Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
May needs more time for divorce
Amnesty International's report on Hong Kong spurred another torrent of hypocrisy from the United States and the United Kingdom. How dare they comment on the human rights situation in Hong Kong? Their conceit removes any semblance of credibility.
Britain, a country pulling itself apart over Brexit, breaks-off from self-immolation to criticise us. Is this a joke? Britain, where the streets flow with the blood of knife victims, dares to suggest we could do better. A country that has food banks to feed the working poor, and where rampant crime goes unchecked. Meanwhile, the stretched police summon up the manpower to deal with so-called ‘hate-speech’. Much of which is nothing more than some thin-skinned individual taking offence or losing an argument.
At the same time, curtailed freedom of speech and compelled words are enforced by the law. Soon only the opinions and views of the liberal elite will be heard. Even esteemed institutions, such as Cambridge University, impose bans on speakers with whom a few delicate souls disagree. Jordan Peterson is the latest victim. Imagine if they’d banned Darwin or Newton. Don’t laugh, the way things are going Professor Brian Cox faces exclusion for stating the Earth is about four billion years old.
Likewise, the United States. The nation that ran secret prisons and rendition feels obliged to weigh into our extradition discussions. The land that sees children slaughtered in their classrooms at the hands of gunmen doesn’t pause to consider its moral authority to lecture us. At least Hong Kong kids don’t need to practice ‘active shooter’ escape drills or have armed guards at schools.
Amnesty International’s position that human rights in Hong Kong are in rapid decline is a staggering suggestion. For starters, Amnesty provides scant evidence for this claim. Further, it portrays the rule of law as suppression. The prosecution of rioters and people who unlawfully blocked our roads is not acceptable to Amnesty.
Thus, it was rather pleasant to hear the Radio 3 Backchat presenters deconstruct the wafer-thin arguments put forward by Amnesty's representative. Tam Man-kei, Director of Amnesty Hong Kong, was on the ropes. His fight to justify Amnesty’s claims faltered in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. The problem is those outside Hong Kong have no such insight; thus they rely on these distorted Amnesty reports. This irresponsible falsehood spreads across the world without any balance.
I would also question the honesty of Amnesty International’s reporting given what we now know about the operations of the organisation. Following complaints and suicides, an investigation found Amnesty operated with a ‘bullying, sexist and racist’ culture. Hardly a finding that compels one to believe their reports.
Hong Kong’s position suffers further from the antics of disgruntled former senior officials. A few appear hell-bent on portraying us in a bad light. Topping that list is Anson Maria Elizabeth Chan Fang On-sang, GBM, GCMG, CBE, JP, our former Chief Secretary. This lady keeps herself busy by bad mouthing Hong Kong in Washington.
Anson Chan is a complex character, who portrays herself as the 'conscience of Hong Kong’. A misplaced title when viewed against her actions. Born as a twin in Shanghai, her family fled to Hong Kong in 1948 as the communists seized power.
She put herself through university after her father died and the mother went off to the United Kingdom. Chan was left behind with her Grandma. In 1962, she joined the Hong Kong Civil Service. She was one of only two women to be selected that year, in what was a male-dominated British colonial regime — commendable stuff.
I have to say I don't remember her championing democracy at any time while in government, before or after 1997. The opposite is true — she was a staunch advocate of the colonial status quo. Moreover, she worked tirelessly to sell the Joint Declaration to the people of Hong Kong. Symbolically, she stood centre stage at the handover ceremony, the very physical embodiment of the process. Now she’s relentless in her critique.
How did it come to this? Some have suggested that after 1997, she lost a power struggle to realise she'd never be Chief Executive. At the same time, she suddenly develops an ardent interest in democracy. Her selling of the handover arrangements now swept aside. Indeed, she appears keen to paper over that.
Chan is a gifted speaker, who sounds plausible and has used her talent to snipe at her former colleagues. These attacks often come with amnesia about her failings. She criticised Carrie Lam for ignoring due process over the Museum saga, forgetting her actions in the Kwok Ah-nui case. Her comments about the confusion in government side-step her chaotic handling of the new airport opening in 1998.
Also, who can forget her notable short appearance at a democratic rally before rushing away for a hair fix? She made her priorities clear at that time. Her think tank consists of former colonial civil servants. The unkind would suggest that these people are missing their days of power. Worse, Chan and her band of old colonials exhibit all the telling signs of a Messiah complex. They see themselves as the self-appointed guardians of the common folk.
She knows that fronting up in Washington at a time of heightened tensions between China and the US is picking at a scab. As a participant in China’s modern history, she must foresee that her trips will inflame sentiment.
Let’s put this is in context. Throughout recent history, China perceived it suffered humiliations at the hands of the western powers. China now seeks that this will not repeat. You can argue the veracity of that position, yet that’s irrelevant because that’s what’s felt. Above all, we know that any intervention in their affairs triggers a nationalistic response. Certainly, Anson Chan knows this.
At the same time, the US is happy to use her as a tool with which to attack China and justify containment. In short, she’s playing with fire by feeding a false narrative directly into the US administration. Chan has every right to do this; likewise, I have the right to condemn her as deceitful and foolhardy.
More than politics is at stake in how Chan portrays Hong Kong in Washington. Our status as a separate trading entity from the Mainland provides privileges. In turn, people enjoy employment and keep bread on the table. A few in Washington wish to see that status removed, with Chan providing the ammunition for their guns. In the end, the people of Hong Kong suffer if our economy should slip. That lack of foresight by Mrs Chan is telling, or does she know what’s she’s doing?
I can forgive the zealots of Amnesty their folly, that’s the nature of the beast. Mrs Chan is in a different league. One finds it hard to give any concession when she’s unlikely to suffer the consequences of spreading a false narrative. Those consequences will fall on the ordinary folks.
It isn’t recent, this disquiet over our taxi service. Older Hong Kong residents tend to wax lyrically about the past efficiency and availability of taxis. Time and age create a rosy picture. In reality, the service was never brilliant: cheap and cheerful at best, and adequate is the sum up.
In the early 1990s, while working in Traffic Kowloon West, I mounted weekly operations against taxi malpractice. Modified meters and illegal radios earned our attention. The sophistication of the fiddling was something to behold, with drivers fitting covert switches to trip their meters to higher earnings. We’d deploy with motor vehicle examiners at roadblocks picking up the offenders. With the introduction of digital meters, the ability to tamper with fare readings disappeared. That’s when unscrupulous drivers went into overdrive with direct cheating. Tourists proved the most vulnerable.
In attempting to deal with these changes, I’d pretend to be an arriving passenger. Hanging around the arrival halls at Kai Tak, wayward drivers would approach me. Asking to be taken to the Kowloon Hotel — we had an ambush waiting — they'd drive me via Lung Cheung Road and other long routes. At the hotel, with identities revealed, the crest-fallen driver would usually surrender with a whimper.
One didn’t. He accelerated away with me hanging off the back passenger door. I managed to throw myself inside as police motorbikes gave chase. Tunnel traffic outside Tsim Sha Tsui East brought the escapee to a halt. Game over with another charge on the sheet. In those days we maintained a fair degree of pressure on the taxi trade that held them in check. I’m not sure the same happens now.
I have to say that taxi drivers are a mixed bag. It would be dishonest to portray them all as reckless or deceitful, far from it. I’ve had dropped mobile phones returned, and drivers who went out of the way to help. When my elderly Aunt went missing on a visit to Hong Kong, a taxi driver spotted her wandering near Tai Hang Road. He persuaded her to get in the taxi, then drove to the Happy Valley Police Station.
Likewise, I’ve had surreal conversations with drivers — usually late a night — ruminating about life. “Einstein's theory of relativity explains the big movements of planet and stars but doesn’t work at a micro level.” That opening line from a driver caught me off guard. He followed this with “I don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Well, who does?
It’s delightful when you get those quirky drivers. Unfortunately, and increasingly, the taxi experience is pretty shoddy. Drivers picking their hires, negotiating fairs and driving like nutters is common. Stop/go is the default driving style, with no finesse. That they call themselves ‘professional drivers’ is laughable. Grubby taxi interiors and smells of indeterminate origin don’t help. Watching a driver empty the contents of his nose on the dash is never a welcome start to an evening out.
Sadly, aggressive behaviour is not uncommon these days. With 50% of the taxi drivers over the age of 60, is that the cause or the general mood in Hong Kong? Hard to say. Plus, driving around in Hong Kong traffic for hours isn’t conducive to a calm demeanour. Indeed the number of complaints from the public against the taxi trade is on the rise. In 2018, a record 11,000 complaints continued a 15-year upward trend. Although refusing a hire is against the law, cabbies routinely turn down trips across the harbour.
Hong Kong had 210,524 licensed cabbies and 18,163 taxis. It’s estimated that at any one time, ten per cent of the taxis is laid-up on a long-term basis. Despite having over 200,000 licensed drivers, the vast majority are inactive or part-time. Yet, the taxi license owners don’t worry. The license fee alone provides a decent return on investment because the government has not issued any licenses since 1994. Thus the value keeps increasing. Licenses for urban taxis are now worth over HK$6.5 million.
The owners respond to any fare hike by increasing the fees for taxi drivers to hire a cab. Thus, neither the drivers or public gain. The only beneficiary is the license holder.
The average daily use is near to one million trips with about 30 complaints a day. On first look, that’s a small percentage of complaints at 0.003%. But, you can bet that the actual level of dissatisfaction is much higher because busy people aren’t prepared to make a complaint. Indeed, the comments section of local newspapers testifies to public disaffection.
Contrast the low quality service taxis provide against that of Uber, and you start to understand the public frustrations. I’ve never had a poor experience with Uber. All the drivers were polite, knew the routes and their cars spotless. It’s my observation that most are younger than the taxi drivers. I guarantee if you did a poll of the Hong Kong public the results would favour Uber over the taxi trade.
And yet, the government is unwilling to endorse Uber. This bizarre attitude goes against stated policies on adopting new technology and the open market. Allowing Uber to operate in competition with the taxi trade would have several immediate benefits. It increases choice, which in turn will drive an improvement in the taxi trade if it’s to keep customers. strange that our government lauds it free trade credentials except in this arena. Why?
There is evidence that prominent political players and vested interests hold a fair number of taxi licenses. Operating to protect their investment, they’ve held off reforms and competition. For example, despite adoption elsewhere making electronic payments is still not possible.
Taxi drivers are not above strong-arming the government. They smash up their own cars in protests and have held reform at bay by belligerent action. The 1984 ‘Taxi Riot’ was a lesson in their power.
Our taxi trade would do well to study operations on the Mainland or in Japan. Both places offer ease of payment and clean cabs. I often wonder what arrivals think as they board the stinking taxis at our airport. Their introduction to Hong Kong is hardly the sort of image we should be projecting unless the aim is to have a dysfunctional experience.
An air of inertia hangs over our Transport Department officials. What is the long term vision for the taxi trade and how will government integrate innovation? These are questions that need answers.
There is hope on the horizon. Autonomous driving could see the end of the taxi trade in its current form as drivers won't be needed. With an ageing population, and fewer people willing to serve as taxi drivers, self-drive cars may provide a viable alternative. Current estimates suggest autonomous drive will arrive as a realistic option within ten years. I say bring it on. Until then, we will continue to suffer the nose-picking, the stop/go driving style and substandard service. All made palatable by the odd philosophising driver.
The horrors that unfolded last week in Christchurch, New Zealand, landed live in my lap. As the attacker executed innocent men, women and children, he gave us a ringside seat by live-streaming his corrupt and cowardly act. It took a second or two for me to realise what was unfolding before my eyes. I disconnected, then deleted the link.
The man and his sick ideology cannot face enough condemnation. At its core, this was an attack on humankind and the decency that underpins civilised society. Anyone wishing to contribute to the victim's families may do so here.
Brave police officers responded with swiftness to capture the culprit before he could do further harm. That they didn’t ‘deal’ with him on the spot speaks to their professionalism and higher calling. Although, part of me wished that he’d given them the excuse to clean the gene pool of his corrupted mind. I’m not proud of that thought.
The mosque attacks played on the TV news-loop with some channels overstepping the mark. That they used his live-feed, albeit edited, was borderline voyeurism. In effect, they gave him the oxygen of publicity he sought.
The prompt intervention by armed police affirms the approach Hong Kong is adopting. Armed teams of police officers ready on-the-ground and trained to take on the ‘active shooter’. These attackers, driven by their distorted ideology of whatever flavour, will keep killing until brought down or captured. The Mumbai attacks and many other instances are examples. It’s also clear that even with the best intelligence, the self-starter terrorist may slip through the net. Plus, let’s not forget these wicked atrocities are possible with knives or other weapons. Thus, shutting off access to guns is a partial solution at best, although welcome.
Part of the driver behind the media coverage of the attack is the fact that we’ve long considered New Zealand a safe-haven. The land of long clouds, rustic scenes, at the other end of the planet. That such horrors can visit New Zealand is a stark warning to us all that nowhere is safe, which leads me to my next point.
On 27 January this year, two bombs exploded in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Philippines. At least 20 people died, with 111 wounded, many with serious injuries. Abu Sayyaf militants are responsible. This attack hardly warranted a mention in most of the media. Likewise, in Nigeria, in recent weeks, 120 Christians were slaughtered by Fulani Muslim terrorists. Strange that I didn't see an outpouring of condemnation for these attacks.
I don’t wish to get into a number game of who killed more — that’s a blind alley — yet, the unbalanced coverage feeds a distorted narrative. That, in turn, provides ammunition for those who wish to exploit these attacks for their personal and political agendas. And that game has started.
Elements of the radical far-left have seized the opportunity to capitalise on the Christchurch attack for their purposes. They’re seeking to use the blood-shed as leverage to close access to the Internet for those they contest. On their hit list are Sam Harris, the renowned neuroscientist and Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist. The radical left can’t deal with their fact-based positions, so it’s best to de-platform them.
These dogmatic attitudes and intolerance to debate feed the agenda that the New Zealand attacker thrived on. For me, the issue is not religion per sei. It's any system of thought that insists one group of people are inviolably correct, whereas the other side is in the wrong. This positioning then justifies punishment. In short, the Christchurch attacker and those exploiting his work to close down their opponents are riding in the same cart.
This process, funded and coordinated, smears anyone who made adverse remarks against Islam. That includes moderate Muslims. The tactics adopted are simple, brutal and disingenuous. Find old disparaging comment on twitter or elsewhere, then conflate it by association with the attacker to give the appearance of support. Stoke the flames with a bit of fearful rhetoric, then unleash the wrath. Facebook and others will soon respond by de-platforming, in the modern equivalent of book burning.
Where does this lead? Well, it results in deranged students confronting a pregnant Chelsea Clinton to blame her for complicity in the massacre. That’s the poisoned process at work. Fanning the flames, creating more division by nurturing hate and mistrust.
Omer Aziz has done the same in his piece in the New York Times. He implies that Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson brought about the New Zealand attack. This assertion is a monstrous falsehood — but typical of how certain people exploit the situation. Yes, both Harris and Peterson are critical of Islam, as they are of other religions and dogmas. That’s allowed in rational, free-thinking, societies.
Meanwhile, looking on are many who feel marginalised. White males in depressed post-industrial towns failed by an education system that portrays them as responsible for all the world's woes. Made to feel guilty for empire building, racism and the slave trade brought about generations ago. They’re sneered at by metropolatan liberal types for daring to offer an opinion or stand their ground.
Then you have black teenagers in London. Left behind by failing family structures, in low-paid jobs and forced to arm themselves with knives for protection. Likewise, refugee kids from Pakistan and Afghanistan held in the grip of mad clerics. Told the only way is to wage war on the community that’s taken them in.
When an outrage like New Zealand occurs, all reasonable people are appalled. That up whelming of anger also applies to those who harness these incidents to their political agenda to denigrate others. All terrorism is abhorrent. Responses need balance, fairness and know no colour, race or religion. For that to happen, the ideologues need to back off and allow human dignity to shine through.
Once again, Kipling’s “poor bloody infantry” is taking the rap. Further evidence that the UK is slipping down the rabbit hole is the announcement this week about ‘Bloody Sunday’. Arising from events in January 1972, Soldier F is to face charges of murder.
Thirteen people died that day at the hands of the British Army. This pivotal event cast a long shadow over Northern Ireland and it drove many into the ranks of the terrorists. And yet, there is a distinct imbalance when it comes to accountability for what unfolded. A retired lance corporal, who is over 70 years old, is carrying the can for the politicians, the army chain of command and the terrorists.
That Soldier F acted the way he did is now a matter for the courts. Although, whether the man can get a fair trial given the circumstances is another matter. The Saville Inquiry concluded that innocent people died that day; this is irrefutable. One can only feel for the families involved. In the same way, it's also clear that the actions of the IRA terrorists contributed to events. Yet, their crimes go unresolved.
During the so-called troubles, 722 British Army and police personnel died at the hands of the terrorists. The terrorists lost 127 killed. That’s the balance of the equation. But, the vast majority of the army and police deaths have gone un-investigated. Meanwhile, known IRA killers are residing in Spain and Portugal untouched by British justice. Tony Blair provided them with ‘letters of assurance’ as part of the peace agreement. Thus their crimes are unaddressed. That Blair would offer such comfort to terrorists is no surprise. After all, his bloodstained actions brought death to thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians.
On that fateful day in 1972, a civil rights march in Londonderry was ‘policed’ by the crack troops of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. Known as 1 Para, this unit is not skilled in the finesse of dealing with public order events. The Paras trained, and stood ready at short notice, to face the full wrath of the Warsaw Pact. Assigned to blunt an attack or go behind the lines, the Paras would take on fearsome odds and didn't expect to survive. It’s fair to say the complexities of a ‘policing’ role in such an environment was not in 1 Para’s repertoire.
They’d spent a couple of days training for public order duties by practising shield-walls and firing tear gas. Also, they drilled to conduct snatch squads. Most of the soldiers deployed to Londonderry armed with their SLR 7.62 rifle, a weapon designed to punch holes through people and masonry. The SLR is an ideal weapon for combat in open terrain but hardly suited to urban areas. Especially with ricocheting bullet and civilians present.
During the march, a confrontation developed over access to the town centre. The footage shows the soldiers under sustained attack. At first, the Paras responded with rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas. As the violence escalated, 1 Para deployed snatch squads. After that, the sequence of events remains disputed. The Paras claimed they came under gunfire and responded. The Inquiry concluded the Paras opened fire first, although IRA terrorists did engage them later.
The first 1972 inquiry into ‘Bloody Sunday’ by Lord Chief Justice Widgery proved a whitewash as it ignored much evidence. Families of those killed pursued their cause to secure a second inquiry from Tony Blair.
The Saville Inquiry started its work in 1998 and finally published its finding in 2010. This inquiry was a no-expense spared trawl through the evidence. Some put the cost at over £200 million, a sum of money that could have funded the salary of 8,000 nurses for a year.
So how thorough was it? Consider this — the investigators located one of the SLR rifles in Beirut. The British Army sold the gun as surplus; it then passed through several hands before it landed with dodgy paramilitary types in the Middle East. The Inquiry heard from more than 900 witnesses.
In all the noise of recent days, the media continues to ignore salient facts from the Saville Inquiry. The IRA was present that day, and its active service units fired on British troops. Martin McGuinness, as second-in-command of the Londonderry IRA, was on the ground. The Inquiry concluded that McGuinness was probably armed with a Thompson submachine gun and may have fired at troops. In a bizarre finding, the Inquiry found he took no action that “provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire”.
In my opinion, carrying a Thompson submachine gun to a civil rights march makes McGuinness culpable. It’s evident that the IRA was spoiling for a fight, and it used the civilians as cover. The Inquiry then flips to state the IRA did open fire, although it suggests this happened after the soldiers fired first.
If Britain had a functional media or a sensible government, we’d have a proper debate about drawing a line under this period of history. It would be an opportunity to explore do we wish to keep rerunning the past and holding people to account. After all, if Soldier F can get dragged through the courts, then why not the known IRA killers? A fair question to ask is can we spend £200 million investigating the death of Jean McConville? Likewise, can we spend £200 million to make a case against the terrorists who murdered 18 soldiers at Warren Point in 1979?
Contrast the treatment of Soldier F with that of John Downey. In 2013, Downey faced four counts of murder over the Hyde Park attack. That IRA bomb killed 11 and injured 50, including a friend of mine. At trial in January 2014, the case against Downey collapsed. He produced a 'get out of jail free' letter thanks to Tony Blair. That's right; Tony Blair gave this killer his blessing to walk away from murder. Downey is one of 187 IRA suspects who received such letters guaranteeing them immunity from prosecution. All done in secret.
Others present that day went on to greater things. Captain Mike Jackson became General Sir Mike Jackson, GCB, CBE, DSO, DL. He later commanded the British Army. Likewise, the other officers in 1 Para, some of whom disobeyed direct orders, remain untouched.
The British state has by official action, and secret means, forgiven the horrors perpetrated by the IRA. Meanwhile, the families of the victims of ‘Bloody Sunday’ are getting some form of justice. I trust that brings them a bit of peace. Can the same be said for the mothers, fathers, spouses and children of soldiers murdered by the IRA?
In the movie ‘The Dark Knight’ Batman snatches a fugitive in Hong Kong to deposit him outside Police HQ in Gotham City. I’m afraid that’s not an option in real life if you adhere to the rule of law. Although, I’m guessing it may help get us out of a current pickle. Where is Batman when you need him?
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.