Virus victims

The Wuhan virus claims an unexpected victim: the UN’s ICAO civil aviation agency. As with the similarly afflicted WHO, China’s government has pushed its own people for appointments to the body and worked to freeze Taiwan out. Now comes the deliciously enjoyable backlash, complete with an apparently panda-hugging director-general whining. Beijing’s obsession with claiming Taiwan alienates not just the island, but the world.

The sickest institution of all, however, must be the Hong Kong government, which has spent the last week prevaricating over whether to require inbound travellers to complete forms, keeping schools closed, whether or how to tighten border controls, and of course whether to encourage the face-masks it also wants to ban.

Carrie Lam’s administration entered this health scare lacking:

  • credibility, owing to past extreme incompetence (extradition bill etc)
  • trust, owing to past prioritization of Beijing’s interests, lying about police violence etc
  • legitimacy, having no mandate from the people but serving as a proxy for the despotic CCP

And we could add:

  • basic respect among the public, after years of arrogance, indifference and disdain
  • moral authority, owing to cronyism and hypocrisy (Justice Secretary’s illegal structures, etc)

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that officials are having a tough time. It might not make sense to close a border that 200,000 or whatever people cross per day. Maybe the empty blocks in Fanling are indeed the optimum location for a quarantine-type facility. But coming from these malevolent, deceitful clowns on puppet strings, why should anyone believe it?

One of the funniest lines I read over the holiday was in an article saying roughly “the virus gives the Hong Kong government an opportunity to show it can do a serious professional job”. It is, of course, giving the administration a golden opportunity to screw up even more than it has already in the last eight months. Sounds hard to achieve, but they will do it.

Note how the administration sprinted away petrified at the first whiff of a Molotov cocktail in the lobby of that building in Fanling. The officials are more scared than the residents.

Last night, thousands of health care workers lined up to join a new union. To the public, the nurses and others are natural heroes of the pro-dem cause, a worthy (and maybe more wholesome) successor to the protest front-liners. In stark contrast to the government, they care. To Beijing’s local paranoid overseers, such organization will look like a challenge, leveraging a health crisis to undermine state power, perhaps funded by the CIA.

To the aesthetes among us, they definitely get Poster of the Week Award…

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The big night!!!

Yes! Tonight’s the Spring Festival Gala! It will be livestreamed on YouTube if you don’t have access to CCTV. (The content is cringe-makingly dire, but the camera scans of the carefully selected, creepily enthusiastic audience is gripping.) Alternatively, you can follow gloriously sarcastic commentary on Twitter from one of the callous foreign beasts stuck with their in-laws in Beijing or somewhere.

Here’s the line-up. This year’s show has a heavy emphasis on the Greater Bay Area, with a lot of performers from ‘Hong Kong, China’, including Jackie Chan singing ‘The Great Wall Will Never Fall’ (around halfway through, part 15(1)). All the usual acrobats, martial arts and kids’ choirs, but none apparently from Wuhan/Hubei. Presumably they’re under quarantine. Or… otherwise indisposed.

The inane CCTV extravaganza – it looks like self-parody but is by all accounts deadly earnest – is a venerable institution, dating back through thousands of years of civilization. The nearest Hong Kong equivalent in terms of crassness is the fake-traditional ‘New Year Carnival’ contrived some years ago as a tourist attraction and studiously ignored by all right-thinking local residents. And tourists. This year’s has been cancelled. Will anyone notice?

Fireworks and other events are also off. First, they scrapped them because of the Dreaded Protester Menace, then because of the Wuhan Coronavirus. I declare the long four-day weekend open with a profound question: For what other reasons might Hong Kong cancel events in the forthcoming Rat Year?

And a selection of things to look at…

The Bar Association’s very detailed, logical and convincing (you can see why the government hates them) proposal for an independent commission of inquiry. (Still no response from officials.)

On the subject of detailed reports, an expert explains all you ever wanted to know about the effects of tear gas with reference to Hong Kong.

Reuters assembles its scoops, investigations, graphics and photographs of the Hong Kong Uprising in one slick presentation.

Atlantic takes a look at Hong Kong’s new pro-dem district councils. (Who would ever have thought that these councils might be interesting as 2020 unfolds? With even the Police Commissioner turning up, teeth grinding, to be questioned, the government obviously realizes it can’t ignore or boycott these constitutionally formed bodies.)

Perhaps the most important article on Hong Kong this week is this HK Free Press piece by a prominent Macau lawyer. Basically, this is Hong Kong’s future

Money and obsessive stability – not liberty, creativity and social dignity – are becoming the ultimate goals in a materialistic and protectionist region that has grown used to easy money and easy ‘success’. Being ‘patriotic’ – that is, loving the Party – is becoming the highest moral attainment. Economic dependence [on] Beijing is now absolute and freedoms are being traded as commodities.

George Magnus on the US-China ‘more a trade agreement than a deal’.

The Spectator on how Xi Jinping’s dictatorship is more tragedy than farce.

The Guardian on China’s probably-doomed attempts to convince (or direct) women to go back to being baby machines.

For something both literary and relaxing – the London Review of Books has an occasional diarist who’s a government official in Beijing and a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Here’s her account of the civil-service entrance exam. Other very readable columns here and ‘how we covered up a local bureaucrat’s death at a banquet’ here.

The SCMP contrasts the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Chinese in Cambodia.

And a Lunar New Year version of ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ – with synthesized pipa.

(OK – don’t say I don’t do anything for you…)

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As if we don’t have enough going on…

A mysterious killer-plague virus spread from wombat-to-human is on the loose out of Wuhan. Hong Kong undergoes a sudden outbreak of face-masks. It will be interesting to see how much Chinese officialdom has learned since SARS. (When they tried to cover it up: a reminder of how the CCP killed nearly 300 Hongkongers in 2003.)

In theory, Mainland bureaucrats today should understand the need for transparency. But the reality is that China now has tighter censorship and greater rule-by-fear under an Emperor-for-Life screwing up one thing after another (swine flu, Hong Kong, Taiwan). For the sake of the personality cult, things cannot get nasty. If the disease does turn out to be seriously deadly and spreads overseas, the regime will need someone to blame or something to distract attention, big time.

Don’t panic! It would be nice to think that Hong Kong too is better prepared than 17 years ago. But the intervening period, we joyously recall, has been all about ‘integration’. We now have a convenient high-speed rail connection to – yippee – Wuhan. We have a government that was last seen trying to convince the courts to let it ban face-masks (for public safety, yes). And then there’s the little matter of credibility. When Tung Chee-hwa spoke, you knew you were going to hear something stupid; with Carrie Lam, you know it’s probably going to be a lie.

Update: not wombats, but bamboo rats.

Update: not bamboo rats, but snakes.

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2020 ‘to be the year it festers’

Just as you thought Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam couldn’t get any more out of touch, she goes off to Davos. Her arrival at the stale annual self-parody bore-fest coincides with a Moody’s kick in the teeth. It says

The downgrade principally reflects Moody’s view that Hong Kong’s Institutions and Governance Strength is lower than previously estimated. The absence of tangible plans to address either the political or economic and social concerns of the Hong Kong population that have come to the fore in the past nine months may reflect weaker inherent institutional capacity than Moody’s had previously assessed. It may also point to more significant constraints on the autonomy of the Special Administrative Region’s (SAR) institutions than previously thought.

Put less diplomatically: it’s totally nuts that, after seven months’ civil unrest, the government of the world’s third-biggest international financial centre is sitting and doing nothing, and it seems obvious that these clowns are not really in charge. Even more nuts than previously thought.

In addition to the inevitable way-too-lengthy-and-whiny press release, we get a statement from Carrie’s deputy Matthew Cheung. He complains that Moody’s is focusing on ‘politics’ (you mean ‘stunningly incompetent leadership’, surely), and cites reduced bus fares for the elderly as proof of ‘the will to govern’.

Back in Davos, stock exchange chair Laura Cha maintains that Beijing is leaving it up to Hong Kong to solve the crisis – in other words, the local administration alone has chosen to do nothing throughout the seven months of crisis. As a former National People’s Congress member, she can hardly tell the truth.

Asked about the evil foreign forces supposedly masterminding Hong Kong’s protests, Carrie hits out at ‘disproportionate reporting’ of the city, which she says suggests ‘perhaps there is something at work’. (She is alluding to a leftist media-watchdog survey showing that Hong Kong protests get more coverage than mayhem in third-world backwaters. You are supposed to blame CIA influence rather than the fact that Haiti is not the world’s third largest financial centre.)

To cheer us all up as we prepare to greet Rat Year, Reuters’ disproportionate reporters on Davos quote an analyst at a (Hong Kong-based) consultancy…

“By summer we shall witness deeper political conflict within society, coinciding with crippling economic actions and feeding of growing disenfranchisement of working and middle classes,” said Phill Hynes, head of political risk and analysis at ISS Risk.

“2020 is not going to be the year Hong Kong heals, it will be the year it festers and becomes inflamed.”

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Don’t be fooled by the dashing looks and charisma

Will Luo Huining, Beijing’s new Party Secretary in Hong Kong, be nice or nasty? No sooner is the question asked than we get the answer.

Writing in People’s Daily – the party organ that makes China Daily look edgy, zippy and fun – Luo warns that ‘national-security loopholes’ in Hong Kong open the door to ‘infiltration and sabotage’; he also mentions ‘stronger enforcement’, plus ‘learn from Macau’ and ‘strengthen patriotic education’.

With zero exposure to the world outside the Mainland, Luo must be encountering some serious culture shock in Hong Kong. Foreigners roam at will, and their evil ideas circulate unrestricted online, in print and in classrooms. The local population seem to regard this as normal, and many have little interest in Mainland ways and are actually hostile to the CCP. Unfathomably, some do not even seem to accept that they are Chinese. People and media are free to criticize the local and central governments. The legal system is rooted in a perverse notion that one of its core functions is to limit government power over the population. This is no way to run a major city. It’s creepy.

Luo’s comments suggest that he intends to ‘do’ Article 23 or something like it, to clamp down on opposition activity and opinions through broader laws that weaken individual rights, and by introducing more politicized and compliant policing, prosecutions and judicial systems. Plus things like brainwashing kids in schools.

As the reports mention, however, these comments largely echo what Xi Jinping and other senior leaders have been saying for some time. The system now requires total loyalty to Xi, so Luo wouldn’t say anything else even if he had a mind of his own. Essentially, the new Liaison Office director will be channeling the Chairman-for-life himself.

Luo wouldn’t have climbed this far up the ladder without certain other qualities, like cunning and ruthlessness. He won’t personally seem very involved – it will be arms-length thuggishness. Local minions will have to do the dirty work, preferably without looking as wretchedly abysmal as Carrie Lam.

Obviously, the answer to the question was never going to be ‘nice’. The best way of putting it is ‘nasty with zombie-Leninist characteristics’.

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Cops battle to keep Hong Kong from sliding into calm

Yesterday’s gathering in Central was – by the standards of ‘approved anti-communist rallies’ these days – neither especially huge in size, nor threatening to civilization. But the Hong Kong Police managed to contrive 10 times more mayhem than would have been the case had they stayed away.

This thread asks how and why the police authorize assemblies and then swiftly declare them illegal. It is clearly a pretext to tear-gas and arrest as many people as possible. But what are they expecting to achieve from that? Is it simply to gain approval from Beijing’s officials who demand resolute merciless tough crushing? Or does someone in the local command structure really believe this will convince the public to stay at home? (And if the latter, what will that achieve if it ever works?)

Suggested question for a reporter at the next police press conference: “You have been tear-gassing, pepper-spraying, clubbing, arresting for seven months now – what are you trying to accomplish?”

Suggested answer from a government spokesman: “We have also sent SWAT teams to peel Post-It notes from walls, surrounded university campuses with razor wire, turned pedestrian footbridges into cages, made menacing comments to school principals, tried to ban face-masks, and given a guy a HK$1.7mn six-month contract to run a Dialogue Office. In the circumstances, we feel the police tactics are quite sensible.”

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No credibility, no worries

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam does not have a lot of credibility to lose, so blankly denying police brutality in the Legislative Council probably doesn’t make much difference to her as a political liability. Her claim that out-of-control cops are not real but a smear campaign is echoed by the Police Commissioner and in a government video relaying ‘the facts’ – that the protesters are violent barbarians and the police are using minimum force. (Interesting that Brand Hong Kong is being ordered to help promote it. The film is a classic example of a PR effort designed to please the boss rather than convince the wider audience for which it is intended.)

The Independent (hmmm) Police Complaints Council is delaying its first report on early clashes in the protests because of a judicial review. We will have to wait to see how far the body will stick to the line that all the police violence you’ve seen reported didn’t happen.

To put all this in context, the Lowy Institute interprets the message from Beijing contained in the appointment of Luo Huining as director of the Liaison Office. The posting…

is about stability and steadiness, not negotiation or rapprochement … the party is not about to consider reshaping to fit Hong Kong’s demands … the moves from Beijing are intended to highlight the fact that nothing will change in Hong Kong…

Perhaps not so much that ‘nothing will change’, as the only changes will be towards greater Mainlandization.

One curious sight in LegCo yesterday was one or two pro-Beijing lawmakers showing slight signs of impatience with Carrie. Even they must realize the CE and her fantasy-land statements do not augur well at the elections later in the year.

I declare the weekend open with the usual…

How banning the Human Rights Watch boss from Hong Kong breaks the Basic Law. Or at least reminds us that the Basic Law means whatever the CCP finds expedient.

Watercolours by Kin Fan Fung, plus other protest art.

Atlantic does the Taiwan election

[Xi] saw that Tsai was politically vulnerable and sought to increase pressure, but it had the opposite effect. Xi has decades of experience in dealing with Taiwan and sees himself as the expert in chief. Now … his judgment has been revealed to be fallible…

Better late than never, and like a growing number of commentators, Foreign Policy is asking whether we should see Taiwan as (shock!) a normal country

Yet little by little, as with its internet domain, Taiwan is giving up any pretense of being Chinese. The vestigial mainland seats were removed from its legislature in 1991. Its maps and tourism posters show only the island of Taiwan … Slowly but inexorably, Taiwan is going its own way.

The SCMP reports that over on the Mainland, the middle class are hurting. These are the well-off minority in the big cities whose ability to buy fancy schooling for kids and other luxuries rests on ever-rising valuations of all their empty apartments. Cue a slowing economy (and long-term demographics) and there’s trouble coming.

Freedom House on the CCP’s growing media influence worldwide. And Lowy again on whether CGTN (CCTV’s international arm) can be effective in spreading CCP propaganda – interesting stuff on corporate culture, use of foreign staff, etc.

The CCP’s Five-Year Plan for Islam, translated into English. And they haven’t forgotten the Tibetans either.

If you have lots of empty red packets lying around, and no-one to give laisee to after next weekend – street-cleaner appreciation.

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How to piss everyone off with HK$10 billion

So it seems the concessionary fares for the over-65s – soon to be over-60s – apply on ferry routes. Nice. Also, expensive. (And it seems the perk encourages laziness.)

The government denies that its sudden announcement of tons of cash for unwashed rabble grassroots (and rich oldies who visit the islands) was aimed at somehow pacifying Hong Kong’s ongoing uprising. This is believable in that such handouts clearly don’t address the administration’s core legitimacy problem. But once you consider that our leaders are too stupid to realize that, the denial rings hollow. They, or their Beijing minders, really think this will make people happier again.

What’s more interesting is that officials have – presumably under pressure from Beijing – had to suppress their instinctive urges to treat the poor with contempt and to kowtow to the tycoons. Maybe not a lot, but enough to be noticeable.

One of the government’s proposals is to force employers of (typically) unskilled workers to give their employees 17 paid holidays a year rather than just the 12 statutory ones (once known as ‘factory holidays’). The plan is to do this gradually (one extra day per year until 2026?), but the bosses are very, very grumpy. Having to pay people to stay at home will inflict mental agony on them.

Could this mean the bureaucrats aren’t their buddies anymore? Businessmen and fiscal conservatives in general are also alarmed by the spending implications of all these extra handouts – a HK$10 billion boost in annual recurrent expenditure, apparently on a whim. Over the last couple of decades, the government has typically recorded annual budget surpluses well in excess of this. But to the traditionalists, the accumulation of reserves is minimally prudent and needed for a ‘rainy day’ (otherwise known as civil service pay hikes and pensions, plus major white-elephant infrastructure projects).

The shoe-shiners have had years to suggest to officials that Hong Kong could, perhaps, be more stable in the long run if it had a more representative political structure. But their snouts were buried too deep in the trough. Now they are saying things like ‘Carrie Lam, stop inflicting new harm on Hong Kong’. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people.

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Off today!

Checking bus schedules to plan ultra-long HK$2 trips when I hit 60…

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We mean ‘On Valium’

Brand Hong Kong (taxpayer-funded exponent of etiquette to visiting barbarians) declares that ‘Hong Kong is On’ and launches its new hit video, explaining that…

After a difficult time last year, #HongKong is fully switched-on to the opportunities ahead as a free, open and welcoming society … with a raft of freedoms intact.

(Why does ‘raft’ make me think of ‘sinking ship’? Anyway, do be sure to scroll down the link for a multitude of delightful comments from Hong Kong taxpayers expressing fulsome and warm appreciation of the PR office’s creative efforts.)

With exquisite timing, Hong Kong Immigration turn away the head of Human Rights Watch at the airport. Beijing promptly declares that it makes the decisions on these things. (Here is a quick and incomplete list of other people denied entry.)

Wait! There’s more! One of the SCMP’s once miss-able but recently amusingly irritable columnists suggests that we trash the ‘Asia’s World City’ branding as redundant. His suggested alternative approach would leverage the ‘energetic, chanting crowd’ as a symbol. Which sounds clever. Then we recall that the government is determined to keep the populace ‘energetic and chanting’ by trying to push through the National Anthem (Compulsory Standing-Up in Adoration) Ordinance. So maybe not.

Readers’ Poll

The media need to decide on a pithy description for Luo Huining, the new director of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Should it be:

A) ‘a capable administrator

B) ‘a trouble shooter’

C) ‘a veteran troubleshooter’ with yes really uncanny parallels to Chris Patten

D) ‘a knuckle dragger

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