Robert Chow – back and sillier than ever

September 30th, 2014

OC-Twitter-9-2014Into the midst of the weirdness,  Robert Chow returns. The representative of the ‘Silent Majority’ and founder of the anti-Occupy Central ‘Alliance for Peace and RobertChowDemocracy’ was interviewed on RTHK this morning. At his height as a scourge of pro-democracy activists, the snowy haired rabble-rouser spread apocalyptic visions of Hong Kong in chaos, and pushed a vast United Front anti-OC signature campaign against the evils of civil disobedience. The delights of demagoguery went to his head, however, and he launched an informers’ hotline for people to snitch on schools planning to facilitate student involvement in pro-democracy protests. Taken aback by the public revulsion, he disappeared from view – perhaps retreating into a cave where he could pull the wings off butterflies in peace.

His reappearance (briefly mentioned by a Standard editor desperate for another half-dozen lines) reveals him to be a broken man. Apparently grief-stricken at the thought that the ‘Silent Majority’ turned up a couple of nights ago and took Argyle Street and Nathan Road, he railed at how the Occupy organizers never mentioned Mongkok in their plans, and they should get out of there and move to Central, as the campaign’s name would seem to require. He is mightily miffed about this, as if the devious pro-dems have somehow cheated by occupying Admiralty, Causeway Bay and mid-Kowloon. Getting even more sorely vexed, he ranted that maybe the protestors have had their fun and games, but what happens next?

That is, of course, a fair question.

So far, the Students/Occupy protests have achieved four major policy aims that have defeated Hong Kong governments for years:

  • Firm action to tackle obesity, as striking Swire Bottlers staff bring production of Coca-Cola to a standstill;
  • A solution to municipal waste problems, as protestors on the street spontaneously figure out a way to get everyone to recycle trash, using bags hanging from railings;
  • A glorious fall in the number of Mainland visitors, and negative sales growth for retailers selling overpriced crap no-one needs; and last but not least…
  • A very noticeable improvement in air quality in traffic-free streets.

The government has also cancelled the National Day fireworks display. Maybe officials felt the event would be provocative, as the space-age pyrotechnics were to feature the words ‘Chinese people’ in simplified characters. Or perhaps the idea is to disappoint millions of innocent children looking forward to the show, and hope the blame gets shifted onto Occupy central as some sort of punishment. Or both. Or maybe Carrie Lam was having a bad hair day.

Not least, the demonstrations and sit-ins have yielded iconic photography and inspired a range of intriguing art and assorted meme-stuff. The stand-out is from here. My own humble contribution is intended for Beijing’s Liaison Office to fly on October 1…

OC-art

But back to Robert Chow’s question: what next? The occupation-of-intersections thing has presumably peaked; people need to go to work, or go home for a shower and a good night’s sleep. There’s probably no point in sitting in the street over the public holidays, even if that was the Occupy Central plan up to last weekend. Organizer Benny Tai and friends are devising a ‘second phase’ of action – a bit optimistically, perhaps, given that the first phase was unscripted and ad-hoc, and they had to run to keep up.

While demands that Beijing cease being Communist are pointless, a lull in Occupy activity could be a good opportunity to put the Hong Kong government on the spot with a simple request for a constructive response to recent events. People are clearly unhappy: let’s hear a proposal by next weekend on how to move forward. Or it’s back to streets.

The South China Morning Post’s Peter Kammerer writes that there are better ways for the people to make their voices heard than taking to those streets. Of course there aren’t – we had mass protests over Article 23 and National Education precisely because it’s all the government listens to. The columnist’s alternative is that people be good citizens, look after their families and… have “exercise and good habits.”

SCMP-KammererOC

Maybe the SCMP are getting into this.

I declare the two-day mid-week holiday open with an alternative view. This is a real extract from an email from a former Hong Kong resident now overseas…

Fanaticism has never been the answer to anything, but the so-called Pan Democrats of Hong Kong and now the young radicals of Hong Kong are perfectly willing to lead Hong kong and China into chaos with THEIR new brand of fanaticism, their new magic crede, answer for everything, their new IDOL. You new fanatics, who are now willing to destroy anything that is contrary to your views, you are EXACTLY the same species as the Red Guards who only a few decades ago were willing to destroy much of China’s heritage and kill millions for precisely the OPPOSITE views that you are agitating for in Hong Kong now. Opposite views, same species. THEY and YOU were/are BOTH so absolutely certain you are right about everything and that you can/must have it NOW, that you will do anything to get your way. You will trample over the lives and livelihoods of all the other people in Hong Kong, because ONLY YOU are right. You would not care if China were again enveloped in another two decades of chaos such as it previously experienced when order broke down – just so long as you can get your way. You, in parallel societies, are the young fanatical suicide bombers and terrorists of the world, you are Pol Pot’s fanatical youth who killed millions because they also KNEW they were RIGHT and had to have their way NOW, you are the Hitler Youth who were prepared to assist the Holocaust because THEY also knew they were so truly RIGHT.

This is the kind of fanaticism that starts by saying it can ride roughshod over people’s lives and livelihoods – because YOU know better and YOU are RIGHT.

There is more. Almost makes you glad to have Robert Chow back.

HK govt achieves the apparently impossible

September 29th, 2014

The Hong Kong authorities achieved something amazing over the weekend. They started off facing a smallish, peaceful week-long sit-in/teach-in at Tamar by students boycotting classes. That gathering was augmented by distinctly non-ferocious high-schoolers on Friday and a slow stream of sympathizers during Saturday. SCMP-TearGasThat could have been the end of the story, with scholars heading back to class as we speak. But no.

(The following might not be in exact order, but roughly recounts the ‘gradual and not so orderly’ progress from just-another-protest to worst-mayhem-since-1967/’Umbrella Revolution’ in less than 48 hours.)

As weekend approached, bureaucrats and police decided to impose pointless and irritating conditions on the student sit-in. They started by denying permission to use the Tamar park area, giving a permit instead to a crudely contrived and barely attended patriotic event featuring dancing grannies in pink. Then the cops, having wedged protestors into the avenue next to the government/legislative complex, started restricting access. Convenient pedestrian routes from the nearby MTR station were closed except to people leaving, and with the road blocked at either end by metal barriers, people arriving had to line up to get through a narrow space. This gratuitous inconvenience (like all that followed) was streamed live to the rest of the city, and the numbers of people deciding to join in rose significantly as Saturday progressed.

The breaching of the wall and the taking of Civic Square was a provocation the police could have shrugged off. Similarly, they could have ignored rather than disrupted the shipments to protestors of bananas, water and goggles. But they didn’t, and the mood got more defiant.

With the demonstrators bedding down on the street for the night, Benny Tai announced that this was now the official Occupy Central – previously slated for Wednesday in, well, Central. Student activists resented this hijacking of ‘their’ protest.  If there was any opportunity for the government to exploit this division over branding, they didn’t take it.

Instead, after isolating and penning in the original protest, the cops found themselves surrounded by a newer and bigger one of reinforcement demonstrators. So they spent Sunday establishing an even bigger cordon around them – blocking roads, obstructing overhead walkways and sealing off MTR exits.

If anything, this seemed to encourage yet more citizens to turn up. By yesterday afternoon, subsequent waves of arriving protestors spilled onto one (later two) of the main roads linking Central and Wanchai, bringing traffic there to a halt. Chief Executive CY Leung and apparently drugged top officials gave a wretchedly unimpressive press conference, reciting zombie-style, how Beijing’s political reform package reflected public opinion. The police launched an attempt to start clearing demonstrators, squirting pepper spray around.

Within hours as evening fell, yet even more thousands of pissed-off people were turning up. Incapable of detecting a pattern here, the cops then started firing tear gas and strutting around in gas masks and helmets with CS guns and shotguns. The Remingtons were presumably loaded with non-lethal munitions, but rumours started spreading about threats to use live ammo, and about plans to cut off the Internet over whole districts, and about the PLA sending tanks in.

Then it’s as if the whole city erupts. As Sunday night fell and progressed, crowds turned out and blocked off streets not only in Admiralty but in Causeway Bay and Mongkok. Not just any old streets, but the main ones, like Nathan Road.

Monday morning, this being Hong Kong, everyone goes to work. But several key intersections on both sides of the harbour remained occupied by determined – and exhilarated, defiant and radicalized – protestors who have just given the city’s government the biggest slap in the face anyone could recall. As on the day after the 2003 July 1 march (when then-CE Tung Chee-hwa retreated into a bunker for a week), there’s a good feeling. Not least because of the huge drop in traffic in many downtown areas; could get used to this.

So to recap: a police force with a long record of calmness and efficiency sets out to handle a gentle, law-abiding and basically normal student protest in a highly civilized city, and ends up losing control as citizens rise up and occupy districts in scenes that look like Tahrir Square. The reason, obviously, was the use of violence, which appalled and then attracted huge numbers of additional protestors. Why did the authorities depart so drastically from their usual tried-and-tested minimum-force tactics? Unless the senior operations cops have become stupid overnight, it can only be because of political pressure. And that can only come, ultimately, from Beijing. After a whole string of heavy handed, clumsy, cretinous miscalculations (white paper, cyber-attacks, fake referendum, etc, etc), it comes to this.

To Beijing, this is not about Hong Kong, but about the danger of the infection of rebellion spreading from that irritating pimple to the Mainland. The Chinese leadership will not give way on political reform, and after the experience with Tung will instinctively want to stick with CY on principle. The rational – and not especially challenging – option would be to ask why people in Hong Kong are angry, and fix it. But of course that goes for Xinjiang and much else. Clearly, China is being run by mouth-frothing paranoiacs smashing anything that moves with a sledgehammer. They, not the Occupy Central organizers or the Hong Kong Police, are the ones who are out of control. At this rate, they’ll nuke the Diaoyu Islands before end-year.

What happens next? Best-case semi-realistic scenario is that – after the Occupy Central actions blow over – local officials convince their Mainland overseers that Hong Kong needs to address at least a few of its social problems, and in a high-profile way. A boost in welfare spending, cheaper student loans, an emergency housing programme, or whatever it takes to convince some pretty angry people that their leadership is not totally deaf or malevolent. It might buy time, at least. Worst-case scenarios don’t even bear thinking about.

Causeway Bay reclaimed – tourists find new backdrop for photos…

CausewayBayReclaimed

Occupy Chater

September 26th, 2014

SCMP-StudentsMarch‘Central Centre’, as Cheung Kong’s shiny Sheung Wan skyscraper is called in Chinese, hosts a road safety promotion for school kids today. Conspiracy theorists might suspect that Central and Western District Council, the HK Police, the Federation of People Who Worry About Youth and landlord tycoon Li Ka-shing are holding the event as a way to let youngsters get out of class without having to join the evil foreign-backed pro-democracy boycott. Road safety tip number-one: do not sit in the street.

For students and other activists, this week has been one long series of pro-democracy gatherings and teach-ins. Youthful idealism has come to the fore as protestors have issued ultimatums to the Central People’s Government and marched off to Government House to arrest Chief Executive CY Leung. The cops have done their best ‘unimpressed but patient’ act, while the local leadership tries to sound reasonable without appearing too treacherous in the eyes of Beijing’s paranoiacs. Just when you thought the Communist-backed Wen Wei Po was the one media outlet you could go to without encountering student activist Joshua Wong, there he is – a mega-expose, in which the kid is caught working for the CIA and blatantly consorting with green-eyed white devils, not to mention Gladys ‘British not Chinese’ Li. By not detaining Joshua on public security grounds, the Hong Kong authorities are essentially calling the newspaper’s patron – the Chinese government – a liar. Instead, they bar pro-dem assemblies from certain public spaces because patriotic groups will use them. It’s an interesting balancing act.

The pro-dems – at least the post-teens among them – realize that Beijing is not going to give way on the political reform proposals for 2016-17. This is presumably why next week’s Occupy Central has been downgraded to a low-disruption Occupy Central-lite on a public holiday. The Police are now inviting the movement to go a step further and ‘occupy’ Chater Road during the two public holidays on which it would anyway be pedestrianized and full of people sitting around. In which case, you might as well stay at home.

SCMP-GeorgeChenI declare the weekend open with some hilarity I had missed. One of the little mysteries of life in Hong Kong concerns the South China Morning Post’s George Chen. While the paper is hardly short of insipid columnists, this one’s are so shallow you couldn’t drown an amoeba in them. Various theories of the rich-kid-guanxi sort circulate for those who can be bothered. He has received some sort of not-very-exclusive scholarship thing at Yale University (you can nominate yourself for it). This provoked controversy over there, but it hasn’t stopped him filling his columns with even more smug and puerile stuff about his privileged Ivy League existence. Culminating in this. Have a sickbag ready – it’s pretty horrible. But then get to the best bit: the readers’ comments. Ouch. Where’s that self-censorship when you need it?

Tech corner

September 25th, 2014

I don’t get the vast flat-screen TV thing. I get my fixes of moving images from YouTube or the video player on my PC and Samsung Galaxy. The picture is a few inches across and blurred, but I don’t notice if I’m watching something of unsurpassed excellence, like (say) this. But people who are into having a 78-inch black shiny slab CurvedScreenTVon the wall take the devices very seriously. If there’s an HDTV version, which makes everything look weirdly unreal – or hyper-real, perhaps – they must have it. If there’s a 3D version – enabling viewers to watch garbage while wearing funny spectacles simply for the novelty of seeing something float in front of themselves – they must have that as well.

The latest thing is a curved flat-screen TV. What’s the point? There isn’t one. Like razors with three blades (or four, etc), it’s a stupid gimmick. The crap-production industry keeps creating new variants of crap because they know a certain type of consumer will unthinkingly go out and buy them.

Which brings us to the latest iPhone. The people who are lining up all night to buy these things may seem like cretins, but actually they are smart. Assuming they’re not caught, they can sell the gizmos over the border for perhaps double what they paid. It’s the end-users, who absolutely must have the latest model now, who are the schmucks.

The latest iPhone is also curved. Or at least some are. But unlike the vast TVs, they’re not supposed to be. They get that way because people are too fat, or maybe not. So the zombie-like hordes go to great expense and effort to acquire the precious iPhone 6 because it exists, then start whining because some of its most desirable features – it’s a bit bigger, a bit thinner – also make it crumple up more easily, as you would iPhoneexpect when you think about it.

The unveiling of the iPhone Akimbo (as we shall rename it) coincided with the downloading of an operating system update for my own much-detested iPhone (5, presumably). This was one of those updates where the software engineers change the look of every feature for no reason at all. So a button that was once at the top of the screen is now at the bottom. The icon that used to be one colour is now another. Things that used to be clear and distinct, like the bit you swipe to start the thing up, are now merged into the background design, so you can’t see them.

It also gets spooky. I mainly use the employer-issued contraption as a camera. Without being asked, it now divides my photos up in new (needless to say pointless) ways. It has also labeled them with their supposed location – including those taken months ago. It hasn’t done it very well: it says a photo taken in my bathroom emanates from Cotton Tree Drive, which is miles out, and it places the (not bad) Dan Dan – Soul Food from Sichuan in Wing Lok St and Bonham Strand, when it’s basically overlooking Queens Rd. It gets Discovery Bay right, though it’s a big place. But the fact that it does this at all is sort of impressive, even though I can’t think of a purpose for this function.

I shall now attempt to answer in pictures the question: what is an iPhone good for?

To record…

Toothpaste

Food-selfies…DanDan

etc…SeparatedAtBirth

Scumbag/Astroturf/Cornered Rat updates

September 24th, 2014

SCMP-HuiGivenSecretAnd the non-stop jollity continues… Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Rafael Hui says he got HK$11 million from a top Mainland official (the Chinese government, in other words), apparently to help him overcome his excessive spending and encourage him to stay in office. He did neither, but received/took (blew) the money anyway, while, according to prosecutors, acquiring yet more in bribes from property tycoons. At least, this is so far as I can tell from the South China Morning Post report, which puts the chronology of events through a blender. It’s hard to get worked up about the details in a story that is basically Overpaid Scumbag In Unfathomable Murk, but you have to wonder whether he left Beijing officials feeling short-changed, and – if so – whether this contributed to his current predicament.

What we can be sure of is that Beijing’s micro-meddling is behind the emergence of yet another supposedly popular but pitiful-looking group trying to sound reasonable in opposing the pro-democracy movement. This one’s called the Protect Central Working Group. I think. (Grabbed a pic of the front page from the office’s batch of free unsolicited China Dailys before the cleaner came to take them away to be pulped for toilet paper read avidly. Otherwise coverage is a bit thin. A valiant news editor at RTHK managed a few mind-numbing lines before dozing off.) The vaguely interesting angle here is that the United Front is getting into the business of rebranding. Robert Chow’s tawdry Astroturf for Peace and Democracy gimmick backfired with paid-for demonstrators and a creepy phone hotline to inform on schools involved in the pro-dem boycott. This substitute purports to be all professional and serious and businesslike, inviting us to feel grief-stricken for the retail sector. Yes, really.

The pro-democracy Occupy Central civil disobedience sit-in love-and-peace fest looks set to go ahead under the banner of a ‘banquet’ on October 1, the National Day holiday. With the following day being a grave-sweeping festival, that means the action will take place when the central business district is pretty empty and the prospects of damaging the precious retail sector – landlords’ profits, in plain English – are tragically reduced. The decision to go for a low-inconvenience sit-in followed Beijing’s heavy-handed final word on the political reform package for 2016-17. The Chinese government obviously hadn’t heard that they were supposed to get bogged down in a long drawn-out struggle over the structures and mechanisms of universal suffrage with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists.

Nonetheless, Beijing can’t stop itself from encouraging support for the Occupy Central camp. On top of news of financial aid to Rafael and the formation of another lame, fake anti-dem movement, we have been treated to the ridiculous sight of dozens of Hong Kong’s richest tycoons shoe-shining and kowtowing to China’s leaders. What a bunch. Average age, what – 65, at least? Gender: not one woman, so far as I could see. Entrepreneurs or innovators? You must be kidding. To say they’re unrepresentative of Hong Kong is beside the point: they’re not remotely representative of Hong Kong business.

And finally, a perfectly timed reminder of the nature of the Communist regime, in the form of Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti’s life sentence. His crime was to point out that China could consolidate and guarantee its rule over a stable Xinjiang by treating the people there decently. The totalitarian structure becomes a cornered rat when confronted by such dangerous truth. Presumably, if he had said “1 plus 1 equal 2” they would have shot him on the spot.

It is unlikely anyone needs to manage Occupy Central’s expectations any more now, but this should dispel any lingering illusion that they are facing a force that is rational, reasonable, confident, flexible, image-conscious, sensitive to overseas opinion, capable of being shamed, or bluffing as part of some negotiating tactic.

Knives out for the tycoons

September 23rd, 2014

SCMP-BeijingHintsHong Kong newspapers today (see right) get into some serious photo-cropping.

The South China Morning Post shows most of the city’s top property tycoons sitting in the Great Hall of the People. (Since you ask, L-R: K Wah Group’s Lui Che-woo, Wharf’s Peter Woo, Kerry Group/SCMP’s Robert Kuok, Henderson Land’s Lee Shau-kee and Cheung Kong’s Li Ka-shing. Then there’s ex-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Chairman Xi Jinping.)

Sing Tao whittles it down to Lee Shau-kee, Li Ka-shing, Tung and Xi, plus what appears to be Zhang Dejiang of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. Its stable-mate, the Standard, excises everyone except Li Ka-shing, Tung and Xi, giving the impression that no-one else was present; elsewhere, it carries a picture of its own owner Charles Ho (who was stuffed away at the back in the main assemblage), with shoe-shiners’ condescending and dimwitted thoughts on Hong Kong students’ political knowledge.

A list of all 70 ‘business representatives’ summoned to perform the Big Kowtow in Beijing appears here. There are four groups: tycoons and their deputies; members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; business chamber types; and ‘professionals and others’. (There is some overlap, especially between the first two.)

The key figures in the popular mind, notably the property tycoons, are all in the first group. Many of these individuals are described as offspring of tycoons dead or alive (indeed alive and also on the list). Many others also inherited their business empires from family (or represent such owners), or in Mainlanders’ cases probably owe control of the empires to family and/or political connections. Indeed, at a glance, only HSBC jumps out as neither family-controlled nor overtly Chinese state-favoured (I might be missing a couple of others). Apart from the Mainland entities, the list is a cliché of colonial-era Hong Kong Chinese dynasties, along with their British (Swire), Iraqi-Jewish (CLP), Indian (Harilela) and Southeast Asian counterparts.

Leaving the recently ascended Mainlanders out of it (plus a handful of long-term loyalists), these tycoons were all assiduous grovelers towards the colonial power structure in the old days. In the 1980s, China’s Marxist-trained officials seemed to believe that Hong Kong’s richest people created, rather than skimmed off, the city’s wealth, and were therefore vital to its success post-1997. So Beijing started cultivating the tycoons, and – not being stupid – the plutocrats mostly started shifting their allegiances.

As well as preserving the city’s economic success, the Chinese government also wanted the tycoons as a support base. These are obviously two different roles. Over time, especially as the Big Lychee’s people have proved to be increasingly uppity, Beijing has come to value the tycoons for their loyalty rather than their (supposed) economic contribution. Meanwhile, China itself has embraced much of the cronyism and rent-seeking that makes Hong Kong more feudal than capitalist. So the tentacles are now probably everywhere: we don’t know how many Mainland leaders’ princelings are in commercial partnerships with Hong Kong tycoons, but it can’t not be happening.

As with the Beijing-Hong Kong political relationship, this is about inequality of power. Hong Kong’s tycoons need Beijing’s favour and approval, not the other way round. The Communist Party has a sword at the throats of our property, financial and media moguls. The Hong Kong tycoons have extensive investments on the Mainland – as well as their privileged cartels here – and none of this is safe. Anyone up there could go the way of Bo Xilai, or GlaxoSmithKline or Gao Zhisheng tomorrow, all the more so because the faction whose shoes you were shining 10 years ago might have given way to rivals.

Ultimately the Communist Party doesn’t do loyalty and friendship: the most assiduous sycophant gets kicked in the teeth without a second thought when they are no longer useful. Despite China’s evolution into a kleptocracy and all the cross-border cronyism that must take place, the Hong Kong tycoons’ interests must always come second to China’s control of Hong Kong.

Right now, the Communist Party, in its paranoia, sees its grip on Hong Kong threatened by a pro-democracy movement utilizing civil disobedience – which could spread over the border with unknown results. So our friendly neighbourhood plutocracy becomes a vital member of the United Front.

But imagine if Occupy Central was aimed not at achieving democracy but at ending the local cronyism, the cartels and the rip-offs. Perceiving the same threat to stability and control, Beijing would distance itself from the tycoons in an instant. This is basic enemy-of-my-enemy triangulation stuff.

Tragic bottom line: the pro-dem emphasis on full democracy keeps the property hegemony secure.

Striking students battle Uncle Four for hearts and minds

September 22nd, 2014

SCMP-BackStudent

Stan-AcademicsPleaHong Kong students start a five-day boycott of classes to protest the Chinese government’s plans for semi-quasi-democratic elections in the city in 2017. Youthful idealism and campus unrest add up to potent symbolism, which can energize and amplify political struggle, or sell movies. This week’s action may not exactly be Strawberry Statement, but if thousands join in, as organizers hope, it will be a first in Hong Kong.

In a society that takes education ultra-seriously, boycotting lessons seems almost perverse (sympathetic lecturers are promising participants catch-up classes). One Executive Council member who mocks the idea will strike a chord among more than a few citizens, especially those who never had a chance at college. Pro-dem academics meanwhile plead with the public for support.

As if to help them out, the Big Lychee’s plutocracy answers en masse a summons to Beijing. The tycoons will receive strict orders to fully support the official lines on the correctness of the proposed political reform and the dangers of pro-democracy sit-ins.

Someone in Beijing seems to imagine that the sight of octogenarian real-estate cartelist Lee Shau-kee of Henderson Land wagging his finger and demanding ‘constructive debate’ will impress us. It could instead horribly backfire, if the pro-dems seized on the cronyism and the way the Communist regime and local administration favour the interests of the property tycoons over everyone else. Should they need more ammunition, here it comes served on a plate with news that Mainlanders are back, buying up Hong Kong apartments to keep empty while ordinary residents can’t afford homes. The pro-dems could generate outrage with all this. But, infuriatingly, they won’t. It’ll be more blather about nominating committees; it is possible that they fear the responsibility of having a real impact.

So both Beijing and the pro-dems remain too obtuse to connect with broad public opinion. Whichever side manages to be that little bit less clueless is in with a chance. You wouldn’t normally pay much heed to Epoch Times – propaganda sheet for the creepy wacko quasi-Buddhist Falun Gong sect – and the South China Morning Post’s ‘City Beat’ column, which seems to be dictated by Beijing officials and/or the paper’s own octogenarian shoe-shining owner. But both oddly agree that the Chinese government might be about to turn on the charm for Hong Kong, with all the warmth a Communist dictatorship can muster. Behold a ‘much more relaxed definition’ of foreign running dogs we detest, and a rejigging of Legislative Council constituencies to squeeze out fringe lawmakers and boost chances for more mainstream bores. There’s also talk of opening up the business-dominated functional constituencies in 2020.

All about rearranging ornaments, really. But with the debate focused on theoretical political-process-within-a-one-party-state rather than on the rotten day-to-day outcomes of cronyism and cartels, the fight for public opinion will come down to such superficialities, however inspiring the students prove to be.

Central and Western District Council, always aesthetically challenged, contributes to public dissatisfaction through its choice of nasty pastel colours for National Day decorations.

Central and Western District Council, always aesthetically challenged, contributes to public dissatisfaction through its choice of nasty pastel colours for National Day decorations.

If you can’t beat them…

September 19th, 2014

Pro-democrats rubbing sore feet probably sigh with relief as Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Dept refuses the movement permission to use Victoria Park on SCMP-SuppressionOctober 1. The aim was to use the place as a starting point for what would be (I think) the third march since July 1. Perhaps officials are sending the pro-dems a message: overly frequent marches, inevitably accompanied by declining turnouts, are embarrassing and suggest a lack of imagination. The police are also fussing about the planned protest; meanwhile, officials are creating problems over other pro-dem activities outside the government’s Tamar HQ.

Rather than get into a major, morose huff about the unfairness of it all (that’s what the powers of darkness want), the pro-democrats should open their minds and come up with a creative answer: subversive guerilla street theatre. The LCSD says that the Victoria Park location has already been reserved for patriotic citizens celebrating National Day. Fine – turn up to that instead. Gatecrash it.

A couple of thousand joyful lovers of freedom and democracy would totally wreck the soulless and contrived United Front gathering. They could wear ‘Zombies for Communist Party’ T-shirts, sport masks (Gao Zhisheng? Bo Xilai? The sky’s the limit), carry placards (‘Be patriotic – support censorship’), hand out copies of the 1944 Xinhua editorial on democracy, and sing classic Mao-era hits like The Night Soil Collectors are Coming Down the Mountain. No need for such provocation as British colonial flags (though the Queen whose statue graces the park entrance would surely be amused). Mockery and hilarity are a hundred times more effective. Bring a picnic. Fun for all the family.

I declare the weekend open with the best bit: you won’t have to walk so much.

An 1830s selfie

An 1830s selfie

Just time for a quick Scotch

September 18th, 2014

At last – a Scottish resident of Hong Kong saying he supports independence from the UK. All the other North Britons I know in the Big Lychee think the idea is crazy. SCMP-YesPlease

On reading the South China Morning Post piece, I find that the author himself shared this view up until a mere three days ago. Then, the Westminster-establishment pols campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in today’s referendum collapsed into a heap of gibbering flailing wrecks begging to be given a second chance and issuing dire warnings of doom if Scotland splits away. That was, beyond doubt, a fairly vomit-inducing sight, but hardly scientific proof that secession would increase happiness and prosperity. I also see that he is an SCMP journalist, which suggests that the column is in fact a pro-Beijing United Front attempt to turn MI6’s local Anglos and Celts against one another, and thus undermine the plot to use Hong Kong to overthrow the Communist regime. (Note the over-clever Presbyterian-sounding stuff about selfishness.)

I guess it is not a coincidence that Scottish-registered voters living overseas are disenfranchised during this referendum. The more you see and know of the big wide world – of global trade, finance and power – the less appealing a future as a small, narrow-based economy is likely to look.

It is definitely not a coincidence that the Nationalist leaders of Scotland’s current administration have given 16- and 17-year-olds the vote for the referendum (and were even thinking at one stage of a voting age of 14). The fact the Nationalist government sees a need to bulk the electorate up with the less-experienced and less-educated speaks volumes.

On top of that, many countries would require a constitutional change of this magnitude to be passed by a significant (say 65%) majority, rather than risk a situation where 51% vote ‘Yes’ and 49% don’t want independence. That’s not a great way to start up a new nation-state in sweetness and harmony.

That Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and colleagues are this desperate to start up their own country should be a worry.

Both sides in the independence debate have been making sense, but on totally different levels. On the ‘Yes’ side, the argument is all about emotions and symbolism: idealism, optimism, hope, change – and more than a little extra equality and fairness to be funded by oil revenues gushing across the land. On the ‘No’ side, it’s all about currency and fiscal arrangements, national debt, interest rates, central banking, deposit insurance and trade relations. So you have smarmy Southerners and financiers lecturing irritable Glaswegians and starry-eyed school-kids about the bond markets.

The one point at which the two sides intersect is the National Health Service, worshiped throughout the UK, understandably, for delivering health care to everyone without – miraculously – costing anyone any money at all, ever. So mesmerized are the British by the NHS that they would happily sign up to becoming Ugandan or going back to Norman rule to preserve it. In any British election, whichever side scares the voters more about the opposition’s plans to reform the sacred 1948-era healthcare system has an automatic 10-point advantage.

Presumably, after having had their fun scaring the wits out of the over-centralizing bores in London, Scots will conclude that discretion is the better part of valour and vote for the Union.

For Hong Kong, there is a curious, partial echo of all this: the debate about whether pro-democrats should veto Beijing’s proposed framework for quasi-democratic elections. The arguments are on different frequencies – one driven by excitement, idealism and no little anger, the other by weariness, calculation and probably cynicism. That’s probably as far as the parallel goes.

Click to hear a tirade against Scottish rebels written by a famous UK Customs and Excise officer!

Click to hear a tirade against Scottish rebels written by a famous UK Customs and Excise officer!

Property bizarreness gets weirder

September 17th, 2014

The South China Morning Post’s ‘Public Eye’ column sort of echoes my point that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists would accomplish a lot more for the city if SCMP-SubHK$3mthey channeled their energy into protesting the damage poor governance does to people’s lives. Specifically, the systematic impoverishment of nearly everyone by property and related cartels…

When was the last time you saw [pro-dems] organise a mass protest against tycoons ripping off the people? Why aren’t they throwing bananas at officials to vent anger over tycoons demanding HK$2 million for 177 sq ft flats that buyers aren’t even allowed to see beforehand?

The SCMP has to turn the argument into a democrat-bashing exercise, leading to the obligatory claim that Occupy Central’s planned downtown sit-in will inflict immeasurable harm on the innocent public. (No traffic and maybe a day off – the horror!) But the main point is a valid one. The pan-dems’ usual response to this sort of charge seems to be that we need to get universal suffrage first: then solving cronyism and other wrongs will come naturally. But it has been nearly 30 years now.

The latest real-estate bubble is related to distant central banks’ money-printing, and former Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s determination to maximize developers’ profits by (among other things) curbing land supply. We can add ‘hot money’ from China and maybe Russia and elsewhere, as also seen in London, Vancouver and other cities. On top of that is the local investor psychology, which is cynically – but it has to be said easily – exploited by the property tycoons, helped by a silent and complicit bureaucracy. The drip-feeding of units onto the market and the high-pressure and scare-tactic sales practices wouldn’t work without the herd of zombies desperate to buy.

Big developers (with official blessing) have recently scrapped planned luxury projects in order to build much larger numbers of much tinier apartments. The way things are going, the only homes the middle class will have a hope of affording are ones that are literally too small to live in. Maybe, with an aging population and declining household size, the city will in future come to need a larger proportion of micro-flats in its housing stock. Or maybe we are on course for a situation where only the publicly housed poor and the top 10% of the rich will be allowed space to have kids. Our planning and other officials aren’t saying which.

In theory, the government could set much tighter controls on what developers produce; it could require that apartments be a minimum size and even a maximum price (with resale conditions, as with the Home Ownership Scheme). Instead, the Lands Department carries on as if it’s a private-sector, profit-maximizing real-estate auctioneer, while housing officials try in vain to cool things down with extra stamp duty. (Yes – one part of the government tries to make housing as expensive as possible, while another tries to make it cheaper.) If speculators were hording vital medicines or food during plague or famine, government would intervene, but the right to keep apartments empty while people live in cages is sacrosanct. Officials don’t even seem to have the curiosity to wonder what is ultimately better for the economy and indeed humanity: expensive or cheap housing? Instead (as in other world cities right now) the nearest thing to a coherent government-wide policy is to wring hands and wait for the bubble to burst.

It’s a long time coming, and lots of people are adamant that Hong Kong has years of rising property prices to come.

Even as it is, you have to wonder: who, exactly, is buying these apartments of 250 or 300 square feet at HK$3.5-4.5 million? Where have they come from? What are they expecting to happen? What do these people look like? It’s a genuine puzzle.

Strolling down my own street a few days ago, I saw the offerings in a real-estate agency window. An apartment in the same road is for sale. It is a small-to-medium size flat with a similarly sized (ie, quite large) balcony attached. In these respects, it is exactly the same size and layout as mine – at least before mine had certain, shall we say, modifications that transformed outdoor space into indoor in no uncertain manner. I bought my flat a bit over 20 years ago, before Soho and the Mid-Levels Escalator existed and the neighbourhood was a quiet old blue-collar quarter up the hill from Central. But even so… asking price in the agency window: 9.9 times what I paid for mine. As with all inexplicable phenomena, people try to come up with a rational explanation; in my district’s case, the latest is ‘renovation of the nearby Police Married Quarters as a creative hub’ (yeah, right, that’ll make a slum worth US$1.3 million).

Multiply that sort of thing citywide, and we surely have something that’s too absurd, too bizarre, to last and which cannot end happily. Meanwhile, a massive and unfair transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich carries on, and the nearest we have to sane people are demanding that the Chinese Communist Party allow opponents to run against it in elections.