If in doubt – yes, it’ll be illegal

It seems quaint now, but there was a time when Hong Kong’s pro-democrats shrieked at the slightest apparent infringement of local rights and freedoms. They warned that the city was like a live frog that doesn’t realize it is (for some unexplained reason) in a pot of water being heated very slowly.

We don’t hear the frog-in-pot cliché anymore. Beijing’s officials are now openly in charge, and it’s hard to keep up with their daily efforts to force Hong Kong into line with Leninist party-state requirements.

The politicized rewriting of school textbooks – a hackneyed authoritarian cliché in itself – is underway. The local education bureaucrats are desperate to find incorrect phrasing to redraft, apparently objecting to ‘Hong Kong is in southern China’ as being insufficiently accurate-while-patriotic, leading to mockery, which in turn will lead to hypersensitivity.

And ‘national security’ laws are on the way. In Communist Party fashion, this will mean the banning of words and ideas, not just subversive or seditious acts. Indeed, as a small unarmed populace of a relatively confined enclave, Hongkongers almost certainly have no capacity to materially endanger national security even if they want to.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam does not rule out the prosecution of people calling for an end to one-party dictatorship. To confuse the issue, Beijing’s top man here says that ‘one-party dictatorship’ is not actually in the nation’s constitution.

Wouldn’t this make prosecuting someone who calls for it redundant? Or would the crime be to erroneously suggest the nation has a one-party dictatorship? In which case, demanding that China keep a one-party dictatorship (when it doesn’t have one) would also be illegal. Right?

Sounds like we will also need a ban on ‘historical nihilism’.

Update: we’re in making-it-up-as-we-go-along mode.

 

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The Bot-flood continues

Twitter ‘Botmageddon’ attracts coverage by AFP and the Financial Times, though as a Southeast Asian phenomenon. The best explanation I have seen has a Taiwan angle and notes that ‘the China Explainer/Apologist/Shill crowd’ seem to be spared the infestation…

“There’s a high degree of arbitrariness in who gets selected, but clearly an intelligence is directing them [the bots] because they don’t follow people who support China.”

So they have excellent taste. My overnight haul is shown up there at the top and includes an account named… Infamous Panda.

On the subject of spooky Chinese Communist Party-aligned forces menacing harmless and obscure innocents, Benny Tai presents his hypothetical futures for China. You wouldn’t have thought there are 10 possible futures, but he managed to find them. If the Chinese officials controlling Hong Kong’s prosecutors get their way, Benny will be imprisoned on bizarre charges going back four years to Occupy. If that doesn’t work out, the CCP might arrange for a retroactive law that makes it illegal in Hong Kong to discuss imaginary outcomes many decades hence – or at least specific potential outcomes. Or maybe with special exemptions for science-fiction writers. Or maybe not. We don’t know.

Worth reading: if it’s any consolation, there is a lot we don’t know about China – even things China itself probably doesn’t know, even, to get Rumsfeldian, doesn’t know that it doesn’t know.

We do know that citizens must be on the alert for evil foreign NGOs.

On a lighter note, fans of geometric art (think Mondrian) and pastel shades should check out these photos of Chai Wan fire station.

On the subject of aesthetics, I found this staring at me on the Mid-Levels Escalator yesterday…

It does wash off, right? (I’ll spare you the stuff on the back of his neck.)

It’s just occurred to me that people who have tattoos tend to be not just fairly/hyper-defensive about it, but are in many cases suspiciously eager to encourage the unblemished to take the irreversible plunge as well – and you also get this with people who have committed themselves to crypto-currency ‘investment’, and to marriage. Hmmm…

 

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HK still not ‘getting it’

Beijing official Qiao Xiaoyang ‘made a rare appeal to Hongkongers to back the Communist Party’ over the weekend. A sample from the South China Morning Post story…

Hongkongers are free to practise their capitalist system in the city but they should support the Communist Party and accept that it is unconstitutional to oppose China’s socialist system despite their ideological differences, a visiting mainland legal expert said on Saturday.

…the city’s residents must recognise that Hong Kong is under China’s “unitary system”. …this meant the Basic Law … ultimately draws its authority from the country’s constitution.

“The Basic Law does not grant the right to oppose the nation’s fundamental system,”

“Does the [party deserve] support from Hongkongers? Ideological differences aside, I believe the answer is yes.”

He added that while the Communist Party welcomed scrutiny, it was “unconstitutional” for those in Hong Kong to “oppose Chinese socialism publicly”.

“If one allows the call of independence to exist and take root, it will eventually endanger ‘one country, two systems’,” Qiao warned. “So on this subject, we just cannot behave like an open-minded gentleman.”

He was echoing the substance of the 2014 State Council White Paper on ‘One Country Two Systems’. That paper was designed to manage expectations ahead of Hong Kong’s political quasi-reform. It marked the end of (the idea/pretense of) Hong Kong’s post-1997 autonomy, and fed into the Occupy/Umbrella protests. (As an aside, check out this prescient paragraph from that time.)

Qiao was speaking in the context of recent amendments to the Chinese Constitution, which, the SCMP notes, now defines the Communist Party’s leadership as ‘the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics’. He mentioned ‘socialism’ several times, and he also acknowledged Hong Kong’s ‘capitalist’ system.

This is confusing. China’s ‘socialism’ is code for one-party rule rather than a theory of communal ownership of the economy. To Beijing, Hong Kong’s ‘capitalism’ has been code for horse-racing, a free press, the absence of capital controls and other things that are not allowed on the Mainland. So Qiao could logically state that Hong Kong’s capitalist system is totally subject to China’s socialist one.

The fact that he kept mentioning Hong Kong’s ‘capitalist’ and distinct ‘ideological’ system is supposed to be reassuring: we permit you to be different, albeit totally subservient, within our hierarchical structure. Indeed, his whole approach was – by Mainland official standards – an attempt at being warm and fuzzy. Usually, the tone is simply menacing.

This probably reflects Beijing’s growing frustration at Hong Kong’s inability or refusal to comprehend. The CCP is so exasperated that it’s even trying to be nice.

It won’t work, because it is impossible to accommodate both the one-party system and pluralism in the same place. Beijing is insisting that certain opinions and words must be forbidden and eradicated – yet where Hong Kong is coming from, the notion of ‘illegal ideas’ is absurd.

Only when the censorship and other actions against thought-crimes begin, will Hong Kong understand. 

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Revenge of the Panda-huggers

Another week, another flicker of the needle on the Sense-of-Impending-Doom-ometer as the world plods inexorably towards Cold War II.

We detect something of a backlash on the part of the West’s rational, mature, cool-headed sophisticates who appreciate the Middle Kingdom’s unique history and psychology and Xi Dada’s vision in ways mere mortals do not. In various degrees of Panda-hugging-ness, they urge calm, constructive engagement and win-win cooperation. The South China Morning Post carries the thoughts of a UK academic and Confucius Institute chair, who says ‘we must ensure we understand the fears and hopes of this rising empire’. Could Neville Chamberlain have put it better? A US observer bemoans the ‘determined effort to depict [China] as an unmitigated threat’.

Meanwhile, the unmitigated threat seems determined to continue depicting itself. The Chinese Communist Party is setting up student ‘cells’ in West Virginia, among other places. (Thanks to family connections, I actually know this misunderstood state, popularly imagined to be inhabited by inbred banjo-players, but in fact less exotic and mysterious, and in fact rather basic. The CCP is clearly overdoing itself – which is of course the whole point.)

The US government agencies responsible for taking action against ZTE display a sense of humour in a presentation offering lessons in how to avoid punishment, drawing on the Chinese company’s illicit business with Iran and North Korea. The US Treasury is looking at Chinese investments. European diplomats in Beijing are ‘unusually biting’ in their criticism of the Silk (as in Belt and) Road. I declare the weekend open with the thought of an even bigger potential can of worms being opened: the US is also thinking of imposing Magnitsky Act sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

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Oh – we have to pay to repair the thing, too?

The South China Morning Post reports that the Hong Kong-Zhuhai Mega-Bridge Committee of Wise Expert Advisors were snoozing, sipping cocktails and listening to this on noise-cancelling headphones, when they could have been meeting to discuss the latest Drifting Dolosse Disaster developments. No surprise – if they had met, everything would be perfect and wonderful, right? But lower down, we learn that the government has budgeted HK$270 million for maintenance of the Hong Kong section of the project for this financial year.

Before troublemakers can point out that the bridge isn’t even open yet, officials hurriedly explain that the money is being earmarked ahead of time. But it raises the question of this vast white-elephant project’s running costs.

The good news is that the link will attract so little traffic that the road surface won’t suffer much wear and tear. But we are talking about a massive concrete and steel structure constantly exposed to seawater – and not just any seawater, but Pearl River Delta seawater with special glow-in-the-dark effluence and Bay Area Opportunity by-products sloshing around in a typhoon-whipped, corrosive frenzy.

And then there are the costs of the massive, well-manned, brightly lit, air-conditioned immigration facilities, with eager and alert passport-checking staff and Customs officers and expensively trained sniffer dogs and pricy X-Ray scanners, plus legions of cleaners and their top-quality government-issue mops. Open 24 hours (I presume), year-round.

The Lantau Trail south of Tai O is acquiring a reputation as an observation hub for unfinished-but-already-crumbling infrastructure. On a recent stroll there, I also spotted some interesting wildlife…

I can identify the pregnant brown thing as a cow, but I am ashamed to say I can’t name the rest: a mutant ant-mantis insect, a handsome well-camouflaged gold-backed frog, and a serpent that is too visually dull to possibly be venomous (presumably/that’s what it wants you to think/were the last words that went through my mind).

Some quick Thursday links… The SCMP publishes Angela Gui’s complaint about their coverage of her kidnapped father Gui Minhai’s forced confession, and alongside is the editor’s breezy, positive-energy, have-a-free-T-shirt response – thoughts on which are here. (Meanwhile, here’s a headline saying that Fox TV host Sean Hannity’s credibility is on the line.)

And, from the Straits Times, a stunning look at the gender-ratio disparities in China and India, of which we will be hearing more for several decades, and it won’t be pretty.

 

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Mid-week links for the gentry…

Hong Kong Free Press puts Chief Executive Carrie Lam on the spot by asking her whether it could be illegal for the media to cover people who make pro-independence remarks. (That’s gratitude, after all she’s done for them.)

Any answer short of ‘no, why should it be?’ implicitly confirms that criminalization of ideas is on the way, so the lady was doomed from the start. She could have dismissed the question as hypothetical, but that word has already been claimed by Benny Tai’s independence-related comments at the infamous Taiwan conference, so she couldn’t. Instead, she basically said it depends on how the law evolves, which isn’t too bad considering she had no warning of the question – unless you thought freedom of speech might be secure in Hong Kong, in which case it is shocking.

More about Benny Tai and the conference here. It will not escape the notice of dissenters and trouble-makers in Hong Kong that the pushing of certain buttons provokes predictable degrees of Deranged Ballistic Mouth-froth Freak-out among Communist Party officials. Thus, talk of ‘independence’ sets off a Mega-Tantrum that’s 6 on the Richter scale, and if you combine it with mention of the CCP losing power it hits a 7, and if you utter these words in Taipei, it’s an 8 (as Taiwanese all know, it’s a logarithmic scale).

Deep Throat IPO’s latest opus is so big the executive summaries have executive summaries. He considers global shadow banking and the US$100 trillion it manages mostly in itsy-bitsy places like the Caymans and Luxembourg and, shall we say, certain Asian cities, and how fast these assets plus leverage have been growing compared with world GDP. And the question is: where the hell is all this offshore wealth actually coming from? The answer seems to be connected with discrepancies/anomalies/lies in international trade data. But that leads to the obvious real question: yes, but where, as in – name the place – does the money come from?

You probably know or can guess the answer, but still – yikes!

Among his references are several discussions touching on China’s unbelievable GDP stability. As with the detailed bulk of Deep Throat IPO’s piece, this is verging on economics-geek territory but worth it if you like that sort of thing: Michael Pettis on how China uses GDP as an input. Much of China’s apparent growth, he says, will be reversed when debt capacity is reached.

On a lighter (reading) note, an update on United Front infiltration in New Zealand.

 

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Research shows what we already knew…

A City University academic survey suggests that Beijing’s heavy-handed approach to pushing patriotism in Hong Kong alienates people and encourages the sense of local identity it aims to curb. No great surprise for most of us – but it might be news to our local leadership, which is slavishly implementing Beijing’s directives to ban disrespect to the national anthem and generate panic about ‘independence’ talk.

Perhaps without realizing it, one of the researchers touches on some sensitive areas. She asserts that local and national identities are not in a zero-sum relationship, even though Chinese Communist Party ethnic and cultural policy in non-Han regions like Tibet and Xinjiang clearly assumes that the two are indeed in a struggle for supremacy. She also says:

“Rather than stressing its overall control over the city or instilling nationalism, [Beijing] should try to restore Hong Kong people’s confidence in it.”

Presumably, she means confidence in the city and its future, though confidence in Beijing would mean much the same in practice.

There is a problem here because diminishing Hong Kong’s self-confidence as a successful and distinct – autonomous – society has been a core theme of Beijing since the handover in 1997, especially since 2003.

During the 1980s-90s, the local administration bolstered its legitimacy by being seen to promote the city’s own interests, colonial officials even clashing with UK counterparts on trade and other issues. And it encouraged hope in the future by emphasizing the sustainability of Hong Kong’s economic role as the place that performs the functions that can’t be done on the Mainland.

By contrast, the post-colonial regime and Beijing have encouraged the idea that Hong Kong’s economy depends on China’s benevolence. They have encouraged worries about Hong Kong ‘falling behind’ or ‘losing out’ to Shenzhen or Shanghai. And they have constantly stressed ‘integration’ with the Mainland as an economic necessity – now taking physical form in the Zhuhai Bridge and High-Speed Rail projects and the ‘Greater Bay Area’ concept, which seems to be about symbolic absorption of Hong Kong into a larger regional entity.

By accident or design, Beijing has made this something of a self-fulfilling prophecy by appointing increasingly incompetent local leaders who are mismanaging Hong Kong into stagnation and a downward trajectory.

City U’s researchers (presumably mainstream pro-democrats at heart) won’t want to hear this, but it is not a point of whether localists are ‘anti-Beijing’ – Beijing is anti-localist/Hong Kong identity, and that’s all that matters. The younger radicals get that.

Leninists don’t do hearts and minds, and only one side can ultimately win. HK Free Press picks up here with an illuminating discursion culminating in the question: will the Communist Party’s ongoing crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong create a silent and servile population, or will it eventually provoke a bigger anti-Beijing backlash?

 

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Non-existent country takes top freedom spot

Taiwan overtakes Hong Kong as Asia’s beacon of free speech, says a New York Times article. (Renegade Province’s press pick it up, while Carrie Lam’s Greater Bay Area Southern Sector’s government considers issuing a whiny defensive foot-stamping press release in protest.)

Back in the 1990s, the gap was closing because Taiwan was transforming from a police state to a pluralistic democracy. But now, it is not so much that Taiwan is zipping further ahead as Hong Kong is going into reverse. This has become obvious in the last few years, with bookseller abductions, loyalty tests to bar elected lawmakers from office, self-censorship of media, distributors boycotting movies, etc, etc.

The orchestrated mass-mouth-froth over Benny Tai is a significant step. Unlike covert kidnappings, low-level electoral administrative procedures or private-sector business decisions, this is being openly directed by Beijing with full involvement of the local Chief Executive.

Two years ago, China launched National Security Education Day, which includes fun activities such as reporting dastardly foreign spies. This year, Hong Kong joined in with a National Security Education Day Symposium at which Liaison Office Director Wang Zhimin pretty much demanded action to ban any discussion that supposedly challenges the nation’s sovereignty.

It is bordering on pedantic to point out that Benny Tai did not voice support for independence at his Taiwan conference, and was discussing hypothetical situations. Wang says that Benny’s comments went ‘way beyond freedom of speech or academic freedom’ – so there. The Chinese Communist Party decides what is an unacceptable, subversive or sovereignty-threatening idea. You will know because you will be told you crossed a ‘red line’, which (like a ‘core interest’ in China’s international relations) can appear without warning.

Whether it is through Article 23 or a direct imperial edict/Basic Law ‘interpretation’ from Beijing is largely irrelevant (the lawmakers’ disqualifications and high-speed rail checkpoint deal set precedents for overruling the local legal system). ‘National Security’ laws are coming, and they will primarily be aimed at banning discussion of ideas the Communist Party considers unacceptable (starting with independence and, probably, an end to one-party rule). That will be impossible to achieve without some form of official censorship (no doubt surgical at first) of all media, including online. (Loyalty tests for academics, lawyers or kindergarten teachers can’t be ruled out, either.)

As with all aspects of creeping Mainlandization, there is nothing constitutional anyone can do. But Beijing – so obviously insecure and paranoid – will be inviting prankster-provocateurs to indulge in all manner of guerilla theatre and online disobedience. I feel a fantasy novella about the fall of the CCP and the peaceful breakup of the world’s last empire coming on.

Meanwhile, Taiwan will be leaping forward just by standing still.

 

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Benny Tai forces Beijing to ban free speech in HK

The South China Morning Post does a full-page feature on why the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front in Hong Kong orchestrated a full-blown contrived mass-mouth-froth outrage-frenzy against academic Benny Tai. But it doesn’t really answer the question.

The article assumes that the problem lies within Hong Kong. It mentions the standard pro-Beijing line that independence talk (especially when visiting Taiwan) is unacceptable, and the reasonable opposition view that Beijing wants a reason to pass local national-security laws. The SCMP manages to find both a pro-establishment politician and a pro-democrat to suggest that Benny Tai and others like him should moderate themselves to spare Hong Kong from harsher measures (‘the victim asked for it’).

The feature ignores the wider context of Xi Jinping’s increasingly repressive rule throughout China – from re-education camps in Xinjiang, to leadership purges, to the tormenting of abducted lawyers’ families, to tightened Internet censorship, to the creeping personality cult surrounding the Emperor for Life.

So, why have the big guns all turned on Benny? China’s Leninist-minded rulers fear and cannot tolerate anything they do not control; Hong Kong’s pluralist system is therefore incompatible with the one-party state, and it must be constrained and ultimately subjugated. Benny is an easy, high-visibility target. There are many more. Barring the downfall of the CCP (a subject at the conference he attended), there is nothing much anyone can do about this.

Benny says he checks his car and phone for bugs and suspects he is being followed – and he is no doubt right. Should we all be getting more paranoid?

I have recently been inundated with hundreds of fake ‘followers’ on Twitter, many but not all with Chinese names or profiles. I am not alone: they generally follow Neil deGrasse Tyson, Denise Ho, the Pope, at least one Obama, Jerome Cohen, and (more to the point) many familiar esteemed China/HK/Taiwan journos and commentators (an example). The bots, or whatever they are, don’t seem to do any harm – but you wonder what’s going on. (Maybe they’ll be sold on to spammers?)

And then… (cue sinister violins). A few days ago I received my renewed (though I never use it) Hong Kong driver’s licence through the mail, all purely routine. When I opened the envelope from the Transport Department, there was: the new licence, a covering letter, a receipt for the fee, some blather about updating addresses – and an HSBC letter addressed to me personally at my home address offering the usual dumb special exclusive loan.

(Background for those who have led sheltered lives: putting the wrong items back into envelopes when intercepting mail is a classic dumb police-state screw-up.)

After freaking mildly, I assured myself the bank promo must have been on the table already, folded, and I picked it up with the envelope so it just appeared to come out with the licence. Even though I don’t remember having seen it before…

(Reading too much of this, maybe.)

I declare the weekend open with some slightly-cosmic extra detail: my driving instructor many, many years ago was a wizened KMT Army veteran who prophesied constantly that the Communists would doom Hong Kong to totalitarian tyranny.

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It’s kneeling-on-broken-glass time again…

Chinese media regulators clamp down on tech-media companies for allowing undesirable (vulgar, satirical) content. Toutiao boss Zhang Yiming responds with what would until recently have seemed a shockingly excessive pre-emptive kowtow and self-criticism.

His statement – here in its full hideousness – apologizes for ‘a weak [understanding of] the four consciousnesses’ and failure to respect ‘socialist core values’, and promises to introduce ‘correct values’. (See CMP link for exciting details of the Four Consciousnesses®.) Zhang concludes by saying: ‘We earnestly await help from various parts of society in supervising our rectification’.

Wouldn’t you? This is a time when Mainland tycoons are being rectified through official shakedowns and even abduction, and enemies of the state are routinely forced to make televised confessions.

In Hong Kong, when they’re not ranting about a lawmaker outraging the national flag, the local Red Guards are calling for academic Benny Tai’s blood. The South China Morning Post gives top spot on its letters page today to pro-Beijing legislator Holden Chow insisting that Tai is abusing freedom of speech and will engender hatred and violence, so HK University must fire him. (To add to the ambience, the SCMP online inserts a photo of a sinister hooded marauding arsonist-rioter – roughly Benny’s height – emerging from the darkness to crush babies to death with bricks.)

The United Front-contrived mob-ambush of Benny ‘threat to the nation’ Tai, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam obediently joining in, may look bizarre or even ridiculous. But to the Communist Party officials behind the scenes, it is intended to serve as a warning to everyone else. The best we can do while we’re waiting for TVB and RTHK to install cages and shackles in their studios.

Scholars and historians rush to explain that we are not seeing a re-run of the Cultural Revolution in all this, on account of Xi-not-being-Mao and so on. They sound perfectly reasonable. So you can read this hilarious SCMP op-ed piece for the laughs.

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