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I must congratulate the Yau Tsim Mong District Board on its success in making Hong Kong an international laughing stock. Wherever planners and traffic engineers gather together, recent events in Sai Yeung Choi Street will occasion incredulity and hilarity.

“They had a pedestrianised street which was heaving with people, attracting visitors from far and wide … and they unpedestrianised it… no seriously I’m not kidding. The local council wanted the cars back.” There won’t be, as they used to say, a dry leg in the house.

This is not rocket science. The key to a clean, pleasant and attractive urban environment is to separate cars from people. Part of this is achieved by building by-passes and such so that traffic is not forced through town centres by want of alternative routes.

And the other part of it, having ensured that alternative routes are available, is banning traffic from places where lots of people want to walk, shop, and enjoy themselves.

I imagine the majority of European cities now have pedestrianised parts in their centres, and many towns likewise. This is a successful recipe not just for architectural jewels like Prague and Salamanca, whose mediaeval street plans are hopelessly unsuitable for cars anyway, but also for gritty capitals of the industrial revolution like Glasgow and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Residents of these cities will be baffled by the explanation given by Hong Kong officials – that the pedestrianised street was a problem because the buskers made so much noise.

There are a variety of way of regulating busking. You can license the buskers themselves, thereby controlling the numbers and also perhaps introducing a measure of quality control.

When I first visited San Francisco they had just introduced a licensing scheme for buskers. The number of applications was overwhelming so there were competitive auditions. The resulting busking was excellent. It seemed that most of the people who won licences were either music students paying their way through college, or music graduates who had found no other job which used their expensively-acquired skills.

If this is too complicated you can have a number of permitted pitches a suitable distance apart, and open them to public booking, like public squash courts. You can ban busking in sensitive spots, and encourage it in neglected ones.

The problem in Sai Yeung Choi Street did not, apparently, become acute until local shopkeepers (presumably not the same ones who are now complaining about the noise) started allowing people to run power cables out of their shops into the street.

Previously musicians had to use comparatively feeble battery-powered amplifiers and speakers. With mains power all limits were off and an arms race ensued.

The noise level produced by buskers is another thing which can be controlled in a variety of ways. In some places you are not allowed electric speakers at all, as is the case in Hong Kong parks. In Paris, I think, the rule is that passers-by must still be able to conduct a conversation in normal voices. You can have a limit in decibels or a less formal approach. In the London Underground busking is explicitly banned, but performers who are moderate in volume and reasonably melodious are in practice not disturbed.

In most of Hong Kong the police will come and intervene if anyone complains to them about noise. I speak from experience. Before my bagpipe band performs we will wish, however carefully we have rehearsed, to have a little warm-up warble out of hearing of the audience.

When we do this outdoors it often produces a visit from the police, usually at about the time we have finished. And indeed official spokesmen do occasionally claim that there is sufficient legislation in Hong Kong to regulate people who produce excessive noise or other nuisances in public places. But not in Mong Kok, apparently.

The decision to depedestrianise Sai Yeung Choi Street produced a little flood of interviews with people who had performed there. Only two of them said they had encountered any form of regulation.

One group who turned up expecting to perform in the street were told that there were “regulations” and they could not simply turn up and play without the permission of those who “run the street”.

A man who was actually performing there was approached by a civilian with a large and musical family. This person said that his sister wished to use that spot and his brothers would be very upset if she was not allowed to do so. The performer moved along.

So it seems someone was in charge, it just wasn’t the people who you expect.

After the street reverted to traffic one official said that the government would now wait for the public to decide how it wanted buskers to be regulated. I fear the government is doomed to disappointment.

Regulating buskers is one of those matters like street lighting or rubbish collection on which the public’s preferences are for a particular outcome. The nuts and bolts of how it is achieved are of no interest. In any case it appeared, as the media spotlight swung onto buskers generally, that the present system worked quite well … except in Mong Kok.

We cannot at this point avoid one of Hong Kong’s dirty little secrets, which is that in certain parts of the territory there was for a long time a tacit modus vivendi: underworld figures could continue with their “business” as long as they stuck to the sort of activities which involved catering for more or less satisfied “customers”: like vice, dope, gambling, contraband and “protection”. No mass brawls, no drive-by shootings, no horse’s heads in law-abiding citizens’ beds, and so on.

As a result, when I was a volunteer helper in the clinic of the late Mrs Elsie Tu, there were places where it was considered a waste of time to complain about criminal activity to the police. This was a long time ago and the other places may have changed. It appears that Mong Kok has not.

This became fairly obvious in the Occupy period, when occupiers were harassed and occasionally assaulted by mysterious male civilians who were not policemen but seemed to be on cooperative terms with them.

It was observed towards the end of the Sai Yeung Choi Street pedestrianisation period that busking in the usual sense had largely been displaced by a sort of rent-a-mike karaoke run out of some of the shops, no doubt to somebody’s profit.

This is why we shall not see an inquiry into the “fishball revolution”. It might find (or at least it might be told – some things fall on deaf ears on these occasions) that the original trigger of the violence was not a localist plot, but resistance by the entirely non-political figures who usually “run the street” to a group of traffic cops violating the usual understandings.

If that was the case it would not, I stress, in any way excuse the violence by other people later. And you are free to dismiss it as speculation anyway. Unless you work for the Hong Kong Government, in which case you can shut up. Those who could find the truth and will not seek it must expect the rest of us to speculate about their reasons.

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It is becoming increasingly easy to believe that judges of the Court of Appeal are beamed down to us from another planet, where they spend the early part of their lives completely insulated from life as most people live it in Hong Kong.

Consider the judgement of their lordships in the recent case of Mr Donald Tsang’s appeal against his conviction for misconduct in high office.

I have no quarrel with the rejection of his appeal against conviction. It is a nice irony that the man who vandalised our public housing system should be brought low by a penthouse flat for his own use. Let them eat subdivided apartments, as Marie Antoinette might have said.

Nor can there be any quarrel, I suppose, with the reduction of his sentence to one year. A year is a long time. It would be nice to see more awareness of this in the cases of poor and non-famous people who are jailed for decades at the urging of the same judges.

What had me choking on my port (I was on holiday in Portugal when this came out) was the way their lordships dealt with the matter of costs, which went like this:

On the reduction of legal fees, the judges said although Tsang and his wife had around HK$50 million in their bank accounts, their savings must have been significantly reduced after hiring top lawyers in three trials. They said Tsang is unlikely to start another career and can only resort to what is left of his savings and pension.“Financially, the Costs Order may have a crippling effect on the applicant,” the judges said.

The judges seem at this point to be assuming rather a lot. I have some difficulty in believing that Mr Tsang, who in his well-publicised socialising with millionaires must have received a good deal of financial advice, has kept the entirety of his savings in bank accounts.

One has to wonder about the possibility of other assets which can be monetised without too much trouble. Are there really no Ming vases, no gold bricks, no shares in the British Virgin Islands or in Virgin Islands of other nationalities?

Clearly at Mr Tsang’s age there can be no question of another career in the usual sense, but does that really mean no hope of other income?

Well let us follow the judges in assuming that there will be no paid motivational speeches, no directorships in the gift of Mr Tsang’s former friends, no book contracts and no advisory posts.

The question we are left with is this. Is someone aged 73 to be regarded as “financially crippled” if his financial reserves are reduced from $50 million to $45 million by an order to pay $5 million in legal costs?

Let us suppose that one of the Tsangs can be expected to live to 100. This means that the $45 million has to last for 27 years. We will ignore for the purposes of this calculation the year or so Mr Tsang may spend in a rather Spartan hotel at our expense. So the Tsangs, or the surviving Tsang, will have to get by on $1.6 million a year or $138,000 a month. This may usefully be compared with the average monthly salary in Hong Kong, which is – according to the relevant department — $15,897.

The Tsangs will also, of course, qualify for two lots of fruit money (bringing their monthly income up another $6,000 or so) cheap trips on public transport, medical vouchers and other goodies showered on us old folk by our generous leaders.

Alternatively they might wish to invest their remaining $45 million and live on the proceeds, which would come, at a modest 4 per cent yield, to $1.8 million a year or $150,000 a month. Another possibility would be an annuity along the lines of the government’s recently announced HKMC Annuity Plan. The plan itself, actually, is clearly intended for people even more financially crippled than the Tsangs, because the upper limit is only $1 million.

Assuming, though, that a private sector version of equal generosity could be found with no upper limit on the amount purchased, the Tsangs’ nest-egg would earn a guaranteed lifetime monthly income of $278,000 (if the life concerned is Mrs Tsang’s) or $316,000 if we decide Donald is a better bet.

The details are, in any case, not too important. Suffice it to say that the Tsangs will clearly not be reduced to collecting cardboard boxes for a living. The incidence of legal costs frequently results in unfairness. This is generally treated as an unavoidable deficiency in the system which cannot be remedied without greatly reducing the income of lawyers, and hence cannot be remedied at all.

It would be nice to think that from now on litigants who would be financially crippled by an order for costs will be spared the full rigour of the system. But this case was not, perhaps, a good place to start this new arrangement.

 

 

 

You have to wonder how these things happen. China has never been a democracy. Its citizens have been subjected to a stream of propaganda for decades expounding the merits of communism in its current form, whatever that may be at the time.

And yet, last week, a nameless young woman – name for Twitter purposes @feefeefly – posted a video of herself splashing ink on a “Chinese dream” poster of president Xi Jinping. She then turns towards the camera and says “I oppose Xi Jinping’s tyranny.”

Later the same day she posted pictures of police officers apparently taken through a door peep-hole. “Right now there are a group of people wearing uniforms outside my door. I’ll go out after I change my clothes. I did not commit a crime. The people and groups that hurt me are the ones who are guilty,” she said.

And the rest, probably, is silence. A short discussion in the office concluded that this story, label on Twitter the Ink Girl, would probably not yield further installments. Professional detachment is obligatory in these conversations. But some speculation about future updates is allowed.

Was this lady, we wondered, perhaps – as we used to say before mental illness became an acceptable item for the media menu – one or two sandwiches short of a picnic?

Did she have a dissident boyfriend she wished to impress? Or knowing the likely consequences, was she suffering from some secret sorrow and indulging in a sort of state-assisted suicide?

Privately, I thought it was a pity nobody was around at the ink-splashing site to take her quietly on one side and say “Go home, pet. It’s not worth it.” And then I thought, with some misgivings, that probably people had thought much the same sort of things about Sophie Scholl.

Ms Scholl is fondly remembered in Germany as one of a group of students who started distributing leaflets denouncing Hitler and his party in 1942. Early in the following year she was caught doing this in Munich University, where she was a student.

She was accused of treason, tried, convicted (isn’t the Rule of Law wonderful?) and executed by guillotine on the same day. Among her last recorded words are a note to her mother, which concludes: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Of course the parallels are not exact. The Ink Girl, as far as we know, was not part of a group. President Xi, though he has a fine collection of concentration camps, has not embarked on mass gassings, as far as we know. I decided after some thought not to put “yet” anywhere in that last sentence, but as Lord Acton said, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” so things could still get worse.

Thinking about these things puts the problems of Hong Kong’s opposition in perspective. People with inconvenient principles may lose their jobs and have occasional encounters with thugs in the street. But as long as you steer clear of the Public Order Ordinance politics is not a blood sport. Yet.

Times were hard for political dissidents in 1943. Very few of the group of resisting students survived the war, and at the time it seemed that their gesture was scarcely audible amid the catastrophe which was engulfing Europe.

Yet today Ms Scholl is regarded as a national hero – indeed among the younger generation as the national hero. Streets and schools are named after her.

I do not know what will become of those local leaders who now happily work for our new imperial masters, content with their five-figure salaries and free housing, loyally spouting the latest variation on “four legs good, two legs bad”. But I fancy they will not get many roads named after them.

And meanwhile, on the same day, it was announced that China wishes to have Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum added to the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list. What a pity they can’t put Adolf and Uncle Joe in there as well and have an internationally famous collection of stuffed mass murderers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We all know the government does not look forward to the July 1 march as one of its happy days. The march is generally summarised as “for democracy” though it often attracts a wide variety of interests and causes.

Most famously, many years ago, the march swelled to a monstrous size and concentrated on opposition to proposed national security legislation, which was dropped soon after. This was a rare success. Calls for democracy remain unanswered.

Recently the government has taken to putting obstacles in the way of the march, with quibbles over routes and fund-raising stalls, not to mention the Victoria Park football pitch problem.

The pitches in the park (which are tarmac, not grass) were the traditional assembly point of the march. For the last two years they have been occupied on the relevant day by a “charity” which is clearly one of those sprouts which the Liaison Office produces in local flower beds when it reproduces vegetatively, under ground, like a potato plant.

But this year, a first. After the march we were told that the government had put out an official statement complaining about the slogans people were shouting on it. The relevant paragraph went like this: “The spokesman reiterated that chanting slogans which disrespect ‘one country’ and disregard the constitutional order or which are sensational and misleading was not in line with Hong Kong’s overall interests and would undermine its development.”

This was widely reported as a comment on slogans which had been shouted, and which the government disagreed with. This interpretation was encouraged by the headline supplied, which went “Government responds to July 1 procession”.

The thing which puzzled me was how the government, or “a spokesperson”, heard slogans, interpreted them, and evaluated their importance. I presume that one maverick protester shouting “Xi out” would not produce the predicted effect on Hong Kong’s interests.

On the other hand a constitution which can be changed – and frequently is – must surely imply a right for the common citizen to have and express an opinion on what further changes would be desirable. This is not in itself disrespectful. As Michael Kinsey put it in a rather different context “We honour our friends by challenging them when we think they are wrong. It shows that we take them seriously.”

What would the government consider a sensational shout? What would it consider a misleading one? And how does the harm to Hong Kong’s interests ensue? I suppose that 364 days of the year nothing people shout in Victoria Park affects Hong Kong’s interests one way or the other. Why should July 1 be different? How many people does it take to reach the “harm” threshold, and who counts them?

It is of course possible that in the hearing of the government spokesman, but outside that of the numerous reporters covering the event, someone committed some terrible verbal offence by referring to the Chief Executive as a “feckless c***” or President Xi as Winnie the Pooh, which he apparently dislikes violently.

But the only shouts I could find reported were “end one-party dictatorship,” “Hong Kong people, keep going,” and “reject the deterioration of Hong Kong.” Clearly the first and last of these were not expressions with which the government would agree. But they hardly seem worthy of a whole press release.

And at this point I looked at the press release concerned. This can be found here: http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201807/01/P2018070100546.htm, and is mostly concerned with providing a barrage of good news, incorporating all the current Liaison office hot items: Belt and Road, Pearl Delta, etc., and all the official feel-good titbits.

The paragraph about slogans comes right at the end of a release that runs to something over 400 words and could easily be mistaken for an extended grovel to our new colonial masters. The early part is not new, though the government’s own news website, which knows a political minefield when it sees one, prudently chose the headline “Gov’t says Hong Kong is stable, prosperous”. This accurately reflects the overall content of the release, though perhaps lacking what sub-editors used to call the “read me” ingredient.

The thing which struck me as suspicious about the whole enterprise came right at the end. It said “Ends/Sunday, July 1, 2018. Issued at HKT 17:33”

Wait a minute. This is a government which to put a lift on a pedestrian footbridge takes the sort of time in which any self-respecting pharaoh could erect a small pyramid. It takes six months to hold a by-election, two years to decide whether to raise a tunnel toll.

The march started at 3.00. Are we to believe that the spokesman was in attendance then, heard horrifying slogans, sped to government HQ (Central) or the Information Services Department (Sheung Wan), spoke, someone else then wrote the release, submitted it to the usual seniors whose approval is required, some of whom are not the sort of people you can find in their offices on Sunday, and whacked it on the wires, all in two and a half hours?

I realise that “respond” is an ambiguous word. If you are lucky enough to attend a church which still uses the old Book of Common Prayer you will come to parts of the service which go like this:

Priest: O God, make speed to save us.
Answer: O Lord, make haste to help us.

The answer is given by the congregation and this is technically known as a “response”. Of course it is not a response to what the priest has just said. It is planned in advance and was in fact written in 1552.

It seems to me that the government press release was also planned in advance and written, at the latest, the previous day. We must not be distracted by the “spokesman”. This is just a literary device that sounds more approachable than saying “the government said in a statement” or some such verbiage.

In practice the media treat it as much the same thing. RTHK’s story from the same press release was headlined “Govt criticises calls for end of one party rule”.

The interesting thing about the spokesman is that he is said to have “reiterated” that he did not approve of chanting slogans. When was this, one wonders, and what does it do for the message to claim that the nameless and quite possibly fictitious orator was repeating it?

Whatever the answers to these questions the description of the whole affair as “responds to July 1 procession” was clearly misleading. It was taken to mean, as its authors should have expected and I fear must have intended, that the government had written the press release after hearing the slogans. Which was not true. That’s not PR, or spin, or propaganda; it’s deception.

 

 

 

 

A nasty moment watching the television the other night: I thought they said that a 34-year-old man had been sentenced to 39 years in prison after being caught in possession of a large quantity of drugs.

After much Googling I managed to track down a published version of the case and it seems either I or the reporter got the digits mixed up. The guy was 39 years old. The 34 years was his sentence. This seems rather a lot for what the judge described as a “minor role”.

What was really disturbing, though, was an interview after the case with a triumphant police person who thought “this heavy sentence would have a deterrent effect”.

Now we must not be too hard on this young man. No doubt there is no time at the Police College (as they now call it) for discussion of the finer points of sentencing policy. Nor, perhaps, should there be. Once the policeman has launched his suspect into the gaping maw of the legal machinery his job is done.

But the theory that crime is deterred by interminable sentences is of great antiquity. It is technically known as “general deterrence” theory and those who have studied it carefully agree that it is bilge.

The committee which ponders sentencing matters in New South Wales lamented the “legal fiction that imprisonment creates general deterrence,” and quoted with approval an academic study which concluded that “The reality is that general deterrence does not work… empirical research suggests that higher penalties do not act as disincentives to crime.”

The Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, reviewing relevant research for the British Home Office, concluded that “…the studies reviewed do not provide a basis for inferring that increasing the severity of sentences generally is capable of enhancing deterrent effects.”

The Sentencing Project, in the US, noted that “existing evidence does not support any significant public safety benefit of the practice of increasing the severity of sentences by imposing longer prison terms. In fact, research findings imply that increasingly lengthy prison terms are counterproductive.”

The idea of deterrent sentences is also open to ethical objections. Ashworth, in Sentencing and Criminal Justice, says that “Exemplary sentences, by heaping an undeserved portion of punishment on one offender in the hope of deterring others, are objectionable in that they penalise an individual in order to achieve a social goal.”

In other words the judge, in sentencing some small potato of the dope distribution network, should really be expected to say “Prisoner at the bar, your crime deserves a sentence of ten years, but in order to discourage other people from imitating you I am going to give you 30. Enjoy!”

It seems that, despite the evidence, judges are very keen on general deterrence as an explanation for sentencing in drugs cases. In a way you can see why.

If you are a senior judge, most of your work involves civil disputes between rich people over large sums of money. Criminal cases will generally involve theft, violence or other abuses which attract general condemnation, and appear in the higher courts in their most serious forms.

But when you are obliged to ruin the life of the wretch in the dock for a crime which often comes down to not looking too closely at the parcel someone asked her to bring from Manila, then it helps if you can tell yourself that you are serving some higher social goal.

This is not an extreme example designed to arouse sympathy. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of drugs cases in Hong Kong concern people caught carrying. If the quantity is large, that means carrying for other people.

John Reading conducted a study of the 1,619 drug traffickers convicted in 2012-15, Of this miscreant multitude the organisers or gang members numbered only six. Not 60, not six per cent. Six. More than 90 per cent were couriers and the rest mostly “storekeepers” keeping the stuff in Hong Kong.

The law to which they were subjected is something of an international landmark. Of the 18 jurisdictions Reading surveyed, Hong Kong had the most severe sentences for trafficking. It was also one of the three jurisdictions in which the role or seniority of the offender was ignored in the sentencing process, and one of six which did not recognise previous good behaviour as a mitigating factor.

The average sentence in the survey period was nine years and nine months, the highest ran to more than three decades. There were 82 minors (people aged 16 can be tried in adult courts here) all but two of whom got prison sentences. One 16-year-old got 17 years.

Mr Reading, a Senior Counsel and former Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, concluded that “The heavy sentences imposed for the offence in Hong Kong have not resulted in a significant reduction in drug trafficking cases over those years.”

Mr Reading goes no further and we must not put thoughts into his head. Interesting choice of post-retirement project, though.

I think we can conclude that the system is not doing any good. In fact it is doing a good deal of harm. It is unfair to the people caught, who are sentenced to disproportionate sentences which do no good to them or anyone else; it is unfair to the taxpayer, who stumps up for decades of expensive incarceration; it is unfair to prison staff, who can hardly be expected to produce reformative miracles on inmates who will not see the outside world until they have qualified for a green Octopus and Fruit Money.

This is also quite unnecessary. For a humane system which works try this BBC documentary on prison life in Norway: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180514-do-long-prison-sentences-deter-crime

Clearly the Hong Kong way of dealing with drugs cases, if you can call it that, has been operating for a long time. I do not see the slightest hope of changing it, which would require an implausible burst of enlightenment in either the Court of Appeal or the Legislative Council.

So the machinery continues to mangle individuals, like the luckless fellow last week. Your prayers, if you go in for that sort of thing, will not be wasted if you can direct a few in the direction of Mr Lui Wing-yip, who will be 70 when he comes out of prison, or perhaps, with the usual discount, 60. If you think sympathy is wasted on Mr Lui, he has a daughter aged eight, who is not going to see much of her Daddy for a long time.

 

 

Owing to an accident of economic history the estate where I live has moved up in the world. Houses which used to sell for 5 or 6 million now command eight-digit prices, and the first digit is not 1. My humble Honda rubs hubcaps with expensive European brands, the odd Tesla, and luxurious Japanese people-carriers.

One of the minor drawbacks of this is that we attract a lot of attention from the real estate industry. It seems that really rich people are in a state of constant wanderlust, so they are prime targets for agents flogging the latest new palace.

Scarcely a week goes by without a glossy brochure dropping through the letter box inviting us to own a piece of the latest “timeless masterpiece” (I am not making this up) offering “exclusive executive living”.

There will be a club house, a pool. There will be tennis courts. There will be space for your three cars.

An odd feature of these plans is that there is usually a little room next to the kitchen, mysteriously labelled “store”. A walk-in pantry? But why, a visitor from Mars might wonder, does it need its own tiny toilet?

We seasoned observers of the Hong Kong scene know what is going on here. The “store”, which is approximately the same size as the lift, is actually going to be the domestic helper’s bedroom. A humane employer will bear this in mind when recruiting, and avoid tall ladies, unless they are willing to sleep standing up, like a horse.

I suppose labelling the helper’s room a store is a harmless deception. Potential buyers will no doubt be told by the agent, if necessary, what the store is for. This is a point real estate vendors like to cover, because of the flattering implication that the potential buyer they are addressing can afford servants.

In the days when my wife and I occasionally indulged in that classical Hong Kong hobby, visiting show flats at the weekend to see what was on offer, we were occasionally shocked by suggestions that tiny and rather unattractive spaces could be used for this purpose.

The most alarming example was in a three-story house and consisted of the space under the stairs which in more self-sufficient British households would be used as a broom cupboard.

I do not know why otherwise honest and reputable architects go along with this. Some developments are prepared to be honest and label the tiny room “maid” or “ser’t”. There is no room for more than four letters.

Rooms of this kind now appear in surprisingly small flats. An agent in Shatin is offering 700 square foot flats with three bedrooms, and a “store” complete with the give-away micro-toilet.

What is the difference between a “maid” and a “store”? My unscientific observation is that a “maid” will have a window and a “store” will not.

I am prepared to be told that helpers who have a room of their own, however small, should count their blessings. At least they are not among the considerable number subjected to arrangements like a tent on the balcony, a plank on the washing machine, or the use of the living room sofa when the family have finished watching television.

The basic problem is that our government insists that helpers must live in their employers’ homes. It heads off complaints about this arrangement by insisting also that there should be a clause in contracts about accommodation. And then it loses interest.

This leaves enforcement of any understanding about decent accommodation up to the helper. Any complaint can lead to one of two outcomes:

  1. The complaint is not substantiated, the offended employer fires you, and you must leave in two weeks.
  2. The complaint is substantiated, so the contract is annulled … and you must still leave in two weeks.

Formal complaints are, understandably, rare. And I fear the obvious, if unlikely, solution would not help. If the government was persuaded to take an interest in protecting this vulnerable group of workers then occasional inspections would concentrate on the low-hanging fruit – flats which are obviously too small for a “store”.

Inspections would be dreaded by helpers because, as in the two scenarios above, the end of the story would be two weeks to go home. And after all once you are in it you cannot make your flat any bigger. I expect some of the employers who plumb depths in the provision of accommodation department have other merits which endear them to their helpers.

The basic problem is a toxic combination of two apparently unrelated government policies – insane land prices and the rule that overseas domestic helpers must live on the employer’s premises. The first is regarded as an insoluble problem and the second as not a problem at all. So I expect no progress.

In the meantime it seems to me that the architectural profession needs to brush up its ethics. I know you are supposed to supply what the client wants but it is a characteristic of a profession that it has standards it will not compromise.

You know what that little room next to the kitchen is going to be used for. The developer knows, the real estate salesman knows, and the buyer knows. Far be it from me to suggest that this implies some minimum size.

But for pity’s sake, we all know a human being is going to live in that box. Can we at least make sure it has a window?

 

 

 

 

The MTR – once the pride of Hong Kong – seems to have come down with a nasty case of the Reverse Midas effect: everything it touches turns to dross.

Its trains are unreliable, its building projects have defects (besides being over budget and late, which is normal for railway projects) its interventions in the co-location debate are tactless and its boss picks fights with the press if the weather is too hot. What is going on?

Some observers hold that the current bad press reflects a deterioration in the corporation’s performance. When there was still a separate KCR we had two competing railway systems and both had an incentive to look good. Now we have a railway monopoly and the sincerest efforts to do a good job are diluted by the knowledge that after all the clients have no choice.

Another controversial move is the MTR offering its services overseas. This is no doubt very exciting for the staff concerned. But whatever comes of this wanderlust it is a distraction. Talent and effort devoted to the railway needs of distant cities are withdrawn from Hong Kong’s requirements.

A kinder theory is that the MTR is suffering from what is known technically as an availability cascade, where a topic in the news becomes a sort of self-propelling typhoon. Stories make the topic newsworthy and produce more stories which attract more media attention and the public gets the impression that something major has changed.

Which may not be the case at all.

A good local example was the Light Rail Transit system in the North West New Territories. This attracted no media attention when it opened until a van ran a red light and was hit by an LRT train, killing the van’s passenger. Suddenly any incident, however minor, on the LRT was a news story. Anything less trivial than a loose screw was front page material.

After a few months in which the new system was routinely described as “troubled”, “controversial” or even “defective”, the government imported a railway expert who looked at the whole network and announced that there was nothing wrong with it. The incidence of defects and minor glitches was normal.

The MTR is bound to get some stick every year when it adjusts (or as we peasants say raises) fares. Delays may be rare, as the corporation says they are, but the system is close to full capacity in the rush hour, so any hold-up in the proceedings produces spectacular crowds of disgruntled commuters.

Then there was the case of the stray dog on the tracks which was sacrificed to the timetable. The dog died, and with it a good deal of the affection and respect which the public had nurtured for the MTR. Reporters are paid to remember these things. There’s blood on those tracks.

A quite different theory has it that the MTR is performing no worse than it did, but is making a mess of its public relations. Personally I am reluctant to believe that PR is that important, but this theory has some facts going for it.

The MTR has a PR department, of course. Most of the people in it were apparently recruited from TVB. This is the sort of thing that looks a good move if you are a non-journalist staffing a PR department. Journalists, on the other hand, know that television people are widely regarded by their peers as a bunch of over-paid prima donnas who, because of the need for pictures with everything, spend most of their time covering events staged for their benefit.

The relations between journalists and ex-journalists in PR are always a bit prickly anyway. The poacher turned game-keeper thinks he should still be on warm sociable terms with the other poachers. This doesn’t seem obvious to the poachers.

One of my colleagues has recently been struggling with the MTR’s PR department, which seems to suffer from that delusion common among amateur PR people that their job is to avoid at all costs giving a straight answer to a simple question.

For the question we need a bit of background. Until last year the government adamantly refused to recognise internet-only web sites as media. This meant they were not sent official releases, were not admitted to press enclosures at events like elections, and were not invited to press conferences where the government lies, I beg your pardon the government lines, were expounded.

Our new Chief Executive promised before her election to do something about this, and something has been done. Suspicious minds may wonder if this was in any way connected with the appearance of a small fleet of pro-government news websites.

Well, news websites can now if they wish register with the government, pay a small fee, jump through some awkward bureaucratic hoops and get the same service from the Information Services Department as their print counterparts.

But note that this is not compulsory. If you run a news web-site you may not wish to register and the law does not compel you to do so. Indeed some of the requirements are quite onerous because the system is based on the Newspaper Registration Ordinance, which, surprise, was designed for newspapers. So some news websites are not eligible.

Some of the websites which did not register have discovered that they are not invited to media events organised by the MTR, while registered websites are. This was not supposed to happen. They suspect that the MTR is using the list of registered websites as a list of all the relevant media.

Note an important legal wrinkle here. A newspaper which is not registered is infringing the law. The list of registered newspapers is a list of all the legal media of that kind. The situation of websites is quite different. For them registration is an option, not a requirement. So the government’s list of recognised internet-only news media is just a list of the organisations which wanted access to the official news teat badly enough to jump through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to reach it.

It appears, though, that the MTR is treating both lists the same way. No registration means no invitations.

In pursuit of the MTR’s line on this point, my colleague asked if the corporation barred non-registered media outlets/journalists from its press events. You would think this could be answered with a yes or a no. After all neither position would be something to be ashamed of.

Well my colleague collected three answers, the last and longest of which went like this:

MTR Corporation attaches great importance to maintaining positive relations with the media. We strive to provide timely responses to facilitate media, no matter traditional and online media outlets, in their reporting as far as possible. If media are interested in receiving our press releases, we will not hesitate to include them in the recipient list. 

Regarding the Corporation’s media events, due to limitations in relation to venue or arrangement, we are not able to accommodate all of the media organisations in each of our press event. We understand that the Government’s Information Services Department (GIS) has a well-established mechanism to handle online media outlets in covering its press conferences. Therefore we make reference to it and if any media is included in GIS’s list, we will include the organisation in our media event invitation list upon request. 

Please be assured that we will review our handling from time to time. We appreciate your comments and will take it into consideration during the review.

This is an attempt at a “yes” disguised as a “no”. It appears (last sentence of first paragraph) that any media may, if they ask, be sent press releases. On the other hand only media in the government list (see last sentence of second paragraph) may, on request, be included in the “media event invitation list”. So if you are not on the government list you can have the press releases, but not the invitations.

If it was my story I would have reported this as a “yes”. My colleague was more cautious, and thought the MTR would complain that he was putting words into its mouth. We both thought the MTR was being evasive.

I would have thought, actually, that from their point of view a prime objective would be to avoid looking like a government department, which is not a passport to popularity these days. So relying on the GIS list is both unfair and unwise. But if that is what you are doing, why not say so?