Never a dull moment…

Donald Trump appoints laugh-a-minute Neo-con parody act John Bolton as National Security Advisor, and announces mega-tariffs on Chinese trade.

Presumably, the idea is that with someone in the White House apparently intent on nuking Iran, North Korea and the UN, the rest of the world will come to its senses and sort everything out, so all threats to global peace will vanish.

That’s certainly the principle behind the trade measures, which are really just proposals and possible plans designed to freak out or at least focus minds. The unmistakable tone of seriously miffed Panda suggests it has had an effect. Just because the US President is a clown, it doesn’t mean that China isn’t mercantilist, or that the West hasn’t been naïve about Beijing for a decade or two. And voila…

If you want to feel good, or at least better/less suicidal, about the Trumpian/Brexit/etc post-elites ‘shake things up’ approach, here’s a Big Picture argument that Trump’s tariffs strategy is worthy of a four-dimensional chess genius.

Thus comforted, I declare the weekend open with some links busy people may have missed, in increasing order of fascination.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s speech at West Point on China’s rise is not overly exciting, but a good summary if you’ve been away for five years. And George Magnus asks whether authoritarian states deliver better economic growth – interesting even though you know the answer.

More hand-wringing as the shocked West starts to wonder whether Xi Jinping might be a Communist. This observer suspects that the ‘crushing of intellectuals, the massive spending on internal state security, the talk of hostile forces and internal coups – these are not hallmarks of real confidence’.

One small scrap of collateral damage in the Xi ‘win-win’ New Era is Hong Kong’s ‘One Country Two Systems’ – a view from Taiwan.

Finally, all you need to know about the lady who prompted That (ie this) Eye-Roll: an in-depth investigation exposes the tedious red-dressed Zhang Huijun as a sleazily-connected bim who slept her way up CCTV’s propaganda greasy-pole organ or something, as you would expect (or not – I couldn’t possibly comment).

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Carrie administers dose of positive energy

Imagine that someone in Beijing gives Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam a kick up the backside about boosting ‘social harmony’ in the city. Instinctively capable at implementing anything without question, she sets to it.

The lady personally declares a one-off cash handout to every member of the poor, semi-poor and not-very-rich segment of the population who (in some cases, at least) didn’t benefit from the rebates, grants, bonuses and other money-flinging measures in the recent surplus-filled Budget. Politicians from across the spectrum whine, thus enhancing the subliminal impression among the public that she has accomplished something bold and worthwhile.

Then she goes to the Democratic Party’s annual dinner, where she hobnobs and even hands them a modest donation. From a United Front perspective, there’s no harm in giving them a little face. The DP is a stale single-issue group that still takes our increasingly ceremonial Mainlandized political structure seriously, and its aging members at least consider themselves to be fellow Chinese. Trying to split them from Hong Kong’s young radical pro-independence elements is a Leninist no-brainer. As a little extra, the patriotic loyalist parties complain bitterly about ‘rewarding’ the opposition (they mean the symbolism rather than the sensuous pleasures of having dinner with Carrie), and they need an occasional kick in the teeth to remind them of their place.

Who have we left out? Oh yes – the tycoons. Carrie decides to relax and give herself a treat by setting up a committee. Obviously, she isn’t going to freak out with an original one; this Chief Executive’s Council on Innovation and Strategic Development is a resurrection of Donald Tsang’s Mega-Commission, though perhaps more tightly focused on getting leaders of parasitical oligarchic ‘pillar industries’ to suggest how to free Hong Kong from the grip of parasitic oligarchic ‘pillar industries’.

And talk about fortuitous timing! Appointments of Westerners – and indeed females, and as if that weren’t groovy enough, Western females with track records in icky same-sex trendy stuff – to the Court of Final Appeal, just as everyone moans that the Communists are scrapping our rule of law.

See how nice things can be when you don’t go around electing localists?


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One-party rule is wonderful wonderful wonderful

Among the many excitements at the ‘two meetings’, Tam Yiu-chung replaced Rita Fan as Hong Kong’s Supreme Principal pro-Beijing Heavyweight-in-Chief (in technical terminology, he was ‘elected’ to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee). The role of Heavyweight involves making vaguely menacing statements in a supposedly personal capacity while behind the scenes Communist Party officials ponder their corresponding next move in crushing local rights and opponents.

Thus a few days ago Tam opined that avowed critics of one-party rule could be barred from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, as pro-independence voices have been. This was clearly news to our local government officials, who mumbled about doing things in accordance with the law. Now one of Beijing’s people in Macau backs Tam.

Maybe the word will come down that, on the contrary, candidates are perfectly free to call for an end to the one-party state – sorry for any misunderstanding, haha. Otherwise, we can expect this additional loyalty test to screen out undesirables from the local legislature, now on a clear course to NPC-style rubber-stamp status.

With a national anthem law being rushed through, more of this is to come (a ban on insulting Xi Jinping, for example). Pro-democrats, finding it increasingly difficult to get their head around this Communist-dictatorship concept, will express wrathful anger. Hong Kong officials will put on forced smiles and pretend all is well.

It’s quite possible that Beijing goes from prohibiting ideas to making the opposite beliefs compulsory – thus it becomes an informal requirement for moderate, meek-and-mild pro-establishment-by-default figures to publicly endorse one-party rule. For the businessmen who need to get along, the eager-to-please political-social climbers, the grasping vested interests and others in the United Front herd who quietly keep their heads down, passive shoe-shining will no longer be enough. They’ll need to earn their safety and their pats on the head, and get their hands dirty with overt fealty.

And of course, it’s highly likely that bans on ideas will extend from election candidates to everyone, which means censorship, through National Security laws or other means – but we know that. (When asked, Tam Yiu-chung said it would be OK for private individuals to ‘chant slogans’ against one-party rule, but as we recall with Rita, the Heavyweights have no clue what is actually happening.)


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‘Two Meetings’ not fun any more

China’s top leader Xi Jinping delivers his grand speech to mark the end of the ‘two meetings’ in Beijing. Somewhere out there in the sea of faces in the Great Hall of the People are several dozen Hong Kong delegates trying hard not to fidget or look at their watches. Just another hour (or maybe two, or perhaps three), and they will finally escape to the airport and get back home to freedom.

In past years, members of the Hong Kong delegation managed to juggle these annual patriotic ‘political’ duties with having a life. The aging shoe-shiners of the CPPCC would turn up at enough of their consultative committee’s sessions to look dedicated, and spend the rest of the time with the city’s reporters – similarly bored at the stage-managed proceedings. The more eager members of the NPC would make a point of being seen awake and with their right hands raised as required at least two days in a row before spending more time at restaurants and karaoke. The tycoons pressganged into the charade would often get away with just two days in Beijing (much of it on the phone in their hotel rooms), then sneak back to the office for a day, then returning to the nation’s capital for another two.

Not this time. Many of the Hong Kong representatives have been stuck up there for 15 days now. Attendance at functions and presentations has been compulsory. The pointless interminable ritual is no longer just a show. The ceremonial stuff has become more militaristic and nationalistic, with creepy Communist salutes instead of flowers on the podium. With their counterparts in the Mainland elite being disappeared, investigated, purged, imprisoned or shaken-down, it is dawning on the Hongkongers that under Xi, being a Beijing loyalist is going to become more serious.


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HK Mainlandization approaches the unthinkable

An update on the Hong Kong government’s extreme attempts to imprison pro-democracy activists, notably by ‘aggressively appealing non-custodial sentences’. With China now following a ‘Stalin-model centralization of power and suppression of dissent’, the city will be seeing more repression. Disrespecting the national anthem will soon be a crime, while collective veneration of the tune in schools will be compulsory (it will be interesting to see whether/how this will be enforced in the private and international schools top officials’ kids attend).

Mainlandization need not stop at silencing dissent and brainwashing kiddies. It could, in theory, go beyond civil liberties and human rights, and infringe the most precious of Hong Kong’s core values – property developers’ margins.

Hong Kong’s post-1997 governments have passively and actively pushed up housing prices and subsequently lamented that there is no short-term remedy. Officials have contemptuously dismissed suggestions of a vacancy tax or serious bars to overseas buyers as absurd and impossible. But while Xi Jinping was consolidating his emperor-for-life power up in Beijing in the last couple of weeks, something slightly weird happened: Financial Secretary Paul Chan criticized developers’ hoarding and drip-feeding of new apartments, and floated the idea of a tax on vacant properties.

The instant, universal reaction was that this will never happen, because anyone who knows anything about Hong Kong knows it can’t happen. But then, why did Chan even mention it – a policy option that was hitherto unutterable?

Meanwhile, a couple of tycoons call for action on housing. Charles Ho (whose media relentlessly talk up property prices) proposes tough measures against overseas buyers and moving prisons to the Mainland to free up land (why not some luxury malls, government offices or bank support functions too?) And developer Cecil ‘Playboy’ Chao blames the housing crisis for local discontent.

It could just be that Chan has been drinking, and the two second-tier plutocrats are trying to burnish their reputations for humanitarianism. Another explanation is that the government and tycoons are trying to shift blame onto each other following signs of impatience from Beijing. In other words, the Mainland officials who have ordered the jailing-at-all-costs of young protestors have also ordered serious action on housing. ‘Tough on HK protestors, tough on the causes of HK protestors’.

If hoarding apartments is wrong, what about the hoarding of land? It sounds hard – OK, impossible – to believe. But then, the government prosecutors’ obsessive pursuit of activists would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In Xi’s New Era, is anything sacred?


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Shock as HK judges speak on public affairs not concerning their pay

Time for the UK to issue its twice-yearly report on Hong Kong’s declining autonomy. The government instantly hits back with a press statement (less whiney-defensive and more dismissive-shrug than usual – maybe they are learning). Normally, that would be that for another six months.

But this time, Reuters is publishing a story in which Hong Kong judges voice fears about Beijing’s growing influence over the courts. (No mention of it in the South China Morning Post, but the Standard carries it in a features column branded ‘Cultural Spectrum’.)

A turning point was the November 2016 ‘Basic Law interpretation’, by which Beijing suddenly changed the law with retroactive effect to pre-empt the courts in a plainly political case (barring lawmakers for incorrect oath-taking). The de-facto edict effectively turned the independent judiciary into a rubber stamp in that case.

The negative judicial vibes Reuters quote are (inevitably) cloaked in anonymity and predictably restrained. But the story will hit a raw nerve among Hong Kong bureaucrat-officials who loudly maintain that rule of law is safe, sacrosanct and key to the city’s role as a business hub. (It might be welcomed, discreetly, among true faithful Communist loyalists who detest the alien legal system. Some may be ambivalent, like former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung, who sounds faintly uncomfortable answering Reuters’ questions.)

The story mentions hedge funds specifying in contracts the use of Singapore rather than Hong Kong for dispute resolution. Singapore officials of course encourage misgivings about Hong Kong’s legal system. OK – a tad hypocritical. But Beijing itself is bolstering the argument that Hong Kong institutions might favour Chinese state-linked parties. (Singapore is also sniping at Hong Kong’s securities regulation on similar grounds. Who can blame them for identifying an opportunity?)

There is more to come. Macau (totally different legal system notwithstanding) may lead the way in barring foreign judges from some cases. Beijing’s obsessive allergy-phobia about Hong Kong ‘pro-independence’ sentiment shows no sign of succumbing to reason, and will no doubt lead to National Security or other measures that restrict the courts’ ability to protect people from state power. It’s the trend: Xi Jinping is on a mission to restore what he sees as genuine one-party rule, and Hong Kong will not be spared.

No-one can do anything about this. The Hong Kong government will wring its hands and seek comfort in the fantasy that it’s essentially a PR challenge.

I declare the weekend open with… proof truck drivers ignore signs/a disastrous attempt to paint the town red/David Hockney’s lesser-known Hong Kong classic, A Mid-Level Splash

And a last-minute reminder for those who missed it: HK Free Press‘s funding drive.


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Alien intrusion

On the rare occasions they take a break from pushing up property prices and cramming more tourists into the city, Hong Kong’s leaders declare their fervent visionary desire for economic diversification. This tends to mean inno-green-bio-whizz-bang R&D tech hub zones, but sometimes they hint at ‘creative and cultural’ industries.

Emphasis on ‘hint’. Officials are nervous of creativity and culture. And with good reason: distributors won’t touch local movies because the Communist Party doesn’t like the plots, authors are banned from cultural events because a pro-Beijing tycoon runs the forum, book-publishers are abducted to the Mainland, and live music venues are raided and closed down for not paying rent to the government’s landlord buddies.

To officials, the only safe cultural activity is a real-estate project. The latest burst of artistic energy at the West Kowloon Culture Hub Zone concerns an attempt to link two promenades – one at the hub-zone and one 400 metres away at nearby Olympic Station. The genius aesthetes designing this seriously propose a ground-level pedestrian walkway less than 5 feet wide. Or, they add, you can have an inconvenient elevated link costing hundreds of millions.

Among all this, creativity is an alien intruder. The following is a HK Poly U film student project by Manny Leung, combining satire (note references to Lei Feng, Liu Xiaobo and Tank Man), some pretty decent tongue-in-cheek low-budget special effects (one of which almost looks like Nury Vittachi), some nice brief use of real news footage, and much more…



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Waiting for a slogan

We still don’t have a name for it, but before long the media and academics will start referring to this moment in 2017-18 as Xi Jinping’s ‘Red Restoration’, ‘Counter-Reformation’, ‘Grand Centralization’, ‘Revenge of the Princeling’, or something (presumably) catchier. It will be portrayed as the turning point that led to… whatever history brings next – the rise of China as the planet’s sole superpower, or the collapse-coup-mayhem that ended the world’s last empire.

The term-limits Emperor-for-Life thing will be part of it. But the commentators will probably put greater weight on other moves to concentrate power. There’s the new anti-graft system – an inquisition that can purge or discipline anyone for anything with no due process. And a consolidation of ministries that enables tighter Communist Party rule, including what Anne Stevenson-Yang calls a return to a ‘pre-98 financial system that is the handmaiden of politics, re-centralizing pricing and standards management’.

While we are waiting for the zippy slogan to describe this new era, a new sub-genre of China-watching commentary has emerged, about how China is really, seriously, deeply not going the way Western and other optimists supposedly expected back in the 80s and 90s (today’s example).

Few places are finding it as hard to come to terms with this disillusionment as Hong Kong. People in the city fervently wanted to believe that ‘One Country Two Systems’ meant complete insulation from Mainland politics and culture, that ‘high degree of autonomy’ meant self-rule in domestic affairs, and that Beijing would keep its apparent promise to allow democracy.

The mainstream pan-democrats still believe these fantasies. Beijing’s local puppet-officials and shoe-shiners awkwardly clarify or re-define the promises, or cheerfully claim everything’s fine. Grim-faced Mainland officials despise them all, and get on with converting a pluralist society into a Leninist system with as little fuss as possible.

Thus the Hong Kong Bar Association warns the Legislative Council against passing a bill to allow Mainland immigration to operate at the cross-border high-speed rail station. The lawyers’ arguments that the plan is not Basic Law-compliant look persuasive – Beijing’s (National People’s Congress) edict authorizing the arrangement contradicts and disregards the local constitution’s wording. This is neither legally nor logically possible. Unless, of course, the party-state is above the constitution. The co-location case will end up establishing this, neatly diminishing local rule of law. Which is where we came in.


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Distraught Doomed Dems’ Disaster Despair

Hong Kong’s pro-establishment media rather overdo the stories and articles on mass-suicides among Hong Kong’s pro-democrats following Sunday’s by-elections massacre carnage shock. You’d have thought that United Front mass-organization, media and government indifference – and no doubt pan-dem errors – had resulted in landslide victories for Bill Tang and Judy Chan. A more interesting story would explain why, even with a tilted playing field, those two pro-Beijing stooges still couldn’t win.

A few early-mid-week links…

Yet another in that long, never-ending series of warnings that China’s financial system could lead to economic collapse, courtesy of a book review from Reuters. As with Cassandra and the boy who cried wolf, one day you’ll wish you had listened.

John Garnaut offers a good summary of China’s interference in Australia, which is increasingly apparent as cunning/clumsy/creepy. Beijing’s designs on Greenland seem relatively subtle. What with Tonga, Djibouti, Montenegro and dozens of others, China seems to be in a solo race to inveigle and beguile as many far-flung regions as possible, as if there is some sort of deadline.

On the subject of hasty grabs, the chattering about Xi Jinping’s constitutional changes continues. Some more from (openly taken-aback) Jerome Cohen, and Kerry Brown tries to look at the quasi-religious psychology of Xi as ‘born again’.

All this barbarians’ blather about the Emperor-for-Life thing is really getting on someone’s rather sensitive nerves.



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Which part of ‘Elect the CCP candidate this time’ don’t you understand?

Voters in two Hong Kong constituencies delivered the wrong results again yesterday – even after the Chinese Communist Party twisted the law to expel their previously elected representatives and, where necessary, pressured civil servants into barring replacements from the ballot, and went to the trouble of organizing the usual stunts and thugs.

Presumably, Gary Fan and Au Nok-hin will at some point be ejected from the Legislative Council for incorrect thinking, and the people of New Territories East and Hong Kong Island will be told to hold yet more by-elections. We will carry on doing this until you vote for the clueless shoe-shiner zombies we tell you to vote for.

One of yesterday’s other by-elections was for a functional constituency packed with white-elephant infrastructure beneficiaries – fairly easy for the United Front to win. The other was Kowloon West, where the impressive and high-profile pan-dem Edward Yiu lost to the drab/DAB pro-Beijing stooge.

Optimistic pro-dems might blame this result (and the narrowness of the pan-dem victories over the lame Bill Tang and Judy Chan) on the low turnout. That was partly because it was a nice day for hiking, partly because the sexier candidates have all been disqualified, and partly – I suspect – because some citizens don’t see the point. The turnout could have been even lower if Bill and Judy hadn’t been so repellant and annoying they were asking to be slapped.

The pan-dems really need to ask why they are doing this. What is the purpose of taking part in increasingly rigged elections to an already rigged and mostly toothless legislative body? Why help Beijing legitimize this charade?

Indeed, what is the point in being pro-‘democracy’ when the CCP has made it abundantly clear that Hong Kong will not have representative government? You might as well be pro-unicorns. The pan-dems, jointly or as sub-groups, need achievable – or believable – aims (perhaps, I would wildly guess, to do with people and their lives rather than abstract constitutional structures). As things are, they are destined to end up being the two ‘No’ votes and the three abstentions against the 2,958 in favour.

Which reminds us that Hong Kong is a side-show to the main event up in Beijing. Some of the faceless commenters quoted in a lengthy SCMP article seem to suggest that the Party should be separate from, but not have supremacy over, the State. But one says: ‘Xi Jinping and the party leadership hope to dispel lingering doubts over the constitutional legitimacy of one-party rule’, which sounds like a roundabout way of saying ‘…the constitutional legitimacy of not having constitutional legitimacy’. The piece can summarized as: Yes, it’s a dictatorship.


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