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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome.

Don’t clap; throw money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open the box!

Here we have the Secretary for Security:

Then we put them in here until they confess…

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

And the winner of the humorous hat competition is …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I suppose Carrie Lam’s daily press conference is a response to complaints from some people – usually supportive of the government – that it is not communicating well.

This is not a good idea. Doing a press conference at which any topic can come up is a specialised skill involving careful preparation. The performer must study all the possible questions, then devise and perhaps even rehearse suitable answers. Doing this every day is a full-time job, which is why the task is in most places delegated to a specialist if it is attempted at all.

If Ms Lam were preparing herself properly, in short, she would not have time to do anything else. Some people might regard this as an improvement but presumably she is not one of them.

Meanwhile some questions are dealt with deftly, and some are not. Consider the unlikely storm which has come up in the local media over the Hospital Authority’s purchase of 1,500 fans.

The purpose of the fans is, in medic speak, to turn ordinary wards into “negative pressure isolation ones”. This sounds terribly technical and isn’t. Most Hongkongers have negative pressure rooms. This is achieved by installing an extractor fan in the window. This sucks air out of the room, creating a flow which ensures that your cooking odours – or in hospital contexts the noxious expirations of your patients – go outside and do not stink up your living room, or hospital as appropriate.

Substantial houses like mine (we have three bathrooms) have four fans. I do not recall exactly when we last bought one because they are as basic as an electrical appliance gets – motor, fan, switch, housing – so they last a long time. If one dies we just replace it.

What caused a stir about the Hospital Authority’s efforts in this area is that the fans cost $2,000 a pop. Well you might think, what of it? Presumably these are high-tech hospital quality fans, designed to conform to the European Authority’s published standards for medical extractors, manufactured in Dusseldorf with precision German engineering and personally endorsed by Sir James Dyson, the patron saint of expensive fan technology.

Not so, alas. The fans came from somewhere north of the boundary. According to the website of the factory concerned the price of a fan when it leaves their premises is $192. 

In response, the Secretary for Food and Health, Sophia Chan Siu-chee, channeled her inner Boadicea – or possibly her inner Carrie Lam – and defended the arrangement on the grounds that the government was “at war” with the virus. It was an “emergency procurement” and “had to be ready in a short period of time”.

Earlier statements from the Hospital Authority suggested that this was done in a strange way. The authority had completed the task with the help of “the Liaison Office, mainland authorities, the Hong Kong government, lawmakers and the logistics industry”. This doesn’t sound like the usual procedure, which I suppose involves technical specifications, invitations to tender, assessments of the track records and capacity of bidders and other important bureaucratic rituals.

On the other hand it also sounds a bit unnecessary. The “Made in China” webpage has more than 800 fan manufacturers, many of whom seem to be in Guangdong Province. You would think that a knowledgable business person with a phone could have scared up a couple of thousand fans at a reasonable price. There is a difference between paying a bit extra for haste and being royally ripped off.

Oddly enough the next day the list of participants in this particular disaster was pruned. The Liaison Office, it appears, does not want its fingerprints to appear on this particular triumph.

Neither, it emerged at her daily performance, does Ms Lam. “The government did not take part in the procurement work of the Hospital Authority and so we do not know the details regarding the purchase,” was her answer to the inevitable question. Dear me. This calls for an adaptation from the saintly John Donne’s musings on the theme that no man is an island: “Therefore never send to know for whom the buck passes. It passes for me.”

Ms Lam went on to say that “This should also not be used as the basis of accusations that the government is experiencing problems in internal coordination.” No doubt fans of “problems of internal coordination” will be happy to go along with this. They have plenty of material to play with already.

And more was duely supplied with the announcement that two drug companies have been contracted to supply Hong Kong with anti-virus pills, which greatly improve prospects for COVID sufferers.

Ms Lam, reported the Standard, “refused to disclose the amount of drugs that the authorities have lined up … or their cost.” She went on to say that “We have procured sufficient quantities…” (that’s “we” as in “me and some other people”) adding that she had been in direct touch with senior people of the two drugs companies.

So the deal is Carrie’s baby? Nope. “The actual procurement was done by the Hospital Authority, but the SAR government has been facilitating and supporting the procurement.” I fear the parentage of this particular brainwave will depend on how it turns out. “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” as Count Ciano put it.

If you associate this proverb with John F. Kennedy it is because he used it without acknowledging the embarrassing source: Count Ciano was Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law.

Well no doubt we shall muddle through. What worries me is the continued invocation of “we are at war” as a justification for avoiding rather basic issues of safety. Consider another Lam performance, on the admission to Hong Kong of unlicensed container lorries from the mainland.  The government had earlier confirmed that it was allowing this on an experimental basis to reduce virus transmission risks and smooth the flow of transport across the boundary. The statement was accompanied by video of a clearly mainland container truck arriving at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal.

What, reporters wondered, would happen if one of these trucks was involved in an accident? Were they covered by insurance?

Ms Lam climbed aboard her warhorse. “In this time of war, every action has to be quick. [We] can no longer follow the way of thinking during ordinary times and abide by typical rules,” she said. 

The important question was what these lorries were in Hong Kong for – “for the citizens of Hong Kong”, and “they offer us fresh food items and other anti-epidemic supplies necessary to our daily lives.” This brings up a little mystery which was not explored at the press conference: since the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal is the place where containers are put on ships and taken overseas, why are our “daily necessities” being delivered there?

No doubt there is a simple answer to that question. There may also be a simple answer to the question what happens if one of these trucks is involved in an accident, but if there is Ms Lam did not supply it.

This is a pity because we are going to find out, sooner rather than later. Even if these trucks were being driven and maintained to the highest standards – which is, to put it politely, not certain – they would still be a menace because the steering wheel is on the wrong side.

European trucks visit the UK all the time and they are notoriously prone to accidents because, however many mirrors and cameras you add, the driver in the left side seat has a blindspot and from time to time someone is in it at the wrong moment. 

If one of these rambling behemoths collides with a full bus who will be responsible? Napoleon is supposed to have said that “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, which is more or less the military attitude to casualties. War is a dangerous game; losses are unavoidable. If a nasty traffic accident occurs Ms Lam will sadly discover that we are not actually at war, and our government is still expected to keep us safe. 

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Barber shops have reopened. How long since they were closed? One week, two? It seems that our leaders have increasing difficulty in making their minds up. Yesterday schools were to close in March for mass testing. Today the mass testing will take place in April… if nobody changes their mind in the meantime.

Like many households mine has stocked up on frozen food and tins, in case of a sudden lockdown. This possibility has been a talking point for a long time. I am no longer sure whether the date of the lockdown is this month, next month, next year or never.

Similarly, what exactly will be locked down? The last lockdown announcement had barely hit the government website before the Financial Secretary announced that the financial industry would be exempt. No doubt other secretaries will not be slow, if the postponed or cancelled lockdown is unpostponed or uncancelled, to find parts of their empire which are too important to be shut down.

What makes this constant uncertainty particularly galling is that official hints and nameless briefings are often followed by official on-the-record contradictions of the hints and briefings, combined with the heart-rending complaint that the smooth machinery of government is being sabotaged by “false news”.

Leadership positions can be divided into two categories. Many years ago I read a moving piece about a family of tightrope walkers who, in a horrific accident, dropped off the rope en masse.

Some of them died, and some of them were so badly injured that they would never perform again. The survivors, led by the patriarch of the family, returned to the circus some months later.

Naturally there was a full house for the first performance after the accident. The family did their human pyramid and, just when things were looking most precarious, the old man at the bottom wobbled.

Ladies screamed and fainted. Connoisseurs were lost in admiration. For a really proficient tightrope walker the deliberate wobble is a crowning accomplishment. The art of the circus is to make the apparently impossible look easy, but not too easy. 

Contrast this with the Russian general described by Tolstoi in War and Peace. Our hero, who is a staff officer, notices that his general rarely gives orders. But he has a way of giving the impression that everything which is happening is according to plan, even though it obviously isn’t (this is the battle of Austerlitz, which ended badly for the Russians) so officers who arrived looking harassed and pessimistic leave looking relaxed and confident.

You would think that an administration whose head is throughly addicted to military metaphors would aspire to the second type of leadership, rather than the first.

We all know public administration is difficult. As Oakeshott put it: “In political activity … men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”

There may be a time, when things are stultifyingly quiet, for a deliberate wobble to wake us all up. But generally, and particularly in times of crisis, the art of political leadership is to make it looks as if things are going according to plan, as if our leaders know what they are doing even if in reality they are “crossing the river by feeling the rocks”, as if reasonable decisions are being made and having been made, implemented.

What we get instead is the muffled rumblings of a closed door debate. Some of the participants leak, some of them have beliefs attributed to them by “commentators” and some of them feel no need for public participation in decision-making at all.

Eventually the Chief Executive emerges and tells us what has been decided. Except that it hasn’t been decided. The debate continues and next week she will emerge and tell us that something else has been decided.

The only consistent policy we have seen so far is a stringent limit on outdoor gatherings. And I’m afraid very few people believe that is motivated entirely by concern for the public’s health.

For our next trick: universal testing. I note with dismay that this has now been moved to April because the latest wave is expected to be subsiding by then. So we are not locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. We are going to send out a search party but waiting until the horse is clearly already on his way back to the stable.

Meanwhile researchers at HKU have determined that the ban on dining out in the evening had no measurable effect on the spread of the virus. I do not doubt that if they bothered, they would find out the same thing about the requirement that people should wear face masks when walking in country parks.

We are not following science. We are lurching from brainwave to brainwave. Under the circumstance it is entirely unsurprising that rumours should circulate about what is coming next. There is an antidote to this kind of false news: clear and consistent policy clearly and consistently explained. Is that too much to ask?

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Another item for the annals of Hong Kong law enforcement. Last week police arrested two kids, ages 13 and 15, following a fracas on a basketball court.

The original crime was committed by a group of teenagers who were playing basketball on the court in Wong Tai Sin. This could be interpreted as a violation of the “no larger gatherings than two” rule, and moreover some of them – it was credibly reported in the Standard – were not wearing masks.

“Three plainclothes officers arrived at the scene,” the report continues, “to find that most of the teenagers had left, except for the 15-year-old and his 13-year-old brother. Sources said the two refused to leave, as they wanted to retrieve their basketball, which was stuck on the hoop.”

The elder brother then got into a verbal argument with the officers, which in due course escalated. He was arrested on charges of assaulting police. Video apparently shows him pinned to the ground and resisting. He was later released on police bail.

According to his father the boy was later found to have injuries to his face, chest and hands. Basketball is a rough game these days, it appears.

There is an interesting legal point here. Clearly the original game was a possible violation of the anti-COVID rules. On the other hand all the players except the two ball owners had either left or did so when the police arrived.

So it would appear that at that point no offence was being committed. Two people is the limit. The remaining two were perfectly entitled to remain on the scene to retrieve their ball, or for any other lawful purpose. You have to wonder why the cops concerned thought it necessary to have any interaction with them at all.

Later police statement: “The 15-year-old became emotional when officers stopped and searched him, leading the teenager to assault two officers with his hands.” So there was a stop and search? What, one wonders, was the justification for that? At what point did the officers say they were officers? Did they show a warrant card or two?

Well no doubt all this will be a matter for a magistrate, if it gets that far. The thing that set off my bullshit detector was the “three plainclothes officers”.

I have personally been the subject of occasional public complaints, a normal hazard for Hong Kong bagpipers. The police people who turned up were invariably polite, friendly, sympathetic … and in uniform.

It is nice to know that police take complaints about violations of the COVID rules seriously, but difficult to believe that even in these manpower-stretched days the normal response is to borrow three detectives from the CID.

Was this, one wonders, a case in which the complaining “members of the public” were also the investigating officers? 

Whatever the truth of these matters it seems there are a couple of principles which our hard-stretched law-enforcers may be neglecting.

The first one is that the default rule for interactions between the police and the public is and must involve the policeman or police woman being in uniform. We all understand that there are occasions and purposes for which the uniform is unnecessary and even impossible, but the general rule should be that a police person looks like a police person.

If the police person is not so uniformed, it would be nice to think that the production of a warrant card at the outset was a must. Nice, but a bit optimistic. I noticed in another case last week a young man arrested by a plainclothes policeman explained his reluctance to be arrested as being the result of the arresting individual’s repeated refusal to show his warrant card. The magistrate dismissed asking to see the card as a “way of wasting time”.

Similarly in the case of Samuel Bickett, still sub judice so we shall not go into details, the magistrate was quite happy to make up excuses for a policeman in plainclothes who had not only refused to show his warrant card but repeatedly denied he was a member of the force.

This sort of thing is not conducive to warm police-public relations.

So, uniforms if possible, please. It must follow, I think, that when a police person is not in uniform he or she should show considerable restraint in attempting activities which involve potentially abrasive interactions with unsuspecting members of the public. People do “become emotional” when subjected to duress by strangers. Law-abiding citizens respect the uniform.

Of course we all understand the merits of the saying that “a policeman is never off-duty”. We do not expect off-duty or plainclothes police to stand idly by if they come across a bank robbery or a murder in progress. But children playing on a basketball court?

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