Mid-summer break

Next week will take place in Taiwan – a country that’s so nice it attracts almost mawkish adoration. One of the many great achievements of China’s Chairman-of-Everything-for-Life Xi Jinping and his last-seen-comatose Hong Kong punchbag Carrie Lam is to bring about more mutual awareness between the traditionally distant Hong Kong and Taiwan peoples.

And they are socially and culturally apart. Hong Kong has its Cantonese heritage with British-colonial and international influences, while Taiwan is Austronesian and ex-Fujianese, with Japanese-colonial influence and more recent Mainland-colonial/KMT-police-state imprints. Apart from the basic Sinic characteristics like religion and written script, there’s not much overlap (consider the contrast between Hong Kong’s frenzied obsession with wealth and Taiwan’s plainer appreciation of real life).

The irony is that it’s the CCP’s intolerance and dictatorial insistence that both places are identical and uniform extensions of its sterile Leninist Mainland empire that’s bringing the two closer.

Thus… Hong Kong is sending a warning to Taiwan and undermining Beijing’s ‘One Country Two Systems’ vision to the extent that the two places are feeding each other’s anti-China sentiment.

OK – so next week will probably be mainly about food.

Some links in the meantime…

In Foreign Policy: Ich Bin Ein Hongkonger – is the city becoming the West Berlin of the new Cold War? Good headline!

How an independent enquiry into protests and police could help Hong Kong restore harmony and government legitimacy (hey – worth a try). The problem is that Beijing is clearly in charge now, and even if the local administration had the brain cells to do ‘reconciliation’, it wouldn’t be allowed to. See also calls for let’s-get-real-this-time action on reforming the political structure or addressing livelihood issues: the more glaringly obvious the solutions to Hong Kong’s problems, the less compatible they are with Beijing’s big-picture absorption agenda.

And so we wait to see which can outlive the other: the CCP, or free HK/Taiwan.

Here’s the latest in a succession of articles concluding that China’s problems are greater than Western observers realize. As growth slows, China’s strategy for contending with the middle-income trap has been to try to gnaw off its civil society limb.

An extract from Richard McGregor’s Xi Jinping: The Backlash on how the West misinterpreted Xi’s attitude to the private sector. And a review of the book that doesn’t totally agree with the idea of Xi as sole and prime mover.

Probably back on Friday. I declare the weekend open with Meme of the Day

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Or you might believe it’s this awful by accident

Quoting (as in ‘being used by’) anonymous sources, the SCMP reports that Beijing is going to change its approach to Hong Kong. The outline is vague and largely yawn-inducing: stick with the local administration for now (for want of an alternative); put a lid on the protests (presumably a foreign plot to destabilize the nation), but without using Mainland forces; unite and strengthen the pro-government support base (more tired old United Front micro-meddling); and then, in the longer term, somehow reform governance.

In brief, the CCP – taken by surprise by the unrest – hasn’t got a clue what to do, but realizes it must do something (involving tighter control, naturally).

What’s worth noting is the stress on Mainland officials investigating what’s happening and drawing up strategies in response. The impression is that the Hong Kong government itself is a bystander along with the rest of us.

This follows two other leak-smears – the one in which Carrie Lam alone instigated and managed the whole extradition bill, and the one in which Carrie tried to resign but wasn’t allowed to. And it comes at a time when her administration is, presumably, being forbidden to take obvious steps to defuse the situation (like officially ‘withdrawing’ the bill, or promising an independent inquiry into the unrest). Meanwhile, in the absence of top-level leadership, the police are left to handle a mass political protest movement with ineffective or counter-productive tactics. It’s an almost-inexplicable spiral into ever-deeper doo-doo paralysis.

A paranoid wacko conspiracy theory… Beijing’s officials are setting the Hong Kong government up – and more than they need to simply to protect their own backsides. The aim is to make the local administration appear (or indeed actually be) so disastrously and unbelievably incompetent that, whatever the CCP puts in its place, everyone will welcome it as a relief.

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Mid-week reading…

(Devastatingly, I have some real work to do.)

An article in New Statesman examines the declining reputation of the HK Police, and asks why people still join the force. (Yes, it’s the pay.)

This applies throughout Hong Kong’s public sector: the more overpaid civil servants become relative to the rest of the workforce, the worse their actual/perceived performance. The regal lifestyle of Carrie Lam and her colleagues (luxury homes, chauffeur-driven limos, private schools for kids, priority treatment at hospitals) is completely disproportionate to their jobs as mayor and municipal officials of a city of 7 million.

To the top bureaucrats, the ultra-generous packages, tacky status symbols (Jockey Club membership, Gold Bauhinia Medals) and remoteness from real life are confirmation of their own superiority and genius. If you ask one who is at least half-consciously aware that they are absurdly overcompensated, they will say – with a totally straight face – that it is the only way ‘to attract talent’. Seriously.

From HK Free Press: an interesting look at how China’s propaganda machine treats the Hong Kong protests.

Geremie Barme on Hong Kong as ‘the other China’, with reference to RTHK’s satirical Headliner show.

And last but not least, one of the many pitiable pro-Beijing shoe-shiner quasi-politicians attempts to do some patriotic counter-espionage by outing Twitter star Hong Kong Hermit as a ‘foreigner’ in a ‘riot’ (and she doesn’t mean his shirt). Creeped out by the sinister hand-signals, Global Times is moved to run with the ‘green-eyed devils in our midst’ scare. If the Communists defeat Hong Kong, it’ll be because we’ve all died laughing.

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Maybe the government could ban itself from assembling…

Chief Executive Carrie Lam is considering ‘martial law’-type emergency regulations that would allow her to ban public gatherings – according to Apple Daily.

Reasons to believe something like this is possible… It would explain the HK Police kettling, shopping-mall rampaging and other tactics, which (if not due to incompetence) seem designed to create maximum high-visibility mayhem, of the sort that conveniently justifies tougher action. And this would be in line with a semi-stealthy assumption of power by Beijing’s Liaison Office, which no doubt sees the crushing and silencing of opposition as the only possible course.

Reasons to be skeptical… In practical terms, authorities would have to impose curfews or other restrictions onto at least neighbourhood-size areas, which would alienate whole communities of people wanting to go about their usual rushing around from 7-Eleven to the noodle shop to tutorials to basketball or dog-walking, mall-strolling or other lawful activities. (More to the point, it could stop people from getting to work horror!!!) It would also invite international attention and condemnation at a time when Beijing faces enough trade-war, Taiwan-election and other headaches. (Thought: did Beijing refuse to let Carrie resign because they feared she would sign up as Tsai Ing-wen’s campaign manager?)

Ultimately, it’s a question of whose taste for panic-stirring melodrama is greater – Apple Daily’s, or the Communist Party apparatchiks micro-managing the struggle against counter-revolutionary forces? On balance, I would guess Apple ‘paywall’ Daily. For now.

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Weird scenes inside the shopping mall

Hong Kong’s demonstrations spread to the suburbs, namely Shatin (and on Saturday, Sheung Shui, plus a downtown press march).

Students of urban geography and crowd control will see a pattern. The police tactics that fail to work in the sterile administrative zone of Admiralty, and are unsuccessful in the crowded retail district of Kowloon, do not translate well to the border-town/smuggling-hub environment, nor to the residential-mall Podium Land neighbourhood around New Town Plaza. Maybe they would be effective in country parks.

On Bastille Day, Hong Kong celebrates the storming of the shopping mall. The quintessential ‘Hong Kong in 2019’ moment, in which a banana republic’s Guardia Nacional blunders into a glitzy First World consumer paradise. Open this Pic of the Week from Apple Daily in full size. The more you look at it, the weirder it gets – right down to floral details apparently by Jeff Koons.

There is now a routine. A march, which proceeds peacefully, is followed by a standoff with the police, which turns violent. Since the protestors pose no threat to bystanders or to private property (give or take the odd Sheung Shui pharmacy shutter), it follows there would be no mayhem if the cops just let them occupy a few streets into the night. Would civilization grind to a halt?

Instead, the police priorities in practice require confronting the crowd. This seems to have gone beyond restoring road-traffic flow to something more personal (which goes both ways – yesterday’s peaceful march included a barrage of extreme insults about dogs and mothers aimed at the police lining the route). The increasingly friendless and bitter cops are also now rubbing up against shoppers and local residents.

It looks as if – since the tear-gas barrage that heralded the Umbrella/Occupy movement in 2014 – the police are under government pressure to confront and use force to appease Beijing’s officials, for whom the idea of impartial public service is an abhorrence and any political challenge must be crushed. Hard to see how this this cycle cannot get worse.

Which bring us to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, reportedly trying to resign but being compelled to ‘clean up the mess’ (FT story). Is this being leaked by Beijing to torment the miserable creature? Or by her and her colleagues in an attempt to gain sympathy? (She is Catholic, so a suicide attempt is out.) Given the stress on the fact that ‘no-one else wants the job’, is anything we don’t know really being leaked?

The assumption is that Beijing will not dismiss her right now, as it would be a loss of face and – more to the point – a dangerous concession to public opinion, inviting Color Revolution chaos.

There is a practical issue, as well. Under the Basic Law, the new CE has to be appointed via the fake-election system involving a rigged body of 1,200 voters. Such a farcical exercise is unthinkable in the current climate. Any other method of installing a new CE would amount to openly declaring direct rule over Hong Kong, which is also unthinkable. By ‘unthinkable’, we mean ‘could easily happen’.

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Let’s play ‘Connect with the community’!

The Hong Kong government’s finest minds (!) are currently working overtime exploring ways our top leadership can Connect With The Community. Unfortunately, they must operate under several constraints.

First, one of the problems about being totally cut off from public opinion is that you have no clue that you are totally cut off from public opinion. (I’m sure psychologists have a word for it. Dunning-Kruger effect?) Our senior officials must fix a problem they don’t realize they have. (They have been told they have it, and are taking pains to appear to agree – but of course they know it’s just hogwash really.)

Second, any alterations to local governance structure, process or personnel must be authorized by the Chinese government, which won’t allow any changes that in practice make administration more responsive to the population-rabble.

Third, our top officials cannot personally experience actual contact with the ‘Community’ – so talking to (eeew) people, taking public transport, sending kids to normal local schools, being on waiting lists for hospital procedures or living in a 500 sq ft apartment are soooooo out of the question I mean seriously what planet are you from?

Junior shoe-shiners already co-opted into the government’s Listening to Young Persons Committee Advisory Board Scheme are proposing a ‘Youth Parliament’. Less stomach-churning but more into voodoo-mysticism territory is an idea from another ambitious worthy for a ‘grand dialog’, like post-apartheid South Africa, to produce truth and reconciliation, of course. Be assured that the senior bureaucrats beavering away on this issue will not come up with plans this daring or realistic.

I declare the weekend open with a smattering of links…

A view from Taiwan of how the CCP has abandoned ‘One Country Two Systems’ and is gradually exercising direct control of Hong Kong.

If you can access the FT, one of the economists who encouraged and advised the Chinese Communist Party on reforms says he helped create a Frankenstein’s monster.

On the other hand, “…the China model of today no longer works, even in China. The long-term negative effect on the economy will likely be severe.”

An extract from (ex-FT) Richard McGregor’s Xi Jinping: The Backlash on how the CCP both supports and controls China’s private sector.

The brilliant Badiucao’s latest work. And where does protestor Grandma Wong get those British flags she waves at demonstrations? (Answer: under the counter.)

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Bad timing

As we all know from the official-unofficial leaked true-facts version of the story, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam pretty much planned, launched and directed the whole extradition fiasco single-handed. The most interesting thing about this account is that, of all the different permutations of who-did-what you could devise, this is the one that happens to maximize Carrie’s culpability while almost entirely removing Beijing’s officials from the picture. Funny, that!

Alternative narratives might put more stress on some other factors. For example: lifelong bureaucrat Carrie does not do ‘bold initiatives’; the Hong Kong government does not have authority over cross-border or Taiwan-related affairs; and it is the Chinese Communist Party, not its Hong Kong puppets, that wants a formal cross-border extradition system.

Not that Carrie is blameless. Her unbelievably awful personal style alienated a previously passive population of moderates and fence-sitters – notably her robotic and contemptuous reaction to the first huge demonstration on June 9.

Then there is the issue of timing. The introduction of the extradition bill coincided with unhelpful events, from the imprisonment of academic Benny Tai et al on trumped-up political charges to a worsening of the US-China trade war.

This bad timing continues. Hong Kong went through a transformation last month, yet idiocies set in motion long before June 2019 roll on as if nothing has happened.

While the government starts bleating about giving youth a voice, its Beijing-ordered drive to disqualify young opposition candidates from elections moves on to District Councils. Officials insisting they will listen to the community are still defending unpopular and absurd land-development privileges for village mafias. As the leadership stands frozen in indecision, civil servants in the Twilight Zone blithely release their annual gooey video about the fake public consultation on the Chief Executive’s upcoming ritual and vacuous Policy Address. Meanwhile, someone has unleashed packs of rabid xenophobic geriatrics onto the streets to rip Martin Luther King quotes off the walls.

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Some mid-week links for the gentry

An LA Times piece describes Hong Kong’s mood as a type of great awakening. With Lennon Walls proliferating, more marches planned, and the government apparently driven by an unseen overpowering force to provoke ever more hostility from the broad middle-ground of public opinion – and even the pro-Beijing mob at each other’s throats – something does feel different this time.

A thread on the trustworthiness of Carrie ‘Dead Bill’ Lam. Who is masterminding Carrie’s PR? It looks suspiciously like a subversive infiltrator from the opposition – after all, being totally sealed off from public opinion, she and her clueless colleagues would never notice. The word is that Beijing won’t let her ‘withdraw’ the bill. The logic is that this would lose face/encourage revolt (whereas a laughably desperate and pitiful clutching around for inadequate euphemisms won’t, you see).

Anti-Carrie graphics get crueler by the day: a clever mix of imagery from Badiucao, and one for movie fans by an unknown artist/wit.

Why Beijing can’t afford to alienate Hong Kong’s young activists. Yes – this is the Chinese Communist Party’s big opportunity to switch on the ‘hearts and minds’ charm!

And, amid so much rebellion, Larry Salibra tries opting out of face-scanning at Hong Kong International Airport. Most of us would be too shy/lazy/late to start an overseas trip with a principled argument with a half-brained security guard just before the passport check. He describes it as ‘mentally and emotionally difficult’, but apparently easier the second time.

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A government even more useless than it looks

From CCP loyalist Tsang Yok-sing to pro-Beijing business figures to Anson Chan and moderate pro-democrats, the events of the last month have come as such a shock that they are agreed on one thing: Hong Kong’s political structure is dysfunctional and we really really seriously need to restart the constitutional reform process.

They sound sincere. But they are overlooking the fact that, to Beijing, a system that does not receive input from the population is not flawed – it works as intended to fit the Hong Kong administration into the overall Leninist national political structure, in which the CCP core has a monopoly of power which flows downward only.

It follows that our fixation with the ‘Hong Kong government’ – structure or personalities – is a diversion. The ‘SARG’ looks like it’s in charge, but it is more of an ornament, and probably has no more influence in Beijing than the Hong Kong public does in Government House.

We focus on the sideshow that is Carrie Lam and her inept mediocrity-officialdom because they are visible, an easy target and apparently responsible. They are a convenient punch-bag not only for the local public, but for the real power in Hong Kong – the Liaison Office/HK and Macau Affairs Office/State Council, or ‘Beijing’.

The real conflict is between these two sides: Beijing (a chain of command no doubt riddled with duplicity and infighting) and the Hong Kong people (aware citizens and civil society, plus nervous international business interests and vaguely concerned overseas countries). The Hong Kong government is an inert object keeping the two apart.

But mercilessly torment it we must. Perhaps it is good for our sanity.

Unlike this… I am indebted to commenters for alerting me to one of the slightly odder corners of the pro-establishment shoe-shining universe. It looks like a worthy/condescending NGO of rich high-school kids helping their less advantaged counterparts. But it has plentiful links with Beijing-friendly tycoons, including some with a track record of charitable activities that look more like cynical, desperate attempts to keep the increasingly angry peasants at bay. And its young founder seems to be a longstanding, avid admirer of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. I have added the links, and will provide one to a sick-bag shortly.

Comment:

…the teenager whose [article] in the SCMP — which now seems to have vanished? — arguing that Carrie Lam has been really good for high school kids…

Response:

[Do you] mean article by Joseph Wan of Support International Foundation? It only takes a gander at the website to know where he is coming from. International schools co-opted into the pro-establishment network, and let’s face it who else can afford their fees?
Chair is [property developer’s son] Lau Ming Wai, Youth Commission. Funding probably from Bauhinia Foundation. Henderson, Chun Wo and Sino Land also on board and impeccable connections with SCMP/Alibaba ensuring media coverage.
Allan Zeman is an advisor, say no more.

For all its irrelevance, the ‘SARG’ is a Big Deal at the local-shoe-shining level.

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Carrie oozes charm on-line

Another weekend, another – not one, but 2.5 protests: an interesting anti-dama one and the Tsimshatsui Mainlander-leafletting march that morphed into another display of cops out of their depth. At best, it seems the HK Police see mass opposition to a garbage government as an ultra-urgent traffic problem. On their tactics, here’s a good analysis of the Retreat from Fortress Legco.

It’s unrealistic to expect the police to know how to handle all this when the government itself is so clueless. The big initiative is a bureaucrat-crafted on-line charm offensive. The answer to everything is communicating, especially with young people.

Non-official Executive Council member Aunty Reg is on a charm offensive of her own. Again, the core, or at least ostensible, I want to be Chief Executive!!! message in her Me me me for CE!!! op-ed column is that the Hong Kong government’s main problem is I could do much much better as leader!!! weak communication.

The ‘poor communication’ argument is attractive because it sounds vaguely touchy-feely, and it suggests that an easy, simple tweak will fix everything, like adjusting the amount of salt in a recipe.

It’s arguably less insulting than officials’ other explanations for discontent: Hong Kong people are too stupid to understand how wonderful the Mainland is; the kids are brainwashed/funded by evil foreign forces; it is a manifestation of sullen resentment against the Mainland’s new prosperity; it’s caused by the ‘liberal studies’ high-school course (which admittedly does wonders for the kids’ creativity); it’s simply down to housing prices and inequality.

But we have just had a month – four (?) mega-protests, several outbreaks of mayhem, the selective sacking of Legco and dozens of smaller gatherings – in which the public sent a clear message, the only way they can, to the government. There should be no need for more ‘communication’.

But it seems there is. Next Change, as they used to say in the cinemas: smuggler-clogged Sheung Shui, exotic Shatin and pro-Beijing TVB’s HQ in Tseung Kwan O.

Update: a tally of protests.

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