Dear me, do you remember those distant days when Carrie Lam aspired to heal the wounds in a divided society, and thought that the hardest part of this would be to get in touch with the feelings of Hong Kong’s young people.

Well, that was then and now is now. Ms Lam’s statement last week violated a principle which we occasionally have to remind Chief Executives about, and indeed which we occasionally had to remind colonial Chief Secretaries about, which is that these jobs do not turn you into a sort of local Pope who can speak authoritatively about ethics. Oddly enough Governors generally were not prone to this illusion.

Carrie Lam election press conference. File photo: In-Media.

The job of a chief executive is to make the trains run on time, keep the Liaison Office at bay as far as possible, and tackle such long-term problems — like housing or an increasingly aged population — as the office-holder thinks are amenable to government remedies. We neither want nor need his or her advice on how to conduct our own lives.

Ms Lam said last week that “the whole community are shocked, grieved, and enraged” by the appearance of a reprehensible message on a student-run notice board at the Hong Kong University of Education. I do not defend the message. But some people may be “shocked, grieved and enraged” to find Ms Lam setting herself up as a public spokesperson on moral matters.

She went on, just to ensure the complete alienation of younger listeners, to rail against the appearance of posters advocating Hong Kong independence. This concluded with the interesting phrase: “The continued appearance of such remarks on university campuses … is in violation of our country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and development interests.”

HKU’s Democracy wall. File photo: HKFP.

This rang a distant bell. Sovereignty and territorial integrity are standard platitudes in contexts of this kind. But where did “development interests” come from? The only time I had seen it before was in an op-ed piece by Regina Ip some months ago when Ms Ip still had dreams of becoming Chief Executive herself. Surely these ladies were not sharing a speech writer?

Well in a way they were. I stumbled across the original quote by accident in the snappily named “Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Issues Relating to the Selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by Universal Suffrage and on the Method for Forming the Legislative Council of the Special Administrative Region in the Year 2016,” published in 2014.

This document, among other things, defends the bogus election scheme (later rejected by Legco) by reference to “the actual need to maintain long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and uphold the sovereignty, security and development interests of the country.”

Ms Lam was, it seems, channelling the Standing Committee. Why the appearance of a few posters on local university notice boards had any possible effect on the “development interests” of anything, we were not told.

She expressed hope that different sectors of society would join forces to “rectify such abuse of the freedom of speech” to safeguard core values of a civic society and defend the moral standard in Hong Kong. This sounds ominously like an invitation to the local vigilantes who occasionally take it upon themselves to bully local institutions which are not, in their view, defending moral standards with sufficient enthusiasm.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung and Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: Carrie Lam, via Facebook.

Well, more learned pens than mine will no doubt sort out Ms Lam‘s curious personal variation on what freedom of speech and academic autonomy might entail. As a mere wordsmith, though, I would like to correct the increasingly common error of supposing that there is any sense in complaining that something has “over-stepped the bottom line of society”.

The bottom line is not a line over which you can step. It is the line at the bottom of a profit and loss account, which traditionally records whether the result of the year as a whole was in fact a profit or a loss. Hence a “concern for the bottom line” started life as a polite euphemism for corporate greed. This line is not, in the usual sense, a line, any more than the last line in a song or a sonnet is a line that you can step over.

There are other possibilities. The “dead line” used to be a line inside the perimeter of a prison, and if you stepped over it you would be shot. This would perhaps capture Ms Lam’s intentions quite well, but deadline has over the years been adopted by journalists (sorry) to mean the time by which something must be finished.

Carrie Lam in Beijing (second from left). Photo: GovHK.

Then there is the “line in the sand”. Unfortunately this is ambiguous. In British English the phrase, which can be traced back to incidents in Roman and Peruvian history, means a line which you should not cross. American English on the other hand tends to trace the idea to an incident in the siege of the Alamo, in which men who did not wish to surrender were invited to cross the line, indicating willingness to fight to the death. So if you cross the line you’re a hero.

Ms Lam could perhaps take a hint from her boss. Mr Xi recently talked of a “red line” which cannot be crossed. This is a rarity, possibly because its origin was rather disreputable. The original “red line” was drawn on the map by an Armenian businessman and marked the territories allocated to different international oil companies in the disintegrating Ottoman empire. The drawback of the “red line” is that it may be confused with the “thin red line”, which is a military phrase meaning something quite different.

This drawback is avoided in French, where for some reason this line is usually referred to as a “yellow line”, but it still cannot be crossed. The “yellow line” might work better in a Hong Kong context, because it appears on station platforms and you are not supposed to cross it, at least until the train has arrived.

Ms Lam could of course avoid these difficult choices by leaving the provision of moral guidance to more plausible authorities. Few people will want ethical advice from someone who has taken a lucrative job in the employ of a murderous dictatorship, even if she thinks she did so on instructions from God.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.