Un-writing history

The latest official Hong Kong Yearbook omits the longstanding chapter on the city’s history…

The chapter dedicated to the city’s history in the Hong Kong 2021 yearbook recounted the city’s archaeological background, the colonial era, and socio-political changes preceding and following the Handover.

Besides the missing section on history, several stand-alone chapters were merged with others in the latest edition. Among them, “media and communications” was incorporated into the chapter on “home and youth affairs,” in which a section on the city’s mass media followed a part on the “dissemination of government information,” unlike in previous editions.

The government department concerned won’t give much of a reason, so we can only guess. Perhaps someone thought the account of the 19th and 20th centuries was simply too Brit-heavy. Or maybe the narrative of the city’s post-WW2 success reflected badly on the rest of the motherland. More likely, the compilers wanted to avoid describing events since 2019 – mass-protests, Covid and the Nat-Sec system. The official spin about black riots, foreign forces attempting a ‘colour revolution’ and exciting new improved election systems would look absurd juxtaposed with chapters full of hard statistics.

Instead of dwelling on the past, senior civil servants are attending lectures on One Country, Two Systems and contemporary China delivered by Hong Kong studies faculty from Peking U. In particular, they seem to be studying Xi Jinping’s ideas on the Chinese path to modernization…

According to Xi’s report during the 20th party congress, the “Chinese path” has five characteristics: a large population, common prosperity for all, a harmony between material civilization and spiritual civilization, a harmony between humans and the nature, and peaceful development.

Those characteristics distinguish Chinese modernisation from Western modernisation, which was characterised by “excessive greed,” “loss in belief,” “pollution,” and an “extreme gap between the poor and the rich,” according to an article published by a Communist Party magazine.

Not sure if Beijing issues a yearbook, but would it mention China’s Gini coefficient?

The first one I ever bought.

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Off to have my ‘seasonal’ flu shot…

…so just a few mid-week links…

Safeguard Defenders on China’s ‘consular protection volunteers’ overseas…

…the consolidation of overseas United Front networks as the legitimate providers of consular community assistance not only gives them potential broad access to individuals’ private data, home address and contact information, but may also dangerously enhance their function of control over overseas communities and dissenters. The fact that these functions are carried out under the guidance of local consulates and embassies does not diminish such risks, especially when considering how a series of reports by diaspora communities have pointed towards the PRC’s weaponization of such seemingly mundane services.

Newsweek reports Beijing’s new campaign to get everyone to use ‘Xizang’…

“China’s leaders are acutely aware their occupation of Tibet, including a coercive system of residential boarding schools now housing one million Tibetan children, is viewed as a serious problem by the international community and so they are literally trying to erase Tibet from global consciousness by replacing the name Tibet with the Chinese word ‘Xizang,'” Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, a rights advocacy group, told Newsweek.

About as tough to enforce as Musk’s rebranding of Twitter as ‘X’. Speaking of little used parts of the Roman alphabet – how many foreigners will even be able to pronounce Tibet’s new officially promoted ‘English’ name?

Also – I am informed that the HK Philharmonic had to drop Glitter and be Gay when it performed in Shenzhen. ‘One Country, Two Systems’ in practice.

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Back to normal, but with paranoia

RTHK reports

…more than 3,800 civil servants resigned in the past year, the highest figure in almost 30 years.

That represented a resignation rate of 2.2 percent, similar to that of 2021-2022 [compared with 0.5% in late 2010s].

[CS Secretary Ingrid] Yeung said many of those who resigned were younger workers who prefer having different work experiences instead of sticking to one job.

Does this mean civil service salaries are no longer (roughly/allegedly) 50-100% above private-sector equivalents? Or are the ‘different work experiences’ overseas, post-emigration?

Speaking of which, another kindergarten closes

Vice-chair of the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers Nancy Lam told local media that some 20 kindergartens are expected to close in the coming year, attributing the trend to the emigration wave and young couples’ unwillingness to have children.

There’s only so much paranoia about evil foreign forces, seditious speech, lurking terrorists, radiation, constant jailings and the threat of ‘soft resistance’ anyone can take.

HKFP also reports that Hong Kong students are attempting suicide at the rate of over one every two days. Also, an op-ed on the impact of Covid/NatSec climate on young people’s mental health.

Dr David Owens writes

This is devastating. It is also a public health failure. 

There are well established, evidence based, low cost interventions that have been shown to reduce youth suicide. 

2 years ago, I argued that Hong Kong would save many more lives in young people by diverting resources from Covid theatre into suicide prevention strategies. Today we could transfer the insane resources wasted on sushi theatre and have a significant impact on this devastating public health issue.

It would also help if the government stopped, spewing negative energy around invented bogeymen. A culture of fear is very very bad for public health, especially in the young.

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Apathy causes poor choice of candidates

An SCMP semi-analysis on the nondescript choices on the District Council election ballots blames voters’ ‘apathy’…

Observers said the vague, ambiguous campaign messages reflected voters’ mood and lack of interest in the first district poll since the overhaul.

“When political apathy is commonplace, people are not interested in engaging in district matters,” said political commentator Sonny Lo Siu-hing. “Parties therefore don’t see the need in helping their candidates to impress voters by formulating detailed proposals.”

Isn’t this confusing cause and effect? Serious policy proposals will by definition be ‘political’ and contrary to government thinking – which the ‘curated’ candidates were selected not to be. Why were voters mysteriously not ‘apathetic’ in 2019?

Senior officials say civil servants are ‘duty bound’ to vote in order to set an example…

“We will offer flexible work arrangements for civil servants on the day,” [the Chief Secretary] said. “They can vote before going to work and if they need to reimburse taxi fare, it’s also fine.”

A bigger story starting in the next few weeks will be the trial of Jimmy Lai. US religious outlet First Things column

And to personalize all this: What kind of Catholics keep a fellow Catholic, Jimmy Lai, in solitary confinement for over a thousand days, after destroying his business, shutting down his newspaper, and arresting him on bogus charges of violating “national security”? What kind of Catholics prevent a man whose only crime is living the Church’s social doctrine from seeing his children for three years? What did John Lee and Carrie Lam learn in those Catholic schools, anyway?

More from Benedict Rogers in The Diplomat.

From RFA – Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin, authors of Among the Braves, on the 2019 protest movement say they don’t dare come back to Hong Kong.

Some comments worthy of attention… Our poet laureate Knownot excels on the District Council election quandary that we are all grappling with. (His verse was performed at the old comedy standup place in Soho a few years back.) And a word from Shirley Lee of Peak visit fame.

An FT op-ed bluntly spells it out: China has peaked…

After stagnating under Mao Zedong in the 1960s and 70s, China opened to the world in the 1980s — and took off in subsequent decades. Its share of the global economy rose nearly tenfold from below 2 per cent in 1990 to 18.4 per cent in 2021. No nation had ever risen so far, so fast.   

Then the reversal began. In 2022, China’s share of the world economy shrank a bit. This year it will shrink more significantly, to 17 per cent. That two-year drop of 1.4 per cent is the largest since the 1960s. 

…by adjusting creatively for inflation, Beijing has long managed to report that real growth is steadily hitting its official target, now around 5 per cent. This in turn appears to confirm, every quarter, the official story that “the east is rising.” But China’s real long-term potential growth rate — the sum of new workers entering the labour force and output per worker — is now more like 2.5 per cent.

…Further, over the past decade, China’s government has grown more meddlesome, and its debts are historically high for a developing country. 

I was at the Symphony Under the Stars concert/picnic over the weekend. Today’s guest star is soprano Vivian Yau the the HK Phil performing Glitter and Be Gay from Bernstein’s Candide. (Wind back a few minutes for the overture.)

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Happy so-called Friday

The US government’s US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) has published its latest report…

The report said Beijing had installed loyal judges and leaders in key positions, leading to “the strictest interpretation” of the security law and its enforcement beyond the city’s jurisdiction. This had caused more Hongkongers to leave, while those who stayed must choose between self-censorship or political and legal risks, the report said.

“As these expats and Hongkongers leave… mainland human capital and investment increasingly dominate Hong Kong’s business environment, cementing Hong Kong’s status as a Chinese, rather than international, city,” the report read.

And the predictable response

The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) today (November 15) strongly disapproved of and firmly rejected the untruthful remarks, slanders and smears against various aspects of the HKSAR in the so-called “report” of 2023 issued by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC). 

Etc. Slight problem with the basic point: we reject your claim that we’re just a Chinese city – we are an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China. But following the ‘so-called’ and other outrage, we get the soothing assurance that…

With the unparalleled connectivity with the Mainland and the rest of the world, Hong Kong will continue to play its unique role as a ‘super-connector’ and ‘super value-adder’. 

Some weekend reading and viewing…

After living in Hong Kong for 28 years, someone gets around to going to the Peak for the first time, and is not totally impressed by the tacky mall-thing, but admits that there are some OK spots elsewhere. (Possibly paywalled, though worked for me.) Better than any Tourism Board stuff… 

It’s hard to get there and even harder to leave. 

For those following Taiwan’s election, useful thoughts on the KMT/TPP hookup. (Did I ever mention that I once saw Ma Ying-jeou on the Mid-Levels Escalator?) Quick cartoon version here.

Free (legally, on Sony’s channel) on YouTube: Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, a visually (and musically) stunning Japanese animated movie. Sort of an adult Ghibli. The synopsis says it’s about…

…a battle between a dream terrorist who steals a device that allows others to share their dreams and causes nightmares for people, and a research psychologist who enters the dream world and changes into Paprika, a dream detective, to investigate the cases.

At one stage…

…Paprika is captured by the pair after an exhausting chase. Osanai obsessively confesses his love for Chiba and peels away Paprika’s skin to reveal Chiba underneath. However, he is interrupted by the outraged Inui who demands that they finish off Chiba; as the two share Osanai’s body, they battle for control. Konakawa enters the dream and flees with Chiba back into his own recurring dream. Osanai gives chase, which ends in Konakawa shooting Osanai to take control of the dream. The act kills Osanai’s physical body in the real world.

Sounds unbearable, you might think. But like much Japanese manga-type absurd fantasy, the contents are far better than the label (unlike their traditional local confectioneries, which are the other way round). A famous scene.

Also on YouTube, To Singapore, with Love – an award-winning 2013 documentary about activists and dissidents who left Singapore in the 1960s-80s period. Banned in Singapore.

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Eric doesn’t agree

Chief Secretary Eric Chan shrugs off concerns about a low turnout at Hong Kong’s forthcoming District Council elections…

Although he appealed to people to vote as it is their civil right and responsibility, Chan argued that a turnout rate depends on many factors and does not necessarily reflect the efficacy of the electoral system.

“Some people believe a high turnout rate is good, while a low voting rate means the system is bad. I don’t agree,” he said.

“For example, the turnout rate in the 2019 elections exceeded 71 percent, which was very high, but it led to chaos as no one would agree that the persons elected made up a successful district council.”

He defends the nomination system that prevents democrats and even many establishment loyalists from getting on the ballot on the grounds that the various committees concerned have to ‘review candidates’ stances and political achievements’.

It might seem he doesn’t care whether people come out to vote. But perhaps he is just resigned to the fact that it is all out of his hands.

A good HKFP explainer on the ‘improved’ election system here. Only a fifth of seats will be filled by direct election, and all candidates will be screened and nominated, or (for the other four fifths) simply chosen, by appointed ‘committees’. Pollsters can forecast a landslide for the small range of people permitted to take part.

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This week’s barrings

HK University law faculty and the China Club suddenly cancel scheduled lectures by UK lawyer Timothy Owen. The faculty had been ‘under pressure’ and now cites ‘unforeseen circumstances’ for the decision. The government barred Owen last year from representing Jimmy Lai, on NatSec grounds.  

And the Democratic Party is barred from having a stall at the annual flower market at Victoria Park, after a member won a draw for a prime spot at the fair.

In both cases, no-one has any reasons. Like the inability of even ‘moderate patriots’ to get on District Council ballots, these things just happen.

Meanwhile, Financial Secretary Paul Chan (standing in for the CE, who has kind of been barred too) is ‘telling true stories’ about Hong Kong and ‘expanding the city’s circle of friends’ at the APEC bore-fest in San Francisco. 

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Some early mid-week links…

(Slightly sleepless night, after the street outside was occupied by fire trucks and cops in the early hours. Should’ve taken photos but didn’t. Apparently someone in an apartment in a nearby side-street managed to set their mattress alight with a scented candle. I’ll leave others to speculate on what sort of person it could be. No-one hurt.)

SCMP op-ed on China’s efforts to counter impressions that the country has peaked…

“Beijing did have soft power – as a reliable supplier of lots of stuff, an incredible ability to deliver goods cheaply and on time. The US pales in comparison,” said Yasheng Huang, global economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“But the way they’ve weaponised trade has really damaged that.”

…China restricts opinion polls, but data suggests waning optimism. Net monthly funds outflow reached US$53.9 in September, according to China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, a seven-year high.

The MSCI China Consumer Discretionary Index is around one-third of peak 2021 levels. And more Chinese – used to steadily improving living standards – are voting with their feet.

Some 13,500 high-net-worth individuals with investible assets over US$1 million will leave China this year compared with 10,800 last year, the advisory firm Henley & Partners estimates.

And the US Border Patrol arrested 22,187 Chinese people for illegally crossing from Mexico between January and September, nearly 13 times the same period in 2022.

The UK’s Council on Geostrategy asks a range of experts how secure Xi Jinping’s rule is – in a few hundred words each. So much quotable stuff here from Geremie Barmé, Willy Lam, George Magnus, Sari Arho Havrén and others.

Bloomberg article on the Mainland’s ‘lie flat’/’B1B2’ sub-culture – young Chinese eschewing long work hours and designer-label junk, and shopping in mall basements where all the cheap stuff is…

This new urban consumer awareness recalls a bit of Japan in the late 1990s, when domestic brands blossomed after the asset bubble burst … These days, Japanese brands are well-loved around the world.

China’s latter-day hippies could help propel local trendy-but-affordable brands (like Uniqlo in Japan) onto the world stage, thus creating some authentic ‘soft power’ for the country. Only snag: the nation’s leadership denounces ‘lying-flat’ as some sort of unpatriotic infantile decadence.

Fascinating timeline showing the transfer and exploitation of the intellectual property rights to Chinese sci-fi bestseller Three Body Problem. Looks like they should make a movie about the plans to make a movie. (Paywalled item on the saga here.)

From CMP – all you need to know about ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ – China’s catch-all criminal charge…

…a court in Chizhou City, Anhui, sentenced Zhou Zhizhong to a four-year term for picking quarrels because his repeated petitioning was perceived as “putting pressure on the government.”

…picking quarrels has been increasingly used to silence all kinds of objectionable speech and public discourse. This includes public discussions that might incite unrest, criticisms of social-economic government policies (such as policies toward urban real estate), disrespectful social media posts against individual traffic police, complaints about quarantine facility conditions, and even a work of fiction that possibly hinted at internal struggles in a stated-owned enterprise.

Also from CMP – for hardcore enthusiasts – an investigation into the ‘new form of human civilization’ Beijing pushes these days…

Five and a half years after he declared that “intellectual transformation” was required to propel “every major leap forward in human society and every major development in human civilization,” Xi’s bold new phrase purported to fulfill the promise of that transformation.

Of course, there was nothing genuinely intellectual about this process. It was, like so much CCP-speak, little more than a bold, top-down authoritarian project of framing. Essentially, the entire sweep of CCP history, and the economic and social development of the past 40 years, was being repackaged and brightly gift-wrapped to present the leadership of Xi Jinping and the CCP as a gift — not just to Chinese, but to all of humanity. 

Essentially it is an attempt to legitimize CCP (and third-term-leader) rule by declaring an ancient-culture/Marxism governance model that beats anything the West has. But also…

…a reminder … that Chinese notions of soft power are often hard-edged with defensiveness, less about confident appeal than about desperately and insistently hanging tight.

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We never forget you have a choice

From HKFP – an op-ed on the failure of even ‘moderate patriots’ to get nominated as candidates for the District Council elections…

…it appears that 75 per cent of the candidates in the geographical race already sit on the committees that decide who stands in the elections. A cautious approach, you might think. One committee member said that he or she did not dare to nominate potential candidates “without Beijing’s blessing.” Beijing’s Liaison Office likely played a key role in coordinating the nominations to ensure the outcome desired by the central authorities.

…How to explain [moderates’ inability to get nominated]? Lau [Siu-kai] implies that although [Ronny] Tong and [Michael] Tien and other leaders may meet the standard of being patriots, the candidates themselves are unknown to the authorities. There would be a high risk for the nominators if they turned out not to measure up, he writes.

In my district, we have Angel Pang (mentioned yesterday), who wants to widen Caine Road to three lanes for cars (easy – just knock down all the stupid buildings on either side of the street), and Karl Fung for Council, who pushes ‘Community Harmony’ and ‘Community: You, me and Pets’. (There are three others, who may or may not add to the diversity of ideas.)

If you enjoyed clicking on last week’s link to the HK Democracy Council only to get a ‘This site can’t be reached’ message, you’ll enjoy Samuel Bickett’s latest piece here. (Offer applies within Hong Kong only. A workaround.) 

The article asks why the proposed US Hong Kong Sanctions Act against officials, judges and prosecutors has hit such a raw nerve among local authorities, and suggests that overseas perceptions about declining judicial independence are having a real economic cost. On the idea from Regina Ip, Lau Siu-kai and Tam Yiu-chung that trials might be transferred to the Mainland…

It is … likely that these three figures were acting on their own in a dance we’ve seen more and more in Hong Kong’s ranks: performative efforts to impress Beijing by out-doing each other in the level of shock and attention they can bring to the cause.

Even if I’m wrong here and the threat did originate with Beijing or the Hong Kong government, actually carrying it out would make little sense. The crux of the accusation that forms the basis for the Hong Kong Sanctions Act is that the judiciary is no longer independent and political defendants cannot get a fair trial. If Beijing responded to the Act by interfering with the Hong Kong judicial process and transferring prisoners to Mainland China, they would simply confirm to the world that the U.S. government was right. It doesn’t fit Beijing’s narrative, and would cause more problems for them while solving none.

The government seems to deny it will happen.

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Innocent until proven guilty?

Hong Kong’s Security Secretary says Jimmy Lai’s forthcoming trial will show how bad he is and predicts ‘smearing’ of Hong Kong when the trial takes place…

He said fresh attacks by foreign politicians were also likely to target the local efforts to outlaw more national security offences under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, as the city government aims to complete the legislation by next year.

“I’m sure they will make use of this as another excuse to smear our government and to smear our country … It’s a must. It’s anticipated,” he said.

He lamented that the Hong Kong government’s counter efforts to set the record straight for the overseas audience on its national security safeguards had been made very difficult because “a lot of those international forums” have been “manipulated by the United States and its allies.”

“They’ll make use of every opportunity to smear Hong Kong,” he said. “When you look back, every two or three months, there will be a certain report from the US, from the UK, talking about [how] there’s no freedoms in Hong Kong. And now you can say whatever you want, right?”

He says he can’t comment on proposed measures against ‘fake news’ because it comes under the Home and Youth Affairs Bureau.

On cue, overseas Catholic clergy call for Lai’s release.

Samuel Bickett piece on the HK government’s reaction to the proposed US bill to sanction officials, judges and prosecutors. (Might need a VPN or something to access from Hong Kong.)

Spotted by David Webb – Tung Chee-hwa’s Our Hong Kong Foundation think-tank issues a press release that looks pretty much dictated by Mainland officials, bluntly declaring the group’s loyalty to Beijing. For context, recall that the organization is rooted in a very pre-2019 tycoon/bureaucrat and international orientation, and leading figures were staunch supporters of Carrie Lam – the one thing both protestors and today’s NSL-order establishment can agree about. OHKF chair Bernard Chan said…

…that what [HK and Macau Affairs] Director Xia said had helped us better understand the international situation that Hong Kong finds itself in, particularly to clearly discern the anti-China forces in the US and the West who are sparing no efforts to interfere and disrupt the implementation of “One Country Two Systems”. They do so not because we have done anything wrong but because our country and Hong Kong have done everything right and are developing well. Even if we compromise and back down they will not stop smearing Hong Kong and China. This is why we must stand united, be self-reliant, and fight hard. The difficulties Hong Kong is facing are all transitory. We deeply feel the confidence of [the] Central People’s Government in Hong Kong’s development. 

Not gloating or anything – the Straits Times reports on companies leaving Hong Kong for Singapore, despite the former’s attempts to push itself as a ‘headquarters economy’. Examples include DHL, FedEx, BAT and several banks. While some companies are openly quitting Hong Kong…

…more enterprises have been taking a subtler route, discreetly moving large parts of their staff and operations elsewhere and redefining what a head office means.

While the number of global companies with regional headquarters in Hong Kong has fallen some 8.4 per cent since 2019, the number of staff engaged by such firms has dropped by a whopping 30 per cent in the same period, according to official data.

…“Singapore controls its own destiny (while) Hong Kong’s destiny will be shaped by Beijing, with all the benefits, opportunities and challenges that that implies,” said Mr [think-tank member Curtis] Chin…

I don’t remember possible resurgence of Cantonese separatism being on anyone’s predictions for China in 2023. But after re-enacting a 1920s-era debate about federalism…

…the (Guangzhou Lingnan model UN] group was suspected of carrying out “illegal activities” and training people to debate “sensitive topics.”

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