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Our glorious leader seems to have inherited from her predecessor the knack of coming up with a response to a question which is not only unsatisfactory but almost completely irrelevant and deeply offensive.

Consider her response last week when asked to respond to the refusal of some medical experts to take the “universal but voluntary” (?) Covid test, which the government is offering in September.

Note that none of them actually said that people should not take the test. They said, for a variety of reasons, that they were not themselves going to volunteer. The reasons were technical and medical. No political overtones intruded.

But for Mrs Lam, these days, if the political overtones are not inserted by someone else then they will be inferred by her. Mrs Lam said she could not figure out why some experts were not keen on the test. They were politically motivated, she said.

There followed this: “The so-called experts, doctors or members of the public kept finding excuses to stop citizens from participating in the test… There is only one intention behind this: political calculation. They are smearing the central [Beijing] government and it’s an effort to sever Hong Kong’s relations with the central government.”

“So-called experts” is an ill-chosen phrase in this context. The people concerned are all doctors and many of them are indisputably experts in relevant areas. None of them is, as far as we know, part of any political movement and this is not, actually, a political matter.

In fact if anyone in this controversy is politically motivated it appears to be Mrs Lam herself. The idea that a mass testing programme cannot be organised in Hong Kong without the central government’s help is not very convincing. Is the purpose of bringing Beijing into it to improve the service, or to make a political point: that our motherland loves us even if it has vandalised our constitution and perverted our police force?

Let us see if we can “figure out” what the problems might be in rolling out a mass testing programme for a condition which is, in all likelihood, still quite rare. They are not political; they are statistical.

We start with the assumption that the test is 99 per cent accurate in detecting the disease in people who have it. This is an ambitious target but maybe the mainland genius team can manage it.

To get a high detection rate, though, you have to accept that there will be some “false positives“ – people who fail the test but who do not, actually, have the disease. The only way to reduce the number of false positives is to make the test less sensitive and reduce the detection rate. So let’s not go there. Say the false positive rate is three percent, which is a really good figure for a mass testing programme.

The other interesting variable is how many people in the population we are testing actually have the disease. So far Hong Kong has seen less than 5,000 cases in a population of seven million, which suggests a possible infection rate of 0.02 per cent. But let us suppose there are a lot of undetected cases out there and put the infection rate at one percent.

Now we test 1,000 people and consider the outcome. In that group, assuming it is typical, there will be ten people with the disease, and the test will detect nine or ten of  them. The undetected person, if there is one, will go home reassured and breathe the virus all over his friends and family members.

There will also be the unavoidable 30 false positives: people who are told they have the disease but actually do not. This is a distressing moment for them, and a dangerous moment for us. It is easy to suppose that someone who tests positive in a 99 per cent accurate test has a 99 per cent chance of having the virus.

But this is an elementary error. We have 39 or 40 people who tested positive, only nine or ten of whom have the virus, and we still do not know which nine, or ten, are the genuine cases. The chance of you having the virus if you are one of this unfortunate group are actually only one in four.

But there will be a temptation to put them all on a bus together and send them off to a quarantine centre.  And if you have not been exposed to the virus when you get on the bus you may well have been exposed to it by the time you get off.

This is the sort of calculation which makes doctors wary of testing whole populations for diseases which very few people have. A positive test is distressing and disturbing. It may lead to mental health problems, disruption to work or recriminations in the family.  It is also quite likely to lead to unnecessary medical procedures.

The rarer the disease, the worse the problem. If the figure for Covid cases so far is typical, and the actual incidence is 0.02 per cent, then our 1,000 tests will produce only one or two positives. And the 30 falsies will still be there to muddy the waters.

Mrs Lam’s hysterical resort to political explanations for criticism is disappointing, if only because we have all become used to the daily performances of Dr Chuang Shuk-wan, the head of the Communicable Diseases Branch of the Centre for Health Protection.

Dr Chuang deploys a soft melodious voice and a reassuring bedside manner which makes even the worst news sound like a manageable ailment. Her response to a similar question about mass testing was that it would be useful to find the “silent carriers” who were still among us, because some of the cases being detected were not traceable to known clusters.

Clearly there is an interesting technical issue here on which well-intentioned experts could disagree with each other: Is it better to try to test everyone, or does it make more sense to concentrate on the most likely groups? Mrs Lam needs to dial down the political paranoia and listen more carefully to people who know what they are talking about. We do not need a Hong Kong Mrs Trump.

 

For weeks we have been told that some rich Hong Kong businessmen are colluding with overseas organisations to perpetrate the manifest untruth that our city should not be regarded as part of China.

Names and details were not forthcoming… until last week, when the Standard named names. The two gentlemen involved in this nefarious plot were Mr George Leung Siu-kay and Mr Mohamed Butt. They are respectively the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce and the Executive Director of the Hong Kong Productivity Council.

They have urged the Hong Kong government to appeal to the World Trade Organisation, clearly an external body within the meaning of the National Security law, against the notion that Hong Kong is part of China.

It is also suggested that the International Organisation for Standardisation should be involved in the dispute, which revolves round the question whether goods manufactured in Hong Kong should be described as “Made in Hong Kong”, or “Made in China”. The “Made in Hong Kong” label was traditional, but some people overseas now wish to see it replaced by “Made in China”.

The two plotters concerned wish to continue with the “Made in Hong Kong” label. No doubt some confusion has arisen as to what the patriotic line on this topic should be, because the new requirement that Hong Kong manufactures should be described as “Made in China” comes not from the People’s Pooh, but from the US government.

Still, have these two gentlemen not been reading the newspapers? Surely it is time for Hong Kong manufacturers to step up to the standards of patriotic enthusiasm now expected of all of us, and wear the “Made in China” label with pride.

I am sure no prudent Hong Kong person would argue that China manufacturers have a reputation for copying, low quality and using slave labour. These slurs are unjustified and unsubstantiated, of course.

Some readers may be surprised to hear that Hong Kong still has any manufacturing industry worth complaining about. It seems that our manufactured exports amount to “only” $3.7 billion worth a year, which seems quite a lot to a lay person but is apparently regarded as trivial in business circles.

However, more than half of those exports consist of jewellery, so there is an industry complaining vocally that this is a matter of life and death.

We must in fairness to Mr Leung and Mr Butt note that there are some inconveniences attached to the introduction of the new arrangements. It seems that, according to the US Customs, our Hong Kong exporters will still be expected to report for some purposes that their wares were made in Hong Kong, which sounds potentially confusing.

Also exporters were given only 45 days notice of the new arrangements. Because of the delays to shipping caused by the Covid virus there is some danger of consignments sent before the change was announced arriving after it has come into effect. You would think there would be enough flexibility in the Customs procedure to avoid actually having to send these goods back. But we should not under-estimate the rigidity of which bureaucrats are capable.

Well I understand and share the suspicion that the new rules have less to do with the search for accuracy and more to do with one of Mr Trump’s nocturnal Twitter brainwaves. Mr Trump does not seem to have a passionate attachment to truthfulness.

Still this complaint is hardly going to fly in international circles, I fear. China is not really in a position to urge zealous compliance with World Trade Organisation rules.

And after all, have we not been told on numerous occasions that Hong Kong is part of China? So the new labelling will merely reflect the facts: that the Beijing government enjoys comprehensive sovereignty over Hong Kong, legislates for it when moved to do so, deploys its army and police here, and appoints our senior officials.

Hong Kong now enjoys less autonomy than Texas or Saxony. Regions generally do not have their own “made in …” label anyway. Can we retaliate by insisting that American microchips should have “Made in California” on their labels?

It is true that people are not always rational about these things. But if it is a criminal offence to wave a banner saying “Hong Kong is not China”, as I suppose it is, then surely we can hardly complain if people overseas take us at our word and insist that Hong Kong is part of China, and its exports should be labelled accordingly.

 No doubt there is something in the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s Future about the territory being allowed to be separate for customs and labelling purposes. But the Joint Declaration, as we have so often been reminded, is a historical document of no practical significance for present purposes.

 

Amid all the fuss rightly made about the police raid on Apple Daily one interesting innovation was, quite understandably, overlooked. Hong Kong now has “gangs”.

This is new. For many years, Chicago has had gangs, New York had gangs, even London and Paris had gangs, but in Hong Kong organised crime took other forms.

For the “satisfied customer” stuff – vice, gambling, protection – there were triads, who engaged in occasional street fights with each other but otherwise kept a low profile: no drive-by shootings, no kidnappings of the rich and famous, no horses’ heads in the beds of innocent citizens.

Other crimes, like sex slavery and smuggling, were committed by “syndicates”.  These were a recurring feature of police press releases. Every week or so a “syndicate” was “smashed”. No doubt some future linguist will boost his academic status by tracking the origins of the syndicate smashing syndrome, which I believe is found nowhere else.

Syndicates were evidently either very robust or they bred like rabbits, because there seemed to be an endless supply.

Triads on the other hand went on for ever. The same names cropped up time after time. As long ago as the 70s the official police line was that triads had been exterminated, or at least were “under control”. Yet it seems that in parts of Hong Kong like Wanchai, Mong Kok and Yuen Long they were not so much under control as in control. As indeed perhaps they still are.

But now, gangs! We owe this new departure to Senior Superintendent Li Kwai-wah, of the Force’s new National Security Department. Talking about the Apple swoop, he told reporters that police had been investigating a gang which “promoted and actively called on foreign countries or international organisations to sanction or blockade Hong Kong.”

“We found that two men and one woman are running this gang in Hong Kong,” he continued. And so on for several paragraphs.

So there you have it. If you shake down local shopkeepers or run a brothel you are a triad. If you smuggle prostitutes or drugs into Hong Kong you are a syndicate. If you breach the National Security Legislation by telling people overseas what is happening in Hong Kong, on the other hand, you are a gangster.

It could perhaps be argued that this choice of terminology was inappropriate, given that a number of people had been arrested, so the use of language which presumed their guilt was objectionable as contempt of court.

But the arrests of Jimmy Lai and his mates was accompanied by a veritable barrage of prejudicial comment, with the professional police propagandists swiftly joined by amateurs like Lau Siu-kai. I am going to stop complaining about this. We should all simply be aware that if you are on the government’s list of candidates for persecution then your right to a fair trial has effectively already been abolished.

The government, its press poodles and the police will say what they like, however prejudicial it may be.

Actually the police doing whatever they like seems to be a permanent feature of the new post-autonomy landscape. We can dismiss as mere tactlessness the twin spectacles of 200 policemen packing a staircase at the Apple Daily office while some of their colleagues were fining domestic helpers for being too close to each other on their day off. Actually the helpers had been copped the day before. Learn your news cycles, people.

More serious is the matter of press accreditation. Some months ago Carrie Lam said quite unequivocally that the government had no plans and no intention of introducing any kind of accreditation or licensing system for the press. Press freedom was a fundamental  value, she said, with the usual platitudes.

This has not stopped the police force from introducing their own register of news media they will cooperate with. Police Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keong revealed the existence of a list of “trusted” media, who are provided with improved access while the untrusted wait outside. This cleared up one mystery, which was why some reporters were excluded from a police press conference the week before. The “trusted” list was already in operation.

Explanation for how you get on or off the list came from Police Commissioner Chris Tang: “It depends on the past performance of those media — whether they behaved in a way that the police deemed unprofessional… Criteria include whether their reporting is objective, whether they have participated in actions other than reporting, whether they would obstruct officers from performing their duty or if they would pose danger to officers.”

But this list is something the Chief Executive, no less, clearly said would not happen. What is going on here?

It used to be said that 18th century Prussia was not a state with an army, it was an army with a state. It appears that Hong Kong no longer has a government with a police force; it has a police force with a government.

Then there is the matter of searching journalists’ desks. There was nothing in the matters leading to the raid on Apple Daily to justify police intrusion into how the newspaper produces the news. Looking at the contents of reporters’ desks was, it was conceded, not justified.

Police Public Relations Branch Chief Superintendent Kenneth Kwok offered a curious explanation: “At 11 o’clock I asked them all to stop… That… can show our determination to protect journalistic material.” It shows nothing of the sort. How long had officers been rummaging in reporters’ desks by the time Supt Kwok’s orders reached them. An hour? Two hours?

Police raids are preceded by planning and briefings. If there was a genuine determination to protect journalistic material it would have been expressed at that stage and the officers conducting the raid would have known what they were supposed to do, and not to do.

Are we to imagine a dialogue at 10.55 am along the lines of:

“Ah Sir, some of our team members are turning over the material on reporters’ desks.”

“There are reporters’ desks in a newspaper office? Who would have thought? Tell them to stop immediately.”

 

 

 

 

 

It seems that our colonial masters attach great importance to public opinion, even while they are avoiding giving the public what it clearly wants.

The People’s running dogs, and the running dogs’ running dogs, are all being mobilised to assure us all that keeping the existing Legislative Council for an unconstitutional extra year is essential for public safety and perfectly legal, even though it is clearly neither.

We are also offered the enticing prospect of four existing legislators, who were proposing to run again but were disqualified by government officials, having their disqualification backdated to the last election and being hoofed from their seats.

What seems to be overlooked here is the question of by-elections. The law on this matter surfaced last January when the Electoral Affairs Commission decided that it was too late in the current Legco’s term to hold two by-elections, even though these were required by the Basic Law.

The commission’s excuse was that it would be so difficult to hold two by-elections that by the time they were held there would be less than four months of the legislature’s term left. The Basic Law says that a by-election must be held whenever there is a vacancy, but it will not be needed if Legco has only four months left in its term of office. The commission came to this conclusion in January, when there were nine months to go, leaving five months unaccounted for.

The idea that it takes six months to prepare a by-election is nonsense. For many years the average was three months, though it has slipped of late.

Anyway this excuse will clearly now not wash. If the existing Legco is to be prolonged for another year then the two by-elections become a legal requirement. Similarly, it must follow, if four other legislators are purged for some reason the resulting vacancies will have to be filled by further by-elections.

We can all see what the excuses will be. First of all there is the virus. Other places have managed to hold mass elections without causing a fresh outbreak. Also the idea that cases will still be running at the current level for a year is alarming and necessarily unsubstantiated.

A second complaint is that holding elections under present circumstances would be unfair because Hongkongers caught in Shenzhen or overseas could not come back to vote. It is difficult to believe that there are thousands of people who would take the trouble and incur the expense of coming back specially for the election, but there is an answer to this problem which other countries and territories manage quite easily: postal voting.

We have to thank the Electoral Affairs Commission for putting its shoulder to the wheel and coming up with another reason for delaying the polls. The commission, it says, will have to train thousands of people for their roles in the election and does not know how to do this without exposing them to the hazards of infection in the classroom.

This is so feeble that one wonders at the ability of officials to wheel it out with a straight face. Firstly the claim that thousands of people have to be trained is clearly bogus. Hong Kong has been holding elections for years. Doing so is not so complicated that people have to learn it from scratch each time. There must be thousands of civil servants who know the routine backwards.

And if training must be provided, what of that? Schools all over Hong Kong are exercising their ingenuity and persistence to find ways of teaching people without packing them into a classroom. If you can teach everything from the alphabet to zoology over the internet why not election procedures?

With all respect to the people who do it, it’s not rocket science. No doubt the government has other reasons for postponing the election, like the prospect of taking another pasting from the voters. But the Electoral Affairs Commission shouldn’t be one of them.

They can hold an election if they really want to. The qualities required are determination, flexibility and ingenuity. Unfortunately it has been evident for a long time that these are not in the commission’s armoury.

We have democracy designed by people who don’t like democracy, featuring elections run by people who don’t like elections, presided over by lawmakers in Beijing who don’t like laws.

Maybe we should go back to a Legco chosen and appointed by the government. Then at least we shall all know where we are. The pretence that the government regards elections as anything other than a few bits of grit in the smooth working of imperial administration is looking a bit threadbare.

This is a tale of two cities, and two dates. Fred Frankfurter lives in New York, where he works as a stock picker, or securities analyst as they call it in the industry.

Being an outspoken person with strong views he is often invited to appear on the sort of television programme in which the punters are encouraged and advised about their efforts to gamble, or invest as they call it in the casino business, in the stock market.

On one of these occasions he is asked to comment on prospects for investment in Asia and he says, among other things, that Taiwan looks a promising bet and will continue to be one as long as it remains independent of China.

This would normally be lost in the cacophony of multi-channel mass media but as luck would have it the snippet is picked up by an enthusiastic supporter of the current Taiwan government, translated into Chinese, and turned into a tweet.

This is retweeted by other fans of Taiwan, which of course brings it to the attention of people who are not fans of Taiwan, who also retweet it, with derogatory comments attached. A small Twitter storm ensues.

This attracts the attention of a few of the real newspapers, (sorry – I’m a pre-digital) so Mr Frankfurter, who is blissfully ignorant of these goings on, has 15 minutes of fame in Taipei, where he is praised as a perceptive reader of the international tealeaves, and in Beijing, where he is lambasted as part of the American plot to dismember China.

Our hero is then invited to address a business conference in Hong Kong. At this point he becomes aware of his modestly controversial status in the China-watching world, and consults his company’s legal advisor, Hiram Hamburger, about the possible hazards of visiting Hong Kong. The year now becomes critical.

If this story was happening in 2019 Mr Hamburger’s advice would be clear and simple. The Hong Kong legal system is like the American one. You cannot be prosecuted for expressing a political opinion. Also you cannot be prosecuted for anything you said or did in New York. Any Hong Kong magistrate will throw the charge out in the first hearing because his courts do not have jurisdiction over things that happen in New York.

Go ahead, Mr Hamburger will say. Nothing bad can happen.

Now let us suppose the story is happening now. Mr Frankfurter’s invitation is to come as soon as virus travel restrictions are lifted.

This time Mr Hamburger’s reply goes something like this. “We have heard a lot about recent legal changes in Hong Kong and I have not yet had time to study all of them. But look, here is a letter in The Economist from Matthew Cheung, who describes himself as the Chief Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong Government.

“Mr Cheung says that the new national security law is not sweeping. It focuses on four clearly defined activities, and there is nothing to fear. He says that Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms remain intact under the Basic Law and the international covenant on human rights. So it seems nothing has changed. You go ahead. What could go wrong?”

Well quite a lot, actually. Mr Frankfurter steps off the plane and is promptly arrested by the part of the Hong Kong police force which seems to spend most of its time chasing subversive kids.

He is charged with secession. As with all national security cases, the presumption is that bail will be refused. Just a minute, he tells the magistrate, surely I cannot be prosecuted for things said in New York. The magistrate gently points out that the new national security legislation applies everywhere to all people, whether Hong Kong residents or Chinese citizens or neither.

At this point the US government complains that one of its citizens is being prosecuted for something which was not an offence where it took place and a diplomatic tussle begins.

Anxious to save the Hong Kong government from being involved in this rumble the mainland authorities decide that it would be more expedient if Mr Frankfurter’s offence was dealt with in a mainland court. He is handed over to mainland security agents in Hong Kong who take him over the border.

Here he is introduced to an extremely uncomfortable chair and invited to sign a confession. He is tried and convicted. The conviction rate in mainland criminal trials is well over 99 per cent. Mr Frankfurter serves his term in a Chinese jail and is deported as an undesirable.

Returning to New York he has a poignant meeting with his colleague Mr Hamburger.

Hard words are exchanged. Hamburger says he relied on the best information available at the time. Frankfurter says that many of the people he met in his Hong Kong prison thought it was hilarious that he had apparently decided to risk the trip on the basis of assurances from the Hong Kong government that nothing had changed.

Their boss, Ben Burrito, says they have both been foolish and gullible. You cannot rely on statements by officials. You cannot rely on what you read in the newspapers. Statements by officials for newspapers are good for only one thing, and not much good for that. Real toilet paper is softer.

 

 

It is an axiom of the news business that there is often a shortage of good stories on a Monday. This is because courts, councils and other reliable arenas take the weekend off, and in the old days sport was confined to Saturdays.
Over the years this led to some curiosities, like the inordinate attention paid to RTHK’s weekly live discussions in Victoria Park, more or les regardless of whether anything interesting was said.
So I sympathise when desperate editors make what might otherwise seem questionable choices. But there are limits.
They were in my view exceeded when the lead local story inside last Monday’s Standard was an effort headlined “HKU pushed to sack Tai”. The Tai involved is Benny, a consistently non-violent political herbivore, much disliked in pro-government circles.
This was hardly news. HKU has been pushed to sack Prof Tai for months, notably by pro-government newspapers, like the Standard. When you read the story under the headline there was a feeling that “Staff Reporter” had been tasked with making bricks without straw, and indeed without clay.
The only thing which had actually happened was that a former member of the University Council, Chan Che-wai, had sent a letter – an open letter, so we could be treated to extensive excerpts – to the current chairman of the council, Arthur Li, urging at some length that Prof Tai should be sacked.
There are, it is true, some surprising things about this, not least that there should be anyone versed in the affairs of Hong Kong U who thinks that Arthur Li cannot be trusted to do the wrong thing without prompting.
Another surprising thing is that Mr Chan thinks it is appropriate and permissible for him to send open letters to the chairman of the university council about personnel matters involving individual members of the university staff.
I am also a former member of a university council (Lancaster) and I have to say that it would never have occurred to me to do such a thing. A former member is not a member. Mr Chan has no standing in the matter whatsoever.
If I were to write such a letter, moreover, it would not be an open one. The question of how to deal with individual members of the university staff is a private one, and if Mr Chan cannot resist the temptation to bend Mr Li’s ear on the matter he could at least do so in confidence.
Mr Chan’s complaint is that he does not agree with the University Senate’s view of the matter, which is that Prof Tai should remain in the employ of the university. This is cheeky of him. The question whether a person is qualified to teach is an academic question and is a matter properly to be decided by the Senate, which is the supreme governing body of the university in academic matters.
It is nothing to do with members of the Council, still less with former members of that worthy body.
Not content with this, Mr Chan proceeded to trample on another fundamental rule. The offending passage attacks the Senate’s conclusion that Prof Tai’s political views had not polluted his teaching, and goes like this:
“Whether he introduced his political beliefs in class is something that the senate could not verify, as hardly any of its members had attended his classes. This is just hearsay, and therefore is not admissible as evidence to support the contention he had not done so.”
Just a moment, Mr Chan. If we are going to go all barrack-room lawyer here then Prof Tai is entitled to the presumption of innocence. It is not up to him to prove that he has not erred in his teaching; it is up to those who wish to see him fired to prove that there was something wrong. On this point Mr Chan has no evidence to offer at all.
Some people have been reading attacks on Prof Tai for so long that they start from the point that he is guilty and expect anyone who disagrees with them to disprove it. This is not how things are supposed to work.
It may be, of course, the way things work now. Less publicly I heard last week that an old friend had been hoofed from a part-time gig teaching journalism, because of excessive enthusiasm for press freedom. It seems that approval of press freedom is now interpreted as disapproval of our government, which is revealing.
I fear Prof Tai is now on a list of the people our glorious leaderette dubs “enemies of the people”. When she first came out with this phrase I thought I could spend a pleasant hour or two tracing its deplorable history.
Alas, someone has already done this. “Enemies of the people” has its own Wikipedia page. In brief, skipping the Romans, it goes back to Maximilien Robespierre, who sent hundreds of people to the guillotine until his fellow-revolutionaries decided they would be safer if Maximilien himself was also required to “cracher dans le panier”, as the French put it.
After that we have a Royal Flush of 20th century mass murderers: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot. Then, rather an anti-climax, the Daily Mail and Donald Trump. I think Ms Lam needs her vocabulary sanitised.


Well I think we were conned. We all thought we were watching a play called “One Country Two Systems”, but this now turns out to have been a mere Prologue, like the bit at the beginning of “Romeo and Juliet” where an actor orates before a closed curtain.

Now the curtain has opened and it is immediately apparent that there has been a change. Tonight’s entertainment will be “Welcome to Xinjiang-on-sea”.

The transition has been quite breathtaking. The bit which I overlooked in the initial announcement was the role of the National Security Committee (officially the Committee for Safeguarding National Security). This, it was said, would lay down the “rules” for the enforcement of the national security law.

You might think that this would involve policing the limits of that law, to ensure that the specialists, in their zeal for national security, did not stray into other areas. But that is not how the Chinese system works.

The National People’s Congress is often described as “China’s rubber-stamp parliament.” This is inaccurate. It has none of the attributes of a parliament and does none of the things which parliaments do. It does not debate, it does not scrutinise, it does not supervise the executive, it does not control public expenditure. Its meetings resemble the traditional annual ceremony in which Ming emperors used to placate the Gods to ensure a bountiful harvest, and have about as much practical significance.

Laws, instead, are made by government departments, leading Western translators who are used to a different system to call them “regulations”. There is no obligation on departments to limit themselves, or conform to, the occasional resounding declarations of principle which emerge from the NPC.

Our local national security committee is in the same happy position. It is answerable to nobody. It is not subject to judicial review, legislative scrutiny, or even the friendly attentions of the press. Its meetings are private, its deliberations secret.

The rules it issues – which the Standard is still hilariously calling “guidelines” – make new offences and ordain punishments for those committing them. In other words the committee is free to make whatever laws it likes, provided only that some verbal trickery can get them under the “national security” umbrella. As the committee has only to satisfy itself on this point this is not a very exacting standard.

If you were consciously setting up a committee to replace Legco and Exco I am not sure that this one would have passed muster. It is grossly overweight in the order industry, underweight in legal advice, and lighter than air in most of the matters which properly concern governments.

It is nominally presided over by our unloved Chief Executive (was there not a British politician known as Attila the Hen?) and in practice led by a mainland “adviser”, a bureaucrat who probably thinks a human right is a sort of organic neon tube.

Naked and vulnerable at the feet of this grim gathering lie all those rights which we were supposed to be guaranteed for 50 years. The committee is not bound by the Bill of Rights Ordinance, now yet by the Basic Law. All the safeguards you thought you had, even fundamental things dating back to 1688, are now levelled.

We shall I expect see two tendencies. One is to downplay the role of Legco, which our leaders fear they will shortly lose control of. Mrs Attila, I beg your pardon Mrs Lam, commented the other day when defending a minor evasion of legislative scrutiny that you “can’t do anything with Legco” these days.

Well of course what you can do with an elected assembly depends on particular skills, like consultation, persuasion and compromise, which allow you to bring together people with different viewpoints. If your approach to opposition is to crush it then consensus will be elusive.

The other thing we can expect to happen is the extension of national security to areas with which it has nothing to do.

First specimen: the primary election. Holding a primary election is not mentioned in Hong Kong’s election law, and in fact it is rarely mentioned in election law elsewhere. How parties or groups choose their candidates for election is up to them. They may in different places consult rich donors, party members, likely voters or the entire population.

Holding a primary in which anyone can vote is unusual but not unprecedented. Some US states have what they call “open primaries” which work this way. Nobody’s rights are infringed, nothing about the fairness or openness of the election is affected in any way. Losers, if they insist, can run for election without the endorsement of the party which ran the primary.

To drag this issue into the national security area you have to say first that the objective of the primary is to secure a majority of the seats in Legco. This can hardly be illegal in itself because the Liaison Office has been doing the same thing in the Government interest for years.

But wait, having achieved a majority the winning party will then seek to force the government to give way on some, at least, of the “five demands” by refusing to cooperate on other matters. This, in the Hongkong and Macau Affairs Office view, would amount to a “colour revolution”.

You would think the members of a party which shot its way to power would be more careful in using the word “revolution”. Actually what the primary people are proposing is the use of a procedure provided in the Basic Law.

Oddly enough I suspect I had something to do with this. My career briefly intersected with the drafting of the Basic Law when I was asked to edit one of the early proposals. I sent it back with a polite memo pointing out what I thought was a flaw.

The idea then was that if Legco members were dissatisfied with the Chief Executive (a long shot but in those days something they thought should be catered for) then they could pass a motion of no confidence and the CE would have to resign. In order to make this difficult it was suggested that the motion should require a super majority, I think of two thirds.

My criticism was that a motion of no confidence was not a test of the legislature’s love for the government, it was a test of whether the government could still pass the bills it needed to keep going. New laws could be dispensed with but a constant stream of legislative approval was required for the raising and spending of money.

If a CE was saved by the super majority he or she might finish up with 60 per cent  of members still opposed to the government and they would not vote to fund it.

I heard nothing in reply to my memo but when the Basic Law emerged the vote of confidence had been replaced by the present arrangement, under which if Legco refuses to pass a funding bill the CE has to call a fresh election. If the new Legco is similarly recalcitrant then the CE must resign and be replaced.

This is a constitutional procedure, not a revolution, and indeed it appears that if a candidate believes he or she will wish to use it then honesty requires that the electorate should be informed of this before the election.

However what I think of this and what you think of this are beside the point. What matters is what the National Security Committee thinks of it. Maybe they will decide to disqualify everyone who participated in the primary. There is nothing to stop them.

Do not, at least, look for help from the Electoral Affairs people, who woke from hibernation this week to point out that it was a criminal offence to discourage someone from running for election. Considering their inglorious role in the DQ festival it is difficult to think of a response to this which could be printed in a family newspaper.

In the days when I was sometimes invited to address large groups of police people about their relations with the press the recurring complaint which came up was that there was no body to which complaints about the press could be addressed.

My usual reply, that we would be quite happy to have a complaint arrangement like the police one, did not go down well. The problem clearly continues. Last week the Force was reduced to writing a letter containing a series of complaints to the four organisations which between them represent most journalists.

This was (I hope this did not come as a surprise) widely reported. So we can console the Force with a response to their gripes which will be at least as forthcoming as their usual response to our gripes about them.

The first complaint was that a woman arrested “on suspicion of illegal assembly” had been “disguised as a reporter”. Apparently she was wearing a press vest. RTHK’s report on the matter could not resist adding at this point that the police did not say why the existence of a non-reporter in a press vest had anything to do with the real reporters to whom their epistle was addressed.

This is a good point. After all police people have dress obligations. They are supposed to display their numbers and/or warrant cards, though they often do not. They  are not supposed to adorn their uniforms with badges and logos of their own devising, though they often do. Journalists, on the other hand, can wear what they like.

Since the days of the trench coat, notebook and fedora with a press pass tucked into the hatband have long gone, it is very difficult to be “disguised as a journalist”.

And the press vest, handy though it may be, has no formal status at all. We know this because whenever someone complains about journalists being injured when covering street protests, the Force’s response is always that journalists have no special status. Along with first aiders, social workers, human rights observers and wandering members of the public they are liable to be shot, soaked, sprayed or peppered any time they are in the wrong place at the wrong time in one of the Force’s shooting galleries, or streets as we used to call them.

So I’m afraid this complaint must be unsubstantiated.

The next one (I quote RTHK) goes like this: “Police also accused some online media of taking close-up shots of protesters’ pamphlets that contained personal information on officers. The force described this as ‘extremely unprofessional’, adding that such shots may breach a court injunction that prevents the doxxing of police officers.”

I deplore the making of unfounded legal threats. Taking a picture of a leaflet is not “doxxing”. Of course “may” is a weasel word. President Trump may win the Nobel Peace Prize. Who knows?

I would also dispute the “unprofessional” label. If you are a reporter who is going to report the existence of a leaflet the least you are expected to do is to take a picture of one. This is not for publication, but as evidence for the truth of your story.

Now for the third complaint, which is in some ways more interesting.

“The police’s next complaint was that online media had ‘glorified’ the behaviour of a man suspected of stabbing a police officer by identifying him as a ‘resident’ who had ‘driven back’ the police during the protests. The force claimed the man was not an ordinary resident but ‘a criminal’ and said it was despicable for the outlet to confuse right and wrong.”

There is a legal point lurking here. Once legal proceedings are imminent it is a serious offence (known technically as contempt of court) for a media outlet to report events in a way which implies that the person or people arrested, or soon to be arrested, are guilty … or for that matter innocent. For that reason reporters are trained to report alleged offences using neutral language, of which “resident” and “driven back” are examples, and “a criminal” is not.

It is sadly true, as I have been complaining for years, that this rule is often broken. The reason why it is often broken is because the Department of Justice, unlike the old colonial Legal Department, does not keep an eye on the news media to spot infringements.

From time to time I have written to the DoJ pointing out conspicuous breaches of the rule. Their polite, but unhelpful, reply is that they only initiate prosecutions on receipt of suggestions from the police. This is unhelpful because the usual origin of prejudicial information is a police source, sometimes informal and sometimes in an official press conference.

As it happens the case of the resident accused of stabbing a police officer provided a good example. Within hours of his arrest it was reported on all channels, citing “police sources”, with a variety of details about the arrest which clearly implied an attempt to flee.

As some media were careless enough to report his name we must suppose this was among the information supplied. Indeed as some media managed to interview his family in time for the morning editions we must suppose that his address was supplied as well.

So there you go. Photographing the personal information of a police person is “unprofessional”. Leaking the personal information, and some highly prejudicial snippets of evidence, about an arrested suspect is business as usual for police people.

There is one rule for us, and one rule for them, as readers will no doubt already have deduced from the case of the motorcyclist alleged to have driven into a group of policemen. Initially charged with “furious driving”, he has now also been charged with “terrorism”, apparently for no better reason than that it will mean he will not get bail.

The policeman who drove a motorcycle into a group of protesters was not charged with anything.

 

Slavery was, and is, a terrible institution. Discrimination against people on the grounds of their race is indefensible. Black Lives do matter. These ethical positions now seem obvious. It was not always so.

Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature) has documented the way in which, over centuries, the degree of sympathy which people could feel for other people gradually increased, leading to an equally gradual decline in violence, brutality and indifference to suffering.

In the middle ages suspects were tortured; witches were burned; heretics were tortured and then burned. Women were treated like chattels. Rape and pillage were considered acceptable compensations for the hardships of military life. Mutinous sailors were flogged to death and traitors were disembowelled.

Name any early national hero, and you can assume he – or she – participated with varying degrees of willingness in this sort of thing. We do not expect people to have subscribed then to the notions of what is acceptable now.

Elizabeth II would not order the execution without trial of a potential rival to the throne. The first Elizabeth gets a free pass for the decapitation of Mary Queen of Scots because that was what people did in those days. Her father had used the same method to dispose of inconvenient wives.

In the light of this I wonder if it was entirely fair to dunk the statue of Edward Colston in the River Severn on the grounds that some of the considerable wealth he devoted to good works in Bristol came from the slave trade.

Mr Colston was not a Confederate general who might be supposed to have considered the merits of the “peculiar institution” in whose defence he was fighting. Colston was born in 1636. At that time slavery was not controversial. Indeed it seems to have been more or less universal.

All the ancient empires of which we have records had slavery. This is so commonplace as to suggest that where it is not documented this is due to the absence of records, not the absence of slaves. Asian empires were no different.

There was no particular racial discrimination about this, though religion often intruded. The largest slave market in the world was in Istanbul. In the intermittent wars between the Turks and Christendom both sides enslaved their captives, and often swept up unlucky civilians as well.

All Mediterranean sea powers had fleets of galleys powered by slaves. Coastal settlements lived in fear of visits by pirates for whom potential slaves were a lucrative item of plunder.

There were few, if any, slaves in England in the 1630s, but educated men in those days were exposed to two sources of authority. One was the writings of ancient Greece and Rome. Both societies took slavery for granted. Nobody complained then – and indeed few complain now – that Pericles’s famous oration on the merits of democracy was delivered to a men-only audience of slave owners.

Aristotle’s opinion on the matter was that slavery was natural and useful: “That some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” He accepted that this did not satisfactorily apply to people who were enslaved because they were on the losing side in a war, which was just a “social convention”.

The other source of authority to which Colston was exposed at considerable length was naturally the Bible. This is an embarrassing topic for modern scholars. Two of St Paul’s epistles include exhortations to slaves to obey their masters. This is sometimes obscured by using “bondservant” as a euphemism for “slave”. It is also sometimes questioned whether the letters concerned actually came from Paul, a point which had not been raised in the 1630s.

The Old Testament leaves less wriggle room. Consider for example these three verses from Leviticus: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”

In short it is, I think, unfair to blame Colston for sharing the moral blindness of his time. The Royal Africa Company, in which he was certainly an investor and for a year a senior executive, had a curious history.

The famous Royalist cavalry commander Prince Rupert spent a period in exile after losing the Civil War. During his wanderings round Europe he heard stories of a legendary gold mine in West Africa. The Royal Africa Company was founded after the Restoration of Charles II to exploit this opportunity, and favoured individuals, including the king himself, subscribed.

It will not perhaps come as a complete surprise that when the first fleet arrived in West Africa it found that the stories of mountains of gold had been greatly exaggerated. The only commodity on offer from the locals was slaves, a well-established trade which had been pioneered years before by the Portuguese.

This was no bar to continued investment by respectable citizens, including the political philosopher John Locke, and everyone’s favourite 17th century diarist, Samuel Pepys.

The question then becomes: when did the moral status of slavery become so questionable that It must be considered a blemish on the record of those involved? The significant date here, as far as England is concerned, is probably 1772, when the leading judge of his day, Lord Mansfield, held that slavery was “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England.”

This seems to have come to many people as a surprise on the scale of a Supreme Court decision today that meat eating was illegal. Mansfield himself protested at wider interpretations, pointing out (technically quite correctly) that his decision was only binding on the point before the court, which was whether a slave’s master could export him for sale in another country.

But his judgment was generally interpreted as implying that slavery was and had always been illegal in England. Opponents of the practice, who were now appearing in substantial numbers, seized on it to accuse owners of overseas slave plantations of hypocrisy.

Certainly by 1830, when slavery was formally abolished throughout the Empire, it had been in bad odour for a long time. Looking askance at the list of those hold-outs who were still in the business and claimed compensation for the loss of their “property” is entirely justified.

Still, you have to wonder whether this preoccupation with grievances two centuries old is distracting people from more immediate problems. Could it be that, as Jarett Kobek puts it, “These lessons in ethics and morality were conveyed through computers and cellular phones built by slave labour in China”?

Slavery is not over. And dunking Mr Colston is not going to change that.

Mr Jimmy Lai seems to have suddenly become a major focus for the law and order industry. Far be it from me to offer any opinion on the merits of any or all of the charges he faces, but there do seem to be a surprising number of them for someone who has reached the age of 70 without clocking any previous convictions.

For starters there is a case of intimidating a reporter three years ago. I am sure all journalists will be delighted by the discovery that this is an offence and that the Department of Justice is taking it with becoming seriousness. Those of my colleagues who do street reporting will look forward to similar efforts in defence of journalists who have been obstructed, abused, pepper-sprayed, shot, gassed or beaten up in the last year or so.  

Then there are three variations on unlawful assembly, with another one to follow when the cops have finished the paperwork. There was also a story last week about some legal problem involving a factory being used as an office.

I live in Fotan, where there are many factory buildings. As there is very little demand for factories these days many of the units in them are used for other purposes: shops, restaurants, art studios, and even, surreptitiously, residences.

It appears that Mr Lai, who by sheer coincidence owns a newspaper which is often critical of the government, may be outstandingly unlucky.

His run of bad luck continued last week in the High Court, where Mr Lai applied unsuccessfully for the lifting of a condition of his bail, that he not leave Hong Kong, so that he could visit his daughter and do some business in the US.

In the saddle on this occasion was Mr Justice Alex Lee. You might have supposed that the learned judge would have been particularly careful, in view of the legal avalanche dropping on Mr Lai’s head, to avoid any appearance that some sort of campaign was in progress. Alas, not careful enough.

Lee J correctly stated the applicable principle, which is that the defendant has a right to bail pending trial, so it is not up to the defendant to prove that his trip, if as in this case he asks for permission to make a specific trip rather than a general freedom from restrictions, is necessary.

Two paragraphs later Lee J gets down to his reasons for refusing the application and kicks off with “I am unable to be satisfied that the applicant’s proposed trip to US is really necessary.” This point is expatiated on at some length.

It appears that the judge has managed to forget his own advice. It is not for a defendant to prove that the exercise of his freedom is necessary; it is up to the prosecution to prove that a restriction is necessary. We are all innocent until proven guilty. Mr Lai is entitled to leave Hong Kong if he wishes to, whether his purposes impress a judge or not, unless the prosecution can demonstrate a serious risk that he will not return to face trial.

The judgement goes on to some rather inconclusive muttering about the temptations for defendants outside the jurisdiction of the court to refrain from returning, and then comes catastrophe.

I quote the offending passage in full: “I agree with Mr Bruce’s submission that account should also be taken of the attendant risks of the applicant contracting CONVID-19 while he was travelling.  The United States is now the country with the highest number of confirmed cases of the pandemic and that the applicant’s proposed itinerary would require him to travel extensively in those parts of that country which are worst hit by it.  There is yet to be any vaccine available for the disease and the remedies for which are still being tested. For all we know, the virus is highly infectious.  Thus, the risk of inflection whilst in the United States or on plane journey cannot be ignored.  This is especially so when the applicant happens to fall within the age group of people who are most vulnerable.  Moreover, if and when the applicant returns as proposed, he will be subject to a 14-day quarantine, the end of which is just about two weeks before the trial.  In the unfortunate event that the applicant is confirmed to have caught the disease whilst he is still in the United States, then the likelihood is that he would ‘fail to surrender to custody as the court may appoint’, albeit unintentionally.  Furthermore, should he be confirmed to have the virus after return, the trial would almost definitely have to be derailed. The said attendant risks, which in my assessment is real rather than fanciful, would have an adverse effect on the due administration of justice.”

Mr Bruce was the brief for the Department of Justice and he is, of course, entitled to advance whatever arguments he think will help his case. On the other hand the finer points of epidemic statistics are not a matter on which three expensive lawyers deploying the knowledge they have gleaned from the newspapers are likely to come to a very satisfactory conclusion.

Alternatively they may come up with a load of garbage. Lee J would have done a service to the cause of justice and his own reputation if he had told Mr Bruce that if counsel wished the court to consider the chances of Mr Lai catching an infectious disease he should call an expert witness on the subject.

Let us look at Mr Lai’s chances of catching COVID-19 if he had been allowed to travel to the US for two weeks. For the sake of simplicity let us assume that he will spend the whole time in New York State, though actually the second week was to be in Virginia, which is less dangerous.

The latest figures for the incidence of COVID-19 in New York State give us just under 2,000 cases per 100,000 people in the population. This means that if you had been in New York since January your chances of catching the virus would be two per cent. Of course if you are only staying two weeks it drops considerably lower, to something like 0.2 per cent.

But even this is unfair to New York State, which has made considerable progress since the days when it was “the part of the country worst hit” by the virus. Currently, according to CNN Health, New York State is discovering just over 600 cases every two weeks.

The population of New York State is in round numbers 20 million. This allows us to say with some confidence that the chances of Mr Lai catching the virus in two weeks are 0.003 per cent, or three for, 100,000 against. This is probably an over-estimate because the virus disproportionately affects the poor and non-Caucasian, who generally live in parts of the state which are unlikely to feature on the itinerary of visiting millionaires.

Lee J also perpetrates an elementary layman’s error by adopting the idea that “the applicant happens to fall within the age group of people who are most vulnerable.” The official position according to the WHO is that: “People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus. Older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.”

In other words your age has nothing to do with your chances of catching the virus. We older folk are more likely, if we catch it, to get very ill, though whether that is due to age or because we are more likely to have asthma etc. remains to be seen.

So “The said attendant risks, which in my assessment is real rather than fanciful” is wrong on two counts. It is unjustified, because the risks are in fact fanciful. And it is ungrammatical, because the risks are plural so ‘is’ is an error.

Do I need to remind Your Lordships generally that people are watching? Or, in what is perhaps the preferred legal terminology, people is watching.