Hemlock's Diary
6-12 May 2007
Mon, 7 May
Tough, no-nonsense conservative Nicolas Sarkozy beats motherly, hand-wringing Segolene Royal in the French presidential election.  From the standpoint of Gallic corporatists and mercantilists, Sarko is dangerously Anglo-Saxon, embracing globalization, competition and an end to the labour market regulations that all but eradicate private-sector job creation.  Superficially, his victory is a sign that the French have finally accepted the need for reform, but this would be too much to hope for.  He won for two reasons.  First, his opponent was a female Chancey Gardener – the dimwit in Jerzy Kosinski’s
Being There who gets elected when voters perceive his horticultural inanities as great profundities.  The problem is that in reality people can’t bring themselves to vote for a naïf promising happiness, peace and love, because they know that life just isn’t that good.  Second, compared with Margaret Thatcher, Sarko is a pussycat.  The toughness is at least partly an act.  At the first hint of trouble, he will back off.  Even if he were the real McCoy, he would fail to deliver anyway.  Thatcher chewed up and spat out interest groups like nationalized industries and unions with the support of the majority of the population who were sick of having to support them.  In France, the majority of the population benefits in some way from inefficiencies and cross-subsidies through welfare, state employment or protectionism.  And they have a track record of defending the status quo whatever it takes.  So, talented and ambitious young French people will continue to seek opportunities in English-speaking countries, while British and other retirees will continue to head in the opposite direction in search of a dirt-cheap, placid idyll where nothing changes.

Unlike in France, the interest groups that leech off everyone else in Hong Kong represent only a minority of the population.  The property tycoons, their cartels, the stagnant tourism and port industries and the bureaucracy that caters to their every whim don’t add up to more than a slice of the city’s people.  Some 40 percent of its folk are public housing tenants, but it is fair to assume that at least some aspire to home ownership and self-reliance, and some are genuinely deserving.  But in Hong Kong it is the small interest groups, not the majority of the people, who choose the Government.  We are a non-dirt-cheap, non-placid non-idyll where nothing changes.
Tue, 8 May
What has changed in Hong Kong since 1997?  With the 10th anniversary of the handover approaching, people who have grown sick of answering the question over the last decade must come up with something more interesting than a long list of embarrassing screw-ups by overly self-conscious officials trying to prove they are not out of their depth.  One intriguing development since the resumption of the exercise of Chinese sovereignty (as it is officially known) is a succession of fascinating and fun, diseased and dangerous wildlife parading through the city spreading pestilence and panic wherever they go.

Chickens tossing their crumpled, influenza-sodden Kleenexes all over the street markets.  Civet cats prone to sneezing fits, with millions of H5N1 viruses in every drop of their bodily fluids.  The famous red imported fire ants, injecting their lethal formic venom into innocent passers-by as they set about their mysterious anti-cronyism mission to colonize sites in Lantau and West Kowloon that the Government was giving away to the likes of Disney and the property cartel.  The freshwater fish infested with the petrifying menace known as malachite green, which prevented something even worse but nonetheless caused cancer in rats force-fed tons of the stuff for weeks on end.  The vile and repulsive blood worms that oozed out of public swimming pools in slimy, writhing globules easily mistaken for groups of Liberal Party politicians campaigning for votes.  The list goes on.  And now – the vicious
langsat-inhabiting scorpion, which lurks malevolently in refrigerators and plunges its deadly sting into the hands of housewives who, not content with everyday grapes, insist on buying similar but weird-sounding fruit no-one has ever heard of.  It has been a frightening decade.
Wed, 9 May
Sergeant-Major Nawang, head of security at Perpetual Opulence Mansions, sits in his guard box and lovingly polishes the curved blade of his kukri, a lethal weapon that residents rarely see out of its scabbard, unless they are fortunate enough to spy the former Gurkha soldier discreetly dispatching a Jehovah’s Witness in a quiet corner of the car park.  He stands and salutes as I approach.  “Tomorrow at around noon,” I tell him, “a truck will need to reverse in through the main entrance there with an important delivery for me.  It will tip a very large amount of money out, and you will need to get a few men to spend an hour or so shoveling it into the storage room – the one with all the rolled-up carpets in it.”  Consider it done, he assures me.  Yes – tomorrow is the day that HSBC pays its 2006 fourth interim dividend.
Thurs, 10 May
The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of almost uncontrollable excitement as the word spreads that Ms Angeles Lladro, with an acute accent over the ‘o’, will grace us with her presence later today in Prince’s Building – renamed specially for the occasion to indicate possession by a plurality of male nobles.  As I grace S-Meg Tower’s elevator number three with my presence, I find myself torn about whether to go. 

On the one hand, there is something slightly disturbing about it all.  I have had one or two Porcelain Lovers in my time. Cold and lifeless in bed, with a special thing about bidets, and best avoided.  And then there is the motto ‘As long as there is a meeting’.  It conjures up images of men in suits sitting around a table in a conference room while a Powerpoint presentation graces them with its presence – for ever and ever. 

On the other hand, despite the best efforts of the image makers, the young lady – or should that be Llady? – does not appear to be a complete bimbo.  Looking into her eyes, I sense a sad story.  An heiress to an over-hyped European designer brand of overpriced, tacky junk is held captive by cruel advertising and PR Nazis who parade her round the world as part of their evil marketing scheme to lure gullible Asian and other nouveau riches into buying their vomit-inducing knickknacks.  How she yearns for a handsome and intelligent man to come to her rescue and sweep her away from all this vacuous, fake glitz to a place where they can discuss the things that really matter, like selling off the label to a big French conglomerate or some private equity group, and living happily ever after! 

While I am deciding, I will go to the pantry and grace the water cooler with my presence.
Fri, 11 May
The countdown to the grand launch of
How I Trashed Asia’s Greatest City by Tung Chee-hwa continues.  While I was not surprised to find that writing a book takes months, it didn’t occur to me that the process of publishing one dragged on for almost as long.  I thought someone just pushed a button, and there it was.  When it comes to naivety over timetables, however, Hong Kong’s pro-democrats leave me standing.  It has yet to dawn on them that nothing is going to be slower than Hong Kong’s plodding progress to universal suffrage. 

Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Stephen Lam responds to questions from the media with
a dazzling display of convoluted non-answers.  But he does helpfully remind us that Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not apply to Hong Kong – courtesy of a British reservation dating back to 1976 and renewed by Beijing in 1997.  That’s the article that requires ‘universal and equal’ voting in a universal suffrage system, a condition that would rule out the continued existence of functional constituencies, which allow some electors to have more votes than others.  This is why our officials, and the Basic Law, always say that all our arrangements conform to the ICCPR ‘as applied’ to Hong Kong. 

There is a school of thought that this reservation becomes invalid once actual elections are introduced.  Conversely, if Article 25 is not obeyed, it’s not universal suffrage.  Either way, all the signs are that FCs will be around in some form or other for a long time.  To our local captains of industry, FCs exist to let them vote free lunches for themselves and veto policies that harm vested interests but are good for the city as a whole.  Or as they put it, FCs allow people with special expertise to contribute to the community.  To the Chinese Government, FCs serve a different purpose – they displace directly elected representatives in the Legislative Council.  The difference between those two positions is the scope for reform of FCs.  Hence Weasel Lam’s blather about whether ‘transforming’ functional constituencies includes ‘eliminating’ them.  

It should be clear by now that Hong Kong is headed towards a system – after as much delay as possible – that will have the label ‘universal suffrage’ but will not in fact be the real thing.  Like a Louis Vuitton handbag from Shenzhen.  Nice democracy – is it real?  No it’s a knock-off we got in Beijing.

A CALL from wild American friend Odell, who, as self-appointed promotions expert, is busy arranging the book launch in the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee.  “The unveiling will be at dawn,” he tells me, “otherwise the crowds will just be too much.”  The other details are as I expected.  The store will be giving away a gluten-free organic durian and tea tree oil cappuccino with every copy of the book (while stocks last).  Tung himself will be present to sign copies of the volume, recite some of the most moving passages and reminisce with eager purchasers about the diseases, market crashes and threats to human rights that made his administration so interesting and memorable (to be confirmed).  Five copies of the tome will each contain a Golden Ticket, qualifying lucky readers to a free ride on the Mid-Levels Escalator and  a tour of Perpetual Opulence Mansions.  “And I found some ‘Buy One, Get One’ posters from Park N Shop,” he concludes.  It’ll be worth the wait.