‘I never realized I was clueless’ – Carrie shock

A few months ago, Hongkongers were bemused by the obliviousness of the woman Beijing was choosing as their city’s next Chief Executive. Carrie Lam didn’t know how to use an MTR turnstile, and couldn’t work out how to buy toilet paper. She publicly laughed at her own ineptness, so it seemed slightly endearing (if you could see the funny side of it).

Off-camera, when consulting ‘various sectors’ ahead of the quasi-election and working on her pretend-campaign, there was less scope for flippancy. On at least a couple of occasions I heard of, she was visibly shocked to hear gruesome details of issues like subdivided housing. “They don’t tell us about this in government.”

Now she admits that she had no idea before then that young people in Hong Kong were so disgruntled.

So in all her years in top bureaucratic and ministerial positions, she did not notice that the mass of her fellow citizens, especially the young and educated, were growing angrier and more alienated. For two decades, she did not perceive that the Hong Kong government’s only real policy was to serve parasite cartels by distorting supply and demand to ramp up land values, property prices and rents. And in late 2014, as the whole world watched the Umbrella Movement occupy three separate parts of the city, she was distracted – perhaps away in the South Pole or something.

It is tempting – even comforting – to think she is exaggerating her ignorance, acting dumb in order to save face as her new administration gropes desperately for Communist Party-compliant, tycoon-friendly policies to give the young hope for the future. But (as with her earlier on- and off-the-record reactions to reality) she sounds candid about the fact that she has no knowledge of anything unless it appears in a memo or briefing paper. And unaware that the rest of us might find it unusual, let alone scary.

On the subject of the ‘unusual-to-scary’ part of the political-events spectrum, I declare the weekend open with (for anyone who’s missed it) with the latest swamp-management antics in DC, guaranteed to put helpless and hopeless Carrie into hug-able perspective.

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Some quick Thursday links

On Twitter this morning, someone quoting Lily Tomlin: “No matter how cynical you get, you just can’t keep up.”

I think it’s Apple Daily that has started referring to the Mainland-jurisdiction ‘Port Area’ zone at West Kowloon high-speed rail station as the ‘International Settlement’.

The comparison to old Shanghai’s British-American-etc district is historically and constitutionally inapt and absurd in itself. The allusion to Hong Kong-as-helpless-victim in latter-day ‘foreign persecution’ at hands of professional self-pitying rewriter of history the Chinese Communist Party is monstrously, gratuitously offensive. This pushes so many buttons the Beijing Mouth-Frothing System will explode. In short: utterly brilliant.

Among many, many other objectionable intrusions in Hong Kong from north of the border is HNA, the Hainan Airlines-related conglomerate that bought land at Kai Tak for otherworldly sums, and is routinely described in international media as ‘acquisitive’, or (more daringly) ‘shadowy’. The mystery is sort of thickening and unravelling simultaneously, as the group tries to hide its ultimate ownership in various ways, now as a charitable foundation. Details here and here.

Obviously, it looks like a princelings/kleptocracy/crony money-laundering/capital-flight mega-scam. But which princelings/faction/etc? The charity (or dog-ate-my-homework) story suggests someone is getting desperate. (On a related note: will Shirley Yam reappear at the South China Morning Post, or is she ‘disqualified’, as lawmakers put it? Her infamous swiftly excised article is here, for anyone who hasn’t seen it.)

There is murk, there is Mainland murk, and then to prove Tomlin right there is Land of Smiles Mega-Murk – behold an alleged and hyper-lurid-putrid reason why Thailand’s new king has long hung out so much in Germany, including guest appearance by his intellectually disabled son. A dozen re-education camps under West Kowloon would seem normal next to this.

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The search for Nirvana ends…

…in one of Hong Kong’s larger Marks and Spencer Food Halls.

A humble monk walks in, clutching all his worldly possessions wrapped in simple cotton bags. He places them in a cart and slowly strolls down the aisle. He pays no interest to the muffins, or to the moist scones. He resists the midget gems, the Belgian marzipan chocolate balls and the jelly babies. He liberates his consciousness from all earthly desires as he passes the crunchy wasabi peanuts, the jars of pesto sauce and the Percy Pig biscuits. He has no use for the organic peppermint tea. He even ignores the glistening bottles of champagne…

Then he approaches the dairy section. He stops and turns to the shimmering light. And he gets seriously stuck into the cheese.

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Carrie’s ‘warm and fuzzy’ – the first 4 weeks

As Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam nears the end of her first month in office, her hoped-for lovey-dovey unity and harmony with everyone isn’t turning out too well.

Carrie’s hands are largely tied on the Oath-Gate purge-in-progress of opposition lawmakers. This could go all sorts of ways in the long run, with legal appeals, bankruptcies and by-elections, not to mention possible moves to disqualify more representatives.

Nearer-term, the culling of pan-dems looks likely to hinder as much as help the government in LegCo. Surviving pan-dems will hardly be receptive to her attempts to ‘reach out’ and build consensus. The legitimacy of the legislature and its elections (and related laws) in the eyes of many voters is weaker than ever. With fewer members present, there could also be more legislative procedural problems to do with quorums and so on.

Meanwhile, the new administration can’t help but rush to make itself unpopular among the rest of the citizenry.

They might appoint overtly pro-Communist ideologue Choi Yuk-lin as Assistant Deputy Sub-Flunky for Education. This is like setting off a very loud citywide alarm screeching ‘Brainwashing Your Kids Alert!!!’ Common sense says it won’t happen. Can Carrie really be so stupid or subservient to the Liaison Office to provoke and alienate every mild and decent parent in town? OK – so maybe it will happen. Pro-dems will rub their hands with glee.

Then there’s the co-location of Mainland border-control officials inside Hong Kong at the terminus of the high-speed train line to Shenzhen. (Should be a joke here: what happens when you cross a white elephant with a hot potato?)

In a normal situation, with halfway trustworthy and accountable government, this would be no big deal. If the rail link is to work as advertised and zip you seamlessly to Shenzhen and Guangzhou and up to Beijing overnight blah blah, it makes sense to do the immigration and customs stuff right at the start. Hence French cops at the London rail station, US officials at Canadian airports, etc.

But of course, this is not a normal situation. In addition to trying to brainwash your kids and overturn elections, the Chinese authorities have abducted people from within Hong Kong, not to mention snuffing out Liu Xiaobo and so much else. It is not a ‘lack of trust’, as officials awkwardly admit – it is a not-unreasonable vision of CCP thugs dragging innocents off to torture chambers and televised confessions. On top of that, Beijing presumably sees this as a partly symbolic thing (a more PR-minded regime would delegate the ID checks to Hong Kong Immigration).

So, near the top of Carrie’s to-do list: ask pro-dems ever so nicely to forget being kicked in the teeth for a minute and support ‘co-location’ when the necessary legislation comes along, and not freak out and spread panic everywhere, pretty-please. Just another 59 months of this ‘warm-and-fuzzy’ to go.

 

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Jack Ma’s organ acts up again

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the South China Morning Post never ceases to amaze, the paper can sometimes raise eyebrows. The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Shirley Yam Column last week took readers aback – not least because ultra-sensitive apparent dirt on Xi Jinping’s inner circle made it into print in the first place, before being hastily airbrushed out of existence.

And yesterday we had a forthright denunciation of the Chinese Communist Party’s rewriting of Hong Kong (and other) history, featuring such quotable snippets as…

Beijing treats us like we have Stockholm syndrome, like because we don’t buy into the nation’s collective self-pity, we are somehow “stalling the process of decolonialisation”.

…and…

You can tell us foreign elements organised Occupy Central, or try to pretend five of our publishers were never arbitrarily spirited away to the mainland. But every time you erase another line of our past, you push us another mile away.

The column is a response to one in the SCMP by a Mainland zombie-academic (which was so insulting and coarse that its own appearance in the paper could almost be interpreted as anti-Beijing black propaganda).

The (pinyin-named) author’s argument is perhaps awkward. For example, he or she sees a straight equivalence between the CCP and colonial historical/fictional narratives, and (let’s say) probably overstates the role of Song- and Qing-era local resistance against foreign invaders in forming modern Hong Kong.

But the article also reflects much of the broader uncertainty and discussion about Hong Kong’s identity vis-à-vis the Mainland/China/the CCP. It particularly makes sense in the context of the city’s defiance and reaction against Mainlandization and the obnoxiousness and belligerence of the CCP.

In short, it is a ‘Localist’ op-ed piece – which, in the SCMP, is a bit of a surprise.

 

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Crystal Skye’s the limit

Interestingly, the South China Morning Post’s ‘disappearing Shirley Yam column’ story hasn’t attracted much attention outside Hong Kong, at least as yet. Maybe it’s because – unlike the Asia Society censorship affair – there’s no US angle.

But maybe it’s a reflection of the bizarreness of the article’s existence in the first place. In the darkness of the megalomaniac paranoid Chinese Communist dictatorship/shoe-shining tycoon milieu, those few hundred words imperiled Xi Jinping’s grip on power and/or Jack Ma’s not-totally-unrelated, almost-as-vast Alibaba empire. The pulling of the story is a reversion to ‘dog bites man’ normality. (Which leaves the question: why did the column appear at all?)

Can’t blame the Post’s business section for sticking to something safe today. At least from the publisher’s point of view. To financially prudent readers, operating a Boeing 777 in an 86-seat, all-first-class configuration might sound idiotically risky.

The (more-or-less) puff-piece concerns a company called Crystal Skye, part of Malaysia’s Genting group. The concept takes an outdated and wretchedly tedious method of travel, the cruise-ship, and wraps it in the modern soulless efficiency of a wide-bodied jet airliner. The enticing Unique Selling Proposition: a US$45,000 luxury week in Tahiti. Exclusive, exciting, etc, of course.

Obviously this product is not aimed at sensible wealthy folk who understand, like veteran fund manager Jack Bogle, that chucking money down the toilet is stupid. It is aimed at nouveau-riche Mainlanders. They started off buying inane designer-label garbage in Hong Kong, and then Paris, before going on to thinking the mind-numbing Maldives was a cool vacation spot. Maybe Crystal Skye has identified an amazing opportunity and a last chance – grab their money as they climb the giraffe-viewing tree, before they wise up.

Shouldn’t think so despicably, but I’d love to see (at a distance) the scene in the fancy ‘restaurant’ with its wah-so-high-class bone-china plates-upon-plates, when the plane hits the inevitable turbulence.

I declare the weekend open with – what is it? Art? Journalism? Archiving? Nostalgia? Eulogy? Re-cycling? Hong Kong Hermit stitches together, in chronological order, nearly two hours’ worth of six-second (too short to possibly be boring) Vine video clips from the Occupy/Umbrella movement.

 

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One of our columns is missing (again)

After the Asia Society in Hong Kong was found to be barring government critics, attention turned to the NGO’s top benefactor tycoon Ronnie Chan, whose pro-Beijing and anti-democracy views were then highlighted in an online Forbes column, which was swiftly excised from the magazine’s website. (As an aside: one of the banished pro-dems concerned was recently involved in this rather exquisite stunt.)

Now something similar happens to Shirley Yam’s piece in yesterday’s South China Morning Post. Although there was no solid proof, the veteran and highly respected journalist offered plentiful circumstantial evidence that a couple who sound very much like the daughter and son-in-law of China’s emerging number-two Li Zhanshu are up to their ears in what looks very much like a plain old typical Mainland princeling billionaire offshore asset splurge in Hong Kong, right down to the posing-like-idiot-next-to-race-horse thing.

Of course, there could be another woman in Hong Kong called Li Qianxin – the exotic 栗 Li, not the common 李 riffraff – though less fastidious local press happily assert that she is the daughter, and the pair are dropping everything and running back to the mainland, etc.

Shirley Yam, who frequently covers sensitive Mainland/markets-related murk with necessary discretion, chose her words very carefully. Nonetheless, the SCMP pulled the column, issuing a statement feigning shock at a supposed lapse in editorial standards and whining about ‘multiple unverifiable insinuations’. (‘Multiple’ in this situation surely means ‘more convincing’, but anyway…)

This is a bit rich. Lesser SCMP hacks (today, indeed) routinely slander Hong Kong’s pro-democrat politicians with specious United Front smears. The explanation must be that Shirley Yam was getting too close to one of Xi Jinping’s ‘red lines’. Given the book-seller abductions, maybe the SCMP censors are doing her a favour.

Anyway, the offending article is still on-line here, and ‘the vanishing story’ could end up becoming a story in its own right. That’s what happened to the disappearance of the Forbes piece, which Asia Sentinel are the latest to report, complete with offending column in its entirety for the three people on Tierra Del Fuego who still haven’t seen it (plus gratuitous dredging-up of Ronnie Chan’s involvement at Enron, after all these years).

(Update: gone from above link, but spotted here.)

The irony is that if the cringing shoe-shiners hadn’t removed these columns, fewer people would have noticed them. For a similar example, Google ‘Winnie the Pooh Xi Jinping’…

 

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Recommended reading

While former top Chinese Communist Party guy in Chongqing gets the Discipline Inspection Purge treatment, current top CCP guy dutifully serving at Secretary General Xi Jinping’s side remains safe – despite apparent possible (as in circumstantial evidence that stinks to high heaven) daughter’s ties to billionaire-princeling scooping up overseas assets, including stakes in Hong Kong’s very own Peninsula Hotels.*

A thoughtful comment yesterday suggests that free-thinking Hongkongers establish a local ‘Communist Party’ to oppose this very sort of corruption and cronyism, and to create widespread mirth when the other Communist Party tries to ban it. And right on cue – behold the CPHK’s website for our enlightenment.

Other recommended reading comes from Penguin Books, who have just released a series of slim Hong Kong-themed volumes (which should probably have a dedicated website but don’t). Ones attracting attention include this and this. I downloaded this one, not just because I owe the guy a beer, but because it neatly summarizes the legacy of the CCP’s original screw-up in Hong Kong – co-opting a handful of rent-seeking cartelized parasite families and letting them plunder the city’s people and economy, turning it into the mess of lost opportunities, broken promises and rebellion we see today.

*Other murk just in – on HNA – here.

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Oath-Gate and some questions

According to the South China Morning Post’s calculations, at least nine more Hong Kong Legislative Council members could be at risk of disqualification for retroactively incorrect oath-taking. That’s in addition to those already being barred from office.

In some ways, it would be great if this happened: the disappearance of over a dozen popularly elected (and several quite smart) members would conclusively expose the Legislative Council as a rigged rubber-stamp body, and deprive the whole political structure of any remaining shreds of credibility. More likely, the Communist Party will hope that by axing a few, it can intimidate the others into playing along with an increasingly Mainland-style fake representative system. (If they are doing their United Front work diligently, Beijing’s local officials will have sorted these enemies into different groups to be expunged, turned against one another, or possibly tamed and lured into submission.)

For a detailed breakdown of how the government can take advantage of a neutered legislature, see here. But the powers that be are in a quandary. In theory, they can ram through ultra-sensitive measures like Article 23, national education or quasi-universal suffrage – but only at the risk of provoking street protests. And it would dash hand-wringing Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s already-desperate hopes of uniting everyone behind livelihood issues. In their obsessive determination to attack and crush splittists, the Liaison Office enforcers are making Hong Kong less governable rather than more effectively authoritarian.

Oath-Gate is doing even greater damage to Hong Kong’s legal system – making it clear that Beijing is willing and able to re-write the law and apply it retroactively for purely political reasons. While idealists and purists quoted by HK Free Press might complain, the Progressive Lawyers Group’s Kevin Yam is surely realistic when he says local courts are ultimately powerless. This is how a one-party state and Leninist dictatorship uses the law.

Two questions come to mind.

First: is there still any reason for critics of government in Hong Kong to engage in formal, constitutional politics? Even the old traditional Democratic Party moderates must be wondering whether constructive participation within ever-tightening rules makes sense. Why lend the system credibility as Beijing makes it less representative?

Second: if the Communist Party can trash Hong Kong’s legal principles over lawmakers’ oaths, when else might it, on a whim, rewrite the law and hijack the courts? The unofficial-official reassurance is that splittists crossed a ‘red line’, and Beijing will continue to respect rule of law on this side of the border in all other respects (leaving aside occasional can’t-be-helped abductions). But having done it this sweepingly on this occasion, and finding it so easy and effective to impose ‘rule of man’ here, can a paranoid one-party dictatorship restrain itself in future?

 

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Let’s all ‘focus on’ the honeymoon

A South China Morning Post op-ed column asks whether Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive Carrie Lam will see her honeymoon continue. She currently has ‘the wind in her sails’, we are told, because everyone welcomes her plan to boost education spending, and some opposition members stood up when she entered the Legislative Council chamber the other day.

Nice idea. But instead, the purge of opponents launched during her predecessor CY Leung’s administration rolls on, with the High Court disqualifying several lawmakers for their retroactively forbidden oath-taking.

Some portray this as a time-bomb, as if it has been left behind deliberately to undermine her. In reality, the Communist Party officials in Beijing’s Liaison Office who ordered the action against the oath-twisters would have been too carried away with the chance to crush splittists and mangle rule of law to think things through in such detail.

At some time in the intervening period, Carrie was press-ganged into becoming CE. She is presumably sincere when she says she wants unity and harmony – only an ultra-masochist or ideological maniac would stick with CY’s non-stop struggle against class enemies and counter-revolutionary elements. And she must have taken the job on the understanding that the United Front paranoid-psychopath freak-out campaign would be toned down so she could ‘focus on’ schools and housing and the elderly, and all other problems that created so much discontent in the first place.

So the result is tension. She has to go along with the aftermath of the earlier purge of pro-democrat lawmakers, whatever happens. She has to sound as if she wants to draw a line at that – although she might be powerless to prevent more, owing to timing and the new-look deformed due legal process. And she must be assuming or hoping that the Liaison Office will cooperate and play its part in backing off.

And then, she has to pretend all is well and implore the pan-democrats who have not (yet) been picked out for persecution and rectification to ‘focus on’ their legislative duties and pass her oh-so popular hike in education expenditure. Which presumably you have to, in this situation. But so much for any honeymoon.

 

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