Hemlock's Diary
1-7 February, 2009
Mon, 2 Feb
In the morning meeting on the top floor of S-Meg Tower in the heart of Asia’s international business hub, the Big Boss nervously tells of a phone conversation with his least-favourite shareholder, the fearsome and irate octogenarian Aunt Eva in Vancouver.  He declares that the company must squeeze at least some profit out of this year’s difficult business environment and asks his dynamic senior management team to think of ways to cut costs.  Some suggestions are trivial, like switching over to hyper-expensive, low-lifespan, poison-filled ‘green’ light bulbs that use less electricity, or going back to the old practice of requiring staff to bring in their own toilet paper.  Some involve face, like getting rid of such loss-making, synergy-wrecking but much-loved bits of the corporate empire as the mango chewing gum factory co-owned by a distant in-law in some benighted corner of Southeast Asia.  Other possibilities simply go unspoken, like reducing the Big Boss and his family’s consumption of first-class air travel, latest-model limousines, five-star hotel suites and elaborate banquets.

One obvious, quick and effective method to boost the bottom line would be to adopt American writer PJ O’Rourke’s ‘circumcision principle’ – you can cut 10 percent off
anything – and let a cross-section of S-Meg Holdings’ employees go.  A glance round some of the floors in the building shows staff reading gossip magazines, knitting babies’ clothes and holding urgent meetings round the water cooler on horse racing.  But, just as it would be unthinkable to deprive the Big Boss’s wife of her company-paid chauffeur-driven Mercedes, or number-one son of his heavily punished corporate charge card, so it would never occur to anyone to break the iron rice bowl on which hundreds of workers and their households depend. 

Senior Government officials have personally called up the Big Boss and his fellow tycoons, urging them not to lay anyone off, adding – in case any are tempted to ignore the pleas of mere local bureaucrats – that our masters in Beijing are keen to see a harmonious Big Lychee in recession-bound 2009, anniversary year of the Tiananmen counter-revolutionary incident, and so on.  Visions come to the corporate titan mind of being dragged in chains up to the nation’s capital for triggering city-wide riot and rebellion after firing some redundant middle managers.  But in the case of S-Meg, such warnings are unnecessary.  Since the first ragged orphan was allowed to sleep under the counter in exchange for sweeping the shop, the company has never shed a non-malfeasant soul.  

In the US, unemployment is running at 7.1 percent, with another 500,000 job losses expected for January, while in Euroland the rate has hit 8 percent.  In Hong Kong, where we endure the deafening mouth-frothing of politicians vying with each other to concoct the biggest and most ridiculous job-creation and stimulus
schemes, we have a jobless figure of 4.1 percent – the same as in May-July 2007, when happiness and calm reigned supreme across the Fragrant Harbour. 

Since 2 percent is considered full employment, it is fair to ask whether Hong Kong has a jobs crisis at all.  To the extent that we don’t now or during the rest of the Great Global Depression of 09, we should all acknowledge with gratitude the part played by our obliged nobility, the much-maligned tycoons.  They face the nightmarish wrath of elderly aunts in Canada demanding dividends.  Yet like obedient and diligent patriotic Confucians, they exercise good corporate citizenship and turn their companies into welfare providers.  There will be a Grand Bauhinia Medal in it for them one day.

Tue, 3 Feb
The Government should
develop diversified industrial structures to create positions in more trades and at more levels.  So says pro-Beijing labour representative Ip Wai-ming in a Legislative Council motion tomorrow.  It is an excellent idea.  What better way could there be to get thousands, maybe tens of thousands of underworked and overpaid civil servants out of everyone’s hair?  No more will innocent members of the public be urged at all hours of the day and night to ‘facilitate ambulance crews to reach and treat patients’ or ‘keep room temperature at 25.5 Centigrade’.  No more earnest reminders to ‘help stop family violence in your neighbourhood’ or ‘in a crowd, stay calm’.  No more waking up to the bleating of ‘I love Hong Kong!  I love green!’  The bureaucrats will all be far too busy, getting out there and developing diversified industrial structures – and not in any old way, but in such a fashion as to specifically create positions in more trades and at more levels.  I wouldn’t even know where to start.

Mr Ip’s motion does not stop there.  It is a pleasingly balanced wish-list of ways to relieve the toiling masses from the ravages of famine and poverty supposedly being visited upon them by the economic downturn.  Bafflingly vague requests for the development of diversified structures appear amid hard, precise ones for the Government to subsidize workers’ incomes.  Demands for trivial and marginal measures like arts fairs and flea markets sit alongside ideas that would revolutionize Hong Kong’s economy, like unionizing the workforce and introducing universal unemployment coverage. 

But wait!  There’s more.  Over in
tomorrow’s Legco agenda, deep down right at the bottom where they undoubtedly belong, are other lawmakers’ amendments.  Frederick Fung, the voice of moderate democracy and reasonable, mild radicalism, wants to make clear that this dole should be strictly short-term.  Vincent Fang, a member of the Inheritors of Shanghainese Textile Fortunes Party, wants to point out that companies are suffering too, and let’s distribute shopping vouchers to everyone to help retail outlets’ hard-pressed landlords.  Feeling left out and eager to be seen to be involved, social workers’ representative Cheung Kwok-che adds a superfluous detail about subsidies for low-paid workers.  Inspired by this, pro-democrat Albert Ho drags the issue of traineeships for spotty, unemployable high-school graduates into the whole thing. 

This is just warming up for the really profound stuff, a motion introduced by IT representative Samson Tam – give us proactive, one-stop, Pearl River Delta collaboration to make Hong Kong a creative industries hub.  This comes complete with an amendment in which bean counter Paul Chan modestly proposes ‘increasing the amount of tax deduction for expenditure on research and development from the existing 100% to 200% of the actual expenditure’ and granting accountants eternal life.  And, no doubt, developing diversified structures.  It will be standing room only at Legco tomorrow.

Wed, 4 Feb
S-Meg Holdings’ new cost-cutting regime claims its first victim this morning – and being a highly venerable and shoeshine-able visitor to see the Big Boss, he may be the only one.

Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary bursts into the company gwailo’s lair in a state of panic.  “Dr Szema is here!  Waiting in the meeting room!  He asked for tea!  We said jasmine or pu-erh!  He said oolong!  Because it’s good for cholesterol and reduces internal heat!”  Open-mouthed and staring, she is in fear for her life.  “And… and due to cost cutting, we don’t have oolong now!”

I sit her down and get her to take long deep breaths.  It seems she has sent an Epsilon from the mail room out to get some of the fragrant, fermented leaf, but Dr Szema, elderly classicist and author with impeccable Mainland connections, arrived early and has already been here 10 minutes.  Although the Big Boss has never actually read any of the great man’s works, he – like many others – idolizes him as a national treasure.  There will be hell to pay if the gentleman-scholar complains about not being given tea promptly.
Hemlock, or at least his secret stash, comes to the rescue.  And as I pull the contents of my bottom drawer out and place them on my desk, it occurs to me that at some stage over recent years, I have become a tea bore.  “OK,” I tell Ms Fang.  “I have Formosa dong-ding, which is quite light.  Big red robe, which is very dark.  Feng-huang-dan-cong – quite fruity.  Wu yi, which is a bit smoky, though the flavour changes with each fresh infusion of water.  Iron Buddha… Oh, and some Luk Yu-brand teabags, but we can’t give him those.”  

I follow Ms Fang as she takes the packages over to the meeting room.  Through the half-opened door, I see the withered, bearded sage in his gown suddenly hurl something too small to detect into the air, prompting an admiring ‘waah!’ from the easily impressed personal assistant.  His old trick of spearing a fly in mid-flight with a needle and pinning it to the wall – it gets tiresome after the first few times (and how come it is only when he is around that we have flies?).  After some murmuring, Ms Fang reappears.
“He wants to know which season the big red robe stuff was harvested, and how high up the mountain the wu yi was grown.”  I have to confess that all I know is that he has picked the two most expensive ones.  She goes back in for a few seconds, comes out again and deposits my collection of oolong in my hands.  “He says he’ll have a Coke, instead,” she says – and then remembers something, with horror.  The pantry doesn’t have it any more.
Thurs, 5 Feb
Ever since it backtracked on gouging out the eyes of heretics who thought the Earth revolved around the Sun, the Church of Rome has been on a downhill course towards spineless, limp-wristed morally relativist ruin.  So it comes as little surprise to see another bad day for Papal infallibility as the Vatican
accepts that reversing the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson of the Lefebvre schism might not have been such a great idea from a PR point of view.  Williamson denies that the Nazis killed Jews in gas chambers, believes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are authentic, maintains that the 9-11 attacks on the US were a Jewish-influenced American plot, and insists that women should not wear trousers.  (In his defence, he considers – as any rational person should – that The Sound of Music is the work of Satan.) 

Strictly speaking, however, the lifting of the excommunication is a theological legal technicality.  It has certain repercussions in the afterlife, giving back to the individuals concerned the right to enter Heaven (subject to all the usual, and pretty tough, small print).  But as Benedict XVI – or Benny, as we lapsed descendents of Catholic landed gentry are allowed to call him – has said, it is in no way an endorsement of their views.  What the Pontiff will not say openly is that Williamson and his buddies in the Society of St Pius X might actually be correct to hold anti-Semitic beliefs.  It is a French organization, which means plentiful baggage dating from medieval pogroms to the Dreyfus Affair and Vichy-era collaboration with the Gestapo.  But that tradition has its roots in Catholic dogma.  It was only in the early 1960s that the Vatican announced that all Jews alive today should not be blamed for the death of Christ.

As Williamson says, it’s all about doctrine. There is no nice, warm and fuzzy middle way where we can all be one happy human family whose wildly differing religious canons are really compatible.  Just as a Muslim who thinks he can be a true follower without killing infidels who refuse to convert is kidding himself, so a Catholic who believes he is faithful yet calls Jews his brothers and sisters is deluded.  These creeds are about control and supremacism, not tolerance.  You take it, like Williamson and his fundamentalist equivalents around the spiritual world.  Or you leave it, like the many Hemlocks who have hung up their rosaries.  The rest are well-meaning self-deceivers at best, hypocrites at worst.

Mercifully, in this world of intellectual twisting and turning to suit the latest ideological fashion, one constant infallibility remains, and Richard Li’s buy-out of PCCW is a useful reminder of it.  The
South China Morning Post makes a fine plea for a credible financial regulatory regime in our city.  But they are forgetting something.  The people of Hong Kong are uninvited guests here, tolerated only for their economic productivity after they poured in from the poverty-stricken Mainland and elsewhere decades ago.  The British governors have gone.  The Big Lychee exists solely for the benefit of a particular group of tycoons and their families.  They are never wrong.
Fri, 6 Feb
Hong Kong’s tired and stale Democratic Party shows signs of renewed vigour as it joins up with disgruntled PCCW investors and uses allegations of vote-buying at Wednesday’s shareholders’ meeting to try to stall Richard Li’s privatization plans.  Perhaps its recent experience of helping holders of Lehman minibonds has given the old dinosaurs a taste for real political activism, as opposed to banging their heads against a brick wall year-round repeating fruitless demands for universal suffrage.  Not to be outdone, the local Communist Party front, the Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong, does the same, putting them at least slightly at odds with the Government they are supposed to support totally, but which also routinely favours local tycoons and their families over the public interest.

The pan-democrats’ great blunder since 1997 has been to fight for their cause on a battlefield and with weapons of their enemies’ choosing.  By arguing, pleading, marching and campaigning for democracy and little but democracy, they have played right into the Government’s and Beijing’s hands, bickering over technical details of abstract possible constitutional reforms, and being strung along by rebuffs, trickery, excuses and incessant delaying tactics.  While all the time they could have gone for their foe’s Achilles’ heel – the rotten economic structure that allows a small gang of Lis, Kwoks, Lees, Chans and Woos to skim wealth off everyone else with the full cooperation of the bureaucrats.

On my bedside table at the moment is 1960s-style New Left historian Gabriel Kolko’s post-revisionist treatment of Vietnam,
Anatomy of a War, which at one point briefly mentions a vivid example of asymmetric conflict.  In 1967, US forces were importing 21,000 tons of supplies and munitions per day, in addition to local sourcing.  According to CIA estimates, the Viet Cong meanwhile was consuming 215 tons of supplies daily.  Kolko’s thesis is that the US – the guys blessed with 99% of the material resources – could never have won.

By leaving their sacred cause to one side and instead systematically attacking the cartels, the collusion, the tilted playing field and the institutionalized corruption, the pan-democrats would find themselves in a position of real strength.  The general population, especially the middle class, would be on side.  They have been worn down by Beijing’s immovable resistance to democracy, but the unfairness of the semi-feudal economic structure would make them mad as hell if their elected representatives took a lead.  The DAB, as we have seen with PCCW, would have no choice but to join in, weakening a major plank of the Government’s support base.  Officials could at times be left with only tycoons, yes-men and embarrassed Mainland apparatchiks behind them.  The foreign press, largely oblivious to the seamy truth about the Hong Kong economy, would take an interest, much to the discomfort of our publicity-conscious leaders. 

There would also be a role to play for the Big Lychee’s small but yappy band of awkward, analytical, lateral-thinking, hard-to-please Westerners and bananas.  Post-colonial racial resentment simmers under the surface here.  For a quick glimpse at the distaste our local plutocrats have for these carpers and troublemakers, we need look no further than Wednesday’s
Standard’s reference to shareholder activist David Webb, who brought the alleged PCCW vote-rigging plot to public notice.  ‘Mary Ma’, the by-line for Sing Tao’s English-language corporate voice – the tycoon born and entitled to privilege – concludes that Webb is the one trying to manipulate the market for his own evil ends. 

There is no shortage of ammunition for the pan-democrats should they choose to fight by different rules.  Just follow the money – whenever the Government is promising to help the economy or create jobs by devoting big outlays to tourism, infrastructure or logistics projects, the cash ends up in the same pockets, pretty much every time.  But, after two decades in many cases, can the pro-dems wean themselves off self-indulgent blathering and posturing about universal suffrage?  An optimist would point out that even the Government, by postponing public consultation on political reform in order to ‘focus on the economy’, is encouraging them in the right direction.  The war of the flea approaches.  Perhaps.
The cover is a Tim Page photo after a VC ambush on US troops – the sky surreal pink with smoke flares to indicate helicopter landing zone.
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