“The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish and his tastes do not change,” according to Bruno Fey, and this may be one reason why economic theory has few points of contact with the real world.

People are not rational and consistent. I will leave the question of selfishness for another day. We generally expect, though, that people should make an effort to be rational and consistent, particularly when they are in positions which involve making decisions for the rest of us.

busy hong kong people
Hong Kong people. Photo: Wikicommons.

But this is not what we get. Consider the matter of violence. We all disapprove of violence. We also all recognise that violence comes on a scale, with varying degrees of seriousness, depending mainly on the effect on the victim but also taking other circumstances into account.

So we might have at one end of the scale a pat on the back which would in other circumstances qualify as a sign of affection, and at the other – well take your pick – public executions by hanging, drawing and quartering, perhaps.

Where on this scale might we place the mischief of Mr Ted Hui who, irked by the presence in Legco’s backstage areas of officials apparently photographing the scene-shifting on mobile phones, grabbed a phone from one of the snoopers.

Ted Hui
File photo: Citizen News.

Taking advantage of the snooper’s female gender he retired to the nearest gents’ latrine to – or so one assumes – have a quick look at the “gallery” section and see if he was one of the unwilling stars of it.

We can I think infer that the violence part of this was quite low down the scale. Our prosecutors, ever anxious to add another pro-dem scalp to their trophy cabinet, have settled for “common assault” for the snatching part. The proceedings in the toilet qualify for that much-loved legal blunderbuss, “accessing a computer with dishonest intent.”

It was suggested at the time that the victim was in tears. I find this difficult to believe, though I realise that digital natives (or young people as we used to call them) have an affection for, if not an addiction to, their mobile phones which is difficult to understand for those of us who first met phones when they were large pieces of black Bakelite with a round dial and a wire going into the wall.

Perhaps she jumped to the conclusion that Mr Hui’s trip to the toilet would end with him dropping the offending phone in a place from which recovery would be unpleasant, if not impossible.

Perhaps the phone, which was on official business, was an official phone, whose loss would entail extensive form-filling and recriminations. Anyway I think we can all agree that it was naughty of Mr Hui to cause a lady such distress, whatever the legal status (still to be determined in court) of his actions. But as a piece of violence it hardly registers on the Mayhem Meter.

carrie lam press conference media freedom
Carrie Lam. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The government’s reaction, from the Chief Executive downwards, was that Mr Hui’s conduct was “barbaric”. This seems to be the most conspicuous local example of over-inflated rhetoric since the last time some sycophant said that C.Y. Leung would make a good Chief Executive.

If we are going to use “barbaric” for snatching a lady’s mobile phone, what will we have in reserve for occasions when the victim is killed and eaten?

What will be have in reserve if the victim is roughed up, has his nose rubbed along the pavement, is whisked off to the local police station and coerced into coughing up one of those “confessions” which we all take with a pinch of salt?

Well when it happens in Beijing, it seems, words rather fail us. The Chief Executive managed to “express regret”. The Secretary for Justice thought the actions of the policemen concerned were “very strange”. You what?

The whole point of having a lawyer as Secretary for Justice is that there are times then the government and the public need an authoritative statement of what the law is. Telling us that the actions of the police were “very strange” is like going to you doctor and being told that the mysterious growth on your neck is “very decorative”. That may be true but it is not what we want to know.

YouTube video

Actually I doubt if it is true that the police action was “very strange”. The mainland police are not like our police. Not yet. It is a commonplace there of reporting (along with demonstrating, protesting, worshipping in the wrong church and other controversial actions) that you may be beaten up by policemen.

One of my former colleagues had such a rough time covering a protest in Tiananmen Square that his back was permanently damaged. That’s the way it goes. Those who are taken into police stations commonly emerge on a stretcher, occasionally in a box.

Carrie Lam says she hopes that people will not expect the government to “use certain wording to show that it cares”. Not at all. We know the government doesn’t care. We would just like to see it pretending.

Of course senior officials do not have a monopoly on baffling inconsistency. Earlier this month, legislators were much excited by the news that tickets for the Flying White Elephant, or the Express Rail Link as we are supposed to call it, would come in two categories. Those for destinations served by trains starting in Hong Kong and finishing in that destination could be bought from the MTR. Those for other places on the network would have to be bought from the mainland rail system or an agent of it.

And (surprise!) the agent will add a small fee to the cost of the ticket. So legislators who happily swallowed the bill for the world’s most expensive railway were upset that travellers on this marvel might be ripped off a few bucks by the China Travel Service.

Express Rail Link
Photo: GovHK.

I am reminded of the passage in one of Parkinson’s books in which he points out that the building of a new power station will preoccupy the company board for five minutes, because few people present know enough about it to comment, while the construction of a bicycle shed will take an hour because everyone has an opinion.

The rail link is a hole down which billions of dollars have been poured and will continue to flow. Even in the original proposal it was never going to make money on a normal basis because it was never expected to pay its construction costs.

For book-keeping purposes the rail link is treated as if a choir of angels had descended on us and built the thing for nothing.

Honestly accounted for it will, as I have said before, have cost HK$100 billion. You no longer have to take my word for this. In the debate on the Great Ticket Robbery Mr Michael Tien, a rare railway-literate legislator, explained that “It’s just like buying the side dish for $100 billion and when you purchase the side dish you can’t book the main course at the same time.”

This does not sound to me like a recipe for a successful restaurant business.

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.