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People trying to assess the health of the rule of law in Hong Kong tend, quite understandably, to look at those high-profile cases in which the government is trying to ensure that by the time Legco elections do come round — a year late — all the plausible opposition candidates will be either in prison, disqualified or both.

This will transition us painlessly to democracy with Chinese characteristics, in which anyone can vote but you cannot run for office without the Party’s approval.

But these conspicuous examples are quite remote from the rule of law as the man on the proverbial Clapham omnibus encounters it. Most of the legal action which concerns the grass roots takes place unreported and unnoticed in magistrates’ courts.

So how are things going down there? Well here are some bits of flotsam which came down the great river of news and suggest that the answer might be ‘not so good’.

Let us start with the case of Mr Patrick Cheng, who appeared the other day in the Eastern Magistracy, his honour Cheang Kei-hong presiding.

Mr Cheng was accused of “obstructing a public place”. The facts of the case were that on November 11 (when some people were on a city-wide strike) he threw a tin can onto a road. Apparently the can concerned was a bit bigger than the sort of thing your beans come in, being more in the way of a paint tin.

In mitigation Mr Cheng’s lawyer said that one item could not do a great deal to obstruct a road. But the learned magistrate would have none of this, saying the defendant had had an “enormous impact” on people who wanted to lead their normal lives.

This seems a regrettable piece of oratorical overkill. Look at it this way, if Mr Cheang has used up “enormous impact” on throwing a tin can into the road, what is he going to use to describe, say, blowing up a power station or poisoning the water supply?

Still Mr Cheang went on to deduce from the “severity of the offence” that a custodial sentence was necessary and gave Mr Cheng 55 days. Mr Cheng was allowed bail pending an appeal.

Now take a look at an appeal case. Defendant Lee Kai-fat had appeared before a magistrate, not named in RTHK’s report of the appeal, on a charge of possessing offensive weapons: a petrol bomb and a laser pointer.

He was jailed for eight months in June and had served four months behind bars before his appeal came up before High Court Judge Alex Lee. The judge ordered his immediate release.

He was told that the defendant, a 32-year-old-man, had the IQ of an 11-year-old. The magistrate had not considered this a factor to be considered before passing sentence. In some jurisdictions this case would never have been brought. It is difficult to see how a sane and awake magistrate could have thought that a disability on this scale was entirely irrelevant.

An innocent error? OK then try this real horror story. Chan Tung-sing was convicted of possessing offensive weapons and obstructing a public place.

The police prosecuting witness said he had not actually seen Chan do anything illegal. The “offensive weapon” — a set of Alum keys — was an unlikely weapon.

But magistrate Norton Pang was not distracted by such trivia. The defendant, he said, “must have been involved in the protests because he was wearing the same black outfit as the others when detained.”

The distant rumble which careful observers could hear in the courtroom at this point was the sound of Mr Justice Geoffrey Lawrence turning in his grave. Mr Lawrence’s claim to fame in legal circles is his summary of the burden of proof in criminal cases, which goes like this:

“The possibility of guilt is not enough, suspicion is not enough, likelihood is not. A criminal matter is not a question of balancing probabilities and deciding in favour of a probability. If the accusation is not proved beyond reasonable doubt against the man in the dock, then by law he is entitled to be acquitted, because that is the way our rules work. It is no concession to give him the benefit of the doubt. He is entitled by law to a verdict of not guilty.”

Mr Pang has probably made legal history by convicting a man for wearing a black outfit. He compounded this error by refusing bail pending appeal, so Mr Chan is now serving three months in a “rehabilitation centre”. By the time his appeal reaches a higher court he will in all probability have served the sentence.

We are urged to be temperate in criticisms of judges, and temperate I shall try to be. But magistrates need, perhaps, to try harder to avoid giving the impression that considerations of fact and law — indeed possibly also of common sense — now take a subordinate place in their deliberations, behind the over-riding purpose of the proceedings, which is to consign protesters to prison in the largest possible numbers.

Recent redeployments in the magisterial ranks have, I realise, suggested that insufficient zeal in this important pursuit will lead to the judicial equivalent of a free transfer to a Division Two club.

It must also be said that some magistrates — I will not blight their prospects by giving names — continue to discharge their functions with an admirable care for the rights of the people arraigned before them, risking noisy abuse from Ta Kung Pao and silent frustration in the Department of Justice.

It does seem, though, that those humble miscreants who appear in local courts are partaking in a bit of a lottery. Will justice be blind … or dumb?

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I have felt a certain protective affection for Finland since, many years ago, I was one of the Faculty Advisers to the Baptist U team at a Model UN. Teams participating in these things are allocated a country each to represent, and we drew Finland.

My fellow adviser did the current issues and topics and the UN procedure, leaving me with the more pleasant task of introducing our team to Finland’s history and culture, on which the local Consulate was very helpful.

This was just as well because like most people I knew very little about Finland. During my war studies period it was held up as a bad example: “Finlandisation” was a rather pejorative label stuck on countries which were “Not Standing Up to the Russians” enough to please the members of NATO, of which organisation Finland was and is not a member.

Apart from that Finland was a source of hot racing drivers with names whose spelling was a problem for the Sports Desk, the origin of the sauna, and one of the three countries claiming to be the home of Father Christmas.

So it was a pleasure to discover that it had in fact a fascinating history. Being so far north it was for a long time barely habitable. I understand Finnish historians no longer believe that it was completely empty in cold climate periods, but certainly the climate rules out the sort of farming conducted in temperate areas, and the inhabitants traditionally survived by herding, hunting and trapping.

The south of Finland, where most of life happens, is littered with lakes. This makes it quite unsuitable for conventional warfare, which consequently took place in the winter when the climate is extremely hostile but the lakes freeze hard enough to carry men and horses. Finns are a tough bunch. They were already notorious for this in the 17th century, when they supplied most of Gustavus Adolphus’s cavalry.

The language is a puzzle. Its only European relative is Hungarian. The music is pleasing and relies heavily on a sort of horizontal harp.

In other ways Finland is recognisably Nordic: parliamentary democracy, welfare state, rule of law, all that sort of thing. So how did it arouse the ire of Mr Grenville Cross, who has accused it of weakening global justice, no less?

Finland is among the growing number of countries which have cancelled or suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong since the arrival of the national security law. You can argue about the need for this. Most extradition treaties exclude political offences, many of them exclude offences which are not criminal in the country from which the suspect is to be extradited, and in any case if an application looks suspicious extradition can be refused, treaty or no treaty.

But this is not enough for Mr Cross, who spins a glorious conspiracy theory in which the national security law is a mere pretext, and what is really happening is that Finland is going along with a campaign against China waged by the US.

This starts with a joint statement last year to mark the 100th anniversary of diplomatic ties (Finland was not a country before 1919) by the two presidents. This, as is customary on such occasions, included such platitudes as “our relationship is stronger than ever … exceptionally strong cooperation … tackling common challenges” and so forth.

Then we are told that “Given Finland’s strategic location as Russia’s neighbor, the US has decided to ramp up its involvement there and to woo its leaders,” for which the only evidence we are offered is a meeting on July 3 between the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and his Finnish counterpart Pekka Haavisto (you see what I mean about the interesting spelling).

A mere ten days later, says Mr Cross, Mr Haavisto “announced that the extradition treaty will no longer be applied.” Actually he did not. What he said on July 13 was that the treaty “should not” be applied, a statement of opinion about what was desirable, not a legal abrogation of the treaty.

In fact it remained in force until October 16, when the President of Finland announced its suspension.

People who know their Finnish history will need a good deal more than this to convince them that there are any ulterior motives at work here.

Finland’s experience in the first half of the 20th century was as unhappy as everyone else’s, but in a different way. In the winter of 1939 they were subjected to a Russian invasion.

The two obvious possible sources of help, France and the UK, were already at war with Hitler and ducked. Sweden was determinedly neutral. The Germans had just divided Poland with the Russians pursuant to the freshly signed Nazi-Soviet pact. So the Finns were on their own, and after a stirring defence were compelled to cede a large swathe of territory to the Soviet Union.

When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 the Finns took the chance to resume their war with the Russians and take back the lost territory, along with some earlier concessions. After the defeat of the German invasion this advance was reversed and in 1944 the Soviets imposed a peace treaty which involved some further concessions.

Finland was then treated as a defeated Axis power, although they had not actually signed up for the Axis, and subjected to an Allied Control Commission, which was mostly Russian. Several Finnish politicians were convicted of “waging aggressive war” and jailed.

Finland did not become part of the Warsaw Pact. Nor did it join NATO, or benefit from the Marshall Plan. It did sign a treaty with Moscow pledging to resist any attempt to invade Russia through its territory. During the Cold War it was emphatically neutral, and no doubt there is something in the suggestion that Finnish leaders took care not to provoke their neighbour to the east.

Finland has nothing to thank “the West” for. The idea that a few honeyed words from Mike Pompeo could turn Finland into some sort of American puppet is inaccurate and insulting.

Curiously Mr Cross concedes the point cited by Mr Haavisto as justifying a suspension of the extradition agreement. The National Security Law does, he says, allow “circumstances in which people accused of violating national security can be tried on the mainland”. But this can “only occur in exceptional circumstances”.

Well exceptional circumstances have a way of coming up sooner or later, and countries which take their obligations seriously will adjust their arrangements accordingly. Admirers of the national security law need to get their heads round the fact that Hong Kong now no longer meets the standards to which countries enjoying the rule of law aspire.

Blaming the growing number of countries which take this view (Ireland, another compulsive neutral, suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong last week) on an American conspiracy is just as stupid as blaming the COVID outbreak on a Chinese laboratory.

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Suspicions that our government is no longer running anything very much in Hong Kong these days will not have been allayed by an interview this week with the Dear Leader, Ms Carrie Lam.

We should perhaps note here that the interview was not conducted by me, so this version of it depends on the alert ears and nimble pen of the Standard’s Michael Shum.

Ms Lam was asked to comment on a strange suggestion from the Hong Kong Real Property Federation (whoever they are) which involved 60 square kilometres of reclamation to solve the housing shortage.

This reclamation should take place, the federation suggested, round Guishan Island. There are two obvious drawbacks to this suggestion. One is that the island is off the south western tip of Lantau. It would be a long commute to almost anywhere.

The other problem is that the island is not currently part of Hong Kong. It is not in Hong Kong waters and is administratively part of Zhuhai.

These points did not, curiously, come up. Ms Lam’s first objection to the plan was that “President Xi does not favour reclamation due to environmental concerns”. This is heartening news, which will no doubt be a cause of rejoicing to endangered species everywhere. President Xi’s concern for the environment is nice, though a bit like hearing that Hitler was kind to dogs … true, but maybe beside the point.

Apparently, though, the presidential concern for the environment does not extend to the Lantau Tomorrow plan, which envisages a huge reclamation in the Western Anchorage.

This is a puzzle because, obviously, there is only one environment. A reclamation east of Lantau should, you would think, be just as damaging as one south of Lantau. No man is an island, as Mr Donne had it. In environmental terms, no island is an island.

Ms Lam went on to say that she had heard various proposals for mainland spaces of one kind or another being used to enlarge Hong Kong, but she had “never heard the central government mention such a plan”. Has anyone asked?

Then we came to the big surprise. I quote: “These suggestions would mean wrecking the central government’s policy for Hong Kong housing problems, as Beijing attaches great importance to the environment”.

Leaving the environment out of it for the moment, the question which now arises is of course why the central government has a “policy for Hong Kong’s housing problems”. No doubt the central government is entitled to have opinions, make suggestions, or offer advice. But have we now reached the stage where the role of the Hong Kong government’s Housing Department is merely to carry out a policy determined in Beijing?

I realise that the “high degree of autonomy” we were once led to expect has been much eroded over the years but if we no longer control such manifestly local issues as housing then there seems little left for the expensive and elaborate machinery of consultation and government to do.

Well, Ms Lam is apparently concentrating on “mid- to long-term policies”. On these it seems she has some decision-making power still, but it is not being shared with the rest of us: “As we would need to solve a lot of problems to develop land, regardless of the size, I therefor chose to develop 1,000 to 2,000 hectares of land at one go.”

The problems to be solved? Those pesky people who share President Xi’s affection for the environment. Here is Ms Lam on the shifting political sands: “In the past, society was not that concerned about Victoria Harbour, the wetlands and conservation in general. But now, people will rail against the government for these issues, causing delays to development plans. Developing land is at least eight to 10 times tougher compared to 1997.”

Never let it be said, though, that Ms Lam has not picked up the proper buzzwords: “If we solve land problems by rezoning sportsgrounds and building houses wherever we see a gap, it would be highly unsustainable. It is only a short-term pain-killer.”

Ms Lam appears to think that the rezoning of sports grounds and filling of gaps would eventually run out of sports grounds and gaps. This is not what people usually mean by “unsustainable”. What they mean by unsustainable is projects which inflict irreparable damage on the environment, like … well reclamation.

Really whether the grounds and gaps approach is sensible depends on the size of the grounds and gaps concerned. People who want less space devoted to sport do not have their eye on what we usually mean by a sports ground: a football pitch or a tennis court. They are referring to the rolling acres devoted to golf and horses.

Filling in the gaps does not really do justice to the large areas of the New Territories which are devoted to mysterious small industries, or the even larger areas which are occupied to no good purpose by the PLA.

There is also the question of timing. Lantau Tomorrow will not, in fact, appear tomorrow. Like most mega-projects run by the government it will take longer than expected. In the meantime Hong Kong people will continue to pay ludicrous prices for tiny flats. “Choosing” to go for 2,000 hectares is choosing a long wait.

Still, help is at hand. The central government has a policy for solving our housing problems and Ms Lam knows what it is. Any chance of the rest of us being told?

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Jacques Mallet du Pan was an 18th century journalist who is now remembered mainly for observing as the guillotine reaped a bloody harvest in Paris that “Like Saturn, the revolution devours its children.”

This adage has since been applied to other revolutions, as well as the Spanish civil war and even the Brexit campaign in the UK. I did not expect to see it applied in Hong Kong but we are seeing a lot of unexpected things these days.

Consider the sad fate of Mr Kevin Yeung, the Secretary for Education. Mr Yeung has loyally followed the local descent into despotism with Chinese characteristics. He has condemned what he is supposed to condemn, hounded the people he is supposed to hound, and generally repeated the words he is expected to repeat.

That has not kept him safe from bitter criticism from the local ayatollahs of political correctness, in whose view he is dragging his feet in organising a sweeping purge of the teaching profession.

It is not enough that he has procured the de-registration of a teacher for producing a lesson plan which may have explored the topic of — horror – independence, over-ruling the teacher’s colleagues and superiors, who thought the lesson plan educational. The actual de-registration was conducted by the Permanent Secretary for Education.

Mr Yeung must have realised at some point that this was going to put the final kiss of death on his reputation with a majority of local educators. But we all have to make sacrifices.

He has nevertheless come under fire from Mr C.Y. Leung, who wants to see more heads roll, and Mr Tam Yiu-chung, who objected to Mr Yeung’s suggestion that if children asked about independence they should be told that it was unfeasible, and so not worth discussing.

I should perhaps warn readers that this part of the proceedings was conducted in Cantonese; some publications translated the offending word as “impractical”.

This was not enough for Mr Tam. Indeed it is difficult to see what would have been enough for Mr Tam. I suppose independence should, in his view, be roundly condemned as irrational, unlawful, unpatriotic, heretical and malicious. Any student who utters the word should be required to wash his mouth out. Only a moment of carelessness as Moses descended the mountain deprived us of the 11th commandment, which of course should have been “Thou shalt not discuss independence in the classroom.”

Still it is a pity that Mr Yeung’s suggestion was not more warmly received. It has the merit of being true, which means that people with a wide range of different views on independence will be able to offer it to students without feeling that they are betraying anything.

Certainly independence is unfeasible. Or if you prefer impractical. We are a colony of a nasty police state whose attitude to its borders is, as the old saying has it, “anything which is not nailed down is mine; anything I can tear loose is not nailed down”.

We have a puppet government, a garrison, and a local branch of the secret police. Independence is a dream, or if you prefer a nightmare, but it is certainly impractical. This is a conclusion towards which you could nudge your students with a clear conscience

Indeed I imagine that any teacher who was covering this topic in Life Education would probably find that the class reached this conclusion without his assistance. The sin, in the eyes of Messrs Tam and Leung, is not in the danger of coming to an improper conclusion, but in discussing the idea at all.

The result of this approach is that the penalty is far too ferocious for the crime. After all the lesson plan only covered 50 minutes. Nobody has suggested that a campaign was in progress. If this particular teacher was considered too controversial on current political topics he or she could have been moved to one of the many less sensitive topics covered in primary education.

The de-registration, shockingly, is a life sentence. According to the lady who made the decision, Permanent Secretary for Education Michelle Li, “There is no provision on the validity period of the cancellation, so that means once cancelled it’s cancelled… we consider the cancellation of registration an appropriate and reasonable penalty.”

Appropriate and reasonable? One of the results of being de-registered, apparently, is that you are barred from every school campus in Hong Kong. You cannot be employed as a secretary, a school bus aunty, a janitor or a security guard unless the school has obtained the written permission of the Secretary for Education for you to set foot in its territory.

So here’s the deal: if you are a fraudster, a rapist, a murderer or a pedophile, then education officials are happy to leave it up to the school whether it wishes to employ you or not. You may be a religious nut who believes the world is flat or a rightwing fanatic who believes the world is run by a secret global network of Jews. You may refuse to teach evolution, or insist on teaching that Mao was a superman who didn’t really kill 50 million people. It doesn’t matter. You may be registered, and you may stay registered.

Draw up a lesson plan which goes down badly with Ta Kung Pao, on the other hand, and you face banishment for life from the profession.

Mr Yeung, who is rapidly learning how to say that two plus two equals five when the political parameters require it, stoutly denied that the fate of this teacher would have an intimidating effect on others.

This roughly coincided with the news that the English Schools Foundation had circulated a warning to member schools that the classroom should no longer be regarded as a “safe space” where any topic of interest could be discussed without fear. Indeed they might have said the same about the rest of Hong Kong while they were at it.

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I had resolved a few weeks ago to stop complaining about violations of the law on contempt of court, but my resolution wilted in the face of a specimen from a very senior lawyer.

Mr Henry Litton, a former QC and a retired judge of our top court, has taken to airing criticisms of his successors on the Bench in the pro-government press. His latest effort started with the observation that the judgement of the High Court in a named case should “send alarm bells ringing in the Judiciary”.

Unfortunately Mr Litton was so distracted by the alarm bells that he overlooked an important detail. The case about which he was complaining – Tong Ying Kit v the HKSAR – concerned whether Mr Tong would be admitted to bail.

Clearly Mr Tong will in due course face a trial – that is why he is in custody. It accordingly behoves media performers not to publish material which suggests that he is guilty, or for that matter innocent.

The sub editor of the page on which Mr Litton’s masterpiece appeared, a mere journalist, followed the rules in his caption on a picture of Mr Tong, saying that he “allegedly rammed a motorcycle into a group of police while sporting a ‘Liberate Hong Kong’ flag”.

Mr Litton, on the other hand, cheerfully committed the offence known as strict liability contempt of court, by saying that the case concerned the man (already named in the previous paragraph) “who, on July 1st, furiously drove a motorcycle at police lines, eventually seriously injuring police officers. He was carrying a rucksack, from which protruded a black flag…” and so on. Not an “alleged” or “accused” to be seen.

It is not yet certain, but it is quite possible, that Mr Tong will be tried by a jury. Any juror who has read Mr Litton’s view of the matter has already been polluted by a prejudicial account.

After all it is quite likely that part of the proceedings will concern the question whether Mr Tong did drive “furiously” and whether he intended to hit the policemen. I have no idea what the defence might say about any of this: Mr Tong swerved to avoid a dog, was distracted by a bee which had found its way into his helmet, or more plausibly that he was aiming for a gap in the police line but the policemen threw themselves into his path in their eagerness to arrest him. I do not know, you do not know, and Mr Litton does not know. But Mr Tong is entitled to a trial which is not preceded by newspaper copy which assumes and states his guilt.

Under the circumstances it could be considered that Mr Litton was in some danger of complaining about motes in other eyes while ignoring a beam in his own.

He does not, and nor do I, dispute the correctness of any of the court’s decisions concerning Mr Tong, who was in fact refused bail. The Tong legal team applied for a writ of “habeas corpus”, an unusual way of seeking to overthrow a decision about bail, and as it turned out not an effective one.

However counsel for Mr Tong also contended that there were deficiencies in the new National Security law which meant that it should not apply yet, or at least should not have been applied on July 1st.

The court rejected all these arguments, but Mr Litton is not happy with this. He is not happy because the court devoted 25 pages to giving its reasons for rejecting them.

In Mr Litton’s view it is unacceptable for a Hong Kong court to even consider that there may be a constitutional problem with a law emanating from Beijing, and judges have a “prime constitutional responsibility” to “nip the mischief in the bud”.

The idea that Hong Kong courts have no jurisdiction over mainland legislation may well be an entirely accurate description of the law, and an entirely accurate description of the practical situation. Any failure to follow the Party line will be over-ruled or ‘reinterpreted”. I have some difficulty with the idea, though, that this is in all cases so self-evident that judges should simply refuse to entertain any argument on the matter.

It is an important principle that judges should explain the reasoning behind their decisions and when the arguments are long and complex the reasoning will be long and complex as well.

After wading through some details of the particular case, and a long quote from the Chief Justice about the importance of open justice, you get a rather worrying indication of where Mr Litton is coming from.

He says the court in Mr Tong’s case has “failed to discharge its constitutional function.” This function comes in a long string, starting with “to judge effectively”, with which we can all agree, “clearly”, which is ambiguous in the context, and “in a manner which the ordinary citizen can understand.”

Surely not? Judges have never had a constitutional obligation to state their conclusions in a manner which the ordinary citizen can understand. My acquaintance with constitutional matters is of some antiquity, like Mr Litton’s, but I think I would have remembered an obligation to be understandable to the ordinary citizen, because it is so often flouted.

Some judges, like Lord Denning, accept a moral obligation to phrase their conclusions, as far as possible, in language which the litigants will be able to understand. Most judges, though, feel that reaching the right decision is hard enough without abandoning the technical language of the law, so they leave explaining their mysterious craft to the legal advisors of the people involved in the case.

Of course we all agree with the need for open justice, but I do not think even the Chief Justice, or perhaps anyone except Mr Litton, believes that this requires all judgements to be written in a manner which will be instantly comprehensible to the man in the street. How many ordinary citizens read High Court judgements, however snappy?

The destination to which Mr Litton’s “constitutional function” is heading is “ensuring the resolute, full, and faithful implementation of the policy of one country, two systems.”

I respectfully disagree totally. It is not the constitutional function of the courts to implement government policy, resolutely, fully, faithfully or otherwise. The relevant principle is usually attributed to Lord Mansfield’s judgement in the case of John Wilkes in 1768, and like so many legal antiques it is in Latin: “fiat justitia ruat caelum”, which means “let justice be done though the heavens fall”.

This is the standard to which judges should aspire. Under the circumstances it is something of a relief that Mr Litton is no longer one of them.

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Hong Kong’s white elephants are, if you will forgive a mixed metaphor, coming home to roost. Extravagant projects were launched on the dubious basis that tomorrow will be much like today, only more so. Well we have changed all that.

Much writing about the pandemic assumes that when it is all over – a vaccine or a dependable cure having appeared – we will all go back to doing what we did before. 2002, or whenever the happy year is, will be like 2019, but without the protests.

The more plausible alternative, though, is that this will not happen. Some of the changes made by Covid will not reverse themselves. There will be a new normal, and for some people this may not be pretty.

In particular the old idea of travel as an entertaining diversion without a downside as long as you could afford it has been decisively quashed. People have found themselves trapped by distant diseases in countries where they only intended to stay a few days.

There is no point in going on holiday if you have to self-isolate for a fortnight when you get back. Nipping across the boundary for a few cans of baby food is not going to make sense if you have to pay for a medical check-up first.

Then again, some of our compatriots may have got the message that they are not entirely welcome.

The breeze has already been felt at Ocean Park and Disneyland. The former is being kept afloat on a government hand-out, the latter has been told that it will never expand to what Walt’s heirs thought was its full size.

Well both these establishments have been going a long time and given a great deal of pleasure. We must not discourage fun palaces. What are we to make, though, of more recent innovations, intended to be practical?

There is, for example, the cruise ship terminal. This has never been very busy, though it was increasing patronage steadily until this year. But now? Cruise ships are being moth-balled or scrapped all over the world. This is due to the discovery that your oceanic experience may include being trapped in your cabin for a week or two while the crew desperately searches for a port which will let your disease-laden vessel drop its anchor.

Cruise ship passengers have traditionally been elderly folk who were not looking for adventure. They have been put off.

This is good news from the pollution point of view. In what now seems a stroke of prescient parsimony the government dismissed as too expensive the suggestion that the cruise terminal should be equipped to supply visiting ships with shore power. So they all run diesel generators all the time. Fewer visits, fewer fumes.

Then there is the third runway, still under construction and a monument to the view that air travel could only go onwards and upwards. At the moment we do not even need two.

What the new normal post-pandemic will be remains to be seen, though it will not be seen by some of the more financially fragile airlines currently on government life-support. An interesting suggestion is that passengers will no longer be willing to change planes. Large hub airports will lose business as the airlines switch to running direct flights between more places.

Another possibility is that people will simply rearrange their lives so that they do not need to fly so much. It seems quite likely that we will never actually need the third runway. We will not get our money back.

Same goes for the most elephantine project in Hong Kong history, the express rail link. Before Covid there was some discussion of whether it would make a profit. This was an abuse of language. The express rail link will never make a profit because it will never repay the enormous cost of building it, which the government effectively wrote off as a donation to national unity.

The question was actually whether the income from fares would cover the running costs. I infer from the prolonged silence on this point that it was not doing so before January, and six months of care and maintenance with no passenger income at all have certainly not helped. No doubt further donations from the government will be needed. The link is the gift that keeps on taking.

These examples are monuments to the planning fallacy: the misguided notion that we know what the future will look like and can make massive investments in the confidence that they will pan out. Actually the record of short-range predictions is pretty rough and the long-range ones are hopeless.

This brings us to the one grandiose project which we can still hope to see cancelled: a monstrous reclamation between Hong Kong and Lantau, construction to be spread over 30 years.

I do not know, you do not know and the planners do not know what will happen to Hong Kong’s population figures in the next 30 years. Perhaps – perish the thought – the place will become less attractive, a project which seems to be dear to the heart of the Liaison Office. Perhaps increasing wealth will lead as it usually does to lower population growth.

Or perhaps the sea level will rise by a couple of metres, putting the whole project underwater either literally or financially, which ever you prefer.

Nobody can be blamed for failing to prophesy the future in a complex and changing world. They can be blamed, in this uncertain environment, for making massive bets on one view of the future being correct.

Covid should have taught us one thing: that we do not know what will happen next and should act accordingly, rather than “planning” for a future which may never come.  

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I came across an unusual spectacle in the Tsimshatsui underground station: a little group of policemen were handing out small packets to passers-by.

This was intriguing. So I passed by and was in my turn awarded a small packet, which turned out to be a wallet-like item in blue plastic. The policeman who gave it to me misunderstood my puzzled look completely.

“I’m a policeman,” he said. “Yes, I know,” I replied. And went on my way home. On closer examination the wallet-like object turned out to contain two tissues. It was printed with messages in two languages urging citizens to join the fight against crime.

In English this message was rather generic and included a couple of phone numbers for reporting your suspicions to. I am told the Chinese part was rather more specific about the risk of having your pocket picked, which I imagine is quite high in TST.

I will leave to more fanatically environmental pens the question whether distributing pieces of plastic is a planet-friendly way to fight crime. I thought I might find a use for the little wallet and the two tissues will come in handy.

As I wandered on I felt a wave of nostalgia. When I was a kid it was considered acceptable, and indeed healthy, for mothers to shoo their children out of the house on sunny days to play in the fresh air with their mates in the neighbourhood.

I do not remember any serious harm resulting from this practice but people are more timid about children in public places these days. Anyway there was one problem, which was how your offspring would know when it was time to come home.

In those days watches were far too expensive and fragile to be entrusted to children, at least in my family’s income bracket. Outside town centres there were few public clocks. One useful indicator was the “lighting up time”.

In those days the street lights did not have the light-sensitive switches which turn them on in the middle of the day if it gets too gloomy. They were on a timing arrangement; the time to switch them on was fixed in advance and they all came on together.

Because in European latitudes the length of the day varies considerably through the year the timing of the lighting up also varied and the current week’s time was published in the newspapers. When the street lights came on you went home.

The trouble with this was that in the summer the lighting up actually came quite late. The other recourse which we were recommended was to ask a stranger politely for the time.

Actually in those days many strangers did not have a watch either, but there was one group for whom it was a professional requirement: policemen. Policewomen had not been invented. Policemen also had the advantage of being respectable and generally helpful. Parents thought it useful for their kids to be accustomed to friendly encounters with The Law.

So we were frequently reminded – and the catch phrase became so common it was eventually turned into a song – that “if you want to know the time ask a policeman.”

Your policeman in those days had a distinctive dark blue uniform, topped with a historic helmet: think Rorkes Drift movie but in dark blue. Paramilitary policing had not been invented either so when you were old enough to go to demonstrations and public protests you encountered the same uniform, for which many of us had learned an instinctive respect.

Well times back in the UK have changed. All kids have mobile phones these days. The police helmet has gradually disappeared because it is awkward for an increasingly car-born force. And some people have developed a pretty prickly relationship with the forces of order.

This was a slow process. Hong Kong’s claim to historical fame is the rapidity with which our cops managed in just over a year to pass from somewhere close to “If you want to know the time ask a policeman” to “if you don’t eat your spinach I will call a policeman who will take you away to be tortured at a black site in the New Territories”.

And the Force is still, it seems, picking unnecessary fights. The fuss about who is a reporter is hopelessly old-fashioned. In this age when everyone effectively has a small camera in his pocket, anyone can be a reporter. This is a fact of life.

No doubt it is very offensive to the constabulary’s feelings that a shopping mall should be filled with a handful of protesters and 250 “reporters” filming them. But if there were only a handful of protesters perhaps the best solution would have been to reduce the number of policemen.

Let us give some thought to curbing over-violent policing methods. Clearly the complaints mechanism is going to be no help here. Could there be some subtle change which would encourage a less macho approach without offending the law and order industry?

It is well established that people are surprisingly responsive to small cues in their environment. So it would help if we did something about those uniforms. Do riot squads have to be in black? I realise the young men wearing the gear probably do not make the visual connection to Hitler’s SS, but black is the colour of piracy, Death’s Head Hussars, Darth Vadar’s cloak, the bad guy’s hat in the Old Westerns…

Surely the gear would be just as good at protecting the wearer and much less likely to put unhelpful ideas into his head if it was all pink. This might require a name change but I was never happy with “Raptors”. We do not need a predatory police force. They would be much nicer as Pink Panthers.

Alternatively we could take the new tolerance of unauthorised badges to its logical conclusion and sell the space on the riot gear for advertising. Police people would then be like Formula One racing cars, in which the underlying colour is barely visible under all the salesmanship.

Alas this presupposes that the Force wishes to be loved rather than feared, which on present form seems unlikely. The management seems quite happy to be the dogs in our local Animal Farm, loyally supporting the ruling pigs.

They should remember that in that famous closing scene, when the pigs are entertaining humans in the old farm house and the other animals can no longer tell the two groups apart … the dogs are left outside.









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Henry Litton’s op-ed piece attacking Hong Kong judges for failing to conform to our new constitutional realities has caused something of a stir in the legal community. So I shall leave the legal points raised to them. A hostile view here.

What surprised me was the paragraph in which Mr Litton considered what he considers “the big picture”. It goes like this “For hundreds of years, the Middle Kingdom was the undisputed economic and cultural centre of the world. It fell into decay during the latter days of the Qing dynasty but is now resurrecting, through much agony and hardship, its central role. It is also re-establishing, through the Belt and Road Initiative, the ancient trade connections between the Middle Kingdom and the other great civilisations, this time on a much wider scale.”

This is a big picture all right, but I am not sure that it is really the sort of thing which ought to be going through judges’ heads while they consider applications for judicial review.

Apart from its other disadvantages it has the serious drawback of not being particularly accurate. I am reminded of Napoleon’s comment that “History is a series of lies about which we agree.”

For most of China’s history there was, after all, not really a world to be the centre of. Great empires rose and fell in Africa and America unnoticed on the Eurasian continent and unconscious of the rest of the world. There was a flourishing trade, at times, along the Silk Road, but China was one end of it, not the centre.

Modern historians assert that China in 1500 was the most prosperous and cultured civilisation in a world which was becoming aware of itself. Europe was divided and quarrelsome in a most undignified way.

But the ensuing two centuries suggest that perhaps a decentralised hubbub was more effective than a monolithic empire. While Europeans took over large swathes of the world the Chinese empire succumbed to a Manchu invasion and became part of someone else’s empire, which it remained for 400 years.

The idea that there is some natural gravitational force which dictates that China’s “natural” position is at the centre of anything is deeply unhistorical.

I have lately been reading Simon Winder’s entertaining history of Lotharingia. This antique state dates back to Charlemagne’s grandchildren, who agreed to divide his empire into three pieces. One piece in the West corresponded roughly to what is now France. A second piece in the east corresponded roughly to what is now Germany.

The third piece was a belt, starting in Holland and sweeping south down both banks of the Rhine to terminate in the northern part of what is now Switzerland. This was an awkward construction and its history consisted largely of attempts to make something of it, hampered by attempts by the two obvious contenders to encroach on it. The region is particularly rich in historic battlefields.

The moral of this story is that no political entity is eternal and no frontier should be regarded as fixed beyond amendment.

One of the benefits of Youtube is that you can find animations which show the changing political landscape over time. European ones (specimen here) are fun if you know your history. And you get the same message. The frontiers in 2020 are only distantly related even to the frontiers in 1914. Whole countries appear and disappear.

Similar efforts are offered for Asia, though as I know much less of the history they are less entertaining. Specimen here. I used to show my masters’ students one of these as an indirect answer to their questions about some contemporary issues.

The area now occupied by China is not the same as the area occupied by any of the previous Chinas. The triumphant China of 1500, for example, did not include Xinjiang, Tibet or Taiwan, which may inspire a certain nostalgia in those places. Dynasties came and went, leaving gaps filled by a patchwork of smaller states. The geographically largest dynasties were not necessarily the longest-lasting ones.

Countries do not, as Mr Litton puts it “fall into decay”. They confront challenges, with varying degrees of success. Some of the challenges are natural – floods, earthquakes – but the most tricky ones involve relations with other people. Luck plays an important role.

Well, no doubt the willingness of at least one senior Hong Kong judge to trot out the Party line on Chinese history will go down well in Beijing. But I fear Mr Litton is chasing a mirage if he thinks Hong Kong judges can be “trusted” in Beijing without ceasing for all practical purposes to be judges.

The central government knows nothing of law, common or otherwise. Its requirement for trustworthy judges is that they should find for the Party, whatever the details of the case.

Hong Kong judges are in the same bind as the Chief Executive. If they are liked and admired in Hong Kong they will for that very reason be distrusted in Beijing. If they are trusted in Beijing they will for that very reason be regarded with scorn and contempt in Hong Kong.

This dilemma is the joke which history has played on them and Mr Litton’s preferred solution is just to impale himself vigorously on one horn of it.  

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It is nice to see Hong Kong become a global talking point, but perhaps this could be done in a more flattering way than Sunday’s eye-catching video – broadcast on all international stations, Fox News (not a Hong Kong-obsessed channel usually) version here – of the Hong Kong Police laying down the law on a 12-year-old girl.

One tries not to jump to conclusions from video clips, but this leaves little room for interpretation. If a duck looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Here we see several adults bullying a child. If a parent did this to his daughter he would be prosecuted.

Some of the sting might have been drawn from this catastrophe by a tactful apology. Confused situation … people get excited … not necessary to use the full anti-cockroach technique on a minor … sorry.

Instead we got the usual, untouched by human brain – our boys can do no wrong – from the usual spokesman. The victim had run “in a suspicious manner” and had been subjected only to “minimum necessary force”. Self-righteous hogwash.

I fear my education missed out on running in a suspicious manner. In primary school we were encouraged to stand like a tree, waving in the wind, or run like a horse, galloping across the prairie, but somehow running suspiciously never came up. Looking at the video, though, the runner does not look suspicious. She looks terrified.

As for the minimum force, surely the minimum force required to subdue someone so small would involve one person and one person only. Some compromise on the “flat on the pavement” front would also have been appropriate.

Then we got the prosecution. It is sadly a recurring feature of police excess that the victim must be charged with something, in order to discredit the expected complaint. So our 12-year-old victim, who apparently answers to Pamela, was treated to an on-spot fine for a social distancing violation.

Just a cotton-picking minute. Leaving aside the question whether Pamela, who lives in the area and was just shopping with an elder brother, actually violated the rules, there is a little legal hitch involved here.

I quote from the Law Reform Commission report on the age of criminal liability: “The law … presumes that a child between the ages of seven and 14 is incapable of committing a crime, unless the prosecution proves beyond reasonable doubt that, at the time of the offence, the child was well aware that his or her act was seriously wrong, and not merely naughty or mischievous.” 

So there is a legal presumption that Pamela cannot break the law. This can only be overthrown by proof of knowledge and motives. So the issuing of the on-the-spot fine was unjustified and unlawful.

This little detail had passed unnoticed by the Hong Kong government, which cheerfully announced on Sunday night that “Police discharged their rightful duties today and took prompt and decisive actions to apprehend the offenders.”

We were also treated to this: “In a later statement police said: ‘Police attach great importance to integrity. If any person considers he or she is affected by police misconduct, he or she may lodge a complaint to the Complaints Against Police Office. It will be handled in a fair and impartial manner according to established procedures.’” It would be subversive to giggle at this point.

Oh, how fair and impartial the established procedures can be! Oddly enough this phrase cropped up later in the week when the Complaints Against Police Office starred in a rare court case. The complainant (arrested in a theft case: nothing political) pleaded guilty to making a false complaint and was jailed for four months.

Apart from the usual bit about CAPO handling cases in a “fair and impartial manner” the triumphant CAPO spokesman, Chief Inspector Chau Kwok-Kuen, also said that the prosecution had been approved by the Secretary for Justice.

Quite why the Secretary had been involved in such a trivial matter we were not told. Can it be that someone thought that prosecuting a complainant, after so many complaints had fallen on stony ground, might be considered ironic, even satirical?

But satire wilts before the reality of justice Hong Kong style these days. On Monday, according to Wednesday’s Standard, the Department of Justice asked a court to order one Billy Chiu Hin-chang to pay a total of $171,000 to four police officers who were allegedly injured by him during a protest.

The protest took place on October 17, 2014. How can any court be expected to determine liability for events so long ago? Does Mr Chiu have $170,000? Did the relevant file get lost for six years?

One wonders if Mr Chiu, a former member of a subversive minigroup called Hongkong Priority, is just the latest victim of a drive to dump on dissidents of any kind with whatever legal implement comes to hand.

This brings us to Mr Tam Tak-chi, also known as “Fast Beat” (whatever that means) who appeared in court on Tuesday charged with uttering seditious words under the old Crimes Ordinance definition. In other words after years of complaining that Hong Kong had no sedition law the forces of order have now discovered that it was there all the time.

The prosecution line is that Mr Tam, a leading figure in People Power – an organisation we can I think assume the Liaison Office is not fond of — incited hatred of the government by uttering the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.

This is a stunning revelation. Numerous people have been shouting this slogan for more than a year without being prosecuted. Now we are expected to believe that it was illegal all the time? Was the Secretary for Justice asleep then? Or is justice asleep now?  

The degradation of the rule of law goes on. Also on Sunday a bus driver was arrested for dangerous driving. After reviewing his dash cam the man’s employers seem fairly confident that that charge is not going to stick.

The assembled Sherlocks also charged him with having an offensive weapon, because they found a spanner in his bag. Now apparently bus drivers often carry a spanner. It is used to adjust the rear-view mirrors. But this gentleman has no need to explain his possession of a spanner.

The law is quite clear. A blunderbuss or a bazooka are offensive weapons in themselves. When it comes to ordinary civilian objects they will only be offensive if the context suggests that they were going to be used offensively. If you are driving a bus there is no such context so this charge was a simple abuse of process.

The bus driver spent 24 hours in custody. It seems his real offence was to suppose that policemen scattered over the road would welcome warning of his approach. Our force is a sensitive force. Hoot at your peril. 


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So Jimmy Lai has been acquitted on the charge of criminally intimidating a reporter. This is good news in at least one respect. The case has been beyond comment while awaiting trial.

This means everyone concerned has been waiting for three years. This comparatively simple matter should not have taken so long, but this is the level of efficiency we find these days in the Department of so-called Justice.

I draw attention again to the passage in the department’s guidelines for prosecutors which points out that defendants are entitled to be tried within a reasonable time. In some American states a summary offence like this one would have been time-barred after three years.

An interesting anomaly is that the complainant, a reporter from the Oriental Daily, was allowed to remain anonymous. As the magistrate seems to have found his evidence very unreliable this seems a bit generous.

It seems that Mr Lai threatened to “mess with” the reporter concerned. The suggestion that he would find someone else to do this was not supported by the video. There is often a video these days. Why do prosecutors not look at it?

Anyway now that the matter is no longer sub judice I have a few words for the anonymous and unreliable witness.

If you are going to call yourself a reporter this involves rather more than chasing elderly businessmen with a camera and a notebook. You are expected to accept some of the hazards which go with the territory.

Reporting worthy of the name is not always welcome. When I was teaching journalism I used to show my students a video of the sort of situations which might arise. Some interviewees attacked the reporter; some of them attacked the cameraman.

A reporter who asked a professional wrestler whether wrestling was faked was treated to a demonstration: an “open-handed slap” which floored him. Serve him right for asking a stupid question. Everyone has known that professional wrestling was fake since the publication of Mick Foley’s “Have a nice day”, which I warmly recommend.

The point is that none of these episodes was followed by a complaint to the police and court proceedings. Sensible reporters accept that their attentions are sometimes extremely unwelcome. People whose private sins are about to become public will get excited.

Attempts at intimidation are commonplace. We accept it as something which goes with the job.

This is not a matter of physical courage, unless you want to be a front-line war reporter. The conclusion that I drew for my students was that when setting off for work you should always wear shoes you can run in. But we don’t complain.

Personally I was generally lucky in this matter. I was in the press box at Millwall FC, a club notorious for supporter violence, when an irate elderly gentleman staggered in with a view to rearranging the local reporter with his walking stick. While the local reporter tried to calm his antagonist down the rest of us laughed hysterically.

I cannot recall being threatened with violence personally. When I was running an investigative team we were occasionally threatened with writs. I discovered a curious paradox. Innocent people were happy with a discussion, explanation, and occasionally a clarification putting their side of the story. Crooks on the other hand wanted to sue you.

I cherish the memory of the company spokesman who was trying to put me off a modest microscoop with the warning that some of his company directors were Jockey Club stewards. It is not done to wisecrack on these occasions but I had great difficulty in resisting the temptation to reply “I am not a horse”.

So, back to Mr X. If you are going to continue in our disreputable profession you must get used to the idea that you will on occasion be threatened, warned off, sworn at or told to do unspeakable things to your mother.

If you have really spent the last three years in a state of psychological disarray because of Mr Lai’s threatening words, then you are too fragile for reporting, and I can only suggest that you switch to a less abrasive way of earning a living.

If you have not, and were persuaded to participate in the left-wing campaign to hang something – anything — on Mr Lai, then you lack another basic qualification for journalism, an attachment to the truth.


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