China vs World on who is at crossroads

China’s Chairman of Everything-for-Life Xi Jinping does not warmly encourage challenging debate about his government’s policies. But in recent months, a few dissenting voices – economists, a former official, Deng Xiaoping’s son – have been making themselves heard.

The latest, a state think-tank guy, uses suitably tactful language but echoes the basic complaint: Xi’s domestic centralization, overseas assertiveness and fundamental counter-reformism is against China’s interests. The Leninist instinct threatens economic stagnation at home and hostility abroad.

Xi, who may be a greater (and more slickly packaged) fantasist than Trump, meanwhile claims it’s the rest of the world that is at a crossroads.

This leaves the International Society of Panda-hugging Shoe-shiners looking increasingly dated. Take the Davos chapter: a recent World Bank paper on Belt and Road provokes mirth as a gratuitous grovel-fest (quick and snarky summary here).

The backlash is getting to the point where we must seriously consider boycotting Putonghua.

A few mid-week links. David Webb has a go at Hong Kong’s Companies Registry, which is making gargantuan monopoly profits from selling access to what should be freely available public records and, in so doing, facilitating fraud and money-laundering – a confluence of outcomes that you may consider a bizarre and unfortunate coincidence, or not (I couldn’t possibly comment).

And a couple of stateside diversions…

Remember the Hanfu movement, where historical-fantasy cosplay meets racial supremacism? I never realized that fake authentic traditional cultural revivalism also lay behind ye olde square dancing, Henry Ford’s wholesome Anglo-Saxon antidote to the Jewish jazz menace.

And with cryptocurrencies now giving off a stench like rotting tulip bulbs, aficionados of wacky pseudo-investments might like to check out the Donald Trump fans who believe Iraqi dinars will reach parity or more with the dollar, with help from God.

 

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Pitiable plutocrats in patriotism, profits panic

A mildly amusing but telling moment in Mainlandization today.

Hong Kong’s Liberal Party – which despite its name represents entitled hereditary business owners in parasite/cartelized industries – was going to propose a motion in the Legislative Council calling on the government to introduce national security laws.

This would be a pretty standard, not to say unimaginative, way to shoe-shine Beijing. These guys all have interests in the Mainland as well as Hong Kong, and the gesture would be timely, given that the more ideologically devout pro-Communist lawmakers have already made similar statements following the recent pro-independence scares in the city. In short: the Liberals felt that a precautionary unseemly rush to kowtow was in order.

But it then occurs to them that this Mainlandization stuff is going down badly overseas, not only among media and NGOs, but some corporations and US politicians and trade officials. Western governments are hinting that they might withdraw Hong Kong’s separate and privileged economic status if Beijing curbs the city’s freedoms – a threat that is probably (for the time being) hollow but petrifies local officials and some local businesses, no doubt including their own.

So the Liberal Party legislators hurriedly drop the motion. It’s hard to be loyal with so many different things going on. Do they grovel to the Communists by demanding local anti-sedition laws, or do they display concern for the national interest by not provoking evil hostile foreign forces – and, for ultimate torment, without having time or space to fully factor in their own grubby financial interests either way?

A little reminder that the tycoons will also sweat as Mainlandization continues.

 

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Overtime cancelled for government spin-doctors

And so, at last, the trial of the ‘Umbrella Nine’ begins. Here’s the full background, including links to a legal explainer and much else.

There’s probably never an ideal moment to try to throw a peaceful 74-year-old clergyman in prison, but for the Hong Kong government, this is especially unfortunate timing.

Under pressure from Beijing, local officials have stealthily extended censorship and other repression since the 2014 Umbrella-Occupy movement. With this Mainlandization becoming noticeably more heavy-handed in recent months, the overseas press are now paying attention. On top of that, the administration is trying people’s patience with an above-average range of plain everyday domestic screw-ups and messes, like a half-trillion-dollar reclamation plan, the PLA’s cross-border cabbage patch and a new public-nuisance-on-steroids influx of tourists.

Meanwhile, on the international stage (and possibly at home), Xi Jinping’s hubristic and overreaching regime is losing friends and ceasing to influence people over trade, Xinjiang, APEC, United Front obnoxiousness, debt-trap-diplomacy, the South China Sea and much else.

Now Benny writes in the NYT, and Amnesty wades in. Even in its officials’ whiny protests against external ‘interference’, Hong Kong is gradually looking and sounding more like part of the Mainland. The ‘incitement to incite’ trial – perhaps delayed for years in the hope few would notice – looks set to highlight and confirm it.

Rummaging around for reasons to be optimistic… How about ‘rewriting the Hong Kong story’ – would that work for you? Here’s more from ex-lawmaker Christine Loh on her theory that we can fix all this with a ‘new narrative’.

 

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Coming next: the ‘Umbrella Nine’

Next week’s Mainlandization-related trashing of Hong Kong’s freedom and reputation will be brought to you by the attempt to imprison three harmless old guys on desperate-sounding charges of ‘incitement to incite public nuisance’. The clearly-Beijing-ordered prosecutions will also involve six other figures from the Occupy-Umbrella movement.

The overseas press, interest in local affairs now piqued by the expulsion of Financial Times’ Victor Mallet, are already anticipating this four-years-in-the-making farce (Reuters, AFP, VOA), as is Human Rights Watch.

Whatever happens, the outcome will be bad. If the courts play along and put mild-mannered idealistic intellectuals in prison for organizing a protest, they create martyrs, and the international media will report another ‘nail in the coffin’ for Hong Kong. If the courts find against the prosecution or simply give the defendants a light sentence, the Chinese Communist Party will want to retaliate with whatever constitution-warping ‘rule-by-law’ travesty it takes to satisfy its obsessive need to punish and intimidate anyone who dares challenge it.

And either way, Chief Executive Carrie Lam will be left insisting that nothing is really happening, everything is in line with due process, your rights will not be affected, One Country Two Systems is still intact, blah blah – while wringing her hands, as if to squeeze out the last drops of credibility.

I declare the weekend open with a summary of declining creative freedom in Hong Kong; , and a look at How’s that Chinese Century turning out?

There’s also a rumour that the CCP will authorize a ‘Sinicized’ version of the Christian Bible. Can’t wait. Pandas waddle onto Noah’s ark. Moses leads his people out of Japanese oppression; he honours 5,000 years of civilization by delivering the 10 Commandments printed on paper in simplified characters, and getting out of Sinai with a compass, and celebrating with fireworks. David is beaten up by plain-clothes security officials and sent to a detention centre before he gets to Goliath. To help reverse the one-child policy, Mary will have several more virgin births. Jesus turns water into baijiu. And it will be much easier for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

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In HK, even extreme moderates now despair

I hope he brought a toothbrush… Former Hong Kong government official and longtime pro-Beijing patriot Patrick Ho suffers more legal setbacks. Prosecutors in New York will now present evidence involving arms sales, and the judge is allowing a former co-defendant to testify against him.

A lot of background on China’s use of UN-linked NGOs like Ho’s is here; an Australian-angled version expanding on Sheri Yan is here. Also in today’s ‘Xi Jinping hubris coming home to roost’ news, Beijing’s pet Sri Lankan strongman is struggling to keep power, while China’s economic threat is one thing US politicians can agree on.

And here in Hong Kong, one of the English-language media’s more prominent apologists for the shoe-shining establishment loyalist line decides he can take no more, and demands that officials stop pretending Mainlandization isn’t eroding the city’s freedoms. You know it’s serious when even the most extreme moderates (“I am not judging whether it’s right or wrong…”) start to have doubts.

Moving as far from extreme moderation as possible – some of us may remember seeing strange (as in completely wacko) posters stuck on walls and lampposts around Hong Kong a while ago. Stuff about JFK, mind-control, the US consulate, tycoons and general ever-spiraling conspiracy-addled derangement. Not good enough to be the product of genuine brain-damage, but too authentic to be just a failed attempt at edgy street art/parody (assuming Hong Kong had any). Whoever is responsible must be out there, walking among us. A possible (and predictably weird, or maybe humdrum) account in this thread.

 

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Carrie Lam, self-censor-in-chief

By definition, Carrie Lam says, self-censorship is not government censorship. What part of ‘self-’ don’t you understand, duh? However, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive undermines her own thin logic.

Carrie must also publicly own and defend the expulsion of Financial Times correspondent Victor Mallet after he chaired a press meeting with national-security threat Andy Chan. While doing so, she must refuse to admit why it happened (‘can’t comment on individual cases’), and her administration has to insist that it has ‘nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of the press’.

The reason for the visa denial was of course to intimidate the rest of the media – so it is precisely about freedom of expression and the press, and nothing else.

Everyone knows it was Beijing’s officials – not Hong Kong’s sad pawns – who ordered the visa idiocy. Everyone knows this sort of vindictiveness is a standard CCP tactic, not a Hong Kong one.

So not only must Carrie contradict herself by pretending there is no connection between intimidation and self-censorship, she must maintain that she is personally responsible as this alien nonsense is being foisted on Hong Kong. Is she not the biggest victim of self-censorship under pressure around here?

Then it’s off on the compulsory weekly visit to the Mainland, to listen attentively as Chairman of Everything-for-Life Xi Jinping lists a mildly odd selection of dead/dying/past-it Hong Kong ‘elite’ compatriots who, apparently with the then-young Xi never far away, contributed to China’s historic mega-reform miracle thing. (The Not Very Magnificent Seven – the predictable Henry Fok plus others you wouldn’t necessarily expect, if you cared enough to think about it. It may be more interesting to consider who wasn’t mentioned. Or maybe not.)

Not for the first time, we get that strange nagging feeling about whether we should feel sorry for Carrie (and what sort of duress is involved, and so on). And then, it passes.

(Speaking of censorship…)

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Positive-energy triumph as HK survives near-death tragedy mayhem

With the hallucinogens kicking in, the South China Morning Post celebrates one of Hong Kong’s greatest – and surely insufficiently recognized – achievements of 2018. We refer, of course, to the city’s dazzling success in expertly managing its property bubble so it deflated calmly back to the comfortable, panic-over, where-it-should-be zone, and few people noticed, let alone got hurt. Phew! That could have been nasty, but everything’s fine now.

The paper rightly honours the heroes of this story. First, there’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose dazzling insight, daring, skill and leadership enabled her to increase housing supply with breathtaking precision. Then there’s the HK Monetary Authority, which valiantly raised interest rates and pressured banks into tightening loans. Thanks to all these people’s tireless efforts, the property market did not ‘spiral into a horror show’.

Experts are swooning at this deliverance from, as one bank guy says, falling property prices that would cause lower consumption, higher unemployment, reduced property-sector investment, less wealth being sucked into the government’s slush-fund reserves black cesspit hell-hole, cheaper housing, etc.

The timing was superb. And yes – luck probably played a part. But it was mostly our leaders’ brilliant decision-making and cool determination to unswervingly control the situation that enabled us to escape what could have been a nightmare. Little wonder that Hong Kong may now, as the SCMP says, ‘become known as the model for how to slowly deflate a bubble and avert a painful burst’.

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HK’s bad-PR week

Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and open society took a knocking over the last week or so, thanks to three widely reported events: the postponement of artist Badiucao’s exhibition; the barring from entry of previously-ejected Financial Times correspondent Victor Mallet; and the cancellation and subsequent un-cancellation of author Ma Jian’s appearance at a literary festival at Tai Kwun arts complex.

This succession of repressive actions within a few days compounded the bad publicity, as news reports started to lump them together. They also coincided with UN human rights hearings featuring criticism of Hong Kong.

The unofficial-official view is that this is all a matter of bad luck and misunderstandings (and perhaps mishandled PR). As a Standard editorial says: ‘Sadly, all these incidents were avoidable’. The skeptical view is that this is all a clear pattern of Mainlandization, and therefore happened by design.

Badiucao’s exhibition was abandoned because of ‘threats by Chinese authorities’ leading to ‘safety concerns’. Such a vague explanation lets Beijing hacks cast doubt on the story – hey, Pussy Riot turned up.

It would help to know whether the warning was anonymous, in which case it might have been an ultra-nationalist nut, or from a proxy (say, businessman or political figure) with plausible CCP connections, or from the Liaison Office itself. But after the abductions and silencing and forced confessions of the book publishers (whose work, like Badiucao’s, involved lèsemajesté against Xi Jinping) and the CCP’s tactic of threatening dissidents’ families, why wouldn’t you take it seriously?

The Victor Mallet case is straightforward. The government refused him entry as a visitor after rejecting his work visa renewal a month earlier. Officials refuse to say why, but everyone knows it is because, as a Foreign Correspondents Club office-holder, he hosted a (perfectly legal) talk by pro-independence figure Andy Chan – against the express wishes of Chinese officials. The decision not to let him back in to sort out personal things is classic CCP petty vindictiveness, intended to remind others to kowtow to the emperor in future.

The Ma Jian Tai Kwun fiasco is perhaps relatively amusing. The de-facto publicly-funded arts centre’s explanation for cancelling the author’s appearance was dim-witted – implying that the writer would ‘promote his own political interests’. (It’s meaningless, but anyway other guests at the event were discussing ‘political’ issues.) An alternative venue owned by a local developer predictably turned him away in a panic. After much hoo-hah, including a hasty-sounding Hong Kong government denial of any involvement, the hapless Tai Kwun boss reversed the decision, rather pathetically trying to shift blame on the victim by suggesting that Ma had now ‘clarified that he would not promote political’ blah blah.

It looks as if the directive came from Jockey Club grandee-elders who oversee Tai Kwun from on high and are presumably both clueless and spineless when it comes to anything to do with art, Beijing or ‘politics’, let alone PR. A classic Hong Kong establishment pre-emptive shoe-shine gone wrong. By hoping to appease the CCP, they try too hard and screw it up.

It may well be that someone in the Hong Kong administration despaired at yet more bad publicity, checked/pleaded with Beijing’s officials, and gave the Jockey Club bosses a kick up the rear for as-yet-unnecessary self-censorship. By then, the damage was done. The New York Times, BBC and so on do not give ‘bad stupid thing reversed’ follow-up stories the same profile. If this is what happened, it would be the one occasion in this list of unfolding Mainlandizing calamities in which the Hong Kong government actually had a decision-making role.

There is a pattern, of course. The common theme is pressure – real, direct, indirect or implied – from the CCP.

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Yesterday afternoon’s Mainlandization – wrap-up

Just as the Tai Kwun cultural heritage hub-zone was banning author Ma Jian (statement here), Hong Kong immigration officials were questioning the previously-expelled Financial Times correspondent Victor Mallett and turning him away at the airport. Ma is due to land here this afternoon.

If asked, the local administration will continue to insist that: a) nothing unusual is happening at all, you’re just imagining it; b) these things you’re just imagining are isolated and not linked and very minor and specific, so just ignore them; and c) the repression that isn’t happening is all in accordance with the law, and rights and freedoms remain intact.

It would look so bad if Ma were refused entry (not sure if he has permanent residency) that it would be surprising if they barred him. Except it wouldn’t be.

If it were free to bolster whatever credibility it still has, the Hong Kong government could justifiably point out that our Mainlandization so far has been extremely restrained and subtle. For proof, Louisa Lim (People’s Republic of Amnesia) outlines how Beijing is trying to eliminate non-Han culture in Xinjiang.

If you scroll down here, a People’s Daily editorial will enable you to ‘Correctly Understand the Xinjiang History Question’ (original here). It essentially replaces the mainstream and academically accepted account of the region’s past with a fiction. For example: “…all of the ethnic cultures of Xinjiang take root in the fertile lands of Chinese civilization and are an inseparable part of Chinese culture.”

(We will leave aside the fact that Beijing’s official Han/Chinese and CCP historical narratives – with Deng Xiaoping currently being airbrushed out – are all synthetic anyway.)

Xinjiang’s Uighur and Kazakh cultures clearly form part of a bigger Turkic region in Central Asia along with Uzbeks, Turkmens, Azerbaijanis, Kyrgyz, etc. These peoples are probably descended from various Mongol, Indo-European and other nomads who turned up over millennia. At some point, a dominant culture – the Huns, or someone – spread a common (Turkic) language throughout the area. More recently, other outsiders passed through and introduced Islam and such features as Arabic script.

Whatever the exact chain of events, this is not ‘rooted in Chinese civilization and culture’, unless you define ‘Chinese’ to include the land and populations of over half a dozen independent countries stretching west beyond the Caspian Sea. In order to re-program Uighurs, the Communist Party needs to revise its own nation’s – and ultimately everyone’s – history and archaeology accordingly.

Hong Kong has a long way to go – but it’s the same playbook.

I declare the weekend open with the usual gripping reading…

A good explanation of why sea transport beats rail (or why Beijing’s Eurasian ‘Silk Road Belt’ is absurd). Thus informed, you won’t be shocked to learn that, not content with shoveling reserves into pointless local infrastructure projects, Hong Kong officials now want to chuck taxpayers’ money into ‘Belt and Road’.

Some interesting thoughts prompted by a UK speech by Wang Dan…

American politicians do not feel the need to loudly proclaim that ‘Kansas is an inalienable part of the United States’. Theresa May does not loudly trumpet the loyalty of the Royal Navy to the government of the day. Communist Party leaders are virtually unique in the international community in endlessly spotting grave insults to the ‘feelings of the Chinese people’.

To which we could add, only Beijing has ‘seven taboos’ and is so scared of an 88-year-old woman, they have to silence her. Stein Ringen elaborates in Perfect Dictatorship.

Seeing Henry dropping by the Great Hall of the People brings back memories. Remember the days when it was cool and a mark of sophistication and enlightenment to ‘understand’ the Chinese regime and sneer at those repelled by Leninist thuggery as Cold War relics? Here’s an intriguing look at the most odious extremes of that Panda-hugging shoe-shining sycophancy (as embodied by Australian politician Bob Carr – but it could be anyone).

That article mentions John Garnaut, who delivers the weekend’s big read – a sweeping overview of how the CCP and its United Front are undermining free societies (as embodied by Australia – but it could be anyone).

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Hong Kong – Mainlandization goes daily

Writer Ma Jian says that Tai Kwun, the renovated Central Police Station/Victoria Prison complex, has cancelled a Hong Kong International Literary Festival event featuring him. The HK$3 billion (or something) facility is supposed to serve as an arts hub, but being under quasi-government (HK Jockey Club) management, it must clearly put the Chinese Communist Party’s ultra-refined cultural tastes first.

Maybe we should be amazed and thankful that Ma is even allowed in to Hong Kong (assuming he is). Any chance of hosting him at the Foreign Correspondents Club? Any chance of the Festival moving to Taiwan in future? Any chance the forthcoming M+ Museum being shut the day after it opens until it loses all those Ai Weiwei pieces?

Next up, the Hong Kong government bans anyone talking about or hosting talks about Free Expression Week. After all, this comes after [insert latest list of Asia World City’s cancelled exhibitions, intimidated artists, abducted publishers, un-shown films, expelled correspondents, etc].

Speaking of expelled correspondents, among the sponsors of the HK Literary Festival – the Financial Times!

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