Hemlock's Diary
19-25 February 2006
Mon, 20 Feb
I always take pleasure in being thanked by people in authority for my assistance.  I also enjoy striking oversized, automotive status symbols.  So what better possible way to start the week than to receive a cheerful, grateful wave from the occupants of a police van after I slapped the window of a Mercedes car and loudly drew the driver’s attention to the large white vehicle with flashing lights trying to get past her on the narrow street that she imagined was hers to park in?  Still, by the time she had finished various tasks concerning a mirror, the brushing of hair, a mobile phone and excited yakking, it would have been quicker to shoot her.  There is no end of reasons for an armed citizenry.
Tue, 21 Feb
- William Duke of Normandy did not invade England in 1066.
- British tax policies were not at all unpopular in North America in the mid-1770s.
- European Jews were not systematically killed by the Germans during WWII.
- Tung Chee-hwa was not a helpless buffoon who trashed Asia’s greatest city.
Nazi apologist-cum-historian David Irving is jailed for three years in Austria for stating a falsehood.  Why is it a crime there to tell one particular untruth but not others?  In the unlikely event that they are subtle and sophisticated, holocaust deniers will cite this Viennese law as ‘proof’ that they are correct.  It’s not illegal to publicly refute the Battle of Hastings, the American Revolution or the crushing of Hong Kong, they will argue, because they really happened.  But if the Austrians abolish this bizarre thought-crime, it will similarly convince the extreme revisionists of the rightness of their cause.  A valuable lesson.  After giving the world the Hapsburgs, Hitler and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the least the country can offer us is a reminder not to pass stupid laws.
A HALF-FORGOTTEN name from the past catches my eye in the local news – Peter Lai.  Deputy Secretary for Constitutional Affairs (in the days when the job entailed battling Beijing and pushing reform) under Governor Chris Patten up to 1995.  Then Secretary for Security, where he worked on the Interception of Communications Bill that never got passed.  Lasted a year under Tofu-for-Brains before retiring to Australia (succeeded by the blessed Regina Ip).  Criticized, along with Anson Chan and Donald Tsang, by pro-Beijing patriots before and after the handover for being a running dog of the gwailo imperialists.  And now, he’s back – as advisor to the new Bauhinia Foundation, the thinly disguised Committee to Re-Elect Sir Bow-Tie. 

As with our Chief Executive’s choice of colonial-era throwback Rafael Hui as his number-two, and as with the recent appointment of pro-democracy figures to his PR team and the Central Policy Unit, the loyalists get the now-familiar feel of a slap in the face.  After shining Mainland shoes so hard during the 1980s and 1990s, they were thanked with a kick in the teeth when the Central People’s Government put a tycoon in the top job.  And they received another – so hard that hardened sadists turned away and winced – when Beijing tossed the crop-haired one aside and installed the Catholic, British-contaminated, democrats’ buddy Donald Tsang in his place, without even bothering to pass it by them first. 

Their puzzlement at this humiliating treatment is heartfelt, and I would feel genuinely sorry for them were it not for the fact that I am an unfeeling brute who delights in the spectacle of people who thought they had won finding they have lost.  Even devoted believer Choy So-yuk’s tearful realization that
“Loyalty and deference are secondary to competence and performance … Be it British or Chinese, as far as it works,” left me unmoved.  Or was it gleeful?   It was gleeful.

Wed, 22 Feb
Self-assured and unruffled through gritted teeth, the Government
withdraws plans for the West Kowloon Culture Hub, the visionary white elephant project with the proud motto ‘Our Stupidest Idea Since the Last One’.  Is this a victory for the people or for the property tycoons?  Public opinion forced officials last year to make the harebrained scheme less of a Cyberport-style free lunch for developers, whose sudden and inexplicable enthusiasm for Shakespeare, Ravel and Picasso has now mysteriously waned. 

It was a typical product of the Tung Chee-hwa era – dreamt up behind closed doors, combining the worst of Shanghai-style vanity projects (officially decreed art) and Hong Kong-style governance (transfers of public wealth to property developers), and arrogantly rammed through legislative hurdles.  And so it will remain.  The challenge is to repackage it so all the stakeholders think this is what they want.  The public wants a park.  Something called the ‘culture sector’ would like some ‘culture’ to put in our existing theatres and museums, let alone any new ones.  The tycoons want an expanse of prime public land for a fraction of its true worth so they can cover it with vast 80-storey walls of luxury apartments that they can sell at a 60 percent profit margin.  The Government wants wiggle room.  It has already started to refer to the thing as a ‘culture, entertainment and tourism hub’.  I pull up a chair.  Whatever happens, we are assured of the entertainment bit.
THE MOOD on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of heightened and uncontainable excitement, as Hong Kong’s clean-living, hard-working, disenfranchised taxpayers heatedly discuss the Government’s annual budget announcement due this afternoon. 

“I’ve heard they might broaden the salaries tax bands by five thousand dollars,” says a neighbour of mine, Ms Chan.  “So, let’s see…”  She gets a Hello Kitty calculator from her handbag and taps at it.  “That means I would we better off by…”  She looks puzzled, shakes the little machine a bit, and takes on a disappointed air.  “Well… less than a hundred bucks a month,” she sighs.  “What’s the point?”  As an assistant marketing manager, she is one of the few adults gliding down the hill towards Central today earning less than HK$50,000 a month – apart from the Southeast Asian maids dutifully carrying schoolkids’ bags.  Out of Hong Kong’s 3.3 million workers, only 1.2 million pay any salaries tax, and just 100,000 of them pay 60 percent of the total take.  Relieving the burden on the middle class through tax breaks is harder than it sounds.

Mr Wong the banker – on a seven-digit annual income and therefore one of the 17 people who can seriously claim to pay a noticeable amount of tax – joins in.  “Maybe,” he tries to console our fellow commuter, “they’ll give us a one-off rebate.  It feels much better when you get all the money in one lump.”

I recall the last time we got a rebate.  “It was when Donald Tsang was Financial Secretary, maybe 1999 or something,” I remind them.  “We all got cheques in a pale yellow envelope with a sticker on the outside saying ‘Please support your local retailers, wholesalers and their landlords and don’t blow all this in scummy cheap outlets in Shenzhen’  You could hear people laughing all the way to Lowu.”
Thurs, 23 Feb
Like most people in Hong Kong, I didn’t sleep last night, so enraptured was I by the
most exciting Budget we have seen for years.  By the time I turned the last breathtaking page, the cocks were crowing, the first rays of the sun were creeping across the eastern sky, the aroma of simmering congee wafted through my bedroom window, and the cries of Nepalese street sweepers emerging from their camps in the woods echoed down the hill through the Mid-Levels.  It is hard to know where to start…
# In addition to boosting funding for its Comprehensive Child Development Service, the Government is setting up a new Family Support Programme.  This is clearly inadequate.  Surely we also need a Comprehensive Family Development Service, a Child Support Programme, a Family Development Programme and a Child Development Programme – some comprehensive, some not. 

# The Government plans to extend tax breaks for people paying mortgages.  I presume they have done very careful research and found that taxpayers paying a mortgage are all invariably less well off than those paying rent or who own their homes.  Obviously – our officials would never be so dim-witted as to arrange a subsidy from the poorer to the richer. 

# The crushing tax burden on the middle class will be eased.  An assistant marketing manager on around HK$30,000 a month will see her crushing burden fall from 5 percent of her gross salary to 4.7 percent – or from HK$18,000 of her HK$360,000 a year to HK$17,000.  Will the extra HK$83 a month go to her head and be blown on riotous living?  No, she will be sensible and take advantage of the tax breaks on mortgages and buy an apartment.

# No she won’t, because property traders raised prices the second they heard about the extended tax break.

# To address concerns that much infrastructure work serves no useful purpose and is simply an environmentally damaging excuse for empire-building bureaucrats to stuff the construction industry’s pockets, the Government will increase funding for adjectives.  For example…

“The Government remains committed to taking forward
justified projects necessary for future economic development…”
THE HOLY Romans appoint our very own Bishop Joseph Zen a Cardinal.  This raises the intriguing possibility of a Chinese Pope at some stage in the future.  The Mainland is the Catholic Church’s last, great, uncracked market – a potential flock bigger than Latin America and Africa combined.  As the success of underground churches shows, demand for the product is strong.  Every young educated urban Chinese seems to have a bible.  The Communist Party, long a monopoly provider of spiritual sustenance, is now focused on totally different business lines yet remains fiercely suspicious of outsiders targeting its ex-customers.  That poses a major logistical challenge – but The Vatican has no choice.  This is the ultimate, once-in-2,000-years, strategic opportunity to expand its franchise.  Why else would the Chairman invite Zen onto the Board? 

Proof of his branding expertise – the way he spells what everyone else writes as ‘Chan’.

Fri, 24 Feb
Our decisive Government decides to introduce the World’s most timid and ineffectual economic migrant scheme.  The last such project, courtesy of Tung Chee-hwa, was aimed at ageing Indonesian Chinese mega-millionaires wanting a bolt hole.  “Spend a million (US) on a luxury flat,” they were told, “and we’ll give you an ID card.”  How this was supposed to help the local economy was never made clear. 

If they had any courage or imagination, our officials would open the door to relatively poor but bright and energetic youngsters desperate for a chance to get out of whatever dump they come from – India, the Philippines, the Mainland, etc.  Check their college diplomas and teeth at the airport, and let them in.  Instead, we get the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme (‘quality’ as in ‘whites and North Asians only, please’).  It looks like the sort of bureaucratic nightmare that any huddled masses yearning to breathe free with any brains (and the idea is to attract brains) will want to avoid.  But we have to look after ‘various sectors’.  We can’t have the doltish, self-pitying hordes in Outer Kowloon – or the welfare workers and politicians who demand ever more spoon-feeding for them – whining about competition for jobs.
The South China Morning Post shocks its readers today with the revelation that six out of every seven residents of Hong Kong Island own less than HK$1 million dollars in liquid assets.  Although more impressive than the late Italian Lira, the microscopic Japanese Yen or the sub-atomic monetary particle known as the Vietnamese Dong, the Big Lychee’s unit of currency is not large.  To be a millionaire in Hong Kong at today’s rates requires around US$128,000 or GBP 73,800.  It is alarming that a mere 14 percent of people on this side of the harbour have the wits or discipline to accumulate more than that in cash or equities in a city bursting with opportunities.

Part of the explanation must be that many inhabitants have too much of their net wealth in the form of property.  Depending on when they bought and how much of a mortgage they have repaid, this may mean they are multi-millionaires, or it could be they have indentured themselves and generations of descendents to come to Li Ka-shing. 
The SCMP thoughtfully chooses not to strain its readers’ brains first thing in the morning by including data on districts’ populations.  Central/Western and Southern districts each have around 250,000-300,000 souls, while Eastern has some 600,000.  This is about the same as Shatin, our elegant ‘Gateway to the North’, so the latter has only half as many millionaires on a per-capita basis as the island’s relatively seedy neighbourhood covering dilapidated North Point, malodorous Shaukeiwan and the acres of soulless high-rise rabbit hutches of Chai Wan.  Even so, there are 28,000 people who wake up every morning, look at themselves in the mirror and think “I have over a million bucks and I live in Shatin,” and do nothing about it.  There are a lot of strange people out there.

Which brings us to Islands District, which at first glance seems to be the poorest part of town, with only 2,000 people with the gumption to scrape together a million.  This elite of the district’s 111,000 residents are presumably confined to Discovery Bay, the miniature Singapore-without-the-excitement on Lantau.  But the other 98.2 percent – the fisherfolk and hippies of Lamma and Cheung Chau – don’t need our sympathy.  They are as happy as they are poor, as they never tire of pointing out, which is why so many of us in Central leave when we see them coming. 

For serious wretchedness, we must turn to Tsuen Mun and Kwun Tong, with populations of 500,000 and 570,000 respectively.  The brightness of Hong Kong’s famous US$25,000 a year per-capita GDP does not penetrate the dark hovels and rancid tenements of these benighted neighbourhoods.  Millionaires make up 0.8 percent of Tuen Mun’s people and a statistically insignificant 0.5 percent of Kwun Tong.  One look at these places, and we are left in no doubt that there is only one thing to do with those regions of the Big Lychee on the northern side of the harbour – give the whole lot to Shenzhen.