World’s most famous Hongkonger in headlines again

Determined to work more on youth development in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party has enlisted Joshua Wong to play a key role in boosting the nation’s international ‘soft power’ charm offensive, promoting the reputation of the city’s legal system, and encouraging voter turnout in the forthcoming legislative by-elections.

 

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Carrie Lam – CY Leung without the laughs

UK NGO Hong Kong Watch releases a damning report on Beijing’s increasing control over Hong Kong. (US NGO Freedom House also downgrades the city in its human and civil rights rankings.) Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes a break from playing lovey-dovey with the Liaison Office’s boss to blast this ‘interference’ in domestic affairs (see video).

What’s creepy about Carrie’s performance here is that she is playing the Communist Party apologist role so convincingly. As a career Hong Kong bureaucrat, she is accustomed to blandly and mechanically denying that her pants are on fire while flames and smoke swirl around her. But since taking office she has acquired a greater air of conviction – and about (what must be to her) alien, Leninist ideology rather than plain old governance screw-ups.

We can rule out the possibility that – like the pipe-smoking Anglophile civil servant in Timothy Mo’s Monkey King – she was always a closet Red. She exhibits none of the passion for the Communist cause that we saw in her predecessor, CY Leung. She recites the party line (‘China is not meddling but helping Hong Kong’s development’) as someone who has mastered her briefing papers to perfection, but doesn’t actually understand the material.

So far as we can tell (say from her Gay Games awkwardness), she is similarly unquestioning about her Catholicism. (Indeed – could it be that the local Catholic hierarchy have guided and counselled her to render unto the Beijing Caesar in the hope of furthering Vatican diplomatic goals?)

In short: she’s an administrator. (And disproof of at least one part of Catholic dogma.) The Communist Party frets that the British (somehow) left them with a city full of de-Sinicized Western-brainwashed counter-revolutionary terrorist teenagers. But they must be delighted to find that they also inherited civil servants who will obediently implement – and robotically defend – whatever policies the Liaison Office puts in front of them.

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Fun by-elections on the way

The Chinese government and its local administration are using loyalty tests and tightened procedural rules to turn Hong Kong’s Legislative Council from a weak and rigged body to a purely ceremonial, Mainland-style rubber-stamp one. While this is underway, it arguably makes sense for the city’s opposition to remain involved in this slightly-meaningful representative political process. Following the expulsion of opposition members for ideological incorrectness, there will be by-elections in March. These could be the last LegCo elections before boycotting makes more sense.

Unlike the normal multi-member-constituency, proportional-representation mishmash, these LegCo polls will be pure first-past-the-post races. They could serve as a referendum on the Communist Party’s gradual suppression of Hong Kong’s pluralistic civil society. Although there is little point in ‘sending Beijing a message’ – Beijing’s whole aim is to control rather than listen to Hong Kong – the by-elections will give voters an opportunity to humiliate the local puppet administration.

China’s local Liaison Office will micromanage the pro-Beijing parties’ campaigns to consolidate votes and maximize turnout. The pro-democrats can’t match such organization; mainstream pan-dem parties took part in a primary election to narrow candidates down to one per race, but fringe groups might nominate rivals.

Among possible tricks, the Liaison Office might put ‘fake’ democrats onto ballots, and shameless and lame Hong Kong officials have talked of reducing polling stations’ hours, which would boost the pro-Beijing camp’s chances. The Communists’ most powerful weapon to rig the election would be to bar pan-dem candidates from the ballot on ideological-test or other grounds. Edward Yiu thinks they wouldn’t dare. You can see how it could backfire – but when Leninists try to subvert democracy, there’s no such thing as too much.

One thing the pan-dems could really use is some serious, focused message-management – though that’s hard to imagine. Part of the problem is that they’re spoilt for choice when it comes to attention-grabbing issues, thanks to Beijing’s clumsily tightening grip and the local government’s incompetence.

One obvious example would be new Justice Secretary/old-illegal-structure owner Teresa Cheng (if she’s still around). An intriguing fact the media have found from the Lands Registry is that the price she paid for her Tuen Mun property in November 2008 was more than double what the previous owner paid just 10 months before…

FAST STEP INVESTMENT    22/06/07    HK$9.80mn

RICH PORT INVESTMENT   25/01/08    HK$12.68mn

SPARKLE STAR DEV’T           18/11/08     HK$26.00mn

I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation.

Another populist cause would be to call for the conversion of Fanling (and indeed other) golf courses to affordable housing. The South China Morning Post’s editorial ponders this today, and makes a heroic attempt to justify keeping the space as a reserve for the mentally deficient wealthy. We are invited to believe that we need some bore-fest called the ‘Hong Kong Open’, and that this and another thing called ‘player development’ are necessary to our city’s global standing (in a way that homes for people to live in, obviously, are not). It’s enough to give ‘balanced social diversity’ a bad name…

I smell a vote-winner!

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Media freebie weirdness at Festival Walk

Recovering from a weekend of media overload – binge-watching The Lonely Gourmet, an addictive manga-derived Japanese TV show that is ‘essentially pornography’, and reading Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which has received so much coverage that you already know half the contents.

And I got out to see Steven Spielberg’s The Post, starring Meryl Streep as Washington Post proprietor Katherine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee – about the Pentagon Papers/Daniel Ellsberg/etc affair, and thus in some ways a prequel to All the President’s Men. Gripping stuff, even if the feminist-icon angle is a bit clunky.

This was a ‘special screening’ at the Festival Walk cinema for the Hong Kong press (plus one or two inevitable lowlife hangers-on). However, it was not aimed at movie critics or culture correspondents – but actual news reporters and at least one prominent journalism lecturer. In its invitation, Intercontinental Films Distributors said it was offering the free tickets to thank the local media for their efforts and to inspire them in their future investigative work (or something to that effect).

A cunning way to flatter the recipients into producing positive viral reviews? New marketing floozy doesn’t understand how things work? Several members of the audience were scraping Tuen Mun dirt off their shoes on arrival in the foyer, fresh from staking out new Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng’s illegal structures, and making the government squirm over its latest scandal. It all sounds uncharacteristically, indeed dangerously, edgy for Hong Kong’s notoriously pro-establishment entertainment industry world.

 

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If you find yourself in a basement, stop digging

The new Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng ‘Otto grotto’ illegal structure quagmire mess mayhem disaster continues to unfold most entertainingly.

The government says it will allow Cheng to finish some outstanding arbitration cases from her private practice. Apparently this is a practical alternative to abandoning the work (and makes us wonder how much warning she had of her appointment). But it raises questions about conflict of interest – not to say unmanageable workloads for the famously ‘busy’ lawyer.

The minor but not excessively fringe Labour Party report Cheng to the Police for not mentioning her home’s illegal structures in mortgage documentation.

And media sleuths find that not only was Cheng a member of a buildings enforcement Appeals Panel, but she (co-) wrote the definitive, gripping, classic book on construction law in Hong Kong, featuring among other things a brusque dismissal of scumbags who claim ignorance of illegal structures in their homes (quite right too).

Chief Executive Carrie Lam asks for more tolerance for Cheng. Carrie is also overseeing vindictive law-stretching persecution of dissenting lawmakers, academics, teenagers and other opponents in her role as figurehead for creeping Communist Party authoritarianism – so she is pushing her luck here.

The Communist Party, having chosen Teresa Cheng for her ideological dependability, will not allow the Hong Kong authorities to ditch her. To them, obedience of the law is irrelevant as a qualification for high office, and the main problem here is an unruly press that is allowed to broadcast negative and subversive information. And spurning local public opinion is a matter of sovereignty. The only thing that might persuade them is if they realize how much this whole mess is a gift to the pro-democrats and other critics.

A sign of the times: BNO passports (British-issued non-citizens’ travel documents of limited practical use) are now a status symbol among authentic 100% Hongkongers.

And a reminder of how far Beijing’s brainwashing has to go on this side of the border: a Chinese Communist Party discussion on how and why to delete, fabricate or otherwise rewrite history (the juicy extracts are here). [Warning/update – allegedly fake news!]

I declare the weekend open with some ideal viewing for a cold-afternoon: 1950s Alfred Hitchcock light comedy The Trouble With Harry – not merely quite funny, but surprisingly tasteless.

 

 

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Delete ‘interfering with’, insert ‘advising’…

Sometimes mocked (like much of the Hong Kong media) for pro-Beijing bias and tycoon-ownership, the South China Morning Post receives a credibility-boosting badge of honour from blunt-spoken government supporter Arthur Li – who labels the paper ‘fake news’.

The question is whether the SCMP accurately quoted departing Hong Kong University head Peter Mathieson. When I read the original article, I remember getting the impression that Mathieson implied that Beijing’s Liaison Office frequently meddled. This was probably because the opening paragraph said:

The outgoing head of the University of Hong Kong has described his tenure as filled with “pressure from everybody”, saying that apart from local officials, he was also given advice “all the time” by Beijing’s liaison office.

Li essentially claims that the SCMP ‘conflated’ Mathieson comments. We would expect a groveling apology, but maybe the boss is away or something and the SCMP admirably stands its ground in response – even though the transcript suggests Li has at least a partial point. A pro-journalistic argument might be that Li is confusing the concise crafting of an enticing lead para with ‘conflation’.

Even if Li is right, however, no-one disputes that the Liaison Office has been ‘advising’ HKU leadership. That is the substance of the story.

Officially (traditionally/in-your-dreams), the Liaison Office’s role is to be an intermediary between the national and local governments, and to help smooth Mainland-Hong Kong relations in discreet, positive and benign ways. Officially (etc), Hong Kong universities are completely off-limits to Communist Party influence. Officially, then, local academic institutions should perhaps be ‘advising’ the Liaison Office – but not the other way round. Obviously, this is not the case. This is not ‘fake’ news. It’s not news at all.

Elsewhere inSCMP Goes Rogue’…

Liaison Office will call soon with some advice.

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Some links you can’t build housing on

Three leading participants in Occupy are on trial for ‘inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance’ among other charges along similar, if less tortuous, lines. This is part of a pattern since the Umbrella Movement in which Beijing’s Liaison Office has ordered Hong Kong authorities to inflict maximum vindictiveness on political activists. (The latest meticulously maintained list is here. It’ll need a spreadsheet soon.)

Did public prosecutors come up with the banana-republic-sounding ‘incitement to incite’ thing to please the Communist Party’s rabid goons, or to subvert and attract ridicule to Beijing’s authoritarian clampdown here? Benny Tai et al helped organize a demo – we will see whether the courts go along with such desperate attempts to make that a crime.

Other legal stuff… Former Hong Kong official and pro-Beijing um, heavyweight Patrick Ho, facing trial in the US, could go for a plea bargain, a lawyer argues. This could entail him spilling the beans about senior people in China’s murky state-capitalist elite. Mmmm… The alternative in the US anti-corruption system is a possible 20-year sentence (which even the Liaison Office would blanch at). So much for the wishy-washy liberal idea that tough sentences don’t work. That said, there is a tradition in Mainland graft for middlemen-stooges to carry the can in the knowledge that their family will be rewarded by the genuinely guilty people higher up (a neo-Confucian thing).

Back to housing: Professor Richard Wong has interesting ideas about privatizing public estates and other ways of addressing Hong Kong’s key livelihood problem. However, he has a curious obsession with the role of divorce in the equation. There is a link between Mainland immigration and failed marriages (which increase the number of households, thus pressure on demand for cheap units). But to hear him tell it here, public housing pretty much causes divorce. Does he have unique insight into demographics and other social sciences, or is he just a nut (religious or otherwise) on this subject?

One of the best summaries of China’s much-discussed Orwellian dystopian face-recognition social-credit Black Mirror nightmare-in-the-making is worth reading here. Does Xi really think he can zombify and herd 1.3 billion? And with that in mind, a breath of fresh air on the China-taking-over-because-of-Trump theme to remind us that ‘We suck, but China does too.’

 

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Maybe they should call it a Task Feebleness

The Hong Kong government’s main effort to solve the city’s housing problem has been the formation of a Task Force on Land Supply. It has had no visible impact on making housing more affordable. Instead, it has discussed drug-induced fantasies like building platforms above container ports and reclaiming reservoirs. Such ramblings confirm that the officials behind the Task Force wish to divert public attention from realistic measures (and insult our intelligence). It is possible they will next try to amuse us with a sliver of a golf course.

A few months back, an idealistic NGO quietly floated a suggestion. They proposed a fully independent body (something like a specialized citizens’ jury) to list and examine all the possible new sources of land for homes. With no vested interests undermining the process, we would at last get an objective view of the options to make housing more affordable. Needless to say, no more was of heard of it.

A column in today’s South China Morning Post mildly concedes that the official approach has its limits. It actually calls the port/reservoir inanity a ‘diversion’ and admits that re-zoning brownfield, agricultural and other sites would be more practical. It even starts to hint at extremely obvious and easy solutions, when it states that ‘the government prospered’ last year from auctioning land to developers at wacko prices – but then the Don’t Think Out Of That Box alarms go off.

By seeking maximum land/development revenues for itself (in addition to the developers’ fat margins), the government just pushes housing prices up further. It is a perverse system: rather than acting as an enabler, the state in Hong Kong competes with the rest of the population and economy in a zero-sum struggle for an essential resource. The government actively tries to make it as expensive as possible for people and businesses to access space to live and work. It then acts puzzled when people complain of poor living conditions and limited spending power, or entrepreneurs can’t thrive (or people have illegal structures). And the government has no use of the extra revenue! It could pull the plug on this idiocy tomorrow.

Other ways to make homes cheaper involve tackling the demand side, like barring Mainland money-launderers from buying property here. The list of possibilities is long. Again, the government and its supporters act oblivious to the fact that such options exist.

The naïve NGO mentioned above was suffering a major delusion: it imagined that the government sees unaffordable housing as a problem, and land supply as a solution. The truth is that unaffordable housing is the aim, and land supply is the means and excuse.

 

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Good staff are so hard to find these days

Never say you don’t get good entertainment value for your Hong Kong tax dollars. Within hours of taking office, the city’s new Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng suffers an almost clichéd slapstick setback when it emerges that her New Territories villa has illegal structures. One minute she is solemnly swearing an oath to uphold the law, the next she is mumbling apologies for causing ‘inconvenience’ and ‘lacking awareness’.

Naturally, the media swarm to the ‘luxury a la Tuen Mun’ residential development off Castle Peak Road. Using drones, public planning records and satellite photos, the sleuth reporters examine the nasty wedged-in boxes perhaps inspired by the 1960s Albanian Coastal-Defence Installation school of architecture. They determine that Teresa Cheng’s abode does indeed have unauthorized back-yard structures, a rooftop ‘glass-house’ and a mystery staircase leading to the netherworld.

Give or take the alleged sinister subterranean stairway, such transgressions of the building codes are pretty normal. But the press also find a secret doorway leading to the adjacent villa. It is a portal to the semi-sordid world of Hong Kong’s lower-second-tier elites’ personal lives.

It transpires that the neighbour is one Otto Poon, an engineer apparently of great fame and repute – and Teresa’s husband who no-one knew she had. Just a year ago Cheng was sleeping with Poon (chez Poon) (told you this would get icky) while both homes were being burgled. We also learn (or are reminded) that Otto’s previous marriage ended in a mega-bucks divorce following family tragedies, plus a 20-year affair he had with an employee.

But wait! There’s more! His company was involved in Macau’s Ao Man-long land corruption scandal 10 years ago (as were big Hong Kong names). And he sits on the Election Committee that rubber-stamps Beijing’s choice for Chief Executive in Hong Kong, in which capacity he nominated Carrie Lam for her ‘election’ last year.

It also transpires that Teresa has a son (presumably by a long-forgotten and never-mentioned ex-husband, because obviously such possibilities as birth out of wedlock or adoption are too mind-blowingly freaky to contemplate).

The squeamish among us might ask how much of her personal life, such as her arrangement with Otto Poon and his own background, is relevant? (Some grubbier media outlets are digging for details about her son, whose description fits a young lawyer.) Does the fact that she is taking a job in which she will oversee the replacement of Hong Kong’s rule of law with Leninist rule by man legitimize what might otherwise be prurience?

(Another question is what government enforcement agencies knew, and when? But that leads to the whole quagmire of New Territories real-estate corruption.)

The real issue is this: in Hong Kong today, very few intelligent people will seriously want to serve in senior government positions, and by the time the Chinese Communist Party has filtered out undesirables, it’s a wonder anyone is left. It could be that Teresa Cheng was reluctant and/or low down the shortlist – and there wasn’t enough time for non-ideological vetting, let alone for the Buildings Department’s sniffer dogs to check for illicit wine cellars. This is why ideas-free, mediocre bureaucrats head up most policy bureaus.

The investigative press/gossip rags obviously timed the publication of this little scandal for maximum effect. Some also see a politically inspired leak. But where from? The United Front has long experience here, but it would release dirt early to stop a target’s progress, or later to eliminate them – not on their first day. Unless, of course, the idea is to derail someone else who is left looking idiotic by the episode, which in this case would be Chief Executive Carrie Lam. If it is any consolation to Carrie, such a conspiracy scenario against her is probably not sufficiently infantile, convoluted or sadistic for the United Front psychos to consider.

On other matters – strictly for Trump-watching language-analysis types and the Turing Test-curious: Who wrote that ‘like, really smart’ Tweet?

 

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HK survives first week of 2018

Even at January 5, it looks certain that 2018 will be a year of continuous, quite possibly accelerating, Mainlandization in Hong Kong. Not a day is going by without another step towards authoritarianism – a young activist being tried or retried, a pro-dem academic losing his job, an opinionated foreign visitor being turned away at the airport.

The effect is (presumably intentionally) numbing. But Beijing’s imperial edict on co-location (officially termed an NPCSC decision) is different. It crosses a line, partly because it enables Mainland law enforcement to operate openly in part of the city, but mainly because it shatters the idea that the sovereign power might be subject to any legal constraints within Hong Kong. By conjuring a legal justification for co-location out of nowhere, without any reference to the Basic Law, let alone the local laws and process, Beijing establishes law by fiat, rule by man, might-is-right as a reality here. In principle, all bets are now off.

South China Morning Post business columnists, who would normally ignore non-financial affairs, show signs of discomfort. This is Beijing’s way of convincing us that it is in charge, says one, which points to things like censorship down the road, adds another.

Most companies here have exposure to and interests in the Mainland, and they will be unperturbed so long as Beijing doesn’t crush the life and freedoms out of Hong Kong too quickly or unexpectedly. The question from a business viewpoint is: will the Communist Party be able to criminalize opinions, neuter the legislature and sidestep judges and juries discreetly and gradually enough?

It’s possible that the forthcoming Legislative Council by-elections on March 11 will be the last ones before candidate-barring and LegCo procedure-rigging make running/voting a pointless farce. (Serious prediction for when boycotts bring the turnout below 30-40%: the government makes voting mandatory.) I declare the weekend open with a suggestion to watch two fun issues that could embarrass pro-Beijing forces – the ding rights-selling village house developer scam, and the juicy prospect of converting Fanling Golf Club to affordable housing.

 

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