Carrie’s bold move nothing really

Hong Kong’s embattled/failing/bedraggled Chief Executive Carrie Lam follows up her shocking blockbuster decision to withdraw the extradition bill with a claim that it’s nothing really and doesn’t even count as a change of mind, so there, yah boo.

This is a strange thing to say about a much-heralded and overdue gesture supposedly aimed at ending a three-month popular uprising and ushering in reconciliation and dialogue. But it makes more sense seen from Beijing, where Carrie’s ‘decision’ was in fact made, with reluctance. After rousing Mainland public opinion to hate Hong Kong’s protest movement and oppose any concessions, the propaganda machine is scrambling to delete any mention of the ‘withdrawal’.

Is Hong Kong in for a relatively calm weekend? Either way, I declare it open with some recommended reading/viewing you might have missed.

For a fairly vivid reminder of how far we’ve come in three months, here’s Part 1 of Hong Kong’s Summer of Defiance – an Al Jazeera documentary, focusing on June-July. Australia’s ABC have come up with a longer doc, Rebellion: On the frontlines of Hong Kong’s uprising (good for sending to people overseas asking stupid questions).

Being up close, we tend to forget how photogenic this protest movement is – thanks mainly to Hong Kong’s unique urban and rural geography and the dignity and resolve of the young protesters (the contrast with CCP talking heads and PTSD-crazed cops doesn’t hurt). As an FT columnist wrote (paywall)…

They have uniforms — gas masks, construction helmets, umbrellas and black clothing — and they have martyrs, including a young woman who lost an eye from a police projectile. The movement is also cool and deeply romantic for young people who believe they are fighting for the future of their city. Many young couples in full battle gear can be seen hand in hand on the barricades.

Time for an anthem.

And from Geremie Barmé, Cockroaches that would slay dragons: an intro, then a translation of a Stand News piece about the anti-government protesters’ own elite special forces unit, the ‘Dragon Slayers’. While Quillette asks how a movement with no leadership backed Beijing into a corner.

In image-terms, this conflict is about as asymmetric as you can get. One side has all the power but no cool; the other has all the cool but no power. (International progressives looking on are fretting that the Palestinians, say, have neither.)

It is hard to criticize the Hong Kong protest movement without coming across as spiteful and seething. Today’s winner is Global Times, which is whining about how Hong Kong still has colonial stuff (like English-language schools using the British flag on their ads).

Which brings us to HK Free Press’s op-eds on Beijing’s dismal intelligence failure in Hong Kong, and its non-victories in bullying companies like Cathay Pacific. The SCMP also notes the future repercussions of Beijing’s heavy-handed and stupid treatment of the airline. Richard McGregor at Nikkei looks at how China’s failure in Hong Kong goes back to its co-opting of elites

With their backs to the wall, Beijing’s tactics have now come full circle. Not only are they targeting the protesters in Hong Kong, but the elites are being punished too if their employees stray from the party line.

The executives of any company, local or foreign, based in Hong Kong know the same could happen to them should they cross Beijing. As a result, fewer are likely to base themselves, instead going to Singapore and elsewhere.

Unless it wants to completely hollow out a valuable financial center, China needs a new strategy fast.

Quartz finds that Hong Kong’s protesters are stumped by Twitter – I thought it was just me who still can’t figure out what a hashtag is or does. And Atlantic turns to the sad fall of Hong Kong’s police.

Nothing to do with the cops – what do you think of when we mention Hong Kong’s islands for outcasts? You think Lamma, right? But no, it’s far more interesting.

Lastly, for the foodies: how China is addressing pork shortages (actually this is more about economics and propaganda and CCP stupidity).

Yesterday’s T-shirt… Someone got this: the schedule that got Cathay Pacific through the CNY cabin crew strike in 1993
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CCP licks wounds, will be back

The leaks about the Chief Executive begging Beijing to make concessions and to let her quit this nightmare seem to have had an effect: Carrie Lam announces the withdrawal of the extradition bill.

The consensus is ‘too little, too late’. Still, it’s Hong Kong’s fourth defeat of a Mainlandizing measure since Article 23. Once again, the shoe-shiners who recited the withdrawal-is-impossible line (and Beijing’s propagandists) are left looking stupid. But this time, there is no going back to normal.

Two and a half months ago, Carrie’s announcement would probably have calmed the situation – appeasing mainstream moderate public opinion and somewhat isolating radicals. The CCP refused this obvious move, partly no doubt as a matter of face/principle, but mainly for fear of rewarding opposition and encouraging more of it.

Instead, in the intervening 10 weeks, the CCP geniuses wielded such weapons as out-of-control police, triads, mass-arrests and intimidation of companies like the MTR and Cathay Pacific. To the extent that this has angered/radicalized mainstream public opinion, the withdrawal gesture will now very possibly have the exact effect the CCP originally feared, and consolidate, if not embolden, anti-government/Beijing sentiment.

Under pressure from the leaks and the impending October 1 celebrations, Beijing saw no better way out. But they want to use the retreat as a chance to reposition, by redefining the enemy. Recent official statements have suggested that Hong Kong’s peaceful anti-bill protests are ‘acceptable’, but radical splittist activity is criminal and must be crushed. The implied threat is that this concession over withdrawal will be followed by more, rather than less, oppression of anti-government sentiment – on the grounds of national security. We’ve taken the bill away, so anyone still protesting must be evil foreign-backed color-revolution subversive fanatics, and will be treated as such.

If, as seems likely, the ‘mainstream moderate opinion’ boat already sailed, this points to an increasingly angry and rebellious population. Even if the authorities drive dissent off the streets, it will grow in new forms in housing estates, schools, offices, and social media.

The CCP has had 16 years (since 2003) to detect a pattern in which the more it tries to tighten control over Hong Kong, the more the city will resist. Indeed, the mid-2019 alienation of the middle-ground probably built on anger at the politicized prosecutions, jailings and purging that followed 2014’s Occupy. And the only response the Party can conceive of? Clamping down yet more.

Latest purge victim – Cathay Pacific Chairman John Slosar. He once gave me this T-shirt…

A free pack of peanuts to anyone who knows what it’s about…
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Can we ‘stamp it out’ by Xi’s 100th birthday?

Reuters have released a transcript of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s leaked comments – hereby named Dialogue-Gate.

Two obvious questions. One: was she being completely candid with her audience of intimates, or was there some duplicity there? (Does she really want to apologize?) Two: even if she thinks she knows what Beijing is thinking, could it be that they have lied to her? (Do they really see this as a national security issue? Care about international opinion? Are they really determined not to send in the PLA?)

Among her comments, Carrie blithely mentioned that Beijing would happily watch Hong Kong’s economy deteriorate until the anti-government protests end – anything but make concessions. She added that, after the dust settles, Beijing might come in to help Hong Kong in some way. It was at that point she mentioned Bay Area. In the transcript, she says:

…Hong Kong will have to go through several stages. The first is stamping out the violence, maybe doing other things in time to come which at the moment are not very available. Having gone through this stage, the next stage will be, in accordance with the bible, would be resurrection … thereafter we want a reborn Hong Kong and a relaunching of this Hong Kong brand.

The ‘other things … that are at the moment not very available’ sound intriguing. There are some murmurings that the coming Policy Address in October will include Amazingly Radical Warm-and-Fuzzy Livelihood Reforms of some sort. But the speech will be drafted by the usual bureaucrats, so expect Internet subsidies for all seniors with one leg, etc.

Common sense says that after the ‘violence has been stamped out’ Hong Kong needs a more representative system of government. We can be pretty sure, therefore, that the Chinese Communist Party will make it less representative. The tycoons and bureaucrats will be shoved aside, and a more tightly Beijing-controlled administration will come into place. The CE will be a figurehead, so the ‘Who will it be?’ debate is irrelevant.

That administration will, no doubt, improve the livelihood policies a bit. But it will also impose more Mainlandization – Internet censorship, politicization of the courts, National Education in schools and purges of dissidents from universities and companies. (David Webb calls the latter ‘like McCarthyism in reverse – those loyal to the Communist Party could remain’. There could be some severely depleted payrolls.)

The recent – surely irreversible – collapse in the standards and image of the HK Police is a pointer. The Hong Kong of tomorrow will be downgraded in terms of institutions and way of life.

This is surely Beijing’s long-term aim, anyway. The CCP obviously resents Hong Kong’s historic success and separate identity (hence the obsessions with how the city is ‘helped’ by the Mainland, and with the Bay Area vision). It needs to prove the Mainland model is superior – and what better way than by running Hong Kong down?

But first we have to get to Carrie’s ‘violence has been stamped out’ phase. The more Beijing, the local eunuch-administration and the HK Police try ‘stamping out’ this – mostly peaceful – uprising, the more they bolster it. How do you even start to restore a legitimate government in Hong Kong after so thoroughly alienating its population?

Which brings us to a high-school assembly – all rise for the national anthem.

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‘Please hurry up and fire me you bastards’ – Carrie

Last week’s Reuters scoop about Beijing taking control of Hong Kong’s local administration, helpfully confirmed by Global Times, suggests that someone high-up in the city’s establishment is trying to put some distance between themselves and the national government. Reuters now follow up with another exclusive: Carrie Lam really is, as most of us suspect, trapped, unable to get her hair done and close to slashing her wrists in despair.

Here’s the audio from a gathering with a group of businessmen a week or so ago. She admits fault and a wish to resign. She says (and apparently believes) that Beijing will let the unrest in Hong Kong continue through October 1 – no deadline, no PLA, no concessions. Most of all, it’s a ‘national security’ issue, so out of her hands. ‘They’ (as she refers to Beijing several times) are mindful of international opinion, but will let this drag on for as long as it takes regardless of the costs to IPOs and tourism (a threat, not a promise, to this audience).

While she sounds fairly candid by her emotionally detached standards, she remembers to plug the Greater Bay Area. If she expressed any empathy for the people of Hong Kong, it doesn’t appear on these clips. On the other hand, she does convey (you may feel) the classic underlying Hong Kong-bureaucrat tone of contempt, as if to suggest that all 7 million of you have brought this on yourselves and you can all rot, see if I care.

But we are, perhaps, being Hong Kong-centric here. Maybe she really means ‘all 1.4 billion of you’.

So you’re not in charge, Carrie? OK, we believe you.

This new leak can be seen as a pre-emptive exposure of the impotence/non-culpability of the local administration whose top figures are being set up as scapegoats. It could, in theory, shock Beijing into accepting that the game is up and it needs to take ownership of the disastrous handling of the situation. Maybe even cut the Communist-dictatorship crap and use some common sense for a change. Alternatively, maybe such a feeble show of defiance by the local establishment nematodes will just annoy the CCP even more.

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In the interests of fairness and balance…

Equal time for the pro-Beijing video-makers out there. These were all forwarded from someone in the government-friendly, anti-protest camp. One thing about these people is that they do not seem too fussy about the provenance of the materials they send each other. I did not sit through every minute of each one, so my summaries might miss better or worse aspects of the entertainment.

In ascending order of weirdness…

Video 1 – as seen on several Twitter threads and other channels: Xinhua interviewing one Ian Stansbury, some sort of think-tank type, on why Western media are (cue melancholy violin) unfair to China.

Video 2 – a quick documentary stressing how just a few hundred violent ultra-radical organized criminals (trained on rooftops, onsite commanders guiding the action and caught with high explosives) are wrecking the beautiful city we call home. Narrator seems to have a Canadian accent. Hosted on Google Drive (owner ‘BBs and Baba Tao’). Looks aimed to please the CCP as much as influence the public, but made by ‘A group of HK residents’.

Video 3 – features an activist called Sara Flounders of the far-left US Workers World Party: authentic ‘tankies’ who supported the Soviet invasion of Hungry in 1956, backed Mao after the Sino-Soviet split and adore North Korea. If you resist Beijing you must be CIA.

Video 4 – by one Jaron Lines, apparently an American in Hong Kong. He says the extradition bill has been exploited by the CIA to infiltrate the city. A quick Google search shows he peddles some sort of self-help/forex-trading thing called Life Ignitor, plus Bible quotes (more here, with thoughts on ‘evil elites backed by the Zionists’ and don’t-ask-why tasteful pic of his wife’s boobs).

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, here’s some big tough pro-Beijing guys having a go at Dame Conscience herself, Anson Chan – who mercifully spares them a dose of The Handbag.

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Carrie to be ousted by corruption frame-up? Place your bets

This Bloomberg chart shows how Carrie Lam’s approval ratings have plunged. But it’s out of date – she has now hit 17%. My MS Paint rejig is about right.

In the absence of a functioning Hong Kong government, the Chinese Communist Party is determined to see how well Mainland-style intimidation and thuggery will work in a free society. Two Hong Kong protest organizers, Jimmy Sham and Max Chung, were attacked on the street in separate incidents yesterday. Andy Chan (formerly of the now-banned HK National Party) was arrested at the airport last night. And police bundled Joshua Wong into an unmarked vehicle this morning. (Update: now Agnes Chow, too.)

For the ‘good cop’ side of the routine, they are putting more pressure on Cathay Pacific and other companies and schools to spread fear among their staff; they are also engineering vague (and, to most rational people, scarcely credible) threats that military units are prepared to move in, and the authorities might use emergency powers to censor the Internet.

It all looks calculated to provoke a bigger turnout at tomorrow’s (non-authorized, Chater Garden 3pm) assembly in Central, and further strengthen broad anti-government sentiment. To people in free societies, the most logical explanation is that Beijing is deliberately creating a scenario that warrants military force. But to the control-obsessed CCP mindset, this multi-pronged crackdown is the only conceivable alternative to sending troops in. It is not so much sinister as farcical, and increasingly tragic.

The Washington Post struggles to make sense of a ‘Hong Kong government’ that mysteriously stands silent and motionless while the city (figuratively) burns. Some quotes in the article hint at the possibility (or fact) that Beijing has essentially suspended the administration, while pro-government figure Regina Ip says that concessions would encourage protests. A (venerable) rhyme from my childhood comes to mind…

As I was walking down the stair

I met a government that wasn’t there.

It wasn’t there again today.

I wish that government would go away!

Maybe, in its indecision, Beijing is just going to sweat it out until after the October 1 National Day. Either way, poor Carrie is being horribly set up. At some point Beijing will have to lose face – and it will deflect that onto the hapless Chief Scapegoat. A trumped-up corruption allegation, perhaps? The CCP are not original or subtle when it comes to these things.

I declare the weekend open with some worthwhile links.

Atlantic looks at how the CCP’s bullying forces Hong Kong companies ‘to do the dirty work to ensure that their staff don’t take part in the demonstrations’ and shows that Beijing ‘places political control over economic reason’.

New Yorker sees Hong Kong from Xi Jinping’s standpoint: ‘…a massacre reminiscent of Tiananmen would be almost incalculably costly’.

New Statesman adds to the buzz about 2019’s big urban geography story – the role of shopping malls in Hong Kong’s fight for democracy.

A quick Twitter thread on why the CIA isn’t behind Hong Kong protests. (Could this be the same CIA that manages agents in China so well that 20 of them were caught and executed eight years ago? Yes it could!)

A Comparativist academic analysis of Hong Kong’s protests

From [the June 16 mega-march] forward, the movement was no longer about the bill itself but the structural contexts that got us in the situation in the first place: an unelected, unresponsive, illegitimate, and reviled HKSAR government that now responded with excessive force whenever activists showed signs of doing anything more than march along designated routes or gathering in parks.

Chinafile explains that not all Mainlanders believe Beijing’s line on Hong Kong.

For anyone hadn’t guessed, Inkstone says Hong Kong’s example is pushing Taiwan even further away from taking a One Country Two Systems arrangement seriously.

Al Jazeera asks if China can accept Hong Kong’s unique identity. To give us a clue, the Globe and Mail looks at the CCP’s thing about forced confessions, which reflects…

…the inability of the Communist Party to tolerate any independent voices … They can’t live with a plurality of opinions, so they are obsessed with censoring everything – and with putting words into people’s mouths.

For fans of rail, logistics and murk, Panda Paw, Dragon Claw reports all you want to know about the empty trains on Belt-and-Road trans-Eurasian routes, down to financing arrangements involving the likes of HNA and CEFC.

A history professor’s YouTube series asks How much of China is really China? If you’re in a hurry, fast-forward to 14.08 (oh, go on) for the essential two-sentence summary. If you have time, check the guy’s other talks on Mongols, Greeks, the lot.

And more Hong Kong protest artwork – from ‘hellowong’. Maybe just me, but this could be one of the best yet.

And lastly, whatever happens in Hong Kong, at least we won’t have to suffer the delights of American cuisine. For gastronomes out there, this video takes 2 mins 20 secs, but seems more like a very hellish, nightmarish hour (I was looking away by the end): ‘It kept getting worse’.

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Police encourage you to come out on Saturday

Hong Kong has held countless anti-government marches and rallies since the Lychee Revolution started in June. (Can we call it that? Please? It needs a name.) Every time observers think protest fatigue might be setting in, the turnout is massive.

But could this Saturday’s gathering be different? It marks the fifth anniversary of the political non-reform package – not the most zappy reason for a demonstration. It will probably be raining. And there’s lots more coming, like university class boycotts in the days and weeks ahead.

The Hong Kong Police come to the rescue by banning the planned assembly in any form. Another bout of illegal-gathering violence is born.

(By definition, the government must be the cause of anti-government demonstrations. But Sussex University’s Dept of Protest Mayhem Studies research shows that in Hong Kong the authorities are virtually designing the lawlessness and chaos. It notes ‘the role of government and police in setting up the scenario where protests take place’, and how (in 2014) ‘the use of tear gas against protesters was one of the main reasons for people to join the ongoing demonstrations’.)

Which brings us to the PLA’s annual troop rotation, which just took place. They did it tastefully – that is, at night – as always. Some people are saying it’s a few months earlier than usual. Others are claiming that troops came in, but none left. Overseas observers are freaking out. The local mood is a barely noticeable shrug.

Tanks on Queens Road are about as likely as those Emergency Powers from 1922, under which Carrie Lam would take a thick pencil to all offensive telegraph signals coming through the colony, ‘seize property’ (just try it), and lock up anyone she wants for life. But as a precaution, the HK Internet Service Providers Association issue a statement warning that just messing with one or two apps and websites will likely lead to erection of a full Mainland-style firewall, so kiss bye-bye to your international financial hub.

And former Chief Executive ultra-patriot CY Leung is offering a Free!!! massage chair plus HK$500 in Park N Shop coupons to anyone who produces the severed head of a protester who has damaged the national flag.

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HK govt not incompetent – just vacant

Here’s a nice video clip – Carrie Lam before the quasi-election saying she would quit as Chief Executive if the people wanted her to go. It hasn’t aged well. (Nor, in all truth, has she in that short time.) Her opinion poll approval ratings were last seen disappearing down a dark vortex.

Carrie’s administration has, for all practical purposes, been relieved of its serious decision-making governance duties (it is still allowed to manage sewerage-clearing and other municipal stuff). But, for reasons we can only guess at, Beijing is as yet unable or unwilling to hand down any further instructions.

In the absence of leadership, local government is reduced to two visible current functions, plus one remaining future one.

The first is the police, who are trying to beat and tear-gas an angry population into peaceful contentment. They are by all accounts following procedures set out in manuals written years ago, and doubling down on them when they don’t work. There is no-one to tell them to try something different. (Seriously – if they replaced riot cops with old ladies handing out ice-creams, the street violence would end instantly.)

The second is the administration’s press conferences and other activities designed to give us the impression they are in charge when they, we, everyone knows they are not. It is painful and hideous to watch. Even Carrie herself seems uncertain what she is really saying when she  ‘clarifies’ that it’s not about ‘not responding to questions’ but about ‘not accepting popular demands’. Walking obliviously into the old ‘refusal to rule out’ trap, she manages to accidentally announce imminent Sweeping Emergency Powers, from curfews to mass-arrests to an Internet shutdown.

The future function the administration has yet to perform is to be ritually decapitated by Beijing to take the blame for everything.

The point is that the ‘Hong Kong government’ has long passed the stage where it is under amazingly incompetent control – it is now on autopilot, repeating the same inanity over and over while the Chinese Communist Party puzzles or argues over what to do. From Xi Jinping’s point of view, there is no ‘win-win’. There’s not even a ‘win’.

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Enter the Jasper

‘Jasper’ Tsang Yok-sing, elder statesman of Hong Kong’s CCP-front DAB, writes (in Chinese) in AM730 that foreign forces are not mounting a classic ‘color revolution’ in the city – their anti-China aims are more nuanced, owing to business interests here, etc. To the extent they are leveraging local influence, he says, it is only possible because Beijing has failed to win the people’s hearts and minds. The people have lost confidence in One Country Two Systems because of Beijing’s closer control, and are dissatisfied with local governance. He quotes Mao to support the principle that internal problems enable external interference.

Tsang has a habit of blithely side-stepping the official line and coming up with a sort of ‘common sense with CCP characteristics’. That’s to say, he totally supports the absorption of Hong Kong into the one-party state – he just gets annoyed that the Mainlanders are getting it all wrong and (from a loyalist’s viewpoint) making things worse.

While Beijing wonders what to do, the painful charade of the ‘Hong Kong government’ continues. Chief Executive Carrie Lam missed an opportunity to restore love and harmony following the recent period of calm. (That was the weekend before last – if you had a nap at the time, you’d have missed it.) Instead, she just sailed impassively along on auto-pilot, oblivious to the events around her.

It is indisputably eerie, and has prompted even the mildest-spoken among us to use such descriptions as ‘lobotomized’ and ‘zombie-like’. It is also enormously frustrating to many pro-establishment moderates (and more candid die-hards, like Tsang). Even if you accept (as you should) that Beijing’s officials have in effect relieved her and the administration of their posts, you still wonder how she can look so inert and lifeless. One theory is that it is a silent protest or cry for help.

The SCMP asks its style correspondent to find out whether Carrie’s fashion choice says more than she does. (Yes, silly question – a used Kleenex is more enlightening.)

On a darker note, an academic who knows all about non-violence and overthrowing oppressive regimes expresses concern about where Hong Kong is going. At this rate, someone’s going to get killed, and then we have martyrs, and a slide into long-term conflict. He warns of Northern Ireland 2.0.

Perhaps not a perfect parallel in terms of politics, culture and history (pro-democrats = Catholics/Republicans, pro-Beijing camp = Protestants/Unionists, and the PRC/PLA = UK/British forces). But in terms of intractability, it sounds all too believable.

The thread includes comments bemoaning the lack of figures who can connect the two camps (such a lack that Christine Loh gets a mention as a ‘Trojan horse reformer’).

This is a deliberate outcome of the CCP’s Leninist United Front philosophy: anyone who does not kowtow and obey is an enemy. Think how things could have turned out if moderates like Martin Lee had been allowed a role in government after 1997. Instead, the CCP has squeezed out everyone except a bunch of shoe-shiners and buffoons from having any input into local governance.

Would Tsang Yok-sing go for co-opting moderates? Actually, he prefers giving the Liaison Office a formal role in running Hong Kong directly – squeezing the shoe-shiners and buffoons out of the equation as well. This looks the least improbable long-term outcome.

For fantasy-fiction fans: Asia Sentinel concocts a possibly drug-induced, semi-genius scenario in which Tsang teams up with Carrie and boldly saves the day.  

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Dazzling way out for Beijing proposed

And so our visionary leaders try the latest ‘Tsuen Wan model’ mayhem-based solution to a citywide uprising provoked by 20 years’ atrocious governance and the creeping imposition of a one-party authoritarian regime: shutting down MTR stations, deploying the much hyped-up water cannon, having cops wave their .38 revolvers around – and of course yet more upon more tear gas. (Plus the platform for dialogue, maybe?)

One school of thought is that the Hong Kong authorities are trying to prove to their masters in Beijing how big and tough they are in order to dissuade the CCP from sending the troops in. Another theory is that Beijing and its local zombie-puppet administration are upping the mayhem as a pretext to deploy paramilitary forces.

A third hypothesis would be that Beijing is clueless about what to do and is wetting itself. Its threats are hollow, and its insistence that it won’t back down is bluster. If that’s the case, the Chinese leadership needs to deflect the blame and humiliation away from its infallible and exalted self with a nifty narrative about what was really happening.

For example, Beijing could arrest Carrie Lam and her cohorts for treason and put them on a show trial at which they admit full responsibility for sabotaging national sovereignty. Xi Jinping is supposedly a great fan of Joseph Stalin. And ultimately it is the Da Da derriere on the line here.

Meanwhile, how’s that October 1 deadline coming on? One SCMP column maintains that it is getting tighter, so the government really must make those oh-so-obvious-and-easy little concessions to get this mess wrapped up for the National Day festivities. Another suggests that Beijing is turning cool, calm and suave, and sneering about how We don’t need no stinking deadlines. Again, there is a third hypothesis – a petrified Panda pee-pee panic going on behind the scenes.

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