HK’s 20-year secret exposed

Hong Kong reels in shock after economist Leo Goodstadt’s new book reveals that the city has been governed with unimaginably extreme ineptitude since the handover to the motherland.

The one-time policy advisor to the old colonial regime would probably not claim everything was perfect pre-1997 (his previous works do not). But he believes that, by any standards, all four administrations under Chinese rule are guilty of gross mismanagement. One reviewer thinks he might be over-doing it a bit.

Probably shouldn’t comment without reading it, but obviously I will…

Goodstadt apparently maintains that the Basic Law mandates Chief Executives to attend to local people’s welfare, and things would have been better if post-97 governments had followed this. It’s certainly true that all four CEs have had a simplistic, blinkered or clumsy idea of keeping the city ‘good for business’ – letting property interests rip off the rest of the economy while government itself sucks more wealth out through massive budget surpluses. And it’s true that they and their bureaucracies all shared a peculiar dread of future economic calamity and a phobia about social spending.

But blaming these four mediocrities (and recall near-miss Henry Tang who made the others look smart) may be beside the point.

The Chinese Communist Party chose each one of them. Despite what establishment toadies like to say, there is no shortage of suitable talent in Hong Kong. Beijing picks dullards on purpose. It doesn’t trust anyone with ideas of their own. A suspicious mind might also imagine that the CCP is not unhappy to see the city stagnate to a degree (like it punished foreigner-friendly capitalist Shanghai after 1949). Either way, the mismanagement is not some four-hapless-incompetents-in-a-row misfortune or an accident.

Which brings us neatly to some summer reading: Suzanne Pepper at HKFP on that strange new official wisdom in Hong Kong where if you say rule of law is declining you are causing it; and a reminder as Mainlandization moves on to banning groups for their opinions, that Taiwan is watching.

Not content with infiltrating New Zealand and Australia, the CCP’s United Front moves in on the USA. And a rant about the ‘narcissistic self-absorption’ of Panda-pandering overseas academics who overlook China’s human-rights horrors (why can’t they just kowtow for the money like everyone else?)

We end on a cheerful note, with Anne Stevenson-Yang on how the whole Chinese economy is a Ponzi scheme.

I declare the weekend open with a long-overdue return to Wondermark (here’s a sample for the uninitiated – it’s not for everyone).

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Nation threatened by 17 street booths

The Chinese Communist Party geniuses overseeing the gradual Mainlandization of Hong Kong probably don’t dwell on local perceptions and nuances. But the local bureaucracy that has to implement their demands to crush hostile elements and eradicate splittists should know better. So the presentation side of the attempt to ban the HK National Party is interesting. It seems designed to appease hawkish paranoid thugs in Beijing, even at the cost of credibility among local audiences and the international media.

The Hong Kong Police claim HKNP must be outlawed before it uses violence, as an imminent threat to national security, public order and safety, and in the interests of (ahem) protecting the freedom and rights of others.

The police report on why HKNP should be banned as a matter of urgency portrays the group in terms that would befit an Islamic State cell that has downloaded bomb-making recipes and is starting to buy the ingredients. The cops have obviously spent considerable resources assiduously monitoring and recording the group’s activities in order to amass evidence of grave danger to society and nation.

And what have they found? That the HKNP (primarily one named person) has given mainstream media interviews, made Facebook posts, set up street booths (17 times) and appeared at protests. Lots of speeches and banners. So far, so lame (the anti-shark-fin campaigners do all that before breakfast). Edgier, but still perfectly legal, the group has distributed leaflets outside schools and met fellow skeptics of CCP/Han nationalism overseas.

In terms of opinion, the group openly disagrees with the constitutional definition of Hong Kong as an inseparable part of China. (The police report repeats the government’s misleading implication that such an opinion is itself somehow unlawful.) Perhaps more naughtily, HKNP has arguably envisaged possible conflict arising from Hong Kong-Mainland friction, and also arguably said nasty things about Mainlanders – though who among us shall cast the first stone here?

But obviously, the cops can’t find any offenses being committed, and HKNP’s views are certainly no worse than some pro-Beijing groups’ threats, incitements and even use of violence.

The cops’ bulging dossier of evidence for a ban might look good to CCP officials in Beijing. But to local and other audiences, it is flimsy and contrived. When you imagine dutiful constables spending months tracing every HKNP on-line post and every Andy Chan speech, it gets so absurd as to be creepy. But it certainly isn’t credible. Any administrative or legal process that seriously proceeds with it will look like a joke.

 

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Another step

To dust off some old official phraseology, Hong Kong must move towards being a Communist dictatorship in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.

The city now takes another step in this slow but deliberate transformation. The police (directed by the local administration, itself ordered by Beijing) try to use a law aimed at triad gangs to proscribe a thing called the Hong Kong National Party.

As with earlier stages of the Mainlandization process (the disqualification of lawmakers, the barring of candidates from ballots for their supposed opinions) it seems shocking enough to make even the pro-establishment press blanch. The South China Morning Post uses words like ‘most controversial’ and ‘unprecedented’, while the Standard gives generous space to opposition views.

And as with previous examples, the mainstream pro-democrats are at a loss. They recite the same old warnings of threats to freedoms of speech and assembly, they instinctively plan the same old protest march for Saturday, and no doubt frantically look for other unoriginal ideas that won’t work.

And ultimately, as on previous occasions of measured, step-by-step Leninist clampdown, most people will live with it.

We can only hope that at least the younger and smarter do not. The HKNP urge us to fight back and drive out the Chinese colonizers, which isn’t bad for an organization that does not legally exist anyway. They have an attractive (crimson) line of enemy of the state pro-independence stickers, which can’t be too difficult to produce in bulk and would look very nice affixed to thousands of lampposts and similar locations around town. The future of resistance lies with guerilla theatre mischief and nuisance-satire, provoking a thin-skinned and dull-witted totalitarian ogre. (By the way, why aren’t flash mobs crashing developers’ tacky sales launches for new luxury complexes?)

Some pro-democrats see this attempt to ban a political grouping as a backdoor way to implement the Article 23 national security law. But the methods aren’t the point. This all about the banning of ideas. The goal is the eradication of opinions that differ from official Communist Party thought. Which ultimately means the zombification of everyone – were we to believe the deranged Xi-Leninist nightmare-project could continue long enough.

The next big step in Hong Kong will be actual censorship of media, starting with just very specific words that threaten national security, so you’ll hardly notice at first.

On the Mainland, the fight against independent and incorrect thinking is further advanced. Professor Christopher Balding of Peking U at Shenzhen has been a valued critical analyst (Bloomberg contributor, etc) of China’s economic policies, like the much-vaunted deleveraging. And he is no more. Hong Kong is headed that way.

 

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Hong Kong’s cram-more-stuff-in policy

Hong Kong’s economic policymakers largely serve the needs of established, especially local, business interests. Thus we avoid change. As one author notes, the big tycoons of 20 or 30 years ago are the same big tycoons (well into their 80s) of today. Despite constant talk of innovation and tech and creative blah-blah, officials’ actions are strictly ‘more of the same’.

The policy is simple. Pack more tourists in, host more conferences, build more pointless white elephants, list more obscure Mainland companies. Cram more stuff in, skim off the top, repeat.

And up the rents, obviously.

In fairness to our bureaucrats bleating empty slogans about tech – with hot money pouring in desperate for intermediaries’ tender loving care, why should Hong Kong do anything different or original, or focus on economic quality rather than quantity?

Strolling around Exchange Square/IFC Mall early one morning last week, I noticed an above-average number of youngish, smartly dressed men and a few women who looked like they didn’t quite belong. They were in small and medium-size groups and had ID cards clipped to their jackets. They chattered excitedly in Mandarin. They took group selfies in front of Elizabeth Frink’s sculptures and Hong Kong Lands’ skyscrapers. One delegation took up half the tables in Pret a Manger, comparing exotic pastries and yogurts as bumpkins from across the border would have in the 80s.

It was a mega-IPO day. So many companies were launching on the Stock Exchange that the institution apparently ran out of the tacky gongs it uses as opening-bell props for listees’ PR photos. (It was Thursday, when eight companies were listed, including the oh-so digital-sounding Fingertango.)

A few days before, Xiaomi had done its IPO. The debut was a sort-of flop, owing to over-hyping, plus trade-war fears. This was embarrassing for the (government-run self-regulating monopoly) HKEx stock exchange, which had changed the listing rules to attract trendy ‘unicorn’ companies by accommodating dual-class listings, despite objections that this is simply the cram-more-stuff-in approach – or to use the technical terminology of a noted expert, ‘about attracting any crappy company we can by dismantling shareholder rights’.

Like most Hong Kong cram-more-stuff-in-and-skim industries, the stock market assiduously shoe-shines Beijing. Specifically, it grovels for favours in the guise of ‘helping internationalize the yuan’, or whatever baloney (Belt and Road!) hits the Communist Party’s spot. One supposed win-win concession was the Stock Connect, allowing Mainlanders to buy Hong Kong-listed stocks, kind of.

Now, in an extra kick-in-the-teeth embarrassment, Beijing is forbidding Mainlanders from investing in Xiaomi via this much-lauded visionary channel. HKEx are putting a brave face on it. Chinese officials are unhappy that companies like Xiaomi aren’t listing on the Mainland, and are already jittery about possible bigger economic-mayhem looming. But officially, they are declaring Xiaomi stock off-limits to domestic investors on those ‘crappy company/shareholder rights’ grounds. Which is of course doubly humiliating to HKEx and their bureaucrat buddies.

Traditionally, Hong Kong has sometimes barred Mainland products (veg and fish) on the grounds that they are toxic to consumers. Now it’s the other way around – China rejects Hong Kong’s low standards.

God forbid this city might have to diversify into productive value-creating economic activity one day.

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Some Monday links

The global village neighbourhood echo chamber has been overflowing with hyper-chatter about whether it is acceptable and/or constructive to approach members of the Trump administration in restaurants and be nasty to them. The ethical debate now moves on. Is it OK for a former kibbutz volunteer to take advantage of Trumpists’ ‘affection and respect for Israel to deceive and humiliate’ them? (Answer, judging from this video clip on arming kindergarten kids: looks like it.)

My powers of premonition proved: just weeks after I expressed bewilderment as to why the entire planet seems obsessed with taking Elon Musk seriously, the legendary inventor/whatever calls one of the Thai cave rescue divers a ‘pedo’ for not seeing the wondrousness of his school-science-project submarine.

To start the week, some links – notably to serious investigative journalism. The Financial Times marks the Trump-Putin summit-about-nothing in Helsinki by digging into the Russian-mafia and other murk behind the US President’s old Toronto project, which amply hints at what most assume about the great deal-maker’s property business. And, following the release of (largely forgotten) Stern Hu, Bloomberg looks into how Beijing used all its charm and influence to persuade Rio Tinto to behave as a good cooperative friend and partner of China should. Guest appearance by Henry Kissinger. This took place back in Hu Jintao’s time, when the Communist Party was soft and laid-back. Under Xi today, China would play hardball.

 

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World’s most expensive dog kennel at Tsing Yi

And here is the Hong Kong news this Friday the 13th…

A 30-year-old studio unit measuring 150 square feet at the Cheung On Estate in Tsing Yi in the New Territories has been advertised for HK$3.2 million (US$408,000) … “It will sell quickly,” said Calvin Leung, a sales manager at Centaline Property …

The story adds that this is US$2,735 per sq ft, compared with US$432 for a public-estate flat in Singapore. And it quotes a property guy’s explanation – young people with limited money are rushing to grab a home as they do not see an end to rising home prices.

One question: why not just leave your HK$3.2 million in the bank? Another: if the Communist Party had a strategy to squeeze the young out of Hong Kong, wouldn’t it look something like this?

I declare the weekend open with well over 150 sq ft of links…

Could the ‘new’ Malaysia that just elected Mahathir make Singapore look outdated? (My hunch: it depends whether ‘new’ Malaysia eradicates pro-Malay discrimination and supremacism and attendant corruption and toxic Salafi Islamism. Or in short, nope.) But the list of Singapore’s shortcomings sounds familiar to Hong Kong: elite, out-of-touch rulers, dependent on infrastructure/immigration, creating high costs and inequality.

One difference is that, unlike Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore are free of colonial domination. Behold the thin-skinned Chinese reaction to a Singaporean ex-diplomat’s comments on Beijing’s interference and bullying in the region.

At the Jamestown Institute, Willy Lam on the decreasing cuddliness of the Panda, and Miguel Martin on Sinified Buddhism’s part in China’s United Front work overseas.

Meanwhile in Africa, China’s Belt and Road Vision-Concept is not winning hearts and minds in Kenya and is getting into evangelical Christianity (it couldn’t happen to a nicer win-win Vision-Concept).

For hardcore enthusiasts only: a very lengthy history of the CCP’s use of hyperbolic language and propaganda, including the recent official attempts to back down from excessively bombastic nationalistic rhetoric. On a lighter note, a review of a book about the Opium Wars featuring ‘villains, like the Scottish drug lords William Jardine and James Matheson, worthy of soap opera’. I’ll never think of Wellcome supermarkets the same way.

Finally, out-of-area Sobering Big Picture – an expert ponders Trump scrapping NATO.

 

 

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HK solves (lack of) traffic problem

You have a short downtown street lined with shops. Would you prefer to have it: a) crowded with Hong Kong buskers; or b) packed with vehicular traffic? Given local street performers’ talent, many of us would be sorely tempted to have the road clogged up with cars and vans.

Such was the unpleasant choice facing Mongkok’s Sai Yeung Choi Street. Karaoke singers and similar menaces were making life unbearable. The only solution is to fill the strip with SUVs and trucks that spew out pollution and force everyone onto cramped sidewalks, thus easing the bongo-drummers and dancing grannies out of the district altogether.

Could someone think of an alternative course of action? The pro-Beijing district council members argued that noise generated by bad musicians damaged businesses, while opponents proposed licensing and regulation of the so-called entertainers.

Most agree that there are only two options: either you have traffic, or you have buskers. No-one dares indulge in dangerous, out-of-the-box, lateral thinking and suggest that maybe we could have some space with neither.

In cities overseas, bureaucrats would not usually consider displacing pedestrians with traffic as a ‘solution’. They would pedestrianize more streets to ease crowding generally. Especially if they found out that this was the most densely populated neighbourhood on the planet.

Hong Kong officials are less wishy-washy. In Asia’s World City, pedestrians are a nuisance, and reopening a street to traffic is ecological restoration.

Now, if you excuse us, we have to remove some ‘gay penguin’ books from library shelves.

 

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Minding your language

If you find the spread of creepy Mainland-ese into Hong Kong official language jarring, you’ll get used to it. Spare a thought for the government copywriters and translators who have to learn how to craft this new form of prose.

Today’s example follows a complaint by UK legislators about Hong Kong’s declining freedoms and rule of law. This calls for a whiny and defensive panty-wetting statement along the lines that ‘We categorically deny that our pants are on fire’. The English version suggests that the government scribes are benefitting from their Commie-speak lessons, though they are still some way off from full fluency.

Terminology is largely correct (eg, ‘return to the Motherland’ for ‘handover’). Quotation marks are used for mendacious clunky slogans (‘…“Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong”…’) and to indicate pouty foot-stamping deny-everything indignation at inconvenient facts (‘Any allegation of “political screening” is misleading and ill-founded’). Over-use of adjectives is coming along (‘…strict accordance with … full and successful implementation of…’), though I would suggest studying Xi Jinping’s speeches for inspiration.

Classic CCP announcements contain standard phrases that wrap wishful thinking and bullshit up as cold, haughtily delivered technical detail. Two at the end stand out.

The first is vintage stroppy PRC spokesman: ‘Foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs of the HKSAR’. It obviously belongs in this press release. However, the ‘in any form’ qualification is weak, hinting that maybe UK lawmakers might be entitled to write to their own Secretary of State, as they did, which of course they are not where our internal affairs are concerned.

The second is a home-grown one: ‘Statements arbitrarily made to undermine and bring possible damage to the rule of law and our well-recognised reputation in this regard is [sic] not conducive to Hong Kong’s progress’.

Since the CCP started to downgrade rule of law in Hong Kong several years ago, hypersensitive local officials have attempted to portray and deflect criticism of this process as itself damaging to the law, actually or in terms of reputation. This is what amateur psychologists call ‘projecting’. If we are to seek truth from facts, this positioning is desperate and unconvincing. At some point, the spin-doctors need to work up a more robust and assertive Line to Take – probably by dismissing Western norms altogether and insisting on the superiority of ‘Common Law with Chinese Characteristics’, or whatever.

In all: Mainlandization of official language is progressing reasonably, but there’s still room for improvement.

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The ‘frozen-bun-taking-forever-in-a-bamboo-basket patriots’

When Hong Kong’s tycoons switched allegiance to the Chinese government back in the 1980s-90s, they were mocked as ‘instant-noodle patriots’. They were simply doing what they had to, like generations of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia – shoe-shining whoever was likely to be charge in order to keep the family business safe.

Hongkongers with less materialist values mostly stuck to their principles. Mainstream pro-democrat professionals and activists still demand free elections and fight for rule of law, long after it has become obvious that the regime in Beijing is intent on merging the city into its Communist structure.

A few people in the liberal-pluralist camp have tried to shift themselves into a position of constructive engagement with the sovereign power. It is a slow and awkward process. Perhaps we could call them ‘steamed-dumpling-that-had-to-be-defrosted-first patriots’.

Best-known perhaps is Ronny Tong, formerly of the Civic Party, who embraced a naïve/mythical/cynical ‘third way’ and now serves as an apologist for Beijing’s dismantling of rule of law here. (Needless to say, the Communist Party does not do ‘third way’ even-handed middle-of-the-road fence-sitting honest brokers – either you kowtow or you are hostile, and that’s that.)

Another was Anthony Cheung, a Democratic Party founder who was moderate enough to become a minister in the last administration, and whose typically unexciting thoughts on housing appear in a South China Morning Post interview today. (He hardly counts as he was an academic with no noticeable lust for power.)

The paper also carries an op-ed piece by Christine Loh, a one-time trendy lawmaker and policy wonk who swallowed her pride to accept the futile and demeaning job of junior deputy assistant sub-minister for the environment, also in the last administration. The article illustrates the impossible contradiction facing someone who has ideals and ideas – and the ambition to take part in Hong Kong’s Communist-appointed and -vetted ruling system. (Even compared with CY Leung’s leadership five years ago, the Hong Kong government today is 100% compulsory bland, obedient, ideas-free mediocrity.)

She uses the big ‘trade war’ story of the day to offer a nifty if predictable win-win triangulation: Hong Kong keeps its groovy freedoms by making them useful rather than threatening to the Leninist dictatorship slowly crushing the life out of the place. With quick mentions for ‘Belt and Road’ and ‘Bay Area’ to show extra sincerity. Sounds good. Sounds productive. Sounds pragmatic. Sounds, perhaps, like a refreshing dash of talent to spice up a clueless cabinet? Or, presumably, sounds like a foreign-influenced poisonous-weed infiltrator trying to undermine the Party’s struggle to control the wayward territory.

 

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Food for Mainlandization thought

At HK Free Press, Stephen Vines issues an apology to Chief Executive Carrie Lam on behalf of the media who annoy her in English, or in any language. And there’s more on the government’s contrived panty-wetting press-statement following (or pre-empting) the July 1 march.

Both these subjects concern Mainlandization.

The word took off some five years or so ago to describe physical or cultural phenomena like the rising number of Mainland migrants and tourists and the presence of Mandarin and simplified characters on the street. Now it is a clear and deliberate political project and Communist Party strategy, aimed at re-shaping Hong Kong to remove distinct features so Asia’s World City ultimately fades and merges with its surroundings.

Officialdom’s (perceived) contribution includes distaste for using English and issuing Communist-tinged press statements.

The strategy requires everyone to increasingly think of themselves as Bay Area Folk, forget about ‘independence’, and tremble with excitement at being part of China in its new era of global supremacy.

Maybe it is working. I was planning to revisit a very self-consciously Taiwanese Separatist Identity beef noodles restaurant yesterday – they even somehow have Renegade Province staff, plus drinks in jars and plates the shape of Formosa. The food is sufficiently good that I can put up with the trendiness. Yet I was lured away from this democratic and freedom-loving fare by the prospect of a gleaming unaffordable high-speed rail project speeding an isolated Southeast Asian dictatorship into eternal debt-trap and vassalhood. Or, in short, I went to a hitherto unheard-of Lao place a couple of floors up. I have to say this is a Belt and Road opportunity to be seized.

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