Foreign customs

What have Hong Kong Customs been doing over the last couple of years of zero inbound travel, with hardly any arriving passengers with bags to check? Seems they’ve been training to switch completely to ‘Chinese-style’ (ie Prussian) marching at parades…

…in order to express [the department’s] sense of belonging to and patriotic feelings for the country.

The disciplined service said the People’s Liberation Army-style of drills will make performances more attractive, and help officers better integrate with the governance system of the country and enrich the practice of One country, Two systems.

‘Goose-stepping is more attractive than regular plain marching’ and ‘marching like John Cleese helps you integrate with the governance system of the country’. Discuss.

If you think learning to goose-step is a waste of taxpayers’ money – the ICAC is going to ‘work hard’ to bring exiled activist Ted Hui back to Hong Kong to prosecute him for encouraging people not to vote in the last legislative election. They have also been checking online to see if anyone is urging a boycott of the John Lee CE ‘election’, but haven’t found any cases (perhaps because it’s not really an election in the first place). Remember when these guys fought corruption?

Interesting little thread from a former District Council member on the long-awaited opening of the Shatin-Central MTR Link…

…a textbook case of failure of #HongKong public administration. Intertia of the gov, wrong priorities, weak oversight and loose corporate memory.

Apparently, the UK House of Lords has an annual evidence session with the President and VP of the UK Supreme Court, Lords Reed and Hodge. In the latest one, a month ago, the two judges answered questions about why they resigned from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (scroll down to Q23). As you would expect, their comments are infuriatingly measured.

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Political trials drag on, beaches reopen

Fernando Cheung reportedly leaves for Canada. In other NatSec news, dragged-out persecutions of Jimmy Lai, activists Andy Li and Chan Tsz-wah and Stand News editor Patrick Lam continue (here, here and here), and Hong Kong falls to 148th place in global press freedom. (Lai’s really big trial starts later this year.) But we will be allowed to go to beaches again!

Some 7,000 cops will be on duty to make sure the John Lee ‘election’ goes smoothly. (The SCMP story mostly reports that Lee – presumably a CCP loyalist of some sort – has ‘revealed’ that he is a Catholic. As if this whole thing isn’t sufficiently discombobulating already.)

For a full picture of the elaborate charade that is the quasi-election, check out the website (warning: only for the extremely bored).

A short thread makes the point that China’s extensive (big-manpower, big-budgets) zero-Covid social-control apparatus, now established, will be difficult to dismantle. At best, it will join character-simplification, cloud-seeding and (until recently) one-child enforcement as a bureaucracy that won’t go away. At worst, it will turn into a nationwide panopticon.

Speaking of which, LeaveHomeSafe has facial detection capacity?

One of the java files, originally known as “FaceDetectorUtils.java” but renamed “a.java” in LeaveHomeSafe, may be used to detect the positions of a person’s mouth, nose tip, left and right cheeks, eyes, ears and earlobes. It is also able to detect a subject’s head tilt in degrees and calculate the probability that they are smiling or has each eye open.

They probably won’t be smiling.

Some mid-week links…

CNN on the Mainland officials’ fondness for spraying antiseptic all over the place…

Seemingly any outdoor area is at risk of being targeted by workers wielding leaf-blower-style disinfectant machines, as China’s rigorous “zero-Covid” policy drives an obsession with sanitizing everything.

Reuters on Russia’s lessons for China

“Many Chinese experts are monitoring this war as if they are imagining how this would unfold if it happened between China and the West,” said Beijing-based security scholar Zhao Tong of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

…”The Chinese can’t have any illusions now that they will be welcomed as liberators in Taiwan and given supplies and assistance”…

More signs China is overtaking the US: story on how Houston is subsiding says Tianjin is the world’s fastest-sinking city at 5.2 cm a year.

Can Kung Fu Hustle 2 possibly be as good as the first one from 15 years ago? (No. Probably.)

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A non-platform for a non-election

Presumptive (HK English media’s fave new word) Chief Executive John Lee releases his ‘manifesto’. Reuters report here. Even by the standards of Hong Kong’s past ritualistic ‘CE campaign’ documents, it is thin, full of platitudes and devoid of specifics.

One slightly noteworthy theme does emerge in the first third or so of the platform. It concerns proposals for district and citywide emergency response capacity to enable volunteers to help out at times of crisis, and vague but apparently parallel measures to enable the community to contribute ideas and feedback into government decision-making. This sounds – possibly – like an acknowledgement that the NatSec regime has depleted Hong Kong’s civil society by dismantling pan-dem District Council and other activists’ neighbourhood networks. Or that the NatSec regime sees a need to displace independent charities still functioning. (For example, we might well have seen higher elderly and overall vaccination rates if local pan-dem politicians’ ward offices were still operating.)

Otherwise, Lee promises to solve housing problems and boost Hong Kong’s competitiveness. just as every CE ‘candidate’ has in their own hastily patched-together platforms – and of course none of them have delivered. Can an ex-cop accomplish serious reforms in these areas? His non-answers to softball questions in the televised ‘Q&A’ session suggest he has little or no familiarity with social and economic issues.

If Beijing had wanted the new CE to have an exciting and detailed platform, it would have happened. John Lee looks to have been hand-picked to do whatever they tell him, and to waffle inanities until they’ve worked out what that will be. This could leave him vulnerable to bad advice from vested interests lurking among the shoe-shiners – hence maybe the weird thing on Saturday about keeping property prices stable in order to boost younger people’s home-purchasing power.

(It should be obvious by now that someone somewhere does not want Hong Kong to have affordable housing, instead prioritizing the accumulation of massive government reserves through sales of artificially scarce land. For a clue, remember that Beijing insisted on limiting land sales back before the 1997 handover. Where competitiveness is concerned, bear in mind that Hong Kong’s only comparative advantages since the 1840s are due to the city being different from – and not being run by – the Mainland.)

Post-weekend reading…

The sentencing of Lui Sai-yu, in which a NatSec judge delivers a more-severe decision at the behest of prosecutors in an ‘inciting secession’ charge. A learned discussion.

Forbes’ William Pesek asks whether China has been ‘juicing’ its GDP growth numbers. (Meeting economic growth targets that are maybe double the underlying real rate is like achieving zero-Covid – officials must appear to do it.)

A major dose of personality cult from state media in the run-up to the CCP’s 20th Party Congress later this year (probably November).

Locked-down students in Guangdong singing Beyond.

Interesting article on how Beijing is having a hard time adapting to a resurgent Western alliance apparent following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine…

…China arguably senses it is under attack politically, economically, ideologically, and militarily by the US-led West. And, like any living being – from a tiny organism to a titan organization – China reacts in three distinct ways to the threat: freeze, flight, and fight…

One US official was quoted as saying that the US intends to “make Beijing feel pain over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” an idea elaborated by Pottinger: “the way to break the dictator-to-dictator entente of Putin and Xi is to lash them ever tighter together, so they have to live like Siamese twins with each other’s mistakes and miscalculations, and then they’ll be begging for surgery to freaking rip them apart.”

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All the votes for John Lee go in this pile, and, er…

Today’s obscure charges and other lawfare… Labour rights activist Lee Cheuk-yan is convicted of breaking (wait for it) aviation regulations. For flying a balloon. Pro-dem media tycoon Jimmy Lai pleads not guilty to a desperate-sounding office lease transgression. And pan-dem politicians who took part in a primary election have their never-ending case adjourned to June.

The BBC looks at the plight of the last group undergoing detention without trial…

Critics say this pre-trial detention undermines the idea of innocence until proven guilty – and is designed to break the will of those accused.

…”They put them in prison and don’t try them with anything, and just wait and wait and wait – until they plead guilty,” 

Your tax dollars at work: the government is training civil servants to carry ballot boxes and count ballots.

Sing Tao reports that, as a hip young groovy ‘lady killer’ teenager, John Lee was (allegedly) into soft-rock band Bread. Two possible explanations: 1) he genuinely was a fan of the group that produced sickly ballads like If and Baby I’m a Want You; or (far far worse) b) he and his PR advisors think that claiming to have been will make him look cool and in touch with the kids. By coincidence, Bread are today’s guest stars (click on a pic).

Some quick weekend reading…

Five BNO refugees tell their stories.

A German businessman and boss of a European chamber gets quite undiplomatic about the Chinese government’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy…

For the past two years, the party leadership and government have spun the narrative that China has handled the pandemic much better than the decadent West. Now this narrative is blowing up in their faces. 

…The authorities have spent a year bad-mouthing Western mRNA vaccines, with the result that people in China don’t trust the vaccination. That’s the problem: The political leadership can’t admit, so close to the Party Congress, that there is another way in dealing with Covid. 

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Everyone self-censors

Atlantic on the Foreign Correspondents Club’s dropping of the Human Rights Press Awards…

The FCC’s moves are emblematic of the broader tension that now exists across Hong Kong, where Beijing has imposed a new political order. Red lines are deliberately left blurry, including the definition of foreign collusion and what, exactly, constitutes subversion. So institutions across the city have had to play guessing games, stabbing around in relative darkness, figuring out for themselves what their risk appetite is, ultimately exposing how willing some of them are to collaborate in actions that undermine democracy.

You could substitute the phrase ‘to collaborate in actions that undermine democracy’ with ‘to avoid being sent to jail on absurd trumped-up charges’. The FCC’s statement on suspending the awards was pathetic, omitting any real mention of either Stand News or the threat of sedition/collusion-with-foreign-powers charges. But no-one today would seriously consider martyring themselves, including over awards that – however deserved – get little attention outside the world of journalism. The FCC self-censors (think of all the speakers not invited over the last couple of years) for the same depressing reason everyone self-censors. You’re up against a massive Leninist dictatorship here. Chances are, the FCC will not even exist this time next year.

For anyone tempted to push against the CCP’s blurry red lines (or if you thought you had it bad because ParkNShop ran out of pork chops), read Samuel Bickett on his time behind bars in Hong Kong during prisons’ Covid lockdown…

Far more harm was done to prisoners’ health and welfare by stripping away our already-limited rights and privileges than any harm caused by the virus. But that was irrelevant: all that mattered to CSD, and to the Hong Kong Government, was pandemic prevention. The Central Government had ordered “Zero-Covid” to be Hong Kong’s priority, and prisoner welfare wasn’t going to get in the way of that.

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Even a judge raises eyebrow at detention without trial

Former lawmaker Gary Fan – one of dozens of pro-democrats jailed in February 2021 without bail to await trial for participating in the mid-2020 primary election. Later in 2021, he tried to get bail, but

High Court judge Esther Toh upheld her decision to deny bail to Fan arguing that he was a “determined and resolute man” who called for all parties to act together in opposing the government.

He recently tried again, his submission stating that…

(1)  The health conditions of the Applicant’s parents and sister have deteriorated;

(2)  the procedural development in WKCC 813/2021 suggested that there will be a long delay before trial, and Ms Ng submitted that the earliest realistic trial date will be somewhere in mid-2023;

(3)  the Applicant has already severed all political affiliations and resigned from all public offices.  So objectively his political life has ended. 

Therefore, his main priority now is his family, and therefore, the possibility he will continue to commit acts endangering national security is virtually non-existent.

What does Judge Toh decide this time? What do you think? However, she goes to some lengths to urge prosecutors to speed up the trials. (HKFP story.)

Samuel Bickett on the use of pre-trial detention in these cases.

An HKFP op-ed looks at another judge’s questionable measures to ensure order in court.

Other stuff…

Further to the Foreign Correspondents Club’s self-censorship, the Guardian on Hong Kong Watch’s report on press freedom in Hong Kong. 

Stating the obvious, but nonetheless interesting to hear it straight… 

Police officers outshone bureaucrats and won Beijing’s trust to take on Hong Kong’s top jobs after they showcased their qualities and overcame difficult circumstances during the social unrest of 2019, according to the force’s outgoing deputy chief.

As well as rights and freedoms, things aren’t looking good for the old bureaucrat-tycoon crony-nexus. 

If you think Hong Kong shoe-shining isn’t sufficiently odious, try the Mainland type

Eager not to be left behind in the race to bend the knee before Xi, top leaders in Guangdong province sent strong signals of obedience during a meeting [in which] governor Wang Weizhong (王伟中) was quoted as using the phrase “Ever grateful to the general secretary” (始终感恩感怀总书记) no less than 10 times in his address.

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What’s the point of Hong Kong civil society existing?

What’s happening while Hong Kong awaits new CE John Lee and his priority of passing Article 23 local National Security laws?

Activist Benny Tai pleads guilty to ‘illegal election spending’ – placing ads advising the public on tactical voting to boost pro-dem candidates’ chances in 2016. Pleading not guilty (the ads were surely just an expression of opinion) would have run the risk of a much harsher sentence. He is already in jail awaiting prosecution for helping organize a primary election.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association is considering disbandment. Not disbanding exposes the group’s leaders and members to risk of arrest on ‘national security’ or ‘sedition’ charges, with no hope of bail.

The deputy head of the widely respected Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute suddenly leaves the city. He suggests he is subject to intimidation here.

Another sudden departure as pro-Beijing media hound human rights lawyer Michael Vidler at the airport as he leaves Hong Kong just days after announcing closure of his law firm. As happened to former Bar Association head Paul Harris a couple of months back.

As a reminder of what happens when you courageously stand fast, former Tiananmen vigil organizers Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho and Chow Hang-tung (all now in jail) appear in court in connection with ‘incitement to subversion’ charges – but restrictions prevent the media from reporting any details.

All of which sets the scene for the Foreign Correspondents Club’s cancellation of its annual Human Rights Press Awards for fear of unknowable repercussions from the NatSec authorities. Nominations included work by Stand News, which was subject to a raid, arrests for ‘sedition’ and shutdown last December. 

Many prominent and principled journalists resign from the Club’s Press Freedom Committee in protest, and onlookers ask what’s the point of the FCC still existing? If it comes to that, what is/would be the point of the HKJA, HKPORI, Vidler and Co Solicitors or Stand News existing?

This is Hong Kong freedom of expression in microcosm: self-censor or potentially suffer.

This is not about the FCC trying to keep its nice club house (it will no doubt be ejected when the government lease comes up at the end of the year); it’s a case of ‘shut up or be shut up’. It sounds easy to say ‘take a stand’, but perhaps it’s not so simple if you’re an individual likely to be arrested for ‘collusion with foreign forces’ or ‘sedition’ and denied bail for a year before being sent before a specially picked judge, where only an idiot would plead ‘not guilty’, and the decent defence lawyers have left town.

(Maybe just routine – but meanwhile, HK University is accepting applications for FCC President Keith Richburg’s media-studies job.)

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HK awaits manifesto with bated breath

Hong Kong’s incoming Chief Executive John Lee’s ‘election’ platform will be ready within a  week. Odd that no-one had already bothered to cut and paste something from his predecessors’ pseudo-manifestos – but it’s always very much an afterthought, for show. 

(The only seriously drafted policy plans were those of CY Leung, who mysteriously got on the ballot when Beijing’s Jiang-era leadership prepared to appoint tycoon Henry Tang as a Tung Chee-hwa Mk II. It actually contained some well thought-out initiatives on welfare and other issues. Then Xi Jinping emerged as China’s new leader, Tang’s illegal basement conveniently came to light, and CY got the job at the last minute – and promptly embarked on a different hyper-patriotic agenda.)

A fawning SCMP op-ed lists all the things Lee should do as CE: reopen the city post-Covid, tackle housing, heal social divisions, etc. It duly notes that Lee has no experience in economics. Indeed, his only skill-set is raiding, arresting and jailing opponents and critics. If Beijing wanted someone with different expertise, it could have found such a person. If Beijing had wanted a CE to fix land/housing, it could have told Tung, Tsang, Leung or Lam to do so anytime over the last 25 years. Lee is not here to return Hong Kong to its old free and pluralist ways.

For an idea of Lee’s mission, consider the story of the viral video Voices of April

“It’s just a record of actual events, what good does it do to censor it? Originally, we were just sad, not angry. Now it’s a revolt of the people. A cover-up only makes matters worse.”

In their desperation, censors ended up declaring the video a ‘color revolution’.

(Among the weirder vids from the Mainland – workers in hazmat suits bludgeoning bundles of green onion to death. Reportedly in Shanghai as a pretext to toss the veg for some reason.)

Would you be surprised to learn that China’s Covid ‘tsar’ has ties to the company making the quack voodoo medicine the government sent us all? Or would you be more surprised to learn that he hadn’t?

HKFP op-ed on the absurd wastefulness of the quasi-election.

My first, and probably last, successful stab at wildlife photography: a moth near Tai Tam Bay.

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Remember – every accusation is a confession

Major rants beckon. Beijing and supporters get exceptionally worked up over Google’s closure of John Lee’s YouTube channel, with the Foreign Affairs Ministry saying the US is undermining…

…freedom of expression, freedom of information dissemination and the fairness and impartiality of the internet [and] “trying every trick in the book to intervene in Hong Kong affairs with the evil motive of obstructing the chief executive election…”

A Hong Kong government statement makes the same point, albeit at greater length.

Almost as if YouTube were available in the Mainland, and the ‘election’ were, well, an actual election open to manipulation by outside forces. Not sure where the ‘accusation is a confession’ quote comes from, but it could be the motto of China’s official spokesmen.

(More contrived rage and fury courtesy of a Standard editorial. The SCMP in its parallel universe worries that the ban will impact Lee’s ‘campaign’ fundraising efforts.)

And a group of academics nominate political prisoners Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan, Joshua Wong, Gwyneth Chow and Chow Hang-tung for the Nobel Peace Prize. Expect an outburst of official mouth-frothing any minute. Watch out for references to ‘blasphemy’ against the ‘sacred’ Nobel Prize institution, or similar verbal pyrotechnics that draw global attention to the very things Beijing wants to downplay.

Some weekend links…

A qualitative study on why Hong Kong old folks won’t get vaccinated. Includes the phrase ‘peripheral information processing’, which I had to look up. It means being persuaded by the style rather than content of a message. You’re welcome!

ZolimaCityMag on the Chi Ma Wan Trail, which features – among other attractions – a fascinating abandoned prison with an old canteen you can peer into. One of the hike’s big draws is that not many people go on it – so don’t feel you have to check it out.

AP casts a skeptical eye on Shanghai’s low Covid death figures.

Taiwan’s National Defense Handbook in English.

War on the Rocks presents eight ways Taiwan can make itself impregnable against a Chinese invasion.

Foreign Policy on how China could continue expanding its military even as its economy slows…

…military power is often a lagging indicator of a country’s trajectory: It takes time to turn money into military muscle, and massive buildups often persist even after a country’s economic fortunes begin to flag … The China of the 2020s will be a country whose coercive capabilities are more intimidating than ever as its economic dynamism fades. That could be the worst possible combination for the world.

ScaryMommy on the ‘no shoes indoors’ debate. A bit like the ‘face masks during Covid’ hoohah, but with more racial undertones.

Also about footwear, sort of… A fairly long academic read on Sugarcane Cultivation and the Demise of Foot-Binding in Taiwan in the early 20th century. Touches on Japanese colonial rule, industrial rail lines and the costs/benefits for women of being able to walk properly. (Either you’re into this sort of thing or you’re not.)

On more distant matters, a 1968 UK TV documentary featuring liberal anglo white women in apartheid South Africa, like Nadine Gordimer and Helen Suzman – plus some very laid-back businessmen.

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What to call an election that’s not an election?

Do you really want to go there, Erick? Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Tsang says last December’s 30% turnout in the patriots-only legislative elections was not low, compared with New York state and French regional polls. As for the more obvious comparison – the over-70% turnout and eradication of pro-Beijing candidates in district elections in 2019 – he opines…

“When we look at the so-called higher voter turnout previously, we shouldn’t forget that it was when society was the most divided and experiencing its darkest time with violence raging across the city, and many anti-China disruptors had attempted to enter the legislature, or even the establishment.”

Is a (‘so-called’) high turnout the cause or effect of a ‘darkest time’? 

‘Fast Beat’ Tam Tak-chi gets 40 months in jail for ‘seditious words’. As with prosecuting suggestions of election boycotts, this is plain criminalization of opinion. John Lee meanwhile complains that YouTube has taken down his channel. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow waffles

“The move involves foreign forces blatantly interfering with Hong Kong’s election. I am strongly condemning the social media platform which completely turned a blind eye to the importance of a fair and just election.”

Which brings us to the HKFP Editor-in-Chief on how impartial news media should describe the quasi-election.

If it is editorializing to describe the process as a sham, isn’t it equally editorializing to adopt the government’s phraseology, at least without quote marks? But isn’t it in fact entirely objective and accurate to call the process a sham? The evidence being a century of Leninist practice: the CCP core by definition does not allow other people, even a ‘small circle’, to choose senior state office-holders; thus a process like John Lee’s appointment cannot logically be a genuine election – even if there were more than one ‘candidate’.

I think if I were trying to have journalistic integrity (God forbid) and if brevity were not an issue, I would take the same approach as the European Union’s tedious authentic foodstuffs labeling requirements and call this an ‘imitation election-type exercise that contains no democratic ingredients’.

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