Another week begins…

Hong Kong’s pro-democrats find themselves stuck in a game of futile theatrics during meetings with Beijing officials over non-negotiable technicalities of universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics. Whether they play along politely, act sullen, or just get themselves kicked out, they are struggling for relevance, as a drowning man fights for air.

Back home, more down-to-earth malcontents focus on concerns of their own.

Inspired by Taiwan’s Sunflower movement against growing trade links with China, younger Hong Kong skeptics take a long overdue look at the post-SARS PR extravaganza that was the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, or CEPA. Originally, it was a lengthy but pointless list of small cuts in tariffs on things like scrap-metal exports to the Mainland. Later, officials decided to give the CEPA brand some substance by applying it also to the increase in Mainland visitors allowed into Hong Kong; more recently they seem to have downplayed the linkage as the burden of visitor-numbers has become so obvious.

For years, shoe-shiners and officials at conferences and on trade delegations have bleated about the wonders of CEPA and all the rest of the cross-border partnership/cooperation hoohah thing. Few questioned it – until now. Behold: CEPA as a waste of space, if not a rip-off. Is that the Liberal Studies critical-thinking stuff kicking in?

Up in Tin Shui Wai, panicky officials rush to put out the latest fire: Topkids, the kindergarten ousted by rising rents. This is mid-2010s Hong Kong in microcosm. It’s about the insane cut-throat fight to give your one-year-old kid any hope of survival in the modern jungle of life. A fight, needless to say, in which the financially fittest have all the advantages. It’s about real estate, kept in artificially short supply by zombie bureaucrats and subject to artificially high demand thanks to the aforementioned influx of Mainland shoppers (and Mainland parents of kindergarten-age children). And it’s about property tycoon Li Ka-shing, number-one among the Big Lychee’s cartel-running plutocracy.

Except alarm bells went off at Cheung Kong Holdings, Li’s main property conglomerate. Like most of us, billionaire-developers basically just want to be loved, and they don’t want Tin Shui Wai parents naming them in protests about livelihood issues. CKH emailed and phoned newspapers like the South China Morning Post with urgent reminders that it simply owns 28% of the Fortune REIT (the kindergarten’s ultimate landlord), which is managed by a Singaporean company.

In other words, nice Mr Li has nothing to do with the dastardly rent rise. Obviously, he doesn’t personally clear every tenancy agreement, but you can understand the sensitivity. Fortune is a spin-off of some of the Li empire’s property portfolio, and CHK’s chief executive is chairman of the Singaporean company. Which is why the SCMP started a story on it a few years ago with the words: “Fortune Real Estate Investment Trust, Li Ka-shing’s Singapore-listed property fund…”

The Standard does its bit by putting the story in the context of market forces. The problem is that this is as much a case study in market distortion. Artificial shortage of land supply + artificial (Mainland) surge in demand = ordinary residents being shafted massively. The fact that anonymous ‘market forces’ deliver the actual shafting doesn’t come into it. This is especially so if we are dealing with supply and affordability of pre-school education, which the government sees fit to regulate and subsidize on the grounds that it is increasingly an essential and a right like health or police services, rather than a luxury like a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Last, and very much least in many ways, is pro-Beijing legislator Elizabeth Quat, whose academic credentials have mystified or amused many for some time. A definitive explanation of ‘Dr’ Quat’s joke qualifications appears here.

Scroll down to page 6 of the Precedence List to see how many lawmakers style themselves ‘Dr’. Some are the real deal. Kwok Ka-ki is a medic. Kenneth Chan is an assistant professor (he lists his foreign languages as Polish, Czech, Slovenian, Hungarian and Estonian, for heaven’s sake). Lo Wai-kwok is an engineer who also sometimes gives himself the ridiculous ‘Ir’ tag. The pro-Beijing ones look the most suspect. Anne Chiang Lai-wan of Vietnam cruise ship fame, for example; Lam Tai-fai seems to be using an honorary doctorate as a real one; and the idea of ‘Dr’ Lau Wong-fat, of the Heung Yee Kuk mob up in the New Territories, really stretches credibility (reciting Estonian irregular verbs, etc).

As we can see from the fact that the government’s own protocol office panders to this pretention and vanity, there’s a real squeamishness about this. The fact that the offenders tend to be from the pro-Beijing camp says more about the superficiality of patriotic shoe-shiners than about the system that covers up for them; a pro-democrat pretending to have a DPhil would be given a break as well. Preserving frauds’ faces is quietly accepted as part of the greater make-believe hypocrisy, like dancers on CCTV grinning with joy about the klepto-corporatist Chinese Communist Party, or the guys in suits proclaiming cooperation and partnership between distant cities who couldn’t – and don’t need to – give a damn about each other.

Everyone has to pretend that if everyone pretends it’s true, it is. That’s the ethos.

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