Hong Kong, 14 September 2022: Debt, illness, quarrels and excessive drinking. These were the hallmarks of John Walter Hulme’s controversial 15-year tenure as Hong Kong’s first Chief Justice. After arriving here in 1844, he was plagued by financial woes, despite a handsome £3,000 annual salary, while poor health saw him often delay hearings until the afternoon. His frequent run-ins with then-Governor Sir John Davis culminated in the Executive Council suspending him for habitual drunkenness, although he was later reinstated.
The unfortunate Hulme has been largely consigned to history whereas his nemesis had a local hill, Mount Davis, named after him. Subsequent Governors were honoured in similar ways, as were Monarchs, leaving this city packed with reminders of British rule. Hence, the passing of Queen Elizabeth II – who has a hospital, school and stadium bearing her name – has resonated with citizens. Thousands have queued for hours outside the British Consulate-General to pay tribute to the si tau po – “lady in charge” – some of them feeling nostalgic for a bygone era. Chief Executive John Lee, it should be noted, has followed the example of President Xi Jinping in expressing his “profound condolences”.
The Queen’s passing has provided a fresh talking point in our Covid-obsessed city, with the government continuing to double down on draconian measures. Health authorities are now extending the vaccine pass to children aged five to 11, meaning they will require at least one vaccine jab by the end of this month to visit restaurants, cinemas, libraries, sports venues and the like. This rule will be expanded to a two-jab criteria by November. No smartphone? No problem! Your little loved ones can just present a printout of their vaccine pass QR code. The government insists it is for their own good. Some parents and concern groups are aghast.
Critics of zero Covid – especially our antiquated quarantine regulations – are becoming more vocal. Ex-Commerce Minister Frederick Ma has fired the latest salvo, calling for all isolation measures to be scrapped to revitalise tourism, aviation and commerce, a day after former Chief Secretary Henry Tang made a similar plea. In a rare statement, property tycoon Peter Woo, former Chairman of Wheelock and Co, has added his voice: “Many people can’t help thinking Hong Kong is trying to defeat itself.” These are heavyweight players.
The figures do not lie. In recent weeks, the government has downgraded its full-year forecast for Hong Kong’s economic performance from 1-2% expansion to between 0.5% growth and 0.5% contraction. The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce is just one of many prominent business groups painting a gloomy picture. CEO George Leung feels the ongoing closure of this city’s borders is “impeding investment decisions and stifling any prospect of economic recovery”.
Some observers believe cracks are appearing in the government’s united front. We are told of tensions among health chiefs, with the six medical specialists on the Covid-19 Expert Advisory Panel being ordered to avoid public statements that conflict with the official line. Mr Lee has admitted as much: “We always exchange views freely. But we also want to inform the public of decisions that the government made clearly and precisely, so there will be no mixed messages.”
We could certainly do with some clear communication regarding that other sacred holdover – hangover? – from pre-1997 Hong Kong, the Rugby Sevens. Slated to make a grand comeback on 4-6 November, the government insists the event will go ahead, but many questions – F&B arrangements, social distancing protocols, ticket sales – remain unanswered.
Besides the Sevens, our Chief Executive is pinning his hopes on a major banking conference on 1-2 November to show Hong Kong is back in business, although travel restrictions obviously cloud the issue. No such worries in quarantine-free Singapore, which will hold its rival Fintech Festival on 2-4 November. “I believe we can deliver a successful financial summit,” says Mr Lee, while stressing there is little wiggle room on anti-pandemic policies. He insists Covid is far worse than normal flu, but is quoting figures based on our city’s devastating fifth wave of infections early this year.
However, as University of Hong Kong virologist Dr Siddharth Sridhar pertinently points out, on 25 March we had 10,405 new Covid cases, 192 deaths and 105 patients in ICU, whereas on 9 September these figures were 10,076, 11 and 15 respectively. “Vaccines, antivirals, hybrid immunity at work,” he says. At the same time, public information database webb-site.com highlights how more than 29% of our citizens age 80+ remain unvaccinated. That’s 1.6% of the population holding us back and many of us feel our government needs to stop using them as an excuse. There’s more. Dr David Owens observes in his latest compelling essay that public health is about much more than Covid prevention.
We need more voices of reason. One such is our former Director of Public Prosecutions, David Leung SC, my recent guest on Law & More. He is well worth hearing. As is the Honourable Geoffrey Ma GBM QC SC, who served as Hong Kong’s Chief Justice with great distinction from 2010 until last year. I’m thrilled Geoffrey has agreed to deliver next week’s HKU-Boase Cohen & Collins Criminal Law Lecture. It is open to the public and free of charge. You can register to attend here.
Which brings me back to his less-than-illustrious predecessor. John Walter Hulme might observe we’ve come full circle with a struggling economy, rampant Covid and differences amongst health professionals. Yes, sir. Debt, illness, quarrels and – Sevens ahoy – excessive drinking.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins