Hemlock's Diary
17-23 June 2007
Mon, 18 Jun
With the world taking a rare interest in Hong Kong ahead of the 10th anniversary of its return to the glorious motherland, visionary Chief Executive Donald Tsang decides the time is right for
a dazzling display of the high quality governance that has made post-1997 life so interesting.  The city shall increase its population to 10 million, he decrees, thus enabling it to compete with New York and London as a global financial centre.  This intriguing idea arouses much chatter in the foyer of Perpetual Opulence Mansions this morning.

No-one asks the ponderously predictable questions of where will we source and put the extra 3 million people, because a letter from the Government on the notice board next to the elevators makes it all clear.  To accommodate the 40 percent increase in the number of residents, every housing block in the city will have to take in a number of newcomers.  Specifically, those of us living on my floor must give shelter to the Zhang family from Shanxi Province.  Mr Zhang is a millet farmer with a wife who keeps chickens and an eight-year-old son who is an experienced brick maker.  They have been earmarked for training in credit default swap futures. 

My neighbour Mr Ng the banker points out that the American and British financial hubs actually have populations similar to Hong Kong’s – in the 7 to 8 million range.  Ms Chan the marketing manager reminds us that if you add Shenzhen to our own urban area, we instantly surpass the 10 million mark.  In defence of Sir Bow-Tie, I suggest aiming for a figure of 19.15 million, which would make us as competitive as Mexico City.

Tue, 19 Jun
A lazy public holiday morning finds wild American friend Odell sitting on some steps and watching the world glide by outside his apartment building next to the Mid-Levels Escalator.  He has had a sleepless night, wrestling with his conscience over one of the great ethical dilemmas that face modern mankind. 

“I was in Park N Shop yesterday evening,” he explains, “and they’d run out of steaks.  You know, it’s mostly Chinese stuff there – pork, pork and more pork.  Anyway, just as I got to the checkout, I noticed a couple of sirloins in someone else’s basket.  The guy had probably taken the last ones.  He was looking away, so I took them.”  He sticks his tongue out briefly for the benefit of a group of Mainland tourists who feel a need to take photos of us.  “No way that’s stealing, huh?  Can’t be – no-one lost any property.  I paid for the steaks fair and square.”  It is a moral quandary I can solve in a split second.

“Nothing wrong with it whatsoever,” I assure him, “provided you obey certain rules.  No taking from domestic helpers, who’ll get into trouble for not getting the item concerned.  No taking anything vital to health or hygiene.  No complaining if the goods aren’t what you expected.  And if you have a choice, take fattening food from larger people who shouldn’t be eating it anyway.”  The next group of camera-wielding Mandarin speakers receive the sort of friendly wave befitting a man at ease with his honour.

Wed, 13 Jun
Hot on the heels of Sir Bow-Tie’s declaration that we need a population of 10 million to be competitive as a financial centre, former Security Secretary Regina Ip
proclaims herself a heroine for ensuring that Hong Kong has not ended up with a population of 10 million.  Where I come from we would solve this by tying Donald and ‘Reggie’ together by their tails and putting them in a sack suspended from the branch of a tree.  Everyone would gather round in eager anticipation of an entertaining and decisive resolution.  In sleepy Hong Kong, alas, this intriguing dichotomy will be ignored in order to avoid loss of face, the reopening of old wounds and – most of all – rigorous empirical inquiry. 

The 1999 reinterpretation of the Basic Law to keep right of abode claimants out of our fair city was the first substantial evidence that post-1997 governance was becoming unhinged.  We had to twist the meaning of part of our constitution well beyond the capacity of its wording because otherwise we would be flooded with 1.67 million Mainlanders, though actually we wouldn’t, because that number was a massively inflated concoction.  To quote the
Good Book
Our officials’ pathological need to sew panic at every opportunity is a wonder.  Like gibbering idiots in an asylum, they have this compulsion to run round in circles, eyes bulging, arms waving, screaming at some unseen horror.  The ‘incursion’ into the stock market, the economic recovery from SARS, the supposed marginalization of the entire city, the narrow tax base, the looming health care financing disaster, the ageing population – they must have something to froth at the mouth and wet themselves about.  In Victorian times, people would have paid to watch, but we can see it for free. 

The reason for it?  Serious conspiracy theorists would argue that the intention is to keep the populace in a state of fear, and thus deference.  Milder skeptics might believe that the point is simply to disorientate us and therefore distract our attention from the fact that we are being run by clueless dimwits floundering out of their depth.  The less suspicious among us might doubt our leaders’ capability to be so cunning and conclude that they are simply dolts.  As
Troilus and Cressida’s Thersites tells a hurt Patroclus when the latter asks why the former has labeled him a fool, “It suffices me thou art.”

Thurs, 21 Jun
The denouement of Hong Kong’s most tedious news story of 2007 is
underway, with former Permanent Secretary for Education Fanny Law leaving her post as boss of the Independent Commission Against Corruption after being found to have interfered in academic freedom.  To the extent that the tale is not tiresome it is unappealing – the arrogance of the senior Civil Service meets the self-importance of tertiary education. 

It is not hard to see what happens next.  Fanny Law will take a well earned break.  Despite the coquettish exterior, she carries a handbag of steel, and she will soon be back to Serve The Community whether it likes it or not by running some commission or other, bossing her fellow citizens around and telling them how to live their lives because they’re too infantile to be left to their own devices.  Our Chief Executive will appoint another serving civil servant with years to go before retirement to the graft buster’s position, oblivious to the potential conflicts of interest arising from a poacher-gamekeeper-poacher career path.

Arthur Li will be proclaimed a national hero for his ability and willingness – unique in the Hong Kong establishment – to be blunt and upset people.  In an environment where public figures self-censor their every utterance for fear of offending Beijing, the property developers, Donald, regulators, potential clients, the Civil Service, the Americans, the press or the mother-in-law, he is a treasure and a breath of fresh air.  “The trouble is that if you say anything bad about him you feel guilty,” he cheerfully said of Tung Chee-hwa in
a long-forgotten 1998 interview before the crop-haired one put him in the cabinet as part of his doomed attempt to wrest power from the bureaucrats.  He will soon be free to deliver such gems again…
“...there is certainly a creeping cronyism coming at all levels in Hong Kong.”

“Well, when an idea is very good, when it is implemented, the government makes more often than not, a complete mess of the thing.”

“The problem in the Civil Service is the lack of talent …When you try to be helpful the Civil Service thinks that it is under attack.  So it puts up the shutters, it doesn’t want to know.  It doesn't listen.  This is rather sad.”

“…the government likes to surround itself with people who think it is doing all right, without even listening to those who could come forward with different ideas.”
As for the HK Institute of Education…  Who cares?
Fri, 22 Jun
Starting next Tuesday, all MTR station concourses will have music playing in them.  Commuters wending their way past the subterranean 7-11s, Mrs Field’s Cookies and Hang Seng Bank branches will be able to skip and sway to the seductive rhythms of Kenny G, Mantovani, Mozart, Nicholas Tse and plinky instrumental bits from Peking opera.  The selection is carefully designed to irritate a broad cross-section of commuters mildly, as opposed to pleasing a minority and outraging the rest by broadcasting a specific genre like classical erhu, Baroque or Frank Zappa. 

Most MTR users will presumably tolerate the muzak.  They are humble office slaves – uncomplaining lumps of desk meat trooping dutifully from distant multi-storey suburbs to the central business district every day so they can earn enough to buy their enormous black sofas, flat screen TVs, Hello Kitty mobile phones and little pointy plastic things with a blue light that you clip on your ear.  But someone will moan.  I foresee a few outbursts of Irritable Gwailo Syndrome on the letters page of the
South China Morning Post

Like the one I missed last Wednesday, in which an
SCMP reader at the end of his tether impatiently demanded that the people of Hong Kong stop hurling abuse at Liberal Party leader and dog-milker James Tien and his colleagues.  They can’t help being the way they are, he argued, and such mocking of the afflicted was not only inhumane and cruel but downright tiresome.  Some people will whine about anything.