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I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Council of the Hong Kong University has, in effect, expelled 32 students in defiance of the university’s own rules, citing legal and reputational risks.

The students were the student union council which passed a motion tactlessly praising the man who stabbed a policeman and then killed himself. After the ensuing row – indeed the next day – they apologised, withdrew the motion and resigned en bloc.

The Chief Executive then called for further action, which presumably meant the now ongoing police investigation. Why the council felt the need to engage in this controversy, having already cut all ties with the student union and expelled it from its offices, remains a mystery.

The concern about legal and reputational risks is looking in the wrong direction. The expulsion is a flagrant violation of the university’s own rules, which in turn embody a legal principle known as “natural justice”, which requires that people subjected to penalties should be given a chance to put their side of the matter to the tribunal making the decision.

The senior lawyer on the council, who was apparently not present at the “emergency meeting” which made the decision, promptly resigned from the body. Seven other members, who I suppose were not at the meeting either, wrote a letter urging reconsideration. The legal hazards attached to the decision are worse than the ones it seeks to avoid.

The university is not liable for the actions of its student union, and was not even before the union was effectively disowned, dehoused and discouraged. It is liable for the acts of its council. Legal humiliation looms.

The concern for “reputation” makes even less sense. The reputation of a university does not depend on its students avoiding occasional outrages, which is just as well because occasional outrages do occur. Fortunately the public has rather low expectations of students.

In any case the reputation of a university is measured primarily by its reputation among academics, and their expectations of students are even lower. Most of them regard teaching as a tedious distraction from their proper function, which is producing academic micro-scoops which will get them promoted.

During my time at Oxford student celebrations often culminated in groups vandalising their colleges or climbing university buildings to put embarrassing items on inaccessible pinnacles. One student was convicted of taking and driving away a fire engine (it’s a long story) and another tried to poison his roommate but was spared prosecution on the grounds of his mental state. The university’s reputation survived, as it survived the antics of the future prime minister Mr David Cameron and his fellow toffs, who reportedly did unspeakable things with pigs’ heads.

While I was studying in London the London School of Economic actually closed for a few weeks to reinforce its defences against potential student occupiers. The Principal of Kings College London, across the road, seemed rather disappointed that his own students were so docile by comparison. LSE’s reputation suffered no long-term harm and it has prospered mightily since.

I infer that no sensible person is going to hold against Hong Kong U the fact that some of its students had a questionable moment. Where large numbers of young adults are gathered together some of them will engage in conduct which is illegal, immoral or in awful taste. This is not welcome, but it is expected. Hong Kong is lucky that its students do not drink as much as students in many Western countries.

So the main risk to Hong Kong U’s reputation is not the students; it is the council. We have already seen the council meddle in matters which should be none of its business, like academic appointments. It appears now to be totally out of control. This is an interesting spectacle which will not have gone unnoticed on the international circuit.

If the council is really concerned about the university’s reputation it should follow a couple of simple rules. Firstly, before dabbling in legal matters, or potentially legal matters, consult a lawyer. Secondly try to avoid looking as if you are taking political directions from the Chief Executive. I know nobody enjoys real autonomy any more round here but a university’s international reputation is important. So try to look autonomous, at least.

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The Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region used to be a person of some consequence: a framer and explainer of government policy, a senior voice in Legco, an international defender and explainer of Hong Kong’s point of view.

Well we were warned that the office would face some changes with the appointment of John Lee Ka-chiu, whose only relevant experience was as a dogged defender of brutal policing. Mr Lee, said Chief Executive Carrie Lam, would concentrate on national security matters, leaving such trivia as housing and the economy to her.

The trouble with this arrangement is that the voice of our red brothers over the border is rather loud in security matters, so it is not clear that there will be very much for Mr Lee to do. After all we have to justify a six-figure salary, plus a full soup-to-nuts set of fringe benefits – the chauffeur driven car, the Peak residence, the personal office toilet; you name it, he gets it.

Some enlightenment on the labours of Mr Lee was provided last week when he gave press interviews about what seems to be his main function, which is chairing the vetting committee which will decide whether any eager participant in Hong Kong politics is patriotic enough to be allowed into the game.

The committee – there are six other people on it – will apparently sort potential candidates for office into two lists: the sheep who have displayed “patriotic behaviour”, such as “safeguarding national security interests and upholding the country’s exercise of governance over Hong Kong”. 

Patriots will also, he said, have to “support and defend the country’s system and constitutional order, as well as maintain Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity as well as respect one’s own nation.” This seems a very long-winded way of saying that active support of one-party rule is a must.

Then we come to the second list, of the goats who will not be allowed to run for anything. Here Mr Lee was less clear. It will include those who “do the opposite” of the sheep list. Examples offered are advocating independence, insulting the flags and anthem, or seeking foreign sanctions on Hong Kong. But these are already crimes, so it seems unlikely that any candidate will emerge with this in his or her background.

Then we are offered “If that person had done something to damage national security, of course, he or she is not a patriot.” But national security is a notoriously flexible concept these days.

The vetting will be thorough. The committee will look into the person’s past, including what the candidate said and the person’s views. “This includes the content of interviews and who you associate with,” said Mr Lee. He then added, rather implausibly, that the committee would not rule out a candidate just because he criticises or holds opposite opinions from the government.

So you are free to hold opinions different from those of the government…. Really? On topics like the merits of national security legislation, or Taiwan, Tibet. Tienanmen, the Xinjiang Gulag? Does Mr Lee believe this? Do you?

Well the sheep list will be gazetted, and the goats will, he said “know why they failed”. Interesting to see how that works out.

Mr Lee believes that this new system will  ensure that “all obstacles to administration are cleared,” a heartwarming thought. The government will then “work on social, housing and livelihood issues after the obstacles are gone.” This suggests a rather naive and simplistic view of Hong Kong politics. After all we have been waiting for 20 years for the promised swoop on social, housing and livelihood issues, and it is hardly plausible that the reason for the absence of progress was the “obstacles” provided by an opposition minority in Legco.

Anyway there we have Mr Lee’s new job, and it looks a bit trivial. After all there is no need for a fine-tooth comb to go through the candidates for the election committee. Two fifths of the committee will be appointed by the Hong Kong and Central governments, which can I suppose be trusted to know a “patriot” when they see one. Most of the others will be filled by small groups who are on the mainland in spirit, or in some cases literally.

The idea that we need a high-powered committee chaired by the government number two to ensure that no dissident black sheep slips into this huge flock of white woolies is preposterous. An office boy would suffice.

After all it is easy enough to see how this is going to work. Into the outer darkness goes anyone who has ever said or written “A high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong, constitutional amendment for our time”, or some snappier version of it. Also fatal to your political ambitions will be “five demands and not one less” or “end one-party rule.”

Pan-dems or members of more frisky parties in the same vein need not apply. Same goes for anyone who has “associated” with Apple Daily, the Professional Teachers Union, any student union, and. to be on the safe side, any speech therapist. 

From a human rights point of view this is all rather ominous. The committee is apparently going to look not just at your recent attitudes and activities but at anything they can find, however old or out of date it may be. And since the requirements for sheep are rather detailed and positive, the default decision is going to be rejection.

You can appeal. The appeal must be lodged within a week of the notice in the Gazette and it goes to a magistrate. Whether you actually get a hearing or the beak just reviews the paperwork was not stated. Good luck.

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My mobile phone is getting a bit past its sell-by date. I can browse the internet at home or in the office, but it frequently announces “no connection” when on the MTR. So I am forced back to the ancient habit of surreptitiously observing my fellow passengers.

This is not as interesting as it used to be. There is no visible variety in what people are doing – more than nine out of ten have their noses in their mobile phones. There are some clues to different activities: people with earphones are watching movies, people with frantically active thumbs are playing games, people who look depressed are probably reading the news…

Having exhausted these rather meagre possibilities I moved down to feet and made a surprising discovery. The shoe wars are over. Competition to flatter your feet has finished. Everyone – often whole carriages offer no exceptions – now wears trainers.

I do not criticise, I only observe. This is a highly practical trend and a triumph for practicality over convention.

Still it seems a bit surprising that it has largely escaped comment. When I was a kid a shoe was a leather thing with a sole, an upper and a lace. One of the first things you learned at about the same time as you learned to talk was how to tie a bow.

Every household had a shoe polishing kit, or rather two shoe polishing kits because you had to have one for brown shoes and one for black ones, with a separate pot of coloured polish and two brushes – one for applying and one for polishing off. Brown and black were the only acceptable colours for men’s shoes.

Shoes for sporting purposes that you could wear in the street came in two varieties: gym shoes – white canvas uppers and rubber soles – and basketball boots – the same but running up the ankle a few inches. Shoes for games played on grass could not be used for everyday wear because they had studs or spikes.

Skinheads and other flouters of convention could wear “work boots”, which had more ankle protection and often also had reinforced toe caps. Students wore things called “Hush Puppies”, which were laceless and made in a durable suede-like material which did not need polishing. A lazy choice.

As a young sports reporter who spent a lot of time standing in wet fields I was pleased to discover that in Lancashire you could still buy clogs. These were not like Dutch clogs, which are carved from a single piece of wood – Lancashire clogs have a leather upper and a thick wooden sole, usually fortified with a sheet of rubber or a sort of metal horseshoe stuck to the bottom.

And that was it. I am not sure where the trainer thing came from. It appears, though the memoirs of Phil Knight are not very forthcoming about this, that it started with flashy basketball shoes. Then the young person in the street discovered trainers, which were initially simply intended to allow serious runners to run in the street for practice. 

Clearly trainers are now worn by people who have not spent a lot of time training recently, to put it politely. They have become part of the local male’s unofficial uniform, along with long shorts, a tee-shirt and a backpack.

I suppose the trainer habit is a great improvement for women, who used to be expected to wear uncomfortable and even dangerous shoes in the interests of elegance. You rarely see high heels these days, except in Central at lunchtime.

I suspect that even those ladies who are expected or required to wear high heels at work do not travel in them. They either keep the shoes in the office or take them back and forth in a bag and wear something practical on the bus.

In the light of this it seems odd that a few places are still using footwear as a sign of respectability.

When I first came to Hong Kong one of our more prestigious department stores still had a sign at the entrance saying “No Slippers”. This was a puzzle – slippers in the UK are those soft things you wear only indoors. I later learned that many older or more traditional Hongkongers still wore the sort of slippers sported by Bruce Li in his more historical films – a black lightweight slip-on usually paired with white socks – and this was the local “slipper”. The sign was a way of saying, as Basil Fawltey might have put it, “no riff-raff”. Or to put it in more sociological terms, “no poor people, thank you.”

Any institution which refuses to admit people wearing trainers is in danger of being regarded as trying to say the same thing. 

We should perhaps, before hot-footing it away from this topic, consider the implications of the change from shoes, usually made of leather, to trainers, often made of plastic.

You would think that leather would be plentiful and environmentally neutral because the meat industry produces a steady stream of unwanted cow parts, of which the skin is one. It has been suggested that some ranching in Brazil is encouraged by the market for leather, but this seems implausible. As with so many commodities the price paid to the producer of the raw material is a very small part of the eventual cost.

A more serious complaint about leather is that the production process is polluting – tanning factories also stink – and unless care is taken poisonous for the workers. A lot of leather production takes place in countries which are not known for worker safety.

On the other hand a cared-for pair of leather shoes will last for a long time, with occasional running repairs. Unfortunately in a fashion-conscious society that may be regarded as a drawback.  

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The Rule of Law, says the relevant government information sheet, is one of Hong Kong’s greatest strengths, and the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s success. “Any perceived threats to the integrity of Hong Kong’s legal system have been vigorously debated and analysed,” it says. OK. Analyse this.

Come with me, gentle reader, to a minor by-way in the great web which is the Hong Kong legal system. Chapter 547 of the Laws of Hong Kong (it’s a long book) is called the District Councils Ordinance. Strolling down it we pass the freshly modified and now quite long Clause 24, which includes the disqualification of members whose patriotic credentials have failed to pass muster.

And we pass Clause 27, which gives the Chief Executive power to decide the date of general elections, within limits.

And so we come to Clause 32, which concerns by-elections to fill vacancies, and goes like this: “If a vacancy arises in the office of an elected member, the Designated Officer must, by notice published in the Gazette, declare the existence of the vacancy within 21 days after becoming aware of the vacancy.”

The following clause states what happens next: (1)The Electoral Affairs Commission must, in accordance with regulations in force under the Electoral Affairs Commission Ordinance (Cap. 541), arrange for a by-election to be held in the following circumstances and not otherwise—(a)on the making of a declaration as to the existence of a vacancy in the membership of a District Council under section 32.

That is it, an admirably concise piece of legal draftsmanship. Notice what is there: the verb is “must”, not “may”. And what is not there: the procedure is completely automatic, with neither the Designated Officer nor the Electoral Affairs Commission having any discretion in the matter. There is no mention of, and no role for, the Chief Executive.

Now, recently resignations from District Councils have been falling like rain. More than half of the winners in the last general election to the councils have resigned, fled, or been jailed pending trial. You would think, having visited the law on the subject, that by-elections would be pending in droves. But this is not the case.

What has our leader to say on the subject? Miss Lam told one of her weekly press briefings that it would be “almost impossible” to hold all the by-elections before the administration’s term ends in June. Why the administration’s term is in any way relevant she did not say. No doubt the next administration will be equally adept at fixing elections.

Hong Kong, said Ms Lam, would be holding three sets of elections in the next ten months, for the Election Committee, the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. “We do not feel there is room or time for another set of by-elections…”

As a practical excuse this is fairly pathetic. Elections to the Election Committee are not what they were: the electorate has shrunk by about 90 per cent under recent changes. Moreover elections by the Election Committee are not the government’s problem: it will have a Convenor to organise such things. Many of these elections are likely, given the new arrangements for screening candidates, to be uncontested.

The only ones in which most people have any chance of a vote is for 20 seats on the Legislative Council. But given the conditions attached to being a candidate it is quite likely that many of them will be uncontested, or if they are contested attract few voters.

In any case this is beside the point. The law is the law. Ms Lam has only herself to blame for the flood of resignations because it is a response to the government’s threat that any district councillor who is unseated for failure to take the loyalty oath, or disqualified from taking it, will be required to pay back all the pay and allowances he or she has received since the 2019 election.

As this implies a bill for about $1million per head it has prompted a lot of councillors to leave politics. Three district councils are said to be down to three members each.

Yet the threat is legally dubious and morally indefensible. Ms Lam said that the question would be handled “in accordance with law and there would be no leniency”. This suggests a distressing deficiency in the quality of the government’s legal advice. “Leniency” has nothing to do with it. It is not a criminal matter, simply an issue of whether the money was paid in error and whether, if it was, the government has the legal right to recover it.

The regime’s lawyers seem to have mixed things up here. When the first disqualifications were made from the Legislative Council it was on the basis that the oath of office which they had taken was not done properly for one reason or another, and consequently was invalid. So those unseated had never been councillors and the Government was entitled to its money back, although whether it actually recovered very much is doubtful.

The case of district councillors is quite different. They were not required to take an oath when they took office. The Ordinance does not say when a disqualification should be regarded as taking effect. In the rather similar case of an election petition to the High Court, though, it does say that if the petition is upheld then the removal of the erroneously seated councillor takes effect from the day of the decision. It is not backdated to the day of the election.

In any case using this as a threat to blackmail inconvenient councillors into resigning is a deplorable descent into Mafia-like behaviour. They were elected and took up office in good faith, following the law in force at the time. There is no suggestion that the money was mis-spent.

Well, except for a newspaper article by Regina Ip, which offered “Tales abound of actions and resolutions, bordering on the absurd, if not criminal, made by the district councils dominated by self-proclaimed democrats.”

Wonderful. Are we to be offered examples? Well, two district councillors of the fresh crop displayed in their office a notice saying “members of the blue camp and dogs not allowed”, which was tactless of them, but not an “action or resolution of a district council”.

Then we are offered another individual “offence”: one district councillor posted on her billboard a poster suggesting that China was responsible for spreading coronavirus to the world, not an extreme view in some places.

Last we have an incident in which a District Officer was besieged in her office by councillors incensed by one of her rulings, regrettable, no doubt, but not an official council activity.

Possibly sensing that this is a bit thin as a stick with which to beat 17 pan-democrat dominated district councils, Ms Ip then descended into generalities: “Since these bogus democrats took over, funding for popular community activities was axed, and local public works projects approved by their predecessors overturned. Yet funds were approved by several district councils to a pro-independence organisation, Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, to organise competitions in “essay-writing” in Cantonese”.

This may have passed by the education in democracy which allows Ms Ip to discern “bogus democrats” but she should really get her head round the idea that newly elected councillors are entitled to the view that they know what activities are popular, and their predecessors’ views on the matter cannot be regarded as the last word. And if asked to offer examples of municipal depravity, Cantonese essay-writing competitions don’t really count, even if they are organised, as Ms Ip alleges, “to keep out mainland cultural influence.”

Anyway, there we are. Hong Kong cherishes the rule of law but the law means whatever Ms Lam finds convenient. The government, she said, would “seek other ways to gauge public opinion, such as the area committees appointed by the Home Affairs Department”. And “officials will approach issues through the work of district management committees.” In other words the government will listen only to people it has itself selected.

The Hong Kong government’s view of public opinion can be briefly put in a phrase once used of the old Hollywood studios: “if you’re not praising them they’re not listening.”

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Like most people I am in two minds about the Olympics. It’s a commercial circus run for the television companies and administered by a corrupt bunch of elderly men. All the performers are professionals or hope that scoring a medal will enable them to become one.

The founding Baron thought athletics might function as a replacement for war, but the Olympics are more of a bloodless supplement to it. National flags are waved with abandon and some countries cheat furiously.

And yet… it is still a thrill to see someone who lives in the same town coming out in front of the world. The coverage tends to human interest stories rather than the actual details of the sports, and some of the resulting tales are genuinely inspiring. It is nice to see unfeigned joy on a face.

However the constant search for novelties leads to some strange places. Who, in the real world, takes three-a-side basketball seriously? It seems there is a trend towards the invention of “beach” variations on existing sports which will allow the organisers to insist on bikinis.

The new thing which really shocked me, though, was Street Skateboarding. It sounds like a contradiction in terms. Olympic Street Skateboarding? Many respectable members of the middle classes do not regard street skateboarding as a sport so much as a form of juvenile delinquency.

Skateboarding in a proper skateboarding park designed for the purpose offends nobody. In the street it is noisy, disturbing and dangerous. What are they trying to encourage?

So to Youtube, where I discovered that in the organised version they do not do it in the street. In the X Games, whatever they are, they have an extensive space like a normal skateboard park, with some street-like obstacles – ramps, stairs, railings – scattered about it. The performer does a succession of tricks on them.

For the Olympics the matter was simplified. There was one slope, decorated with a variety of stairs, bannisters, and such, on which each performer did one trick. This was repeated several times with, as you might imagine, scores for difficulty of item and smoothness in performance, as well as a swift exit from the medal running for anyone who falls flat on his or her face.

The so-called “women’s” event was in fact dominated by children. The winner, Momiji Nishiya, was 13. The silver medalist was the same age. The bronze medalist was a crone of 16. The skill and courage on display were remarkable, but…

Most of the tricks were variations on that Youtube staple in which the skateboarder leaps up, the skateboard mysteriously following the soles of his feet, and tries to slide down a railing by a flight of stairs. When attempted by the inexperienced this often leads to a nasty accident. The one in which the skateboard flies out of the picture and the skateboarder lands with one leg each side of the pole is particularly hard to watch.

And the question which then arises is, if you had a 13-year-old daughter, would you want her to be watching this? I assume for the Olympics they build the fake streetscape from some forgiving material but in real streets you are dealing with steel and concrete. Also in real streets there are cars.

Watching the very small ladies fly through the air, and occasionally crash land, I imagined orthopaedic surgeons all round the world rubbing their hands and upgrading the plans for their next BMW. We all want young people to be inspired to do more sports, but is this really a good choice?

In the Olympics they do wear crash helmets (which is more than you can say for the X games) but no other protection features. It seems skateboarders are not encouraged to such effete precautions as gloves, knee pads or elbow protection.

The result is predictable. If you look at the pictures of the triumphant winner which accompany this story you can see the visible part of what must be an extensive collection of scars.

Perhaps the risks are acceptable for the talented and properly taught. But if kids all over the world are going to be inspired to attempt this sort of thing in their back gardens, many of them are going to qualify … for the paralympics.

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A feature of the government’s crackdown on dissent over the last two years has been the way in which previously respected – even admired – institutions were pressed into service and discredited in the eyes of the public by their efforts to display a becoming level of enthusiasm for reform, stability and one-party rule.

So it should perhaps come as no surprise that this week it was the turn of the ICAC to be dragged into the mud. The Independent Commission Against Corruption was one of Hong Kong’s key institutions, offering the crucial hope that corruption had not only gone but would not be allowed to return.

It has always been hated by the police, because its first notable public act was to dismantle the Force’s corporate corruption racket and deprive police people of a large undocumented tax-free income. So now that so many senior officials are ex-policemen we should not, perhaps, have expected it to escape unscathed.

This week we were told that the ICAC had charged former prof Benny Tai and two other people with electoral malpractices. This concerned the Legislative Council elections held in … 2016.

This is a strange occurrence. The electoral law states that any candidate or group of voters dissatisfied with the conduct of an election can appeal to a High Court Judge. This must be done in the two months immediately following the election. Everyone involved in the election knew this.

Nobody complained. Indeed at the time nobody suggested that what Prof Tai and his two friends had done was illegal. We must not go into the details of the case against the trio but a conspicuous feature of it was the placing of newspaper advertisements, so the absence of complaints can hardly be put down to people not knowing what was going on.

Announcing the arrests the ICAC said it had acted following public complaints. This leaves us with three possibilities. The first is that a member of the public did in fact complain after the election but the ICAC took five years to investigate.

The second, hardly more credible, is that some random member of the public, browsing nostalgically in back numbers of the now-deceased Apple Daily, suddenly realised that a crime might have been committed and contacted the ICAC in a moment of public-spirited zeal.

The third is that the “member of the public” was a very senior member of the public who urged the ICAC to get with the programme and make its contribution to our government’s main current project, which is to throw as many legal bricks as possible at any conspicuous figure in what used too be known as the pan-democratic opposition.

The trouble with this is that if politics is influencing who gets prosecuted we must fear that it will soon influence who does not get prosecuted. And we have seen that movie before.

While I must urge readers not to read into this any intimation as to the innocence or guilt of the three people charged, which is not intended, there is no reason why we should not note, and comment on, the fact that this prosecution is outrageously late.

I have already written about this question of how long is a reasonable time for legal proceedings and do not propose to repeat the whole of that. Suffice to say that there are or should be limits, and by international standards they should be somewhat shorter than five years.

Of course if you murder your wife, bury her body in the back garden and nobody notices, you must not complain if you are prosecuted 20 years later when the new occupant of your house decides to build a swimming pool and discovers the remains. If on the other hand you decapitate her in the middle of Nathan Road and nothing happens for five years you are entitled to complain that the delay has seriously jeopardised your chances of finding witnesses who will substantiate your claim of self-defence.

Anyway this is not that sort of case. Prof Tai’s activities were widely publicised and discussed at the time. They were known to both the Department of Justice and the ICAC if they were awake. Even disgruntled DAB losers did not complain at the time that the law had been broken. What has changed?

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Many years ago, when I was working in a local university and under some pressure to publish in more respectable places than newspapers, I wrote a long paper on a case in which the SAR Government prosecuted the Oriental Daily for the interesting and antiquated offence of “scandalising the court”.

This was back in 2001, but on the internet nothing dies. Readers who are interested in this judicial incident can still find the outcome of my efforts here.

The convenient thing about scandalising the court from my point of view was that cases are extremely rare, so I could read all of them. Incidentally I noticed that the Court of Appeal did not go to this much trouble, but no doubt they were busier than I was.

Scandalising the court consists of publishing abusive things about judges. Most of the cases concern allegations of bias – an old English case, for example, concerned the claim that an early campaigner for birth control could not expect a fair trial before a judge who happened to be a Catholic.

Modern writers have generally surmised that the offence was obsolete. People expect judges to be more thick-skinned these days and there is perhaps more appreciation of the usefulness of lay discussions of legal matters.

However the offence still crops up from time to time. I think the Oriental Daily case is still the most recent example, at least in Common Law countries. The consensus among the textbook authors was that it would only now be used to prosecute a writer who claimed or implied that a judge had been bribed.

This brings us to the doings of Mr Alex Yeung, who publishes his stuff on Youtube and similar places and is generally supportive of the blue ribbon end of the political spectrum.

His latest effort – report in English here – was a comment on the trial of seven men convicted of participating – on the white shirt side – in the Yuen Long incident of 2019. It included this fatal phrase: “I hope that the national security law (sic) and ICAC can investigate whether the judge had received any money.” Woops.

Only on rare occasions do I find myself in agreement with Ronnie Tong, but on this occasion it seemed to me that his assessment was incontrovertibly correct. He said that the comments were in contempt of court and that those who made them should be arrested.

The Department of Justice seemed to agree: “A spokesman for the DOJ said that “any person who is dissatisfied with court decisions may lodge appeals through the excising mechanism and should not criticise judicial officers abusively. Otherwise, it is against the law and the HKSAR Government will follow up on all the illegal acts.”

Really? Having ignored the law on contempt of court for so long the DoJ is finally going to have a go at one of its warm supporters?

The law on scandalising the court is perhaps an important protection for judges. Judges think so anyway. The law on reporting imminent proceedings is an important protection for defendants, which they are not getting. Law … sheep … wolves … need I say more?

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We are in an official epidemic of the “so-called”. Readers with a taste for statistics will find the figures here. This article reports the results of an unusual academic pursuit, whose output for our purposes includes the fact that “so-called” appeared in no less than 80 Hong Kong government press releases and speech transcripts last year, compared with 30 the previous year and 18 the year before that.

The authors speculate that this may be the result of Hong Kong officials trying to demonstrate their loyalty to Beijing, where the use of “so-called” as a general term of abuse in official statements is well established. Ignorance is a possible alternative explanation.

The meaning of “so-called” is well established. It indicates doubt about the validity of the noun which is coming next. For example, someone who had doubts about the independence of the Independent Police Complaints Council might prefer to call it the “so-called Independent Police Complaints Council”.

This only works if there is an alternative. In the example above the writer implicitly suggests that “Non-independent Police Complaints Council” might be a better title.

Careful writers on Beijing-friendly publications will refer to Ms Tsai Ing-wen as the “so-called” president of Taiwan, to indicate their subscription to the view that Taiwan is a bogus country so Ms Tsai is not really a president. Indeed in a display of patriotic zeal they may prefer to dub her “the so-called president of the so-called Republic of China”. They would not, though refer to Taiwan as a “so-called island”. It is, after all, clearly an island. What else could you call it?

So what is going through the heads of Hong Kong officials complaining about the effects of “so-called sanctions.” Is there another word they would prefer? We realise of course that they do not approve of the sanctions, but why take issue with the label?

Similarly what is the beef with the “so-called business advisory” from the State Department about the perils of doing business in Hong Kong? Officials believe, we gather, that the perils of doing business here have not increased, as the State Department says they have. But whether justified or not, the advisory appears still to be an advisory – compliance is not compulsory – and it is presumably addressed to business people. So why “so-called”?

There is a danger that so-called will be sprinkled more or less haphazardly in official statements, rather as “alleged” used to be in police reporting.

In Legco the other day we had an official promising a survey of international practice in “false news” legislation which would include the “so-called” western democracies. And this raises the question of which part of the description he objects to. Is it the government’s view that the world’s more conspicuous democracies are not western? Would we prefer “Northern democracies”, as most of them are in the northern hemisphere?

Alternatively perhaps the revised official view is that they are not really democracies. In which case we have to wonder, who is? No doubt the name which pops unbidden into your head at this point will be as hilarious as the one which pops into mine, but let us not give offence.

Well residents must, as a police spokesman put it in a grossly prejudicial press conference about the series of arrests doomed to be known as the Subversive Sheep Book case, “see the facts clearly”.

In this they do not get much help from the police, where complaints are concerned. Consider their latest masterpiece, which concerned a freelance reporter, Ms Jasmine Leung, who was groped by a policeman during a social event in Mong Kok which she was covering. Details here.

The Complaints against Police Office sleuths reported on this event that after “a full investigation” the officer concerned could not be identified because the scene was chaotic and he was wearing a mask. This is so beside the point that it should really count as a lie.

The officer concerned could not be identified because in defiance of the law and the force’s own regulations he was not wearing a number and upon request he failed to produce his warrant card. No doubt the scene was chaotic and everyone concerned was wearing masks but citizens are not expected to rely on facial recognition to identify police people. 

Ms Leung asked another police person for help and was then pepper-sprayed. There was “no independent evidence“ of this event so it was “unsubstantiated”. Naturally she was unable to identify the pepper artist as well.

So, fellow residents, the clear facts are as follows: if you drive a car without the number plate which the law requires you will be prosecuted. If you are a policeman who fails to display the number which the law and the regulations require you can grope unsuspecting ladies or pepper spray them with impunity.

Anyone would think, as the so-called General Union of Speech Therapists might have put it, that there is one law for the sheep and another for the wolves.

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So nostalgic to have a public row about senior civil servants hobnobbing with millionaires. Brings back happy memories of the Donald Tsang days.

I refer, of course, to the brouhaha over the discovery that the Deputy Secretary for Security, along with the heads of the Customs and Immigration services, participated in a hotpot dinner at which six other people were present, in flagrant violation of the social distancing rules.

This is something of a microscandal. Many of us have been in restaurants where more than four people were seated at a long table, with occasional sheets of perspex to divide them into notional groups of four. The three top officials were all hit with fixed penalty tickets costing $5,000. This is not a big deal for people on six-figure salaries but it’s enough.

I am also not too bothered by the revelation that the whole meal was paid for by a mainland property developer. It is a venerable principle in journalism that you should not accept anything which cannot be eaten, drunk or smoked in one sitting. The ensuing implication is that a hotpot dinner is OK as long as you don’t take a doggy bag home.

The entertaining part of all this is watching the slow-motion PR car crash caused by desperate attempts to explain the whole thing away.

First up was a nameless spokesperson for the Security Bureau, for which all three of our hotshot hot-potters work. “There were only three SAR officials present at the dinner,” we were told. “They were invited to attend it at a place which they were told by the host was a private premises, and therefore mistakenly believed that the venue fell outside of the regulation on group gathering.”

Just stop right there. The gathering, it is not disputed, took place in a Wanchai club. I think we can assume that the three officials were not blindfolded and led into the building so they had no idea what they were inside. Did they think the host lived in a Wanchai club?

This was a fairly limp excuse but at least it was an admission of error. The three also apologised, apparently, though only after they were exposed to the public; the incident actually took place in March.

“As the trio’s work requires frequent communication with different sectors in the community, the dinner that day was an ordinary social gathering,” the statement went on. But this is a resounding non sequitur. People whose work requires communication with different sections of the community do not team up with two senior mates and accept lavish invitations. The resulting get-togethers are not “normal social gatherings”.

There was a time, when I was a person with an important sounding title in the media business, when parts of the government – and the occasional Consul General – wished to communicate with me. They did not expect me to entertain them in Wanchai clubs, or anywhere else, for this purpose. The person who wants to communicate pays the bill.

In this case it appears the bill was rather big. A figure of $3,000 per head was mentioned.

Apparently referring to this, the spokesman said that the meal comprised “normal hotpot ingredients”. This offers us a choice of three possibilities. One is that the Security Bureau’s idea of a normal hot-pot is stunningly expensive. Another is that this particular Wanchai club is a rip-off. The third is that the bill was inflated by the need to pay for other – non-food – parts of the entertainment. Was there live music, “normal” cognac, topless waiting staff?

By the time Carrie Lam met the press on Tuesday the focus had rather shifted to the question of how normal the ingredients had been, because civil servants are barred by regulation from accepting “lavish” entertainment. 

There was no precise definition, she said, and the three hot-potters could not have known in advance what would be served. Indeed. When you are invited for an evening out with a mainland millionaire the possibilities are endless. Maybe just a beer and a sandwich?

Ms Lam then demonstrated her usual talent for changing the subject and answering a point which nobody had made: it would be a pity if civil servants were entirely forbidden to attend social events, she said.

On Wednesday, possibly sensing that this was not going down well, Secretary for Security Chris Tang tried a different line. The three officials, he said, had “sacrificed precious time with their families to do their jobs,” as RTHK put it. Goodness. I don’t suppose there was a dry eye in the house.

“As officials we have to keep in contact with different sectors, of different nature. It’s because when we’re formulating our strategies and our work, we have to know what the society is thinking,”

If this is their job, I cannot help thinking, some further thought needs to be given to the methodology employed. I cannot think of a government which shows less sign of having the slightest idea what “the society is thinking”. This may be, of course, because so much of the data on this important topic is gathered at boozy gatherings with mainland millionaires. 

What society is thinking about this case, I suspect, is that if you civil service heavies want to go out on the town with rich outsiders, fill your boots. But don’t come back afterwards and tell us that you were beavering away on our behalf and sacrificing precious time with your families. Ignorance was not a very good excuse but bullshit is worse.

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The one sad thing about dogs, as we all discover sooner or later, is that they do not live as long as we do. At some point, no matter how careful you are about fleas, worms and other hazards, you have to say goodbye.

This often involves the painful decision that your beloved mutt needs to be helped on his way. As long ago as the 19th century, according to Axel Munthe (The Story of San Michele – a good book though somewhat downranked by current critics) it was already customary to get your vet to do this for you.

Munthe is rather critical of the euthanasia methods then current, and suggests instead that you should take your elderly dog for a walk in the park with a favourite bone … and a revolver. What you are supposed to do with the resulting dead dog he does not say. But in those days dead horses, abandoned where they had dropped in the street, were a serious municipal waste problem. So perhaps the odd canine corpse would pass unnoticed.

The first parental pooch I remember was a Dalmatian called Lucy. When, I presume, she died my brother and I were as was customary in those days considered too young for the awful truth. We were told she had emigrated to the Isle of Man. I swallowed this whole.

In Hong Kong there is a curious wrinkle. Vets who do not usually make house calls – at least for small animals – will volunteer to do the Last Injection in your home. I suppose this is preferred to having customers leaving the office, distraught and dogless, in front of the other clients.

Our last departure was a bit more elaborate, because the dog, Kiki, had been in and out of the City U dog hospital (or Veterinary Medical Centre, in its official terminology) for months. Sensing that things had taken a turn for the worse we had checked her in again and she stayed overnight in the Intensive Care Unit. The City U centre is the Adventist Hospital of Dogs – it is very well equipped and quite expensive.

The next morning I was awoken by a call from the ICU saying that things had not gone well and we should hurry to the bedside. By the time we got to the ICU it was clear that there was no hope. Vital signs were all over the place and it was time to end the suffering. To which we agreed.

We were then passed on to a lady I had not met before who seemed to be the Soon-to-be-bereaved-Parent-Whisperer. She explained the procedure and we were ushered into a delicately named “Family Room”, whose purpose was rather given away by a copious supply of tissues and a little pile of leaflets from pet cremation services.

Your dog is wheeled in and transferred to a small shelf. She is already fitted with the tube in her leg through which the drugs will be administered, rather along the lines of American capital punishment by lethal injection. We were then supposed to have ten minutes together before the send-off, but after five minutes Kiki disrupted this plan by dying without medical assistance.

So we had a brief medical visit to confirm that no further help was required, the tube was removed and Kiki was rearranged in a tactfully comfortable-looking position. And after some farewell looks you sort out the cremation service, tidy up the financial arrangements and go home, feeling awful and wondering if there was something else you could have done.

Two days later a little surprise: there appeared in the mail a card, with a hand-written message of consolation, signed by the various people at the dog hospital who had worked on Kiki. I do not know if they do this for all their deceased clients or Kiki had accumulated a fan club during her numerous visits. Either way it was a nice gesture and I appreciated it. 

I don’t know how this affects other dog owners but I always spend a day or two thinking I never want to risk having to go through the emotional upheaval of losing a furry friend again. Then you gradually notice that there is a dog-shaped hole in your life and start thinking about filling it.

We lasted a week. The new dog is an affectionate mongrel called Lemon.

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