Otherwise, everything’s fine…

July 24th, 2014

All Hong Kong people wanted in the first place, so far as anyone could tell, was a park. Instead, the West Kowloon Mega-Culture Arts Hub Zone Complex is to lose much of its greenery, as 5,000 planned trees get the chop in favour of bare lawns and something called a ‘black box theatre’. (I thought the revamped Central Police Station on Hollywood Road was going to have a ‘black box theatre’ or three. Maybe I dreamt it.) To our great relief, the Mega-Culture Arts Hub Zone will retain its massive – and massively expensive – underground car park and Xiqu Centre; I don’t know how I could live without them.

As part of a much bigger pattern, this is barely remarkable. People wanted affordable homes; instead, one of the biggest vacant lots of their land was handed over to the American Disney corporation to house an attraction for people from outside the city, and HK$7 billion was chucked down the toilet on a vast cruise terminal that sees maybe one ship every two weeks. People wanted cleaner air; instead, they are getting a HK$80 billion road bridge to Zhuhai no-one can think of a use for. People wanted better and faster transport connections linking the downtown and suburban districts; instead, they are getting a HK$70 billion hole in the ground to Shenzhen as part of a high-speed rail line to a town near Guangzhou they’ve never heard of. People want decent-quality education, healthcare and economic opportunities; instead, they get Harrow, Cyberport, a Science Park, multi-billion-dollar border crossings, an influx of Mainland shoppers and, before long, a third runway.

Meanwhile, genius Chinese government officials come down from Beijing and can’t work out what Hong Kong people’s problem is.

And, to cap it all, someone has just given me some work to do. ‘Sorely vexed’ doesn’t even start to describe it.


Bad editorial judgment leaves newspaper looking good

July 23rd, 2014

It seems the South China Morning Post’s head honchoes were not impressed at the night-shift duty editor’s decision late Monday not to carry the ‘Jimmy Lai Eats Babies’ stuff China’s agents hacked from Next Media’s computers. To common readers, it looked like a good call: a refusal to pimp the front page out to the Chinese Communist Party’s dirty tricks brigade. To the paper’s big bosses, it was a glorious opportunity to serve Beijing squandered – a lost chance to show the proprietor that they would eagerly put Mainland propaganda ahead of journalistic integrity any day.

Still, you can’t undo the past; you just have to make the best of it. And so this morning, the SCMP reports the story to a large extent as the smear campaign it is. As if to say ‘We of course, unlike Sing Tao and so on, would never stoop so low as to spread this dirt’. The article runs down one column on the side on a front page dominated by news from a sprawling, impoverished and unmanageable archipelago of Javanese schemers, Balinese mystics, Overseas Chinese shysters and numerous tribes of jungle-dwellers and cannibals – where, despite more skullduggery than we can imagine, they’ve just pulled off a democratic election.

Better late than never, the SCMP sifts through the purloined materials anyway on page 3. Veteran pro-democrat Martin Lee on the radio this morning spoke of the revelations as a ‘white terror’, but the truth is that the hackers unearthed a vast pile of insipidness. The nearest approximation to juicy bits make, if anything, Beijing look bad. The Next Media mogul paid Paul Wolfowitz (pocket change, but then he’s no Kissinger or Blair) apparently to help open doors while looking for investment opportunities in Burma. Next’s management complained when (partly China-owned) Cathay Pacific kowtowed and withdrew advertising, and ex-Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s wife was reportedly upset when Catholic-phobic Communist officials barred her from Bishop Joseph Zen’s investiture as a Cardinal. Such is the excitement of rummaging through Jimmy Lai’s laundry basket.

So, owing to an error, the SCMP emerges with some integrity intact; if its editorial people had done their job ‘properly’, they would have harmed the paper’s reputation. It is a strange world we live in where a tycoon buys a media outlet in order to trash its integrity (and financial value) as a way of proving loyalty to the leaders of a Communist dictatorship – who have a long record of kicking sycophants in the teeth the second it suits them, at least when they’ve sorted out the latest bubonic plague outbreak.


Desperately dishing dirt

July 22nd, 2014

We already know that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Occupy Central movement has unnerved the mighty Chinese Communist Party. But just in case anyone didn’t get the message, here’s a big clunky smear campaign to bolster the looming civil-disobedience campaign’s improbable image as a threat to the entire People’s Republic, if not global civilization.

One victim is pro-democracy academic Joseph Cheng, who speaks out after being targeted by Beijing-funded Wen Wei Po for not filling in an Immigration Department form correctly 12 years ago, and for failing to credit a co-author in some learned paper. What is interesting here is how the propaganda sheet got hold of the information about the passport application, which could only have come from Cheng’s family, his lawyer – or from within the Hong Kong government.

Wen Wei Po goes ballistic today over the extent to which media owner Jimmy Lai bankrolls the pro-democrats. Other pro-establishment papers, including the Sing Tao/Standard, join in, re-hashing the stuff about Lai hobnobbing with Burmese officials and with former US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. This follows Beijing officials’ denials that their diplomats in Burma had invited Lai and Wolfie to dine. The Burmese government’s opening to the West and distancing from China in recent years is no doubt connected to all this. It’s hard to say whether the whole thing is murky or just childish.

Presumably, we are supposed to infer that US interests fronted by the discredited comb-licker are funding or manipulating Hong Kong’s pro-democrats via Lai, with a view to taking over Hong Kong as the first step in its plot to topple the regime in Beijing – perhaps with the aid of a secret squad of Rangoon-controlled killer pythons. The extensive information on the donations was mysteriously emailed to everyone yesterday. It seems that the South China Morning Post is (as of this time) among the media outlets with better things to do than be used so blatantly by Beijing’s less-than-subtle operatives.

Perhaps the most outstanding thing about the smears is their lameness. Is this the worst China’s dirty tricks specialists have on the pro-democrats? Presumably there’s a lot more tucked away for real emergencies. Either that, or they’re seriously amateurish.

Meanwhile, the extensive flattery of Occupy Central continues with Robert Chow’s ‘Peace and Democracy’ signature-collection extravaganza. (This campaign also revolves around a smear, with its constant innuendo associating Occupy with violence.) With Mainland visitors helping to ramp up the numbers, the organizers are beside themselves with excitement at the possibility of matching the 800,000 people who voted in the pro-democracy ‘civil referendum’. Pro-Beijing forces loudly dismissed that opinion poll as meaningless, invalid and even illegal – yet they are clearly possessed by it.

None of this changes much, except to remind Hong Kong’s pluralistic and tolerant people that they are not immune from Beijing’s current desperation and fear, as displayed in oil rigs parked off Vietnam and the purging-by-corruption-charges of ever-wider circles of officials. China believes it has a formula for giving Hong Kong a choice of Chief Executive candidates in 2017, which will get through the Legislative Council, not subsequently be boycotted by voters, and most of all not compromise the Communist Party’s absolute control. The smearing passes the time while we wait for it.


Real-estate valuations and the Pontikege Effect

July 21st, 2014

The Yellow River, a historic cause of devastating floods, is often called China’s Sorrow. Under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, this does not apply in Hong Kong, which has its own separate misery: a parasitical real-estate industry.

The city’s housing market never ceases to horrify. Last week, developer Cheung Kong announced the sale of apartments at Mont Vert, near Tai Po, a sort of inconvenient but nicer version of Shatin, up in the New Territories. Some of the units were as small as 177 square feet and habitable only by extra-tiny dwarfs. Furthermore, the developer barred buyers from inspecting the site itself, requiring them to make their decision after viewing a (let’s say) possibly misleading mock-up ‘show flat’ at another location – an arrangement that may not even be legal. On top of that, the buildings are next to a graveyard emanating a non-stop, high-volume barrage of creepy and malevolent feng-shui vibes.

In a sane world, you wouldn’t expect many takers. But this is Hong Kong, and over the weekend thousands of people stampeded to snap up the apartments. That, at least, is how the Standard reports it. The Standard talks up the property market as a favour to tycoons; developers also have their own ways of making demand look stronger than it really is (by concocting ‘thousands’ of would-be purchasers, for example). But even allowing for some exaggeration, it seems that quite a few people seriously want to buy these places.

It could be that the news coverage of the possible illegality of the sales spurred interest. That sounds crazy, but as they say: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Especially when you’re Cheung Kong mega-tycoon Li Ka-shing. My theory is that the public hear that Li is making some extra cash by (possibly) bending the rules a bit; therefore, some of this wealth sort of rubs off onto you if you buy into what he’s offering. (It works with spin-off stock-market listings.) If that’s too illogical to imagine, it could just be that people have been successfully conditioned over the decades to enjoy being shafted by property tycoons, as if it is a pleasurable duty – indeed, a privilege.

The Standard notes that second-hand apartments in the neighbourhood are pricier than the new ones at Mont Vert. This looks like another mystery: it is as if we are in a parallel universe where the laws of economics are inverted. One perfectly feasible explanation is that older apartments are simply better – as in ‘less crappy in terms of quality and design’ – than recent construction. Another is that property sellers cannot mentally grasp the idea of prices coming down. This certainly happens with retail space in my neighbourhood, where landlords will forego many hundreds of thousands in rental income for months to satisfy their feeling of ‘not losing’.

Visiting Tai Po over the weekend, I was intrigued to find not only cheese- but chocolate-flavoured pontikege on sale…

And there I was all those years, unaware that pontikege of any description was available. Or, indeed, existed.

Note the discount: buy five of the things and you pay HK$16 rather than HK$22.50. With bargains like this on offer nearby, how can local property values fail to soar?


HK – still Asia’s barrier hub

July 18th, 2014

Hong Kong has wide, open shortages of space as far as the eye can see. The missing-link psychopaths who plan our urban streets make sidewalks so narrow that pedestrians have no choice but to jaywalk. The bureaucrats need the roads, after all, to drive their shiny black seven-seat Alphards up and down on, while looking uncannily like overpaid smug jerks. And tycoon Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong is putting 195-sq-ft apartments on the market, and charging any midgets who are interested HK$1.94 million per unit. (The South China Morning Post’s graphic, comparing the dwelling to a cell at Stanley Prison, wittily portrays a cat pointedly not being swung. The Standard, eager to drum up business for Mr Li, quotes the discounted price of HK$1.65 million with wonderment.)

And just in case you’re not feeling cramped enough, the government has decided to seal off the public area outside the Legislative Council from… the public. You paid for it, now go away. At least between 11pm and 6am. Admittedly, most of us would not normally want to hang around the sterile ‘Civic Square’ late at night, but activists and demonstrators have come to appreciate the option, just in case. Now, they mischievously lament, they will have no choice but to gather in protest on Chater Road.

The symbolism is that of an administration under siege. But from whom? Most of us will assume officials are putting up the barricades against their own mob-like populace. But it could be that they also fear their masters in Beijing, who expect all underlings to prepare for civilization-destroying Occupy Central civil disobedience activities, and look like they mean it. (Businesses in Central are spreading the word to employees that they will probably need to implement their contingency plans for pro-democracy chaos and mayhem next month. We may need to ‘work from home’ – a prospect that needless to say distresses me greatly.) Either way, the erection of the metal walls around the area confirms, if we were in any doubt, that the arrangements for the 2017 election will not necessarily meet the international, UN-approved standards that pro-democrats want.

As if to prepare us mentally for the occupation, blockades and uniformed enforcers are already being rolled out in one part of Central – the walkway linking the Landmark and Alexandra House. Not content with surrounding Christmas trees and even the nativity scene with inelegant barrier tape every year, Hong Kong Land are now giving the same treatment to the hordes of allegedly cute and adorable papier mache panda bears that have infested various parts of the city in recent weeks…

Amusingly, the barrier-tape equipment does not cater for such short exhibits. Any toddler wishing to interfere with the bears – or any panda wishing to escape – can do so with ease.

I declare the weekend open by advising that I have timed the highly alert security guards’ patrol patterns and can report that any adult wishing to liberate or merely kick some of the non-furry furry creatures has a 10-second window of opportunity every minute. Not that I am suggesting it, of course. I merely note that it would upset the fascistic and anal building management, not to mention the trendy French (I bet) artist who produced this pale and lame derivative of last year’s classic rubber duck in the harbour.


No break from mouth-frothing

July 17th, 2014

We take a break from the Great 2017 Semi-Universal Suffrage Fake-Consultation Controversy of 2014, while Beijing pretends to prepare a (written long-ago) decision on Hong Kong political reform to be handed down by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

While we’re waiting, one of our elderly property tycoons entertains us with a classic example of pro-Beijing shoe-shining backfiring horribly. Towngas, part of Lee Shau-kee’s Henderson Land empire, hastily abandons an attempt to pressure employees into signing anti-Occupy Central petitions. Apparently, some of the beastly staff scribbled rude comments on the forms that were handed out. You need to leave this sort of thing to subsidiaries of CITIC and Bank of China, where managements seem to have far more effective methods of mobilizing United Front volunteers at short notice. Our home-grown amateurs never learn: those who live by the shoe-shine die by the shoe-shine.

Otherwise, could it be that Hong Kong has suddenly entered one of those rare occasions when there is nothing to froth at the mouth about? Perhaps not – we do have the premature departure of MTR chief executive Jay Walder.

It’s a bit difficult to work out exactly why we’re supposed to be lynching the guy – though in view of his hefty remuneration, it’s fair to say we’re not greatly fussed. Men with yellow hard hats and clipboards blame delays in rail projects on subsoil and rocks and technical engineering blather. Politicians rant about cover-ups and demand grubby details about Walder’s resignation package.

We should probably look at the bigger picture. The MTR was not so long ago Hong Kong’s proudest achievement. Through no fault of its own, service quality has lately deteriorated as a result of our policymakers’ malevolent obsession with stuffing Hong Kong to over-capacity with Mainland visitors. Meanwhile, the mass-transit system is overloaded with expansion projects; it has been forced to construct a politically correct, patriotic white-elephant high-speed link to Shenzhen at the same time it is catching up with neighbourhood line extensions (Kwun Tong, South Island, etc) that probably should have been included in plans of previous decades. In terms of role and strategy, our leaders can’t decide whether MTR should be a for-profit company or a subsidized public utility. It doesn’t even seem clear whether it builds rail links to serve property developments or the other way round. Combine all this with the bureaucrat-developer cronyism and the ‘high land-price’ housing scam, and you would be forgiven for losing patience and saying Singapore got it right by just making housing and transport whole functions of a socialist government and being done with it.

So a civic success fades, and we are guaranteed to still have something to froth at the mouth about.


Hot off the press: two new works of Hong Kong fiction

July 16th, 2014

Brought to you by people who dismissed the ‘civic referendum’ of 800,000 votes as worse than worthless as a gauge of public opinion: a declaration that ‘mainstream opinion’ in Hong Kong opposes public nomination of candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive election.

It’s at times like this that you need a sense of humour. The Hong Kong government issues a report on public views on 2016-2017 election arrangements and another formally asking Beijing for permission to proceed with political reform. Both are blatantly drafted to fit in with the Chinese government’s plan to solve Hong Kong’s perpetual post-1997 governance crisis by granting the city a more representative administration while keeping it under complete ultimate control of the Communist one-party system. For the sake of Beijing’s amour-propre, the process must appear to be initiated by Hong Kong’s government (which has to pretend to take public opinion into account), steered by a group of China’s legislators, passed through the city’s legislature, authorized by the city’s top leader and finally approved by China’s legislature. In fact, the only part of the procedure not scripted by the Chinese government is the bit where the proposed plan goes through the Hong Kong Legislative Council, where, thanks to a system designed to help Beijing rig votes, directly elected lawmakers can manage a veto.

At least some of Hong Kong’s pro-democrats seem to swallow this charade and believe the outcome is not pre-ordained and could still result in some form of public nomination. Others probably get the reality of being ultimately subject to a Leninist-style structure but will fight the inevitable anyway on principle or out of habit. If there is a ‘mainstream opinion’ I would guess it is one of resignation so long as core values like rule of law are intact, but no-one has bothered to find out – after all, what’s the point?

The instinct of level-headed pro-democrats will be to keep calm and be prepared to use their only weapons – Occupy Central and the Legco veto – to optimum effect, for what that’s worth. But the hot-headed youngsters and radicals will be itching for instant, high-profile civil disobedience. If Beijing finesses its bludgeoning, it could drive a wedge between the two factions and marginalize the militants. Our local bureaucrats have a better feel for that sort of thing; ironically, their ability to manage and mollify public emotions will depend on how assertive they are towards the Beijing officials whose paranoia could still provoke a major protest in Central. (In theory, it should be possible to feel a twinge of sympathy for officials like Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and the Justice and Constitutional Affairs Secretaries, who don’t especially seem to be enjoying their work at what boss CY Leung enthusiastically calls this ‘historic’ time. I said in theory.)

Not so much a factor as an interesting side-show will be the international media. Will they spot the charade, or report Hong Kong’s constitutional reform as a genuine yet-to-be-decided process? (They have never worked out that the current Election Committee is simply a rubber stamp, frequently reporting that the 1,200 members freely vote in the city’s leader.) Will the angle be that Hong Kong is being deprived of its rights to full democracy, or that China’s communist rulers are showing surprising enlightenment in letting a group of mere subjects make a free choice, albeit from a hand-picked slate? (Given that the nomination process will probably formally involve the current Election Committee, will they work out that the 1,200 will again be playing a purely symbolic make-believe role?) As experts in finger-on-pulse matters, will they perhaps manage to identify that elusive ‘mainstream opinion’?


The political reform ritual continues

July 15th, 2014

What with all the freaking out over Occupy Central, that civil referendum tinged with mincing ludicrousness, Legislative Council filibusters, the July 1 march, traitors plotting police mutinies and all Hong Kong’s other political raucousness, it’s easy to forget that we are in the middle of a highly structured and tightly scripted ritual.

Late last year, the government launched a five-month public consultation on the theme of ‘Let’s Talk and Achieve a Happy Smiling Harmonious Community Consensus on Universal Suffrage!!!’ (Like cooking a feastin a way!) Most Hong Kong consultation exercises are designed to produce a pre-ordained outcome: either the bureaucrats’ favoured policy or a ‘lack of consensus’ that neatly allows officials to do nothing. In this case, the process must ultimately lead to a specific result already decreed by Beijing, so the supposed deliberations are even more of a farce than usual.

Obviously, the 130,000 responses the government has received will carry no weight. Officials must nonetheless go through the motions of a consultation and produce a report on what the public thinks. That will happen today. At the same time, the government is sending a report to the Standing Committee of the (rubber-stamp) National People’s Congress; in theory this report will vaguely recommend reforms for the 2016-17 election, but in fact it will already have been cleared with – indeed dictated by – Beijing.

The charade continues next month when Beijing’s puppet legislative body hands down a decision – arrived at long ago, of course – on what reforms we can have. And, of course, what we can’t have: an open nomination system for Chief Executive candidates. At this point, Occupy Central will in all likelihood do its big sit-down-in-the-street thing. Assuming civilization survives, the government will come up with detailed proposals later this year, leading to more outrage about the lack of open nominations. Next year, the administration will submit a package to the Legislative Council, which will no doubt prompt yet more nomination uproar. ‘Once the package has cleared LegCo’, as China Daily blithely puts it, the ritual concludes with two final symbolic steps, with our local minion Chief Executive and then the imperial court in Beijing signing off on the reformed electoral system.

But will it actually get through LegCo? Thanks to an amusing constitutional quirk designed to give Beijing veto power in our local legislature, pro-democrat lawmakers will have enough votes to kill the reform package. They threaten to do so if the CE nomination system is rigged. Since we can guarantee that it will indeed be rigged – barring the downfall of the Communist one-party state in China – the moderates among them will presumably buckle, and be burnt in effigy by the radicals.

They won’t veto, because when a Communist dictatorship offers you a crappy half-democratic election, you take it. That is what the Hong Kong government’s irritating blather late last year was trying to say. The truth about the nature of a one-party system cannot be spoken. Officials can only parrot the coded Beijing-speak about reform having to conform to the Basic Law. So in a desperate attempt to get the message across without actually saying it, our bureaucrats resorted to slogans like ‘We can vote!’ and ‘Let’s Seize the Opportunity!’ ‘A kleptocratic Leninist thug-state that couldn’t care less is giving you a glass that’s half full!’

Meanwhile, no-one is making a fuss about the composition of functional constituencies in the 2016 LegCo election, as it’s less sexy than public nomination, and demanding the unattainable is much more fun isn’t it? That may prove to be a pity.


DAB issues latest ‘good perving’ guide

July 14th, 2014

Could it be that after two weeks away, I would return to Hong Kong and find that the city’s strife had given way to an outbreak of harmony? Not as such. The nearest hint we have of sanity is news that the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Etc of HK has completed its sixth annual survey of ‘upskirt black spots’ – places where those who are so inclined can peer up and see schoolgirls’ panties.

As public services go, it is a curious exercise. It primarily advises spotty, greasy haired, inadequate men – a precise description of the DAB’s membership – where to satisfy their urges to sight young women’s undergarments. The report does not call on desperate males to mend their ways and avert their gaze; it cannot for political reasons, as pro-democrat Cyd Ho does that. So there could be an implicit disapproval of local ladies who show too much leg, a la ‘slut walk’, and thus some sort of call for traditional Chinese (feminine) values. Its secondary purpose seems to be to protest the use of glass in buildings of more than one storey high. Interestingly, the hot spots concerned include the Legislative Council and the Apple Store – locations that could usefully be redeveloped.

At the crazy end of the spectrum, the last couple of weeks have seen continued and ever-more overwhelming mouth-frothing about the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, and a hundred associated crises and traumas. The list of institutions sacrificing their reputations for integrity to join in Beijing’s scare-mongering and freaking-out about the proposed civil disobedience now includes insurers, banks, much of the media, as well as sheepish senior officials. Sadly, even the poor Hong Kong Police have been roped into the charade. All our leaders had to do was ignore Occupy Central, and it would have fizzled out. Instead, their ranting has turned into self-prophecy and built it up into something everyone takes seriously. It is a small-scale version of China’s provoking of a US-aligned Japan-Southeast Asia-India coalition, and evidence that the Communist Party is still trying to get the hang of this ‘soft power’ thing.

After a period in the US and the UK, I have almost certainly gained weight. If it’s not huge quantities of meat…

…it’s breakfasts comprising almost nothing but sugar, and an abstemious approach to greens. On a brighter note, I did bring back some fresh fava or broad beans, which are hard to find here in the Big Lychee. Thus fortified, I’m back to business as usual.

Appalachian wedding time

July 7th, 2014

Phew! Thank god that’s over…

From top to bottom: two extended clans, one at the back, one at the front, ignore each other on the bus; bridesmaids report for duty; excruciating dance. Not shown: delinquent members of Hemlock clan watching World Cup on iPhone during father-in-law's dance with bride-daughter).

Normality will return soon.