Carrie reaches out to the kids

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam offers university students some Reach Out and Engage ‘listening to the young’ tender-love-and-care Sincere Dialogue. Did she do this because she thought it would make her look good if they said Yes? In which case she’s an idiot. Or did she do it because she thought it would make her look good if they said No? In which case, she’s also an idiot.

It seems Hong Kong still has some mileage as an international news story. The Washington Post opines

The militancy is a direct result of China’s gradual but inexorable tightening of the screws on Hong Kong … China’s leaders, who supervise the Hong Kong executive, have no one but themselves to blame for the opposition’s hardened attitude.

Maybe the spotlight now switches to Wuhan. (There will be a march in Kowloon this weekend leafletting Mainland tourists, explaining what’s happening here and urging solidarity with Wuhan. Not sure what the shoppers will make of it, but it’ll freak out Beijing officials. Maybe the uprising will spread over the border – and Beijing will ban outbound travel to Hong Kong. A ‘win-win’!)

I declare the weekend open with the slightly strange story – complete with the music – about how a French guy invented a fake Chinese punk band in the early 80s, among other things. Apparently, this makes you a ‘post-modernist trickster’.

I wonder if he was born into a household full of 1950s National Geographic, Scientific American, UFO magazines and Mad – plus a 10-volume 1920s children’s encyclopedia. The nuns at my convent school focused only on the three Rs plus Holy Roman mysticism, so these glossy publications formed my early worldview. I didn’t distinguish between them much: they all seemed equally dependable and illuminating sources of knowledge. But in retrospect, I owe most to Mad. So RIP, basically

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Message from a cabbie

Hong Kong’s English-language press tends to refer to prominent pro-Beijing figures as ‘heavyweights’. This is partly because these individuals’ United Front honorifics are laughable, not to say long-winded. You can’t squeeze ‘Member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ into a headline.

It also creates a corridors-of-power mystique. It’s not necessarily that the media want to puff them up out of deference, but reporters understandably don’t want to appear to be quoting a nobody. A ‘heavyweight’ sounds influential, even though in reality it’s just a blindly loyal, slogan-reciting, impotent shoe-shiner occupying an ornamental position while awaiting the CCP’s parting kick in the teeth.

Then you have pro-Beijing figures who are too pitiful to warrant the ‘heavyweight’ tag. Priscilla Leung attracts such labels as ‘outspoken’ or ‘firebrand’. She is so transparent and opportunistic in her attempts to ingratiate herself with her United Front masters that there is no point in hinting that she might have substance or authority. And you can’t fit ‘loathsome venomous psycho toad-sucking child-weasel misfit’ into a headline.

The pro-Beijing (but occasionally slapdash about it) Standard takes thinly disguised pleasure in reporting a cab driver telling Priscilla to take a hike

It adds that Hong Kong’s uprising is moving on to the book-burning phase. Music fans are breaking discs by Canto-pop stars who have used Hong Kong’s recent protests as a chance to flout their patriotic credentials and burnish their Mainland commercial prospects.

A commentator tells the paper that this time is different from Occupy. After the 2014 events, the government had some success in directing anger at the protesters for defiling rule of law, causing economic ruination, ending civilization, etc. This time, not so many people are buying attempts to mask a political crisis as a law-and-order problem. Maybe zealous police roundups of suspects and hyper-aggressive prosecutions could backfire.

The implication is that a chunk of previously passive middle-ground ‘silent majority’ now hate the government. CY Leung they could ignore, but Carrie Lam has proved too much to stomach. An administration with a clue would worry about this. Watch these zombies blithely press on.

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What now?

As the clean-up starts at the Legislative Council, the Hong Kong government and its friends go into choreographed hair-pulling meltdown over disgraceful young thugs wrecking our precious rule of law. You’d almost think the protestors had tried to force an extradition-to-the-Mainland bill through.

It’s common sense that the local administration absolutely must now Do Something to fix basic problems. And yet, it is equally obvious to anyone who lives here that these officials neither want, nor know how, to do that. It was for these very inadequacies that Beijing chose them.

A satirist would joke that the government will appoint a property developer’s son to head up a Let’s Listen Earnestly to Young Folk Committee – but that’s been done already. Unless our bureaucrats can out-parody themselves on this, expect nothing from the local puppet show.

So it’s up to Beijing.

Vice quotes the estimable Steve Tsang as saying that “a more liberal response is not in the genetic pool of the CCP.” Leninists can’t do ‘hearts and minds’ because that would essentially make them democrats. So that’s out.

Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall sees the conflict in a global liberalism-vs-authoritarianism context. He thinks the most attractive option to Xi Jinping could be “Imposing de facto direct rule from Beijing while maintaining the rhetoric of ‘one country, two systems’ and the pretence of self-governance…”

This is what we already have, but presumably he means serious, no-nonsense de facto direct rule – not this namby-pamby version.

It’s a question of pace. If Beijing wants to speed things up, we can expect some sort of ‘national security’ laws criminalizing anti-CCP activities and opinion. This must entail curbs on the press and Internet, and on the independence of the courts. It also entails more people on the streets, and maybe this time the kids will take over the whole Government HQ complex and not give it back.

AFP quotes an academic who points out that Beijing is in a bind, and expects a ‘mix of carrots and sticks’.

Put yourself in Beijing’s shoes: what would you do? You can’t leave things as they are – but you can’t change them either.

Writing in the NYT, People’s Republic of Amnesia author Louisa Lim admits that ‘no-one knows what will come next’. Bingo!

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Disqualify This

One lesson from June 2019: every time you think ‘after the events of the last few weeks, probably not much will happen today’, humungous mayhem is about to break out. Hong Kong’s Great Extradition Uprising of 2019 shifted from 5th to 9th gear last night with protestors’ most stunningly audacious move yet – the Conquest of Fortress Legco.

Mature, calm, sensible, wise voices of reason react in horror. This doesn’t look good. This is playing into the government’s hands. This is what the CCP wants. This won’t end well. It’s a trap. Getting bad vibes…

The more flamboyant, reckless, ‘woke’ or just plain pissed off watched in wonder. In my case, it was on a split screen carrying nine feeds, including simultaneous views from both sides of the metal barrier as it was bashed in. They’re not seriously going to do this. Oh wow – they are! They’re flooding in. Oh no, please don’t spray graffiti. Oh that’s Rita Fan’s portrait? OK, carry on. You absolute geniuses.

At around 10.30 pm, we were on the edge of our seats begging them to get out before the cops (who to their credit had the sense to vanish earlier) came back.

The government’s initial instinct is to do its big Shocked Shocked Horrified at Unruly Violence Bad Youths Destroying Rule of Law act. But they wrung it dry after Occupy. Anyone receptive to such contrived righteous indignation has already bought into it. I don’t have an opinion poll to hand, but I would guess quite a lot of Hongkongers today are saying ‘well I don’t approve of vandalism, but…’ Graffiti is tacky and childish – but these were messages inscribed on an appropriate medium.

Even the most obtuse of our officials must be dimly aware that they got a well-deserved, long-overdue public stomping. The word is Carrie will fast-track a multi-pronged cross-departmental committee to identify possible ways forward in comprehending what people on Planet Earth are thinking.

Although opinions vary on last night, everyone agrees we are in (as the newspapers put it) uncharted territory. What will Beijing do now? Good question. Beijing has never been told to get screwed like this before. No-one knows.

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Some holiday reading

‘Hong Kong is angry because its people feel less superior now the Mainland is no longer so backward and impoverished’. If you can remember when Hongkongers used to curse taking consumer goods and cash over the border to their relatives every New Year, you will know that they are perfectly happy for Mainlanders to be more prosperous. But such nonsensical reasons for local resentment persist.

I declare the long weekend open with some recommended scholarly reading – a paper on how China’s think-tank analyst types ‘explain’ Hong Kong badly/wrongly/absurdly to themselves and their Mainland audience (if any). Behold Seeing (exactly) like a state – knowledge/power in the Beijing-Hong Kong relationship by Kevin Carrico, who has first-hand knowledge of the subject, having starred on the front pages of local CCP newspapers as an evil foreign force masterminding Hong Kong’s youthful ‘color revolution’.

It is an academic paper (even the title has a footnote), but is spiced up with a healthy dose of sarcasm – probably unavoidable given the weirdness of the subject matter.

Looking at three Mainland published works, he finds that Beijing’s ‘Hong Kong-ology’ is a ‘closed, self-referential system’. Examples include a “self-glorifying rewriting of the history of One Country, Two Systems” and an insistence that the colonial administration’s introduction of public housing and social services, the founding of Chinese University and Chris Patten’s reforms were elaborate tricks to brainwash the population into supporting the British.

The fun starts at the end of page 6. The first part is drier but outlines the point of the paper: seeing the CCP’s view of Hong Kong as if it were a variant of ‘Orientalism’. This phrase originally refers to a stereotypical Western exoticized, mythologized and condescending view of the Middle East and Asia. It essentially means a self-fulfilling mis-reading of another place or culture as inferior.

The author doesn’t touch on it, but I don’t think it is reading too much between the lines to point out that this is massively insulting to the CCP. It turns the victims-of-evil-Westerners narrative back onto them. It portrays them as the insensitive or ignorant ethnic supremacists. And, taking ‘Orientalism’ to its logical conclusion, it casts them in the role of Big Bad Imperialistic Racists – de facto Westerners, indeed, forcing an alien German-Russian ideology and ancient feudal mindset onto culturally sophisticated, authentically Asian Hong Kong.

I’ve no idea whether this paper is good academically, but it is hilariously entertaining as extreme panda-baiting. CCP theoreticians, who don’t have much sense of humour at the best of times, would explode at this analysis.

Happy Reunification with the Glorious Motherland Day!

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Chris, Donald and boycotts rear their heads

Another day, another two (or was it three?) protests – hitting consulates, calling for democracy and G20 intervention, and barricading the cops in their HQ again. At some point, such assemblies might get stale, embarrassing or counter-productive – if the government is able to turn public opinion against the protestors. But so far, maybe thanks to the Xi’s Face at G20 effect, the gatherings seem to be keeping the heat on our tragic-looking excuse for an administration.

(Maybe ex-Chief Executive Donald Tsang, conviction now quashed, could turn up at some of these demonstrations? Good rehab for his image. Good way to skewer certain establishment foes. Good advertisement for importance of rule of law. Win-win!)

On the subject of keeping the heat on: former Governor Chris Patten helpfully weighs in with some advice for Carrie Lam, including a microscopically snarky reference to not recalling much about her, and a friendly (and I am sure heartfelt) reminder that, ‘to the Communist apparatchiks in Beijing, she is disposable’.  

And on the subject of turning your adversaries’ strength against them… We turn to an old but treasured subject – the role of Hong Kong’s cartelized domestic economy (aka ‘the tycoons’) in creating an angry populace. This Quartz article mentions consumers who make a point of buying from pro-democracy businesses. Very commendable. It also touches on the possibility of boycotts of companies that are part of pro-Beijing plutocrats’ conglomerates.

For some goods and services (electricity, gas, certain public-transport providers), the tycoon-owned suppliers have monopolies, so you have no choice but to buy from them. For others (groceries/personal-care retail), they dominate the market with big chains, but alternative outlets like wet markets and mom-and-pop stores exist.

This strength could be turned against them. In theory, if a third of Hong Kong households (roughly two million people) simply stopped using the Park N Shop/Watsons retailing empire, it would bring our number-one tycoon’s (high-volume/low-margin) supermarket chain to its knees.*

For politically correct purists, there is a snag. Much as shoppers might try to divert their business to small independent outlets, urban geography and the need for convenience would also lead them to buy more from the two other big chains. One is part of Hong Kong’s original authentic 19th Century opium-trading house, and the other is part of a Chinese state-owned giant (partnering with the UK’s Tesco).

But a boycott like this would inflict genuine pain on the targeted family-run conglomerate, and scare the hell out of the others – and, more important, pose an unnerving and unanswerable asymmetric civil-semi-disobedience challenge to the government and the CCP’s tycoon-co-opting United Front.

Update: a list of companies whose owners supported the extradition bill, for potential customers’ reference.

*Thinking ahead… In some neighbourhoods, Park N Shop would respond by ramping up its loyalty card stamps-redemption thing, which lures overseas domestic helpers (who do all their employers’ household shopping) with offers of free low-quality saucepans. You would need to mobilize your maid accordingly.

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Differences from 2003

Here’s an amusing line from the CNN report the day after Hong Kong’s July 1, 2003 march against Article 23…

Despite Tuesday’s massive protest, analysts say it is unlikely to bear any significant outcome on the future of the law.

Differences between the 2003 revolt and the anti-extradition uprising of 2019… Obviously, ‘analysts’ quoted in the media have become smarter. The movement this time round seems, on average, younger (though everyone seems younger these days). Most of all, Hong Kong’s resistance to Beijing has a far more international dimension.

It’s not just that the city’s foreign business chambers and consuls have (in their respective shoe-shining and diplomatic ways) spoken out more than in 2003. Nor that the overseas press have given the story a lot of coverage. The big difference is that Hong Kong’s 2019 pushback against the Chinese Communist Party is part of a bigger world-wide pattern of rising skepticism and distrust of Xi Jinping’s regime.

Just in from Oz: attitudes of Australians to China have dramatically soured in the last year. The once-cuddly Panda has jumped the shark in Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and most of Europe, and among various usually-timid Southeast Asians and ‘Belt and Road’ win-win victims. In the US, quasi-socialist Democrats and Biblical literalist Republicans are in one mind on China as a threat. Hong Kong’s protests have also struck a chord in Japan and Korea, where the city’s modest diasporas have aroused interest on local campuses. And of course, Taiwan is seeing the situation here as a direct warning.

The key thing is that the world is seeing Hong Kong in the context of a global reaction against China. Perhaps, on a subliminal level, international opinion is not viewing Hong Kong as a region of China, but as a fellow part of the outside world – on the very front line of the fight against this aggressive and overweening dictatorship.

According to the rumour-myths floating around town, Beijing told Carrie Lam to pull the plug on the extradition bill because the fiasco could overshadow the forthcoming G20 meeting in Osaka. And (supposedly) the reason Carrie has been hiding for two weeks in that bunker under Tai Mo Shan is precisely to prevent China losing more face ahead of the oh-so-important G20 gathering. If you consider that the CCP is deranged and insecure enough to take G20 seriously, it makes sense.

Hong Kong’s activists are in on this. A crowdfunding effort overshot its target in hours and will now be buying space in the international press to warn of the CCP threat to Hong Kong. I’m no expert on ad-spend, but the choice of media – not just FT, NYT and other Anglo, but European and Taiwan and Japanese papers – looks calculated to cause maximum pissed-Panda-petulance.

Another difference from year-of-sensible-gifted-amateurs 2003: impressively smart activists.

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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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