Blues for Allah

As part of Operation Clueless Mayhem on Sunday, the Hong Kong Police sprayed Kowloon Mosque a fetching blue. It was a fairly typical deployment of the water cannon: truck prowls along street looking for a target; driver steers up to roadside, stops, and sprays small group of people who are doing nothing; truck trundles away again. But, unlike dozens of other incidents in which the cops have doused bystanders and buildings with the chemical-laced blue-dyed liquid for no obvious reason, this occasion triggered Horrified Panic in the law-enforcement hierarchy and government.

Why does a mosque warrant special post-spraying commiserations, when the cops have never shown any remorse after firing rubber bullets at reporters, pulling a mentally disabled bystander to the ground, tear-gassing old people’s homes and pigeons, invading MTR trains, chasing schoolkids, etc? The only explanation can be… Muslims.

Someone in the police management must have dimly remembered a connection between mosques and Muslims, and vaguely recalled that Muslims might mean something ultra-sensitive.

So the cops hurried round to pretend to clean the place up, and held some painfully embarrassing press conferences. These involved a claim that it was an accident, and another that the idea had been to nobly protect the mosque (a five-year-old caught with hand in cookie jar could do better). The police PR experts added awkward assurances about how much we respect ethnic minorities. Most gruesome of all was the appearance of a real live Mohameddan officer who regaled the media with tales of how much all his infidel fellow constables love him. Then the Chief Executive herself emerged from her bunker to visit the centre and hobnob with turban-wearing elders, who accepted her whiny and hollow apologies with good grace.

Having set this precedent, the cops and officials than had to go and say sorry to St Andrews Church across the road, because they had given that place a spraying as well (a blue-rinse looks better on an elderly Protestand lady). The cops also assure everyone they respect freedom of religion – as if that has anything to do with this.

Watch for a water-cannon truck to be struck by a lightning bolt next weekend.

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A ‘reds-versus-wets’ split?

The Hong Kong government’s mask-banning, blue-water-spraying, MTR-suspending, tear gas-firing, panty-wetting and freaking-out over protest mayhem celebrates a 20th straight week of continued dazzling success.

Observers scratch their heads and ask whether or when the administration will notice that its current approach doesn’t seem to be working. Apologists sigh and mumble that our supposed leaders’ hands are tied.

Then, as Hong Kong’s crisis looks like it can’t get any worse, the inevitable happens. We learn that family members of Mainland Affairs minister Patrick Nip bought brand-new apartments just ahead of the Policy Address, which included measures to (more or less) boost home prices. Who is more brain-dead: Nip for letting relatives do something so cliched and embarrassing, or the family members themselves for buying absurdly overpriced apartments at a time like this?

Let’s sift through today’s signs that things aren’t getting better for the government. For statistics geeks, a look at the methodology behind the public opinion polls showing the collapse of trust in the HK Police. Scroll past the parts about things like “Kruskall-Wallis H = 105.67, p < .001 (ε2 = 0.07)” down to where he says “Holy crap…” for the conclusion. And a stock analyst in the Standard who normally drones on about the latest hot concepts decides to rip the Policy Address to shreds.

There are also signs of a split in the pro-government camp. On one side are True Red pro-CCP elements People’s Daily, ex-Chief Executive CY Leung and Mainland princeling-intellectual Ren Yi; on the other side are moderate establishment figures Chinese U Vice-Chancellor Rocky Tuan, who (sort of) sides with students against the police, and CE Carrie Lam herself for hinting at the need for an independent inquiry into the cops. (More on university chiefs walking a fine line here, and Carrie on a police inquiry here. There are other murmurings suggesting top local officials are uneasy about the Yuen Long incident in particular.)

I say a ‘split in the government camp’. This is a longstanding, papered-over division becoming more visible – ideological nationalist patriots versus wishy-washy ruling-class ‘elite’ types who cling to ‘Western’ values. Beijing has thousands of ruthless full-time United Front enforcers tasked with preventing or rectifying such splits, and this represents a serious breach of ideological discipline and/or loyalty. Rocky could be in danger of getting the John Slosar treatment.

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And for Carrie’s next neat trick…

You are Hong Kong’s leader. After four months of greatest-political-turmoil-ever and a string of incompetent decisions, you have just announced measures to push housing prices up and benefit the property tycoons. How do you follow that? You might think it cannot be done. But behold – the government is going to try ramming through the National Anthem law to criminalize disrespect of the glorious motherland.

Carrie Lam is God’s gift to the protest movement. (In fairness, as she would point out if she could, her hands are probably tied on this – not to mention her feet nailed to the floor and the gun pointed at her head.)

This just in – Panda-Tantrum of the Day Award goes to Norwegian lawmaker Guri Melby, who has nominated the Hong Kong people for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I declare the weekend open with a mish-mash of reading and viewing material.

In HK Free Press, a well-meaning commentator proposes that Hong Kong has a truth and reconciliation commission (totally unacceptable to Beijing), functional constituency reform (ditto, plus irrelevant) and a broader tax base (also irrelevant). However, it ends with neat summary of why obvious reforms of any sort are non-starters, thanks to Xi Jinping’s ‘Document Number 9’, which…

… essentially stated that all Western political ideas were bad, and the core ideas of Western democracy were especially bad.

The [Hong Kong] Basic Law entrenches the core values of Western democracy in One Country, Two Systems. The Basic Law is therefore inconsistent with Document Number Nine. This is the contradiction at the heart of much that is wrong with Hong Kong’s governance…

…until the ideological contradiction at the heart is resolved, I fear there is little prospect of a long-term solution.

The Standard reports its owner Charles Ho in a Bloomberg interview claiming – as do many Hong Kong business ‘elites’ – that a mysterious ‘big leader’ is behind the protests. As evidence, the tobacco scion says the slogans are in ‘Taiwanese Chinese’.

It is tempting to attribute this view to Beijing shoe-shining. But my hunch is that the tycoon caste are clinging to this idea because the alternative – that the movement is spontaneous and reflects anger among the majority of the population – is too awful for them to contemplate. They take comfort in the fantasy that things can go back to normal, and the CCP is not coming to Cathay Pacific-ize them. (The rest of us can take comfort in the fact that at least we have the tycoons’ self-criticisms to look forward to.)

Howard French on why Beijing won’t send the tanks into Hong Kong (other than the terrible traffic).

Journalists tell the HK Foreign Correspondents Club magazine about covering the protests.

From the Culture Department…

Long after the Egyptian, Mayan and others passed away, one logographic system of writing survives. Hong Kong’s protest movement is putting it to extraordinary use.

An interview with Badiucao-as-artist.

And a video of the Hong Kong Police in action set to ‘Macho Man’ by Village People.

Onto Mainland affairs…

More dirt on Wen Jiabao’s family.

And what Chinese money-laundering and investment has done to Sihanoukville (basically, half-built collapsing buildings, casinos and raw sewage everywhere). Update: it gets worse.

Finally, Formosan history…

Views of Keelung in the late 50s and early 60s. If you know the city, you’ll still recognize some vistas.

And for ‘paleo’ fans, the ancient Taiwanese diet, which was heavy on dog and raw meat.

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Carrie Lam in small further step to oblivion

Time after time over the last six months, the Hong Kong government has had a choice between making things better or worse – and consistently chosen the latter course. We all know the administration is incompetent and cut-off. It is also, of course, controlled by a higher power. As it says here, officials…

…know what ought to be done but they are not allowed to do it. It is perhaps a tribute to the care and caution which goes into the selection process that the entire team seems to be willing to go on working, or pretending to work, on this basis.

An intriguing question: have they been press-ganged, blackmailed, or lobotomized? You be the judge…

Predictably, Carrie Lam’s Policy Address is another missed opportunity to gain a few shreds of public respect. But it is so inept as to surprise even hardened cynics. It almost looks as if someone is deliberately trying to make the administration as hated as possible.

Among the usual array of one-off hand-outs are several subsidies for the small wealthy segment of the population who own cars (electric charging points for private housing estates, and tunnel-fee waivers) and housing measures that look designed to push prices up. These look like Carrie told civil servants to find ways to win over the middle class – if only by ‘making it easier to buy homes they cannot afford’.

(It is impossible to work out what Hong Kong’s counter-cyclical/pro-cyclical/making-it-up-as-we-go-cyclical housing policies are really trying to achieve. In fairness, it is not only officials who are irrational. What on earth would possess anyone of sound mind and non-billionaire net worth to buy a plain Hong Kong apartment at a time like this at prices like these? Can these people really not think of a single more-economical/better-value/less-imprudent way to use wealth?)

Beijing is setting Carrie up as a scapegoat when the time comes to rearrange the local de-facto power structure. In the finest tradition of the CCP stabbing its loyalists in the back when they are no longer needed, Beijing will (we can guess) engineer her resignation for ‘health reasons’ and simultaneously leak smears about her atrocious performance. It could even be that the Chinese government’s local approval ratings bounce up when it happens. As a reminder of how the CCP prepares the ground before moving in – and as another pro-democracy activist is attacked – here’s a quick intro to the Beijing-gangster coalition.

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Snooze-Fest transcript to have blue cover!

Hong Kong’s annual Chief Executive’s Policy Address has long since degenerated into an insipid substance-free ritual, befitting the city’s largely ceremonial formal political system. Carrie Lam, for her part, has even less imagination about policy than her benighted predecessors. But – here’s the key thing – Beijing will not allow her to produce any serious initiatives anyway. So today’s speech (which she might deliver by TV link from her bathroom in Government House for fear of marauding mobs) can be safely ignored.

As a fully paid-up establishment mouthpiece, the SCMP has a stab at taking it seriously, asking whether Carrie will Get Real (no need to read unless you’re very bored). Of course, common sense says that after 19 weeks of a popular uprising bordering on micro-scale civil war, she must do something mega. Surely, she should at least do some diversionary ‘shock and awe’ on housing – say, by barring non-residents from buying homes. But forget it. The big exciting leak is… more charging stations for electric vehicles.

I guess people focus on ‘What Carrie Should Do’ because it’s comforting to think someone with a name and a face might be in charge – even if it’s someone who has…

…failed to own up to [her] epic incompetence in creating the biggest political disaster Hong Kong has ever faced, with aftershocks tearing apart the city’s social fabric and shaking our economic foundations.

Even SCMP op-ed writers are getting exasperated.

Similarly, we have constant chatter about Who Beijing Will Replace Her With. It could be a chimpanzee. It’s irrelevant.

The one thing the Policy Address will achieve is to just make everyone even angrier, if that’s possible. While we’re waiting for that, here’s an interesting – partly contrasting, partly parallel – pair of articles…

A former CCTV presenter outlines the CCP’s long-term plans for Hong Kong in the context of the 1,000-year mandate of heaven awaiting the Communist Dynasty. It sounds depressingly horrifying enough to be right, including the displacement of unpatriotic businesses with state-controlled ones.

And a Westerner experienced in Beijing’s treatment of Christians and other CCP nastiness salutes Hong Kong’s protest movement, and takes a heartfelt stand against some of their methods while desperately wanting them to win.

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HK govt regrets that rents must fall

Unlike the city’s wretchedly pitiful leadership, Hong Kong protesters are creative and adapt. As we saw with the impromptu lunchtime march on October 4 (when the mask ban was announced), there’s a ready supply of office workers for weekday demonstrations. Last night’s gathering in Central attracted a big enough crowd to slow down phone networks.

What’s the betting that future weekday assemblies in the business district fail to get authorization from the police and/or prompt earlier-than-usual MTR curfews?

The protest was calling on the US Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. There has always been something slightly cringe-making about pro-democrats’ jaunts to Washington DC. And of course, ideological leftists of the sort who see Hong Kong as ‘a possible model of critique against imperialisms’ find it hard to get their head around working with the evil US. But you can’t be too fussy when you need allies in a fight. More to the point, Hong Kong is involved in a global conflict here.

The chances of meaningful action against Hong Kong are presumably slim. But just a hint of trade sanctions or visa bans on officials would be humiliating – or as the press statement would say, ‘deeply regrettable’.

The government also ‘deeply regrets’ that the evil protest movement is taking a visible toll on certain sectors of the economy, notably tourism and retail. Luxury brands in particular are squealing. The monetary authority is relaxing banks’ lending ratios, and officials are taking the bizarre step of asking landlords to cut rents for shops and restaurants.

Right-minded Hong Kong people are celebrating the plummeting tourist arrivals and will dance with joy if half the city’s designer-label outlets shut.

Business as a whole is worried. The curious thing is that the authorities themselves are directly damaging the tourist/retail sectors. The excessive force used by the police obviously drives tourists away, and the shutting down of the MTR and malls in the evenings and at weekends impedes and deters consumers generally.

As anyone who lives in Hong Kong knows, the local administration will usually do anything to benefit tourism/retail – landlords’ – interests. Keep land in short supply, swamp the city with 50 million visitors, whatever it takes. It is utterly out of character for them to take any action that damages the sacred rental yields. The landlords always, always come first.

There is only one force in the world that can prevent Hong Kong officials from serving the all-important property barons. And that is Beijing. So petrified is the CCP of an anti-government movement crossing the border, that the Hong Kong administration must sacrifice its most precious and dear tycoons’ profits.

Every tear-gas cloud has a silver lining.

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Perhaps the end of the beginning…

After some 3,000 or arrests (which will clog up the courts for months), the transformation of a fairly professional police service into a paramilitary occupying force, tear-gassing of residential neighbourhoods, extensive curfew-like shutdowns of the transport system and resort to emergency legislation – there are signs that Hong Kong’s mass protests have peaked. Through attrition, exhaustion and basic lack of mobility, what the SCMP calls ‘rampaging mob’ activity this weekend was relatively small in scale and veering towards a more desperate sort of violence that could turn off more moderate supporters.

That, at least, is what the government is likely to be reassuring itself. It may be true (see here). But officials are almost certainly in denial about two other things.

One is that this has come at an extraordinary cost. It has entailed the curbing of residents’ and visitors’ movement around the city, disrupting social and economic life. And it has required the deployment of huge police resources. These have in turn created unprecedented embitterment and hostility among the populace. Are the authorities going to maintain these police-state conditions permanently, or try to return to normal life?

The second is that this does absolutely nothing to address the fundamental problem – a local administration with no credibility or legitimacy.

After expending so much effort – even on such demented obsessive-compulsive trivia as stopping schoolkids from wearing face masks – Hong Kong’s government and its shadowy Mainland bosses have accomplished a big fat zero in terms of positive outcomes.

The sovereign in Beijing, as it never tires of reminding us, ultimately has all the power. The people of Hong Kong have none – this uprising has happened because they are deliberately excluded from having any input into how the city is run. The responsibility for fixing that by definition lies with the Chinese government. Can anyone imagine Beijing now taking steps that restore confidence in Hong Kong? Backing off from interfering in companies like Cathay Pacific, or from encouraging police collusion with triads? That is hard to believe.

It is also hard to believe that the ‘post-riots’ phase of this struggle between Beijing and the millions who have not been arrested will be any easier for the CCP to suppress.

A more immediate question: will they let us have our MTR back? Here are some deeper and more-wistful-than-average reflections on a mass transit system.

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Explaining the colonial-style paramilitaries transformation miracle

With complaints of sexual harassment (see also here and here) and talk of cops dumping protesters’ bodies in the sea, some links on What the Hell Happened to the Hong Kong Police?

An article (based on an original in Chinese) on how cops turned into colonial-style paramilitaries so fast and enthusiastically, and now seem to be running the government rather than vice-versa. (A synopsis is here.) Includes discussion of the force’s recruitment methods and high salaries.

This raises the question of how, from the 1980s-early 2010s, they managed to be a relatively respected and popular public service. My hunch is that the transformation has much to do with recent Mainland intervention rather than/as well as latent colonial-era structures.

And, with reference to Vietnam War press briefings, some more on how the Hong Kong police have lost credibility.

Next week’s big excitement will be Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s Policy Address. An administration that has a longstanding inbuilt inability to craft decent policy, and which has lost nearly all credibility, and which has had much of its power usurped anyway, will try to distract attention and even win popularity by presenting irrelevant welfare and livelihood measures – which will, we can guarantee, be utterly lame anyway. Stay tuned for episode 59 of Let’s Make Everyone Angrier, coming Wednesday.

I declare the weekend open with some reading from Quartz. Hong Kong benefits from the NBA Streisand Effect. (No! Don’t mention the NBA!) And how the protests have given the spoilt, pouting ‘gong nui’ a makeover. I thought the Canto-princess stereotype belongs more to the materialistic 1980s-90s, anyway. One unique and unmissable contribution of young women on demonstrations is their highly effective, piercing cheer-leading for slogan-chanting.

For media fans, the challenges facing the Hong Kong press – protests and censorship.

And the brilliance of online advertising algorithms.

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Some more links…

The (paywalled) FT has an editorial on Hong Kong. Protesters will serve their cause best by sticking to non-violence; companies should ideally value freedom of speech; and Beijing should avoid ‘destruction and demonization’ as it will ruin Hong Kong’s reputation and create a permanently ‘repressed and sullen’ city. So far, so sensible. As is often the case with newspaper editorials, it then sort of flops…

Instead of doubling down, the authorities should establish a commission into the future of Hong Kong to openly debate the protesters’ wishlist, including demands for elections by universal suffrage. It is highly unlikely that the Chinese Communist party would take steps of this nature, but the alternative path is very dangerous – for Hong Kong, and China as a whole.

In other words: the authorities should start consultations on things the authorities will not allow.

The FT can perhaps be forgiven for an insipid conclusion, and not only because editorials are written by committee. The alternative is too unpleasant to think about.

Hong Kong’s crisis comes down to a lack of government legitimacy. Legitimacy cannot be restored by force or repression. The Chinese Communist Party has only force and repression in its toolkit.

Which brings us to…

A loooong Q and A with a young frontline medic.

How Ocean Park will keep your kids out of jail on Halloween.

For the genuinely uninformed only – Time on whether Macau will go the way of Hong Kong (obviously it won’t).

And maybe the best ‘protest-footage-set-to-music’ video yet – Welcome to the Black Parade by emo-goth-whatever band My Chemical Romance. Good example of how amazing video editing can transform a fairly unremarkable piece of music. (You need to sign in to a YouTube account, owing to gory visuals, perhaps.)

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Courting soft-power disaster

China manages to turn its Hong Kong mess into a soft-power travesty in the US, as the NBA and South Park become part of the drama’s global angle. Hillary Clinton weighs in on Beijing’s exquisitely dim-witted freak-out against US basketball managers who ‘hurt the feelings’ of the Almighty Panda…

(Americans who dislike seeing their purer form of English corrupted by newer Britishisms will note her use of the phrase ‘full stop’, which they – like Shakespeare – would usually call a ‘period’. It seems that as a turn of phrase, if not as a specific reference to punctuation, this is now A Thing, at least among Democrats. Liberal elites who read New Yorker, watch the UK version of The Office? Just guessing.)

The rest of this week will mostly be links, owing to major and tragic failure of my normally dependable work-avoidance system.

Starting with this – an academic (and avid collector of spent riot-control munitions) compares Xi Jinping’s screw-up in Hong Kong with his Xinjiang one. A brief discussion on it here.

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