The South China Morning Post efficiently squeezes two news stories out of one interview with former Secretary for Financial Services/Commerce Frederick Ma. In the Hong Hong establishment pantheon, Fred ‘Fat’ Ma fits into the middle-class-to-success bracket. In other words, he is one of the 1940s-50s middling-born kids who went on via HK University through talent and/or timing to greater things (typically banking – as in his case – or the civil service). More to the point: not part of the tycoon caste, nor a member of the Communist-worshipping patriotic Red sub-culture.
Unlike some officials of the 2000s, he did not leave the administrations of Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang under a huge cloud. He had to take responsibility for the ‘penny-stocks affair’, though the wider blame probably lay with a range of bureaucrats. And he left prematurely for health reasons, so everyone felt sorry for him. He also became an Evangelical Christian, but more on the fuzzy Isn’t-Jesus-nice? wing of the movement than the mouth-frothing, gay-bashing, Creationist Biblical-literalist wacko side.
So in a nutshell, we’re talking about the sort of person many Hongkongers can more or less relate to and respect: local, moderate, successful and basically decent. But in times like these, it’s hard to be all these things. A more calculating man might keep his head down, but by opening up to the SCMP reporters, Fred has no choice but to take sides.
So he has to endorse the increasingly desperate-sounding pleas to pro-democrats to pass the political reform package. He claims that Hong Kong will be finished without these reforms, citing the recent warning (via a Chinese government ‘think-tank’) that Shenzhen is overtaking us, etc, etc.
He suggests that the mandate resulting from the package’s ‘one-man-one-vote’ system would make a difference and enable the next government to tackle ‘burning issues’. The issues he mentions are the aging population and ‘tax reform’, neither of which is strictly critical (and which are to some extent two sides of the same coin). But it is an implicit admission that the current system – which Beijing and its local supporters have insisted on preserving for years – doesn’t work. And it is a relatively rare claim that the proposed reform might impact the quality of governance.
Rather than probe him on this, the SCMP interviewers invite Fred to intone on recent remarks by Lau Ming-wai – the property tycoon’s heir whom some idiot-official made head of one ‘Youth Commission’, and who says young people should save hard to buy an overpriced tiny apartment. And poor Fred takes the bait, saying that people are picking on Lau Jr for being rich.
But Lau’s sin is not being born into a rich family: it is being born into a family that got rich off the Great Hong Kong Property Scam and urging the next generation to become serfs in order to enrich the family further. Fred, ever the nice guy, concedes that upward mobility and property prices have changed since his day. But the damage is done, and the reporters have their angle.
There is an interesting dilemma for the SCMP here. As and if the paper slides further into propaganda, how should it modify material that superficially bolsters the pro-Beijing/establishment line but is so crass it probably undermines it? The editorial puppet-masters at the paper presumably made a story out of Fred’s ‘defend Lau’ position in the hope of convincing readers that Lau Jr is an innocent and that his detractors are a bunch of pro-dem beasties. Yet this article if anything highlights the hypocrisy and lack of empathy of the property cartel and the tycoon caste. (Or maybe rebel pro-dem editorial staff were at work, and that’s what we’re supposed to think. How weird is it that we can’t tell?)
The pan-dems should be seeing the property scion’s comments as Everything Wrong handed to them on a plate. The disaffected young in particular should be getting their teeth into Lau like Rottweilers, loudly and bloodily flinging him from side to side, refusing to let go. Yet the opportunity passes; the movement’s lawmakers are pondering a grandiose shadow cabinet, while the young carry on splintering into dozens of localist and student groups. With this lot as opposition, and the hapless Fred Ma and witless Lau Jr as obedient followers, the Chinese Communist Party – like the rest of us – probably doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.