Looking at our executive-led administration I am reminded of a remark by Jack Welch, once the CEO of General Electric, on one of the business theories which stressed the role of the business leader.

This, he said, would produce an organisation with “its face towards the CEO and its ass towards the customer”.

Something along these lines would explain not only why our government is impervious to public opinion but also why we are regularly treated to bursts of bullshit.

Laser pointer protest at Hong Kong Space Museum. Photo: Citizen News.

For a prime specimen, consider the police press conference this week aimed at providing a retrospective justification for the arrest of a student whose “crime” was possession of a bag of laser pointers.

A laser pointer, said Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah, of the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau, should really be called a laser gun. Quite how a senior member of the bureau targeting triads could spare the time for tests of toy safety when triads are running amok in the streets, we were not told.

The assembled media people were then treated to a demonstration of the lethal propensities of the laser pointer. Pointing one of the offending items at a sheet of newspaper, at a range of two or three feet, for ten seconds produced a whiff of steam, or white smoke, or possibly even white tear gas.

This has some claim to be the most dishonest weapons demonstration since Billy Mitchell used a fleet of bombers to sink a stationary, undefended and obsolete battleship in 1921, in a desperate attempt to show that the US Navy was obsolete.

Photo: inmedia.net.

One of the local newspapers reported an attempt to replicate Supt Li’s experiment, which failed. Even if it had succeeded there are major problems with the laser as weapon concept.

Clearly at this range of lot of things could do quite a lot of damage, including many of the supposedly non-lethal implements currently deployed by our beloved constabulary. A rubber bullet fired at this range at the head of a protester, as many seem to be these days, might well do serious damage.

A laser pointer is not really in this class because it is, after all, just a light. This has not, of course, prevented extended attempts to explore the potential of bigger lasers as weapons. Current prototypes are mostly mounted on ships, where there is already a plentiful source of power and weight is not an issue.

According to unreliable sources – newspapers – the PLA has developed a laser gun called the ZKZM-500 which weighs about the same as an AK47, and has a range of about 1,000 yards. Reports of its effectiveness vary considerably.

In the rest of the world the news that Hong Kong protesters have developed a laser gun will come as a surprise. The UK Military Gazette’s latest estimate was that laser weapons would “come into service in the mid-2020s.”

Another authority doubted there would ever be a hand-held version: “If you expect to see hand-held laser pistols, don’t hold your breath. The batteries needed to power such things would be so powerful and so dangerous that they’d be better used as hand grenades – preferably thrown by someone with a very strong arm.

“They’re also inefficient, with most of the energy used to power them wasted as heat, they can be blocked by dust, smoke, clouds, rain, fog, and turbulence, and some of the most powerful lasers require large quantities of dangerous toxic chemicals.”

Summary from Wikipedia: “If aimed at a person’s eyes, laser pointers can cause temporary disturbances to vision. There is some evidence of rare minor permanent harm, but low-powered laser pointers are not seriously hazardous to health.”

Actually the idea that small battery-powered lasers could be used to harm people’s eye-sight is discounted by some weapons scientists, because several seconds of continuous exposure is required, and the automatic response to having a light shone in your eyes is to blink. Anyway, can you imagine any situation, in an actual street, where you could keep a laser pointing at anything human continuously for ten seconds?

Steve Li. Photo: Citizen News.

Supt Li said some officers had had their eyes injured and some police cameras had been damaged after being pointed at by a laser. Well, these encounters between protesters and police are a confused scene with a lot of things flying about. Let us say that any eye injuries will in all likelihood turn out to be temporary.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are left with the chilling thought that we may have been carrying an offensive weapon around for years without realising it.

I used to have a laser pointer, or gun as we must now call it, which was very useful in the classroom. It was a birthday present from the Chaplain’s Office at Hong Kong Baptist University. No doubt they were not aware of the combat possibilities when they chose this as the present for the year.

Actually, you can, it turns out, do quite a lot of things with laser pointers. My local security guards use one to frighten monkeys off the clubhouse roof. You can use one to entertain your cat, or to clean your goldfish bowl. For a full list of interesting things you can do with a laser pointer go here.

Confusing policemen is not on the list. And indeed it seems rather surprising that a Force which is happy to bombard pedestrians and passers-by with a wide variety of projectiles and chemicals should be so sensitive about having lights waved at it.

I really do not think it is helpful to extend the range of “offensive weapons” until it includes the entire contents of most people’s kitchens and many people’s desks. It makes the boys and girls in blue look rather timid: Asia’s finest chickens…


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.