Brits in HK (and elsewhere in China) – book review 3

I recently acquired some of Blacksmith Books’ latest. They have a common theme: British people who came to Hong Kong (and in one case went elsewhere in China). Perhaps inevitably, the older the account, the more interesting it is. Here’s the third and oldest…

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The Mercenary Mandarin: How a British adventurer became a general in Qing-dynasty China by David Leffman

How did the Victorians do it? There’s Brunel, who envisioned, sold, designed and built world-beating railways, tunnels, bridges and ships. Mrs Beeton, who wrote a 2,000-page tome of recipes and household advice while still in her 20s. Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, William Mesny.

Who? Born in Jersey in the late 1840s, Mesny went to sea at age 12, sailed the world and turned up in China in 1860. After a spell in Shanghai, he came to Hong Kong around 1861-62 and worked as a guard at Victoria Prison just up from Hollywood Road. He left in search of greater things.

The story sounds outlandish, but David Leffman – using Mesny’s accounts (including a published Miscellany) and retracing the man’s journeys – seems to have worked out what happened during this only-in-the-19th-Century life.

Mesny goes back to Shanghai and starts trading/smuggling across internal customs authorities and Taiping Rebellion-era feuding territories up the Yangtze River. After smuggling salt, he moves onto arms, and from that it’s a short step to becoming a military instructor to the customers, from which he graduates to becoming an officer in the provincial forces fighting the Miao in Guizhou (remote even today, between Sichuan and Yunnan).

Among other things, he finds a route through regions infested with Muslim rebels to Burma (the British colonial elite recoil at his ‘gone native’ garb), and travels extensively around the western interior, from the edge of Tibet through the desert to Beijing. Holding an imperial rank, he meets various governors and commanders (cultivating some, alienating others), stays in disgusting inns, urges everyone to build railways and mines, gets into Chinese food so much he becomes fat, buys a few antiques, drops in on isolated Western missionaries and (mostly) extricates himself from frequent attempts by people to marry their daughters off to him. It sounds like a parody, but it’s real. And you’ve never heard of the guy.

My hunch – they had lots of useful modern technology (in transport, manufacturing, warfare), without all the time-wasting stuff (Game of Thrones, cat videos on YouTube), and they had little alternative to extreme weirdness.

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Brits in HK – book review 2

I recently acquired some of Blacksmith Books’ latest. They have a common theme: British people who came to Hong Kong (and in one case went elsewhere in China). Here’s the second…

BookRev-Heyw

It Won’t Be Long Now: The Diary of a Hong Kong Prisoner of War by Graham Heywood

Graham Heywood was born in Britain in 1903 and came to Hong Kong in 1932 as a meteorologist in the Hong Kong Observatory. This was back in the days when they physically hoisted storm signals. He served until the 1950s.

In December 1941, with the Japanese thought to be far away but approaching, he and a colleague drove to a ‘Magnetic Station’ in the New Territories to retrieve equipment. They walked straight into enemy soldiers and he ended up in Shamshuipo prison camp – an old army barracks on reclaimed land, across from Stonecutters Island. (As a civilian, he should have been in a different camp on Hong Kong Island, but the Japanese treated him as a military prisoner.)

This is not a diary in the sense of a daily record, but an account drawn from whatever writings (and fine sketches) he managed to keep over nearly four years.

If it wasn’t exactly four years of hell, it was not far off. By the infamous standards of the Japanese, the regime does not sound especially cruel. At first, a few civilians bartered supplies across the fence and some prisoners escaped, but after a while the place became more disciplined. Other than roll-calls, late-night inspections and organizing manual work assignments (at places like Kai Tak runway) the Japanese largely left the prisoners to run themselves.

Essentially, they rotted in their huts. Everyone starved. Some prisoners died of malnutrition or disease. At one stage Red Cross parcels supplemented the poor diet and lack of medicine, but then they stopped arriving. The prisoners grew some vegetables in the dirt; it didn’t help that the author had an aversion to rice, believing that it was not suitable for Western stomachs.

The one serious escape attempt failed, and non-participants like Heywood were collectively punished with cuts in rations. There wasn’t really anywhere to escape to.

Amazingly – and this perhaps makes the biggest impression on the reader – Heywood managed to see things in a positive light. This doesn’t seem to be spin added to the memoir after the war, but a genuine personality trait. Prisoners taken off to work in Taiwan and Japan had it worse, he felt, as indeed did many of the civilians struggling to survive outside the camp (work details saw corpses on the Kowloon streets). The inmates organized lectures and plays, and Heywood even ran a Boy Scout troop comprising younger soldiers.

Despite being a short read, the book conveys the essence of the title – the dragging of the years, and the rise and fall of rumours of the war’s end as US planes started to be seen but then vanished. The prisoners had no way of knowing what was happening, and the last year, with Hong Kong in collapse and Japan clearly headed for defeat, must have been a soul-destroying eternity. It’s a wonder they stayed sane.

 

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Brits in HK – book review 1

I recently acquired some of Blacksmith Books’ latest. The three have a common theme: British people who came to Hong Kong (and in one case went elsewhere in China). Perhaps inevitably, the older the account, the more interesting it is. So we’ll go backwards, starting with the most recent of the three…

BookRev-Cartland

Paper Tigress: A life in the Hong Kong government by Rachel Cartland

Rachel Cartland arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1970s, fresh out of university, to become a colonial civil servant. She ended up as a senior official in the Social Welfare Department; she has since been on Anson Chan’s moderate pro-democracy group.

The story starts with the author growing up in the south of England: her father runs a betting shop at one stage, and she does part-time work at Woolworths. She sort of accidentally joins the Hong Kong civil service by going along to an interview out of mild curiosity, impressing the panel with her optimism about handling humidity, and getting accepted.

She arrives in a Hong Kong recovering from unrest in the 60s and starting to fix things like corruption. After familiarization, she joins one of the district offices just opened to help the government get in touch with the grassroots. Among her duties in Kowloon City, she pushes the Lap Sap Chung anti-littering campaign in schools and officiates at the opening of a social-services centre in the Walled City slum. Plenty for the nostalgia fans here. It was a different world – a far less prosperous and less sophisticated city, where no-one thought it odd for a young Englishwoman with no relevant knowledge to (gingerly) oversee the locals.

A long-lost relative turns out to be prominent in Hong Kong church circles. While obviously important to the author personally, it’s perhaps a bit too ‘family’ for the reader. Then again, this is a memoir, so marriage and friendships figure quite highly. There doesn’t seem to have been much alternative to an almost stereotype ‘expat’ lifestyle, with junks, parties etc, and a circle of mainly civil-servant friends.

She offers quite a few amusing stories, like the time they had to get a helicopter to rush a generator to Ocean Park after a typhoon. And some grimmer things, such as the Garley Building Fire. She takes pride in the professionalism and diligence of the civil service, and the reader gets a glimpse of a few racier problem-solving excitements among the horrendous tedium of the memo-approving and other drudgery in the bureaucracy. The subtitle’s reference to a life in the Hong Kong government is perhaps a slight exaggeration.

The biggest event of the era comes and goes in just a few pages. Her apparent remoteness from 1989’s months of excitement and ultimately grief (and it was in no small part grief for the fate of Hong Kong itself) comes across as rather chilling. Unless the expat-bureaucrat bubble really is impervious, this presumably comes down to the deliberate discretion and caution of a retired official: if in doubt, don’t talk about it. (I’ve never read David Akers-Jones’ book, but I imagine it must be unbearably dry and dull for this reason.)

Localization and the coming handover limit Cartland’s opportunities, but she still ends up in a senior position overseeing welfare and social work during such times as SARS. There is some interesting insight into the bureaucratic thinking that still applies to government policy on poverty.

Not a thrilling page-turner – but a readable personal history about an interesting era.

 

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Parting shot

Zhang Dejiang – the man who blocked a thousand roads with the most ridiculously elaborate security arrangements anyone can remember – flies out of Hong Kong. But not before resorting to the ultimate in tired Beijing-to-HK clichés…

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‘Focus on the economy’ is a lame euphemism for ‘stop thinking about how bad governance is’. It has never convinced the population to disregard lousy policymaking, and start intensely pondering GDP growth, returns on capital and marginal propensity to consume. But they keep saying it, presumably to assure themselves that Hong Kong’s incompetent leadership is no big deal really…

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I declare the weekend open in a state of great excitement, as this will be an extensive, more-like 10-day break involving an Inspection Tour of exotic foreign parts. A few book reviews will appear here over the coming week.

 

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Zhang does ‘warm and cuddly’ act

If we are to be honest, we will miss Zhang Dejiang after he leaves Hong Kong today. The Hitherto Little-Known Ultra-Important Beijing Official has made a unique impact on the city in his three days here. As Like the representative of some alien planet, he has been kept in sterile environments within expansive sanitized zones, transported in sinister, dark-windowed, bullet-proof, lead-lined limos, and surrounded by layers of security, from giant barriers to sniffer dogs to SWAT teams and mysterious men in black – maybe for his protection, maybe for ours. Hardly anyone actually saw him in the flesh, and some say he has not really been here at all, or even that he doesn’t exist, and the whole thing is an elaborate Roswell hoax.

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One official reason for Zhang’s presence here was to speak at a ‘One Belt, One Road’ summit. The South China Morning Post claims that ‘for the first time, he [or anyone] spelt out how Hong Kong can seize a role’ in the grand yet incomprehensible vision/initiative/hairball. Except, of course, he didn’t: it was just the usual blather about professional sectors, financial services, ‘people-to-people exchanges’ and cooperation with the Mainland. To my knowledge, no-one has ever identified an actual business opportunity arising from ‘Belt and Road’, except for conference-organizing PR-gloss hype-pimps.

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With that out of the way, Zhang turned to his presumed real task: winning the hearts and minds of Hong Kong. Few sights are more painful to behold than a senior Chinese Communist Party official attempting to be nice. They do it with undisguised distaste, only when the usual thuggish methods like violence and bribery have failed, and as part of a calculated strategy to subsequently crush/control/consume the target.

He did it pretty well. He acknowledged Hong Kong’s non-Mainland characteristics (in contrast to Beijing’s 2014 white paper proclaiming the city a mere speck in the Party-State’s domain – which helped spur the Occupy/Umbrella backlash). He vowed not to ST-LocalismMainlandize the place. He admitted there were local problems. Obviously, he doesn’t mean it, but it takes some ‘eating bitterness’ for a totalitarian regime’s spokesman just to utter these conciliatory words. He even said that ‘localism’ was OK in moderation. Democratic Party veteran Emily Lau came away from a brief chat mildly impressed by his non-frostiness.

What does this tell us? It tells us our ‘pro-independence movement’ friends are hitting a major, major nerve.

The Communist system is institutionally incapable of sincere, sustained ‘hearts and minds’. It is a zero-trust mindset: control the masses by force, pat shoe-shiners on the head while they are useful, and anyone else is hostile and a mortal threat. It can’t not alienate pluralist societies. Tsai Ing-wen is being sworn in tomorrow as Taiwan’s new democratically elected President. China’s gracious warm-and-loving gesture to its compatriots? A mock military invasion.

 

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Rapturous guerilla-style welcome continues

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The yellow umbrellas are back. Hong Kong’s raucous opposition protesters ‘go guerilla’ in response to the bizarrely over-the-top security measures put in place to insulate Beijing official (and perhaps Living God) Zhang Dejiang from local colour and ambiance. As-it-happens reports from the front-lines here, here and all over.

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The (mostly small-scale and restrained) gatherings are at least partly provoked, or inspired, by the excessive precautions. What self-respecting activist can resist the dare represented by the huge water-filled barriers, road closures and thousands of cops? This is another way of saying, again, that most Hong Kong people had barely heard of Zhang until the government started to glue paving stones down in his honour a week ago.

The authorities hint at known threats of ISIS or other terrorist attacks. But if such a Zhang-Googdanger exists, why are they protecting just one guy and not the other 7 million of us? And why would ISIS have any more of a clue who Zhang is? (To add to the mystique and enigma surrounding the guy, Google News’s search box associates him with Rwanda. Perhaps, like the US Vice-President, he gets all the Stupid Stuff to do.)

Suspicions linger that the cops camping on Lion Rock, the police banners stored all over Central, the scuba-divers checking for bombs off the waterfront and the suspension of work at an entire Wanchai construction site are a mark of Zhang’s lack of importance. As befits a man whose prime official purpose while here is to deliver a keynote speech on the ‘Belt and Road’ concept-slogan-thing.

That ‘Belt and Road’ Summit takes place as we speak, and apparently the conference centre is surrounded by lots and lots of bullet-proof, metal-detecting security. The South China Morning Post’s Alex Lo chooses this moment to write about how ‘Belt and Road’ is a visionary strategic plan to liberate China from the jungles and steppes and US Seventh Fleet that imprison it. Maybe the grandiose neo-imperialist rip-off fantasy looks that meaningful from afar (Lo has apparently relocated to Canada recently). But closer to home, surrounded by the mightiest security cordon Hong Kong has ever seen, it looks like just another layer of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

While the HK Police prepare their highly trained squadrons of killer bees to attack any pro-democracy drones approaching North Wanchai, I take a quick stroll through my own neighbourhood, ahead of its daily infestation of Korean tourists.

It seems just a few months ago – early January, in fact – that I noticed a new restaurant called Juhu Beach Club. I’m not sure if it was ever put under the Curse of the I Give it a Month Twitter thing, but it has succumbed to something and closed…

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(‘Looking for a new location’ – like an actor ‘resting’ between roles.) It lasted six months. That’s despite having 79,000 Koreans marching past every day. Or could it be because of them? No-one else can squeeze into the district, and it’s your fault for not selling nasty egg tarts.

And what do we see reflected in the ex-Juhu Beach Club’s window?

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Yes, another vacant shop across the street. That spot used to be the exciting nouveau-Botswanan noodles concept place, before it became the Tasmanian tapas bistro – though after it was the Taiwanese-Swedish fusion theme sports bar.

This was impressively quick. The landlords are licking their lips and sharpening their knives to see who’s stupid enough to come next.

 

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Recession looming – HK rejoices

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EJ-WhatNoThey said it could not be done: an article sympathetic to the Hong Kong tourism industry that makes sense. The secret is to see the tourism industry as something separate from parasite property tycoons.

News of the ‘collapse in tourist arrivals’ has unfortunately not reached the Koreans, who are still flooding into my neighbourhood for no very obvious reason. Their behaviour suggests they do not travel so much as move zombie-like in total obedience to guide-book instructions…

Clutching bag of counterfeit Jenny Bakery cookies, take selfie on Mid-Levels Escalator, which is a Disneyland-type ride put there entirely for your amusement and not for the benefit of local residents, who love it when you obstruct them, and will definitely not shove you aside. Then stand for hours outside Ye Olde Chris Patten Egg Tarte Shoppe for substandard overpriced pastries. After, line up for ages to buy uninteresting dessert drinks from the Quaint Authentic Hong Kong Uninteresting Dessert Drink Stall. Next, stand on narrow sidewalk and look confused while blocking others’ way. Hint for large groups: be sure to gather outside Marks & Spencers just above Hollywood Road and stare around dumbly for at least 20 minutes.

Bearing in mind Jake van der Kamp’s warning on GDP figures, it seems we are once-vibrant yet now on the brink of recession, not least because of the ‘collapse in tourist arrivals’ that never seems to happen. The WSJ lists standard Hong Kong-slowdown clichés: plummeting sales at Chow Tai Fook gold and Sa Sa cosmetics (like we care), container terminal bypassed for Mainland ports (like we care), home prices falling (as if this is bad), etc.

This is terrible news if you are a big retail landlord (like Li Ka-shing), own container terminals (like Li Ka-shing) or develop residential property (like Li Ka-shing). Otherwise, why should we worry? In the last 10 years or so, the city has been flooded with visitors buying luxury garbage, jammed with traffic and other transport congestion and suffered huge rises in rents and housing costs. The city’s GDP increased significantly, yet median incomes hardly budged, while the cost of living rose and the quality of life fell. Is it too outlandish to predict that the imminent recession will make most people’s lives better?

If you got stuck in the Zhang Dejiang traffic jams today, here’s something to make you feel better. Today’s Gold Bauhinia Medal nominees are…

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CY blames Beijing for HK independence movement

Like a weird finding in quantum physics, Hong Kong’s independence movement should not, in theory, exist. History, existing constitutional arrangements and common sense insist that it is a non-starter and fantasy. Yet groups of (mostly young) people are calling for various degrees of self-rule and city-statehood. Their common theme is separation from the Chinese one-party system, and their ideas extend to exotic and eccentric suggestions for union with Taiwan or restored links with Britain.

Surely, they can’t be serious? The local and Beijing governments’ obvious response would be to ignore this as an irrelevant fringe interest on a par with the local UFO Society. Yet the Chinese regime is so insecure and paranoid that the slightest challenge to its rule (like outsiders commenting on human rights issues) triggers outraged foot-stamping, table-banging hysterics. Hong Kong’s leadership under Chief Executive CY Leung is so subservient that it cannot distance itself, let alone contradict, Beijing’s absurd reactions. In an attempt to appear loyal and onside, Hong Kong officials are echoing the notion that calling for independence is somehow illegal. (More insight on that here.)

At the same time, the Chinese government and its surrogates cannot interpret the independence sentiment as evidence that they have made mistakes in running Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party is officially infallible. So if Hong Kong people oppose the government it must be because they were brainwashed by the British from 1842-1997, manipulated by the CIA or other hostile but never-named foreign forces, or – a relatively subtle argument – are too stupid or uninformed to understand the true situation.

This tendency to rely on lame excuses for things going wrong – ‘the dog ate my homework’ – is depressing or amusing, depending on your mood.

SCMP-BrokenSysCY Leung is now blaming the Legislative Council election system for the independence movement. This is idiotic for several reasons.

First, as critics are rushing to point out, the bizarre proportional representation system for geographical constituencies goes back to the late 1990s. The ‘Hong Kong independence’ meme hardly exists pre-2012 (when colonial flag-waving combined with anti-tourist/smuggler activism), and first played a role in a LegCo poll only in a by-election three months ago.

Second, such a desperate argument draws attention to the role of CY himself and Beijing in alienating Hong Kong through their hostility to local pluralism and values. Even (especially?) pro-establishment figures who dislike CY are casting him as the ‘father’ of the independence movement.

Third, the incomprehensible and convoluted proportional representation election system was imposed by Beijing. Before the handover, directly elected LegCo seats used a plain first-past-the-post system; each district (eg Central and Western) had one representative – and that was whoever won the biggest number of votes. The new regime scrapped this after 1997 because pro-Beijing candidates kept coming second in elections, while pro-democrats won. That’s how we ended up with this arrangement of just five geographical constituencies each with at least half a dozen representatives.

As the number of seats in LegCo has risen, candidates have been able to win with a smaller share of the votes – hence Trotskyist ‘Long-Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung and many others across the spectrum become lawmakers with well under 20% of the vote. Some get in with below 10%.

What CY is saying is that Beijing’s attempt to rig LegCo geographical elections has given rise to the ‘Hong Kong independence’ phenomenon. It is an insult to his beloved Communist Party, and it is factually incorrect. Couldn’t he think of anything better?

On the subject of alienating people, it looks like the Hong Kong Police are under orders to create maximum inconvenience to the public during the impending visit of Zhang Dejiang. As with the pro-independence movement, this would have passed unnoticed if the authorities had treated it as inconsequential. But of course hyping it up has become an end in itself.

The area in Wanchai where Zhang is staying and pronouncing on ‘Belt and Road’ is to become a sort of Baghdad-style Green Zone. Cops were zipping around on bikes all over the area yesterday, and a plot to commit Dastardly Deathly Drone Deeds has been thwarted. Traffic – including that of pedestrians on overhead walkways – will be blocked whenever and wherever his motorcade approaches.

We went through something like this on a few previous visits by Beijing potentates, and a few years ago I was in a tetchy crowd prevented from crossing the IFC-Central footbridge while Connaught Road was emptied before Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev (whaddya mean ‘who?’) and his imperial entourage passed by. It seems the less-important you are, the bigger the fuss they make. Zhang is to be treated with such reverence that the cops have invested in special, brand-new, shiny ‘walkway-closing’ banners, complete with apologies for inconvenience. They are rolled up alongside metal barriers everywhere this morning, waiting to keep you in your place…

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New breakthrough in water!

A free sample of an exciting new product lands on my desk. It is water – but not as we know it.

Traditional water – the stuff that has enabled life on this planet for some three billion years – is out. This is an improvement, using very fancy space-age technology.

The name is Aquaenergy…

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The blurb on the bottle says it has been filtered through 13,000 feet of lava (how long would that take?) in Hawaii and is renewable because they have 200 inches of rain there…

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The stuff they make the plastic bottles from, and which fuels the ships carrying the product from Hawaii to Hong Kong, is perhaps not renewable – but I guess it’s a start. It then says that this water is rich in ‘fine-tuned’ (as opposed to sloppy) ‘far infrared energy’ thanks to ‘unique patented Efficiency Enhancement Field Induction Technology (EEFIT)’…

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Far infrared is some new-age quack therapy. EEFIT has a website promising a wide range of benefits in fields from energy to food production.

Just in case your bullshit detector hasn’t gone off yet, the blurb goes on to claim that molecules in this water ‘are in small clusters which contain a high oxygen capacity’…

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I’m no scientist, but I do know that you get one atom of oxygen for every two of hydrogen in a water molecule, and if you put more oxygen in, it’s not water any more; it might be – for example – hydrogen peroxide. I also doubt that you can reorganize the molecules of room-temperature water into ‘small clusters’. We are then told that this water will enhance micro-circulation…

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…which is an actual thing, if not hugely interesting: blood flow in tiny vessels like capillaries. The blurb then goes all Mainland…

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…talking about Xinhua-style ‘positive energy’, insisting that the product is ‘modern’ and promising a solution to ‘sub-health problems’ – whatever they are.

There is a Aquaenergy website, complete with diagram of highly disciplined water molecules arranging themselves in neat star-shapes in order to permeate cells better than old crap-style water, and a reference to a Hong Kong Far Infrared Rays Association, who look like a bunch of hucksters, but who am I to say?

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Of course you’re not wondering, but, yes – it looks, smells and tastes exactly like any other water. I declare the weekend open by raising my glass of it in a toast to the hilariousness of pseudo-science.

 

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HK cops launch ‘Operation Complete Over-the-Top Freakout’

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Not content with such anti-riot voodoo as the application of water-soluble glue to brick sidewalks, Hong Kong authorities plan to deploy 6,000 police next week to guard visiting Chinese official Zhang Dejiang. The South China Morning Post describes the effort as the city’s biggest security operation since the Olympics equestrian events, which sounds a bit underwhelming. But what we can expect – they’re already putting barriers everywhere – is maximum inconvenience as the cops block entire roads and overhead pedestrian walkways every time this guy goes somewhere.

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The weird thing – if we are to be brutally honest here – is that up until the visit was announced a few weeks ago (or whenever), no-one had pretty much ever heard of him. Zhang is Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the small semi-full-time bit of China’s vast one-week-a-year rubber-stamp legislature. It says here that he’s a Jiang Zemin protégé, which suggests that the current top leadership would distrust him and give him only mundane and stupid jobs to do. And, lo and behold, he is coming here to talk at a conference on Belt and Road Opportunities Blah Blah.

Hong Kong’s chattering classes must read more into it, and so they interpret Zhang’s visit as being in some way connected with the rising tide of Hong Kong independence sentiment. A Beijing think-tank informs us that his mission is a sign of the Central SCMP-PanDemCydGovernment’s ‘care and love’ for the city (cue shiver down spine). Selected pro-democrats struggle to feel excited about the Zhang banquet – lucky invitees RSVP by completing a lengthy application form and affixing a photo.

The extreme security measures could be a convoluted attempt to send a message to CIA-backed fishball-rioting splittists and/or to Beijing’s officials that Hong Kong’s leadership and its big tough police force remain ever-vigilant. Given that Chief Executive CY Leung’s obsessive-compulsive shoe-shining obsequiousness is completely off the scale, the mobilization of thousands of cops for no obvious reason is also possibly just a grand face-giving gesture – his equivalent of, say, a box of chocolates.

The pro-independence movement will presumably not even deign to acknowledge the presence of Zhang in our city-state-to-be. They have better things to do with their genius for trolling, which it must be said becomes more magnificent by the day. One of their number recently proposed a sort of compromise: maybe Hong Kong doesn’t need to be fully independent, he said – it could just be… a US territory. You could hear the blood vessels bursting in Beijing’s Liaison Office.

As for Zhang’s personal safety, I have the perfect solution. All he needs to do is wear a slightly loud-coloured T-shirt and casual slacks and stroll around any street or neighbourhood while chewing a hamburger – I can guarantee that not a single person will even notice him.

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