Overhyped fads meet deserved doom

HorngRyen

First thing in the morning. I do not want to see the ugly word ‘sarnie’ in a headline. ‘Killer sandwiches on rampage’ would have fitted onto the Standard’s front page perfectly. Nor do I want to read any reference to ‘stool samples’. Just say ‘tests’.

However, the news is essentially good: the fad that was Horng Ryen Jen sandwiches comes crashing to the ground in a cloud of salmonella. They will now take their place in the Overhyped Nothingness Hall of Fame.

Stan-DodgyTaiwanThe big deal was that some famous star was seen with some of these items. Next thing, everyone has to have them.

From a public-health point of view, the mistake was to position the fluffy white bread and icky filling as an alternative to pineapple cake as a gift that you could bring back from Taiwan for your colleagues and friends. Pineapple cakes, individually wrapped, last for weeks or months. Sandwiches made fresh with egg and mayo, become breeding grounds for bacteria after an hour or two at room temperature.

As a branding concept-theme, they were clumsy and unconvincing. The products are a distinctly non-artisanal minimalist version of the ham-and-cheese slices you get in 7-Eleven, which trace their ancestry back to the inventiveness of a gambling-mad English earl, supposedly. There is nothing ‘Taiwanese’ about them – the idea is just culturally inapt. The retro design of the wrapper is similarly contrived and phony (as in ‘Qing Dynasty sandwiches’). The overall impression is of a Taiwanese company opportunistically trying to emulate a Korean level of slick, cool trendiness, and it doesn’t work. Taiwan does shabby, ramshackle charm. Stick to your strengths.

(A similar dismal fake marketing concept is IFC Mall’s tacky Singaporean ‘Tea WG’, founded in 2008 with an Olde Worlde logo that says 1837 and other pretentious twaddle. As karma dictates, they were sued by a local and long-established ‘TWG’ tea company for trade mark infringement.)

And another fad bites the dust… Everyone has known for years that the ever-tedious Shaolin ‘monastery’ kung-fu theme park much beloved by inadequate Western teenage boys is a sleazy, tawdry money-making scam. But new dirt has come to light about the ‘abbot’, who it seems is even more of a billionaire Buddhist slime-bag than anyone imagined.

Nasty shallow cynical brands die horrible deaths. It is a good day.

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What’s missing from the HKU story

The South China Morning Post starts the week with a generous serving of weirdness…

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…but otherwise goes full-on against the students and other malcontents who are making trouble over the University of Hong Kong Council’s tortuous mega-fuss over the appointment of Johannes Chan as Pro-Vice Chancellor.

It seems to be a bit of uphill struggle. A profile of council chairman Leong Che-hung highlights sympathizers’ praise for his neutrality. Supporters of freedom and democracy might feel that the tendency of Hong Kong’s moderate establishment elders to sit on the fence is part of the problem (though it’s logically inevitable – come off the fence, and you either publicly sell the rest of your soul to the Communists, or you depart the SCMP-DoctorInestablishment). But to pro-Beijing eyes, Leong is being irritating and unreliable, wringing his hands over ‘uncivil activity’ when he should be blasting student protestors as blood-crazed criminals.

Another council member, Professor Lo Chung-mau, laments ‘a lot of outside forces’ trying to interfere in the body’s decision-making and goes on about violence making Hong Kong more like the Mainland. In a way, this echoes comments by Chinese Communist Party-backed newspapers’ audacious, or maybe clueless, description of the HKU student protesters as Cultural Revolution-style Red Guards. But the phrase about outside forces is ambiguous. Like Leong, he comes across as out of his depth; it’s one thing to be tamely pro-establishment, another to be dragged into Beijing officials’ United Front vendetta against Occupy when you’d rather be doing organ transplants. Little wonder several other members have fled the council under the pressure.

The SCMP has to turn to opinion pieces to guarantee full political correctness. Lawrence Lau bemoans ‘mob rule’ and ‘spoilt brats’ who have no respects for others’ rights, herald a generation ‘with no sense of propriety and shame’ and threaten rule of law. Alice Wu, for light relief, swoons in shock that callous commentators accused the aforementioned Professor Lo of deliberately falling to the ground during the University Council Invasion Mayhem Massacre last week.

So the SCMP has a couple of factual reports on individuals timidly blaming a variety of unnamed forces for vague unpleasantness, and a couple of opinion columns accusing one side of every bestial wrongdoing. What’s missing? Any word on what the students and their supporters think, and thus any direct mention of the underlying cause of this tumult: the Chinese government’s interference, via various proxies, in a Hong Kong university’s internal personnel issue. The one-country-two-systems deal under pre-1997 Sino-British agreements and today’s Basic Law specifically say this won’t happen. Yet here it is – so Beijing can punish an individual for his beliefs, in order to bully and intimidate others into silence and obedience.

(It could be that the likes of Lawrence Lau would justify their stance – portraying the students rather than Beijing as the instigators of ‘coercion’ – by saying that local protest and resistance are the root problem. If Beijing intends to crush Hong Kong, it is because it sees the city as a threat to the Communist Party. If the activists and dissidents shut up and learned to go along with the Love-the-Motherland stuff, the Red Inquisition would go away and leave us alone. But they don’t even hint at such a subtle angle, which we could dub the ‘Crush Yourself’ strategy. So we must take them at face value as shoe-shiners on the make.)

Indeed, few if any public figures want to openly suggest that events at HKU might be part of a broad United Front rectification campaign directed by the Liaison Office or even Beijing and aimed at strengthening the Communist regime’s control of the whole city. Alan Leong of the Civic Party does a lawyerly dissection of the issue at HKFP (Leong Che-hung originally invited Johannes Chan for the job, he says). But even he doesn’t quite join all the dots: he starts with Chief Executive CY Leung and ends with concern over repercussions for local universities. The SCMP may seem to be slanting coverage of the story by omitting one whole side of it. But it’s probably truer to say they and almost everyone else, zeroing in on Pro-Vice Chancellors and the professor with a walking stick, are deliberately or inadvertently missing what’s actually happening.

Not much coverage of the bizarre gathering at Chater Garden in Central on Saturday. Normally, people fuss about the number of protesters. This time, the big deal was the number of cops. Hundreds (definitely a three-digit number) of officers ringed a pathetically small group of pro-Beijing types at a ‘Support the Police’ event featuring the rabid Leticia Lee.

A group of localists and similar activists stood nearby, while the rest of the park was filled with laid-back, mainly young folk enjoying the sun and hurling occasional insults at the venomous Leticia.

They boys in blue looked suitably embarrassed, manning the sort of perimeter the Pope gets in Mexico for such a sad little assembly. Why such a vast number of cops? What on earth were they expecting? Perhaps they over-estimated the number of people who would turn up at a celebration of their own wonderfulness. Proof they are only human.

PoliceChater

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City’s major problems solved

It would be easy to get a bit down about the state of things in Hong Kong. We have water that doesn’t damage kids’ brains so long as they don’t swallow it; Assaulting-Police-With-Breast-Girl getting three months; and even ultra-patriots being treated like dirt. So it’s reassuring to see that a couple of today’s South China Morning Post columns elegantly SCMP-FamilyFortunessolve some of our most pressing problems, at least after a bit of elaboration.

A professor of social work worries about the city’s declining fertility rate. This much-discussed phenomenon affects other Asian societies, like Japan, Korea and Singapore. Each place has at least four of the following five conditions: exhausting, high-pressure rat-race materialist lifestyles; tiny overpriced homes; ultra-competitive education systems; educated women who prefer to have a life rather than marriage; policymakers devoid of imagination.

Is this a looming crisis? The professor invites us to fret about it because we’re doomed if we don’t have enough workers (it’s true for bees, so it must be true for us). And people are ‘interestingly’ keeping puppy dogs when women should be ‘allowed to help solve the problem of our anticipated labour shortfall’…

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(So logically, what we need is a puppy shortfall!) The professor produces a modest list of very neat solutions…

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In order to accomplish these things, Hong Kong would have to make some changes. Cheaper homes mean that people keep more money in their pockets, so property tycoons and landlords get less. Childcare centres, fiscal incentives and better education all require tax revenues to be diverted away from pointless infrastructure projects, thus away from construction interests – including the same property tycoons. Family-friendly working hours and leave arrangements would imply that our archaic, cartelized, rent-seeking businesses give way to modern, innovative wealth-creators, yet again at the expense of the tycoons who infest our politics via functional constituencies, the Liberal Party, etc – which sort of suggests a more representative system of government.

So that’s solved. Maybe the professor can expand on how we ‘move forward’, as the bureaucrats like to say.

Meanwhile the SCMP’s ‘local cultural critic’ Perry Lam tells us that Hong Kong needs to ‘understand’ what Beijing wants. What does Beijing want? We don’t know. But we have to find out. Even though it’s ‘notoriously difficult’…

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SCMP-HongKongMustTragically, the writer lacks the space to enlighten us as to What The Heck It Is That Beijing Actually Wants. Fortunately, I can pick up where he leaves off.

What Beijing wants is: no more independent judiciary, no more free press, no more academic freedom, no more freedom of assembly, no more rule of law and no more elected legislators – all of which are threats to one-party rule, and ultimately incompatible with it. They should be replaced with silence, obedience and loyalty to the Communist Party, and acceptance of a self-selecting corrupt hereditary dictatorship as saviour of the nation.

That’s it. Simple. (Only took one paragraph, by the way.)

With so many problems solved, I declare the weekend open with ‘Rene Magritte does Hong Kong’…

ReneMagritteHK

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A quick ‘Your Tax Dollars At Work’

This is one of those traumatizing weeks in which I am reminded more than once that real work sometimes comes along – and it bites into your day. Just time for a quick photo tour of Your Tax Dollars at Work.

First, the entrance to the Hong Kong Museum of Signage in Tsimshatsui. Some of these signs give you information that is useful, if redundant by the time you arrive, like opening hours or times of guided tours. Others state the obvious, like ‘That Thing You Get in Every Museum is in the Museum, Through Here’ and ‘So is This One, Also Through Here’. The lonely sign far away in the shadows on the right is a generic ‘No Frisbees /Bagpipes/Penguins Allowed Ever’ not specific to the museum, and therefore an outcast, shunned by the institution’s own very important signs standing proudly and neatly in a row to welcome visitors…

MuseumSigns

Second, the elaborate network of roads, feeder roads, support roads, extra roads, spare roads, let’s-stuff-in-another roads and more roads surrounding IFC Mall and adjacent wasteland. This is also signage-related, I suppose, but more to do with the transport bureaucracy’s very obvious schizoid policy of enabling parking in places where it is supposedly not allowed. Behold the (double-yellow-line-indicated) no-parking zone – with attached parking space…

IFC-parking

“We had no choice, because otherwise pedestrians or cyclists would use the space.”

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And still no-one knows what a provost is

Stan-Fung

Most of us fondly recall university as an intellectually enriching while modestly debauched interlude that (perhaps) helped prepare us for real life. Yet for a few people, the campus is real life – a place they inhabit for decades and come to view as normality. Inevitably, they become institutionalized and warped. It is a world of doddering deans and raving rectors. Lecturers seethe about appointments that went to others. Department heads become obsessed with the lack of funding for Cultural Studies or work on 12-dimensional universes. Professors froth at the mouth over research grants that were denied. Feuds and resentments go on for years. Little wonder that right-thinking people back on Planet Earth have an instinctive aversion to anything to do with academia.

And so it is with extreme wariness that we consider the events last night at Hong Kong U, because on the face of it, it’s all about provosts and pro-vice chancellors and other tiresomeness.

The headline story is that, like noble counterparts down the centuries, students protested, specifically by storming the University Council. Someone climbed on a table. Someone else fell over. Council Chairman Leong Che-hung – last heard of back in the 1990s – ended up Stan-chaosdoing some sort of livestreamed late-night teach-in/debate with delightfully stroppy kids in T-shirts, while podgy middle-aged men in suits looked on, and cops hung around outside.

It looks like youthful idealism versus pompous and arrogant has-beens. On the surface, a semi-obscure academic is in line for appointment to a particular position in the university hierarchy, and the Council is delaying things because they want to fill another position first, though no-one seems to know why. The students protest because… students do.

But of course it’s more than that. The Chinese Communist Party is still sorely freaking out about the Occupy/civil disobedience concept that emerged from HKU nearly a couple of years back. The academic up for promotion, Johannes Chan, is a buddy of the pro-democracy theorist and fellow Professor Benny Tai. While we’re all supposed to be ‘moving on’ and ‘focusing on the economy’, China’s locally based officials cannot let go, and the intimidation, smearing and vindictiveness against the Occupy movement must continue. Beijing and local officials have essentially told government-appointed members of the Council to delay Chan’s appointment.

This political interference in yawn-inducing academic affairs is just one incident of United Front manipulation and bullying. It is not just an act of revenge against participants in Occupy (which would simply be childish), but part of an attempt to instill a climate of fear and obedience. It has already affected Hong Kong institutions from the media to the police complaints system. Next, it could be subverting the courts. This goes beyond students or HKU alumni, or even Hong Kong’s broader pro-democracy camp.

In this case, pro-government stooges have to publicly comply with the Liaison Office’s instructions. For those who are academics themselves, maybe there are research grants and appointments for themselves at stake – best collapse and leave in an ambulance. Some, like Arthur Li, seem to relish annoying students and opposition. Leong Che-hung, staying and letting students heckle him, may be struggling. So this is not about ivory towers but the real world.

For context, let’s put ourselves in the Communist Party’s shoes. To Beijing’s officials, the Occupy civil-disobedience idea was not some cuddly, non-violent, Martin Luther King-inspired, idealistic and perhaps silly bit of grandstanding. Benny Tai’s methodology of focus groups, planning, and outreach sessions leading to ‘disobedience’ looked like an organized challenge to authority, thus the government – and scalable and movable and potentially replicable across the border in the Mainland. For the one-party state too, this is a fight for core values and survival.

CD-studentsstorm

One headline, two papers

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Logo with no panda unveiled

China unveils the logo for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War. Obviously, a large committee wrangled over it for weeks…

70thLogo

…leaving us with some mightily over-wrought symbolism. The Xinhua report says that the V-shaped Great Wall represents not only the victory but the unity of the Chinese nation. A wall is an unusual symbol of unity, and it sounds like a last-minute addition to the list of underlying messages that had to be crammed into the design. The doves bear an even greater burden in this respect:

The five pigeons demonstrate the memory of history and the aspiration for peace, representing people from the five continents united and moving together towards a beautiful future after going through “bloods [sic] and fire.”

But wait – the poor birds aren’t finished:

The doves also symbolize the Chinese people … flying to a future of great rejuvenation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China…

They could have said the bold red colour of the ‘70’ represents the rejuvenation Communist blah-blah – thus leaving the doves to signify only the nice cuddly brotherhood-of-man stuff – but maybe that was too goes-without-saying, and the Party wanted more.

The logo is busy in terms of symbolism because the anniversary itself has to convey multiple meanings. The event, including a military parade in Beijing, has to stress the Chinese victimhood thing, and the Communist Party-to-the-nation’s-rescue thing. But it also has to lay on a specifically anti-Japanese message, while paying lip-service to future international cooperation and peace. Given the Communist Party’s difficulties in calibrating finesse and good grace, Western countries will apparently downplay their presence at the celebrations.

The Xinhua story says that the graphic may not be used for commercial purposes. It’s unlikely that anyone would want a Chinese-logo T-shirt without the usual friendly smiling panda bear. And the red-and-yellow colour scheme is a turnoff, with the Leninist, Maoist and other sinister connotations. As the alternatives below show, even with its plodding grim symbolism, the design could have been jazzed up for extra ‘soft power’ and all-round coolness. That said, perhaps with Hong Kong’s forthcoming September 3 Victory over Japan public holiday in mind, it would make a good label for a beer bottle…

70thColors

A nagging thought… Is there a piece of shadow missing from the inside of the zero in the ‘70’ (as corrected on the right)?

70th-shadow

These things irritate me.

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Briefly…

MP-TinShui

An 84-year-old dies of starvation in Tin Shui Wai. The South China Morning Post quotes experts as ‘suspecting’ that needs of the elderly are being neglected. This suggests they can’t rule out the possibility that the old guy starved to death without being neglected. Or maybe the situation is confused by further ‘suspicions’ that some aged are being neglected but nonetheless do not starve. No doubt they will sort it all out.

 

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Dentist gets in our face

Roughly once a week, someone sticks up a poster featuring the apparently 15-year-old Dr Vienna Lau next to the front door of my building – and no doubt others in the neighbourhood. Within the day, it is removed. The valiant lady is now stuffing her publicity materials into everyone’s mail box…

Vienna1

A quick Google search reveals that she is a dentist. But she is not advertising her medical services – just herself. By her own admission she is known for her ‘charisma, willpower and ample compassion’…

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And she is seriously into Central. In fact, rather too into Central, claiming to spend time ‘promoting’ the area…

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…when all it really wants is to be left alone, with commuting office workers returning to their suburbs swiftly and promptly every afternoon, and hordes of Korean and other selfie-stick-clutching tourists keeping well away.

The leaflets feature a map of the area, in which she strictly (and quite rightly) excludes the surrounding districts like Sheung Wan, Mid-Levels and Admiralty. Anywhere up the hill from Caine Road or east of City Hall – forget it. She also recommends a list of restaurants, which it has to be said is a rather clichéd guidebook selection, including the inevitable Yung Kee roast goose place and the local branch of no-frills Tsui Wah.

What – if Dr Vienna is not offering to look after our teeth – is all this for? Although she isn’t labouring the point (yet), she clearly intends to run for District Council in the coming election, which is in November. She will be up against some equally fresh-faced and energetic pro-democracy candidates and, in my ward, the slimy pro-Beijing guy who masquerades as an Independent because it’s the only way he can get the classy sort of residents we have around here to vote for him.

I declare the weekend open with a bit of friendly advice for the Financial Times, now being bought by Nikkei, which is apparently prone to self-censorship in deferential Japanese fashion. Indeed, this goes for all the overseas media in town…

FT-HKLaw1

For the umpteenth time, you correspondent people: 1) Hong Kong’s Election/Nomination Committee is a mere rubber stamp – the outcome is decided in advance by Beijing; 2) being drawn from cartel owners, ‘Agriculture and Fisheries’ and assorted New Territories ‘Societies of Associations’, it does not comprise any sort of elite. Unlike Central…

Vienna4

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‘Spies in casinos’ shock

Stan-BeijingFeared

So far as casual observers can see, China’s leadership has had three reservations about Macau’s post-1999 Mainlander-oriented gambling industry.

First is that access to the casinos facilitates and encourages moral lapses among Chinese officials, by giving corrupt individuals the means to launder dirty cash and by tempting them to acquire illicit funds with which to gamble. (Interesting how Macau gambling and Mainland corruption stimulate each other.)

Second is simply a mercantilist concern about the currency outflow and the feeling that this is money that could stay in the Mainland and benefit local economies. (Hence occasional calls for casinos to be legalized in Hainan and other provinces.)

Third is nationalistic resentment at the way American casino operators scoop up much of the profits. The Hong Kong and other ethnic Chinese gambling/hotel interests have obvious reasons to encourage this sentiment. And bearing that in mind…

A fourth now comes to light: fears that American-owned casinos serve as fronts for US influence in Macau, and host CIA agents who target Mainland officials for blackmail. The Standard has a quick summary here; EJ has a fuller one.  The story itself is in the Guardian, which managed to obtain a document submitted as part of an unfair dismissal case in Nevada against casino operator Sands. The document was a report commissioned by Sands to investigate possible political problems the company was facing as it tried to expand in Macau. The Guardian presents the Vickers Report, as it is known, here.

VickersMac1

The report dates from 2010, before Xi Jinping’s rise to the top and the launch of the anti-corruption campaign that has hit the Macau gambling sector quite hard. Much of it covers the background of Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on (rich family, trusted by Communist Party, etc). But it also suggests that Beijing viewed Sands in particular as pretty much intertwined with US government interests.

The suspicions about the CIA are not very surprising: casinos probably offer spooks excellent ‘asset-recruitment’ opportunities. What is more telling is the apparently instinctive paranoia among Chinese officials about foreigners and their motives. If the report is accurate, they see the US government and US companies as indistinguishable in terms of national security risk. In other words, Sands’ lust for more market share and more profit was interpreted in Beijing as an attempt by Washington to undermine Chinese sovereignty in Macau. This was five years ago under Hu Jintao; it can only be worse now.

VickersMac2

Of course, Macau’s local casino owners would have a big interest in encouraging this sort of paranoia among Chinese officials. The report seems to conclude with mention of aging mogul Stanley Ho, but, disappointingly, that last page is blacked out. However, the investigative agency that wrote it, Hong Kong-based Steve Vickers Associates, have recently mentioned that nationalism could affect prospects for foreign-owned casinos in Macau.

VickersMac3

The other noteworthy thing about the report is a linguistic quirk. Where most of us would write ‘Bob bent over to tie his shoelaces’, the report says ‘Bob bent over; this to tie his shoelaces’. If it was just once, we wouldn’t notice – but this curious construction appears on nearly every page.

As it happens, Sands boss Sheldon Adelson and President Obama are not best buddies, but that’s probably by the by.

JamesBondCasino

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Hitherto unnoticed men leave scene

Hong Kong is not in shock exactly, but it is raising a semi-curious eyebrow. For the first time in their government careers, Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-shing and Civil Service SCMP-2ministersSecretary Paul Tang have come to the public’s attention in a big way. And they have done it by resigning.

Were they pushed or did they jump? In some ways it is an academic question: to be defenestrated from the CY Leung administration must be merciful relief in itself. In their euphoria at having exited, the two men may not even know for sure, and certainly don’t care. Tsang’s bizarre statement reads like he was drugged and, being told at gunpoint to write a resignation letter, scribbled ‘Outta here!’ with a deranged laugh. (Tang, a lifelong bureaucrat, regales us with ‘time with family’ bilge.)

The official rumour is that they were fired for their poor performance over the Umbrella Revolution. Tsang failed to prevent the city’s youth from coming under the sway of the hostile foreign forces behind the Occupy movement, while Tang was negligent in keeping the civil service onside. (You may not have noticed the avid support among bureaucrats for the pro-democracy uprising, but you didn’t exactly see them opposing it did you? The Communist Party detects such things.)

When such a rumour appears so effortlessly everywhere in the press, we can take it with a pinch of salt. Perhaps Beijing’s locally based fixers are using the cabinet reshuffle as an opportunity to remind new and existing ministers that they are expected to run Hong Kong like the Mainland cadres control Tibet or Xinjiang.

Tang and his role as Civil Service boss is too boring to bother with. Tsang, on the other hand, is an intriguing person – a true devout believer in the Communist faith. He is one of few people in Hong Kong who (leaving aside any possible factional struggles) could talk as some sort of equal to comrades at the Liaison Office. If they told him to round up and brainwash every geeky pro-democracy schoolkid in town, and he said it was a dumb idea, they would probably accept it. He would also be honoured to be the subject of an official rumour that he had been fired for incompetence. Being kicked in the teeth by the Party is the ultimate pleasure for these people.

CY is replacing Tsang with Lau Kong-wah, one of the most pilloried and pitiful specimens you could hope for. (Typically, the pro-democrats go into a huff about how Lau might use his new position against them in November’s District Council elections. The correct response would be to cackle manically in glee.) This appointment would have required Beijing’s blessing. Indeed, it may be Beijing’s sick and cruel way to increase CY’s unpopularity in preparation for the time when they toss him aside. Seems superfluous, but the only other explanation is that in their paranoia they only feel safe entrusting the inconsequential Home Affairs portfolio to the most pathetic and easily stomped-on loser they can find.

Lau comes complete with his very own well-established, instantly recognizable meme, in which he peers out of a garbage bin. Observers of online-parody fads probably thought this jolly visual concept, with its many amusing variations and artistic/theatrical possibilities, had peaked during Occupy (when he sat dumbstruck during a debate with a group of the aforementioned schoolkids). Instead, to our delight, it has only just started.

Lau-KongWahBin

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