodhounds depart with tails between legs. No less than ten officials turned up. It’s not quite the Captain of Kopenick; we mustn’t be greedy.

But there is also an important principle involved here. The rule of law requires more than just a legal system and a police force. It requires, if I may quote the late Lord Bingham’s work on the subject, that “public officials at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly, for the purpose for which the powers were conferred.”

Instead, we see a system where the government selects a target and then throws at it anything which might stick, so crowd-funding becomes money-laundering, a breach of lease conditions becomes fraud, clapping in court becomes sedition, and so on. Laws which have been dead letters for decades are exhumed and if that fails there is always the national security law, which can mean whatever you like.

Is it any wonder that low-level functionaries visiting vaguely democratic premises think their job is to find something the Director of Public Prosecutions can work with, even if their original inspiration turns out to be a duff one.

There may well be some nasty subversives out there somewhere who would really like to discredit the legal system. It is difficult to see how they could out-do those who are supposed to be guarding it.

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The hazards of comparing statistics from different times and places are well known. But not, apparently, in Hong Kong public health circles, where COVID figures are looking distinctly shaky.

In the early days of the epidemic anyone who thought they had COVID rushed immediately to the nearest doctor – or if they couldn’t afford a doctor to the nearest Accident and Emergency Department. Doctors and hospitals were required to report cases of COVID to the authorities. So if we were told there were 1,000 new COVID cases yesterday this was probably – give or take the odd case with no symptoms and the odd false positive – the actual figure.

Thursday morning’s newspapers said we now had a daily total of over 10,800, passing the 10,000 level for the first time since the springtime spasm when it threatened on a couple of occasions to reach 80,000. In fact the daily figure given was 10,856, implying that no sparrow coughs without its ailment being recorded by the Centre for Health Protection. Which is, alas, not true.

I have heard of numerous friends, acquaintances, friends of friends and acquaintances of acquaintances, plus the odd relative, who have had COVID. None of them resorted to the official health care system. The standard way of dealing with COVID, at least for otherwise healthy adults, has become a matter of self-treatment. The victim takes some pills and retires to bed, keeping as much separation from friends and family as his or her living arrangements allow.

Some amusement was caused on the estate where I live when the management sent round a circular saying that we had a case on the premises. Public areas would be disinfected, U-bends watered, and security staff reminded to wear face masks, sensible measures which we were urged to copy.

The funny thing about this is that we all knew about previous cases which had not become official. There was some doubt whether the latest one was our fourth or fifth case, but nobody supposed it was actually the first.

Hong Kong people are traditionally self-reliant. The consensus is now that your ordinarily healthy citizen who has had four jabs of the good stuff will either not get COVID or get the harmless version. The ailment is no longer a public problem. We can handle it ourselves.

I am not suggesting the the rate of reported to unreported cases is as high as my local experience might suggest. Houses with multiple bedrooms offer more amateur quarantine possibilities than your standard Hong Kong flat, let alone your standard Hong Kong subdivided flat, bedspace or whatever.

Indeed the Penny’s Bay quarantine accommodation, regarded with some dread among inhabitants of comfortable upmarket homes, may well seem an attractive prospect to people whose living arrangements are more basic. They’re coming to take me away, as the old song had it, hooray.

On the other hand, though, being in quarantine implies not being at work. This is a financial problem for some people, who will no doubt be tempted to regard their minor symptoms as being no bar to attending the usual day’s toil, even if that means breathing on strangers.

My point is not that the official figure is too low. My point is that it is worthless. It could be too high, though that seems unlikely, or it could be too low. COVID has ceased to be a disease which is routinely reported, so we have no reliable way of knowing how prevalent it now is.

Yet we are still being told that if the official figure passes some threshold, up or down, there will be consequences – respectively more restrictions on gatherings and travel, or less.

Clearly it would be foolish to suppose that I am the only person who has noticed that policy is now being made on the basis of fictitious statistics. The danger is not just that erroneous fears or hopes could lead to misguided policies. The danger is that people will entirely lose faith in the government’s public health efforts.

These are already in bad odour in some quarters. They seem to be out of step with the rest of the world, bewilderingly changeable, and prone to political pollution. There is no Chinese medicine, traditional or otherwise, that has any demonstrable effect on COVID. The limits on gatherings – 500 for marathons, eight for dinners, four for political protests – make no sense. Too many top, and not-so-top, people seem to be exempt from all restrictions.

From a long-term point of view this looks worrying. We must all hope that we can trust the learned prophet who announced last week that the current epidemic will finish next summer because epidemics usually subside after three years, though one does wonder. Perhaps this one will be different?

With more certainty we can say that sooner or later there will be another epidemic. When that day comes it would be useful if Hong Kong people trusted their government.

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Our Chief Executive. Mr John Lee, urged young people in a recent speech to “tell the world a good story about Hong Kong whenever possible.” Which is no doubt something much to be desired.

But Hong Kong’s problem with the world is not so much a shortage of good stories as a surplus of bad ones. I realise that it is hard for a Chief Executive, buffeted by events, “advised” by Mother and besieged by people who think their interests coincide entirely with those of the SAR, to do much about this.

But there are some things which are still under the government’s control and could reduce the flow of bad stories.

Let us start with a bad story which goes back 800 years. In 1215 the then King of England – another John by coincidence – was cornered by a bunch of rebellious barons and persuaded to sign a charter promising improvements in government.

Of course John repudiated it soon afterwards as having been extorted under duress, but it had his signature and seal on it so lawyers treated it as part of the law anyway. Most of the improvements concerned the rights and obligations of feudal vassals but a few fragments are still law.

One of them is the famous paragraph 39, which goes (translated from the Latin) “No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor in any way proceeded against, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land.”

And from this arose the rule that a man or woman accused of a serious offence was entitled to a trial by jury. The other landmark – a case of unlawful assembly oddly enough – came in 1670. In what is known as Bushel’s case the jury acquitted the two defendants and the judge sent them to jail with orders to change their verdict. Mr Bushel, who was one of the jurors, appealed to a higher court and established that the jury has the exclusive right to return whatever verdict it thinks proper, regardless of the opinions of the judge.

There is rarely much discussion of jury decisions – it is actually illegal to interview a juror about what happened in the jury room – and while there are sometimes verdicts which appear a little inexplicable most lawyers regard juries as no more eccentric in their decision-making than judges, though in different ways.

It is known that juries are somewhat more likely to acquit defendants than judges sitting alone (the usual alternative in England) but this does not mean they are prone to error. Judges who hear a lot of criminal cases often develop a certain cynicism about the usual defences.

The right to a jury trial was duly exported to Hong Kong and was among those rights commonly supposed to be secured by the Basic Law. Under the National Security law it is no longer a right. If you are accused of a serious Nat Sec offence the government has the option of dispensing with the usual jury and replacing it with three judges of its own choosing.

In all the cases of this kind so far the jury has in fact been replaced in this way. This is the sort of story which “the world” tends to take rather badly. If a jury trial is good enough for your common or garden burglar, rapist, murderer or whatever, it is not a good look to rule it out for one category of defendant. And the picked judges bit looks a bit… shall we say Hungarian?

And this is not necessary. The Nat Sec law allows the jury to be replaced but it does not require it. The Secretary for Justice would no doubt be willing to heed a plea from his boss that this unlovely innovation should be sheathed for the time being. It may be that juries wil be reluctant to convict in cases with a political flavour and we shall have to think again. But a few surprising acquittals would look better than setting a new global standard for kangaroo courts.

We can also consider another of King John’s promises, which goes like this: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.” Now justice is not yet for sale, and you can argue about whether it is denied, but what cannot be disputed is that it is now delayed. Another avoidable “bad story” involves political figures – sometimes aged or ill or both – with no previous criminal record being remanded in custody for months, even years, awaiting trial.

This again is enabled, but not required, by the Nat Sec law. The presumption that defendants will have bail is reversed. There is however no requirement that the prosecution should on every possible occasion oppose the granting of bail, as it does. Nor is there a requirement that the prosecution should take its sweet time in preparing its case.

Prosecutors in the UK are strenuously discouraged from keeping defendants in custody for more than six months. In Egypt, hardly a human rights haven, a prosecution which has not begun after two years is summarily dismissed, which counts as an acquittal.

This is a matter of policy and priorities, not law. Keeping people on ice for years awaiting trial is another “bad story” which does not go down well in “the world”. Prosecutors in other countries manage to work at higher speeds. They should be emulated.

Then there is the matter of political pollution in police work. Typical “bad story” this week. A man was busking in the Tung Chung bus station. Police turned up. He was playing an erhu, which is not everyone’s cup of tea. There had apparently been a complaint.

In due course he was arrested and charged with playing an instrument “in a public street or road save under or in accordance with the conditions of a permit from the Commissioner of Police.” This is apparently an offence under the Summary Offences Ordinance and I have committed it more times than I can remember. Who would have thunk it?

Wandering around Hong Kong you see buskers all the time. I have never heard of any of them being prosecuted. The bagpipe is an outdoor instrument often practised in the street. Likewise no interest from law enforcement. Occasionally a practising group will produce a noise complaint and we are just politely asked to desist and move on, which we do.

So why, you wonder was 68-year-old retiree Li Jiexin introduced to the obscure corners of the Summary Offences Ordinance? Well magistrate Felix Tam (who acquitted Mr Li on the grounds that the prosecution had called no evidence of the absence of a permit, an essential ingredient of the offence) stressed that politics had nothing to do with justice and refused to allow any evidence of what tune Mr Li was playing.

Very good. Still it seems that the thing which distinguished Mr Li from other ordinary buskers unworthy of the attention of the police force is that he was playing the tune of Glory to Hong Kong, a popular protest song.

The weaponisation of obscure laws to suppress expression the government disapproves of is another “bad story” which allows critics to depict Hong Kong as a place where the law is a tool of tyranny, not a protection for the public. Once again this is an option, not a requirement. Tell your boys to behave themselves.

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This is the sort of thing which puts you off teaching media law in Hong Kong. In March last year when the 47 National Security group defendants first appeared in a magistrate’s court, there was some discussion in court as to whether reporting was allowed.

Reporting of committal proceedings – basically all the hearings before the start of the actual trial – is restricted to bare details of names, charges and decisions on bail. But the restrictions can be lifted under some circumstances.

Magistrate Victor So, one of our – or rather their – national security specialists, supposed he had complete discretion in the matter and announced that the usual restrictions on reporting would remain.

This was an error, and I wrote a piece to this effect a few days later. This is not an obscure or controversial matter. The law is of considerable antiquity and it is quite clear. If the defendant – or if there is more than one defendant any one of them – wishes to have the reporting restrictions lifted then they must be lifted. But of course national security judges should not be swayed by the scribblings of a non-lawyer like me, and nor were they.

All subsequent applications for reporting restrictions to be lifted were refused, most recently by another national security star, Principal Magistrate Peter Law. This is a small personal embarrassment, because I taught this stuff for years, and always included the bit about restrictions being lifted if the accused person wished it.

However one recent victim of the new policy, barrister Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, took the matter to the High Court by seeking judicial review of the decision. It appears that Ms Chow, unlike many of our learned magistrates, can read the Magistrates Ordinance and has done so.

The application was a complete success. Judge Alex Lee ruled that the magistrate had exceeded his authority by refusing to lift the restrictions. “The magistrate has no discretion but to lift the reporting restrictions at the instance of the accused,” said the judge, adding that the magistrate’s approach to the matter was “totally in opposition to the principles of open justice.”

Disgracefully, the magistrate’s arbitrary action was defended by counsel for the Secretary for Justice, who contended that “lifting the restrictions would frustrate the ultimate aim of doing justice.”

It seems that both Mr Law and the Department of Justice were under the impression, shared by The Standard’s reporter, that the restrictions on reporting are intended for the protection of prosecution witnesses. This is not the case.

The purpose of the restrictions is to protect the defendant. In the old days the prosecution evidence was given in great detail during committal proceedings, while for tactical reasons the defence said little. The unintended but inevitable result of this arrangement was that reports of the proceedings were heavily biassed against the defence.

So the idea of the restriction is to prevent the defendant from being disadvantaged at his trial. You can actually report all the committal proceedings after the trial has taken place, which is occasionally useful if the defendant pleads guilty and the prosecution evidence is not needed at the full trial.

Clearly this arrangement conflicts with the principle that justice should be public. So the defendant is given the choice. He or she may – if convinced that this will help, or not harm, the defence – ask for the committal hearing to be reportable as other hearings are. There are a variety of reasons why the defence might think publicity helpful, though discouraging prosecution witnesses is not usually given as one of them.

But the court has no discretion in the matter, however dubious the defendant’s decision may be. In one notorious English case a defendant was paid by an eager newspaper to get the restrictions lifted. And they were.

Actually in Hong Kong these days the restrictions on reporting of committal proceedings have become pointless. The prosecution submits its case on paper and witnesses are not heard.

Moreover the defendant has often already been prejudiced because soon after his arrest the police generally outline what is effect going to be the prosecution case in a press briefing. This used to be harmless, at least in theory, because names or other identifying details of those arrested were not included. Times have changed.

So all this is not going to make a great deal of difference. It does mean we shall be able to read reports of the prosecution’s limp excuses for not being ready for trial months or years after the date of the alleged offence.

I gather from a recent speech by the new Secretary for Justice that his department now recognises that this is a problem. This enlightenment also has been much delayed.

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One of my students who has emigrated, as alas many have, recently brought me a curious present. It was a tin of biscuits from Fortnum and Mason. F and M is the grocery shop for people who think the Harrods Food Hall is middle class. The biscuits were delicious.

The tin, part of the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee, had a Coat of Arms on it: not the Royal one, a made-up job. If you wound it up by turning the base it also played the National Anthem, God Save the Queen – or King as appropriate. And this, it seems, is still about as far as patriotic passion gets in the UK these days.

In Hong Kong we do things differently. I am not sure what a court would make of a biscuit tin which played March of the Volunteers when wound up. But I am sure if such a thing appeared then some government zombie would point out that it “might” be a violation of the national security law.

There are similar differences with regard to flags. The UK has the Union Jack. Flag pedants love to point out that it is strictly only a Union Jack when flown on a jack staff, a small flag pole at the front of a ship. The rest of the time it is the Union Flag. Whatever you call it, it has no legal protection at all, and routinely appears on underwear, supermarket bags, American sports shoes and in other dubious places. The SAR flag, on the other hand, is a closely guarded virgin of the flag world and may, like the name of the Polytechnic University, only be displayed with permission.

The SAR is now rolling out further innovations which appear a bit on the weird side for those of us raised in places where patriotism was an assumption rather than an aspiration. All university students will be required to undertake some sort of short course on legality in general and the charms of the national security law in particular.

Early indications are that this requirement will be met with a variation on e-learning, culminating in a multiple-choice examination which can be graded by a computer. The whole thing can then be run without the intervention of a human brain. The idea behind this seems to be a sort of educational homeopathy, in which a tiny squirt of machine learning cleans and corrects a whole personality.

More exciting is the proposal, outlined in a recent on-line post from the Secretary for Education, for compulsory mainland study tours as part of the required subject formerly known as Liberal Studies and now – liberalism being off the menu – known as Citizenship and Social Development.

According to the bureau this will involve the government paying (the tours will be free for the tourists, at least for now) for some 50,000 trips a year. A total of 21 itineraries have been arranged, ranging from three days in Macau to five days in more distant spots like Hunan and Guizhou.

There are some interesting legal questions ahead about this. Will the tours be compulsory for international schools, or for international schools following the local curriculum, or for students in international schools who happen to have chosen the local curriculum rather than the IB? Will they be compulsory for local students who are not Chinese, and may indeed be citizens of countries which specifically advise their nationals against visiting China?

I leave these questions for more legal pens. What bothers me is the practicalities.

I should insert here that I have considerable experience of study tours. Early in my career as a university teacher I had a careless moment during an alcohol-fuelled gathering for journalism teachers and hatched a plan with an Australian academic to run a study tour of Queenslend for my students.

This was an insanely expensive ambition but as nobody had, apparently, done such things before my university coughed up a generous subsidy. The students made a splendid video of the proceedings which went down well at JUPAS briefings for some years – although we never managed to do Australia again – and the idea spread to other departments and in due course to other universities.

When my department sprouted an MA course we found there was a well-established price cartel which required us to charge far more than we needed for the programme. So we tagged on an optional but heavily-subsidised week in London, later moved to Prague.

I imported some rules for the conduct of study tours from a course for Scout leaders taking kids on camps which I had attended. One of these was that there should always be at least two adults present, so that in moments of crisis one could go to the hospital, police station, consulate or whatever, while the other could stay with the rest of the group.

This modest requirement was enough to create a permanent shortage so I had several trips to Boston for an annual Model UN and was even roped in once to make up the required number in Shanghai. Of course I knew nothing of Shanghai and noticed after a few days that the student who had organised the whole thing had arranged for two people to keep an eye on me every day and ensure I did not get bored or, more importantly, lost.

One thing all these trips had in common which will not, I fear, be a feature of the Education Bureau’s brainwave: they were voluntary. All the students attending wished to be there. They might be as interested in the tourism possibilities as the educational ones, but they were volunteers, not conscripts.

The same could be said of the reachers who went along. One of my colleagues managed, by heroic economies, to organise a trip to London for our journalism undergrads. This involved a week in a youth hostel which achieved an ambience somewhere between a Russian barracks and an Iranian prison. It was, though, only two minutes walk from Piccadilly. Nobody complained.

It is difficult to believe that this will be true of the government’s compulsory visits to China.

Let us start with the question of staff. Depending on the ages of the children, prudent organisers arrange a ratio of students to staff. For very small kids the ratio is 2:1, so that if necessary each adult can hold a child by each hand. For primary kids when I was doing these things it used to be 6:1. For university students you probably don’t have to worry too much as long as you have the necessary two staff but I think in practice we always ran around 20:1.

This suggests that a reasonable compromise for senior secondary students might be about 12:1. And this in turn means the Bureau will need to find some 4,000 teachers every year who are willing – or can be compelled – to go along on one of these jaunts. In my experience this sort of thing is not popular – though I quite enjoyed it – even when the destination was somewhere quite attractive.

Then there is the question of travel and accommodation. Rooms for students in mainland universities are … well rather along the lines of Piccadilly youth hostels. Boarding schools are, I imagine, even more Spartan. Is the Education Bureau proposing to pay for hotels?

I suppose inter-city travel will be on the high-speed rail network, which should be a boost for national pride. But who is making arrangements on arrival? Many Chinese universities have a department specialising in entertaining visitors. The woman from the relevant department of Fudan University who helped out in Shanghai was wonderful. But the tours will presumably involve more interaction with schools, which are not so well equipped.

The Education Bureau claims that they have lots of cities willing to entertain Hong Kong study tourists. You have to wonder why. Frankly if our government is waving gazillions of money around the place for study tours there will be some enthusiastic applicants who are not primarily concerned with education, patriotic or otherwise.

And the results…? People on the mainland have a rather different approach to education from the one traditionally adopted in Hong Kong. It is very solemn, didactic and traditional. No doubt Hong Kong students will be happy to behold the natural and manmade wonders of the mainland but will the experience generate enthusiasm, attraction … or profound relief that Hong Kong still has some differences.

I understand what is being wished for here, but compulsory exercises have a poor record of inducing change, precisely because they are compulsory. Encourage and subsidise visits to the mainland by all means. If they are a requirement they will turn people off.

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It’s the little things that give you away. I mean $140,000 is not a lot of money in terms of government spending, but it is our money, and the way in which it slipped through our collective fingers tells you a lot about how things are run these days.

The story starts last October, when a “community group” (which has so far managed to remain nameless, but is I suppose one of those small birds which eats the fleas off the DAB’s black rhinoceros) decided that it wished to see PRC and SAR flags hanging from New Territories lamp posts to celebrate National Day.

The time-honoured way of gratifying wishes of this kind was to get the local District Council to pay for it. The Transport Department’s charge for the use of its lamp posts was paid for by the council funds and was simply a transfer from one government account to another. Flying the flag was a piece of costless performative patriotism.

However the district councils have effectively been abolished. After the purge produced by the oath-taking requirement and official lies about what would happen to councillors who were disqualified, very few councillors were left. The by-elections required by law were unlawfully postponed by Carrie Lam on the grounds that the government was too busy with the Legco and CE elections. Mr John Lee has no such excuse but there is still no sign of by-elections.

We do not have the rule of law. We have the rule of selected laws.

Anyway, here we have our nameless group of rural superpatriots suddenly confronted with a bill for the use of lamp posts, running to $147,670. Apparently the transport people charge $6 per post per day. I have no idea whether that is reasonable but there is a safety angle because errant flags will presumably drop onto passing traffic.

The plight of our lamp post lovers came to light when a columnist, Chris Wat, wrote a piece about it in a pro-Beijing freesheet, Headline Daily. It was, Ms Wat opined, “ridiculous” that people should be charged for “patriotic behaviour”.

The following day two legislators wrote to the Director of Highways about the matter, posting the letter on Facebook for maximum brownie points. And the day after that the Chief Executive announced, also on Facebook, that he had “instructed administrative and inspection fee exemptions for national and SAR flags hung on lamp posts”.

The Highways Department then promised that the flag fanciers would get a refund.

As a piece of public expenditure this represents an interesting departure from traditional procedure. No budget, no Finance Committee, no quibbling. The decision-making flow goes from pro-Beijing columnist to DAB legislator to Chief Executive to the relevant department.

And henceforth, patriotic adornments to lamp posts will be free of charge. Who knows what other variations on “patriotic behaviour” will attract spontaneous support from public funds. May I charter an airship to float over the SAR for ten days flying the flags?

Actually it seems a bit backhanded to insist that patriotism should be free of charge. It ought to be a pleasure for a true patriot to fork over $140,000 for the honour of being the sponsor of the celebration. If it is not costing them anything, where is the virtue?

But it is a serious mistake to expect deep thought, or even superficial thought, from our legislators these days. Consider Mr Chu Kwok-keung, who now sits for the Education functional constituency.

Mr Chu was consulted by local media about a curious little scandal involving mermaids.

Wah Yan College, a fairly up-market boys school (it’s the one across Waterloo Road from Kwong Wah Hospital) has a swimming pool. In the summer, like most similarly supplied schools, it lets outsiders rent its pool, which would otherwise be idle and produces a small income.

Some parents were surprised to discover that one of the uses to which the pool was being put was a “mermaid movement experience class”. People were swimming in mermaid costumes and were allowed to take photos in the pool.

Parents characterised this as renting to an organisation that “claimed to be a sports group”. The school promptly collapsed in a heap, announcing that “someone had violated the school’s rental terms and the school had immediately terminated the rental contract.”. I am sorry the rental term was not specified. No fishtails?

Enter Mr Chu. Schools had the right to let their facilities but “the school must review the background and activities of the organisations, otherwise it will lead to irresponsibility. The affected school received complaints from parents and their opinions and concerns are reasonable.” Mr Chu has a condition commonly found in senior teachers: he talks to adults as if they were children and happily orates about matter of which he knows nothing.

Because the fact is that the parents concerns are not reasonable. There is nothing indecent or illegal about mermaid movement classes, which are offered by several organisations in Hong Kong. Not my cup of tea but it makes exercise, which is fundamentally boring, more interesting for some people.

I quote from one website: “Mermaid Dance is different from typical swimming and can be used as a unique form of exercise. Because both legs are held together in an iridescent fishtail, kicking really develops the core and leg muscles to develop an overall healthy body. It also teaches grace and is a fun way to express yourself creatively underwater!”

Some people offer it as a variation on yoga; some simply see it as a form of exercise likely to appeal to girls, many of whom do not warm to more traditional sports.

Mr Chu had a chance to stand up for freedom, reason and common sense, by pointing out that if people wish to be photographed disguised as fish then that is their own business and does not justify ill-informed parental puritanism. He blew it.

The new-look patriots-only Legco: living down to expectations.

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You would think our leaders were aware that the last thing Hong Kong needs at the moment is another piece of vague, indiscriminate legislation which will provide a whole new plethora of opportunities for toxic interactions between officials and the public they are supposed to serve.

Is there, one wonders, a bureaucratic disease called national security law envy. If there is, treatment is now required in the Environment and Ecology Bureau, which unveiled its latest stroke of genius at a recent meeting of the legislature.

The bureau, I do not dispute, has a problem. Wild pigs occasionally intrude in the urban area, attracted by the soft suburban life and the insecure dustbin, as many smaller animals have been before them. However a wild pig is a rather alarming thing to find in your housing estate, and the pigs are in danger from traffic.

The current policy, inaugurated by an interesting coincidence after a wild pig bit a policeman, is to capture pigs found in the urban area and kill them. This goes down badly with a lot of people, including me.

The bureau believes that the reason the pigs frolic in urban areas is that misguided people are feeding them. I do not dispute that this takes place sometimes, but there are some doubts as to whether it is really the main source of the problem. A lot of urban estates put their rubbish out for collection in the morning in plastic bags, which are not much of a challenge to a peckish pig.

Indeed the Agriculture and Fisheries Department’s supposedly animal-proof litterbins are not much of a challenge either. During the period when restaurants were forced to close at 6 pm many people picnicked in or around their cars in the carpark at the top of Sui Wo Road. I am a regular nocturnal visitor here for dog reasons.

These visitors were respectable folk who put their rubbish in plastic bags and put the bags into the animal-proof bin provided, until it overflowed and the bags were then stacked beside it. I suppose it took a day before our local wild pig (I have never seen more than one) discovered this bounty and another night before he found his way into the “animal-proof” bin.

After that I saw him most nights until the restaurants resumed evening service. A pig with the smell of rubbish in his nostrils is resourceful and determined. No doubt people should not feed them, but we seem to be picking an easy target here which will not solve the problem.

Anyway, what is the bureau’s preferred legal solution to the pig feeding problem? Will it ban feeding wild pigs in the urban area, ban feeding them in other places, attempt something like “feeding wild pigs in places whereby the general public is likely to be inconvenienced”, ban feeding wild pigs at all?

Too timid, apparently. The bureau wants to ban feeding any wild animal anywhere in Hong Kong. It also wishes to raise the maximum penalty (there is currently a law against feeding monkeys in some places) for feeding anything to a year in jail or a $100,000 fine.

Apparently officials believe the present level of fines is too small. I rarely find myself defending local magistrates against charges of excessive leniency, but perhaps the fines are small because they ought to be. Feeding a monkey in a country park is not an offence of moral turpitude or financial gain and does very little public harm because the places where feeding is banned are the places where monkeys congregate anyway. So there is no obvious victim.

The bureau would also like to institute a system of fixed penalty tickets – on-the-spot fines, in effect — with the specified fine to be $5,000.

I am not sure which parts of this are most objectionable. In the first place the making of a new law should not be an opportunity to blanket the territory with unwarranted prohibitions. The bureau says that the sweeping new law will reduce the “difficulty in enforcement” expected if the new law merely covered the things it is supposed to stop. This is not the way the Rule of Law is supposed to work.

The new law will cover, or threaten, lots of stuff currently regarded a harmless and perfectly legal. What is a “wild animal,” for example? Will it cover feral cows, feral cats, feral cats only outside official feral cat colonies recognised by the Society for the Protection of Animals?

Our local minibus drivers often eat their lunch outside our estate and toss the odd bit of bread to the local birds. This has allowed some residents to become quite well-informed about the local birdlife. We sometimes spot examples of the Eurasian Magpie, the Red-whiskered Bulbul, and an interesting grey thing which some observers say is a wood pigeon but I think is a wild dove. Having said which the vast majority of our birds are Eurasian Tree Sparrows, which are quite cute but very common.

No doubt spokespeople will say that of course such trivial peccadilloes will not be prosecuted, even if theoretically illegal. But citizens should not have to depend on the discretion of officials to keep them out of trouble.

A government which wants to ban feeding pigs should ban feeding pigs and leave other possibly more deserving animals alone.

As for the on-the-spot fines, this is another item which is hardly compatible with our oft-repeated dedication to the Rule of Law. Citizens are supposed to be able to go about their lives without worrying about being instantly fined by some officious flunky of the government for a minor offence.

Fixed penalty tickets are acceptable if the offence is simple and unlikely to be disputed, and if the fine is modest. The thin end of this wedge was of course the ticket for motoring offences, which had the advantage that anyone who was driving a car could be presumed to be a person of means. As the idea has spread to other areas the acceptable level of instant fine has increased exponentially.

A fine of $5,000 for many Hong Kongers is about half a month’s wages. According to the Census people about 10 per cent of workers earn less than $10,000 and about 25 per cent less than $20,000 a month. Most Social Security recipients get less than $5,000 a month, as do all the Fruit Money eligible.

This is too heavy a penalty to be thrown about without at least the possibility of a trial. I know we have had $5,000 on the spot fines for COVID-related offences, but that has not been a happy experience. There have been far too many cases in which the exact requirements of the offence were not explored in sufficient detail, and some in which the only offence involved appeared to be failure to offer to police people the deference to which they believe themselves entitled.

Levelling this blunderbuss at domestic workers on their days off was not a good look, and the penalty looks incoherent compared with the case of the restaurant which entertained a birthday party for 100 people, including a lot of bigwigs, and was fined only $6,000.

Perhaps the Environment and Ecology Bureau could benefit from a word with our new Secretary for Justice, who seemed to admit the other day that it was difficult or impossible to define “sedition” and may not want another legal Rubik’s cube to play with.

Or they could talk to the Housing Authority. Among public housing residents the urge to adopt wild animals is easily explained by the ban on tenants keeping dogs.

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