Hemlock's Diary
27 July-2 August, 2008
Mon, 28 Jul
Sun Weijia, China’s Olympics media boss, provides the
South China Morning Post with the most incisive and thought-provoking explanation I have yet read for the highly entertaining scuffling that broke out on Friday between Beijing police and Hong Kong journalists covering chaotic ticket sales…
This augers well for those of us who are dreading the prospect of the news being taken over for two weeks by tedious runners, jumpers, swimmers, tiddlywinkers and high heel-wearing 6ft 8in tall giantesses prancing around a stadium.  I was thinking of retreating into a cave to get away from it all – the absurdly serious athletes, grimly dedicated to performing nonsensical physical feats, the buffoonish judges with their blazers, tape measures and clipboards, and the unquestioning spectators, obediently obsessed by the whole charade of opening ceremonies, medals and anthems.

But there is a glimmer of hope that something interesting might happen during this bloated event.  The comparison with the 1936 Games, blatantly used to showcase a tyrannical ideology, will surely be in the minds of the thousands of overseas media when they finally get their Chinese visas (currently being delayed to keep reporters’ time in-country to a minimum).  Then there were the expressions of dissent in 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated and the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia, respectively prompting black power salutes from American sprinters and a bitter turning of the head during the Soviet anthem by a Czech gymnast.  Then, in 1972, there was the deadly terrorist attack on the Israeli team. 

Islamist mayhem, an outbreak of Tibetan flags, an invasion of radioactive man-eating algae, the press relations skills of Beijing’s finest – there is always hope.
Tue, 29 Jul
No fewer than four of Hong Kong’s most popular moveable annual feasts coincide – a sign, like a rare alignment of heavenly bodies, that the Gods are paying special attention to the Big Lychee at the moment. 

The first is the attainment of the highest ever pollution levels since records began.  This usually takes place around July or August, though it has also occurred during Winter.  Local custom among many more prosperous residents is to pontificate loudly about leaving the city, only to calm down when the Inland Revenue Department hurriedly sends out the financial year’s salaries tax bills, and people work out what they would be paying in Singapore – and little Johnny’s asthma doesn’t seem so bad after all.  Poorer citizens, apart from the small number that
die, take it all in their proud, traditional Hong Kong stride.
The second is the unveiling of the latest exciting privileges to be extended to Hong Kong businesses under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement.  Out of the kindness of its own heart, Beijing lifts yet another array of protective barriers from its domestic companies, so Hong Kong players – who mysteriously ceased to be capable of standing on their own feet after 1997 – can make lots of money over the border.  Even as authoritative a source as Reuters proclaims that CEPA has created thousands of jobs, so we ignore cynics who say the ‘new’ jobs would have happened anyway and jump up and down with astonished delight at the thought that the Chinese authorities are so willing to damage their much poorer Mainland subjects’ economic interests just for us.

Number three is the ever-popular re-appearance of former Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung, everyone’s favourite, slightly dotty, spinster aunt.  The patriotic blue-stocking crops up every 12 months or so in a guise that is new, yet, on reflection, tailor-made for her.  One year the black hair-dye brigade appoint her to an important-sounding body with a very long name and a mostly Pinyin-styled membership, the next she sits on the committee to organize the funeral of a patriotic tycoon.  This year, she receives Chief Executive Donald Tsang in her capacity as
Mayor of the Olympic Village – where right-of-abode problems now surely loom.

Fourth is the announcement by the Hong Kong Police of the first tireless Traffic Warden to achieve his or her annual quota of parking tickets issued.  The honour this year goes to Mr KW Lam, who slapped his second fixed penalty notice of the year on a car in Central yesterday.  He will, apparently, be pacing himself for the rest of 2008, strolling up and down the Mid-Levels Escalator, but his Supervisor eagerly stresses that Lam has, on several occasions in his decade-long career, finished the year having written out no fewer than three tickets.
Wed, 30 Jul
Like a snake consuming its own tail, a line of people wraps itself completely around all four corners of a block in Central this morning, with no apparent beginning or end.  What are they queuing at the Wing On Building/old Hang Seng Bank HQ for?  Could it be a department store sale luring the poverty-stricken masses across the harbour with the promise of a few bucks off an essential item or two in exchange for camping out on bare concrete all night?  (Are such events co-organised by a cynical alliance of evil capitalists and pro-grassroots activists – the former getting free publicity for their store, the latter embarrassing the Government through a bit of pro-welfare street theatre?  Maybe I read too much into these things.)
Or could it be a McDonalds promotion, in which thousands of grown men and women buy 900-calorie burger-fries-and-Coke Fun Meals and chuck them away to qualify for the free Hello Kitty plastic doll?  Or could it be that all those Government announcements and stickers urging us to become fascinated with equestrian sports like eventing have worked, and millions are snapping up tickets for the horse air pollution endurance trials to be held soon up in sunny Shatin, gateway to the north.  It is hard not to notice a Bank of China branch – a big one – occupying much of the building.  So could it be these people are all being paid by dealers hoping to make a quick profit to stand in line for more limited-edition Olympic banknotes?  Maybe the Stampede Panic Crushed Corpses Disaster Carnage Mayhem reports will let us know in due course.

YESTERDAY’S CEPA signing is greeted with the usual disappointed mumbling, as doctors, accountants and other groups look at the small print and see the concessions allowing them to open up shop in Guangdong Province are of little practical benefit.  Not so
our little Disneyland, which has been given a juicy free lunch – a McDonalds Fun Meal to the Nth degree – in the form of exclusive access to the millions of migrant workers living in Shenzhen.  The ragged sweatshop fodder, not usually allowed out of the Mainland, will be transported over the border in Lenin-style sealed trains (or something) to pay homage to the Mouse that Ate Western Civilization.  After spending their Renminbi (profit from which will end up on Disney’s bottom line in Burbank, Ca) they will go back to their factory dormitories.  No other Hong Kong tourist attraction or merchants will get a look-in.  Disney paid only a tenth of the Hong Kong taxpayer’s contribution of HK$25 billion to build the park, and of course paid none of the estimated opportunity cost of the land of up to HK$290 billion.  If I were a shareholder, I would also call it a magic kingdom.
Thurs, 31 Jul
They are still there.  The world’s first and only single-file, rectangular refugee camp in the central business district of an international financial centre is still occupying the sidewalk.  Have they been there 24 hours?  Or 36?  Or are they newcomers, still fresh after just one night camping out on the street?  The evidence suggests that they are indeed Mainland visitors being paid by Hong Kong speculators to line up for the famous limited-edition Olympic banknotes – or Hong Kong students being paid by Mainland speculators.  Something like that.
Then again, they could be employers of foreign domestic helpers rushing to maximize their benefits from the two-year suspension of the Employees Retraining Levy on overseas maids.  By firing the amah now, re-hiring her tomorrow and then repeating the process in 23.9 months, the employer can avoid paying the levy over a period of just under four years.  This equates to a saving of around HK$18,000 – though processing fees and other overheads will bite into this.  In any case, all employers will save HK$9,000 whatever they do.

I wouldn’t have thought a middle-class family would find all the extra form-filling and other hassles worth it for what might work out at a return of about HK$250 a month, and, since great minds think alike, the officials who have thus far handled this saga so skillfully feel the same way.  But we may be overlooking one simple fact – the very thought of missing an opportunity to get something at below its normal price makes most Hong Kong people break out in hives. Aficionados of stampeding penny-pinching herds can probably look forward with glee to a rush of firings and re-hirings not only in the coming month but again in July 2010.   Indeed, to imagine otherwise would be as absurd as… believing China meant it when it promised
not to censor the Internet during the Olympics.

And the fun won’t stop there.  At some stage in the distant future – June 2012, in fact – an incoming new Chief Executive will, in effect, reimpose the levy on these adoring, financially prudent, middle-class citizens.  (Unless the spoilsports scrap it.  Essentially a pay cut for maids, the levy was never more than a populist, borderline racist diversion intended to placate the swelling ranks of unskilled unemployed at the height of Tung Chee-hwa’s misrule.)  In the meantime, we can await an even more entertaining episode in September 2009 when the 12-month, HK$300-a-month electricity subsidy comes to an end.  Millions of people, including the less well-off for whom HK$300 is a big deal, will squeal with outrage at a sudden hike in electricity prices.  But I’m sure our visionary leaders have thought it all through.
Fri, 1 Aug
“Can’t stop – this year’s Escalator Safety Ambassadors are hot!”  Wild American friend Odell rushes past me near Exchange Square en route to the MTR station, where he will leer at the public housing estate bunnies in their provocative pink uniforms and shiny sashes, seductively urging commuters to grip handrails firmly and refrain from hopping on one foot while gliding to and from the subterranean platforms.  This city has something for everyone.
Arriving at the top floor of S-Meg Tower, I find an industrialist-cum-Legislative Council member and his son sitting in the reception area.  It is FC, who represents companies like ours and is seeking re-election in September.  He has come to shoe-shine the Big Boss, who has two – or is it three? – of the several hundred votes in the constituency.   He gets up and greets me with a “Wah! Hemlock,” as if I were a privileged member of this small circle.  His youthful ‘campaign manager’ offspring follows us over to the reception desk and passes his father some glossy brochures featuring photos of the candidate and a rather brief list of his achievements in Legco in the past.  I get one, as does the politely bemused receptionist. 
Halfway down the Private Office, Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary rises from her desk and sniffs the air.  She strolls across the slightly faded carpet in our direction.  It can only mean one thing – she has smelt a free gift.  Sure enough, as she approaches, FC’s heir produces a clutch of little black boxes with the Legco logo embossed on them in gold.  It is the sort of thing the Legco Secretariat orders at the end of the financial year to use up its budget, and we all get one before our own number-one son comes to escort FC to his father.

In the gwailo’s lair, I put the box on my desk.  I can always use an extra pen, and this is probably a nice one.  But when I open it and peel the tissue paper away, my heart sinks.  It is a brass… thing.  A three-inch, slightly curled, flat piece of metal, with a hook at one end and a flat plate with the Legco logo.  Is it for opening envelopes?  Too blunt.  A ludicrously over-designed bookmark?  Hardly the right shape.  A cocktail stick?  A tongue scraper?  Something you rub on the inside of someone’s mouth to get a DNA sample?  The Filipino elves will love it.
FC, like the Big Boss, is essentially decent.  He does whatever kowtowing is necessary with his little electorate here and with anyone who is anyone up in Beijing.  But he doesn’t let his wealth or position go to his head and delude him into thinking he is some sort of expert.  And he certainly would never let his New China connections and old China ancestry lead him down that murky path to arrogant, hubristic triumphalism that borders on xenophobia.  Unlike some other members of Hong Kong’s business community, who – despite their overseas schooling, properties and passports – seem to harbour a detectable anti-Western impulse.  Maybe they were bitten by a gwailo when they were kids.  Which leads us rather neatly to FEER’s recent encounter with the bumptious Ronnie Chan at a local gathering of the Asia Society.   In all fairness to him, Ronnie has made an important contribution to the battle against wacko conspiracy theories.  If the Trilateral Commission is an evil, dangerous organization full of cunning geniuses secretly running the globe, would they really invite him along?
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