Assorted unrelated stuff tenuously linked together

It has been a very military sort of week, with Hong Kong Army Cadets appearing out of nowhere in a contrived and faintly ridiculous display of pro-Communist patriotism among the city’s youth. The observant and curious have noticed that the militia’s senior officers, from the ravishing Commander in Chief Regina ‘Mrs CY’ Tong to the embarrassed-looking Admiral Bunny to the tragic Honorary Brigadier General Eddie ‘Bokassa’ Ng, all wear medals. Here’s a tentative explanation for some of them.

One of the Beijing-linked newspapers greeting the new youth organization pointed out that young Hongkongers seem to enjoy dressing up in FMDuniforms. If so, not everyone grows out of it. A kind soul sends me one of the strangest links I’ve seen for a while: behold the Field and Mountain Division. Apparently a sort of fantasy alter-ego of the ‘Friends of Mount Davies’, they have an Acting Lt Colonel and a Pioneer Engineering Section, and even official promotion announcements. All good clean healthy fun, or disturbing? We won’t go into their medals.

If it’s all too much, you could always leave the Manhattan of Asia and try the American one. But first, check out the 15 Things not to do in New York City. It seems the Big Apple and Big Lychee have many pitfalls in common. For example, Number 4: Don’t go on a fancy harbour cruise tour, just ride the commuter ferries. Number 10: Don’t stop abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk (so good to know we are not alone in suffering from this pestilence). Number 11: Don’t eat at chain restaurants, when you’re surrounded by amazing local food. The similarities even get kind of eerie. Number 14: Don’t go to Soho. That’s exactly what I tell a thousand Koreans every day on the Mid-Levels Escalator.

As we all know, the crush of tourists/shoppers into Hong Kong has zombified the city’s retail sector, with international luxury tat brands aimed at outsiders driving out smaller operators serving neighbourhoods. Cinemas and bookstores are well-known casualties of this oppressive, landlord-oriented tourism policy. The government has recently talked about subsidizing cinemas to support the local film industry – an idea so demented that, like Eddie Ng in uniform, it is probably a joke.

Distribution of media via the Internet is also playing a role here. You can have an e-book in your possession less than 30 seconds after first BalladSmallPlayerhearing about the work. Which brings me rather elegantly to my latest Amazon/Kindle/blah-blah download: The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne.

For a synopsis, reviews are here, here, or here.

There is something special about fiction set in a place or milieu that you and the author both know well. Muhammad Cohen’s handover allegory Hong Kong on Air is a good example; such a story can be enjoyable regardless of other literary merits. But it doesn’t work if the author is ignorant of the locale; Paul Theroux’s handover allegory Kowloon Tong was rubbish.

Ballad of a Small Player takes place mostly in Macau, partly on Lamma (in an amusing use of artistic license, the two places are linked by ferry). The author gets the atmosphere and most of the details gloriously right. As some reviews point out, in this respect he is paying homage to Graham Greene; the main character ‘Lord Doyle’ is the son of a vacuum cleaner salesman (Our Man in Havana) and, like several of Greene’s semi-heroes, is a drunken Englishman rotting in the tropics. The plot doesn’t, shall we say, get in the way. All is sordid and louche and base, but also dream-like – it is not totally clear that the girl who plays a key role in Doyle’s escapades actually exists, at least in earthly form.

Since your local cinema has been replaced by a Mandarin-speaking Louis Vuitton golfing accessories emporium, I declare the weekend open with an obscure film gem from YouTube. Background: in the 60s, Australia’s young talent usually fled their backward homeland for London. One example was writer and actor Barry Humphries. He wrote a comic strip for Private Eye on a young and clueless Aussie turning up in the Mother Country – the perfect vehicle for merciless satire of both the loud brashness of his émigré compatriots, and the uptight obnoxiousness of the Brits. That was Barry McKenzie

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As well as banning the books of the comic strip, the Australian authorities saw fit to subsidize a movie version. It is, we can safely say, a classic of the early 70s Aussie-Brit politically incorrect comedy-satire genre…

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Communist Party asked to preserve unique melting pot

Hong Kong’s latest pro-democracy group, 2047 HK Monitor, publishes an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal. It asks the Chinese Communist Party to honour its commitments to maintain the city’s autonomy, legal system and freedoms, to allow full democracy, and to ensure a fair and clean business environment. Perhaps the most resonant request is Number 8, asking Beijing to ‘understand Hong Kong’s unique historical background…’

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The division and distrust between the central government and Hong Kong’s population seem rooted in mutual incomprehension. Pro-Beijing 2047HKM1figures often blame pro-democrats, students and other dissenters for ‘not understanding’ modern China. But the onus is surely on the sovereign power to clue itself in on its recently resumed territory. All the signs are that Beijing officials have zero empathy for the communal memory of a city settled by refugees who fled Mao’s terror and famine. They have nothing but hostility towards the population’s attachment to apparently ‘un-Chinese’ concepts of law and liberty. And they totally lack the imagination to earn and inspire loyalty and respect, knowing only how to demand it and demonize anyone who doesn’t comply.

As Gordon ‘collapse of China’ Chang suggests here, this crude and cold obsession with control of the populace is proving to be equally counterproductive in Tibet and Xinjiang. All you have to do is be nice to people – is it really that difficult? But of course the authoritarian Leninist culture, resurgent under Xi Jinping, cannot work that way. The Communist Party is about its own narratives and an alternate reality. It can’t win critics over by saying: “Yeah, we seriously screwed up, starving 40 million people to death in the late 50s.” In the Mainland, the famine (like the party’s passivity in World War II, like the Cultural Revolution, like 6-4-89, etc) officially didn’t happen, or hardly. People who know otherwise are deviant, a threat – enemies who don’t/can’t/won’t love the motherland.

Maybe in a way 2047 HK Monitor is missing the point; Beijing does understand Hong Kong all too well.

Indeed, maybe it is the group of pro-democracy financiers and professionals who don’t entirely get Beijing. Their ad’s 10th and final request asks for universal suffrage in Hong Kong that can be ‘leveraged as a blueprint’ for democratic elections in China…

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Assuming a central government official reads this far, now is the time when he screws the ad up and angrily chucks it away, more convinced than ever that political reform in Hong Kong spells doom. Request number 10 is (if modestly) asking the Chinese Communist Party to give up its monopoly of power, and essentially cease to exist. Obviously another evil ‘unique melting pot of Eastern and Western cultures’ conspiracy.

The 10 requests in full…

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Bunny as spin-doctor

His Highness Imperial Field Marshal Grand Vizier Admiral Bunny Chan tries to explain the spontaneously created Hong Kong Army Cadets SCMP-ArmyCadetsSecrecyAssociation and its high-profile-but-secretive inauguration ceremony last weekend. It is a challenging task.

The status quo before the weekend was that Hong Kong lacked a uniformed youth organization that stressed the patriotic-style Chinese-ness fed to children everywhere else in the PRC. Hong Kong people were relaxed and comfortable with this; top officials in Beijing were nervous and panicky. The situation since the weekend is that Hong Kong does formally have such a group. Now it is Hongkongers who are freaking out over this alien and creepy presence, and the Chinese officials who feel calmer and reassured that the former British colony has been made a little more normal and user-friendly.

The best Bunny can do to satisfy this irreconcilable puzzle is come up with excuses – essentially variants on ‘the dog ate my homework’.

Bunny says he tried to get the local press invited to the event, but the site is a military area and it was very difficult to get the necessary approvals. This is baloney: the local media have covered open days at the PLA facility on Stonecutters Island with no problem in the past, and several hundred young people were allowed (lured, dragged) in for last weekend’s inauguration. The gathering was exclusive to Mainland propaganda organs because the target audience was in Beijing. As well as lowering the tone of the solemnities in no uncertain manner, the Hong Kong press would have raised the event’s profile among local residents, possibly provoking hostility or, when Education Secretary Eddie Ng waddled into view dressed like Idi Amin, fits of laughter.

So why, some tiresome reporter insisted on asking, was the ceremony held at the PLA base? Bunny’s response: they didn’t charge us rent. While clearly a desperate and ludicrous answer, on Planet Hong Kong it’s also completely reasonable.

On the bigger issue of the Army Cadets’ whole purpose, Bunny flounders. The answer, it seems, is ‘marching skills’, so young people can ‘get fit and strong’. In plain language: please don’t make me lose face by asking any more questions.

It’s just another day of bashing a square peg into a round hole. And the cavalry comes to Bunny’s rescue in the form of Beijing’s latest contrived, orchestrated mass outbreak of patriots all simultaneously spouting the same weirdness – this time, the idea that Hong Kong should come under China’s national security laws. We are supposed to pay attention, tremble in awe, and wise up – and infer… whatever it is we’re supposed to infer.

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HK children’s army recruitment explained

The Hong Kong Army Cadets, a semi-fictitious and barely existent youth organization that appeared out of nowhere over the weekend, continues to vex.

Stan-CadetBrainwashTo pro-democrats – and probably most of Hong Kong’s silent majority/fence-sitting residents – the group’s PLA-flavoured militarism is alien and even disturbing. And it naturally offers critics a rich opportunity to accuse the government of attempts to brainwash kids.

Civic Party legislator Kenneth Chan calls it ‘camouflage for indoctrination’. But the junior soldiers’ green tunics are not intended to hide the Hong Kong leadership’s determination to convert the city’s youth into Communist-adoring patriotic Chinese. It is intended to highlight it – and indeed to exaggerate it – for the benefit of big boss Xi Jinping’s hardline regime in Beijing, on its nationwide mission to petrify cadres at every level. You could almost say the idea is to brainwash Beijing into thinking we’re brainwashing Hong Kong.

We can be pretty certain about this because of just one thing: Education Secretary Eddie Ng in an army uniform. To even the most scowling, Maoist, Leftist, patriotic loyalist in Hong Kong, the vision of Eddie as a war-hardened military man is so laughable and ridiculous that you can only conclude this is a joke. In Beijing, of course, where they have been demonizing our education bureaucracy by name, they won’t get it – they’ll think we’re serious.

I wondered yesterday how a youth organization can spontaneously come into existence from nothing complete with massed ranks of members. The South China Morning Post reports that the kids were (surprise and shock!) more or less tricked into taking part. Or to be more accurate, the paper reports that an ‘online news outlet’ reports it. That would be the Epoch Times, run by the deranged Falun Gong quasi-Buddhist loons, and not the most reliable source around – but better than nothing. It makes sense: the marching teens didn’t have that bussed-in-Mainlander look about them.

To the Hong Kong government, the Big Lychee Youth Militia Brigade is, on average, a bit of an embarrassment. Chief Executive CY Leung, fresh from publicly scourging obscure student publications discussing local autonomy, is obviously unapologetic, and maybe oblivious that the public might feel anything is amiss. Eddie would probably like to crawl off into a dark corner and die. The rest of the administration would be somewhere in between, hitting the Quaaludes.

The international media are besmirching Hong Kong’s reputation by saying the Fragrant Harbour Red Detachment of Kiddies is open to anyone over the age of six. This is untrue. The rules clearly state that you must be “over the age of six years…

HKArmyRule13

…and of good character.” So there. No bad elements from the wrong sort of kindergarten, please.

Although clumsy, such attempts to impress Beijing are bound to increase suspicion and fear in Hong Kong. And that points to growing opposition to the local and central governments.

It’s a crowded field, but another pro-democracy group has just been launched. There are so many now that branding and differentiation are becoming a problem. So don’t confuse the newcomers with Hong Kong 2020, which is for moderate old folks. And don’t muddle them with Vision 2047, (nope, never heard of them before either), which seems to be a front for the local chapter of the Dornford Yates Re-creation Society. Behold, 2047 HK Monitor (along with add-on 2047 HK Finance Monitor because, hey, otherwise it would be simple and easy to understand).

2047HK-MonitorThere is a niche for this lot (financial and other professionals of repute, including Edward Chin, David Webb, Sing Ming and Ching Cheong). Their presentation yesterday (bits here) covered several areas, but perhaps the key bit is the relationship between democracy and a sound economy.

Hong Kong’s active pro-democrats are mostly woefully unqualified to discuss anything to do with business and economics, while many senior business and finance figures have investments in the Mainland and keep quiet or stick to the pro-Beijing line. After years of co-opting tycoons and talking jargon pro-dem politicians can’t understand, the Hong Kong establishment has successfully propagated various self-serving myths about the economy and politics.

In short: many if not most people in Hong Kong have a vague perception that democracy might not be entirely compatible with economic prosperity. Certainly, the 2047 HK Monitor idea that a more representative government means a more vibrant and fairer economy is not only counter-intuitive for much of the community but radical and a revelation. For tycoon-bureaucrat vested interests, this is dangerous.

The South China Morning Post and Standard completely ignore yesterday’s 2047 HK Monitor launch.

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The 11-day youth organization

HKArmyBunnyArmy'What have they done to our Bunny?! Beijing’s attempts to tighten control over Hong Kong take a disturbing and cruel turn, as the city’s most beloved and ubiquitous all-purpose pro-establishment shoe-shiner is put in uniform. The sitter on a thousand stooge-packed government advisory boards is not alone in this humiliation. Education Secretary Eddie Ng is similarly pressed into service with the newly formed Hong Kong Army Cadets Association, looking even more hapless and embarrassed.

But first, since people are banding about phrases like ‘Hitler Youth’, a bit of context. It is surprising a ‘patriotic’ formal liveried youth organization has not been formed sooner in Hong Kong. The British-style Boy Scouts and Girl Guides still thrive, and many schools have uniformed road-safety and first-aid groups training and drilling. There are also three youth organizations originally linked to the British military and still publicly subsidized (the Air Cadet, Sea Cadet and Adventure Corps). A more China-oriented youth group is no more abnormal or sinister than, say, the national flag on public buildings – however much old-time empire loyalists and Kuomintang veterans might find it distasteful.

(An aside: is it just me, or have fire stations only just recently started flying the national flag – suitably elevated – alongside the Hong Kong one? Maybe I’d just never noticed it until now.)

So in principle, the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association is not weird. But, of course, it is. It’s freaky.

Essentially: it’s not real. The South China Morning Post reports that the non-profit company was incorporated just last Thursday, and no-one seems to have noticed earlier signs of preliminary discussion, planning or preparation. We just woke up and there it was. Most of the press were barred from the inauguration ceremony at a PLA facility (though someone had the wit to invite other youth groups to add a dash of normality to the contrived, verging on surreal, proceedings).

Obviously, it didn’t appear totally spontaneously. Flunkies had to sign up Tung Chee-hwa, the ex-police chiefs and other ‘honorary’ office-holders; some, like poor Eddie Ng, probably had to be slapped about a bit. Expert tailors had to measure Bunny and the others for their immaculate quasi-military costumes (fitting the oddly-shaped Eddie must have taken a while). But as these things go, it was done in a hurry.

The badge/logo looks like a last-minute get-the-secretary-to-do-it thing. There is as yet no website. (Although dozens of young eager members seem to have materialized out of nowhere. How could they have joined an organization before it came into being? The intuitive answer is that we must be imagining the kids in their fatigues. Think laterally, and the puzzle is solved: the kids exist, it’s the organization that’s fake.)

So what is this Hong Kong Army Cadets Association? The ‘honorary’ roles of the local PLA commander and the boss of Beijing’s Liaison Office obviously confirm central government endorsement. But it is designed to look independent: Sino Land is contributing premises, and the group’s rules say ‘no political affiliation’…

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The choice of the Chief Executive’s wife Regina Tong as ceremonial head, like the inclusion of Bunny, suggests ‘child welfare NGO’ rather than jack-booted thugs (though her title of ‘Commander in Chief’ is questionable – you can’t rule out hallucinogenic drugs as an explanation for some aspects of all this). Although aesthetically dismal, the badge is interesting in that it is devoid of national symbolism; no red flag, no map of motherland, no PLA ‘八一’. Even the name of the organization is odd, implying that there is such a thing as a ‘Hong Kong Army’, which sounds like a pro-independence fantasy.

Along with Bunny, who has a long record of do-goodery in keeping young folk clean and wholesome, another relatively minor figure sticks out here: pro-Beijing businessman Stephen Tai Tak-fung GBS, JP (and PhD, courtesy of Southern California University For Professional Studies), a Chiuchou, member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, funder of Hong Kong’s annual reunion-day celebrations – and, the Standard tells us, organizer of ‘military camps for Mainland youth’.

Reading between all these lines, the impression is that someone very senior in Beijing has just blasted Hong Kong’s leaders for their near-treacherous disregard for brainwashing kids properly, or at all (as Chen Zuo-er publicly and politely did just 11 days ago). By ‘leaders’ we mean not only CY and colleagues but the Liaison Office and quite possibly, by cc, the PLA. Panic broke out; ‘We must do something’; there’s no way to change school curricula or anything serious; someone suggests a quasi-private nationalistic youth league; someone else remembers Stephen Tai’s odd taste for kids’ boot camps; hasty phone calls, and behold – Instant Patriotic Hong Kong Army Cadets Association! Hopefully, Beijing will be happy. (How can they not be? Six-year-old are accepted!) What the rest of us think is irrelevant; it’s not aimed at us. (The Hong Kong media had to interview a Wen Wei Po reporter at the gates.)

Maybe it worked, and Xi Jinping’s advisors are satisfied. The founders of the group will now be stuck with this white-elephant youth organization. Presumably, they will attract or press-gang members, if only from other United Front affiliates and traditionally patriotic schools. And as another wedge is driven into the increasingly divided community, the rest of Hong Kong can just roll its eyes in disbelief at the grotesque symbolism, and spare some pity for poor Eddie and Bunny.

Not everyone looks silly in that get-up. I don’t have a women-in-uniform thing, but it has to be said: doesn’t erstwhile dowdy lobster-mom Mrs CY suddenly look hot rather fetching, with mane flowing and nostrils glaring, in that military outfit?

 

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Insight in ‘Insight’ shock

The only insight you usually find on the South China Morning Post’s op-ed page is the big blue word at the top. Many of the columns are fence-sitting and hand-wringing masquerading as moderation. Of the rest, some seem designed to fill a quota of blatant or half-veiled pro-SCMP-InsightProfYounggovernment/Beijing propaganda, while the more independent voices tend to be repetitive and clichéd as well as strident. Incisive and original analysis and thought rarely get a look-in.

Today, something stimulating slips through. Hong Kong U law professor Simon Young points out what most of us have probably sensed – that the Chinese government and its local proxy have pretty much abandoned any hope of implementing the proposed 2016-17 political reform. He argues that they would now silently prefer the pro-democrats to veto the package. That way, the pro-dems can take the blame (and rot), while Beijing can keep the existing no-pretense, pure-and-simple rigged structure and continue tightening its grip.

Given this, the professor says, it makes sense for the pro-dems to reconsider their plan to veto the reform. Instead, they should demand negotiations with the Hong Kong government over achievable tweaks to slightly liberalize the current proposed package. Such minor symbolic changes (a less-unrepresentative Nomination Committee, etc) would strike public opinion as reasonable; by rejecting them, the national/Hong Kong authorities would be revealing their preference not to have any reform.

This argument relies on the assumption that Hong Kong now has nothing to lose by accepting the broad concept of guided and rigged ‘universal suffrage’ unveiled in late 2013. The professor could bolster his theory by placing it in the national context. A Xi Jinping iron-fist clampdown is taking place across the whole of China. Any improvement to the culture and climate of Hong Kong’s political system – say by formalizing some role for public opinion – could therefore help protect the interests of the city’s people. (The ‘guided democracy’ concept for Hong Kong dates from the wishy-washy Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao regime.)

As a clever and cunning ruse to persuade pro-dems not to veto, this would be a brilliant bit of government propaganda. But, being clever and cunning, it’s obviously not that. And the professor is surely right in feeling that the authorities don’t even want the reforms to go through. It’s not a game of chicken now.

Perhaps it depends on two things.

First, what happens if the pro-dems stick to their plan and veto the package? All the signs are that governability will continue to deteriorate and more unrest will take place. The more militant Trotskyist-style dems may look forward to a true workers’ revolution, but others will be uneasy. Maybe Beijing will see the error of its ways and ease off, letting Hong Kong be itself and happy and free. More likely, the moderate pro-dems might think, Xi’s officials will use a second CY Leung term to continue diminishing press freedoms and rule of law. Ultimately, Beijing has tanks, and the world doesn’t care.

Second, how much difference to representativeness and accountability would the guided election system really make? This is unknowable. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (and others) hinted at one stage that debates and the use of polling would give public opinion some real clout in forcing candidates to focus on people’s wishes (interestingly, she seems to be downplaying this argument in favour of the package, which was the nearest the government had to a good one).

(Guesses at what happens in Hong Kong under more direct Beijing rule also need to factor in the possible introduction of popular economic and social policy – anti-tycoon, pro-welfare – to sweeten the medicine of tighter restrictions on the press and the judiciary.)

I declare the weekend open with the initial thought that it may not make as much difference as he thinks, but the professor could well have a point.

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Policy Address slightly weirder than average

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Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung’s 2015 Policy Address is, like its predecessors over the ages, an incoherent mess of half-baked ideas, free lunches for vested interests and pointless gestures.

One surprise was that CY pretty much started his speech by attacking barely heard-of student publications Undergrad and HK Nationalism by name for their supposed separatism. Presumably, such a high-profile assault on obscure dissident material is for the benefit of Beijing’s officials. Some PolicyAddress2015observers will see an attempt to intimidate youthful supporters of self-rule, though Hong Kong has no pro-independence movement to speak of – just a joke-meme useful for pressing some of the Chinese Communist Party’s most sensitive buttons.

A sinister and disturbing interpretation would be that totalitarian forces want to provoke more serious pro-autonomy sentiment in order to justify a crackdown when the time is, as they say, ripe. They are certainly inviting a plethora of ‘HK nationhood’ graffiti. A cheerier view is that this could be CY’s attempt to encourage the critical thinking/young people/creative industry/blah-blah that every Policy Address features. These works by up-and-coming writers would have gone unnoticed in a crowded and commercialized market with little time for start-ups – but after receiving such a massive plug from the CE, crowds have inundated bookstores, and the book may be reprinted.

The Policy Address contains at least one interesting little idea: converting multi-storey car parks into commercial premises. This hints at the stupidity of accommodating cars downtown at all. Some 85% of us get around the city using up only the space we walk, stand or sit in. The other 15% insist on surrounding themselves with a big metal box of at least 12ft by 6ft, moving (much of the time) more slowly, and making the air unbreathable – and they get priority for space over everyone else.

Banish cars from urban areas, and you suddenly have more, and nicer, space for everything. This isn’t even lateral, out-of-the-box thinking. It’s obvious, child-level logic: if you have too much stuff crammed into too small a space, remove some of the stuff.

Which bring us neatly to another way to free up our environment and lower rents and allow a flowering of new businesses and other activities: eradicating the Mainland Shopper and broader Visitor Cult that is otherwise known as the tourism sector. Sadly, the Policy Address has none of it. Instead, we get baloney about yet another convention centre. In other words, let’s have even more clueless-looking guys in suits getting in everyone’s way looking for their hotel. How many millions of these people do we really need clogging up the city? What is the purpose? In fairness to CY, he is a slimy and untrustworthy reptile with no loyalty other than to the Communist Party, and in the finest comradely tradition, he may be promising goodies to tourism-sector shoe-shiners while fully intending to kick them in the teeth when they are of no further use later on.

No Policy Address is complete without some sort of hand-wringing about population. In particular, the need for ‘quality’ humans – as opposed to, well, no need to get specific or personal. After all the gimmicks and point systems, and passport-for-sale scams (and a continuous, hefty flow of Mainland immigrants), we still seem to have a problem: the economic production units commonly known as ‘people’ mysteriously remain crap. By which we mean ‘not as good as Policy Address drafters think they should be’.

The only other bit I bothered reading bright idea this year is ‘attracting the second-generation of Chinese Hong Kong permanent residents who have emigrated overseas to return to Hong Kong’.

Where do we start? It’s tempting to ask what he means by ‘emigrated overseas’ – presumably, this is to exclude scum who emigrated to Shatin. And why say ‘return’, when these are people whose parents left, and who know only Canada or somewhere as home? We might also wonder why the word ‘Chinese’ is necessary here. Non-Chinese second-generation Hong Kong emigres do exist in small numbers; is there something undesirable about them? (Rhetorical question.)

Essentially, what is so special about this particular classification of person? The answer is that it’s one that the bureaucrats hadn’t thought of yet, and it sounds vaguely do-able, and has a family-reunion/apple-pie emotional warmth to it.

Rather than define arbitrary selective categories of ‘talent’, ‘quality’, ‘investor’ or whatever as target migrants, why not just make Hong Kong a nice place to live and work in? A Policy Address in three points:

  • Keep all the nice civilized infrastructure, institutions, services, low taxes, countryside, freedom and fun that we already have;
  • Scrap the cartels and the ‘cram more people and stuff in’ mentality to ease up on rents, prices, space, traffic and air;
  • Don’t screw it all up with paranoid Communist witch-hunts, United Front intimidation, and attacks on the press and rule of law.

…and they will come, and everything will take care of itself.

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The moment we have all been waiting for arrives, and…

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Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung’s promise to reveal the ‘foreign interference’ behind the pro-democracy Occupy movement comes to SCMP-LeungReiteratesnothing. All we get is a suggestion that activist-academic Benny Tai received a donation via an extremely sinister HSBC branch in that hotbed of international espionage, Kwun Tong. Benny, speaking from his organization’s secret headquarters inside a volcano in nearby Kowloon Bay, says it’s a joke – but of course he would, wouldn’t he? It would help if Legislative Council President Tsang Yok-sing – widely presumed to be a leading member of Hong Kong’s underground Communist Party – agreed that evidence of such external intervention exists. But, inconveniently, he has said he can’t see any. And CY’s colleagues in government are keeping their heads down on the matter, as if there were something a bit embarrassing about it.

It’s particularly disappointing that CY didn’t produce the extensive report on the US National Endowment for Democracy NGO that landed on my desk a month ago. Some poor wretch put a lot of hard Internet-trawling into it.

CY’s line is that evidence for foreign meddling is significant but he can’t divulge it (national security, you know). Of course, if the national leadership really knew of CIA projects aimed at toppling the Communist regime, they wouldn’t let CY (or anyone else) know that they know. So the ‘evil foreign forces’ accusation may just be a smear – and quite an effective one among xenophobes. Alternatively, we could view it as simply the default response the Chinese government always uses when things go wrong: the Communist Party is perfect, therefore any trouble must be due to hostile elements.

But we should also consider the possibility that Beijing officials really are seeing unfriendly overseas influences at work. To keep the Party in power amid economic and geopolitical change, Xi Jinping’s regime is putting unprecedented effort into creating a new and clear reality for 1.3 billion people. This involves tightly managing media coverage of all political and social issues, making words vanish from on-line searches, and even trying to eliminate discussion, if not knowledge, of whole concepts (the ‘seven don’t mentions’). China’s leaders see ideas as dangerous. The ones they fear the most tend to be widely accepted in the West, and from universal suffrage to nonviolent civil disobedience, they are at large in Hong Kong – sovereign territory separated by just a thin line.

In a climate like this, a planned Occupy Central movement and/or a spontaneous Umbrella Revolution looks and feels like a threat, if you’re a paranoiac (or hyper-sensitive realist who got through an attempted assassination/coup by Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang). One rumour is that the PLA were all ready to go in when the students looked set to take over the government offices in Tamar (the seat of power in Hong Kong, and next door to the PLA’s local HQ), and we have CY to thank for convincing Beijing that our own cops could save the day through relatively benign tear gas and beatings. Hard to believe. But property tycoon Thomas Kwok is in prison, and Stanley Ho’s nephew is under arrest for all those leggy bulbous hookers who’ve prowled the Lisboa for years. Normal times stopped a couple of years back, and anything can happen.

Just to make things interesting, an Occupy-related group says it received a donation from a Communist Party member.

NED-Report-WhoWasThere

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Begging to differ with the government

An old joke: ‘How do you know when a politician is lying? Answer – his mouth is open’. It reflects the cynicism of people living in established democracies. In fairness, statesmen do not spend that much time trying to blatantly mislead. More usually, they spout falsehoods to pander to voters’ own SCMP-USbusinessmisconceptions; mostly, they just state obvious inanities as profound and original.

In non-democratic Hong Kong, however, senior officials today are required to insist categorically and repeatedly that total untruths and fictions are facts. With little in the way of a competent opposition to hold them to account, they get away with it. Thus many people believe that we have a shortage of space for housing, or that tourism benefits us all. But occasionally, someone will stand up and question them, or just call them out for talking rubbish.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy than Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen. And, as if to pile on the cruelty, fate decreed that he had to be wearing a ridiculous-looking wig at the time – the opening of the new legal year.

He pronounced at length how Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Occupy protests had attacked and damaged the city’s rule of law, and how the ongoing round-up of leading activists was not politically motivated persecution. But then the Chief Justice stepped up to mildly and more or less implicitly disagree that participants in recent events lacked respect for rule of law; he also stated, without pointing any fingers, that the law applied to the government and everyone else equally. And to finish things off, Bar Association chairman Paul Shieh criticized officials for misleading the public by blurring the difference between obedience of the law (which applies to all of us) and rule of law (which is about how rulers use or abuse the law).

Some half-clever spin doctor in government decided some time ago to portray the civil disobedience planned by pro-democrats as an assault on the ‘rule of law’, which the Hong Kong public instinctively cherish. Officials have managed to get away with repeating this lie over and again during the last year, not least because compliant media ignored critics’ objections. The Chief Justice’s words are harder to sweep aside.

The even-handed and impartial judiciary will soon be in the public eye again as the system deals with pro-democrats charged with ‘instigating’ protests. As participants in civil disobedience, the activists have by definition committed offenses, so the courts presumably have no choice but to punish them. But in a city where the authorities have for years gone easy on people organizing unauthorized protests, the decision to prosecute in these cases will obviously appear selective – as in ‘made under pressure from Beijing to kill chickens to scare monkeys’. To the extent that the government ‘wins’, the rule of law will lose.

(You can see Rimsky looking as well as sounding idiotic in his wig here, as well as a mace bearer, police bagpipers and other strange rituals that must be awkward to explain to Beijing officials.)

If the government hopes for support or sympathy from the American Chamber of Commerce, it seems it will be disappointed. At the opening of the new non-wig-wearing year, the Chamber’s chairman describes the Occupy protests as political and no big deal to business, when as a pro-establishment loyalist he should in fact be screeching that it is a great threat to civilization. Instead, he says Occupy ‘raised issues’ with companies, which we could interpret to mean it was a pain because officials were bullying businessmen into signing stupid petitions backing the embarrassing party line (though it could mean anything). He also warns that the main threat would be ‘any deviation’ from rule of law, freedom of speech or freedom of the press – which happen to be just the things many suspect Beijing wants to diminish in order to bring Hong Kong into line. Most shocking of all, he is quoted as saying: “We’re glad that Occupy is over but…”

What he says after ‘but’ is irrelevant. Occupy was an evil foreign-backed plot by brainwashed Killer School Kids to topple the Chinese government – end of story. There can be no ‘but’.

(As it happens, the Amcham boss essentially calls for the government to sit and talk with pro-democrats, when of course the government is currently working on putting the activists in chains and locking them up in cold, damp, rat-infested dungeons for decades. So, Amcham off-message again.)

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What Jimmy Lai will tell us

“He makes the money, and he uses the money to support the anti-establishment movement, and that creates more noise, and sells more papers. That’s the game he’s playing,” said Mr. Tien.

Textiles scion and pro-establishment politician Michael Tien summarizes pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai’s business model: capitalizing on public demand for news and comment critical of the government. It is hard to say what Tien sees wrong with this. Is he criticizing the public for not wanting to pay money for pro-Beijing media product? Or is he denouncing the free-enterprise concept of making a profit by successfully competing in the market? Or perhaps he doesn’t mind either of these, but disapproves of donations to political causes – or at least particular ones.

Most other media groups in Hong Kong are now controlled by tycoons eager to appease the Chinese government – as any of us would be if much of our family wealth was invested in the high-growth-but-vindictive-government Mainland. And traditional newspapers have a hard enough time competing with the Internet without having to serve owners’ needs to shoe-shine the Chinese Communist Party. A 2013 Bloomberg story noted that since Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok bought the South China Morning Post in 1993, the share price had declined 69% and the paper had been through 11 editors in 19 years. There must be cheaper, and less headache-inducing, ways to pay tribute to the emperor, but unlike Lai the loyalists don’t seem to have a choice.

As the New York Times story suggests, the fate of Jimmy Lai is a pointer for how Hong Kong will go – not just as a media hub, but as a free JimmyLai-jan15community. Last night there were some sort of fire-bomb attacks on Lai’s Next Media offices and home, and some kerfuffle in Tsimshatsui leaving copies of Apple Daily strewn around. It looks pretty amateurish, but it comes on top of pressure on conglomerates not to advertise in Lai’s publications, major hacking attacks and on-line theft of company documents (with no police investigation showing any apparent progress), mob-sieges of the company headquarters, lame smears about Lai’s supposed CIA/US ties, a high profile anti-corruption raid (with nothing to show), and Lai’s possible imminent arrest as ‘instigator’ or whatever of Occupy Central protests.

Taking each incident separately, you have a few pro-Beijing fanatics going too far or law enforcers simply doing their job; taken together, you clearly have a pattern: Beijing wants to bring Lai and Next Media down. Trumped-up ‘instigation’ charges aside, Lai is guilty of no more than making money through trashy, populist, tabloid, pro-democracy muckraking and donating to pro-democracy causes. Chinese government forces can destroy him and the business only through extra-legal means – hiring goons or subverting police or courts. Local officials will have to play along.

The whole 1997/handover project was always going to be a test of whether the Chinese Communist Party could handle a pluralist society. Over the years, quiet optimism gave way to occasional nagging doubts. The signs now are that the Leninist system really is incapable of co-existing with even one insulated and semi-detached city that is not under tight control. Jimmy Lai is a thick-skinned and hefty target, so his fate will tell us much about how far China can or will go.

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