Extradition pretense wearing thin

Beijing is getting openly involved in what is supposed to be a local government initiative to establish a formal system for extraditing fugitives from Hong Kong to the Mainland.

Up in the nation’s capital, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office is giving CCP-loyalist Ronny Tong his talking points on the subject, and back here the Liaison Office hosts locally based Foreign Ministry officials, PLA political commissars and Mainland business leaders for a pep-talk. (One line is that Hongkongers ‘misunderstand’ the Mainland legal system – speaking of which…)

Beijing officials are also pressuring the Hong Kong business community to support the measure. And there are signs that the government might just ram the bill through the legislative process.

This is clearly not about a murder in Taiwan (perhaps realizing how lame that argument is, officials are now claiming the existing arrangement was ‘rushed’). It is about extending Mainland-style rule by abduction/fear onto this side of the border – so Hong Kong ceases to be a haven from China’s legal system. This would represent the most overt step in dismantling ‘One Country Two Systems’ as a form of insulation between Hong Kong and the CCP’s party-state. It could well be that the Legislative Council’s remaining ability to act as a check on the executive branch will fall by the wayside too.

A Foreign Policy commentator sees this as the (for-real-this-time/at-least-partial) end of Hong Kong. Another warns that, as Hong Kong’s autonomy fades, the West could end the city’s separate status in international commercial and other affairs (summary here).

As several observers point out, Beijing would probably not be too upset by this last eventuality. It would compel the city to speed up integration with the Mainland, and it would ease CCP paranoia about the ex-colony’s subversive Trojan-horse threat. So long as China’s elites could continue to launder money through a separate and open financial system, it would be fine – they’re not interested in all that World City stuff. For some perspective, the (alleged) background of how China’s leadership went back on the US trade deal suggests that Beijing cannot let go of a longstanding isolationist mindset.

As all this possibly unfolds, Taiwan could usefully grow out of its own parochial little ways.

How quickly things change – assuming that’s what’s happening.

I declare the weekend open with an unrelated and bizarre thought: young people today, mollycoddled with the safety features of modern kitchen technology, have the strangest ideas about exactly how Sylvia Plath died when she put her head in an oven…

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US pulls out List of Enemies

The US puts Huawei and subsidiaries on its Entity List (a good old-fashioned list of enemies). It’s the same sanction taken against ZTE a couple of years ago – but at that time Trump wimped out.

There is no way of predicting where this goes. Both Trump and Xi Jinping are, in their own ways, detached from reality and driven by vanity. Even if they appear to behave rationally, it might be by accident.

The moderate voice of reason supposes that economic pain will cause one side to make concessions, which the other will thankfully accept and reciprocate, to everyone’s relief – and it’s back to happy days again. We are assured that the US, with its decadent bourgeois democracy, is more vulnerable to cracking.

But this is hard to square with the increasing hostility. With Beijing resorting to nationalistic bombast about a People’s Struggle, and the US pulling plugs (on Huawei, academic visas), hopes of lovey-dovey kissing-and-making-up can only fade.

We also observe the moderate voice of reason fading. The standard sensible grownups’ preference for adoring or at least respectful engagement with China is becoming seriously uncool, surprisingly rapidly. In its place, we have a much more rugged and assertive Panda-skepticism. For a bite-size intro to what may be the new consensus, try this.

On a more prosaic note: the Comments function on this site is still out of service (yay!!!) – and is apparently much-missed in some quarters (and we call Trump and Xi deluded). Some long-overdue behind-the-scenes techie upgrades are slowly getting underway, so things could change in a few weeks or so.

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Pest control update

In the latest twist in the Legislative Council extradition amendment saga, the chairman of the bills committee (the one in the pro-Beijing parallel universe) stands down after a grueling 18 seconds.

To put this in context, Abraham Shek represents the property developers in the legislature. Of all Hong Kong’s ‘various sectors’, this is laziest, flabbiest and most entitled.

It is a cartel of families who for decades have just sat, grinning inanely, as billions of dollars are sucked yearly out of the productive population and poured into their laps, courtesy of the city’s government-rigged housing scam. They are the reason why – as global groundbreakers like Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have come and gone – the same handful of talentless groveling nonentities, now in their 90s, have remained the richest businessmen in the city. No competitiveness, no innovation, no notion of value for the customer, no shred of effort of any sort.

It’s amazing Abraham lasted over a quarter of a minute before collapsing in a quivering exhausted heap.

The Hong Kong government looks on helplessly and mumbles about not getting involved. Beijing has dumped this on Carrie Lam and her hapless officials, and they have bowed and said ‘yes sir’ as they always do and must. They have passed it onto their supposedly loyal shoe-shiners in the legislature, who have backed away and said ‘deal with this pile of doo-doo yourself’ in classic spineless, you-can’t-totally-blame-them, it’s-quite-funny-really fashion.

Meanwhile, as a thousand pigs rampage through the streets, inconsiderate old people are damaging our reputation as Asia’s World City by dying from viral infections spread by rats.

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LegCo’s last stand

Here you go – literally step-by-step coverage of the ongoing dramatics in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council today.

The pan-democrats in LegCo are all Hong Kong has in the way of democratic political representation. The rest of the chamber is for all practical purposes rigged to give pro-Beijing forces a majority. Elected local councils are just talking shops. The executive branch (ignore the fake ‘Chief Executive election’) comprises individuals hand-picked by the Chinese government for loyalty, obedience and all-round zombie-ness.

These pan-dems, their ranks depleted by expulsions, are the only formal obstacle the government faces in pushing through its extradition amendment. Being outnumbered, their only weapon is the use of delaying tactics. This risks looking disorderly or self-indulgent, but in this case it is the one hope of arousing enough public and international opposition to scare officials into withdrawing the measure – which would be a backdown by Beijing.

This is probably the last Legislative Council able to check government policies this way. As a result of procedural changes to prevent filibustering, the barring of pan-dems from the ballot and enhanced United Front activity, the assembly will likely be just a rubber stamp after the 2020 elections. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t do independent legislatures.

Amazingly, there are still people out there who fantasize that democracy might have a place in Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong, China. Here is a retired expat civil servant arguing that a freely elected Legislative Council is both feasible and capable of delivering ‘real power to the people’, even if Beijing continues appointing the Chief Executive.

Some (especially older) pan-dems themselves suffer from this curious delusion. Benny Tai’s ‘Occupy’ civil-disobedience vision rested on it. Even a few moderate pro-establishment types like to think the CCP can concede a little control in order to mend divisions and fix local governance.

Sad truth: this is a Leninist mindset in charge, and it cannot share power. All it understands – and has – ultimately, is force.  After the legislature, the CCP still needs to deal with the judiciary, media, academia, civil society and the rest.

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End of a knife-edge week

One of the more interesting weeks we have had for a while… You just know Trump, possessor of the deep, long-term, strategic sophistication of a toddler, is going to fold – and we get a nice stock-market jump and life goes on. Or… you suspend belief and watch as he goes for the long game, upending global investment patterns and (among other things) leading Hong Kong into that unknown region of CNY10 to USD1 and other possible delights.

Hong Kong has another little knife-edge uncertainty at the moment. It’s hard to believe that Beijing will let the local administration drop the proposed extradition amendment – but amusing to see how much more political capital and credibility Carrie Lam and her team can lose before a 2003-style backtrack is the only way out.

Here’s a list of opponents to the extradition proposal – quite an odd bunch to be on the same side.

To add the ambience, even modestly mild and moderate Michael Chugani foresees Hong Kong entering apocalyptic doom

I declare the Mothers’ Day/Buddha’s Birthday weekend open with a selection of the finest hand-picked reading matter.

The Standard – a tycoon-owned newspaper that usually worships local parasite industries – presents an op-ed on how to exterminate Hong Kong’s tourist pestilence. The suggested remedies are a bit limp-wristed (nothing that instills fear), but it’s surprising to see it there at all. The SCMP reports on a related subject from Vancouver, where it’s not about just milk powder.

Following the sentencing of the Occupy movement’s evil black-hand civilization-threatening ringleaders, a look at the limits to civil disobedience in Hong Kong. Gandhi and King wouldn’t have had a chance against the Chinese Communist Party.

And an excellent explanation of the Greater Bay Area – worth reading if only for the wonderful use of crisp, unemotional, academic English to confirm that the thing is a load of toxic crap designed to merge Hong Kong away.

On to economics… All the basic background you need on how we got to the US-China trade war. NPR on how and why US businesses kept quiet as China ripped them off (shades of domestic-violence victims). And China’s productivity problem (SOEs, etc).

For hardcore fans of United Front studies, the Jamestown Foundation devotes the whole of Issue 9 vol 19 to the subject.

Lastly, some humour: the Chinese Communist Party should admit that massacring students was wrong, and if Xi Jinping allowed citizens to speak their minds, he would be a cool guy.

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Another ‘whoomph’…

On which parts of the trade deal did the Chinese side backtrack? On the whole lot, it seems – or at least ‘nearly all aspects’.

The unofficial-official explanation is that Beijing dropped all its hard commitments and reinserted traditional-style vague intentions, because incorporating US demands into enforceable PRC law takes effort and ‘could provoke unwelcome challenges from within senior policy circles’ (policy circles already supposedly angered by China’s concessions).

No-one outside Zhongnanhai has a clue what CCP elites bicker about, but we can guess that accusing someone of being soft on the barbarians never fails.

We can also assume that this whole situation springs from a major miscalculation on the part of the Chinese side – Xi Jinping’s hubris to be exact. Trump is supposed to fold but doesn’t. At some point, pulling the plug on the deal is the only way out. Not just because of ‘face’ or humiliation or fear of showing weakness, but because the state-led, interventionist, subsidizing, mercantilist ‘development model’ is substantially the same thing as the CCP’s monopoly of power (or, as they call it, ‘sovereignty’).

China’s negotiator Liu He is off to Washington to ‘clear up any misunderstandings that may have arisen’. To make things interesting, Trump is now deciding that the trade war makes a useful weapon against Joe Biden.

The Hang Seng Index has done another ‘whoomph’ this morning – down over 500 points. Common sense tells you the two sides must find a way out of this. But after 20 years or more of mutual tolerance between two massively mismatched systems, maybe that won’t happen, and we’re heading for trade and investment de-linkage.

In which case, Hong Kong – no longer autonomous and flexible, but under orders to integrate and grasp Bay Area Opportunities – will take some serious hits. Perhaps it would, in some ways, be a relief.

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Back to that extradition thing…

So are we going to find out what exactly the Chinese side ‘reneged on’ during trade negotiations, thus triggering the Trump tariffs Twitter turbulence? The US officials, irritatingly, are sparing their Beijing counterparts’ blushes. Just curious.

Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, the amendment allowing for extradition of fugitives to the Mainland is going through the Legislative Council. Or it’s supposed to be. The pro-democrat lawmakers are using whatever procedural measures they can to hold it up, while the pro-government members – aided by the assembly’s supposedly neutral secretariat – are doing their best to push it through. So much so, that there are now two rival bills committees (a situation the Standard valiantly compares to Venezuela).

News outlets’ ‘explainers’ usually insult your intelligence, but here’s one that genuinely enlightens the reader – HK Free Press unravels the ‘This is not a meeting’ confusion.

Some pro-Beijing loyalists are getting whiny about how the pan-dems are opportunistically (ie cynically, ie unfairly) making a huge and unnecessary fuss of the extradition proposal as a way to make trouble, trying to replicate 2003- or 2014-style uproars, simply as an end in itself, because that’s what these dirty rotten scoundrels do.

The reality is that the government has miscalculated. This is hardly surprising, as the ultimate decision-maker – behind the local puppet administration – is the same over-reaching regime that has apparently blundered in its trade negotiations with the Americans.

While pan-dems in LegCo are taking filibustering to new lengths, civil society is exposing the Hong Kong government’s zombie-like determination to follow Beijing’s orders and get an extradition arrangement through. Officials are rejecting suggestions for alternatives out of hand (lots of suggestions), and refusing to even talk about it. The proposal is also attracting overseas attention – a US Congress commission is warning that it might endanger US citizens in Hong Kong and bring into question the current US extradition agreement with the city.

In line with CCP practice, Beijing’s enforcers just dump the problem on their local minions and leave them to sweat and struggle and suffer however much it takes to deliver. With their limited room for flexibility, not to say brain cells, Hong Kong’s officials are still sticking to their idiotic (and tasteless) line that the extradition thing is all about a particular murder case in Taiwan. Ram it through they must. It’s not like they have any credibility at stake.

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Enjoy this while it lasts

Best enjoy the excitement before we return to normal. The US is threatening China with big tariff hikes because Beijing has ‘backtracked on substantial commitments’. This is a novelty to Hong Kong, where the Chinese Communist Party reneges on promises with impunity every week, year after year.

But it is also scarcely believable elsewhere in the world. Global opinion is conditioned to accept that the CCP’s Middle Kingdom cannot be resisted or even doubted, on account of 8,000 years of civilization, ancient powers of long-term strategic thinking, mysterious wise Confucian panda bears, tendency to have hurt feelings, face, guanxi, pulling zillions of people from poverty, and so much more.

The Financial Times is aghast that the US should have the impertinence to oppose Xi Jinping’s ‘Made in China’ policy. The writer seems to take it for granted that the West should bow down to what he himself describes as a ‘national security strategy for China’s emergence as a global power’. Trump, he insists, has boxed himself into a corner.

The conclusion that Trump is shallow and dim enough to be conned into a ‘deal’ before long is no doubt correct. But as of now, surely, it is the US that has (if inadvertently) boxed the CCP into a tight spot.

Willy Lam gets it. He says Xi is “adamant about party-state control over major sectors of the economy … If they give this up, then China in effect ceases to be a socialist country.” If Trump and his advisors (and the rest of the West) had their act together they would spot the CCP’s vulnerability. It can’t let go its Leninist grip on the economy, yet China should not have access to the rest of the world’s relatively level playing field unless it does. Logically, it should face banishment to semi-autarky. But sophisticated global FT/Davos opinion cannot conceive a free world that is not kowtowing to the CCP’s China.

Hong Kong can at least enjoy the (presumed) sight of Xi squirming while it lasts – before the US relents in exchange for some soybean orders.

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Whoomph…

…and the Hang Seng Index falls 1,000 points.

People monitoring the US-China trade conflict mostly assume that Trump will ultimately cave in to his ‘good friend’ Xi Jinping. The US President’s grasp of trade economics is child-like. He is besotted by whatever will push up the stock market. The prospect of 12 hours’ narcissistic gratification from ‘winning’ an ‘agreement’ will overpower any grander strategic aim. Obviously, he will fold.

And now, at the last minute, he counters Beijing’s playbook foot-dragging with higher tariffs. He imagines that these represent a transfer of money from China Inc to the US government (‘winning’), which we all know is too simplistic.

But we also sense that China has more to lose from a war of attrition. China is surely more vulnerable to a serious decline in foreign-exchange earnings than the US is to higher-priced tractors.

Beijing is under all sorts of pressures, from maintaining a property bubble to keeping capital from fleeing to never admitting mistakes or showing weakness. One exquisite little conundrum: can they slap extra tariffs on US soybeans when the yuan is weakening and the domestic price of pork is already skyrocketing?

Maybe Trump is accidentally being clever. Maybe the motley selection of White House advisors (Panda-huggers, mouth-frothing neo-cons, smokestack-industry nostalgists, maybe someone who has a clue) are, when combined, accidentally producing a hard-headed approach. It beggars belief that there is a rational intelligence at work.

Will this last? Under the Communist Party, China is and will remain a state-managed economy that will never subject itself to international rules. The US and the rest must take it or leave it. (Will the last foreign company to leave China, please turn off the lights?) That’s the long-term picture.

But in the short-term, the Great Narcissist in the White House surely needs to declare his personal glorious victory, keep farmers and miners cheering him, and create a quick stock-market bounce. Right? If so, this is your buying opportunity.

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HK government shows namby-pamby soft side

The Hong Kong government heads into Monty Python territory by announcing that it won’t throw disabled people into prison for failing to rise from their wheelchairs in adoration when the national anthem is played. We will hang the unpatriotic bastards instead.

Or maybe send them over the border. Hong Kong Watch releases a report on the Mainland extradition proposal – more evidence that the international business community is starting to get Martin Niemöller-ish jitters.

For a glimpse of what the Chinese Communist Party might have in store for us in the long run, Human Rights Watch has a report on how the Xinjiang authorities use an app for extreme surveillance and control. (Here’s an interview on the investigative work behind the story.) It’s not just the total creepiness of the system that’s shocking, but the paranoia driving it – dictatorship as mental-health problem.

On a more aesthetic note, the Guardian’s obituary of Michael Wolf.

I declare the weekend open with a touching video – young Hong Kong people displaying due respect for the national anthem…

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