MOFA tames barbarian reporters

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Hong Kong office summons foreign correspondents for a ‘lecture’ on putting positive energy into their coverage of the city’s Mainland extradition amendment.

The ineptness of the invitation confirms that the Ministry has little clue how overseas media work. (A more charitable theory would be that its staff are hip and aware – but are under pressure to use clunky CCP-style press-relations methods to impress dull-witted bosses back in Beijing.) Either way, it suggests that Chinese officials know Hong Kong’s extradition amendment has an image problem.

Why would they give a damn? Perhaps the Huawei/trade dispute trauma is getting to them, and they think they need to tell their story better, as best they can.

(Note the division of responsibilities here: if the local press needs prodding, the Liaison Office arranges it; the Foreign Ministry does barbarian-handling.)

On the subject of image, Michael Chugani at EJ asks whether Hong Kong is going from semi-democracy to semi-dictatorship. He also passes on a desperate-sounding line about how the extradition thing is basically Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s (inexplicable) idea – and Beijing’s people are now helping to ram it through in order to save her face and ‘ability to govern’. Since they can’t admit the amendment is a clear CCP initiative, this is presumably the best government spin-doctors can do.

Foreign Policy carried this more realistic analysis a couple of weeks ago…

…suggesting that the extradition issue represents the point at which the West starts to withdraw from recognizing Hong Kong as separate from the Mainland.

Germany’s granting of asylum to two Hongkongers – a slap in the face to the local administration – is a symbol of this. Another will be if Western countries revise their extradition arrangements with Hong Kong when the fugitive-transfer system with the Mainland goes through. Hong Kong would move from one side of a barrier to the other.

I declare the weekend open with some quick but worthy links.

The 30th anniversary of 6-4: Louisa Lim and Ilaria Maria Sala in the Guardian on how the CCP is rewriting history, and a thread with some interesting Tiananmen links. The Asia Society in New York is marking the anniversary – will the Hong Kong chapter do the same? (Answer: seems not.)

Esteemed Professor Victor Shih (to his own slight surprise) gets a full interview at New Yorker on the trade dispute, similarities between Trump and Xi (guess which is less economically illiterate?), and how likely Chinese elites are to rebel against their current leadership.

For hardcore Mainland corporate nightmare fans, Deep Throat listens to Alibaba’s earnings call so the rest of us don’t have to.

From the Jamestown Foundation, the under-reported (not easily reported, not-supposed-to-be-reported) reorganization of the United Front Work Dept.

And – better than it sounds – what Chinese millennials think.

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Unfortunate events

Hong Kong has entered the ‘confluence of unfortunate occurrences’ zone.

Long drawn-out prosecutions of Benny Tai and other peaceful protest organizers on desperate ‘public nuisance incitement’ charges came to a conclusion, with the court blandly accepting questionable government points. The result is that we now have academics in prison for their political beliefs.

At just this time, the administration introduced the Mainland extradition amendment to the Legislative Council. Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her colleagues seriously underestimated not only the resistance from local opponents, but the alarm in local and international business and other circles. Spotting a humiliating backdown looming, Beijing officials have impatiently nudged their local puppets to one side and taken charge of the lobbying effort to ram the measure through.

And now it transpires that a couple of localist activists who jumped bail following the Mongkok fishball riot have been given political asylum in staid, respectable, moderate and thoroughly democratic Germany. Political asylum is for torture victims from Third World dictatorships. And Germany, unlike the wacko evil US or nasty UK, is unimpeachable – a byword for integrity. This is not so much embarrassing as Does Not Compute.

If the West and China are indeed parting ways over economic and other differences, it might be best to recognize that our own post-1997 arrangement is over. The Chinese Communist Party has never willingly accepted constraints on its power. It has had to grit its teeth over the years as Hong Kong mocked its rule implicitly or explicitly. Under Xi Jinping, it has decided that ‘One Country Two Systems’ is an intolerable affront to its sovereignty.

Carrie’s task now is to remove barriers that hinder CCP control on this side of the border. It is a delicate job, as she has to claim the barriers weren’t there in the first place. Look at the government’s tortuous attempts to avoid acknowledging that drafters deliberately omitted China from existing extradition arrangements on account of the Mainland’s joke justice system. That omission was once a much-valued shield to protect us; now it is a ‘loophole’ that exposes us.

Just as the Sino-Western Split of 2019 is causing torment to fence-sitters and extreme optimists, this is going to test some centrist Beijing loyalists, who have assumed that the CCP would deep down be a decent bunch of folks who cared about their and Hong Kong’s image. Slight Hissy Fit of the Day Award goes to Regina Ip, trying to get her head around Germany giving Hongkongers refugee status.  

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Mainlandization coming along nicely

In this week’s episode of How to Turn Asia’s World City into a Banana Republic, Carrie Lam finds ways to discard the government’s old free-and-pluralist look, and build up a new global image as illiberal, intolerant and vindictive.

Hong Kong Immigration hold a 78-year-old retired Philippine senior judge and Ombudsman for questioning. Some media report that Conchita Carpio-Morales was refused entry, others that she decided to cancel her visit (in Filipino, it was ‘nixed’). All agree that she made a complaint to an international court about Chinese leader Xi Jinping several months ago, and that Hong Kong looks pathetic.

Turning undesirables away at the airport is kid’s stuff. Other examples in the last couple of years (presumably/obviously) at the behest of Beijing include Falun Gong adherents, exiled Mainland dissidents, Taiwanese politicians and activists, campaigner Benedict Rogers and FT editor (expelled) Victor Mallet.  

If you really want to be taken seriously as a Third-World dictatorship, you need citizens qualifying for political asylum in the free world. In a significant breakthrough, Germany has given refugee status to two Hong Kong localist activists on the run from Mongkok fishball-riot charges. The fact that it is Germany – boring, straight-laced, mildly inclined to Panda-hugging – makes the blow to Hong Kong’s reputation even more cringe-making.

As a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong must submit to Beijing’s rule more openly than a mere doormat-vassal state (like, say, Cambodia). Chief Executive Carrie Lam spares no effort in defending Chinese officials’ hands-on management of the formerly autonomous city’s new extradition measures. In case you need reminding, Beijing has to intervene because foreign governments are recklessly criticizing Mainland judicial and human rights systems. (Just a thought: what happened to Carrie’s all-ready-to-move-in retirement home in England? Empty? Sold? Rented out?)

Is there anything we’ve missed? Of course – the media. Carrie pops up along with Huang Kunming, Politburo member and the head of the Communist Party’s propaganda department, to tell the press to talk up the Greater Bay Area (Opportunities!!!) Themed Concept Hub-Zone Vision to absorb Hong Kong physically and mentally into the glorious motherland. The Party is your middle name.

At some point, Carrie and her zombie-puppet colleagues must have to appear, with ridiculously solemn we-are-taking-this-so-seriously looks on their faces, at a Xi Jinping Thought study function. I would say within 12 months.

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A big question

Here’s a good rundown of what the US’s apparent banishment of Huawei could mean. Some techie background.

Knowing what we do of Donald Trump’s personality, it’s still sort of hard to believe that he isn’t going to fold at some point. And sure enough, here comes a 90-day reprieve to keep the oxygen flowing to the Chinese murkily-state-linked giant.

But knowing what we do of human nature, it’s hard to see how – after being mightily slapped down over trade talks and now Huawei – Beijing could laugh it all off and get back to normal with the US for some mutual lovey-dovey ‘win-win’ partnership, even if Trump did some sort of U-turn.

The traditional mainstream moderate consensus has always been that this sort of trade conflict is all about cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, and everyone loses. But that consensus died somewhere back there. The new logic is that while the US might suffer a bit, China will suffer a whole lot more.

China’s nationalists are ranting that this won’t work with such fury that we can justifiably suspect it will.

How, realistically, does China retaliate when all that’s really happening is that it is being forced to play on a level playing field that it lacks the ability to win on? Fantasize about borderline suicidal measures like dumping US Treasuries or letting the Yuan plummet? Stop buying US pork just as half our pigs die of disease? Broadcast non-stop anti-American Korean War movies on TV? Blather on about the Long March and visit a rare earths mine? Cancel the final episode of absurdly time-wasting and unfunny Monty Python and the Holy Grail remake Game of Thrones? Send SCMP columnist Alex Lo to give the Yankee imperialists a serious smacking?

And assuming China does find a way to retaliate – in its usual subtle, charming and classy manner by burning down every Starbucks or kidnapping someone – how does that make Trump or any American learn to love the CCP?

Hard to believe that we are really heading into ‘de-linking’ and a ‘new Cold War’. But even harder to see how we’re not. But my big question: When will someone tell the stock market?

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Just a few boot-lickers to win over…

You are wrong. You misunderstand. You are stupid. You are ignorant. You have been misled. Clearly, we have not communicated in sufficiently simple terms that your childlike pea-sized minds can grasp.

The Hong Kong government has run out of talking points. Public opinion refused to buy the idea that the Mainland extradition amendment was necessary to send an alleged murderer to Taiwan. Nor will the rabble believe that the measure will fill a loophole, make us just like France, or ensure justice. So officials and supporters must retreat to their default last-ditch position: we are smart and you (and the media) are dimwits.

(While we’re at it – you’re all morons for not getting the Greater Bay Area wondrousness as well.)

To emphasize the uselessness of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration, Beijing’s locally based overseers sweep them aside and start directly whipping loyalists and shoe-shiners into line. Forget the pretense about ‘One Country Two Systems’.

This is the Chinese Communist Party getting frustrated. (The US is cutting Huawei down to size, United Front meddling failed to swing the Australian election, Taiwan wins global coolness with Asia’s first gay marriage laws – it’s all too much for a hyper-whiny insecure dictatorship to take.)

From their point of view, hostile foreign forces are using the extradition issue to split Beijing’s Hong Kong support base. Ta Kung Pao compares Western countries’ concerns to the foreign intervention against the Boxer Rebellion (don’t ask) – and denounces local opponents as traitors to the Han race.

Fears (from Trump’s compatriots, no less) for Hong Kong’s competitiveness, rule of law, reputation etc are irrelevant – this is about ensuring that the paranoid CPP can exercise ‘sovereignty’ in this worryingly out-of-control territory.

The pressure is now going to be on the local business community – second-generation, spineless, groveling, entitled, cartelized rent-seekers and sweatshop owners. Their instinct is to lick the boots of the Chinese government. But they also have a curious nervousness about the way the extradition proposal includes bribery and would be retroactive.

What happens next?

A modest prediction… The CCP will ease its boot further into the slobbering business sector’s jaw and make them an offer they can’t refuse. ‘You will rubber-stamp this thing. In return, we promise (ha ha) to use the extradition system mainly to grab or silence our own corrupt/rogue/rival CCP-elites-and-their-families holed up in Hong Kong. And partly to spread some long-overdue rule-by-fear among local dissidents. But not to get at you, our obedient, obsequious, grubby little industrialists and speculators. Probably. Maybe. Until we feel like it.’

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Extradition pretense wearing thin

Beijing is getting openly involved in what is supposed to be a local government initiative to establish a formal system for extraditing fugitives from Hong Kong to the Mainland.

Up in the nation’s capital, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office is giving CCP-loyalist Ronny Tong his talking points on the subject, and back here the Liaison Office hosts locally based Foreign Ministry officials, PLA political commissars and Mainland business leaders for a pep-talk. (One line is that Hongkongers ‘misunderstand’ the Mainland legal system – speaking of which…)

Beijing officials are also pressuring the Hong Kong business community to support the measure. And there are signs that the government might just ram the bill through the legislative process.

This is clearly not about a murder in Taiwan (perhaps realizing how lame that argument is, officials are now claiming the existing arrangement was ‘rushed’). It is about extending Mainland-style rule by abduction/fear onto this side of the border – so Hong Kong ceases to be a haven from China’s legal system. This would represent the most overt step in dismantling ‘One Country Two Systems’ as a form of insulation between Hong Kong and the CCP’s party-state. It could well be that the Legislative Council’s remaining ability to act as a check on the executive branch will fall by the wayside too.

A Foreign Policy commentator sees this as the (for-real-this-time/at-least-partial) end of Hong Kong. Another warns that, as Hong Kong’s autonomy fades, the West could end the city’s separate status in international commercial and other affairs (summary here).

As several observers point out, Beijing would probably not be too upset by this last eventuality. It would compel the city to speed up integration with the Mainland, and it would ease CCP paranoia about the ex-colony’s subversive Trojan-horse threat. So long as China’s elites could continue to launder money through a separate and open financial system, it would be fine – they’re not interested in all that World City stuff. For some perspective, the (alleged) background of how China’s leadership went back on the US trade deal suggests that Beijing cannot let go of a longstanding isolationist mindset.

As all this possibly unfolds, Taiwan could usefully grow out of its own parochial little ways.

How quickly things change – assuming that’s what’s happening.

I declare the weekend open with an unrelated and bizarre thought: young people today, mollycoddled with the safety features of modern kitchen technology, have the strangest ideas about exactly how Sylvia Plath died when she put her head in an oven…

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US pulls out List of Enemies

The US puts Huawei and subsidiaries on its Entity List (a good old-fashioned list of enemies). It’s the same sanction taken against ZTE a couple of years ago – but at that time Trump wimped out.

There is no way of predicting where this goes. Both Trump and Xi Jinping are, in their own ways, detached from reality and driven by vanity. Even if they appear to behave rationally, it might be by accident.

The moderate voice of reason supposes that economic pain will cause one side to make concessions, which the other will thankfully accept and reciprocate, to everyone’s relief – and it’s back to happy days again. We are assured that the US, with its decadent bourgeois democracy, is more vulnerable to cracking.

But this is hard to square with the increasing hostility. With Beijing resorting to nationalistic bombast about a People’s Struggle, and the US pulling plugs (on Huawei, academic visas), hopes of lovey-dovey kissing-and-making-up can only fade.

We also observe the moderate voice of reason fading. The standard sensible grownups’ preference for adoring or at least respectful engagement with China is becoming seriously uncool, surprisingly rapidly. In its place, we have a much more rugged and assertive Panda-skepticism. For a bite-size intro to what may be the new consensus, try this.

On a more prosaic note: the Comments function on this site is still out of service (yay!!!) – and is apparently much-missed in some quarters (and we call Trump and Xi deluded). Some long-overdue behind-the-scenes techie upgrades are slowly getting underway, so things could change in a few weeks or so.

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Pest control update

In the latest twist in the Legislative Council extradition amendment saga, the chairman of the bills committee (the one in the pro-Beijing parallel universe) stands down after a grueling 18 seconds.

To put this in context, Abraham Shek represents the property developers in the legislature. Of all Hong Kong’s ‘various sectors’, this is laziest, flabbiest and most entitled.

It is a cartel of families who for decades have just sat, grinning inanely, as billions of dollars are sucked yearly out of the productive population and poured into their laps, courtesy of the city’s government-rigged housing scam. They are the reason why – as global groundbreakers like Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have come and gone – the same handful of talentless groveling nonentities, now in their 90s, have remained the richest businessmen in the city. No competitiveness, no innovation, no notion of value for the customer, no shred of effort of any sort.

It’s amazing Abraham lasted over a quarter of a minute before collapsing in a quivering exhausted heap.

The Hong Kong government looks on helplessly and mumbles about not getting involved. Beijing has dumped this on Carrie Lam and her hapless officials, and they have bowed and said ‘yes sir’ as they always do and must. They have passed it onto their supposedly loyal shoe-shiners in the legislature, who have backed away and said ‘deal with this pile of doo-doo yourself’ in classic spineless, you-can’t-totally-blame-them, it’s-quite-funny-really fashion.

Meanwhile, as a thousand pigs rampage through the streets, inconsiderate old people are damaging our reputation as Asia’s World City by dying from viral infections spread by rats.

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LegCo’s last stand

Here you go – literally step-by-step coverage of the ongoing dramatics in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council today.

The pan-democrats in LegCo are all Hong Kong has in the way of democratic political representation. The rest of the chamber is for all practical purposes rigged to give pro-Beijing forces a majority. Elected local councils are just talking shops. The executive branch (ignore the fake ‘Chief Executive election’) comprises individuals hand-picked by the Chinese government for loyalty, obedience and all-round zombie-ness.

These pan-dems, their ranks depleted by expulsions, are the only formal obstacle the government faces in pushing through its extradition amendment. Being outnumbered, their only weapon is the use of delaying tactics. This risks looking disorderly or self-indulgent, but in this case it is the one hope of arousing enough public and international opposition to scare officials into withdrawing the measure – which would be a backdown by Beijing.

This is probably the last Legislative Council able to check government policies this way. As a result of procedural changes to prevent filibustering, the barring of pan-dems from the ballot and enhanced United Front activity, the assembly will likely be just a rubber stamp after the 2020 elections. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t do independent legislatures.

Amazingly, there are still people out there who fantasize that democracy might have a place in Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong, China. Here is a retired expat civil servant arguing that a freely elected Legislative Council is both feasible and capable of delivering ‘real power to the people’, even if Beijing continues appointing the Chief Executive.

Some (especially older) pan-dems themselves suffer from this curious delusion. Benny Tai’s ‘Occupy’ civil-disobedience vision rested on it. Even a few moderate pro-establishment types like to think the CCP can concede a little control in order to mend divisions and fix local governance.

Sad truth: this is a Leninist mindset in charge, and it cannot share power. All it understands – and has – ultimately, is force.  After the legislature, the CCP still needs to deal with the judiciary, media, academia, civil society and the rest.

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End of a knife-edge week

One of the more interesting weeks we have had for a while… You just know Trump, possessor of the deep, long-term, strategic sophistication of a toddler, is going to fold – and we get a nice stock-market jump and life goes on. Or… you suspend belief and watch as he goes for the long game, upending global investment patterns and (among other things) leading Hong Kong into that unknown region of CNY10 to USD1 and other possible delights.

Hong Kong has another little knife-edge uncertainty at the moment. It’s hard to believe that Beijing will let the local administration drop the proposed extradition amendment – but amusing to see how much more political capital and credibility Carrie Lam and her team can lose before a 2003-style backtrack is the only way out.

Here’s a list of opponents to the extradition proposal – quite an odd bunch to be on the same side.

To add the ambience, even modestly mild and moderate Michael Chugani foresees Hong Kong entering apocalyptic doom

I declare the Mothers’ Day/Buddha’s Birthday weekend open with a selection of the finest hand-picked reading matter.

The Standard – a tycoon-owned newspaper that usually worships local parasite industries – presents an op-ed on how to exterminate Hong Kong’s tourist pestilence. The suggested remedies are a bit limp-wristed (nothing that instills fear), but it’s surprising to see it there at all. The SCMP reports on a related subject from Vancouver, where it’s not about just milk powder.

Following the sentencing of the Occupy movement’s evil black-hand civilization-threatening ringleaders, a look at the limits to civil disobedience in Hong Kong. Gandhi and King wouldn’t have had a chance against the Chinese Communist Party.

And an excellent explanation of the Greater Bay Area – worth reading if only for the wonderful use of crisp, unemotional, academic English to confirm that the thing is a load of toxic crap designed to merge Hong Kong away.

On to economics… All the basic background you need on how we got to the US-China trade war. NPR on how and why US businesses kept quiet as China ripped them off (shades of domestic-violence victims). And China’s productivity problem (SOEs, etc).

For hardcore fans of United Front studies, the Jamestown Foundation devotes the whole of Issue 9 vol 19 to the subject.

Lastly, some humour: the Chinese Communist Party should admit that massacring students was wrong, and if Xi Jinping allowed citizens to speak their minds, he would be a cool guy.

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