Hemlock's Diary
22-28 February, 2009
Mon, 23 Feb
Am I on Macau’s blacklist of Hongkongers who represent too great a threat to the peace and security of Asia’s gambling capital to be granted entry?  Judging from the speedy treatment I received on landing there over the weekend, the answer would appear to be no.  For those of us who are not pan-democratic politicians or
South China Morning Post photographers, this is a good time to nip across the Pearl River Delta.  For the first time in years, the boats have empty seats, the lines at immigration are almost non-existent, eateries and hotels are desperate for custom, and there are apparently even some vacant tables in the casinos.  With croupiers being laid off, teenagers have gone back to studying beyond the age of 17.  There are even a few concerns that the revenue-soaked Government’s handout of 5,000 Patacas in cash to every resident in 2008 might not be repeated this year. 

As always, Sleaze City offers three main attractions.  First is food, such as the wondrous sweet pig-blood sausage rolls at the Tak Hing Restaurant, to which tycoon Stanley Ho provides a free bus ride from the ferry terminal, assuming you don’t mind being dropped off across the street at the Grand Lisboa Hotel.  Second is the ramshackle Luso-Guangdong, Art Deco and other architectural gems hidden away in obscure neighbourhoods, with vistas increasingly disrupted these days by vast half-built residential towers totally out of proportion to their surroundings.  And third is the gossip.

And the malicious chitchat right now concerns the handouts and the grotesquely out-of-place construction projects.  The latter were mostly authorized in return for kickbacks by former senior official Ao Man-long, now in prison after being found guilty of 57 counts of accepting bribes and laundering money.  Almost every public works contract, transfer of land and grant of major building permit since Portugal handed the city back to China in 1999 seems to have been
crooked.  The case came to light only because Hong Kong authorities, noticing big movements of funds by Ao’s family, passed word to Beijing.

People cannot believe, however, that Ao’s boss, Chief Executive Edmund Ho, somehow failed to notice all this.  Macau is a small place, with barely half a million people, and many of the transactions that yielded Ao some US$100 million in dirty money were high-profile projects.  During his trial Ao actually pointed out that many of the deals were too large for him to approve – implying that Ho knew.

Indeed, many Macau folk simply assume that Ho was up to his ears in it, and this is where the latest rumour comes in.  Ashamed that it had already had to kick Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa out of office for incompetence and that this one top Macau official had been given 27 years in prison for bribery, Beijing (so the story goes) couldn’t bring itself to axe Edmund Ho.  Instead, the Chinese Government forced Ho to pay personally for the 5,000-Pataca bonus paid to every citizen last year.  This despicable bit of tittle-tattle/theory that would explain much is circulating among middle-ranking members of the bureaucracy.  It must be true, they say – it comes from the senior officials’ chauffeurs.
Tue, 24 Feb
In France, the innocent victim that is the glorious motherland continues to endure the agony of a century and a half’s persecution at the hands of evil foreign plunderers.  Showing typical disregard for the feelings of the Chinese people, a court in Paris throws out an attempt by the Association for the Protection of the Art of China in Europe (APACE) to prevent the auction of two bronze animal heads – Rabbit and Rat – looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860. 

Originally, a dozen bronzes formed fountainheads for a zodiac-themed
clepsydra.  For reasons that are not entirely clear, recovery of the whole set has become a sacred mission of the nation, on a par with reuniting with the urine-drinking compatriots in Taiwan, or replicating early 1960s US and Soviet vanity projects by sending astronauts into orbit.  Beijing refuses to buy them directly, saying “we don’t pay for things we own.”  So far, five have been acquired – Ox, Tiger and Monkey by the state-owned Poly Group conglomerate and the Horse and Pig by patriot Stanley Ho (who has also recently been bad-mouthing the ‘foreigners’ who run rival casinos in Macau, prompting howls of mirth from the city’s pure-bred Han about the tycoon’s thoroughly mongrel ancestry).  Others are with private collections (these two up for auction are from late designer Yves Saint Laurent’s estate) or may have vanished, possibly thrown away because they were so ugly.

The relics date from the early Qing – once considered a dynasty of barbarians who persecuted the Chinese, but now it seems embraced as family in the interests of national victimhood.  The mildly creepy
APACE is part of China’s ‘soft power’ initiative – the drive to make the country more loveable by, for example, turning last year’s Olympic Flame relay into the quasi-religious ritual that went down so well with crowds worldwide. 

Why are the bronzes so unpleasant to behold – looking like the work of children who have mixed up all their Play-Doh into a dull mud colour?  The reason is that the sculptors were trying to imitate Western-style representational work, as opposed to traditional Chinese symbolism – a contrast typified by the HSBC and Bank of China lions.  Presumably, they thought the new approach, probably introduced by Jesuits, superior.  So it was not only the theft of these great treasures that is a national humiliation, but their very creation in the first place.
Wed, 25 Feb
The tremors rumbling from a northerly direction beneath our feet are not, it transpires, the result of tectonic plates grinding away, but the mounting righteous fury of the Middle Kingdom preparing for a possible tantrum.  The world’s ugliest bronze animal heads must be returned from France to the glorious motherland, declares Beijing, otherwise
national sentiment will be hurtQuel dommage! With typical panache, élan, esprit and other Gallic qualities, the vendor says he will hand them over if China frees Tibet.  If only such humour could help to diffuse the situation!  But it seems more likely that Mainland officials will grab the opportunity to wring out every possible drop of humiliation, injury and self-pity, particularly to rally the nation’s hot-headed youth behind the noble Communist Party.
Even in Hong Kong, our own young patriots – gawky, self-conscious, slightly embarrassed and not mouth-frothing enough to be totally convincing – hold a well-behaved protest at the foot of a skyscraper in Admiralty, otherwise known as ‘outside the French Consulate’.  It is hard to believe, after years of recoiling in revulsion at the pro-Beijing camp’s sinister, ill-kempt, scowling, malevolent older generation, that these more-or-less presentable, well-travelled, knife-and-fork-capable, multilingual young folk are members of the Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong.  But times change.  And perhaps they represent the best chance of convincing the owners of hideous looted bronzes to send them back to China.  Ask nicely. 

Such naivety from the Fragrant Harbour’s little nationalists!  Successfully recovering the repulsive sculptures is the last thing Beijing wants.  Far better to have evil foreigners hold on to the things, to keep the hysteria alive and ready to be switched on when the Party has to turn the xenophobia up a notch.  Besides, with collectors and dealers factoring a patriotic premium into the price, Chinese buyers will only get looted a second time if they buy them on the market.  And let’s be frank – a tantrum’s much more entertaining.
Thurs, 26 Feb
The 7 million charismatic, resourceful little mammals known collectively as Hong Kong forget their usual fractiousness and unite as one in declaring that the 2009-10 Budget sucks.  From big international businesses in Central, to small and medium firms in the back streets, from the middle class on Hong Kong Island, to the lower orders in the public housing estates, from the Liberal Party to the Democratic Party, just about everyone – for the first time in living memory – agrees on something. 

Financial Secretary John Tsang’s fiscal plans
boil down to blather about wine hubs, Cantonese opera research, science parks, industrial estates, Hong Kong/Guangdong/Macau cooperation, Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau cooperation, and alleged make-work schemes in the form of state subsidized internships for graduates and gargantuan infrastructure projects that will never generate any economic return.  Two groups of people are holding their tongues – the tycoons whose privately held subsidiaries will scoop up the sub-contracts for building pointless bridges and freeways, and the Nepalese and Pakistani labourers who will be brought in to do the work.
Hoarding half a billion in fiscal reserves and the same again in other piles of unused wealth that belongs to the people, the Government could easily slash business taxes, give handouts to citizens and spur private-sector activity.  Instead, officials’ main obsession, apart from feeding themselves and the cartels, is silly accounting tricks to keep public expenditure looking as if it is below 20% of GDP.  The city’s grand total of 17 salaries tax payers will get a HK$6,000 rebate – which is exactly the price Dr Amy KK Au-Yeung BDS DPDS has quoted me for next week’s Dental Procedure From Hell.

The world is at a historic turning point, undergoing major adjustments in trade, investment, saving and borrowing patterns.  We could be headed for a global economic ice age – a decade of deflation and stagnation.  Or, for those of us not given to dwelling on the wrist-slashing negative side, human ingenuity might get the planet’s wealth-creating machine up and running again by Christmas.  Christmas 2011, anyway.  No-one has a clue how bad it will get, but things will never be the same again.  It is a time for leaders to use public wealth if it is there, and prepare for a less speculative, leveraged, unsustainable, wasteful and unequal future.  Meanwhile, up on Government Hill, Tsang, his namesake boss Donald and their coterie of lobotomized, British-trained former civil servants carry on as if nothing has happened, save a good excuse to build a multi-billion dollar cruise terminal.

But why?  One reason must be the neo-colonial mentality that returned to the halls of power after the mild interlude of rule-by-humans straddling the handover under Chris Patten and Tung Chee-hwa.  If anything, it is strengthening.  To our bureaucrat-zombie leaders, this is still the 1950s and 60s.  Hong Kong is a business base, not a community.  Its refugee inhabitants are tolerated for their cheap labour, but it is essential not to waste public money on anything that makes life pleasant for them, lest they think of settling permanently or come flooding over the border in greater numbers.  God forbid they might expect parks or something.  Naturally, they can have no input into policymaking, even if their child-like minds were capable. 

Add to this the new, post-1997 order.  The new sovereign power requires symbolic manifestations of loyalty, so we have flag-raising, national education, the anthem on TV, and incessant recitations on cooperation and partnership – no big deal.  But Hong Kong also needs to be absorbed into a unitary state, and that requires Government intervention…
30. …it is necessary for Hong Kong to reposition itself in the national plan.  The past practice of enterprises moving ahead of the Government may not always suit the development trend.  We must have greater involvement in both regional economic planning and national strategic positioning.  The Government will play an increasingly important role as a “champion”.
We can’t have that nasty old practice of enterprises moving ahead of the Government, can we?  Naughty enterprises!  Not suiting the development trend, indeed! 

Beijing also – apparently, or possibly, or theoretically, or maybe in a parallel universe – has some specific requirements about how Hong Kong is run.  The evidence is entirely circumstantial, so perhaps this is just something I dreamt, but the incessant favours, privileges and protection accorded to the half-dozen or so families that run our cartelized domestic economy seem far too great, consistent and, most of all, secure to happen by accident.  Maybe there isn’t a secret agreement between the PRC and the SAR to take care of this nobility, but it looks, feels and smells like one.  And then there are the reserves.  Constitutionally, they are the Big Lychee’s to do with as it wishes.  But would Beijing really let the Government of a city on its south coast accumulate a trillion bucks without taking an interest?  Perhaps there isn’t a secret order from the Politburo to the Hong Kong Government requiring them to sit on the money in the interests of national security, in case the country needs to buy the rest of Zambia or Chile one day.  But it looks, feels and smells, etc.

Seen this way, it makes sense.  When 7 million folk ask why our top officials aren’t doing what’s in the interests of Hong Kong – us, the people, the community, the place – the answer is simple.  That’s not what they are here for.  Do you get it now?

To make myself feel better, I think I will spend the rest of the day looking for enterprises moving ahead of the Government and give them a good thumping.

Fri, 27 Feb
A glimmer of hope flickers between the smog-bound skyscrapers of the Big Lychee this morning, as it emerges that the highly talented and entertaining martial arts thespian Jackie Chan might
move his collection of costumes and antique houses to Singapore, because the big bad Hong Kong bureaucracy won’t find him hundreds of thousands of square feet of space to display them in.  In plain English, a certain number of tourists who would have come here to clog up our streets, pollute the air with their buses and push up retailers’ rents will infest the Lion City instead.  Now, if we can ship Disneyland off to the solar system’s most boring city-state as well….

On a more somber note, Macau’s little legislature – where opposition members are about as numerous as in Singapore’s Parliament – has passed a national security law banning sedition, treason, subversion and theft of state secrets, in accordance with Article 23 of the city’s Basic Law.  This, we are
invited to believe, increases pressure on Hong Kong to do the same, despite the disastrous failed attempt in 2002-03.  Given the level of sedition, treason, etc here since 1997, the issue doesn’t seem to be of any practical urgency.  And given our visionary Government’s inability to amend a minor welfare handout or levy on foreign domestic helpers without creating a major crisis, it is hard to believe our leaders are desperate to interrupt the financial tsunami to have a fight with the public over human rights.  The only people likely to demand that Hong Kong follow Macau are the old, wizened, vitriol-ranting local patriots, but they seem to have been silenced these days by death, dementia or gentle requests from above.

The great irony is that Hong Kong’s proposed 2003 security law was a mouse.  Even in Macau – a third-world place where the legal and political structures blend corrupt Portuguese Catholic fascism with corrupt Chinese Communist feudalism – a
dispassionate analysis concludes that there isn’t too much to worry about.  In Hong Kong, where people give a damn about their liberties and have real courts, the duty to pass a national security law seems to be more about symbolism than anything else.  Especially if you look at the scary colonial legislation, still in force, that such a law would replace.

Page 88 of the
good book says of Hong Kong’s attempt in 2002-03 at implementation of Article 23…
In theory, it didn’t need to cause a great fuss.  A self-confident leadership would have taken a relaxed, open approach, inviting the more qualified and sober potential critics in the pro-democracy ranks to share views with the law drafters and maybe even giving them some ownership of the bill, taking away its sinister mystique and sensitivity.  But after five years of economic trauma and blundering, the government was in siege mode: public opinion was the enemy, and opponents had to be overcome head-on.  The government unveiled a consultation document in late September, but there would be no white (draft) bill for anyone to see during the three-month period.  This meant the bill would go straight into Legco, where the inbuilt government majority could prevent amendment and ram it through.
…until the whole thing jumped up and kicked them in the face. 

So Article 23 in Hong Kong isn’t even on the backburner – it’s wrapped up in plastic, stuffed into a Tupperware container and crammed down into the bottom of the freezer in the basement.  More’s the pity, since it would promise far more action and laughs than anything by Jackie Chan.
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