Is ‘Belt and Road’ getting embarrassing?

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently whizzed through Saudi Arabia. The visit was an unseemly grovel-fest aimed at convincing the kingdom’s rulers to list Saudi Aramco on Hong Kong’s stock exchange. She also took the opportunity to describe Saudi as an important country in China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.

In other recent exciting ‘Belt and Road’ developments, Nepal and Pakistan are getting nervous about Chinese-promoted infrastructure projects, Thailand is unsure about its China-led ‘train to nowhere’, and (last we heard) impoverished Laos is being turned into a vassal state in return for splurging on a gleaming Chinese-built high-speed rail line, plus free casino thrown in at no extra charge. And now, Sri Lanka is ceding a port to China – on a 99-year lease, to inject a bit of humour into the proceedings.

Observers cutting through the rhetoric and the hype concluded a while ago that ‘Belt and Road’ is essentially a label for infrastructure projects that were already happening or would have happened or will happen anyway. The fancy ‘friendship win-win’ blather is sugar-coating for offloading excess capacity, luring Third World backwaters into debt-bondage and grabbing natural resources or strategic outposts.

Rather than keep this scummy neocolonialism nameless and low-key, Xi Jinping chose to give it a high-profile branding – presumably out of vanity and/or naïve belief in his own vision and China’s irresistible charms. ‘Belt and Road’ thus became a mantra with which to shoe-shine Beijing.

Predictably, the glorification has overextended itself. Any Chinese-linked deal from Panama to Bulgaria is now ‘Belt and Road’. Hundreds of men in suits spend whole days attending conferences on ‘Belt and Road’. Aging Hong Kong billionaires excitedly tell the city’s youth about a ‘Belt and Road’ Eldorado. And Carrie tries to flatter someone (Xi or the Al-Sauds?) with a meaningless name-dropping of ‘Belt and Road’ in the palace in Riyadh.

Oh, and a beauty pageant. This measured article from the Carnegie fund brings everyone down to earth by examining what the flimflam slogan isn’t. Among other interesting points: Beijing itself does not officially endorse any of those maps showing ‘Belt and Road’ tentacles weaving and looping through Eurasia and the Indian Ocean, with a caption covering Japan. (And of course, the slogan now appears in the Communist Party constitution – a repository of such meaninglessness as the Three Represents.)

It will be interesting to see how ‘Belt and Road’ goes as a presentational branding exercise from here. It might be an idea to start toning it down.


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Have you tried being nice?

A letter (scroll down) in the South China Morning Post asks why the Communist Party can’t just be nice?

It’s a good question. The Chinese government’s attempts to rant and bludgeon Hong Kong into loving it are surely unworthy of the famous thousands-of-years-old civilization or a Party that claims to serve the people. The approach is, as the writer says, counterintuitive and counterproductive.

We could point out that the Leninist system is about gaining and holding absolute control through force. The underlying assumption is that the people don’t want to be run by a Communist dictatorship. (Unlike enlightened and smart Red revolutionaries, the masses are too downtrodden/brainwashed/dumb to understand. Otherwise, we could just hold an election…) The utopian ends will justify the violent means.

A problem is that, however brilliantly it succeeded with peasants in semi-feudal 1920s Russia and 1940s China, it doesn’t work on Hongkongers – on average far wealthier, better-educated and accustomed to a pluralistic society and rules-based order than the compatriots over the border.

And so the letter-writer’s question remains unanswered.

I can only hazard a guess: It would be easier to be nice, but being obnoxious is more fun.

I declare the weekend open with triple-fun – an ultra-in-depth update on Alibaba’s financials, this inspiring wonder of modern technology, and insightful words for politics and dialect fans from an Alabama hairdresser…

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Reg vs Reit

It’s not often that lawmaker and wannabe Chief Executive Regina Ip plays the vulnerable victim. The ex-Security Secretary is more comfortable as the whip-wielding iron butterfly leaving foes in chewed-up pieces in her wake. But here she is accusing the Link real estate investment trust of threatening to evict her party’s members from their premises in the company’s property in retaliation for her criticism of its management of retail malls.

The Standard headline about the Link ‘trying to silence’ Regina Ip captures the implausibility of this scenario. She is surely exaggerating for effect. By acting as the one being bullied, she is turning the tables on the Link Reit, leaving them and the alleged go-between columnist Simon Lee scurrying for cover. Mega-landlord – consider your head bitten off. Don’t mess with Reg.

The Link Reit is a problem that won’t go away. The portfolio of shabby low-rent shopping malls and car parks attached to public housing estates was privatized under Tung Chee-hwa in the early 2000s. (The crop-haired one thought privatization would make him look Thatcher-cool – thus also the MTR flotation. We might also consider that the subsidized retail complexes competed with Beijing’s co-opted property-giant buddies. For small MPF savers and retirees, it is a dependable utility-like investment.)

The new profit-driven owner started to upgrade the malls. Among the improvements were noticeably more hygienic wet-markets. But the managers also put previously-peppercorn rents up, and this led to some traditional mom-and-pop stores closing, big chains moving in, and – in some cases, according to the anguished complaints – impoverished public-housing residents being forced to travel miles for affordable sustenance. The Link has therefore become demonized as a heartless and cruel exploiter of the downtrodden.

The company recently decided to sell a large chunk of its portfolio to a consortium. They thus cash in while real-estate prices are inflated, and divest themselves of the political burden. Activists are warning of the death of communities as the new management hikes rents in order to get a return on their insightful/bold/stupid investment. Politicians are echoing them – and this is where Regina comes in.

Columnist Simon Lee defended the old and new landlords on basic classical-economics grounds. He and a former Link boss have or had connections with the pro-free markets/libertarian Lion Rock Institute. Nothing sinister in that, but it highlights the real flaw in both pro- and anti-Link arguments.

Free-markets principles make sense in free markets. But what do we have in Hong Kong? The government owns all the land, keeps it in artificially short supply, and allows a cartel to dominate much real-estate. And then – as if the retail property market were not sufficiently distorted – the same government crams in millions of ‘tourists’ who are mainly shoppers of certain goods arbitraging a protected market of 1.3 billion next door.

Libertarian waffle about how we must ‘stop glorifying and encouraging business failures’ is meaningless on such a tilted playing field. So is populist demonizing of the Link – a government-created entity partly owned by many of us. The problem is Hong Kong’s cartelized semi-feudal stitched-up crony-riddled travesty of capitalism.

(My favourite definition of libertarianism: ‘Astrology for men’.)


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Turning up the Communist ‘subtle charm’ thing on HK

For the first 15 years or so after 1997, the Chinese government refrained from contradicting Hong Kong’s understanding of ‘One Country Two Systems’ and the ‘high degree of autonomy’. But after Xi Jinping came to power, Beijing started to clarify and expand upon the meanings of superficially comforting phrases. Chinese officials announced that Hong Kong’s self-rule was merely a privilege, that it was anyway limited, and that the perceived promise of democracy was not a promise – oh, and was not of democracy.

In consolidating control as national leader, Xi has declared that the Communist Party is essentially the ruler of everything. Hong Kong’s pre-1997 elites and optimists would have been aghast at the idea that this also applies to their city. But we are now told openly and plainly that it’s not that Hong Kong is ‘becoming red’ – Hong Kong is already red. For the first time, Chinese officials are stating that the Communist Party runs Hong Kong.

Beijing’s United Front and propaganda maestros will be gratified to see some sensitive older pro-democrats swoon in shock. But are they being as clever as they think? They are making the local administration look even more useless (no mean achievement). They are forcing moderate conservatives (including foreign business) to publicly align themselves not simply with a local business-bureaucratic establishment but with an alien, thuggish quasi-religion. And they are confirming to the community at large that, Yes – we are coming for your kids’ minds and your rule of law and your free speech.

All of which is jumping the gun. Because, despite the ‘just another Chinese city’ cliché, Hong Kong is a long way from being subjugated and absorbed. The ‘You are already Red’ declaration is perhaps not so much high-handed as hubristic. Rather than cow its audience into submission, it is more likely to wake up more fence-sitters and strengthen the suspicion and resistance.

Another sign, perhaps, that we are witnessing ‘Peak Panda’.

(Is it something to do with succumbing to their own fantasy-propaganda? Note the latest in the apparent unravelling of the CCP’s over-reach down under. It’s almost as if the Communists were naïve about Australians’ naivety.)

(Update: it’s hurt-feelings freak-out time.)

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Can we call it ‘FannyGate’ yet?

The South China Morning Post probes deeper into yesterday’s curious affair of Fanny Law and the Swedish scientists – or at least into Fanny’s explanation of how nothing happened. The ex-bureaucrat-turned-Beijing loyalist and Science Park figurehead says she decided to go to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm before, and in preparation for, her sudden visit to its Lau Wai-ming Reparative Medicine outpost here.

The SCMP reports this straight, as if it clears everything up. But readers who are sensitive to this sort of thing might detect a hint of that ‘slightly-hurt overly-elaborate irrelevant-details’ tone perfected by many generations of kids caught with hands in cookie jars. There is no word on why the Swedes spoke out to defend their academic freedom, or why Chief Executive Carrie Lam should feel a need to reassure them.

So observers wondering what is happening must rely on their imaginations, which as we all know can get a little sordid.

For example, this comment mentions former CE CY Leung’s kid getting a research fellowship at the Institute in Sweden in 2014, and a position in the same field recently being offered by the Hong Kong branch (expired job advertised here and elsewhere). The two pieces of information mean nothing, of course, but someone with a nasty suspicious mind might wonder if an attempt to influence a hiring decision took place.

If we focus our minds on innocent, wholesome, non-sordid possibilities, we can envisage a misunderstanding, or some parochial Science Park bureaucratic empire-building face thing – in other words, nothing happened. Except something provoked the normally mild-mannered Swedes into their comments about research independence, which prompted reassurance from none other than the Chief Executive. Try as we might to think otherwise, something did happen.

It looks as if the Hong Kong, Beijing-supporting, self-important, money-backed, tycoon-bureaucrat nexus – perhaps influenced by Mainland forces – might have found that its rules-don’t-apply-to-us culture rubs Scandinavians up the wrong way. But presumably the Swedes need the money. Chances are that this affair will now quietly fade away, and we will never really know.

Meanwhile, you still have several days left to send your Christmas cards off to Patrick Ho in jail in New York.


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Front-page news: something happened

The South China Morning Post devotes much of its front page to the revelation that something happened, but we don’t know what.

The story starts in August, when ex-senior bureaucrat and government supporter Fanny Law, wearing her Science Park figurehead-boss hat, visited the Swedish Karolinska medical institute’s branch at the Science Park ‘at short notice’ to discuss ‘research progress’. She then flew to its HQ in Stockholm. So far, so shrug-worthy.

The twist comes in comments soon after from the Karolinska boss – anguished statements defending the Institute’s academic freedom, and what seems to be an implied threat to pull out of Hong Kong. Sweden’s local consul (one Helena Storm, no less) has also weighed in. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam then wrote some groveling plea to the Swedes, assuring them of the city’s total respect for academic autonomy.

There is no mention of what Fanny actually said that might provoke such a response. But the background offers some tantalizing clues about what sort of murk could lie beneath this.

The Institute’s Hong Kong branch arose from a HK$400 million donation from property scion and Hong Kong government supporter Lau Ming-wai. It specializes in reparative medicine and mentions strengthening links with Chinese scientists as part of its mission. To complicate the possible murk, the donation coincided with then-CE CY Leung’s kid being admitted to study at Karolinska. Both Fanny and the boy Wai-ming were allied to CY, and of course to Beijing.

(One other detail, possibly of no consequence: Fanny’s jaunt to Stockholm involved, among other things, briefing the Swedes on the Lok Ma Chau innovation/Shenzhen zone-hub scam-enigma, and – oh joy – the Greater Bay Area vision-scheme integration-mystery.)

Some more background, not in the SCMP story: the Karolinska branch in Hong Kong is particularly interested in stem-cell tech, RNA therapy, a cure for Parkinson’s, and other bio-tech. These are also big deals in the Mainland, receiving lots of policy backing. (Deng Xiaoping suffered from Parkinson’s, and Mainland scientists are at the forefront of using stem-cells from human embryos as a therapy.) One player in this is Mainland company CRMI (China Regenerative Medicine International), which happens to be another Science Park tenant.

What’s going on? It is wrong to speculate – but also great fun, so we can throw out some wild guesses. The Institute’s comments suggest that someone attempted to pressure it in some way about its research. Maybe someone tried to push them into ‘collaborating’ with other researchers, or maybe even to steer clear of a field from which a Beijing-connected rival hoped to profit. Or something else!

Lest we need reminding, there is some other broader background: this is 2017 Hong Kong; ‘One Country Two Systems’ and ‘high degree of autonomy’ are now officially over.

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A faint glimmer of Bay Area substance (maybe)

I declare the weekend open with a quick glimpse into the nebulous ‘Greater Bay Area’. The South China Morning Post defines the visionary vagueness as “the central government’s plan to link Hong Kong, Macau, and nine mainland cities in the Pearl River Delta into an integrated innovation and technology hub”.

Maybe this was already common knowledge, and we missed it amid all the mind-numbing sloganizing, the ranting about ‘opportunities’, and the nagging fact that it’s a delta not a bay. But maybe this is the first time someone has authoritatively distilled the idea into something of substance. (Or, possibly, it’s the SCMP’s own brave attempt at a pithy summary of the concept, thus really no more than a guess.)

Assuming it’s a real thing – what’s going to happen? For example, will the Mainland cities (Zhuhai, Foshan, GZ, Dongguan, SZ, etc) be wrapped up into a new Municipality, like Chongqing was, with the same status as a Province? It would be nice to know.

According to the article, the Transport Ministry in Beijing is deciding which of the region’s three main aviation centres (GZ, SZ and HK) will “play the role as hub airport”. (My vote would be for SZ – it’s the most central in terms of population distribution and transport links, plus it might help keep riffraff, MICE, etc out of HK.)

The SCMP story concerns a report by some experts, or at least academics. They fret that Hong Kong is losing its edge and the other cities are overtaking us in logistics, innovation and e-platforms or something. This brings us back to the major question of Hong Kong’s future – will it continue as the place that is free to do what the Mainland cannot/will not do, or will it be ‘integrated’ and competing in a centrally-planned-sort-of-way with the others? You can have either one, but not both.

Still, it seems that we will be designated the marine insurance hub – so there’s always that. And if that’s not exciting enough, Belt and Road’ is going to rebuild Syria.


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United Front pushes junk science

Not sure why Australia and New Zealand are so prominent in China’s United Front tentacle-spreading efforts in media/academia/politics and/or the growing local investigative work into and backlash against it. Has the Communist Party prioritized the two resources-exporting, immigrant-absorbing countries as targets for influence and subversion? Or are Canadians (say) similarly under attack but too sensitive or squeamish to speak out – unlike the plain-speaking ockers down under?

Whatever it is, China’s aggressive infiltration of democracies’ civil societies is more visible in Oz and NZ, and we can see patterns emerging – for example in the role played by Traditional Chinese Medicine in the process.

TCM is essentially unscientific hogwash and dangerous for humans as well as rhinos – but lucrative as an ‘alternative’ to science- and evidence-based based treatment. Refer to the latter as ‘Western’ medicine, and the two even sound vaguely equivalent.

In New Zealand (and elsewhere), the Confucius Institutes are pushing TCM studies, and local politicians turn up to legitimize it. In Australia, senior former officials are up their ears in sheep placenta skincare cream and much else.

There are big bucks in pushing this quack medicine among gullible Westerners, so this is at least partly about shyster-businessmen/money and Chinese national export policy. But this is also about soft power – and a rare example (along with pandas and xiaolongbao) of a CCP-acceptable Chinese cultural phenomenon that isn’t overtly state-driven, ideologically contrived, clunky and off-putting.

The above item on Aus suggests that the United Front strategists are (typically) trying too hard to harness the soft-power and money-making aspects of TCM to their efforts to influence Australian political figures and institutions. Skeptics notice, the soft power looks hard, and the commercial activity starts to look dirty. It’s as if they disrupted the flow of qi.

In Hong Kong, TCM became politically correct (and eligible for public funds) after 1997. The old (and some younger) folks seem to like it for mysterious aches and discomfort. The healthcare section of the government’s own residents’ services website tells us all we need to know with a lovely juxtaposition…

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Some mid-week links

Among many other things, 2017 should be the year that Western democracies started to wake up to systematic Chinese Communist Party infiltration of their academia, media, legislatures and other institutions (latest episode here). Patriotic Hongkongers are playing their part in this clunky wannabe soft-power effort, as we know from tycoon Ronny Chan influencing the Asia Society. And now here’s a look at former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s China-United States Exchange Foundation, which seems to be dabbling in a lot of particularly snooze-worthy stuff – but maybe that’s the cunning plan.

To update from yesterday: apparently it’s not LGBT but LGBTQ, except actually there should be an ‘I’ there too, and an ‘A’ – except in fact it should be LGBTQQIAAP. An excellent if lengthy Atlantic piece on how Trump won on white racism, period, quotes this (perhaps waspish) definition of political correctness…

…an extremely dramatic and rapidly changing set of discursive and social laws that, virtually overnight, people are expected to understand, to which they are expected to adhere…

The concept merges into hyper-correctness and plain pedantry – but forcing a change in commonly accepted nomenclature is also a power-struggle tactic. A few decades back, China’s official English-language publications expected the world to adopt ‘Xianggang’ instead of ‘Hong Kong’. When they gave up, did they feel humiliated at failing to force the Mandarin-Pinyin rendering upon foreigners, and indeed having themselves to kowtow to the colonial oppressors’ Anglicized Cantonese? If they did, we never noticed.

Speaking of decades ago, I was perusing some of those Olde Hong Kong photos and noticed a late-50s/early-60s picture of Wanchai (halfway down). I instantly sensed, in a subliminal déjà vu way, that the location was the junction of Johnston and Hennessy Roads. But why? A look at the scene today through Google Street View provides a clue…

Things come and go, but government zonings for filling stations never change.


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Doesn’t the Liaison Office have enough to do?

As the annual Pride march took place over the weekend, Hong Kong’s anti-LGBT forces spoke out.

The fundamentalist Christian/fundamentally gruesome Truth and Light Society repeated its opposition to legal recognition of transgender people’s adopted gender, now accepted in many (notably Western) countries. And a pro-establishment Liberal Party local politician freaked out over a foreign plot to force gay marriage onto Hong Kong after the British consulate flew a rainbow flag. (The Standard’s layout people wittily-perhaps put the story on a pink background.)

For most of Hong Kong, this is fringe stuff. In the West, the transgender issue has become absurd – see the bathroom-war sagas in the US. Radical activists themselves can’t get their heads around it (the TERF thing), and the whole subject of gender identity could use a serious dose of science. But beneath all the hoo-hah is a reality not a curable ailment. Meanwhile, gay marriage has gone from being unthinkable and outlandish to a big snore in open-minded societies.

The key thing is that in Hong Kong (as elsewhere) a fairly small but loud group of people insist that any expansion of LGBT rights somehow oppresses the straight majority, while an unknown number of more tolerant people disagree or simply don’t care much.

The anti-LGBT movement in Hong Kong clearly has religious roots. Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s panicky I’m-a-Catholic non-commitment over the Gay Games is an example. And it’s no secret that fundamentalist Protestants have had a growing influence in the education sector and civil service over the years (trying to push creationism and gay-conversion therapy, for example). We also know that there is a political overlap (the Devil’s handiwork, indeed) between the fundamentalist Christian and pro-Beijing forces.

As well as activists, the pro-LGBT lobby includes the (otherwise pro-establishment) international business community and (to an extent) the government’s own Equal Opportunities Commission.

What is relatively new is the involvement of pro-establishment political parties in these debates. Members of the DAB – a Communist Party-front – have jumped on the anti-gay bandwagon. And now the pro-business/cartels Liberal Party has done the same, as they have with transgender recognition.

This doesn’t look like a coincidence. Cynics would also assume that anything these spineless puppets do is guided by the Chinese government’s local Liaison Office. So there are two possible explanations (which are not mutually exclusive).

One is that the Communist Party sees LGBT issues as part of the Western universal-rights threat, incompatible with its superior Leninist quasi-Confucian Chinese-characteristics human cultural zombification-civilization model. But if this were the case, we would expect gay etc communities in the Mainland to be given the full Muslim/lawyers/feminists clampdown treatment – which doesn’t seem to be happening.

The other is that the Liaison Office has identified this as a wedge-issue in Hong Kong. In other words, they believe they can use pro-family/local-values slogans to draw some popular support away from the pro-democrats to the patriotic camp. Such obsessive micro-management sounds right up their street, as does the probable futility of the effort.


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