Sympathy for Sir Bow-Tie as self-pity

Hong Kong weeps and sobs upon reading pleas for leniency on behalf of former Chief Executive Donald Tsang, convicted of misconduct. Who cannot feel tears welling as ex-Justice Secretary Wong Yan-lun submits a 10-page letter to the court, and Chief Executive-in-waiting Carrie Lam ends her appeal with the phrase ‘Yours humbly’?

When ex-Chief Secretary Rafael Hui was convicted of bribery and misconduct a few years ago, people wondered how and why a highly paid senior official would succumb to temptation. One theory was that top bureaucrats socialized too readily with our mega-billionaire property tycoons and became mesmerized by the vastly different scale of wealth (private jets, etc) enjoyed by the lucky families who run our real-estate cartel. Moral hazard ensued.

It makes sense. Our officials have limited accountability and great discretionary power involving matters like land use. There are few formal firewalls to keep businessmen and officials apart (top bureaucrats hobnob with plutocrat ‘elites’ on first-name terms at the Jockey Club as a mark of status). The Chinese Communist Party sees co-opted tycoons as a key part of its local power base. One of Carrie Lam’s first tasks on deciding to ‘run’ in the pseudo-election was to call on the Real Estate Developers Association for a grovel-fest. Tycoons have every incentive to cultivate officials, and the system enables cronyism virtually by default. Rafael and Donald suffered lapses in willpower.

Yesterday, we used the word ‘corrupted’ to describe the damage Chief Executive CY Leung has done to Hong Kong’s public services and sphere. Aloof from Hong Kong’s tycoons, his only buddies have been Beijing’s Liaison Office and its United Front operations. His achievement has been to turn the police and other public agencies into political weapons in a fight to impose Leninist Mainlandization on the city.

The cries for mercy for Sir Bow-Tie can be seen as a not-so veiled attack on CY – even from Carrie, certainly from fellow-CE-wannabe John Tsang, from rebellious ex-official Anson Chan, from veteran pan-democrats, and perhaps on behalf of everyone except Beijing’s devout Communist faithful, who are nowhere to be seen. Jake van der Kamp’s column captures the mood: he (obliquely) hints that the prosecution was vindictiveness by Sir Bow-Tie’s successor, and concludes with an anecdote testifying to Donald’s loyalty to the Hong Kong core values CY is trying to destroy.

Even those of us who are less tolerant of overpaid officials’ foibles can sympathize. If Beijing’s mission to smother and absorb Hong Kong continues, we will look back with longing at leaders whose biggest betrayal was to pocket a free apartment.

 

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HK Police as victims

The conviction of the seven cops who beat Ken Tsang is long-overdue justice in the view of pan-democrats and, in theory, anyone who supports rule of law. To rabid patriots and anti-Occupy protestors, however, the two-year sentences are overly harsh, the evil work of white-skinned dogs, or otherwise wrong. Some Mainland military scion is offering a reward to whoever assaults the judge.

Officials are in an awkward position. Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen warns against inappropriate criticism of the judiciary. Police chief Stephen Lo can’t quite bring himself to admit his men committed a crime, and whines about the pressure they were under during Occupy. With the cops’ union demanding a pardon for the seven, perhaps he perceives possible severe disgruntlement – don’t call it mutiny – in the ranks.

No-one mentions where this pressure came from.

Chief Executive CY Leung, presumably at the behest of Beijing’s Liaison Office, systematically set about demonizing the pro-democracy activities and protests before, during and after the Occupy/Umbrella movement. He alleged (with no evidence) that foreign influences were behind the protests. Government-friendly media pushed the lines that Occupy ‘damaged rule of law’, harmed Hong Kong’s international reputation and was wrecking the economy. The business community was enlisted to sign statements warning of costly disruption and to publicly make elaborate contingency plans as if chaos loomed.

Marchers and demonstrators had reported for several years that the police were becoming less tolerant of the right of assembly. The firing of 87 rounds of tear gas on September 28, 2014 represented a major shift in police tactics. Either the crowd genuinely posed an unprecedentedly serious threat by modern Hong Kong protestors’ standards (as a foreign-backed insurrection might) – or it did not, but the cops had been prepared or ordered to react as if it did. Plenty of other incidents beside Ken Tsang’s case (like enabling thugs to attack protestors) suggest that the rank-and-file police had been psyched-up to see the pro-democracy movement as a public threat.

In the background to all this is Beijing’s White Paper on how Hong Kong had no intrinsic rights, and the subsequent heavy-handed denial of democracy in the city. Specifically, Mainland officials hinted (not for the first time) that civil-service neutrality was an incorrect idea – that state agencies exist to serve the government, not the public.

Since then, not only the cops, but other public servants have been corrupted in this way. Returning officers now supposedly have the legal right and telepathic powers to impose Thought Tests on candidates for election. The Electoral Office has mysteriously acquired the right to censor election materials, with help from the Post Office. The politicization of university governing bodies is also part of this trend.

This is what Beijing, CY Leung and his local officials have unleashed. In this sense, the front-line cops can make a case for being victims.

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Exclusive interviews reveal candidates’ profundity, wisdom

Contenders in Hong Kong’s phony but nonetheless quirky and entertaining Chief Executive ‘election’ grant exclusive interviews to lucky media outlets.

Beijing’s pre-determined winner Carrie Lam does an interview with Bloomberg – an ideal way to reach the more economically literate end of the audience-spectrum. But she is devoid of ideas except for a charming hope that by spending more of the government’s budget surplus she can ‘make everyone happier’. She also says she is puzzled as to why she is coming second in public opinion polls, which are of at least symbolic importance in the appointment process.

For an answer, she could check the South China Morning Post’s big coverage of John Tsang, who gave his interview in the form of a trendy Facebook Live online-streaming thing (Facebook being one of the many things in life, such as toilet paper-procurement, MTR travel and Mainland beggars, of which Carrie is blissfully ignorant).

John gets into the major issues. He insists his hand-shake with Chinese leader Xi Jinping was ‘a big deal’. His position on Silver Surfer is that the alien humanoid is a ‘contradictory type of character’. If he becomes Chief Executive, he would consider naming a street after Bruce Lee, who ‘gave Asians manhood’. How can the guy not wipe the floor with Carrie?

Meanwhile, the media – in common with former friends, Chinese government officials and the public as a whole – are paying no attention to third candidate Regina Ip. After years of being obnoxious to pro-democrats to show her worth to Beijing, she is now desperately groveling for nominations from the very same opposition. Hilariously funny or what?

The unseemly groveling continues with a visit to the Taoist Association, which she attempts to win over with the deplorable idea of public resources for religious bodies ‘to promote their faiths and contribute to community services’. She claims that some of the Taoists will support her, but their boss says they haven’t yet decided. Thus Regina is learning the answer to the ancient question: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

On the subject of religion, I declare the weekend open with Funniest Jewish Joke of the Week here (should start at 4m02s to 4m52s, but the whole 15-minute epic movie is quite amusing).

 

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Company Gwailo ‘forced to work’ scandal

The next few days – weeks, indeed – are a rush, so this CIA-funded painfully unconvincing ‘rich expat banker’ act will be even more erratic than usual for a while.

Just time to note a couple of things.

First, all right-thinking people will be heartened to see yet another reluctant, hand-wringing half-admission in the press that the forthcoming Hong Kong Chief Executive ‘election’ is a rigged, fraudulent, ritualized joke-charade…

As substance-abuse counsellors say, abandoning the pretense and admitting the reality is the first step to facing and overcoming your problem.

Second, it’s only mid-February, and we are already making plans for the July 1 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China. The celebrations of the reunion with the motherland promise to be suitably rousing, joyous and merry…

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Carrie unveils ‘Prelude’

If it was a Valentine’s Day gift, it would be a couple of stale Ferrero Rocher chocolates and a wilted flower yanked from a Leisure and Cultural Services sitting-out area. Carrie Lam, China’s choice for next Hong Kong Chief Executive, produces her very limited selection of timid and insipid policy ideas. A quasi-platform befitting a quasi-election.

The most eye-catching item is a HK$5 billion-a-year boost in education spending (actual beneficiaries to be decided). A similar allocation of unused surplus revenues to health-care would be an obvious and easy supplement to this – but it’s not there. Instead there’s a lame cut in (already low) taxes for small business, and vague-sounding incentives for R&D/cultural/blah-blah investment.

As for the number-one issue of housing, the best she can do is another layer of subsidized homes for the latest economic stratum (the upper middle-class) to be priced out of the insane private-sector residential market.

Even the Beijing-friendly media are underwhelmed. The South China Morning Post charitably describes Carrie as ‘refusing to take the bait’ of offering any substance.

Officially, this is a ‘prelude’. The lady will release more details later, after the nomination period, which begins today. In other words, she will tell us her plans only after the ballot is finalized – nominate me first, then I’ll reveal my platform. When you have already been picked as winner of a rigged election, it doesn’t matter.

Her campaign team do actually call this an ‘Election Manifesto Prelude’. Maybe it escaped reporters’ notice, or perhaps it didn’t make the final press release, but one little phrase in the part on housing should at least slightly jump out. She will, in the finest Hong Kong civil-service tradition, establish a Community Engagement Prevarication Task Force of ‘professionals’ to investigate ways to increase land supply from various possible sources, and one of these will be ‘land reserves of private developers’…

It is unusual for anyone in the establishment to mention private-sector developers – let alone their hoarded land – as having some possible connection with our housing problems.

In the meantime, Carrie sends her apologies and explains that, unlike her rivals, she didn’t have time to think up detailed plans…

During 35-plus years in government diligently administering all sorts of policies, she never stopped to ask herself ‘are there better ways of doing these things?’

 

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While you wait for Carrie’s ‘shock and awe’ manifesto…

Hong Kong is in shock after a self-immolation/arson attack on a crowded MTR train put a dozen people in hospital on Friday. (Chief Executive candidate Carrie Lam’s response to the news: “What’s an MTR train?”) Authorities assure the public that the incident was not terrorism; the signs are that it is another case of a mentally ill person going over the edge.

Genius press-relations officials swiftly put out a whiny defensive statement insisting that the government takes mental health really, really seriously. In other words, of course, it does not – it has under-funded such services for years, despite widespread criticism.

No prizes for guessing why. Such expenditure would not benefit the construction industry, the ‘tourism’ sector, or the property cartel – so it doesn’t happen. Why waste money on reducing waiting lists for people suffering depression, when for 100 times that much you can build a cruise terminal no-one will use?

On other matters, the South China Morning Post provides an interesting juxtaposition on the subject of think-tanks. One article says the China’s think-tanks are (in essence) garbage because the institutions are told what to think by the Communist one-party system. Another reports that a Hong Kong think-tank with strong Communist Party ties proposes allowing Mainland women to give birth again in local hospitals, supposedly to guarantee the city a vital stream of future workers – presumably with ideologically pure DNA.

Another juxtaposition from media-land jumps out at me today: the SCMP has a front-page ad for a Lalique glass sculpture by architect Zaha Hadid, while Marketwatch reports that pop singer Prince’s works will be available on online streaming services…

What do these items have in common (aside from ‘purple’)? First, in both cases, highly respected creative individuals’ works are being debauched by tacky commercialized outlets. Second, both individuals died around 10-11 months ago.

Lastly, a peculiar YouTube channel that could use a bit more traffic. Not sure who Boiling Point are, but at around 9m30s, they engage in an earnest discussion about this very website, believing it to be clumsily pretending to be by a rich expat banker and concluding that it is probably CIA-backed. Of course, that’s what Chief Executive CY Leung pretty much said about the Occupy/Umbrella movement. These guys don’t look like United Front operatives, but maybe that’s what we’re supposed to think

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Almost-sympathy for Carrie

One thing about Hong Kong’s make-believe ‘election’ for Chief Executive: it is unique. In North Korea, dictators enjoy laughable landslides in which they win 99.99% of the vote. In the tragic Philippines, armed thugs have fired at nuns guarding ballot boxes. In Hong Kong, the poll is a mass-delusion: the Chinese leadership decides the winner ahead of time, yet nearly everyone takes the subsequent campaigning with the utmost seriousness.

The media are carrying ads from the anti-corruption agency solemnly promoting a ‘clean’ election. Papers report with no trace of irony that Beijing’s 194 most groveling hand-picked local supporters spontaneously pronounce pre-determined winner Carrie Lam ‘the glory of Hong Kongers and of Hong Kong women’ (making her sound like an object of Catholic veneration).

The entire population is lured into the dream-like ritual, as illustrated in today’s South China Morning Post two-part survey. The first part finds that the public overwhelmingly prefer Carrie’s rival John Tsang. The second part finds that they also overwhelmingly – and, as the SCMP says, ‘realistically’ – expect Carrie to be the next Chief Executive.

Where it gets really bizarre is that Chinese officials themselves are treating the rigged election like a genuine battle. Behind the scenes (by all accounts) they are telling Carrie to win not just the inbuilt obedient majority of the rigged 1,200 Election Committee’s votes, but enough extra to make it look more convincing. This means begging with 100 or so of the pickier and less-reliable business-related and other members of the pro-Beijing camp. At the same time – almost ludicrously – Beijing is adamant that Carrie score well in public approval ratings.

To complicate things, her two main rivals are indeed posing a challenge in these respective areas.

Regina Ip, who has been preparing for this for years, is doing quite well among some of the grubbier vested interests. She comes armed with PowerPoint presentations and rash promises to grant their fading sectors ‘pro-active’ policies, privileges and other favours. Her aggressive style makes her unpopular among the public, but she is winning some friends among the shabbier corporate Election Committee blocs.

With John Tsang, it’s the other way round. Obscure Election Committee factions are unimpressed by his laid-back manner and lack of interest in their commercial and parochial concerns. But the public are fond of him for his local-boy nice-guy persona. He’s been blogging for years, can chat away about noodles and kung fu and crappy movies with anyone, and even looked half-way normal in a hoodie hanging out with dog-rescuers the other day.

To Carrie Lam, with only a few weeks’ real advance-warning since Beijing dumped CY Leung and confirmed her as next CE/victim, this election – rigged, quasi- and phony – is nonetheless a hellish struggle.

It almost makes you feel sorry for her.

OK – so it doesn’t.

I declare the weekend open with an amazing rumour: that after Pocky, ice-cream, macarons, donuts, Oreos, Kit-Kat, latte, mocha and now inevitably Cup Noodles, some marketing genius is going to bring out… matcha-flavoured tea.

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Election-riggers admit rigged elections are rigged – shock

Today’s Standard editorial begins with the remarkably candid words: ‘Hong Kong’s chief executive election has always been a charade as the winner is preordained by Beijing.’

While the statement is pure fact, it blatantly contradicts the Chinese and Hong Kong governments’ official line that some sort of competition is taking place. For reasons that are unclear, even respectable international media (BBC, NYT, etc) repeat this fiction in their reporting – typically just mentioning that the small group of ‘voters’ are mostly Beijing loyalists.

The Standard’s bluntness follows Beijing official Zhang Dejiang’s recent visit to Shenzhen, during which he seems to have told the aforementioned loyalists that Carrie Lam is the one that the Communist Party has chosen. Beijing is reassuring (or dissuading, or nudging) nervous (or stroppy, or wavering) Election Committee members in order to avoid a repeat of the 2012 confusion, when some of the pro-Beijing camp ended up siding with the ‘wrong’ candidate.

The South China Morning Post is too coy to use words like ‘charade’, but reports that the Politburo finalized its choice of Carrie as the winner at a fun-packed, festive Christmas Day gathering.

The message is: You can (indeed will) vote for Carrie with confidence.

Why is Beijing dispensing with pretense and half-admitting that the whole thing is rigged?

Partly because Xi Jinping is just a no-bullshit kind of guy. Partly because Beijing abandoned much of the facade back in 2014, when it insisted Hong Kong could have ‘universal suffrage’ only if the Communist Party chose the candidates. And partly for fear that the pro-democrats could use their 25% weighting on the Election Committee to create mischief, say by nominating a candidate who might split the loyalist vote.

Communist paranoia can almost be endearing at times. If the pro-democrats were organized and unified, they would focus on further reducing the next Chief Executive’s credibility and legitimacy. That could mean nominating John Tsang with his higher public approval as a spoiler. It could mean abstaining from nominating or voting for anyone to deprive Carrie of even a symbolic challenge. Whatever best undermined any shreds of integrity the result might have.

But they are unlikely to get their tactical act together. Trotskyite icon Long Hair is tempted to run for no obvious reason. Idiotically, many pan-dems persist in terming the exercise a ‘small-circle election’ – when even Beijing is openly indicating that it’s a hoax.

No matter. Carrie Lam looks set to start her term in office as CE with less credibility than any of her predecessors. Beijing’s determination to ensure that she improves on CY Leung’s 689 votes will, as the Standard points out, backfire and make her even less popular. She will bring all the unconvincingness that Henry Tang would have, receiving the job on a plate with no policy ideas on offer. And she will be cursed with CY Leung’s coldness and remoteness, destined to be mocked for her toilet paper and MTR woes.

Tittle-tattle du jour: I hear her PR people are telling her that the thousands of ‘angry’ emojis on her Facebook page are being posted from overseas, and are orchestrated by her enemies.

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CY’s kiss of death

Hong Kong’s soon-to-be-ex- Chief Executive CY Leung attacks hopeful successor John Tsang for one of his vague sort-of policy proposals. Previous quasi-elections in the city do not provide much precedent for such intervention by the incumbent, so it’s a mild surprise. No-hope rival Justice Woo is among those expressing shock at the display of favouritism.

Of course, criticism from the widely loathed CY can only benefit John as the public’s underdog choice. This is the sort of support Beijing’s pre-arranged ‘winner’ Carrie Lam can do without. So why didn’t CY just keep his mouth shut?

Partly, perhaps, because he and John detest each other, and John’s proposed ‘policy’ – a major increase in public-housing provision – is a clear rebuke of CY’s own record in office.

But mostly, we can guess it’s because CY has a pathological, compulsive need to shoe-shine the Communist Party to obvious and embarrassing excess. His clumsy assault on Carrie’s main threat in terms of public approval is a gratuitous attempt to serve his masters in Zhongnanhai. He is trying to be helpful.

(The same instinct prompted CY to commend John Tsang’s position on Article 23 national security laws. In this case, his ‘kiss of death’ was aimed in the right direction – such approval can only damage poor John’s public image.)

Sadly, the press did not probe either John or CY on the pros and cons of increasing subsidized housing coverage from around 45% to 60% of the population.

To John, it is basically an eye-catching ‘populist’ PR stunt, even if it makes sense under current circumstances, assuming other supply/demand/cost/policy variables all remain static. If the private sector produces housing only 40% of people can afford, the state sector must by definition make provisions for the other 60% of the population.

To CY, the zero-sum result is that lowering land supply for the private sector will make the problem worse by further raising private housing costs. Conversely (the media could have asked but didn’t) wouldn’t the logical solution be to reduce the amount of public subsidized housing? (In theory it could, if you sell public housing and turn state tenant-serfs into landed citizens – but of course no-one dares consider anything so radical.)

Look – all we are talking about here is concrete boxes. No-one cares whether they’re ‘private’ or ‘public’, so long as they’re affordable. To solve the Hong Kong housing problem, we could start by replacing the phrase ‘subsidized’ with the more accurate ‘not subject to vast additional cartel/bureaucrat charges’ and take it from there.

As for Article 23 – God help the Chief Executive who has to try that again.

The latest, according to nearly everyone, is that Beijing official Zhang Dejiang (I thought he was getting purged sometime?) says that the Communist Party’s pick Carrie Lam is the Communist Party’s pick, and you can stuff her Facebook page full of ‘angry’ emojis all you like, so there.

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John’s platform (pass the tissues)

Hong Kong Chief Executive hopeful John Tsang produces his platform. It is a classic exercise in meeting the Chinese government’s conditions on tightening national (ie Communist Party) security and averting democracy, while offering some out-of-the-box fresh policy ideas. The former are compulsory if he has any serious desire for the job, though they could cost him pan-dems’ support and thus a nomination. The latter includes a negative income tax – 1960s-vintage Friedman.

As with all candidates, everything is back-to-front – he promises to create harmony before solving the issues that destroy it.

He will enable enablement, or something, but not when it comes to a cure for flu, which is all I care about right now.

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