Emphasis on ‘fingers crossed’

If Chief Executive Carrie Lam had an ounce of political sense, or just basic people skills, she would now start drafting a speech to deliver in maybe a month or so. In it, she would praise the Hong Kong people for their effort and spirit in the face of WuFlu. She would admit that her administration perhaps wasn’t always as quick to respond as it could have been – but the city’s people had the initiative and resourcefulness to take their own precautions regardless, and helped by dedicated health-care, cleansing and other staff, the community had come through largely safe. She would express her respect and thanks.

Obviously, this is the last thing she’ll do. But with the virus sweeping the rest of the world, Hong Kong can (fingers crossed) give itself a pat on the back. Here’s a good description of how Hongkongers…

…convinced our government was failing at a time of crisis, as it had since June 2019 … acted as if the virus was already here and raging undetected.

…and went back into SARS mode. The article says that the twin assumptions that the threat was real and the government useless created a version of herd immunity – other viral infections also fell this winter.

Asia’s other (former) ‘little dragons’ did it their own way. While Hong Kong was avid about masks, school-closures and social distance, Taiwan ended traffic from China early and rationed protective supplies, and Singapore nagged about hand-washing and threatened quarantine-breakers with extreme punishments. No-one knows how well each precaution on its own worked. But the lesson is clear: act fast and just do the whole lot.

Another lesson is that, if possible, you should be a small centralized city-state or modest-sized island nation, rather than have a sprawling patchwork of municipal health departments and hospital systems.

Lastly, there’s an element of luck. In South Korea, just one person at a church meeting led to hundreds of infections. As Trey Menefee points out, the actions of Mainland authorities in Shenzhen and Guangdong fortunately helped insulate Hong Kong. Then again, if Mainland authorities elsewhere hadn’t screwed everything up, we would never have had a problem in the first place.

I declare the weekend open with a little selection of related items. Unmitigated Audacity of the Week Award goes to China’s foreign ministry spokesman for suggesting that the WuFlu virus came from the US. One of China’s top doctors has been fired for rejecting CCP-promoted ancient voodoo treatments. And Mainlanders are using imaginative ways to spread WuFlu information online without getting censored – including putting sdrawkcab stxet eritne and using Hebrew, Morse code, Braille, emoji (good luck with that) and something called ‘Elf language’ (with a beautiful script).

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Think of it as a premature obituary

From Vox, an in-depth mauling of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s hapless Chief Executive/Beijing puppet.

This is like shooting fish in a barrel – though the author tries hard to be fair, considering the subject is the haughty, disaster-wreaking bureaucrat ‘who accidentally sparked an uprising’. And as the profile mentions, Carrie pretty much admitted in leaked comments last year that she is not really in charge of Hong Kong. The last 10 months’ catastrophic campaign to force the city’s people to kowtow and obey is a Leninist obsession. To Beijing, her main role now is as a scapegoat who at some point will likely be paraded around town in chains before being ritually defenestrated.

But hey – it’s entertaining…

He [Lee Wing-tat] had never seen her laugh more than five times in 40 years… [and] said she became increasingly arrogant and “supercilious” as she climbed up the bureaucracy … dismissive of other people’s opinions…

…on Valentine’s Day in 2017 [before her quasi-election]… Lam’s husband wrote a public letter that wished her luck in “contributing to the implementation of ‘one country, two systems’”…

The article doesn’t attempt to analyze the tragic woman’s underlying personality issues. (Is she so intensely imbued with her childhood rote-learning ways that she can’t conceive of alternatives to what she is doing?) It would be interesting to know how, as a devout Catholic (let alone native, well-educated, non-plutocrat, one-time student activist Hongkonger) Carrie finds total loyalty to the CCP apparently so effortless. Maybe Civic Party boss Alan Leong was thinking about her this morning when he endorsed a Global Day of Prayer for Hong Kong:

Let us confess we have sinned, humble ourselves by admitting our arrogance and conceitedness and ask for forgiveness and blessings.

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HKPF PR bombs

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam pleads with citizens to sympathize with the police when they pepper-spray reporters and knock people to the ground. The cops are, she suggests, extra-frazzled right now as they believe someone is about to launch bomb attacks against them.

The cops have been finding explosives all over the place, in July, October, December, February and – an enormous cache – last week. Yet despite the high-profile discoveries of lethal munitions and impressive numbers of suspects arrested, the community seems curiously unconcerned. The government is not putting up posters about suspicious objects. No overseas authorities have issued alerts. Her own insensibility and aloofness notwithstanding, Carrie doesn’t give the impression that she thinks it’s a real thing.

And now Socialist Realism comes to town courtesy of a huge banner hanging on what looks like Wanchai police station. The giant illustration shows fearless gallant cops defending civilization – including a stirring scene in which an officer is supporting a fallen comrade who has just been savagely attacked and dismembered by marauding mutant radical schoolgirls in yellow face-masks…

This is a classic example of a PR exercise that is actually aimed at its own subjects. Once admired and respected, the police are feeling misunderstood, under-appreciated and generally sorry for themselves. The portrayal of heart-tugging heroism is supposed to bolster the morale of the cops themselves, not win over the Hong Kong public.

Without (heaven forbid) wishing to sound cynical, the rather frequent uncovering of bomb plots – fleeting ones, no less – has a similar feel. To someone with a nasty and suspicious mind, the cops’ anti-terror swoops do not even seem intended to shock the public into fearing extremist protesters. The point is to convince the police themselves that what they are doing is noble and necessary.

Little wonder that the biggest genuine explosion we’ve heard recently is that of Commissioner Tang’s anger when his force’s façade is pricked by RTHK’s satire.

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Great Moments in Message Management, cont’d

About a month ago, China’s Emperor-for-Life Xi Jinping handed out promotions to some of his trusted allies. The media focused on the appointment of Ying Yong and Wang Zhonglin as new party chiefs in Hubei and Wuhan – to replace officials who had failed to contain the coronavirus outbreak. In Hong Kong, the big news was the appointment of Xia Baolong as new boss of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, in place of (demoted) Zhang Xiaoming.

While we haven’t heard much from Xia yet, it is interesting to see how his fellow Xi loyalist Wang has done in Wuhan.

Last week he a big bright idea – namely to…

…carry out gratitude education among the citizens of the whole city, so that they thank the General Secretary [Xi Jinping], thank the Chinese Communist Party, heed the Party, walk with the Party, and create strong positive energy.

For reasons that remain unfathomable, the people of Wuhan did not leap with joy at this invitation to venerate the dictatorship that plunged them into weeks of death, disease, quarantine and internment.

In the CCP’s Leninist mindset, the Party guides the population’s thoughts, not the other way round. But this attempt at choreographing an outpouring of thankfulness among the happy campers of Wuhan failed to take off. Indeed, the propaganda masters had to categorize the proposal as a Class 1 Public Opinion Screw-Up on a par with the mishandled death (and re-death) of virus whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang.

The positive-energy morale-boost was withdrawn and airbrushed away – rather like the best-seller-but-pulped book How I Beat the WuFlu and Saved the World Before Breakfast, by Winnie the Xi himself.

We eagerly await Xia Baolong’s debut inspiring hearts-and-minds PR initiative for Hong Kong.

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More bridges to nowhere discovered

We are so distracted by the Hong Kong government’s frequent one-off blunders that we overlook the many permanent ongoing screw-ups these clowns inflict on the city. One of the most infuriating never-ending disasters is the entrenched default policy of giving private cars – owned by 13% of households – priority over pedestrians and public transport users.

A human-geography specialist at Hong Kong U once said that Hong Kong does not have a transport department – it has an anti-pedestrian department. At the most mundane level, this means things like sidewalks that are too narrow and often blocked. I encountered this rather eye-catching example on Caine Road a couple of weeks ago…

Following which, I was introduced to this website – Transit Jam (also on Twitter). If you want to be thoroughly depressed and infuriated, this is a must-see. Bridges to nowhere (they’re all over the place). Patchy (as in ‘hardly ever happens’) enforcement of traffic laws. A recreation area where bicycles are banned but cars are allowed. And, on a topical note, how cramming pedestrians into small spaces is even stupider during a virus epidemic. And lots more. Just in case your anger levels aren’t high enough already.

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Working from home is still a thing?

Even after Hong Kong’s somnolent civil servants have plodded back to their desks, it seems there are still some companies (of the delicate- and precious-Westerner orientation) paying employees to sit at home in their pajamas on the sofa all day, and renting high-priced commercial real estate for no purpose. Should we tell them that everyone else in town has long gone back to the office – or just leave them in their apartments quivering in fear at the pestilence raging outside?

To everyone for whom two days at home is a treat, I declare the weekend open with a varied selection of stuff to browse…

Further to the economics-vs-politics debate, William Pesek on why Hong Kong’s latest budget ignores the real (economic) problems.

If you think your HK$10,000 handout is a waste of taxpayer’s money, a link to a Ming Pao piece on that ‘dialogue office’ the Hong Kong government set up. The director got paid HK$1.6mn for a six-month contract, during which the body organized that one (admittedly entertaining) public meeting with Carrie Lam, plus some online events.

HK Free Press on the uselessness of Hong Kong’s police complaints body, and on Amnesty’s report on it. Plus the mysterious apparent absence of contempt laws following the arrest of Jimmy Lai.

Speaking of which, a list of all the Hong Kong pan-dem figures and activists arrested since mid-2019.

Input on open-sourced protest/virus investigative group Osint HK.

Quartz on Chinese netizens archiving coronavirus-related material on GitHub, beyond the CCP’s reach.

A big Reuters report on the last time CCP secrecy and cover-ups led to a major disease outbreak (plus a surge in pork-prices) – African Swine Flu, starting late 2018.

From Axios, a review of a new book on how China’s economic model depends on a migrant-worker underclass.

The academic China Leadership Monitor’s long, dense, heavy, dry but illuminating analysis of the over-concentration of power in China under Emperor-for-Life Xi Jinping.

Lastly – some photos from the Canal Street ‘hitting little people’ villain-whacking curse-fest yesterday. And you’ll never guess whose pictures the aging sorceresses were beating.

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Politics or economics?

Is Hong Kong’s unrest driven by ‘economic’ or ‘political’ discontent in the city? Here’s a good discussion of the arguments.

To the CCP, of course, everything is political. Beijing’s preferred analysis is that the unrest is due to evil foreign forces and an insufficiently patriotic education system. But Mainland officials allow that material inequality plays a role and the government should pay attention to ‘livelihood’ issues. The recent Budget, with a huge boost for the police plus handouts to ordinary citizens, reflects this.

To the local business-bureaucracy establishment, it is comforting to blame factors like low incomes and housing. The government can in theory alleviate these problems without overly disrupting the overall cronyistic system. And tycoons are nervous that if Beijing sees the local power structure as part of the problem, it will further centralize control and sideline them from it.

Many international observers also assume livelihood issues must be a key factor. After all, Hong Kong’s economic distortions, and things like housing unaffordability, are in a league of their own in the developed world. How could this not push the populace to protest?

To pan-dems, it is insulting to suggest that Hong Kong people just want money when the fight is for freedom, rights and universal suffrage (and, they could add, the backbone of the movement is largely middle-class).

Economic policy and politics largely overlap anyway. The real question is whether the Hong Kong public can be bought off with better material conditions, or will only structural reform resolve the reasons for the anger?

For an answer, we can trace the development of Hong Kong’s broad-based discontent over the last couple of decades.

After 1997, Beijing installed local administrations that hugely favoured tycoon interests, hence housing prices and rents, low health-care funding, poor welfare, white-elephant infrastructure projects and an unmanageable influx of Mainland ‘tourists’. This made people increasingly angry, and bolstered support for the pro-dem camp and for democracy.

Beijing interpreted this rising opposition as a challenge to the CCP’s right to rule, and so stepped up the Mainlandization that diminishes rule of law, freedoms and local identity. This goes back to Article 23 in 2003, but gathered pace with National Education and the 2014 political non-reform. All these proposed measures provoked a popular backlash based on values. We are now in a cycle of repression and resistance: the Umbrella Movement, disqualification of pan-dem politicians, the extradition bill, the 2019 Uprising, and now a semi-police-state type of clampdown, with intimidation, the arrest of Jimmy Lai, mass arrests, and the coming chop for RTHK.

To put it simply: what started as the Hong Kong public’s discontent with a crony-serving local government has now become an open conflict between Hong Kong and the CCP. If Beijing had ordered its appointed mediocrities to fix housing and welfare 15 or 20 years ago, things might have been different. But it’s too late now.

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Nodes? We don’t need no stinking nodes

As a favour to an old colleague, I agreed to proofread a start-up proposal to be aimed at venture-capital types. I knew it had something to do with blockchain. I thought it was just a couple of pages and would take 10 minutes. It’s actually over 20 pages, and will take hours. By ‘hours’, I mean ‘weeks until completion’, because I can’t be bothered to do more than five minutes a day.

Best be oblique. The proposal is for online provision of a service or function we will call ‘widgeting’*. While mundane, widgeting can be fairly important. But: a) most of us need to use such a process only rarely; and b) existing online or real-life methods mostly work fine.

The proposal offers improvements that sound desirable, like ‘greater convenience’. But it insists that they be delivered by (decentralized, verifiable, secured, ‘immutable’ etc) blockchain, when simple procedural changes (like a more user-friendly system) would suffice. The proposal also assumes that untrustworthy or malicious actors are a major problem with current methods of widgeting. This is not usually the case – but where it is, the problem is organizational or institutional, and shouldn’t be swept under the carpet by a superficial technical fix.

To complicate things, the proposal relies on at least some parties paying for use of this platform – or ‘remunerating nodes for their work’. The proposal allows for crowdfunding, though that makes sense for only a narrow range of widgeting-related activities. (Widgeting can be one-off and for-profit, but it is often a small part of a larger non-commercial activity. It does involve admin and other costs, but these are usually bundled into other much bigger budgets or payments. There could be some potential for value-creating through data-gathering.)

As if this weren’t masochistic enough, the business model does not rely on real money, but will have its own cryptocurrency. This will, it seems, acquire some sort of value of its own as ‘the ecosystem grows’.

Talking of masochistic: did I mention that, for a laugh, I agreed to be paid for what I thought would be a 10-minute proofread in these ‘tokens’?

There are several people – fairly smart, I always thought – spending months on this obsessive attempt to find a problem for the visionary anarcho-glam fantasy tech solution.

*Don’t waste time being intrigued about what ‘widgeting’ is. Trust me – it’s boring.

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The Greater BS Area

From HK Free Press, a look at the Greater Bay Area. It quotes promoters of GBA who aren’t sure what it is they’re backing, and skeptics who don’t really know what it is that won’t work. The reader is none the wiser. This in itself is the story.

Like Belt and Road, GBA is a vague concept – a label mostly applied to existing economic trends or infrastructure projects, and pushed by shoe-shiners as visionary waffle abounding in ‘opportunities’. 

Officially, it is a grand national-level strategic plan for the region around Hong Kong to become a tech/finance/blah-blah ‘powerhouse’ hub-zone. There is probably potential for rationalizing and consolidating functions in the metropolitan area. But no-one is talking about merging the various cities (even just on the Mainland side) or creating a bigger single administrative entity. All we see are small-scale tax and other measures supposedly to help Hongkongers who move over the border to reside or work.

Essentially GBA is a (geographically illiterate) relaunch of the ‘Mainland/Pearl River Delta integration’ buzzword from the 2000s. From Beijing’s point of view, the need to make Hong Kong psychologically and symbolically less separate in terms of identity is now more urgent. Rolling the city into the GBA – a trendy hip-sounding brand a la San Francisco or Tokyo – is a semi-sophisticated attempt to do that. “We are now all Bay Area citizens.”

But historically, Hong Kong’s sole business/economic role has been as a location where you can do things you cannot do on the Mainland. The city’s whole purpose and competitive edge arise from its stark institutional differences from the hinterland.

That’s why international business types say rule of law and a free flow of information are key to Hong Kong’s success. Yet to Beijing, these features threaten national (that is, CCP) security. All the CCP values about Hong Kong is the free flow of capital, so Mainland enterprises and elites can convert their assets into hard currency. The rest can wither.

At most, GBA will be a slogan to try to justify, or distract attention from, the ongoing erosion of Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. The underlying process will not be about integration so much as conformity.

On a more amusing note – a nice pithy turn of phrase…

More here.

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OK, so it’s only US$44 for a day

We interrupt this coronavirus epidemic for a few hours’ tear-gas, pepper-spray and arbitrary-arrests mayhem, starring a cop apparently on some sort of acid-dexedrine cocktail waving a Glock around. Agonized official hand-wringing follows about the harm this terrible violence will cause an already ailing economy. But, as ever, there is no acknowledgement that government might need to fix any underlying problem. It’s all the fault of flowers laid outside an MTR station which spontaneously erupt into burning barricades that can only be overcome by spraying chemicals into bystanders’ faces. We must crush the flowers.

So as WuFlu recedes, back we go to the imbecilic cycle – under the stiffened resolve of Beijing’s new overseers – of trying to tear-gas and arrest the city into peace and harmony.

To put moaning about the Financial Times or Apple Daily online paywalls into perspective, here’s an article on the political science of this that costs US$240 to read. Courtesy of the bizarre world of academic journals. Fortunately, they let you have a pithy abstract that probably gives most of the plot away…

Beijing has been unable to impose its nationalism directly from above. Instead, it has [co-opted] local elites, who have promoted state nationalism from within. This … has led many among Hong Kong’s political elite to compete in expressing an increasingly overt Chinese nationalistic posture as a way to signal loyalty to Beijing. [This has backfired], triggering … a … popular Hong Kong sub-state nationalism. [And, voila! You get…] intensifying radicalization and polarization between the authoritarian establishment and the democratic opposition.

In academic-journal ‘abstract’-speak, they use the word ‘monist’ for ‘mouth-frothing top-down Leninist control-freak’. They also use the phrase ‘a reactive form of popular Hong Kong sub-state nationalism’. This means ‘HK independence movement’. Which the CCP, Beijing’s new knuckle-dragger bosses, the local administration and, not least, the police seem determined to deliver.  

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