Hemlock's Diary
8-14 July 2007
Mon, 9 July
With a month to go before my annual filial piety tour jets me to the US and the UK, the week starts with a push of the radio ‘on’ button, and an environmentalist sharing his opinion of the new Boeing 787, which consumes 20 percent less fuel per passenger than existing aircraft and produces less pollution and noise.  Does he welcome this breakthrough?  Not at all.  The improved efficiency will make flying cheaper and therefore – horror of horrors – encourage more people to fly.  It doesn’t help that he delivers this response in a voice that borders on a cruel parody of a bunny-worshipping tree hugger.  Presumably he would be happier if airlines went back to using such equipment as the Convair 880, which was made of lead and turned the sky into a thick smear of half-burnt grease.  Or should we all go back to camel trains and sailing ships?  As it happens, flying is so unpleasant in this age of security checks and overcrowded airports that sensible people would avoid it altogether were it not for the satisfaction of infuriating new-age puritans who see travelling as sinful.  If he denounced it as embarrassing he would have a point – who wants to announce that they have just flown in by Dreamliner?
Tue, 10 July
Strolling to the office in an exceptionally alert and observant mood this morning, I can’t help noticing that some of the people who hand out free newspapers on Central’s overhead walkways are giving away a free pack of tissues with every copy.  The ploy is working – if only because our plentiful population of semi-literate snifflers are seizing the opportunity to grab complimentary Kleenex into which they can propel their nasal discharge, while tossing the worthless daily that comes with it into a bin. 

There is something desperate and tawdry about the handing out of free papers, so it comes as no surprise whatsoever to find a large pile of the Hong Kong edition of
China Daily in the lobby of S-Meg Tower.  The head Pakistani security guard thrusts one upon me with an eagerness that suggests he is not wholly disinterested in distributing them.  The Big Boss will have let this Communist Party propaganda sheet into the building for reasons of Friendship.  Do this for them, and they will put in a good word for S-Meg Holdings next time the company needs a favour on the Mainland, and everything will go well, and we’ll make loads of money without doing anything difficult.  That’s the theory, anyway.  Conversely, what disaster might await us if he told China Daily ‘no’?  A flick through the rag reveals the usual reminders of why the glorious motherland is such an endlessly fascinating place...
There is also, inevitably, laborious coverage of the downfall of Radio Television Hong Kong’s boss Chu Pui-hing, who has chosen this time, when editorial independence in public broadcasting may or may not be under unprecedented threat, to be a total cretin and get caught consorting with a karaoke hostess.  Has anyone started a rumour of a honey trap – that the songstress-courtesan in question was in the pay of evil Government forces looking for yet another excuse to sanitize the station?  It would brighten up a dull summer.  It would also remind us all that the road to damnation and Hell lies behind the karaoke bar door.  There is no better proof of God’s existence than the awful fate that awaits those who pick up the Devil’s microphone.  One bar of Unchained Melody, and you are doomed for eternity.

Wed, 11 July
The Big Boss being late, attendees of S-Meg Holdings’ morning management meeting trade stock tips, paying special attention to the Company Gwailo, whose long-term investment style intrigues his hyperactive, concept-obsessed colleagues.  The 750 percent gain in my Petrochina shares never ceases to be a source of wonderment.  “If you want a punt,” I tell them, “how about
Sino Gold.”  The first Australian-based company to get a secondary listing on the Hong Kong market, the mine operator could be a far better investment than the yellow metal itself.  Today’s price of around US$650 an ounce is the highest since 1980, when it hit US$850 – but that would be nearly US$2,300 in real terms, so the upside is there, as it is for Sino Gold’s potential undiscovered reserves hidden under its Mainland mines.  “Put it at the back of the drawer and see how it’s doing in five or 10 years,” I advise.  “Unlike bullion, it might actually start yielding dividends some time.”

The Big Boss sweeps into the conference room with the air of Louis XIV’s most trusted advisor entering the Hall of Mirrors, minus some fur, velvet and ostrich feathers.  He has just been talking with the Chief Executive, he informs us, basking in the great admiration he can see stirring within us on being reminded of his immense importance.  The Government is gently confirming that prominent citizens will display suitable levels of enthusiasm for the Green Paper on political reform,
due out today.  After months of promising a choice of three models for implementing universal suffrage, complete with timetables, the powers that be have recently and mysteriously changed course.  The consultation document will now contain a smorgasbord of alternatives for each nut and bolt of a theoretically more democratic structure.  Am I alone in detecting the hidden hand of Beijing, slapping the Big Lychee’s officials a bit – and not for the first time – for getting carried away and devising concrete proposals?  “You idiots,” the grim Putonghua voice on the phone would have said, “the idea is to drag everything out with a green paper designed to ensure that nothing remotely close to a consensus can possibly emerge.” Oops.  Yes sir.  And into the bin go the three options.
Thurs, 12 July
Hong Kong is gripped with excitement as it digests the
Green Paper on Constitutional Development.  Not even the severing of a link with history – the death of Lady Bird Johnson at the age of 94 – distracts us from the 61-page main document and the 1,200 pages of submissions from the public and the hundreds of pages more of detailed opinions and proposals.   There is a special landfill somewhere in the New Territories dedicated to responses from well-meaning folk to Government consultations.  Despite their hefty contribution to the physical mass of the package, no suggestions from outsiders have been incorporated in the actual Green Paper.

Nor is there much sign of the three concrete proposals with timetables Donald Tsang was promising until just weeks ago.  Instead, officials have trawled the tedious wrangling that went on in the Commission on Strategic Development and assembled three vague options that loosely reflect in turn the preferences of the pro-democrats, the pro-Beijing camp and some sort of middle way.  They have then cut them up into half a dozen separate topics such as what year to introduce reform, how many people to have on the Chief Executive nominating committee, what to do with functional constituencies, and so on.  Allowing for various sub-options as well, there are nearly 500 possible permutations from which the community can choose its consensus.
During the coming three months, the pro-democrats and the pro-Beijing crowd will go through the list and construct the respective proposals they like.  Then, nothing will happen until after the September 2008 Legislative Council elections, apart from a gradual increase in smears, scandals, innuendo, ridicule and taunting designed to undermine pro-democracy lawmakers’ appeal to voters.  A reform bill with ‘gradual and orderly’ written all over it will then be produced, offering a clear step forward to a quasi-universal suffrage that allows the people to vote, but only for the ‘correct’ type of candidate. 

The pro-Beijing legislators will do whatever they are told.  For example, if Beijing sees a point in abolishing functional constituencies, those vested interests will obediently vote their seats out of existence.  Only the pro-democrats, if they survive with over 33 percent of the votes in Legco, will be in a position to influence things, and even then only by threatening to veto the reform package if they consider it too conservative, leaving the status quo intact.  Democracy can safely be ruled out, but much tempestuousness, skullduggery, abuse and other entertainment awaits us as a result of this bland and virtually pointless Green Paper.
Fri, 13 July
An early morning stroll around IFC Mall, reveals the
Good Book being displayed with pride at Dymocks, wedged between a collection of Larry Feign’s cartoons – I’m more of a Gavin Coates man – and Chris Patten’s East and West, the commendable rubbishing of ‘Asian values’ that Rupert Murdoch refused to publish.  Looking down a few shelves to the left, I see Steve Tsang’s A Modern History of Hong Kong, which covers 1841 to 1997, and of which the Good Book’s section on Further Reading says…
While it would be pleasant to read books all day, I must content myself with the South China Morning Post, which reports China’s ongoing problems with suboptimal quality consumer goods.  Babies’ milk formula made of chalk dust.  Toothpaste containing antifreeze.  Dog food that kills dogs.  And Thomas the Tank Engines with lead paint.  Mainland factories churn them out faster than embarrassed auhtorities can send food and drug officials to the firiing squad.  But we need to keep things in perspective – and I don’t just mean giving the inventor of poisonous dog food a medal.  Does a bit of cardboard in your dim sum really do any harm?

A few decades back, when I was attending the old convent school, we would have been sorely tempted by dumplings filled with steaming recycled paper and pig meat.  Our fate at mealtimes was such delights as ‘egg pie’ made of a shiny, rubbery orange substance that had drips of sweat forming on its skin, sodden cabbage boiled in such a way that the aroma carried for miles and lingered for weeks, and grayish-white puddings that, looking back, we can now see were trial runs for foodstuffs coloured with chalk and stiffened with diethylene glycol.  Even the gruel served in Oliver Twist’s workhouse was apparently worth a second helping.  We asked for
less, but were compelled to spoon our whole servings into our mouths, squeeze our eyes tightly shut, hold our noses and swallow – and then grip our little hands and stare upwards in an attempt to keep it down.  The sick Nazi nuns that watched over us and forced us to thank the Lord for so kindly providing this fare insisted that there were starving children in other lands who would be glad for what was on our plates.  However hard we prayed for these poor wretches to turn up as our guests, they never did.  But we survived and became the well-balanced, productive and sweet-natured individuals that we are.  So that’s enough whining about a bit of cardboard in a bun.