Digital news media time-efficiency breakthrough

Working [sic] from home today, so perusing the online rather than print version of the South China Morning Post. The recent website redesign is cleaner and less cluttered-looking – but most of all, it is a major time-saver.

Although the content seems to be divided into predictable categories (Hong Kong, China, Business, Comment, etc), it is hard to find much current ‘new’ news. Maybe the stories are buried further down in sub-categories (politics, health, education, etc), but these are too numerous and laborious to click into and back out again, so we will never know for sure.

Scroll down any page, and you’re back to repetitive links to (often days-old) material from other sections, anyway. Meanwhile, whatever section you click on, one side of the page is occupied by links to the paper’s opinion columns – including the rancid pro-Beijing hacks and the (allegedly) stomach-churning one about women’s feelings and relationships.

I guess the idea is to steer readers to the trashy and glitzy stuff that is supposed to generate clicks and thus ad revenue. In practice, that means actively preventing readers from getting at the plain old-fashioned daily local and Mainland news reporting that is (was, should be) the SCMP’s core usable feature.

Anyway, you zip through it in 20% of the time you would spend on the paper product.

Update: weirdly, searching ‘Hong Kong’ on Google News reveals SCMP items not visible on the paper’s website.

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‘Being obnoxious makes you unpopular’ shock claim

We last heard of Professor Zhang Qianfan a month ago, after Mainland censors ‘disappeared’ his textbook on constitutional law as Western Threat of the Week. He now appears in Hong Kong, suggesting that Beijing’s tightening control over the city is a cause of the separatism and other discontent it is supposed to crush.

This is not exactly news to most of us. It is pretty obvious that if Beijing had allowed Hong Kong more representative or at least responsive government since 1997, the local population would today be happier and, quite possibly, have far more respect for the central authorities.

But Leninists do not do ‘hearts and minds’. If they knew how to be popular they would, after all, be democrats. They assume everyone hates them, and so their toolkit consists solely of co-option, coercion, intimidation and brute force. Hence Beijing’s Hong Kong strategy of cronyism, increasing authoritarianism, population displacement and cultural absorption, and an administration of inept but totally obedient bureaucrats.

Professor Zhang seems to share with our local mainstream pro-democrats a sunny and optimistic view that the Chinese Communist Party can come round to realizing the advantages of a system where government power is limited and subject to the law and ultimately the will of the people. This supposes that China’s princeling and state-capitalist elites will perceive the benefits and joy of giving up their vast and tightly held privileges and monopolies.

In the spirit of sunny optimism, maybe the fact that the Professor is here and saying this – they only disappeared his book, after all – is a glimmer of hope. No doubt Hong Kong officials, businessmen, pro-establishment academics and Beijing-friendly shoe-shiners of all sorts will now come forward to agree with his modest point that the CCP’s heavy handed tactics are a turn-off to local people, and thus counterproductive. Stand aside for the rush.

 

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Riddle of the Trillion-Dollar Sands

So many excitements still to come: Mainland extradition (the denouement), the imprisonment of Benny Tai and friends (or not), National Anthem compulsory-adoration laws, the ever-toxic Article 23 (risen from the grave) – and of course the Lantau Trillion Dollar Reclamation.

A letter to the editor today brings this one back to mind: What will they fill the sea in with, where will they get it, and how much will it cost?

Yet again, I get this nagging feeling that this absurd idea isn’t going to happen and isn’t really intended to happen. The sheer misallocation of resources – half a trillion bucks-plus for land, thousands of square miles of which already exists around and about. Otherwise known as opportunity cost (think what else you can do with the money). We could buy half of Zhuhai for that, and not have to plunder half the sand in south China. And as with all the Excitements-still-to-come, Beijing makes the final decisions. Surely, the Communist Party is too devious to blow so much cash (which is ultimately at its disposal) on something so pointless. So why does everyone have to go through this long-drawn-out Let’s Pretend this is Real drama?

I declare the damp-looking weekend open with some mainly-dry reading.

If you want to stay awake worrying about the global economy, here’s the extended gloom-and-doom outlook. (Sample: “To be blunt, the idea that a propped currency which Chinese citizens feel compelled to stuff in their underwear as they board a plane, just so they can convert it to anything but RMB, might somehow become a ‘reserve currency’ is delusional.”)

A long look at China’s elite-capture style of economic diplomacy in Central/Eastern Europe (including lots on Patrick Ho’s friends CEFC in the Czech Republic).

And not-so-elite capture – what’s happening to Yang Hengjun, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, by someone who’s been there.

Onto language, with all you wanted to know about parallelisms – like the Three Intenselys (intensely annoying, intensely irritating, intensely wearisome) – repetitive CCP-phrases, or ‘the rhythm, music and dance of loyalty’.

And for history fans, the CCP’s deep-rooted fear of overseas Chinese movements like Sun Yat Sen’s.

 

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Regina gets stroppy

Lawmaker and ex-Security Secretary Regina Ip writes a letter to the South China Morning Post complaining about the Hong Kong business community’s objections to proposed extradition measures.

(She claims that businessmen have no reason to worry because they could be ‘nabbed’ whenever they cross the border anyway. This overlooks the real fear that the corrupt and faction-ridden Communist system can lash out at anyone without warning, and the assurance that Hong Kong is as a haven from it.)

Mainly, the radiant-when-angry Iron Butterfly goes hurrumph at the tycoons for hypocrisy and ingratitude. Having profited from their cushy Mainland deals, these ‘supposedly trusted and loyal supporters’ of Beijing and the local administration are now ‘openly trashing China’s legal and judicial systems’ – systems, she adds, that they have never lifted a finger to improve.

Ouch.

The little missive nicely reflects tensions among the various useful idiots co-opted by the Communist Party’s United Front and its culture of obsessive-compulsive shoe-shining.

Regina (who still apparently lusts for a return to high office in Hong Kong) is a member of the Bureaucrat subcategory of the pro-Beijing camp. They are what you would expect from (British-trained) civil servants-turned-CCP-loyalists: dutiful, relatively thoughtful, and of course haughtily contemptuous of the other subcategories. These include the True Believers who worship the CCP from the heart, the gullible opportunist dimwits like tragic homophobe Holden Chow – and of course the avaricious, selfish, shallow and amoral business community.

As part of her own shoe-shining, Regina has founded a Belt and Road fan club for kids and (just recently) proposed to bar public broadcaster RTHK from news reporting. We can assume that she has had to grit her teeth at times while going along with the pro-Beijing line when she finds it illogical or repugnant. (Note how her letter asserts the integrity of China’s legal system, but also implies that it could be improved.)

The letter is essentially a snap of resentment at the spoilt entitled own-grandmother-selling rich buffoons who feel they can get away with putting their narrow and grubby interests first, while the devout, imbecilic and (her own) intellectual pro-Beijing elements discipline themselves and make sacrifices.

And she is right. But nobody said life was going to be fair. Indeed, the CCP she has been lured into supporting survives by making sure it isn’t.

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Beijing having bad hair day

So many things making China’s leaders frazzled right now.

First there’s Protestant Christianity. China’s rulers have long seen this as a Western plot – they suspected missionaries of using children’s eyes as medicine in the 19th century, and expelled the Rhenish and Elsie Elliot Tu to Hong Kong in the mid-20th. Now they want to Sinicize the faith by removing its ‘foreign characteristics’.

Where do they start… Sexual repression? Golf-playing? Putting the toaster in the cupboard? Not the famous ‘work ethic’, surely. According to the report, Reformation with Chinese characteristics will involve messing with liturgy (which is what leads to Pentecostal snake-handling), sacred music (out with Amazing Grace, in with The East is Red), church architecture (which frankly, in the Mainland, can be pastiche-European horrifying), and clerical clothing (out with dog-collars, in with something brighter). Plus, of course, a rewrite of the Bible (do they know how long that takes?)

The Communist Party thus hopes to counter subversion from foreign infiltration and ‘private meeting places’ (which sounds like some sort of Protestant hang-up). It could be worse.

The Catholics, of course, are making their own arrangements to be more CCP-friendly.

Then there’s that other terrible threat to the Glorious Motherland – dyed hair. (Obviously, not a la Jiang Zemin: as Henry Ford would have said if he were a stylist, you can have any colour you want so long as it’s Zhongnanhai Black.) TV shows are digitally enhancing broadcasts to tone down young artists’ wacky hairdos, apparently as part of a campaign against ‘strange styles and lack of aesthetic sense’.

When and how do these ideological reforms hit Hong Kong?

With Mainlandization, the scope for Hong Kong to be different from the rest of the country should be narrowing not widening. Protestants of the colonial Anglican, dull mainstream and wacko Evangelical persuasions are all active here, with adherents throughout the local pro-Beijing establishment. Can they keep their traditional Baptist and Methodist preaching and hymns when their brethren across the border are banging gongs and divining oracle bones in praise of the Party? And – truly scary – what becomes of the city if Beijing decides to rectify Hong Kong’s ‘strange styles and lack of aesthetic sense’?

 

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Cringe time

Cringing exercises over 100 muscles in the face and other important parts of the body. So – if you haven’t already – take a look at how Chinese state media get hip n groovy and down with the kids in explaining the annual ‘two meetings’ to the wider world.

As the expert accompanying narrative mentions, the problem here is that Beijing’s ‘communication practitioners’, spin-doctors and PR floozies have delivered what their stone-faced Leninist superiors deem correct, rather than anything that will persuade a skeptical external audience.

In a workplace where you and your family can disappear overnight, you would make videos like this too. You could try carefully suggesting to the big boss that effective communication should be candid – perhaps even conceding that China’s advisory bodies are essentially rubber-stamp assemblies – but then making a case why the system delivers results (millions of starving pandas pulled from poverty etc). But you probably wouldn’t.

Boss-targeted propaganda goes back to the pharaohs, King Canute and company brochures crammed with pictures of the CEO. It is alive and well in Hong Kong’s civil-servant-controlled government’s own embarrassingly defensive and shamelessly self-congratulatory press releases.

Don’t listen to Joshua Wong – we handle prison complaints absolutely fairly. And the government generously shares its very own hard-earned wealth with these poor kids, and the last budget was like oh-so forward-looking, and the health-centre tendering that looked corrupt was spotlessly clean and fair, and those people who say there are rats everywhere are just imagining it. So there.

The difference is that the Hong Kong government PR floozy submits whatever makes the boss happy, to get it over with – they are both waiting to collect their pensions and get out. Her Mainland counterpart has passport confiscation, extra detention at Xi Jinping Thought classes, self-criticisms, forced confessions or purging to consider.

The Hong Kong official PR materials are cynical and lazy. Inept through lack of interest. The Beijing propaganda is driven by fear. Hence the weird slickness.

We won’t even start on Hong Kong’s guaranteed-to-fall-flat anti-drug banners – not now, not ever…

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Extradition doo-doo

While you can ignore the vacuous opinion column beneath it, the headline in the South China Morning Post asks a serious question: is the Hong Kong government getting into deep doo-doo with its proposed new Mainland extradition arrangements?

See this good run-down of officials’ lame handling of the plan (includes the nicely impertinent observation that the government would have more credibility if it said the new system will replace Communist Party agents’ extra-legal abductions on this side of the border).

As that thread says, much of the serious opposition to this proposal comes from legal bodies. But it’s misgivings from the business sector that are grabbing attention. The American Chamber of Commerce fears the impact of easier cross-border rendition on international executives, who could fly into town and get nabbed as part of Beijing’s latest hostage-taking tantrum. Local tycoons, whose past co-option by the CCP inevitably involved murky Mainland deals, fear shake-downs, exposure to factional infighting or other nastiness.

The SCMP goes off on a rather bizarre tangent, claiming that the local business community are criticizing the extradition proposals as protest/revenge for the Hong Kong government’s moves to use part of their precious golf course for housing.

To make the theory fit, the SCMP story maintains that the extradition proposals are the work of the Hong Kong authorities alone, and that Beijing has no opinion or input. If you believe that Chief Executive Carrie Lam and team would unilaterally think up and announce a reform with major symbolic or practical implications for Hong Kong-Beijing and Hong Kong/Beijing-Taiwan relations – like it’s news to Mainland officials! – you are seriously gullible. (To use the hip phrase these days, the local administration cannot/does not have ‘agency’.)

You can safely assume that Beijing officials are happy to stand back and pretend it’s all Carrie’s idea. They do with most Mainlandization measures – and this one’s more-than-averagely pushing it. You can also very easily believe that the pitiful and anxious shoe-shiner tycoons will claim they are stepping out of line out of concern for a golf-course rather than for their own clammy skins.

 

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Would you buy a used ‘One Country Two Systems’ from this guy?

A senior Chinese military officer complains that ‘demonization’ of ‘One Country Two Systems’ has deprived Taiwan people of their ‘right to know the truth’. If they wise up, he suggests, they could be the lucky winners of Ten Big Exciting Privileges. Hongkongers with memories of Beijing’s promises in the 1980s-90s get a free nostalgia trip into the bargain.

The first four ‘privileges’ entail self-administration with separate legislative and independent judicial systems (including right of final adjudication). Privileges 5 and 7-10 give Taiwan the right to its own foreign cultural and economic arrangements, its own financial/tax system, its own currency/monetary system, its own tariffs and its own passports. No mention of whether Taiwan can remain democratic or control other areas (like immigration), but the implication is that these would be part of the deal, subject to the proviso that everything must be in accordance with ‘reunification’ and ‘national sovereignty’. The sixth privilege is maintenance of its own military (again, conditions apply).

Even if Taiwanese could believe this kind and generous offer, they would wonder ‘why bother?’ – their country already has these ‘privileges’, and more. But why would they believe it after they have seen what happened to the mostly very similar ‘1C2S’ ‘high degree of autonomy’ Beijing promised to Hong Kong?

Since the 1997 handover, China has redefined ‘One Country Two Systems’ and shifted the original stress on insulation from Mainland influence and methods to a need for integration and conformity. Crucially, Beijing has broken its promise on representative government, and increasingly exploited mechanisms that override or sidestep Hong Kong’s judiciary.

The more ‘One Country Two Systems’ is weakened and blurred in Hong Kong, the more ardently Beijing’s officials insist they adhere to it. Anyone watching from Taiwan can see that Beijing has breached the original commitment and started to directly control Hong Kong. Can a Leninist one-party state do otherwise?

One depressing aspect of Mainlandization is the rise of CCP-speak among Hong Kong officials. Discussing the curious case of Ming Pao boss Gu Zhuoheng’s attempted abduction, the venerable Jerome Cohen chimes in on the lame ‘interference in internal affairs’ pantie-wetting-cliché.

Mainlandization of the Week has of course been extradition. HK Free Press carries Eddie Chu and Edward Yiu on the background and possible consequences. Two join-the-dots questions on links between this hurried measure and: a) Canada’s arrest for extradition of Huawei’s Ms Meng; and b) Beijing’s ongoing campaign to symbolically assert ownership of Taiwan. Meanwhile, SCMP quotes local tycoons like nice Henry Tang who, for reasons we couldn’t possibly speculate on, find the idea of extradition to China for white-collar crimes waaay too scary. To repeat: Those who live by the shoe-shine, day by the shoe-shine.

I declare the weekend open with a small but exquisitely curated selection of reading.

Too innocent to be Mainlandized (yet): a Hong Kong playgrounds and their history. Also on urban planning: how China missed the chance to leapfrog Western-style car-focused cities and went for super-blocks.

A good background on the US-China economic conflict, notwithstanding curiously adoring things to say about Robert Lighthizer.

And in the Creepy Department: how China is shifting from ‘One Child’ to pump-them-out-for-the-motherland Natalism and, for extra positive energy, racial purity…

…eugenics and traditional family values will make up two essential pillars of future Chinese natalist policies. This means “high quality” Han children produced in a legitimate marriage are the only ones the state is interested in…

Has Xi Jinping been watching The Boys from Brazil?

 

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Fancy-sounding word for this stuff discovered

Sesame Street today was brought to you by the words ‘abusive emulation’. It means putting a nice liberal-democratic label on something that is authoritarian. Our example is declaring the Kowloon high-speed rail terminus ‘co-location’ arrangement to be equivalent to pre-clearance by US immigration in Canada. Full explanation here. Be prepared for some ‘isomorphic mimicry’ along the way. Here’s the author.

Many Hong Kong policies are presented this way. The national anthem law is sort-of just like those in other countries. It’s crazy that we don’t have an extradition agreement with the Mainland when other countries do.

Indeed, much of Hong Kong’s visible, ostensible political process is abusive emulation. The Chief Executive ‘election’ is simply the formal announcement of Beijing’s appointee – a charade involving a supposed campaign and policy platform, and 1,200 schmucks pretending to cast ballots.

All those things we see, and which the South China Morning Post subjects to lengthy straight-faced analysis – Legislative (increasingly) and Executive Council meetings, the budget and policy addresses, public consultations – are empty ceremony and ritual given names borrowed from open and democratic systems. The way Mainlandization is going, judges’ famous wigs and robes are no doubt destined to end up as ‘abusive emulation’. Other phrases for it would be ‘insulting your intelligence’, or ‘lying’.

 

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Talk to Taiwanese, risk a Panda-tantrum

A group of Hong Kong pro-democrats, ‘risking wrath’, fly to Taiwan to discuss the proposed Mainland extradition deal. This parallel diplomacy is amusing, as the pan-dems are doing what Hong Kong (or Mainland) officials cannot/will not do – namely treat Taiwanese like ordinary people. The rest of the world could learn something from this as a way of passively undermining Beijing’s ‘One China’ delusions.

It is doubly amusing, since the Hong Kong authorities are using Taiwan (as location of a recent Hong Kong-related murder) as an excuse to ram an extradition arrangement through. To the extent Hong Kong/Beijing needs Taipei to play along, in retaliation for having its existence denied, Taiwan can veto. Exquisite.

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