Can Carrie outdo CY for dislikable-ness?

It would take super-human effort and determination to be a less popular Hong Kong Chief Executive than CY Leung. CY came across as vindictive, creepy, menacing-going-on-Satanic, and most of all, so avidly pro-Communist Party even pro-Communists found it embarrassing. Yet, the way Carrie Lam is behaving, we will soon start to look back at him as warm and cuddly – much as we have come to do with hapless first post-handover leader Tung Chee-hwa.

Of her recent screw-ups, the biggest is raising the age limit for elderly welfare payments. This SCMP analysis sums it up – overpaid technocrats condemn a group of already-poor to greater hardship by shaving a miniscule sum from the budget to make a contrived demographics point.

The public mostly opposes the measure. This is obviously a shock to Carrie – maybe she is amazed that the masses disagree with her, but more likely it is their impertinence in expressing an opinion at all. She pretty much snaps back that it’s old policy, passed by lawmakers, and therefore final, so shut up. Pro-democrat legislators gleefully take the opportunity to stick the knife in, and their usually obedient pro-government colleagues feel compelled to join them.

Common sense tells us that, after much glowering and muted tantrums, the administration will reluctantly and gracelessly decide to act like a grown-up and scrap the plan. (Though common sense isn’t worth listening to much these days.)

In the meantime, Carrie makes what is for her a big concession and says she will try to be more diplomatic in future. To translate: ‘Being totally correct, I have nothing to apologize for, but I will remember to make my life easier in future by not rubbing your noses in my superiority so hastily’.

Not knowing how to buy toilet paper means never having to say sorry.

 

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Going off the rails

A few mid-week links with a bias towards trains. Lawfareblog does a good summary of what the High Speed Rail arrangements mean for the Hong Kong legal system. And before we feel too sorry for ourselves, how badly China shafted (railroaded?) Kenya on the SGR project.

On other matters, an intro to how the United Front works, a tour of United Front Land with “overseas Chinese representatives” from the US, Malaysia, Australia and elsewhere – and the thread branches off here to include our own Tung Chee-hwa.

On the cultural side, what the author calls ‘…a love letter to & from Hong Kong. It’s ostensibly a profile of one person but really, it’s an ode to an island’, but don’t let that put you off – New Yorker on on Denise Ho. And the really serious stuff: beer – history, and specifically the marketing of the stuff in Mao’s China (click link to pdf).

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In all fairness…

Time to give credit where it’s due and recognize the hard work of the Hong Kong government’s Stupid Ideas Department.

Some time ago, it dreamed up a proposal to recycle some of the vast budget surplus to property owners via a rebate in Rates, or property tax. Tiresome critics pointed out that the biggest benefits went to the biggest landlords holding multiple properties. The bureaucrats devised a system to limit the handout to one per property owner, carefully constructing it to be so costly and complex that it’s hardly worth it. Enter Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who points out that this tight-fistedness will also prevent the city’s legions of selfless, kind-hearted landlords from passing the rebate onto their tenants. Detractors are confounded – are we supposed to be helping the rich or the poor here?

After all, these policymakers also came up with the idea of cutting social security payments for needy 60-64-year-olds on the grounds that ‘60 is the new 40’ and these semi-oldies are living for decades longer than the indigent by rights should. Carrie rather wittily blamed rubber-stamp shoe-shining lawmakers for obeying Beijing’s vision of ‘executive-led government’ and passing the thing in the first place. She also sternly pointed out that she is over 60 and works very, very hard. The shoe-shining legislators now feel a need to join opposition to the measure. Officials counter with more complex fixes, whereby impoverished not-so-elderly can claim a different sort of welfare to help cover the difference (subject to enough conditions to make clear who’s boss).

It can’t be easy to craft policies that strike everyone as immensely stupid – it must require considerable effort. Most impressive, however, is the Chief Executive’s own Sociopath from Mars act in the face of protests. The most gifted wordsmiths among us can only dream of drafting such dramatically offensive and insulting responses. And for her next trick: we defend Justice Secretary Theresa Cheng to the hilt.

It all shows – when the Hong Kong government really wants to achieve something, it can.

 

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Yes, but what IS it?

What better way to start the week than with some sort of sneak-preview of the Greater Bay Area Initiative Vision Plan from the South China Morning Post? The paper reports that Vice Premier Han Zheng has approved the Tech/Innovation Integration Hub-Zone Blueprint, which will be unveiled on February 21 ‘barring unforeseen circumstances’.

Will we finally learn what on earth the thing is?

The basic proposition is that you have a bunch of coastal cities clustered around a river delta/estuary, and if you do something (to be revealed on Feb 21, fingers crossed) it will start to perform a similar ‘powerhouse’ economic function as the Silicon Valley area around San Francisco Bay, or maybe the vast industrial region around Tokyo Bay, because an estuary is sort of like a bay. Voila – the world’s top bay area.

Regional geography types might point out that the Pearl River Delta is already performing such a function, with its vast swathes of factories, banks, sea ports, airports, power stations, residential areas, road and rail links, malls, schools, 7-Elevens, pet-grooming salons and everything else an economic dynamo needs.

Promoters of the concept excitedly insist that the extra yet-to-be-announced something can unlock the area’s great additional potential. They note that it is currently divided among a dozen or so municipal jurisdictions, whose mayors and other leaders compete with one another, and two of which are de-facto city states with their own currencies and laws, separated by international-style borders.

Skeptics point out that while merging Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Shenzhen and other mainland cities’ planning and other functions might produce economies of scale and efficiencies, it is difficult, if not unconstitutional, to absorb Hong Kong and Macau into the Mainland this way.

Some fear the whole thing is a plot to subsume Hong Kong politically and economically within a bigger cross-border entity. Others suspect the idea is more psychological or symbolic – aimed at encouraging the idea or feeling that Hong Kong is just a part of something bigger. In other words, to dilute Hong Kong’s separate identity. As in ‘We will no longer be Hong Kong people, but Greater Bay Area people’.

According to the SCMP, Beijing’s outline is some sort of Stalin-era central plan dictating where to locate all the tractor factories and where to put the cotton production:

Hong Kong will be the international finance, navigation and trade centre, as well as a transport hub. It will have the role of pushing finance, trade, logistics and professional services towards the high-end market. Macau will be an international tourism city and a platform for trade with Portuguese-speaking countries. Guangzhou will take a leading role as a national central city while Shenzhen will take a leading role as a special economic region and an innovative city…

What does Hong Kong’s exciting new role in ‘navigation’ entail? Which city will be the platform for trade with Spanish- or French-speaking countries? Will Guangzhou notice that it is being fobbed off with a silly title of ‘national central city’ instead of getting a real trendy modern sexy-sounding mission in life?

Sinister or stupid? Find out on Feb 21. Maybe.

 

 

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Xi in a rush

Some possibly interesting Friday reading… A dummy’s guide on how you should finance infrastructure in developing countries versus how ‘Belt and Road’ does it. (Basic money stuff – eg, low returns call for long-term debt. Bottom line: if a high-speed rail in Laos made sense, where were the non-Chinese institutions interested in funding it?) And the retreat of Confucius Institutes from American campuses. They seemed like a good idea at the time, and in theory they could have been a PR boost for Beijing.

As with all sorts of problems China is getting into – from Huawei’s sanction-breaking, to United Front infiltration in the West, to alienating Taiwan and Hong Kong, to genocide-lite in Xinjiang – there’s a common thread in these two cases: over-reach, over-aggressiveness and over-hastiness.

There are several reasons why Xi Jinping might be in such a hurry to restore China’s rightful position as the world’s supreme civilization. The economy is running on empty, relying mainly on additional inputs to generate growth. The country faces potential environmental horrors, notably with water and soil. And its demographics point to an aging and shrinking population, so time is tight for a big vision like displacing the US and establishing a Eurasian/Indo-Pacific ‘Belt and Road’ Co-Prosperity Tian Xia.

But another possible reason for Xi’s apparent impatience is simply hubris: he has no idea how all this looks to the rest of the world, his advisors don’t dare give him any bad news, and he believes his own propaganda.

In fairness to him, even overseas audiences have been taken by surprise by the rapid deterioration of the country’s image. Just a year ago, poor old Jeffrey Sachs was the soft-rock star of developmental economics with an unremarkable, mildly sympathetic position on China. Today, he finds himself vilified as an extreme Panda-hugger, hounded from Twitter after taking an up-until-recently predictable and trendy Beijing-leaning position on Huawei.

Not all the oldies are struggling to keep up. I declare the weekend open with Hong Kong’s last Governor Chris Patten on how Xi Jinping is damaging Hong Kong.

 

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HK to banish tune-mockery menace

Faced with a housing crisis, putrid air, overcrowded hospitals and zombie-factory schools, the Hong Kong government’s number-one priority is obviously to ban lack of respect towards a one-minute piece of music. The new national anthem law will impose hefty prison sentences on anyone who, HKFP says, ‘publicly and wilfully alters the lyrics or the score, or performs it in a distorted or derogatory manner’.

As befits a dictatorship based on the principles and practices of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, the tune is mainly a tedious derivative of a stale Western compositional form, the march. The opening fanfare is quite catchy, but the rest is in a style best described as Soviet-idea-of-rousing, maybe with a few phrases in pentatonic scale to give it a dash of pastiche-Chinese. The lyrics are puke – but then it’s a national anthem. To make the despotic CCP symbolism complete, the writer was of course purged and the tune at one time banned.

Learn to stand straight and gaze solemnly like you really mean it in the comfort of your own home. If you want to sing along, practice with Paul Robeson.

The Standard says that ‘publishing the gist’ of an illicit treatment of the work will also be prohibited. Presumably (he naively writes) this will not apply to press reports. But what about posting a link to a scurrilous parody on YouTube?

The law will pass through the Legislative Council with few problems, now so many pro-democrats have been expelled or barred from elections, and the chamber’s procedures have been tightened to promote rubber-stamp efficiency. It could be that some of the remaining moderate pan-dem lawmakers will not vigorously oppose the measure, to show everyone how constructive and grown-up they are.

While we’re on the subject, the government says Hong Kong cannot proceed with political reform because the city’s own people do not have a consensus on the issue. This is a pure lie. ‘Political reform’ can only mean representative government, which is incompatible with a Communist one-party state that insists on a monopoly of power. We are so numbed to falsehoods that this top official can blame the Hong Kong people, and no-one notices.

Except… a few hundred miles away, people are indeed watching. A Taiwan poll shows most of the public think China can take ‘One Country Two Systems’ and shove it. And (imagine Hong Kong pan-dems pulling this off) the island’s aboriginal folk draft a message to Beijing that is not just eloquent but essentially unanswerable.

 

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HK govt suddenly loses ability to comment on press stories

The Wall Street Journal yesterday reported that, in its efforts to push Belt and Road projects, the Chinese government will assist a corrupt regime by agreeing to tap and monitor Hong Kong-based journalists investigating the crooked officials concerned.

Hong Kong lawmakers demand an explanation from the local authorities, who inevitably reveal themselves to be clueless, in both the ‘ignorant of the facts’ and ‘out to lunch’ meanings of the word. ‘We will not comment on individual press reports’, says the government that issues whiny, long-winded responses to individual press reports every week. Chief Executive Carrie Lam ends another of her tireless 10-hour days by writing in her diary: ‘Sorely vexed as General Secretary Xi shoves another bowl of cold vomit into our laps, yet again!’

Not to be outdone by the WSJ, Reuters deliver an investigative piece of their own: Huawei’s front companies in Iran and Syria – or Don’t forget your toothbrush, Ms Meng.

Some mid-week links for the underworked leisure class…

A transcript of Occupy co-founder Chan Kin-man’s (by all accounts moving) final university lecture – a blend of nostalgia, philosophizing and modern history. He faces a prison sentence because the Chinese Communist Party is petrified of harmless idealistic sociology professors.

A Bloomberg radio interview with not-so-idealistic Anne Stevenson-Yang, touching on China’s history of opening and closing cycles – opening when it needs money, closing when the cost of opening gets too high – and a forecast that the big event of 2019 will be the crash of the Chinese economy. A comparison of Xi Jinping and Stalin as counter-reformists determined to create a more state-controlled economy. And to make the ‘China closing trend’ selection fully multi-media, a YouTube video in which a couple of guys biking through (free) Taiwan discuss foreigners leaving the Mainland.

 

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Great moments in Belt and Road, cont’d

Like ‘One Country Two Systems’, ‘Belt and Road’ is a vague slogan rather than a concrete structure or strategy. It could be broadly summarized as: Xi Jinping’s visionary Marshall Plan to ‘stitch together’ Eurasia and the Indian Ocean through win-win white-elephant asset-grab debt-traps. But even this would be an oversimplification, as all manner of slimeballs can apply the ‘Belt and Road’ label to any activity to flatter the emperor or win official approval. Here are two noteworthy recent ‘Belt and Road’ landmarks.

The first is China’s efforts to get the last Malaysian government to sign up to rail, pipeline and other projects. Malaysia’s Najib regime was facing embarrassment and international criminal inquiries after having (allegedly, of course) been rather humungously ripping off the country’s sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB. The Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese officials offered to help extricate the Malaysian leaders from their predicament as part of the infrastructure deal by, for example, recycling padded project financing into the wealth fund.

The story is behind a paywall. Go here for a synopsis, plus some other juicy details.

There is a Hong Kong (and arguably 1C2S) link: China agreed to the Najib regime’s requests to mount full digital and physical surveillance on the Hong Kong-based WSJ reporters looking into the 1MDB scandal.

Another nail in the coffin of press freedom, rule of law and autonomy in Hong Kong. But on a brighter note, this is at the officially sanctioned, professional, classy end of the ‘Belt and Road’ scale. Down at the seamier end, there’s Cambodia.

This vassal state of China now seems to be home to Macau gangster and movie-icon ‘Broken Tooth’ Wan Kuok-koi. Last year, he apparently launched a cryptocurrency in Southeast Asia, with proceeds to go to an online gambling thing (more here), and some sort of security company connected with ‘Belt and Road’ and the ‘fraternal’ Hongmen international organization.

This eye-roll-inducing sleaze-fest actually seems to be coming together, judging by recent sightings of him and movie buddy Michael Chan hanging out with the Cambodian military, whose cooperation is no doubt useful in the provision of private-sector security and, um, protection services for Chinese businessmen engaged in wholesome ‘Belt and Road’ enterprises in Cambodia.

This combination – foreign power, puppet dictator, casinos, mafia – rings a bell. Where have we seen this before? How about Batista, Havana and the mob, circa 1957?

These two tales from the ‘Belt and Road’ remind us that, just as you think things are getting bad in Hong Kong, they are so horribly worse elsewhere.

 

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Venerable slogan outlives usefulness

Chairman-of-Everything-for-Life Xi Jinping declares that China must and will annex Taiwan – under threat of military force – under a ‘One Country Two Systems’ model. Taiwan says ‘no thanks’. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post produces a hasty torrent of comment (blah, blah and blah) endorsing 1C2S as a formula made in heaven for the lucky Taiwanese.

According to legend, the 1C2S concept has ‘evolved’ since the 1970s as a theoretical framework to fit Taiwan and Hong Kong into the PRC, with Deng Xiaoping first using the actual phrase in 1982.

It is more a vague slogan than a clear constitutional mechanism. After the UK and China signed the handover deal in the early 1980s, officials explained that 1C2S would allow Hong Kong to keep its existing capitalist system and way of life. Optimists and cheerleaders encouraged the belief that this principle, coupled with ‘a high degree of autonomy’, meant Hong Kong would be insulated from Beijing’s interference in all matters apart from foreign affairs and defence.

Since Xi came into office, Beijing has visibly intervened far more in Hong Kong (cross-border abductions, patriotic materials in schools, political tests for public office, political prosecutions, political immigration decisions, etc). China has essentially redefined the 1C2S principle as restrictive of Hong Kong’s autonomy rather than of Beijing’s right to interfere.

To no-one’s great surprise, the Taiwanese have zero interest in having their free and democratic system eroded this way. They are also aware that Beijing once promised broad autonomy to Tibet and Xinjiang.

In Hong Kong, local officials are getting frustrated by international media and other commentary suggesting that 1C2S has changed in any way. The local administration is in a bind: it must take ownership of the prosecution, immigration and other decisions, yet it can’t openly admit that these represent shifts in policy. Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her colleagues are reduced to flatly denying that anything has changed, and that these things that haven’t changed have not damaged rule of law or freedom of expression.

Today’s desperate attempt to convince us that Mainlandization isn’t happening comes from the Immigration Department. Observers have pointed out that the department now enforces Chinese Communist Party orders to keep out hostile elements with incorrect thoughts, such as the Financial Times’ Victor Mallett and Taiwanese musician-lawmaker Freddy Lim. In response, whiny Immigration officials loudly over-protest that there is no conspiracy (no-one says there is) and most of the people it kicks out are smugglers and baddies (which no-one disputes).

With perfect comic timing, former CE CY Leung invites Taiwanese to visit Hong Kong to ‘understand 1C2S’.

 

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It’s more fun than Pokemon!

Hong Kong’s hot new game for 2019 is ‘Guess the next Mainlandization’. All the family can join in! And you can let your imagination run wild, because the gradual smothering of the city will continue in many forms. Who would have thought you had to call that huge ugly building a ‘Xiqu Centre’, even though people make fun of it and Pinyin-challenged foreigners can’t pronounce it? Who could have guessed kindergartens would have to give Canadian toddlers ‘I love China’ textbooks? Who would have predicted that the first Western journalist would be expelled last year?

I will play safe with my forecast: the weaponization of travel advisories (in a more nationally coordinated way than the time they did it against the Philippines). The US has just renewed its advice to citizens to beware of arbitrary legal actions and exit bans in the Mainland. It would not be out of character for Beijing to issue warnings or take other measures to discourage travel to – or merely stir up popular resentment against – the US, or maybe Canada, or other countries that hurt China’s delicate feelings. How could patriotic and loyal Hong Kong not declare an alert, however embarrassingly contrived, of its own?

I declare the weekend open with a look back at the Mainlandization of discourse last year (creepy Orwellian wording in government press releases, etc). Other recommended reading if it’s too cold to go out: the South China Morning Post started the new year massively off-message with an op-ed blasting Xi Jinping for airbrushing the West, as well as Deng Xiaoping, out of the official history of reform; a Chinese professor’s candid (and swiftly censored) lecture on the state that China is in; another Mainland academic (from the now largely silenced Unirule Institute) in some detail on the Huawei affair as a clash of legal systems; and on a less-dry note, the story of the Chinese Canadians recruited for a top-secret World War II mission – interesting even though the operation never went ahead.

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