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I have drafted a letter to my friends and family members in the UK. But perhaps a few cheerful words from a happier place would not be welcome. So I’ll park it here.

Hi, folks,

Look, I get it, this is none of my business. Five years ago I passed a landmark of no significance to anyone else but me: I had spent more than half of my life in Hong Kong.

But I still wish you well. I visit, occasionally, the websites of the newspapers I used to work for and, often, the websites of the Guardian and the BBC. I care about what happens in England and – to a somewhat less extent, in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

And I need to ask, from one crowded island to another, what the hell have you been getting up to. My Facebook feed is bulging with lockdown stories. And it is horrifying to read the news that total deaths from Covid 19 in your place have passed, at the time of writing, 30,000.

It seemed to me entirely irrelevant that, the week before, the total casualty toll had passed the tally of British Army deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. When two highly industrialised nations put hundreds of thousands of young men in a field with instructions to kill each other you expect the blood to flow.

But we are all, give or take a few civil wars a safe distance away, at peace at the moment. And the excuse that this massacre is all inevitable, the result of a medical problem which nobody could have foreseen and for which there was no immediate remedy, doesn’t wash because the consequences have been so variable.

I understand it is too early to say whether the UK will achieve the unwanted distinction of the highest death rate in Europe. But why is it even in the running for this title?

At the moment the number of deaths in Hong Kong, whose government enjoys neither democratic legitimacy nor a reputation for unusual efficiency, is four. Not 4,000, not 400, not 40. Four, as in number of gospel writers.

This is in a territory with a land border to the mainland, where it all started. So we had less warning and more opportunities for imported infections. Taiwan and Thailand, similarly disadvantaged, have also managed strikingly low numbers, and Viet Nam claims to have no cases at all.

There is a theory that Western countries were slow to take the whole thing seriously because of a racist indifference to Asian viruses. I am dubious. The possibility of an epidemic has been noised about for years. Should there not have been contingency plans, stashes of essential supplies, draft regulations, provision for relevant emergency changes?

This may not be immediately obvious from close up, but from a distance it looks like a massive failure of your government, which had made no preparations and, as the relevant Horseman of the Apocalypse galloped towards it, reacted like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car.

No doubt standards of national leadership on this topic have been lowered by the antics of the lethal buffoon in the White House, but a failure on this scale, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, surely should have consequences?

There is an interesting irony here, at least for the moment. It seems your government is not getting the blame it has richly earned. Ours, which has had a good epidemic so far, is not getting much credit.

Partly this is because of events in the year before the arrival of the new disease. Our Chief Executive has trodden in too many political cowpats to have a shot at the Hong Kong’s sweetheart title, whatever she does about viruses.

It is also partly because the government was propelled towards some precautions, like closing the border, by public agitation.

But I think the main reason is because Hong Kong people, while they do not trust the words of their government, and still less those of the government over the boundary on the mainland, did not need to be persuaded to take the whole matter seriously. This made a big difference.

 Why so serious? We participated extensively in the SARS epidemic in 2004, still fresh in many memories. Indeed I imagine many households, like mine, still had a box of face masks which were tucked away when that epidemic subsided. Hygiene was already a thing.

In countries that have not seen a real epidemic since the Spanish flu in 1918 this awareness would of course be absent. But this is where, in a democratic society with a literate population and free media, public information should have come in. Instead governments dithered, at best, or denied there was a problem, at worst.

I do not allow the defence that they were relying on scientific opinion. This is a contradiction in terms. Science, in its slow, tentative way, produces factual observations.

The opinions of scientists about matters on which science has not yet determined the facts are not scientific. They are just opinions. You may think they are expert opinions, but expert opinions about the future (see the works of Philip Tetlock) are lamentably unreliable.

I do not think you can blame scientists, or politicians, for failing to foresee what Covid-19 would be like. There was much we didn’t know about it then and there still is now. What you can blame them for is failure to look at the places where it arrived first, and to see what worked, and copy it.

Too late now, of course. But if I may venture a word of advice: when they let you out, get a face mask and wear it.

 

 

As a long-time observer, and occasional critic, of Hong Kong judges I must congratulate Mr Kwok Wai-kin on making my previously eccentric hobby a mainstream activity.

Judge Kwok, who exercises his doubtless Solomon-like qualities in the district courts, has been reassigned to non-political matters after much criticism of his remarks when sentencing a man who attacked three people with a knife during an argument at a Lennon Wall in Tseung Kwan O.

The assailant, an unemployed tour guide, blamed the then-current protests on his predicament. But no protest was in progress at the time. Two of the victims of his knife attack were women. One of the women was a journalist, not a protester.

Judge Kwok’s sentence (45 months in prison) has attracted a variety of assessments: endorsed by Greville Cross (a rare excursion in the direction of judicial clemency), criticised by sundry democratically inclined people, who thought it inadequate.

Well sentencing is not an exact science. The perpetrator was perhaps lucky not to be charged with attempted murder. The reporter nearly died.

What cannot be disputed, though, is that the remarks which accompanied the sentence exhibited a rampant political bias. The easiest way to check this is to contemplate what luck you would have with similar arguments on behalf of a protester who threw a brick at a policeman.

My Lord, my client may have thrown a brick at a policeman, but he showed “noble qualities” by writing a letter to the court hoping that his trial would make the victim feel better. Try again.

My Lord, my client had been out of work for two months. He was a “bloodstained victim hanging by his last breath” and overcome by emotion. Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Was there not a Hong Kong judge who said, when sentencing some rioters, that “The courts will not get involved in political debate, nor judge on right or wrong in political ideals, as that is not the role of the courts”?

Indeed there was. In fact it was Mr Kwok himself, in 2016. Times have apparently changed. Or something has. It would be incurably idealistic to expect judges to be entirely free from political influence. But if they can’t manage impartiality they should at least fake it.

I am unable to agree with the learned observers who said that there is nothing in the Hong Kong Guide to Judicial Conduct relevant to this occurrence. “Impartiality is the fundamental quality required of a judge”, says para 18, and in para 19 we have “Impartiality must exist both as a matter of fact and as a matter of reasonable perception,” which pretty much wraps it up as far as Judge Kwok is concerned.

Well there is no point in kicking a dead horse. Mr Kwok’s removal from the judicial end of the political fray, or the political end of the judicial one if you prefer it, is clearly not the end of the story.

The removal of a judge is rightly a difficult matter. Judges should be able to go about their business without worrying about job security. And if it were easy to remove judges this power would rarely be exercised in defence of the vulnerable or politically controversial.

However, in the genteel world of judgeship, matters are not allowed to come to anything as crass as dismissal proceedings. The fact remains that a judge who cannot be let loose on a category of cases in case he loses his rag and comes out with a mitigatory diatribe not previously mentioned in court is no use as a judge.

Judge Kwok is irreparably damaged goods and he knows it.

His switch to a low-controversy diet is the judicial equivalent of the old arrangement by which disgraced officers were left alone in the study with a loaded revolver and the expectation that they would “do the right thing”.

In due course Judge Kwok will no doubt express the wish to spend more time with his family, or deal with a pressing medical issue, or explore other career options, and step down from the bench.

If necessary the People’s Poodles will be happy to find a job for him somewhere. He could perhaps join Mr Cross on the op ed page of the China Daily.

 

I find this difficult to believe, but at a time when adults are being required to gather in groups of no more than four, and a lot of traditional gathering places like bars, parks and gyms are closed because of Covid-19 fears, thousands of local schoolkids are being herded into halls and classrooms where they can all breathe the same air for two hours.

Of course precautions are being taken. Health declarations and temperature taking are required, everyone will wear masks, the desks will be further apart than usual. But this may not be enough. Keep your fingers crossed. It’s a risk.

The reason why we are running this risk is a sacred educational cow called the Diploma of Secondary Education, an exam which all Hong Kong students take at the end of Form Six.

I am not personally happy with this. Doing an exam in a sort of purdah is going to affect performance and it will affect some people’s performance more than others. Some students who have diligently prepared for months will be turned away at the door because they have a temperature, which will be an experience to remember for the rest of your life.

So why bother? After all there are other ways of assessing students’ readiness to face the world. The reason slipped out in a news bulletin the other day in which the DSE was described as “the university entrance exam”.

The Examination Authority, an independent non-government body but one which tries to please, has been under tremendous pressure to hold the exam. Most of this pressure, I believe, has come from universities.

We may note in passing that the DSE was not originally supposed to be a “university entrance exam”. It was supposed to be an end-of-schooling qualification for everyone. In practice, to be of much use to universities, it has to be pretty useless for other purposes.

This means that many students who have already discovered that university is not for them are required to take an exam which will do nothing for them, and in which they may well fail every subject. Many of them know this in advance, which must be depressing.

And why, you may wonder, are the universities so addicted to the results of this particular ordeal? This is a good question. In the old days, when students were admitted by the course they were going to study, the teachers presiding over admissions could and did administer tests and interviews. Exam results were part of the system but they did not dominate it. The absence of A Levels because of an epidemic would have been inconvenient but not catastrophic.

Then came four-year degrees. With four-year degrees came the idea that the extra year at the beginning of the degree should be wasted on a lot of general stuff, with students choosing their major at the end of it. A corollary of this was that admission should be by faculty or school, not by course or programme, so as to cater for students who were not sure what they wanted to do.

The result of this is that applications now come in batches of a thousand, or several thousands for a popular offering, and you are not allowed to consider what the student actually intends to choose at the end of the first year, if he or she knows what it is. So it is nobody’s job to consider admissions in detail. They must be processed in bulk.

This rules out all consideration by a human brain. The only significant inputs now are the students’ choices and the DSE results. A computer puts them together and spits out one offer per student.

University staff can spend the whole summer doing research, and levels of student demand for different courses are conveniently over-ruled by having quotas at the end of year one. Everyone is happy. Well everyone whose opinion is taken seriously is happy. The students are not consulted.

I am not sure we can blame the people who devised this system for the fact that it really doesn’t suit a society in a state of lockdown because of a virus epidemic. Like so many computer-based innovations it is capable but fragile.

Still, this rather worrying situation is a mere symptom of a disastrous development which has been going on for a long time. Universities have abandoned the idea that their major activity is preparing young people for their lives in the outside world. Their major activity now is preparing the next generation of university staff, and teaching undergraduates is just a lucrative sideline extracting large sums of money from taxpayers or parents.

I did not expect this to lead to life-threatening innovations, but life in a time of pandemic is full of surprises.

So let us pass on to a more amusing one. It appears there is a hospital in Paris which still has the time and the capacity to do a full medical history for each virus patient, and they noticed a curious anomaly.

The proportion of people in one category was much smaller in the patient population than in the population at large. This category with a mysterious resistance to Covid infection was … smokers.

It seems that, in this respect at least, the much-maligned weed is good for you. It may increase your susceptibility to everything else from athlete’s foot to Zarathustra’s elbow, but where Covid is concerned smokers get a health boost.

The French doctors said, and I hasten to pass this on, that smoking is so bad for you in other ways that they do not recommend taking it up as a virus defence. But they are experimenting with nicotine patches to see if that helps.

My experience of smoking in France was that most people, at least at the grassroots level, smoked a cigarette called “Gauloise” which was ferociously strong, an abrasive throat experience that put in the shade anything you could get in England, even the notorious and expensive unfiltered “Capstan Full Strength”.

So it may be that French smokers’ lungs are so used to being assailed by poisons that they take the odd virus in their stride.

Still if you want to try protection without poison, nicotine patches are a prescription item but I think you can buy nicotine chewing gum in chemists’ shops. Snuff would be the easiest solution but the Hong Kong government banned it years ago.

If it were legal you could (nudge, wink) order it on-line here: https://www.snuff.me.uk/Gawith-Hoggarth-Snuff.asp

Far too early to say if this helps, of course. But better for you than injecting Dettol, at least.

 

 

So you thought you had seen every possible coronavirus story? Wait a minute. Despite the journalistic compulsion to fairness, seeing every side of the story and milking a live topic in every possible way, there is one thing missing. Nobody has looked at the coronavirus story from the point of view of the virus!

Or course there are some practical difficulties involved in interviewing a virus. But those of us who have conducted many interviews usually have a pretty good idea of what the interviewee is going to say. Using these intuitions to write the whole interview would usually be a hazardous approach but the virus is not going to complain. So I here present an interview with the virus.

I have called the virus spokesman Vera. I know some people object to having natural disasters like typhoons given ladies’ names. It encourages stereotyping and bad sexist jokes. On the other hand interviews with female subjects are generally less likely to degenerate into confrontations. I have assumed that Vera is fairly bright and politically alert; more Angela Merkel than Carrie Lam, shall we say?

Interviewer: How does it feel, being branded as the world’s number one public enemy?

Vera: It feels most unfair. We are just doing what all organisms do, trying to perpetuate our genes into the next generation to the best of our ability. Organisms which do not devote a lot of energy and ingenuity to this will be elbowed aside by those which do. That’s nature’s way.

Interviewer: But you’re killing people.

Vera: That is an accident. We viruses are quite happy to live peacefully with a host, as we have done with the bats for a long time. Many viruses live inside humans without causing problems and indeed many of us have managed to live in humans without ill effects – it’s called an asymptomatic case.  

Anyway you humans are hardly in a position to complain. How many species have you wiped out in your history without worrying about it. The death rate from you meeting us is much lower than the death rate among dodos after they met you.

Interviewer: Why didn’t you stay with the bats?

Vera: The bat population is dwindling. In fact the population of every animal is dwindling, except for humans and the animals they cultivate for their own consumption. We tried living in pangolins but that was even worse. They’re being hunted out of existence.

From a virus’s point of view you humans have turned yourselves into the dream home: numerous, lots of connections, long life span, no large competitors. We won’t be the last virus to try to move in.

The only drawback is that you may be able to invent a vaccine. But we don’t expect that to be very widely available, given that so many of you don’t have access to the soap and warm water which are the only serious threat to us at the moment.

Interviewer: So you’re looking forward to a prosperous future?

Vera: I didn’t say that. We don’t like really hot weather, which seems to be becoming more common. There is a rumour in virus circles that you humans are going to make the planet too hot for you or for us. We’ll all have to leave it for the cockroaches. Sometimes we think you humans are too clever for your own good.

Also you’re armed to the teeth and so quarrelsome. There is no counterpart in the virus world of that island the mention of whose name produces instant deafness and interruption of telecommunications. Some of the countries complaining about us have for years been equipped to make the world uninhabitable and radioactive in a matter of hours.  

Interviewer: Are you planning any further changes?

Vera: Evolution doesn’t plan; it tinkers. We might go in the direction of becoming less inconvenient and less detectable. Or we might become more dangerous, but that is not likely. A virus which kills its host quickly does not have a rosy future. But we will keep changing if our environment changes. And you lot keep fiddling with the environment.

Interviewer: Is there anything else you would like to say to humans?

Vera: Yes. Don’t take all this so personally. We are not out to get you. You still have interesting and rewarding lives. We eat without tasting and reproduce without sex. And the view from inside a human lung is really boring.

Also, we are not a serious threat to your future. The serious threat to the future of human beings is the pride, greed and intolerance of other human beings, as it always has been.

Interviewer: Well thank you for being with us.

Vera: It’s been a pleasure. See you next year.

 

 

Arrangements for on-the-spot fines are a questionable resort for governments in a hurry. Strictly speaking the version unveiled a few weeks ago to discourage meetings is not actually an on-the-spot fine. People who participate in gatherings of more than four can be given a ticket which requires them to cough up $2,000 within two weeks.

Readers will note a surprising disparity between the instant fine for an imprudent meeting and the instant fine for illegal parking, which has been frozen at $400 for a long time. But this is not the government’s fault. The legislature routinely rejects efforts to raise the parking fine. There are a lot of drivers in that chamber.

There are some problems with this “on-the-spot” business. One is that it is distressingly reminiscent of places where the routine way of dealing with an operational policeman involves some variation on the phrase “can I pay the fine now?”

Another is that this sort of scheme is open to abuse. One old friend of mine who was out of favour with the Force had to give up driving altogether because he got so many tickets.

The record, set many years ago by a minibus driver, was 50 tickets in one week … all issued by the same police sergeant. That sort of thing does not happen these days, or so one hopes.

Another possible pitfall is the use of instant fines where tricky legal issues may arise.

Consider the only case we have been treated to in the media so far. This concerned six elderly men in a park. Two of them were playing Chinese chess and the other four were watching.

According to the official version of this event some police persons happened by, and warned the players and spectators that they should disperse. They refused to do so, and they were then all issued with a ticket each.

Clearly this bloodless description leaves a good deal out. We may suspect that the police people were a bit brusque, as young police people tend to be, and the old gentlemen were a bit grumpy, as old gentlemen tend to be.

There would then ensue an exchange of increasingly charged rhetoric, culminating in comments on motherhood and sex. So it goes. And then we get a broadcast distribution of tickets. But wait. The purpose of the law is not to penalise rudeness to police people, reprehensible though such rudeness is. It is to discourage gatherings of more than four people.

That does not mean it is like the official interpretation of the rioting law, which is that anyone present, whether a protester, a journalist, a first aider, a human rights observer or a passer-by with an unfortunate home address, is a rioter and subject to arrest and prosecution.

The offence of participating in a gathering of more than four people surely demands more subtlety. The two chess players, I suppose, had a good defence. Their meeting was only with each other. They had no control over who might wish to watch.

With all due respect to Chinese chess I don’t think it is so exciting as a spectator sport that anyone playing in public must be held responsible for any crowd which may gather. They were not busking.

The first two spectators could also say they were doing nothing wrong. Their presence merely brought the gathering up to the legal maximum of four. Numbers five and six were the only people who broke the rules.

No doubt, faced with a group of irate old chess fans, it is not very practical to expect the forces of order to sort out who arrived last. But this is a hint that perhaps the legislation was not expected to operate in quite this way. Gatherings which are only just over the limit in open-air spaces might usefully be treated to advice rather than fines, even if the advice is not always well received.

It is interesting also to note that this provision has now made public protests almost impossible. This discovery had some entertaining ironies. The offending gathering was organized by a group of the People’s Poodles called Chinese Hearts. They proposed to march from the High Court to the Bar Association’s office to hand in a suggestion that Tanya Chan should be “disqualified” (I presume from the Bar, not the next election) because she had attended a meeting at which more than four people were present.

But as more than four people attended the protest, the police “warned the group to break up”, as the Standard put it, so a selected four marched alone.

This story also offered a priceless quote from one of the protesters, Alex Yeung Kwan-wah, whose claim to 15 minutes of fame is that he was the founder of Wah Kee Restaurant, apparently a household name to Standard readers.

Ms Chan’s offence, which hardly seems worthy of so much fuss, was to attend a meeting of bar owners disgruntled by proposals that they should be forced to close. This was, rather unsurprisingly in the circumstances, held in a bar.

Mr Yeung found this incredible. “I have never heard of anyone holding meetings in a bar,” he said, “I am a businessman and you may be able to lie to the public but the people will not be fooled by you.”

I think Mr Yeung needs to calm down. I am not a businessman but I have attended plenty of meetings in bars. Indeed in normal times I attend one every month. If you were going to meet a group of bar owners, where would you expect to meet? Does he really think that Ms Chan, eager to visit a bar for merriment and diversion, scared up a bogus group of bar owners to gather in a Sham Shui Po boozer with her?

No doubt the hunt for some legal implement with which to beat up Ms Chan will continue. Participants could usefully read the Community Legal Information Centre’s page on fixed penalty tickets, which says this:

“Except for the purposes of recovery of the fixed penalty and any additional penalty due for late payment, no evidence is admissible in any proceedings which tends to show that that individual has paid, or been ordered to pay, a fixed-penalty notice. Payment of, or an order to pay, a fixed penalty notice, or any failure to disclose a fixed penalty notice, is not a lawful or proper ground for dismissing or excluding a person from any office, occupation or employment, or for treating them less favourably than other employees…”

In other words even if Ms Chan was issued with the ticket for an excessively crowded meeting, the Bar Association is specifically forbidden by the Criminal Records and Rehabilitation of Offenders Ordinance from taking any further action against her because of it.

 

 

It is a fact of life in journalism that you are going to get complaints. News reports are like institutional food. All the consumers have opinions, many of them critical.

This is not a problem. In the first place all feedback is informative, even if on careful examination it appears to be unjustified or, like most of the complaints received by the Broadcasting Authority, based on an erroneous view of what happened on the programme concerned.

People complain that you said things you did not say, or wrote things that you did not write. In that case what you said or wrote was not clear enough.

It is also useful for reporters to be reminded that the consumption of their work is voluntary. However good the information or noble the intentions, the output fails of its purpose if it is not read, watched or heard.

As Samuel Jonson put it long before mass media were invented: The drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give. For we that live to please must please to live.

So when considering complaints about content, we have to respect them all. There is another kind of complaint, though, which is about the way the news operation is conducted. When it comes to the discussion of reporting methods we are entitled to ask whether the person complaining knows what he is talking about.

And this brings me to Mr Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Industry, whose attack on RTHK last Thursday had the sort of factual basis and rationality that I associate with anonymous complaints written in ALL CAPS and purple ink.

The piece of reporting at issue was an interview conducted by RTHK reporter Yvonne Tong over a video link to Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organisation bigwig.

This all went swimmingly until Ms Tong asked if, in the light of Taiwan’s success in combating Wuflu, the WHO might reconsider Taiwan’s membership. Taiwan is at the moment not a member.

This question admitted a number of possibilities. Dr Aylward clearly did not wish to discuss the matter and he could have said so. He could have come up with an emollient space consumer like “I am sure we will be looking back at many aspects of the pandemic once it is over but it is much too early to say what the outcome of those deliberations might be.”

He could have tried the more modest “This is a matter for the member states of the WHO, of whom I am a mere servant.” This might be considered the correct answer, because it is effectively what the WHO eventually came up with.

Instead, Dr Aylward managed to cause a global sensation by sitting in silence for ten seconds, claiming that he could not hear the question, and then cutting the connection. Clip here. The connection reestablished, the best he could come up with was “well we have already talked about China.”

This has since been lavishly and widely reported. Google “Aylward dodges question” for a global collection.

Do we see anything in Ms Tong’s performance to complain about? It is a characteristic of good reporters that having asked a simple question they do not take kindly to flagrant evasion of it. A reporter who does not instinctively push an evasive interviewee for an answer is not a good reporter.

Was the original question (Will the WHO reconsider Taiwan’s membership?) a problem? It may be what bothered Mr Yau, to whose views on the matter we now turn.

Mr Yau’s views are contained in a press release which is ostensibly a “response to media inquiries”. They start with a canter through RTHK’s charter, which includes “engendering a sense of citizenship and national identity through programmes that contribute to the understanding of our community and nation; and promoting understanding of the concept of “One Country, Two Systems”.

Then we get this: “The Secretary holds the view that the presentation in that episode of the aforesaid programme has breached the One-China Principle and the purposes and mission of RTHK as a public service broadcaster as specified in the Charter. It is common knowledge that the WHO membership is based on sovereign states. RTHK, as a government department and a public service broadcaster, should have proper understanding of the above without any deviation. As the Editor-in-chief of RTHK, the Director of Broadcasting should be responsible for this.”

What on earth is going on here, apart from a small tsunami of pompous constitutional bilge? Ms Tong’s error, it seems, was to mention Taiwan. There was nothing in the programme about “one country two systems”. Does Mr Yau, one wonders, expect RTHK broadcasters routinely to refer to Taiwan as “the rebel province”?

We have I hope not yet reached the stage where news media are damned for lack of patriotism not if they praise Taiwan, but even if they merely mention that it exists. Ms Tong’s question should perhaps have started “If there were an imaginary island in the South China Sea…”

And where did Mr Yau get the idea that “a proper understanding” of the fact that the WHO is based on sovereign states should come into this. Actually the WHO has no difficulty, when it wishes, in working with entities which are not sovereign states, like Hong Kong (missed that did you?), Macau and the Palestinian authority.

Indeed Taiwan was allowed a sort of membership for some years back in the days when Beijing’s approach to cross-strait relations was based on seduction rather than rape.

In short Mr Yau’s observations have no basis in fact or logic and are unworthy of a senior official. President Trump’s tweets make more sense. How could he come up with something so stupid? Is this a symptom of the changing of the guard in the Central Government’s Liaison Office?

Any doubts about the justice of this complaint about RTHK were soon dispelled when Junius Ho took it up. Clearly rubbish then. Nothing to see here.

 

 

 

More than 190 countries and territories are now in various stages of their battle with the novel coronavirus, which is probably not novel – I expect the bats have had it for centuries – but which we must not call Chinese flu.

As far as I can tell from the usual sources only one of these 190 countries and territories proposes to ban the sale of booze: Hong Kong. Clearly this must mean one of two things: either the epidemic in Hong Kong has some unique feature not found elsewhere, or our leaders are doing something stupid.

Personally I like bars. Long ago when I was a young man far from home, some of them became a second home to me. Indeed Arthur and Betty at the Ring o’ Bells in Lancaster became a sort of surrogate parents. I have passed many happy hours in a variety of bars since starting illegally young in the “jug and bottle” (carry-outs) department of a pub in Midhurst.

 Old-school Hong Kong journalists still cherish the memory of the Sing Bar in Luard Road, long since demolished for redevelopment. This establishment, usefully for late shift sub editors, stayed open until 6 am. At that time, if you were still thirsty, you could move round the corner to the Barrel Bar, which didn’t close until 7 am, after a rowdy hour of entertaining everyone else’s bar staff for a quick one and a few finger-guessing games before they went home.

So my view of the government’s proposal to ban the sale of alcoholic drinks, even in bars, for consumption on the premises is perhaps predictable. I accept that if the need arises we may have to close all restaurants and bars, to discourage going out of any kind.

But restrictions on booze look craven, the mark of a government which – crippled by awareness of its own lack of legitimacy — is “willing to wound but yet afraid to strike”, as Pope put it. The proposed ban has attracted a wide variety of interpretations.

One theory doing the rounds on the internet is that the government would like to close bars and restaurants, but to do so would involve claims for help or compensation. Banning the sale of their most profitable item will have the same effect. It will kill them off cheaply.

A more elaborate variation has it that the ban is a favour to the government’s friends in the insurance industry, who would have to pay up if establishments were forcibly closed, but escape liability if the government merely restricts the varieties of goods which can be sold. Do many people really have this sort of insurance?

A more interesting theory, outlined here, blames a story which has been amusing readers of the local tabloids, though it has all the hallmarks of an urban legend. This has it that an expat lady, having achieved an advanced state of inebriation in Lan Kwai Fong (our local Gomorrah, for readers of the tabloids) started a generous distribution of sexual favours.

This theory draws some support from Ms Carrie Lam’s introduction to the move, which went on from the obvious point that people drinking have to remove their face masks to do so, and concluded with “in bars, people sometimes get intimate after drinking, and this increases the risk of cross-infection.”

Get intimate? Since when did our chief executive talk like a court report from the old News of the World? It seems that Ms Lam not only has trouble with the word “withdraw” but also with the word “sex.” I shall leave the exploration of this interesting coincidence to more ribald pens.

Some people, as Hemlock observes, have discerned a “boozy rutting ageing gwaipo” stereotype. This may be a fair comment on the tabloids but not, I hope, on our leaders. There may well be a suspicion in some upmarket local circles that expat men have a predilection for booze and adultery. It is curiously common for despised groups to be accused of sexual potency and even abnormally large equipment. But I have never heard of the idea that middle-aged expat ladies are free with their favours.

A kinder explanation is that Ms Lam, who seems to be taking a personal interest in this topic, was horrified by a picture used by several newspapers of people in a Lan Kwai Fong bar. This was hardly worthy of Hieronymus Bosch at the height of his powers, but did include a large number of people in a small space, many of whom appeared to be shouting at each other.

And this brings us to the rather obvious deficiency in the proposed ban, which is that it is ludicrously indiscriminate. In the vast majority of places where booze is sold people currently sit quite a long way from each other. Customers are cherished rarities; there is plenty of room. And it is quiet, so nobody has to shout.

A small minority of bars like to have live music. This leads to a problem. The musicians wish to be heard, and use electric amplifiers for this purpose. People who wish to hold conversations have to raise their voices to get through the music. This makes the venue noisy so the music is turned up further. The escalation continues until the conversation people are shouting in each other’s faces because that is the only way to be heard at all, and the band are suffering self-inflicted ear damage.

The solution would be to ban not booze, but electric amplification. The band could play acoustic instruments and patrons who did not wish to listen to it could whisper.

But getting the government to change its mind once the latest brainwave has had Carrie’s endorsement is an uphill struggle. Prepare to drink at home.

Meanwhile a word about the “Chinese virus”. I am not the man to pass up lightly an opportunity to empty a bucket over Mr Donald Trump but the fuss about this label is ludicrous.

It is common for diseases, and many other things, to be named after places or countries, often for completely erroneous reasons. There is nothing French about “French leave”, nothing Dutch about “Dutch courage” and indeed the “French letter” (one of the numerous nicknames for a condom) is known in French as a “capote Anglaise”. Or is that a “Dutch cap”?

“Chinese whispers” is a harmless game and a “Chinese gybe” is a rather complicated mishap when running before the wind with a gaff-rigged sail. Goodness knows where these labels come from. A “Chinaman” is a technical term used in cricket which, like most of that game, I do not understand. It seems to be a kind of slow bowling.

A Turk’s head has nothing to do with Turkey (it’s a knot) and the Molotov Cocktail was not invented by Mr Molotov, who has enough to atone for. Brussels sprouts do not come from Brussels and Scotch eggs do not come from Scotland. “Old Spanish customs” (the printers’ term for various rackets which used to flourish in Fleet Street) had nothing to do with Spain. Yankee means American, except when it means the foremost sail on a cutter-rigged yacht.

Was the Brazilian invented in Brazil? Who knows? Who cares?

No doubt Mr Trump’s intentions in insisting on “Chinese virus” are unkind, but to label them racist is to take his babblings too seriously. To give offence is his aim. The most wounding response is a yawn.

I am not writing any more about That Virus. There’s enough out there already. So let’s talk about eyeballs.

I was not in the front row when the eyeballs were dished out. In fact my parents had an enduring memory of the doctor they consulted about mysterious features of my baby behaviour, who opened the conversation with “How long have you known your son was blind?”

Eventually I was subjected to a rather disgusting operation involving the removal of both eyeballs from their sockets, which worked. I could see. This was followed shortly after by the discovery that I could not see very much without glasses.

Of course I was too young to register most of this, but all of the numerous family photographs of me as a young thing have spectacles, so I must have started early. The matter was never discussed, but I now realise that this eventful history explains why I could not catch or hit flying balls, a source of great frustration to a growing boy.

Anyway let us fast forward a few decades. I am now slightly older than Donald Trump, a bit younger than Joe Biden and quite a bit younger than Bernie Sanders. Why any of these three old geezers thinks it is a good idea to apply at this time of life for a strenuous job with a four-year contract is a complete mystery to me.

Like most of us mature people I take a few pills every day to keep various blood test levels in the green zone, but so far none of the machinery had actually needed replacement, until this January.

During my annual vision checks the eye guy had been murmuring politely for some years that I had cataracts on the way. I did the things one does to slow their progress: peaked hats, sunglasses, avoid bright sunlight. But this only gets you so far.

Apparently quite a lot of people get cataracts sooner or later. I do not know why this is rarely written about. Axel Munthe says at the end of “The Story of San Michele” that he is now banished by eye problems from his beloved Capri and confined to a darkened room, which I suppose means that the connection between sunshine and cataracts had already been established, but in those days there was no treatment.

What happens is that the lens in your eye turns brown, or white in appearance, and eventually becomes opaque. This is one of those problems which makes you glad you were not born 50 years earlier because the remedy is now quite routine. The ailing lens is removed and replaced by a plastic one.

I know the time had come when I started seeing circular rainbows and other oddities round bright lights at night. According to Wikipedia this is a fairly standard symptom. The eye guy could see what was going on and we decided on immediate action.

This coincided with the first wave of the Wuflu scare, so you have to imagine my visits to the palace of optometry featuring hand sanitizer, temperature checks and compulsory wearing of masks.

Compared with this the actual operation was rather lacking in medical drama, at least for the victim. They do one eye at a time, for obvious reasons, and the procedure only takes 20-25 minutes.

Some nervous customers apparently prefer to sleep through this, but they are missing an interesting experience, though not perhaps one you would want to repeat too often.

The uncomfortable bit is at the beginning, when they put in your eye a gadget which, I presume, prevents you from blinking at an inopportune moment. Then they cut a couple of small holes in the eyeball under discussion with a laser, which from your point of view means a rather spectacular light show, projected right into your eyeball.

After this you move to the theatre proper, where the old lens is liquidized with ultrasound and the new plastic one inserted. The view from your operated eye at this point is rather odd – the other eye is covered up in case of splashes – but it’s all on a local anaesthetic so you don’t really feel anything.

You keep the new eye covered for a few hours and wear a plastic cover on it in bed for a day or two. And that’s pretty much it. If you are approaching this little landmark in life’s rich pageant it’s nothing to worry about.

The interesting bit for me came afterwards. I did not realise that the cataracts had turned my view of the world yellow. The first eye to be fixed presented a new blue world. So for a while I had one eye seeing yellow and one seeing blue, an accidental piece of political symbolism.

The drawback of the plastic lenses is that they are fixed, not flexible like the original equipment. So you have to decide whether you want them to be short-sighted, and wear glasses for driving, or long-sighted, and wear glasses for reading.

I opted for long, which means that most of the time I do not need glasses. This is disconcerting. I have been wearing them all the time for so long that I still feel naked without them.

On the other hand the reading glasses are a snip compared with the complicated ones which compensated for the deficiencies of my old eyes. A perfectly good pair of reading specs from Japan Home Stores costs a princely $89.

Curiously I find things in the far distance much more interesting now that I can see them effortlessly. I find myself captivated by the lacy silhouette of trees on a distant crest, or the subtle variations in the slope of the hills on the other side of the Shing Mun River Valley.

And everything still looks more blue than I expect. There is, perhaps, a lesson here. We tend to think that the way we see things is exactly how they are. Clearly in more areas than simple vision this is an illusion. There are different ways of seeing the same thing and we should try to be humble about our own.

 

 

I don’t know whose idea it was that Hong Kong’s spokesman at a recent UN Human Rights Council meeting should be a Deputy Commissioner of Police, but the implications of this unusual arrangement are rather disturbing. I wonder what the council members thought of it.

Let us take a little detour. Many years ago I pursued a master’s degree in military matters which had been designed with an eye to attracting serving officers who might be interested in the intellectual aspects of their profession. As a result it included a compulsory course in Civil-Military Relations.

This has been a tricky topic for as long as there have been such relations. Sun Tzu cannot have endeared himself to potential employers with the suggestion that “If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding.”

And the question has come up in different times and places ever since. How far should the civilian powers dictate to the military, if at all, and under what circumstances can the military authorities appeal to some higher good than the sovereign’s will?

Sometimes a tricky variation was added by the presence of the ruler on the battlefield, giving orders to more experienced men with occasionally catastrophic results. On the other hand a ruler who was also a military genius – like Napoleon or Frederick the Great – could solve the problem by uniting the civil and military powers in his own person.

As far as the theorists are concerned the matter was eventually settled by the great Carl von Clausewitz: “At the highest level the art of war turns into policy – but a policy conducted by fighting battles rather than by sending diplomatic notes… No other possibility exists, then, than to subordinate the military point of view to the political.”

Clausewitz’s idea that war is a part of politics, and that consequently in the last analysis the political authorities must take precedence over the military ones, is piously preached on officers’ training courses throughout the world. In Marxist contexts it is phrased slightly differently, in terms of the primacy of the Party, but the effect is the same.

However this was only a fruitful field for academic cultivation because while everyone agrees on the theory, it is frequently not followed in practice. During the Cold War the military establishment in various countries often took over the state completely. They were egged on by whichever of the two contending sides disliked the existing civilian regime. The whole thing became almost routine.

There was even a short practical textbook (Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, by Edward Luttwak) which outlined the usual procedure: tanks on the Presidential Palace lawn, take over the radio and TV stations, close the airport, etc. In small countries it often turned out to be surprisingly easy. The leader of the coup was usually at least a Colonel, more often a general. But one West African government was overthrown by a mere Sergeant.

Flat-out takeovers do not concern us here, and indeed since the end of the Cold War they have become much less common.

But this is not the only way civil-military relations can go wrong. In a slightly less toxic but still deplorable variation the military stay, ostensibly, in their barracks but usurp the power of the civilian politicians, so that the army becomes more powerful than the supposed civilian government.

The finest example in our region, for the historically erudite, would be Japan in the 30s, with Indonesia perhaps a more recent specimen. The classic European case was Germany during World War 1, with power only handed back to the civilians so that they could preside over the surrender. In Turkey for many years the army appointed itself the guardian of the legacy of Ataturk and civilian regimes were bullied, and occasionally overthrown, if they did not satisfy military views of what that legacy required.

The army as over-mighty subject is a more difficult disease to spot than a simple coup. After all in an open society the military has a perfect right to explain itself and agitate for what it needs and wants. The question is when this becomes excessive.

And the response is usually found in the answers to a series of questions. Is the relevant minister in the government actually a current or former military man? Does the military effectively control its own budget? Does it help itself to as much manpower as it wants? Does it run its own foreign policy? Does it shrug off – or persecute – civilian critics? Are its members subject to a separate judicial system?

Now of course Hong Kong has no armed forces about whom we can ask these questions. But if you apply them to our own fine Police Force you get some worrying answers.

The Secretary for Security is a former cop. The Force has just achieved a 25 per cent increase in a budget which is already, by international standards, extremely generous. It will recruit another 2,500 bodies (if it can – given the present state of police relations with the public this may be a bit ambitious) in the coming year to add to its size, which is also, by international standards, large. Consider also that some of the things done by police people in other places have been hived off elsewhere in Hong Kong: graft to the ICAC, copyright to customs, hawker control to food and hygiene, and so on.

The Force cannot, or cannot yet, entirely ignore civilian politicians. But it is notable that all of them – pro- and anti-government alike – called for a proper Commission of Inquiry into last year’s disorders, a routine response to colonial riots. And they called in vain.

Then there is the matter of policemen who may have abused their powers, brutalised suspects, used weapons on harmless passers-by etc. In the majority of cases these incidents are investigated only by other policemen. The only punishment of which we hear is “a reprimand”, which doesn’t sound too swingeing. The minority of cases which reach the IPCC do not produce results which inspire confidence. In effect the force is answerable only to itself.

Now we have a policeman turning up at a meeting of a UN body to push a line which differs in both tone and content from the government’s.

I fear I gave offence the other day by saying on an RTHK programme that our police force was beginning to look like the Pakistani Army. This is what I meant. The Pakistani Army is a power in the land. Civilian politicians cross it at their peril. It takes what it needs and runs its own foreign policy, to the occasional embarrassment of the civilian authorities.

In this respect the Hong Kong Police Force is beginning to look quite similar: it has escaped from civilian control. Our Chief Executive Ms Lam does not control it. On matters about which it has a view it controls her. Under her protection it need fear no scrutiny of its budget, its policies or its misbehaviour.

Chairman Mao famously said: “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.” Well at least in one respect we do seem to be moving towards one country two systems.

 

This face mask business is getting really confusing. Should we all wear one, and when, and how often, if at all, should we change it?

The line on face masks has varied according to which authority you listen to. At one extreme we have the view that you should not wear one at all because it makes very little difference and the mask you are wearing could be used by a health professional who really needs it.

At the other extreme is the view that you are dicing with death unless you have at least two new face masks a day.

Then there is the rather backhanded view that the mask is useful, but only because it stops you touching your face with your hands, which apparently quite a lot of us do without noticing it.

The WHO’s advice is ambiguous, like so much about that busy body. Face masks are only effective if combined with other measures, like frequent hand washing and avoiding contact with other people, some of which are not in the power of face mask wearers to change, like closing schools and sports venues.

The popular notion seems to be that face masks are an important protection against breathing air which has been breathed by strangers. But that hardly explains some things you see, like people hiking in face masks.

A similar confusion reigns over what mask is best, and what to do with it. Doctors recoil with horror at the idea of reusing one, but then they are a prosperous bunch. For the less prosperous among us the alternative to reusing a mask may be not using a mask at all.

A bewildering variety are on offer. Reading some of the comments on recycling disposable masks it is difficult to see how it could be acceptable to use a non-reusable mask with a replaceable filter inside it. But they are widely available.

Some of the confusion may result from the fact that different people use masks in different contexts. If you are going to open a patient’s bonnet and conduct running repairs inside then you want the whole room to be a sterile as possible. Clearly in this case the solution is to have a brand new mask taken out of its wrapper by a sterile nurse just before you use it.

The purpose of the mask in this context is to ensure that you do not cough microbes all over your victim’s appendix. In other words the important filtering is from inside to outside.

If you are working in a ward with patients who have an infectious disease, on the other hand, the shoe is on the other foot. Lethal microbes are floating about and the purpose of the mask is to filter what is going from the outside to the inside, so that the air you are breathing is not polluted by whatever the ailing patients are exhaling.

In this particular context it clearly makes sense to tell people not to touch the outside of the mask once you have used it, and to dispose of the thing promptly and carefully when you have finished with it. The outside of the mask has collected the poison. That is what it is there for.

The question which then arises is how many of the rules which rightly govern the use of masks in these medical contexts need to be transferred to a situation in which everyone is wearing masks whenever they go out in public.

Some people would, it seems, like to apply them all. I felt a rare twinge of sympathy for Carrie Lam (I know she has a shit job but the pay and perks are unbelievable) when she was scolded by commentators for mask abuse. In a press conference she had taken off her mask, sipped some water and put it back on again.

Those of us who still visit restaurants do routinely doff the mask, eat, and put it back on again. What else are we expected to do?

It does appear that the wearing of masks in public is not primarily, at least for a lot of wearers, a matter of avoiding Wuflu. After all there isn’t that much of it about. The wearing of a mask has become a way of wordlessly communicating that you are a public-spirited person supporting the effort to repel new viruses. And whatever you’ve got, you are taking some care to ensure that nobody gets it from you. The mask has become a signal of virtue.

Of course if almost everyone wears one this does not really work. Not wearing a mask becomes the signal, and it suggests that the non-wearer is not public-spirited, not with the programme, not a team player.

Some people have taken this to its logical conclusion. They wear a mask of the “reusable but change the filter” kind, leave the filter out and wash the mask every night. Only the most gross pollution will be intercepted but public respectability is achieved.

Other people wear masks which are clearly intended as fashion items and presumably do not meet the famous European Union standard for surgical masks.

This brings us to the controversy over Ann Chiang’s suggestion that people should sterilise used masks and use them again. I am not accustomed to agreeing with Ms Chiang about anything, but the abuse heaped on this suggestion seems unwarranted.

The Centre for Health Protection adamantly opposes the idea, and says used masks are “contaminated with pathogens” and should be disposed of in a bin with a lid. This seems a bit pessimistic. Unless you have been very unlucky in your choice of travelling companions the only pathogens in the mask are the ones which emerged from you.

It is apparently generally accepted that the usual surgical masks are intended to be disposable. But it is also known that in poor countries where there is a shortage they are commonly reused.

Like Ms Chiang I agree it would be best if everyone had enough face masks to put on a fresh one every day. But this may not be an affordable solution for everyone.

Given this state of affairs I am not sure that it is a valid criticism of other solutions that they do not meet the EU’s standards for medical face masks, which are intended for masks to be used in surgical contexts, not social ones.

But this is a tricky area for non-scientists. We lay people may at least, perhaps, plead for a simple and realistic explanation of what to do and what for, instead of the current out-of-tune chorus of contradictory advice and opinions.