The status quo wins in Hong Kong

Good take from Bloomberg:

Hong Kong protesters have won a stunning victory. Saturday’s suspension of an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China followed a day of violent clashes on Wednesday that saw the police use tear gas, pepper spray and baton charges. In 2014, the police also used tear gas against demonstrators, prompting an occupation that paralyzed the central business district for more than two months. Yet the government refused to budge, and the protest was eventually cleared by force. It’s worth asking what was different this time.

The most obvious answer is the role of business. Occupy Central had limited support from companies, and what sympathy there was clearly waned as the weeks wore on and the costs to business mounted. By contrast, opposition to the extradition bill has united various strands of Hong Kong society, from civic and trade groups to religious organizations and the legal profession. That’s even more evident after Sunday’s monumental protest, which organizers said drew almost 2 million people.

Even HSBC and Standard Chartered supported the protests by allowing flexible working hours for their staff.

There’s a message here for the protesters – and for Beijing. It’s easier to preserve the status quo than it is to enact change. The common link between 2014 and 2019 is that the status quo has won in both cases. It was also the result in 2003 – probably the closest direct parallel with today – when a proposed security law was shelved after an estimated 500,000 marched in opposition. This means protesters have a better chance of success when fighting to preserve freedoms that already exist than when agitating for change.

Francesco Sisci, characteristically, finds Hong Kong’s lack of faith disturbing:

The core issue is that Hong Kongers don’t trust Beijing’s promises, and this kind of mistrust could take years to rebuild.

Beijing also clearly doesn’t trust Hong Kong. The bill aimed to prevent the territory from becoming a Trojan horse to smuggle revolution and subversion into China. Beijing apparently realized it was not the way and the time to do it. But the mistrust lingers on – and it is mutual.

Why, pray tell, might Hong Kongers fail to trust Beijing? A clue is offered in the second paragraph:

The Hong Kong authorities have already suspended the controversial extradition bill that could have put anybody in the territory in danger of being forcibly brought under the clutches of the Beijing’s opaque judicial system, according to Western lawyers.

I see what you did there. Note the careful choice of words: the worst Sisci can say about China’s judicial system, typified by things like arbitrary, secret detention and torture, is that it is “opaque.” And the suggestion that only “Western lawyers” have concerns about this bill is highly misleading. After all, there is a reason Hong Kong has refused to sign an extradition agreement with mainland China in the 22 years since the territory’s return to the motherland.

Just ask these guys:

Hong Kong lawyers protest

Source: Fox News

Thousands of Hong Kong’s legal professionals, including top lawyers, took to the streets on Thursday in a silent protest against the government’s controversial extradition bill, ramping up pressure on officials to avoid rushing it through the legislature.

The march, which organisers claimed hit a record high of 3,000 people, was the fifth by the legal sector since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. It was also the first time lawyers had spoken out against a government proposal not directly involving judicial proceedings or a constitutional interpretation from Beijing.

“The editorial equivalent of clubbing a baby seal to death”

South China Morning Post

The best part of waking up is hilariously bad writing under your cup

That is how one commenter aptly describes this brutal deconstruction of a column by Tammy Tam, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post. Keep in mind as you read it that the SCMP is the most prestigious English-language newspaper in Asia:

It was while I was in the thick of deciphering the intended meaning of Tam words and rewriting them into coherent utterances that I gained a sense of Tam’s ineptitude as a writer: whatever Tam had applied herself to in the past, toiling at the keyboard – so necessary a part of any writer’s growth – wasn’t one of them. So, just as some people think any able-bodied person can lift her leg and “dance”, Tam probably approached column-writing assuming any literate person can string sentences together and “write.” […]

How did someone with Tam’s shoddy English got herself installed as the chief editor of an English-language paper in a cosmopolitan city? In recent years, Beijing has made many moves to curtail the freedom of expression in Hong Kong; Tam’s appointment can be understood as just one of such measures. And from Beijing’s point of view, the need to have a loyalist helm the SCMP is so pressing that the optics of Tam dancing like Dean’s sister in the paper every week is of negligible importance.

Tam’s column is really, really bad. The critique of it, on the other hand, is a delightful act of editorial cruelty.

While we’re on the topic, here’s China’s state media lecturing Canada about journalistic ethics:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Saturday that he had “asked for and accepted John McCallum’s resignation as Canada’s Ambassador to China,” after McCallum told the Toronto Star Friday that “if (the US) drops the extradition request, that would be great for Canada.” Joanna Chiu, assistant managing editor of StarMetro Vancouver, directly triggered the resignation after making McCallum’s words public. On Twitter, Chiu described how she got the exclusive interview with McCallum and showed off her scoop. But Chiu’s behavior made her look like a paparazzo instead of a serious journalist. It’s not hard to imagine the serious consequences if such important news is reported in a “paparazzi” way. […]

Canada’s current public opinion won’t help the country resolve [Huawei CFO] Meng’s case reasonably. Some Canadian media and reporters, especially Joanna Chiu, have played an irresponsible role. They are pushing the Trudeau administration further into a dilemma, leaving Ottawa no choice but to stand against Beijing. This is not what a professional journalist would do.

The Trudeau government must properly deal with China-Canada relations, or it should be prepared for Beijing’s further retaliation.

Rail of fail

Nearly 420 million people are reported to have used China’s high-speed rail system during the annual Spring Festival holiday that has just wrapped up. Late last year, China opened the Vibrant Express, Hong Kong’s first bullet train, which zips passengers from the Special Administrative Region to Guangzhou in 48 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the US:

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday he’s abandoning a plan to build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a project with an estimated cost that has ballooned to $77 billion.

“Let’s be real,” Newsom said in his first State of the State address. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

The idea long championed by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, is years behind schedule. The latest estimate for completion is 2033.

Newsom, though, said he wants to finish construction that’s already underway on a segment of the high-speed train through California’s Central Valley, arguing it will revitalize the economically depressed region. He’s also replacing Brown’s head of the state board that oversees the project and pledged more accountability for contractors that run over on costs.

One can’t really blame the new governor for this, as the promise of an LA-to-SF bullet train, which California voters approved in 2008, has always been a huge scam:

When California voters approved construction of a bullet train in 2008, they had a legal promise that passengers would be able to speed from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes.

But over the next decade, the state rail authority made a series of political and financial compromises that slowed speeds on long stretches of the track.

The authority says it can still meet its trip time commitments, though not by much.

Computer simulations conducted earlier this year by the authority, obtained by The Times under a public records act request, show the bullet train is three minutes and 10 seconds inside the legal mandate.

Such a tight margin of error has some disputing whether the rail network will regularly hit that two-hour-40 minute time, in part because the assumptions that went into those simulations are highly optimistic and unproven. The premise hinges on trains operating at higher speeds than virtually all the systems in Asia and Europe; human train operators consistently performing with the precision of a computer model; favorable deals on the use of tracks that the state doesn’t even own; and amicable decisions by federal safety regulators.

And let’s not even get started on the New York City subway.

Actually, let’s.

Propaganda bridge?

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

Bridge to nowhere? (Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge)

The new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge in South China is without a doubt a spectacular feat of engineering, construction, and national infrastructure planning. But… is it necessary? Or is this mega-bridge snaking across the mouth of the Pearl River Delta in fact a $20 billion white elephant?

“The delays in the construction of the bridge had given cities in the PRD region time to greatly develop their port capacity, resulting in a situation where many exporters in the delta no longer need to use Hong Kong,” said chief research officer at the Hong Kong-based One Country Two Systems Research Institute, Fang Zhou. “Other PRD bridges will offer lower tariffs than the new bridge, while existing cargo barges to Hong Kong are even cheaper.”

“In terms of time and convenience, the bridge is not so competitive,” Zhou added. […]

The strongest economic benefit of the bridge is that it can enable producers west of the Pearl River move their goods faster to the Hong Kong International Airport. In 2016, the airport has handled around 4.52 million tons of air cargo, making it the top freight transportation airport worldwide for the seventh consecutive year.

Quoting an anonymous engineer:

“The bridge could have an impact on Hong Kongers’ life style when it opens – there could be more people making the decision to find a job, or even live in China when there are more convenient ways to connect the two places.”

That’s an important point, I think. In addition to the propaganda value of binding Hong Kong closer to the mainland, the very existence of the bridge may generate more demand for cross-border travel. It’s easy to underestimate the future traffic that a brand-new, colossal Chinese infrastructure project will generate. A lot of people were skeptical about China’s high-speed rail system back in 2011, but already by 2015 the Beijing-Shanghai line was earning a profit, claiming 130 million riders (one-tenth of China’s population) that year alone.

The blogger Big Lychee is characteristically scornful:

The vast link, with three lanes in each direction, will be the World’s Biggest and Longest Slab of Concrete Over Sea in the History of the Universe. It will also almost certainly be embarrassingly under-used. Of the three cities it connects, only Zhuhai and its hinterland has capacity for extra traffic; Macau’s road network is totally full, as is downtown Hong Kong’s. Apart from buses going back and forth, and presumably some trucks carrying containers full of Hello Kitty phone cases, it is hard to see who will use it, especially given the ‘fast and convenient’ permit system for car owners.

The South China Morning Post laboriously describes the thing as part of the Greater Bay Area Hub-Zone Branding Concept. [Ed: “Greater Bay Area” is China’s scheme to link together 11 cities around the Pearl River Delta into a gigantic metropolitan region with some 67 million people.] But it is actually the other way round – ‘Bay Area’ is an extension of the bridge project, which came first as a symbol if not means of integrating/absorbing Hong Kong into the Mainland.

This will be the second approx-HK$100 billion pointless-infrastructure fiasco inaugurated within a few weeks, following the West Kowloon High-Speed Rail Vibrating Express Line Hub (which at least has some potential use for those of us with an urgent desire to get to Wuhan). It also comes in the midst of the uproar about the Trillion-Dollar Sandpit Lantau Reclamation Wacko Proposal. We are surely hitting Peak Taxpayer-Wealth Destruction Orgy.

Hong Kong Zhuhai Macao Bridge

A damn big bridge

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge

Meanwhile, in Asia, massive infrastructure projects continue to get built:

Chinese President Xi Jinping has officially opened the world’s longest sea crossing bridge, nine years after construction first began.

Including its access roads, the bridge spans 55km (34 miles) and connects Hong Kong to Macau and the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai.

The bridge cost about $20bn (£15.3bn) and should have opened in 2016. […]

Designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, it was built using 400,000 tonnes of steel, enough to build 60 Eiffel Towers.

About 30km of its total length crosses the sea of the Pearl River delta. To allow ships through, a 6.7km section in the middle dips into an undersea tunnel that runs between two artificial islands.

The remaining sections are link roads, viaducts and land tunnels connecting Zhuhai and Hong Kong to the main bridge.

The bridge was first conceived by Hong Kong construction tycoon Gordon Wu in 1983, apparently inspired by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia. Construction started in 2009 and just wrapped up in February. Talk about persistence.

Fun facts:

Special cameras will be on the look-out for drivers on the bridge who show signs of getting sleepy, among other checks – yawn three times and the authorities will be alerted, local media report. […]

And drivers will have to change which side of the road they are on at the crossing. People drive on the left in Hong Kong and Macau but the bridge is Chinese territory and special merger channels have been built to cope with this.

There’s also this ominous bit: “As drivers cross the bridge their heart rate and blood pressure will be monitored. The information will be sent to the bridge’s control centre.” What?

Video from the South China Morning Post:

Hong Kong drinks the Hemlock

The expat blogger who goes by the name Hemlock has penned an excellent but depressing overview of the incremental erosion of Hong Kong’s liberties and autonomy since 2014, the year of the Occupy Central protests. His most astute point, I think, is that “It’s not about Hong Kong,” by which he means that the chief engine of Hong Kong’s “mainlandization” is China’s leader-for-life and his designs for the country and the party. To Beijing, Hong Kong’s celebrated autonomy and unique culture are mere anachronisms that must be destroyed to pave the way for the territory’s full integration into a revitalized China. In another 20 years or so, it’s likely that Hong Kong will be almost indistinguishable from, say, Chongqing.

I noted the 20-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China last year.

China’s jurisidiction now reaches into Hong Kong

Hong Kong West Kowloon terminus

New high-speed rail terminus in West Kowloon

Hong Kong’s absorption into the Motherland continues apace with the furtive launch of a “co-location” agreement inside a new high-speed rail station in West Kowloon, under which mainland China extends its jurisdiction to a one million square foot patch in the heart of the city:

Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials shook hands inside the new station in West Kowloon district on Monday night to mark the new arrangement, which will mean that anyone who commits a crime in the “mainland port area” or onboard trains will be subject to mainland laws, that could include the death penalty for serious crimes.

Big Lychee comments:

It’s not every day you get what might be called a ‘private government ceremony’, but that’s what happened at the One Country Two Systems Sacrificial Midnight Mass deep in the bowels of the West Kowloon Express Rail Station. It was essentially a handover of territory from Hong Kong to the Mainland – an arrangement that would be unconstitutional if the documents that outline the constitution meant anything, but they don’t so there’s no point in worrying about it, and obviously the press aren’t going to be invited. […]

Many Hongkongers look at the high-speed rail link and see little use for it other than a possible one-off jaunt to Wuhan out of curiosity. Its main mission is simply to prove physically that Hong Kong is a part of China, and its secondary purpose is to divert your tax dollars into the construction industry’s pockets. But to the extent it will serve as a transport system, it will be an efficient funnel through which Mainland tourists can be vacuumed up and disgorged into Tsimshatsui and the West Kowloon Culture Hub Zone Project. (Or not efficient, from a baggage point of view.)

Tycoonarchy

Asia’s financial hub is dominated by a handful of hoary plutocrats:

Many of Hong Kong’s richest families are preparing for a generational changing of the guard. Unfortunately for the UK colony turned Chinese “special administrative region”, the sons and daughters who will inherit Hong Kong’s biggest fortunes will continue to dominate an economy defined by rent-seeking monopolies. […]

As the old saying has it, the hardest million dollars you will ever earn is your first million. Hong Kong’s next generation of tycoons never had to earn their first million, let alone their first billion. The city’s property, ports, electricity and supermarket sectors, to name just a few, have been locked up by just eight families.

Hong Kong’s monopoly madness extends far down the economic food chain to its licensing systems for taxis and public minibuses. The number of taxi licences has not increased since 1994, while those for minibuses has been frozen since 1976.

Or, as a remarkable Time Out Hong Kong article from 2012 that was apparently spiked and later reinstated put it:

Here is your typical day in Hong Kong: after buying your groceries from Li Ka-shing, you hop on to one of Cheng Yu-tung’s buses to take you back to your Kwok brothers’ apartment to cook your food with, you guessed it, gas supplied by Lee Shau-kee. […]

Hong Kong was originally founded to serve the interests of business, not of its population. Government ownership of land was aimed at keeping taxes low. The tycoons did not devise this system; they have simply milked it (with a vengeance) while the government has done little to counterbalance their growing domination or address the broader impact on the economy and society. Since the 1997 handover, the government has been noticeably more proactive in serving the tycoons’ interests.

Crime in Hong Kong

This is about as bad as it gets in the Big Lychee:

A suspected Hong Kong triad member accused of making an elderly man drink a can of Coke at knifepoint was arrested in a police raid on Monday.

The 44-year-old man with a pigtail was picked up at a Portland Street guest house in Mong Kok at about 10.30pm and arrested for possessing an offensive weapon.

In the early hours of Tuesday, officers escorted the hooded and handcuffed suspect to his public housing flat in Wong Tai Sin for a house search.

The Hongkonger – believed to be from the Sun Yee On triad – is a part-time bouncer at a Tsim Sha Tsui entertainment venue controlled by a gang leader nicknamed “Sai B”, according to a police source. […]

Police are still looking for the elderly victim who was allegedly stopped on the street by the suspect and ordered at knifepoint to drink a can of Coke at the junction of Arran Street and Canton Road in Mong Kok at about 5pm on Friday.

Ok, I’m being a little facetious. Sometimes the other kind of coke is involved, as in this recent drug bust:

Hong Kong police have broken up a crack cocaine factory at a luxury flat in Yuen Long, seizing the largest haul of raw drug materials in 10 years and arresting four men, one of them Peruvian.

The ingredients – thought to have been flown into the city from Peru – could have made batches of the drug worth HK$59 million, officers said on Sunday. […]

Police said they believed it was the first time a luxury flat had been used as a base for making drugs.

“One of the reasons the syndicate chose to rent rather luxurious premises was that it provided a front to make it less suspicious and more difficult for us to detect [the factory],” Chief Superintendent Ma Ping-yiu, of the Narcotics Bureau, said.

Still, it’s a pretty safe city overall, even when you account for the risk – which, let’s face it, is present in any large metropolis anywhere in the world – that you may occasionally be forced to consume a refreshing but very high-calorie beverage at knifepoint.

Well, that answers that

From Hong Kong rag The Standard:

When news broke that British politician and human rights activist Benedict Rogers was refused entry at Hong Kong International Airport, I suspected our Immigration Department didn’t make the decision, but carried out an order from a higher authority.

It’s now perfectly clear the decision had come down from Beijing. It’s simply stunning.

Rogers was quoted by an internet news website as saying the Chinese embassy back home in London had warned him via a third party, after it learned about his plan to visit the former Crown colony. The third party reportedly relayed the embassy’s concern that Rogers may visit the student leaders serving jail sentences for their leading roles in protests. Later, he was told his SAR trip would impair the Sino-British relationship, so he would be denied entry.

The Foreign Ministry was straightforward about it. Yesterday, the blunt statement by a spokeswoman was basically related to two points: one, Beijing retains the authority to decide who can come to Hong Kong; and two, Rogers was barred because of fears he would intervene with the SAR’s internal affairs and judicial system. In hindsight, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s response prior to the spokeswoman’s statement appeared to be redundant. […]

The issue is that while the decision was made by some policymakers in Beijing, it did more harm than good to Hong Kong, because one of the SAR’s greatest assets is its international reputation, which makes the place distinct from other mainland cities.

The move was like throwing rocks into waters that Hong Kong’s leader is struggling to calm.

I think a little bit of reciprocity is in order. Is there any reason, at this point, not to respond in kind by having the next visitor from the PRC politely turned back at Heathrow customs?