Well well. No less than 38 academic economists were reported last week as having signed a petition in support of the government’s “Lantau Tomorrow Vision”, which might be more honestly labelled as “Carrie Lam’s plan to dump a lot of dirt in the Western Anchorage for some future government to build housing on.”

The petition described the dream archipelago as “affordable and an ideal investment”. The economists also attacked opponents of the plan as “emotional slogans with pre-supposed stance, and even political manipulation of populism by inciting public anger.”

The Standard said this was the “first time academics have come forward in support of the government”, which I found difficult to swallow. Individual academics have often supported the government. If this was supposed to mean academics as a group supporting the government it was over-stated.

Actually the signatories of the petition are quite a small portion, even of academic economists. The academic populations of the departments teaching economics in five publicly-funded universities are: City U 21, UST 24, HKU 35, BU 18, Ling Nan 20.

The PolyU certainly has academic economists but their website does not disclose names or numbers, at least to me. The new Hang Seng Business University has at least 24 economists, Shue Yan 11 and the OpenU five.

I infer that making a reasonable allowance for the reticent PolyU and for economists who are plying their trade in departments under other labels, like business or finance, there must be something in excess of 200 people who could be called academic economists in Hong Kong.

This means there are about 160 economists who either do not share their colleagues’ rosy view of the proposed dirt dump, or think that academic economists are not as well qualified as some of them think they are to assess the financial merits of investments which reach 30 years into the future.

This last belief is quite widely shared. Economics, it now appears, is not a science but a narrative discipline like history. Economists do a good job of telling convincing stories about the past, but this does not equip them to make accurate predictions.

Or as a Canadian academic put it: “An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.”

Rupert Murdoch has said that the purpose of economics is to make weather forecasting look respectable. This looks like a rip-off of the economic historian John Kenneth Galbraith, who said that the purpose was to make astrology look respectable.

For a more scientific view we can look at the work of Philip Tetlock, who interviewed 284 assorted commentators and pundits, including economists, and collected from them more than 80,000 predictions. The results were not impressive. Tetlock concluded that overall they would have scored better results by throwing dice.

More qualifications and experience did not produce more accurate predictions. It just increased the subjective confidence of the person making them.

Nissam (“The Black Swan”) Taleb lumps economists into a larger group of people whose predictions are worthless because they suffer no penalty if the prediction turns out wrong.

Danny Kahneman (“Thinking fast and slow”) takes the more charitable view that “It is wrong to blame anyone for failing to forecast accurately in an unpredictable world. However it seems fair to blame professionals for believing they can succeed in an impossible task.”

So I think on general principles we are entitled to some misgivings when confronted with a gaggle of economists touting an “affordable and ideal investment.” Better than “my uncle in Nigeria needs to hide a million bucks under your mattress.” But not much.

There are also some question marks over the way this particular recommendation emerged. The petition, apparently, had two more or less memorable names. One was Professor Richard Wong, a leading light in the Our Hong Kong Foundation, which is Tung Chee-hwa’s contribution to public cogitation. Prof Wong may be regarded as a recent convert to the cause of avoiding “political manipulation … by arousing public anger.” It is not so long ago that he wrote a piece comparing people protesting at increased tourism in Sheung Shui to the Ku Klux Klan.

The other is Prof Sung Yun-wing, also a think-tanker, who swims in the private thoughtful pool of Ronny Tong, the interesting political chameleon who now sits in the Executive Council.

So a lot of political connections here. One wonders, naturally, whose idea this was, a point on which the local media did not enlighten us.

Well I suppose we should not be too discouraging. It is nice of academics to share their investment advice with us, even if the cautious among us do not take it.

What seems to me a bit out of academic economists’ territory is the opinions and motivations of those who disagree with them.

Economics concerns the economy. Whether slogans are emotional, stances pre-supposed (whatever that means) populism is manipulated or the public angered is not a matter on which academic economists speak with any particular authority. If you guys think the numbers add up, fine. Criticism of people who have other concerns about the project should be left to other authors.

In any case, my personal suspicion is that all this is beside the point. The purpose of the Lantau Vision is not to build anything. When accused of slighting the work of the working party looking at land supply matters, Ms Lam said that Hong Kong people would have been disappointed if there had been nothing in the policy speech about housing.

To avoid this disappointment we have a visionary project which will remain pie in the sky for decades. Or will it? The Vision has performed its function of preserving us from a policy speech let-down. It will now spawn some studies, at modest cost. And then at some point in the future, when property prices are at last falling and Ms Lam has retired, I expect it will quietly disappear into the mist.

Mike Rowse has offered the hilarious suggestion that the project needs a more sexy name, and suggested “Freedom Island”. I think Freedom might object to that in view of what is happening to her in Hong Kong. May I suggest “Lantau Tomorrow Mirage”? Now you see it. Later … who knows?


Why, people wonder, do so many Hong Kong students elect to go to university in the UK? Is it a colonial hang-over, a misguided nostalgia for London as the mothership? Or is it due to a misguided aversion to the local tertiary facilities?

Not exactly. Part of the reason is cultural. Studying overseas have become a part of what you may call the standard middle class educational package. As a result many Hong Kong kids do it and anyone who refuses an affordable offer will fear that he or she is missing out.

Partly it is anthropological. Young people have always, at a certain age, felt the urge to establish their status as individuals outside the family. This led, in different periods, to desperate expedients like emigration to America, running away to sea, joining a passing circus or taking the Queen’s Shilling.

Nowadays it is reflected in an almost universal feature of university life in developed countries: students do not attend their home town university, however prestigious it may be. Brilliant students who live in Oxford go to Cambridge, and vice versa.

Unfortunately attempts to reproduce this bid for independence in Hong Kong are necessarily unconvincing. Our universities build residence blocks and try hard to create a social milieu called “hall life”. But this is all a bit artificial when the student can easily go home every weekend if she wishes to, and indeed in most cases can conveniently go home every night.

Then there is the matter of economics. Here we must take a brief detour through Hong Kong’s educational history. Soon after 1997 it was decided that Hong Kong universities should switch from three-year degrees to four-year degrees. But the government had no intention of treating everyone to an extra year of education. The extra year at university would simply replace the last year at school.

Accordingly the old school-leaving exam, commonly known as A Levels, was abolished, and replaced by a new thing, called the Diploma of Secondary Education, which was to be taken at the end of the sixth secondary year, instead of the seventh.

A problem then arose. If no students took A Levels then it appeared it would be very difficult for them to secure admission to UK universities, which had traditionally required this qualification.

This was a problem for Hong Kong, but it was also a problem for the UK universities, which make more money out of overseas students than they do from local ones, and value their extensive Hong Kong customer base.

The solution, which pleased everybody, was for the English universities to accept that the DSE was entirely equivalent to an English A Level (Scotland has a separate system) despite the fact that the student had spent a whole year less in obtaining it.

But this led to another oddity. English universities were still working what we may conveniently call the old Hong Kong system, under which students got their degrees after three years of study. And there was no question of them changing it.

So the way this adds up if you are a parent goes like this. if your student studies in Hong Kong then he or she will pay the local fees of HK$42,000. According to one of our local university websites living costs for a student living in hall (rather than at home) will come to about $80,000 a year. So for a degree someone is going to have to cough up $122,000 x 4, which is $488,000 or, in round figures, half a million bucks.

If the student goes to England the fees for an overseas visitor start at GBP10,000 a year, They go up to  much higher figures for some subjects. Living costs, according to the Times Higher Ed, are GBP9,000 a year. Which means you will pay GBP19,000 but this will be multiplied only by three, which gets us to GBP57,000, or at current rates HK$570,000.

So for the rather modest extra outlay of $70,000, plus some air fares, you save a year of your kid’s life and have something you can tell your friends about with pride.

From the point of view of the potential student this is good news for another reason. Having glued an extra year on the front of their courses Hong Kong universities decided that this should be spent on a sort of academic forced shopping labelled “general education”. The student is required to choose courses from a variety of different places and also subjected to some requirements, usually involving languages.

As UK universities only have three years with their students this sort of thing has never caught on there. For some students this is a shame. Some applicants to university have only the vaguest idea of what they want to do. When I was interviewing people who had applied to Baptist U I could see the list of courses they had applied for and was often stunned by the sheer variety. Applicants were apparently willing to leave their final choice from a wide range up to the joint efforts of the examiners and the JUPAS computer.

If, however, you are a student who has a very clear idea of what he wants to study at university than there is a lot to be said for a system in which a Physics degree consists entirely of Physics and a History degree consists entirely of History.

Well, Hong Kong universities have never been too bothered by what their students wanted. Places were in short supply so it was a seller’s market. Say what you like about UK universities, at least they try to please. They need the fees.

All this is a bit rough on local parents. If you are at the airport on certain evenings after Christmas you see a lot of parents trying not to shed visible tears until their offspring have safely disappeared down the Immigration channel and left them to return to their empty nests. But our universities are not too bothered what parents think either.


Mr Grenville Cross was at one time our Director of Public Prosecutions. He is still a law professor and a senior counsel. After his retirement from the government service he campaigned, for a while, for the introduction of a prosecutions system insulated from the political considerations which properly engage the attention of the Secretary for Justice.

He seems to have concluded after some time that this proposal was no more appealing to our current colonial authorities than it had been to their predecessors.

More recently his writings have tended to demonstrate to the general public why some recent official decision was legally right, and even inevitable, although in one or two cases this view of the matter was not shared by the Court of Final Appeal.

This is all well and good. But his latest effort in this vein is quite outlandish.

This is a piece in the China Daily explaining why it was perfectly acceptable for the Returning Officer to reject the nomination of Ms Lau Siu-lai to the current by-election, without giving her the opportunity to make representations on the matter.

Mr Cross starts with the resoundingly platitudinous observation that the right to run for election is not unqualified, and recites the legal requirements, which as well as age, residence and such like include a “declaration of willingness to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR”.

He then states that in the interests of the integrity of the system “false declarations need to be weeded out”. This is an interesting point, but I would have thought the need, if any, was met by the law which allows prosecution of anyone who makes a false declaration.

This would no doubt bring the disqualification of the candidate concerned in its train, but with this procedure the disqualification would be preceded by a proper trial in which the government had to prove its case and the alleged falsifier would be able to make such defence as she or he had available.

The current arrangement, in which the Returning Officer (who in our system, unlike the UK one, has no claims to impartiality) decides the matter on his own, was, Mr Cross notes, approved by Mr Justice Au in the High Court, on two conditions: that the evidence of falsity was “cogent, clear and compelling”, and that the affected person was given a “reasonable opportunity” to respond to it.

Mr Cross then goes through the evidence adduced by the Returning Officer, and loves it. We thus arrive at the point that Ms Lau has complained about not being given a chance to respond, and in a most unlawyerly way Mr Cross says that “as a matter of common sense Au’s guidance should be seen as directory, rather than mandatory. If Kwok [the Returning Officer] was satisfied on all the material before him that the case for exclusion was overwhelming, there would have been little point in inviting Lau’s comments.”

Dear me. The opportunity to respond is not just a matter of Mr Justice Au offering a little fatherly advice to Returning Officers. It is an application of the part of the Common Law known confusingly as ”natural justice”. What this states is that if a person or body is making a decision of a vaguely judge-like nature than he or it should observe some minimal judge-like standards.

What those standards are varies. For some purposes courts have held that the accused should have the right to see the evidence, cross-examine witnesses and call his own. In less fraught circumstances you may be entitled to a hearing and a lawyer, or a friend who is not a lawyer, or just a hearing, or just a chance to write in your defence.

The right to respond conferred by Mr Justice Au could be considered in this light as a bare minimum. Generations of Common Law practitioners would twirl in their graves if they could hear a senior counsel dismissing it on the grounds of “common sense”.

Let me at this point turn the microphone over to Mr Justice Robert Megarry, giving his view of the matter in John v Rees. If you wish to read the whole thing, it can be found at [1996] All ER 274,309.

It may be that there are some who would decry the importance which the courts attach to the idea of natural justice. ‘When something is obvious,’ they may say, ’why force everyone to go through the tiresome waste of time involved in framing charges and giving an opportunity to be heard? The result is obvious from the start.’

Those who take this view do not, I think, do themselves justice. As everyone who has anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not; of unanswerable charges which, in the event, were completely answered; of inexplicable conduct which was fully explained; of fixed and unalterable determination that, by discussion, suffered a change.

Nor are those with any knowledge of human nature who pause to think for a moment likely to underestimate the feeling of resentment of those who feel that a decision against them has been made without their being given any opportunity to influence the course of events.

A briefer statement of a similar point from US Supreme Court judge Felix Frankfurter:

No better instrument has been devised for arriving at truth than to give a person in jeopardy of serious loss notice of the case against him and opportunity to meet it. Nor has a better way been found of generating the feeling, so important to a popular government, that justice has been done.

So, Ms Lau was entitled to be heard. She was not. This was wrong. Mr Cross is wrong. I am also cross.

When I was at school we were all encouraged to read a book by Arthur Koestler called “Darkness at Noon.” This was an attempt to answer, in a novel, a question on many minds at the time: how were veteran revolutionaries caught up in Stalin’s purges persuaded to confess to capital crimes at their show trials?

Koestler had a highly intelligent and persuasive interrogator convincing his victims by argument that they really were guilty of treason. This was something of an intellectual game. The book carefully avoided mentioning any names – it was set in a dictatorship ruled by “The Party”, which was headed by “Number One” – and one has to suspect that in real life Stalin’s methods were somewhat cruder.

Many of his victims, one imagines, were offered the sort of deal which the Nazis later imposed on Erwin Rommel: if you jump then you jump alone; if we have to push you then your family goes too.

For many years this matter slumbered in the back of my memory as being entirely irrelevant to daily life in England, or Hong Kong. But with the increasing mainlandisation of Hong Kong the question of how people can be persuaded to produce voluntary-looking confessions looks increasingly relevant.

There are two schools of thought on this topic. One, identified with Donald Rumsfleld and the writers of “24 Hours”, maintains that the best results are obtained by torturing the prisoners until they confess in order to end the ordeal. There is a victim’s diary here: http://issuu.com/canongatebooks/docs/slahi_unclassified_manuscript_scan?e=11163753/13005384

This idea has traditionally been popular with police, army and clerical interrogators, but it is open to several criticisms. One is that it is a violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, so if your country is caught at it some embarrassment will follow. It is also, in most nice countries, against the law.

There is also the practical objection that the quality of the resulting information is poor. You cannot torture someone into telling the truth. In the end you can only torture him into telling you what you wish to hear.

The other school of thought maintains that better results can be obtained without violence or duress, by an interrogator who forms a relationship with the victim. There is a victim’s eye view of how this works here: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2018/05/13/son-everything-china-forced-lawyer-wang-yu-denounce-human-rights-award/

On the face of it, it is difficult to see why a prisoner would form a relationship with a jailer. A certain amount of manipulation is necessary. From a practical point of view, if you are caught up in the system the process goes something like this:

In phase one they will be rough. You will be deprived of sleep, disorientated, and physically abused. This is done for two reasons: there is a hope that at this stage the victim is shocked and confused. Being captured or arrested is alarming and frightening in itself. He or she may, if pushed a bit, collapse completely and comply with his interrogators’ wishes.

Indeed you should seriously consider doing this, if they are not asking for too much. Signing a written confession has been much devalued. Many alert Hongkongers warn their friends before visiting the mainland that any confession they may sign should be disregarded.

For foreign correspondents, the police station visit and confession signing has become a sort of rite of passage. If you haven’t done it after a year or two in the job people will suspect that you are not trying hard enough.

The second reason for giving you a hard time is that this sets a low standard which will allow later interrogators to appear humane and friendly, even though they are, as you know, still your jailers.

The second stage is a bit different. After all your Chinese police people do not have to worry about the UN Declaration of Human Rights, or indeed about the law. They can do what they like with you. On the other hand they can’t do much with a written confession these days. News has to be digital. A video report of a confession by a quivering heap of human wreckage is not going to work.  Visible willingness is required.

So after the rough phase you will be moved. This is done in a disorientating way. You will be masked or hooded. Nobody will tell you where you are going and if some hint is dropped you will not know whether to believe it. At the end of the trip you will not know if you have moved hundreds of miles or just driven round the block a few times and returned to the cell next door to your old one.

You will have a cell to yourself. It will be padded. These things are not for your benefit. Solitary confinement is stressful and debilitating. The padded walls are to prevent suicide.

Here you will be left to stew for a bit. When interrogations resume you will meet Mr Nice Guy.

Mr NG is friendly, sympathetic. He can secure small improvements in your living conditions, and supply snippets of news from the outside world. Your encounters serve two objectives: he needs to establish himself as your only accessible friend in the world, and he needs to discover the hook with which he will draw you into compliance with his wishes.

So some discussion will be devoted to what you miss, or who you worry about. Your anxiety will be subtly encouraged. “Your father was taken to hospital last week but he is fine,,,” “I expect your son misses you…”

And then Mr NG makes his play. “I can make this go away and get you out of here, but you will have to help me. My boss wants you to make a video…” Of course, he says, nobody else will ever see it. This seems from the outside rather implausible but you desperately want to believe that Mr NG is a truthful person with your interests at heart. So maybe you make the video.

This gets you out of prison but when they play the video on national television it will horrify your friends and associates, which is of course the object of the exercise.

It should be clear by now that no blame attaches to people who succumb to this treatment and make the video. Indeed it could be considered a tribute to the effectiveness of this method that China uses it, despite a long tradition of torture and the complete absence of any safeguards against it. People do what works because it works. I expect it would work on me.

This comparatively non-violent part of the Gulag Archipelago is, however, still an abuse of human rights. Innocence is no protection. Nor is having a foreign passport. Staying in Hong Kong works for most of us. For now.

Let us hail one unheralded record broken by the Express Rail Link: it has surely spawned more official mis-statements per kilometre than any previous railway project.

We are now expected to nurture the delusion that the new line may someday make a “profit”. This is a gross abuse of language. It will never make a profit in the normal sense of the word because in order to do so it would first have to repay the cost of construction. This is what making a profit means.

The Express Rail’s chances of making a profit are on a par with Carrie Lam’s chances of being elected the next Pope.

The financial indicator which is now being watched with bated breath by fans of the new line is not whether it makes a profit or loss, but whether it covers its running costs. In other words will the MTR, which is operating the thing, actually take in enough in fares to cover the expenses involved in doing this, while the railway, stations etc. are donated free of charge by the taxpayers.

If this does not happen, then the line will have to be subsidised. Under the circumstances it is perhaps a pity that the Express Rail Terminus, unlike other MTR erections, is not surmounted by a luxurious housing estate.

Instead it has a flamboyant and quite unnecessary roof. Nineteenth century railway termini had huge roofs – considerable engineering achievements in their day – because the locomotives all contained a raging coal fire. The resulting smoke and steam had to go somewhere.

The Express Rail terminus has no such requirements. The trains are electric, and in any case are five floors down, separated from the surface by three layers of immigration desks, customs halls, ticketing counters, shops, shops and – this being a Hong Kong project – more shops. The conspicuous roof has no purpose except to remind us that our expensive toy is under it somewhere.

So with no subsidy from property, will it break even?

Reading earlier predictions of how the railway would work does not inspire confidence.

In 2008 the “key project parameters” were that it would have 99,000 daily passengers, and cost $39 billion.

In 2009 we had the first appearance of the claim that the building of the station would create 10,000 jobs, which was repeated frequently over the ensuing nine years. The Legislative Council was also told that owing to changes in policy on the mainland “there will be a significant increase in the patronage”.

At the same time the “economic benefits” of the railway over 30 years were valued at $87 billion. Curious that a government which consistently fails to predict its own fortunes in the coming 12 months expects to be taken seriously when it offers a prediction for the next 30 years.

No doubt the figure is conservative. Still it became an alarming one as the cost of constructing the railway approached it, and then overtook it.

In 2009 the construction cost took its first upward leap, to $66 billion. At this point the figure was massaged back down by taking out $11 billion worth of “non-railway works” and treating them as an entirely separate item. So the official prediction became $53.7 billion.

In 2010 members of the Public Works Sub-committee were entertained with the notion that daily patronage “could go up to 116,000”, while a “less optimistic figure” would be 89,000.

Work started on this optimistic basis, and produced a stream of cheerful reports until 2014. By this time much work had been done. Cancellation was inconceivable. The cost to completion was revised up to $85 billion. At roughly the same time the “non-railway” items went up from $11 billion to $16 billion.

This leads us to the conclusion that the honestly stated cost of the whole project was $100 billion, which rather puts the estimated economic benefits in the shade. At the same time the expected daily traffic was increased to 109,200. Why the person responsible for this forecast thought it was accurate enough to be worth including the extra 200 remains a mystery.

The latest “best guess” of the daily traffic is 80,000. That could increase so we can wait and see on that one.

But now that the Great White Elephant is finished we can come to a solid conclusion about the repeated claim that the actual construction would create 10,000 jobs. This was a gross exaggeration.

Every six months the government provided a report for the railways sub-committee of the Legislative Council on the progress of the project. And each report included the number of people currently employed on it.

In December 2010 this was about 3,000. By June of the following year it had crept up to 3,600.

By June 2012 it was up to 6,000. The report was still predicting a peak of 10,000 to come later. But come it did not. At the end of June 2013 the daily average was about 8,500. And that was as high as it got. The figure for June the following year was 6,400; in December it was up to 7,700. By the end of 2015 it was still 7,712, by the end of 2016 it was 7,637 and at the end of last year it was down to 6,349.

Readers may also recall that when cancellation of the project was proposed in 2016, MTR boss Frederick Ma complained that this was a threat to “7,000 jobs”. Another 4,000 or so had never materialised

Were any of the early predictions worth the paper they were written on? Well, the railway is still the same length.





Your sympathy, please, for Deputy Magistrate Samuel Yip Chung-him. Faced with an offender who had admitted assaulting another person at a demonstration, Mr Yip decided that as it was a first offence and said offender had pleaded guilty and shown remorse, a suspended sentence would be appropriate.

So the offender left the court a free man, and will so remain unless he commits a similar offence during the period of the suspension.

Mr Yip will, I fear, now come in for fierce attacks from those critics of the judicial system who believe that people who commit violent offences at demonstrations should be sent to jail.

The Department of Justice will shortly announce a request to the Court of Appeal for a more stringent sentence, which the Court of Appeal will happily provide, to a chorus of approval from the pro-government media.

The offender will then appeal to the Court of Final Appeal, which will reinstate the original lenient sentence, incurring a storm of abuse in the process. At each stage the relevant judges will be accused of grovelling to the Liaison Office or subversive sympathies, depending on which way they vote. Officials will vainly appeal for restrained comments. This is how these things are done in Hong Kong these days. But, perhaps this case will be different.

The actual fracas was recorded on video, so we can say with some confidence what happened. The victim was a member of the Labour Party. He was participating in a small demonstration at the Fanling Golf Club in favour of the notion that some of the club’s rolling acres might usefully be used for public housing.

The perpetrator, one Tong Chun-po, is a professional golfer and golf coach who was enraged by the possibility that anyone might wish, in the interests of housing people now sleeping in cage homes and other substandard accommodation, to deprive the club of one or two of its three (yes, it has three) golf courses.

The victim, a Mr Oscar Lo, was hit in a painful place – shall we say below the belt? – grabbed by the neck and pushed to the ground.

Observers who engage in the deplorable and unjustified practice of discerning bias in the system of justice may wonder if perhaps defending the sanctity of a golf course attracts more sympathy from the Bench than protests over trivial matters like democracy or freedom.

They may wonder if a court would have deployed the same quantity of mercy if the roles had been reversed: the perpetrator was a Labour Party protestor and the victim a golf coach.

We are encouraged to avoid this sort of speculation and indeed there is nothing to be gained by it today.

What we may usefully do, in case any readers find themselves in a similar plight, is consider how you should handle the matter if you are accused of a crime which was filmed, with the resulting footage being, as they say, widely shared on social media.

It is interesting to compare Mr Tong’s case with that of Mr Frankly Chu, who is now routinely and accurately described as a retired policeman but was a senior member of the force when he was filmed lashing out at an innocent passer-by with his “baton” (which is the law enforcement euphemism for a club) during a post-Occupy evening confrontation in Mong Kok.

Mr Tong, knowing that the film of his burst of martial artistry was going to be shown in court, elected to plead guilty, apologise and rely on his clean record and remorse to keep him out of prison. He also, apparently, rejected the idea of community service because of problems with his arm and his knee-joints. I thought golf was supposed to be good for you.

Mr Chu, on the other hand, despite the expectation that his crime would be screened in glorious technicolour for the entertainment of the judge, elected to plead not guilty. On his behalf one of Hong Kong’s more abrasive barristers grilled the prosecution witnesses in the vain hope of scaring up a reasonable doubt. This was not a success.

I could not help thinking that Mr Chu’s legal team would have done better by their client if they had explained to him at greater length that his actions as filmed, however justified he might have felt them at the time, clearly constituted the offence with which he was charged.

Attention would then have turned to the matter of mitigation, for which there was plenty of material. Lawyers do this so well. The speech almost writes itself: sad end to 30 years of unblemished service to the community … clean record marred by a moment of passion … totally out of character … police under great strain … defendant tired after a long shift … tense situation … only human … great remorse … humble apology to victim … commendations and medals awarded … testimonials from the Police Chief, Chief Executive, the Pope, President Trump etc … sorry for wasting the court’s time … custodial sentence not appropriate in the circumstances.

As the audience sobs in the public gallery the judge is considering the rival merits of a conditional discharge or a suspended sentence. And out into the street goes our defendant, still a free man, to tell the reporters gathered outside about his vindicated faith in Hong Kong justice.

Of course if you believe you are not guilty you have the right to plead not guilty. But if it comes to conviction and a sentence there is, as we all know, a discount for pleading guilty, a tradition of leniency on defendants who express remorse, and a discount for having an unblemished record. These can, as they did for Mr Tong, produce a sentence difficult to distinguish from a pat on the head. If you go for the Rotweiler defence you don’t get them.

I do not go through life looking for opportunities to give Hong Kong judges a hard time. But someone has to do it.

This week we had the judgment of Mr Justice Andrew Chan in the matter of five men accused of criminal contempt by obstructing bailiffs enforcing a court order.

They were convicted. The offences, which could be described as having a whiff of politics about them, took place four years ago during the clearance of the Mong Kok part of Occupy. The law’s delays, as Hamlet observed, are one of the things we all have to put up with.

Ploughing through Chan J’s 17-page judgment, the Hong Kong Free Press’s diligent reporter came across a fine self-contained gobbet of horse manure. I quote: “Regarding Yung, Chan wrote that the slogan on the back of his T‑shirt – which said ‘rather die for speaking out, than to live and be silent’ – ‘indicated his intention and described his involvement beyond doubt.’”

So young Mr Yung was convicted, it seems, on the evidence of his tee-shirt. This is very disturbing.

To start with, the slogan concerned seems a very fragile peg on which to hang the conclusion that the wearer set out to obstruct the bailiffs. The offending shirt did not say “Occupy Mong Kok for ever,” or “Who cares what some old fart in the High Court thinks?” The slogan concerns speech, not occupation.

And there is nothing particularly unusual or ambitious about it. It is descended from Pasionaria’s “Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”, which dates from the 1930s and in turn perhaps owed some inspiration to Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death”, which was orated in 1775.

Even if you think, as a conservative and elderly judge might, that this is so subversive in its implications that the wearer must be a rabid revolutionary, before hastening to judgement there are some further possibilities to consider.

We have all seen people wearing tee-shirts which said incongruous things. This seems a particular problem in Japan, where people wear tee-shirts with English slogans which either don’t make sense at all or mean something which the wearer would be embarrassed by if she knew what it was.

Such accidents are not unknown in Hong Kong. Generally people who buy cheap tees from factory outlets and such are tempted mainly by the low prices. If it happens to say “I’m too pretty to do housework”, or “Good girls are better liars”, they do not mind, but they do not mean it either.

When I worked in Blackpool there was still a traditional vogue for hats which said “Kiss me quick”. Passers-by did not take this invitation literally.

I do not criticise. I have a tee-shirt I bought in Japan with a lot of writing on it. I am assured by a colleague who reads the language that it is a recipe for cooking fish. This is a relief because I cannot read it myself. It only occurred to me when it was too late that my shirt might say something unfortunate like “Hands off the Diaoyus”, or “Yasukune Shrine Supporters’ Club”.

We should all, I think, deny vigorously the suggestion that the wording on our tee-shirts is evidence of our “intentions and involvement” in anything. A person whose tee reads “Vote for Guy Fawkes, the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions”, may have poor political taste, but he is not going to blow anything up.

A person whose tee-shirt says “Eat the rich” is not prone to cannibalism, and a picture of Adolf Hitler is not necessarily evidence of Fascism. It sometimes comes with a small caption underneath saying “My picture of Che Guevara is in the wash”.

As far as I can tell from some hasty Googling the international consensus is that nothing written on a tee-shirt should be taken too seriously. The only exception I could find was an American lady who was refused boarding on a booked flight because she was wearing a (I presume) feminist effort which went “If I wanted the government in my womb I would fuck a senator.”

If Hong Kong judges are going to jump to conclusions on the basis of tee-shirt slogans we are all going to have to examine our collections closely. Would there be objections to “Free Tibet”, and would these objections be withdrawn if it was followed, as it sometimes is, by “with a purchase of another Tibet of equal or greater value”?

Will the long-awaited Article 23 legislation bar us from wearing “Property is theft” (Proudhon) or “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge” (Bakunin)?

Perhaps someone could  commission a tee-shirt for Mr Chan, with the useful phrase “Aucupia verborum sunt judice indigna”, which means “Catching at words is unworthy of a Judge.” It is a quote from one of Mr Chan’s colleagues, albeit one who was working in 1616. Before tee-shirts became evidence.