You would think our leaders were aware that the last thing Hong Kong needs at the moment is another piece of vague, indiscriminate legislation which will provide a whole new plethora of opportunities for toxic interactions between officials and the public they are supposed to serve.

Is there, one wonders, an infectious spate of national security law envy? If there is, treatment is now required in the Environment and Ecology Bureau, which unveiled its latest stroke of genius at a recent meeting of the legislature.

A wild boar. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The bureau, I do not dispute, has a problem. Wild pigs occasionally intrude in the urban area, attracted by the soft suburban lifestyle and the insecure dustbin, as many smaller animals have been before them. However a wild pig is a rather alarming thing to find in your housing estate, and the pigs themselves are in danger from traffic.

The current policy, inaugurated by an interesting coincidence after a wild pig bit a policeman, is to capture pigs found in the urban area and kill them. This goes down badly with a lot of people, including me.

The bureau believes that the reason the pigs frolic in urban areas is that misguided people are feeding them. I do not dispute that this takes place sometimes, but there are some doubts as to whether it is really the main source of the problem. Many urban estates put their rubbish out for collection in the morning in plastic bags, which are not much of a challenge to a peckish porker.

An auxiliary police officer was attacked by a wild boar in November 2021. File photo: Facebook.

Indeed the Agriculture and Fisheries Department’s supposedly animal-proof litterbins are not much of a challenge either. During the period when restaurants were forced to close at 6 pm many people picnicked in or around their cars in the carpark at the top of Sui Wo Road. I am a regular nocturnal visitor here for dog reasons.

These visitors were respectable folk who put their rubbish in plastic bags and put the bags into the animal-proof bin provided, until it overflowed and the bags were then stacked beside it. I suppose it took a day before our local wild pig (I have never seen more than one) discovered this bounty and another night before he found his way into the “animal-proof” bin.

After that I saw him most nights until the restaurants resumed evening service. A pig with the smell of rubbish in his nostrils is resourceful and determined. No doubt people should not feed them, but we seem to be picking an easy target here which will not solve the problem.

Anyway, what is the bureau’s preferred legal solution to the pig feeding problem? Will it ban feeding wild pigs in the urban area, ban feeding them in other places, attempt something like “feeding wild pigs in places whereby the general public is likely to be inconvenienced,” ban feeding wild pigs at all?

An Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department banner at a popular spot for feeding wild pigs. File photo: Arthur Lo/HKFP.

Too timid, apparently. The bureau wants to ban feeding any wild animal anywhere in Hong Kong. It also wishes to raise the maximum penalty (there is currently a law against feeding monkeys in some places) for feeding anything to a year in jail or a $100,000 fine.

Apparently officials believe the present level of fines is too small. I rarely find myself defending local magistrates against charges of excessive leniency, but perhaps the fines are small because they ought to be. Feeding a monkey in a country park is not an offence of moral turpitude or financial gain and does very little public harm because the places where feeding is banned are the places where monkeys congregate anyway. So there is no obvious victim.

The bureau would also like to institute a system of fixed penalty tickets – on-the-spot fines, in effect — with the specified fine to be $5,000.

I am not sure which parts of this are most objectionable. In the first place, the making of a new law should not be an opportunity to blanket the territory with unwarranted prohibitions. The bureau says that the sweeping new law will reduce the “difficulty in enforcement” expected if the new law merely covered the things it is supposed to stop. This is not the way the Rule of Law is supposed to work.

Legislative Council. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The new law will cover, or threaten, lots of stuff currently regarded as harmless and perfectly legal. What is a “wild animal,” for example? Will it cover feral cows, feral cats, feral cats only outside official feral cat colonies recognised by the Society for the Protection of Animals?

Our local minibus drivers often eat their lunch outside our estate and toss the odd bit of bread to the local birds. This has allowed some residents to become quite well-informed about the local birdlife. We sometimes spot examples of the Eurasian Magpie, the Red-whiskered Bulbul, and an interesting grey thing which some observers say is a wood pigeon but I think is a wild dove. Having said which, the vast majority of our birds are Eurasian Tree Sparrows, which are quite cute but very common.

No doubt spokespeople will say that of course such trivial peccadilloes will not be prosecuted, even if theoretically illegal. But citizens should not have to depend on the discretion of officials to keep them out of trouble.

A government which wants to ban feeding pigs should ban feeding pigs and leave other possibly more deserving animals alone.

A wild boar. File Photo: Arthur Lo/HKFP.

As for the on-the-spot fines, this is another item which is hardly compatible with our oft-repeated dedication to the Rule of Law. Citizens are supposed to be able to go about their lives without worrying about being instantly fined by some officious flunkey of the government for a minor offence.

Fixed penalty tickets are acceptable if the offence is simple and unlikely to be disputed, and if the fine is modest. The thin end of this wedge was of course the ticket for motoring offences, which had the advantage that anyone who was driving a car could be presumed to be a person of means. As the idea has spread to other areas the acceptable level of instant fine has increased exponentially.

A fine of $5,000 for many Hong Kongers is about half a month’s wages. According to the census people about 10 per cent of workers earn less than $10,000 and about 25 per cent less than $20,000 a month. Most Social Security recipients get less than $5,000 a month.

A government banner warns that people might be fined for feeding wild birds. File photo: Pallowoom14, via Wikicommons.

This is too heavy a penalty to be thrown about without at least the possibility of a trial. I know we have had $5,000 on the spot fines for Covid-related offences, but that has not been a happy experience. There have been far too many cases in which the exact requirements of the offence were not explored in sufficient detail, and some in which the only offence involved appeared to be failure to offer to police people the deference to which they believe themselves entitled.

Levelling this blunderbuss at domestic workers on their days off was not a good look, and the penalty looks incoherent compared with the case of the restaurant which entertained a birthday party for 100 people, including many bigwigs, and was fined only $6,000.

Perhaps the Environment and Ecology Bureau could benefit from a word with our new Secretary for Justice, who seemed to admit the other day that it was difficult or impossible to define “sedition” and may not want another legal Rubik’s cube to play with.

Or they could talk to the Housing Authority. Among public housing residents the urge to adopt wild animals is easily explained by the ban on tenants keeping dogs.

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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.