HK bureaucracy hits peak Belt and Road

You can always tell when a hyped-up fad has jumped the shark and started to plunge into inevitable oblivion: the Hong Kong government establishes a mega-bureaucracy with responsibility for it.

Accidentally perusing the classified ads on Saturday, I spotted a ‘help wanted’ notice from the Ministry of Managing Market-based Wealth-creation, who want a ‘Commissioner for Belt and Road’…

I choked up a snarky Tweet. Meanwhile, sleuth-reporters went digging and found that the salary for this position is HK$260,600 a month. This is, I think – on calm reflection – the least any sentient and self-respecting human could realistically accept for having such a humiliating job title on their business card.

Checking back, it seems that a position of this sort was originally created by Chief Executive CY Leung, who went through a hyperactive-obsessive frenzy of ‘Belt and Road’ mania at one stage. The post was presumably instant symbolism for shoe-shining purposes, and went to a retired civil servant – who was not remunerated.

With ‘Belt and Road’ acquiring a bad name internationally as a neo-imperialist debt-trap diplomacy and vassal-state-formation resources-grab, the Hong Kong government thought the time right to ask the Legislative Council to approve a more-permanent position with the aforementioned modest salary (plus housing, plus ‘leave passage allowance’, punkah-wallah, etc) earlier this year. The proposal included assorted trimmings like a civil servant sidekick on HK$190,000+, and another one on HK$160,000+, and no doubt an array of flunkies. The aim was to ‘take forward’ stuff ‘effectively and on a sustained basis’.

This recruitment website classifies the job as ‘program development’ and ‘marketing/PR/communications’ with a straight face. The government ad-blurb explains that the mission is to ‘formulate’, ‘promote’ and ‘enhance’ various things with regard to ‘platforms’ and ‘stakeholders’. There is no mention of what the taxpayer can expect in return for their money (‘deliverables’, in the jargon).

In terms of qualifications, applicants must have endless years of ‘administrative experience’. This is Hong Kong-speak for a former civil servant with a track-record of zero ideas or imagination, who is in need of a sinecure, however depressingly futile.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the bureaucracy, plans are being drawn up for ‘Commissioner for Greater Bay Area Tech Opportunities Hub-Zone Positive Energy (Blockchain)’.

 

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An overload of weekend reading…

As curbs on speech and other freedoms loom after the Andy Chan/FCC lunch, an interesting question: What cost should Hong Kong pay to make Xi feel safe? The article goes on to say:

“…it seems impossible for [Beijing officials] to stomach the assertion that the event was meant merely for journalists to neutrally understand a political agenda, rather than lending it support and giving it publicity.”

And then…

“The final bulwark lies in the Hong Kong government.”

Never seen ‘bulwark’ and ‘Hong Kong government’ in the same sentence before. Probably won’t again.

I declare the weekend, and a backlog of reading, open with this handy cut-out-and-keep Hong Kong News Bingo (which comes with a special Sedition Edition for use in the months and years ahead)…

And the first box we tick is the White Elephant one. Have they fixed the leaking basement and the drifting concrete block things with bits sticking out? Has it opened yet? Will we notice when it does? A preview (coincidentally from the bingo-compiler) of the mega-expensive Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge – a technological marvel designed for symbolic-ex-colony-absorption, not driving across.

Also in the not-what-it-seems department: another Deep Throat IPO dig into Alibaba and numbers that don’t add up from the latest financial results . Even if you skip the jargon, read the summaries for such insights as:

“Consolidating money-losing-dog-shit businesses using all sorts of valuation shenanigans to hide what’s happening, and/or bailing out friends with US Shareholder Money seems to have consumed much of management’s time and resources.”

Haven’t heard from Bill Overholt for a while. Here he efficiently puts Xi Jinping’s leadership in perspective as indecisive, insecure and unable to make the transition from authoritarianism to a more complex economic and social system. (Apparently, this is big news to some people.)

From Foreign Policy, more on mighty Xi-ism not working as advertised. (A relief, given the incredible CIA incompetence that allowed China to wipe out a whole mainland spy network, with max prejudice). And on to yet more grumbling from a Mainland intellectual.

The CCP International Liaison Department carries on regardless – spreading influence through a new Comintern. If they get their hooks into you, maybe you’d like to do a master’s degree in Xi Thought, a hot research topic in China’s universities.

On a slightly more rigorous academic note, Kaiser Kuo takes a look at China’s 5,000-years-of-history cliché. (The article ends with the point that the Chinese writing system is indeed ancient – though if we were to be brutal we could ask in a shocked and pitying tone: ‘You people still using rebus/hieroglyphs after 4,000 years???’)

Also for fans of antiquity and/or Sino-Western misunderstanding: the tale of friction between a French Christian missionary and the Kangxi Emperor over ancestor-worship. And for a softer, indeed squishy, story of cultural exchange: the woman who introduced tofu to America.

 

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CY in new mid-week freak-out

Who in Hong Kong can fail to be impressed by former Chief Executive CY Leung’s limitless energy? (By ‘energy’, we mean ‘volatility’, which is in turn a euphemism for ‘thin-skinned, frenzied, simultaneously-tormented-and-tormenting, mouth-frothing, tyrannical wacko berserk-ness’.)

The Communist Party-idolizing half-Transylvanian has spared time from his anti-separatism and other crusades to instruct his lawyer to send a snotty letter to Stand News for publishing “unfounded allegations that a close relationship existed between Mr Leung and the triad society or the underworld”. (That’s obviously a typo – should be ‘afterworld’.)

He is apparently especially anguished by a cartoon portraying him with tattoos and carrying a fold-up chair in the street. Good-natured public figures with a clear conscience would ask the artist for a signed copy and frame it as a mildly condescending joke. But CY doesn’t see the funny side of this (or do ‘seeing the funny side’ ever, so far as anyone knows).

He has reacted badly to insinuations of Triad links before, and he has sued for defamation and become sorely vexed in general over questions about his UGL payment.

The strange thing is that a fair-minded, objective bystander (especially, perhaps, if they had limited interest in Hong Kong’s more sordid side) would shrug off CY’s supposed gangster connections as happenstance, and dismiss the non-declaration of the UGL payment as an oversight. But then, on observing the CPPCC vice-chairman’s sour, obsessive and vindictive mega-miff outbursts on these apparently trivial matters, they might start to think ‘hmmmm…’

 

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Andy Chan – speaking the unspeakable

That ugly popping noise coming down from Kennedy Road yesterday afternoon was the sound of blood vessels bursting at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs office. Andy Chan’s remarks (also here, pix here) at the Foreign Correspondents Club didn’t cover a lot of ground – he just zeroed in on the most hyper-sensitive heresy imaginable, repeatedly.

Essentially: “China is an empire and threat to the world, and Hong Kong is a colony that can only preserve its freedoms and culture as an independent nation”.

Contrast this with the principles long-espoused by the older traditional pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong: “We are all Chinese, and we would like the Communist Party to keep its promises to give Hong Kong democracy, please – otherwise we will whine about arcane constitutional points and hold a march, again”. On icky subjects like CCP elites’ corrupt families, or Tibet or Xinjiang, they were mostly mute. For decades, this was the voice of firebrand opposition, which Beijing has always treated with contempt.

Andy Chan’s position, including that of race-traitor, is so extreme, you can almost sympathize with Chinese officials’ fury at the FCC for giving it a platform. The pro-independence idea has previously been largely hidden away – the preserve of teenage fantasists. It would have stayed hidden away if Beijing hadn’t insisted the local authorities make a big deal about banning Chan’s barely-existent HK National Party. (We could debate whether this is a screw-up or calculated. We could also speculate that discontent would never have arisen if China had ruled Hong Kong halfway decently since the handover in 1997 – it’s not as if the British regime was a really hard act to follow. But that’s another story.)

The key thing is that Andy Chan’s shocking and outré stance is also hard-headed and logical. His analysis is sound. The Communist one-party monopoly-of-power dictatorship will not give Hong Kong representative government, because by definition it cannot; and it will destroy Hong Kong’s freedoms and distinct identity, because as a Leninist system that only knows control through force, it must.

This reasoning – ‘unacceptable’, ‘crossing a red line’ and ‘threatening national security’ – is based on what many will see as fact and truth. By exposing this so publicly, Chan humiliates not only Beijing but our lame moderate pan-dems who wouldn’t dare be so honest. There is a real chance that all this might make the pro-independence logic more mainstream.

There will be retribution. The FCC wins the ultimate accolades of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people and getting its website hacked. The Hong Kong government will look increasingly hapless as it pretends to be in charge and all remains well. The banning of groups and ideas will proceed, and censorship of seditious thoughts will inevitably follow, and so on. Beijing will prove Andy Chan right.

 

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While we’re waiting for that lunch…

Storm clouds and pro-Beijing protestors gather outside the Foreign Correspondents Club ahead of Andy Chan’s subversive lunch talk.

Meanwhile, a reminder of how former Chief Executive CY Leung started the Hong Kong Independence scare/meme/fad. And for acrobatics fans, a South China Morning Post column stretching and contorting logic in order to assert that both Andy Chan and censorship of ideas like his are harmless irrelevancies – so we can all stop worrying and go back to sleep.

Alternatively, Professor Larry Diamond (lawmaker Regina Ip’s Stanford MA supervisor) presents the Autocrats’ 12-Step Program. It looks eerily familiar – how many of these boxes has the Communist Party ticked in Hong Kong so far? ‘Demonize opposition’, ‘Enrich loyal crony capitalists’… Our elected bodies are increasingly pointless anyway, but the one on ‘rigging electoral rules’ applies, as seen in the latest on gerrymandering District Council constituencies (also evidence that the CCP needs to get a life).

As the police, prosecutions and other departments know, the one on ‘political control over state bureaucracy’ is also underway. The Number 3 Typhoon Signal is already hoisted, and a Number 8 would mean cancelling that FCC lunch: will the HK Observatory be pressured into giving us all the afternoon off in the name of national security?

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The ‘Fred and Frank’ Show

A South China Morning Post column attacks the ‘cult of expertise’ behind the MTR’s scandals and related cover-ups and responsibility-ducking. The word ‘expertise’ is of course ironic.

MTR Chairman Fred Ma and Transport and Housing Secretary Frank Chan are in their positions precisely because they will not have new ideas or do anything else that might make trouble. They are there because Beijing makes sure people with flair or who ask questions do not enter Hong Kong’s ‘elite’ inner circle of establishment blandness.

The author points out that pro-Beijing lawmakers must share the blame after vetoing a high-powered Legislative Council enquiry. The phrase ‘pro-Beijing’ is all you need to know – the Legislative Council is being transformed into a rubber-stamp body as part of Hong Kong’s Mainlandization. It’s not supposed to hold public officials to account.

We could add here the role of a free press in exposing the paucity of talent beneath the smug arrogance of officialdom, and bringing the MTR problems to light. Also, of course, on the Communist Party’s ‘to do’ list.

 

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And now, RTHK…

Each step in the Mainlandization of Hong Kong is too small to warrant a major fuss. Political prosecution of demonstrators? It’s a few kids. Disqualification of lawmakers? They could have read the oath properly. Erosion of legislators’ powers? Tedious details. Barring candidates from ballots? Kids again. Pro-democracy academics passed over for promotion? Oh, please.

Another sign that the Great Andy Chan/FCC Controversy is different: RTHK’s civil-servant boss brings the week to a close by banning the taxpayer-funded station from carrying the Chan lunch talk live.

Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing tries to be nuanced, saying that his news staff can report the event, and claiming that RTHK has ‘never given live coverage’ of this sort before. But his basic objection is the subject – Hong Kong independence. To leave you in no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party is handing down the orders, he repeats the official blatant BS/mantra that it’s ‘not about press freedom’.

It’s a wonder that RTHK managed to fend off pro-Beijing demands and get away with doing public-service news coverage for this long – several years after government departments like the police, election officers and the prosecutions service abandoned political impartiality. But if the Andy Chan/FCC case is the point where freedom of speech and the press go into reverse in Hong Kong, RTHK’s transition to state broadcaster is inevitable. Gradual transition, no doubt.

I declare the weekend open…

 

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CCP to get more piqued

Beijing’s attempt to halt pro-independence activist Andy Chan’s forthcoming talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club is turning into a more glorious mess that anyone dared expect.

A South China Morning Post columnist breaks with the party line apparently out of exasperation, criticizing Beijing for exaggerating the Hong Kong National Party as a threat, and for giving ammunition to China-bashers who can now highlight the Communist Party’s attacks on free speech.

It would probably be more accurate to say that this unfolding saga will highlight the fact that the Communist Party doesn’t give a damn about its reputation and is psychotic in its determination to crush any opposition.

Ever since Xi Jinping took over, China has been chipping away methodically at Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms. This is the first time the hammer and chisel have bounced back in the Party’s face.

It will not be gracious about it. The FCC lunch will no doubt take place unimpeded by rented mobs or overzealous cops – Beijing’s officials aren’t that dumb, we more or less assume. But eradicating pro-independence ideas will become an even more urgent priority, calling for even less subtlety and charm.

And where are Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her administration in all this? Hiding in the corner looking petrified, hoping we don’t notice the idiocy of their position – supposedly representing Asia’s World City as a modern and free society while not contradicting their masters’ Leninist ravings and dismantling of rights.

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An interesting media strategy

A distinct extra whiff of shoe-shine is in the air, as Chinese Communist Party apologists plead for the Foreign Correspondents Club to see sense and bar Hong Kong National Party activist Andy Chan from speaking there.

The South China Morning Post op-ed writer takes a cringe-inducing (‘as a Gweilo…’) approach and says we must respect China’s limits on free speech and its ‘culture and identity’ and not impose Western values on it. Spurious comparisons: terrorist beheadings on YouTube and death threats against UK politicians on Twitter.

The China Daily contributor robustly recites the ‘red line’ line, which means whatever we say it means, but in this case: separatist opinion = national-security threat = absolutely impermissible. He also suggests that an evil lurking foreign power might be engineering the FCC event in order to embarrass China (the NYT, Guardian, Time and others are already covering this story, so the ‘embarrassing China’ bit is probably right). Spurious comparisons: corruption, drugs and terrorist group ISIS.

The key point both make following their hackneyed ‘free speech has limits/ISIS’ blather, is that the FCC is in the wrong. (The subtle distinction is that the SCMP columnist says it’s because Andy Chan is perceived as a national threat, while China Daily is pretty sure he just is one.)

Neither examines the reason the press might consider Andy Chan newsworthy in the first place – that if the authorities succeed in their actions against his group, they will weaken the rights of Hong Kong people to assemble and to express opinions, and it will set a major precedent. This is potentially the biggest repressive step Beijing has taken in Hong Kong so far – a ‘red line’ indeed.

So both these columns (and probably others out there) are aimed at making the story about the FCC (‘located in publicly owned premises’, etc) rather than about the degradation of Hong Kong people’s rights.

You can see why Beijing and the local-administration minions – especially when combining their different PR skill-sets – would spin the story like this. It’s a diversion.

The problem is that the FCC and the media are to a great extent the same thing. The spin-doctors are trying to shift the media’s attention away from Andy Chan onto… the media. In other words, from Threat to Freedom of Speech to Threat to Freedom of the Press (in guise of Threat to Lease on Clubhouse).

Did they think this through?

 

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A mini-FCC Quiz

Most thinking people in Hong Kong probably already have an opinion on the Andy Chan/Foreign Correspondents Club controversy. You are either pro-free speech, or pro-Communist Party/anti-troublemaker.

But in case anyone was undecided, along comes former Chief Executive CY Leung, determined to use all his subtlety, warmth and charm to at least get the FCC’s rent hiked, if not get the Club evicted from its publicly owned premises.  (To be clear, the Club is hosting Andy Chan to enable news coverage, but not aligning itself with his views.)

So far as we can tell, Beijing dropped CY after one term as Hong Kong’s boss because his devotion to the Communist cause was so virulent, obsessive, spiteful and disturbing even to loyalists, he was ‘bringing the community together’ against himself.

Hong Kong’s elite golfers would keep thousands homeless, indeed sell their grandmothers to glue factories, before sacrificing their greens at Fanling. But by definition, FCC members would rather lose the clubhouse than submit to restrictions on free speech.

CY helpfully/vividly/rabidly illustrates the coercive and obnoxious nature of Beijing’s United Front operation – in case anyone is still sitting on the fence.

On the subject of the United Front – here’s the best thing you will read on it this year, by John Garnaut.

I would miss the FCC Quiz. There isn’t one this month, but here are a couple of questions to keep everyone going…

1.  On which rail line in Hong Kong are you most likely to encounter drug-resistant bugs in the morning?

2. Who, so far as we know, has the longest property leasehold in Hong Kong? (Note: not freehold, so it’s not the Anglican Cathedral.)

Some illiterate birds while you ponder…

After I expressed surprise that researchers would use volunteers to grab MTR handrails to collect microbe samples, someone kindly sent me a link to the methodology. Among the findings is a hidden facet of Mainlandization: trains on the ‘cross-border line’ (East Rail, or the old KCR) are unique in hosting a high proportion of tetracycline- and vancomycin-resistant bacteria – all-day long. On other lines, such medicine-defying beasties turn up mainly in the afternoon and evening.

(My non-scientific guess: after people coming over from Lo Wu carrying the things on their grubby paws have had time to move around elsewhere in Hong Kong later in the day, spreading their icky germs.)

The US has the longest property leasehold in HK, and probably anywhere in China, for its Garden Road Consulate.

It’s a mystery. Did Tung Chee-hwa think the diplomats came under Disneyland? Will Trump want to redevelop the site? Seriously – what was Tung thinking? This was just after the handover, and one of his supposed attributes as first Chief Executive was his oh-so amazing deep and meaningful connections with both Beijing and the US. Was this some sort of personal diplomacy thing to ingratiate the motherland with the Americans? And would Trump put a casino there?

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