Can woman who can’t find toilet paper change CCP’s mind?

Harry Truman, on becoming US President, told the press: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now.” Carrie Lam, pre-determined winner of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive make-believe election charade, should be feeling the same way.

Within a few months of taking office, Truman had to decide whether to use atomic weapons on Japan. Carrie says she will start with the simpler, less controversial issues. And that’s enough of that comparison.

The ritual of the CE pseudo-election was more absurd than ever. TV showed serious-looking government minions trundling ballot boxes around on carts. Carrie ‘won’ with 777 votes, a number (like most numbers in a syllable-poor, obscenity-rich language) that gives rise to unfortunate numerical puns in Cantonese. Hong Kong rules-based transparency intruded on the proceedings when officials insisted on broadcasting spoilt ballots – to prove there was no cheating – including one with a profanity scrawled upon it. Demonstrators rounded off the farce by pelting the local Chinese government office with one of Carrie’s best-known challenges, toilet rolls.

Straight after this inauspiciousness, we get a plethora of headlines and earnest columns about how Carrie’s main task is to unite this divided city.

She could improve the atmosphere by ending CY Leung’s United Front campaign to crush counter-revolutionaries. A South China Morning Post column recommends dropping the persecution of opposition lawmakers as a first step. It is obvious. Yet it is somehow unthinkable.

CY, under orders from Beijing’s commissars in the Liaison Office, tore Hong Kong apart through classic Leninist-style tactics of dividing the population into friends and enemies. This is how the Chinese Communist Party thinks and works. So the question is not whether Carrie can ‘re-unite’ Hong Kong, but whether she can convince Beijing to withdraw from local affairs, and go back to the earlier ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle of insulating the pluralistic city from Mainland one-party dictatorship.

In other words: Can Carrie convince the Communist Party to do some soul-searching, and decide that it has erred and should restore rather than continue to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy? It would be an impressive display of the steely determination for which she is renowned. She could further advise them that it might work with Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, too.

Alternatively, maybe Beijing installed Carrie to be a warm-and-cuddly CY – continuing the Mainlandization of Hong Kong, but in a friendlier way that keeps us all happy. Idiotic Mainland academics give the SCMP a taste of this latter fantasy by opining that the answer lies in giving moderate (yesterday’s old has-been) pro-democrats some Gold Bauhinia Medals and Belt-and-Road job titles to play with…

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Correction: no-one at all will be happy with the result

Carrie ‘Dead on Arrival’ Lam concludes her reluctant, badly simulated and timid-verging-on-fearful campaign for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive quasi-election. The by-invitation-only rigged poll takes place Sunday. A police spokesman ventures to suggest that ‘it is possible some people will be unhappy with the result’. For extra added ominous foreboding doom, the heavens will darken and the city will be deluged with freezing storms and an outbreak of bubonic pustules.

Carrie’s last message to Her People in newspaper ads today repeats an earlier theme: ‘By resolving the simpler, less controversial issues first, we can rebuild mutual trust’. Does she really believe this? It is absurd to think lack of consensus is a cause rather than effect of problems. And the problems that cause the discontent are big and, apparently, difficult. And the lack of ‘trust’ is ultimately not between factions within Hong Kong but between China’s Communist one-part regime and the pluralistic city as a whole (including its pro-Beijing shoe-shiners).

That mistrust extends to the incompetent local governments that Beijing insists on installing. Carrie will hit the ground failing – lacking not only vision or hope, but any shred of legitimacy. No-one wants Carrie Lam as Chief Executive (including Carrie Lam).

I declare the weekend open with an amusing game. A group of mentally deranged people propose to use 80 hectares (23 Taikoo Shings) of Hong Kong land to build a car-racing circuit. (To attract tourists, but that sort of goes without saying. Is it tourism that causes lunacy, or the other way round?)

Car-racing, also known for mystical reasons as ‘Formula 1’, is a bit like golf, in that it is boring and pointless, and attracts a following of fans to match. Golfers’ one saving grace is that they are 14.7 times more likely than average humans to be struck by lightning. Racing drivers occasionally crash and explode into smithereens. But both these events, tragically, occur far too rarely to rescue the sports from their extreme tedium. (Most synaptically functional people would surely find watching Ng On-yee’s recent 9 hours 30 minutes snooker triumph more stimulating.)

The game is: Think Up an Even Bigger Waste of Hong Kong Space. (Not including golf courses, which already exist.) The first prize will be 3,071 left-over copies of Carrie Lam’s manifesto found flapping in the fragrant breeze of Tseung Kwan O landfill.


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Exciting New Tourist-Repulsion Strategy Unveiled

At last – a Hong Kong government U-turn on tourism. For years, officials have implemented a strict Cram More Tourists In Endlessly policy, inflicting misery on residents. I am delighted to see that the Tourism Board is now implementing a subtle strategy to repel visiting hordes. Behold its list of our Top 10 Attractions

Anyone who knows Hong Kong can tell you that these are among the most tedious or simply unpleasant places in the city.

The Peak – as tourists experiance it – is a wind-swept plaza of tacky shops. Avenue of Stars/TST Promenade/Clock Tower are the same thing, with classic view often obscured by smog. Ladies Market is full of tat, and I bet Temple Street is a shadow of its former self, back when self-taught dentists extracted teeth on the sidewalk (it’s a while since I’ve been). Ocean Park sounds overcrowded (never been), and we don’t even need to mention Disneyland. Golden Bauhinia Square is a sick joke approaching its 20th anniversary. Last, and probably least, is Lan Kwai Fong.

For a change of scene on the way to the office, I strolled through the ‘party hot spot’ this morning. And this is what it looked like…

If this doesn’t solve the tourism menace, nothing will.

Also long overdue – a mature, aware, considered and overall sensible discussion about Hong Kong’s Chief-Executive quasi-election.



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Guardian pays homage to HK’s hip young rebels

The UK’s ever-cheerful Guardian asks whether Hong Kong can be saved from China’s authoritarianism. It focuses on the photogenic Joshua Wong ‘David and Goliath’ angle, which presumably appeals to the paper’s trendy/liberal target audience, but misses the bigger picture. Hong Kong youth’s rebelliousness is part of a larger ongoing conflict. Worse, the article passes on one of the more disingenuous lines pushed by Beijing and its apologists…

Yet one cannot understand the city’s present state of permanent crisis without reckoning with a simple fact: the mainland is no longer dependent on Hong Kong. In reality, the reverse may be true. The impact of this fact is not solely economic or political; it is also psychological, transforming the way mainlanders and Hong Kongers conceive of themselves.

Today, China’s economy is more than 11 times larger than it was at the time of the handover. Over that same time span, Hong Kong’s economy has been stagnant by comparison… it is this kind of psychological role-reversal that has unsettled people most.

This is the Chinese Communist Party’s official ‘moderate’ (non-foreigner-blaming) explanation for Hong Kong’s angst. It naturally presents the CCP as infallible – successfully creating a far wealthier China, while Hong Kong people wallow in self-pity and resentment at becoming only fairly rather than vastly richer than now-proud Mainlanders. It satisfies Beijing’s logic. But it is shallow and insulting, and presumptuous in imagining that Hongkongers even care about relative GDP growth or what Mainlanders think.

China’s development – and Hong Kong’s adaptation to it – is an important economic story. But it’s largely a sideshow here, especially when you strip out the Mainland locust-shoppers and home-buying money-launderers, whose disruptive arbitraging in the city is enabled by policy. While it is true that younger Hongkongers don’t have the upward mobility of their parents in the 1970s or 80s, it’s because they were born in an already-mature, prosperous economy. If you leave out the unskilled Mainland immigrants who have arrived since 1997 (also a Mainlandization policy), the Joshua Wong generation are materially more blessed than any earlier demographic, housing prices notwithstanding. These youngsters don’t even remember the days when people had to take cash, food, electronics and medicine over the border to grasping families every Chinese New Year, let alone harbour some perverse nostalgia for them.

So what’s really happening? It’s this: a dictatorship is trying to accommodate and absorb a pluralistic society – and failing.

Since before the 1997 handover, the Chinese regime has miscalculated Hong Kong public opinion, or simply failed to grasp that it matters. The country’s much-vaunted growing power and assertiveness make it worse, if anything. Beijing’s officials have grown increasingly nervous and frustrated at their inability to control the city’s media, courts, schools and other institutions the way they are accustomed to doing at home. For local ‘friends’, they rely on co-opted commercial and other narrow interests that are parasites on the local population and economy. Clumsy attempts to assert authority (threats of economic doom, promises of ‘opportunities’, over-reaction against dissent, National Education, sham political reform) provoke cynicism or resistance. Even thoughtful local pro-Beijing figures despair at the cycle of alienation.

This is where the young radicals deserve the spotlight: the post-1997 generation are even less impressed than their elders with Communist-run China as a source of material prosperity or as an emotional motherland. Rather than easing into the post-colonial order, they are fighting back even harder. And they clearly frighten the almighty Panda. It’s a stirring story, but it needs to be put in the full context.

Zoom out further, and you see how big this context is. Beijing is losing – has lost – Taiwan, where the younger generation luckily have a head start over Hong Kong in keeping their country safe from the Communist Party’s paranoid, psychopathic loathsomeness. And if they can’t handle Hong Kong or Taiwan, imagine how much China’s leaders struggle and fail to comprehend the wider world.

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Horror behind pro-Beijing camp’s lovable ‘dimwit’ mask

Most of the questions for candidates at Sunday’s ‘election’ debate came from pro-democrats. Beijing’s loyalists in the audience apparently found the submissions box too hard to find. We are tempted to infer that pro-Beijing folk – or at least the ones at the debate – are on average a bit dimmer than their opponents.

This would make sense. The businessmen and bureaucrats who publicly identify as pro-establishment out of commercial or career necessity mostly stayed away from the debate. That leaves the committed followers of the Chinese Communist Party, who by definition are obedient opportunists at best and unquestioning, gullible dolts at worst.

Think of younger ‘rising-star’ members of the DAB like Edward Lau (in the HKFP item), the ridiculous Holden Chow, figurehead Starry Lee, etc. You would expect them to score lower in tests of intelligence or initiative than original, thoughtful, even provocative individuals like Farsi-speaking land campaigner Eddie Chu or welfare activist Fernando Cheung.

These pro-Beijing personalities also fail in terms of image. They are fake and one-dimensional – like Mainland boy-band TFBoys – compared with the authentic gritty wit of Long Hair or the trendiness of Joshua and the other young radicals. (The SCMP article on the TFBoys bizarrely tries to present the state-packaged act as China’s version of the Beatles. The point is that ‘soft power’ is non-, even anti-, government. James Dean/ Rolling Stones = rebelliousness = sexy. Holden Chow doesn’t make it.)

But the clunky, unglamorous and laughable nature of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing figures is itself a lure and a façade – even if unintentional. We tend to forget what it is, far to our north, that these dimwits are following and representing. We see glimpses of the oppression of non-Han cultures in Tibet and Xinjiang, the rounding-up of lawyers defending the persecuted, and the outflow of illicit kleptocrat wealth. We get little idea of the sheer brutal and medieval nightmare deeper beneath the surface.

This is a long drawn-out way of recommending a vivid portrayal of the barbarism at the top of China’s power structure (especially if you didn’t read John Garnault’s Rise and Fall of the House of Bo). The BBC’s Carrie Gracie’s account of (some of) the horrifying, atavistic, bestial murk that accompanied Xi Jinping’s rise to power – Murder in the Lucky Hotel.


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HK’s last glimpse of ‘election’ fun

According to the South China Morning Post, the final candidates’ debate in Hong Kong’s Chief Executive pseudo-election was a ‘bruising mix of sarcasm, humour and outright attack’. And indeed all three participants – Beijing’s pre-arranged winner Carrie Lam and no-hopers John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing – did produce some reasonably decent venom and spite.

But, although the event was open to all 1,194 Election Committee members, only some 500 turned up – including most of the 300-odd pro-democrats who managed to get onto the rubber-stamp body. This suggests that most loyalists among the Chinese Communist Party’s inbuilt majority on the Committee saw no point in attending when the result has already been decided. Some were also possibly reluctant to identify themselves too closely with the unpopular Carrie.

Carrie spent the weekend working on her image as aloof and out-of-touch – cancelling an already-postponed visit to the stereotypically poor neighbourhood of Tin Shui Wai, on the grounds that she was tired and it was a long way to go. While obviously evidence of her extreme unsuitability as a politician, it also reflects the fact that the people of Hong Kong are irrelevant to this process. And that includes the 1,194 EC voters, who are simply role-playing in a charade.

Franklin Lam, a tourism/property freak and early supporter five years ago of now-incumbent CY Leung, writes a pointed criticism of popular underdog John Tsang (in the pro-Beijing shoe-shiner-owned Sing Tao/Standard). He blasts Tsang for mishandling the city’s finances, pointing out that we could have bought all the housing and health services we could possibly need with just a fraction of the wealth the government acquired and hoarded in the last nine years.

It is a fair criticism. But where were Carrie Lam (as Chief Secretary), Carrie apologist Henry Tang (former Chief Secretary) or CY (as CE) and his predecessor Donald Tsang all that time? Despite the differences in terms of public image, Carrie and John would be identical as Chief Executive – administrators fixated on micro-scale problem-solving, with no ability to see a bigger picture. Transformational leadership is not on the agenda.

John’s idea of food trucks as a serious policy initiative is an amusing example. Carrie’s entire manifesto is devoid of any hint of reform. She proposes allowing lower floors of industrial buildings to be re-zoned for other commercial use, to free up affordable space for start-ups. Note the narrowness of vision: zeroing in on start-ups (why not all businesses?) and tweaking ancient rules on building-use rather than asking why we still have an ‘industrial’ classification.

John is having fun as a candidate, partly because he has a groovier personality, but mainly because he’s safe in the knowledge he won’t get the job. Carrie is clearly not having fun. She obviously hates this fake campaign-thing, and is dreading the five years to come. There is no spark, no excitement, no enthusiasm, and no optimism.

Separated at birth: Left, John Tsang the popular make-believe politician automaton; Right, battery-operated Sam the Shaving Man at HK Museum of History toy exhibition.

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An ooze of fawning on page 8

The Standard treats its readers to an entire page of shoe-shining…

It reports one wanton act of obsequiousness as a straight story: tycoon Li Ka-shing’s son Richard publicly endorses Beijing’s choice Carrie Lam as next Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

It then takes putrid groveling onto a higher dimension with a report purely designed to shoe-shine a shoe-shiner who is shoe-shining. Make that two reports! The newspaper writes that its owner Charles Ho denies that Mainland billionaire Xiao Jianhua was kidnapped by Chinese agents at the Four Seasons in January. And it covers Ho’s blasting of pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai for ‘messing up’ Hong Kong democracy (in an exquisite touch, he calls Lai ‘shameless’).

The occasion was the Leader of the Year Awards, which seems to be Ho’s annual mutual-creepy-crawling orgy for Hong Kong’s elite of inherited wealth and bumptious bureaucrats – as perfectly illustrated in this charming picture from last year’s ceremony.

We need collective nouns for shoe-shiners and their oily works – ‘a cringe of kowtowers’, perhaps, or ‘a vomit of sycophancy’.

I declare the weekend open with a bit of light reading. The Alex team once came up with a witty pun about how China’s capital is peaking. Well, now it is. A Marketwatch column summarizes the situation neatly. There’s some more here. We have reached Peak Panda. Whether the ‘miracle’ (actually a recovery from extreme mayhem and policy incompetence) ends smoothly or more chaotically, it will wipe the odious, gooey smarm off the faces of our local Communist Party toadies.

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Quiz question

A question from last night’s Foreign Correspondents Club quiz:

What is the name of the Hong Kong supermarket chain founded in April 2015 by China Resources Vanguard and Tesco?

Thanks to cartelization, Hong Kong has only two major supermarket chains. But the big two conglomerate-owned grocers make up for this poverty of consumer choice by offering a bewildering range of sub-brands. Thus Hutchison’s Park N Shop also appears in the guise of fancier stores named Fusion (Park N Shop with Marmite and kimchi) and Taste and Great (Fusion plus camembert and HK$500 Japanese strawberries). And Jardines’ Wellcome runs the bizarrely named Market Place by Jasons (its version of Fusion) and Olivers (its longstanding ‘international’ camembert etc outlet).

Presumably, the tactic is to attract the middle class and foreigners with nicer-looking stores and the nasty frozen pizzas and wieners expats feed their kids – and of course charge them higher prices.

The two big chains are notorious for pushing wholesalers around. But as a duopoly accustomed to taking consumers for granted, they carry a largely similar and limited range of products. This leaves opportunities for niche players like 759, who import unpredictable varieties of extreme Japanese snacks, obscure European canned goods and even no-brand rice and other goods, bypassing the cartel’s distribution stitch-ups.

The Mainland-owned Vanguard chain is perhaps a sort of hybrid. Its rather seedy outlets lurk in back-street neighbourhoods a few minutes away from a Park N Shop or Wellcome. Perhaps the shoe-shining Hong Kong tycoon duopolists, normally highly protective of their turf, avoid getting tough with a Chinese state-owned company. Vanguard is also a partner with Tesco, which supplies a selection of cheap British, Polish and Thai packaged foodstuffs unavailable elsewhere.

The new Vanguard-Tesco spinoff chain seems to be an attempt to emulate the big boys’ Fusion and Market Place – with relatively clean, bright store interiors and an emphasis on (relatively) classy, sophisticated, exotic fare aimed at the bourgeoisie. If you don’t mind grappling with Slavonic languages on the label, Tesco’s Polish beer seriously undercuts the imported brews you see in Olivers (or Marks & Spencers, etc).

As for the name – of course, only the most alert FCC quiz teams got it. I’ll bet none of the three candidates in our Chief Executive ‘election’ could answer the question (Carrie Lam probably can’t name a single supermarket group in town). Anyway, in the finest local tradition of choosing atrocious English names for supermarkets, it’s called U Select. (U expected something better?)

I dropped by one a few days ago. I was entranced by these dainty little packs of soup, and even more excited to see that it was cat soup – which I’ve never tried…

But then I find that it’s soup for cats. Because there’s nothing your pet tabby wants to lap up more than a bowl of fish consommé. (I told you these guys are aiming at the high-end market.)

Also on offer, for those nostalgic for the days of Jiang Zemin and Tung Chee-hwa describing the closeness of Hong Kong and the glorious motherland – Lips and Teeth dental-hygiene-themed gummies…

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Invasion of the Killer Land Premiums

Last night’s Chief Executive ‘election’ debate contain some flashes of authentic nastiness – almost like you would get in a real democratic campaign. Opinion polls and commentators’ comments clearly indicated that pan-dems/malcontents thought John Tsang came out on top, while shoe-shiners thought Beijing’s pick Carrie Lam did best.

Outside the auditorium, things get even less real. One of our friendly local property developers is offering a 270-square-foot apartment at HK$8 million – 11% more than a same-size unit in the same project a week ago. (The newsworthy flat is 40 floors higher, with views of the Himalayas, but we’ll let that pass.) The South China Morning Post calls this an ‘extreme display of price elasticity’. That economics phrase usually refers to how prices affect the behaviour of producers and consumers, otherwise known as ‘supply and demand’. Perhaps under these circumstances, it’s the other way round – how ‘greed and gullibility’ affect prices.

The Hong Kong housing market is getting deeper into a parallel universe’s black hole where time and space are not as we understand them. Government stamp duties have dried up the secondary market, while developers’ offers of financing have made new-build projects superficially more competitive. Mainland companies gorging on dollar-denominated assets are bidding up land prices, convincing the mentally deficient that this must force prices for finished buildings even higher. Oh, and developers are probably lying about some of their sales numbers and prices.

A worthy column calls for a radical approach to housing in Hong Kong. By ‘radical’, we mean ‘tweaking the housing ladder’. This means dividing the population up into different segments: the ones who can’t afford most sorts of housing; the ones who can’t afford even more sorts of housing; and the ones who can’t afford any kind of housing we can possibly think of. You then try to find a solution for each segment. But can’t.

The most daring idea is converting industrial buildings into residential rentals. Every other mature economy does this without fuss, but you can bet that our version must involve some extra-special Hong Kong-style freaking-out about The Dreaded Land Premiums that will tragically make it impossible in practice.

The land premiums are, after all (the article says), a major barrier to opening up older subsidized homes to the market. (Because otherwise it’s ‘not fair’.) And the land premiums similarly promise to complicate any requirement for private developers to include affordable units in their projects.

The writer eventually starts hallucinating about a situation where ‘housing for singles and the elderly could also be included in the mix and hence we could move towards building communities’. But, rest assured, the land premiums will mysteriously prevent any such bizarreness.

No word on getting rid of these land premiums, even though they seem to make the existence of affordable homes utterly impossible. Nor on getting rid of Disney Land, banning foreign buyers, or other lateral-thinking, radical, ways to fix the problem.

In a nutshell, the article (and the whole Hong Kong establishment) is saying: ‘The housing crisis is the cause of severe social disharmony, but we need a balanced solution, and we can’t find one because of land premiums – woe is me.’


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Now imagine what the 8th CE will be like…

Hong Kong’s pro-establishment press has an easy job deciding the front-page story today: the elevation of Chief Executive CY Leung to the ever-so important ‘National Leadership’ position of Vice-Deputy Assistant Sub-Huge-Face Person at the Chinese People’s Retired Shoe-Shiners Consultative Conference. For added glowing idolization and all-round Wow, it is unprecedented for a sitting Hong Kong Chief Executive to hold this title.

For a dash of context, Hong Kong’s first CE, CH Tung, was unceremoniously kicked out in the middle of his second term, and made a CPPCC Vice-Chairman to save everyone’s face. The second one, Donald Tsang, was unceremoniously installed to replace Tung, and is now in prison (relieved to at least avoid the tedium of the CPPCC). CY, number-three, is being unceremoniously ejected after his first term. He will be one of 22 Vice-Chairmen of the rubber-stamp CPPCC advisory body.

In its wisdom, the Chinese Communist Party has selected former top civil servant Carrie Lam to be the fourth person to take the job. She looks, if anything, even less suited for the position than her predecessors. She lacks any sort of common touch or policy know-how. But she is a capable administrator, and obedient.

Even some Beijing-friendly figures wonder if this is really happening. Hence the zany rumour – that won’t go away – that Chinese officials will pick another candidate at the last minute. South China Morning Post op-ed page regular Tom Plate laments the choice of Carrie as continuing ‘a tradition of mediocrity’ and ‘a major blunder’, when ex-Financial Secretary John Tsang at least brings some personality and popularity.

The more Hong Kong people rebel against poor governance, the more Beijing insists on imposing it upon them.

Meanwhile, the SCMP makes the most of the flimsiest adjectives-stretching shoe-shining opportunities…

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