Hemlock's Diary
18-24 January, 2009
Mon, 19 Jan
The number-four man in the Politburo
declares that China must “Build a line of defence to resist Western two-party and multi-party systems, bicameral legislature, the separation of powers and other kinds of erroneous ideological interferences.”  Perhaps his chubbiness Jia Qinglin could read a little more about the subject.  John Locke and John Stuart Mill, perhaps.  The Western idea is to give government as little power as possible, with checks and balances, in order to protect the people’s liberty.  At the other end of the scale is concentration in one place of authority over everything, in order to control the population as the property of the ruler and state.  And obviously that’s the last thing on your mind if – like Jia – you are Chairman of a thing called the People’s Political Consultative Conference.  But he was trained as an electrical engineer, and his studies probably drew mainly on the work of non-erroneous barbarians like Newton and Faraday.
Perhaps the Enlightenment is seeping into the Middle Kingdom in a disorderly and piecemeal fashion.  Adam Smith, after all, was invited in as an honoured guest just 30 years ago.   Yet barely a century and a half before, the Qing dynasty was declaring that the Celestial Empire must “Build a line of defence to resist clocks, steam railways and the second law of thermodynamics.”  And that failed just as totally as the Ming dynasty’s much-vaunted stone fortification had against the Manchu army two centuries earlier. 

How will the heroic struggle against the invasion of the evil and vicious bicameral legislature come to an end?  Will the glorious motherland unite and succeed in repelling the assault by the horrific and rapacious independent judiciary?   Or will disaster strike and the Middle Kingdom be mercilessly raped, pillaged and crushed under the brutal heel of legislative oversight?

I have no idea.  All I know is that Locke recognized that citizens have responsibilities as well as rights when he wrote that the “ruling body, if it offends against natural law, must be deposed.”

Maybe Jia has read him after all!
Tue, 20 Jan
Morgan Stanley has forecast HSBC’s share price to go down to HK$52.  Goldman Sachs says HK$49.  Are the masters of the universe who work at these venerable institutions displaying dazzling insight with this Dutch auction?  Or are embittered quack analysts, humiliated by the descent of their gold-plated investment banks into the plain everyday variety, acting like a bunch of jealous, resentful schoolgirls desperate to ruin a more demure rival?  If HSBC’s dividends halve this year as bitchy brokers foresee, we are still talking about a 6% yield at HK$57 (opening price today), give or take any self-fulfilling/self-interested element in the prophecies.

Over at the HSBC Online
website for a routine transaction, life seems to be carrying on as usual.  I notice a peculiar banner ad promoting the bank’s tax loans.  The interest rate of 0.12% grabs my eye – not because its sounds low (the statutory small print gives a truer, annualized picture), but because the designer seems to have portrayed the zero, one and two as being carved out of firm, solid lumps of nicely marbled beef.
I see a semi-subliminal marketing campaign aimed at the indolent, undisciplined (and easily influenced) wastrels who cannot save enough money during the year to pay Hong Kong salaries tax.  These pitiful wretches, after 12 months of impulse-buying flat screen TVs and spa treatments, now face household budget cuts, including the adoption of a cheaper, duller, mostly vegetarian diet.  Thanks to the benevolence of the consumer finance industry and this exciting HSBC WhizzBang® loan, this advertising promises, you can render unto the Inland Revenue Department that which is theirs and still have enough cash to stuff your face with vast, 36-ounce, 6,000-calorie steaks.   Let all your financial worries trickle away like glistening streams of unsaturated fats running down your chin!

Can any wastrel resist?  That 6% yield’s in the bag.

Wed, 21 Jan
Chief Executive Donald Tsang
introduces the new non-executive members of the Executive Council with the assurance that, “Their professional knowledge and rich experience in public service will no doubt help the SAR Government formulate policies as responsive as they are visionary.”  This does not augur well for the responsiveness.
They are…
- Lau Wong-fat GBM, GBS, OBE, JP, Chairman of the New Territories’ Heung Yee Kuk mafia since 1898.  Last seen wrecking Liberal Party candidates’ chances in the September 2008 Legislative Council election by canvassing for the other pro-Beijing party. 
- Professor Lawrence Lau Juen-yee, Chinese U Vice-Chancellor and all-purpose pro-Beijing official appointment whore.
- Anna Wu, token moderate pro-democrat.  Essentially ejected from chairmanship of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2003 for suing the Government for having a sexist schools admissions policy, then given appointment at Li Ka-shing’s university in Shantou.  Now being readmitted to polite society.  Married to SCMP columnist Frank Ching.
- Marjorie Yang, boss of Esquel textiles group, founded by her Shanghainese father – a convicted horse-race fixer who escaped jail by feigning illness.  Corporate social responsibility fan.  ‘Margie’ to her friends, such as actress (and fellow ex-wife of tycoon Dickson Poon) Michelle Yeoh.  Will bring a touch of desperately needed glamour to the proceedings.
- V Nee Yeh, famous for founding Value Partners, fund managers who caught the turn-of-the-century China boom just right, and for eating just one meal a day.
Owing to the body’s confidentiality and collective responsibility rules, it is hard to say how much influence the non-bureaucrats in our quasi-cabinet are ever permitted over policy formation in this Government of former civil servants.  All we can be sure of is that Sir Bow-Tie is not known for his deep interest in or respect for opinions that are not his own, and with the appointments taking effect as of now, a sudden and vivid transformation in the quality of decision-making should be easy enough to spot.
Thurs, 22 Jan
An excited email informs me that the Appalachian members of the Hemlock clan obtained ‘golden’ seats at Barack Obama’s inaugural two days ago.  Not only were they among the select few who managed to squeeze inside the Beltway, but they had chairs to sit on, no less, while the new President uttered words of sufficient wisdom to prompt censors in Beijing to excise a few before letting the Chinese people read them. 

Just one day before, I, too, had the privilege of witnessing a great moment in oratory – Chief Executive Donald Tsang
opening the Asian Financial Forum, at which it was my great privilege to represent the Big Boss.  As is invariably the case when Hong Kong senior officials speak before an international audience, Sir Bow-Tie dispensed quickly with the humdrum goings-on in the big world out there and got down the subject that truly most fascinates everyone – why the Big Lychee Economic Production Zone is wonderful and has a magnificent future and we are desperate for you to believe it.
Although I know them off by heart by now, I never tire of hearing the rhetorical flair, inspiring imagery and catchy sound bites our leaders employ when preaching this sermon.  If it were left to me, I would sum up the first part by announcing, “The rest of China wasn’t run by the British, so everything’s crap up there.”  But who would sit up and take notice at such a quick and earthy delivery?  Instead, we are lulled almost into reverie by the near-hypnotic recital of the world’s freest economy, free trade, blah blah, convertible currency, low taxes, blah blah, legal system, talent.  Seventh – yes, seventh – largest stock market in the Solar System!

As even the most caffeine-drenched conference attendees felt their eyelids starting to droop under the spell of this seductive prose, Donald quickened the pace a bit by turning to the ever-riveting Pearl River Delta.  Renminbi settlement, powerhouses, zzzzzz, Central Government development plan, cooperation, zzzzz, collaboration, integration, co-operation, zzzzz, joint planning, logistics, tourism, conventions and exhibitions.  All I could manage, if I had to pronounce on this theme, would be something prosaic to the point of being slightly depressing.  “Our people make a ton of money over the border,” I would say, “and we in Government have to be careful.  Mainland officials are corrupt, they’re jealous of us, they’re after our reserves, and we don’t trust them an inch.  But we have to pretend we really like them.”   

And I don’t think I could ever match the genius of our bureaucrats and produce four paragraphs – accounting for some 15% of the whole discourse – on Islamic banking, Shariah-compliant investments and visits to Dubai.  I would probably sigh at the very thought of the lame, 10-year-old financial fad cornered long ago by London and Malaysia and dwindling in importance along with Arabs’ oil revenues.  “We don’t give a damn about this
Sukuk mumb-jumbo,” I would admit.  “It’s just the money world’s equivalent of organic food in supermarkets, selling overpriced products indistinguishable from the normal variety to appease a bunch of self-righteous pedants.”  Imagine the headlines if our visionary leader gave such a barefaced homily.  ‘Usury is OK, live with it, HK’s Tsang tells Muslims’.

Just as one slight flaw enhances the beauty of a woman’s face, nothing boosts the credibility of the ‘Hong Kong is brilliant, honest!’ speech like a closing admission of imperfection.  “Rising unemployment,” Sir Bow-Tie intoned, “is one of the biggest risks to economic recovery at the moment.”
It is a thought-provoking comment.  Why not put it the other way round and say that economic recovery would threaten rising unemployment?  But I always forget that the Big Lychee is a world where wet streets cause rain.  A strong economy raises property prices, therefore, push property prices up artificially, and we have a strong economy!  Of course, it doesn’t work anywhere on planet Earth.  But who cares about that place?

SOUTH China Morning Post treats its readers to a review of a steakhouse in elegant Lan Kwai Fong called Dakota Prime.  “About HK$1,000 per person for a three-course meal without drinks,” culinary journo Susan Jung reports, “and before adding the service charge.”  At first, the photo of the glistening fare looks exactly the same as all those other close-up, gastro-porn, PR-hype shots pretentious new restaurants insist on producing.  On closer inspection, however, I find that this new place offers something truly unique.  The meat is served already chewed!  This I must try.
Fri, 23 Jan
In the spirit of these roaring, booming, anything-goes times, when new restaurants specialize in HK$1,000-a-plate pre-masticated steak, today’s
South China Morning Post comes with an insert for something lavishly luxurious and overpriced.  The bulky brown envelope reads ‘The Cullinan – Your Jewel in the Crown’ and triples the weight of the paper, as would be expected from a product named after the largest raw diamond ever found.  But what is it they are actually trying to sell?
A flick through the glossy brochure within suggests a struggle between forces normally and naturally given to extreme tackiness and devoted defenders of restraint and taste.  The latter, it goes without saying, lost.  According to the blurb on the first page, the product is aimed at the Metro Sophisticate – who, judging from the description, is a well-travelled, tree-hugging, pro-democracy, internationalist type who collects ethnic rugs and is good at pub quizzes.
However, after sifting through pages of pretentious fluff about art, design and wine and photos of watches, caviar and investment banks, it becomes apparent that the target market is altogether different.  For The Cullinan is none other than Sun Hung Kai Property’s Kowloon Station Development Package 6 – the grotesque twin slabs looming over the harbour just west of the 184-storey ICC monstrosity.  While most of the nonsensical copy is in English, the important bits are summarized in Chinese (not simplified, which would perhaps be a bit obvious). 

So the Metro Sophisticates at which the unlovely, tombstone-like towers are aimed are presumably the brash new millionaires from the Mainland who love the motherland so much that they feel a deep need to transfer and recycle as much wealth as they can beyond its shores.  Or at least that was the plan several years ago.  Now, just as SHKP is putting the development on the market (“access to 5,600 parking spaces!”) the timing must look less good.  Two Metro Sophisticates were
sentenced to death yesterday for producing poisoned milk.

Getting to the last page of the hefty hype, I am delighted to find that the
SCMP has been generous enough to reveal the identities of the hacks who were given this tough assignment.  It couldn’t have been easy, having to grapple with the SHKP marketing crew demanding loud, Louis XIV glitz with lots of gold edging and pictures of baroque palaces to show prospective buyers what high-class joints these apartment blocks were.  Andrea, Mabel and John deserve the recognition.  Another valiant defeat in the Big Lychee’s mighty but one-sided battle between substance and style.

WITH THE office half empty as Cow Year approaches, I declare this five-day weekend open.
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