Carrie Lam rejoices, nearly 5% through her term

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is finalizing her 2017 Policy Address (yes, it’s the second this year – predecessor CY Leung moved the vacuous ritual to January, and she is returning it to October). She will offer measures in such areas as housing, schools and the elderly aimed at unifying our divided community, in keeping with her earnest desire to restore harmony.

As Carrie spreads warm and cuddly vibes by announcing vouchers and handouts for the underprivileged and left-behind, citizens tuning in for the speech will detect muffled shouts, bangs and crashes in the background. That will be the Liaison Office’s latest United Front struggle – perhaps lawmaker Junius Ho nailing a pro-independence student to a tree, or Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen demanding 20 years’ penal servitude for academics and priests guilty of inciting others to incite others during Occupy.

Hong Kong is undergoing two parallel campaigns: Carrie Lam’s let’s-all-be-nice-to-one-another-and-heal-divisions thing, and the Chinese Communist Party’s obsessive-compulsive paranoid psychopath crush-the-enemy thing.

Carrie has to smile and pretend the Cultural Revolution with Hong Kong characteristics isn’t really happening. When her own officials pursue vindictive and contrived court actions against perpetrators of thought crimes, she has to state baldly that rule of law is intact. When patriotic lynch-mobs and deranged shoe-shiners like Junius Ho are on the rampage, she must try to ignore the blood-spatter on her cheongsam and do her auntie-knows-best tut-tutting about civilized discourse and decency.

It will be interesting to see how Carrie manages to maintain this semi-aloof stance as the ideological rectification mayhem continues around her. She must be loyal to the sovereign power that appointed her, but she can (she must be hoping) distance herself from the more disgraceful and loathsome Leninist excesses. (If you think Junius Ho is a pitiful embarrassment to the human race, wait until the authentically imbecilic Holden Chow starts Trying Too Hard to impress his Communist Party masters.)

We could ponder how the Liaison Office enforcers might want to help bolster Carrie, perhaps by restraining their more rabid attack dogs. They probably will if the counter-revolutionary purge becomes counter-productive. But otherwise she is there to help them, not the other way round. She is at the publicly acceptable end of the spectrum of useful idiots, and they are all disposable. The bright side – there’s only another 95% of her (first) term of office left to go.

 

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Coming soon: The West Kowloon Confiscating Drugs Absurdity

The poster advertising ‘Road to Ultra’ didn’t work on me, so I wasn’t at the West Kowloon music festival last weekend. As well as the unappealing advertising, it was one of those peculiar events where you get DJs instead of actual bands. The hype-prone Standard regaled readers with descriptions of drunkenness, exotic foreigners and ‘marijuana in the air’ – but I doubt it was that good.

Although sad, it is not really shocking that, amid the heat and revelry, one person died and several were hospitalized. But what better excuse for some major mouth-frothing about the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which controls the site? (Having also apparently dropped some bad Ecstasy, the government chooses this moment to appoint the hapless Henry Tang as the new figurehead for the West Kowloon Cultural Hub-Zone. Presumably the idea is that he has no connection or familiarity with the arts, so there is no conflict of interest – indeed, just no interest.)

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Hong Kong bureaucracy feels a massive, obsessive, permanent over-reaction coming on…

We can safely predict that from now until eternity, the West Kowloon Themed Cultural Concept District will be The Place Where People Do Drugs and Die Unless We Stop Them. Every event will be subject to the most frantic, extreme and absurd security measures.

Little old ladies attending Chinese opera, already freaked out by the women’s private parts problem, will have their handbags probed mercilessly. Tourists planning to check out the National Palace Museum of Stuff the Kuomintang Left Behind will have their pockets rummaged for hours. As for open-air concerts aimed at young foreign-influenced degenerates – music fans will stand in line for hours as guards sniff out and confiscate aspirin, jelly beans, asthma inhalers, yellow umbrellas and all other suspect dangerous paraphernalia.

I make a lot of wild forecasts, but this is guaranteed.

 

 

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Carrie does Burma

As Mainlandizing-rectification continues, Hong Kong’s leaders will increasingly be forced to shed their cherished World City image and adopt a more defensive and ‘anti-Western’ public stance.

Domestically, we already see the supposedly multicultural city’s British-trained top officials awkwardly embracing Beijing’s Han-nationalism – for example, in urging patriotic education in schools. The recent and ongoing wave of political persecution has left them having to spout hollow Mainland-style arguments that rule of law is intact.

This will spill over onto the international stage. Take this unfortunate juxtaposition: Foreign Affairs lumps Hong Kong with army-ruled Thailand as regimes that abuse the law to silence pro-democrats; and Chief Executive Carrie Lam visits Burma in mid-ethnic cleansing to push ‘Belt and Road’.

As Beijing brings Hong Kong under more direct control, the city must gradually lose its Leninism-free reputation. For example, the current United Front mouth-frothing campaign against pro-independence banners points to criminalization of opinions before long, and it is easy to see intimidation of pro-democracy individuals becoming violent.

(It’s important to remember that this is nothing personal against Hong Kong. Xi Jinping’s clampdown applies to Xinjiang, the Internet, churches, tycoons and everything else that petrifies him. And in Hong Kong it goes beyond dissidents: our regulatory authorities look the other way as the Communist Party starts doing corporate governance in some locally listed companies.)

Criticism from the overseas press will rise. Cornered, Hong Kong’s leaders will have to abandon the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ pretense, and let go their former status as honorary junior members of the Free-World Rulers’ Club. Their new international role will be as presentable, cosmopolitan fronts for Beijing’s scowling xenophobes, useful for wooing Southeast Asian dirtbag dictators – reflecting Hong Kong’s descent to a semi-autonomous, sort-of classy banana republic.

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HK govt tries to get Internet thing, again

According to a friend of a friend of a friend, Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently hosted a casual, off-the-record gathering for selected members of the press. At one stage, an executive from TVB angrily banged the table and told Carrie that his organization would boycott government press conferences if her administration accredited and admitted online media. She asked him to inform his boss that it would be fine with her if TVB didn’t come to press conferences.

The government’s ‘official’ lame reason for barring on-line media from briefings is that dangerous radicals could pose as amateur non-profit reporters and disrupt the proceedings with protests and stunts. A more credible lame reason would be that the government simply wants to protect the establishment cronies who now own most of Hong Kong’s mainstream press – just as it outlaws Uber to help Beijing loyalist taxi-licence owners.

Then there is a serious, non-lame reason: the unpopular and incompetent government wishes to avoid scrutiny by independent media who might ask awkward questions.

Lurking in the background here we have Beijing’s string-pullers in the Liaison Office. If the government does recognize digital media, it will because the Mainland officials aren’t too fussed about who gets a namby-pamby press-pass. The way they are arranging things in Hong Kong, it seems only a matter of time before we start to get top-down censorship (on ‘anti-sedition’ or other legal pretexts).

One other obvious reason the government seems to be inching towards recognizing digital news outlets is that eventually there won’t be any other sort. TVB opposes change because it wants to protect its web-based platform – not its old on-air broadcast channel – from competition.

Meanwhile, independent voices seem to be vanishing from local English-language media. The South China Morning Post has apparently disposed of Shirley Yam for covering Beijing elites’ stashes of wealth, and Jake Van Der Kamp has been silent for three weeks since a column that mentioned the collapse of the Communist regime (and has no link on the his page at the paper).

All this is a long way of getting round to declaring the weekend open – with a plug for Hong Kong Free Press’s appeal for a new home

 

 

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A brief touch-down on Planet Earth

Just time for a quick, freakish and nightmarish glimpse of reality to intrude today. A shadowy Mainland conglomerate that no-one seems to own wonders how to cover the US$3.5 billion it blew on some Hong Kong land earlier this year, and find another US$10 billion to build ultra-high-class exclusive concrete boxes upon it.

The conglomerate has US$90 billion in debt already, so you could argue that, hey – it’s just a bit more. But banks are, as the Bloomberg URL puts it, ‘leery’. The apparently anonymous ownership of the murky conglomerate overlaps in some notional Venn diagram with the thuggish totalitarian Communist Party kleptocracy that controls China, which implies that it is fine to lend away. But then again, maybe Beijing has had some tiffs with its mystery moguls who pay bizarre prices for humdrum assets, and is nervous about unspeakable levels of debt in the overall system, so the banks have second thoughts.

One option is for HNA to re-sell some of the land. Since we are indulging in reality here, it would inevitably be for less than they paid for it. In slightly more human-scale terms of tragic humiliation, this would be like a socialite publicly taking a just-bought diamond-encrusted Louis Vuitton handbag to Milan Station because her credit cards were cancelled. Obviously it won’t happen (the article mentions alternatives). And the safe, comforting, usual fantasy-weirdness of Mainland political-business elites, their physics-defying financing arrangements, and extraterrestrial real-estate valuations will resume.

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Shut up, or this is what will happen to you

China’s big and tough, self-confident authorities ban Wu Rongrong, one of the high-profile ‘five feminists’, from leaving the country to study overseas (in supposedly-part-of-the-motherland Hong Kong, as it happens). On the Communist Party’s vindictiveness scale, the (10-year) ban is pretty soft. The Leninist system imprisoned and effectively killed Liu Xiaobo for writing essays, and it has just forced a public confession out of Taiwanese rights activist Lee Ming-che – and tormented his wife into the bargain.

Beijing makes no secret of the reason for this inhumane and humiliating treatment of people who speak out – it is to warn and intimidate everyone else. The message is: this won’t happen to you if you shut up.

The regime now insists that its local administration in Hong Kong also adopt this approach. That is why Joshua Wong and other student leaders are in prison, and it is why the authorities are trying so hard to bankrupt expelled lawmakers. The idea is to disrupt young activists’ studies, wreck their finances and damage their future career prospects – all to send others that same message: keep quiet, and this won’t happen to you.

Will such crude methods work in Hong Kong? One vague precedent could be the discrimination against leftist activists after the riots in the late 1960s. If that’s a bit of a stretch, we might look at Singapore, where dissidents are hounded to death or into exile – all in accordance with the law, of course.

Singaporeans seem to believe unquestioningly that their leaders are an elite, gifted with the sacred DNA of Lee Kuan Yew or otherwise of naturally superior breeding to the other 99% of humanity. Many Mainlanders (and some foreigners) swallow the notion that the Chinese Communist Party is similarly a rigorous meritocracy propelling the nation’s cleverest minds, with engineering degrees for added can-do, up to the top.

Of course, if these despotic leaders were really so smart they would not fear competing ideas or criticism – indeed, they would welcome and, most of all, ignore them. But Mainland and Singaporean rulers have become sufficiently competent in both governance and repression that their subjects largely submit to the idea that democrats, feminists and other ‘troublemakers’ get what they deserve.

Hong Kong is different. The culture of authority killing chickens to scare monkeys is alien, and if anything the tradition is that the population persecutes the officials. People already know that Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her grab-bag of losers in government have been chosen specifically for being lightweights, devoid of imagination or critical thought. Unless they are impossibly clever and subtle – or the opposition are seriously stupid and play into their hands – these unconvincing ‘leaders’ cannot suppress dissent without drawing greater attention to their own shortcomings.

 

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Another three deaths mark passing of Ye Olde HK

Three Hong Kong icons of the 1980s-90s – when the city’s mojo was bigger than all the other mojos in Asia put together – pass on. The borderline-wearisome excessively-British-in-a-Chinese professional personality David Tang recently checked out. And now his relatively understated namesake former Chief Secretary Sir Ford has departed.

When Anson Chan succeeded Ford and moved into the official residence up on Barker Road, she had to have the whole kitchen torn out because everything was equipped to make boiled beef and spotted dick and all the other gwailo culinary grotesquerie.

And the subject of Westerners’ dietary horror-habits brings us rather neatly to the third dying remnant of Hong Kong’s heyday – Lan Kwai Fong. Once a buzzing bar district with even some edgy and bohemian dashes, LKF has degenerated into a landlord money-machine of overpriced plastic tapas-bodega-concept outlets. The drunk schoolkids vomiting outside 7-Eleven are the only vestige of authentic character.

Lan Kwai Fong’s last glimmer of class and sophistication now seems to be slipping away with news that Hooters has rent problems. While some might regard it as a tacky hovel for the educationally subnormal, the mammary-themed restaurant (if you please), is a beacon of elegance, refinement and taste by the standards of the surrounding streets.

A planned gentle stroll through Lan Kwai Fong this morning turns into a hasty trot down to Queens Road in search of air to breathe. Forget the broken bottles and other riotous debris strewn along the gutters – the stench! Eeewww… Of course, an essential secret ingredient of LKF’s charm is the refuse collection station, but I was nowhere near the Municipal Rancid Festering Black Plastic Bag Depot. Everywhere, the unmistakable air of carrion hangs over the place.

Mercifully, there is a solution.

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The Great 2017 Campus Poster Freak-out Panic

A week ago, mischievous students celebrated the start of the new academic year by putting up ‘Hong Kong Independence’ banners at Chinese University. After the media swiftly reported the shock-horror incident, university authorities panicked, and security guards removed the offensive items. Similar posters sprouted at other campuses – surprise, surprise. Government officials went into panty-wetting mode trying to insist such displays are illegal without specifying how; lawyerly shoe-shiners suggested the use of archaic sedition law. Mainland students attending local institutions contributed to the ongoing free-speech debate by tearing down posters.

Before anyone had time to say ‘Well, that escalated quickly’, much-loathed pro-Beijing kid-brainwashing-proponent Under-Secretary for Education Christine Choi’s son committed suicide. Widespread hateful mockery about her karma ensued, mostly on-line, but also in the form of a poster at Education University. Officials and loyalists, trying not to appear too opportunistic about the common thread – namely, the evil of banners/posters in general – responded with mass-formation mouth-frothing against abhorrent, immoral, debauched, sub-human, disgraceful radical youth. University authorities freaked out and more-or-less wept, campus CCTV footage of the perpetrators was leaked to media, and the university authorities freaked out even more. Thousands of businesses reportedly/supposedly swear never to hire another Education U grad.

Ideally, calm and reason would enter the picture at this stage. Instead, a poster similarly celebrating the death of Mainland dissident Liu Xiaobo appeared at Education U. It looked obviously to be the work of Mainland students – if you credit them with the awareness and subversive flair of their Hong Kong counterparts. Some might suspect scurrilous locals dabbling in black propaganda. Either way, radical students grasped the opportunity to mouth-froth against abhorrent, immoral, disgraceful, etc, and criticize the campus administration for not freaking out, sobbing, etc.

This is not just a succession of storms-in-teacups. The Great 2017 Campus Banner Horror highlights the extreme fear of our establishment lightweights (college administrators, local government officials, all-purpose shoe-shiners) when publicly faced with sheets of cloth or paper bearing the wrong words. They are caught between the vindictive and ruthless Communist Party on one side and an angry younger radical population who know exactly what buttons to push (examples here and here).

Voices of moderation – apparently, some still exist – hope that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive will show leadership and assure Beijing that it does not need to go ballistic over mere banners. This charming idea assumes that a paranoid Leninist regime will take advice from the hapless figurehead stooges it appointed while the wayward city undergoes rectification. Chinese official media meanwhile call for any mention of independence to be criminalized in Hong Kong, ‘as Nazi activities are in Germany’.

The use by both sides of Christine Choi’s family tragedy shows how far Hong Kong has descended in the last few years. The exploitation of someone’s loss of a child is vile – but brainwashing people’s kids is vile. Beijing has ordered United Front intimidation and government persecution of opponents, and an assault on local institutions and values. Its supporters and hangers-on must conform. That means rejecting the relatively decent mutual respect of the old days, and no longer expecting civilized political discourse, or even much sympathy.

 

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HK students excite disaffection against Her Majesty, risk Beijing’s ire

The start of the academic year heralds a flurry of Hong Kong independence posters on campuses – and a patriotic backlash from Mainland students. University administrations struggle to come up with a cohesive stance. They are, of course, dedicated to freedom of thought and expression. But they are also, inevitably, keen on shoe-shining the government that subsidizes them, and no doubt politically-connected bodies that allocate research funding.

When pushed, they follow local officials’ line that pro-independence talk ‘goes against’ the Basic Law. This sounds scary if you think ‘goes against’ means ‘breaks’. But of course it doesn’t – it means ‘disagrees with’. There’s no law against that. Not yet, anyway. The local officials use this ambiguous type of phrase because they cannot ‘go against’ their own masters in Beijing, who have previously declared splittism forbidden.

And then along comes Ronny Tong, the lawyer and former pro-democrat legislator who has turned into a pro-Beijing semi-lackey. (He considers himself a middle-of-the-road ultra-moderate able to look both sides in the face equally. At best, this is a quaint conceit: the Chinese Communist Party divides the world into two factions: obedient loyalists and the enemy; it doesn’t do ‘middle-of-the-road’. At worst – well, there have long been scurrilous murmurs hinting that he is vulnerable to persuasion.)

So Ronny suggests that while the use of particular words may not be illegal, the action of ‘publishing with seditious intent’ may infringe Section 9 of the Crimes Ordinance. Apparently, under this law (which presumably dates back to 1580 or something) it is illegal to do things like…

“…bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of Her Majesty…”

Although, in the spirit of jolly British fair play, you are in the clear if you intend…

“…to show that Her Majesty has been misled or mistaken in any of Her measures…”

…(as if!) among other loopholes. The maximum penalty is to be burned at the stake while having your entrails drawn and fed to pigs. (The link says 1997 – maybe they’ve updated this thing?)

Ronny is no doubt trying to be helpful – though I’m not sure to whom. A sedition trial of Hong Kong kids is the last thing the city’s tormented leaders need.

I declare the weekend open, after reading of the GoGoVan non-tycoon-class success story, with a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Does Hong Kong’s economic structure cause its political structure, or does the political structure cause the economic structure?

 

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HK redoubles efforts to avoid affordable homes

All Hong Kong administrations since the 1997 handover have had one (unwritten) core policy: push up housing prices and rents. The first administration of Tung Chee-hwa initially talked of lowering prices, but swiftly backtracked when the property bubble burst. That 1990s bubble was partly due to the Chinese government’s earlier insistence that the colonial regime restrict land supply. Beijing supposedly suspected that the British would run away with the land-sales proceeds, but the post-1997 experience suggests a deliberate strategy to boost the revenues of landed interests – notably developers – who had been co-opted by the Communists starting back in the 1980s.

With the worldwide uplift in metropolitan housing costs and ultra-low interest rates, even developer-worshiping officials must wonder if Hong Kong home prices have overshot and pose economic and political threats. High prices deplete consumers’ spending power, drive out economic diversity and fuel anger among the young. But Hong Kong policymakers still cannot or will not take real action.

After Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s unashamedly pro-developer policies (2005-2012), CY Leung announced an intention to restore long-term land supply. But he only dabbled in tackling the imminent affordability problem – for example, pointlessly earmarking one plot of land for apartments to be sold to Hong Kong people only.

His successor Carrie Lam is following a similar approach. She has set up a talking shop to find long-term land supply within the existing framework that leaves most obvious sources of space off-limits. And she is unveiling a ‘starter home’ concept to add a third layer of publicly subsidized rental and for-sale housing. This will probably be a small, token initiative – but if taken at face value, it implies acceptance of a situation where only the top 10% or 20% of households can afford ‘market’ prices.

Like CY, Carrie is refusing to consider lower ‘market’ prices as an option. We will hear nothing about restricting demand by curbing immigration or overseas investor-buyers. We will hear nothing about opening up land hoarded by developers, attaching conditions to land sales, or otherwise reducing developers’ influence over the market. We will not even hear much about re-zoning land or updating building and planning codes to allow bigger, more efficiently designed homes.

No-one will mention that the real issue (once you net out external factors like interest rates) is artificial unaffordability arising from official policy to maximize revenues from land-use. (The government in effect taxes housing while restricting supply, so pushes home prices up, so the tax on housing goes up even more – in a cycle that serves no fiscal or economic purpose but pads out developers’ margins.)

Like CY, Carrie is probably avoiding real action not only because she and her buddies can’t handle the horrifying idea of lower prices, but because she knows that ultimately this is built on a bubble which will burst at some point. When the tech stocks and Bitcoin and bond markets collapse, Hong Kong’s ‘housing crisis’ will be about over-mortgaged idiots in negative equity committing suicide. The longer it takes, the more risky and unthinkable addressing distorted affordability becomes.

 

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