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Have you read the Independent Police Complaints Council’s “Thematic Study on the Public Order events arising from the Fugitive Offenders Bill since June 2019 and the Police actions in response”? Don’t.

The government line was that the IPCC’s effort would be an acceptable substitute for a formal Commission of Inquiry into police activities. The critics of this line were right. The IPCC is the cultural Chernobyl of complacency. Looking at the police force it combines the virtues of the three wise monkeys, contriving to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

It is not true that the report “exonerates the police force”. In fact on most of the questions which you would want answered about the policing of disorder in Hong Kong it refuses to make a decision, though giving generous space to police explanations for some unhappy episodes.

It is also, alas, not true that the report is impartial. Protesters are routinely labelled as “violent protesters” whatever they are doing, except in the section on the Prince Edward MTR brawl, in which someone else seems to have grabbed the word processor because the protesters are labelled “mobsters”.  Junius Ho’s heroes in Yuen Long are just “men in white shirts”.

The sympathies of the authors seep into the phraseology. Protesters “throw hard objects” and “attack ferociously”; in response teargas is mysteriously and antiseptically “deployed”. Readers should be prepared to tackle a forest of euphemistic acronyms for the sub-lethal weapons armoury. There is a glossary at the end of the last volume.

The council’s researchers are clearly unhappy with some of the details of police conduct, but their idea of criticism reminds you of the politician who said that being criticised by Sir Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep.

Picking carefully through their account of the San Uk Ling Centre, for example, you will find answers to two questions of general interest: were protesters subjected to delays in the provision of medical treatment and in obtaining access to a lawyer? The answer to both is yes, but this is never said in so many words. And were people tortured? No complaint was received so this topic is not explored.

This is a long job. During my mis-spent youth I conducted a lengthy study of violence at demonstrations – this did not produce a publishable outcome because violence at demonstrations in the UK at the time was so rare – so I read a good many reports of this kind.

The IPCC is not going to break the length record, which I imagine is still held by the Walker Report, an encyclopedic analysis of the Democratic Convention disorders in Chicago in 1968, still available on Amazon, a hefty paperback.

I have to say also that the IPCC would probably be disqualified by the Guinness Book adjudicators for cheating. Everything in the report is said at least twice and some things are said far more.

There is a summary of the six-month period at the beginning. Each of the major incidents covered is given a detailed prose account, with pictures, and a tabulated version of the same thing, with the same pictures. A “conclusion” makes many points for the fourth time. No effort has been made to spare the rainforest.

Unfortunately the purpose of all this research is apparently mainly to help the IPCC in dealing with complaints. If something has happened but nobody has complained then the matter is of no interest.

For example, none of the people shot with real bullets by police has apparently complained. This could be considered a worrying indication of general lack of faith in the complaints system, but the IPCC has no interest in exploring that. So the topic is cursorily dismissed with the happy thought that all the victims are out of hospital and all the perpetrators were found by a police inquiry to be either in mortal danger or in fear of having their pistols snatched.

It is curious that the IPCC insists that the use of force by a police officer is a matter of individual responsibility, but no similar discrimination is offered to protesters, who are treated as an amorphous lump in which everyone is to blame for everything, including – in the list of specimens of “vigilantism” – acts of violence perpetrated by their opponents.

This brings us to the rather numerous incidents in which arresting officers seem to be administering on-the-spot punishment. The IPCC says it is not interested in individual cases: “This Study does not deal with matters of individual officer’s accountability for over-stepping the law or for insufficient supervision in specific cases. They are for the complaints system and the system of supervision within the Police Force.”

The trouble with this is that where the toxic effects of the para-military policing model appear they do not result in changes in the official arrangements, Force guidelines, chains of command and such like. They manifest themselves in an increasing incidence of abuse and misbehaviour, tolerated by those who do not themselves engage in it. Arrestees are beaten up and people beaten up are transformed into arrestees to discredit any possible complaint.

The report’s most fertile feature is its ability to find reasons for not making a decision about complaints. Whole incidents can be ducked if litigation is in progress. If someone complains about his arrest we can skip that because the manner of arrest will come up at his trial. Various problems should properly be “left to the complaints system”. If the complainant is not the victim it is “outside our purview”. If there is a pending trial the complaint cannot be investigated at all until the trial is over.

What people want to know about our police is why in recent months it has apparently become a common procedure to hold the freshly arrested protester face-down on the floor with two people sitting on his head, two people beating his legs, and six people standing round pepper-spraying anyone who appears to be recording the proceedings.

The IPCC’s thoughts on this are “Where no complaints have been made but there is evidence on reliable video footage or other reliable sources to show overstepping the mark in the use of force, the Commissioner would be expected to put his house in order.”

Note the beautiful use of the subjunctive. The Commissioner would be expected… So the system is, folks, that if you throw a brick at a policeman you will get, and deserve, four years in prison. If he shoots you in the face he can look forward to a taste of the Commissioner’s housekeeping.

The IPCC repeatedly says that whenever force is used “the officer will be held accountable”. Is that so?

The only people who come out of this well are the overseas experts, who after a short period as advisers decided to collectively “withdraw” from the proceedings. I notice that the suggestion that this might be temporary has not been much heard from lately.

The underlying impression of this report is that a number of querulous old men find the whole public order problem baffling. They don’t understand the internet, or the “internet web” as it is sometimes put, they don’t understand young people, they don’t understand contemporary politics and above all they don’t understand why trust in the police force has collapsed when the cops were only doing their job.

Consideration of this last item might usefully start with the thought that confidence in the police complaints system collapsed first. The IPCC is not the solution. It’s part of the problem.

I take no pleasure in criticising the police force, which does many things well and employs a number of my friends and former students. But there is an interesting excerpt in this report from the “public order core principles” of the College of Policing in the UK:

“Peaceful intentions should be presumed unless there is compelling evidence that those organising or participating in a particular event will themselves use, advocate or incite violence. Police action should, therefore, target only those persons responsible for the breach of the peace. An action taken which is not directed at the person committing the breach will generally be unlawful…

“Where and only where there is a reasonable belief that there is no other means whatsoever to prevent a breach of the peace, the lawful exercise by innocent third parties of their rights may be restricted by the Police. This is a test of necessity, which can only be justified in truly extreme and exceptional circumstances…

“Before the Police can take any steps which in any way restrict the lawful exercise of rights by innocent third parties, they must take all other possible steps (including making proper and advance preparations) to ensure that the breach, or imminent breach, is prevented and the rights of third parties are protected.”

That may be a Platonic ideal rather than a description of what happens, even in London. But could anyone seriously assert that it is what happens in Hong Kong?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From time to time there are bitter complaints from legislators and motoring organisations about the way the price of petrol moves when the price of oil changes.

They say that the price of petrol moves up quickly when the international oil market is on the up, but comes down rather slowly when the movement is in the other direction.

This charge is vigorously contested by the oil companies, who say that any change in prices at the oilwell takes its time to reach them down a long supply chain, and in any case the cost of raw crude is only part of the price of petrol, which has to include processing, transport, running costs of petrol stations and so on.

I am an agnostic on the question whether petrol retailers are as diligent in reducing prices as they are in increasing them. I did notice that when the price of oil futures briefly went negative – that is to say people would pay you to take the stuff off their hands – we did not see petrol stations offering free petrol, let alone bidding for tank space. No doubt there are technical reasons for this.

What cannot be disputed is that the petrol people do not have a mechanism specifically designed to keep prices up when they are trying to go down.

The Hong Kong government, on the other hand, resists reductions in land prices by simply withdrawing from sale any piece of real estate which does not meet its expectations when put up for bids.

Last week, for example, the Lands Department announced the non-sale of a large piece of the former airport at Kaitak, giving as an explanation that bids for it “failed to meet the government’s reserve price”.

Note that in no case has the government ever withdrawn a plot from sale on the grounds that the bids were so high that the ensuing building would be outrageously expensive. Prices can go as high as they like.

They are, on the other hand, not allowed to come down. This was the fourth incident of its kind in the last two years. One of the others was a residential plot. Do you wonder why Hong Kong housing is so expensive?

In the latest case there were actually four bids. Bidders included some of the usual suspects: Cheung Kong, Sun Hung Kai and Sino Land.

So this was not a case where there was a single bid of $5, offered in the faint hope that nobody else would bid at all. The bids offered were a result of serious consideration of what a commercial plot was worth these days.

Reporters found several property people willing to complain that the reserve price was too high and the government was “out of touch” with conditions in the market. Between the ongoing political turmoil and the COVID-19 situation this is not a promising time for commercial mega-projects.

But there is a serious question whether the government ought to have a reserve price at all. The government is a major player in the market for new sites and if it withdraws items from sale then the effect, whatever the intention, is to prop up prices.

When the vendor of something is a private individual it is of course up to him whether he wishes to sell for whatever he can get, or prefers to sell only if the price reaches a certain level. Auctioneers will recognise that if a price is very low the owner of an item may prefer simply to keep it, or to try again later when market conditions have improved. Hence the minimum price.

But the government is not a private landowner and the purpose of land sales is not to fill the relevant account, which is already bulging and which the government refuses to spend on anything useful. The purpose of land sales is to get land into use as soon as possible.

The Kai Tak airport site actually became vacant when the airport moved out in 1998. That is to say the plot in question has already been waiting for the Lands Department to get its act together for 22 years. People who were in kindergarten when this site dropped into the government’s lap are now doing postgraduate work. It should be sold for whatever a buyer is willing to pay.

Meanwhile on the other side of the ledger it seems that Ocean Park is turning into something like the Express Rail Link: a hole into which you can pour spectacular amounts of money which you will never see again.

For the last four years the park has lost money. Now it is asking for $5.4 billion, or it will have to close. We must note in fairness that it has been totally closed to the public since January for virus reasons, an expensive arrangement. On the other hand $3 billion of the requested rescue is “to help the park repay commercial loans”, which sounds more like a long-term problem.

The money will keep the park afloat for another year, during which it proposes to spend $13 million on a survey of “the way forward”, and open the new indoor Water World, of which much is hoped.

Like most Hong Kongers I have many happy memories of Ocean Park, which I have visited many times with sundry young Hamletts. I also played at a couple of celebrations when new bits were finished; one of the Park’s senior management was a Scot who liked bagpipes on these occasions.

So I would be sorry to see the place closed.

On the other hand this hardly seems a defensible long-term line of expenditure for a government which fails to provide its citizens with basics like pensions, unemployment insurance, or a health service which doesn’t expect you to wait two years to see a specialist.

Dare I suggest a merger with the Hong Kong Jockey Club? The club can afford it; their reserves are reported to be even bigger than the government’s and much better hidden.

And think of the “sports entertainment” – or as we plebs put it gambling – opportunities. Anyone for penguin races? Sweepstake on which dolphin will be next to die of despair? Guess the sex of the panda cub? Number of fingers left on the hand of the guy who feeds the sharks?

 

 

 

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I have drafted a letter to my friends and family members in the UK. But perhaps a few cheerful words from a happier place would not be welcome. So I’ll park it here.

Hi, folks,

Look, I get it, this is none of my business. Five years ago I passed a landmark of no significance to anyone else but me: I had spent more than half of my life in Hong Kong.

But I still wish you well. I visit, occasionally, the websites of the newspapers I used to work for and, often, the websites of the Guardian and the BBC. I care about what happens in England and – to a somewhat less extent, in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

And I need to ask, from one crowded island to another, what the hell have you been getting up to. My Facebook feed is bulging with lockdown stories. And it is horrifying to read the news that total deaths from Covid 19 in your place have passed, at the time of writing, 30,000.

It seemed to me entirely irrelevant that, the week before, the total casualty toll had passed the tally of British Army deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. When two highly industrialised nations put hundreds of thousands of young men in a field with instructions to kill each other you expect the blood to flow.

But we are all, give or take a few civil wars a safe distance away, at peace at the moment. And the excuse that this massacre is all inevitable, the result of a medical problem which nobody could have foreseen and for which there was no immediate remedy, doesn’t wash because the consequences have been so variable.

I understand it is too early to say whether the UK will achieve the unwanted distinction of the highest death rate in Europe. But why is it even in the running for this title?

At the moment the number of deaths in Hong Kong, whose government enjoys neither democratic legitimacy nor a reputation for unusual efficiency, is four. Not 4,000, not 400, not 40. Four, as in number of gospel writers.

This is in a territory with a land border to the mainland, where it all started. So we had less warning and more opportunities for imported infections. Taiwan and Thailand, similarly disadvantaged, have also managed strikingly low numbers, and Viet Nam claims to have no cases at all.

There is a theory that Western countries were slow to take the whole thing seriously because of a racist indifference to Asian viruses. I am dubious. The possibility of an epidemic has been noised about for years. Should there not have been contingency plans, stashes of essential supplies, draft regulations, provision for relevant emergency changes?

This may not be immediately obvious from close up, but from a distance it looks like a massive failure of your government, which had made no preparations and, as the relevant Horseman of the Apocalypse galloped towards it, reacted like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car.

No doubt standards of national leadership on this topic have been lowered by the antics of the lethal buffoon in the White House, but a failure on this scale, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, surely should have consequences?

There is an interesting irony here, at least for the moment. It seems your government is not getting the blame it has richly earned. Ours, which has had a good epidemic so far, is not getting much credit.

Partly this is because of events in the year before the arrival of the new disease. Our Chief Executive has trodden in too many political cowpats to have a shot at the Hong Kong’s sweetheart title, whatever she does about viruses.

It is also partly because the government was propelled towards some precautions, like closing the border, by public agitation.

But I think the main reason is because Hong Kong people, while they do not trust the words of their government, and still less those of the government over the boundary on the mainland, did not need to be persuaded to take the whole matter seriously. This made a big difference.

 Why so serious? We participated extensively in the SARS epidemic in 2004, still fresh in many memories. Indeed I imagine many households, like mine, still had a box of face masks which were tucked away when that epidemic subsided. Hygiene was already a thing.

In countries that have not seen a real epidemic since the Spanish flu in 1918 this awareness would of course be absent. But this is where, in a democratic society with a literate population and free media, public information should have come in. Instead governments dithered, at best, or denied there was a problem, at worst.

I do not allow the defence that they were relying on scientific opinion. This is a contradiction in terms. Science, in its slow, tentative way, produces factual observations.

The opinions of scientists about matters on which science has not yet determined the facts are not scientific. They are just opinions. You may think they are expert opinions, but expert opinions about the future (see the works of Philip Tetlock) are lamentably unreliable.

I do not think you can blame scientists, or politicians, for failing to foresee what Covid-19 would be like. There was much we didn’t know about it then and there still is now. What you can blame them for is failure to look at the places where it arrived first, and to see what worked, and copy it.

Too late now, of course. But if I may venture a word of advice: when they let you out, get a face mask and wear it.

 

 

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As a long-time observer, and occasional critic, of Hong Kong judges I must congratulate Mr Kwok Wai-kin on making my previously eccentric hobby a mainstream activity.

Judge Kwok, who exercises his doubtless Solomon-like qualities in the district courts, has been reassigned to non-political matters after much criticism of his remarks when sentencing a man who attacked three people with a knife during an argument at a Lennon Wall in Tseung Kwan O.

The assailant, an unemployed tour guide, blamed the then-current protests on his predicament. But no protest was in progress at the time. Two of the victims of his knife attack were women. One of the women was a journalist, not a protester.

Judge Kwok’s sentence (45 months in prison) has attracted a variety of assessments: endorsed by Greville Cross (a rare excursion in the direction of judicial clemency), criticised by sundry democratically inclined people, who thought it inadequate.

Well sentencing is not an exact science. The perpetrator was perhaps lucky not to be charged with attempted murder. The reporter nearly died.

What cannot be disputed, though, is that the remarks which accompanied the sentence exhibited a rampant political bias. The easiest way to check this is to contemplate what luck you would have with similar arguments on behalf of a protester who threw a brick at a policeman.

My Lord, my client may have thrown a brick at a policeman, but he showed “noble qualities” by writing a letter to the court hoping that his trial would make the victim feel better. Try again.

My Lord, my client had been out of work for two months. He was a “bloodstained victim hanging by his last breath” and overcome by emotion. Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Was there not a Hong Kong judge who said, when sentencing some rioters, that “The courts will not get involved in political debate, nor judge on right or wrong in political ideals, as that is not the role of the courts”?

Indeed there was. In fact it was Mr Kwok himself, in 2016. Times have apparently changed. Or something has. It would be incurably idealistic to expect judges to be entirely free from political influence. But if they can’t manage impartiality they should at least fake it.

I am unable to agree with the learned observers who said that there is nothing in the Hong Kong Guide to Judicial Conduct relevant to this occurrence. “Impartiality is the fundamental quality required of a judge”, says para 18, and in para 19 we have “Impartiality must exist both as a matter of fact and as a matter of reasonable perception,” which pretty much wraps it up as far as Judge Kwok is concerned.

Well there is no point in kicking a dead horse. Mr Kwok’s removal from the judicial end of the political fray, or the political end of the judicial one if you prefer it, is clearly not the end of the story.

The removal of a judge is rightly a difficult matter. Judges should be able to go about their business without worrying about job security. And if it were easy to remove judges this power would rarely be exercised in defence of the vulnerable or politically controversial.

However, in the genteel world of judgeship, matters are not allowed to come to anything as crass as dismissal proceedings. The fact remains that a judge who cannot be let loose on a category of cases in case he loses his rag and comes out with a mitigatory diatribe not previously mentioned in court is no use as a judge.

Judge Kwok is irreparably damaged goods and he knows it.

His switch to a low-controversy diet is the judicial equivalent of the old arrangement by which disgraced officers were left alone in the study with a loaded revolver and the expectation that they would “do the right thing”.

In due course Judge Kwok will no doubt express the wish to spend more time with his family, or deal with a pressing medical issue, or explore other career options, and step down from the bench.

If necessary the People’s Poodles will be happy to find a job for him somewhere. He could perhaps join Mr Cross on the op ed page of the China Daily.

 

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I find this difficult to believe, but at a time when adults are being required to gather in groups of no more than four, and a lot of traditional gathering places like bars, parks and gyms are closed because of Covid-19 fears, thousands of local schoolkids are being herded into halls and classrooms where they can all breathe the same air for two hours.

Of course precautions are being taken. Health declarations and temperature taking are required, everyone will wear masks, the desks will be further apart than usual. But this may not be enough. Keep your fingers crossed. It’s a risk.

The reason why we are running this risk is a sacred educational cow called the Diploma of Secondary Education, an exam which all Hong Kong students take at the end of Form Six.

I am not personally happy with this. Doing an exam in a sort of purdah is going to affect performance and it will affect some people’s performance more than others. Some students who have diligently prepared for months will be turned away at the door because they have a temperature, which will be an experience to remember for the rest of your life.

So why bother? After all there are other ways of assessing students’ readiness to face the world. The reason slipped out in a news bulletin the other day in which the DSE was described as “the university entrance exam”.

The Examination Authority, an independent non-government body but one which tries to please, has been under tremendous pressure to hold the exam. Most of this pressure, I believe, has come from universities.

We may note in passing that the DSE was not originally supposed to be a “university entrance exam”. It was supposed to be an end-of-schooling qualification for everyone. In practice, to be of much use to universities, it has to be pretty useless for other purposes.

This means that many students who have already discovered that university is not for them are required to take an exam which will do nothing for them, and in which they may well fail every subject. Many of them know this in advance, which must be depressing.

And why, you may wonder, are the universities so addicted to the results of this particular ordeal? This is a good question. In the old days, when students were admitted by the course they were going to study, the teachers presiding over admissions could and did administer tests and interviews. Exam results were part of the system but they did not dominate it. The absence of A Levels because of an epidemic would have been inconvenient but not catastrophic.

Then came four-year degrees. With four-year degrees came the idea that the extra year at the beginning of the degree should be wasted on a lot of general stuff, with students choosing their major at the end of it. A corollary of this was that admission should be by faculty or school, not by course or programme, so as to cater for students who were not sure what they wanted to do.

The result of this is that applications now come in batches of a thousand, or several thousands for a popular offering, and you are not allowed to consider what the student actually intends to choose at the end of the first year, if he or she knows what it is. So it is nobody’s job to consider admissions in detail. They must be processed in bulk.

This rules out all consideration by a human brain. The only significant inputs now are the students’ choices and the DSE results. A computer puts them together and spits out one offer per student.

University staff can spend the whole summer doing research, and levels of student demand for different courses are conveniently over-ruled by having quotas at the end of year one. Everyone is happy. Well everyone whose opinion is taken seriously is happy. The students are not consulted.

I am not sure we can blame the people who devised this system for the fact that it really doesn’t suit a society in a state of lockdown because of a virus epidemic. Like so many computer-based innovations it is capable but fragile.

Still, this rather worrying situation is a mere symptom of a disastrous development which has been going on for a long time. Universities have abandoned the idea that their major activity is preparing young people for their lives in the outside world. Their major activity now is preparing the next generation of university staff, and teaching undergraduates is just a lucrative sideline extracting large sums of money from taxpayers or parents.

I did not expect this to lead to life-threatening innovations, but life in a time of pandemic is full of surprises.

So let us pass on to a more amusing one. It appears there is a hospital in Paris which still has the time and the capacity to do a full medical history for each virus patient, and they noticed a curious anomaly.

The proportion of people in one category was much smaller in the patient population than in the population at large. This category with a mysterious resistance to Covid infection was … smokers.

It seems that, in this respect at least, the much-maligned weed is good for you. It may increase your susceptibility to everything else from athlete’s foot to Zarathustra’s elbow, but where Covid is concerned smokers get a health boost.

The French doctors said, and I hasten to pass this on, that smoking is so bad for you in other ways that they do not recommend taking it up as a virus defence. But they are experimenting with nicotine patches to see if that helps.

My experience of smoking in France was that most people, at least at the grassroots level, smoked a cigarette called “Gauloise” which was ferociously strong, an abrasive throat experience that put in the shade anything you could get in England, even the notorious and expensive unfiltered “Capstan Full Strength”.

So it may be that French smokers’ lungs are so used to being assailed by poisons that they take the odd virus in their stride.

Still if you want to try protection without poison, nicotine patches are a prescription item but I think you can buy nicotine chewing gum in chemists’ shops. Snuff would be the easiest solution but the Hong Kong government banned it years ago.

If it were legal you could (nudge, wink) order it on-line here: https://www.snuff.me.uk/Gawith-Hoggarth-Snuff.asp

Far too early to say if this helps, of course. But better for you than injecting Dettol, at least.

 

 

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So you thought you had seen every possible coronavirus story? Wait a minute. Despite the journalistic compulsion to fairness, seeing every side of the story and milking a live topic in every possible way, there is one thing missing. Nobody has looked at the coronavirus story from the point of view of the virus!

Or course there are some practical difficulties involved in interviewing a virus. But those of us who have conducted many interviews usually have a pretty good idea of what the interviewee is going to say. Using these intuitions to write the whole interview would usually be a hazardous approach but the virus is not going to complain. So I here present an interview with the virus.

I have called the virus spokesman Vera. I know some people object to having natural disasters like typhoons given ladies’ names. It encourages stereotyping and bad sexist jokes. On the other hand interviews with female subjects are generally less likely to degenerate into confrontations. I have assumed that Vera is fairly bright and politically alert; more Angela Merkel than Carrie Lam, shall we say?

Interviewer: How does it feel, being branded as the world’s number one public enemy?

Vera: It feels most unfair. We are just doing what all organisms do, trying to perpetuate our genes into the next generation to the best of our ability. Organisms which do not devote a lot of energy and ingenuity to this will be elbowed aside by those which do. That’s nature’s way.

Interviewer: But you’re killing people.

Vera: That is an accident. We viruses are quite happy to live peacefully with a host, as we have done with the bats for a long time. Many viruses live inside humans without causing problems and indeed many of us have managed to live in humans without ill effects – it’s called an asymptomatic case.  

Anyway you humans are hardly in a position to complain. How many species have you wiped out in your history without worrying about it. The death rate from you meeting us is much lower than the death rate among dodos after they met you.

Interviewer: Why didn’t you stay with the bats?

Vera: The bat population is dwindling. In fact the population of every animal is dwindling, except for humans and the animals they cultivate for their own consumption. We tried living in pangolins but that was even worse. They’re being hunted out of existence.

From a virus’s point of view you humans have turned yourselves into the dream home: numerous, lots of connections, long life span, no large competitors. We won’t be the last virus to try to move in.

The only drawback is that you may be able to invent a vaccine. But we don’t expect that to be very widely available, given that so many of you don’t have access to the soap and warm water which are the only serious threat to us at the moment.

Interviewer: So you’re looking forward to a prosperous future?

Vera: I didn’t say that. We don’t like really hot weather, which seems to be becoming more common. There is a rumour in virus circles that you humans are going to make the planet too hot for you or for us. We’ll all have to leave it for the cockroaches. Sometimes we think you humans are too clever for your own good.

Also you’re armed to the teeth and so quarrelsome. There is no counterpart in the virus world of that island the mention of whose name produces instant deafness and interruption of telecommunications. Some of the countries complaining about us have for years been equipped to make the world uninhabitable and radioactive in a matter of hours.  

Interviewer: Are you planning any further changes?

Vera: Evolution doesn’t plan; it tinkers. We might go in the direction of becoming less inconvenient and less detectable. Or we might become more dangerous, but that is not likely. A virus which kills its host quickly does not have a rosy future. But we will keep changing if our environment changes. And you lot keep fiddling with the environment.

Interviewer: Is there anything else you would like to say to humans?

Vera: Yes. Don’t take all this so personally. We are not out to get you. You still have interesting and rewarding lives. We eat without tasting and reproduce without sex. And the view from inside a human lung is really boring.

Also, we are not a serious threat to your future. The serious threat to the future of human beings is the pride, greed and intolerance of other human beings, as it always has been.

Interviewer: Well thank you for being with us.

Vera: It’s been a pleasure. See you next year.

 

 

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Arrangements for on-the-spot fines are a questionable resort for governments in a hurry. Strictly speaking the version unveiled a few weeks ago to discourage meetings is not actually an on-the-spot fine. People who participate in gatherings of more than four can be given a ticket which requires them to cough up $2,000 within two weeks.

Readers will note a surprising disparity between the instant fine for an imprudent meeting and the instant fine for illegal parking, which has been frozen at $400 for a long time. But this is not the government’s fault. The legislature routinely rejects efforts to raise the parking fine. There are a lot of drivers in that chamber.

There are some problems with this “on-the-spot” business. One is that it is distressingly reminiscent of places where the routine way of dealing with an operational policeman involves some variation on the phrase “can I pay the fine now?”

Another is that this sort of scheme is open to abuse. One old friend of mine who was out of favour with the Force had to give up driving altogether because he got so many tickets.

The record, set many years ago by a minibus driver, was 50 tickets in one week … all issued by the same police sergeant. That sort of thing does not happen these days, or so one hopes.

Another possible pitfall is the use of instant fines where tricky legal issues may arise.

Consider the only case we have been treated to in the media so far. This concerned six elderly men in a park. Two of them were playing Chinese chess and the other four were watching.

According to the official version of this event some police persons happened by, and warned the players and spectators that they should disperse. They refused to do so, and they were then all issued with a ticket each.

Clearly this bloodless description leaves a good deal out. We may suspect that the police people were a bit brusque, as young police people tend to be, and the old gentlemen were a bit grumpy, as old gentlemen tend to be.

There would then ensue an exchange of increasingly charged rhetoric, culminating in comments on motherhood and sex. So it goes. And then we get a broadcast distribution of tickets. But wait. The purpose of the law is not to penalise rudeness to police people, reprehensible though such rudeness is. It is to discourage gatherings of more than four people.

That does not mean it is like the official interpretation of the rioting law, which is that anyone present, whether a protester, a journalist, a first aider, a human rights observer or a passer-by with an unfortunate home address, is a rioter and subject to arrest and prosecution.

The offence of participating in a gathering of more than four people surely demands more subtlety. The two chess players, I suppose, had a good defence. Their meeting was only with each other. They had no control over who might wish to watch.

With all due respect to Chinese chess I don’t think it is so exciting as a spectator sport that anyone playing in public must be held responsible for any crowd which may gather. They were not busking.

The first two spectators could also say they were doing nothing wrong. Their presence merely brought the gathering up to the legal maximum of four. Numbers five and six were the only people who broke the rules.

No doubt, faced with a group of irate old chess fans, it is not very practical to expect the forces of order to sort out who arrived last. But this is a hint that perhaps the legislation was not expected to operate in quite this way. Gatherings which are only just over the limit in open-air spaces might usefully be treated to advice rather than fines, even if the advice is not always well received.

It is interesting also to note that this provision has now made public protests almost impossible. This discovery had some entertaining ironies. The offending gathering was organized by a group of the People’s Poodles called Chinese Hearts. They proposed to march from the High Court to the Bar Association’s office to hand in a suggestion that Tanya Chan should be “disqualified” (I presume from the Bar, not the next election) because she had attended a meeting at which more than four people were present.

But as more than four people attended the protest, the police “warned the group to break up”, as the Standard put it, so a selected four marched alone.

This story also offered a priceless quote from one of the protesters, Alex Yeung Kwan-wah, whose claim to 15 minutes of fame is that he was the founder of Wah Kee Restaurant, apparently a household name to Standard readers.

Ms Chan’s offence, which hardly seems worthy of so much fuss, was to attend a meeting of bar owners disgruntled by proposals that they should be forced to close. This was, rather unsurprisingly in the circumstances, held in a bar.

Mr Yeung found this incredible. “I have never heard of anyone holding meetings in a bar,” he said, “I am a businessman and you may be able to lie to the public but the people will not be fooled by you.”

I think Mr Yeung needs to calm down. I am not a businessman but I have attended plenty of meetings in bars. Indeed in normal times I attend one every month. If you were going to meet a group of bar owners, where would you expect to meet? Does he really think that Ms Chan, eager to visit a bar for merriment and diversion, scared up a bogus group of bar owners to gather in a Sham Shui Po boozer with her?

No doubt the hunt for some legal implement with which to beat up Ms Chan will continue. Participants could usefully read the Community Legal Information Centre’s page on fixed penalty tickets, which says this:

“Except for the purposes of recovery of the fixed penalty and any additional penalty due for late payment, no evidence is admissible in any proceedings which tends to show that that individual has paid, or been ordered to pay, a fixed-penalty notice. Payment of, or an order to pay, a fixed penalty notice, or any failure to disclose a fixed penalty notice, is not a lawful or proper ground for dismissing or excluding a person from any office, occupation or employment, or for treating them less favourably than other employees…”

In other words even if Ms Chan was issued with the ticket for an excessively crowded meeting, the Bar Association is specifically forbidden by the Criminal Records and Rehabilitation of Offenders Ordinance from taking any further action against her because of it.

 

 

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It is a fact of life in journalism that you are going to get complaints. News reports are like institutional food. All the consumers have opinions, many of them critical.

This is not a problem. In the first place all feedback is informative, even if on careful examination it appears to be unjustified or, like most of the complaints received by the Broadcasting Authority, based on an erroneous view of what happened on the programme concerned.

People complain that you said things you did not say, or wrote things that you did not write. In that case what you said or wrote was not clear enough.

It is also useful for reporters to be reminded that the consumption of their work is voluntary. However good the information or noble the intentions, the output fails of its purpose if it is not read, watched or heard.

As Samuel Jonson put it long before mass media were invented: The drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give. For we that live to please must please to live.

So when considering complaints about content, we have to respect them all. There is another kind of complaint, though, which is about the way the news operation is conducted. When it comes to the discussion of reporting methods we are entitled to ask whether the person complaining knows what he is talking about.

And this brings me to Mr Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Industry, whose attack on RTHK last Thursday had the sort of factual basis and rationality that I associate with anonymous complaints written in ALL CAPS and purple ink.

The piece of reporting at issue was an interview conducted by RTHK reporter Yvonne Tong over a video link to Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organisation bigwig.

This all went swimmingly until Ms Tong asked if, in the light of Taiwan’s success in combating Wuflu, the WHO might reconsider Taiwan’s membership. Taiwan is at the moment not a member.

This question admitted a number of possibilities. Dr Aylward clearly did not wish to discuss the matter and he could have said so. He could have come up with an emollient space consumer like “I am sure we will be looking back at many aspects of the pandemic once it is over but it is much too early to say what the outcome of those deliberations might be.”

He could have tried the more modest “This is a matter for the member states of the WHO, of whom I am a mere servant.” This might be considered the correct answer, because it is effectively what the WHO eventually came up with.

Instead, Dr Aylward managed to cause a global sensation by sitting in silence for ten seconds, claiming that he could not hear the question, and then cutting the connection. Clip here. The connection reestablished, the best he could come up with was “well we have already talked about China.”

This has since been lavishly and widely reported. Google “Aylward dodges question” for a global collection.

Do we see anything in Ms Tong’s performance to complain about? It is a characteristic of good reporters that having asked a simple question they do not take kindly to flagrant evasion of it. A reporter who does not instinctively push an evasive interviewee for an answer is not a good reporter.

Was the original question (Will the WHO reconsider Taiwan’s membership?) a problem? It may be what bothered Mr Yau, to whose views on the matter we now turn.

Mr Yau’s views are contained in a press release which is ostensibly a “response to media inquiries”. They start with a canter through RTHK’s charter, which includes “engendering a sense of citizenship and national identity through programmes that contribute to the understanding of our community and nation; and promoting understanding of the concept of “One Country, Two Systems”.

Then we get this: “The Secretary holds the view that the presentation in that episode of the aforesaid programme has breached the One-China Principle and the purposes and mission of RTHK as a public service broadcaster as specified in the Charter. It is common knowledge that the WHO membership is based on sovereign states. RTHK, as a government department and a public service broadcaster, should have proper understanding of the above without any deviation. As the Editor-in-chief of RTHK, the Director of Broadcasting should be responsible for this.”

What on earth is going on here, apart from a small tsunami of pompous constitutional bilge? Ms Tong’s error, it seems, was to mention Taiwan. There was nothing in the programme about “one country two systems”. Does Mr Yau, one wonders, expect RTHK broadcasters routinely to refer to Taiwan as “the rebel province”?

We have I hope not yet reached the stage where news media are damned for lack of patriotism not if they praise Taiwan, but even if they merely mention that it exists. Ms Tong’s question should perhaps have started “If there were an imaginary island in the South China Sea…”

And where did Mr Yau get the idea that “a proper understanding” of the fact that the WHO is based on sovereign states should come into this. Actually the WHO has no difficulty, when it wishes, in working with entities which are not sovereign states, like Hong Kong (missed that did you?), Macau and the Palestinian authority.

Indeed Taiwan was allowed a sort of membership for some years back in the days when Beijing’s approach to cross-strait relations was based on seduction rather than rape.

In short Mr Yau’s observations have no basis in fact or logic and are unworthy of a senior official. President Trump’s tweets make more sense. How could he come up with something so stupid? Is this a symptom of the changing of the guard in the Central Government’s Liaison Office?

Any doubts about the justice of this complaint about RTHK were soon dispelled when Junius Ho took it up. Clearly rubbish then. Nothing to see here.

 

 

 

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More than 190 countries and territories are now in various stages of their battle with the novel coronavirus, which is probably not novel – I expect the bats have had it for centuries – but which we must not call Chinese flu.

As far as I can tell from the usual sources only one of these 190 countries and territories proposes to ban the sale of booze: Hong Kong. Clearly this must mean one of two things: either the epidemic in Hong Kong has some unique feature not found elsewhere, or our leaders are doing something stupid.

Personally I like bars. Long ago when I was a young man far from home, some of them became a second home to me. Indeed Arthur and Betty at the Ring o’ Bells in Lancaster became a sort of surrogate parents. I have passed many happy hours in a variety of bars since starting illegally young in the “jug and bottle” (carry-outs) department of a pub in Midhurst.

 Old-school Hong Kong journalists still cherish the memory of the Sing Bar in Luard Road, long since demolished for redevelopment. This establishment, usefully for late shift sub editors, stayed open until 6 am. At that time, if you were still thirsty, you could move round the corner to the Barrel Bar, which didn’t close until 7 am, after a rowdy hour of entertaining everyone else’s bar staff for a quick one and a few finger-guessing games before they went home.

So my view of the government’s proposal to ban the sale of alcoholic drinks, even in bars, for consumption on the premises is perhaps predictable. I accept that if the need arises we may have to close all restaurants and bars, to discourage going out of any kind.

But restrictions on booze look craven, the mark of a government which – crippled by awareness of its own lack of legitimacy — is “willing to wound but yet afraid to strike”, as Pope put it. The proposed ban has attracted a wide variety of interpretations.

One theory doing the rounds on the internet is that the government would like to close bars and restaurants, but to do so would involve claims for help or compensation. Banning the sale of their most profitable item will have the same effect. It will kill them off cheaply.

A more elaborate variation has it that the ban is a favour to the government’s friends in the insurance industry, who would have to pay up if establishments were forcibly closed, but escape liability if the government merely restricts the varieties of goods which can be sold. Do many people really have this sort of insurance?

A more interesting theory, outlined here, blames a story which has been amusing readers of the local tabloids, though it has all the hallmarks of an urban legend. This has it that an expat lady, having achieved an advanced state of inebriation in Lan Kwai Fong (our local Gomorrah, for readers of the tabloids) started a generous distribution of sexual favours.

This theory draws some support from Ms Carrie Lam’s introduction to the move, which went on from the obvious point that people drinking have to remove their face masks to do so, and concluded with “in bars, people sometimes get intimate after drinking, and this increases the risk of cross-infection.”

Get intimate? Since when did our chief executive talk like a court report from the old News of the World? It seems that Ms Lam not only has trouble with the word “withdraw” but also with the word “sex.” I shall leave the exploration of this interesting coincidence to more ribald pens.

Some people, as Hemlock observes, have discerned a “boozy rutting ageing gwaipo” stereotype. This may be a fair comment on the tabloids but not, I hope, on our leaders. There may well be a suspicion in some upmarket local circles that expat men have a predilection for booze and adultery. It is curiously common for despised groups to be accused of sexual potency and even abnormally large equipment. But I have never heard of the idea that middle-aged expat ladies are free with their favours.

A kinder explanation is that Ms Lam, who seems to be taking a personal interest in this topic, was horrified by a picture used by several newspapers of people in a Lan Kwai Fong bar. This was hardly worthy of Hieronymus Bosch at the height of his powers, but did include a large number of people in a small space, many of whom appeared to be shouting at each other.

And this brings us to the rather obvious deficiency in the proposed ban, which is that it is ludicrously indiscriminate. In the vast majority of places where booze is sold people currently sit quite a long way from each other. Customers are cherished rarities; there is plenty of room. And it is quiet, so nobody has to shout.

A small minority of bars like to have live music. This leads to a problem. The musicians wish to be heard, and use electric amplifiers for this purpose. People who wish to hold conversations have to raise their voices to get through the music. This makes the venue noisy so the music is turned up further. The escalation continues until the conversation people are shouting in each other’s faces because that is the only way to be heard at all, and the band are suffering self-inflicted ear damage.

The solution would be to ban not booze, but electric amplification. The band could play acoustic instruments and patrons who did not wish to listen to it could whisper.

But getting the government to change its mind once the latest brainwave has had Carrie’s endorsement is an uphill struggle. Prepare to drink at home.

Meanwhile a word about the “Chinese virus”. I am not the man to pass up lightly an opportunity to empty a bucket over Mr Donald Trump but the fuss about this label is ludicrous.

It is common for diseases, and many other things, to be named after places or countries, often for completely erroneous reasons. There is nothing French about “French leave”, nothing Dutch about “Dutch courage” and indeed the “French letter” (one of the numerous nicknames for a condom) is known in French as a “capote Anglaise”. Or is that a “Dutch cap”?

“Chinese whispers” is a harmless game and a “Chinese gybe” is a rather complicated mishap when running before the wind with a gaff-rigged sail. Goodness knows where these labels come from. A “Chinaman” is a technical term used in cricket which, like most of that game, I do not understand. It seems to be a kind of slow bowling.

A Turk’s head has nothing to do with Turkey (it’s a knot) and the Molotov Cocktail was not invented by Mr Molotov, who has enough to atone for. Brussels sprouts do not come from Brussels and Scotch eggs do not come from Scotland. “Old Spanish customs” (the printers’ term for various rackets which used to flourish in Fleet Street) had nothing to do with Spain. Yankee means American, except when it means the foremost sail on a cutter-rigged yacht.

Was the Brazilian invented in Brazil? Who knows? Who cares?

No doubt Mr Trump’s intentions in insisting on “Chinese virus” are unkind, but to label them racist is to take his babblings too seriously. To give offence is his aim. The most wounding response is a yawn.

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I am not writing any more about That Virus. There’s enough out there already. So let’s talk about eyeballs.

I was not in the front row when the eyeballs were dished out. In fact my parents had an enduring memory of the doctor they consulted about mysterious features of my baby behaviour, who opened the conversation with “How long have you known your son was blind?”

Eventually I was subjected to a rather disgusting operation involving the removal of both eyeballs from their sockets, which worked. I could see. This was followed shortly after by the discovery that I could not see very much without glasses.

Of course I was too young to register most of this, but all of the numerous family photographs of me as a young thing have spectacles, so I must have started early. The matter was never discussed, but I now realise that this eventful history explains why I could not catch or hit flying balls, a source of great frustration to a growing boy.

Anyway let us fast forward a few decades. I am now slightly older than Donald Trump, a bit younger than Joe Biden and quite a bit younger than Bernie Sanders. Why any of these three old geezers thinks it is a good idea to apply at this time of life for a strenuous job with a four-year contract is a complete mystery to me.

Like most of us mature people I take a few pills every day to keep various blood test levels in the green zone, but so far none of the machinery had actually needed replacement, until this January.

During my annual vision checks the eye guy had been murmuring politely for some years that I had cataracts on the way. I did the things one does to slow their progress: peaked hats, sunglasses, avoid bright sunlight. But this only gets you so far.

Apparently quite a lot of people get cataracts sooner or later. I do not know why this is rarely written about. Axel Munthe says at the end of “The Story of San Michele” that he is now banished by eye problems from his beloved Capri and confined to a darkened room, which I suppose means that the connection between sunshine and cataracts had already been established, but in those days there was no treatment.

What happens is that the lens in your eye turns brown, or white in appearance, and eventually becomes opaque. This is one of those problems which makes you glad you were not born 50 years earlier because the remedy is now quite routine. The ailing lens is removed and replaced by a plastic one.

I know the time had come when I started seeing circular rainbows and other oddities round bright lights at night. According to Wikipedia this is a fairly standard symptom. The eye guy could see what was going on and we decided on immediate action.

This coincided with the first wave of the Wuflu scare, so you have to imagine my visits to the palace of optometry featuring hand sanitizer, temperature checks and compulsory wearing of masks.

Compared with this the actual operation was rather lacking in medical drama, at least for the victim. They do one eye at a time, for obvious reasons, and the procedure only takes 20-25 minutes.

Some nervous customers apparently prefer to sleep through this, but they are missing an interesting experience, though not perhaps one you would want to repeat too often.

The uncomfortable bit is at the beginning, when they put in your eye a gadget which, I presume, prevents you from blinking at an inopportune moment. Then they cut a couple of small holes in the eyeball under discussion with a laser, which from your point of view means a rather spectacular light show, projected right into your eyeball.

After this you move to the theatre proper, where the old lens is liquidized with ultrasound and the new plastic one inserted. The view from your operated eye at this point is rather odd – the other eye is covered up in case of splashes – but it’s all on a local anaesthetic so you don’t really feel anything.

You keep the new eye covered for a few hours and wear a plastic cover on it in bed for a day or two. And that’s pretty much it. If you are approaching this little landmark in life’s rich pageant it’s nothing to worry about.

The interesting bit for me came afterwards. I did not realise that the cataracts had turned my view of the world yellow. The first eye to be fixed presented a new blue world. So for a while I had one eye seeing yellow and one seeing blue, an accidental piece of political symbolism.

The drawback of the plastic lenses is that they are fixed, not flexible like the original equipment. So you have to decide whether you want them to be short-sighted, and wear glasses for driving, or long-sighted, and wear glasses for reading.

I opted for long, which means that most of the time I do not need glasses. This is disconcerting. I have been wearing them all the time for so long that I still feel naked without them.

On the other hand the reading glasses are a snip compared with the complicated ones which compensated for the deficiencies of my old eyes. A perfectly good pair of reading specs from Japan Home Stores costs a princely $89.

Curiously I find things in the far distance much more interesting now that I can see them effortlessly. I find myself captivated by the lacy silhouette of trees on a distant crest, or the subtle variations in the slope of the hills on the other side of the Shing Mun River Valley.

And everything still looks more blue than I expect. There is, perhaps, a lesson here. We tend to think that the way we see things is exactly how they are. Clearly in more areas than simple vision this is an illusion. There are different ways of seeing the same thing and we should try to be humble about our own.

 

 

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