Hemlock's Diary
3-9 August, 2008
Mon, 4 Aug
Political appointees in their 20s seeing their salaries rise from HK$30,000 to HK$130,000.  The Great Under-Secretaries’ Foreign Passports Carnage Scandal Horror of 2008.  The highly entertaining suspension of the levy on foreign maids, in which the Government all but advised employers to take advantage of a loophole.  The Leadership Ineptness List goes on and on, offering Hong Kong’s pro-democrats lots of buttons that, when pushed, produce screeches of outrage from voters as next month’s Legislative Council election approaches.  On top of that, there are localized sensitivities to inflame, like the minimum wage and health care finance reform for the working and middle classes respectively.  And now, the forces of righteousness and good receive more ammunition on a plate – the hiring of former housing official Leung Chin-man by one of the property developers who benefited to the tune of billions – at public expense – from his decisions.  The
Standard’s ever-amusing ‘Mary Ma’ leaps to his defence on the grounds that officials who use discretionary powers to grant developers the chance to make an extra HK$3.2 billion have rights too.  (In colonial times, they went back to the UK.)  Any mention of Leung’s name in the same breath as the word ‘collusion’ should bring a few more voters out on 7 September.
With at least three pro-democracy groups fighting for the same votes in each geographic constituency, a big turnout will be important.  But do the Democrats, the Civic Party et al have the gumption, the flair, the wit and the audacity to go for the Government’s jugular and stir up the popular rage and desire for revenge that this string of official idiocies calls for?  No.  Much to the relief of their main opponents, who can bus obedient old patriots to the polling stations by the thousand, they will mumble, maybe blather about universal suffrage, mount silly photo-opportunities apparently aimed at children and hand out brochures full of inane slogans.  Pity, that.

WHY, I was once asked, are there railings along so many Hong Kong streets?  The answer is illustrated perfectly by a scene spotted in the Mid-Levels over the weekend.  They are to ensure that drivers don’t accidentally steer their vehicles at speed into the car parking spaces on the slightly raised platform that runs down each side of the road just in front of the shops.  All that is needed is an extra barrier of some sort to keep pedestrians out of these zones, but no doubt our visionary Transport Bureau is working on that.
Tue, 5 Aug
What structural reforms could politicians implement in order to boost the Hong Kong economy?  This is the question posed by Financial Secretary and Nobel Economics front-runner John Tsang at a recent talking shop. 
There exists a list of ideas, compiled by various eminent and objective thinkers, that is as relevant and compelling as it is dusty, faded, cobwebby, and determinedly ignored by the blinkered minds Beijing trusts to run the Big Lychee.  Scrap the high land-price policy, to open up business opportunities to a wider range of players beyond half a dozen tycoons.  Sort out the immigration system that attracts and keeps unemployable Mainlanders but keeps out hungry young talent from elsewhere.  Dismantle the cartels and jail the market-riggers.  Empower the poor by giving them ownership of their public housing units.  And on it goes – countless supply-side and deregulatory measures to open things up and unravel decades of corporatist distortions. 

And what does Tsang
tell his audience of Asia-Pacific government officials?  Abolish taxes on liquor to encourage the wine trade.   I have never been in a conference hall where dozens of senior policymakers from Papua New Guinea, Chile, Japan, Korea, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, etc, etc, etc, turn and look at each other slightly nervously, and silently ask, “What sort of retard scraps all taxes on alcohol?”  And I have missed my chance.  As if in answer to their mute query, Tsang also declares that fuel subsidies should be reviewed to “provide the right market signals to encourage the proper supply and demand.”  The same Tsang who is putting HK$300 of public money into everyone’s electricity accounts for each of the next 12 months.  What will they be saying about us when cabinets in Port Moresby, Santiago, Seoul and Ottawa next meet?
MEANWHILE, SOMETHING strange is happening among the ranks of brave and dedicated Pakistani Security Guards who guide and protect the life and property of everyone who comes and goes at S-Meg Tower, in the heart of Hong Kong’s gleaming central business district.  It started late last week, with an increase in numbers of smartly turned-out uniformed personnel and the discreet installation of extra cameras in certain lobbies and corridors.  Then, just a day after two Uighurs apparently killed 16 policemen in Xinjiang, fears of Muslim extremists using the Olympics as a tempting occasion for infidel-bombing prompt a major Hong Kong-style clampdown. 

Any Jihadist aiming to commit acts of outrage in this office block now has his work cut out for him.  Where there are two doors or entranceways, the less convenient must be used.  Where there are double doors, one must be locked.  Barrier tape, stretching between shiny poles, requires people to walk round apparently randomly chosen, forbidden spaces.  A bearded sentinel stands before one elevator (of no known consequence), directing people to others, while his colleague waves people past yet another invisible but highly sensitive spot.  As is always the case, anyone wanting to take the weight of a dynamite belt or other burden off his feet by sitting on the chair-height marble walls surrounding the plant display will be told it is not allowed – standing only.  The only terrorists that could get through it all would have to be Zen limbo dancers.  The rest will abandon their deadly mission as too irritating.

Thurs, 7 Aug
The mood on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning is one of anticlimax, as Hong Kong’s middle class emerge from their apartments after yesterday’s Number 8 storm signal only to find curiously little evidence that bad weather had struck.  Where are the satellite dishes ripped from their rooftops and wedged into the side of concrete buildings like wafers in ice cream?  Where are the Filipino domestic helpers dangling from the trees after being swept away while cleaning 38th-floor windows?  Where are the upturned cars blocking the roads, the small boats swept ashore and the giant reptiles washed down the hill from the woods? 

For the overseas press, the exotic-sounding Number 8 and the condescending Government warnings not to stand near windows make for irresistible copy. 
“The potential folly of holding the Olympic’s equestrian events in Hong Kong has become evident after a tropical cyclone lashed the territory, forcing the city into lock-down mode.” After a leisurely, pyjama-clad morning, I eventually dragged myself out of Perpetual Opulence Mansions in the afternoon and embarked on a mission through deserted streets to find out what was going on out there. 

The action was at 7-Eleven.  All 7-Elevens from Soho to Central, and no doubt the length and breadth of the Big Lychee, sheltered clusters of excited people – strangers drawn together by the need to get out of the house and head towards the one retail outlet they knew would be open.  Otherwise, the only souls adrift in the squall-blown district were the tourists, trudging past the shuttered-up shops clutching their dripping wet maps, seemingly unaware that this was not a normal day.

Even allowing for the uniquely blessed and charmed nature of the neighbourhood that invariably protects it from disastrous acts of God, it is tempting to wonder whether the decision to shut the city down for a whole day was to some extent a case of official meteorological Olympic nerves.  Ending up in the Dublin Jack – the sort of pub that remains open during earthquakes – thinking this a very civilized day off, I found myself pondering the chances of a few more stiff breezes and heavy showers over the next two weeks.  This could give the Olympics a good name.

Fri, 8 Aug
Around 4 billion people are expected to have so little to do in their lives that they will tune into this evening’s Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing.  It is hard to believe that two-thirds of the planet’s population is so zombie-like that they will obediently sit in front of a TV screen and watch a Chinese Communist Party Onan-a-thon as arranged by the Pyongyang Cirque de Soleil.  Presumably, such inflated estimates keep those ad revenues rolling in.
One of the many things we are all hyperventilating and frothing at the mouth about, apparently, is the identity of the athlete who will light the Sacred Crucible of the Invincible Thousand-Year Olympic Reich, or whatever they call it.  Informed sources confidently report that it will not be Yao Ming, the morose-looking genetic experiment bred of basketball-playing parents and stuffed with growth supplements to become a 7ft 6in freak for the glory of the Motherland.  Even China’s Olympic organizers feel that the grotesque fairground exhibit is getting enough publicity as it is.  Could it perhaps be Jin Jing, the girl in the wheelchair who protected the Holy Eternal Olympic Torch in Paris with a shrew-faced defiance that roused the patriotic spirit of 1.3 billion Chinese whose feelings were being hurt by pro-Tibet demonstrators?  Like other non-TV owners, I will be bashing my head against the wall in frustration at not being able to find out as it happens tonight.

On a brighter note, Hong Kong has failed in its bid to host the 23rd IOC Session in 2011.  If you took the Vatican, the European Commission, the World Economic Forum, the Freemasons and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and put them all in a blender and ground them up together, you still wouldn’t get the self-righteous, vain, megalomaniacal, ritualistic, cabalistic presumptuousness of the International Olympic Committee.  To accommodate this gathering of 10,000 buffoons in blazers, the Hong Kong taxpayer would have stumped up
HK$135 million, around two-thirds of which the extremely important sports officials would have spent in our luxury hotels – presumably pocketing the rest for themselves.  Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing said he was disappointed. What does it take to make him happy?
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