Hope for 2015

December 19th, 2014

For years, Hong Kong’s economy has been influenced by two major external forces. One is huge and booming China next door, which makes the city a prime location for trade- and investment-related financial and other services. The other is the US, whose currency we essentially use, and which has been recovering painfully from the 2008 financial crisis with the help of ultra-low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve. So we have had the economic performance of a fast-growing powerhouse with a strengthening Renminbi, but a monetary framework tailored to fit a collapsing has-been of a country printing money like crazy to avert deflation.

This mismatch has been a recipe for inflation, not least in property prices. Further distortions have exaggerated this. Hong Kong’s land supply is tightly limited, partly artificially. Its consumer goods are cheaper and better than those across the increasingly open border, attracting shoppers in volumes too large to be accommodated. It goes on: cartels that are legally entitled to conspire to rip off consumers, or public investment in big pointless infrastructure projects that pushes up construction and other costs.

There have been winners and losers. Landlords have enjoyed huge increases in both rental income and the paper value of their assets. Non-owners of property who need somewhere to live and do not qualify for public housing have suffered. The gap between local and overseas housing costs is enough to make people think ‘Why stay here?’ Looking at a real-estate agent’s window in Taipei last week, I thought the prices seemed a bit steep, and the apartments rather small, until I found that what I Tatamithought was square metres were ping, a Japanese measurement equivalent to 3.3 sq m or 35 sq ft (based charmingly on the size of two tatami mats).

Hong Kong officials and other residents are virtually conditioned to think that a rising property market creates wealth (it makes some people richer, some poorer – no net impact on GDP). The person who made a 48% gain in a couple of years from selling a unit in City One Shatin is seen as clever. Hong Kong is not alone in having this mentality, but it is extreme here and the place is small; its people are mostly stuck within its confines and at the mercy of these economic forces. Little wonder that the young in particular are angry.

Could relief be on the way? Bloomberg foresees a reversal of Hong Kong’s Chinese boom-American interest rates mismatch coming next year. People were predicting a Federal Reserve tightening this time 12 months ago and 24 months ago, but this year it might actually happen, and the idea of a simultaneous slowdown in China adds a newer twist. Among the possible prospects: a 20% fall in property prices and a permanent reversal in the wretched luxury-garbage retail pestilence, helped by Beijing’s anti-corruption purge. The really cool bit is that US recovery partly compensates for China’s slowdown in terms of our underlying economic growth.

An economy that rewards rent-seeking and arbitrage and penalizes entrepreneurship and innovation can’t last forever. Can it?

I declare the weekend open with the additional joyous thought, alluded to in the Bloomberg article, that more Occupy-Umbrella protests next year could deliver yet further carnage and mutilation to the watches-handbags-crap retail sector. We can but hope.

Relax – this is just the beginning

December 18th, 2014

When I left for a trip overseas a week ago, the news was all about the removal of the last Occupy-Umbrella movement protestors from Admiralty and Causeway Bay. To pro-democracy activists attached to sitting in tents on streets as an end in itself, it was no doubt a wrench. To the Hong Kong government, it was cause for a SCMP-AntiGraftSwooptriumphal declaration that the Great 2014 Tent Threat to Civilization has been vanquished once and for all.

A few days pass, and Occupy has passed into folklore. No fewer than four of the seven stories in the South China Morning Post’s two leading news pages concern Mainland corruption. Specifically: Hong Kong authorities raid securities firm Guotai Junan International; Chinese officials hold another China Resources executive; Beijing regulators clamp down on Macau money-laundering (after 10 years or so); and the plucky People’s Liberation Army remains resolute in its battle to clean itself up, oh yes. Around a quarter of the space is used up by advertisements for watches, of the tacky ‘luxury’ sort associated with palm-greasing north of the border.

That just about leaves room for a story about a Mainland tourist dying in a balloon accident in Turkey. A tragedy of course – but what is it doing on page 1? Genuinely puzzling. Is the loss of a Chinese national abroad supposed to rouse feelings of patriotic solidarity in readers? Or is the angle supposed to be the deaths last year of nine Hongkongers in a balloon explosion in Egypt, which is, you know, quite close to Turkey isn’t it?  Or does someone simply not have a clue, and figured that this silly-sounding US-Cuba agreement to normalize relations is best tucked away on page 12?

Then there’s a Chinese bank’s economist wondering if Russia, with its plummeting currency, might ask for a bailout from Beijing – which would be a story if it happened, but otherwise isn’t. And Hong Kong’s Constitutional Affairs Secretary Raymond Tam carefully repeats the Foreign Ministry line that the UK has no post-1997 role in the city. Which brings us back to the pro-democracy Occupy-Umbrella thing, which obviously has not gone away at all.

With Beijing apparently micro-managing everything behind the scenes, the utterances of local Hong Kong officials have become slightly other-worldly and disjointed, as if they were all on some sort of drug. Police Commissioner Andy Tsang mutters darkly about rounding up instigators, as if the Tents-on-Streets people are some sort of Al-Qaeda in our midst. His bozo of a boss, Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok, blathers about billing protestors for the damage caused to government property. And then there’s his boss, Chief Executive CY Leung, rather rashly declaring everything ‘over’. The amateur psychologist in me guesses that, as well as reading from Beijing’s script here, these people are hoping that spouting such inanities will somehow detract from the wretchedly dismal disaster that has unfolded under their watch over the last few months.

Meanwhile, the pro-democracy camp is unsure what to do next. Lightening civil-disobedience strikes in the form of ‘shopping’ trips are (potentially) witty, poking fun at crass consumerism and gently taunting a police force that has found itself having to take sides in Hong Kong’s greatest modern political split. Hanging banners from mountains also works. Paying tax bills with multiple small-sum cheques, like withholding public-housing rents, is probably less advisable. Nothing delights the government more than pro-democrats exposing themselves to charges of harming public finances (like lawmakers filibustering funding requests or triggering oh-so expensive elections by resigning mid-term). Rightly or wrongly, Hong Kong people take such accusations seriously. (And for those of us on above-median incomes, writing out tens of thousands of cheques is seriously lifestyle-incompatible.)

Better to stay within the boundaries of what public opinion will accept – not play into the hands of the United Front and be squeezed onto the margins – and be patient. Enjoy the holidays. It is likely to be less than a month before the government launches the second round of consultation on political reform. The other-worldliness can only intensify as Beijing insists on carrying on with the phony exercise as if nothing has happened since August. Don’t sweat it. It is the people whose job is to sell guided democracy with a rigged nomination system who have the tough challenge ahead.

Taiwan in pictures

December 17th, 2014

Welcome to Keelung…

TWN-Keelung

The first time I ever visited Taiwan, the place was emerging from decades of dictatorship. Compared with Hong Kong it was grim and colourless, and even kids’ school uniforms had an oppressive police-state look about them. Nowadays the country is full of democracy, freedom, trendy coffee shops and creative arty cultural scenes. With Beijing taming and muzzling Hong Kong, Taiwan increasingly feels like a parallel universe – a China without the insecurities and obsessions of the Communist TWN-bldgone-party state.

One visible constant is a relentless utilitarianism and lack of pretentiousness. Or, to put it more bluntly, the place looks like crap. Apart from the ridiculous Taipei 101 skyscraper, just about every building on the island is a grey, grimy block with a tin roof; the picture of some apartments on the right came out massively flattering.

They’re just not interested in making the place look like something it isn’t (compare with Shanghai, desperate to impress with its laborious wannabe-Hong Kong skyline). Even painting or tiling a concrete exterior is beyond local architects’ imaginations or just too much hassle. I once heard that the old Kuomintang regime refused to tart the place up because they would all be moving back to the Mainland one day. Another theory is that this non-aesthetic is a hangover from Japanese rule (dangling telephone wires uglify every street, as in Korea). Whatever it is, after the buffoonish edifices elsewhere in Asia – Petronas Towers, Marina Bay, CCTV’s ‘big pants’ – it’s a relief.

Taiwan dazzles with less superficial things. Chief among these is the aforementioned social and political environment, which shreds Beijing’s whole ‘Chinese characteristics’ baloney (and is a work in progress, the latest talk being of a parliamentary system). Coming a close second, is food. There are probably some pretty average places to eat – perhaps the countless plastic Japanese ramen/sushi places. Mostly, though, Taiwan is a big, if unsung, gourmet paradise…

TWN-food

The fill-your-own lunchbox places are everywhere. The meal in the middle is from a small vegetarian counter, and cost a whole HK$15 (it is difficult to spend much in Taiwan: a vivid lesson in the benefits of low rents). The red bowl contains a ‘miner’s lunchbox’, a fake tradition like the ploughman’s lunch in British pubs. In this case, it is aimed at the small number of tourists who pass through a remote former coal-producing village in the hills, so the little restaurant could easily get away with selling something drab. But it was excellent: pork chop, tea-egg, greens, tofu, pickles and seaweed on rice, eaten at rough wooden tables and benches in what seems to be a genuine soot-stained former miners’ canteen. The dishes on the right are spaghetti. Taipei is Asia’s little-known pasta hub. Not sure why the Taiwanese have gone Italian in such a big way – maybe it makes a change from ordinary noodles. Seen in a supermarket: Quaker ginseng and own-brand, no-frills pineapple cakes, just as good as the pricy ones in fancy packaging.

The old coal-mining district…

TWN-rail

Desolated pit communities have tried to reinvent themselves as tourist destinations. One place has become Cat Village; another sells lanterns that people release into the sky in emulation of a scene in a mawkish romantic movie. As a result, part of this train ride is crowded with Mainlanders and Hongkongers, and therefore ideal if you’re feeling homesick for the MTR. After that, it’s a damp, misty, post-industrial semi-wilderness, with a dash of West Virginia and South Wales about it. The driver won’t set off unless he’s carrying a unique big brass medallion – a low-tech way to ensure that only one train is on the track at any time.

Meanwhile back in Taipei, giant stuffed toys are taking over…

TWN-bears

…and someone important must have died – why don’t we do funeral processions like this in Hong Kong?

TWN-funeral

A last, longing look at the SCMP (for a few days)

December 10th, 2014

I spend extra time looking through the South China Morning Post today, as it’s my last chance to see the paper up close until next week after I return from a trip to exotic foreign parts.

SCMP-MacauHeldUpThe front-page news is that Macau is wonderful because anyone there who says the Basic Law is not good is considered to be no better than a rat on the street. So says Li Gang, Beijing’s former top man in Hong Kong. The implication, of course, is that the Big Lychee is full of sewer-dwelling vermin who refuse to accept that their city’s constitution allows only quasi-universal suffrage.

The Basic Law does require a committee to nominate Chief Executive candidates, and the wording does not rule out a screening function; the drafters wrote it that way back in the 1980s for a reason. Pro-democracy protestors seem to half-acknowledge this in their use of wistful John Lennon lyrics. If Li Gang were more diplomatic, he could have said that Macau is wonderful because the people there are not dreamers.

Why does the SCMP give this trivial if melodramatic bit of totalitarian mouth-frothing such prominence? There was a spectacularly lurid murder of the compensated-dating/teenage-girl/body-in-dumpster variety. And there’s the intriguing story everyone’s missing: was abused Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer Law Wan-tung trained by the CIA? Apart from water-boarding, she seems to have followed the Agency’s torture methods pretty closely (allegedly). Presumably, the editorial rule is that grim Communist tyrants’ horribly unsubtle, counterproductive, veiled threats to naughty, disobedient Hong Kong have to be highlighted as a public service.

Elsewhere in the paper, three columns examine where Hong Kong goes from here – or will go as soon as we get through the seemingly interminable and rather too self-absorbed tents-in-Admiralty stage and continue with the actual goals of decent governance and political reform. Writer Philip Yeung skewers ex-Chief Executive Donald Tsang for his role in ramping up property prices and condemning the youth to despair. This is arguably overdoing one particular cause of our ills, but who can resist seeing Sir Bow-Tie getting a polemical stomping? Economist Richard Wong puts our strife in a global perspective, downplays purely local economic and generational aspects and concludes that the political structure is the problem, at which point his word-count is up. But the real treasure is yet to come.

SCMP-YouthMustSeizeLegislator Jeffrey Lam rehashes standard establishment belittlement of the publicly loathed and illegal scourge of civilization and the economy that is tents-in-Admiralty. Using the phrase ‘think out of the box’, he then proposes government-developer mini-apartments for the young, a fund to train youths to be entrepreneurs, and a re-think about whether kids really need college when apprenticeships would prepare them better for careers in key industries like, um, logistics.

But where you really want to hand this guy over to Law Wan-tung is this…

It is understandable that young people are concerned about missing out on opportunities, and about the cost of living and lack of upward mobility. However, they are in a better position than the previous generation like us, most of whom were pioneers who came from Guangdong to Hong Kong with almost nothing. The business environment was rough.

‘Like us’? This guy is a multi-millionaire who essentially inherited a plastic-toys empire (if you ever had a Barbie or a GI Joe, it probably came from his dad’s factory). He and several others left the Liberal Party to form Economic Synergy because they felt the city’s textile/property-tycoon caste would get more goodies if they shoe-shined the government more, rather than engage in non-stop petulant schoolgirl whining like James Tien. (You can always tell the ‘elite’, out-of-touch, multiple-properties clueless from their driving issues.)

I would like to think that people like Jeffrey Lam are as thin on the ground in Taiwan – where I’m going – as copies of the SCMP. We shall see. If I find any, it might be on the Twitter thing, wi-fi in Asia’s Pineapple Cake hub allowing.

 

Your choice – of three losers

December 9th, 2014

Beijing, an academic told the South China Morning Post over the weekend, “is telling Hong Kong [people] in 2014 who they will be voting for in 2017. The plot seems to have been written.” This followed National People’s Congress Deputy Rita Fan’s suggestion that a three-way Chief Executive race between incumbent CY Leung, ex-Financial Secretary Antony Leung and lawmaker Regina Ip would be ‘a choice’. The assumption is that Fan is passing on word from Chinese officialdom.

The cynical and devious among us will spy a classic bit of expectations-management. They will roll on the floor laughing for several minutes, then compose themselves and reckon that this is just a joke. After shocking the Hong Kong people with the prospect of a ballot comprising three tragically failed no-hoper has-beens, SCMP-RitaFanNamesBeijing’s operatives will leak one or two less-ludicrous names into the gossip-and-rumours system. Relieved, the public will embrace the political reform package and we will get a guided, rigged version of universal suffrage with no further fuss. (What less-ludicrous names? You’ve got me there. But for the sake of argument, let’s just say.)

But maybe this isn’t a joke. Maybe they’re serious. Maybe this is guided democracy in action: CY Leung is toxic, and Regina forever tainted by Article 23, so we will naturally elect Antony Leung, just as Beijing had already decided.

There are a lot of snags here. Antony Leung, what with the Lexus hoo-hah and forgettable track record as Financial Secretary, is not dazzlingly inspiring. Regina, on the other hand, is high-profile and actually has a following (among what we might call the hard-working, lower-middle-class, not-too-questioning demographic, notably female, quite possibly the sort who beat their maids). If the pro-democrats got their act together and organized a plain, simple boycott of the quasi-election (rather than get bogged down in complicated parallel polls and squabbling), you could be looking at maybe a 40% election turnout; the result would be unpredictable, and any winner would have zero credibility.

Then there is the minor issue of getting the political reform package through the Legislative Council. After the last few months, it surely looks dead. The pro-democrats have the votes and fury to reject the bill. In theory, overwhelming public support for the reform could convince a handful not to veto. But that would take radical changes to the current package, which Beijing won’t – probably can’t – do. The default method of the 1,200-strong rubber-stamp Election Committee looks most likely, which means Antony Leung gets the job on a plate, or maybe Mr or Ms ‘Less-Ludicrous’ suddenly appears.

It is possible that Rita Fan was not reading from a prepared script, but genuinely speaking her mind. After all, everything these people say seems to sound like a mixture of illogical gibberish and stock phrases with no known meaning, so how can you tell? However, if you go back far enough (she was once a popular Legislative Council president), Rita has shown herself capable of rational expression. This suggests that all her utterances these days are designed to please Beijing in some way.

An extreme example of this transition from reason and sense to consistent loyalist doublespeak would be Regina Ip. There have been times in the past when she has been candid and thoughtful (OK – often about things like cooking, but a few weightier matters as well). With undisguised lust for the top job in 2017, she has undergone a major extra-pro-Beijing makeover, culminating in this recent full-blown tirade against crazy young people who want to keep their city…

Since 1997, Beijing has been nothing but extraordinarily helpful to Hong Kong whenever the latter’s economy is in trouble, and extraordinarily tolerant in allowing protests unimaginable on the mainland to thrive in Hong Kong. For a country of 1.3 billion people, which has never known universal suffrage in its 5,000 years of history, it is taking huge risks and a plunge into the unknown by promising Hong Kong ultimate election of the chief executive by universal suffrage…

Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong is also extraordinarily privileged in not having to pay tax to the central authorities or the costs of defence of the territory. (In the colonial era, Hong Kong paid as much as 70 per cent).

Why this rage against the motherland which has done nothing but tried its best to welcome back an “abducted” child with open arms?

Wow. Has she failed to tick any box? We’ve got China ‘helping’ Hong Kong economically, China being generous in allowing people freedom, 5,000 years of history, etc, etc. Just one bit to go: the standard (and insulting and shallow) domestic state propaganda line that Hong Kong people find it humiliating that Mainlanders are no longer as wretchedly impoverished as they used to be…

Now heavily dependent economically on mainland China, the sense of injured pride has led many to view China as a threat, and fantasise that Hong Kong would be better off as a free-standing “Hong Kong race”.

Yet again, we see the perverse impulse to self-mutilate: in order to prove loyalty to the Communist regime, you have to talk total crap and shred your credibility in the eyes of fellow Hongkongers, even to the point of denouncing them as idiots.

Perhaps the most dismaying thing about Rita Fan’s three names is simply the staleness. In 2017, CY will be 63, Antony Leung 65 and Regina Ip 67. All have been active in some way on the political/government scene since pre-1997. All have failed – Antony and Regina both resigned in one evening, when Hong Kong was last in a crisis even slightly comparable to today’s. You don’t associate any of them with the concept of ‘the future’, let alone an exciting one. Indeed, like the aged property tycoons who crush competition, innovation and entrepreneurship out of the economy, they are relics and reminders of how and why Hong Kong has been going wrong.

On the subject of political has-beens, Jeremy Thorpe – long-ago leader of the UK’s minor Liberal Party – has just died. By some cosmic twist of fate, this happened at much the same time as the judge in the Rafael Hui/Kwok brothers bribery trial began his summing-up for the jury. Which brings us neatly to…

Evil foreign forces revealed at (great) length

December 8th, 2014

NED-NDI-Report1

The Chinese Communist Party is perfect and infallible. It follows that if anything ever goes wrong, it is someone else’s fault. Typically, hostile, often foreign, forces are to blame. As well as explaining the otherwise inexplicable, this line supports the official themes of China-as-victim and Party-as-saviour. To avoid having to provide NED-NDI-Report2evidence – and maybe to add to the all-important paranoid creep-out frisson – the accusation is usually vague, with the evil external elements not specifically named.

It was completely predictable that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Occupy Central movement would attract this sort of allegation. For a while earlier this year, we were invited to read some kind of sinister CIA-or-whatever plot into opposition media mogul Jimmy Lai’s connections with former US Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. And for ages, United Front voices have suggested that pro-dem veteran Martin Lee is a puppet of Western powers on account of his frequent high-profile trips to Washington DC for otherwise pointless photo-ops with officials. After the Umbrella-Occupy campaign started in earnest, Beijing openly charged the US with supporting the protests, naming the National Endowment for Democracy. (The government-funded Reagan-era freedom-and-apple-pie NGO, as previously noted, has worked with Hong Kong groups, including pro-Beijing ones, though no attempt to overthrow the Chinese government apparently resulted.)

Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung dutifully echoed this, causing some discomfort among less nationalistic parts of the pro-establishment camp. When pressed, he said he was not making it up, and he would produce the evidence ‘when appropriate’. More eye-rolling ensued.

Now, a 125-page report with glossy 16-page PowerPoint presentation is doing the rounds, showing (according to the title) how the NED and fellow-NGO the NDI are ‘meddling in Hong Kong’s internal affairs’. The report is dated November 14, completely anonymous (the covering letter is signed ‘a Hong Kong citizen’) and in native-standard English. It seems to have been sent to Hong Kong officials, a few pro-Beijing lawmakers, the chair of the UK parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and a few media outlets.

Whoever did it put a huge amount of effort into it. It attempts to prove that NED/NDI started nurturing Hong Kong opposition groups before the Article 23 protests in 2003. It implies that they have been involved in encouraging and planning the recent student/Occupy/Umbrella movement since 2007 and conspired with the pan-dems to organize the (farcical) 2010 ‘de-facto referendum’. It names Hong Kong U’s public opinion polls, Baptist U’s HK Transition Project, Civic Exchange, SynergyNet, HKCTU, HK Human Rights Monitor and others as being partners or fundees (though it omits any mention of the NED/NDI activities with the pro-Beijing political parties). Among other things, it maintains that the public opinion polls are designed to lead public opinion and accuses NED/NDI of ‘grooming’ student activists. It gets heavily into a spooky-sounding ‘confidential’ meeting on November 15 2009 (complete with blurry photos and incriminating quotes) in which pan-dems like Cyd Ho and Gary Fan plotted with local NDI boss Belinda Winterbourne and a guy from some trendy European body with the Bond villain-sounding name of Bruno Kaufmann (who it seems comes from a Swedish town called Falun, which I bet has – a gong).

Much of the report lists seemingly every publication, seminar and other activity that ever took place in Hong Kong and had some sort of NED/NDI connection. Maybe over half of the content is cut-and-pasted from the organizations and events’ websites. The written style of the original material is not of the ‘lone lunatic’ sort produced by enraged oddballs using underlines, bold and deranged UPPER CASE!!! to make their sad points. But it has a heavy hint of ‘grudge’ about it. Among the dark questions it poses: ‘Who else’ in the Hong Kong media have been ‘recruited’ to the NDI cause? Are Benny Tai, Robert Chung, Michael DeGolyer and others aware that they have received US government funds? In what other meetings has [NDI officer] Stephen Tong conspired with legislators to cause tumult in Hong Kong? Not mouth-frothing crazy, but certainly angry about something.

Can’t decide whether the report is the work of the Liaison Office, or (more likely) some ultra-anti-democrat gwailo in need of a life. Someone has tried hard to make it seem credible. The use of the word ‘meddling’ in the title is interesting; Chinese officials use it a lot, and of course it doesn’t really mean anything – it sort of suggests something worse than ‘influence’ but not as despicable as ‘interference’. It also implies that someone doesn’t have anything better to do, which quite possibly sums up condescending Western political NGOs rather well.

Judging from the lack of reaction elsewhere, it seems most recipients tossed the report aside. They haven’t missed much. If this the worst a determined finder of evil foreign forces can find, we’ll be waiting a lot longer for CY’s ‘appropriate’ moment.

NED-NDI-Report3

‘Foreigners enjoy food’ and other bizarreness

December 5th, 2014

Expats eating out in Singapore end up deranged because there’s no salt and pepper, waiters will not cater to your every whim if your hyper-delicate – not to say freakish – metabolism can’t handle tomato, and one restaurant has the audacity to include papadums alongside BLT sandwiches. Just as there seems a remote possibility that these poor innocents’ heads might not explode, along comes that great outrage against human decency, a squat toilet.

This probably says as much about Singapore as it does about precious Westerners who shouldn’t be allowed out of Iowa or wherever (which reminds me of Louis Black’s comment that the Americans who most insist that the US is the greatest country in the world are the ones who have never been overseas). Singapore has an image, carefully cultivated with the help of censorship and brainwashing, as ‘squeaky clean’ and ‘efficient’. In international surveys, people say Changi/SQ are the best airport/airline because that’s what they think they’re supposed to say. The Lion City will attract the most mollycoddled global citizens, who in Laksa3turn are likely to be the most gullible, and the least able to behold a bowl of laksa without feeling the need to sprinkle salt over it. The reality that, among the sterility and tedium, Singapore does have dirt and quite frequent outbursts of Asian-ness comes as a shock. And that’s before they try to grapple with the idea that foreigners eat out to enjoy food.

The sensitive and guileless expats of the Wall Street Journal blog (filed under ‘alienation’, by the way) would be far better off in Hong Kong. This is, after all, a place where they don’t cane rioters (though I’m amazed silent majority loon Robert Chow hasn’t suggested it). And anyone homesick for mawkish and ethnocentric Anglo-Saxon meanderings need look no further than yesterday’s government press release, quoting at great length (for a Communist-ruled territory) lavish praise for the Magna Carta and the rights of Englishmen. They could probably handle a few hours’ of authentic cultural experience in Discovery Bay, land of endless white people with babies and dogs and Heinz baked beans. And there’s the safety of dining in Soho, where the food is reassuringly irrelevant and all that matters is the manager who rearranges the salt and pepper shakers on your table every five minutes – or ‘service’, as they call it.

If Singapore is too exotic, WSJ’s less-worldly writers should avoid the Land of Smiles, where the real Southeast Asia begins. Thailand’s heir to the throne is ‘regarded with loathing by many … for his PrinceVajiassociations with Chinese gangsters [and] his womanizing’. He has had to disown his previous wife, a waitress (and indeed the one before that, an aspiring actress). The Asia Sentinel says the last ex-consort was videoed topless at a party held for her; my understanding is that it was a birthday bash for the Prince’s poodle Fu-Fu – but maybe, being frightfully common, she did it more than once. (Or was it the time they celebrated Fu-Fu’s appointment as an army captain? So easy to muddle these things up.) The article adds coyly that the Prince’s far more popular sister ‘has no interest in men’ (and probably, we might add, vice-versa) and so cannot take his place. I declare the weekend open with the thought that obviously they can’t have an unmarried monarch because, you know – that would be weird.

Maybe a funeral company could come in handy

December 4th, 2014

Interesting juxtapositions in today’s Standard. First, a Malaysian funeral services company called Nirvana is listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Second, a Stan-FuneralProviderShenzhen security chief is suspected of pocketing billions from the city’s 2011 World Student Games boondoggle. Third, a Mainland official advises Macau to reduce its dependency on casinos for the good of the nation.

We can more or less join these dots. First, some surprising businesses raise capital in Hong Kong. Undertakers are arguably socially useful, but we have Japanese pachinko operators, whose sleazy quasi-gambling sunset industry is ever-so allegedly linked to gangsters. More to the point, there are the Macau casinos that some occasionally say are a screaming buy – not to mention backdoor listings by junket operations, which collect legally unenforceable gambling debts and are of course paragons of corporate social responsibility. Second, corruption on the Mainland is endemic and systemic, and authorities are clamping down strictly, if selectively. Third, dirty money, like that given as bribes, is laundered in Macau, in and around the city’s casinos.

In brief: Beijing is warning that Macau’s main source of revenue could decline as the Chinese leadership attempts to save Communist one-party rule from itself. (The collateral damage on some of the slimier companies listed in Hong Kong is essentially of amusement value.)

We are often told that Hong Kong ‘depends’ on Mainland shoppers/tourists, because there are so many of them. This is rubbish. The city was a happier place without the influx. If anything, it is the Mainland tourists who ‘depend’ on Hong Kong for lower-priced tacky luxury goods and non-poisonous milk powder and cosmetics. Strip the parasitical tourism industry away, and Hong Kong would flourish in a new era of affordable rents and less-crowded public space.

Not so Macau. Apart from some textiles sweatshops, fireworks factories and fishing, Macau in Portuguese colonial times had little apart from a few casinos (and at times gold smuggling). It was crumbling and quaint – or in plain English, third-world. Since acquiring the role of China’s only legal gambling/money-laundering hub, it has seen per-capita GDP surpass Switzerland’s. Ordinary people see little directly of the extra wealth; as in Hong Kong, rising rents and other inconveniences have if anything outweighed benefits from tourism. But their government has more to throw around. Meanwhile, Macau’s economy is more than ever a monoculture, where teenagers avoid college in order to go straight into employment as croupiers.

By warning that gambling receipts could fall (actually, continue falling) Beijing’s Li Fei is probably not addressing ordinary Macau people. China has just appointed Chief Executive Fernando Chui to a second term and approved a team with a mission to ensure the city remains docile in a way Hong Kong clearly is not. Li is more likely telling Macau’s casino and other tycoons (the ‘other’ families overlapping greatly with Chui and his top officials) to count their blessings, accept less obscene rake-offs from the gambling/rents thing, and spare a few crumbs to keep the masses subdued (mainly through subsidized housing and welfare).

The parallels with Hong Kong are not exact. Our economy is far bigger, and it is diversified well beyond the laundering of Mainland officials’ dirty money. Also, our population is politically aware and assertive. But we can probably assume that a clampdown on the recycling of illicit funds through Macau will apply to Hong Kong as well. And if Beijing is prepared to harm the Macau oligarchy’s interests for the greater good of ‘national security’, Hong Kong plutocrats would get the same treatment. This is no help to the pro-democracy cause – the ultimate threat to the motherland. But it reminds us that Hong Kong’s property hegemons enjoy their malevolent and overbearing influence over the city only for as long as the Chinese government sees a point to it.

Democracy fighters’ new demand: punishment

December 3rd, 2014

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement takes another curious twist. I should probably be paying closer attention, but why, exactly, are Benny Tai and his two Occupy SCMP-BennyTaiTrioCentral-founding colleagues ‘surrendering’ to the police? The trio announced this intention yesterday at a press conference that seemed to have a slight Last Supper undertone to it.

There is no warrant out for their arrest, and if the cops wanted them they are not exactly hard to find. Apparently, they will confess to ‘organizing an unauthorized assembly’ (or should that be ‘authorizing an unorganized assembly’ – sounds more accurate). A former prosecutor guesses this could get them either a slap on the wrist or five years in the slammer, so at least we can be clear about that.

Of course, they could be charged with wasting police time. Fortunately for them, there are no laws against overly strenuous publicity-seeking, gratuitous self-sacrifice, willful over-complication of political campaigns, or taking oneself a teeny bit too seriously.

On the other hand, we find today it is illegal to bomb bores, which you would have thought should be compulsory, or at least optional. What would a world without bores look like? Here’s a tantalizing glimpse…

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SCMP-PairLeftBombToday is a rare, but nonetheless irritatingly, busy day, so we swiftly conclude with something that can only be described as out of the fifth dimension. Yesterday, I mentioned late pro-democrat Szeto Wah. Today we get this thing about the two guys in Lion Rock Country Park trying the hard way to acquire some pork. The connection: Szeto used to roam the countryside blasting away at boars with a hunting rifle, as part of a regular (legal) cull. Cosmic, or what?

Pro-dems starving themselves of ideas

December 2nd, 2014

Ever since the days of Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders have been unable to resist retreating into the comfort zone of self-pity, martyrdom and misery. The student-led Umbrella movement has been a breath of fresh air precisely because it has been joyous, irreverent, hilarious, creative, spontaneous and unpredictable. Now clashes with the police are becoming ritualized, like South Korean campus protests from years ago, and pointless and counterproductive. And the young pin-up kids of this extraordinary uprising, Joshua Wong and buddies, confess that they have run out of original ideas by announcing that they will go on hunger strike.

This is as much a part of the pro-dem tradition as the overly-frequent march and threatens to be just as futile and embarrassing. Like self-immolation, it is about making the ultimate sacrifice – except you’re still alive afterwards and the press coverage can go on far longer. And like the methods adopted by the movement’s founders three decades ago, it will mainly impress the overseas media. The Hong Kong public who should form the target audience are unlikely to be inspired and awed by this tired old publicity stunt, and the pro-Beijing mobs will lap up the chance to mock and jeer.

What the students could have done (and still could/might do) is move on from getting clubbed by cops to the next unexpected, fun thing. Guerilla street theatre: how many ways can yellow umbrellas turn up and ruin an official event or patriotic scene? Flash mobs. My favourite: well-aimed boycotts of certain tycoons’ businesses. And, you know – verve. Don’t do depressing.

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SCMP-ContinuingStrifeIt’s not only the pro-dem people who are getting stale. Financial Secretary John Tsang robotically blames the Occupy protests for a slowdown in the growth rate of retail sales. Shops didn’t sell less: they sold ‘only’ 1.4% more year-on-year in October. In fact stores sold more in October, when the protests were in full swing, than in September, before the sit-ins started. Various other data, including visitor arrivals, suggest that the Umbrella events had no real impact on the economy. Falls in sales of trashy watches, like the ongoing decline in Macau casino revenues, are obviously the result of China’s anti-corruption drive.

For right-thinking people who would be delighted to think that the demonstrations are damaging the tourist-retail parasite monster consuming our neighbourhoods, it all sounds a bit gloomy.

But wait! Good news! A vendor of tacky-sounding Italian underwear reports a 46% fall in the high-end blah-blah luxury crap sold in Pacific Place. Even before the Mainland shopper invasion began, the Swire flagship mall in Admiralty was full of stores selling stuff only an idiot would buy. There was once a Swindon’s bookshop, I seem to recall. And of course CD place Hong Kong Records – though I doubt that will survive the downfall of ex-Chief Secretary and mega-customer Rafael Hui. Even the supermarket in the basement is working overtime finding products no-one could possibly want – like the nasty Marie Antoinette-style cakes and more tacky Italian grotesquerie in the form of candy-striped pasta. Another 46% fall, please…

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