Tycoons love the kids, really

November 27th, 2014

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Up until a couple of months ago, few of Hong Kong’s big business-establishment leaders gave a damn about the city’s youth. In the last few weeks, however, they have suddenly discovered a deep concern for the younger generation.

When former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa launched his Our Hong Kong ‘think-tank’, dozens of our great and good were moved almost to tears by ex-Financial Secretary Antony Leung’s description of how the kids face unaffordable housing and poor job prospects. Earlier this week, the Bauhinia Foundation released its Let Them Eat Hostels report on the same theme. And now tycoons like Vincent Lo and Allen Stan-HousingIllsZeman clamour to spout the same stuff, with an emphasis on developing country parks, at a General Chamber of Commerce bore-fest on the future of Hong Kong. Zeman also spoke of a need for universal suffrage, and thus passage of the proposed political reform package for 2016-17.

The tycoons are worried, though perhaps not actually wetting themselves yet (mega-mogul Li Ka-shing saw it coming ages ago). Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed administrations have handed them everything on a plate. Most obviously, officials have engineered a shortage of land supply to push property prices up, allowed floods of Mainland shoppers into town to push rents up, and splurged billions on pointless infrastructure projects to channel public wealth into tycoons’ pockets.

The little things add up, too. When he was Chief Executive, Donald Tsang introduced incentives for developers to build better features into their projects; in theory it was to improve our quality of life, but in practice it gave the cartel free rights to build more apartments, which ended up being sold to money-laundering Mainlanders to keep empty. And there were the inexplicable discretionary decisions and loopholes that came out of the planning bureaucracy to allow specific projects to grow in size.

The manifestation of public anger that is the Occupy-Umbrella movement raises the prospect that the plundering game might be up.

This may well be too much to hope – and there is an element of being careful what you wish for. But the tycoons’ sudden nervousness suggests that they at least are taking this seriously.

Assuming that pro-dem lawmakers veto the political reform package, we will have the same system as before – Beijing will pick the next Chief Executive, who will be ‘elected’ by the rubber-stamp committee of 1,200. And that person, under this scenario, will not be to the oligarchs’ liking. (As we saw in 2012, the tycoons are in a minority on the Election Committee and can be outvoted by the bloc directly controlled by Beijing.) It’s hard to imagine any of the pro-Beijing camp’s people having the leadership qualities or gravitas, so it could be some bland and presentable type from the bureaucracy. The key thing is that the lucky winner would be discreetly guided by Mainland officials in a distinctly more populist direction.

The tycoons are fearful because they know that the Chinese Communist Party has, as Lord Palmerston put it, no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The most fawning and groveling and odious shoe-shiner will be kicked in the teeth the minute he is of no further use (or that he provokes unrest that the CIA can exploit).

Paradoxically, a property crash could help keep the tycoon-bureaucrat crony-system in place, by easing the housing affordability problem and scaring private home-owners into demanding policies to prop up pricesMatthewCheungNine.

The government’s official line on this (though they don’t shout it out) is that apartments are many Hongkongers’ main store of wealth, and therefore lower prices are undesirable. The last time I checked, Secretary for Labour and (can’t make this stuff up) Welfare Matthew Cheung had eight properties in Hong Kong. So I re-check – it’s now nine. Put yourself in his shoes, and you can see how massively rising prices are absolutely fabulous, and the slightest drop in the market a disaster.

So Chief Executive CY Leung, not wishing to be outdone by our caring plutocrats, is proposing a new layer of subsidized housing for the latest socio-economic band to be priced out of the market. This is probably more PR-while-we-wait-for-whatever-happens than anything else. With prices at economically stupid levels, and 1 in 20 (or maybe more) apartments left empty by absentee owners, we might not strictly need vast amounts of additional units, just economic sanity. Either that or we all end up in subsidized housing, while the private stock sits there unoccupied.

Bottom line: the things that make the tycoons richer quite possibly bring their grip on Hong Kong under greater threat. Certainly, they seem to believe it.

Bauhinia Foundation report shows tycoons starting to sweat

November 26th, 2014

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The Mongkok Mayhem is the inevitable outcome of Beijing’s orchestrated United Front campaign to demonize and marginalize the Occupy Central movement. According to the script, public opinion turns so overwhelmingly against the foreign-funded, economy-wrecking radicals that the people take out their own court Stan-YoungPeopleFoundinjunctions, which the police then dutifully and heroically help enforce.

Back in the comfort of Beijing officials’ totalitarian home turf, where the government writes all the news and there’s no Twitter, the population would mostly buy into the narrative (any who beg to differ can always be ‘disappeared’). In pluralist Hong Kong, it doesn’t work that way. For every man in the street who sincerely thinks the students deserve a good thumping, there’s an unconvincing patriotic stooge with a blue ribbon, and an underdog-backing, tycoon-hating student or granny whose response is to get up there and help rebuild barricades.

On the subject of tycoons, their Bauhinia Foundation ‘think-tank’ chooses this moment to present its solution to all Hong Kong’s problems. Kids are angry about unaffordable housing? Easy – pack them into subsidized hostels to give them a few extra years to save the deposit they’ll need to chain them for life to a mortgage on a tiny overpriced hovel. Also, give them a bit of job training so they’ll be able to rise up the career ladder in the tourism-retail sector that squeezed everything else out of the economy. (They say the timing of this condescending pile of putrid Band-Aids is a coincidence. I can only quote Roseanne Barr: “I smell fear. I like that smell.”)

In its heyday under Chief Executive Donald Tsang, the tycoon-bureaucrat establishment often resorted to the all-purpose front-man Ronald Arculli to smile and hold the booklet up for the cameras. If they wanted to reach out to the masses, they might be daring and go for Jackie Chan. To attract the young folk, they might wheel out the youthful, groovy, trendy Allen Zeman. But now, it seems, they’re stuck with Plumpish Nondescript Spectacles Guy and Thin Close-cropped Dimwit Kid.

Dr Donald Li Kwok-tung SBS is a sort of Arculli-lite establishment clone, sitting on a bunch of the less glamorous poodle-packed advisory boards. He’s from an obscure branch of the Bank of East Asia Li clan – but so are thousands of others. The Standard quotes him as saying that ‘young people have a long-term impact’, which I suppose is so amazingly profound unarguable. The lank boy Lau Ming-wai is perhaps more amusing. He is the son of property tycoon and secretary-impregnator Joseph Lau, who was found guilty of graft and sentenced to five years in Macau’s grimy, rat-infested prison – a sentence he is tragically avoiding by staying put in Hong Kong, which obviously does not have an extradition arrangement with a city one whole hour away in the same country.

So, yes – this 33-year-old got to take over daddy’s grubby second-tier player in our property cartel, and now he can make our young people’s housing, career and family dreams come true, in such a way that, of course, will leave the basic cartel-crony system intact. Enough to make you laugh, cry, vomit or build barricades?

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Liberal Studies fix to guarantee perpetual harmony

November 25th, 2014

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A survey shows 59% of the public think protestors have gone too far. That’s in Ferguson, Missouri. Not sure what the latest opinion polls on Mongkok are, but tensions Stan-LibStudiesare apparently running high there as well this morning.

While we’re waiting for that to unfold, the news is full of Liberal Studies – the Hong Kong high-school subject no-one can understand because there is nothing to learn by rote. Officials are proposing amendments to ‘discussion points’, which we can assume are guidance on themes the teacher should encourage students to consider when they’re not learning anything by rote.

To put the story in perspective, this is part of some mid-term blah-blah academic structure review, which proposes presumably humdrum changes to (among others) the music curriculum, and is subject to public consultation. But this is Hong Kong in the mid-2010s, and if you are looking for an underhand attempt to micromanage the brainwashing of young minds taking an unwholesome interest in politics, it shouldn’t be too hard to find it. Specifically, the Liberal Studies bosses want to eliminate talk of why adolescents might participate in community affairs…

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It was OK when ‘community affairs’ meant fund-raising for charities, but now it could mean joining pro-democracy demonstrations, so that’s out. Instead, the idea is to shift the word ‘adolescents’ into the discussion on how government cares deeply about and strives to serve all the ‘various sectors’…

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That’s assuming our high-school students meekly go along with it. They could just as easily turn this ‘module’ or whatever it’s called into a class debate on how the government favours property tycoons and shafts the kids and everyone else.

The proposals also suggest that teachers avoid mentioning ‘feelings and responses towards major events’ (I feel a shiver down my spine just thinking about it) and the even more horrifying subject of Hong Kong identity…

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The word ‘identity’ now gets shoved into the bit on ‘sense of responsibility, altruism and self-actualization as reasons for involvement in socio-political affairs’…

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Which still gives plenty of opportunity for uppity students or radical unpatriotic teachers to stir up hatred against the motherland. (As a community service to spare everyone the bother, I looked up ‘self-actualization’ – it seems to be psycho-babble for not being a loser.)

Which is more charmingly naïve? The idea among officials – if it exists – that the government can de-radicalize teenagers by rejigging the wording in the teachers’ notes for a couple of sessions in a nebulous subject few take seriously? Or the idea among sensitive and critical pro-democrats – if it exists – that officials are that dumb? A far more believable explanation for any apparent attempt to control kids’ thinking is that bureaucrats are following orders from on high to give extreme patriots and Beijing apparatchiks the impression that the Hong Kong authorities are clamping down on a non-cause of the Umbrella-Occupy Movement.

Along with interference by evil foreign forces that we can’t name because it’s not appropriate, incorrect schooling is the main official reason why Hong Kong students and other citizens took to the streets in no uncertain manner in late September 2014. After all, the Chinese Communist Party is perfect, so insulting political reform packages, United Front threats to the law and the press, plagues of Mainland shoppers, and blood-sucking tycoons and landlords can’t have anything to do with it, oh no. It can only be the fault of incorrect classroom discussion on self-actualization – if not classroom discussion, period.

Space discovered on Hong Kong Island

November 24th, 2014

The red arrows on this panorama of Kowloon seen from Hong Kong’s Western waterfront yesterday indicate the tops of old 11-storey housing blocks. Before Kai Tak airport closed in 1998, few of the buildings in this scene would have exceeded this height level…

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To add to the nostalgia, I took a tram yesterday and recalled a time when the fare was 60 cents.

And that, I’d like to think, is enough flashbacks from a bygone era for a while. But it is not to be. Today’s South China Morning Post has a letter from Hilton Cheong-Leen. (Whaddya mean, who? Wikipedia has a brief bio, and this SCMP profile from 2003 fleshes it out: a pioneer of Hong Kong electoral politics in a colonial time when people knew their place.) As a mark of respect to the 94-year-old, the paper gives him pride of place. In essence, he welcomes the formation of former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s new think-tank and hopes that it can do good and positive things, though sadly he does not offer specifics…

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The emphasis seems to be on convincing the community that all is well, rather than daring to consider the possibility that things are in fact massively screwed up and need fixing.

SCMP-ChildCareAn obvious example that things have gone wrong is the way that despite an increase in floor space – as seen in the Kowloon skyline – simple housing has become unaffordable to most of the younger generation. (Incidentally, the government is going to plan childcare facilities into future public housing projects. With the middle class able to afford only private-sector apartments of 200 sq ft or less, maybe public housing tenants will in future be the only people in Hong Kong able to have children.)

Then again – what lack of space? I took my photo of Kowloon from a sprawling and largely empty waterfront spot: Western Public Cargo Working Area. It is illegal to ‘loiter’ here, but you can jog (if you must), stroll, admire the view, fish, bring kids to cycle round, or (discreetly) sort of hang out…

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It has lots of rusty pipes, grimy palates, scrap metal and other industrial-era stuff you don’t see up-close every day on Hong Kong Island…

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And of course it’s where our supplies of gutter oil are landed…

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Locals who know about the place like it so much they are against turning it into a real waterfront promenade with seats, ice-creams and dangerous trees. (In all fairness to paleo-establishment survivors like Hilton Cheong-Leen, it is amazing how hard to please Hong Kong people have become since the days when they were grateful to be assembling plastic flowers all night in their shacks.)

As if the Public Cargo Working Area weren’t perfection enough, it has two entrances – so you can go in one end and leave at the other, just where you expect a fenced perimeter to force you back, which is how the parks-designers would arrange it. Just outside, across the street, you’re back in the usual overcrowding and congestion of Kennedy Town. A ground-floor shop has been ElegantEnsuitesub-divided into tiny business premises selling home-made fashion, pet toys and other suitably small items. One is a property agency, offering a (comparatively large) 100-sq-ft ‘elegant ensuite’. What happens when you sub-divide a sub-divided apartment, I guess. A bargain, apparently, at HK$7,800 a month.

So many contradictions. Maybe Hilton’s idea for a ‘mass campaign to repair social division’, being ‘a timely project to initiate at an early date’, would ‘stimulate more meeting of minds and consensus building within our polarised community’ and make everything right.

US, Fatty Pang unite to interfere in China’s internal affairs

November 21st, 2014

Hong Kong’s last colonial Governor, Chris Patten, appears before a hitherto unheard-of US body called the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which is holding ‘hearings’, no less, on The Future of Democracy in Hong Kong. To give you an idea of how thorough the commission is, its previous hearings were on Pet SCMP-ChrisPattenTreats and Processed Chicken from China: Concerns for American Consumers and Pets. Honest.

If you read Section 302 of the numerologically intriguing US House of Representatives bill 4444, you will find around two dozen items numbered (a) (1) to (c) (7) describing many of the functions of the commission. But in fact, they all add up to exactly the same single purpose: irritate the Chinese government in every way possible.

Not there’s anything wrong with that. And Fei Pang naturally cannot resist. He repeats his warning to governments against falling into the grubby and unbecoming habit of kowtowing to China in the belief it is necessary for trade access. He also offers avuncular advice to our protesting pro-democracy students, referring to boy-wonder Joshua Wong virtually as the city’s leader-in-waiting. And he drops in a dash of snark about how plutocracy may fit in nicely with socialism with Chinese characteristics. In short, he set out to get up Beijing’s nose. Squeals of outrage about foreign interference will follow in the next few days.

This comes as the Congressional-Executive Commission on China updating the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act with a Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The likelihood that China’s communist one-party state will give true universal suffrage to Hong Kong are essentially zero in the first place, but such a pointed and, by any standards, presumptuous gesture will go down like a cup of cold sick in Beijing and confirm the need to keep Hong Kong undemocratic on principle. More squeals of outrage, etc to come.

As well as organizing grand-sounding discussions to address China-related concerns for American pets, the commission offers a lesson on the dangers of bureaucratic sprawl and Parkinson’s Law. Behold the 55-page User’s Manual explaining, as if to infants, how to use the on-line Political Prisoner Database. There’s no point in getting up Beijing’s nose to the max if you don’t make really really sure even people who have never used or seen a PC before can join in.

I declare the weekend open with the latest hidden subversive message in the Standard’s ever-popular ‘Character Builder’ feature, which is brought to you today by the word ‘ga’. As in ‘ga yau’ – ‘add oil’, or ‘step it up’ – motto of the Umbrella-Occupy movement…

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By ‘weather’, we mean ‘government’.

The Great Legco Door Massacre of 2014

November 20th, 2014

SCMP-MaskedMenHong Kong’s pro-Beijing politicians and media drool with glee this morning, while pro-democrats and Occupy Central activists squirm in discomfort. After 53 days of non-violent civil disobedience, someone broke a couple of windows. It’s the Great Legislative Council Door Massacre of 2014 – an orgy of wanton savagery and carnage, Hong Kong-style, and a gift to establishment forces determined to portray the students and protestors as blood-crazed CIA-backed psychopaths and enemies of the people.

The details are hard to get excited about. Some of the most impatient and radical elements in the leaderless Umbrella/Occupy movement were gripped by (or spread) rumours of imminent introduction of a proposed (and nonsensical-sounding) law on Internet copyright that could criminalize (more likely, provoke tons of) parody. Mysterious masked men seized bricks and metal barriers and attacked a couple of innocent and defenceless Legco building doors. Mild-mannered campaigners for democracy, freedom and justice reel in horror, imagining government agents provocateurs as the only reasonable explanation. Odious pro-Beijing lawmakers act outraged and taunt their opponents, who desperately rush to condemn the violence. The cops arrest half a dozen guys.

Thus Occupy Central – this particular bout of sit-ins by kids in tents on streets – pretty much, you would think, jumps the shark. Observers maintaining for the 50th straight day that now is the time for the protestors to go home may finally be right. Gloating officials and pro-establishment figures feel confident quietly suggesting that the recent bailiff-led action to clear a small portion of occupied Admiralty is just a test and just the start.

Admiralty is full of middle-class school kids who will soon start feeling the cold. Their maids will be coming down the hill to wrap them up in woolen scarves and march them home for warm milk and cookies. The challenge for the authorities is over the harbour. Comedian Chris Rock once mocked the George W Bush administration’s hubris after toppling the Iraqi regime in two weeks by daring them to try taking Baltimore in that time. In our case, that would be Mongkok. ‘Gritty’ Mongkok, as the overseas press calls it. Or, as you can’t help noticing on passing the third Chow Sang Sang in 75 yards, ‘awful-lot-of-windows Mongkok’.

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Tech corner

November 19th, 2014

Much extreme mouth-frothing and outrage in Hong Kong today, after protesters break a glass door and sort of get into the Legislative Council building at Admiralty. Anyone wanting a live, blow-by-blow account of the action could have followed the squabble, or – since it happened in the early hours – caught up with it first thing this morning, on Twitter…

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The Umbrella-Occupy movement has probably doubled the amount of time I ‘devote’, shall we say, every day to Twitter. The ‘social networking service’ (as it’s officially termed) also conveys profound thoughts from the most authoritative of sources…

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…and occasional bits of pointlessness that manage to get through, even though – in the interests of squeezing some sleeping and eating into my schedule – I limit myself to following less than 100 Tweeters, or whatever they’re called…

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WhatsAppScreenshotsThe other social-media thing I do is WhatsApp, which is essentially a simple and instant email system (so instant, it makes email seem stupid and pointless unless you want to attach a document or contact any of the 99% of people not on WhatsApp). When everyone was in a panic about Occupy Central occupying the main business district and requiring workplace closures, my office’s contingency plan relied on WhatsApp messaging to let Zenky, Panny and the rest know whether to come in. As the thumbs-up on the right show, it worked.

As we can also see on the right, WhatsApp can be used to send photographs – in this case essential guidance to the depraved on how to cut a lemon with a driver’s licence in order to make gin and tonic with the latter-day Hogarthian beverage known as King Robert.

Until recently, the main nagging problem facing WhatsApp users was that one day the company providing the service would follow through on its longstanding threat to implement charges, specifically of US$0.99 a year. Instead, however, it has implemented a system of ‘blue ticks’ in the outgoing-message box, which let the sender see whether and when the recipient has read the missive. What the engineers probably saw as a modestly useful new function has now become a nightmare of our modern, on-line existence.

In Saudi Arabia, a man divorced his wife after finding that she hadn’t bothered reading his latest boorish pronouncement. But the problem doesn’t end with people ignoring messages. The real complication arises from the fact that many users want to be able to read messages – but pretend they haven’t. Someone wants to tell you something; you know what it is that they want to tell you – but they don’t know that you know, and that basically means you’re in charge. Senders’ ability to use the blue ticks to find out at what time you read the message even further undermines your privacy and mastership of your own destiny.

The WhatsApp people, grief-stricken by the mayhem they had unleashed on the world, hurriedly designed a way to make the blue ticks optional. And so the trauma comes to an end. But, of course, no.

The Standard surveys a number of Hong Kong users, starting – quite rightly – with former weathergirl Icy Wong. Icy is minded to disable the blue ticks for privacy reasons, but she’s a bit dim. One KK Chan is smarter, reasoning that if you switch the function off, others will wonder why you did so, and what it is you are trying to hide. From them.

The game now looks like this: someone wants to tell you something; you know what it is that they want to tell you; they don’t know that you know; and they know you don’t want them to know that you know. And they will obviously never trust you again, for being such a devious, secretive, deceitful, underhand piece of slime. Yet another improvement to our lives brought to us by modern technology.

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Witnessing history with a yawn

November 18th, 2014

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Weeks and months of jumping up and down in excitement reached a crescendo yesterday as many of the Big Lychee’s most important puffed-up men in suits banged a gong and launched the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect. The men in suits laughed, shook hands and clinked champagne glasses as if they were ‘going to witness history’, to quote the actual words of HK Exchanges Chairman CK Chow.

Stan-SouthboundThis was in line with the build-up. Mainland authorities announced the cross-border stock trading system as a major breakthrough in opening China’s capital account. Some commentators couldn’t resist suggesting it might also be a ‘gift’ from Beijing to help out poor Hong Kong; when the arrangement was delayed, they claimed it was to ‘punish’ Hong Kong for pro-democracy students’ occupation of city streets. When the scheme was back on track, it emerged that Chinese officials had been sorting out such minor last-minute details as whether the cross-border trading would be subject to Mainland capital-gains tax. And after all that, Stock Connect doesn’t open China’s capital account at all: all the money flowing up and down the system remains sealed off and must ultimately return to its own side of the border.

Like the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, Shenzhen’s Qianhai Financial Blah-blah Zone Hub, the CEPA HK-Mainland trade arrangement and dozens of cross-border Pearl River Delta Co-operation and Partnership Agreements, it’s basically baloney. China’s leaders crave the might and glory of the Renminbi replacing the US Dollar as the global currency. But the Communist dictatorship must rig exchange and interest rates to stay in power. So it’s out of the question. (Some experts would caution a developing economy like China against lifting capital controls anyway.)

The problem with all the hype and backslapping and champagne is that, apart from some credulous overseas media, we become immune to it, and more cynical. Yet another make-believe Big Breakthrough to take our minds off the fact that China’s economy is trapped by the corruption, cronyism, protectionism, bad debt and misallocation of capital that keeps the Communist Party in power. What will happen if they ever introduce a real post-Deng reform of significance and substance? The bores in suits will be grinning away as usual with their banners and gongs, while the rest of us just yawn through a chance to genuinely witness history.

So how did the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect go on its first day? Essentially the ‘wall of money’ associated with the original ‘through train’ concept years back didn’t materialize (indeed can’t, owing to a strict cap on volume). Hong Kong funds did rush northward. The South China Morning Post reports that local and international investors couldn’t resist Shanghai’s cheap railway and liquor plays. A contrarian thing, perhaps: what better time to buy, when Mainland railway bosses are getting sentenced to death or jumping from tall buildings, or when maotai sales are plummeting owing to anti-corruption drives? Some funds of questionable taste are apparently chasing Looming East Asian War-plays in the form of defence-related companies. Another explanation is that investors are switching to this new way of buying Mainland equities to avoid the capital gains tax. A tax-break like this is of course essentially a subsidy – or to put it another way, ‘desperate eagerness on someone’s part to attract traders and save face’.

As for the southbound flow of funds – well, whoops. Where were they? Even the Standard and Sing Tao, which never fail to cheerlead vacuous cross-border hype, register disappointment and clutch at flimsy excuses. While any Hongkonger can access the Shanghai market, subject to the quota, only wealthy Mainlanders can invest in the other direction. We are told they need time to learn about the Hong Kong market, and they find the high valuation of locally listed stocks a turn-off. The high valuation reflects Hong Kong’s far higher standards of corporate governance and regulatory oversight (cue indelicate thoughts of pearls before swine). Hong Kong does have its share of mom-and-pop day-traders in penny stocks and covered warrants, which serve as glaring loopholes in the city’s strict laws against gambling. But Shanghai is by many accounts pretty much a risky, fraud-ridden casino. Hong Kong must look weird to them.

One winner from any increase in volume will obviously be Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, which makes its billions by slicing a little bit off every trade. In this respect, the Stock Connect is just another of those Cram More Stuff Into Hong Kong schemes that our rent-seeking tycoon-bureaucrat elite see as economic development. As with the increasing flood of Mainland shoppers, the Zhuhai Bridge, Disney, additional airport runways, more malls, more churn, more turnover, more money going in and out – it’s all about intermediaries and landlords raking off a piece of the action each time, and any budding entrepreneurs or innovators should get used to being luxury retail assistants. Not the sort of history we need to witness any more of.

Mr Wong doesn’t go to Beijing

November 17th, 2014

If the Chinese government had some halfway decent public-relations advice, it would have allowed the three Hong Kong student activists to visit Beijing on Saturday. It would have given them a meeting and photo-op with a barely medium-ranking official from a vaguely ‘relevant department’, arranged a brief tour of the Great Hall of the People, and seen them off at the airport with a pat on the head and goody bags full of T-shirts and panda bear refrigerator magnets. In other words, humour them as a busy but generous-spirited mature adult would any naïve kids.

But of course, no. The Chinese Communist Party could never get its head around something so subtle. In a world divided between abject shoe-shiners and enemies to SCMP-TimeNewLeadershipbe crushed – and nothing else – Beijing had to make itself look childishly vindictive. By barring entry to its own citizens as if they were undesirable foreigners, the Chinese government also blatantly contradicted its own official line that Hongkongers belong to the motherland. (Asia Sentinel has a good piece on how the insistence that Party = Nation is alienating younger Hongkongers and Taiwanese.) And by acting scared of a clutch of geeky teenagers, Beijing made itself look pathetic and the scrawny bespectacled kids look strong.

The Hong Kong government, meanwhile, sits on the sidelines looking clueless. South China Morning Post commentator Peter Guy today writes that when an 18-year-old conveys more credible leadership than anyone in the oh-so elite establishment, the game is surely up. The Basic Law offers no solution. His suggested Beijing-compatible method of stripping the tycoon-bureaucrat crapocracy out of the equation: a directly appointed Mainland official as governor with a fully elected legislature as a source of legitimacy and ministers. (This is not a new idea. Traditionally, ‘Hong Kong people running Hong Kong’ has been sacrosanct as a guarantee of rule of law and press freedom – but maybe that seems less persuasive now.)

Officially, as the three students found out, China’s leadership cannot accept that the Umbrella-Occupy movement is a symptom of poor governance: that would be an admission of Communist Party fallibility. Changing the Basic Law would also be an unacceptable loss of face. So for the time being we will have nothing but ranting about CIA-funded plots and the inadequacy of Hong Kong’s patriotic education.

Attempts to salvage anything from the proposed 2016-17 electoral reform package will presumably come to nothing. It looks very much as if anything that will fix Hong Kong’s governance problem is unacceptable to Beijing, and anything that is acceptable to Beijing won’t work.

One reason why the protestors might think about packing up and going home at this stage: you’ll be needing those tents again sometime.

An obituary appears in today’s SCMP

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A long time ago, back in the mid-90s, there was a tall, dark, serious, almost-sinister businessman with an extreme and obvious yearning to be Hong Kong’s Chief Executive after the 1997 handover. No – not the one you’re thinking of: a guy called Lo Tak-shing. To prove his loyalty, he started a pro-Beijing English-language magazine called the Window. It was one of those publications that people don’t actually buy – it just turned up on the desk. Among the more readable features was a column on Hong Kong history by one Solomon Bard. I always thought it was an anagram (blood ransom, slob doorman). Later, I noticed the name elsewhere and gathered it was a real person, but thought little more about it. Anyway (if I had been paying more attention to the local music scene I would have realized sooner), it seems he was as interesting as he was long-lasting.

A modest suggestion, to put it mildly

November 14th, 2014

After all the defiance, euphoria, bitterness and recriminations surrounding Hong Kong’s Umbrella-Occupy revolt, it’s hard to imagine everyone getting back to the SCMP-BallotBlockstiny details of electoral reform as if nothing had happened. But Carine Lai, manager at think tank Civic Exchange, evidently feels up to it, outlining a suggestion on corporate voting in today’s South China Morning Post. Civic Exchange having a reputation for being a real think tank rather than a front for pro-Beijing propaganda, we will pay some attention.

First, some background.

Anyone following Time, Guardian, Vice, NYT, FT and other overseas coverage of Hong Kong in the last eight weeks will have noticed the foreign media’s difficulties in understanding our election system, especially the Functional Constituencies that have so many seats in the legislature, on the Chief Executive Election Committee and on the proposed Nomination Committee. This is hardly surprising: the system is designed to be as bewildering as possible. This is to hide its true purpose, and it works.

Chinese officials and apologists claim this byzantine structure, with its underlying layers of fisheries associations, Chinese medicine organizations, neighbourhood aid societies and weird cultural groups, guarantees all sectors a say. They call it ‘balanced representation’ or something similar. The overseas – and much local – press see through this garbage. They declare that the whole framework is designed to give undue influence and power to pro-Beijing interest groups, especially the tycoons, and they congratulate themselves on their insight. But actually they are wrong.

Forget the stuff about how Mussolini used functional constituencies. Forget the fact that the British introduced the first ones in Hong Kong as a tentative 1980s step towards representative government. And forget the myth perpetuated by most of the press that these privileged elites get to choose the Chief Executive (and forget the fact that many of these ‘elites’ themselves tend to believe it). The Functional Constituency system is simply about stuffing a supposed electoral body with enough puppets that it can serve as a rubber stamp.

If Beijing wants to veto a vote in the Legislative Council, it phones dependable, loyal FC lawmakers, and a bill or motion gets voted down. The outcome of the Chief Executive ‘election’ is similarly decided beforehand in Beijing, with the word going out telling obedient Election Committee members how to cast their votes. (Even if the tycoons vote for someone else. We saw this in 2012, when a large swathe of EC members – patriotic DAB leftists and subservient fisheries and Chinese medicine morons – insisted they were still ‘deciding’ between Henry Tang and CY Leung up to the last minute.)

The servile dummies get a pat on their head for their loyalty; their ‘sectors’ might get a free lunch, like the sports associations with their new stadium, but otherwise they are just useful fools. Note that the property tycoons prosper merrily regardless of the fact that they voted for the ‘wrong’ guy in Henry Tang. When ‘electing’ the Chief Executive, Functional Constituencies as a mass do not bring or wield any power of their own: they simply exist to disguise direct Beijing control.

Civic Exchange’s Carine Lai proposes the abolition of corporate votes – non-human voters that make up the electorate in some (mostly small, mostly commercial) Functional Constituencies. This is the most blatantly rotten part of the system; she gives the example of conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, which is said to have 36 votes via various subsidiaries. She also points out how the associations and groups that serve as non-human electors gain their FC franchise either through selection by officials or by their peers or even themselves (with guidance from Beijing, of course).

Replacing corporate votes with humans would widen some tightly restricted franchises slightly. Rather than one Chairman having 36 votes, a bunch of directors and others would get a vote each. This could in theory introduce a little more competition into the small-circle business FCs like banking and the chambers of commerce. The ‘losers’ would be tycoons with multiple votes, who could lose a bit of clout when it comes to picking (or leaning on) legislators, and maybe a bit of face.

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Other than that, such a reform achieves nothing very meaningful in practical terms, though you could say it’s a step forward symbolically. The FCs as a whole would go on feeding reliable automatons into the CE Election Committee and (if it happens) the Nomination Committee picking the CE candidates in 2017. And this has to be the case, because in a Communist state, the ruling party must maintain its monopoly of power and absolute control. That’s the bottom line: the FCs as a bloc do not have power or represent power, they – or at least the plurality of them that are puppets – simply channel it.

The think tank’s founder Christine Loh is Environment Under-Secretary in the current much-loathed government, and is usually seen as a potential Chief Executive if Beijing decides to take a wild risk and let Hong Kong have a leader with a brain of her own. So the researchers may prefer to err on the constructive rather than radical side. But, even so, we can declare the weekend open with this thought: it says something about the shifts and splits in public sentiment following Occupy that good old Civic Exchange now comes across as a rather lonely-sounding voice of moderation and reason.