In quarantine…

…a perfect opportunity to deepen my understanding of the decisive significance of the ‘two establishes’.

Including in Korea, have had to sign up to three (or four?) online monitoring/reporting apps with clunky interfaces, all requiring the exact same info over and over. Worst time was at HK Airport converting the Leave Home Safe app into the Colour Code thing (do it before return flight!!!), followed by tests, more waiting for RAT result, then a one-hour wait for transport. Family in front of me had to go through it all with screaming kids (this is midnight) and got split up into separate vehicles to get to quarantine hotel. Despite frontline staff trying to crack jokes to avoid lynching by jetlagged arriving passengers, the process is sadistic. Download your Compulsory Quarantine Order – basically a warrant – en route to hotel, if possible, or face more grief at the apocalyptic check-in.

Next morning, cold baked beans for breakfast…

If 21 days’ quarantine was necessary, how come they reduced it to 14? And how come it can now be three? And here comes another…

Plus, three more PCR tests in the week after release, also requiring booking and standing in line each time. 

Those of us who hadn’t left Hong Kong for three years heard about all this. Only when you experience it in person do you realize how amazingly screwed-up the city has become. Any foreigners desperate enough to visit must be screaming ‘Never coming here again!’ the whole time. 

As with NatSec horrors, even the most outraged and free-thinking residents have been conditioned into not noticing quite how extreme and insane all this is. The fashionable word is ‘normalized’. Lo Chung-mau on TV notwithstanding, you have to get out to see how far – and irretrievably – the city has fallen.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism...

“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

Update: this.

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A few home thoughts

Following Hong Kong from afar, you lose any feeling that it’s all a bad dream or aberration and something might still happen to put things back the way they should be. Seen from a distance, you realize: that’s it – it’s really over.

In case anyone missed them, a couple of things from the tireless Su Xinqi. Chow Hang-tung’s commital proceedings

“The five operational principles must be read as a whole instead of separately,” Chow told the court. “We want democracy for this country, so what’s the greatest obstacle? That’s the one-party dictatorship and the wicked logic of considering party and state as one.”

And an account of a patriotic school’s national security education for kids…

The TV was surrounded by dozens of stuffed panda toys, which the children were assured they could play with later if they listened attentively.

A law firm tears into Hong Kong’s Covid policy.

The main Korean news: a typhoon is coming, and the Frieze art fair puts Seoul on the cultural map – or, as international media point out, helps take Hong Kong off it.

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In Korea

First time here in 25 years. Despite undoubted strides in living standards, economic/tech achievements and soft power, the place still manages to be backward in odd ways. English signage being an unmissable example. It’s obviously a point of pride not to pass anything by a native proof-reader, ever. The official Q Code (pointless and clunky) online Covid system is a nightmare to navigate simply because it eschews basic interface English phrases like ‘enter’ or ‘continue’ in favour of non-obvious words like ‘inquiry’.

Random glances around hotel room…

Otherwise, kimchi paradise.

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Off to get a Covid test before flying out… 

…in a couple of days. First trip away from Hong Kong since December 2019. Hopefully, I am not going to get the same result as: Secretary for Innovation, Technology and Industry Professor Sun Dong (the latest); Police Commissioner Raymond Siu; Head of Immigration Au Ka-wang; Commerce Secretary Algernon Yau; and Deputy Chief Secretary of Administration Warner Cheuk – plus any other government officials I’ve missed. 

What are they all up to? Did they sneak through the barrier tape into a country park barbecue pit? Does this mean the Hong Kong government is a ‘cluster’? Should it be sealed off and shut down, or put in an isolation camp?

This week’s NatSec horrors, courtesy of HK Free Press

Chow Pak-kwan is found guilty of (take a deep breath), obstructing a police officer and attempting to escape from legal custody in November 2019. (Video of incident here.) A judge tells Chow Hang-tung she will get a fair trial – ie, be able to defend herself – even though prosecutors refuse to disclose full details of the ‘foreign forces’ she was allegedly colluding with. And journalist Bao Choy appeals against her conviction for making false statements to obtain vehicle registration data regarding the July 2019 Yuen Long MTR station attack.

Speaking of which, some sensible points about the Hong Kong parliament-in-exile.

The fate of Hong Kong’s ‘secrets’ Facebook pages.

The Guardian on China’s property mess

…just as it has become impossible for President Xi Jinping to U-turn on the mass lockdowns that have stunted economic activity, it also appears increasingly unlikely that he and his politburo will reverse the crackdown on reckless lending in the property market that has led to a 40% fall in the sale of homes this year.

I’ll be going to South Korea. Guess it’s a once-every-quarter-century kind of place: a quick flick through old passports reveals that I was last there in November 1998, when Kimpo was still the main airport, the parks were full of guys in suits who hadn’t told their families they’d lost their jobs owing to the Asian financial crisis, and half the cast of Extraordinary Attorney Woo probably hadn’t been born.

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Just a few links to start the week… 

All worth reading!

Dr Siddarth Sridhar on how the government’s Covid policies threaten to squeeze other – even more serious cases – out of hospitals. In other words (though he doesn’t put it so bluntly), the dynamic lite zero-Covid ideology could lead to more deaths from non-Covid causes. Nuts.

Senior international lawyers leaving Hong Kong because of quarantine rules and declining business. (A lot of self-righteous mouth-frothing on Twitter about the fact that these individuals cite Covid restrictions rather than the NatSec regime as a reason to emigrate. Not sure it’s that simple. The Beijing-imposed Covid rules are just as much part of the downgrading of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ as, say, no-jury court trials, and many of the curbs seem more to do with social control rather than public health. It’s all the same post-2019 nightmare. And why should quitting Hong Kong to flee NatSec be any more – or less – noble than fleeing travel restrictions? Everyone’s decision is personal and different.)

HK Free Press op-ed on the ‘tell Hong Kong’s story well’ fantasy

…Hong Kong’s problem with the world is not so much a shortage of good stories as a surplus of bad ones.

(The erhu-player mentioned in the column has a nasty surprise.)

And another on Beijing’s withdrawal from climate-change cooperation with the US… 

The message from Beijing is clear: accept our authoritarian rule over Taiwan or we’ll doom Planet Earth and all its inhabitants to the ravages of climate change.

Globe and Mail update on plans for a Hong Kong parliament-in-exile, and Hong Kong authorities’ threats against Canada-based activists involved in the project.

The Hill on China’s property woes

“The Xi government may provide a burst of liquidity to paper over the insolvency of property developers, but it cannot paper over the demographics of a declining population and forty or sixty million vacant and overpriced apartments.”

And a Substack article on the effects of a potentially greater challenge – China’s record high temperatures.

ASPI Strategist on how China views its United Front influence operations overseas.

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Ronny Tong solves brain drain

Hong Kong Watch says there have been 140,000 applications for BNO visas to migrate to the UK. That’s getting on for one in every 50 Hong Kong people. If a roughly similar number are going to Canada, Australia, Taiwan, etc – and, yes, Japan – that would be one in 25, or 4%. Now assume most are in the under-40 age group, and of above-average education levels, and you’re looking at a real demographic event.

The SCMP puts a more patriotic spin on the story: BNO applications down 8%.

Genius former pro-democrat Ronny Tong’s recommendation to counteract the brain drain: golf not housing.

Some weekend reading…

HK Free Press on Hong Kong’s most dangerous stretch of road.

DW looks at Hong Kong’s jury-less trials.

Bitter Winter on the Hong Kong courts’ treatment of a man accused of violence against Falun Gong members.

An explainer on China’s United Front in the UK, by the Conservative Party-linked China Research Group.

Second part of Michael Pettis’s article on China’s real-estate woes.

China Media Project dissects the latest People’s Daily rant about Nancy Pelosi (yes, they’re still going nuts about her).

Drew Pavlou – Australian anti-CCP enfant terrible – is on Substack.

The Guardian on how and why dictatorships make crap decisions

…[Putin’s] approach to the current Ukraine conflict has clearly been deluded.

…“There are no incentives to tell the truth on the ground to the higher command…”

From Asian Review of Books – a history of tigers in Hong Kong.

And a review of Hong Kong novel Price’s Price by Chris Maden.

How the Qing empire semi-colonized Taiwan – link to overview of a National Palace Museum exhibit.

Have they found Genghis Khan’s grave?

…the numerous skeletons buried on top of the structure were most likely the slaves who built it and who were then massacred to keep the secret of the location.

…The [16] women are presumed to have been wives and concubines of the leader, who were killed to accompany the warlord in the afterlife.

His horses didn’t have it any better.

For map fans (or, more to the point, everyone who isn’t a map fan), the best simple illustration ever of the distortion in Mercator’s projection.

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Government by rant

A Canadian businessman decries the Hong Kong government’s adoption of Mainland-style rabid and delusional public statements…

The true meaning and objectives of some government communications, and even the intended audience, are becoming harder to divine. Combative overtones can be detected in communications that seek to deny and deflect rather than deal directly with the issues at hand.

Examples include officials’ choreographed mouth-frothing over Nancy Pelosi, the claim that ‘external forces’ were behind the 2019 protests, and the insistence that press freedom is still protected. As the author says, this saps the administration’s credibility and undermines public trust. He suggests that, under ‘One Country, Two Systems’, the local government has the freedom to change course – but of course the descent into CCP-speak comes with the ending of that ‘high degree of autonomy’. Someone has to insert the ‘wolf-warrior’ ranting into the press releases and speeches, and they are not from this side of the border. The only audience that matters is Beijing.

It’s not that government communications were once forensically rigorous and bursting with integrity. Go back 10 years, and you’ll find ‘lines to take’ brazenly declaring such bullshit as ‘the bridge to Zhuhai is essential infrastructure’, or ‘the housing problem is due to a shortage of land’. But that duplicity was rooted in bureaucrats’ condescending colonial-era belief that the population were infants. The new practice of PR-by-propaganda-slogans reflects Mainland-style ideology, where everyone must loyally recite the same fictions, however disconnected they are from any sort of objective truth. 

Or science. While Singapore scraps mask mandates everywhere except public transport and health-care facilities, Hong Kong cancels a 10-km race and possibly the cross-harbour swim because of Covid.

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Your tax dollars at work

A 68-year-old man gets prosecuted for playing an erhu ‘without a permit’ at a bus terminus. You might wonder why the Justice Dept would bring such a minor infringement of the law to court. He was playing Glory to Hong Kong. How many other streetside erhu-players – there are lots – have been prosecuted lately?

The magistrate let the guy go. Another glimpse of judicial independence occurs at the High Court, where the judge gives Albert Ho bail (plus a string of patronizing warnings). This comes after last week’s lifting of reporting restrictions in NatSec cases. Signs of some pushback among the judiciary?

Could/would/do you get arrested for having Glory to Hong Kong as your phone ringtone? Or for whistling it? For singing it in the shower at home?

Final post-op stuff tomorrow, so some mid-week links…

The SCMP’s tech editor is in need of some rectification…

The sight of a hazmat-suited medical worker in the Chinese city of Xiamen sticking a cotton bud into the mouth of a fish to test whether it had coronavirus was saddening.

It is a sign that common sense and pragmatism in China are retreating, giving way to self-destructive madness, where political correctness trumps basic reasoning.

The ridiculous conduct in Xiamen received no official reprimand from the provincial or state authorities because, politically speaking, it was seen as the right move towards implementing Beijing’s strict dynamic zero Covid-19 policy.

In Atlantic, Richard McGregor looks at the ‘radical secrecy’, along with the rewriting of history, of Xi’s China…

Xi Jinping has never given a press conference … he does not have a press secretary … His office does not preannounce his domestic travel or visitor log. He does not tweet … What are billed by the official media as important speeches are typically not released until months after Xi has delivered them in closed forums … Beijing’s radical opacity has real-world consequences.

One of the more amusing aspects of shoe-shiner-watching in Hong Kong is the way local ‘heavyweights’ – members of the National People’s Congress or Mainland think-tanks – pontificate on Beijing’s thinking, when they are just as clueless and out-of-the-loop as anyone else.

Brian Hioe explains Taiwan for the Guardian. Michael Turton explains the language behind the US position on Taiwan (perhaps every journalist and columnist should read this). 

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When PR efforts create bad PR

Making a change from the ‘exodus’ stories, the latest trend in Hong Kong media coverage is the ‘lipstick on a pig’ article – critiquing the local authorities’ attempts to boost the city’s ‘image’ rather than fix the reality. Best example is this Bloomberg op-ed. The SCMP does it timidly (and addresses the HK Police’s own plan to restore its reputation).

The government’s efforts to regain control of the narrative are easily mocked – it’s obvious that Mainland officials are involved in rebutting overseas criticism, hence press statements loaded with shrill slogans guaranteed to alienate the audience. John Lee is also imploring young people to tell Hong Kong’s story well…

“It is paramount for the global community to know our achievements and unique advantages for us to continue to shine as the Pearl of the Orient.”

Business groups AmCham and the British Chamber join in with events supposedly aimed at improving Hong Kong’s international standing. These voices could be more nuanced, admitting that the human-rights and rule-of-law situations are – as the SCMP would put it – ‘raising questions’, thus giving their messaging some credibility. But expect slightly milder versions of the official rhetoric insisting everything is fine; to the business sector, ‘telling the Hong Kong story well’ is a shoe-shining exercise like conferences taking Belt and Road and Greater Bay Area seriously. Even corporates’ objections to Covid quarantine requirements, which are inflicting direct commercial damage, echo official lines claiming that Hong Kong remains a dynamic hub.

It’s almost as if feigning concern about Hong Kong’s reputation and determination to correct the problem has become another patriotic performance.

Meanwhile, the reality…

Samuel Bickett explains why many Hong Kong pro-democracy politicians are ‘pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit’. Full article by him here

What did this alleged coup consist of? Not much, it turned out. The 47 were accused of participating in a party-organized primary election and vowing, if elected to the Legislative Council, to veto the government’s budget—a right explicitly granted to the LegCo by Article 52 of the Basic Law

Minors, including a girl aged 15 at time of arrest, plead guilty to threatening national security (hell of a thing to put on your resume in the years ahead)…

The seven were accused of organising street booths and press conferences, as well as using social media, to spread seditious messages and incite others to subvert state power…

Margaret Ng’s mitigation plea before receiving a suspended sentence for unauthorized assembly. HK Rule of Law Monitor discusses the case – classic ‘lawfare’…

There was little dispute about the facts. The key challenges were constitutional: a) at the systemic level, that criminal offences relating to unauthorized assembly were  disproportionate restrictions of the freedom of assembly and of procession; and b) at the operational level as relating to the facts on the day of 818, including that the assembly was peaceful, the police had not told the crowd to disperse, and making arrests only 8 months after.

China Digital Times looks at Hong Kong’s creeping censorship, with arrests of online forum administrators and bans affecting film and book producers.

Speaking of shoe-shining exercises – HK University’s compulsory National Security course looks absurdly easy to pass. If I were a Mainland official, I would demand something more ‘sincere’-looking.

Some thoughts from a Westerner returning to Shanghai after missing the lockdowns – compare and contrast with Hong Kong.

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Catching up

From Al Jazeera, a general overview of how courts are operating in Hong Kong. HKFP explainer on the recently-lifted reporting restrictions in NatSec trials. Thread by Xinqi Su on the same subject.

These serve as a backdrop to some high-profile cases, notably the prosecution of politicians for subversion via primary elections. All have life sentences hanging over them. Many have spent nearly a year and a half in detention. Reporting restrictions have kept pre-trial procedures out of the public eye. There will be no jury (as with Jimmy Lai). The authorities have managed to turn some of the accused against the others. The 29 pleading guilty are following cold logic, assuming that a NatSec court will automatically accept that the primaries were a plot to undermine the government. Many of those pleading not guilty are among the minority who actually got bail. This is ugly.

A few weekend links…

From Matthew Brooker, a thread illustrating the importance of the ‘important speech’.

For economics wonks, Michael Pettis looks at China’s mortgage crisis.

Willy Wo-lap Lam on how the 20th Party Congress will consolidate Xi Jinping’s power…

Xi is not known as a brilliant or skilled policy-maker in either the economic or diplomatic arenas, but the supreme leader is a master of personal empire-building, particularly in enlarging the influence of the so-called Xi Jinping Faction in CCP politics.

From Politico, China’s ambassador to the US on how everything is the West’s fault, plus other ambitious/delusional claims.

Andrew Batson on China’s fixation about surpassing the US…

…some Chinese politicians have realized it does not actually display great self-confidence to obsess about your country’s standing relative to other countries

China Media Monitor investigates weird fake pro-China documentary films winning awards at fake film festivals. Two things going on here. First, various bodies feel a need to obey instructions to ‘tell China’s story’ overseas, so they produce junk propaganda as a performative, box-ticking display of obedience. Second, there are budgets for these projects – so someone’s making some money out of it. I’m inclined to say good for them!

Sesame Street this week was brought to you by the word ‘pneumoperitoneum’

A commenter writes:

I’ve never experienced or heard about a hospital bill totting up to 20% of a flat deposit. Even if the flat was purchased a couple of decades ago that’s still a couple of million.

It was 30 years ago, and apartments (small, old, out of the way) for under HK$1 million were a real thing. Sounds crazy, but true. (According to the title deeds, if I recall, the original price of that place around 1970 had been HK$35,000.)

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