Not dysfunctional, but deliberate (Pt 2)

The idea that Hong Kong young people are driven to the streets purely by too many Mainlanders/not enough housing is simplistic and insulting – they are resisting CCP threats to their city’s freedoms.

But on-one can deny that rising inequality and visibly declining quality of life in Hong Kong add to discontent. So, just as the massive anti-extradition protests have prompted agonizing over the unrepresentative political structure, we currently have an outbreak in pro-establishment circles of Let’s Finally Get Really Serious About Stuff like social harmony and of course housing.

And, just as with the structure, we need to face the possibility that the municipal misgovernance is not an unfortunate accident – but deliberate.

This is a challenge. It’s easy to understand that Leninist Beijing’s system of government for Hong Kong is undemocratic by design. But it’s harder to see so much apparently random assorted crap going wrong as part of a plan, especially if you are not into conspiracy theories.

To put it briefly: the CCP has chosen Hong Kong’s governments for over 20 years now. If the city is being run a particular way all this time, that’s surely because it’s how Beijing wants it.

Every Hong Kong administration since 1997 has had one broad implied policy theme. You can call it ‘to push up housing prices’, ‘to push up rents’, ‘to maximize developers’ margins’, ‘to boost land valuations’ or ‘to accumulate large government surpluses/reserves’. It’s hard to tell which of these is the aim and which are side-effects – but it’s real. As well as obvious manipulation of (and lies about) land supply, we have had around 1 million new immigrants from the Mainland to house, while officials have actively facilitated production of luxury housing for sale to outsiders. At the same time, huge numbers of Mainland tourist-shoppers have swamped public space and seriously distorted the retail sector. All these increase the cost of living and reduce economic opportunities.

Meanwhile, officials under-spend on hospitals and welfare, ignore environmental problems, and maintain a public-school system for the masses that has a hopelessly outdated curriculum. Officials who fret about an aging population (hence the need for immigrants), also tell young people to leave Hong Kong to enjoy Bay Area Opportunities.

Is it paranoid to suspect that the running-down of Hong Kong’s material quality of life is more than just incompetence – but a strategy? For the answer, watch how determinedly Beijing pushes Carrie Lam to finally fix housing.

(Or look at Xinjiang or Tibet, or ask how many speakers of Manchu you run across these days.)

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It’s not dysfunctional – it’s deliberate (Pt 1)

All of a sudden, it seems Hong Kong needs a ‘fresh start’. Officials who, a few weeks ago, were trying to destroy the barriers protecting the city from Chinese Communist Party-style justice have miraculously transformed into contrite and reflective semi-innocents. They present themselves as victims of misunderstanding, if not actual mishap, and they beg not just for forgiveness but for the right to carry on (maybe a bit differently).

Establishment and other constructive and polite moderates concede that there might be something systemically wrong. Officials and even pro-Beijing types who were gloriously ‘out of touch’ in the 1990s seemingly come back to life as one to support post-Extradition Screw-Up reconciliation. Business-sector politician Felix Chung boldly suggests a revamp of the Executive Council. He is joined by mildly inoffensive commentators, who go full hand-wringing about how the Executive Council failed to read the public mood.

ExCo looks like a handy scapegoat. It is officially an ‘advisory’ body, but many of its non-executive members are simply given seats as a symbolic reward for their parties’ loyalty. There is little evidence that they have input into policy; all the signs are that they are used to disseminate the official line.

ExCo is not aimed at ‘reading the public mood’. No part of Hong Kong’s political structure is intended to represent popular opinion to those in power. Since 2014, the trend has been in other direction, with the legislature weakened, political rights tightened, and activists penalized. Elections (especially that for Chief Executive), consultations and advisory bodies are ceremonial or rigged.

The reason is brutal and simple: this is part of China’s overall political structure, in which all power comes from the central point at the top, downwards.

All this Anson Chan et al stuff about how we must now ‘re-think this system’, it doesn’t work, it is dysfunctional, the leaders are out of touch, Hong Kong needs to revisit democratic reform – this is naïve baloney. This top-down authoritarian style of rule is not a mistake or a design fault or a ‘problem’. It is deliberate. To the CCP, the system’s whole purpose is to sideline and override the popular will. The fact that it has provoked a backlash on extradition just tells them it’s still not rigorous enough.

Coming up in exciting Pt 2: Why the ‘we really need to get serious on housing/livelihood now’ trope everyone is discussing is also naïve, missing the point and not going to happen. (This is National Anti-Optimism Week. Sorry.)

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Twilight of the spineless

Hong Kong’s most morbid pastime is ‘Guess the Next Chief Executive’. Today the spotlight turns on Secretary for Propping Up Sunset Industries Edward Yau, who is dashing, sophisticated and oozing charisma. They could appoint a garoupa and it wouldn’t make any difference – but it’s more fun watching it happen to a human being.

On the subject of those who so generously provide us with our sadistic pleasure, maybe we should end the week by sparing a thought for the shoe-shiners. We mentioned Alice Mak yesterday, and how the hangers-on and buffoons of the legislature’s pro-Beijing camp have suddenly lost their smirks. Today the NYT looks at Hong Kong’s co-opted tycoons, whom the CCP ‘has enriched, and intimidated’.

Like the wannabe local politicians who unthinkingly recite party idiocies for a pat on the head, our business ‘elites’ suddenly find they are not immortal, not indispensable – indeed, not valued in the slightest by a thuggish Leninist mafia that has buried millions of innocents to keep power. I can’t remember how often I have to say it, but he who lives by the shoe-shine, dies by the shoe-shine. It’s a lovely sight.

As the extradition bill oozes its last few drops of blood, here’s an SCMP Young Post op-ed (really) that has perhaps not aged especially well since the author submitted it (enjoy it while it’s still on-line)…

In fairness, they also present this.

I declare the weekend open with some illuminating or amusing links.  

Did you get your HK$500 from the CIA?

In case you missed it, the decline of Hong Kong’s civil service.

Kevin Carrico’s paper on the National Anthem bill as ‘legal malware’. (The word among nervous pro-Beijing shoe-shiners is that the Liaison Office will go Full Freak-Out Berserk if the anthem law doesn’t get passed smoothly. In case you wondered.)

Howard French on how censorship of Hong Kong’s protests show Beijing’s ‘extreme fragility’.

And what it means for Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘enforced homogeneity’ and absorption of Taiwan.

For linguist types, the dai pai dong runes – or Hong Kong diner waitresses’ shorthand.

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By ‘easing tensions’ we mean ‘wetting ourselves’

It is instructive to watch the Hong Kong government in damage limitation and disaster-recovery mode. See a real live democratic deficit in action, up close! More to the point, you get to find out just how mediocre Beijing’s chosen local leader-puppets are.

For a vivid picture of a top official out of his depth, read this account* of yesterday’s Legislative Council questioning of Security Secretary ex-cop John Lee. Any chance of the ever-unlovable Secretary for Justice Theresa Cheng being subjected to a similar grilling?

Sitting atop this mess, of course, is figurehead Chief Executive Carrie Lam – probably still puzzled and bemused about why there is so much fuss and why everything seems to be going wrong. At a gathering to apologize to supposed supporters, Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Alice Mak unleashed a profanity-laced tirade at her, and Regina Ip stormed out. But Carrie has not only blithely dumped loyalist shoe-shiners in it. Unlike her hapless predecessors, she has even managed to bolster Taiwan’s pro-independence sentiment. This is almost calamity as performance art.

In a halfway smart move, the administration has rushed to sweep some contentious issues under the carpet. Rather than try to ram through the National Anthem (Compulsory Adoration) Ordinance in the last remaining weeks of this legislative year, officials are postponing it to after October – when we’ll all be feeling much better, won’t we? And they’re pushing back the request for a quick half-billion or whatever to fund some Lantau Mega-Reclamation Boondoggle Scam preliminary initial outline overview planning plan.

This is all in addition to her (amply noted elsewhere) stunning They Said It Could Not Be Done achievement in exceeding CY Leung’s alienation of the city’s entire younger and educated (and a lot of the rest) population.

Based on previous experience, Beijing’s reaction to all this will be to find even less competent people and force them even more strongly to do even more stupid things. If this is possible.

*Also from Kong Tsung-gan, how the Extradition Insurrection (what’s this historic moment going to be called?) happened after five years in the making.

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Ronny Tong’s amazing idea

The extensive autopsy of Carrie Lam’s really-meaning-it-this-time apology yesterday is a fantasy-substitute for carving up the Chief Executive’s actual corpse. Discuss.

Best not watch it – and just skim the story. She had to simultaneously: align any core message with Beijing’s; kick her own useful-idiot support base in the teeth; and self-flagellate to the satisfaction of seven million citizens. Obviously, it can’t be done.

The main outcome is that the extradition bill has been retracted, but don’t ask her to say that. And if you want an intersectional deconstructionist contextualization of the word ‘riot’, that’s tough luck too.

She spared us the ‘takes out onion, starts to cry’ routine, thank Christ.

Lost in all the uproar, Executive Council member Ronny Tong has come up with an astounding suggestion.

Once a leading figure in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, Ronny has mutated – for reasons we can only guess at but would prefer not to – into an avid government supporter. He loyally spouts the Beijing-ordered nonsense du jour, yet keeps his administration colleagues on their toes with his own unpredictable and challenging comments (today’s concerns the death penalty for helmet-wearers).

So – his Big Idea…

Hong Kong needs a Secretary for Planet Earth. This would be a government official at Bureau level. But, crucially, his full remuneration would comprise the median Hong Kong household income. He would take buses and trains, walk, wait in line at public hospitals, send his kids to ordinary schools, pay for his 400-square-foot flat in Shatin, and buy toilet paper all by himself. His identity would not be made public, so he could visit the population without being recognized.

Once a week, he would return to the mothership to report on what has seen.

For example… “They walk along the streets, then they go down these stairs and escalators into big underground halls, and after waiting a while, get into long metal tubes that glide through tunnels on wheels, and which take them to different parts of the city. And even when you arrive at your destination, you still have to walk for 10 or 20 minutes to go back up all these escalators and back to street level. It’s incredibly crowded and most people have to stand. You can’t tell the driver where you want to go!”

It’s worth a try.

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Spin-doctoring through the ages

It’s another sign of the deterioration of governance – Hong Kong leaders can’t even do Panic-Stricken Crisis Disaster Freak-Out Failures properly any more.

Back in 2003, after the massive march against Article 23 security laws, Tung Chee-hwa and his top officials collapsed into catastrophic ignominy with at least some decorum. They didn’t fight reality – they just went quiet and despondent and contrite.

In 2019, Carrie Lam and her team are in denial, thrashing about all over the place in attempts to regain composure and authority, when they should be slinking off into a faraway dark place to lie low.

They have sent moderate supporters out to plead with the population to ‘give Carrie a second chance’ – as if a frantic effort to impose Communist rule-by-fear/rule-by-law on the whole city is a minor mishap, like a waitress spilling some tea.

Perhaps the most pitiful sight is that of Police Commissioner Stephen Lo dropping his own front-line cops into the doo-doo. The word has gone out for him to go warm-and-cuddly, so now he is downplaying the ‘riot/threat to civilization’ for which he had previously psyched-up and over-armed his men – who are left as social outcasts.

The main difference between 2003 and today is that Beijing’s officials are far more active behind the scenes, guiding the message-management with their unmistakable subtlety.

In 2003, the Hong Kong administration fell flat on its face, and the official line was – in effect – that… it had fallen flat on its face. In 2019, the official line has shifted day by day, from refusal to admit anything is happening, to blaming foreign forces, to puke-making fake crying, to embarrassing over-correction and promises to be good from now on.

Meanwhile, from Victoria Park on Sunday, a quick update on how well that CCP ‘winning hearts and minds of patriotic young Hongkongers’ thing is coming along…

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Carrie notices something

How big was the oh-please-do-we-really-need-another-march yesterday?

To put estimates of the turnout in perspective, the entire population of Hong Kong Island is around 1.4 million. I don’t know if it is physically possible for that many people to squeeze into the public areas along the Central to Tin Hau strip – public park space, five MTR stations’ worth of subterranean passageways, several main arteries plus adjoining streets, footbridges and malls. It felt like that many tried.

It was so massively huge, even Carrie Lam noticed.

The apology she issued was a wretchedly clumsy, stomach-churning, pseudo-regal mess. But by her standards of warm-and-fuzzy touchy-feely (this is a woman who calls the Gay Games the ‘same-sex games’) this is like slashing her own wrists.

One of the main reasons for the high turnout was Carrie’s previous inability to exhibit an iota of remorse or empathy following two previous mass gatherings in a week. Such arrogance and insensitivity is just begging for a major slapping. Then there’s the disastrous performance of the poor cops on Wednesday (is there some anti-Beijing mole in the HKP handing down orders?) And the weird death-martyrdom of a protester. Plus, in the background of course, the extradition bill.

Most of all, the march was surely a reaction to the almost unbelievable incompetence of the people who are supposed to govern Hong Kong. This wasn’t a protest so much as an act of collective reality-checking, where the whole population come out to ask: ‘is it just me or are these highly paid, smug, condescending officials really such total and utter morons?’

Although the government won’t explicitly say so, the extradition bill now joins Article 23 as a matter too toxic to go near. The parallels with 2003 are remarkable. In both cases, the proposals would have opened the door to Communist-style rule by fear across Hong Kong life. Maybe not everyone would be directly under threat, but everyone would notice the impact on law, media, business, education, churches and civil society. One difference is that, looking back, the Tung Chee-hwa administration seemed dimly aware of the existence of a wider community around it.

You would have thought, wouldn’t you, that the Chinese Communist Party would step back now and consider – for a change – installing a competent government in Hong Kong able to win legitimacy for itself and indeed for Beijing?

No, of course you wouldn’t – stupid question.

A few odd pix you may have missed: here, here and shades of Hieronymus Bosch here

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The case for blaming Carrie, if you want

I’m hearing more insistence (not just from the Chinese ambassador in the UK) that Carrie Lam herself alone instigated the extradition idea. The word, genuinely believed in officialdom, is that she was overcome with emotion upon reading pleas from the family of the girl murdered in Taiwan, and insisted on acting. As a Hong Kong civil service Infallible Supreme Intellect, she had no need to hold a public consultation or to listen to any advice. It’s quite a touching story, by the standards of Hong Kong bureaucrat-zombie-puppets.

If it is true, it would suggest that the extradition proposal is not part of Beijing’s retaliation for the arrest of Princess Meng of Huawei or the broader fight against evil foreign forces – Carrie’s unfortunate timing just makes it look like that way. That said, Beijing’s officials must have approved any measure affecting cross-border and Taiwan relations. (And then, it could have been the locally based murky intermediaries in the Liaison Office who inadvertently or otherwise gave Carrie a green light. Complicated!)

We are left none the wiser. Internationally, the Hong Kong extradition issue comes at an atrocious time for China – that’s obvious. But good luck working out whether the cluelessness originates in Upper Albert Road, Sai Wan, or Zhongnanhai. (Ultimately, the buck stops with the Emperor-for-Life. For a readable – disregard the formatting – view of Xi’s capacity for miscalculation, see here.)

It’s basically just nuance at this stage. So is Carrie Lam’s personal fate. Her forthcoming defenestration will be of entertainment value, but otherwise irrelevant. (Of even greater morbid fascination will be the Grand Patriotic-Nematode Barrel-Scrape Search for her successor.)

Hong Kong is in an impossible position where it is under a Leninist regime but at the same time supposed to be pluralistic and open. Its authorities must prove to Beijing that they will use violence to crush and intimidate opposition, yet simultaneously show the world a stable, modern, hip-and-trendy international financial hub. Hong Kong is incompatible with the PRC. No wonder even the establishment is in a panic – behold former senior official Joseph Wong in disbelief.

There may still be some moderate hand-wringers out there who ask whether better governance – as in giving a damn about the population and their livelihoods – might still offer a way out. Seems a bit late in the day. Here’s a vivid description of the role our cartelizing and shoe-shining business and bureaucratic ‘elites’ have played in running Hong Kong into the ground.

I declare the weekend open with – for those who are into it – some ghost-city porn.

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The tear gas gets to Carrie

If I were Carrie Lam, I would cry too. Yesterday’s short but intense mini-Occupy confirms the Law of Diminishing Puppets – that each Hong Kong Chief Executive appointed by Beijing is a bigger disaster than the previous one. We should probably all weep at the thought of how much worse the next one can be.

The consensus among nearly every sentient being is that the Hong Kong/Beijing government cannot/will not/must not back down on the extradition amendment. Some say Chinese officials will not yield because evil foreign ‘colour revolution’ forces are behind the protests (see delightfully snarky readers’ comments here). Others simply assume that it is a matter of principle that the administration not concede decision-making power to the rabble.

Looks like everything’s calm now, and the excitement is over – but it depends what you’re reading.

Scrapping the plan at this stage would Look Good! But enhancing Hong Kong’s reputation does not seem to be on the agenda, either. Even if it has never exactly been an idyllic Manhattan-run-by-the-Swiss, Hong Kong has over the years successfully built an international image as rich, gleaming, modern and orderly. Now the world is seeing a banana republic with tear gas filling the streets and the thuggish regime’s cops clubbing kids for wanting First World-style rule of law. It’s almost as if someone somewhere wants Hong Kong to lose what made it special.

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Nothing happening today

You would have thought that any government official passing through Central this morning would notice that 50% of young people are wearing black T-shirts – and think hmmm I wonder if maybe something’s up. Instead, our visionary bureaucrats are in the dark seclusion of their chauffeur-driven cars, buried in a briefing paper assuring them that the vast majority of lawyers and judges and businessmen are pro-extradition amendment, and the opponents of the proposal are misinformed, a lost cause, and there’s no point in trying to convince them, so just ignore them and carry on, no problem.

Meanwhile, Denise Ho re-tweeted me!  Swooooon…*

*Not sure, but I think the pic in the tweet – cops lining up Christian kids – should be credited to an SCMP reporter.

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