The Starry Night

RTHK Radio 3 gave its listeners their weekly dose of Emily Lau this morning. The presenter noted that the chairman of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of HK party looked set to give way to a younger leader, and asked the Stan-DABChiefDemocratic Party chief what she thought. She said it was excellent, and proudly added that her own party had recently appointed several younger-generation members to its central committee. So the presenter probed her about following the DAB’s Tam Yiu-chung and handing the DP’s top job to an up-and-coming junior. It is not often you hear a half-second gap of pure silence coming from Emily, but that’s what happened before she awkwardly started waffling about the importance of encouraging and grooming younger members, in an attempt to avoid saying ‘forget it’.

Emily should instead have expressed outrage (which she does so well) at any suggestion that there is some sort of equivalence between the DAB and the DP.

The DAB is the official, local, public front for the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. Its role is to sustain and develop a support base among voters, which it does, helped by ample funding, through diligent social work and election-time lunchbox-handouts in poorer neighbourhoods. Its members must toe the party line and not form – certainly not express – independent or original opinions. Since absorbing the ‘middle-class/business’ patriotic group 10 years ago, it has been Beijing’s main visible political organization in town, alongside the Federation of Trade Unions (a parallel brand targeting labour).

The DP, by contrast, is one of half a dozen fractious, squabbling pro-democracy groups, albeit the original one. As with the others, it is a make-believe party, with no hope under Hong Kong’s political system of holding power – only of being in opposition. Like the others, it has a tiny membership and limited resources, and is run by a self-regarding old-guard who struggle to cooperate with pan-dem rivals, let alone make way for fresh blood. It has little interest in grassroots or community work and no clue what a policy is. It is a single-issue group dedicated to achieving democracy as an abstract structure and a noble end in itself, and it is firmly rooted in Hong Kong (or what the DAB would term ‘Western’) values. As in the whole spectrum of pro-dem groupings, its members are gloriously free to think and say whatever they want, and they do, quite a lot.

All eyes favour the gorgeous pouting sex-bomb Starry Lee as the DAB’s dashing and youthful new leader. Except ‘leader’ is the wrong word. The DAB is subject to the Communist Party, and its chairman can only be a loyal figurehead who must read from the same prepared script as everyone else. He or she will not be involved in serious internal politicking, as power struggles up north and the suchlike will be handled by Beijing’s minders. Nor does the chairman need to worry about administrative work, which a well-resourced secretariat will do.

To remind ourselves about the centralized and ordered nature of pro-Beijing forces, recall the final days before the 2012 quasi-election for Chief Executive. The preordained ‘winner’ Henry Tang had long been endorsed by the city’s shoe-shining tycoons, but (in murky circumstances suggesting a Beijing power-struggle) ultimately plummeted in the public opinion polls following revelations of womanizing and an unauthorized luxury basement. Throughout those many months, the entire DAB/FTU bloc (which not coincidentally has a de-facto plurality on the Election Committee) was impassive, members saying simply that they had ‘not yet made up their minds who to vote for’. Right until the last minute, when the word came down, and as one they obediently cast their ballots for CY Leung.

Starry-TamThat takes discipline and control. Starry’s role, if she gets the job, will be to put a personable, modern and relatively glamorous face on a cold, ugly and menacing totalitarian system. Maybe the pan-dems’ dreams will come true, and their opposition will persuade Beijing to give Hong Kong representative government. But maybe that won’t work, and the Communist system will continue to tighten its grip on the city – in which case, Starry will make a lovely puppet Chief Executive one day.

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HK rejoices as Matthew Cheung solves hatred of rich

Labour and Welfare Secretary Matthew Cheung rediscovers an old, embarrassingly inapt SCMP-PlanToGetMothersand best-forgotten solution. Now all he needs is a problem – or better still, a whole bunch of them, real or imagined.

The South China Morning Post reports this story almost entirely as recited by Cheung. In essence, thousands of stay-at-home mothers could return to work if their children had after-school care. This would be a Good Thing, as it would help tackle the Aging Population Looming Storm Terror. The kids, from poor backgrounds, would receive mentoring from professional types who would inspire them and boost their language skills while they wait for mummy to finish her shift at Park N Shop. This would be a Good Thing because – how can it not be? Some of the funding would come from Centum Charitas, a philanthropic group comprising the offspring of many of Hong Kong’s richest tycoons. This would be a Good Thing because it’s not welfarist and it could reduce hatred of the rich.

It would be churlish to dismiss the whole thing as a putrid PR stunt trying to promote a multitude of self-serving bureaucrat-tycoon agendas simultaneously. Some poorer mothers probably would welcome the chance to earn more, and perhaps young ragamuffins would benefit from after-school coaching by urbane middle-class social betters. So in all fairness, let’s say this is 80% a putrid PR stunt trying to push too many lame and selfish establishment priorities in one efficient package.

Let us count the ways ‘Nine Properties’ Cheung is promoting falsehoods, delusions and distractions.

First, the ‘aging-population’ phenomenon, about which our policymakers have officially been wetting themselves since Donald Tsang became Chief Executive. Thanks to continued human progress, people are healthier and therefore living longer. This is a Humungous Problem. Oh – how much better everything would be if we could go back to the days of TB and smallpox and average life expectancy of 43 years!

In countries with bankrupt governments and stroppy labour unions, this modern demographic pattern poses an actuarial challenge, as a shrinking workforce has to subsidize a growing population of retirees (though immigration offers a fix). In Hong Kong, with gargantuan fiscal reserves and famously flexible and thrifty people, this is not so much the case: government spends a bit more, and people work longer and save a bit more, and presto – the problem vanishes. Unless you despise your fellow citizens and want to reserve public wealth strictly for your own bloated pensions and your construction-industry pals’ infrastructure slush-funds, there is nothing to worry about.

Second, ‘We care deeply about poverty and inequality’ and ‘We must avoid populism and welfare’. You could write a book about this (like this one). Hong Kong’s economic structure forces the poor and much of the middle class to subsidize the ultra-rich. This is not Marxist pseudo-science or a trendy Thomas Piketty thesis, but something very specific to this city: the systematic way the economy extracts and channels wealth, ultimately via the land system. Hong Kong could easily provide or afford higher wages for the low-paid, nursery/childcare services for working mothers, child allowances for the poor, and lower costs for essentials like housing. But that would mean less wealth diverted to Matthew Cheung and the rest of the bureaucrat-tycoon caste. So instead, we get silly, piecemeal one-off gimmicky schemes with a hint of lottery about them subsidizing particular sub-groups’ micro-scale needs within tight limits for a set amount of time. PR stunts.

Third – we save the best for last – ‘Let’s reduce hatred for the rich’. OK, Centum Charitas may be just one of the non-government groups involved in funding this hairball of an initiative (try naming it: The Mentors for Working Mothers’ Poor Kids Let’s Love Tycoons Scheme). But Centum Charitas is irresistible.

It is a group of 100 (in theory) tycoons’ kids founded in 2008 at the behest of Beijing’s local officials to appear generous and warm-hearted and caring (recorded here at the time). It was lame and contrived even then, and I suspect that parasitical cartels have not gone up in Hong Kong public esteem since. Indeed, in the aftermath of Occupy, we have come closer than ever to the point where the scions of our property conglomerates dangle from lampposts in the SCMP-PlanToGet2early morning gloom. Most of us probably didn’t realize that the rich-kids’ mock-altruistic Centum Charitas is still around, doling out scholarships and other crumbs for the little people. What on earth is Matthew Cheung thinking, dredging it up now as a way to ‘reduce hatred for the rich’? Hallucinogenic mushrooms are the best explanation I can think of.

The SCMP, which assigned three reporters to this story, carries no independent comment analyzing this half-baked, myth-peddling, Donald Tsang-era social welfare Band-Aid PR stunt – just a quote from a social worker nitpicking about the scheme’s operating hours. (At least the Harry cartoon pokes fun.)

CentumCh-MC

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Learning from Macau

SCMP-The Long BetWho is behind the strange puff-piece on Macau in today’s South China Morning Post? As most people have noticed by now, China’s government under Xi Jinping is engaged in a big, wide-ranging tightening of control, affecting government, military, media, ideology, minorities, religion, Special Administrative Regions, academia and at least some aspects of business and the economy. A key part of this is the persecution and elimination of political rivals through a major (and in itself long overdue) crackdown on corruption. This inevitably includes offshore money-laundering, which in turn inevitably means casino hub Macau.

The SCMP article maintains that it ‘took much courage’ for Macau’s cops to bust the Hotel Lisboa prostitution ring and arrest casino mogul Stanley Ho’s nephew, and for the tinpot city’s banking regulator to ‘invite’ Ministry of Public Security officials down from Beijing to tackle the illegal flow of funds out of the Mainland through the China UnionPay settlement system. The truth is that it would have taken exceptional courage – not to say stupidity – not to have done these things. A puppet regime like Macau’s doesn’t ‘invite’ the Ministry of Public Security to come in and set up a real-time system to monitor credit-card transactions: it lies down so the Feds can wipe their shoes.

To read the article, you get the impression that Macau has decided of its own volition to clean itself up and reinvent itself, and Beijing is rushing to do all it can to help, out of respect and admiration for the grubby little gambling enclave. In reality, China ‘whacked Macau into line’ when the Portuguese lost control in the riots of the late 1960s. Over the years, the population has been diluted with Mainland, especially Fujianese, immigrants. The media and academia are tame. The tiny political opposition lacks support or clout. Flush with casino revenues, the government buys off the populace with an annual cash handout. Beijing’s plan seems to be to absorb Macau into a tourism-based economy around southern Zhuhai’s Hengqin – to be done in the best possible taste, of course.

For all the recent deterioration, Hong Kong’s autonomy is robust and substantial by comparison. Which brings us to one of those weird and ironic occasions when we gain relief from misleading propaganda in the SCMP from hard-nosed objective facts in China Daily. The Beijing-controlled newspaper tells us that Hong Kong can learn from Macau

Hong Kong has a highly assertive, vibrant civil society in which the media monitor the work of the government on a daily basis. It has an active political culture among the youth, which strives to defend the “Two Systems”. It will, therefore, be challenging for Hong Kong to develop in the same way as the former Portuguese colony.

This, needless to say, is a Bad Thing.

…our schools must incorporate a greater focus on the country, helping students appreciate Chinese history and gain a pride in their culture. In this respect, Macao teachers have an edge over their Hong Kong counterparts as most of them were born and educated on the mainland…

Furthermore, Macao youngsters are regularly sent to the mainland under cultural exchange programs…

Hong Kong can also learn from Macao in giving its citizens a more comprehensive education on the Basic Law. Macao not only did this through the school system, but also through many interest and professional groups, including labor unions, women’s associations, and other tongxianghui (town associations).

In contrast, Hong Kong suffers from political polarization. This hampers efforts at civic education, particularly in respect of cultivating a correct sense of nationalism and social harmony; and most importantly, an awareness of the civic responsibility that goes along with civic rights.

And how exactly do we acquire this correct zombie thinking?

Hong Kong can also learn from Macao in cultivating new political talents by helping them develop their public speaking JoshWongnskills and political confidence through participation in socio-political events. In contrast, Hong Kong’s pro-business and pro-establishment groups lag behind the rise of many social groups, especially student organizations…

…If this is not rectified soon, Hong Kong’s civil society will continue to exhibit an imbalance between anti-government and pro-establishment forces, resulting in a divided civil society … A more balanced approach to rebuilding the divided society is urgently needed.

Finally, Hong Kong can learn from Macao in terms of active regional integration with the mainland…

And so on until…

Hong Kong must learn from Macao’s adaptability. Otherwise, Hong Kong will see a decline in its long-term competitiveness.

…while Macau ‘reinvents’ itself. Never has a decline in long-term competitiveness sounded so good.

HengqinHotel

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Hongkongers to flee, but nowhere to go

Quartz (brought to you by the 1950s tailfins-stylists Cadillac, among other cool and hip mega-corporations) delivers not the first, not the last, report on Hongkongers fleeing the encroaching grip of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Leaving of Hong Kong is as much a part of the local traditional culture and lifestyle as dim sum, quick money or Below Lion Rock. The city was founded for merchants on the make, it attracted transients (many later banished as unwelcome), and it was the departure point for impoverished Chinese on one-way trips to the mines and plantations of distant continents. For much of its colonial history, plague, riots and war convinced residents of all backgrounds to move on rather than settle. Government policy in the 1950s and 60s was to keep public services meager in order to make refugees feel not-at-home. In the 1980s and 90s, uncertainty about the resumption of Chinese sovereignty prompted the departure (often temporary) of around half a million of the middle class seeking the security of an overseas passport.

Since the handover, globalized professionals have loudly ‘left Hong Kong’ because of the air, or their kids’ schooling, or some other intolerable feature of life here. Curiously, they usually have a nice new job awaiting them elsewhere. Others often pronounce themselves on the verge of quitting, but never quite get round to sacrificing the low taxes and high salaries for the spacious and pristine surroundings of other locations.

This particular trend of expats/returnees being driven away is largely apocryphal, and probably exaggerated by foreign chambers of commerce with their own agendas. I can think of a couple of examples of people who clearly left with great reluctance, and in both cases it came down to housing. They were smart and productive non-millionaires with families to accommodate; regional cities with more foresight welcome them, while Hong Kong thinks it’s clever making a quick buck by selling homes to money-laundering outsiders to keep empty. In the grand scheme of things, the impact is probably marginal, but it’s a sign of corrupted housing policy priorities and does not bode well.

While housing affordability (and air quality, and no doubt other factors) have been deteriorating, the last few years have also brought post-1997 political contradictions to a head. Probably suspicious of the national repercussions for more representative government in Hong Kong, Beijing has driven the city’s political reforms into a ditch. Nothing personal: Xi Jinping’s no-nonsense clampdown applies everywhere – to the Internet, corrupt military/officials, potential rivals, academia, the law, Tibet, Xinjiang, foreign TV, cleavage on domestic TV, and so much else. To Hong Kong, it arguably or potentially points to broken promises on governance, intimidation of opponents, brainwashing in schools, pressuring of media and legal process and ultimately decline. Which naturally raises questions about whether we should go somewhere else, and if so, where?

Quartz-DisenchantedHKThe Quartz article echoes some recent chatter about Taiwan as a refuge for Hong Kong people (bottom line: better and slower lifestyle, but limited economic opportunities, and it too has a date with the Communist motherland). It also mentions South Korea, which sounds improbable, given the Hermit Kingdom’s unfathomable language and xenophobia. Korean pop culture is probably the superficial attraction – even I’ve tried the trendy-in-Seoul fake-retro-nostalgia Army Base Stew with 1950s US military Spam that has become fashionable here for no reason at all.)

Quartz also mentions Malaysia, which has some definite attractions in terms of balance between affordability and general levels of civilization (amazing food, at least). Less appealing in terms of this balance are Thailand and the Philippines, which are cheap but not coincidentally poor, corrupt and potentially scary. At the other end of the scale is Singapore, and most right-thinking people would sooner slash their wrists – things aren’t that desperate. For the daring, there are abandoned villages in Japan begging for newcomers. (We’ll skip the more distant alternatives like Canada, Oz, etc on the assumption that the Western world is doomed, as we are so often told, though the levels of visa applications from Greater China and elsewhere in the region suggest that not everyone is convinced about the joys of the forthcoming Asian Century.)

The different factors – affordability, quality of life, etc – are too varied and personal to measure objectively. Having kids must make a massive difference, as does the portability of one’s job/income. Where it gets really perverse is that, by some calculations, greener and better-planned bits of the Pearl River Delta on the Mainland look far more appealing than Hong Kong.

As I say, this won’t be the last story on this theme. Speaking of which…

Same theme, new ‘theme’

It’s Monday morning. Peering through the murky, post-weekend blur, something seems sort of different – but you can’t work out exactly what it is. To put everyone out of their misery: this site has a new look. (In tech-speak, it is a new ‘theme’.) This is thanks to a miraculous scientific breakthrough allowing a fun picture-of-the-week at the top of the page, just like in the very old days from 2002-09 when everything was ever-so-backward. Otherwise, it’s all the same.

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Assorted unrelated stuff tenuously linked together

It has been a very military sort of week, with Hong Kong Army Cadets appearing out of nowhere in a contrived and faintly ridiculous display of pro-Communist patriotism among the city’s youth. The observant and curious have noticed that the militia’s senior officers, from the ravishing Commander in Chief Regina ‘Mrs CY’ Tong to the embarrassed-looking Admiral Bunny to the tragic Honorary Brigadier General Eddie ‘Bokassa’ Ng, all wear medals. Here’s a tentative explanation for some of them.

One of the Beijing-linked newspapers greeting the new youth organization pointed out that young Hongkongers seem to enjoy dressing up in FMDuniforms. If so, not everyone grows out of it. A kind soul sends me one of the strangest links I’ve seen for a while: behold the Field and Mountain Division. Apparently a sort of fantasy alter-ego of the ‘Friends of Mount Davies’, they have an Acting Lt Colonel and a Pioneer Engineering Section, and even official promotion announcements. All good clean healthy fun, or disturbing? We won’t go into their medals.

If it’s all too much, you could always leave the Manhattan of Asia and try the American one. But first, check out the 15 Things not to do in New York City. It seems the Big Apple and Big Lychee have many pitfalls in common. For example, Number 4: Don’t go on a fancy harbour cruise tour, just ride the commuter ferries. Number 10: Don’t stop abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk (so good to know we are not alone in suffering from this pestilence). Number 11: Don’t eat at chain restaurants, when you’re surrounded by amazing local food. The similarities even get kind of eerie. Number 14: Don’t go to Soho. That’s exactly what I tell a thousand Koreans every day on the Mid-Levels Escalator.

As we all know, the crush of tourists/shoppers into Hong Kong has zombified the city’s retail sector, with international luxury tat brands aimed at outsiders driving out smaller operators serving neighbourhoods. Cinemas and bookstores are well-known casualties of this oppressive, landlord-oriented tourism policy. The government has recently talked about subsidizing cinemas to support the local film industry – an idea so demented that, like Eddie Ng in uniform, it is probably a joke.

Distribution of media via the Internet is also playing a role here. You can have an e-book in your possession less than 30 seconds after first BalladSmallPlayerhearing about the work. Which brings me rather elegantly to my latest Amazon/Kindle/blah-blah download: The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne.

For a synopsis, reviews are here, here, or here.

There is something special about fiction set in a place or milieu that you and the author both know well. Muhammad Cohen’s handover allegory Hong Kong on Air is a good example; such a story can be enjoyable regardless of other literary merits. But it doesn’t work if the author is ignorant of the locale; Paul Theroux’s handover allegory Kowloon Tong was rubbish.

Ballad of a Small Player takes place mostly in Macau, partly on Lamma (in an amusing use of artistic license, the two places are linked by ferry). The author gets the atmosphere and most of the details gloriously right. As some reviews point out, in this respect he is paying homage to Graham Greene; the main character ‘Lord Doyle’ is the son of a vacuum cleaner salesman (Our Man in Havana) and, like several of Greene’s semi-heroes, is a drunken Englishman rotting in the tropics. The plot doesn’t, shall we say, get in the way. All is sordid and louche and base, but also dream-like – it is not totally clear that the girl who plays a key role in Doyle’s escapades actually exists, at least in earthly form.

Since your local cinema has been replaced by a Mandarin-speaking Louis Vuitton golfing accessories emporium, I declare the weekend open with an obscure film gem from YouTube. Background: in the 60s, Australia’s young talent usually fled their backward homeland for London. One example was writer and actor Barry Humphries. He wrote a comic strip for Private Eye on a young and clueless Aussie turning up in the Mother Country – the perfect vehicle for merciless satire of both the loud brashness of his émigré compatriots, and the uptight obnoxiousness of the Brits. That was Barry McKenzie

BarryMcKenzie

As well as banning the books of the comic strip, the Australian authorities saw fit to subsidize a movie version. It is, we can safely say, a classic of the early 70s Aussie-Brit politically incorrect comedy-satire genre…

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Communist Party asked to preserve unique melting pot

Hong Kong’s latest pro-democracy group, 2047 HK Monitor, publishes an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal. It asks the Chinese Communist Party to honour its commitments to maintain the city’s autonomy, legal system and freedoms, to allow full democracy, and to ensure a fair and clean business environment. Perhaps the most resonant request is Number 8, asking Beijing to ‘understand Hong Kong’s unique historical background…’

2047HKM2

The division and distrust between the central government and Hong Kong’s population seem rooted in mutual incomprehension. Pro-Beijing 2047HKM1figures often blame pro-democrats, students and other dissenters for ‘not understanding’ modern China. But the onus is surely on the sovereign power to clue itself in on its recently resumed territory. All the signs are that Beijing officials have zero empathy for the communal memory of a city settled by refugees who fled Mao’s terror and famine. They have nothing but hostility towards the population’s attachment to apparently ‘un-Chinese’ concepts of law and liberty. And they totally lack the imagination to earn and inspire loyalty and respect, knowing only how to demand it and demonize anyone who doesn’t comply.

As Gordon ‘collapse of China’ Chang suggests here, this crude and cold obsession with control of the populace is proving to be equally counterproductive in Tibet and Xinjiang. All you have to do is be nice to people – is it really that difficult? But of course the authoritarian Leninist culture, resurgent under Xi Jinping, cannot work that way. The Communist Party is about its own narratives and an alternate reality. It can’t win critics over by saying: “Yeah, we seriously screwed up, starving 40 million people to death in the late 50s.” In the Mainland, the famine (like the party’s passivity in World War II, like the Cultural Revolution, like 6-4-89, etc) officially didn’t happen, or hardly. People who know otherwise are deviant, a threat – enemies who don’t/can’t/won’t love the motherland.

Maybe in a way 2047 HK Monitor is missing the point; Beijing does understand Hong Kong all too well.

Indeed, maybe it is the group of pro-democracy financiers and professionals who don’t entirely get Beijing. Their ad’s 10th and final request asks for universal suffrage in Hong Kong that can be ‘leveraged as a blueprint’ for democratic elections in China…

2047HKM3

Assuming a central government official reads this far, now is the time when he screws the ad up and angrily chucks it away, more convinced than ever that political reform in Hong Kong spells doom. Request number 10 is (if modestly) asking the Chinese Communist Party to give up its monopoly of power, and essentially cease to exist. Obviously another evil ‘unique melting pot of Eastern and Western cultures’ conspiracy.

The 10 requests in full…

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Bunny as spin-doctor

His Highness Imperial Field Marshal Grand Vizier Admiral Bunny Chan tries to explain the spontaneously created Hong Kong Army Cadets SCMP-ArmyCadetsSecrecyAssociation and its high-profile-but-secretive inauguration ceremony last weekend. It is a challenging task.

The status quo before the weekend was that Hong Kong lacked a uniformed youth organization that stressed the patriotic-style Chinese-ness fed to children everywhere else in the PRC. Hong Kong people were relaxed and comfortable with this; top officials in Beijing were nervous and panicky. The situation since the weekend is that Hong Kong does formally have such a group. Now it is Hongkongers who are freaking out over this alien and creepy presence, and the Chinese officials who feel calmer and reassured that the former British colony has been made a little more normal and user-friendly.

The best Bunny can do to satisfy this irreconcilable puzzle is come up with excuses – essentially variants on ‘the dog ate my homework’.

Bunny says he tried to get the local press invited to the event, but the site is a military area and it was very difficult to get the necessary approvals. This is baloney: the local media have covered open days at the PLA facility on Stonecutters Island with no problem in the past, and several hundred young people were allowed (lured, dragged) in for last weekend’s inauguration. The gathering was exclusive to Mainland propaganda organs because the target audience was in Beijing. As well as lowering the tone of the solemnities in no uncertain manner, the Hong Kong press would have raised the event’s profile among local residents, possibly provoking hostility or, when Education Secretary Eddie Ng waddled into view dressed like Idi Amin, fits of laughter.

So why, some tiresome reporter insisted on asking, was the ceremony held at the PLA base? Bunny’s response: they didn’t charge us rent. While clearly a desperate and ludicrous answer, on Planet Hong Kong it’s also completely reasonable.

On the bigger issue of the Army Cadets’ whole purpose, Bunny flounders. The answer, it seems, is ‘marching skills’, so young people can ‘get fit and strong’. In plain language: please don’t make me lose face by asking any more questions.

It’s just another day of bashing a square peg into a round hole. And the cavalry comes to Bunny’s rescue in the form of Beijing’s latest contrived, orchestrated mass outbreak of patriots all simultaneously spouting the same weirdness – this time, the idea that Hong Kong should come under China’s national security laws. We are supposed to pay attention, tremble in awe, and wise up – and infer… whatever it is we’re supposed to infer.

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HK children’s army recruitment explained

The Hong Kong Army Cadets, a semi-fictitious and barely existent youth organization that appeared out of nowhere over the weekend, continues to vex.

Stan-CadetBrainwashTo pro-democrats – and probably most of Hong Kong’s silent majority/fence-sitting residents – the group’s PLA-flavoured militarism is alien and even disturbing. And it naturally offers critics a rich opportunity to accuse the government of attempts to brainwash kids.

Civic Party legislator Kenneth Chan calls it ‘camouflage for indoctrination’. But the junior soldiers’ green tunics are not intended to hide the Hong Kong leadership’s determination to convert the city’s youth into Communist-adoring patriotic Chinese. It is intended to highlight it – and indeed to exaggerate it – for the benefit of big boss Xi Jinping’s hardline regime in Beijing, on its nationwide mission to petrify cadres at every level. You could almost say the idea is to brainwash Beijing into thinking we’re brainwashing Hong Kong.

We can be pretty certain about this because of just one thing: Education Secretary Eddie Ng in an army uniform. To even the most scowling, Maoist, Leftist, patriotic loyalist in Hong Kong, the vision of Eddie as a war-hardened military man is so laughable and ridiculous that you can only conclude this is a joke. In Beijing, of course, where they have been demonizing our education bureaucracy by name, they won’t get it – they’ll think we’re serious.

I wondered yesterday how a youth organization can spontaneously come into existence from nothing complete with massed ranks of members. The South China Morning Post reports that the kids were (surprise and shock!) more or less tricked into taking part. Or to be more accurate, the paper reports that an ‘online news outlet’ reports it. That would be the Epoch Times, run by the deranged Falun Gong quasi-Buddhist loons, and not the most reliable source around – but better than nothing. It makes sense: the marching teens didn’t have that bussed-in-Mainlander look about them.

To the Hong Kong government, the Big Lychee Youth Militia Brigade is, on average, a bit of an embarrassment. Chief Executive CY Leung, fresh from publicly scourging obscure student publications discussing local autonomy, is obviously unapologetic, and maybe oblivious that the public might feel anything is amiss. Eddie would probably like to crawl off into a dark corner and die. The rest of the administration would be somewhere in between, hitting the Quaaludes.

The international media are besmirching Hong Kong’s reputation by saying the Fragrant Harbour Red Detachment of Kiddies is open to anyone over the age of six. This is untrue. The rules clearly state that you must be “over the age of six years…

HKArmyRule13

…and of good character.” So there. No bad elements from the wrong sort of kindergarten, please.

Although clumsy, such attempts to impress Beijing are bound to increase suspicion and fear in Hong Kong. And that points to growing opposition to the local and central governments.

It’s a crowded field, but another pro-democracy group has just been launched. There are so many now that branding and differentiation are becoming a problem. So don’t confuse the newcomers with Hong Kong 2020, which is for moderate old folks. And don’t muddle them with Vision 2047, (nope, never heard of them before either), which seems to be a front for the local chapter of the Dornford Yates Re-creation Society. Behold, 2047 HK Monitor (along with add-on 2047 HK Finance Monitor because, hey, otherwise it would be simple and easy to understand).

2047HK-MonitorThere is a niche for this lot (financial and other professionals of repute, including Edward Chin, David Webb, Sing Ming and Ching Cheong). Their presentation yesterday (bits here) covered several areas, but perhaps the key bit is the relationship between democracy and a sound economy.

Hong Kong’s active pro-democrats are mostly woefully unqualified to discuss anything to do with business and economics, while many senior business and finance figures have investments in the Mainland and keep quiet or stick to the pro-Beijing line. After years of co-opting tycoons and talking jargon pro-dem politicians can’t understand, the Hong Kong establishment has successfully propagated various self-serving myths about the economy and politics.

In short: many if not most people in Hong Kong have a vague perception that democracy might not be entirely compatible with economic prosperity. Certainly, the 2047 HK Monitor idea that a more representative government means a more vibrant and fairer economy is not only counter-intuitive for much of the community but radical and a revelation. For tycoon-bureaucrat vested interests, this is dangerous.

The South China Morning Post and Standard completely ignore yesterday’s 2047 HK Monitor launch.

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The 11-day youth organization

HKArmyBunnyArmy'What have they done to our Bunny?! Beijing’s attempts to tighten control over Hong Kong take a disturbing and cruel turn, as the city’s most beloved and ubiquitous all-purpose pro-establishment shoe-shiner is put in uniform. The sitter on a thousand stooge-packed government advisory boards is not alone in this humiliation. Education Secretary Eddie Ng is similarly pressed into service with the newly formed Hong Kong Army Cadets Association, looking even more hapless and embarrassed.

But first, since people are banding about phrases like ‘Hitler Youth’, a bit of context. It is surprising a ‘patriotic’ formal liveried youth organization has not been formed sooner in Hong Kong. The British-style Boy Scouts and Girl Guides still thrive, and many schools have uniformed road-safety and first-aid groups training and drilling. There are also three youth organizations originally linked to the British military and still publicly subsidized (the Air Cadet, Sea Cadet and Adventure Corps). A more China-oriented youth group is no more abnormal or sinister than, say, the national flag on public buildings – however much old-time empire loyalists and Kuomintang veterans might find it distasteful.

(An aside: is it just me, or have fire stations only just recently started flying the national flag – suitably elevated – alongside the Hong Kong one? Maybe I’d just never noticed it until now.)

So in principle, the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association is not weird. But, of course, it is. It’s freaky.

Essentially: it’s not real. The South China Morning Post reports that the non-profit company was incorporated just last Thursday, and no-one seems to have noticed earlier signs of preliminary discussion, planning or preparation. We just woke up and there it was. Most of the press were barred from the inauguration ceremony at a PLA facility (though someone had the wit to invite other youth groups to add a dash of normality to the contrived, verging on surreal, proceedings).

Obviously, it didn’t appear totally spontaneously. Flunkies had to sign up Tung Chee-hwa, the ex-police chiefs and other ‘honorary’ office-holders; some, like poor Eddie Ng, probably had to be slapped about a bit. Expert tailors had to measure Bunny and the others for their immaculate quasi-military costumes (fitting the oddly-shaped Eddie must have taken a while). But as these things go, it was done in a hurry.

The badge/logo looks like a last-minute get-the-secretary-to-do-it thing. There is as yet no website. (Although dozens of young eager members seem to have materialized out of nowhere. How could they have joined an organization before it came into being? The intuitive answer is that we must be imagining the kids in their fatigues. Think laterally, and the puzzle is solved: the kids exist, it’s the organization that’s fake.)

So what is this Hong Kong Army Cadets Association? The ‘honorary’ roles of the local PLA commander and the boss of Beijing’s Liaison Office obviously confirm central government endorsement. But it is designed to look independent: Sino Land is contributing premises, and the group’s rules say ‘no political affiliation’…

HKARmy-rule

The choice of the Chief Executive’s wife Regina Tong as ceremonial head, like the inclusion of Bunny, suggests ‘child welfare NGO’ rather than jack-booted thugs (though her title of ‘Commander in Chief’ is questionable – you can’t rule out hallucinogenic drugs as an explanation for some aspects of all this). Although aesthetically dismal, the badge is interesting in that it is devoid of national symbolism; no red flag, no map of motherland, no PLA ‘八一’. Even the name of the organization is odd, implying that there is such a thing as a ‘Hong Kong Army’, which sounds like a pro-independence fantasy.

Along with Bunny, who has a long record of do-goodery in keeping young folk clean and wholesome, another relatively minor figure sticks out here: pro-Beijing businessman Stephen Tai Tak-fung GBS, JP (and PhD, courtesy of Southern California University For Professional Studies), a Chiuchou, member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, funder of Hong Kong’s annual reunion-day celebrations – and, the Standard tells us, organizer of ‘military camps for Mainland youth’.

Reading between all these lines, the impression is that someone very senior in Beijing has just blasted Hong Kong’s leaders for their near-treacherous disregard for brainwashing kids properly, or at all (as Chen Zuo-er publicly and politely did just 11 days ago). By ‘leaders’ we mean not only CY and colleagues but the Liaison Office and quite possibly, by cc, the PLA. Panic broke out; ‘We must do something’; there’s no way to change school curricula or anything serious; someone suggests a quasi-private nationalistic youth league; someone else remembers Stephen Tai’s odd taste for kids’ boot camps; hasty phone calls, and behold – Instant Patriotic Hong Kong Army Cadets Association! Hopefully, Beijing will be happy. (How can they not be? Six-year-old are accepted!) What the rest of us think is irrelevant; it’s not aimed at us. (The Hong Kong media had to interview a Wen Wei Po reporter at the gates.)

Maybe it worked, and Xi Jinping’s advisors are satisfied. The founders of the group will now be stuck with this white-elephant youth organization. Presumably, they will attract or press-gang members, if only from other United Front affiliates and traditionally patriotic schools. And as another wedge is driven into the increasingly divided community, the rest of Hong Kong can just roll its eyes in disbelief at the grotesque symbolism, and spare some pity for poor Eddie and Bunny.

Not everyone looks silly in that get-up. I don’t have a women-in-uniform thing, but it has to be said: doesn’t erstwhile dowdy lobster-mom Mrs CY suddenly look hot rather fetching, with mane flowing and nostrils glaring, in that military outfit?

 

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Insight in ‘Insight’ shock

The only insight you usually find on the South China Morning Post’s op-ed page is the big blue word at the top. Many of the columns are fence-sitting and hand-wringing masquerading as moderation. Of the rest, some seem designed to fill a quota of blatant or half-veiled pro-SCMP-InsightProfYounggovernment/Beijing propaganda, while the more independent voices tend to be repetitive and clichéd as well as strident. Incisive and original analysis and thought rarely get a look-in.

Today, something stimulating slips through. Hong Kong U law professor Simon Young points out what most of us have probably sensed – that the Chinese government and its local proxy have pretty much abandoned any hope of implementing the proposed 2016-17 political reform. He argues that they would now silently prefer the pro-democrats to veto the package. That way, the pro-dems can take the blame (and rot), while Beijing can keep the existing no-pretense, pure-and-simple rigged structure and continue tightening its grip.

Given this, the professor says, it makes sense for the pro-dems to reconsider their plan to veto the reform. Instead, they should demand negotiations with the Hong Kong government over achievable tweaks to slightly liberalize the current proposed package. Such minor symbolic changes (a less-unrepresentative Nomination Committee, etc) would strike public opinion as reasonable; by rejecting them, the national/Hong Kong authorities would be revealing their preference not to have any reform.

This argument relies on the assumption that Hong Kong now has nothing to lose by accepting the broad concept of guided and rigged ‘universal suffrage’ unveiled in late 2013. The professor could bolster his theory by placing it in the national context. A Xi Jinping iron-fist clampdown is taking place across the whole of China. Any improvement to the culture and climate of Hong Kong’s political system – say by formalizing some role for public opinion – could therefore help protect the interests of the city’s people. (The ‘guided democracy’ concept for Hong Kong dates from the wishy-washy Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao regime.)

As a clever and cunning ruse to persuade pro-dems not to veto, this would be a brilliant bit of government propaganda. But, being clever and cunning, it’s obviously not that. And the professor is surely right in feeling that the authorities don’t even want the reforms to go through. It’s not a game of chicken now.

Perhaps it depends on two things.

First, what happens if the pro-dems stick to their plan and veto the package? All the signs are that governability will continue to deteriorate and more unrest will take place. The more militant Trotskyist-style dems may look forward to a true workers’ revolution, but others will be uneasy. Maybe Beijing will see the error of its ways and ease off, letting Hong Kong be itself and happy and free. More likely, the moderate pro-dems might think, Xi’s officials will use a second CY Leung term to continue diminishing press freedoms and rule of law. Ultimately, Beijing has tanks, and the world doesn’t care.

Second, how much difference to representativeness and accountability would the guided election system really make? This is unknowable. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (and others) hinted at one stage that debates and the use of polling would give public opinion some real clout in forcing candidates to focus on people’s wishes (interestingly, she seems to be downplaying this argument in favour of the package, which was the nearest the government had to a good one).

(Guesses at what happens in Hong Kong under more direct Beijing rule also need to factor in the possible introduction of popular economic and social policy – anti-tycoon, pro-welfare – to sweeten the medicine of tighter restrictions on the press and the judiciary.)

I declare the weekend open with the initial thought that it may not make as much difference as he thinks, but the professor could well have a point.

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