World’s most mundane historic Sunday beckons

I am due to take part in a historic event on Sunday: the opening of Hong Kong’s ultra-expensive Vacant Express high-speed rail link to places we don’t want to go to. Specifically, I will be meeting someone arriving on a train. Assuming the traveller makes it through the Chinese security zone and the sinister secret basements, I might go for some extra excitement by eating in one of the humungous and tacky station’s enticing food outlets.

Speaking of thrills, the Hong Kong Free Press article will be out on Tuesday. Apparently, it is ‘utterly depressing’.

In the meantime, I declare the weekend open with Mainland-themed recommended reading.

Parallels between Hong Kong and Taiwan are always interesting (as are the differences). One similarity is the Chinese government’s inability to admit that it is part of the problem – viewed from the Taiwan angle in this Taipei Times op-ed.

Even by the sketchy standards of most national accounts and statistics, no-one knows anything about China, and that includes its own government.

From CSIS, another brave attempt to work out what Belt and Road is, noting that by now the visionary initiative includes the Arctic, cyberspace, and even outer space. In New Zealand, it’s Burglary and Road. And Bloomberg poo-poos Beijing’s tech dreams.

If you work at Xinhua, your key mission is to promote Xi Jinping Thought. David Bandurski walks you through the jargon-stuffed memo from the boss. Here’s a much bigger overview of how China’s propaganda apparatus probably works. And for deep hardcore CCP watchers, from Geremie Barme, the fourth part of Drop Your Pants – you must patriotize again.

If you want ‘utterly depressing’, legal activist Xu Zhiyong on time in prison.

 

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New cold war shock horror carnage looms

Chinese officials snottily reprimand the US for imposing tariffs, violating oh-so sacred free-trade principles and behaving irrationally. Behind this self-righteousness and bravado is shock and fear.

Half the newspaper columns in the free world ponderously conclude that even if Donald Trump vanished tomorrow, the trade war would continue – the West has finally woken up to China’s systematic predatory and exploitative gouging of the rules-based international economic order. A few commentators are drawing on ‘cold war’ clichés to broach the subject of a looming major ideological divide between China and the West.

From Beijing’s point of view, this growing hostility is an attempt to keep China down. This is not just self-serving and self-pitying propaganda. The West assumed and hoped from WTO-accession days that China would mature into a more open, market-based economy. But this implies the Communist Party giving up its powers to allocate capital, rig markets, guide industrial development, pick winners and stuff its elites’ pockets. To the CCP, maintaining control over economic levers is indistinguishable from keeping itself in power – otherwise known as ‘restoring national greatness’.

From the West’s point of view, the time has come to stop accommodating China’s ruthless mercantilism, and reciprocate. If the West is cohesive and determined about this, and assuming that the CCP can’t/won’t let go of the economy, this leaves the Mainland moving closer to autarky in the future. It wouldn’t be the first time in history that China’s refusal to open its markets hasn’t ended well.

Global markets meanwhile seem unfazed. Perhaps they know how cohesive and determined the West is likely to be.

 

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Carrie Lam announces committee on Bee Swarm procedures

The Hong Kong Transport Department starts Wednesday with an announcement that it needs more time to clear roads still blocked after Typhoon Mangkhut on Sunday. It is an unintentional reminder (along with the Great Tai Po Post-Storm Traumatized Killer Bees Frenzy) that Chief Executive Carrie Lam screwed up by not requesting everyone to stay home Monday.

Her real error has been subsequently refusing to fess up and apologize – thus ensuring that this episode sticks in everyone’s memory for years to come as far bigger and worse than it really was. She continues to bleat that she could take no action because of ‘legal consequences and the effect on different industries’.

Some links on the subject: in case you missed it, an HKFP piece on what Carrie should have done; and today’s Standard editorial describing her excuses as ‘pure hogwash’.

This just in… Carrie announces a cross-bureau meeting to begin a multi-departmental/various-sectors review of mayhem-cum-chaos recovery arrangements. This is, for her, an abject, public, groveling, wrist-slashing admission of gross negligence and plea for forgiveness.

She can now get back to the issue of land supply, otherwise known as ‘leveraging the housing crisis into a HK$500 billion reclamation boondoggle for the construction lobby’. A quick guide to following the money from Paul Zimmerman, and some activists find land the government had mysteriously forgotten about.

On an entirely unrelated subject: a contender (you might think) for the Most Interesting Boring Book on Hong Kong Ever, the memoirs of a former Deputy Postmaster General – this sample chapter has amateurish spooks lurking in the Post Office basement.

The rest of the week will probably/mainly be in the form of a Hong Kong Free Press thing (link in due course), which could be titled (if space allowed) ‘Mainlandization of Hong Kong Will be Deeper, Redder and Quicker than Most of Us Expected – and There’s Nothing Anyone Can Do About It’.

To support this prediction, Beijing legal ideologist wacko Tian Feilong has written this charming paper called ‘We Must Crush Those Hong Kong Western-Influenced Rabble Like Ants’ (in Chinese, but should Google-translate well). Also aimed at Taiwan, it includes such themes as the Hong Kong elite’s shockingly deep-rooted internalization of British culture, ‘anti-colonialism’ and ‘patriotic love of Hong Kong history’ as necessary prerequisites to decolonialization, and stuff about dialectics. Read it and, um, emigrate.

 

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Actuaries’ conference a great success

Time to pull up a seat and enjoy the irresistible sight of righteous wrathful hordes savagely turning on a lame, whimpering, out-of-touch government that has made a basic and predictable blunder.

Hong Kong front-line services like the fire department, observatory, hospitals, the drainage guys and even methadone clinics handled the city’s worst ever typhoon on Sunday pretty well. A prudent, perceptive and competent administration would have followed up by declaring Monday a day off for non-essential business, as during a Number 8 storm signal. But it seems the smug mediocrities at the top thought it would look really cool if everyone just went into work as if nothing had happened.

Result: commuter mayhem – at least in certain districts – as transport systems still hadn’t recovered. Understandable criticism ensues.

Standard damage-limitation practice would be for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to come clean, admit she and her top officials were in error and apologize profusely. Whoops – we forgot you people don’t all have chauffeur-driven limos to take you to the office ha ha.

Instead, the government digs itself into siege-mentality mode and insists It Is Right and Everyone Else Is Wrong, so there.

The Standard reports actual (semi-paraphrased) quotes from Carrie: ‘…the government has done sufficient and effective preparatory work to cope with the typhoon [what more do you whiny taxpaying rabble expect us to do?]’ and ‘…encouraging a mutual understanding between employers and employees suits the city better [you know how mutual understanding levitates fallen trees and repairs rail lines]’. The administration’s ardent defender Ronny Tong joins in: ‘…the government is in no position to order the suspension of work in a capitalist and free society [if shoe-shining Leninists by spouting Libertarianism doesn’t get me a Gold Bauhinia Medal, nothing will]’.

Other desperate reasons we are being offered… By the time the government figured out its own legal powers to declare an emergency, it would be late November. A day off would reduce GDP by 1/x (where x = working days per year) – ask any Nobel-winning economist, and imagine how much wealthier we’d be if we all worked 7-day weeks. It’s all the fault of the environmentalists for insisting on having these damn trees everywhere.

We can only look on in amazement and imagine what is going through Carrie’s mind at times like this (the ‘not much’ theory is as good as any). She could have been seen looking concerned visiting affected areas, but instead she went to a conference for actuaries* – indeed, it is tempting to believe that her immediate gut response when she saw the videos of flooding and broken windows and closed-off roads was to blink incomprehensibly and then snap at an aide: “Right – find me an actuaries’ conference to go to!”

It’s still not too late for her to do a contrite, teary-eyed, bow-down-to-the-cameras ‘Sorry’ act. Maybe her Beijing enforcers at the Liaison Office, mindful of her symbolic role in the ongoing dissident-crushing campaign, will order her to do one. Otherwise (as her detractors will make sure), Carrie has let a good crisis go to waste, and consolidated her clunky, clueless, toilet-paper-buying-incapable, klutziness image, and widened the gap between Hong Kong’s government and governed – the seemingly impossible.

* Mentions of ’Belt and Road’ and ‘Greater Bay Area’ in speech: 5 each

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Other neighbourhood tree collapses

There should be a word for that wistful feeling in Hong Kong when you go to bed as a mayhem-wreaking typhoon is passing, and you fervently desire the Number 8 signal to still be up the next morning (a Monday of course), but you know damn well it will not. Something like ‘eating bitterness’ but less melodramatic.

My part of town is largely unscathed by the ravages of yesterday’s super-storm, save for the small side street that serves as our local designated disaster zone. This is where, just over a year ago, Hato claimed the neighbourhood tree. And now Mangkhut manages to drop another (hitherto little-noticed) neighbourhood tree in the exact same spot…

To idle wimps in the New Territories, a blocked road is an excuse to skip work, but in Mid-Escalator Land we rise to the challenge and use one of the three alternative routes within 50 yards – or, as in this case, intrepidly hack our way through the greenery…

(The kids and dogs are loving this, and it seems a pity to saw up the fallen foliage and take it away. Compelling argument against just leaving it: judging from Hato, an arboreal carcass will be a source of fascination to already-plentiful and overly-lingering Korean tourists.)

Down the hill in Exchange Square, the ancient venerable hong Jardines are putting their loyal and uncomplaining minions to work picking the little pieces of broken glass out of the groove between the paving stones…

…and Lynn Chadwick’s Sitting Couple has been retitled Couple Staying Together for the Kids’ Sake.

Meanwhile, a distant corner of Kowloon slides towards cannibalism…

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It’s back…

…following rectification and reconstruction, in time for Friday dinner, namely Hainan chicken rice.

Til next week…

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Where’s the beef?

It is one of those Fridays when the South China Morning Post sees fit to insert a weighty slab of glossy magazine called Style into the paper. It forces readers to get some exercise as they carry it to the nearest bin. It also raises revenue for the SCMP, who cleverly convince purveyors of tacky clothing and other exclusive lifestyle luxury tat to buy ads in the thing, as if anyone actually opens it up and looks through it.

Even if they did – it’s hard to see how the weird visuals with unappealing if not repulsive-looking models would persuade people to go out and purchase the products involved. And that assumes you can identify what the merchants are actually trying to sell you. The cover on this edition is about averagely baffling. My guess is it’s pushing some sort of haircare/grooming thing…

I declare the weekend open with the latest specially curated selection of artisanal links.

With the cops devoting hundreds of man-hours monitoring barely existent pro-independence forces, and intimidating-by-videoing even minor demonstrations – a discussion of political surveillance in Hong Kong.

And courtesy of the same author, an updated list of ongoing/upcoming political court cases. This includes the Occupy-related charges against Benny Tai and others for ‘inciting public nuisance’ and, for some, ‘conspiracy to incite public nuisance’ – the trials are scheduled to start in November. As with the Andy Chan HK independence case, these prosecutions are contrived and disproportionate. If they attract similar media attention, Hong Kong officials will again squirm as they are shown to be haplessly implementing the Communist Party’s maximum-overkill policy.

If you wonder how incompetent the world’s most highly paid civil servants can get, try Open Data HK’s description of how very do-able non-crap apps could help relieve Hong Kong’s traffic mess – but the bureaucrats refuse to go along. (Don’t read it if you’re already in a want-to-hit-someone mood.)

Out in the big wide world… With People’s Daily name-checking him dozens of times per page, is this peak Xi Jinping? (‘…autocracy is addictive’). Mainland #MeToo and how officialdom punishes victims. Self-censorship on China in US universities. A Chinese reporter in foreign media. How Belt and Road is primarily a branding exercise aimed at bolstering the CCP’s domestic integrity, while a Kenyan editorial asks whether it is exploiting Africa. And something you probably hadn’t thought about: the challenges of translating Emily Dickinson into Chinese.

 

 

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Art news

We all know that Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong micro-manages the fight against separatists, pro-democrats, the Foreign Correspondents Club, and other threats to national security. Now, the department-owned newspaper Wen Wei Po seems to be launching a campaign against evil Western cultural influences – specifically at the M+ still-being-built Museum at the West Kowloon Cultural Hub-Zone District.

A two-part article (in Chinese, here and here) blasts the museum for spending money on the works of a digital art duo called Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries and on pieces from Uli Sigg’s collection. The writer is mightily miffed. He suggests the money should be spent on local artists, but mostly rants about the influence of expatriate curators at M+, Hong Kong’s continued ‘non-return’ to the motherland, and the art scene’s preference for ‘Western junk’ (such as a giant poo sculpture).

The Young-Hae Chang duo are Korean. They create sort-of techno-electronic audio-visual installations, which you may enjoy for free at their website. (More on them here.) I guess the ‘Korean-ness’ is what makes it trendy and meaningful. Even by his un-groovy standards, the Wen Wei Po guy might have a point in asking why M+ should see this as collectible. (And I wonder how a museum ‘acquires’ easily downloadable digital material – apparently M+ is getting some sort of special proof copies.)

Uli Sigg’s is pretty much the world’s foremost collection of contemporary Chinese art, covering the whole of the post-Mao period. It is the core of M+. Among the artists represented are dissident Ai Weiwei, and some items blatantly allude to such forbidden themes as the Tiananmen massacre. Still, the collection is not ‘Western garbage’.

Up until a few years ago, people assumed ‘One Country, Two Systems’ meant Communist ideological-nationalistic cultural correctness wouldn’t be a problem for M+, or the Hong Kong art world generally – remember the amusement when Warhol’s Mao pix weren’t allowed over the border? But now, in the Xi-era, we can’t be so sure, and the HK$5-billion M+’s galleries might have some empty spaces on the wall.

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Carrie Lam officially heartbroken

While the Chinese leadership’s paranoia about splittists is real, the official panic about Hong Kong independence is fake. There is no contradiction in this. Andy Chan and his HK National Party exemplify the current constraints on the Communist Party’s control over what Hong Kong people can say or do. It is not Andy Chan who must be crushed, but the rights and freedoms Andy Chan enjoys.

But of course they can’t say that. So the poor schmucks at the bottom of the power structure – the Hong Kong administration – must fabricate yet more freaking-out over ‘independence’ at every available opportunity. As it happens, a handful of students start the new school year with a pro-independence phrase or banner on campus, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her colleagues must press the Instant Loud Orchestrated Shock and Fury button.

Carrie announces that she is ‘heartbroken’ by scurrilous separatist sentiment. She invites us to believe that the scamps concerned are being unfair to other students and hints yet again that mere talk of self-determination is in some way illegal. She repeats Chinese officials’ description of the concept of Hong Kong independence as ‘absurd’ – though simultaneously a threat to national security.

If anything is absurd, it is all the contrived alarm and phony emotional distress. But the atrociously unconvincing dramatics are aimed at her bosses higher up the party-state’s chain of command.

Perhaps Carrie consulted David Bandursky’s invaluable new self-help guide, What to Say When You’re a Party Official. The willingness to publicly speak idiotic BS with a straight face is the Communist Party’s most elementary loyalty test. Her predecessor CY Leung of course fervently believed what he said, which dangerously creeped Hongkongers out. Once again, we briefly imagine a twinge of sympathy for Carrie coming on, but it passes.

(As Churchill dismissed looming profundities, ‘…it was after dinner and I Let it go’.)

 

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Government officials attend secret underground ritual

It’s not every day you get what might be called a ‘private government ceremony’, but that’s what happened at the One Country Two Systems Sacrificial Midnight Mass deep in the bowels of the West Kowloon Express Rail Station. It was essentially a handover of territory from Hong Kong to the Mainland – an arrangement that would be unconstitutional if the documents that outline the constitution meant anything, but they don’t so there’s no point in worrying about it, and obviously the press aren’t going to be invited.

The government has issued a booklet on what the ‘co-location’ arrangement means in practice for the public. There are some apparent nods to pragmatism. For example, the Hong Kong emergency services will come into the Mainland part of the station and put out a fire. But these highlight the powers that Hong Kong has conceded. If you slip on the floor, you can sue through local common-law process – but break the Mainland criminal law, and you deal with the Mainland cops.

To make sure of that, a large number of Mainland police, customs, immigration and other staff will work at the station: 800, in two shifts a day (the station is closed at night), mostly commuting in and out (so at least someone will be using the trains). The exciting human-interest story is that Hong Kong’s MTR will organize lunch boxes for them all in a HK$100 million-a-year deal.

Many Hongkongers look at the high-speed rail link and see little use for it other than a possible one-off jaunt to Wuhan out of curiosity. Its main mission is simply to prove physically that Hong Kong is a part of China, and its secondary purpose is to divert your tax dollars into the construction industry’s pockets. But to the extent it will serve as a transport system, it will be an efficient funnel through which Mainland tourists can be vacuumed up and disgorged into Tsimshatsui and the West Kowloon Culture Hub Zone Project. (Or not efficient, from a baggage point of view.)

The actual train services start in a few weeks under the appropriately zippy and imaginative tag ‘Vibrant Express’ (‘Vibrant’ because ‘You Never Wanted It And It’s Not For You Anyway’ wouldn’t fit). Stay tuned for teething problems, which are obviously normal for any newly opened major visionary engineering blah-blah – but will prompt righteous anger among radicals and right-thinking disfranchised taxpayers, and thus trigger highly entertaining, anguished insistence that Everything Is Wonderful from hyper-sensitive besieged officials.

The next mega-white elephant to look forward to will be the Zhuhai bridge, of ‘sliding dolos’ fame. Unlike the underground space-age high-speed rail tunnel, the bridge will largely be exposed to plain sight. It will be hard to ignore the three, mostly empty, lanes in each direction, the Mainland-style highway signs with amateurish typeface, simplified characters and no English, and the hundreds of bored immigration and other staff in the cavernous border-crossing hall with nothing to do. I can reveal that earlier reports are true, and it is unlikely to open in August as planned.

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