Another exciting win-win!

One benefit for the Hong Kong government in battling furiously to locate Mainland immigration checkpoints in the bowels of the West Kowloon High-Speed Rail Station is that it distracts everyone from the money wasted by the white elephant project.

The numbers are a blur, but we are probably talking something in the range of HK$100 billion. Quite a lot for a link that has marginal usefulness for most Hongkongers (I can foresee some weekend trips to some rarely visited Pearl River Delta backwaters).

And this is the Good Value part of Hong Kong’s ongoing infrastructure splurge.

The wretched HK-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge with its endless cost overruns seems to serve no purpose at all. Not being a rail link, it can’t improve on existing passenger ferries or imminent land links out of Shenzhen for buses. Car traffic will be limited by highway capacity at the Hong Kong end and cross-border licence restrictions. The Mainland factories and Hong Kong port that would generate container truck traffic are sunset industries. That’s another HK$100 billion-plus-plus. (Weirdly, officials are debating how high or low the tolls should be – like discussing the optimum price for dandruff.)

Both projects are mysteries. Were they intended primarily as a way to transfer huge amounts of Hong Kong people’s wealth into the bottomless pockets of the construction/engineering leviathan (largely comprising Mainland state-owned enterprises and often-privately-held local tycoons/cartels)? Or were they designed as symbols and possible engines of integration, merging Hong Kong and the Mainland mentally and physically, thus absorbing and eliminating the barbarian-tinted splittist excrescence?

If you reply ‘both’, you are probably right. It’s a happy coincidence. A ‘win-win’! And when that happens, you naturally want more.

Behold the HK$400 billion reclamation boondoggle to house 700,000 people who for some strange reason don’t appear in any population forecasts. The article refers to the government’s ‘threadbare’ logic. That’s the optimistic take. This looks more like the biggest crony-Communist mutual-cooperation carve-up ever: Give half the city’s entire fiscal reserves to our buddies, and swamp Hong Kong with enough ideologically perfect Han to smother Lhasa 10 times over. The good news is that you have a couple of decades’ warning.

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Communist Party boosts image in HK again

You never know exactly where the next globule of putrid slime will ooze out of Beijing’s local power/support base in Hong Kong. It could be from any of the shoe-shining tycoons and bureaucrats, shady patriotic businessmen, opportunistic loyalist politicians, obedient academics, groveling pseudo-think-tanks, rural landowners, triads, even entertainers. Their grubby activities might be domestic and among one another, or they could overlap with the sprawling network of Mainland official and semi-official organizations and companies whose tentacles increasingly slither throughout the city. Anywhere with connections and an assumption that the rules don’t apply to me.

Patrick Ho was an eye doctor who jumped on the pro-Beijing bandwagon before the handover and was appointed to the ceremonial Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in the 1990s and the position of Home Affairs Secretary in the government in the 2000s (a half-joke job he performed adequately). He subsequently swanned around little-noticed in various Beijing-friendly roles – until now, when he is arrested by US authorities on international bribery charges. (Good story here; background here; more on allegations here.)

What’s really juicy about this is the sheer number of boxes it ticks. There’s ephemeral stuff, like his actress wife (who reportedly married him because the establishment heavyweight ‘gave her space’). But the most interesting is the Mainland energy company CEFC – supposedly private, supposedly run by whizz-kid out of nowhere Ye Jianming, suddenly a big stakeholder in Russian state oil giant Rosneft. It is also behind the think-tank supposedly focused on energy and yeah-right culture, complete with some sort of NGO UN-connection, where Patrick Ho practiced his ‘public diplomacy’, which allegedly included bribing African politicians.

CEFC is an open proponent of ‘Belt and Road’, China’s famous visionary international infrastructure win-win partnership blah-blah, increasingly looking like a resources-grab-by-sovereign-loan-shark. And joy of joys – CEFC and Dr (genuine!) Ho have been active in pushing Belt and Road here in Hong Kong, so we can drag lawmaker Regina Ip’s Maritime Silk Road Institute into this (Ye is an advisor, they go on CEFC junkets, etc).

Ho is more an early-adopting CCP shoe-shiner than your stereotype pro-Beijing crook-sleazebag. That’s to say he’s a nice respectable educated middle-class Hong Kong guy with whom many of our oh-so decent great and good have connections. They are hurriedly dropping him now – though watch to see if true patriots later quietly defend him: on the face of it, he was serving the glorious motherland rather than just lining his pockets (though it’s always OK to do both). It could be a tragic/side-splittingly funny/all-too predictable case of someone who sailed too close to the Northern wind.

The only disappointment is that the alleged bribes were trifling – but the US prosecution authorities concerned are known for their extreme zeal.

Icing on the cake: Ho backed a United Front astroturfing thing during Occupy aimed at smearing pro-democrats. It was called ‘Public Officials Integrity Concern Group’. (You might ask which Communist-backed public integrity fake-protest group: perhaps not this one, but this one.)

You can’t make this stuff up…

 

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But we still have the highest-paid officials…

It’s not often that people pay attention to business in the Hong Kong Legislative Council, or to the thoughts of lawmaker Regina Ip. But today is an exception. The former Broomhead, Security Secretary and wannabe Chief Executive criticizes the government’s plan to hire an extra economist apparently with a mission to maintain Hong Kong’s position in international lists of business locations.

She describes this as a ‘colonial mentality’. In fact, the obsession with Hong Kong’s ranking in tables of global commercial hubs is more of a post-1997 thing. However, Regina seems to be questioning official fawning towards Western media and the whole Heritage Foundation/Davos/Forbes/Wall Street Journal/bores in suits/Freest Economy milieu. And not without reason – after all, no-one else takes this stuff seriously.

Seasoned observers of Hong Kong bureaucracy will raise an eyebrow at the reported HK$2 million salary for this job – surely, they will say, such a pointless civil-service post calls for at least HK$3.5 million?

They will be less surprised at the basic line of thinking – that these rankings matter and that appointment of a new official can solve the problem. In her earlier pledges, Chief Executive Carrie Lam specifically mentioned creating new government jobs in overseas-relations missions for no discernible reason at all.

The real story, however, is the underlying assumption: Carrie foresees Hong Kong slipping in international rankings of business-friendly locations. These lists essentially measure respect for individual rights, quality of life – and good governance in general.

 

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The coming ‘new normal’ of shoe-shining

It’s hard to keep up with the fast-swelling Xi Jinping personality cult. Officials in one town are paying homage to a (thriving) tree the Chairman-of-Everything once planted. Minions in another are ordering villagers to replace pictures of Jesus with images of the true divine prince. Xinhua’s 8,000-word mega-puff describes him as the unrivalled helmsman.

Presumably, dictators don’t have to specifically request this sort of treatment – aides pass the word down, and eager bureaucrats not already engaging in pre-emptive groveling rush to join in. Remember that Xi has fired, imprisoned, ruined, hounded, humiliated and tormented thousands of possible rivals and opponents (or ‘consolidated power’ as they say), so bowing to a tree to be safe is a no-brainer.

The test comes when the emperor notices the extent of the adulation: do his modesty and good taste lead him to ask the spin-doctors to tone it down, or does he love it and want more?

While we are waiting to find out how Louis XIV Xi goes, shoe-shiners will keep up the obsequiousness, and those with the right sort of motivation will probably sincerely buy into the worship and the hubris. It is a slide from the ridiculous to the disturbing.

Behold a little column by a Malaysian-born Hong Kong lawyer in the Standard somewhere along this incline…

Such public and zealous expressions of patriotic faith are hardly new in Hong Kong (since the 1980s, people have bent with the wind, opportunistically leaped to support the new winning team, avenged old colonial racial scores, or just hedged their bets for family or business reasons). But we should expect a lot more of it as Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing and pro-establishment camp adjusts to a ‘new normal’ of shoe-shining.

Even if the propaganda machine refrains from full-blown deification of Xi Jinping, it will certainly turn up the glorification of the Communist Party and nation. As economic growth slows and financial, demographic, environmental and other long-term problems become apparent, the leadership must depend more on strident Chinese nationalism for legitimacy/survival.

As the Mainlandization of Hong Kong continues, local pro-Beijing forces will have to go along with it. Specifically, the traditionally secular business/bureaucracy establishment will have to more openly embrace Xi-New Era-style Chinese-ness and the Communist Party and its symbolism. (Which uni here will be first to open a X-thought Institute?)

At best, it’s going to be seriously stomach-churning.

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Carrie ordered to get on with impossible job from Hell

Beijing official Li Fei delivers his very important speech on How and Why We Will Continue to Crush Worthless Hong Kong Vermin. This was a much-anticipated event because hundreds of schoolchildren were forced to watch via TV links. Local officials urged schools to organize this because, in the new-look Mainlandizing Hong Kong, not forcing kiddies to watch would be disrespectful to the sovereign power.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam is leading the way in making deference to Beijing appear normal – even perhaps wholesome, if not exactly fashionably elegant. Where her predecessors and others insisted for years that Hong Kong enjoyed a ‘high degree of autonomy’ (here’s her abnormally pro-Communist predecessor CY Leung doing it), she now employs the phrase ‘semi-autonomy’.

This downgrading of terminology is selective (‘high degree’ is still a default slogan for defensive whiny responses to foreign criticism), but obviously at the behest of Beijing, as Li Fei made clear in his speech. According to the South China Morning Post

Li devoted most of his 50-minute speech to Hongkongers’ lack of respect for China’s sovereignty and constitutional authority over the city… [He explained that] Beijing would “jointly govern” Hong Kong with direct control over “important issues”, while the city’s autonomy would be limited to local affairs.

Though not new, this is a clear confirmation that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ promised in the 1980s and 1990s and apparently honored in the 2000s, is over.

Li also complained that Hong Kong had still – 20 years after the handover – not passed national security laws against sedition, treason, etc, as required by the famous Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Beijing feels that the lack of Article 23 laws enables and encourages the anti-Communist Party and pro-independence sentiment that it finds so petrifying. (Obviously, Chinese officials could never consider the possibility that their own totalitarian attitudes and instincts create Hong Kong’s fear that national security laws would be used for internal suppression.)

It is interesting that Li Fei, like others before him, is publicly prodding the local administration on this. Beijing wants to distance itself from what promises to be a nightmarish fiasco and make it look like Hong Kong’s doing. Local officials bleat about waiting until the time is right (apparently when we have some sort of community-consensus social-harmony thing).

They would be mad to try to push Article 23 forward – yet if Beijing sees it as a solution to pro-independence horror, foot-dragging cannot be an option.

If the government has to go for it, it will presumably try to learn from the failed attempt in 2002-03. For example, it might consider making the public consultation period briefer, or introducing smaller, low-profile, less intimidating pieces of legislation rather than one big scary package. The problem is that anything that does not threaten rule of law or human rights and generally instill fear will probably be too lame and ineffective to satisfy Beijing.

It would be in character for our officials, including law-enforcement, to plan for the last war and assume an identical repeat of 2002-03 opposition and protest tactics. Something for creative and imaginative opponents and protestors to think about. One difference is that the Liaison Office will launch an Occupy-Umbrella-level of United Front activity, so we can expect smear campaigns, fake pro-Article 23 protests, lawfare and similar jollity.

I declare the weekend open with a prediction. Carrie and her officials have little more than a year – less than two – before they need to get moving on this. When you see more Valium delivery trucks entering Government House, you will know.

 

 

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Cuddly Panda-power update

People keeping up with China’s United Front ‘soft power’ rampage Down Under will know of the latest from New Zealand and the Australian book cancellation – and another Badiucao cartoon to eloquently sum it up.

One feature of China’s systematic infiltration of the two democracies’ institutions is that it is so breathtakingly presumptuous. As more aspects of this strategy come to light, you have to wonder how Chinese embassy and other operatives thought they could get away with so much co-option, propagandizing, financial inducements and intimidation. Did they imagine no-one would notice or care or (as is now happening) sound the alarm?

In Hong Kong, the Liaison Office does all this stuff, with the advantage of a mandate that overrides and can command the local administration. Like the United Front work in Australia and New Zealand, it is multi-pronged and brazen. Beijing’s agents here have an ‘excuse’ for heavy-handedness in that the city is a hair’s breadth away from CIA-backed uprisings of teenage splittists and kids who boo the national anthem. Yet even here, the meddling and infiltration seems hyperactive to the point of being counterproductive.

Could it be that Chinese agents in Hong Kong, Oz, NZ and elsewhere are out of control – overextending their missions to advance their bureaucracies and careers? In which case, Beijing would consider reining them in to limit damage. Or is this another facet of Xi Jinping’s nationalistic hubris?

Either way, the story is coming out, and it’s not doing any good for China’s warm-and-cuddly image. And it’s getting noticed in the US. (An interesting comparison would be with Putin – see PBS documentary here and here.)

A notable and disturbing part of this is the role played by ethnicity – Beijing’s atavistic/feudal claim to lordship over anyone of Han ancestry, with added gratuitous victimhood – of which we will be hearing more.

A less shocking feature of the phenomenon is the role of money in enticing academia, politicians, media and other influential but financially desperate players into acting as China’s stooges. With that in mind, here’s a fascinating look at an Australian nexus of Chinese money/Chinese Communist Party/Chinese pseudo-medicine.

 

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Yesterday’s Patriotic Freak-Out Report

The Mouth-Froth Red-Light National-Security Freak-Out Alarms went off twice yesterday in Hong Kong.

First of all, kids distributed  pro-independence leaflets at schools. Under Hong Kong’s legal system, there is no distinction between handing out leaflets advertising pizza delivery or calling for independence. But while we are waiting for Beijing to impose Mainland-style prohibition of splittism and sedition, uncertainty is spreading to the extent that usually-eloquent commentators are too panicky to speak.

The education sector lawmaker says the pro-independence activity is ‘not ideal’. (Ideally, presumably, he wouldn’t be asked to go on the record about this subject.) A moderate pro-democracy teachers’ group claims it is ‘inappropriate as the students are minors’. (Perhaps parental guidance is advised.) What should be a simple free-speech issue is too sensitive to process. All these people can manage to say is: ‘I am morally confused and too petrified to express a coherent belief’.

Oddly, the only public figure with a grip on her principles and ability to talk straight on this is pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung. She wants the kids ‘punished and educated’.

For a more robust response to creeping Mainlandization, we have Hong Kong soccer fans, who last night yet again booed the Chinese national anthem. ‘In extreme cases,’ the shocked Standard reports, ‘a few fans turned their backs, while some even raised their middle fingers’. Elsie Leung would have swooned.

Stadium security guards’ valiant attempts to instill respect by waving their arms had, inexplicably, little effect. Such jeering and mockery comes ‘despite’ (as the media put it) increasingly shrill warnings about forthcoming laws imposing stiff penalties on people who do not stand straight for and adore the anthem. Following this latest display of disrespect, pro-Beijing figures will demand that the new law be so retroactive that it covers unpatriotic offenders’ past lives.

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Getting subtle with HK

Are Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing bores ranting uncontrollably about people disrespecting the Chinese national anthem as part of a competition to see who can shoe-shine the Communist Party most avidly? Or are their often-contradictory screeches masterminded by psy-ops United Front controllers at the Liaison Office to mesmerize us? The grim Rita Fan, Maria ‘heavyweight’ Tam and now former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung are all spouting dire warnings ahead of the forthcoming respect-the-anthem law.

Elsie says the new law could be retroactive if too many young people are naughty and misbehave during the anthem in the interim. She obviously intends to intimidate, but it also reveals her instinct for ‘rule by law’ – under which the regime micro-manages how and when actions are criminalized on an ad-hoc basis depending on the degree of harshness citizens deserve at the time.

A legal expert opines that a retroactive law would be unconstitutional. But of course this would be true only under a system of constitutionalism, also known as rule of law. Where Hong Kong is going, anything is constitutional if the Leninist one-party state says it is.

Beijing’s obsession with eradicating incorrect activities (and, before long, ideas) in Hong Kong seems to contrast with its total obliviousness to what might be causing resentment and opposition. Communist logic seems to say the youths are misled because of a lack of indoctrination in childhood, and probably hostile foreign forces – it can only be fixed through coercion.

It must be frustrating to Beijing officials. After decades of struggling against Hong Kong’s older, now exhausted, democrats, they find the post-colonial generation is nightmarishly worse. The traditional mainstream pan-dems always supported the return of the city to the motherland; the kids don’t even want to be Chinese.

But maybe the Communists know full well how abhorrent and vicious they are, and they are just being realistic in assuming that state violence is the only option worth bothering with.

Either way, the only response in the Communist toolkit is force – the one that will harden and deepen the alienation-going-on-hatred. ‘If you do not love me, I will force you to’. That’ll fix everything. Otherwise we set Elsie on you.

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Peak inconvenience

A weekend stroll on the Peak (up to Victoria Park, closer to the actual pinnacle, from which you can look down on what is usually called ‘The Peak’). The luxury homes around here are among the most expensive on the planet. Quite a few of them are obviously empty – the windows not only have drapes drawn, but green moss growing on the edge of the glass.

Why do people live up here? The apartments do have space, and in some cases a view – but the area is not unique in that respect. Presumably, the main attraction is the prestigious address. In my experience, most of the residents are either expats whose cost-oblivious employers have always put top staff here, or shady nouveau-moneyed Mainland or other shysters who think it’s classy.

It’s almost possible to feel sorry for them. It’s OK to visit. But the place is known for its (moss-friendly) damp gloom during winter. The commute is a pain, what with tourist buses clogging up the narrow roads. Most of all, the nearest 7-Eleven is miles away – Hong Kong’s version of a living hell.

Separated at birth – above: Mount Austin; below: Gormenghast…

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Carrie’s latest struggle – to outperform CY

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam admits to feeling hopeless (in sense 1, not 2). Clutching her pearls in desperation, she tells RTHK that she wants to bring a divided society together, but controversies get in the way.

What she doesn’t mention is that these controversies are policies that Beijing is ordering her to implement as part of its strategy to Mainlandize Hong Kong – force the city to become more like part of a Communist one-party state.

They include: disqualifying elected opposition lawmakers; reducing the Legislative Council’s (already weak) powers to obstruct the Executive; the imprisonment of high-profile protest organizers; politically correct Chinese History classes in schools; and the forthcoming Compulsory Standing Up Solemnly for the National Anthem Law. There’s also the stationing of Mainland officials at the Kowloon High-Speed Rail Station – a more technical issue, but clearly arising from a Mainlandization-inspired infrastructure project.

The transition from CY Leung to Carrie is a switch from someone who visibly enjoyed implementing Mainlandization to someone who finds it agonizing and nerve-racking – but the course of Mainlandization itself must continue unaffected either way.

If this is the Chinese Communist Party’s idea of sugaring the pill, it doesn’t seem to be working. The soccer fans seem no less keen to mock the national anthem. And Carrie can’t even do the basic stuff.

Despite his Communist-psycho-billionaire background, CY did noodles-with-grassroots photo ops with ease and implemented a few populist measures. Carrie is a colder, more aloof and out-of-touch figure who seems to find people in general perplexing or just distasteful. After her clumsy reaction to the Gay Games, her administration is now talking about easing rules against cross-border trafficking of infant formula – a move that panders to a handful of retailers and landlords while needlessly angering everyone else.

While CY was deliberately obnoxious and provocative, Carrie does it accidentally and without even realizing it. Still, it’s just style – the substance of Mainlandization will grind on.

I declare the weekend open with the thought that Carrie is not alone in being out-of-touch: the older mainstream pro-democrats also inhabit another world. Lawmaker James To accuses Carrie of wanting to turn the Legislative Council into a Mainland-style rubber stamp. He is wrong – this is 100% a Beijing decision, and Carrie is just the hapless minion carrying out instructions. It’s a critical distinction, and it’s stupid to blame the wrong person. Why can’t/won’t the Democratic Party accept that the high-autonomy, one-country-two-systems thing is over?

 

 

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