The Hong Kong government’s rather complicated relationship with the rule of law rarely provides amusing moments, so we must make the most of what comes along.

Readers of The Standard were treated the other day to a story headed “Mooncake raid at Democratic Party workshop.” This concerned a raid by representatives of three government departments on what seems to have been a mooncake shop in Tai Wai.

The office of former pro-democracy district councillor Kudama Ng in Tai Wai. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Actually the place is not a Democratic Party workshop. It is the premises of a former Sha Tin district councillor, Kudama Ng, who was disqualified during the government purge of district councils last year.

It was being used by an organisation called Staymunity, whose main current activity is to raise funds to support Lam Cheuk-ting, formerly one of the more frisky pro-dem lawmakers and now a remand prisoner awaiting trial – along with almost every democratic politician you have heard of and a few you probably haven’t. They have all been in jail for 18 months. I infer that both Ng and Lam can safely be regarded as politically hors de combat.

Accordingly the shop, or workshop, is neither owned nor run by the Democratic Party and it would be interesting to know who stuck this label on it. I am uneasily aware that it may have been a sub-editor. But being labelled “democratic” these days is dangerous, as we shall shortly see.

The government departments concerned managed to be a bit confused about what had actually happened. The only thing that they agreed on was that it was not a “joint operation.” Perhaps someone was embarrassed.

Lam Cheuk-ting. Photo: Legislative Council, via Flickr.

According to the police they received reports of illegal employment at the workshop, and sent a team to investigate. Reports? I am getting a bit sceptical about these mysterious complaints that trigger police descents on places or people labelled “democratic.” Is someone churning out politically motivated “reports?” Or do some of them exist only in the Force’s fertile imagination?

Anyway officers did not, according to the Force, find illegal employment activities. Did the story then proceed in the usual way: “Sorry to have troubled you, Miss, it seems we were fed a bum lead?” Not at all.

Readers who were surprised at the police interest in illegal employment – usually a matter for Immigration or Labour, depending on the violation suspected – can prepare for another surprise. The case was “referred to other departments given the workshop was suspected to be used as a food manufacturing plant.”

Enter the Food and Environmental Hygiene troops, who know the food regulations. To the disappointment of all concerned, I fear, this also failed to disclose anything illegal. The moooncakes are made perfectly legally in properly licensed premises elsewhere, and all that happens in the workshop is the addition of a wrapper, presumably with a picture of Lam on it.

Or perhaps not. These days, support for Lam may not be something you want to advertise.

Traditional mooncakes. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The government’s uniformed minions had not run out of inspiration yet, though. “Officers from the Customs Department later arrived to see if there was any violation of the Trades Descriptions Ordinance.” The Standard’s intrepid reporters did not establish exactly whose idea that was.

Anyway the mooncake workshop finally achieved a complete legal triumph. “No one was arrested and no evidence was seized,” as The Standard put it delicately. What, did nobody think of inviting the Buildings Ordinance people to check for illegal extensions?

I would like to believe that politics had nothing to do with this story, but I am not that stupid. Do you think, if I made a spurious report that cocaine was being smoked in a local DAB office, there would be such a diligent search for something – anything – which could be used to give the operator a hard time?

This story has its bright side. We can relish the thought of those present when the troops arrived greeting a succession of official requests and questions, eventually to see the bloodhounds depart with tails between legs. No fewer than ten officials turned up. It’s not quite The Captain of Köpenick; we mustn’t be greedy.

Former Sha Tin district councillor Kudama Ng (right). Photo: Ng Ting Lam, via Facebook.

But there is also an important principle involved here. The rule of law requires more than just a legal system and a police force. It requires, if I may quote the late British judge Lord Bingham’s work on the subject, that “public officials at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly, for the purpose for which the powers were conferred.”

Instead, we see a system where the government selects a target and then throws at it anything that might stick. So crowd-funding becomes money-laundering, a breach of lease conditions becomes fraud, clapping in court becomes sedition, and so on. Laws which have been dead letters for decades are exhumed and, if that fails, there is always the national security law, which can mean whatever you like.

Is it any wonder that low-level functionaries visiting vaguely democratic premises think their job is to find something the Director of Public Prosecutions can work with, even if their original inspiration turns out to be a duff one?

There may well be some nasty subversives out there who would really like to discredit the legal system. It is difficult to see how they could outdo those who are supposed to be guarding it.

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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.