Hemlock's Diary
26 April-2 May, 2009
Mon, 27 Apr
As I peruse the
newspaper this morning, the phrase ‘index cases’ explodes out of the page at me, like a burst of virus-laden mucus being expelled from a nose by a deafening sneeze.  On the same page, pictures show commuters’ faces wrapped in surgical masks.  It’s nostalgia time, and we are briefly taken back to that great civic trauma six years ago when – courtesy of Mainland officials covering up bad news – the Big Lychee became the focus of daily updates on the spread of pestilence and the death count so far.

But this latest outbreak, officially known as human swine influenza A/H1N1, is different.  It does not originate in Guangdong Province, or anywhere in China or even in Asia.  It is from Mexico, which Travel Industry Council boss Joseph Tung
tells us is not a popular destination for Hong Kong people because there are no direct flights there.  Not because, say, it’s a dump.
My earliest memory of Mexico comes from a promotional song that managed to be a hit many years ago with (I think) the chorus ‘Mexico!  Lots to do and lots to see in Mexico!’  As naughty children, we found that the lyrics actually fitted the catchy tune better if we replaced the word ‘lots’ with ‘nothing’, and it has stuck in my consciousness ever since.  I also recall reading Grahame Greene’s The Lawless Roads, a 1930s account of a visit to the country to investigate savage official persecution of Catholics while trying to survive on apparently inedible food.  And I spent a few days in New Mexico once, as well as Arizona and California, which were formerly part of the Spanish-speaking territory to the south, and in some ways still are. 

Other than that, my knowledge of Mexico is limited to a vague impression of an arid, cacti-prone, bean-eating version of the Philippines – a land of Virgin Marys, guns and migrant household servants.  But now it reveals itself as a source of mutant, species-jumping animal viruses ready to wipe out mankind, just like our very own duck- and pig-rearing, plague-infested darkness beyond the Pearl River Delta.  So it has not gone up greatly in my esteem. 

On a brighter note – and if this isn’t proof that every cloud has a silver lining, what is? – a lethal contagion sweeping the world right now will help take everyone’s minds off our planet’s ongoing economic catastrophe and climatic collapse.

Tue, 28 Apr
Over breakfast of congee and noodles amid the faded Formica glory of Yuet Yuen Restaurant, delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip slides her laptop round to show me a Government announcement.  Chief Executive Donald Tsang
urges calm over swine flu threat

“Pardon me!” I tell her.  “I didn’t realize we were supposed to be panicking.  Freaking out.  Wetting ourselves.  I’ll start gargling with boiling bleach and wiping doorknobs with vinegar right away.”

She picks up a chopstick and twirls it menacingly at my face, like a kung fu master distracting a victim’s attention before jabbing him in the solar plexus at the speed of light with the other hand.  “Listen,” she hisses.  “What was happening here six years ago?  Hundreds were dying.  People like you were blaming the officials for having played down the first reports of SARS.  There were shortages of gowns for medics.  Remember all that?  Never again.  Yes, we’re taking this bloody seriously!  Sorry!  Go ahead and criticize.”

After tapping my forehead against the plastic tabletop nine times, I try to change the subject – but to no avail.  Winky runs her finger approvingly down from the top of yesterday’s list of Government press statements…
It’s the bureaucrats’ gift from God.  An irresistible opportunity for drama, crisis, statesmanlike strutting for the cameras, diversion of public attention from recent blunders, appointment of committees and task forces, and the flinging of wads of money around.  Yes, we’re taking this bloody seriously.  They’re probably already planning a Post-Swine Flu Recovery Plan to tell the world it’s safe to visit the Big Lychee again, with hundreds of grinning children dressed as flowers parading down Nathan Road, while across the harbour Neil Young and Crazy Horse perform Cortez the Killer.

Which brings me rather neatly to my theory. 

“You see, Winky, all the dead people so far are in Mexico.  It’s had very little impact on people in other countries.”  I explain to her that when the Spanish Conquistadors first took Central America, they brought diseases that wiped out many of the natives, who had no immunity to infections like the common cold.  The Aztecs never even invented the wheel!  Today, some of the surviving sons of Montezuma may also be especially exposed to particular viruses that the rest of us take in our stride.  “Just a theory,” I add. 

And, her contemptuous glare tells me, a ridiculous one.  “Mexico’s problem,” she spits out, “is poor public health systems, poor public sanitation and hygiene, poor public education and poor administration generally.”  She waves the envelope containing her latest air-conditioning allowance at me.  “It would never have happened if the the Hong Kong Civil Service had been in charge!”
Wed, 29 Apr
While the whole world watches with terror the approach of the plague that will eradicate the whole of humanity, or maybe just the more Mexican among us, the Big Lychee Government seizes the opportunity to quietly announce plans to issue up to HK$100 billion in bonds.  Governments usually issue bonds in order to finance big capital investments, like sewerage or transit systems, which will improve life in the community and stimulate its economy.  The long-term extra tax revenues pay off the debt, and everyone wins.  However, Hong Kong already has HK$500 billion lying around doing little or nothing in its financial reserves, plus the same again in other assets – including superfluous infrastructure.  So what will it do with the money it raises?   “
It will be used to repay principal of bonds issued, meet financial obligations and liabilities associated with the programme and make investments.” 

In other words, the point is simply to create the bonds as an end in itself, in the hope that once they exist, people will trade them, and voila! – a market is born.  (Dare we say it… a hub!)  It would never have occurred to me to do such a thing.  But I have no doubt that officials somewhere else at some time have engaged in similar exercises.  The alternative is that Hong Kong’s policymakers have had an original (if banal) idea, which is too outlandish to imagine.

The Government has already stated its strong, indeed almost obsessive, desire to see the Big Lychee become a global centre for Islamic banking and (non-Islamic) wine trading.  So no doubt our visionary officials will soon apply the exciting issue-bonds-to-raise-money-to-pay-back-the-bond-holders concept to those areas.  Thus, Financial Secretary John Tsang will go off to Sotheby’s and Christie’s and bid for magnums of Dom Perignon 1966 and cases of Chateau Latour 1961, then go back a month later and put them up for auction.  Month after month, year after year, he will go back and forth dragging these dusty, clinking bottles of legendary booze, buying and selling, over and over.  Price fluctuations over time will average out, so the whole project will be revenue-neutral – and watch that turnover grow!  Hong Kong will become the biggest wine market in the Solar System, with billions of dollars’ worth of rare vintages changing hands every day.  I’m amazed Singapore didn’t think of it first.
Did I say ‘revenue-neutral’?  “It’s unlikely the Bond Fund will record losses,” says a (luckily for him) anonymous source, “but should there be any shortfall of funds, it may be financed from government general revenue” – otherwise known as Hemlock’s hard-earned cash.  Singapore must have thought of it. 

I am not worthy to pay these people’s air-conditioning allowances.

Thurs, 30 Apr
Worried that 6 billion people aren’t paying it enough attention on one of the rare occasions they might, the World Health Organization
raises the swine flu pandemic threat to Phase 5, the ‘Go Apeshit Now’ level of alert.  For the first time in years, the WHO’s generously paid, self-important bureaucrats have a chance to run around getting in everyone’s face and shouting “We’re in charge!”  But not many of us are playing along.  Show us big black shiny buboes bursting under millions of armpits in every city on every continent, and we’ll get nervous.  Tell us about an airborne-transmitted ebola virus with a globe-trotting incubation period of weeks, and we’ll panic.  A mystery disease that affected only epidemiologists would grab our attention, probably.  But yet another flu is just a big yawn. 

Not that this will discourage the indefatigable Margaret Chan – and what an amazing coincidence that a Hong Kong civil servant is running the institution – as she tries to cajole a whole planet into a sort of moderate mass-hysteria.  And of course her former colleagues in the Big Lychee are entering into the spirit of things.  At the airport, a team of officials with long-distance thermometers, nets and tranquilizer guns are lying in wait for the first carrier of the Great Mexican Pestilence of 2009 to attempt to set foot in our fair city. 

The rest of us are flicking past the photos of pigs and the debate over whether the Book of Leviticus requires Jews to call the ailment ‘Cloven-Hoofed Mexican Plague’, and gazing at a ‘sponsored feature’ in the
South China Morning Post extolling the immense desirability of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge project.

Who paid for the ad?  It doesn’t say.  But then it doesn’t need to.  It has ‘lame Hong Kong Government publicity’ written all over it.  Specifically, it also exudes a distinct odour of nervousness.  As if the Transport and Housing Bureau has – not a guilty conscience, exactly – but a nagging feeling that the economic benefits of this all-road monstrosity might rather too obviously not match the costs.  What is the point of a link between what used to be the world’s biggest container port and the undeveloped region opposite what used to be the world’s biggest manufacturing hub back in the days before the US consumer collapsed from financial fatigue and decided a decade of bread, water, sackcloth and ashes was in order? 

With Beijing’s blessing, the project is due to go ahead, with the Hong Kong taxpayer providing or guaranteeing some HK$30 billion and counting.  Big profits for Mainland state-owned companies – perhaps as good a way as any to get around the Basic Law promise that China’s richest city does not pay any direct or official tax to the nation, and we should do our bit. 

The civil servants struggling to defend their precious boondoggle promise great returns for restaurants and hotels when, within 20 years of its opening, the dolphin-friendly bridge is handling over 50,000 vehicles a day, ferrying as many as 230,000 people back and forth, at a cost to car drivers of only a RMB100 toll.  Where will the extra traffic go when it gets here?  The car park outside Perpetual Opulence Mansions looked pretty full already this morning.  Given the scale of the thing, I suppose we should be grateful that Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng used our money for only one page of the newspaper to give us what is her main message – Who wants parks, clean air, hospitals or schools, when you can have a major engineering feat and a stunning landmark for the region?
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