Hemlock's Diary
13-19 Jan 2008
Sun, 13 Jan
Great moments in the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front work in Hong Kong.  From Bolshevik times, the aim of United Front activity has been to unify the majority of the population broadly behind the leadership and isolate the remnants of hard-core opposition.  In the Big Lychee, the methods involve patting the cooperative on the head a lot, while berating dissidents – or simply treating them as social outcasts.  To keep the masses onside, anyone who strays from the team faces being banished into the wilderness like the enemy, who, Mao estimated in his day, would never total more than a tenth or so the populace.  So effective has this approach been in pluralistic Hong Kong that the loyalist masses account for maybe 20 percent of the population, while a solid 60 percent or more of citizens fall into the category of nonconformists and are officially on the distant fringes, desolate and alone.

To rectify these disappointing numbers, the Beijing agents in the Big Lychee who pull the United Front strings engage in all sorts of ploys, ranging from childish to dirty.  And, as of Friday, harebrained.  Presumably sensing that the largely middle-class pro-democrats will start to devote some of their energies to issues like the wealth gap as a way to attack the political system and the Government and its supporters among the tycoons, the United Front masterminds have unveiled a bizarre scheme to enlist the offspring of our plutocrats to help tackle the plight of the poverty stricken and disadvantaged.  Behold – the Centum Charitas Foundation.
Outlining the aims of the foundation yesterday, [Centum Charitas boss and Henderson Land heir] Peter Lee said it was positioned as a community service organisation to help the underprivileged. 
Saturday’s South China Morning Post
So far, it seems there are 40 members, including the scions of prominent real estate, banking and industrial families.  The group’s name implies a further 60 will be required, and no doubt the presence of bigwigs (or at least their progeny) will make membership a status symbol in certain circles – who could resist that classy Latin tag?  To the geniuses among Beijing’s emissaries in this former colonial paradise, it may be an opportunity to lure some not-quite-devout-enough tycoons’ kids closer into the fold.  The main idea, however, will be to impress upon the proletariat that the monopolists who overcharge them for goods and services are their friends, and the pro-democrats who (when they get their act together) call for a fairer distribution of economic opportunities are a bunch of unpatriotic troublemakers and fiends.

This is an ambitious aim, to say the least.  That said, I see potential for some good to come of this grand plan.  According to the
“We hope to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, and the gap between the educated and the uneducated,” Peter Lee said.

Online forums on suicide prevention, helping the disabled and the psychologically disturbed, and other social issues would be hosted by the foundation's members.
Owing possibly to inbreeding, parental neglect or abuse, over-dependence on extremely helpful private tutors and segregation from anything remotely like real life, our next generation of cartel owners probably qualify as ‘uneducated’ and ‘psychologically disturbed’ at least as much as the Hong Kong working class.  A win-win if ever I saw one.

Mon, 14 Jan
Suharto, the strongman of Indonesia from 1967-98 has died.  By ‘died’, I mean ‘just suffered organ failure at a faster rate than his children amassed riches, and the life support will be switched off any minute’.  The phrase ‘strongman’ means ‘far-sighted leader of his nation’, and not  ‘murdering mass-kleptomaniac’.
If Centum Charitas was recruiting in Indonesia, they would surely start off with Suharto’s astoundingly successful brood of six.  Number-one son, who made millions off airport construction contracts in the 1980s, went on to acquire the national lottery until humourless Muslim authorities had it scrapped.  Number-two son made hundreds of millions – and helped poorer Indonesians avoid over-eating – through the bold pricing policies he brought to his food import monopolies.  Number-three son provided the country with an ongoing saga that kept millions entertained after ordering the murder of the judge who convicted him of corruption.  Number-one daughter’s business acumen enabled her to rake in US$200,000 a day from her toll roads, cleverly developed using free finance from state banks.  As Social Affairs Minister, she helped the poor by astutely advising them to eat rabbit rather than chicken, which had become too expensive courtesy of number-two brother.  Daughters two and three acquired various assets and business interests, though, sadly, their high-achieving siblings had done so well by that time that there wasn’t so much left for them.  So sprawling were the six’s business interests that they even ended up competing with each other.  A grandson acquired a monopoly over a make of shoe that – here is the genius part – was declared compulsory in all schools.  How many fathers can claim to have such successful kids?
I can think of one – Singapore’s own former strongman Lee Kuan Yew, whose offspring and in-laws’ talents are so outstanding that they occupy some of the most prominent offices in the plucky little city-state, which now I think about it did so much to help Suharto’s family and friends in the field of wealth management.  “I’m very sad to see his life come to an end without the full glory that he deserves,” says the solar system’s leading expert on everything to do with Asia.  But is he right?  The history books will surely give Suharto pride of place among Nicaragua’s Somoza, the Philippines’ Marcos, South Vietnam’s Diem and the other fearless visionaries who fought to keep the Third World safe from Communism during the Cold War.  What more can an aging, drooling Minister Mentor want for his late friend?
Tue, 15 Jan
I wake to find that I was not alone in my apartment in Perpetual Opulence Mansions last night.  Squatting patiently and brazenly on the kitchen table since some time yesterday is a mysterious presence – almost certainly a carbon-based life form of some sort, and very definitely brought into my home and left without my knowledge by certain Filipino elves.  Elves who, in their amusing Southeast Asian guilelessness, think I don’t know how much of their personal cooking, washing and phone-recharging goes on chez Hemlock behind my back.  After gingerly prodding the uninvited guest with a chopstick, I take a closer look.  Glistening strips of moist, white matter interlaced with specks of some reddish substance.  Could it be the raw ingredients for a hearty dish of worm adobo?  A fresh pile of water buffalo brains?  Or a knot of fatty, shredded pig entrails, which will be mixed with sugar, salt and various unhealthy, artificial powders and sauces from cheap-looking packs, then deep-fried, to create the dusky islanders’ dream snack? 

After showering and dressing, curiosity prevents me from leaving for the office without giving the unidentifiable visitor another inspection.  In an act of rashness bordering on lunacy, I pick up a piece, examine it closely, smell it, and – after seeing my life flash before me – drop it into my mouth.  Coconut.
Wed, 16 Jan
Ever since 1842, Hong Kong has set its clocks by the annual announcement that the Heritage Foundation has named it Freest Economy in the Universe.  Within seconds of the American think-tank’s
declaration, the Big Lychee’s senior officials leap up and start strutting around with their chests puffed up, waving copies of the Index of Economic Freedom in people’s faces and telling anyone who will listen how dazzlingly successful the city is under (it goes without saying) their leadership.
More mature statesmen and societies pay less attention.  They know there are lots of indexes of this sort, all with different criteria and producing different lists of ‘top’ economies.  They might also suspect that Hong Kong scores well on technicalities.  Its taxes look low, but if you factor the Government’s revenues from land and development into the equation, the overall burden is much heavier than it looks, and, being hidden, probably unfairly distributed.  The other side of the coin – size of government – is equally misleading, with large public-sector headcounts, budgets and land transfers omitted from the calculations.  How would the list look if the Heritage Foundation deducted points for having state-owned Disneylands?

Looking at the list, I can’t help noticing that a couple of countries that were never run by the British have made it into the Top 10.  When our orgy of self-congratulation dies down, it might be appropriate to give a pat on the back to the plucky little Chileans and the gallant Swiss.  Chile’s devotion to free markets has made it the world’s leading producer of wine you buy for unimportant strangers you won’t meet again, while Switzerland’s dedication to the pursuit of its comparative advantages has left it renowned as the land of master craftsmen, painstakingly carving those exquisite smooth holes into their cheese with their famous army knives.  Which reminds me – Hong Kong’s bloated ‘small government’ doesn’t even have any defence expenditure.

One other recipient of this modest honour also takes it very seriously, and that is Singapore, where the urge to mask self-doubt with loud protestations of triumph is distinctly stronger than in Hong Kong – even after the latter’s post-1997 decline in confidence and pizzazz.  The idea that the pitiful city-state is economically free is laughable – much of the workforce’s income is appropriated by bureaucrats to sink into politically determined investments that produce lousy returns.  However, by careful planning, it is possible to increase one’s score in the Heritage Foundation’s index.  And it is likely that, with the help of the Big Lychee’s creeping corporatism, market intervention and integration/partnership/co-operation with the Motherland, the Lion City will take number-one spot in the list within a few years.  No longer will Hong Kong have to put up with excitable ex-civil servants running up and down every mid-January assuring anything that moves that we have proof yet again that the city is thriving under their visionary leadership.  I can’t wait.
Thurs, 17 Jan
Is there any better way to begin the day than to enjoy a durian and tarragon cappuccino at the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee while wild American friend Odell shows me his collection of hot ‘
neti pot’ babes?  The answer is yes – I would rather be able to read the paper in peace.  The ex-Mormon is persistent, however.
“This is an amazing investment opportunity,” he insists.  “Forget yoga, foot massage, all that crap – this is next big thing.  And I’m gonna corner the market in organic neti pots, not the regular ones!  Wow!”  He thrusts a glossy photo in my face.  “This one’s quite well-built, huh? So c’mon, gimme some marketing ideas.”
With a weary sigh, I put the Financial Times down and reel off some slogans.  “Developed over thousands of years … by ancient and wise Vedic mystics of the Himalayas … who were renowned for their longevity and resistance to illness … these organic neti pots will restore the ying and yang of the lower cranium … and reinvigorate your sinuses … the seat of the human soul  …. Also cleans shamanic crystals.”  Now, I add, go away and leave me alone.
While HSBC shares were tumbling nearly 5 percent yesterday, the electronic equivalent of a pick-up truck reversed up to my savings account and tipped a sum of cash into it.  It was the equivalent of around a third of a month’s salary – not a life-changing deposit, and something I wouldn’t even have noticed had I not been checking something else.  But the quarterly dividend payout from the Big Lychee’s biggest lender has prompted me to think.  The ashen-faced gloom on the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning reminds me of the stock price declines of 9-11 and SARS.  This time, it is essentially just cyclical, the tidal ebb that inevitably follows an exceptionally strong flow.  The United States will be borrowing, buying and investing less, so banks, manufacturers, traders and shippers are slumping on the markets.  The herd panics.  HSBC shares show a yield of 6 percent and a price-earnings ratio of 10.5.  I smell bargain-hunting opportunities, and that’s without using a neti pot.
Fri, 18 Jan
For a man who must have seen millions of dollars wiped off the value of his portfolio during the current stock market semi-crash, the Big Boss is the apogee of radiant ebullience in the morning meeting today.  My suspicion is that he is gloating at the far greater declines in paper riches that would have been experienced by Hong Kong’s famous elite – the Li Ka-shings, Lee Shau-kees, Kwoks, Chengs, Ho’s, Laus, et al, who appear in Forbes’ latest
Big Lychee’s Most Loaded list. 

Like the Queen, these men were fortunate enough not to have to create their own wealth – other people’s has been, and is, simply handed to them on a plate.  Unlike the Queen, however, they have political power.  This combination captures the imagination of their fellow citizens, who gaze in awe at these titans, where a less generous, more intolerant populace would years ago have had them kneeling on broken glass criticizing themselves and the feudal system that serves them.

Some say a chimpanzee could make the same billions, were he to inherit an electricity monopoly, a share of the Government-sanctioned property cartel or privileged access to Beijing.  But this misses the point.  Any primate can be descended from apes, but only a select few can be descended from Henry Fok or Sir Ellie Kadoorie. 

The Big Boss tells the S-Meg Holdings management team how relieved he is that the number of candidates running for election to the National People’s Congress has
fallen short of expectations.  Voting will be easier now the 90 or 100 people considered likely to take part have mysteriously dwindled in number to the extent that the ballot will contain only a few more names than there are seats, of which there are 36.  Beijing’s agents in Hong Kong, muses our visionary Chairman, found the idea of an actual contest far too disturbing.  Anything could happen.  So pressure has been applied, the obedient have taken the hint and withdrawn, the interlopers have failed to get nominations, and the pre-arranged winners – including a descendant of Henry Fok – will have their victories presented to them on the finest Ming Dynasty blue-glaze porcelain.
As symbolic sinecures go, a seat on the NPC is fairly respectable.  Unlike a place in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which makes the rubber-stamp parliament look like it plays a vitally important role in running the country.  For the really desperate, there are always provincial level CPPCCs.  If being appointed to the national CPPCC is the equivalent of a hug and a cigar, getting into the Guangdong version is a pat on the head and a stick of candy floss.  The simple-minded recipient is presumably tickled pink, but apart from the exceptionally charitable who feel a pang of pity, no-one else pays attention. 

To mock someone for accepting such a worthless, if not embarrassing, bauble is fatuous, not to say low.   Yet we are now being forced to witness pro-democratic members of the Big Lychee’s self-important legal fraternity
bullying the Chairman of their own Bar Association for receiving this insignificant, if not insulting, accolade as if it were a threat to rule of law and civilization in general.  To gang up on and torment someone who is clearly gullible is sickening enough.  But to do it when the victim is already afflicted with the name Rimsky… 

At least we have the weekend to get over it.

Has he ever heard of deed polls?
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