Are you 50-odd years of age and looking for something lucrative and not too demanding to do for five years before you retire to somewhere with cleaner air and a nicer climate? Then I have news for you. Our new Chief Executive is trying to recruit policy secretaries and it seems the hunt is not going well. Distress signals are flying in all directions. Some of these ominous signals may just be an attempt to soften us up for the discovery that most of the new policy secretaries will be the senior civil servant who is next in the queue, which is precisely how the system was NOT supposed to work. But judging by the number of people who claim to have been invited and refused, sincere efforts are being made to recruit outside the usual circle. Get your application in now.

The attractions are considerable. Let us start with the salary. The average remuneration of ministers was reported last year to be just under $300,000 a month. At the time the government was proposing to raise this by 12 per cent for the next term. This will keep you at the levels to which our ministers are accustomed, which is that they are better paid than any president or prime minister you can think of, including President Trump and Mr Xi Jinping. The only officials in the world who are better paid than ours are senior ministers in the government of Singapore. But to get those jobs you have to live in Singapore. Yawn.  Back in Hong Kong, copious unaudited expenses are also offered.

You can select and appoint a political assistant for up to $100,000 a month. The government will supply you with a deputy who will do the less attractive parts of the job, a driver and car, secretary, press relations person, and other flunkies. You will have a luxurious office in Central with its own toilet and free parking. Which of course you will not need because your official car will take you everywhere, unless you are in a serious hurry, in which case you can ask for the official helicopter.

Numerous trips abroad beckon, for which you will take the VIP channel to your First Class seat and relax in your personal suite at the destination when “fact-finding” gets too strenuous. Be picky. Geneva or Paris offer interesting facts and informative conferences. Leave Tashkent to your deputy.

In theory, you will be expected in return for all these nice things to come up with policies. It will be your pleasant task to tackle Hong Kong’s numerous problems and make the people happy and grateful. In practice there is no need to lose any sleep over this. The really important decisions are made in the Liaison Office. The less important ones will be made by Carrie Lam, who is notoriously impervious to other people’s suggestions. The trivial stuff can be left to your civil servants, who have been working in the field for many years and understand it better than you do anyway.  Your job is to foster the illusion that the government knows what it is doing and where it is going.

This may seem a difficult task, but remember there is no penalty for failure. When the “responsibility system” was first introduced we were beguiled with the prospect of people who messed up actually being held responsible and maybe fired. This is not how it has worked out in practice. It is in fact quite difficult to think of anything short of being investigated by the ICAC which can dent the confidence which Chief Executives place in their chosen ministers. This is of course because ditching a minister implies that the original appointment was an error. So ministers can survive lack of popularity, manifest incompetence, serial scandals … just keep out of the criminal courts.

You may be discouraged by frequent complaints in the local off-shoots of the People’s Daily that the “political atmosphere” deters people from taking up ministerial jobs. Do not be. This is nonsense. True, on your rare visits to Legco you may be subjected to hostile questioning. You may be the target of flying fruit or other objects. But these are rare showers in a long summer of unstinted admiration. You will, on appointment, become a JP, which is meaningless but looks nice on a business card. A Bauhinia bauble will follow in a few years. You will be invited to numerous events, not all of them boring, at which you will be an honoured guest. They may ask you to make a short speech. Your political assistant will write it; this is what she is for. You can fill your evenings with as many balls or dinners as your liver can stand. Exclusive clubs will seek you as a member. The media will want to interview you and most of the media, these days, are on your side. Subversive website offerings can be dismissed as “fake news”.

The only drawback, actually, is that you may think you are serving the Chief Secretary or the HK SAR government, but really you are working for the Liaison Office. So you will need to draw to your speech writer’s attention the need for periodic obeisance to Beijing: approving mentions of Belt and Road, denunciations of independence advocates, warm approval for flakey petitions from the Silent Majority, strong support for the police force, stern disapproval of Occupy Central, Joshua Wong, etc. Embarrassing incidents like kidnappings from Hong Kong hotels should be greeted with calls to wait until all the facts are revealed. With any luck you can get through your term of office before this happens.

Last but not least, remember that while you may not be doing much as a minister you are laying the foundations for a lucrative post-retirement career in business. You will make a lot of useful contacts and some of them will suppose  — I hope erroneously — that they owe you a favour. Of course after five years in a publicly-funded shower of gold you may feel that further work is a less attractive prospect than sitting on a beach somewhere. We try to discourage this: before taking office you are supposed to give up you overseas passport. But don’t worry. This prohibition does not apply to your wife and the desirable destinations are happy to admit spouses. This means that you need to be on good terms with the lady and that in turn means forgoing the erotic possibilities which will certainly come you way in the corridors of power. So have a good time, but behave yourself.

Check this Bill

The Public Order (Amendment) Bill 2017, a draft prepared by three pro-government legislators who want to make it illegal to insult a policeman, makes riveting reading. The trio of drafters are all lawyers. One of them, indeed, teaches law in a local university. But the Bill is gibberish.

You do not have to take my word for it. The thing is quite short. Here it is, in its lovely entirety:

17H. Offence against insulting a law enforcement officer

(1) Any person acts with intent towards a law enforcement officer in the execution of the officer’s duty__

(a) utters abusive or insulting words;

(b) behaves in a disturbing or insulting manner: or

(c) exhibiting a disturbing or insulting slogan,

commits an offence.

(2) Any person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable on summary conviction to a fine at level 1.

(3) Any person commits the offence repeatedly or maliciously under subsection (1) in repetition is liable to a maximum fine at level 2 and imprisonment for 12 months.

(4) No offence is committed under this section unless the person knows or ought reasonably to know that the victim was acting in the capacity of a law enforcement officer, as the case may be.”

Leaving aside the merits, if there are any, of the new offence, what bothers me is that three people licensed to practise law in Hong Kong, one of whom habitually teaches it, could come out with something so nonsensical. They have reportedly submitted it to the Law Draftsman section of the Department of Justice, where it must have occasioned a great deal of mirth. In fact I imagine the professional law draftsmen are rolling on the floor laughing.

The poor drafters couldn’t even get past the title without making a mistake. It is not an “offence against insulting a law enforcement officer” that we are dealing with here. The offence IS insulting a law enforcement officer. The title would make sense if it said “Offence of insulting …” or if it started “Prohibition on insulting …” As it is it is meaningless.)

The next subsection is the most important one, because it defines the new offence. Unfortunately this does not make sense either because a vital word has been omitted. That word is “who”. The standard way of constructing the definition of an offence is to say that “a person who” does whatever we now wish to criminalise “commits an offence”. If you miss out the “who” you finish up with a non-sentence: “a person acts … commits an offence.  Somebody seems to have fallen asleep between sub-paragraphs (b) and (c), because after our ban on a miscreant who utters, or a miscreant who behaves, we suddenly find a miscreant exhibiting.

Subsection (2) is a standard piece of legislative boilerplate. An unkind observer might speculate that as the vital “who” is still present here the whole paragraph was lifted from some existing ordinance. Subsection 3 on the other hand was clearly composed without help, and as a result is dangerously ambiguous. I suppose the writers intended it to mean that on a second conviction for the same offence the upper limit on the penalty should be higher. But the “repeatedly” or “in repetition” bit could be subject to another interpretation. Saying “fuck your mother” once qualifies for the fine, twice for the jail sentence.

This brings us to subsection 4 where, once again, the intention is clear but the writing is not. What are we to make of the curious mixture of tenses. The person “knows” that the victim “was” a law enforcement officer. Is this supposed to cover retired policemen as well?

In fact if this were passed as it is — which mercifully is highly unlikely — the question of who is or was a law enforcement officer might well give some difficulty. Policemen, obviously. I suppose this phrase was intended to cover other uniformed guardians of the government, like Immigration and Customs Officers. How far can it stretch, one wonders… Environmental Hygiene inspectors, traffic wardens, meter readers, Legco security guards, private security guards employed by the government, park attendants … your watchman? But not, presumably, firemen.

Connoisseurs will also be surprised by the inclusion of “disturbing” as a punishable quality of behaviour or slogans. Many of us are no doubt quite happy with the idea that our policemen should not be insulted. But disturbed?

Overall this is such a shoddy piece of work that it would hardly be acceptable coming from a student. The most senior drafter was actually Dr Hon Priscilla LEUNG Mei-fun, SBS, JP, as the official Legco guide has it, adding the stunning afterthought that besides representing the fortunate electors of Kowloon West the honourable lady is an Associate Professor in the City U Law School. In support we have Horace Cheung (DAB: Hong Kong Island) who is a solicitor trained at the City U Law School. Also on my list of lawyers from whom I would not now buy a used draft bill is Junius Ho, another solicitor, trained in England.

But let me make it clear that I am not complaining about the English. It is unfair and inconsiderate to chide local politicians for any deficiency in  their English language skills. The language of local politics is Cantonese. Lawyers, though, need to know that law draftsmanship is a specialised skill and if they haven’t got it they shouldn’t fake it. We can perhaps have a useful debate on whether it should be a criminal offence to insult a policeman. This is not the place to start.

It is nice to see local academics probing important social topics, so I found an unexpected gem in the latest issue of “Horizons”. Horizons is one of those occasional magazines which our universities put out for the entertainment of staff, parents and anyone who might be persuaded to buy a new building for them. Horizons is the Baptist U version and the cover story in the latest version is an interview with Dr Odalia Wong (I did not make up this name), whose current contribution to sociological inquiry is a probe into the implications of tiny flats.

Dr Wong is concerned by stories about miniflats in which you can have a bed or a table, but not both, and the toilet is so small that you have to sit with your feet out the door. I can claim some relevant experience here because a few years ago I stayed in a hotel in Singapore. This place was cheap, and had a lot to be cheap about. When you came in you passed the toilet door on your right, and then collided with the bed. And that was it. The bathroom was so small that all the facilities overlapped. If you were in a hurry you could have a shit, a shower and a shave simultaneously. This was all right for a night or two, but in Hong Kong people will seriously offer you something similar as the home of your dreams, with a price tag of two or three million bucks.

Dr Wong, being a sociologist, has a statistical take on the situation as well as the anecdotal one. It is forecast that the annual number of new units built in the next few years will be 18,000, about 60 per cent more than we managed over the last decade or so. But the total square footage will be the same, and according to some predictions will actually shrink. So the average flat size has dropped by more than half and is continuing in the same direction.

Dr Wong blames the steady shrinkage of the Hong Kong flat for the disturbing delay in most people’s marriage plans. The median age of first wedding for males is 31, and for females 29. Having tied the knot the happy couple will then wish to think twice about reproduction, because a microflat which would be crowded with two people will certainly not be a success for three. Indeed inhabitants of very small flats may actually be worse off than they would be in public housing. At this point Horizon offers a cherishable quote: ”Such mosquito-sized units are actually high-end subdivided flats. The only things that set them apart are the existence of a deed and compliance with the Fire Safety Ordinance.”

Well quite. Dr Wong goes on to worry about the possibility that if the property market stabilizes these tiny flats will become unsaleable. I have two doubts about the reality of this danger. One is that there is no sign of our government having the gumption to do the sort of things which might lead to the property market “stabilizing”, let alone declining. It may be, of course, that the bubble will eventually burst of its own volition, but I am not holding my breath. And after all, Adam Smith’s great invention will put its invisible paws in here; if flats become cheaper buyers will become more numerous.

What worries me is what this situation tells us about the life and times of ordinary 20-somethings in Hong Kong. Miss Yau Wai-ching, who did not become the surprise success of the last Legco elections without an ability to hear what people were worried about, caused a little stir a few weeks ago by saying that young people in Hong Kong had no space, even for sex. There ensued one of those massive exercises in missing the point which commonly follow any public mention of sex. Much attention was devoted to the actual word Miss Yau had used, a Cantonese expression which apparently comes somewhere between “bonk” and “fuck” on the acceptability for public oratory scale. Nobody entertained the possibility that this might be a serious point. But it is.

In A.J.P. Taylor’s volume of the Oxford History of England he notes that in the 1920s and 30s people had far fewer babies than they had in earlier periods, yet this drop in fertility was achieved well before practical contraceptives became widely available. It follows, he inferred, that most people limited their output by abstaining. Historians should bear in mind, he wrote, that in this period they are dealing with a frustrated population. Maybe people who complain about the resentment and ingratitude displayed by our youngsters should bear this in mind as well.

This is actually only one aspect of the generally distressing situation facing young people in Hong Kong. The BBC recently quoted a survey as concluding that 80 per cent of the population aged between 18 and 29 would like to emigrate. I do not think China was the destination they had in mind — more likely the prospect that they will be migrated to China without actually moving anywhere. We seem to be embarking on a dangerous sociological experiment, designed to determine how much disillusionment and dissatisfaction a society can generate in its young people and still function. Besides its ominous implications for Hong Kong as a going concern, this involves inflicting a great deal of personal unhappiness.

I conclude that the new Chief Executive needs to attach a good deal more urgency to this than her unlamented predecessor did. I suppose the provision of private places for young people to meet their erotic needs is perhaps not a plausible project for government action. But tinkering with the MPF and MTR fares is not going to crack this problem.



I received a letter last week from a Mr Wong See-man. I do not know Mr Wong and he evidently does not know me. The whole letter had been written by a computer including his signature. Mr Wong is a Chief Electoral Officer, apparently, which means he is a senior official in the Registration and Electoral Office, which as well as more mundane electoral tasks tries to exclude politically undesirable candidates. So I was prepared to be peeved. This letter, though, was only peripherally about elections, it was a grovelling apology for the inconvenience and distress caused to me (eh?) by the Case of the Lost Laptops.

This goes back to the election, such as it was, of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which was held last month. You would think that this was a fairly easy election to organise as there were only 1,200 electors. However, haunted as organs of our government often are these days by the fear that some sort of protest would keep the electors from the polling station, which was of course in a convenient central spot, the election people decided to pick a “fallback” site. Here electors could cast their ballots while the riot continued round the original venue. The fallback site was well out of the way, in the exhibition centre next to the airport. During the preparation of this predictably superfluous facility two “notebook computers” were, it seems, left in a locked room at the centre. And when the electoral flunkies went to collect them, they had disappeared. Quelle horreur!

It transpires that one of the missing microchips contained only the names of the actual electors, which were already public. The other, however, contained the names, addresses and ID card numbers of all the Hongkongers — there are nearly 4 million of us — who have registered to vote in the other elections, in which we peasants are graciously allowed to vote. The electoral office has reported the whole matter to the Police, who have, the letter says, classified the case as theft, which I suppose is a start. The REO, the letter says “has all along been handling the voter registration particulars very carefully”, which hardly seems to be born out by this incident. It also says the information is vigorously encrypted, password protected etc. This is no doubt true, but I suppose a computer is rather like a safe — if you can take it back to the Batcave and take as long as you like you will get into it eventually.

The electoral people also reported the matter to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data. And naturally they followed the office’s advice, which was apparently to provide details of the incident to the data subjects — who include me — and also to inform “government departments and relevant organisations from various sectors about the incident and called upon them to adopt appropriate measures to protect their own interest and also the interests of data subjects”. And at some point in this interesting dialogue between the election fixers and the privacy freaks, common sense went out the window.

What is the point, one wonders, of telling government and other agencies about the incident and calling upon them to “adopt appropriate measures”. Is this an attempt to tell people who may not already know this that things left in ordinary locked rooms for a few days may disappear? May “relevant organisations” not feel that the Registration and Electrical Office, in the light of this cock-up, might be better advised to consider its own deficiencies before offering advice to other people? The only reason offered for all this is that the electors concerned are being told “to increase public awareness and mitigate the potential damage”. I am not clear why the public needs awareness of the dangers of leaving computers loaded with millions of people’s personal information lying about. And what are we supposed to do to mitigate the damage? There is no point in changing your ID card number, which without the card attached is worthless. Changing your address could be considered rather a drastic approach in these circumstances. I realise that privacy enthusiasts get excited about these things but people’s names and addresses used to be routinely published in a thing called the telephone book. This never did us any serious harm.

What really seems excessive, though, is the idea that the information and apology should be sent in a personal letter to each elector. The REO spurned even the basic economy to be secured by sending electors living at the same address their copies of the letter in one envelope. Indeed these days the use of an envelope could be considered rather antiquated for a duplicated communication of this kind, which might easily be folded and adorned with an address label. This exercise has consumed some three and a half million pieces of A4 paper. It has also consumed some three and a half million envelopes. A small forest has been sacrificed somewhere to provide the necessary tree carcasses. And the envelopes were not the free “on Government service” envelopes either. Mine had a chop saying postage had been paid. Nice bit of business for the Post Office.

Now look, people, here in the 21st century we have a variety of ways of communicating with the public. These are not infallible but they are perfectly sufficient for a case like this where the interest of the individual recipient in the matter is negligible or non-existent. Actually the whole case was lavishly reported in the usual media. A grovelling apology from the head of the REO would have been reported as well. Sending out three and a half million individual letters was an egregious waste of money, paper and time. If that was what the Privacy people suggested then the suggestion should have been ignored. I note also that the letter makes no attempt to answer the one question left hanging about the whole affair, which is why the second laptop was needed at all. The election only concerned the 1,200 members of the election committee. Who thought they would need the names and addresses of the entire voting population, and what for?

And if by any chance you are reading this, Mr Wong, I do not like being addressed as Dear Sir/Madam.

My last excursion on freedom of speech produced a variety of reactions. Some people thought it too long. Some people thought it too short and simplistic. I have actually taught this topic and I can do two or three hours on the history and theory of the concept. I generally do not, however, explore recent efforts to justify curtailing the freedom of people whose views you disagree with, because I don’t agree with them. Hooting a speaker off the stage or having his visit preemptively cancelled is an infringement of freedom, whether the person concerned is a saintly Buddhist or a neo-Nazi. Frankly I think in Hong Kong’s circumstances this sort of hair-splitting is a luxury we cannot afford. Freedom of speech is in serious danger here.

Consider two contrasting cases. In August 1997 a Legislative Councillor of the pro-government persuasion took issue with two columnists who had disagreed with him. Both of them had day jobs at local universities so he wrote to the two universities urging that the two men concerned should be fired. When this became widely known it was made clear to him, even by fellow pillars of the establishment, that this sort of thing was not acceptable. He apologized. One of the academics, who happened to be a distinguished visitor from America, returned home. The other, who happened to be me, continued to write columns unmolested.

Compare this with the case of Mr Edward Yau. Mr Yau used to write a blog on his own Facebook page, and also occasionally contributed pieces to the media under the pen-name Kursk. Many of these contributions were to Apple Daily or the HK01 website, so we may take it that Mr Yau is of a progressive disposition.

On the day after the Great Police Rally Mr Yau wrote a commentary on the matter, suggesting that the orator at the rally who had mentioned Nazi Germany had made a poor choice of analogy, and one might wonder whether policemen who gassed or beat demonstrators believed that they were “only following orders,” a defence once popular with retired SS men. This was perhaps controversial, but hardly off the piste for acceptable public discussion. Supporters of the police could not really complain of rhetorical overkill after their own hero had compared peaceful demonstrators to Nazi death squads. I seem to remember writing something rather similar myself.

However Mr Yau was unlucky enough to be selected as a target by the Silent Majority, a downmarket pro-Beijing group, proprietor Mr Robert (They could kill this city) Chow Yung. The SM criticized Mr Yau on their website, as they were perfectly entitled to do. However as the Silent Majority are widely regarded as a bunch of dimwitted paid puppets this no doubt did not have the desired effect on public opinion. So they decided to go after Mr Yau personally.

It happens that Mr Yau in his day job is a teacher at a secondary school in Chaiwan. So the SM people tried to contact the principal, clearly in the hope that he would give Mr Yau a hard time. The principal did not return their calls, so a troop of SM people then turned up at the school, claiming to be reporters, and demanded an interview. Drawing a blank with the principal, they then turned up at the clinic of the school’s supervisor, and tried to interrogate him. Other members of the school’s board of governors have reportedly also been harassed.

Mr Yau has now decided to give up blogging “to protect the people he loves”. He will in future concentrate on writing for Catholic publications. He said he had not had any pressure from the school. The principal reportedly said that what his staff said in their personal capacity as bloggers was their business alone, and the school would not interfere. He also said he would like some peace and quiet. This, actually, is what gives actions of this kind their chilling effect. Somebody who has a day job and writes part-time will wonder, even if his employer says the right thing, as Mr Yau’s did and mine did, whether he ought to continue to expose his colleagues and students to harassment and possible violence.

This is a shameful episode. The Education Bureau, however, did not think so. Its reported comment was that society set high expectations for the behavior of teachers, and “teachers need to be responsible for their words and actions.”

This was eerily similar to an unrepentant comment from the Silent Majority on Sunday, which said that “events prove that a person cannot escape responsibility for his words and actions.” Which leaves you wondering who was inspiring who here.

The SM also said that “their visits to Yau’s school were not threatening in nature, and they can be described as just the actions of concerned citizens.” No they can’t. Ordinary concerned citizens do not turn up at the workplace of a blogger and demand to interview his employer, masquerading as reporters. Clearly the people who turned up at the school were not reporters. So they were liars. The SM went on to criticize sections of the media for publishing “slanderous” accounts of its activities. A little legal knowledge required here. If it’s in the media it’s libel, not slander.

While we are on the law let us also visit the Basic Law, which says that Hong Kong people enjoy freedom of speech, and the Bill of Rights Ordinance Article 16, which goes into some detail about the permitted limits of such freedom. Exceptions may only be “such as provided by law”. There is no law which says that perpetrators of opinions deemed “malicious thoughts” by “concerned citizens” may be subjected to having a band of goons visit their employer masquerading as reporters. I infer that the actions of the SM were a clear breach of the rights accorded by law to Hong Kong citizens. This thought has apparently not occurred to relevant parts of our government, which is ominous.

It was nice having freedom of speech. Is it now time for this lovely song? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9KO0ZtLoDM




The legal status of the Occupy movement in Hong Kong has a curious history. Before September 28 2014 the official line was that, as C.Y. Leung, put it, the protest would be “neither peaceful nor legal.” The Secretary for Security urged potential participants to consider their “personal safety and legal liability”. The Commissioner of Police said that “any collective attempt to hold up traffic unlawfully” would not be tolerated.

These were not the most lurid predictions, of course. On the internet your mistakes go on for ever. Readers who would like to hear the unmistakable voice of Mr Robert Chow Yung engaged in a piece of terrifying fiction can still find his short video “They can kill this city!” here:


After the tear gas extravaganza on the night of September 28, spontaneous non-Central occupations sprung up in two other places. Violent repression as a strategy was then discarded. The Commissioner of Police was muzzled; other top officials disappeared from view. Occupations continued for three months, during which the legal scene was tranquil. The Mong Kok occupation was finally cleared at the end of November, at the behest of a rather unlikely paladin of legality, the minibus owners’ club. On December 3, 75 people who had at various times been involved in organizing Occupy turned up at a police station and confessed. They were not arrested or indeed charged. Other Occupy sites were cleared later in the month and most of the occupiers went back to their day jobs.

The Commissioner of Police emerged from the teapot to say that 950 people had been arrested during the occupation, but as the cases emerged it became clear that they had been involved in scuffles of one kind or another. Actually occupying as such had not been treated as an offence.

This seems to have come as a surprise to the organisers, who had expressed willingness to be prosecuted for unlawful assembly. It is an offence in Hong Kong for more than three people to meet without the permission of the police. A charge of obstruction under the Summary Offences Ordinance was also considered a possibility.

But for more than two years … nothing. This could be considered controversial in itself. Someone who is to be charged with a criminal offence is entitled to know in reasonable time what it is. He or she may wish to organize witnesses, collect evidence, go over his own recollections. If you are charged with an offence and it doesn’t come to trial for two years that is bad enough. If you have to wait two years to discover what the alleged offence actually is then that is even worse. I do not know why it took the government so long to get round to the idea that organisers as such should be prosecuted. To wait so long and then wheel out an unexpected mediaeval relic charge, abandoned in other jurisdictions, may look legal but is it fair? The rule of law requires more than an indiscriminate and selective prosecution of people the government disapproves of, using whatever legal pretext comes to hand.

It will be interesting to see what comes of “causing public nuisance” as an offence in this context. Public nuisance is, at least to the lay person, a slippery concept. If you live in Happy Valley, a race meeting may be a public nuisance. People ringing you up and asking you to participate in surveys may be a public nuisance. People double parking in Central are indisputably a public nuisance, but all they get is a cheap ticket. Some people certainly did not think Occupy was a nuisance at all. Two of my friends who work in Central thought the travel problems were more than compensated by the resulting clean air. Indeed we may wonder why, if the occupations were a serious public nuisance, the government did nothing about them for three months, leaving the eventual evictions to the private efforts of public transport interests.

Then we have the prospect of some people being charged with “conspiracy”. This is difficult to understand, under the circumstances. Conspiracy is a useful concept if the miscreant is prevented from committing the fell deed he intended. If a protester is found in the basement of Legco the night before a meeting with a pile of barrels of gunpowder we do not exonerate him on the grounds that he did not actually succeed in blowing the place up. But we cannot charge him with mass murder either. A charge of conspiracy catches the murderous but unfulfilled intention. However in the case of Occupy the gunpowder did, as it were, explode. Central was occupied, so those who conspired to do it can presumably be charged with the actual deed.

No doubt all will become clearer when the cases come to trial. In the meantime we can note the further erosion of the rule of law as it is supposed to apply to the media. It is a serious offence, known technically as strict liability contempt, to write anything, once someone has been charged, which implies the innocence or guilt of the accused. This is particularly important when there is a possibility of trial by jury. The law assumes that judges do not read newspapers, but naturally future jurors do not yet know the fate that is in store for them. The consequence of this is that in the old days you were not allowed to write “There seems to be at least some evidence that the nine charged had helped organise and incite people to protest. It was all captured on TV. Maybe they did it for what they thought was a noble cause…” Nor were we allowed to write such things as “If you do the crime, you do the time. If you call your crime civil disobedience, then plead guilty and accept the consequences. Maybe these fakes believe the law does not apply to those who paralyse streets and clash with police for 79 days.” The first quote is from Alex Lo and the second from Michael Chugani. Both were published in the SCMPost. God knows what has been going on in the Chinese press. But I have a pretty good idea what has been going on about this matter in the Department of (ahem) Justice. Nothing.

The row over the Po Leung Kuk’s so-called leadership training camps casts an interesting light on Hong Kong’s obsession with militarism and uniforms. Overseas readers: students who have been to the camp complain about being made to eat grass as a punishment, lay in mud, and be grabbed and shouted at.

Actually the camps are clearly not doing leadership training. If you want to get a grant to take your students away for a few days (but not far enough away to call it a study tour) the easiest thing is to say you are offering leadership training. Nobody knows what it means but it sounds like something useful. I must admit to perpetrating this innocent deception myself.

Fortified by the training provided by the Hong Kong Scouts, for whom I was a voluntary leader, I decided to take all my journalism students who were willing away for a few days, so that the editors of the student newspaper might forge relationships with the reporters in a context less fraught than working on stories. We called it a leadership training camp on the grant application because I couldn’t think of anything else.

After the first one I ditched formal sports and one or two other things which had not worked too well, and consulted some books on educational camps. In following years we settled on mostly team-building exercises, which are fun, physical, interesting and useful if you want people to get to know each other in an uncustomary environment. Team-building exercises involve giving a large group a task and letting them get on with it. If facilities permit you can have two or more groups and make a competition of it, but this is not essential. On the many videos posted by survivors of the Po Leung Kuk camp I found some of my old favourites.

Leadership training is quite different. For this you need a much smaller group with a designated leader. After completing the task you examine the way the group performed, how the leader helped, or didn’t, and what worked, or didn’t. The result should be that members of the group have some idea of what effective leadership would look like in a small group. You then repeat the exercise with different tasks, and leaders. Some European universities offer leadership courses. Oxford actually offers a Diploma in Leadership. This is not done at a camp in the country.

So it’s not leadership. What the Po Leung Kuk has fallen for is the supposed advantages of military training. Nor should this come as a big surprise. When the Jockey Club announced it would pay for an upgrade of the camp site, the club’s website said the facilities would include “a three-storey, 196-bed hostel block with lecture halls, an assault course (!), a parade ground with flag podium, and camping and barbeque facilities.”

I don’t know what it is about Hong Kong people. They seem to love this stuff. My age group in the UK, saved from conscription only because it was abolished just before we reached it, regarded the military as a trap from which we had been rescued just in time. Hong Kong people, on the other hand, seem to enjoy wallowing in it.

As we do not have an army (the PLA garrison spends most of its time in Shenzhen) the “patient zero” for this disease is the Hong Kong Police Force. Their parades are magnificent. They have two full-time professional bands. And they are assiduously copied.

The only uniformed government department which does not have a band for parade purposes is the Fire Brigade. They borrow the police one. All the uniformed groups do parades except the English-speaking part of the Scouts, who are allowed to be pacifist. The biggest band in Hong Kong belongs to the Saint Johns Ambulance Service. Nurses do passing out parades in the full Florence Nightingale. Large numbers of adults dress in uniforms of their own devising and disappear into the countryside to shoot polystyrene pellets at each other. We are a city of reluctant civilians.

So we get the PLK camp offering, as the PLK Grandmont Primary School tells its parents, “marching, leadership training, self-management and self-challenge training.” Parents at PLK Ngan Ko Ling College are told that “we sincerely invite parents to join the passing out ceremony.” Parents at PLK Tong Nai Kan College are told of “marching training.”

And we get pictures like this:

Clearly there is a fundamental misunderstanding at work here. Basic military training is not leadership training; it is followership training. The recruit is stripped of his civilian identity. He is relieved of his possessions, his clothes, even his hair (resemblances to the induction habits of our Correctional Services are not a coincidence). His time is not his own; everything is decided for him by the organization, and his personality is reconstructed with its central feature his relationship to and membership of the unit. The procedure can be seen in all its dubious glory here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3kyZsijUWo

Harsh treatment is justified by the need for the recruit to learn, as one general put it, that life includes pain and hardships, most of which are not distributed fairly. Clausewitz said that war is the domain of exertion, suffering and danger. The more of these you can import to the training, the better prepared the troops will be.

This approach, even in a very attenuated form, is totally inappropriate to the education of Form Five students, and if inflicted on primary kids is in my opinion difficult to distinguish from child abuse. That is not to say that there is no place for challenging experiences. I used to take my scoutlets on a vessel called the Adventure Ship Huan. The captain was a very impressive character with advanced qualifications in both navigation and youth leadership. The kids would have walked through fire for him and so would I. Among other attractions was a sort of climbing course which led round the rigging. This was quite intimidating; I tried it. The kids were also encouraged, at one point, to jump off the highest part of the ship into the water. There was no shouting, no punishment, and no suggestion that refusal would be something shameful, but as far as I remember everyone managed both tasks in the end, and walked a bit taller when they got off the boat as a result. You don’t have to be a drill sergeant.

Another objection to the military paradigm is that it is technically illegal. I am indebted to one of my legal friends who pointed out to me that under Section 18 of the Crimes Ordinance it is an offence if a person “trains or drills any other person in the use of arms or the practice of military exercises or evolutions” without the permission of the Governor or the Commissioner of Police. Clearly this covers foot drill, which is a military exercise, if an obsolete one. The name of the assault course speaks for itself. Many weeks ago I did try asking the Police Public Relations Bureau if anyone in Hong Kong had been given the necessary permission but I have not yet had a reply. So this may be another of those laws which the Department of Justice no longer thinks it worth enforcing.

A further point which may worry parents is that it seems the camp, at least as supplied to Po Leung Kuk schools, incorporates what some of us call national education and some of us call brainwashing. The Tong Nai Kan School website, for example, promises “marching training, national education and field-trip challenges to develop students’ leadership skills, team spirit and further foster a sense of belonging to the school and our nation.” Lo Kit Sing College says to parents that “The aims of the training are to arouse students’ patriotism and nurture their leadership and team spirit.” Po Leung Kuk Number One W. H. Cheung College says that “The training camp aimed at enhancing self-confidence, discipline and cooperation among students through national education and outdoor adventure activities such as wall climbing.” Whatever you think of national education as a school subject, the sort of teaching approach which is appropriate for citizenship education is totally different from that used in “outdoor activities such as wall climbing”, and the two are unlikely to cohabit happily.

We are told that a committee of the Po Leung Kuk is now reviewing the training programme. So some suggestions:

  1. People with unfulfilled military ambitions should be kept well away from the kids.
  2. Skip the politics. See above.
  3. This activity is listed by all the schools I could find expressing an opinion on the matter as compulsory. It should be voluntary. This sort of thing is not for everyone.
  4. Not for primary, please.