Roads I get – but Belts?


It is a general rule of thumb that when you are surrounded by zombies muttering gibberish, you need to flee, or join in. Hong Kong has suddenly been taken over by people loudly insisting on the importance of ‘One Belt, One Road’. We don’t know what it means. They don’t know what it means. The word has gone out: everyone start singing the praises of ‘One Belt, One Road’ with immediate effect until further instructions are received.

Thus the South China Morning Post publishes an advertorial to hype it up. We are invited to consider the possibility that “maybe Hongkongers lack enthusiasm for, or a comprehensive understanding of,” the apparently meaningless slogan. It goes on to quote pro-Beijing quote-person Lau Siu-kai as saying Hongkongers should abandon their “narrow-minded focus on local issues” – in other words, presumably, stop worrying about unaffordable SCMP-HK-OneBelt2housing or unmanageable numbers of Mainland shoppers, and start thinking ‘One Belt, One Road’.

However, this is not just another ‘We should focus on the economy’ thing to try to divert attention from Hong Kong’s rotten governance. We are told that Africa, no less, should be ‘inserted’ into ‘One Belt, One Road’ (not vice versa), and that we should really freak out at the amazing parallels between ‘ASEAN Connectivity’ and ‘One Belt, One Road’. The Moon is next.

According to some sources, it is China’s version of the Marshall Plan (the classic example of enlightened self-interest through which the US funded Western European recovery after World War II, and which has zero relevance here). A map not very usefully suggests that the ‘Belt’ goes overland, while the ‘Road’ goes over the sea. Some commentators calmly suggest that the whole concept is just a gimmicky label for ‘Asian infrastructure development’ – but obviously it doesn’t mean that, because they would have called it ‘Asian infrastructure development’, not ‘One Belt, One Road’, wouldn’t they?

One clue is in today’s SCMP Business section, which, as so often, goes horribly off-message in pursuit of decent journalism. China lost the plot in Sri Lanka, siding with the wrong side in its over-eagerness to establish commercial or maybe not-so-commercial outposts in other parts of the world. Boosting power by propping up unpopular ruler-clients is kind-of 1950s, we will recall, and not invariably successful. (What happens to the ready access to Zimbabwe’s manganese after Robert Mugabe goes, by the way?)

Another clue is in the Western response to China’s neo-mercantilist/imperialism thing. Besotted with China Hype (and desperate), most US allies have rushed to join Beijing’s passé-sounding AIIB investment bank, which emulates post-war institutions of little ongoing use like the IMF, ADB, etc. Meanwhile, Barron’s thoughtfully recommends stock picks for readers keen to share in the profit to be had from China’s friendly cooperation and partnership with the rest of Asia. China’s Communist leaders, indulging in this contrived Cold War II, must be recalling Lenin’s supposed thoughts that ‘the capitalists will sell us the rope we hang them with’.

So let us all stop asking why – just join hands and jump and down together in frenzied glee chanting ‘One Belt, One Road’!

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The Sevens, at last, fade away

SCMP-sevens40Hmmm… What to do with my ‘16-page guide to the fun and excitement of the Sevens’?

I was barely aware that the annual extravaganza of tedious grossness was upon us yet again. Usually, the approaching tournament is in your face for weeks before it takes place, with various promotional activities featuring men in suits grinning and holding oval balls, desperate people begging for and whining about tickets, and endless media hype about how 20 million pies will be consumed over the weekend.

This year, there seems to have been little fanfare. Judging from the broken beer bottles strewn along the streets near Lan Kwai Fong this morning, it remains an excuse for contrived underage debauchery among the city’s expat brats. And no doubt the usual flood of podgy, pink, male Westerners are pouring in from hellholes like Dubai all ready to stroll around talking loudly and wearing highly original purple wigs. But on the whole the event seems subdued, as if the community (or those segments of it that ever paid it any attention) has tired of the ritualized ‘fun and excitement’ and the multi-millions spent on corporate sponsorship, hospitality and suites. (So 1990s.)

Bloomberg confirms my suspicions. It reports that Mainlanders are attending in ever-growing numbers, condemning the Sevens to the same category of uncool as the Maldives and drying your panties in the airport. And landlord Allen Zeman pronounces the occasion a boost to Hong Kong’s image in the world – always a sure sign that we would be better off without something.

To put all this irrelevance in perspective, Chief Executive CY Leung maintains that Burma and North Korea have genuine universal suffrage if their laws say they do, and that the British Prime Stan-LeungDefMinister is not popularly elected (an insult to David Cameron’s magnificent defeat of the Monster Raving Loony Party’s Howling ‘Laud’ Hope). He fails to mention the US Electoral College system – Beijing apologists’ favourite example of the West’s fraudulent version of democracy. But even so: another day, another inflammatory and delusional comment almost designed to bring Hong Kong closer to Umbrella Revolution – the Sequel.

Amazingly, CY finds time to stuff more of his household’s dirty laundry in our faces. Last week, it was the Facebook uproar-embarrassment over his suicidal/runaway daughter. Now he issues a statement to rebut a former employee’s tittle-tattle in the media about life chez Leung.

The curt press release seeks to belittle Chung Kin-leung by clarifying that he was not the Grand Chief Chef he said he was at Government House, but a mere Kitchen Elf (grade II). Having established that the man is just (unusually impertinent) grassroots public-housing riffraff rather than a One Of Us middle-class professional, the statement insists that Chung was not, as he claimed, required to hit the floor with his forehead and address the Leung offspring as little princes and princesses, but was indeed allowed to call them by their first names. (Is permitting servants such familiarity with children itself condescending? Something to ponder over the weekend.)

Maybe there was a time when the world saw Hong Kong as the home of the Sevens. Somewhere along the way, the city’s image has shifted towards that of the young people holding umbrellas amid clouds of tear gas. One way or another, that looks set to be so.

I declare the weekend open…


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CY suddenly keen on democratic elections

I had one of those ‘vivid dreams’ that seem extremely real just before waking this morning. I dreamt that RTHK Radio 3 news reported a proposal by environmental activists that the Hong Kong government formulate a serious policy on agriculture and food production. Specifically, they suggested that the city should adopt a target for food self-sufficiency and grow (to take their example) 30% of its own vegetables. And they weren’t talking trendy techie Hydroponics Hub hype; they wanted to preserve farmland, with all that yucky soil and fertilizer stuff.

In the office, I check the newspapers, Google News, the RTHK website and the Designing HK and Paul Zimmerman websites and Facebook pages, and find no mention of this, which is when I realize I must have dreamt it. Which all makes sense, really. Specialty organic gardens are great. But the idea that a city of 7 million crammed among steep mountains and a harbour should attempt to grow large amounts of food sounds pretty far-fetched. Why not build 30% of our cars, trucks, ships and aircraft? Why not manufacture 30% of our electronics, furniture or clothing? This is the basic economic principle of comparative advantage: produce what you are better and best at. We even import our dish-washing services from the Philippines and Indonesia. Strange things, dreams.

Then again, real life gets pretty unbelievable. Speaking yesterday to an investment conference, of all things, Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung invited voters to kick out pan-democrat lawmakers at the next elections, which are 18 months away. Even if he weren’t embarrassing himself before an international audience (again), he was being rash. SCMP-CYurgesCY is himself unelected, unless you count the miserable 689 mainly Beijing-directed ballots cast for him in the ‘Election Committee’, so he is hardly in a moral position to talk about voting democratically elected lawmakers out. Meanwhile, the electoral law bars the CE from membership of a political party, which suggests that he is expected to be above petty party factionalism. On top of that, 18 months is a long time. It is hard to imagine him wanting help from the pan-dems in that period, but why deepen enmity for no obvious reason? This is a man who has few enough friends as it is. The pan-dems, for all their exasperating lameness, can still scrape a majority of votes from a populace that gives a resounding thumbs-down to CY in opinion polls. It’s unwise tactics as well: how many bored or undecided registered voters will now plan to vote pan-dem just to spite him? Even some pro-government figures are distancing themselves from these comments.

When CY came into office in 2012 against the wishes and expectations of the tycoon-bureaucrat establishment, he had a relatively reformist manifesto and an opportunity to carve out some sort of populist support base. But implementing Xi Jinping’s paranoid clampdown in Hong Kong, especially after the Occupy-Umbrella movement, is now the only priority. CY’s mission is now to crush the Communist Party’s real or imagined local enemies. He appears to be enjoying it immensely, to the point that (as even the Standard’s editorial hints) it’s looking like hubris. Across the spectrum, people have hoped things might calm down a bit. But they can dream on: this is going to get uglier. (To expand slightly on ‘hubris’ and ‘uglier’, let us recall that the Chinese Communist Party does not reciprocate loyalty; it ditches, kicks in the teeth, chews up and spits out its most obedient, fervent and groveling minions the second they are more trouble than they are worth.)

Nasty gossipy unattributed hearsay tittle-tattle… A highly reliable source tells me: “a well known International Brewing company of Danish origin is paying bar owners in Hong Kong $HK200,000 each NOT to stock any ‘craft beers’ imported by local small importers…”

This sort of (alleged, etc) practice is probably quite common. It’s why we should avoid tacky bars and favour small independent outlets. For a multinational to pay a retailer not to carry obscure micro-breweries’ products is essentially to admit ‘our beer tastes like crap’. Why not cut out the bar-management middle-man and go straight to the consumer? Walk up to ordinary men and women on the street, drop to your knees and beg: ‘I’ll give you this clean, crisp HK$100 if you drink our company’s bat’s piss rather than that fancy IPA from Oregon’. Humiliate yourself for market share. A reminder – as if one were needed – that people who work in sales and promotions must have done unspeakable things in their previous life.

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The ‘carry trade’

Is it just me, or have the streets and sidewalks in Central been a bit less crowded over the last few days? Protests against parallel traders seem have prompted a fall in the number of Mainland smugglers in the New Territories – presumably following a clampdown of some sort in Shenzhen. Maybe the decline in visitors has trickled down to the urban areas. Or maybe it’s a seasonal thing. Or it’s just my imagination.

While most Hongkongers rejoice at a fall in visitor numbers, landlords and other grubby interests want to keep the influx coming. Sensing that local residents are finally losing patience, they are proposing large shopping centres on land near the border, so Mainland traders SCMP-BackShacan come in, stuff their suitcases full of diapers and Yakult, and go back, without clogging up New Territories towns and transport. The latest idea involves Sha Tau Kok.

The underlying assumption is that the cross-border trade in milk powder, toothpaste and Ferrero Rocher chocolates is some sort of natural and normal economic activity. Of course it’s not. It’s an aberration resulting from tax/price differences and perceived differences in product quality/safety, combined with an open border and – where the organized trading is concerned – a ready supply of cheap labour. No-one seems to have examined the economics of this phenomenon, perhaps because it would highlight the scale of corruption among Mainland Customs officials or the amount of tax revenue Beijing is losing to smugglers. But it seems like a staggeringly inefficient and wasteful way to add value.

I would love to know…

  • How many man-hours per day/week/month are devoted to the cross-border transportation by wheeled suitcase of all the Yakult, milk powder, etc?
  • How many passenger-kilometres of bus/MTR travel do the traders account for per day/week/month? What is the carbon footprint?
  • What are the profit margins on idiotic commodities like Yakult and Ferrero Rocher, after transport/smuggler/bribery/distribution costs? Just how much of a premium does Hong Kong-sourced toothpaste command over the border, given that the Pearl River Delta is full of Watsons and Park N Shops with shelves groaning under the weight of Darlie and Colgate?
  • How is the margin broken down? How much is due to Mainland tax, retail pricing practices or business overheads? How much is due to belief in Hong Kong goods’ superiority or fears of counterfeit/adulterated Mainland products – and are these psychological factors justified or do vested interests encourage them?
  • What are the costs of all these back-and-forth trips to taxpayers in terms of HK/Mainland immigration/customs processing and facilities? What are the costs to New Territories residents in terms of extra travel time, higher local prices, mental health, foot injuries from kicking of suitcases, etc?

This is one of the rare occasions when a genuinely useful subject for a doctoral thesis has appeared – graduates pondering a PhD in recontextualizing gender roles or something, please note.

Basically, what I am saying is, forget the locusts and just look at the economics: this is nuts. Hundreds of men and women trundling suitcases of diapers by foot across what is basically an international border all day every day. Even if the stuff weren’t already on sale on the Mainland, you could load each week’s thousands of cans of milk powder, tubes of toothpaste, bottles of Yakult and little round globules of Ferrero Rocher into a few dozen 20-foot containers and carry them to Shenzhen by truck or cargo ship in a few hours and be done with it. This isn’t market forces – it’s perverse.


Back to Singapore. It seems to be the done thing right now to dig up old photos of the Lion City to show how ramshackle the place was before Towering Genius of the Universe Lee Kuan Yew performed his miracles. So, for people who like this sort of thing, here are my late father’s, taken in 1946. This was around the time Harry Lee was on a ship heading to England and complaining about the smell of Negroes (according to his memoirs – can’t make this sort of thing up)…


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Hong Kong’s Sorrow

Having already gone to press when Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew died yesterday morning, Hong Kong newspapers belatedly go into obituary mode. The Standard devotes its front Stan-SingaporesSorrowpage to Turkish Airlines, which puts its apparently unlimited advertising budget to curiously inane uses – today inviting us to email from 33,000 feet just to show we can. At the top right, a small but mournful box refers to ‘Singapore’s sorrow’.

The rest of the local press clearly see Lee’s passing as Hong Kong’s sorrow as well, giving the old guy the black-border-and-flowers treatment previously reserved for Sir Edward Youde, the Tiananmen students and Deng Xiaoping (and few natives bar, maybe, Szeto Wah or Anita Mui). Does Lee qualify for such an exalted send-off from Asia’s other city-state/little dragon/entrepot?

Hong Kong and Singapore proudly rejoice in their common cultural and historical lineage, don’t they? No, of course, they don’t. You would have thought two British-founded Chinese-inhabited ports specializing in sucking wealth from their backward and corrupt hinterlands would get on like family. But the emotional relationship barely ranks as sibling rivalry. Lee envied Hong Kong’s bigger financial sector, while Hongkongers wonder why they can’t have road pricing – and that’s about it.

The two places are quite different. One speaks Hokkien-glish, puts chili sauce on everything and bows to the government, while the other speaks Cantonese, fears curry and complains about everything. Even the colonial heritages are distinct: Singapore is stuck in a 1950s time-warp with hanging, flogging and censorship, while in Hong Kong it’s still cool to speak like the Queen, who has wittily or grotesquely been adopted as a symbol of resistance to Mainland influence.

So why all the adulation in the Hong Kong media for the departed Lee Kuan Yew? Because he was the visionary who single-handedly turned a snake infested swamp-slum into an advanced Squeaky Clean® mega-wealthy modern paradise on Earth, in just a month or two. Sure – but someone else’s visionary. There must be a better reason. We know there is. And we know exactly what’s coming. Still, at the risk of stating the obvious…

For the answer, we turn to the South China Morning Post’s ‘My Take’ column. To comprehend Lee Kuan Yew’s greatness, we are told, you need to hail from the ‘Confucian belt’. We then get the ‘Asian values’ argument, a pre-meme meme from the mid-1990s. Essentially, people with yellow skin enjoy being/need to be kicked around. Westerners who fuss about ‘individual incidents’ (sadistically bankrupting/jailing people who don’t agree with the stern paternal leader) can’t understand this, because their brains are wired differently owing to a lack of rote learning at an early age because they use namby-pamby phonetic alphabets and no abacuses, or something. The point is: Lee Kuan Yew was great because he showed that authoritarianism worked and doesn’t have to be corrupt and democracy is garbage, which enraged Westerners who thought they knew everything.

Even disregarding the column’s lack of subtlety, something doesn’t ring true here. Singapore’s non-corruption (like Hong Kong’s) is only remarkable by regional standards. Western Europeans and North Americans (and Japanese and South Koreans) take it for granted that you don’t have to bribe Post Office staff to hand over your mail. And rather than enrage Westerners, Lee had them, from Kissinger to the Queen, eating from his hand. His and Singapore’s success lies in not being dysfunctional like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc, etc. Which deserves a pat on the head, but is hardly a civilizational achievement in a small island-city. Not that we should underestimate Lee’s genius for image-management and its role alongside bullying in creating a spirit of national pride and obedience. But really – if you can’t pull that off without intimidating academics and writers, that’s a bit pathetic.

Intimidating academics and writers… Yes, this brings us plodding to our conclusion. Hong Kong’s media are lauding Lee Kuan Yew as a symbol or proxy for the authoritarianism Beijing would like to impose on us. (Hey – I did say this would be stating the obvious.)


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What if no LKY? Time to find out


DB-30hikersAfter lunch at Mui Wo’s Bahce Turkish restaurant yesterday, a hike over the hills. You normally expect to encounter a few people in twos and threes up there, but I ran into some walkers who had apparently decided to enjoy a quiet day in the country as a group of 30.

When I arrived in Discovery Bay, I found the famously expatriate settlement in a state of shock and outrage. The previous evening, excited residents reported, a group of kids had run into the community’s drinking/commercial/transport hub and raised the alarm about a security guard having beaten a young child. Details were hazy. The kid was 7 or 12; the guard worked for the shopping centre not the main security force; the kid had a reddened face or bruised ribs; the guard had run away with kids and/or parents in pursuit. What was certain was that passers-by had taken photos, the cops had arrested the alleged assailant and – most of all – this was a grievous outrage.

No-one I heard mentioned the death penalty as such. But the mood was that if furious protective parents had caught the guard they would have lynched him, and he would have deserved it. One resident repeatedly and angrily stressed that everyone had to demand action and answers to make sure the affair didn’t get buried.

Common sense and the law tell us that a security guard (or anyone) should only whack someone else in self-defence. Observation, hearsay and plaintive appeals for good behaviour in public notices from property management also suggest that at least a few kids SCMP-DBguardin Disco Bay may be bratty and spoilt. I wouldn’t want to pass judgement. (A little South China Morning Post item today puts the excitement into perspective.)

However, I would venture to guess that the kid in question and all or most of his buddies were white/Western, English-speaking and well-off, while the security guard was Chinese or South Asian and relatively poor. And that the residents’ rage reflects deeper sensitivities and fears within what is essentially a middle-class, racially/culturally exclusive gated community. Under siege by the mysterious teeming Oriental hordes just a short ferry-ride away across the water, etc. (Maybe the 30 hikers were fleeing in fear of pogroms.)

Which brings us rather neatly to the death of Lee Kuan Yew. The father-figure of modern Singapore built his sterile but prosperous city-state on paternalism and authoritarianism rooted in a fear of the inferior peoples surrounding the place. Only his leadership and genius kept the tranquil and air-conditioned island safe from the surrounding steaming jungles full of resentful, impoverished Malay Muslims, pirates and cannibals.

Lee’s drawn-out passing allowed obituary writers to polish and update the epics that have no doubt been on file for years. Philip Bowring’s is probably second-to-none. Among his good points: Singapore’s prosperity came naturally via geography and history rather than through Lee’s guidance (Hong Kong did equally well without state control), and the vindictive and spiteful treatment of critics was unjustified in terms of enabling stability or development (as Hong Kong also proved).

Which is more accurate or fashionable or edgy or provocative? To go with the ‘Lee Kuan Yew as towering genius’ school of thought, or to recall the man as vicious and even shallow – or whatever word we use for late-20th Century eugenicists?

Either way, the real question is for his surviving leaders and citizens in Singapore: what now? Many years ago, I remember a Hong Kong colleague’s sadness and anger at the fact that what was then a British colony was the freest Chinese community in the world, with ex-colony Singapore coming next, Taiwan’s police state coming third and the Communist Mainland last. Since then, Taiwan has gone democratic and leaped to first place, and Hong Kong is being brought closer under Beijing’s paranoid one-party control. If the Chinese government continues to suppress Hong Kong’s media and judiciary, Singapore will get the number-two spot by default. As it is, Singapore is already making timid moves to ease up.

Rather than ponder, like a book I have or one Twitter account, what things would be like without Lee Kuan Yew, Singaporeans should ask what is now possible without him. Just as Hong Kong would if the CCP breathed its last.


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HK Police to use maximum POO

The Hong Kong Police are to make full use of Cultural Revolution-era provisions of the Public Order Ordinance in order to deal with ‘suspicious’ gatherings of three or more people. ‘Suspicious’ presumably means ‘expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of governance’.

Since the Occupy-Umbrella movement began last year, the HKP have clearly been SCMP-PoliceToCrackpsyched-up to see and treat anti-government protestors as the enemy (compare with the relaxed, almost-friendly policing style at demonstrations in years past). This is due to pressure from above, not just in the Hong Kong government but from Beijing officials. The logic is that protestors are the cause of troubles and problems, not a reaction to them. No doubt this new police approach will be a great success, and we will see a significant increase in social harmony now.

But wait! More and new opposition to parallel traders suddenly appears. One Thierry Stern of tacky luxury watchmaker Patek Philippe complains about them as he bemoans the pressures forcing various designer brands to cut prices. Unlike with groceries, airline tickets and other commodities, the concept of ‘price cuts’ is toxic to the whole image and concept of luxury goods. A certain type of sucker craves these tawdry baubles because he or she believes other people who can’t afford them will envy them (it goes back to evolutionary psychology – attracting mates). Put a ‘20% off’ sign on these glitzy goods, and you ruin the whole thing. Today’s Standard even has an editorial trying to come to terms with cut-price Chanel bags.

The decline of the Euro and China’s anti-corruption clampdown are factors. But so, as Monsieur Thierry indicates, is the dreaded parallel trader. What he can’t bring himself to say is that the luxury brands have a very geographical pricing policy. In places where consumers are really dumb, desperate newbies, the French and Italian purveyors of overpriced crap ramp the prices right up. In places where people are mature and sensible and less gullible (and earning a collapsing disaster-currency), you adjust this component of the ‘shopping experience’ accordingly. Parallel traders expose how overpriced the overpriced crap is, damaging not simply profit margins but the whole illusion of value and desirability. Quel dommage.

I declare the weekend open with the thought that if Thierry is joined by his counterparts from Chanel and (say) Louis Vuitton to moan about this issue as a trio, we will have a high-end Public Order Ordinance breach on our hands.

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‘Beijing Consensus’ same old stuff

Residential property prices in China are collapsing at a faster rate than in the US post-Lehmans, or – to put it a bit less excitedly – by 5.7% in the year to February. So what was a RMB1,000,000 apartment a year ago now goes for around RMB950,000. An innocent bystander might assume that, after surging in 2010 and 2013, prices are simply peaking, so no big deal. But as we all know, a property market is a slow, lumbering beast, and when it starts plodding downhill it can keep going, however slowly, for a very long time.

One of the perplexities and perversities of modern life is that when the cost of food, fuel, clothing, phones or medicine comes down, it’s a Very Good Thing, but when home prices fall, it’s a Very Bad and Scary Thing, at least for a lot of people and many policymakers. The main reason is that it suddenly becomes clear with a massive Doh! that developers and buyers have borrowed crazy amounts of money they can never repay, and banks and the economy face ruin. In addition, China has a system (suggested in the late 1970s by a young Hong Kong patriot/property agent called CY Leung) whereby local governments rely on land sales for revenues needed to pay for public services.

The feeling of impending doom grows stronger. China is sitting on a mountain of bad debt. (How big is ‘a mountain’? No-one’s sure.) One in five urban apartments in the country is
Ordossitting empty. (Maybe. Again, nobody’s certain.) We are also told that the property sector accounts for 15% or 20% of national GDP. (Which is putting the cart before the horse, like arguing that Hong Kong ‘relies’ on Mainland tourists because there are so many of them. A worthless, destructive activity accounts for a fifth of your GDP, therefore it’s vital.)

Note the key common theme running through all this: no-one has a clue. Even basic indicators like GDP growth and inflation are falsified in China, so forget reliable data on non-performing loans or overcapacity of housing stock. Most agree, however, that there is a really huge, serious problem.

So what happens? Why of course – the stock market booms. People have been muttering about the country’s property market bursting, falling or at least subsiding for well over a year. The scarier things look, the higher the stock index goes. The government can’t/won’t allow a mega-collapse, everyone assumes, so it will bail out/stimulate as much as it takes to prop it all up, which translates into more money sloshing around, which will get invested in equities for lack of anything else, so buy now.

A few years ago, chattering Davos types started talking about a ‘Beijing Consensus’. There was a ‘Washington Consensus’ with liberal democracy and free markets, which was a discredited and exhausted joke after the financial crisis broke out in 2007. Now, China was showing the world a new way, with oh-so professional and purposeful authoritarian rule enabling and guiding smooth economic growth that avoided all the bubbles and volatility and waste and the Doh! stupidity you get with the wrecked old Western system. Oh well, nice idea. The reality: China’s policymakers can’t think of anything more original than debt-fuelled bubbles and bailouts and monetary stimulus, after all.

This is a long way of adding to the debate about the famed David Shambaugh essay. With state secrecy and quite possibly ignorance in place of dependable public statistics, any kind of analysis can only be guesswork. Two things we can be sure of are that in China the same rules of economics apply as elsewhere, and the leaders do not seem to have any new ideas.

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Shaking the Great Wall

HK-shakesLyndhurst Terrace/Wellington Street in Central have been plastered with stickers declaring that ‘HK Shakes the Great Wall’. This is a place where comatose drunks and empty bottles roll down from Lan Kwai Fong every night, and the walls are routinely festooned with posters and banners advertising all manner of partying-related activities. So it could well be that ‘HK’ is some famous Euro-trash DJ who will be playing techno at some 3.00am rave for Ecstasy-fiends. The top Google return for the phrase is an Open Rice review of a nearby burger place, so perhaps it is a viral marketing thing going way over my head.

But it could mean something else. It could be a little political reflection – dimsum for the brain – about the extraordinary times we live in. When China’s security services ‘disappear’ a group of women for opposing harassment, we get the impression it doesn’t take much to make the Communist Party’s Great Wall tremble. David Shambaugh’s recent controversial essay cites Beijing’s hyper-paranoia as evidence for the coming collapse of the CCP regime. And, to participants’ and residents’ disbelief, Hong Kong’s Occupy-Umbrella and subsequent anti-smuggling protests visibly frightened Mainland officials. Hence all the smears, intimidation, police-overreaction and other absurdities, including the incessant and extreme demonization of activists.

Which brings us to University of Hong Kong Professor Richard Wong, who argues today that the ‘hooligans’ protesting parallel traders are on a par with the Ku Klux Klan. He does not briefly name-drop the Klan in his South China Morning Post column out of carelessness. He devotes nearly half the article to the history of the KKK (as if it were a cohesive movement rather than a hate-brand), from the defeat of the Confederacy to lynching to ‘talking back to bus drivers’ to David Duke.

The closest he can get to likening the anti-smuggler protestors to the Klan is to imply that both concern radicals behaving as hooligans under the guise of populism. It doesn’t exactly convince, even after shuffling those three nouns around to see if it makes any more sense. Maybe deep down these characteristics are common to all manner of protest movements – anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation, anti-fur, even Mainland feminists ‘occupying’ men’s toilets.

In an effort to lend a dash of credibility to this desperate comparison, the Professor informs us that Steven Levitt studied the KKK in his book Freakonomics. This is true. In fact, Freakonomics speaks profoundly and loudly to Hong Kong people, because the book likens the KKK to – wait for it – real estate agents. Richard Wong doesn’t mention that bit (it’s all about keeping and manipulating insider information).

He does claim that Hong Kong people would simply replace Shenzhen residents as cross-border traders if Mainlanders’ multiple-entry permits were scrapped. This assumes that Hongkongers are as low-paid as the Shenzhen people who find it economically worthwhile to go back and forth all day trundling cases of Yakult. It also raises questions about the smugglers’ mark-up and the whole price elasticity of demand thing: at what point would Mainland consumers consider Hong Kong-sourced Yakult too expensive and risk sipping the potentially poisonous local stuff, or just skip it and have an ice-cream instead? This is where a smart economist like Richard Wong could tell us something interesting. But instead, he feels the need to churn out whatever bizarre idiocy reassures Beijing when HK shakes the Great Wall.

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Fractured first-family frightfulness

Stan-VetNurseToday’s Standard carries a rather fetching picture of a latter-day Florence Nightingale flashing a ‘V’ sign at a patient undergoing surgery. If it were me under the knife – and I recovered to see the photo – I would be warmed and cheered by the young lady’s spirit and enthusiasm. But the nurse in question is a member of the veterinary profession, and her behaviour towards the cat on the operating table is apparently a Very Bad Thing, prompting a major outbreak of mouth-frothing among the animal-worship fraternity who have serious concerns about doctor-feline confidentiality.

From here on it all starts to go downhill.

Today’s big story is the latest sort-of-semi-unmentionable episode in the soap opera that is Leung Chai-yan. The daughter of Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung has used Facebook to tell the world about supposed suicide attempts. She has been filmed wandering around town apparently under the influence of something. She has briefly semi-dabbled in TV and movie starlet-dom. During last Sunday’s Open Day at Government House, she apparently emerged into the garden and floated in some disturbing or other manner among the crowds before being bundled away by minders. Passers-by on Upper Albert Road report strange screeches coming from the attic during the night. And now she claims her mother assaulted her and she’s leaving home…


No-one with any decency or taste will pay any attention or comment. Though we should CYLeungFB1add that the girl is of legal adult age.

It is Mrs CY, of course, who launched the Hong Kong Army Cadet Youth Detachment Corps in such dazzling style, in green uniform and jackboots, nostrils flaring and magnificent mane wafting in the breeze. (Selfie-taking animal nurses don’t stand a chance.)

It’s not the sheer prurience, assuming public figures’ troubled post-teens turn anyone on. It’s not the search for clues about our enigmatic leader’s true inner character. It’s the imagery, the zeitgeist. The dysfunctional Leung family as an allegory of Hong Kong’s cracked society. The despotic style of parenting as a metaphor for the Communist Party’s grip on its subjects. Or, for Beijing officials, Chai-yan as a reflection of Hong Kong – spoilt, rebellious, lapsing into English, corrupted by Western textbooks and in need of correcting.

I can’t resist recalling, with no little pride, that my own domestic helper more or less predicted all this some three years ago when she informed me that the incoming new CE’s wife was a ‘terminator’. That is, she fired maids repeatedly. (You need to pronounce ‘terminator’ with a Filipino stress on the final syllable and a rolled ‘r’ for the full, chilling effect.)


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