Wednesday 24 June 2015


Last night we were promised aurora. Either they didn't happen, or I missed them as my attention was elsewhere, but something much better happened instead: a 7lb 9oz miracle came into the world. Still trying to come to terms with it, but this is what it's all about, all of it.

Sunday 21 June 2015

"Understanding" Putin

Compare this:

The German result, where the majority of those interviewed said they would not support assisting a NATO ally that was attacked by Russia, is particularly disappointing given that it was commitment of Federal Republic of Germany's (BRD's) NATO allies to defend it against Soviet aggression that ensured its existence during the cold war. 

Whilst German circumspection in those days might have been ascribed to the thought of their own country becoming the battleground for a NATO-Soviet conflict, in the question asked above no such excuse exists. Indeed it is the indomitable Poles who would be the most likely to find their country fought over in a NATO-Russian conflict in the above list but who are still amongst the most loyal to their commitment to their fellow NATO allies. Doubtless the strange sympathy some East Germans have for their former occupiers (totally unlike their immediate neighbours to the east) is also a factor here.

That the countries whose populations are least likely to wish to honour their commitment to their allies if they are attacked by Russia are also those whose leadership in the last decade have enjoyed the most cosy relations with Putin's regime is also something of a recognisable pattern here. From Gerd Schroeder's partying which Putin, to Berlusconi's dalliances with paramours on "Putin's Bed", to Nicholas Sarkozy's arms sales to (and excuse making for) Moscow, Putin's connections with the leadership in Germany, Italy, and France, appears to have legitimised his rule to an extent in the eyes of some in those countries. 

Of course, no leader of the past decade seems to have been totally immune to Putin's charms. Tony Blair is currently in St. Petersburg attending the even that has been dubbed "Davos for Dictators", whilst George Bush famously said that he was "able to get a sense of [Putin's] soul". Fortunately given the mood favouring further conquests of neighbouring country's territory in Russia, aggression against neighbouring states by a dictatorship is still regarded as something of a red line in the UK and US that people are not yet willing to reason away or "understand".

What Beijing still gets out of Hong Kong

I think it's worthwhile in these times when Hong Kong is only ever talked about as a millstone around the neck of the PRC government to reflect on the value that Beijing and the PRC elite as a whole still garner from Hong Kong being (at least in name, if increasingly less so in fact) a semi-autonomous part of the People's Republic of China. Ho-fung Hung over at China File does a good job of running down the concrete benefits of the H.K. S.A.R. that the CCP leadership still enjoys:

The crux of the issue is that Beijing still desperately needs Hong Kong as a front man to do lots of things. It uses Hong-Kong-registered entities to conduct sensitive deals such as the purchase of former Soviet carriers, the digging up of a canal in Nicaragua, and the hiring of a former Blackwater CEO to assemble team of mercenaries to protect China’s investment in Africa. It offers Hong Kong as a safe haven for its notorious friends like Mugabe to store their private wealth (Mugabe’s daughter graduated recently from the City University of Hong Kong, his wife is spotted regularly in the most luxurious shopping malls in Hong Kong, and the family owned a villa in the Jackie Chan Castle in Hong Kong). Hong Kong is also an important channel through which the princelings move their assets to the U.S. (After Bo Xilai’s downfall, it was disclosed that he maintained vast property in Hong Kong and his wife, Gu Kailai, has a Hong Kong identity card). And above all, Beijing needs Hong Kong’s autonomous status for developing a RMB offshore market, internationalizing the currency without liberalizing China’s capital account. All these require foreign countries, most importantly the U.S., to treat Hong Kong as a de facto independent entity and treat the migrants, goods, and capital from Hong Kong as different from those coming from mainland China. 
Whilst the propaganda value of Hong Kong's return to the motherland may well have been long since used up on the mainland, and the essential failure of the "One Country, Two Systems"  in Hong Kong means that the idea of attracting the Taiwanese into Beijing's orbit by offering it is now a dead letter, the value of Hong Kong to the CCP government is not so different to what it was during the 60's when it was the small opening through which China communicated with the outside world. Whilst nowadays the PRC's access to world markets is immeasurably greater than it was in the 1960's, there are still many ways in which it, as a still-developing country, benefits from the existence of a first-world economy over which it has easy access and control.

In last year's white paper on "One Country, Two Systems" the Chinese government explicitly stated that Hong Kong's autonomy came "solely from the authorization by the central leadership" and was subject to the central leadership's authorisation. It then went on to state that Hong Kong would only keep its autonomy so long as it "fully [respected] the socialist system practiced on the mainland". This was a clear threat that the PRC government did not see itself restricted by the Sino-British agreement and could withdraw Hong Kong's autonomy at any time if it felt that it was a threat to the PRC's rule - and given how widely the PRC government defines what threatens it in other areas, this could be at any point.

However, this threat seems pretty empty when you consider just how much especially the PRC elite, with their HK bank accounts, HK property, HK ID cards and so-forth actually benefit from the HK SAR's continued existence.

Whilst the PRC does have a far more pliable entity for these purposes in the form of Macau, Macau never enjoyed the credibility of Hong Kong as a financial centre. Moreover, much of the credibility that Macau did have pre-1999 has been lost amidst scandals surrounding the activities of organisations like Banco Delta Asia. Reducing Hong Kong to the same pliant state that Macau is in would likely lead to a similar loss of credibility, and hence usefulness.

[Picture: The future Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning is towed through the Bosphorous, supposedly on its way to Macau to become a floating casino after being purchased by a Hong Kong company that instead appears to have been a front for the People's Liberation Army. Via Wiki]

Saturday 20 June 2015

Douche, Interrupted

If you haven't already, please go and read this masterful take-down by Alec Ash of yet another China expat memoir expounding the same lazy tropes as every other self-published expat memoir does over at Beijing Cream. I'm not even going to mention the title of the book, since it is somewhat incredibad, but here's the money quote from the review:
For someone who lived in China for sixteen years, it’s hard to believe how little of interest happened to Olden. He tries valiantly to keep things topical – the Belgrade embassy bombing, the Internet boom – but inevitably gets sucked back into the dull minutia of his sexpatscapades. In one meat market, he picks up a girl with the sparkling line “Hey – can I buy you a drink?” Her reply is “OK. First, toilet”, and I know how she feels.
Go read the whole thing.

Thursday 18 June 2015

In Hong Kong: a bizarre end to Beijing's electoral reform program

As has been pretty much inevitable since Beijing's decision to offer what amounts to something only vaguely resembling democratic elections under universal suffrage, opposition parties in Hong Kong voted down Beijing's proposed reform package today. This was not a surprise as the proposal of government selection of 2-3 candidates for Chief Executive (CE) who would then be voted for in a popular election as a replacement for the current system of direct government selection of the CE, which at least allowed opposition parties to nominate a candidate for the post if not win, was almost tailor-made to be rejected by Hong Kong's pro-Democracy camp.

What was not expected was that the majority of votes cast in the Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) would be against Beijing's proposals, with the proposal being defeated by 28 votes to 8. Since the pro-Beijing camp is guaranteed a majority in the LegCo as only half of the LegCo's 70 seats are elected through universal suffrage, with the other half being selected by so-called "functional constituencies" (i.e., selected by businesses, trade unions, universities etc.) over which Beijing has powerful influence, this was a surprise.

The expected result was that Beijing's proposals would just barely miss the 2/3rds majority of all votes (i.e., 47 votes) required for them to pass. If there was any hesitancy about the result, it was the idea  that there might be last-minute defections from the pro-Democracy camp which would allow it to pass. However, rather than voting for the package, the majority of the pro-Beijing legislators staged a walk out supposedly because one of their legislators still hadn't arrived.

The end result is that just enough votes were cast (36 or 37 depending on sources*) for the vote to be quorate (35 votes are required), with the majority of pro-Beijing legislators spared from actually ever having voted for the package. It is hard to think that this wasn't by design, but what purpose it might achieve is a total mystery. Whilst much of the campaigning by the pro-Beijing side in favour of the government's proposals seems to have been half-hearted (giving a thumbs-up from the top of an open-top bus seems to have the limit of the amount of effort a lot of pro-Beijing politicians were willing to make) casting a vote for the package would hardly have been a stretch. Whatever ignominy might be involved in voting for a defeated package, it can hardly be as bad as turning up and then refusing to vote for the package that you supposedly support.

Zooming out, this means that (for the first time ever?) a Beijing-proposed package of policies has been defeated by a vote in an (at least partly) democratically-elected chamber. Even the Article 23 security laws were never actually put to a final vote, and whilst a previously-proposed expansion of the electoral committee was voted down, this wasn't directly proposed and championed by Beijing. Depending on whose polling you believe the result may also reflect the opinion of the majority of Hong Kong people.

The government's reaction so far has also been somewhat odd. We are told that the NPC's "decision" on the Hong Kong voting system "will stand", as if it were an interpretation of the law rather than a policy proposal. How exactly a package of proposed policies can "stand" when it has been defeated is beyond me, and this announcement probably reflects more the CCP's refusal to acknowledge failing in anything, past or present. Perhaps this is to be taken as an indication that the CCP believes that it met its commitment to deliver universal suffrage in the territory by 2017 through its offer of quasi-democratic elections and need do no more?

At the very least it seems that there is unlikely to be any further packages of proposals put forward. The CCP government refused any real negotiation of the initial proposals, denied the existence of any "Plan B" in case of defeat, and despite the claim of some pro-Beijing politicians that Hong Kongers could "pocket" the reform package and demand more in future the government recently declared that regardless of how the vote went that it would be the only offer made.

Some may seek to blame the pro-Democracy camp for blocking what would at least have been elections for the CE post under a system in which all Hong Kong citizens could have voted, but the fact that the package would essentially have blocked opposition politicians from even competing, and that the government refused to set even a vague timetable for further reforms to follow it, left them with no choice in this matter. Hong Kong's current political system allows an opposition to compete, if not win political control, but the CCP's proposal would have denied them even this.

*Global Times counts a single abstention in the total, I think this represents the LegCo President Jasper Tsang. EDIT: Since no "abstain" votes were counted, it seems that GT is just wrong on this. One pro-Beijing legislator (Poon Shiu-ping) apparently confused by the walk-out, apparently just sat there without pressing a button to vote. Amazingly, what Poon Shiu-ping did is still more credible than blindly following the party leaders into a walkout for essentially no reason, since he did at least stay in the chamber. As Big Lychee points out, nothing is more demonstrative of the slavish obedience of the pro-Beijing block.

EDIT2: This seems pretty relevant -

[Picture: Hong Kong's Legislative Council building in Admiralty. Via Wiki]