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According to the usual anonymous and unattributable sources the Secretary for Justice, Teresa Cheng, has decided to call it a day. Not being fired; she’s jumping for “personal reasons”, we’re told, as we usually are. Replacement? Nothing definite yet, but rumoured front-runner is a pillar of the Independent Police Complaints Council, so don’t expect too much.

However, whoever it is, I hope he or she will do something about the speed at which the Department of Justice operates, which in some cases seems to be a violation of the defendants’ human rights in and of itself.

I realise that persuading the members of a profession built on the concept of billable hours to treat other people’s time as valuable may be a struggle. Learned professions are generally prone to the illusion that their time is more important than yours. But the occasional wait for a busy doctor or an absent absent-minded professor is nothing compared with the treatment you get from the courts, where everyone is instructed to turn up at 9 o’clock, the magistrate doesn’t start sitting until 10, and the matter you are involved in may not come up until the afternoon, if it isn’t moved to another day altogether.

For senior judges time to be served can be measured in decades, so keeping you in suspense for a month or two doesn’t count. However prosecutors ought to be different. I will not bore you with a repetition of my previous complaints about the time it takes to get a case into court in Hong Kong, but, take it from me, it is by international standards a disgrace.

No doubt it would be a major task for a new Secretary for Justice to persuade his troops to work faster. But they could at least perhaps be persuaded to be a bit more discerning in the cases which they take to court.

There is not much point, for example, in taking some political target into court when the outcome is going to add a few days to the multiple months he is serving already, or the years he is likely to be facing when the trial he is awaiting (in custody) finally crawls before a judge or three.

Recently, though, the trend to meaningless prosecutions reached its logical conclusion: a prosecution which has no practical function at all.

This brings us to the case of Mr Ted Hui. Mr Hui was, in the old days when we had such things, a rather critical and disorderly legislator. He was also conspicuous in attempting to sooth irate protesters and police people during the anti extradition bill protests, and ate a lot of pepper spray as a result.

Nothing makes you a target of the law and order industry like being a victim of police abuse. So Mr Hui was one of the first victims of the post-2019 trawl through the previous lives of likely suspects for items on which a belated prosecution could be constructed.

When the number of counts charged reached nine (further items are still promised) Mr Hui decided that his future in Hong Kong would feature a long stint on the correctional M & Ms diet. Nothing in this piece should be interpreted as expressing an opinion on Mr Hui’s innocence or guilt of these or any later charges.

He seems to have come to the deluded conclusion that someone with his background could not expect a fair trial from the national security machinery. This is an unwarranted criticism of the national security machinery which, without fear or favour, provides unfair trials to all its victims. It was designed to make prosecutions easier.

Well, like most suspects Mr Hui had been required to surrender his passport. However with the aid of two Danish fans he persuaded a Hong Kong court that he had been invited in his official capacity to attend an environmental gabfest in Copenhagen.

The prosecution complained that this did not look very official. A sympathetic Danish MP then added a timetable of official chats to the fictitious globe-rescuing proceedings and Mr Hui flew to Denmark. After a few days to allow his family to leave Hong Kong he announced that he was not coming back, and went on to the UK. He later moved to Australia, where he still is.

So what was the point, one wonders, of inviting a Hong Kong judge to convict him, in his absence, of contempt of court… four counts, no less. Sentence adjourned for the judge to think about it.

The fact is that Mr Hui is neither stupid nor a masochist. There is no real prospect of his returning to Hong Kong, in the absence perhaps of some exotic mid-air emergency producing an unlucky emergency landing in a human rights haven like Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Mr Hui is, accordingly, outside the jurisdiction of Hong Kong courts and outside the reach of Hong Kong policemen, to the great irritation of our new Chief Executive. Short of a cross-border kidnapping which would spark an international diplomatic explosion we must accept that we are going to enjoy, or suffer, a Hui-free Hong Kong for the foreseeable future.

If Mr Hui does come back he can of course be charged again with all the nine pending matters, as well as jumping bail and, if we must, contempt of court for misleading a judge. I am not sure that this is a normal reaction to people jumping bail, which they do all the time. Anyone who has been freed on bail has implicitly promised to turn up for trial but those who do a runner are not usually prosecuted for contempt.

Mr Hui can also be charged with whatever else the Department of Justice can come up with. In the meantime, though, surely government lawyers have more important things to do with their time than asking a judge to convict someone in his absence and pass a sentence which will in practice not be served?

Waiting for the unlikely return would free resources, both prosecutorial and judicial, for matters with immediate practical effects for the people concerned. It would also coincide neatly with the passage in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 14 3 (d) on the rights of people accused of criminal offences, which includes the right to be present at their trial.

The judge in Mr Hui’s case said that his successful deception posed “a real risk that public confidence in the due administration of justice will be undermined.” Well we can’t have that can we? So I would urge the public not to read the rest of the ICCPR, which also includes the subversive notion that “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” Those were the days.

Warfare, as the Israeli General Moshe Dayan observed, is at once the most deplorable and most exciting of human activities. Traditionally watching it without participating was not on the menu. Either you attended and ran the consequent risks or you had to be content with dispatches.

Television offered the illusion of spectatorship. You cannot do much in a 90-second standard report. Also television crews found that one of the unmentionable problems of war reporting was to find images which were not so gruesome that they would be vetoed as unfit for family viewing. Feature films were of course fiction.

But now all this has changed. Every phone owner is a potential camera person, and the internet is available to all. You can get as much of the fighting in Ukraine as any reasonable person could want.

Much of the resulting footage illustrates the old truism that killing is much less disturbing from a distance. Rockets flit across the landscape and tanks erupt in a volcano of flames and smoke. We do not see what happened to the three people who were inside the tank.

Sometimes the all-seeing drone looks down on an apparently peaceful scene. A few distant ant-like figures move about. The drone releases an alarmingly amateur-looking projectile, which wobbles visibly as it sets off for the ground. Puffs of smoke erupt. Some of the ants are now no longer moving.

A lot of this footage clearly came from the Ukrainian military, no doubt keen to show its supporters what they are getting for their money, though a surprising amount of it is circulated under the logo of The Sun, a change from that newspaper’s usual hot and salty tastes.

The bits that stay with you are usually those with people you can see in them. I was much moved by the video of a lady playing a last tune on her piano – surrounded by the ruins of her flat, wrecked by a near miss – before she left to join the flood of refugees.

Then I stumbled on a piece in which a Ukrainian reporter interviewed a Russian soldier in a Ukrainian military hospital. Would the interviewee mind of the interview was taped? The interviewee would not. We went through some of his recent experiences and he expressed concern that his family did not know where he was.

Our reporter then offered to telephone the family, which he did. Again the polite request for permission to record. Then he passed the phone to the prisoner, who talked to his sister. She had, of course, heard nothing from the Russian Army but had drawn ominous conclusions from the interruption in the usual flow of calls and messages.

So she was pleased to hear from him, and took calmly his other piece of news, which was that he was now minus one leg. Perhaps she thought this sacrifice was worth it if it ensured that he would not be fit for further military service.

Indeed the Ukrainians seem to have tapped a rich vein of disillusioned calls home by members of the invading force, who all seem to be understandably miserable. At least that is the impression you get from the ones chosen for broadcasting, carefully sub-titled with the profanities replaced by asterisks, of which they need plenty.

Altogether it’s a sad picture, made all the worse for those optimists who supposed that, at least in the more developed parts of the world, we had put this sort of thing behind us.     

In Hong Kong we have had the interesting spectacle of various writers trying to wriggle round the basic fact that we are here dealing with an unprovoked invasion motivated by the desire to impose on Ukrainian people a regime they do not want. And this controversial enterprise appears to be supported, in a tacit sort of way, by China.

One suggestion is that Russian paranoia is justified by the continuing enlargement of Nato, and the potential threat this presents. The problem with this idea is that the last substantial enlargement (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) took place in 2004. The only countries to join since then have been militarily inconsequential and a long way from Russia: Albania and Croatia (2009) Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020). So this looks like an excuse.

A more learned offering points out that Russia was invaded by France in 1812, and Germany in 1914 and 1941. Well not actually – in 1914 Russia invaded Germany, though this did not go well. With more success they invaded Galicia, then a province of the Austrian Empire. In two years in control they introduced the full colonial kit: Russian as the official language, secret police, censorship of the media, jailing of suspected dissidents, loyalty oaths required of civil servants and teachers, and so on. Galicia is now part of Poland and part of Ukraine

On the other hand we must in fairness also record the Swedish invasion of Russia in 1707 and the Anglo-French invasion of the Crimea in 1854.

What this misses out is the considerable traffic in the other direction. Russia participated in the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) two Turkish wars (1768, 1787) invaded Italy in 1799 and Switzerland (Switzerland!) in 1800. It invaded Finland in 1808, France in 1814, had another Turkish war in 1828 and intervened in Hungary in 1849. It invaded Manchuria in 1858, and there was yet another Turkish war in 1877. 

After the end of World War 1 the Russian Empire, now under new management, shrank a bit. But it continued to be a worrying neighbour. It invaded Poland in 1939, occupied the Baltic States and then invaded Finland. There was also a brief and rather neglected invasion of Manchuria in response to incidents involving its Japanese occupiers. The Russians also continued to control many non-Russian parts of the old Tsarist empire, including Georgia, Armenia and much of Central Asia. 

After the Second World War the Soviet Union effectively adopted as colonies all the countries later known as the Warsaw Pact. This was generally not a happy experience for them and there were revolts in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, all put down by force. Since the collapse of the old Soviet Empire, Russia has on various pretexts inserted garrisons or supported separatist movements in Moldova, Georgia and Central Asia. And of particular relevance to current conflicts, it invaded Ukraine in 2014.

Russian expansionism is sometimes put down to some in-built geographical force which compels them to seek a warm-water port. And indeed for a long time Russian statesmen made no attempt to hide their ultimate ambition, which was to take Constantinople from the ailing Ottoman Empire. But this is just a retrospective excuse, like the suggestion that Louis XIV was aiming to give France “natural frontiers”, or that the British Empire was acquired in a “fit of absent-mindedness”. A better explanation for Russian behaviour is provided by Thucydides: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Mr Putin, like his predecessors, will grab whatever he thinks he can get away with.

Readers will gather that I am not very impressed by attempts to exonerate Mr Putin’s activities as either a natural response to the CIA’s perfidy in seducing Montenegro from the paths of neutrality, or an attempt to fend off a potential invasion. Why do aggressive dictators, like abusive husbands, always want to pose as victims?

But these arguments are at least relevant. What are we to make of the local columnist who wondered why human rights enthusiasts were neglecting the outrages inflicted on Russian citizens in Europe, where individuals had been abused in the street, millionaires had been expropriated and (if you have tears to shed prepare to shed them now) Russian tennis players had been barred from Wimbledon.

Well abuse of innocent individuals in the street is wrong. But the only examples of this offered came from Poland and the Czech republic. These are places which were Russian colonies for a long time in recent memory. Russians would probably be unwelcome to some people whether there was a war or not.

Some memories last for a long time. English visitors to Yugoslavia in the 60s flaunted conspicuous Union Jacks to avoid being mistaken for Germans. It was noticeable in those days that the Eurovision Song Contest involved a national jury in each country, and some of those juries would not have voted for a German entry if Beethoven had risen from the grave and penned it personally. Brits in my age group still feel a bit twitchy about Argentina. So it goes.

These legacy prejudices should not, though, be confused with “Russophobia” as allegedly revealed by opinion poll surveys of what people think of different countries. People are entitled to superficial opinions about different countries and Russia has no shortage of things to dislike.

As for the yacht-deprived millionaires and the Russian tennis players (who are also millionaires) their treatment is certainly unfair. They did not start the war and may actually oppose it. But losing your yacht or you chance to add to your prize-money pile is not the worst thing that can happen to you in wartime.

As Max Hastings observes in a recent work we tend to think of our wars as uniquely horrible but all wars always have involved suffering. And that suffering is of course not fairly distributed. Some civilians are traumatised, terrorised and driven from their homes. Others are not. Soldiers, if they survive, are haunted by terrible memories, lose their friends and suffer injuries they will carry for the rest of their lives. Distant mothers and sweethearts get awful news. Equally blameless individuals find the military experience enjoyable. War is the province of chance, as Clausewitz put it.

As far as warfare is concerned Hong Kong has led a sheltered existence. This is why we are treated to casual abuse of war as a description of social afflictions like the COVID epidemic. The real thing is a parade of horrors. Being prevented from playing pro tennis in London is not one of them.

I have been struck lately by the difficulty of reconciling happenings in the real world with the way they are described in official verbiage. Our new Chief Executive says press freedom needs no defence in Hong Kong even as we drop to the murky depths of international rankings; the Chief Justice says we enjoy unquestioned judicial independence (well … Warren Buffet says you should never ask a barber if you need a haircut) while the government simply refuses to appoint to the Judicial Officers Recommendations Commission any “representative” it does not like the look of.

The Hong Kong Trade Office in London says that democracy will develop in the city but it will be “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics”. This apparently means democracy in defiance of the relevant laws, as the District Council by-elections have been postponed illegally and indefinitely. Whatever you think of the arrangements now used to select legislators and senior leaders, local democracy has simply been abolished

We are supposed to enjoy freedom of speech, but some outspoken commentators have taken to putting their Wordle score on their Facebook page every morning so that friends and fans can see they have not been arrested. Yet. Every democratic politician you have heard of is in prison or has been recently, except Emily Lau. This is not a criticism of Ms Lau, who was just lucky in her choice of retirement date.

A clue, perhaps, from a book I have been reading recently. This is “Power of the powerless” by Vaclav Havel – a noted Czech dissenter during the Communist years and later the President of the country. He wrote it in 1978, when Czechoslovakia was still effectively a Soviet colony. The question which fascinated sympathisers outside the country and restless spirits inside it was how this status was maintained with at least a facade of complicity and contentment, despite the widespread knowledge of the invasion and installation of a puppet regime ten years earlier.

One answer goes like this:

“The … system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of freedom of expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of worldviews; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive of its own lies if must falsify everything. It falsifies the past, it falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

Individuals need not believe in all these mystifications, but they must behave as if they did…”

Some parts of this look specific to the Soviet empire before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some parts of it look distressingly familiar. For this reason I am sceptical about the argument advanced by several respectable writers recently, that Hong Kong’s problems could be solved by better PR.

What we see, after all, is a drastic divergence between the “inside view” of Hong Kong, as propagated on its behalf, and the “outside view” as perceived in other places. No doubt both the official view – nothing has changed – and the outside one – Xinjiang-on-Sea – are too extreme to be accurate. But certainly some things have changed.

As the makers of Coca Cola found out to their cost, no amount of PR or advertising will do any good if you vandalize the product. Hong Kong used to be known as a place where you could do and say more or less what you wished, subject to the sort of legal restrictions to which citizens of free countries are accustomed. Any serious consideration of our local problem must start with the recognition that this particular parrot is dead. This parrot, as the famous sketch has it, has expired and gone to meet its maker; it has ceased to be. It is an ex-parrot.

What we are to put in its place I really don’t know. Roll up for the super-patriotic legislature, the opportunity-rich Greater Bay Area, the super national security? Come to sunny Hong Kong, where the prisons are full and the airport is empty? See the world’s most expensive legislative erection?

If I may make a humble suggestion this is perhaps not the time for a PR offensive anyway. COVID is currently the public health issue in the public eye so countries and territories are judged by how they handle it. This is another international league table in which we have slipped from the top spots recently, but this can be remedied. At the moment we sit uneasily between the economic revival produced by “living with it” and the clean bill of health produced by “dynamic zero”.

We have the disadvantages of both approaches without their compensating advantages. If this problem were sorted out then an improved reputation would ensue. And if not, not.

I was dismayed and a bit puzzled by your “open response to Mr Sebastian Lai, son of Jimmy Lai”. It ought to be possible to pose as one of Hong Kong’s most patriotic people without also appearing as one of its nastiest. More work seems to be needed on this point.

I was puzzled as to why you bothered. The young Mr Lai’s response to his father being honoured by a Catholic university in America was not reported in Hong Kong, indeed I did not see anything about the award itself. No doubt some American newspapers reported the award, and the speech, but they will not have printed your response.

You do seem to have a bit of a thing about Mr Lai senior. You claim to have read all of his articles and interviews. I presume this was not in search of enlightenment. This seems rather an unhealthy preoccupation. I can only think of two people of whom I can say I have read their entire output – C.S. Forester and Stieg Larsson – and they are both dead.

Still, this Jimmy preoccupation hardly excuses a serious lapse in taste. Mr Lai Junior (who spells his name Sebastien, by the way) wishes, as we all do, to think and speak well of his father. He must also be aware of the strong possibility that he will never see his father again, or that if he does it will be in the form of a brief encounter in a prison visiting room.

Under these circumstances it seems to me entirely inappropriate to bombard him with a critical and public interpretation of his father’s life and work, if indeed it ever is. I may think a Hong Kong politician is a five-star shit but I would not publicly scold his daughter if she did not agree with me.

You take issue with the statement that Jimmy Lai “stayed in Hong Kong with the full knowledge of what the consequences could be.” In fact you flatly say “No he didn’t”. Why? I presume you are not disputing that he stayed in Hong Kong. As to knowledge of the possible consequences, I note that you believe Jimmy “doesn’t understand Chinese politics”. But you do not need a profound study of Chinese politics to know that people who oppose the Communist Party often find themselves in prison.

I will pass over your evidence-free assertions that Jimmy Lai was some kind of UK government agent trying to foment a revolution in Hong Kong “and beyond”.

But I must take issue with your version of Hong Kong media history. Over the years Next and Apple Daily were not “sued left, right and centre for defamation by all walks of life”. They were occasionally sued, as most news organisations are, with varying results. They also got threatening letters from lawyers for various people, including you.

Next Media’s published accounts showed, you complain, “a huge reserve for legal fees and damages.” I am not sure what “huge” means in this context. Have you compared it with the reserves kept by other media organisations for this purpose? It is normal for newspapers and magazines to have a reserve for possible legal catastrophes. The Standard had one when I worked there and found, as one does, that it needs to be bigger than you think.

Apple Daily did not bring “papparazzi culture” to Hong Kong. Popular tabloid journalism was pioneered by the Oriental Daily, and the libel lawyers’ friend title still belongs to Tin Tin, now no longer with us.

The fact that Jimmy Lai has an overseas passport does not make him “a foreigner in Hong Kong politics” and Sebastien Lai does indeed, as you say “know better than I do how democratic countries treat foreigners who fund and mastermind political campaigns.” It is in fact generally perfectly legal in most democratic countries for foreigners to donate to political parties and to run political campaigns.

A point which you seem to have overlooked when penning this piece is the relevant law. Mr Lai Sr is currently awaiting trial on national security charges directly relevant to the assertions in your paragraphs three and six. As such it is a serious offence to publish, as you have done, material suggesting that he is guilty, or for that matter innocent, of the matters charged.

As you are a diligent, not to say compulsive, student of all matters relating to Jimmy Lai I must suppose you to be aware of the fact that these matters are sub judice and consequently not an appropriate matter for comment. Catholicism doesn’t legally absolve crimes, you say. You’re not on the legal high ground here, I’m afraid.

It is true that this particular branch of the rule of law has been much neglected of late and it would be hard to argue with a defence that people had been allowed to infringe it for so long that an errant publisher supposed it to be extinct.

That does not dispose of the question whether anyone with a concern for fairness would, whether faced with legal hazards or not, wish to publish a damning summary of the defendant’s career and motives in the period approaching his trial.

Theologians will not be impressed by your suggestion that Jimmy Lai cannot be a good Catholic because he has been known to use “foul language”. Most of us have met foul-mouthed Catholics. No doubt this is a fault, but it is hardly a mortal sin. And I don’t know why you find it significant that Mr Lai became a Catholic in 1997.

Catholicism is a demanding religion and keeping it up for 25 years is not to be sneezed at – certainly, at least, not to be sneezed at by those who are still falling short of admission to the ranks of civil gentlemen.

Judges, or at least the more junior ones, are to be subjected to an annual performance review by more senior colleagues. This is described by enthusiasts as a response to complaints.

You will notice that although most of the complaints came from government supporters wishing to see protesters hung, and preferably drawn and quartered as well, none of those complaints was actually substantiated. So in search of an example of a real complaint the Standard was reduced to citing the case of the judge who expressed sympathy for a man who in a moment of patriotic fervour had knifed a non-violent protester, an innocent by-stander and a lady reporter.

We were also told the way this was handled: the judge was kept on a restricted diet – no politicals – for a year or so and has now been reinstated as an all-purpose wig-warmer. Nice.

Well let us hope that the performance reviewers get on to one matter in which Hong Kong is dragging well below international standards, and that is the amount of time it takes before cases are concluded.

As it happens we have some recent data on this, thanks to a Legco question by Tik Chi-yuen, the only blemish in an otherwise uniformly pro-government chamber. The Secretary for Security, Chris Tang, responded.

His reply, which included a great deal of fluff, culminated in this: “Operational experience from some 90 anti-EAB cases concluded at the District Court (DC) over the past two years indicates that the processing time from their date of first appearance at the Magistrates’ Courts to the date of conclusion at DC generally ranged from 300 to 400 days or so, which is about 30 per cent longer than other criminal cases.

“The median time it took for cases to be dealt with by the Magistrates’ Courts was about 100 days. The median time taken for cases that were transferred from the Magistrates’ Courts to the District Court was 21 days.

“At the District Court level, it took a median of around 200 days for cases to be concluded for defendants who pleaded guilty. For cases that went to trial, the median time was approximately 380 days.”

It would perhaps be churlish to complain that this did not actually answer Mr Tik’s question. He asked for the average and the maximum times taken. This is a pity, because it means we cannot compare with the figures for England and Wales. According to the National Audit Office, for example, the average time between first appearance before magistrate/s and trial in Crown Court was 123 days, which does not compare well with a “general range of 300 to 400 days or so”.

Why did Mr Tang offer a barrage of medians? A short statistical digression is in order here. There are three standard ways of compressing a range of values – height, intelligence, number of monkeys on Monkey Hill, number of cars illegally double parked in Pedder Street at 5 pm – into one figure. They are the average, the mode and the median.

The average, known technically as the mean, is the one we are all familiar with: add up the numbers, divide by the number of cases. The mode is the most popular number, so if we are considering the number of wheels on vehicles going through the Cross Harbour Tunnel the mode is four. The median is the number which has the same number of cases above it as below it.

Let us say there are nine people in a bar, average income $20,000 a month. If Elon Musk replaces one of them the average income will immediately zoom up like one of Mr Musk’s rockets. But it will be meaningless. It will be grossly in excess of the incomes of the nine originals and much less than Mr Musk’s. So if you are considering whether you should stock six types of champagne the median – the income of the fifth patron in order of wealth – will be more helpful, and it will still be about $20,000.

This is the advantage of the median: it insulates you from extreme values. This is helpful in our bar case. In Mr Tang’s, on the other hand, it allows him to conceal the fact that some cases take much longer than 400 days.

In recent days, for example, we had Leung Kwok-hung convicted of disorderly behaviour in Legco, an offence committed in 2016. Time from magistrate to final decision six years, which comes to 2,100 days … or so.

Also in Bleak House territory we have Mr Benny Tai, in court last week to plead guilty to an election offence, also committed in 2016, which consisted of advertising his “Thundergo” plan for tactical voting. The judge in his case expressed some polite dismay that the proceedings had only started last year. Prosecutor replied that the Thundergo plan was a large one and it took a long time to gather evidence.

Which is bullshit. When the offence consists of placing large advertisements in newspapers the investigation is the forensic equivalent of a penalty kick with a blindfolded goalkeeper. It is difficult to suppress the suspicion that at some time last year a decision was made somewhere to throw any handy legal implement at the government’s critics.

Consider the case of Lee Cheuk-yan. Mr Lee is a venerable (he is 65) landmark of our political scene, already serving a sentence for participating in an unlawful gathering. Last week he was in court again, accused of releasing a balloon in Central and obstructing a policeman who wished to arrest the balloon.

The outcome of this trivial triumph for the law (which was late as usual – offence committed in January 2021) was that Mr Lee was fined for releasing the balloon and sentenced to 30 days in prison for the obstruction, 20 days to be served concurrently with his present term. So he serves an extra ten.

Mr Leung was slightly less lucky. He got an extra 14 days.

With prosecutors busily engaged in this sort of thing it is hardly surprising that major cases take for ever. The long wait for a court decision is a palpable infringement of the human rights of the defendants concerned, whether or not they are – as they generally are these days – kept in custody pending the trial.

A long piece by me on the relevant international standards here.

It this all seems rather abstract, let us consider the arrangements now used in English trials, which revolve round a thing called Custody Time Limits. The basic idea is that people should only be kept in custody pending trial for a limited period, 56 days for a trial before a magistrate and 182 days (an odd number? Six months) for a Crown Court trial. If the prosecution has not got its ducks in a row by the end of that time the defendant is entitled to bail regardless of the reasons why it was refused in the first place.

There are the usual legal bells and whistles – exceptions, definitions, which days count and so on. Summary for lay people: “All trials are listed within the Custody Time Limits. If the trial, for whatever reason, has to be adjourned to a date beyond those limits the prosecutor must publicly apply to extend the CTL to ensure that the defendant remains remanded until the new trial date. The legal test for extending the CTL requires that the court must be satisfied that the prosecution has acted with ‘due diligence and expedition and that there is good and sufficient cause…’”

Failure to observe the time limit is regarded in prosecutorial circles as a major embarrassment so you may not be surprised to hear that prosecutors in the Crown Prosecution Service, under-funded and under-staffed though it notoriously is, generally manage to get their cases started within the limit.

The conclusion we can draw from this is that those cases which took 300 to 400 days” here would have been completed in about half the time elsewhere. The “median time for cases to be dealt with by the Magistrates Courts” was roughly twice the maximum usually allowed in England.

There is no prospect of a formal time limit being introduced here, but there is clearly scope for a good deal of acceleration, if judges can bring themselves to require it.

Also in the court pages recently we had the Director of Public Prosecutions appearing in person to further the case of fraud (using part of a factory building as an office) against Jimmy Lai. This case first appeared before a magistrate in December 2020; the trial started yesterday. Par for the course.

Actually this case shouldn’t be a high priority, given that Mr Lai is already up to his ears in enough legal excrement of the national security variety to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

It might be useful if the DPP left the pursuit of Mr Lai to some junior person and concentrated on putting a rocket under her subordinates.

I do not subscribe to the view, reported to be widely held among residents of the Lai Chi Kok Detention Centre, that long delays pending trial are a deliberate ploy to encourage guilty pleas. But the alternative explanations are not much more decorative: indifference, indolence or incompetence.

Hats off to legislator Lai Tung-kwok, whose attempts to think of creative ways to waste our money led him to suggest that there should be a commissioner for national security education, to make sure the Good News is spread to adults as well as the helpless victims of the education industry.

This would be a challenging role, but at least it might lead to some careful thought about the arguments which are used to defend the national security law, which at the moment are often strangely remote from the complaints.

We are, for instance, often told that other countries have national security laws, so there should be no objection to Hong Kong and China having one. But nobody has suggested that it is wrong in principle for a country or territory to have a national security law. This is an answer looking for a question.

The critics, most of whom are prudently located outside Hong Kong, do not think that a national security law is a bad thing in itself. They think there are good national security laws and bad national security laws.

This is a point which also seems to have eluded former police chief Tang King-shing, who warned this week that people who are thinking of emigrating because of the national security law should think twice, because it is very likely that the country they go to will also have a national security law.

True indeed. And any large city you move to will have an MTR. But will it be large and modern, ancient and dirty, convenient and spacious or creaky and crowded? Will it be like ours or like Glasgow’s, a single line which always looks to me like an underground version of the old Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park monorail?

National security laws are like toilets. There is a wide range from the shed over a hole in the back garden to an ensuite Japanese electrified job which does everything for you except wipe.

International comparisons are difficult because most countries do not have “national security law” as a separate category. This has what citizens of those countries may feel the happy consequence that there is no role for “national security approved judges”, but it is inconvenient for spectators.

One is reduced to tabling a series of questions, like: are national security offences clearly defined, is non-violent political speech protected, are the rights of those accused of offences protected, are the punishments available proportionate to the harm done, is there a special police force with extraordinary powers, and is there, indeed, a part of the government which depends for its future prospects of promotion and prosperity on finding a steady stream of national security cases?

I put this last question in because one of the curious things about national security cases in other places is how rarely they come up. It used to be my job to introduce students to the Official Secrets Ordinance and its ancestor the British Official Secrets Act.

There had at that time been no official secrets cases in Hong Kong at all. Such cases in the UK had been so rare that I could briefly go through the whole lot since the passage of the original act in 1911. Some of them took very little time. Many of them did not involve spying – or journalism – but merely failure to take proper care of secrets in a person’s custody, usually involving naval officers leaving brief cases full of interesting papers in bars.

Similarly in other common law countries internal national security was a cottage industry, although Mr Putin’s efforts of late have done wonders for it.

The problem is that national security precautions can be overdone. Mary Wollstonecroft commented on the French Revolution, which she had observed at close range, that “every political good carried to the extreme must be productive of evil”. Or as Vanessa Place puts it in a rather different context and more modern language, “Laws passed with good intentions and historic justification may snap together to create a legal terror.”

We must all accept that security and public peace are desirable objectives, and that the national security law was intended to be a good thing for everyone concerned. The question remains whether those good intentions have been realised, in a law which is much more specific about punishments than the offences to be punished.

So how can we advise people who are thinking of leaving to get away from the national security law? Well of course they are mistaken. Our national security law is wonderful. We don’t want to lose you but if you must go…

I think the easiest way to guide migrants in the right direction is to avoid countries which signed an address to the UN Secretary General last year expressing unqualified approval for our new national security law, which suggests that their versions will be as bad as ours, if not worse.

Here they are: Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, China, Comoros, Congo, Cuba, Djibouti, Dominica, DPRK (North Korea), Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Lao PDR (Laos), Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, Tonga, Tunisia, UAE, Uganda, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

You can, as the old poem almost has it, “tell a man who abuses by the company he chooses”.

If that is not quite the sort of country you were thinking of migrating to then you should be OK.

District Court judge Stanley Chan has a way of uncovering parts of the law that other judges don’t reach.

His latest innovation came in the sentencing earlier this week of Tam Chak-ti, a democrat and former DJ, who had earlier been convicted on a variety of sedition charges.

When someone with a lot of friends who has been in custody for a long time has his day in court, the public gallery tends to be full. Hand signals, smiles are exchanged, possibly the odd oral message. National security judges, of whom Stanley is one, like to discourage this, in case it gets political.

The others do not, though, go as far as he did, saying that he had asked the prosecution to set up surveillance cameras pointing at the public gallery. “The court is the court, even if the judge is not inside the courtroom, it is still a court,” he said. And added that he would not allow any noise or “political promotion”, presumably even if he was not present.

This is not acceptable. From an architectural point of view, certainly, the court is a court, whether the judge is there or not, just as a stable remains a stable if there is no horse in it, and a sewer remains a sewer even if there is no poop floating down it.

From a legal point of view the situation is rather different. Judges are endowed with sweeping powers to keep order in their courtrooms. They can order instant arrest and unlimited detention. Senior judges are perfectly well aware that this sort of summary procedure does not meet the usual standards and appeal courts have often urged restraint in its use.

The purpose of these powers is to ensure that the proceedings can go on in an orderly fashion. If the judge is not there then there are no proceedings taking place.

The implication of Chan’s remarks were quite clear. They were a threat. If the prosecution’s cameras revealed something to which he took exception he would use the power to commit for contempt. For “use”, read “abuse”.

It is difficult, though not impossible, to imagine a case where a judge might legitimately use the power to commit for contempt in connection with actions outside the court, and indeed outside the time of the hearing.

There was, for example, a case in England in which an alert court official spotted a man on the roof of the court engaged in arranging to pipe laughing gas into the air conditioning system.

In the absence of this sort of technical innovation, though, people in a court public gallery outside the time of the actual hearing are in the same legal position as they would be in the street. You cannot disrupt a trial which is not taking place. If lawyers still in the courtroom – whether the prosecution or defence – take exception to what is said or done their proper recourse is to call the police, not show the judge a video.

In fact is it normally unlawful to take video in a courtroom and I have some doubts about the propriety of a judge making an exception for his own purposes.

There is also the question what happens to the video afterwards. As our courts are under a great deal of international scrutiny these days it is important to avoid the impression that people attending a trial as spectators – as we are all perfectly entitled to do – are being discouraged by having their attendance recorded by government officials connected with the national security industry.

No doubt it could be argued on Chan’s behalf that a church remains legally a church, even if no priest is present. Sacrilege would still be sacrilege if the building was empty. This is because God is present. Judges are not gods, a point which Chan seems to have some difficulty with, because his all-seeing eye perceives things which were not, and indeed could not, be demonstrated by the evidence presented in his court.

Consider this comment on Mr Tam’s political ambitions: “The defendant’s multiple grandstanding … there is only one purpose without a doubt, that is to enter the Legislative Council, enter Hong Kong’s administrative structure, and ‘enjoy’ the income, power, and social status given to him using government funds.”

Most of this is unexceptionable. Of course politicians in the old days when anyone could run for election hoped to get into Legco, just as soldiers aspire to be generals and judges, we suppose, hope one day to sit in the Court of Final Appeal. But where did the “using government funds” come from?

I presume there was no expert evidence from a psychologist – or a government-friendly retired historian – as to the motivation for Mr Tam’s political ambitions, so there was no reason to suppose that they are as venal as the judge implied.

The judge took a more modest approach to the defence’s claim that Mr Tam had a “genuine ideology”. Citing excerpts from Tam speeches the judge said he “could not see where it included his so-called ideology”.

This is a dangerous way of putting it. Unbidden the disrespectful mind contemplates answers like: not in that part of the speech perhaps. Or maybe some familiarity with political theory is required. Or intelligence.

Sad story last week about a man who set out to rob a local bank. He waved a gun-like object at the cashier, who emptied the till into a bag. Apparently this only amounted to $14,000; banks are just not a pile of cash waiting to be collected these days.

Anyway the robber exited the bank. The cashier, a conscientious person, gave chase from a safe distance and observed the robber get into his getaway vehicle: a public bus!

Naturally the proverbial hue and cry was raised and the police met the bus when it got to Sham Shui Po. Alas our robber may have been parsimonious but he was not stupid, and had already got off at an earlier stop.

I suppose the entire bank robbery industry will be horrified at this decline in standards. A get-away car is usual, departing on the back seat of a motorbike makes sense in traffic-clogged cities, but hopping on the 85D for a couple of stops is letting the profession down.

More seriously, the robber was no doubt a first-timer with very little in the way of working capital, driven to desperation by the disruption to life in general and the economy in particular caused by the COVID virus and the government’s efforts to combat it.

People are hurting. So this is not an auspicious time for our leaders to engage in a spectacularly wasteful exhibition of conspicuous consumption.

Which is why it seems a shame that the processing of our sole candidate for Chief Executive, Mr John Lee, is taking such an expensive form. The government apparently budgeted a cool $228 million for this exercise. When it was postponed because of COVID we were told that this change of date would cost a further $50 million, making a grand total of $278 million for an “election” whose result is already a foregone conclusion.

This is not a criticism of the electoral system; whatever system you use to choose, or choose to use, if there is only one candidate there is surely no need to go through the whole ritual, especially if the whole ritual is as expensive as this one.

The cost comes to a little over $190,000 per elector. This is an astonishing figure and could surely be trimmed vigorously. It is of course wildly in excess of comparable figures for elections elsewhere, but they commonly involve so many more electors than our 1,454 that comparisons are meaningless.

Officially the money goes on “hiring venues, manning polling and counting stations, mailing, and renting storage space”. I take it from all these plurals that the $278 million includes the election of the election committee itself.

But the election committee elections were all done and dusted when the CE election was postponed, so we are left to wonder what the extra $50 million is for.

I suppose we shall have to mail the electors a polling card of some kind, with a notification of the place and date of voting. After that?

Well clearly nobody has turned his or her mind to possible economies. Apparently the voting will take place in the Convention and Exhibition Centre, which is neither convenient nor cheap, and will go on all day, which is quite unnecessary.

This is surely an opportunity for Mr Leung Chun-ying, the Election Convenor, to make his mark as a man with an eye to eliminating wasteful expenditure. The government owns plenty of large indoor spaces which could be used for the election without paying. The poll could be held in the Government House Ball Room, the Express Rail station, the Queen Elizabeth Stadium… the list is endless.

There is no need for it to go on all day. All we have to do is to assemble the electors in a large space. The national anthem is played. Mr Leung stands up and delivers a suitably localised equivalent of

“The motion before the House is that Mr John Lee should be nominated to the Beijing authorities as Hong Kong’s choice for the office of Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR Government. Those in favour say ‘Aye’. (pause) Those against say ‘No’ (silent pause). The Ayes have it. I declare Mr John Lee duly elected.”

This would save a lot of paper, time and expense. If we ever have two candidates in the future it may need to be elaborated a bit. But for the time being it should enable Mr Leung to save about $49 million of the budgeted expenses, and star on an unusual bit of television.

You’re welcome.

Don’t clap; throw money.

The current status of Mr John Lee Kar-chui has presented one of those linguistic problems which delight retired sub editors: how do you describe a man who is clearly going to win a fixed election?

My regular free newspaper tried “chief executive hopeful”, realised that wasn’t really capturing the reality of the situation – “chief executive certainty” would have been more accurate – and retreated the next day to “sole chief executive candidate”.

A local columnist offered “chief executive-in-waiting” which captures the “not yet but definitely soon” aspect of the situation, at the risk of making Mr Lee sound like a minor palace official, as in “lady-in-waiting”.

Foreign publications were less inhibited about the manipulations behind the scenes: one offered “the central government’s selection”, but this will hardly do for Hong Kong purposes.

Digging into an on-line thesaurus provides some suggestions, but they all have problems. The “embryonic chief executive” is too medical. The “chief executive presumptive” (as in “heir presumptive”) works, but involves confusing local readers with an adjective which is for some reason always put after the noun, instead of in the usual place in front of it.

The word used in English elections for candidates who do not yet wish to be counted for election expenses purposes is “prospective”, probably a technical leap too far for most of us. The “putative candidate” sounds vaguely Russian.

Well having raised the question I suppose we must offer some sort of answer. Mr Lee is the “future chief executive”. This involves treating the election as a formality, albeit one costing a mind-blowing total of $278 million. But it is a formality.

This is just as well. Mr Lee’s efforts to look like a man running for a real election are worthy of Dr Johnson’s comment on women preaching “like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It’s not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Mr Lee has been nominated by more than half of the election committee. Presumably all these people will vote for him. Nevertheless he is now diligently working on a “manifesto”. He has also recruited a large crew – mostly “heavyweights” you have never heard of – to work on his “campaign”.

Well a few words of advice is Mr Lee wants to start his chief executive career in a warm glow of public approval – or at least not in an icy depth of public hostility. Putting “national security legislation” as a top priority is not a crowd pleaser. Nor, alas, is “closer integration with the Greater Bay Area”. We know you have to work on these things, but they are not going to endear.

Your mainland minders are convinced that Hong Kong will roll over on its back with its legs in the air if its housing problems are solved, so put that up in lights. Social security, pensions, improvements to aged homes, health services are all neglected topics which might properly engage the attention of a benevolent chief. Avoid ‘education reform”. You may mean something completely innocent by this but the person in the street will interpret it as a promise of better brainwashing.

Prepare to be asked about all sorts of things in press conferences. Some of your early performances were not inspired. When asked about the jailing of journalists it will not do, for example, to point out that since the Handover not one word of the Basic Law has been changed.

This is like saying that since the 1930s not one brick of the Peninsula Hotel has been removed. The bricks are all there, but someone has plonked a high-rise eyesore with a helicopter pad on top of them. Likewise the Basic Law is now subordinate to the National Security Law. And the Bill of Rights Ordinance is subordinate to both of them.

The Pen then (above) and now (below). Unchanged, but not unchanged.

I am afraid you can hardly avoid some appearances in public within touching distance of the ordinary people who do not have a vote in your election, because this is what real politicians do. Fortunately because of the COVID situation you do not have to really kiss real babies. You could do worse, though, than follow the example of your predecessor Tung Chee-hwah, who had the habit of shaking hands with everyone within reach whenever he turned up anywhere.

The result of this was that having never been within shouting distance of a colonial governor I wound up getting a limp handful of Mr Tung twice. I did not melt completely but I was impressed. These little things shouldn’t make a difference but they do.

On the other hand when on your walk-abouts try to discourage your underlings from reserving lifts for your exclusive use. I am told that some civil servants still cherish the memory of unexpected encounters with Mr Chris Patten, as he then was, in an official elevator.

Try to avoid faux proletarian gestures like buying vegetables. We all know you have a cook.

Finally a word about a rather delicate period ahead, in which you will have won the election but have to wait for official approval from Beijing. Meanwhile you will have to wait about and watch someone else doing what you will by now think of as your job.

Some consoling thoughts: Prince Charles has been in this position for decades.

It may help to remember that generations of Hapsburgs had a similar problem. The Holy Roman Emperor was the product of a small circle election, with only seven electors. The electors always chose (with one exception over 400 years) the next Hapsburg in the queue.

But the winner of the election did not become Emperor – he had to content himself with the title of King of Rome – until he was crowned by the Pope, presumably to ensure an acceptable quantity of holiness.

This involved a trip over the Alps and took months, sometimes years. Your flight to Beijing will be a doddle by comparison.

I don’t mind Elon Musk taking over a chunk of Twitter. You Twits can still go on enjoying yourselves after all. But what is he doing in the Sui Wo Estate Shopping Centre Car Park?

Six spaces are now reserved – and this is the first time I have seen one actually used – for purchasers of Mr Musk’s expensive electric chariots.

This does not look like a good business move. Sui Wo Estate was the first Home Ownership Estate built in the New Territories back in the 80s. It is quite nice as public housing erections go, but the flats are small and, of course, now old.

The shopping centre is quite basic. There is a ParknShop of the grassroots kind: 12 kinds of rice and only one of cheese. There are two convenience stores, two chain bakeries, the usual two ETC machines, Fairwood, Mannings, Japan Home Stores … you get the picture. This is not natural Tesla territory.

Also drivers of other brands may not welcome the new arrangement. The disabled space has been moved to a place even further from where a disabled person might wish to be:

The space required by the Tesla electrical infrastructure has led to another parking slot being put out of action, because otherwise a pedestrian exit is blocked whenever someone parks there.

And you are not welcome in a Tesla parking space, even if all the others are full and all the Musk boxes are empty.

I have my doubts about the threats of impounding or towing. I have never seen the slightest sign in a Hong Kong car park of any facilities for impounding, much less towing, delinquent cars. I imagine making such arrangements would be quite expensive, and also the entrance to an interesting legal maze.

Still, this arrangement seems to raise an important general issue, which is: granted that we wish to encourage electric vehicles by providing the necessary charging points, is it really a good idea for such facilities to be specific to one brand only?

After all I regularly read that every car maker in the world is concocting an electric offering, and in many cases giving up the old fossil fuel arrangement. Electric cars made in China are, according to The Economist, now competitive in quality with their Western counterparts and, I presume, much cheaper.

Clearly the present advantage of petrol cars is that you can get petrol anywhere. Petrol stations are distinctive and all the petrol on offer – despite efforts to persuade you that some brands will put a Tiger in your Tank and others will be “with you all the way” – is much the same.

As far as I know electricity has the same boring quality: Hong Kong Electric’s is much like China Light and Power’s. The only difference between the electricity supplied to different electric cars is the plug used. I would have thought it made sense to have all electric charging points generic, so that owners of electric cars may have to search for a top-up, but at least they do not have to search for a Toyota top-up, or whatever.

Well this is a commercial decision and nothing to do with me. Our government may care to encourage a more convenient arrangement or it may not bother. The success or failure of charging points is a new and fresh mystery, at least to me. The set in New Town Plaza is a roaring success and often has a queue; the set under Festival Walk is often empty. Personally I think a hybrid car makes more sense anyway.

Given the general shortage of parking spaces in Hong Kong we should all, perhaps, be pondering a new question of driving etiquette: under what circumstances, if any, is it acceptable for the driver of a petrol-powered dinosaur to park in a charging space.

Some years ago a writer in the SCMPost published a bitter denunciation of drivers (well the one driver who, when she protested, told her to lump it) who park in charging spaces they do not need. At the same time there is no requirement that the electric user should actually plug in and absorb electricity. I suppose the point of a charging facility for the mall proprietor is to make money, which can most easily be done by charging usurious rates for power. All the Tesla owners I know have a plug in their car ports. May they still use the Tesla spaces without being towed?

Petrol powered people will not doubt look at the matter differently. Car parks do not start charging you when you find a space; they start charging as soon as you drive in. Some of them have elaborate arrangements to stop new arrivals when they are full and direct the homeless to vacancies, but most of them don’t.

If the alternative is to pay $50 an hour for the pleasure of circulating in search of a space then I fear a good many drivers are going to say that Mr Musk can kiss my posterior and I am going to use one of his reserved spots.

I remember there was a time when the Smart people were pursuing the idea of special spaces reserved for their little cars. Don’t see them now, do we?