HK Mainlandization approaches the unthinkable

An update on the Hong Kong government’s extreme attempts to imprison pro-democracy activists, notably by ‘aggressively appealing non-custodial sentences’. With China now following a ‘Stalin-model centralization of power and suppression of dissent’, the city will be seeing more repression. Disrespecting the national anthem will soon be a crime, while collective veneration of the tune in schools will be compulsory (it will be interesting to see whether/how this will be enforced in the private and international schools top officials’ kids attend).

Mainlandization need not stop at silencing dissent and brainwashing kiddies. It could, in theory, go beyond civil liberties and human rights, and infringe the most precious of Hong Kong’s core values – property developers’ margins.

Hong Kong’s post-1997 governments have passively and actively pushed up housing prices and subsequently lamented that there is no short-term remedy. Officials have contemptuously dismissed suggestions of a vacancy tax or serious bars to overseas buyers as absurd and impossible. But while Xi Jinping was consolidating his emperor-for-life power up in Beijing in the last couple of weeks, something slightly weird happened: Financial Secretary Paul Chan criticized developers’ hoarding and drip-feeding of new apartments, and floated the idea of a tax on vacant properties.

The instant, universal reaction was that this will never happen, because anyone who knows anything about Hong Kong knows it can’t happen. But then, why did Chan even mention it – a policy option that was hitherto unutterable?

Meanwhile, a couple of tycoons call for action on housing. Charles Ho (whose media relentlessly talk up property prices) proposes tough measures against overseas buyers and moving prisons to the Mainland to free up land (why not some luxury malls, government offices or bank support functions too?) And developer Cecil ‘Playboy’ Chao blames the housing crisis for local discontent.

It could just be that Chan has been drinking, and the two second-tier plutocrats are trying to burnish their reputations for humanitarianism. Another explanation is that the government and tycoons are trying to shift blame onto each other following signs of impatience from Beijing. In other words, the Mainland officials who have ordered the jailing-at-all-costs of young protestors have also ordered serious action on housing. ‘Tough on HK protestors, tough on the causes of HK protestors’.

If hoarding apartments is wrong, what about the hoarding of land? It sounds hard – OK, impossible – to believe. But then, the government prosecutors’ obsessive pursuit of activists would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In Xi’s New Era, is anything sacred?


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Shock as HK judges speak on public affairs not concerning their pay

Time for the UK to issue its twice-yearly report on Hong Kong’s declining autonomy. The government instantly hits back with a press statement (less whiney-defensive and more dismissive-shrug than usual – maybe they are learning). Normally, that would be that for another six months.

But this time, Reuters is publishing a story in which Hong Kong judges voice fears about Beijing’s growing influence over the courts. (No mention of it in the South China Morning Post, but the Standard carries it in a features column branded ‘Cultural Spectrum’.)

A turning point was the November 2016 ‘Basic Law interpretation’, by which Beijing suddenly changed the law with retroactive effect to pre-empt the courts in a plainly political case (barring lawmakers for incorrect oath-taking). The de-facto edict effectively turned the independent judiciary into a rubber stamp in that case.

The negative judicial vibes Reuters quote are (inevitably) cloaked in anonymity and predictably restrained. But the story will hit a raw nerve among Hong Kong bureaucrat-officials who loudly maintain that rule of law is safe, sacrosanct and key to the city’s role as a business hub. (It might be welcomed, discreetly, among true faithful Communist loyalists who detest the alien legal system. Some may be ambivalent, like former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung, who sounds faintly uncomfortable answering Reuters’ questions.)

The story mentions hedge funds specifying in contracts the use of Singapore rather than Hong Kong for dispute resolution. Singapore officials of course encourage misgivings about Hong Kong’s legal system. OK – a tad hypocritical. But Beijing itself is bolstering the argument that Hong Kong institutions might favour Chinese state-linked parties. (Singapore is also sniping at Hong Kong’s securities regulation on similar grounds. Who can blame them for identifying an opportunity?)

There is more to come. Macau (totally different legal system notwithstanding) may lead the way in barring foreign judges from some cases. Beijing’s obsessive allergy-phobia about Hong Kong ‘pro-independence’ sentiment shows no sign of succumbing to reason, and will no doubt lead to National Security or other measures that restrict the courts’ ability to protect people from state power. It’s the trend: Xi Jinping is on a mission to restore what he sees as genuine one-party rule, and Hong Kong will not be spared.

No-one can do anything about this. The Hong Kong government will wring its hands and seek comfort in the fantasy that it’s essentially a PR challenge.

I declare the weekend open with… proof truck drivers ignore signs/a disastrous attempt to paint the town red/David Hockney’s lesser-known Hong Kong classic, A Mid-Level Splash

And a last-minute reminder for those who missed it: HK Free Press‘s funding drive.


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Alien intrusion

On the rare occasions they take a break from pushing up property prices and cramming more tourists into the city, Hong Kong’s leaders declare their fervent visionary desire for economic diversification. This tends to mean inno-green-bio-whizz-bang R&D tech hub zones, but sometimes they hint at ‘creative and cultural’ industries.

Emphasis on ‘hint’. Officials are nervous of creativity and culture. And with good reason: distributors won’t touch local movies because the Communist Party doesn’t like the plots, authors are banned from cultural events because a pro-Beijing tycoon runs the forum, book-publishers are abducted to the Mainland, and live music venues are raided and closed down for not paying rent to the government’s landlord buddies.

To officials, the only safe cultural activity is a real-estate project. The latest burst of artistic energy at the West Kowloon Culture Hub Zone concerns an attempt to link two promenades – one at the hub-zone and one 400 metres away at nearby Olympic Station. The genius aesthetes designing this seriously propose a ground-level pedestrian walkway less than 5 feet wide. Or, they add, you can have an inconvenient elevated link costing hundreds of millions.

Among all this, creativity is an alien intruder. The following is a HK Poly U film student project by Manny Leung, combining satire (note references to Lei Feng, Liu Xiaobo and Tank Man), some pretty decent tongue-in-cheek low-budget special effects (one of which almost looks like Nury Vittachi), some nice brief use of real news footage, and much more…



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Waiting for a slogan

We still don’t have a name for it, but before long the media and academics will start referring to this moment in 2017-18 as Xi Jinping’s ‘Red Restoration’, ‘Counter-Reformation’, ‘Grand Centralization’, ‘Revenge of the Princeling’, or something (presumably) catchier. It will be portrayed as the turning point that led to… whatever history brings next – the rise of China as the planet’s sole superpower, or the collapse-coup-mayhem that ended the world’s last empire.

The term-limits Emperor-for-Life thing will be part of it. But the commentators will probably put greater weight on other moves to concentrate power. There’s the new anti-graft system – an inquisition that can purge or discipline anyone for anything with no due process. And a consolidation of ministries that enables tighter Communist Party rule, including what Anne Stevenson-Yang calls a return to a ‘pre-98 financial system that is the handmaiden of politics, re-centralizing pricing and standards management’.

While we are waiting for the zippy slogan to describe this new era, a new sub-genre of China-watching commentary has emerged, about how China is really, seriously, deeply not going the way Western and other optimists supposedly expected back in the 80s and 90s (today’s example).

Few places are finding it as hard to come to terms with this disillusionment as Hong Kong. People in the city fervently wanted to believe that ‘One Country Two Systems’ meant complete insulation from Mainland politics and culture, that ‘high degree of autonomy’ meant self-rule in domestic affairs, and that Beijing would keep its apparent promise to allow democracy.

The mainstream pan-democrats still believe these fantasies. Beijing’s local puppet-officials and shoe-shiners awkwardly clarify or re-define the promises, or cheerfully claim everything’s fine. Grim-faced Mainland officials despise them all, and get on with converting a pluralist society into a Leninist system with as little fuss as possible.

Thus the Hong Kong Bar Association warns the Legislative Council against passing a bill to allow Mainland immigration to operate at the cross-border high-speed rail station. The lawyers’ arguments that the plan is not Basic Law-compliant look persuasive – Beijing’s (National People’s Congress) edict authorizing the arrangement contradicts and disregards the local constitution’s wording. This is neither legally nor logically possible. Unless, of course, the party-state is above the constitution. The co-location case will end up establishing this, neatly diminishing local rule of law. Which is where we came in.


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Distraught Doomed Dems’ Disaster Despair

Hong Kong’s pro-establishment media rather overdo the stories and articles on mass-suicides among Hong Kong’s pro-democrats following Sunday’s by-elections massacre carnage shock. You’d have thought that United Front mass-organization, media and government indifference – and no doubt pan-dem errors – had resulted in landslide victories for Bill Tang and Judy Chan. A more interesting story would explain why, even with a tilted playing field, those two pro-Beijing stooges still couldn’t win.

A few early-mid-week links…

Yet another in that long, never-ending series of warnings that China’s financial system could lead to economic collapse, courtesy of a book review from Reuters. As with Cassandra and the boy who cried wolf, one day you’ll wish you had listened.

John Garnaut offers a good summary of China’s interference in Australia, which is increasingly apparent as cunning/clumsy/creepy. Beijing’s designs on Greenland seem relatively subtle. What with Tonga, Djibouti, Montenegro and dozens of others, China seems to be in a solo race to inveigle and beguile as many far-flung regions as possible, as if there is some sort of deadline.

On the subject of hasty grabs, the chattering about Xi Jinping’s constitutional changes continues. Some more from (openly taken-aback) Jerome Cohen, and Kerry Brown tries to look at the quasi-religious psychology of Xi as ‘born again’.

All this barbarians’ blather about the Emperor-for-Life thing is really getting on someone’s rather sensitive nerves.



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Which part of ‘Elect the CCP candidate this time’ don’t you understand?

Voters in two Hong Kong constituencies delivered the wrong results again yesterday – even after the Chinese Communist Party twisted the law to expel their previously elected representatives and, where necessary, pressured civil servants into barring replacements from the ballot, and went to the trouble of organizing the usual stunts and thugs.

Presumably, Gary Fan and Au Nok-hin will at some point be ejected from the Legislative Council for incorrect thinking, and the people of New Territories East and Hong Kong Island will be told to hold yet more by-elections. We will carry on doing this until you vote for the clueless shoe-shiner zombies we tell you to vote for.

One of yesterday’s other by-elections was for a functional constituency packed with white-elephant infrastructure beneficiaries – fairly easy for the United Front to win. The other was Kowloon West, where the impressive and high-profile pan-dem Edward Yiu lost to the drab/DAB pro-Beijing stooge.

Optimistic pro-dems might blame this result (and the narrowness of the pan-dem victories over the lame Bill Tang and Judy Chan) on the low turnout. That was partly because it was a nice day for hiking, partly because the sexier candidates have all been disqualified, and partly – I suspect – because some citizens don’t see the point. The turnout could have been even lower if Bill and Judy hadn’t been so repellant and annoying they were asking to be slapped.

The pan-dems really need to ask why they are doing this. What is the purpose of taking part in increasingly rigged elections to an already rigged and mostly toothless legislative body? Why help Beijing legitimize this charade?

Indeed, what is the point in being pro-‘democracy’ when the CCP has made it abundantly clear that Hong Kong will not have representative government? You might as well be pro-unicorns. The pan-dems, jointly or as sub-groups, need achievable – or believable – aims (perhaps, I would wildly guess, to do with people and their lives rather than abstract constitutional structures). As things are, they are destined to end up being the two ‘No’ votes and the three abstentions against the 2,958 in favour.

Which reminds us that Hong Kong is a side-show to the main event up in Beijing. Some of the faceless commenters quoted in a lengthy SCMP article seem to suggest that the Party should be separate from, but not have supremacy over, the State. But one says: ‘Xi Jinping and the party leadership hope to dispel lingering doubts over the constitutional legitimacy of one-party rule’, which sounds like a roundabout way of saying ‘…the constitutional legitimacy of not having constitutional legitimacy’. The piece can summarized as: Yes, it’s a dictatorship.


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De-colonialize THIS…

In a brave attempt to spice up the ‘two meetings’ in Beijing, a Hong Kong delegate to the CPPCC – the retired shoe-shiners’ gathering – proposed scrapping colonial-era street names in his city.

(So I look up this Shie guy in the hope of finding that his company is located on Queen Victoria Street or Gloucester Road or Worcestershire Sauce Avenue. It seems Hong Kong, China’s not good enough – it’s registered in the jolly old Cayman Islands.)

Can it be done?

Roads recalling barbarian Anglo-Celt oppressors like Robinson, Hennessy, MacDonnell and Caine are easy enough to deal with – just call them Tsang, Chan, Wong and Ng, then hurriedly replace the barely used, highly expensive new signage with Zeng, Chen, Huang and Wu when you realize your horrifying error. But what about those really odd names, like the sinister Muscovite-Tartar creepiness Gutzlaff Street, the apparently Mexican D’Aguilar Street, the opium-induced Rednaxela Terrace, and the ever-irritating Des Veux Voex Veoux Voeux Road?

I hear there are two barriers (not counting common sense, of course) to removal of these reminders of China’s humiliation. One is Hong Kong Post, who fear mail-delivery chaos. (That said, they succumbed to pressure and covered the royal ciphers on once-red-now-green post boxes – the sight of which had been turning youths into deranged pro-independence radicals. As an aside, the Monetary Authority’s coin-collection exercise is eliminating coins featuring the Queen’s head, which distress Mainland visitors.) The other opponent to re-naming streets is the taxi industry.

This could be interesting: officials caught between upsetting either the Communist Party or the taxi drivers.

I declare the weekend open with juicy sizzling links…

Xi Jinping’s constitutional coup comes in for more attention from observers sensing a definitive turning point. From here on, China exists to serve the Communist Party, not the other way round. Among possible/likely outcomes are disillusionment among the middle class at home and the country’s student/expat diaspora, and a more aggressive and provocative nationalism leading towards a new Cold War.

Venerable rights lawyer Jerome Cohen doesn’t pull any punches in expressing his own disillusionment. Carl Minzner offers an extract from his prescient book End of an Era; How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise. And Minxin Pei sees the Communist Party’s mission – ‘to stay in power, not reform itself out of existence’ – as a recipe for stagnation.

More at the ‘light pop’ end of the spectrum, star Francis Fukuyama chips in.

The ‘Chinese Communist infiltration on Western campuses’ story is becoming a genre – here’s the latest one.

For Taiwan enthusiasts, an introduction to the country’s indigenous people, written by one.

Fans of weirdness will know about the politicization of archaeology and ancient history, which has tainted Chinese academia at times. And they will know about maniacs who insist on turning Jewish fairy tales into science, like Christian wackos Truth in Genesis (if you must). Now, insecurity overcomes reason and truth in India’s attempts to establish an all-Hindu 12,000-year heritage out of creation myths.

Lastly – yet another of those humdrum things Hongkongers take for granted but visitors amusingly find strange.


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Trying to make HK’s by-elections interesting

It’s hard to get excited or optimistic about the Hong Kong Legislative Council by-elections on Sunday. Beijing has replaced the spiteful CY Leung with the nondescript Carrie Lam as Chief Executive, set about reducing the legislative branch into a pure Mainland-style rubber-stamp body – and at least they’re not rounding up hundreds of thousands of people into re-education camps like in Xinjiang. So there’s a distinct ‘Why bother?’ feeling.

The main motivation to vote – apart from the hoped-for souvenir fridge magnet – is personal. In 2016, I voted for a guy who won a seat with very strong support but was disqualified for showing insufficient enthusiasm for Communist dictatorship. Then, before we had a chance to vote for her, the woman who was going to run in his place wasn’t even allowed on the ballot for the same reason. This is the kind of thing that pisses people off.

No-one’s conducting any opinion polls for these by-elections. United Front manipulators are taking it almost too seriously with their usual tricks, presumably getting ineligible voters onto the rolls, obviously paying fake protestors to disrupt campaigning, and certainly planning to bus elderly dementia patients to polling stations – and there are reports that Mainland-linked companies are pressuring staff to take part in canvassing.

If the United Front folk had studied Pork Barrel 101, they would have exploited last week’s Budget by arranging for pro-Beijing figures to demand (and get) handouts for The People, and then taking the credit during the last 10 days’ campaigning. Instead, loyalist Regina Ip has to echo post-Budget opposition demands for cash-for-all – and, bizarrely, gets rebuffed. You would have thought Leninists could do ‘joined-up government’, but apparently not.

In Hong Kong Island, the United Front picked Regina’s New People’s Party candidate Judy Chan to represent the pro-Beijing camp. This makes sense: the NPP has a ‘middle-class’ image, and Judy has (arguably/theoretically/approximately) some sort of young-glam-girl-next-door thing, as befits the prosperous neighbourhood. The more overtly pro-Communist DAB/FTU are running suitably doltish stooges in the Kowloon/New Territories races.

Pro-Beijing politicians suffer from a distressing and miserable handicap: they are not allowed to have any ideas or views of their own. Thus Judy has made a big fuss about rival Au Nok-hin being an anarchic, rampaging arsonist – which will if anything boost the meek pro-dem rather than herself. And today, probably while waiting for Lines-to-Take from the Liaison Office, she is raising the possibility of abolishing term limits (a la Xi Jinping, geddit?) for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Regina needs to stuff some Belt and Road pamphlets down the girl’s mouth before she ends up getting zero votes.

And now, if you’re still undecided, this…

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Carts and horses

Anyone can put the cart in front of the horse. It takes far more flair and ingenuity to take the wheels off the cart and roll them away in different directions, then turn the horse upside down and place it at an angle to the side of the now-immobile carriage.

Economist Richard Wong identifies a very real problem in Hong Kong: the dismal quality of policy secretaries – the minister/cabinet-level officials who run major portfolios like finance, education, transport, etc. Perhaps out of deference to official establishment reasoning, the HKU professor blames this on the supposed ‘shortage of political talent’ bemoaned by Chief Executives past and present.

Specifically, he blames the electoral system for channeling proponents of vested interests into the legislature, and the outdated use of seats on advisory bodies as rewards for shoe-shiners. Both these features are designed to reduce popular representation and bolster Beijing loyalists’ presence. He also blames the ‘heat in the kitchen’ that is an inevitable result – not cause – of the crap governance.

He shies away from the real cause of Hong Kong’s talent-starved governance.

There are very smart people out there among elected politicians, activists and professionals (eg…). They could significantly boost Hong Kong’s policymaking capacity, if they were allowed to take part – but they’re not.

They are excluded because they are not in the pro-Beijing/establishment milieu. They are not necessarily barred because they are outspoken anti-Beijing critics, but because they question things and have their own ideas. You can’t be in the pro-Beijing camp if you question things and have your own ideas. But you can’t be in government unless you are in the pro-Beijing camp – or you are so ideologically inert (and obviously ideas-free) that it doesn’t matter. Since actual pro-Beijing people (think DAB lawmakers) are so underwhelming in basic work/life/people skills, we are left with only one option: rule by civil servants who are competent administrators but utterly devoid of ideas.

Richard Wong’s solution: reintroduce pensions for civil servants, so more of them will stay on and become ministers.

Don’t ask.

On a more inspiring note: today’s ‘Best Use of a Corny Elton John Song to Help Everyone Keep Up’ Award goes to this splendid work.


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The results are back from the spin-doctors

The solution is to let Xi Jinping rule China for as long as he wants. But what was the problem?

Although the emperor-for-life arrangement had been in the pipeline for several months, the official announcement left Communist Party apologists scrabbling for a/the correct reason (they can’t just say they’re as clueless as the rest of us).

The stopgap position was that the Presidency is a mainly symbolic post, and scrapping the term limit simply brings it into line with the more important positions – so it’s just tidying up some little discrepancy we hadn’t noticed before, ha ha. But China’s censorship apparatus went into overdrive to suppress critical and any chatter about the change, confirming that the change was a big deal.

For Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing shoe-shiners, this is the nightmare challenge: use your wits and originality to produce an explanation that makes you sound authoritative without running the risk of contradicting the eventual official line.

Rita Fan opined that there is no-one else able to run China at this crucial time. This angle passes the Obsequiousness Test handsomely. But it raises the question of what is wrong with a system where only one person out of 1.4 billion can do the top job – what happens if the guy gets run over by a truck?

Regina Ip took a more academic tack, lecturing us that, unlike the West with its Magna Carta, China has barely even invented lawyers and needs stability, and look at Trump and Brexit. Trump can be used to justify almost anything, and the Western-democracy-is-mayhem idea is a useful distraction – even a compelling contrast with the competent-stable-meritocracy-dictatorship one. But the argument doesn’t make any sense. Has China been slipping towards dangerous populism? Does the emergence of an infant-wacko freak-show in the White House require China to change its constitution as a safeguard against something similar happening in Zhongnanhai? No.

In a more nuanced approach, Beijing commentator Hua Po explains that Xi inherited a mess and needs more time to train the strongman-successor China needs. While this maintains the Xi-is-unique-and-irreplaceable-if-not-actual-Messiah thread, it neatly blames someone else. If Hu Jintao hadn’t been such a lame loser (we infer), this wouldn’t be necessary.

This interpretation of the Xi power-grab seems to appeal to the pro-Beijing think-tank crowd. Hong Kong’s Shiu Sin Por expands on it by asking what would happen if Xi could only have one more term and left the anti-corruption campaign half-finished? We shudder to think, obviously.

However, it seems that Party theoreticians have now spun the definitive official account of why Xi needs to – sorry, China needs Xi to – have his personal and centralized grip on power extended for longer than previously envisaged. Thanks to grassroots and many regions and the Seventh Plenum and overwhelming appeals and consultations and surveys, it’s by unanimous popular demand.

Cue thunderous applause


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