A reminder that no-one has a clue

Eeewww – pass the sick-bag…

There is China coverage that we assume reflects what they want us to think. An example today is increasingly state-directed Alibaba’s owner Jack Ma’s South China Morning Post passing on blood-curdling revelations about Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang having plotted a coup. And at the other end of the spectrum there is serious analysis from veteran and respected observers (such as…).

But whether it is designed to mislead or attempting to be objective, it is all focused on a black box, given the slightly more accessible name ‘China’s elite politics’. Only a small number of people really know what is going on within the box (even that number – it might be half a dozen, a couple of dozen, or more – is purely conjecture).

Some quick weekend reading from ChinaFile reminds us how little we know. The current Communist Party Congress declares Xi Jinping Chairman for Eternity and enshrines Xi Jinping Thought as the nation’s sole guiding philosophy – but what does it mean? That Xi has personally assumed total control? Or that a certain number of people have decided that it should look like he has? For all we know, he is just a puppet.

The article offers the Chinese leadership’s famous factions as a good example. Outside commentators knowingly talk about (say) Communist Youth League alumni as a specific grouping with clannish ties that differentiate members from other, rival cliques. To outsiders accustomed to inter- or intra-party divisions in other countries, it sounds familiar, thus tempting. But there is limited hard evidence that the CCP is split, certainly not along the lines we often hear about (how ever much common sense tells us power struggles must take place).

This tendency to elaborate barely existent details extends to personality. The ChinaFile piece mentions the belief five years ago that Xi would push market-based reforms. A year or two later, the accepted wisdom was that he was clamping down to prepare the ground for these market-based reforms. Now we know better (we think). This is not new: remember Yuri Andropov, with the (by Brezhnev-era standards) glamorous wife and reputed fondness for jazz, who was to re-invent Soviet Communism?

This is basically just Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns and unknown unknowns applied to something very current. And we need the reminder.

The article mentions a small number of things that are visible – like published speeches and personnel moves – from which we might draw conclusions about what is happening in the black box. I would add the outflow of elites’ funds and family members to the West, notably the US. It’s happening; we can only guess why.

I declare the weekend open with a new sign of Hong Kong’s space shortage – a subdivided vending machine…

… for all your SIM card and canned coffee needs (maybe for when you phone someone who puts you to sleep).

 

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Xi unveils CCP’s new era of legitimacy

An empty vase makes the most noise. The grandiosity of the Chinese Communist Party Congress – heralding a New Era of Wondrous Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – is designed to mask a system that has run its course.

The relatively easy (ideology-ditching) recovery from the depths of Mao’s economic disaster was over some years ago. Growth since then has been fueled by debt being channeled into loss-making investments and asset bubbles, with rampant corruption and inequality as side-effects.

The next step through Middle-Income Land should be towards higher productivity. That means the government letting go of the allocation of capital, and ending the protection and promotion of favoured industries. But to oh-so-confident Xi Jinping, ‘letting go’ means hastening the downfall of the Communist Party. He is so fearful that a USSR-1989 collapse could be imminent that he is tightening the centre’s grip on – as we know – everything. (Higher productivity also entails details like rule of law and freer flows of information, which are downright abhorrent to the ultra-conservative princeling.)

Maybe the CCP under Xi will discover the Marxist Holy Grail, where central planning and control – the opposite of competition – boost innovation, efficiency and output. But let’s be cynical and assume that it won’t happen.

Xi is eschewing reform and GDP-doubling as too risky to the CCP’s monopoly of power. So instead he must focus on creating a mirage of continued progress. This means delivering substitutes and placebos like aircraft carriers and anti-corruption campaigns. It means eradicating anything that might contradict the ‘everything is wonderful’ harmony-vibes – so internet access, academic freedom and human-rights lawyers must continue to disappear. It means ever-more insistent and mesmerizing messages and images, hopefully less clunky than the pre-movie Jacky Chan propaganda clips. And to be safe, unprecedented creepy surveillance and control through e-wallets, social credit rating and face-recognition.

Here’s a good summary tracing a line from the global crisis of 2008 to today’s arrests of lawyers. It ends by mentioning the elements of Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’, like democracy, justice, equality and all the other goodies. They are thrust tastefully in your face wherever you go (cross the border at Sha Tau Kok and walk for one minute). The word ‘dream’ can mean ‘aspiration’, but strictly speaking it means an illusion. An even bigger fantasy is imagining that the CCP can glide through the coming financial, demographic and environmental mess this way.

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If it’s Wednesday, it must be Snore-Fest Time

Exactly a week ago it was Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s snooze-inducing Policy Address. And today it’s Xi Jinping’s coronation as Core Chairman-for-Life of Everything. We are about to be hit by a non-stop wall-to-wall avalanche of coverage and punditry about the tightly choreographed, turgid 19th Party Congress ritual. Who is seated next to whom? Will Xi have a theory named after himself, or a whole ‘thought’? How long does the overwhelming spontaneous applause last? How many seconds does the camera linger on each aging black-hair-dye recipient? There is no escape.

The purpose is to make you think that China under the New Great Helmsman is just starting its ascent to might, glory, prosperity and global supremacy (as, conveniently, the West, Japan, the international-dollar-rules-based-order, freedom, democracy and apple pie fade away). Perhaps as they accumulate more and power in fewer and fewer hands, the Chinese Communist Party’s elite believe it themselves.

Yet just as China is apparently resuming its rightful place as the centre of the civilized world, its rulers are acting as if the whole thing is in danger of crashing down around them. As academic Andrew Nathan puts it:

“This crackdown has been going on for a long time and seems to really represent a vision of how society should be – that it should fall into line and should be unified”…

Nathan said Xi’s crackdown was driven by a sense among party leaders that they were under siege from a disparate coalition of political foes including Tibetans, Hong Kongers, Xinjiang Uighurs, Taiwanese and Americans.

The offensive would continue in the medium term, he predicted. But in the long run it was a perilous tactic: “Why is [Xi] cracking down so hard? What is he afraid of? … It leaves me feeling as though this level of social crackdown is not sustainable…”

The paranoids’ reaction to paranoia is to become more paranoid. We see this close to home. Beijing’s attitude is that Hong Kong is becoming less stable and more rebellious, therefore the CCP must rely more on the support base of parasites and cronies whose privileges caused the instability and rebellion in the first place.

And now back to the action in the Great Hall of the Hubris…

 

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Carrie can now ‘look Hongkongers in the face’

When London’s Buckingham Palace was bombed during World War II, Britain’s then-Queen supposedly said she was glad because she could ‘look the [heavily damaged port area] East End in the face’. Something sort-of/roughly/maybe-not-remotely similar has happened in Hong Kong.

Our own regal residence, Government House, has been visited by our own approximate version of the Luftwaffe-as-contributor-to-urban-aesthetics: the Architectural Services Department. During a recent assault on the Chief Executive’s official mansion, the wreakers of destruction took a perfectly pleasant tennis court and left it a barren wasteland – or as their perverted ideology terms it, a ‘sitting out area’.

The phrase is actually described as ‘Hong Kong English’. It means a patch of inner-city space occupying too little area to benefit property developers, covered with concrete, pot plants and benches to make a nasty public sub-sub-sub-park. And the Architectural Services Dept have not held back in this case, installing typically repulsive vegetation, even more-un-sittable-than-usual seating, and – for extra vileness – embellishing the original shiny vomit-green playing surface of the tennis court…

…imparting an unmistakable, indeed uncanny, impression of grass.

CE Carrie Lam understandably disowns any responsibility for this intrusion into what is not just her front yard but a historic monument. Still, as the workmen pin up the ‘Beware of Rat Poison’ sign and the local street-sleeper stuffs his plastic bags behind a plastic-wood fence, she can now hold her head up and let other citizens see that she too has to live alongside the Pearl of the Orient’s uniquely mindless municipal charm.

 

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HK to form bigger blip on world’s radar

Expect a hurt, whiny, defensive, protesting-too-much press release later today as the Hong Kong government goes into a huff about international lawyers condemning Hong Kong’s declining rule of law, as reported here and here.

Local officials are already embarrassed by last week’s Benedict Rogers incident. Unlike most of us, Beijing’s ever-thorough security agencies were familiar enough with the mild-mannered British human-rights activist to deem him a potential trouble-maker. They ordered the Hong Kong authorities to turn him away, and sooner than you can say ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, a big fuss results. The guy promises to be a much bigger pain from now on.

For decades, Hong Kong’s mainstream pro-democracy figures tried to encourage overseas sympathizers to pressure China into keeping its apparent promises to the city. But the pro-democrats’ obsession with political structure failed to inspire foreign (not to say local) audiences.

Now things are different. The Chinese Communist Party has made it clear that Hong Kong people will not – cannot – be allowed to choose their own government. Furthermore, Beijing is abandoning the whole pretense that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ means Hong Kong will be insulated from the Mainland’s Leninist control system.

Instead of snore-inducing functional constituencies, we now have political prisoners – a far sexier subject. Barring a massacre, Hong Kong is not going to be a big international issue. But the potential for greater media and other overseas attention is higher.

Beijing’s officials aren’t concerned with external appearances or even public opinion within their own restive fringe territories. Their only focus is protecting the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, regardless of how ultimately self-defeating the methods.

For example, the alienation of Taiwan’s young looks irreversible – Beijing has lost the island, if it cares to notice. In Hong Kong the Leninist grip is tighter, and the question is how frantically should the party-state tighten it?

The CCP and its United Front strategists face a dilemma. Can they wait 20 years for Mainland immigration and schoolkids’ indoctrination to displace native Hong Kong’s hostility and incorrect thinking? Or must they eradicate press freedom and rule of law much sooner, before the city’s CIA-backed pro-independence forces rise up and sweep North across the border? Both entail risks.

This week’s must-read is a comprehensive summary of what you already know and feel but haven’t totally joined up because it’s so sprawling and distasteful – Mainlandization: How the Communist Party works to control and assimilate Hong Kong. Hopefully, the Benedict Rogers out there will all be seeing this.

 

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Panda wets itself again

Even the pro-establishment Standard’s editorial raises an eyebrow at Wednesday’s exclusion from Hong Kong of the hitherto little-known, apparently mild-mannered British Conservative and Catholic human-rights campaigner and former Hong Kong resident Benedict Rogers.

Optimistic readings of the ‘One Country Two Systems’ deal 20 years ago concluded that Beijing would not dismissively override Hong Kong’s supposed autonomy like this. But the optimists were wrong. Beijing has previously ordered Hong Kong Immigration to bar aging Tiananmen student exiles, Falun Gong conference-goers, young Taiwan radicals and British lawmakers on a fact-finding mission. Compared with the kidnapping of book publishers and a Communist elite-connected tycoon, this at least follows some sort of due process. This drift towards ‘One System’ is of course also evident in political persecution of radical politicians and protesters, orchestrated freaking-out over ‘pro-independence’ banners on campuses and so on.

Beijing’s heavy-handed interventions obviously undermine Hong Kong’s integrity and/or image as a free, open, pluralist society. Poor Chief Executive Carrie Lam is left looking helpless. Just as she is delivering her big ‘Hong Kong is still brilliant’ policy speech, the Communist Party bluntly proves it doesn’t give a damn about that, or about her.

The Standard half-jokingly asks whether ex-Governor Chris Patten will be banned. The un-funny answer is that the Communist Party – in its paranoia – will do anything it feels necessary to keep itself in power.

There is more of this to come.

The China economic recovery/’miracle’ is over: the story from now on will be the world’s biggest middle-income-trapped aging society. It would take a superhuman to overcome the demographic fundamentals and political-economic contradictions. With this in mind, Xi Jinping is about to have himself declared Chairman of Everything for Life with demigod trimmings and no enemies to be seen anywhere at all.

And China is suddenly starting to suffer premature foreign-influence hubris all over the place. The country has been caught trying to corrupt Cambridge University Press, Confucius Institute-hosting campuses, New Zealand politics, Australian academia and media, and Canadian probably-all-the-above. Beijing is being boorish and entitled – pushing territorial claims, making demands of tributary states, erasing Taiwan, rewriting history and pushing grand and delirious plans to assume world leadership in industry, commerce and technology.

In the past when Beijing has told Hong Kong to refuse entry to subversive hostile elements, the individuals went fairly quietly. Benedict Rogers, who has a small – but we can guess, fast-growing – following here, is going to start an NGO to monitor the decline of the city as China’s Leninist control system tightens its grip. A Peeved Pissed-off Panda Paroxysm follows. I declare the weekend open with the hope that he and others continue to hit this raw nerve.

 

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Carrie’s Policy Address

And the numbers are in… Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s full Policy Address mentioned ‘Belt and Road’ 33 times, and ‘Bay Area’ 29 times. No wonder the lady read out an expurgated version to the Legislative Council. She also paid box-ticking homage to Beijing by making the obvious correct noises about dreadful pro-independence rabble, the need to cram patriotism into school kids and other forms of Motherland-adoration. As Disraeli said, lay it on with a trowel.

The rest of the content was mostly standard Policy Address blather, but obviously in a softer and more caring style than her baleful and emotionless predecessor CY Leung would have managed.

So you’ve got your usual pointless welfarish handouts, like a small de-facto cut in public transport fares. You’ve got the chucking of taxpayers’ money at the mystical tech-R&D-innovation fetish. (There’s also plenty of hot, steamy ‘hub’ action – she uses the word 21 times, and announces the exciting discovery of a new one called the Qianhai HK-SZ Design Innovation Hub.) There’s some bureaucratic re-structuring and committee-founding, which Carrie really gets off on. Various municipal measures, with a pedestrianized street here (maybe) and a community garden there (probably). And a big headline for the business press in the form of a cut in profits taxes.

If (which is unlikely) anyone really thought Carrie was serious about housing, they now know better. She is scrabbling around for some short-term fixes to get a few slum-dwellers into charity-rented apartments, converted non-residential buildings and (not that we’re desperate) shipping containers. The supposedly Big Ideas are limited in scope and/or scale and essentially involve re-categorizing existing resources and incentivizing/luring/conning renters into ownership.

Needless to say, she does not even mention the demand side of the equation – the influx of Mainland migrants and money-launderers underpinning rising rents and developers’ margins. To ignore that is to keep the housing problem permanent by design. With that aim in mind, like its predecessors, the administration will also spare no effort to ensure that the all-important ‘shortage of land’ continues.

Other slightly-noteworthy observations from yesterday’s excitement…

Interestingly, Carrie equates political reform with Article 23 national security laws in terms of feasibility. (That’s a ‘no’, obviously.)

And she did a reasonable job in terms of presentation, though coming after the malevolent and gruesome CY, it’s not saying much. The ‘Hong Kong people are still brilliant’ line was a nice try, at least. She also seems less petrified than in the months before her appointment – almost as if there isn’t someone sticking a gun in her back now.

Still, the basic message is plus ca change.

You have a choice: you can either prioritize pushing prices and rents up to channel wealth into the pockets of a bunch of 88-year-old tycoons, or you can have a vibrant, diverse, innovative economy with opportunities for the many. You can have one; you can have the other. You cannot have both.

I say you have a choice. Of course, Carrie Lam – appointed by the Chinese Communist Party – does not.

Amid the Policy Address hoo-ha, a party pooper strikes in the form of a UK politician called Benedict Rogers turned away by Hong Kong Immigration. This might have something to do with the extra-cautious hyper-paranoid freak-out precautions ahead of the 19th Party Congress in Beijing. Or it could just be the post-Umbrella Movement rectification norm. Either way, it would happen more often if more overseas critics cared enough about Hong Kong to try to visit.

 

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So much going on…

…what with Hong Kong sports fans giving the Chinese national anthem its due, while justice-loving citizens spring Mainland-tourist-killing feline hero Porsche aka Marble (or are lots of cats doing this now?) from jail.

Just time for a couple of links to readable items in the ever-popular expat-bubble-under-Japanese genre: the evacuation of wives and kids to Oz, and the allied civilians who were not interned.

On a more up-to-date, we’re-all-friends-now note, my local Japanese place is on the cutting edge of futuristic trendy fashion – goodbye grandpa’s boring old passé matcha beer, hello young hip exciting space-age stylish potato salad…

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Place your bets for CE Policy Address

Hong Kong is hyper-buzzing on tenterhooks in eager anticipation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s Policy Address tomorrow. The press dutifully encourage the excitement by reporting that it will be a shorter speech than was usual under her sinister and demonic Communist-worshipping predecessor CY Leung. In fact, she has somehow drafted three hours’ worth of vacuous dirge-like blather, but will read out only the Seriously Thrilling parts in a ‘short and sweet’ one-hour version.

Few can recall a time when this annual ritual contained anything that counts as genuine new policy, ideas or (the horror!) reform. We can safely forecast that Carrie will tick off a list of palliative micro-measures designed to give the impression that the government is doing things when in fact it isn’t.

She looks set to propose a cut in profits tax for smaller companies that – if their accountants have half a brain – don’t pay much anyway. She will divert dividend income from the MTR to a transport fare-cut for commuters fortunate enough to live in certain areas (a transfer that is bound to include an element of the poor subsidizing the rich, and is also an example of witless tax hypothecation). And then there is housing. Every post-1997 administration has in practice had a policy of pushing property prices and rents up, up and up. Carrie must leave this policy intact, but as a Big Idea she will offer a token number of relatively affordable homes to a few lucky people in a de-facto lottery or two.

The burning question among the city’s political analysts is: How many times will Carrie mention ‘Belt and Road’ in the policy address? (It will probably appear in conjunction with the newer but similarly incomprehensible buzz-concept-jargon-BS phrase ‘Bay Area’.)

In his 2016 address, CY Leung famously mentioned ‘Belt and Road’ 912 times in the first two sentences alone. Even by Hong Kong pro-Beijing establishment standards, it was a breathtakingly brazen example of obsessive-compulsive shoe-shining shamelessness.

Being subtle, Carrie will calibrate. She obviously will not want to be mocked like CY was for babbling the inanity so repetitively, but she will not dare offend her Beijing overseers by mentioning Chairman Xi Jinping’s visionary initiatives too sparingly.

She will mostly mention ‘Belt and Road’ and ‘Bay Area’ along with the word ‘opportunities’. The intention is to divert and enthuse the disgruntled, as in – don’t worry about unaffordable housing or the erosion of civil rights because Belt and Road Opportunities! She will also refer to them as far-sighted monumental projects that we must embrace as symbols of Taking the Motherland Thing Seriously, through the funding of Belt/Bay scholarships, missions, councils, strategies, studies and strategy-research-scholarships, and other exciting rah-rah Taking Things Seriously Stuff.

The Jockey Club is offering odds of 2-1 that Carrie will mention the magic mantras between 10 and 15 times in her full speech; 4-1 that she will mention them more than 15 times; 10-1 fewer than 10 times.

They are also taking bets on how many new committees, commissions, councils and other pointless talk-shop/advisory bodies she will announce. The consensus is around eight.

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This is shooting low-hanging fruit in a barrel, but…

Even by the standards of the South China Morning Post’s questionably-named Insight op-ed page, this column from last Friday is a classic. We can summarize the (approx) 1,000-word opus thus: democracy is not perfect, so let’s solve our problems through discussion.

Most of the article refutes democracy with elaborate reference to Chris Patten, Bosnia, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, Trump, Occupy Central-as-Red Guards, Pol Pot, etc. The remaining few paragraphs suggest that if Hong Kong people (not really defined) focus on ends rather than means, they can solve the housing, health, elderly problems ‘by discussing’.

The author doesn’t specify who talks with whom here.

His underlying assumption is that: “A system [whether democracy or any other system of governance] lives for the people – not the other way around”. This is possibly not quite the right thing to say just after listing Nazi Germany, Red Guards, Pol Pot, etc.

It is also hard to reconcile with the Chinese Communist Party’s clear primary, indeed sole, purpose – namely to keep itself in power, which can only be possible ultimately if the people serve the regime, not vice-versa. By extension, it will not apply to Hong Kong’s local government, appointed by the CCP with a clear mandate to preserve the interests of Beijing’s preferred cronies and cartels. The CCP and its lower tiers in the power structure do not ‘negotiate’ or ‘discuss’ with the people. The people’s role is to shut up and obey.

The author arguably has a point when he says that calling for democracy is pointless.

 

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