Minding your languages

Some weeks ago there was as row between students and staff at Baptist University (where I used to work; if that is an interest consider it declared) over a Putonghua requirement.

This quickly became a political football, Putonghua being the language sanctioned by Beijing and consequently much loved by local apologists for despotism.

There was, according to reports, an extended confrontation between some students and some staff of the language centre, not over the requirement as such, but over a test which you could take, thereby escaping the Putonghua course and doing something else instead… if you passed.

Predictably the hostile comments concentrated not on the substance of the dispute but on the protest methodology. Some staff apparently felt intimidated. Some students swore. I am assured by connoisseurs of Cantonese obscenities that the “swearing” was pretty thin stuff.

As far as the substance of the matter was concerned I was puzzled by one thing. The students wanted to know the marking scheme of the test. The Language Centre apparently would not produce it. When I was still working at BU we were required to produce a marking scheme and share it with students so I would have thought this would be public as a matter of course.

Anyway this case is still working its way through the disciplinary machinery so we should perhaps not explore the merits of the two sides.

I would like instead to ponder a broader question: what do local universities think they are doing teaching languages?

I ask this because when I went to university there were, of course, language requirements. But these had to be met before you got in. The academic dinosaur which was kind enough to accept me still required historians to offer Latin and one modern language.

These were assessed as part of the entrance exam, whether you had the relevant GCE or not. But once you arrived, that was it. Historians had one paper in the first term which required you to read part of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the whole of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in their original languages. These papers were taught by historians, not linguists.

The requirement for scientists was different. They were spared Latin but required to offer German. How this arrangement had survived two world wars in which Germany was the enemy, the second of which was at that time quite recent, is a mystery, at least to me. It seems when the course was founded there was a lot of scientific literature in German.

But again, this was a language to be learned before you arrived. Of course you could do degrees in French and some other modern languages. But these were devoted to literature, culture and other worthy topics. Knowledge of the language concerned was assumed.

Even the classicists were expected to have mastered the relevant languages at school, including ancient Greek. One of my crew colleagues in the rowing fraternity actually composed an ode in ancient Greek to honour one of our rare triumphs. I could not understand a word of it so it may not have been a very good ode. But it gives you an idea of the standard required.

The view at the time seems to have been that a university education was very expensive in money and time. It should be devoted only to things which could not be done anywhere else. As most children manage to master a language between the ages of two and six, this is clearly not an achievement which requires a great deal of brain power and experience.

Hong Kong universities have, I suppose, one good excuse for teaching English. Local employers commonly complain about the English standards of graduates. Indeed it sometimes seems as if fluent English is the only thing many employers expect of degree holders.

Having accepted the need to provide compulsory English, a university will then find that the people teaching Chinese want a bit of the action. They allege that the students’ Chinese is at least as bad as their English, if not worse. I always found this difficult to believe, but Chinese courses duly sprouted.

Then we have the enthusiasm for “liberal education”. This is a flexible term. It used to comprise in ancient times grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. In modern academic parlance it means a system in which a student is required for a year or two to take courses all over the university, before he or she is allowed to settle on a desired subject.

“Ideally,” says its Wikipedia page, “a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds. Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than conform to higher authorities.”

In the real world, it protects administrators and academics from the vagaries of student choice, and provides the opportunity for universities willing to game the system to improve their apparent research output.

Research output is measured by counting the number of learned articles and dividing it by the number of staff expected to do research. The main obstacle between these staff and a higher research output is the irritating requirement that they should do the job they are paid to do: teaching students.

Well we have to amuse the students for 16-18 hours a week, in our system. But if the students are in a language class then they do not have to be entertained by someone who is expected to do research and appears in the calculation. So we find language courses taught by “instructors”, “assistant lecturers”, or even “visiting scholars”, classifications which share the attraction that they do not count for research purposes.

This is a cheap and cheerful solution to financial strains. These non-research people can be worked for much longer hours than their aristocratic colleagues and be paid less. In fact the whole thing has become so popular that other languages are offered on a “start from scratch” basis, to meet some liberal education requirements.

This has led to some difficult choices for people advising students. Students are attracted to basic language courses, especially if they have already studied the language elsewhere, because they can expect to get a good grade. On the other hand many of my colleagues thought that such subjects lacked intellectual content, and students should be encouraged to do something more challenging.

Being able to order noodles in three languages is a useful accomplishment, but not perhaps the sort of thing people should be picking up in publicly-funded universities.

This piece is already getting too long, so I conclude with two points.

First: liberal education is a fine thing but it has its drawbacks. Reading a history of the early 60s the other day I was amused to find complaints that the British system was too liberal, and neglected the demands of the practical world. The person running a factory in Germany usually had a doctorate in a relevant science or technology. His English counterpart had a BA in Comparative Literature, or something equally irrelevant. Arts subjects are cheaper, but there is a danger that a preparation for life-long learning will merely be camouflage for a preparation for life-long unemployment.

Second: the problem at the root of the language question is the disappointing outcome of language teaching in schools. The British Army’s Interpreters’ School used to teach a foreign language to interpreter standard (not simultaneous, but useful) in three months, or – in round numbers – 500 classroom hours. Hong Kong kids spend much longer than that on English and many of them emerge from this ordeal barely able to buy a stamp.

Many European countries, like Finland, Holland or Iceland, have languages known to few foreigners. Visitors invariably find that most of the natives can speak two languages and many can manage three or more. It can be done. But here in Hong Kong it seems it cannot be done by us. I wonder why.







Mind your marching styles

One of the puzzling things about Hong Kong is the widespread enthusiasm for foot drill, even in organisations for which it hardly seems relevant, like the Red Cross or the Auxiliary Medical Service.

No well-intentioned youth organization is complete, it seems, without the formal ritual of a passing out parade, and the consequently necessary hours of practice in an arcane military art, which passed out of practical use some 150 years ago.

This is a matter about people feel surprisingly strongly. So I was not surprised to read that the Liaison Office had met some resistance to a recent campaign to persuade youth groups and others to switch to the “Chinese style of marching”.

This is apparently an obscure prong in the on-going de-Westernisation of Hong Kong. Our boys and girls are marching in a non-Chinese style! The horror!

Actually this approach incorporates a good deal of chauvinistic nonsense. There are

three “styles of marching” available in the world, and none of them is particularly Chinese.

The one which is used in China but not in Hong Kong is technically known as the Stechstritt (literally “piercing step”) and is a German invention.

It is usually credited to, or blamed on if you wish, a colourful military character called Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, later known (to distinguish him from several sons who also became generals) as the Old Dessauer. Leopold married his childhood sweetheart in the teeth of family opposition and had ten children.


Leopold had a long career and by the end of it had a fine collection of historic names to drop: he was at the Battle of Blenheim with Marlborough, in Italy with Prince Eugene, defeated Charles XII of Sweden (who was heavily outnumbered at the time) in Germany and finished his career in the service of Frederick the Great.

A charming legend has it that before his last battle Leopold (a devout Lutheran) prayed: “O Lord God, let me not be disgraced in my old days. Or if Thou wilt not help me, do not help these scoundrels, but leave us to try it ourselves.”

Leaving such delights aside, Leopold’s lasting contribution to Prussian military culture was his work on drill. Foot drill was a matter of life and death on 18th century battlefields, where the infantry needed to move smoothly between lines (if under bombardment by artillery) squares (to resist cavalry) and columns (to move about).

Leopold adopted the Stechstritt because it made it easier for a large body of men, in different sizes, to cover the same distance with each step, and so keep whichever formation they were in. It involves the legs being kept straight, the leg being put forward swinging up before being plonked down with the gratifying sound of jackboot meeting concrete.

This is hard work and extreme versions take a lot of practice.  From Germany it spread to the large numbers of countries which sought to emulate Prussian military prowess, including Russia, whence comes this picture.


The Soviet army kept it up, and it now appears in all the armies of the former Communist world, and many other places, though not in Germany where it is associated with an unhappy period.

During World War II there was a lot of Allied propaganda alleging German militarism, and the “piercing step”, by its more familiar barrack room name as the “goose step”, was depicted as part of this.


George Orwell wrote that “the goose step is only found in countries where the people are too frightened to laugh at their military.”

The alternative used in Hong Kong does not seem to have a name of its own but it is shared by the North American, British and European militaries. The leg only becomes straight when the foot hits the ground, a more natural movement, but there is a lot more emphasis on the arms. For the sake of completeness we may also mention what is called the “high step”, in which the leg is raised before coming down, but with the knee bent. It looks like this:



So the choice before us is basically this. We can have the Prussian/Russian/Chinese look, as demonstrated below by a unit which seems to have attracted a lot of internet enthusiasm for some reason:

t_1Women Militia2

Or can have the British/European/American look as demonstrated below by our beloved Police Force. Note big arm swing and restrained height of feet.

hk cops

And the truth of the matter is that it really doesn’t matter at all which is chosen, or even whether everyone chooses the same one. French military parades happily accommodate the French Foreign Legion, which marches at 88 paces a minute instead of everyone else’s 120. British parades include Highland regiments, who for some mysterious reason prefer 112. Many armies which use the goose step confine it to particular occasions or elite units.

From a practical point of view the spring from which all drill flows in Hong Kong is the police force. If they change to a Chinese style then all other uniformed groups will follow sooner or later. And if not, not.

The only other thing to say about this interesting but essentially trivial matter is that it is a textbook example of the sort of thing which should be no business at all of the Liaison Office. There is absolutely no reason, in the Basic Law or outside it, why this should be a matter for anyone but Hong Kong people.

No doubt the Liaison Office would say that they were only expressing an opinion.

This will not do. This year’s Liaison Office opinions have a disturbing habit of becoming next year’s government policy. You boys need to learn when to shut up.


This is a hard time to be Secretary for Justice, and would still be even if you hadn’t turned up with a large collection of illegal structures and an ethically dubious tax dodge. So I hesitate to join the chorus of complaints about the new secretary’s department.

On the other hand, errors which go uncorrected are likely to be repeated. So…

The Department of Justice seems to have stumbled into a serious misunderstanding about its privileges with regard to answering questions. The legal political issue of the day concerns why Returning Officers might reject the candidacy of people who meet the stated formal requirements for running in an election, and whether they have the right to do so.

In defence of the Returning Officers concerned, who in the Hong Kong system are all District Officers, so full-time card carrying members of the central Civil Service, officials have assured us that they were acting on legal advice. However a nameless spokesman added last week that the content of this advice cannot be disclosed, due to “attorney-client privilege”.

Actually this is the American term. In the English legal system it is known as legal professional privilege. In her latest Legco appearance the Secretary for Justice used neither term, but seemed to be relying on the concept when she said that the legal advice given to Returning Officers could not be disclosed because it was confidential.

The idea of legal professional privilege is that communications between a client and his or her lawyer cannot be disclosed … by the lawyer. The obligation on the lawyer is absolute, and in order to help observance a court will not compel the parties to a case to give evidence on what passed between them and their lawyers, much less compel the lawyers themselves.

Readers may think that this is a preposterous idea when applied to the advice the Department of Justice gives to other government departments. The idea that government lawyers are independent thinkers giving professional advice to a “client” who is the rest of the government is popular with government lawyers. It enables them to conceal from themselves the fact that they have forsaken the excitements and hazards of private practice for the tedium and security of the Civil Service.

But in practice there is no more reason to regard the lawyers as separate from the government than, say, the slope engineers or the sewage works designers.

However this line of thought is erroneous. The House of Lords, no less, has determined that in-house lawyers are still in a lawyer-client relationship with their employers. They just happen to have only one client. So in principle it will not do for a government lawyer to tell us what advice he or she gave the rest of the government.

But, and it is a big but, you will notice that this obligation of confidence does not apply to the client. The client is free at any time to discuss his legal situation in whatever detail he wishes, or to “waive the privilege” as the jargon has it, and authorise his lawyer to tell all on his behalf.

So where a government department or official seeks legal advice from the Department of Justice there is an obligation on the lawyer consulted to keep the matter under his hat. But that does not mean a blanket ban on disclosure. If lawmakers are taking an interest in the matter there is no legal bar to the government, as the client, telling them what the legal advice provided was.

I realise that this places the Secretary for Justice in a tricky ambiguous position. Is she the lawyer, the client, or both? And it would be quite understandable, if this ambiguity was too painful, if questions were referred to some other official who was clearly on the client side of the fence.

But I’m afraid as an excuse for keeping secret what should be public, this excuse does not fly. If officials are taking controversial steps on legal advice, then of course the public and its representatives have every right to know what that advice was.

Actually we are only in this situation because the legal system has displayed a curious anomaly when dealing with election matters. When the government wishes to disqualify elected legislators, the law is a rocket-assisted hare. When it is invited to protect the rights of candidates and electors from arbitrary interference by officials, on the other hand, the law is a paraplegic tortoise.

One of the candidates disqualified last year filed an immediate challenge in the High Court and the case was heard in May. Since then no judgement has materialised. Another challenge was filed in October last year. It has not yet been heard.

Probably whichever side loses will wish to appeal. At the rate we are going the terms of office of those elected in the last election will have expired before the judiciary gets round to a final verdict on the validity of the election. This is the rule of law … as depicted in Bleak House.


Our government triumphantly announced this week that the Police Force will, some time this year, receive three riot control vehicles mounting water cannons. These are being imported specially at a cost of $9 million each.

Eh? That comes to $27 million for the three. This is a lot of money. It is, by a cherishable coincidence, almost exactly the price of a palace in the New Territories, festooned with illegal structures, fit for the accommodation of a Secretary for Security willing to do anything for the Rule of Law except obey it herself.

Each of the new vehicles will cost twice as much as the most expensive Ferrari. Yet the essence of the creature appears rather simple. We are looking, or should be, at a heavy goods vehicle chassis carrying a water tank, a pump, and a few steerable nozzles.

Consider, by way of comparison, a street sweeping vehicle, which offers roughly the same combination with the nozzle in a different place. You can buy one in Australia, new, for between HK$100,000 and HK$800,000, depending on the level of luxury you want and particularly if you want it to vacuum as well as wash.

If you really want to spend a lot then De Luxe Cleaning Systems in Pune, India, has a model which sells for HK$2.4 million. A rival Indian firm, Nature Green Tools and Machinery, has one for $330,000.

But wait, what about the China price? What indeed! This is easy to research because Ali Baba advertisers are encouraged to give a price. Guangdong Heavy Industries will sell you a street cleaner powered by a Cummins diesel engine for $880,000. Or you can get one based on an Isuzu chassis and engine from Hubei Jiangmen Special Automobiles. Prices start at HK$180,000.

Prefer patriotic local content? Try Hubei Chongje Special Automobiles (they seem to be very hot on clean streets in Hubei) whose completely indigenous models start at $290,000.

Of course I am not suggesting that our police can use street sweeping vehicles as crowd control devices. This just gives you an idea of what might be considered a reasonable price.

Actually the earliest use of water cannon for crowd control involved borrowed fire engines, which already have the tank, pump etc. They also provide some guidance on what might be a reasonable price for a law-enforcement water wagon.

There is a whole website devoted to the price of fire engines in the US (no doubt because many fire services are provided by amateur or very local organisations who need the advice) and it suggests that a basic fire engine – tank, pump, nozzle, special equipment – should run to something between HK$1.9m and HK$3.1m.

Here again we can conveniently consider a China price. An upmarket option, the Iveco Tracker, retails for 230,000 Euros, or HK$2.2 million. here it is:

But for a basic piece of kit you can consider the Dong Feng, which goes for a mere HK$200,000. True it only has one nozzle, but these can be bought separately for a mere US$200. Most users find two nozzles sufficient though, as we shall see later, our boys are an exception.

The Dong Feng, below left, may seem to be a cheapskate solution, but consider that for what we are paying you could get a large fleet. You could afford, for example, to have one in each police station.

Another thought. Boris Johnson, while he was still Mayor of London, agreed to stump up for three water cannon trucks to be used by the Metropolitan Police. Their use, unfortunately, was banned by the Home Office, for reasons which we shall come to later.

So the three water cannons have sat about until now; the current mayor is trying, without much success, to find a buyer for them. Boris has been excoriated publicly for the cost of this little caper, which amounted to GBP300,000, or in round numbers a million Hong Kong per machine. People in London don’t know how lucky they are.

A curious feature of Boris’s water cannon trucks is that they were fitted with CD players. This is an interesting thought. Were the crews to go into action to the strains of some suitable Wagnerian music as in Apocalypse Now? Clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQoBE3VbSNI. Or was the idea that they should be treated to some uplifting constabulary music like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEHzmjCOZ5Q or this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cn89PSPSJlM

Never mind. I digress. What seems to have happened is that the Force budgeted HK$9million because what they really wanted was this:

This is a product of German ingenuity and engineering called the Wasserwerfer, or WaWe for short. The abbreviated version sounds less facetious if you remember that in German the Ws are pronounced as Vs. This is the Rolls Royce of water cannon wagons.

Among other entertaining features, you don’t just get a nozzle or two steerable from inside the cab: you get a light and a video camera on each nozzle so that the operator can, in theory at least, take accurate aim at a target. You also get a lot of armour plating – the appearance of a water cannon brings out the vandal in some people.

Also you are not restricted to shooting water. You can add colour, which will in theory make it easy to arrest people later or in practice will add vandalised clothing to your deterrent effect. Or you can add what security enthusiasts demurely call “pepper”, a noxious chemical distantly related to the stuff you put on your steak.

The retail price of a new WaWe, according the Daily Mail (not a source on which I am keen but why should they lie about this?) is GBP 800,000, or about HK$9 million in 2014 when the machines were ordered.

It is a characteristic of government ordering procedure that you cannot simply pick the item you want. There has to be a specification, tendering etc. And this brings me to an illustration which some media outlets have treated as a picture of the upcoming vehicles:

Actually when this first appeared the newspaper concerned made it clear that this was not a picture of the vehicle: it was a picture of the specification. A certain resemblance to the WaWe is noticable. The captions indicate some of the requirements which people hoping to sell three large trucks to the Hong Kong taxpayer for $27 million were expected to meet.

What may puzzle some readers is the extraordinary number of water cannons specified. Many police forces make do with two on the roof. One at the back for self-defence is optional, and only likely to be needed in unusual circumstances. Our wagons are going to have no less than 15 cannons.

Three of these are the usual. Two on the side and an extra one on the front are perhaps a concession to luxury. The other nine are “underbody” and not steerable at all. Their purpose apparently is to sweep off his feet any civilian rash enough to approach the vehicle itself while it is in action.

Alternatively, of course, their purpose is to make the whole vehicle so unique that it will be as fabulously expensive as the budget specified.

Most police forces do not have extra nozzles for self defence on their water wagons because if the situation is so fluid that civilians can get near it then the vehicle shouldn’t be there anyway.

Water cannons are not suitable for situations where the police and protesters are mixed up with each other. The cannon are too indiscriminate and the risk of running someone over in a confused situation is too great.

Water cannon are properly deployed behind police lines. This has led to some speculation (published in the New Scientist of all places) that the whole concept may become obsolete. Police lines belong to the days when protest sites were chosen and advertised in advance. Now that protesters can communicate on the hoof with mobile phones the traditional sort of confrontation may be replaced by “flash mobs” appearing and disappearing in unexpected places.

This brings us to another question, which is when, or even whether, these expensive innovations will ever be used in Hong Kong. Not every public order problem is amenable to this approach. There will be no question of a rapid response – the water trucks will live at the PTU place in Fanling.

And though the law and order industry no doubt found Occupy very frustrating, the fact remains that on average a major street confrontation happens less than once a decade.

The example of the existing crowd control vehicles is not encouraging. Yes the police do already have crowd control vehicles, and here they are parading in Fanling.

The reason you have not seen them in action is because parading in Fanling is the only thing they have done in living memory.

We must also note that the use of water cannons is fraught with dangers, to police/public relations and also to anyone who is unlucky with the water jet.

The reason why Boris’s purchases were never deployed in London is that the Home Office, at that time under the rule of Theresa May (yes, her) refused permission. She told MPs that exhaustive medical and scientific tests had suggested that water cannons could cause serious injuries including spinal fractures. Also it was considered that the deployment of such a weapon would harmfully affect policing generally.

We can here introduce Mr Dietrich Wagner, pictured with the white stick he now uses.

Mr Wagner is a retired engineer who participated in a demonstration in Stuttgart in 2010. He is not a radical: the protest was against a proposed development which would have involved the removal of a lot of mature trees.

Mr Wagner caught a water cannon blast full in the face. His eyelids were torn and some of the bones around his eyes fractured, causing his eyeballs to fall out of their sockets. He has had six operations on his eyes, and is still almost completely blind.

Mr Wagner is not the only victim of exuberant nozzle work. A 2013 report by the British government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory found “good evidence … to indicate that serious injuries have been sustained by people subjected to the force of water cannon”. Although water cannon are banned in the mainland UK they are used in Ulster.

A 69-year-old South Korean man died in 2016 as the result of a water cannon blast

In Zimbabwe three people died after the deployment of water cannons caused panic in a peacefully demonstrating crowd of 10,000.  During the Gezi Park protests in Turkey chemical-laced water loaded into cannons caused severe burns and eye injuries

In Indonesia, in 1996 “British-made armoured vehicles were used in a violent assault on a university campus, which resulted in many injuries and three student deaths.” The Independent reported, “Paramilitary police drove British-made armoured water cannon onto the campus and sprayed the students with an ammonia solution” causing dozens to suffer severe skin burns.

Last week a police spokesman told hk01.com that it may be better if usage instructions and deployment of the water cannons are left unknown to the public. Until the first inquest, maybe.

Well there is nothing really new in any of this. We have a government which spends money like a drunken sailor and a police force whose solution to every problem is more force.

Looking desperately for a bright side in all this I see that many WaWe’s in Germany compensate for their ample downtime by working for the local municipality as giant self-propelled watering cans in local parks. We do not have rolling acres of parks which need this sort of thing. But our threesome are going to be stationed in Fanling, just down the road from three golf courses. A happy coincidence. Keep those greens green.



Almost every day we hear that the citizen of the future must be a lifelong learner, that people will have multiple careers interrupted by periods of retraining, and indeed that the answer to the ills of globalization is to train workers for new careers if the industry they work in has been killed off by overseas competition.

Like so much of economics this seems to be based on a totally false idea of how people live and behave. A measure of job security, I suspect, is not some sociological ornament to be discarded in the interests of greater economic efficiency; it is a prerequisite for happiness.

This thought is prompted by reading “Janesville”, a new book by Amy Goldstein. I think I met Ms Goldstein once at a reception for winners of the Pulitzer Prize, of whom she is one.

Janesville is a town in Wisconsin, USA. It was the home of the oldest and largest car factory owned by General Motors. Curiously, it was for many years also famous as the home of the Parker pen. But who uses a fountain pen these days? The pen business succumbed to the competition of the disposable Biro years ago.

In 2008 the Janesville GM works closed. The town did not have much else going for it. Firms supplying parts to the car factory also folded. Thousands of people found themselves jobless.

This sort of calamity is of course not in itself unique. The last story I remember working on before leaving the UK was that of Consett, a town in County Durham gutted when its steel works closed. Earlier I had written a long feature about the plight of Millom, a beautiful little town on the coast of Cumbria similarly afflicted when its iron mine reached the end of the ore deposits.

While writing this I Googled Consett and Millom to see if they had recovered. They have not.

Ms Goldstein’s unique contribution to this depressing literary genre is that she kept in touch with Janesville and many of its inhabitants for five years. The result is a sort of non-fiction version of Albert Camus’s classic novel of human reactions to oppression, “The Plague”.

Adversity brings out different things in different people. Some fight, some flee. Some become more generous, some more selfish. Some are absurdly optimistic, others despair. Some reveal unsuspected qualities, while others discover things about themselves which they would rather not know.

Families also vary. Some disintegrate under pressure; some pull together. One of the most touching scenes in the book involves two teenage daughters working out how they can buy the family’s groceries with their part-time earnings, without humiliating their unemployed father.

The book is by no means consistently depressing. Readers who have been fooled by Americans’ self-description as a bunch of rugged individualists may be surprised by the amount of altruism and civic-mindedness to be found in an American town, even in these days of “Bowling Alone” and the collapse of the labour unions.

Readers who are accustomed to European-style social security systems, on the other hand, may be disturbed by the absence of the sketchy safety net which cushions this sort of catastrophe in a welfare state.

Ms Goldstein does not explore these themes. Indeed the book does very little for your opinion of politicians, who seem – regardless of party – helpless when faced with a social problem on this scale.

None of the usual suggestions offered to cushion the blow of technological redundancy seem to work out very well either.

Get on your bike and move is all very well for young things, for whom shifting to the nearest big city may be an attraction.  The problem for the older worker is that he owns a house. And in a town where the main industry has evaporated you cannot sell a house.

People who had worked years for GM did have the right of first refusal of any job which came up in the company elsewhere. So people took jobs in GM plants hundreds of miles away and became weekend commuters, a distressing fate for a family man and also rather expensive.

Retraining was offered on a grand scale. This was done with considerable care and enthusiasm by the local community college, which was expanded to cater for the new demand and undertook careful studies of which skills might be in demand.

Analysis of the results of this effort are disappointing. The people who completed courses at the college were slightly less successful in finding replacement jobs than the people who just went with what they had – in most cases a High School leaving certificate and years of irrelevant experience putting SUVs together. The retrained people also earned less.

In fact whether you look at the survey results or the anecdotal evidence it is clear that what happened to Janesville was bad news all round. The good old days were better, and have gone for good. Most people now still have lower incomes and their houses are less valuable.

The problem which the standard prescriptions overlook, I think, is that retraining in your existing profession is a help, and probably something you will volunteer, even pay, for.

Journalists in my age group started with typewriters and hot metal, gradually replaced by variations on the computer and now, for many of us, the paper edition itself has disappeared.

This is nothing new. Ernest Gann noted in the 1940s that although many of the pilots who had pioneered civil aviation in open cockpits in the 20s were still working in the business, most of the maintenance men of that era had disappeared. Unless they were prepared to study constantly the aeroplanes got too complicated for them. We all need to keep up.

Changing to another career altogether is another matter. If you become an absolute beginner in a new field, then you are going to get an absolute beginner’s salary and benefits. The idea that we shall all flit from career to career is a recipe for happy bosses and miserable workers. Which sums up the Chicago school of economic theory pretty well.

I suppose it would now be considered rather quaint to suggest that employers should accept moral obligations to the people they employ. How 1950s! Still I think the notion that the management’s only obligation is to the company’s shareholders is a nasty idea which appeals to nasty people.

Like most people in Hong Kong, I am now a Legislative Council representative short. In fact in my constituency we are missing two. This will continue until March 10, when a by-election will be held to fill some of the current vacancies.

That will be seven months after the first of my representatives to fall to the government’s political purge lost his last appeal. Seven months could be considered a long time.

The spokesman of the Election Commission, announcing the date, said that the government needed this long to train staff and arrange venues. This is puzzling, because the government has been running elections for a long time. You would think they had a sufficiency of experienced staff and a few voting venues lined up by now.

It is also puzzling because for many years our government managed to hold by-elections much more quickly. It is difficult to believe that staff have become harder to train or venues more elusive, but there has been a pronounced change in the speed with which Legco vacancies are filled.

Legco vacancies did not start triggering by-elections until near the end of the colonial period, so we can stroll through the whole history in a few paragraphs.

The first ever Legco by-election was caused by the resignation of Tai Chin-wah, in August 1991. The by-election was held on December 8 of the same year. A bit over three months, then.

This was improved on with practice. When Ng Ming-yam died in office on June 22 1992 his replacement was elected on August 30 of the same year, a smidgeon over two months later.

The last colonial by-election (for a geographical seat – I am ignoring the functionals, which ought to be easier) was caused when Lau Chin-shek resigned, over something which need not concern us here, in December 1994. The ensuing by-election was held on March 5 of the following year.

This suggests a norm, for a government committed to democratic practices, of two to three months, and indeed the post-colonial government kept this up for some time. When Chim Pui-ching landed on the “Go to Jail” square he was hoofed from the Council on September 9 and replaced on November 5, both 1998.

After the general election held on September 10, 2000, Cheng Kai-nam was found to have been a bogus solicitor for decades, and was persuaded not to take his seat. A by-election followed on December 10.

Ng Ching-fai resigned in July 2001 to undertake the more interesting task of being my boss at Baptist U, and the by-election was held the following September.

There is then a long gap, in which our election organisers seem to have got a bit rusty. When Ma Lik died in office on August 8 2007 the by-election was not held until December 10, a wait which had not been matched since 1991.

Worse was to follow. In January 2010 five councillors resigned with the intention of triggering by-elections as a “referendum”. The government did not approve of this, which may have something to do with a new record for sluggishness: the by-elections were not held until May 16.

The trend reached a new climax, or depth, depending on your point of view, when Ronny Tong resigned in June 2015 to prepare for a new career as a government poodle. The by-election was not held until February 28 of the following year, more than eight months after Mr Tong’s departure.

And this, it seems, is what the Election Commission would like us to regard as the new normal. This, I think, is not good enough.

Unconscionable delays in filling vacancies are bound to lead to suspicions of political tampering with what should be impartial work. If the current vacancies had been filled at the speed which was customary before 2010, readers will note, then the pro-Beijing group would not have been able to play games with the Legco rules of procedure as it has done.

To put it another way, one suspects that if six members of the pro-Beijing camp had fallen under a bus, or more plausibly been found to be using bogus qualifications, then the by-election would have followed with more traditional swiftness.

Hong Kong has an Electoral Affairs Commission which says “Its main objective is to ensure that the elections are conducted openly, fairly and honestly at all times.”
This is not achieved if by-elections are subject to arbitrary delays which are consistent with, if not caused by, attempts to manipulate the composition of the Legislative Council.

And the gentleman in charge of bullshit explanations about staff and venues should resign. Three months is long enough to organise a by-election. Any further delay is down to bias, inefficiency or idleness.



It is really far too early to make any sort of judgement on our new Chief Executive. Carrie Lam has only been in the post for a few months. There is time for improvement.

There is also cause for concern. The good lady seems to be quite unable to look ahead at the obvious consequences of her speeches.

Let us take Carrie on the co-location argument. Co-location refers to the government’s (or rather the Liaison Office’s) preferred solution to the question where passengers on the express rail link will go through passport and immigration control. Two floors of the station in Kowloon will become part of China for legal purposes, as will the inside of the trains, which is bad news if you were hoping for decent coffee.

More seriously it means there will be a permanent population of mainland officials exercising the powers to which they are accustomed on the mainland, located in the heart of Kowloon.

Many Hong Kong lawyers take the view that this plan is a clear violation of the Basic Law, our mini-constitution, which states quite explicitly that mainland laws, with a few named exceptions, will not apply in Hong Kong.

Supporters of the plan say that decisions of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee have the status of laws, and being laws of China they over-ride laws which are merely laws of Hong Kong. So you colonial subjects can suck it up and stop complaining.

Ms Lam has not been in much involved in this discussion but she waded in the other day in response to a formal statement from senior members of the Bar Association. who complained that the proposed arrangement was a serious erosion of the rule of law.

This was a tackle of the kind once associated with Norman Hunter: never mind the ball; get the man.

The Bar Association, said Ms Lam, was elitist. Why elitism should be regarded as a weakness in this context she did not say. Presumably elitism does not impair legal reasoning, so this was not a very relevant comment.

But it invited the rejoinder, which was not slow in arriving at those parts of the internet where critics of the government gather, that Ms Lam was hardly in a position to criticize elitism in others. One of her less prestigious claims to fame is that when running for selection she turned out to so addicted to chauffeur-driven travel that she could not get through an MTR turnstile without help.

Ms Lam’s other beef with the Bar was that they were “showing contempt for the mainland legal system”. This is another non-argument. Someone who feels contempt for the mainland legal system – me for instance – is not thereby precluded from arguing that some action is legal or illegal.

Of course if you take the most depressing view of the mainland legal system – that the law is whatever the Party thinks it is at the time – then contempt may perhaps be justified. Co-location is effortlessly legalized. But that is not a legal system at all.

It has been interesting to watch the two competing views of legal matters generally in the last few months, because the contending parties have switched sides.

Six months ago pro-China commentators were emphasizing the full and unrestricted power of the mainland government in Hong Kong, while more localist writers pleaded for respect for the limitations specified in the Basic Law, the Joint Declaration and other scraps of paper.

Now local lawyers are complaining that the Beijing government is all over us, dabbling in everything, and pro-China commentators argue that there are limits, and those limits are being observed.

The other day, for example, the China Daily had a piece by someone called Xiao Ping (a pseudonym. I suppose, selected by an admirer of the late Deng) pointing out at some length that “overall jurisdiction” and “a high degree of autonomy” are not mutually exclusive, which I thought was my line.

Mr Xiao (or Ping) goes on to argue that it is misleading for people to write as if Hong Kong was to be entirely autonomous in everything except defence and foreign affairs. He points out that the central government has the right to appoint the Chief Executive and the NPC has the right to interpret the Basic Law.

This is true. And if the central government confined itself to such matters we would not be having this argument. The fact is that there is a short list of officials who need appointment by the central government, but the Liaison Office does not confine its meddling to those posts.

Indeed every time a CE forms a new cabinet we get two stories. One states that X and Y have been offered posts and refused. The other states that W and Z were selected and agreed to do the job, but their appointments were vetoed by the Liaison Office.

Well it would be surprising if I completely agreed with Mr Xiao, whoever he is, and the constitutional arguments will no doubt continue. I am less happy with his conclusion, which appears to be some kind of threat: “As for those spreading lies about overall jurisdiction and high degree of autonomy, they will get burned if they don’t stop playing with fire now.”

What is that supposed to mean, one wonders? Something like it is a common trope in pro-Beijing writing. It seems that Junius Ho is not the only Hong Kong person in whom the contemplation of the glories of communism awakens an inner thug. In the continuing search of a harmonious society, could we not all agree at least to refrain from threats of violence?