I don’t know if there is any truth in the entertaining rumour that the Hong Kong SAR government tried to recruit a PR agency to rescue it from public scorn and contempt, only to meet with flat refusals from plausible image-polishers. The story is not unlikely. It would be a challenging assignment.

Last week, the government scored another own goal. Joshua Wong, an international media darling, was disqualified from running in the Southern District Council election.

Photo: inmediahk.net.

This looks very like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If Mr Wong had been allowed to run there were two possible outcomes. If he lost, it would put a big dent in his claim to speak for large numbers of Hong Kong people. If he won, he would be immersed in a stream of local trivia, surgeries, committee meetings and such like, which would keep him out of other mischiefs.

The disqualification, in fact, will make several people happy. The District Officer concerned has established her status as a loyal foot soldier in the forces of darkness. Her superiors have enhanced the government’s claims to follow whatever orders Mr Xi issues, the law be damned.

And Mr Wong gains added credibility in resistance circles without having to go to prison or to dabble in the politics of the parish pump. After all, for a man who has addressed committees of Congress and working parties of the United Nations, time may seem to pass very slowly in meetings of the Southern District Council.

Being the only candidate disqualified is a back-handed compliment. He’s democracy’s danger man. Allowing him to run in an election would cause a constitutional Chernobyl. Politicians in other countries would kill for such a reputation.

So everyone is happy. Except me. My unhappiness is not caused by the outcome, but by the government press release which immediately followed it. Three paragraphs into this I came down with a nasty case of déjà vu. It starts: “In response to media enquiries regarding the 2019 District Council (DC) Ordinary Election, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government today (October 29) replied as follows…”.

There follow three paragraphs which are exactly the same, word for word, as the replies were given to media inquiries regarding the “2019 Rural Ordinary Election”, from which Mr Eddie Chu Hoi-dick as was disqualified.

Eddie Chu. Photo: inmediahk.net.

A couple of paragraphs have been inserted next which are specific to the latest case, and then we go back to the familiar script.

As the only things changed in the first paragraph were the date and the name of the election we can see that some nameless government person was achieving a significant economy of effort here.

In fact, it appears that very much the same press release was also offered after media inquiries about the 2018 Legislative Council By-election and the 2016 Legislative Council Election. So many of these sentences have been thrown to the media dogs four times.

This would be all right – I am all for government spokesmen not wasting their time when the official policy is well-established – if the original press release stuck to the government’s view of the constitutional position. But it ends in a lie.

The last sentence goes like this: “There is no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community.”

Protests at the 2019 District Council election briefing session. Photo: Citizen News.

Readers of long-standing will recall my rage when this paragraph of Orwellian doublespeak appeared in connection with Mr Chu and I am gobsmacked that this error is apparently regarded as a suitable piece of boilerplate to be slapped on the end of a press release whenever there is a dust-up over disqualification.

Still, having been here before I will try to be brief.

Listen, spokesman, whoever you are, the bit about political censorship is irrelevant. The next bits are plain wrong. Of course, there is a question of freedom of speech. People are being disqualified because they have advocated independence, or even because they have defended the right of other people to advocate independence.

You may if you wish to, defend this as a trivial restriction. Most Hong Kong people think of independence the way they think of life after death: it would be nice, but they don’t expect to see it, and the outcome is in any case entirely out of their hands.

You may defend disqualifying independence advocates as a desirable restriction or as a legally required one. But don’t tell us it’s not a restriction because that just makes you look delusional.

2019 District Council election briefing session. Photo: Citizen News.

Similarly, there is clearly a question of deprivation of the right to stand for election. Mr Wong wishes to stand and he is not allowed to. What do you think “deprivation” means? Again, you may say this is a trivial matter. It seems Mr Wong is the only person in Hong Kong under this disability.

Or you may defend it as legal, even compulsory. But don’t keep telling us that nobody is being deprived of the right to stand for election because someone very clearly is.

May I suggest writing a new press release from scratch next time?

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.