Hemlock's Diary
2-8 November, 2008
Mon, 3 Nov
On the radio this morning, visitor and former Governor Chris Patten is quoted as saying that Hong Kong should not lose its self-confidence.  Which gets me thinking.  I remember that – whatever happened to it?  My mind drifts back to a time many years ago, when we were poor but happy and we young folk would assemble at the border with what was then called ‘China’, throw glossy magazines and candy over the fence and set up loudspeakers so we could dance to a pop song with the lyrics, “This town is our town, this town is so glamorous, bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us.” 

Since then, such sentiments have all but vanished, and the very notion that this city is special and better has become unspeakable – the mark of the most dangerous heretic.  Our leadership today exhibits fear and self-doubt and grovels pitifully to Beijing, begging to be allowed to integrate and serve as a doormat for millions of Mainland peasant-tourists and given a mention in the National 12th Five-Year Plan.  The message is that we are weak and helpless, with the implication between the lines that we wouldn’t be saying it if it wasn’t true, would we?. The last exponent of Hong Kong exceptionalism, Dame Anson ‘Conscience’ Chan, is banished from polite society, and her former handbag-toting followers in the bureaucracy obediently implement improbable-sounding
‘national education’ schemes to convince somebody, somewhere, how we rejoice to be part of the glorious motherland. 

Patten, Hong Kong’s last white leader,
looks forward to the US getting its first black president.  Meanwhile, entrepreneur Allan Zeman denies that he has taken Chinese citizenship in order to become the Big Lychee’s first Canadian-Gwailo Chief Executive or get a seat in the National People’s Congress.  There are no clear rules on what criteria non-ethnic Chinese foreign passport holders must meet to become naturalized PRC-ers.  Some South Asians, left stateless in Hong Kong by a twist of British imperial fate, have done it.  UK-born civil servant Mike Rowse saw fit to do it.  It involves shredding your native passport, should you have one, and although it is Hong Kong that issues the new one, Beijing must have a say. 

Why would anyone want to do it?
Zeman became extremely rich by buying property in an old warehouse district next to Central – after throwing tempting First-World goodies over the border all those years ago, we would sometimes negotiate huge bales of textiles to get to his first bar.  It was a brilliant move.  But the millions he deserved to make were multiplied by Government policies that keep space in artificially short supply.  Zeman, like the longer-established local tycoons, owes much of his wealth to this extremely uneven, cartel-loving playing field. 

This system condemns most Hongkongers to tiny apartments and an unfairly restricted range of opportunities to create or acquire wealth.  It damages the economy, as perceptive people
point out, to no avail.  It also encourages severe over-development, which is why the streets around Zeman’s Lan Kwai Fong nightlife zone are choked with far more pedestrians, cars and delivery trucks than they can possibly handle.  When suffocating in the fumes (or ‘externalities’, to economists) we can at least console ourselves that the profits will go to self-made Allan and not the second-generation landlords who inherited Sun Hung Kai or Hang Lung. 

So he has every reason to display his loyalty to the regime that keeps all this going.  It was once unthinkable that a black could be US president.  Could a Westerner one day sit in the NPC, alongside the delegates from the PRC’s other 55 ethnic minorities, the happy, smiling Hui, Manchu, Miao, Tibetan and so on?  And what outfit would Allan wear – a Mounties’ uniform?

It all comes back to me.  It was The Go-Gos, who supplied the Big Lychee’s old anthem
This Town.  And who have just joined Patten in the pro-Obama camp.

Tue, 4 Nov
The latest word from the distant mountains is that younger members of the Appalachian branch of the Hemlock family, in concert with thousands of other energetic idealists from sea to shining sea, are renewing last-minute efforts to get the vote out for Barack Obama later today.  But, I am assured, they were not – repeat not – involved in the defacing of Sarah Palin posters with lipstick.  They have been nagging undecided citizens into submission by phone, and in just a few hours will be hounding them in person, dragging even the most obstinate, benighted and superstitious dwellers of trailers and shacks to the polls.

Wall Street Journal tells us
If Sen. McCain can’t pull off an upset in Pennsylvania, his best shot at winning would start with a comeback victory in New Hampshire. Then, if he hung onto Ohio, Missouri, Indiana, Virginia and Florida from George W. Bush’s winning coalition in 2004, he would only have to win Colorado in the Mountain West to move above the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
That’s a lot of ifs, especially for an intellectually rigorous publication – and it doesn’t help that two paragraphs later the writer notes that should Virginians vote for President the way they seem likely to for Senator, “there is almost no plausible scenario for Sen. McCain to win.”  Win the nation, that is.

The greatest fear among supporters of the African-American candidate throughout this campaign has been that however much people might lean towards him in some ways, a deep-rooted, unspoken bigotry about his outward appearance would ultimately induce them to vote for his rival.  But what about prejudice against doddery, white-haired, goof-prone oldies?
McCain’s position on trade is clearly superior, and his pre-campaign track record on defence and taxes more reassuring.  When it comes to the economy and health care, all the good intentions and mighty rhetoric in the world can’t make that much of a difference, so agnostic neutrality towards both candidates is fine.  Patten-esque joy about the message America will send to the world is cute, but people aren’t voting to make the country more loveable to foreigners.  Add in community organizer Obama’s leftist roots and thin resume, and the race seems tilted in McCain’s favour. 

But then you look at him and his war-wound jerkiness and odd verbal blunders, and you ask yourself whether that’s a bit of dribble there, and then you notice that dazzling, scarcely believable harridan-mediocrity from Alaska eagerly wondering the same thing, and the latent liberal elite within us thinks… Yikes!
Wed, 5 Nov
Gliding down the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning, I pass the time by flicking through the exciting new magazine HappyMen.  All I know is that it is part-published by the Happy Men Foundation, a group of Christians.  Puritans have come a long way since HL Mencken referred to their faith as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”  Now they use the word to describe themselves – very cunning.  Fred Ma, Hong Kong’s generally popular former Commerce Secretary, appears on the cover of the new publication beaming away.

At my desk in S-Meg Tower, I can’t resist calling shapely Administrative Officer Winky Ip.  I know that Security Secretary Ambrose Lee and Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam are both hard-core Evangelicals, as are some of our tycoons, such as Hang Lung’s Ronnie Chan and Sun Hung Kai’s Kuok brothers.  Isn’t Fred one too?

“Well, yes, but it’s Linda really,” the bureaucrat tells me.  “His wife.”  She mumbles something about a ‘total nut’ before making some excuse about having to serve the community and puts the phone down.

And then it all comes back to me.  It was Linda Ma who, five years ago, declared,
“On 2nd February of this year, I had a personal encounter with the Lord in Singapore.” This came in the form of a strong hint to be in church the next morning, where she heard the pastor say, “God is grieved with our sins,” and recommend the Love Singapore Movement – a group of fundamentalists that worried the Lion City’s officials by wanting to run trendy pro-God ads everywhere and assembling outside mosques to exorcise evil spirits.  Inspired, she returned to Hong Kong, saw the word ‘crusade’ wherever she went, and set up the City Renewal Movement. 

Fast forward a few years and a significant proportion of the Big Lychee’s great and good are up to their ears in tithes, family restoration, witnessing, saving souls, ending their personal correspondence with ‘Yours in Christ’ and – not least – fighting the spread of immoral lifestyles.  This is largely a code word for homosexuality but also covers porn, semi-porn of the blacked-out type shown in local gossip mags, references to sex pretty much anywhere and activities like gambling.  Although they don’t go on about it in public, these highly placed local Evangelists are in no doubt about the source of these evils – the West.  

For some reason, neither the Hong Kong Government yearbook nor its website tells us how far senior officials and other people of influence (such as Philemon Choi, sitter on numerous advisory bodies) are using their positions to enforce their born-again principles on the rest of us.  We know that the Canto-Taliban
Society for Truth and Light has received Government funds to train teachers about ‘human rights’ and played an instrumental role in prompting official action against a TV station, a student newspaper and a T-shirt shop for supposedly offensive output.  We know Ambrose Lee and Stephen Lam occupy very sensitive positions and must be thoroughly vetted by Beijing.  Lam, after all, is in charge of Hong Kong’s gradual and orderly procession towards that other Western malignance, democracy.  We know the fundamentalists often organize big prayer events on 4 June and 1 July, traditional days of pro-democracy activities.  And we are all relieved to find that the latest Prayer Mobilization for the City two weeks ago echoed the Government’s hand-wringing response to the financial crisis by asking the faithful to…
1. Pray that the employers honour their vow, have compassion over their employee.
2. Pray that employees will have faith that God will provide.
3. Pray that the affected families in this season will be more bonded and united together. They will turn back to God and pray.
Obama and his Godless Americans have taken Pennsylvania and Ohio.  I’ll get back to HappyMen.

Thurs, 6 Nov
Now, every newspaper headline on the planet intones, the real hard work begins.  Global recession, war, deficits, health care.  But what would Barack Obama do about the
maid levy

The problem dates back to the dark days of 2002 or thereabouts, when the unemployed were committing suicide at the rate of dozens a week and the Big Lychee wallowed in despair under the hapless but amiable but depressing but basically decent buffoon Tung Chee-hwa.  In an act of blatant populism, the Liberal Party proposed cutting the minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers – populism because the aim was primarily to appeal to voters’ baser instincts by doing something that hurt people with dark skin.  As Obama’s aides would probably point out.

To try to prove they were doing something to help our downtrodden jobless, the crop-haired one’s officials cut the amahs’ minimum wage, but at the same time charged the employers an identical sum as a levy for the retraining of unskilled locals.  In effect, it was a hypothecated tax paid by low-paid migrant workers.

The ingredients so far – Liberal Party, Tung Chee-hwa, a tax imposed on the poorest segment of the workforce.  It’s not promising.  On top of that, we have the obscure but controversial principle of hypothecation, or the earmarking of revenue from a specific tax for a specific purpose.  As policy wonks like Obama’s advisors know, this can be politically popular as a gimmick.  But there is a high possibility of a mismatch between narrow-based revenues and expenditure, and the underlying transfer of wealth can be unfair, as in the poor subsidizing the better-off. 

After Donald Tsang replaced Tofu-for-Brains in 2005, it would have been simple for him to scrap the levy.  An Employees Retraining Empire had, it is true, taken shape to provide some well-paid bureaucrats new opportunities to serve the community (turning unqualified middle-aged Mainland immigrant women into enthusiastic
maids and masseurs).  But the Legislative Council would have been happy to vote funds from general revenue for the programme.  Why didn’t he take this ugly little thing clearly labeled Stupid Policy Bound to Make Big Problem and toss it out?  Possibly an unwillingness to make Tung look bad, but mainly plain old Donald civil servant-thought – you have a revenue stream, you keep it (unless sacrificing it will make Hong Kong into a wine hub, of course).

Flush with a budget surplus and – hard to imagine now – nervous about inflation, Sir Bow-Tie’s panicky officials decided in July 2008 to fling subsidies and rebates around, pretty much at random.  The Government extended a scheme to pick up part of everybody’s electricity bill, suspended public housing rents for a while and helped poor school kids out with their MTR fares.  And they decided to suspend the employee retraining levy, to help out the middle class. 

Somehow, they found a way to screw it up.  At first, the details of the levy suspension gave employers a major incentive to fire or postpone hiring maids, potentially leaving thousands of migrant workers roaming the streets.  Officials hurriedly backtracked and
changed the mechanism in such a way that the Immigration Department, which processes the maids’ documents, nearly collapsed under the extra work, and some employers arbitrarily enjoyed double the savings of others.

By now, Barack Obama would have long stopped listening and issued a two-word decision on what to do with the maids levy.  But anyone who imagines that some US Republican supporters are the world’s worst losers has never seen the Donald Tsang administration when it has tied its colours to a dimwitted idea everyone hates.  The Basic Law says the Big Lychee has ‘executive-led government’, and that apparently means a leadership that can’t be humiliated by accepting that public opinion is right and it is wrong.  Especially after a string of such embarrassing reversals over the previous few months. 

If the maids levy could talk it would plead with Labour Secretary Matthew Cheung to do everyone a favour and just put it out of its misery.  Which will happen eventually, but not before Donald’s mighty Government drags out its heroic struggle with its evil enemy, the popular will, for a while longer.  And then someone will have to explain to the amahs they’re not going to see a penny of it.  They think it’s all about them.

Sesame Street was brought to you today by the word ‘hypothecated’.

Fri, 7 Nov
The Big Boss drags me off on a courtesy visit to Hong Kong Polytechnic University.  I usually enjoy these pointless trips in leather-lined Mercedes luxury, not least for the opportunity to press my nose against the moderately tinted window and watch the reaction as taxi drivers and pedestrians see the reasonably famous businessman and the pet gwailo he apparently keeps.  But no-one seems interested today. 

The Economist comes out this afternoon, I have nothing but HappyMen to read, and I have pretty much wrung it dry, from the heart-lifting tales of illnesses overcome through prayer and family support, to the ads for the male version of Nivea, to the riveting feature on golf shoes.  It needs a bit of spicing up – How to Keep Her Screaming for More All Night, Property Tycoon’s Pregnant Secretary of the Week, or My Life Chopping Debtors with Excrement-Smeared Meat Cleavers for the Sun Yee On Triad.  Get those circulation figures up.
The Big Boss is flicking through a newspaper and pointedly tut-tutting at every photo of Taiwanese demonstrators protesting the presence of a Communist ogre from the Mainland determined to crush their freedom and condemn their island to Hong Kong-style stagnation and slow death.  I would join them, not least in the hope of attracting the attention of the Democratic Progressive Party’s rather fetching leader Tsai Ing-wen.  You can only have pity for guys who think Sarah Palin was hot. 

Along with his fellow pro-Beijing plutocrats, the Chairman of S-Meg Holdings has also been practicing his tut-tutting and eye-rolling at every mention of banana-throwing Hong Kong legislators Long Hair and Wong Yuk-man.  An order seems to have gone out from the Central People’s Government’s local emissaries requiring loyalists to express great dismay visually and audibly at these antics.  On enquiring, bystanders are to be told how deeply sad it is, but such goings-on only show, regrettably, that we are not yet ready for democracy [dab tears from eye].
We roll up to the Hunghom seat of learning to be greeted by a swarm of vice-chancellors, deans and other academic administrators waiting to grovel at the far end of a red carpet lined with slave boys waving ostrich feathers and scattering rose petals in our path.  After the hand-shaking and ritual pinning of ugly flowers to lapels, we are led across the high-density but pleasant campus, where every building looks the same.  A poster offering extra-curricular courses catches my eye – how many senior Government officials would benefit from some of these classes?
The Big Boss is ushered into some inner sanctum to be extensively shoe-shined by the donation-hungry educators, and I am left to wander around in the company of one Professor Polly Yu.  I make small talk.

“Is this the university that accepts students who have been rejected by the
Sara Beattie Secretarial College?”

“No, no,” she replies with a slightly mortified look, “that’s City U.”

I hurriedly change the subject.

“As the Big Boss’s lifestyle advisor, I have to ask this.  You’re not planning on offering him an honorary doctorate in exchange for a big endowment, are you?  It’s just… it’s so tacky when Hong Kong tycoons go around calling themselves ‘doctor’ and everyone laughs behind their back.  I’d hate to see that happen to him.”

It is her turn to look embarrassed as we stroll past a table of students who have clearly collapsed into unconsciousness as a result of malnourishment due to the shortage of funds…