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Many local organisations have been seriously inconvenienced by the rules against public gatherings. Some people have been fined for breeches of the rules. Yet one organisation continues to organise events at which large numbers of people breathe the same air.

The following pictures were all eagerly circulated on the Government news webpage. Here we have our Chief Executive in action:

Some familiar faces here
Anyone for noodles?
Do I see social distancing?

But we must not pick on Carrie. Here we have the Chief Secretary for Administration:

Open the box!

Here we have the Secretary for Security:

Then we put them in here until they confess…

And no selection of pictures of officials ignoring the rules would be complete without a contribution from the Commissioner of Police.

And the winner of the humorous hat competition is …

I am not too concerned about whether all this is legal or not. Clearly if you are the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR that is not in practice a worry.

But it does seem that senior government officials are still eagerly engaging in all the usual visits, “inspections” and opening ceremonies, at a time when the rest of us are being urged to stay at home and avoid contact with our fellow beings, for health reasons.

No doubt they will say that these are important functions, that they are good for staff morale, and give top bureaucrats an opportunity to see on the ground the effect of their stratospheric deliberations on strategy. And this is important.

But it is really? In my working days I remember visits, inspections and ceremonial occasions as rather an extra burden than a pleasure. Days of work on preparing to make a good impression, much of it wasted, followed by the mysterious appearance of all sorts of people otherwise rarely seen.

The government visits are by all accounts even worse – though somewhat shorter – than that gruesome academic ritual the “validation visit”. Professors did not, at least, require a lift and a toilet to be reserved for their use while they were in the building.

I realise it is difficult to follow the rules if you are accompanied everywhere by two bodyguards. You are over the COVID limit as soon as you step out of the car. Also when you are touring someone else’s building quite a lot of people will wish to be present.

On the other hand this means that an awful lot of people are not doing their usual work, whatever that is, while they are showing you round. You are, in effect, just an interruption. And I doubt that there will be any compensating boost to morale from visits by officials whose popularity – or lack of it – has plumbed depths unexplored even by Mr CY Leung.

Also, whatever you can say for these occasions, there is a painful discrepancy here. At a time when organisations of all kinds have had to suspend their activities, when children facing important exams are studying via Zoom, when underpaid helpers are being fined a month’s salary for meeting in a group of three, is it acceptable – is it nice? – for senior government officials to be pictured touring their empires in large groups, accompanied by shoals of assistants, deputies, pilot fish and small horses of all kinds?

We all have to make sacrifices. We are, after all, at war, as Ms Lam regularly reminds us. This is not the time for official tourism.

I suppose Carrie Lam’s daily press conference is a response to complaints from some people – usually supportive of the government – that it is not communicating well.

This is not a good idea. Doing a press conference at which any topic can come up is a specialised skill involving careful preparation. The performer must study all the possible questions, then devise and perhaps even rehearse suitable answers. Doing this every day is a full-time job, which is why the task is in most places delegated to a specialist if it is attempted at all.

If Ms Lam were preparing herself properly, in short, she would not have time to do anything else. Some people might regard this as an improvement but presumably she is not one of them.

Meanwhile some questions are dealt with deftly, and some are not. Consider the unlikely storm which has come up in the local media over the Hospital Authority’s purchase of 1,500 fans.

The purpose of the fans is, in medic speak, to turn ordinary wards into “negative pressure isolation ones”. This sounds terribly technical and isn’t. Most Hongkongers have negative pressure rooms. This is achieved by installing an extractor fan in the window. This sucks air out of the room, creating a flow which ensures that your cooking odours – or in hospital contexts the noxious expirations of your patients – go outside and do not stink up your living room, or hospital as appropriate.

Substantial houses like mine (we have three bathrooms) have four fans. I do not recall exactly when we last bought one because they are as basic as an electrical appliance gets – motor, fan, switch, housing – so they last a long time. If one dies we just replace it.

What caused a stir about the Hospital Authority’s efforts in this area is that the fans cost $2,000 a pop. Well you might think, what of it? Presumably these are high-tech hospital quality fans, designed to conform to the European Authority’s published standards for medical extractors, manufactured in Dusseldorf with precision German engineering and personally endorsed by Sir James Dyson, the patron saint of expensive fan technology.

Not so, alas. The fans came from somewhere north of the boundary. According to the website of the factory concerned the price of a fan when it leaves their premises is $192. 

In response, the Secretary for Food and Health, Sophia Chan Siu-chee, channeled her inner Boadicea – or possibly her inner Carrie Lam – and defended the arrangement on the grounds that the government was “at war” with the virus. It was an “emergency procurement” and “had to be ready in a short period of time”.

Earlier statements from the Hospital Authority suggested that this was done in a strange way. The authority had completed the task with the help of “the Liaison Office, mainland authorities, the Hong Kong government, lawmakers and the logistics industry”. This doesn’t sound like the usual procedure, which I suppose involves technical specifications, invitations to tender, assessments of the track records and capacity of bidders and other important bureaucratic rituals.

On the other hand it also sounds a bit unnecessary. The “Made in China” webpage has more than 800 fan manufacturers, many of whom seem to be in Guangdong Province. You would think that a knowledgable business person with a phone could have scared up a couple of thousand fans at a reasonable price. There is a difference between paying a bit extra for haste and being royally ripped off.

Oddly enough the next day the list of participants in this particular disaster was pruned. The Liaison Office, it appears, does not want its fingerprints to appear on this particular triumph.

Neither, it emerged at her daily performance, does Ms Lam. “The government did not take part in the procurement work of the Hospital Authority and so we do not know the details regarding the purchase,” was her answer to the inevitable question. Dear me. This calls for an adaptation from the saintly John Donne’s musings on the theme that no man is an island: “Therefore never send to know for whom the buck passes. It passes for me.”

Ms Lam went on to say that “This should also not be used as the basis of accusations that the government is experiencing problems in internal coordination.” No doubt fans of “problems of internal coordination” will be happy to go along with this. They have plenty of material to play with already.

And more was duely supplied with the announcement that two drug companies have been contracted to supply Hong Kong with anti-virus pills, which greatly improve prospects for COVID sufferers.

Ms Lam, reported the Standard, “refused to disclose the amount of drugs that the authorities have lined up … or their cost.” She went on to say that “We have procured sufficient quantities…” (that’s “we” as in “me and some other people”) adding that she had been in direct touch with senior people of the two drugs companies.

So the deal is Carrie’s baby? Nope. “The actual procurement was done by the Hospital Authority, but the SAR government has been facilitating and supporting the procurement.” I fear the parentage of this particular brainwave will depend on how it turns out. “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” as Count Ciano put it.

If you associate this proverb with John F. Kennedy it is because he used it without acknowledging the embarrassing source: Count Ciano was Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law.

Well no doubt we shall muddle through. What worries me is the continued invocation of “we are at war” as a justification for avoiding rather basic issues of safety. Consider another Lam performance, on the admission to Hong Kong of unlicensed container lorries from the mainland.  The government had earlier confirmed that it was allowing this on an experimental basis to reduce virus transmission risks and smooth the flow of transport across the boundary. The statement was accompanied by video of a clearly mainland container truck arriving at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal.

What, reporters wondered, would happen if one of these trucks was involved in an accident? Were they covered by insurance?

Ms Lam climbed aboard her warhorse. “In this time of war, every action has to be quick. [We] can no longer follow the way of thinking during ordinary times and abide by typical rules,” she said. 

The important question was what these lorries were in Hong Kong for – “for the citizens of Hong Kong”, and “they offer us fresh food items and other anti-epidemic supplies necessary to our daily lives.” This brings up a little mystery which was not explored at the press conference: since the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal is the place where containers are put on ships and taken overseas, why are our “daily necessities” being delivered there?

No doubt there is a simple answer to that question. There may also be a simple answer to the question what happens if one of these trucks is involved in an accident, but if there is Ms Lam did not supply it.

This is a pity because we are going to find out, sooner rather than later. Even if these trucks were being driven and maintained to the highest standards – which is, to put it politely, not certain – they would still be a menace because the steering wheel is on the wrong side.

European trucks visit the UK all the time and they are notoriously prone to accidents because, however many mirrors and cameras you add, the driver in the left side seat has a blindspot and from time to time someone is in it at the wrong moment. 

If one of these rambling behemoths collides with a full bus who will be responsible? Napoleon is supposed to have said that “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, which is more or less the military attitude to casualties. War is a dangerous game; losses are unavoidable. If a nasty traffic accident occurs Ms Lam will sadly discover that we are not actually at war, and our government is still expected to keep us safe. 

Barber shops have reopened. How long since they were closed? One week, two? It seems that our leaders have increasing difficulty in making their minds up. Yesterday schools were to close in March for mass testing. Today the mass testing will take place in April… if nobody changes their mind in the meantime.

Like many households mine has stocked up on frozen food and tins, in case of a sudden lockdown. This possibility has been a talking point for a long time. I am no longer sure whether the date of the lockdown is this month, next month, next year or never.

Similarly, what exactly will be locked down? The last lockdown announcement had barely hit the government website before the Financial Secretary announced that the financial industry would be exempt. No doubt other secretaries will not be slow, if the postponed or cancelled lockdown is unpostponed or uncancelled, to find parts of their empire which are too important to be shut down.

What makes this constant uncertainty particularly galling is that official hints and nameless briefings are often followed by official on-the-record contradictions of the hints and briefings, combined with the heart-rending complaint that the smooth machinery of government is being sabotaged by “false news”.

Leadership positions can be divided into two categories. Many years ago I read a moving piece about a family of tightrope walkers who, in a horrific accident, dropped off the rope en masse.

Some of them died, and some of them were so badly injured that they would never perform again. The survivors, led by the patriarch of the family, returned to the circus some months later.

Naturally there was a full house for the first performance after the accident. The family did their human pyramid and, just when things were looking most precarious, the old man at the bottom wobbled.

Ladies screamed and fainted. Connoisseurs were lost in admiration. For a really proficient tightrope walker the deliberate wobble is a crowning accomplishment. The art of the circus is to make the apparently impossible look easy, but not too easy. 

Contrast this with the Russian general described by Tolstoi in War and Peace. Our hero, who is a staff officer, notices that his general rarely gives orders. But he has a way of giving the impression that everything which is happening is according to plan, even though it obviously isn’t (this is the battle of Austerlitz, which ended badly for the Russians) so officers who arrived looking harassed and pessimistic leave looking relaxed and confident.

You would think that an administration whose head is throughly addicted to military metaphors would aspire to the second type of leadership, rather than the first.

We all know public administration is difficult. As Oakeshott put it: “In political activity … men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”

There may be a time, when things are stultifyingly quiet, for a deliberate wobble to wake us all up. But generally, and particularly in times of crisis, the art of political leadership is to make it looks as if things are going according to plan, as if our leaders know what they are doing even if in reality they are “crossing the river by feeling the rocks”, as if reasonable decisions are being made and having been made, implemented.

What we get instead is the muffled rumblings of a closed door debate. Some of the participants leak, some of them have beliefs attributed to them by “commentators” and some of them feel no need for public participation in decision-making at all.

Eventually the Chief Executive emerges and tells us what has been decided. Except that it hasn’t been decided. The debate continues and next week she will emerge and tell us that something else has been decided.

The only consistent policy we have seen so far is a stringent limit on outdoor gatherings. And I’m afraid very few people believe that is motivated entirely by concern for the public’s health.

For our next trick: universal testing. I note with dismay that this has now been moved to April because the latest wave is expected to be subsiding by then. So we are not locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. We are going to send out a search party but waiting until the horse is clearly already on his way back to the stable.

Meanwhile researchers at HKU have determined that the ban on dining out in the evening had no measurable effect on the spread of the virus. I do not doubt that if they bothered, they would find out the same thing about the requirement that people should wear face masks when walking in country parks.

We are not following science. We are lurching from brainwave to brainwave. Under the circumstance it is entirely unsurprising that rumours should circulate about what is coming next. There is an antidote to this kind of false news: clear and consistent policy clearly and consistently explained. Is that too much to ask?

Another item for the annals of Hong Kong law enforcement. Last week police arrested two kids, ages 13 and 15, following a fracas on a basketball court.

The original crime was committed by a group of teenagers who were playing basketball on the court in Wong Tai Sin. This could be interpreted as a violation of the “no larger gatherings than two” rule, and moreover some of them – it was credibly reported in the Standard – were not wearing masks.

“Three plainclothes officers arrived at the scene,” the report continues, “to find that most of the teenagers had left, except for the 15-year-old and his 13-year-old brother. Sources said the two refused to leave, as they wanted to retrieve their basketball, which was stuck on the hoop.”

The elder brother then got into a verbal argument with the officers, which in due course escalated. He was arrested on charges of assaulting police. Video apparently shows him pinned to the ground and resisting. He was later released on police bail.

According to his father the boy was later found to have injuries to his face, chest and hands. Basketball is a rough game these days, it appears.

There is an interesting legal point here. Clearly the original game was a possible violation of the anti-COVID rules. On the other hand all the players except the two ball owners had either left or did so when the police arrived.

So it would appear that at that point no offence was being committed. Two people is the limit. The remaining two were perfectly entitled to remain on the scene to retrieve their ball, or for any other lawful purpose. You have to wonder why the cops concerned thought it necessary to have any interaction with them at all.

Later police statement: “The 15-year-old became emotional when officers stopped and searched him, leading the teenager to assault two officers with his hands.” So there was a stop and search? What, one wonders, was the justification for that? At what point did the officers say they were officers? Did they show a warrant card or two?

Well no doubt all this will be a matter for a magistrate, if it gets that far. The thing that set off my bullshit detector was the “three plainclothes officers”.

I have personally been the subject of occasional public complaints, a normal hazard for Hong Kong bagpipers. The police people who turned up were invariably polite, friendly, sympathetic … and in uniform.

It is nice to know that police take complaints about violations of the COVID rules seriously, but difficult to believe that even in these manpower-stretched days the normal response is to borrow three detectives from the CID.

Was this, one wonders, a case in which the complaining “members of the public” were also the investigating officers? 

Whatever the truth of these matters it seems there are a couple of principles which our hard-stretched law-enforcers may be neglecting.

The first one is that the default rule for interactions between the police and the public is and must involve the policeman or police woman being in uniform. We all understand that there are occasions and purposes for which the uniform is unnecessary and even impossible, but the general rule should be that a police person looks like a police person.

If the police person is not so uniformed, it would be nice to think that the production of a warrant card at the outset was a must. Nice, but a bit optimistic. I noticed in another case last week a young man arrested by a plainclothes policeman explained his reluctance to be arrested as being the result of the arresting individual’s repeated refusal to show his warrant card. The magistrate dismissed asking to see the card as a “way of wasting time”.

Similarly in the case of Samuel Bickett, still sub judice so we shall not go into details, the magistrate was quite happy to make up excuses for a policeman in plainclothes who had not only refused to show his warrant card but repeatedly denied he was a member of the force.

This sort of thing is not conducive to warm police-public relations.

So, uniforms if possible, please. It must follow, I think, that when a police person is not in uniform he or she should show considerable restraint in attempting activities which involve potentially abrasive interactions with unsuspecting members of the public. People do “become emotional” when subjected to duress by strangers. Law-abiding citizens respect the uniform.

Of course we all understand the merits of the saying that “a policeman is never off-duty”. We do not expect off-duty or plainclothes police to stand idly by if they come across a bank robbery or a murder in progress. But children playing on a basketball court?

Another week, another outrage. If our government really wishes to improve its public image it could start by discouraging its Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, from giving press conferences, or at least from unscripted ones.

This week’s unhappy inspiration: after two years of stoutly defending its presence in Hong Kong we have abandoned the Rule of Law.

The problem, raised by a reporter, is that Hong Kong’s import and export rules include some restrictions on the transfer of “genetic material” across our borders. Would this, the reporter wondered, be an impediment to sending COVID tests to Shenzhen for processing?

Now Ms Lam could have said that the government had not thought of this, and would check it out and – if necessary – could use emergency regulations to suspend the restriction for COVID purposes. This would have been soothing, and in all probability true.

But faced with the assembled press Ms Lam finds it difficult to resist the temptation to condescend.

“I trust that we have all seen many war movies,” she said, “in wartime there is no sense in talking about procedure and reviewing things … In an environment as urgent as this, we cannot let existing laws stop us from doing what we should do. This is not the mentality for fighting a war.” Full story here.

Dear me. First a reality check. An epidemic is an epidemic and a war is a war. The martial metaphors of which Ms Lam has become a habitual user are just that – metaphors. 

Fussell points out in “the Great War in Modern Memory” that the war as metaphor was almost unheard of before World War 1. So many people participated in that bloodbath either personally or vicariously that great lumps of its verbiage – the front line, no man’s land, in the trenches, over the top and so on – entered the mainstream of language.

That does not change the underlying facts. Hong Kong is not Kyiv. Even if war were an acceptable excuse for throwing the rule of law under a bus it would not be an applicable excuse here.

Governments – particularly unpopular governments – like the military metaphor because it implies that any criticism of them is unpatriotic and may give aid and comfort to the enemy. This is hardly relevant here. The virus does not care what we think of it, or what we think of Ms Lam’s administration.

If Boris Johnson had been making the same point as Ms Lam he would (he is a clown, but a classically-educated clown) have quoted the Roman orator Cicero: Silent enigma leges inter arma or “In times of war the law falls silent”.

But this is a statement of Roman law, not the modern stuff. Modern states entering a war will pass a law – which goes through the same processes as other laws, though commonly quicker – detailing which rights are to be suspended and which extra powers they are taking, for the duration of the conflict.

The new law – in the UK it is known as DORA, for the Defence of the Realm Act – is subject to the same judicial interpretation and restraints as other laws. The conspicuous case is Liversidge v Anderson, decided in 1942, in which Lord Atkins said “In this country, amidst the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed, but they speak the same language in war as in peace.”

Having disposed of the legal point we are left with the interesting thought that we have a Chief Executive who derives her inspiration for the finer points of crisis management from war films.

I realise that Ms Lam spends much of her time living alone in Government House and a good movie is a pleasant and rewarding way of passing the evening. But which war films is she watching? Searching my memories of a favourite genre I cannot think of any film which implies, however indirectly, that the head of a semi-autonomous city or indeed the head of state, can abrogate the rule of law, even in wartime.

Clearly Ms Lam’s Netflix repertoire does not include Judgement at Nuremberg, which is mainly devoted to the idea that international humanitarian law is not suspended in wartime. You can imagine her identifying strongly with the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men, but that movie is all law and no war. 

There are, of course, plenty of examples in war movies of people doing things they may later regret in order to preserve their lives. Officers disobey orders they think misguided and other ranks flee, or kill people trying to surrender. But these are not the actions of governments.

It would be nice of someone made a film exploring the moral dilemmas involved in things banned under international law like the use of gas, maritime blockade or the bombing of non-combatants. Such topics, perhaps, do not lend themselves to drama.

Ms Lam might usefully view the rather obscure but watchable The Man who Never Was. This concerns a British deception operation at the height of World War 2, in 1943. The idea was to drop the dead body of a bogus British officer laden with misleading dispatches within reach of German spies.

For this purpose a dead body was required. The country was fighting for its future and the scheme was a life-saver. Nevertheless the team running the operation discovered that all dead bodies are owned by someone, and had to go to great lengths to find next of kin who were willing to give them legal permission to use a corpse for patriotic purposes.

If this search had failed the operation would have been cancelled.

The team were not allowed to say that “in wartime there is no sense in talking about procedure”. The Rule of Law, like other forms of virtue, means nothing unless you stick to it at times when it has a cost.

Well here’s one for my “I never thought I’d see the day” book. Lead headline in the Standard on Monday – in 60 point (that’s one inch high if you’ve never been a subeditor) all caps type – contained the word “testicles”. Or to be strictly accurate, TESTICLES.

The full headline, which certainly grabbed the eye, or at least the male eye, was “COVID could shrink testicles”. This was a challenging story to illustrate, but the Standard rose to the occasion with a close-up of two presumably male hands crossed over the fly zipper area, in the pose often adopted by footballers forming a “wall” before a free kick. All this would be a mere curiosity if the story lived up to the headline. Unfortunately it did not.

The content of the story was news from a research team at Hong Kong U. To be fair to the reporter concerned I think he considered it a straight science story for the inside pages. Otherwise he would not have included such mellifluous but opaque phrases as “necrosis of seminiferous tubules”, which don’t mean a great deal to most of us.

But someone couldn’t resist the opportunity for a bit of what I call medical moralising. This refers to well-intentioned attempts to persuade you that what is bad theologically is also bad for your health and vice versa.

Thus in my youth we were repeatedly warned that people who masturbated would go blind, for which I believe there is no scientific evidence at all. At my rural grammar school the boarders, generally urban, were told by the rustic day boys hair-raising legends about what could happen to you in ill-advised liaisons with farmyard animals.

The Morecambe branch of Madame Tussauds Waxworks Museum still featured, when I arrived there in the 70s, a room devoted to the perils of untreated syphilis (long since an eminently curable disease) with waxworks of corroded faces alternating with framed Biblical quotes about the wages of sin.

Now I do see that it might seem a good idea, since we are trying to get everyone vaccinated, to start a scare story about COVID messing with your reproductive facilities. On the other hand the two great pools of the unvaccinated are kids – who can hardly be too worried about this yet – and the over 80s, who are mostly, I imagine, past it.

So this desirable objective hardly justifies perpetrating a deception, which started in the first paragraph, and consequently was perhaps the work of a sub editor eager to ginger the story up a bit. This went  “COVID could shrink men’s testicles and affect their virility as they recover from the coronavirus, microbiology researchers at the University of Hong Kong have found.”

The word over which there should perhaps have been more thought all round is “men”. The HKU researchers had done a perfectly respectable study of the effect of the coronavirus on the sex life of …hamsters.

Scientists often conduct studies on the health and habits of small rodents – rats and mice are the usual victims – to which they can do things which would be unethical if perpetrated on humans. The hope, of  course, is that the results will “translate” to humans. This hope is rarely gratified.

The question of whether and if so how much animal experiments translate to humans has itself been the subject of study. I am not aware of any figure for hamsters but the proportion for mice is only 10 per cent. This means that the chances are nine to one against that your seminiferous tubules are safe, at least from COVID.

The HKU people would no doubt reply, and I shall do this for them, that studies of human victims of the virus in the US have revealed some post-recovery reproduction problems among men. But this raises another question: if scientists elsewhere are making good progress in studying this problem in real humans, is it ethical – is it nice? – for scientists at Hong Kong U to sacrifice the sex lives of unsuspecting hamsters to produce information of questionable value about the same problem?

The answer to that question may be that the HKU team were engaged in a primarily veterinary pursuit. They studied the effect of COVID on hamsters so that hamster owners would no longer be distressed or puzzled if their little furry friends no longer bred like rabbits – or hamsters. But in that case this point should perhaps have been made clear in the press release.

Readers who persisted with the story – which continued on Page 3 – found the good news. Researchers in the US had found that there was a decline in reproductive effectiveness among men who had suffered from COVID, but normal service was resumed after 60 days.

They also found that the average loss of fecundity was only 18 per cent. So in the view of Boston University prof Amelia Wesselink it was still worth trying: “There’s not necessarily any harm in trying to conceive shortly after having COVID, but it may just take a bit longer,” quoted the Standard.

Thanks, Amelia.

Our government is apparently helpless to stop millionaires holding parties in clubs and restaurants, where invited senior officials can gather in defiance of COVID restrictions. However, faced with three domestic helpers sharing the same piece of cardboard under a Central flyover, It swings into action.

The spate of fines for domestic helpers gathering in groups of more than two is a classical example of the government getting unnecessary stick because its members can’t keep their mouths shut.

It seems there was some anxiety last week about the danger of the lady helpers getting together on their day off. Leaflets had been distributed and warnings issued. Nobody would have noticed – except the helpers themselves, if Carrie Lam had not decided to say a few words on the matter at a press conference on the ensuing Friday. 

“We”, said Ms Lam, temporarily joining the police force, “shall not show mercy any more”. And on the ensuing Sunday 17 fixed penalties were duly imposed, all of them on helpers. This is actually rather a small number, considering the thousands of domestic helpers who share a Sunday day off, and suggests that the warnings had been quite successful.

But “not showing mercy” is not a good look. If Ms Lam wants Hong Kong people to “feel her emotions” (her reason for not wearing a face mask at press cons) she might try to avoid the sort of phraseology that suggests we are listening to a hard-faced bureaucratic robot.

In the interests of accuracy she should also avoid suggesting that in the interests of public health helpers should be encouraged to stay “at home”. The government’s official position is that no helper is at home in Hong Kong; their presence is permanently temporary, however long they stay, and consequently never leads to the right to stay, which effortlessly descends on bankers, academics and journalists after seven years.

What officials now seek is for the helpers to stay at their workplace.

The new “merciless” approach produced a predictable reaction. Some people set up a website to collect donations to defray the penalised helpers’ fines. This swiftly collected more than $100,000.

Enter the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Law Chi-kwong, who opined on a radio programme that the people collecting money “may be suspected of abetting a crime”, and added that he had asked the Department of Justice to look into it.

 The money collection people then took legal advice, and decided to scrub the whole idea. Contributors will get their money back.

Two years ago I would have said that this was quite astonishing. There is no law against you paying other people’s fines. I first discovered this many years ago when I was still a kid. My father, at the time a respectable and prosperous business person on excellent terms with the law and order industry, attended the local Magistrates Court to appear as a witness.

While he was waiting in the public gallery he saw a lady convicted, unjustly in his view, of a minor motoring offence. So he paid her fine. Nobody suggested that this was illegal, abetting the offence or anything of that kind.

For a current example we can consider Judge Frank Caprio, who has achieved fame (website here: https://www.caughtinprovidence.com/) because his cases are regularly televised. People send him money with the intention that he should use it to pay the fines of hard-up defendants, which he does, quite shamelessly, before the cameras.

Mr Law, though, followed the recent repression playbook in which the national security law looms over us all. “You may have good intentions, but we can’t rule out that you are maliciously obstructing our whole anti-epidemic effort.” Is that subversion? Who knows?

The point which will not have been lost on the money collectors, though, is that “abetting a crime” would imply the usual sort of procedure and trial. “Maliciously obstructing the government”, on the other hand, sounds like a year in jail on remand before you even meet your government-selected national security judge.

So Helping Helpers, the group concerned, marks a new record – an NGO appearing and disappearing in a matter of days. Clearly the flow of advice from the mainland is not confined to medical matters.

The underlying problem behind all this is that the fixed penalty has been set too high. Fixed penalty tickets are usually kept to small amounts because they are effectively an instant fine without any of the usual safeguards against error or abuse.

This is reflected in the penalties imposed for other offences subject to similar procedures: minor driving offences $250-$1,000; smoking $1,500; littering and kindred offences also $1,500. Earlier in the epidemic the penalty for gatherings was $2,000.

The sum of $5,000 is not only more than the statutory monthly wage fixed for domestic helpers. It is more than the standard social security payment for an able-bodied adult – or indeed for a disabled one unless he needs constant care. It is also much more than the “fruit money” on which people in my age group are expected to survive.

This is the sort of legislation you get when you have a legislature purged of opposition.

It seems strange not to write about the epidemic when it is the main thing in most of our lives at the moment. But there is a danger here. When toddlers are dying in the arms of their helpless parents complaints about disruption of holiday arrangements look in dubious taste.

So please – I record; I do not complain. For me, as for most Hongkongers who can afford them at all, holidays were actually the first thing to go. It occurred to me the other day that I have now slept in the same bed for some 800 consecutive nights. I don’t think this has happened before.

Our city is a small place. Unlike many less lucky expat citizens I have not missed funerals or weddings in distant countries. It is electronically easy to keep in touch with distant siblings. Travel is a luxury. But still…

Then the artistic hobbies started disappearing. Wind instruments are fine things but nobody wants to find out if the virus can survive transmission through the tubes. In any case, performances are out. The pub where I used to drum in the traditional Irish fashion struggled through the restrictions for a while and then closed for good. The dance scene came briefly back to life last year but now all the venues are closed again. 

Work, of which I do not do much, became increasingly from home and is now entirely so.

So here I sit on a New Territories hilltop, quite close to locked down already. I go out once or twice a week for shopping. Last week I had lunch with a friend and we both felt it necessary to explain why we were taking the risk. Actually it is not that dangerous at present because restaurants are deserted. But you have to get there.

The sensation is a bit prison-like, but it is prison as experienced by Ms Meng Wanzhou in house arrest in Vancouver. Large house, helper, garden, allowed out during day…

Fortunately the latest dog is young, restless and very fit. So I am dragged out of the house quite a lot. I have observed the anthropology of our local piece of country park with interest. Last year our walk involved encounters with the other regulars – who number maybe half a dozen – and the occasional long-distance hiker. 

Our path into the hills was not particularly famous or popular. It seemed quite a lot of the people who came down it had missed the turning to Shatin. Some of them were not quite sure where they were.

Since the closure of almost everything, walking in the hills has become much more popular. I am surprised by the number of working age people who can apparently get away for long hikes on weekdays. Are they all “working from hill”?

At weekends we get a lot of family parties looking for somewhere for the kids to play. Official playgrounds are all closed. As well there are a lot of hikers. We have not quite reached the level of overcrowding in the famous picture of people queueing for the difficult bit of Everest. But some of the more popular trails must be getting close.

For shorter walks the dog and I go round the small car park at the top of Sui Wo Road. This also has changed. Traditionally, couples park car and walk to the nearby Lions Lookout for romantic contemplation of the Shing Mun valley in the moonlight.

When restaurants were required to close at 6 this was supplemented by outdoor dining. Some groups just spread a blanket on the nearby patch of grass. Other groups had more elaborate arrangements involving folding chairs and tables.

On the evening of Saint Valentine’s Day the dog took me out at 9 pm and the car park looked different. Eventually I realised that this was because all the cars had their inside lights on. The car park was full, and every car contained two people having a romantic dinner.

One does not stare through car windows, but walking the dog provides an excuse for strolling slowly by and it appeared that the fare on offer ranged from His and Hers pot noodles to an elaborate arrangement involving a table rigged up between the two front seats with six quite appealing dishes on it.

I am not sure whether this counts as impressive or sad. Obviously it is only open to young men with access to a vehicle so it is a solution for  the affluent. Whether dinner led on to other things I do not know but at midnight when I took the hound out again some of the cars were still there – with the lights off.

Meanwhile Omicron was working its way towards us. Last week there were cases in Sui Wo Estate down the road. This week, one on our estate. This is not a huge problem. We all live in separate houses so there is no shared lift. As long as nobody else gets it we shall not be subjected to compulsory testing, let along lockdown.

Still, now that Dynamic Zero has been supplanted by Dynamic Several Thousand it is worth wondering how we got here. After all the original COVID was a bolt from the blue. Nobody was expecting it. Omicron, on the other hand, has been working its way towards us for months. Yet we were not ready.

I am reminded of the scene at the end of “Chernobyl” where one of the heroes contemplates the history of Chernobyl the town: “It was mostly Jews and Poles. The Jews were killed in pogroms and Stalin forced the Poles out. Then the Nazis came and killed whoever was left. And after the war, people came and lived here anyway. They knew that the ground under their feet was soaked in blood but they didn’t care. Dead Jews, dead Poles, not them. No-one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them. And here we are.”

Here we are indeed. 

Sometimes it’s the little things that give you away. Lurking in the Chief Executive’s announcement of new measures to control COVID was this: “every measure that we now introduce has been undertaken in other jurisdictions, including some places and countries which are very proud of their human rights, their democracy and so on.”

Now it would perhaps be unfair to infer from this that the CE, Carrie Lam, now realises that Hong Kong is no longer a place which is very proud of its “human rights, democracy and so on”. That is, after all, not the line our leaders have been pushing to the foreign press, which is routinely chided for suggesting that things have changed in the last year or so.

What got to me, though, was that little bit on the end: “and so on”. This is not the way you conclude a list of things you care about.

Ms Lam would not, for example, enumerate the purposes of compulsory national security education as being to inculcate “patriotism, respect for the law and so on”. This would be disrespectfully casual. The Declaration of Independence does not start with the rights to “Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and so on”. The Pope would not urge priests to strive for “poverty, chastity, obedience and so on”.

This is an ending reserved for things you don’t take very seriously, or even don’t believe at all. Mr Trump, for example, believes that in the last presidential election Joe Biden hacked voting machines, Mike Pence neglected his duty, millions of votes were fraudulent and so on. That works.

This is not a criticism of the government’s latest anti-Covid measures. Having wasted the long months in which cases occurred only in single figures we now have to undertake a frantic effort to get elderly folk vaccinated, and in the meantime there are no good choices.

What bothers me is the knowledge that Hong Kong’s human rights – we have already ditched democracy – are in the hands of people who know little and care less of what they mean and what they require.

Which brings me to my esteemed former employer, the Hong Kong Baptist University. So far, it must be said, BU has avoided the worst excesses of the territory-wide clampdown on student representative bodies. It has a long tradition – rooted I suppose in its origins as a post-secondary college with a religious inclination – of paying rather more respect and interest to the needs of undergraduates than other local institutions. Elsewhere teaching is regarded as an irritating distraction from the real function of universities, which is to produce research which boosts staff prospects and pushes the university up ratings tables … which for all their pretensions measure little else.

However, Baptist University still has a student union, and consequently still has a student newspaper, or had until January. This publication is or was called Jumbo – a play on the university’s Cantonese name, which is Jumwui.

The latest edition, according to now former assignment editor Alex Chan, caused problems with the university, which told the editors it had received complaints about it from “people outside the school”. Unfortunately the university was not forthcoming about who or what these people were, an interesting question.

After all Jumbo is not exactly a mass circulation publication. It is produced by students for students. Hawkers do not stock it. Why would anyone outside the university be reading it? With all due respects to the editors’ efforts we can I think exclude the possibility that there is a secret cabal of connoisseurs who regard Jumbo as the unappreciated Chateau Lafitte of student journalism.

The sexual urge takes a wide variety of forms but we can also, I suppose, exclude a kinky erotic enthusiasm for amateur editorial output.

This leads me to speculate that the elusive reader was not seeking interesting information about the views of Baptist University students, but was hoping to extend to the student press the purge which has already decimated the adult media. In this he or she has succeeded.

Problematic content, apparently, included an editorial which included the phrase “Rule of law is dead, the student union is dead, Hong Kong is dead, freedom is dead. News is merely an anthology of obituaries.” A bit over the top, perhaps, but in its essentials a widespread view.

There was an article about a dead actor, and an interview about elections with a live member of the BU staff. The term “Wuhan virus” did not go down too well, apparently, and the school wanted “clarification” of a report about a flag-raising ceremony on campus.

The university ordered the January edition withdrawn, and also instructed the board to remove calls for submissions from its social media outlet.

The editorial board got the message when its email account was closed and office emptied. The board then resigned en masse, not a huge sacrifice as they only had a month to go. The new board, supposing some masochists can be recruited, will have to decide what to do with the January issue. The university, meanwhile, has been told by its lawyers to report the issue to the national security police as a possible violation of the national security law.

This is not surprising. My experience of lawyers evaluating newspaper copy is that they never tell you confidently that the story is OK. You always get a fence-sitting “might be this, might be that” and so on, for anything more innovative than the stock prices.

Then we come to the most exciting bit. “HKBU also said it could not ‘promise to guarantee’ student safety if the newsroom chose to publicly attribute its decision to resign to the actions the university took against the magazine’s January edition, Chan said.”

I hope, I really hope, that there has been some misunderstanding or mistranslation here. If Mr Chan finds a horse’s head in his bed next week we shall all know that matters are worse than we think. And so on.

The opening of the legal year is the occasion for a speech by the Chief Justice. Some of this is traditionally devoted to practical matters – digitisation, manpower, new courtrooms – and some of it is traditionally devoted to praising the Hong Kong legal system in general and its independent judiciary in particular.

The speech does not change a great deal from year to year. I notice one or two details have dropped out since Chief Justice Ma’s swan song in 2020. This year’s offering did not repeat Ma CJ’s list of requirements for a fair trial, which included “every person charged with a criminal offence is also entitled to be tried without delay.”

This seems to have fallen by the wayside. The current CJ, Andrew Cheung, did include “There are still a significant number of criminal cases pending before the District Court arising from the events in 2019.” This is a rather shameful situation, considering that the other item from Ma CJ’s speech which no longer features is the right to bail, which the national security law has effectively abolished.

An independent judiciary is a wonderful thing, but it does not prevent people being detained for years without trial if that is what the law allows. Judges, as one writer put it, “will loyally chug off in whatever direction they are pointed.” Cheung CJ lovingly enumerated the protections for human rights provided in the Basic Law and the Bill or Rights Ordinance. He did not mention the erosion of these rights by the national security law, which over-rules both of them.

All this was perhaps to be expected. The CJ’s speech is an opportunity to rally the troops. A critical analysis of their work would not be welcome or appropriate. All the same there were some surprises.

Cheung pointed out that judges on the list to hear Nat Sec cases are already judges. They have been selected by the usual process and taken the usual oath. This is of course true, though it sounds a bit like saying that all drivers are good drivers because they have passed the test.

More alarmingly we came to this bit: “Criminal liability will continue to be determined in accordance with the applicable law and the strength of the evidence presented before the court. Those who are proven guilty will be convicted and those not so proven will be acquitted. Convicted defendants will be given punishments that their crimes deserve, no more and no less. This is our job…”

The problem with this is that it flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that judges do in fact vary in all sorts of ways. For a detailed analysis His Lordship could try “Noise”, by Danny Kahneman and others, which looks in a rather academic fashion at the variations in decision-making by judges and other professionals.

We should note in fairness to judges that they are a tempting target for this sort of analysis because their judgements are public and also expressed in quantitative terms: the length of a sentence, the size of a fine or an award. Studies of other professionals making complex decisions – insurance adjusters, forensic accountants, university admissions officers or company appointment teams – do not suggest that judges are unusually unpredictable.

Readers who do not wish to attempt a whole book may enjoy this passage from an anonymous lawyer who writes as “The Secret Barrister”:

“No two judges are the same … Who you get is often determinative of what you get. If there has been a trial the same judge will usually pass sentence, but where a defendant has pleaded guilty, it is normal for a judge to be randomly allocated for the sentence hearing. Frequent flyers become well acquainted with the judicial personalities in their local courts, and the seasoned criminal opposite you can either break down in tears or dance on the table with jubilation (I’ve seen both) when you tell them the identity of their sentencing judge.”

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and how it’s broken p 282

The importance of this for our purposes is that if we accept that all judges are different, then we cannot lay all worries about the list of judges hearing Nat Sec cases to rest by saying that they are just like all the others. Indeed if all judges were the same there would be no need for such a list.

We are then led to wonder what qualities are sought in those on the list, or avoided in those not on the list. Unfortunately the selection is an opaque “black box”. Like so many top jobs the appointment is nominally by the Chief Executive. She is allowed to consult the Chief Justice but is not bound to, and is not bound to follow any advice she may receive from that quarter. Does she receive advice from other people? It seems likely. Who? We don’t know.

Interested spectators are reduced to trying to interpret the selection criteria from the performance of the chosen team. This does not suggest that those criteria include a robust enthusiasm for human rights, a propensity to examine critically the evidence and arguments put forward by the prosecution, or a commitment to speedy trials.

Indeed the level of delay achieved in Nat Sec cases has given rise to a scurrilous rumour in detainee circles that the Department of Justice’s preferred strategy is to avoid Nat Sec trials altogether, by keeping defendants in jail on remand until they plead guilty to get it over with.

This is of course nonsense. No conscientious lawyer would adopt such a policy. The fact that it is believed shows how much confidence in justice has been eroded by unconscionable delays in hearings for people who have been refused bail.

While we know very little of how judges are put on the list to hear Nat Sec cases we have a little more knowledge of how they are put off it. The list is apparently updated every year, by the CE again.

This is a serious drawback. The general principle governing judicial independence is that judges should have no fear of consequences if they make decisions which are unpopular, either with people generally, or the government, or the prosecution.

This is why judges of the US Supreme Court are appointed for life, and judges in Hong Kong can be dismissed only by a panel of other judges. Judges in common law countries generally serve quamdiu se bene gesserint, which means as long as they behave themselves. Lawyers love their Latin.

I am prepared to believe that there are quite a lot of judges who are happy not to be on the list of those allowed to hear Nat Sec cases. There may even be some who regard their exclusion as an honour. However it seems to be generally agreed in the legal profession that while being on the list doesn’t do you much good, being hoofed off it would be a serious career calamity.

This arrangement is not compatible with judicial independence.