Back in 2016 there was a minor scandal, by the standards of the time, when a rural grandee who was running a business unlawfully on a slab of government land refused to move off it, despite pleas from government officials who wished to use the plot for a public housing estate.

Police visiting Sai Kung Store
Police visiting Sai Kung Store. File photo: Debby Chan

I had a certain amount of fun with this, as one did in those happier times, and made a variety of suggestions, not completely seriously, as to ways in which the rural squatter might be persuaded to move.

Among them was this: “If that fails we could further point out to the recalcitrant individual that while the incidence of government inspections is random there are occasional coincidences, and he may find in the coming week that the Buildings Ordinance Office wishes to check his house for illegal alterations, the Food and Hygiene people would like a look at his kitchen, the Transport Department wishes to make sure his car has not been tweaked and the Agriculture and Fisheries Department wants to see his dog licence.”

This was intended to be a satirical comment on the fact that in the New Territories the rule of law is in practice much diluted, especially if you are well-connected in the local underworld, the local boards and committees or – as is regrettably common – both. So illegal structures rise undisturbed, unsanitary mass feasts are held in villages, cars are tweaked and dogs are rarely licensed. The rule of law is supplemented, if not replaced, by “live and let live”. Other examples could be cited.

Unfortunately a writer who enjoys skating jovially over the lighter side of an issue is in constant danger of being accused of heresy by someone who mistakes a joke for a serious suggestion. So, after the publication of this particular piece, I was scolded by a reader for suggesting that the government might use multiple inspections as a means of coercion. Such an action would be totally improper, said the reader, with which I entirely agree.

debby chan Sai Kung Store
Sai Kung Store on Friday. File photo: Mandy Cheng/HKFP.

However, sometimes if you wait long enough life imitates art, and so it has done in this matter. I refer to the interesting history of Debby Chan, who runs a shop in Sai Kung selling ethical merchandise and encouraging community events, recycling and other worthy causes.

Chan supposes, plausibly, that her establishment attracts the sort of people who might be interested in a discreet observance of the June 4 non-event, so on April 23 she started offering small electric candles, decorated with “support the Tiananmen mothers,” to anyone who wanted one.

The very next day – apparently Sai Kung Store has some eager snitches among its clients – she was phoned by the police, who asked if she was proposing to seek approval for a public event to commemorate the notorious non-happening. She said she had no plans to hold a public event.

The day after that, by a miraculous coincidence, staff from the Buildings Department turned up, asking to see Chan’s business registration documents. Later she was visited by a different set of Buildings Department staff, who said they were investigating building safety problems.

debby chan Sai Kung Store
Electric candles at Sai Kung Store, in Sai Kung, Hong Kong, on June 2, 2023. Photo: Mandy Cheng/HKFP.

The day after that a neighbour noticed, and photographed, a team from the Environmental Health Department taking pictures of the shop. The following day the department’s staff visited, saying they were investigating complaints about hygiene and blocked pavements.

Two hours later the Labour Department rolled up, for a “routine inspection” of staff insurance papers.

By this time, one imagines Chan had developed a pretty good idea of what was going on, and was perhaps not surprised when two policemen arrived to investigate a complaint that booze had been sold to minors.

It seems that Sai Kung police take this particular sort of complaint very seriously, because when visited by HKFP’s intrepid reporter on the Friday before Sensitive Sunday the shop was being watched from a police car across the road. The car stayed for at least five hours. Potential infant alcoholics are well protected in Sai Kung.

debby chan Sai Kung Store
Sai Kung Store on Friday. File photo: Mandy Cheng/HKFP.

I would like to believe that the government has not yet sprouted a formal Office to Arrange for Politically-motivated Harassment, or OAF for short, to organise a barrage of visits to any business which is not toeing the New Approved Line.

The police said they were responding to a complaint, as did the hygiene cops. They both found the complaints unfounded. Still, there may well be someone in Sai Kung who sees it as their patriotic duty to arrange a hard time for some shop owners, using whatever means come to hand.

Let us suppose that a normal small business can expect a visit from the buildings and the labour people every five years or so. There are 52 weeks in a year, so the chance of both departments turning up in the same week is about one in 62,500.

Clearly, Chan is not taking her week of official visits as an everyday demonstration of the fickleness of the flying finger of fate. There is an old military adage that if something bad happens once it is bad luck; twice is a coincidence; three times is enemy action. My reader was right. This sort of thing is unacceptable.

debby chan Sai Kung Store
Police outside Sai Kung Store, in Sai Kung, Hong Kong, on June 2, 2023. Photo: Mandy Cheng/HKFP.

If Hong Kong officials are going to tell the world that Hong Kong still has the rule of law they should study its requirements. According to the late British judge Lord Bingham, these include: “Ministers and public officers at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly, for the purpose for which the powers were conferred, without exceeding the limits of such powers and not unreasonably.”

Also germane at this point is the report that a car was impounded on the Day when Nothing Happened in Tiananmen because it was driving through Causeway Bay and the number plate was “US 8964.”

I once spent many amusing mornings on the committee which vets applications for personal number plates. This is not a personal number plate; it is a routine local model: two letters and four digits. It came out of the Transport Department computer after US 8963 and before US 8965. Somewhere in Hong Kong there are certainly other number plates with 8964 following other letters.

The driver was told there was some problem with his brake and his number plate. These were clearly pretexts. An apology might be in order. But the Force does not do apologies. Is it surprising that police recruiters are finding it difficult to find eager takers for a career doing this sort of thing?

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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.