Hemlock's Diary
18-24 December 2005
Mon, 19 Dec
The mood on the Mid-levels Escalator this morning is vengeful.  What are we to do with the
hundreds of revolting, jet-setting Korean peasants arrested on Saturday for – among other things – attacking our pert, svelte women police constables with bamboo sticks?  Despite speaking from beneath several layers of lime and puce cashmere scarf, Mrs Chan the marketing manager voices a clear suggestion – hang the brutes in public at the Tamar site, simultaneously.  “Just the sort of logistical challenge our civil service excels at,” she notes.  “The whole point of hosting WTO here was to put Hong Kong on the map and help us recover from SARS wasn’t it?  What could be better?” 
Mr Wong the lawyer, who has a deep – some would say unwholesome – interest in corrective techniques, reminds us of a fascinating device used in England and her American colonies, namely the ducking stool.  “It was particularly effective in calming boisterous, troublesome and aggressive country folk,” he explains.  “We could dip them in the harbour, and maybe let members of the public do it in exchange for a donation to charity, like firing the noonday gun.”  Mr Wong warms to his theme and regales us with a description of how the British dispatched Indian mutineers by strapping them to the front of cannon. 

Being in a merciful and rehabilitative frame of mind as we count down the days before Christmas, I urge my fellow commuters to consider a more educational approach.  “We should put the thugs to work on a prison farm,” I tell them, “then make them sit in chains in street markets, trying to sell their produce at 10 times the price other stall holders are asking.  For this, they would receive 10 dollars a day, but they would have to pay for their food.  Their menu would have two options – Korean beef and rice for 25 dollars a bowl, or foreign beef and rice for 5 dollars.  Plus extra kimchee for good behaviour in economics classes.”
MEMORIES OF 85-cent-a-can San Miguel come flooding back.  Signs you’ve been in Hong Kong too long, number 3,962 – you see a letter in the South China Morning Post from Hilton Cheong-Leen and blurt out, “God – he’s still alive?”  How many people today even recognize the name of Mr Cheong-Leen or his Hong Kong Civic Association?  How many know that he founded the Association back in the 1950s, well before normal, regular people were even born, and decades before it became fashionable to start up locally focused political groups?  Who today knows that he called for the development of participatory politics – a bicameral system, no less – in  the early 60s, not to mention nine years’ compulsory schooling and mother-tongue teaching?  Who recalls that he was a member of the Legislative Council back in the days when it was all-appointed, and Chairman of the Urban Council, which went on to be abolished by Tung Chee-hwa for its disturbingly democratic composition?   And now here he is, 83 if he’s a day, proposing ever so sensibly and politely that we aim for universal suffrage in 2012.  Not just still alive – the thinking man’s David Akers-Jones!

Tue, 20 Dec
Government publicity campaign whore and Cantopop star
Leon Lai having failed to win the community over to the Chief Executive’s political reforms, a desperate Donald Tsang resorts to flattery, declaring pro-democracy legislators to be a pack of rabid, hashish-crazed hyenas with extra Y-chromosomes and attention deficit disorder. 

The long-awaited offer to reward democrats for their vote by phasing out appointments to District Councils within 10 years falls flat.  It is hard to believe that the Administration isn’t determined to see the package fail.  Why else would officials turn a petty gesture into a
plain infantile one by making the measure conditional on the package being passed? 

“Appointed seats were phased out once before by Chris Patten in 1994,” the opposition would say if they had the gumption to come up with decent soundbites, “how can you call phasing them out again by 2016 moving forward? 
[Sneers] This isn’t moving forward – it’s just scraping the mold off the existing system.”  [Soundbites drowned out by the howling and yelping of a dozen feral democrats bringing Sir Bow-Tie to the ground and sinking their fangs into his neck and soft underbelly]

Wed, 21 Dec
After screwing up the numbers the first time round, China’s head statistician puts down his abacus and announces that the Middle Kingdom overtook Italy to become the world’s sixth richest nation in 2004. 
But we’re still dirt poor, Beijing hastily assures us.  As achievements go, it is less than overwhelming.  It takes 1.2 billion Chinese to create as much wealth as 60 million hyper-efficient Italians.  Will the plucky Romans bounce back?  Who can forget the time Italy announced Il Sorpasso, when its GDP overtook the UK’s in 1987 after applying a certain Latin flair to the accounting?  A couple of decades later, and the UK’s economy is nearly a quarter bigger than Italy’s, though their populations are the same.  How must China feel, knowing that with 20 times the population, its GDP still lags behind that of Britain, a country where 87 percent of the working population suffer debilitating dental and sexually transmitted diseases and spend most of their waking hours drunk and fighting, wearing ugly nylon jackets and stuffing cheap chocolate bars into their faces?   It is hardly a cause for national pride.

WORLD Trade Organization Hong Kong Ministerial Meeting Christmas Song reaches number one in the Big Lychee hit parade.
Thurs, 22 Dec
I start the morning outside the Legislative Council building in Statue Square, observing the broom-wielding Nepalese street cleaners in their padded jackets and headscarves chasing after thick drifts of bitter-smelling, ashy dust being swept around the pavement by the dry, biting cold gusts of the Winter monsoon.  What
is this stuff?   Bending down to examine a grimy pile near the Members’ entrance, I find it is our Chief Executive’s political capital – exhausted, shredded and discarded. 

Spurned by the pro-democratic camp, Donald Tsang seeks an illusion of legitimacy in the company of the greasy haired, proletarian patriots of the DAB and the spineless and witless promoters of rule by inherited wealth of the Liberal Party.  Frosty, ritualized pronouncements of support from Beijing will only increase his pain.  Long overdue reforms of our tax, health care, welfare and planning systems will remain politically unfeasible, daily reminders to everyone of the impotence of Donald Tsang and – for the nostalgic among us – the long, dark, declining days of Tung Chee-hwa. 

Naturally inclined to look on the bright side, I ponder the amusing nature of unintended consequences.  Lawmakers last night voted 34 in favour and 24 against the Government’s
motions on the electoral methods for 2007-08.  Why did Basic Law drafters decide that constitutional amendments would need a two-thirds majority in the legislature?  Not simply to discourage needless meddling – but to make it virtually impossible for dangerous pro-democracy measures to pass.  Like the pro-DAB-rigged election system that delivered Long Hair into Legco, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  A little irony never fails to warm the heart at this time of the year.
“SO YOU see,” I conclude, “Beijing has a choice – either they can let Hong Kong stagnate, or they have to give us a political structure that works.”  That’s the essence of my explanation to wild American friend Odell about the importance of last night’s vote, as we sip on our low-fat carrot, sorghum and jojoba yoghurt in the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee.

“Yeah, fascinating,” the ex-Mormon says, “but what I really want to know is, who sings this song they’re playing right now – I’m hearing it everywhere.”  The opening bars of Hong Kong’s biggest Yuletide hit in decades come over the sound system, and he insists on joining in.  “Those nuts over in Wanchai,” he croons, “pepper spray dripping from their nose..”

Looking around in embarrassment, I hurriedly shut him up.  “That’s
The WTO Christmas Song by Steve James and the Kowloon Karaoke Quintet,” I tell him.  “Who would’ve thought a song with such thought-provoking, politically aware lyrics would make it to number one?  And people say Hongkongers aren’t mature enough for democracy!”
Fri, 23 Dec
‘…when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.’   The Foreign Correspondents Club is silent this pre-Yuletide morning, save for the rustle of the
Asia Wall Street Journal’s rugged, no-nonsense pages.  And a quiet groan.  It’s that day again – the day every year when the Journal publishes its immensely tiresome In Hoc Anno Domini editorial, penned in 1949 by the late Vermont Royster, frequent winner of the Conservative Journalist Who Most Sounds Like A Seafood Chowder Award during the Cold War era.  When I first read it (15 years ago?) I was impressed.  But its quasi-Biblical style gets more wearisomely pious with each reading.  On a brighter media note, The Economist’s annual double issue – the ultimate brain candy – came out yesterday.  All I need is that, a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, a selection of chocolate, marzipan, crystallized fruit and real lokum with cardamom and nuts, and a warm cave where no-one can find me – and my Christmas is complete.

Administrative Officer Winky Ip sits herself down opposite me – today, as sullen as she is shapely.  I don’t think I have ever seen her in such a bad mood.  “That bastard!” she hisses.  “And those bloody turncoats!”  I try to calm her down by pouring tea for her and putting on my best I-feel-your-pain face.  The villains are respectively Bishop Zen, who loudly declared that the political reform emperor had no clothes, and the Article 45 Concern Group, who had promised to support Sir Bow-Tie’s proposals but didn’t.   With the DAB’s Ma Lik and the Liberals’ odious James Tien lamenting this week’s Government defeat as a tragic setback to democracy, it is obvious the package was a con.  A finely crafted and clever bit of constitutional cosmetics.  But to our senior officials, the bureaucratic and political time and effort devoted to it made it imperative in their minds that the project succeeded.  They are like the British officer in
Bridge Over The River Kwai who can’t bear to see his own side destroy the structure he built for the enemy.  I consider offering this analogy to Winky, but decide that there are better ways to start the holiday weekend than with a bowlful of chicken congee trickling down my face.
“I think the public realizes Donald did his best,” I tell her, apparently convincingly. “If it’s any consolation, the whole thing is a bit of a sideshow.”  I explain the Hemlock Analysis…

Consider three points.  One, Beijing, not Hong Kong, decides our political structure.  Two, the Government’s package was designed to keep the current structure intact.  Three, the current structure is broken and will have to be changed if we are to solve long-term problems like tax reform and land policy, without which the Big Lychee will under-perform economically, which China does not want.  So, sooner or later, Beijing will unilaterally decide to give Hong Kong a more effective system of governance.

How?  It can go two ways.  It can follow its ‘executive-led’ instincts and make the legislature, the courts, the civil service and the media into arms of the ruling party.  But that would be a disaster here.  We don’t have a Singapore-style lobotomized middle class. It would mean throwing people in prison, local and international uproar – it won’t happen   Alternatively, the black hair dye brigade up in Zhongnanhai can decide to broaden the local political base by co-opting more of the middle class into the power structure.  Say, in 2012.  Which is why, if political factions were listed on the stock market, now would be the time to accumulate shares in the Article 45 Concern Group – led by Ronnie Tong, who, just this morning on the radio, solemnly expressed his deep concern that Hong Kong’s political situation might affect Taiwan’s reunification with the motherland.. 

Winky sits still, deep in thought.  She seems struck by my argument, admiring my logic, persuasiveness and intellect.  Perhaps also fantasizing about children fathered by such a man.  I glance discreetly up at the walls.  I sense a mistletoe moment.