Uh-oh – that ‘abducted-a-guy-and-then-we-didn’t-need-to’ feeling

The court in Vancouver gives Ms Meng of Huawei bail ahead of her extradition hearing. This leaves Beijing taken by surprise and with a small bad-timing problem. Following several days’ intense ranting and threats to make Canada pay for its impertinence, the Chinese regime had, just moments before, arrested a Canadian former diplomat now working with an NGO. (We will assume he is innocent of any wrongdoing.)

The Vancouver court’s decision renders this classic act of clumsy infantile Communist retribution superfluous, premature, embarrassing and generally awkward.

Do the Chinese now hurriedly drop Michael Kovrig with gruff mumblings about a routine check/misunderstanding/nothing to see here? Or do they teach uppity little Canada to love and obey the Middle Kingdom by keeping him hostage on some open-ended flimsy pretext, with the implied threat that he will eventually suffer however much Meng does? Or do they just move straight on to the torture and televised forced confession out of pique and to satisfy the domestic audience they have hyped-up and fear so much?

And what do they do with him if Meng vanishes and reappears back in China (as some China skeptics rather hope she does, as a way to convince remaining naïve waverers out there that they are not dealing with a regime of honorable gentlemen to the manor born)?

Yet another great moment in meritocratic Chinese Communist Party leaders’ mystical powers of deep oriental long-term strategic thinking.

I was going to say ‘better late than never’ – but actually ‘slipping rather adroitly onto the bandwagon’, the South China Morning Post acknowledges that Xi Jinping is getting China into deep doo-doo reputationally. For years, the Beijing regime made a point of being boring enough to ignore, while assiduously grooming Panda-huggers (with girls and cash at your hotel room door if necessary). Now this conceited and probably rather uncultivated clot is pouring it all down the drain, possibly additionally unnerved by another conceited and uncultivated clot in the White House.

I declare the week half-over with a look at Xi-as-disaster – ‘Boot-licking in Beijing’.

 

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Guest post

by Deputy Assistant Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs

(Population and Quality of Life) Winky Ip SBS, JP

Hello! He has had so many people asking what I am doing these days, so here goes! You will remember back in those dark days following SARS, when I was put in charge of the anti-nose-picking campaign, and it was actually a great success. As you can see from the above-captioned job title, my career has been going very well since then. Competition to be at this civil-service rank is fierce (extra air-conditioning allowance, but the danger is that if you get promoted just one more grade, you might be picked to be a government minister).

People think Home Affairs is mainly about selecting suitable Youth Say No to Drugs and Sex Ambassadors, making sure museums aren’t so interesting that they are overcrowded, and organizing the annual Let’s Be Nice to Ethnic Minorities Day. Which is true! But we have even more important things to do. For example, the Bureau has a vital role to play in promoting Greater Bay Area integration, which is my own area of responsibility.

A quick run-down of my recent duties might give you an idea of my multi-pronged work.

A month ago, I spent a Sunday monitoring the number of Mainland visitors coming across the Zhuhai-Macau-Hong Kong Mega-Bridge into Tung Chung. I noted that the number of tourists was so great that local residents were finding it impossible to go shopping or get into a restaurant, and waiting times for public transport were five times longer than usual.

I subsequently sent my report to my boss, with the usual copy going to nice Mr Zhang – who was previously in Urumqi – at the Xianggang demographic rectification strategy working group at the Liaison Office.

Last week, in a circular to all Bureaus, Mr Zhang acknowledged quarterly key indicators he received on Mainland tourist arrivals (static), air pollution levels (down slightly), housing prices (down slightly), and primary-student suicides (static). We must try harder, he says.

He also says his personal inspections showed that the air has been fairly clean recently, and that a couple of MTR journeys he took were not especially crowded and the service was quick and pleasant. In response to this, our Transport Department colleagues have just agreed to continue ensuring serious traffic congestion at key chokepoints for several more years, and they will ‘resolutely, actively and consciously’ step up deterioration of MTR operations.

For my part, my Bureau has become more concerned that the burden of Mainland visitors is too concentrated on Tung Chung alone. My staff are now making arrangements to ensure that Central, Shamshuipo, North Point and several other densely developed districts also receive more tour groups. Initial informal feedback from the public is encouragingly negative.

On Wednesday, I helped draft speaking points for businessmen, pro-government lawmakers and other members of the Association of Patriotic Greater Bay Area Friendship Organizations. The key message is that young Hong Kong people should move to the Mainland for affordable housing, more space and Belt and Road Opportunities.

This week, my staff and several other departments are liaising with Mainland counterparts to import several thousand gene-edited diseased rats for release in some 50 locations in Hong Kong’s urban areas. After coordination with the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, we have arranged for street cleaners to wash rodent poison away as soon as it is laid in infested areas. This looks promising.

Well, I must go now! Mr Zhang has called an inter-departmental meeting to congratulate everyone for getting Hong Kong’s birth-rate down to 1.2 per woman, because there’s no space for kids, therefore we must have more Mainland immigrants, you understand.

Just another busy month waiting to collect my pension dedicated to serving the communis… community!

 

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Is 2018 the start of the unraveling?

Is 2018 the year China’s luck ran dry? When it became apparent that the country’s…

hubristic leadership … lacks both imagination and any real ability to make fundamental political and social changes that might impact its desire for total control.

What is the strategic thinking behind China’s diplomatic heavy-handedness this year? The questioner lists Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Thailand, Sweden and India as countries Beijing has actively pissed off. We could add Kenya, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Malaysia and more places where China has been ‘hurting the feelings’.

The answer to the first question is that China’s luck probably started to run out several years ago, but it has taken a while for many observers (especially in the West) to see past the ‘economic miracle’ cuddly-Panda mirage. As for the second question – there is no strategic thinking, obviously.

Some of the reputational damage arising from domestic repression and overseas arrogance reflects China’s top-down threats-and-punishment chain of command. The Chinese officials who barged into the Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister’s office were presumably under orders to procure the correct APEC communique wording, or else.

But it all goes back to delusional leadership at the highest level. See how ‘Belt and Road’ is looking increasingly like a vanity-driven blunder, and how China has clearly misjudged its ability to counter the US in the trade conflict. Emperor-for-Life Xi Jinping operates in a bubble, is told what he wants to hear and believes his own propaganda.

(Trump is a fantasist – but thanks to separation of powers, checks and balances, rule of law and a free press, it doesn’t make too much difference.)

Not only is Xi alienating overseas audiences, he is disturbing his own elites (and potentially overplaying his personality cult among the masses). If Huawei and Meng Wanzhou aren’t safe, what about the hundreds of thousands of well-off Mainlanders who have broken rules to stash wealth and families in Western democracies? Life was easier when the leadership followed Deng’s ‘hide your strength’ thing and didn’t get in foreigners’ faces.

Here in Hong Kong, we get a customized blend of Beijing’s domestic repression and overseas arrogance. (Here’s the latest summary of the crackdown on pro-democrats.) More and more people are getting nervous. The business community worry about losing legal protections and a level playing field. Local officials fear the decline of the city’s image and threats to the US-Hong Kong Policy Act. Ordinary folk wonder if the CCP is undermining their passports.

It’s all part of the same pattern of Xi-ist overreach – and maybe it’s now unraveling.

 

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HK govt does its best

In accordance with a tradition – which takes effect as of now – I will say something positive about the Hong Kong government every Friday. After some searching, I am delighted to note that the health authorities are preparing for a possible culling of livestock should the latest mutant swine virus from the mainland cross the border. They are practicing with large pink furry toy pigs.

Easy to mock. But they could have shrugged and said ‘Whatever, we’ll sort something out if and when the bovine plague strikes’ and gone back to daydreaming about collecting their pensions. But no, they have been proactive. Our tax dollars at work, possibly productively. At least fluffily.

The caption to the photo reads: ‘You put the stun gun to the head, just here, near the washing instructions’.

I declare the weekend open with an assortment of things you might have missed. Willy Lam looks at Xi Jinping’s domestic enemies. Atlantic finds no fewer than 15 reasons to freak out about (now missing) He Jiankui’s gene-edited babies. Speaking of editing, Minxin Pei takes over at China Leadership Monitor. And here’s the open letter protesting (what looks like United Front) harassment of New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady.

With the winter chill about to spread through town, a couple of warming links… Got an hour to spare? Why not launch your own cryptocurrency? And for music fans, a reminder that people who were seriously ahead of their time can in retrospect be tragically cringe-making: Pete Drake and his talking steel guitar.

On the subject of cringe-making…

…who on earth is this rather odious, semi-pitiable and creepy-looking deviant, and why is he lounging like that and leering at me (it moves) on my tablet and PC screens about 30 times a day?

 

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Christmas comes early

Former Hong Kong official Patrick Ho’s weight-loss program – now ‘several months’ in – looks set to continue for a few more years after a New York jury finds him guilty of bribery committed in the noble cause of Belt and Road. More on the…

…gift boxes stuffed with $2 million in cash … Hong Kong businessman’s globe-hopping corruption scheme … quintessential bribe … like something out of a movie…

…story here.

And here’s a big in-depth look at CEFC, the murky energy conglomerate that, among other deals, set about acquiring the Czech Republic as a subsidiary (not to mention the Caucasus).  By murky, we mean of uncertain ownership, but presumably serving both the Chinese government politically and CCP elites’ financially. Which brings us rather neatly to…

Canadian authorities arrest the CFO (and founder’s daughter) of Huawei for extradition to the US on suspicion of violating Iran sanctions. Shades, of course, of ZTE. The Chinese embassy in Ottawa goes into Major Mouth-Froth Mode about how Canada has harmed Meng Wanzhou’s human rights and must ‘immediately correct the wrongdoing’. Can she, like Patrick Ho, also look forward to the opportunity to lose a few pounds?

Still another 86 days to go in that US-China trade truce!

 

 

 

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Have you shoe-shined your Communist Party today?

No sooner do I mention the possibility of renaming the Li Po Chun United World College’s proposed Belt and Road Centre, than the alumni launch a petition calling for the very same thing (it’s here).

People unfamiliar with the psychology of obsessive-compulsive kowtowing to the Chinese Communist Party might wonder why aging billionaire property tycoon Lee Shau-kee would feel a need to donate funds in such an ostentatious way. The simple answer is that the idea is not so much to overtly display groveling loyalty as to avoid the impression that you are neglecting to do so. The driver is the fear of what might happen if you do not shoe-shine.

But why underwrite a ‘Belt and Road’ centre now? Hundreds (literally) of institutions throughout China paid homage to Emperor-for-Life Xi a few years ago by establishing supposed Belt and Road research facilities. Here in Hong Kong, City U, politician Regina Ip, blue-chip companies like HSBC, and the usual conference-whore bureaucracies rushed to be seen to join in the adulation. Now ‘Belt and Road’ is going beyond hackneyed and stale and starting to look more like a toxic neo-colonialist rip-off joke.

Hong Kong’s cartelized developers are, of course, not known for their original approaches or innovative thinking.

We can only hope the campaign to rename this thing fails, and UWC gets a permanent monument to its own lust for donations and to Hong Kong tycoons’ hilariously unconvincing sycophancy.

On more worldly matters… Anyone wanting a quick, qualified run-down of the US-China trade hoo-ha could do worse than flick through this and this from Prof Balding. Maybe the real challenge here is that faced by the White House and other advisors trying to keep Trump’s mind on the post-Panda-hugging New Era big picture, rather than daily stock market movements and whatever flattery and lures Beijing and its Wall Street buddies might be dangling in front of him.

 

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Ma On Shan to become ‘Belt and Road’ country

Property tycoon Lee Shau-kee is donating HK$50 million to the Li Po Chun United World College at Ma On Shan for a Belt and Road Learning and Resources Centre. In plain English, let’s call it the Xi Jinping Shameless Shoe-shining Building. The school gets money, the Henderson Land dynasty performs a nauseatingly gratuitous kowtow to the Communist Party – just a plain everyday harmless prostitution win-win.

But some spoilsports have to complain that the deal contradicts the internationalist UWC ideal of political neutrality. Now comes a student petition.

The school might want to think ahead. The ‘Belt and Road’ brand is already tarnished as a cover for debt-trap diplomacy. At some stage, Xi or a successor might ditch the tag, if not the whole grandiose neo-colonial strategy. Then the college ends up being lumbered with an embarrassing and defunct symbol. It would be like having a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Institute or a Dolce & Gabbana Chair of Creative Studies. At least try to get re-naming rights.

Not all parts of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing plutocratic empires are in such an obsequious mood. The tycoon-owned Standard produces a moderately scathing editorial about the Eddie Chu Hoi-dick disqualification as a blow to rule of law. The writer asks when school teachers will have to pass ideology tests.

Beijing’s officials are pushing the Hong Kong government into deep water. The local administration uses desperate administrative contrivances to kick Eddie Chu off a ballot while at the same time it is hounding Benny Tai and his fellow Occupy-Umbrella veterans on weird charges in the courts (epic on-the-spot reports of the trial here) – and the world is now watching because of the expulsion of a Financial Times editor.

This thread from another FT correspondent broaches the subject of Mainlandization as a turn-off for locally based international financial and other corporate interests.

This is where the Hong Kong administration starts to struggle with what, for want of a better word, we’ll call its ‘conscience’. The Communist Party commands the Hong Kong government’s loyalty through fear. But the local leaders’ true passion is for the glowing admiration of investment bankers, the World’s Freest Economy Award and the US Hong Kong Policy Act.

While kicking out an FT guy/white man is a bit close to the bone, it’s hard to imagine hedge funds fleeing to gleaming bustling Taipei anytime soon. But even the mere hint of it makes the Hong Kong government sweat. So please voice any concerns discreetly.

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HK elections become bigger jokes

A civil servant bars lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick from running in a village election. As Hong Kong gets increasingly numbed to it, the Mainlandization gets ever-weirder. (Story here, and highlights of mind-warping official correspondence here.)

This is a bold – you could almost say reckless – extension of the tactic of keeping pro-democracy candidates off the ballot for their political beliefs. Eddie Chu is less identifiable as being pro-independence than earlier recipients of this treatment, so the (supposedly impartial) bureaucrat had to take more desperate interrogatory and deductive steps to determine his guilt of thought-crimes.

The way the official piled on the convoluted questions (which no other candidates were asked) added the Orwellian to the Kafkaesque to the plain absurd. It demands a legal appeal, not as a way to stop the Mainlandization process – which goes with Communist Party rule – but to clarify beyond doubt that we no longer have rule of law in these matters.

To add to the absurdity, this is a low-level village election, while Eddie Chu is already a member of the Legislative Council. (For extra murkiness, rural interests detest his views on land-related issues, as in death-threats.) It will be illogical not to disqualify him from that body. But he won his Legislative Council seat with more votes than any other lawmaker, so it will also make an additional mockery of the democratic process – or it would if there were one.

 

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More integration win-win baloney

A former Chinese official declares that Hong Kong and Shanghai should build a common capital market with lots of partnership, cooperation, win-win and serving the nation.

A quick reminder about these two cities. One has a free flow of capital (and a proper legal system, free flow of information), while the other doesn’t. And in one, financial services are private-sector and market-based, while in the other, the function is largely state-run. How do the two ‘join forces’? Why is this guy even saying this stuff?

Another ex-official from the Mainland announces with a straight face that Beijing should extend Hong Kong’s economic system across the whole of the Greater Bay Area. This would require an international-style border separating the Pearl River Delta from the rest of China, and it would entail customs and probably currency union between the PRD and Hong Kong. It would split the PRD from China more than it would integrate Hong Kong into the Mainland. It would be a visionary, epic reformist move. And obviously – not going to happen.

(By the way: have you ever heard of a communist dictatorship with a freely convertible currency?)

Back in reality, the trend is for the CCP to tighten control over Hong Kong rather than relax it anywhere else. The AFP correspondent looks back at the last few years. Here’s a neat summary of how Beijing is systematically turning Hong Kong’s legislature into a rubber-stamp. Meanwhile the supposedly impartial civil service performs absurdist comedy to inveigle Eddie Chu Hoi-dick into expressing a personal opinion that would bar him from the ballot, loosely inspired by Franz Kafka and starring Ronny Tong as the tragic, cringe-making poodle-weasel-stooge (latest here).

To put it all into context, I declare the weekend open with the thoughts of George Magnus on how the West’s great minds, after being rather slow on the uptake, are finally working out that this is different…

Xi’s China functions according to a governance system which is a throwback to decades ago before Deng. Yet China is more modern/complex and has economic and commercial aspirations that are of the future. A major contradiction.

(The kind of contradiction that makes Donald Trump look good. Yet another example of the China-watchers finally ‘getting it’  is this Hoover Institute report edited by Larry Diamond.)

 

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Greater Bay Area cooperation boost for Hong Kong

Hong Kong authorities apparently being powerless to do anything about non-Financial Times staff coming through immigration control…

Travel agencies across Guangdong have been ordered to halt all one-day trips to Hong Kong and Macau on weekends via the cross-border bridge to reduce the nuisance suffered by the cities’ residents.

Maybe the Guangdong Provincial government would like to sort out our housing, traffic, education and other problems while it’s at it?

So a HK$150-billion, 55-km, six-lane bridge-tunnel opens. Only a small number of private cars are allowed to use it (subject to nightmarish permit procedures). Trucks apparently have no use for the new route. Hongkongers trying buses to Macau report that it’s quicker by ferry; possibly the same goes for everyone’s fave destination, Zhuhai, but who knows? And the main users – bored retired farmers from Zhongshan and environs – must be restricted because Hong Kong doesn’t have the capacity to carry them.

It’s a bridge linking a place where there’s no space for more visitors or traffic to a place no-one wants to go to.

Meanwhile, a gleam of sanity bursts through the gloom, as an academic confirms that the sort of tourists coming over the bridge add little or nothing to Hong Kong’s economy. Mass-market tourism is a parasite on a developed city-state with a shortage of space and manpower. A few interests (basically landlords) benefit, but only at the expense of the rest of the population and economy, which suffer lower quality of life and higher rents. Hong Kong would benefit from fewer mainland visitors.

It is clear that Beijing and the tycoons each have their own interests in swamping Hong Kong with outsiders. It is also clear (recall Sheung Shui) that it is only the threat of activism and visible hostility from Hong Kong people that makes officials pay attention.

Hong Kong policymakers, in their dimwittedness, are left trapped in a logical conundrum:

  • Tourists are a burdensome pain in the ass, and we need fewer of them
  • Tourists (mostly) come from the Mainland
  • Everything from the Mainland is wonderful and must be worshipped

Guangdong steps in, and our officials’ brains stop hurting so much, for the time being.

 

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