Despite the over-obvious patriotic glorious-motherland angle, the lack of popular enthusiasm for the 20th anniversary of reunification with China, and the fact that the finest of the treasures are in Taipei, Hong Kong people should have broadly welcomed the prospect of a local Palace Museum. It would introduce some badly needed content into the concrete boxes planned for the West Kowloon Concrete Box Hub. And – judging by past exhibitions of these items in Hong Kong – the displays would be well worth visiting.
But no – the officials had to find a way to mishandle it. We wake up one day to learn of it for the first time, and it’s a done deal: the plans for West Kowloon have been rejigged behind closed doors, the Jockey Club ‘charity’ is serving as a political-project slush-fund, and they even lined up an architect six months ago. Within seconds, a lengthy TV series on the Palace Museum is miraculously ready for broadcast, and a lavish promotional ad lines a vast hall in an MTR station.
The original idea must date back to a time before the Chinese government decided to toss out Chief Executive CY Leung. Perhaps desperate fantasists in the Communist hierarchy thought such a ‘gift’ would win the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong public for both the sovereign in Beijing and the (yet-another) disastrous local administration it had appointed. (Previous ‘gifts’ to Hong Kong from Beijing include surgical masks to counter the Mainland-caused SARS outbreak, and unmanageable floods of tourists letting their kids pee-pee on the sidewalk – so, in fairness, we can detect a trend in the right direction.)
An average PR company could have devised a Communications Strategy with lots of win-wins and buy-ins to lure public opinion onside, even inspire a little excitement. The problem is that a consultation-led approach sends a message to the populace that they are ultimately in charge of the government, not vice-versa. If Hong Kong’s bureaucrats find this hard to stomach, the big bosses in Beijing see it as dangerous and alien. So to the extent that this was an act of generosity, it had to be delivered in a patriarchal manner guaranteed to piss off the intended beneficiaries.
But we the taxpayers, residents and museum-goers are not the only audience. For Carrie Lam, who takes some credit for the HK Palace Museum vision, it is a test to convince Beijing that she is tough and loyal enough to be CE. And so, in the bizarre and tragic way of Hong Kong’s post-1997 governance, the object of the exercise becomes – in effect – to anger the population by ramming the project through at all costs.
And the good people of the city rise to the occasion with their usual wit and verve. The ad at Hong Kong MTR station gets a magnificent bloody handprint, a Tiananmen Square tank sticker, and other subversive adornments. Predictably, MTR staff swarm the concourse with advanced anti-bloody hand technology. Opposition lawmakers are drooling with disruptive questions and investigations. Localists get a new high-visibility, easy-to-mock-and-parody target for their creative ingenuity. Some shoe-shiners have started up a pro-Palace Museum alliance, and a handful of sad culture enthusiasts who would just like to see Ming vases here struggle to get a word in.
Before she has even announced her ‘candidacy’ for the Beijing-chosen CE position, Carrie Lam has cooperated in creating a controversy – soon to be upgraded to ‘scandal’ – out of nothing, and is now placing it squarely upon her shoulders, where it will fester for however many years she remains in the public eye.
The only good news for Carrie, perhaps, is that the Palace Museum might distract attention from the probably-murkier Lok Ma Chau Loop Tech Hub-Zone Shenzhen Project. A couple of commentaries worth reading: on the futility of the concept, and (more to the point) the sort of real-estate scam we are probably looking at, assuming it ever happens.
Spot the difference. L: Lok Ma Chau Loop, HK tech-science innovation swamp-zone; R: Antioch, Greco-Roman trade and cultural hub and cradle of Christian civilization…