If you can’t beat them…

September 19th, 2014

Pro-democrats rubbing sore feet probably sigh with relief as Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Dept refuses the movement permission to use Victoria Park on SCMP-SuppressionOctober 1. The aim was to use the place as a starting point for what would be (I think) the third march since July 1. Perhaps officials are sending the pro-dems a message: overly frequent marches, inevitably accompanied by declining turnouts, are embarrassing and suggest a lack of imagination. The police are also fussing about the planned protest; meanwhile, officials are creating problems over other pro-dem activities outside the government’s Tamar HQ.

Rather than get into a major, morose huff about the unfairness of it all (that’s what the powers of darkness want), the pro-democrats should open their minds and come up with a creative answer: subversive guerilla street theatre. The LCSD says that the Victoria Park location has already been reserved for patriotic citizens celebrating National Day. Fine – turn up to that instead. Gatecrash it.

A couple of thousand joyful lovers of freedom and democracy would totally wreck the soulless and contrived United Front gathering. They could wear ‘Zombies for Communist Party’ T-shirts, sport masks (Gao Zhisheng? Bo Xilai? The sky’s the limit), carry placards (‘Be patriotic – support censorship’), hand out copies of the 1944 Xinhua editorial on democracy, and sing classic Mao-era hits like The Night Soil Collectors are Coming Down the Mountain. No need for such provocation as British colonial flags (though the Queen whose statue graces the park entrance would surely be amused). Mockery and hilarity are a hundred times more effective. Bring a picnic. Fun for all the family.

I declare the weekend open with the best bit: you won’t have to walk so much.

An 1830s selfie

An 1830s selfie

Just time for a quick Scotch

September 18th, 2014

At last – a Scottish resident of Hong Kong saying he supports independence from the UK. All the other North Britons I know in the Big Lychee think the idea is crazy. SCMP-YesPlease

On reading the South China Morning Post piece, I find that the author himself shared this view up until a mere three days ago. Then, the Westminster-establishment pols campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in today’s referendum collapsed into a heap of gibbering flailing wrecks begging to be given a second chance and issuing dire warnings of doom if Scotland splits away. That was, beyond doubt, a fairly vomit-inducing sight, but hardly scientific proof that secession would increase happiness and prosperity. I also see that he is an SCMP journalist, which suggests that the column is in fact a pro-Beijing United Front attempt to turn MI6’s local Anglos and Celts against one another, and thus undermine the plot to use Hong Kong to overthrow the Communist regime. (Note the over-clever Presbyterian-sounding stuff about selfishness.)

I guess it is not a coincidence that Scottish-registered voters living overseas are disenfranchised during this referendum. The more you see and know of the big wide world – of global trade, finance and power – the less appealing a future as a small, narrow-based economy is likely to look.

It is definitely not a coincidence that the Nationalist leaders of Scotland’s current administration have given 16- and 17-year-olds the vote for the referendum (and were even thinking at one stage of a voting age of 14). The fact the Nationalist government sees a need to bulk the electorate up with the less-experienced and less-educated speaks volumes.

On top of that, many countries would require a constitutional change of this magnitude to be passed by a significant (say 65%) majority, rather than risk a situation where 51% vote ‘Yes’ and 49% don’t want independence. That’s not a great way to start up a new nation-state in sweetness and harmony.

That Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and colleagues are this desperate to start up their own country should be a worry.

Both sides in the independence debate have been making sense, but on totally different levels. On the ‘Yes’ side, the argument is all about emotions and symbolism: idealism, optimism, hope, change – and more than a little extra equality and fairness to be funded by oil revenues gushing across the land. On the ‘No’ side, it’s all about currency and fiscal arrangements, national debt, interest rates, central banking, deposit insurance and trade relations. So you have smarmy Southerners and financiers lecturing irritable Glaswegians and starry-eyed school-kids about the bond markets.

The one point at which the two sides intersect is the National Health Service, worshiped throughout the UK, understandably, for delivering health care to everyone without – miraculously – costing anyone any money at all, ever. So mesmerized are the British by the NHS that they would happily sign up to becoming Ugandan or going back to Norman rule to preserve it. In any British election, whichever side scares the voters more about the opposition’s plans to reform the sacred 1948-era healthcare system has an automatic 10-point advantage.

Presumably, after having had their fun scaring the wits out of the over-centralizing bores in London, Scots will conclude that discretion is the better part of valour and vote for the Union.

For Hong Kong, there is a curious, partial echo of all this: the debate about whether pro-democrats should veto Beijing’s proposed framework for quasi-democratic elections. The arguments are on different frequencies – one driven by excitement, idealism and no little anger, the other by weariness, calculation and probably cynicism. That’s probably as far as the parallel goes.

Click to hear a tirade against Scottish rebels written by a famous UK Customs and Excise officer!

Click to hear a tirade against Scottish rebels written by a famous UK Customs and Excise officer!

Property bizarreness gets weirder

September 17th, 2014

The South China Morning Post’s ‘Public Eye’ column sort of echoes my point that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists would accomplish a lot more for the city if SCMP-SubHK$3mthey channeled their energy into protesting the damage poor governance does to people’s lives. Specifically, the systematic impoverishment of nearly everyone by property and related cartels…

When was the last time you saw [pro-dems] organise a mass protest against tycoons ripping off the people? Why aren’t they throwing bananas at officials to vent anger over tycoons demanding HK$2 million for 177 sq ft flats that buyers aren’t even allowed to see beforehand?

The SCMP has to turn the argument into a democrat-bashing exercise, leading to the obligatory claim that Occupy Central’s planned downtown sit-in will inflict immeasurable harm on the innocent public. (No traffic and maybe a day off – the horror!) But the main point is a valid one. The pan-dems’ usual response to this sort of charge seems to be that we need to get universal suffrage first: then solving cronyism and other wrongs will come naturally. But it has been nearly 30 years now.

The latest real-estate bubble is related to distant central banks’ money-printing, and former Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s determination to maximize developers’ profits by (among other things) curbing land supply. We can add ‘hot money’ from China and maybe Russia and elsewhere, as also seen in London, Vancouver and other cities. On top of that is the local investor psychology, which is cynically – but it has to be said easily – exploited by the property tycoons, helped by a silent and complicit bureaucracy. The drip-feeding of units onto the market and the high-pressure and scare-tactic sales practices wouldn’t work without the herd of zombies desperate to buy.

Big developers (with official blessing) have recently scrapped planned luxury projects in order to build much larger numbers of much tinier apartments. The way things are going, the only homes the middle class will have a hope of affording are ones that are literally too small to live in. Maybe, with an aging population and declining household size, the city will in future come to need a larger proportion of micro-flats in its housing stock. Or maybe we are on course for a situation where only the publicly housed poor and the top 10% of the rich will be allowed space to have kids. Our planning and other officials aren’t saying which.

In theory, the government could set much tighter controls on what developers produce; it could require that apartments be a minimum size and even a maximum price (with resale conditions, as with the Home Ownership Scheme). Instead, the Lands Department carries on as if it’s a private-sector, profit-maximizing real-estate auctioneer, while housing officials try in vain to cool things down with extra stamp duty. (Yes – one part of the government tries to make housing as expensive as possible, while another tries to make it cheaper.) If speculators were hording vital medicines or food during plague or famine, government would intervene, but the right to keep apartments empty while people live in cages is sacrosanct. Officials don’t even seem to have the curiosity to wonder what is ultimately better for the economy and indeed humanity: expensive or cheap housing? Instead (as in other world cities right now) the nearest thing to a coherent government-wide policy is to wring hands and wait for the bubble to burst.

It’s a long time coming, and lots of people are adamant that Hong Kong has years of rising property prices to come.

Even as it is, you have to wonder: who, exactly, is buying these apartments of 250 or 300 square feet at HK$3.5-4.5 million? Where have they come from? What are they expecting to happen? What do these people look like? It’s a genuine puzzle.

Strolling down my own street a few days ago, I saw the offerings in a real-estate agency window. An apartment in the same road is for sale. It is a small-to-medium size flat with a similarly sized (ie, quite large) balcony attached. In these respects, it is exactly the same size and layout as mine – at least before mine had certain, shall we say, modifications that transformed outdoor space into indoor in no uncertain manner. I bought my flat a bit over 20 years ago, before Soho and the Mid-Levels Escalator existed and the neighbourhood was a quiet old blue-collar quarter up the hill from Central. But even so… asking price in the agency window: 9.9 times what I paid for mine. As with all inexplicable phenomena, people try to come up with a rational explanation; in my district’s case, the latest is ‘renovation of the nearby Police Married Quarters as a creative hub’ (yeah, right, that’ll make a slum worth US$1.3 million).

Multiply that sort of thing citywide, and we surely have something that’s too absurd, too bizarre, to last and which cannot end happily. Meanwhile, a massive and unfair transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich carries on, and the nearest we have to sane people are demanding that the Chinese Communist Party allow opponents to run against it in elections.

Severe Tropical Storm hits Central, not many hurt

September 16th, 2014

I’ve heard of a dry cough, a dry county and a dry alcoholic. Now we have the dry typhoon. Kalmaegi (Korean for ‘day off’) swept in out of the Pacific over the weekend, wreaked the usual mayhem upon the Philippines, then made a determined beeline to Hainan, thus brushing Hong Kong and giving us the year’s first number 8 signal.

When we first felt the effects yesterday afternoon, there were some ‘squally showers’, meaning that the rain was fairly moderate but zipped past horizontally. Throughout much of the night – with a slightly TyphoonKalmaegilame, half-hour downpour at perhaps midnight – the HK Observatory’s ‘local forecast’ app predicted ‘insignificant’ precipitation most of the time. And sure enough, the usual storms we expect with a typhoon never came. The weather radar, which shows cloudbursts in real time, had Hong Kong Island shielded by an invisible protective bubble. Kowloon, Shatin and other, benighted, areas were less fortunate.

The HK Observatory played it by the book, giving everyone a few hours extra in bed this morning, despite the lack of any serious weather, at least on land. A quick stroll around at 9pm revealed confused tourists plodding the garbage-strewn, slightly damp but otherwise empty streets, like neutron-bomb survivors wondering if any other form of life made it (not counting 7-Eleven staff).

I did not escape unscathed, however. At least three times during the night, an invisible psychopath tried to break my front door in, while weird ghouls groaned around the apartment and beyond. It was a sudden shift in external atmospheric pressure, sucking the air out of the building.

At least, I think it was.

Now it’s actually raining a bit. They’re not seriously expecting everyone to go to work, are they?

A fight for the middle ground

September 15th, 2014

A South China Morning Post opinion poll shows an impressive degree of support among Hongkongers for a Legislative Council veto of Beijing’s proposed electoral reform package for 2016-17. At the same time, in their famous, irritatingly pragmatic way, the respondents overwhelmingly doubt that the pro-democracy Occupy Central campaign could lead Beijing to change its position. To further blur things, the poll suggests that the majority of voters, especially the uncommitted, might ‘pressure’ rebel lawmakers in some way (at the ballot box in 2016). It also shows a significant if unsurprising gap in opinion along lines of age/education.

This is an unequal struggle. The pro-dems mostly lose whatever happens (their fate following a veto is gloomy at best). The national/city government remains in full control either way. It’s almost a symbolic battle. And it will all come down to public opinion – that middle ground.

Those first two results of the poll are key. They suggest that the United Front’s over-the-top campaign of intimidation, haranguing, astroturfing and general freaking-out has provoked a broad backlash. To get 48% of Hongkongers (alongside 13% undecideds) to agree on an action that is controversial and implicitly bound to fail is no SCMP-HalfOfHKersmean feat. Benny Tai and the other Occupy folk should write to the Liaison Office to thank it for all the help.

To put it another way, if Beijing and its rottweilers had kept their heads down and put political reform in the hands of relatively comforting, familiar local bureaucrats and hangers-on, the pro-dems would now have less public support. If they know what’s good for them, Mainland officials will stop trying to instill fear and leave local counterparts to use time-proven techniques of (relatively) warm-and-cuddly public persuasion to get the pro-dems on the defensive.

One approach will be plain logic…

“Why do [pro-democrats] think the present Chief Executive election by the Election Committee, with its 1,200 members, is more democratic than the universal suffrage election that is on offer?”

Coming from someone less unpopular than CY Leung, this would be hard to answer rationally. The current system is ‘open nomination for ballot’ followed by ‘Beijing-picked winner’. With the winner decided in advance, being on the ballot Albert Ho-style in 2012 is purely ornamental. Under the proposed framework, you get ‘pre-selected ballot’ followed by ‘open universal vote for winner’. By modern international norms, it’s crap; but it’s absurd to claim this method is worse than the status quo. To the extent that the Chinese Communist Party is ceding control in the final step of the selection process, this is an increase in representativeness. Even if just 1%.

But the main struggle will surely be for people’s hearts or at least guts. There needs to be some linkage between the political reform package and governance and livelihood. Which brings us to another quote…

“…all the great promises and words were cancelled for this generation. Beijing cannot countenance any election system that disturbs the oligarchy of tycoons it has consigned the city and its people to.”

So says columnist Peter Guy in the SCMP. This is depressing, and there is plenty of other it’s-time-to-emigrate comment around at the moment. The Communists have indeed put Hong Kong at the disposal of rapacious cartels owned by a handful of families. The tycoons’ inability to restrain themselves from abusing their market dominance has produced Hong Kong’s current crisis, courtesy of inequality, property prices, etc. But this is not set in stone: Beijing’s number-one fear is not a decline in plutocrats’ wealth but a popular opposition movement crossing north over the border.

Which side can best convince the middle ground of the population that its approach to political reform offers the best hope of a better life in material terms?

Occupy Central held a symbolically charged march in black yesterday, which attracted due media attention and a not-bad turnout considering how marched-out everyone must be by now. But where were they a few days ago when Lai Sun Development started trying to eject property owners from an old building by exploiting an even-scummier-than-expected loophole? (Knocking units together to achieve an 80% ownership level.) Where are they when schools and old folks’ homes are threatened with closure due to rent rises that are directly attributable to pro-landlord policies? (Land-use and -disposal rules and the influx of Mainland shoppers.)

I’m not sure how Occupy Central and supporters can link a veto of political reform with practical livelihood issues. But if they don’t, government officials will fill the gap. Tying political reform to modest sweeteners on schools, housing, health or pensions would be easy. Mendacious and slimy, no doubt, but easy – and probably effective in winning over the centre.

High-class people taking things too seriously

September 12th, 2014

Stan-WhenIWas7

Stan-TearsTormentWhen I was seven, I lusted after various exotic-looking but forbidden brands of chocolate displayed behind a glass counter in the local store. In terms of longer-term ambition, I had hazy notions of being drummer for these guys, though the nuns who ran my school dismissed the idea as ‘a waste of a fine mind’. I neither knew nor cared what Harvard was, let alone felt a need to go there.

Not so Jonathan Lu. Even back when he was in short pants, he already had his heart set on the ivy-covered halls and spires of that pinnacle of American academe in New Jersey/Delaware/wherever the hell it is. But his hopes were cruelly dashed when he was ‘Head Boy’ at Hong Kong’s elite/exclusive/tedious-sounding Chinese International School. Another student’s mother wrote emails co-signed by her husband accusing Jonathan and his twin sister of cheating in an economics test, and claiming the kids’ dad Carl Lu, handily a school governor, of covering it up. The Lu family are now suing, so we can all watch the fun.

By suing, the Lu’s may make us wonder if the cheating/cover-up allegation is true. The innocent, we might think, would surely shrug it off and get on with their lives. But it could be that they are enormously thin-skinned – and also obsessive about the Schools Thing, so the boy’s failure to get into Harvard has caused anguish of wrist-slashing proportions. In a city where two-year-olds attend special prep classes for kindergarten admission interviews, it’s all too possible. (They claim the stress caused the kids’ anorexia.)

So we turn to the other parent – the mother and accusatory emailer, Frieda Hui. If there is any time to shrug and get on with your life, it must be upon hearing rumours that a classmate of your own child was cheating in a test. But instead she sent nasty emails to other parents about it. Her position is that she acted out of love for the school; the Lu’s say she was driven by envy and spite at Jonathan’s status as a mega-high-achiever. Either way, we are talking of unhealthy extremes of emotion.

It is an everyday story from one of Hong Kong’s fascinating sub-cultures. This city has a tycoon caste, who just pay for their kids to get into and graduate from brand-name schools. It has its true-born patriots, who traditionally treat Western-style education with disdain and get ahead through groveling and networking.

And then we have this social-climbing upper-middle-class possessed by the need to acquire a specific list of hackneyed and tawdry status symbols to prove to themselves, I would guess, the worth of their existence. The shiny Alphard, the Jockey Club membership, the wine collection, the golf, the hankering after a ‘Justice of the Peace’ tag, and – seemingly – a consuming angst about not only one’s own genius and multi-talented children, but other people’s. While members of this milieu may have risen partly by their own efforts, much of their self-perceived rank depends on others not rising.

SocialRegister'You get this everywhere in some form, no doubt. The Hong Kong version is just that bit more hilarious, if a bit puke-inducing. The story in this case, of course, is that frustrated Frieda’s husband is Paul Chan, who, since co-signing vicious emails, has gone from being a legislator to a government minister.

I declare the weekend open with the satisfaction of knowing Frieda must be so proud.

Excuses, excuses

September 11th, 2014

The HK Economic Journal’s EJInsight compiles a bewildering array of spurious reasons Chinese officials and supporters have come up with to explain why Hong Kong must have a rigged nomination system for the 2017 Chief Executive election. It goes without saying that none of them are very convincing; some are at the dog-ate-my-homework level. What is interesting is that, even allowing for the fact that they are quoted out of any context, the speakers produce such a mishmash of justifications. At least six of the 10, being serving office-holders, should have had a common script to read from.

Perhaps Beijing’s attitude is that the communication experts are wrong, and the bigger the number of reasons, the clearer and more effective the message will be (UK Prime Minister Tony Blair did the same when he produced at least four or five justifications for going to war in Iraq). It certainly suggests that Chinese officialdom will say almost anything to deny the simple honest truth: the Communist one-party state cannot and will not yield control. (EJInsight is probably being generous when it says: “[Beijing] has no confidence that the pro-establishment camp will win in an open and fair election in 2017.” The Leninist system doesn’t accommodate even a slight possibility of a rival running against it.)

The pro-democrats go along with this. Beijing sets out non-reasons why we can’t have full democracy; the pro-dems painstakingly pull the non-reasons apart and rebut them. Everyone seems to have an interest in not admitting the fundamental truth about the nature of a one-party state – Beijing to maintain the fiction it has a EJInsight-Electoralconstitution like other civilized nations, and the pro-dems to maintain the fiction that their long and noble struggle is winnable.

Another possible reason why the Chinese government does not enforce a more coherent ‘line to take’ among its spokesmen is that it doesn’t care. It will prevail anyway, so who gives a damn what reason you give for rigging the system?

The pro-dems, and Occupy Central in particular, have worked on the assumption that there is a way to stop Beijing from prevailing. For long decades, they used logical, moral and legalistic argument and plenty of protest marches – to little effect. More recently, they have turned to the more methodical approach of threatened non-violent civil disobedience. Beijing’s recent take-it-or-leave-it announcement of a rigged nomination system for 2017 leaves that idea a non-starter save as a symbolic gesture.

The next step will be to veto the reform package in the Legislative Council next year and thus leave us with the existing system. Their reasons why this would achieve something positive for Hong Kong (as opposed to pro-dems’ self-esteem) could be worthy of another EJInsight piece. One is that the ‘fake democracy’ on offer is worse than the status quo as it somehow cements Hong Kong into more of a Mainland system. This is a bit of a stretch: almost anything will be at least a slight improvement on the failed current system. It’s another excuse to avoid facing reality.

(The reality, lest we forget, is: law, media and other institutions that need protecting; oppressive cartels and bureaucrats that need attacking; schools, housing and air that need improving; and all the other injustices and inequality. A weak, defeated, divided pro-dem camp will be of little use in the years ahead.)

Creep of the Year winner beyond doubt

September 10th, 2014

Robert Chow presumably founded the Alliance for Peace and Democracy as an exercise in toadying. It was then swept up in Beijing officials’ over-organized and absurd campaign against the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement. It clumsily presents itself as worried to death about the horrible harm radical pan-dem extremists will do to innocent businesses, our civic reputation, children, bunny rabbits and people waiting for ambulances. And it has now launched a hotline on which the public can inform on schools where students/teachers are planning class boycotts.

RobertChowSnitchLine

‘White terror!’ pan-dems predictably claim. ‘White-haired slimeball’ would be more like it. The Alliance has worked hard on image here, with at least half the people at HelpOurChildrenthe press conference looking roughly normal (hired from a casting agency, perhaps). Chow, as usual, looks like a TV toothpaste-commercial dentist. But still, some of his companions have those grim, sour faces that for some reason bring to mind a world of spittoons and antimacassars.

Benny Tai and the other Occupy/pan-dem leaders might not always ‘resonate’. But only Beijing’s local emissaries at the Liaison Office could seriously imagine that the Hong Kong public would be favourably impressed by the spooky-sounding snitch hotline. The ‘Help Our Children’ initiative is more likely to help the young pan-dem radicals of Scholarism. Just when the kids are getting insufferably full of themselves, and the class-boycott plan is looking a bit pretentious, along comes this rabble of toadies trying to bully them with a half-baked, sub-Cultural Revolution stunt. Obviously, most right-thinking people’s response will be ‘yuck’. The United Front is supposed to split the broad pro-democracy community; if anything, they bring everyone together in shared mirth, contempt or even disgust.

Still, Creep of the Year Award is in the bag.

Happy 3rd Day of 4-Day Weekend

September 8th, 2014

For me, at least. The more sinister parts of Southeast Asia’s Overseas Chinese community are hard at work, however. Specifically, the Lim Clan Youth’s (sic) Group are busy absorbing Cambodia into the loving embrace of the motherland.

To eat or not to eat? The answer is even easier this year….

Click to hear 'There's a Moon in the Sky Called the Moon' by the B52s!

Last but not least, Comments are working again! (A couple are already in the last post.) All praise to the genius of the people of Lamma!

Coming to terms with reality

September 5th, 2014

Judging by the number of people dragging wheeled suitcases down to the Airport Express station this morning, a quasi-four-day weekend lies ahead. What better way to take a rest after all the intensely emotional wrangling and grief over quasi-democracy?

Less than a week ago, the Chinese government announced its plan for political reforms in Hong Kong – notably a 2017 Chief Executive election in which Beijing decides the candidates, and the electorate as a whole votes to decide which one wins. Compared with the previous system, in which Beijing simply decides the winner in advance, there is obviously a progression from no choice to managed competition. I wouldn’t want to try to quantify it in terms of an improvement, but maybe it’s like going from 0% democratic to 25%.

Pro-democrats, who for years have had their hearts set on 100%, reacted not only with outrage but disbelief. Disbelief that a Communist Party – the monopoly holder of power in a totalitarian, Leninist system – would not allow a completely open and unrigged election. Disbelief that the UK and other overseas powers would not imperil economic and other relations with the People’s Republic of China over this city. Perhaps most painful of all, is the difficulty of accepting that the bulk of their fellow citizens might not completely share their astonishment or distress.

They are in denial, and to deal with it they plan to use their veto power in the Legislative Council to reject the proposal. Unless this would make Beijing fall to its knees and beg for forgiveness, it is hard to see how this achieves anything beyond basic gratification. Perhaps realizing this deep down, they have devised arguments for sticking with 0% rather than 25%, but their reasoning is more heartfelt than rational or convincing. Students, ever the ultimate idealists, believe they can topple the Communist dictatorship by cutting classes…

The fate of the 2017 election reforms will come down to public opinion. Albert Cheng – no stranger to hot-headedness – muses over some sort of referendum to work out what people will accept. While never a cohesive movement, the pro-dems will probably end up more divided than ever over how and whether to come to terms with reality; the feuding seems to have started already.

The pro-democrats’ implicit stance for a good couple of decades has been that the Communist regime in Beijing is at the end of the day reasonable and capable of pragmatism and flexibility; that Beijing respects laws and might keep its 1990s promises (if any) for eventual full democracy; that Beijing has a sense of morality and cares what the world might think about its treatment of Hong Kong. The bulk of Hong Kong people have surely never believed any such things, and the rest of the world has probably abandoned such hopes in the last few years, if not earlier.

Quite an irony… The pro-dems have had this touching faith in the Party’s essential goodness and humanity. In return, the Chinese government has treated them as hostile and foreign-backed, and thus as subversives to be crushed.