Blog

Subject: First Promise Kept

Government House

Upper Albert Rd

Hong Kong

 

Dear Clement,

What a super start my one-and-only has got off to! Not only has she sorted out the logistical issues with toilet roll supplies, but she’s also dealt with those awful scruffs infesting Lego. Or LegCo. I can never remember.

Just in case you don’t remember, in 2014 the government rightly decided that civic square, outside the legislature, which was put there in order that civilians could applaud the government’s bold initiatives in – well, I’m not quite sure as I wasn’t here, but there must have been something – so was not to be abused to express civil discontent. A rabble of malcontents, pseudo-intellectuals and human-rights types thought otherwise, and were duly arrested and convicted but with a mere slap on the wrist as punishment.

They learnt their lesson this week. No mere slap on the wrist, but a good purgative stretch in prison. You’d think it would be as simple as that, but the bleeding hearts are at it, whinging about the legal technicalities of punishing people twice for the same crime. Well, I’ve always believed in giving people a second chance. The first judge, who handed down those ludicrously lenient sentences the first time round, got it so wrong. Of course the judiciary should be allowed a second chance to allot the correct sentences. And a third, a fourth. Until the miscreants have been appropriately hung, drawn, quartered and their heads put on stakes.

While my one-and-only is a little disappointed that even the second judge stopped short of those richly deserved capital sentences, she can at least face her electorate with pride and say “Promise kept”. She did, after all, promise to heal the divisions in society. As you know, set theory isn’t my thing but if one has a barrel containing both rotten apples (set A) and good eggs (set E), the way to create a single, undivided set is not to mix them all up, which would create the abomination of a rotten egg omelette, but to remove set A leaving only set E. This, she has now done with singular, mathematical precision.

Others whine that the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP – or the C2P (pronounced C-squared-P of course) as I prefer to think of them – is behind this. What nonsense. She’s never taken so much as a word of advice from me, and I’m married to her. In any case, my one-and-only can barely understand Mandarin well enough to mind her Ps and Qs, let alone be fluent enough to take an order.

But 2014 was only the start of the divisions. Last year, some of these miscreants’ associates were elected to the legislature. Well, you can imagine where that lead. I mean, turning up to make the laws of the land wearing clothes that most of my students would be ashamed to be seen in –  ill-fitting T-shirts, jeans, un-combed hair and the like – it wouldn’t have been allowed in my undergraduate years in Cambridge, I can tell you. Not that plaited ties and tweed jackets were de rigeur, but a certain sense of sartorial appropriateness was called for. A straw boater while punting on the Cam, a dinner jacket in the college refectory, that kind of thing. Not undergarments, working man’s trousers and sporting footwear while debating matters of state.

But their arrogance was such that they flouted the laws they were elected to uphold, and have been ejected to much approbation. Of course, the mob from whom they drew their support have harped on about it, but one cannot have twenty-year-olds making law. Goodness knows, they may even have brought new ideas.

Ah, breakfast has arrived, and I see Thomas the butler has arrived with my preprandial rum. Must go,

Yours,

兆波

Vladimir Trump and Donald Putin

Part of me wishes the whole Russia thing would just go away. Yes, Russia interfered. Yes, Trump and his hideous brood, even if they weren’t active in soliciting Russian help, did nothing to stop Russia’s interference by, for example, making it public that Russia had offered help. And nobody cares. Trump’s supporters don’t care. The Democrats are nowhere to be seen. If they’re giving Trump and the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves, they should be tugging the other end of the rope. But all we have is their silence and that silence, right now, looks very much like not caring. If they don’t care, why should we?

Part of me also wonders if the whole Russia thing is a useful distraction from the real damage that the Republicans are doing. The Muslim ban has distracted from zillions of administrative hurdles that have been placed in the path of Muslims (and everyone else – my nephew is struggling to visit as a student) who apply for visas. The Keystone XL authorization, which did nothing more than remove one of the many obstacles to the project, distracts from the systematic dismantling of environmental protections; the Paris pull-out from executive fiat that is being used to side-line qualified scientists and civil servants whose work goes against the agenda.

Yet instead of using these as headlines, the newspapers headline ExecuTweets and ignore blatant lies such as “clean fossil fuels” (Note: all fossil fuels contain carbon and burning those fuels amounts to adding oxygen to carbon thus producing carbon dioxide: there is no such thing as a “clean” fossil fuel).

So part of me thinks that the Russia thing in particular, and Trump’s public idiocy in general, are welcome distractions from what’s going on behind the scenes: the fulfillment of the Tea Party agenda – for which Russia itself is a model. Putin’s politics are, like the Tea Party’s, divisive and xenophobic; he has no coherent vision other than clinging on to power, and milking the structure for as much as he and his family and cronies can get out of it. In his fifteen-odd years in power, has done nothing to fix Russia’s broken economy, nothing to control the oligarchs, and has hidden his inaction behind a series of distractions including the wars in Chechnya and the Crimea. He won’t pay the price for this: millions of disenfranchised and impoverished Russians (not to mention Syrians and Chechens) pay that price.

But part of me is an entrepreneur, and that part says “bring it on.” As Trump leads his country backwards into the 1950s of his imagination, he vacates a world of opportunity for those of us moving into the 2050s. Yes, the rest of us will have to try a little harder on climate change than we otherwise would. Yes, sooner or later he’ll go to war with someone because – well, that’s what embattled autocrats do. Yes, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. But as Trump renders America irrelevant on the world stage, he makes that same world an oyster for the rest of us.

Oaths

Last Friday, another four of Hong Kong’s democratically elected legislators were booted out of Legco on technicalities. The technicality is that, under Article 104 of the Basic Law, the lawmakers are required to take an oath. Thus far in HK’s Legco, the taking of oaths has been regarded as something between a formality and a joke, and has been used by incoming legislators to score some cheap political points. This time was no different, with over a dozen incoming lawmakers scoring points one way or another. But, with Beijing increasingly insecure, it pulled out all the stops to have undesirable lawmakers removed. Appealing to – with a certain irony – the feudal and anachronistic ritual of oath-taking, Beijing has now had six lawmakers thrown out for not following the exact form and not being solemn and sincere, with at least another two in the pipeline.

Central to the judgement is Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104. This was handed down on 7 November, 2016, and sets out the standards for solemnity and sincerity in taking oaths. This interpretation was rushed through in order to be available for the judgement to be handed down a day or two later for the two lawmakers who were first ejected. As it happens, that judgement relied on the Oaths and Declarations Ordinance rather than the interpretation, so the rush was unnecessary.

It may also render the interpretation invalid.

(You don’t have to be a lawyer for what follows – it’s in plain English.)

Article 158 sets out the means by which the NPCCC may interpret the Basic Law and the law. I’ve highlighted the relevant passages in bold:

Article 158
The power of interpretation of this Law shall be vested in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress shall authorize the courts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to interpret on their own, in adjudicating cases, the provisions of this Law which are within the limits of the autonomy of the Region.

The courts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may also interpret other provisions of this Law in adjudicating cases. However, if the courts of the Region, in adjudicating cases, need to interpret the provisions of this Law concerning affairs which are the responsibility of the Central People’s Government, or concerning the relationship between the Central Authorities and the Region, and if such interpretation will affect the judgments on the cases, the courts of the Region shall, before making their final judgments which are not appealable, seek an interpretation of the relevant provisions from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress through the Court of Final Appeal of the Region. When the Standing Committee makes an interpretation of the provisions concerned, the courts of the Region, in applying those provisions, shall follow the interpretation of the Standing Committee. However, judgments previously rendered shall not be affected.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress shall consult its Committee for the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region before giving an interpretation of this Law.

On each of the previous four occasions on which the Hong Kong Government has sought an interpretation, it followed the above procedure. The cases went through the lower courts, the CFA referred the matter to the NPCCC, and the NPCCC’s interpretation was applied in forming the final, non-appealable judgement.

On this occasion, in its rush to deliver an “Interpretation,” the NPCCC simply discarded due process. The interpretation was handed down by the NPCCC, unasked for by the CFA or any other court in Hong Kong.

The absence of due process completely eludes the judge and counsel, but is surely very relevant. It would invalidate the 7 Nov interpretation.

Then we have the timing. The final clause of Article 158 (italicised by me) states that “judgments previously rendered shall not be affected.” The oaths were taken on 12 October, 2016. The Interpretation came out on 7 November, 2016 (see para 19 of the judgement). This means that, even if the interpretation is valid, the judge’s conclusion in para 22 that “true and proper meaning of BL104 and takes effect from 1 July 1997” is in direct violation of Article 158.

Again, I would have thought that Senior Counsels would have spotted this.

Constitutional law aside, the larger picture is grim. The government seems prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to win. Hence, it seems to have given itself an unlimited budget for doing so. And while the government is under no legal obligation to recover the huge legal costs it is racking up, it has made it clear that it intends to do so. At millions of dollars per legislator, this will push many into bankruptcy.

That threat will yield the compliant Legco that government so wants. But the price is huge. Dissent, no matter how theatrical and no matter how offensive some people find it, so long as its expression is not violent, is the hallmark of a healthy body politic. Suppression is the hallmark of authoritarianism. That’s the essence of two systems, and the essential difference between rule of law and rule by law. It’s clear which direction Hong Kong’s government has set.

From: Mr. Carrie Lam

Government House

Lower Albert Rd

Hong Kong

 

Dear Clement,

I know it’s been a while, but the past few months have been awfully exciting, what with God summoning my one and only to CE-ship of Hong Kong, she hearing his call, and having 777 of the election committee answer His summons. Though I’m not a number theorist, I can’t help but observe that 777’s prime factors are 3, 7 and 37, so lots of 3s and 7s no matter how you cut it. The Holy Trinity and the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations all rolled into one, if you go for that kind of thing.

It would be remiss of me not to tell you of the Inauguration, though I was somewhat relegated to the sidelines. Between you and me, I found President Xi (I was told “x” is pronounced “sh” in their language, so his name is pronounced “she”) a little brusque. When I told him I study algebraic topology, he seemed non-plussed so I explained, as I often have to, that I study mathematical doughnuts. He responded by introducing me to a business magnate who operates a supermarket with a bakery chain, saying that we should “get connected,” whatever that means.

Anyway, Xi went on to give what sounded like a fine speech which confirmed that two systems supervenes on one country. All very fierce and I only wish my Mandarin was good enough to have understood any of it. My one and only, however, seemed quite bouyed, and was quick to point out that her predecessor didn’t receive the honour of a state visit. After that and the tea and biscuits, it was off to look at half-finished roads, bridges, tunnels and what-not. I didn’t quite see the point as most of them go from nowhere to nowhere, but President Xi seemed duly impressed.

Then of course came the removal to Government House. I feared it would be haunted by the ghosts of dead governors but, to the contrary, it’s been quite pleasant, not least because, with my one and only’s limitations regarding domestic stock-keeping arrangements and the consequent lack of toilet paper, I’d become rather fed up with having to clean up down below with kitchen paper, old newspapers, government gazettes, policy documents and whatever other scraps I could find lying around. I wouldn’t say it’s quite the same as our modest semi-detached in Cambridge, and the assorted lackies can get under one’s feet, but it’s an improvement over the nondescript days of serviced apartments.

As soon as the move was over – well, if China treats all its Nobel Laureates like that, no wonder it has so few of them. I mean, they seem to be have thought that stage four liver cancer is akin to a head cold, and that a hot water bottle and an aspirin will see it off and poor old Liu back in comfortable solitary confinement in two shakes. And then he goes and carks on them. All the more surprising as, aside from a surprising innuendo to the effect that my son’s rather well-remunerated position at a Chinese Internet company was secure only for so long as my one and only resolved Hong Kong’s internal contradictions, Xi had seemed the decent type.

Of course, as Legco amply demonstrates, in logic one can prove anything from a contradiction. With Liu keeping the international press distracted, they didn’t notice my one and only’s alacrity in having the courts toss out another four of those contradictions, with the rest of the so-called pan-democrats on final notice. As my sweetness and light says, the way to heal a divided society is to remove the dividers.

Interesting times, and it’s a curse to live in them. But, the butler’s arrived with a fresh toilet roll, so I must be off,

Yours,

兆波

TST Vehicle-Free

For those who saw my article in HK Free Press and wonder how to take it from speculation to realisation, the answer is something along the following lines.

First, the idea needs to be refined by people who’s job it is to know about such things. Urban planners, traffic specialists, infrastructure architects and civil engineers. The idea would be to come up with two or three fully-fledged scenarios.

The next stage would be to gauge public acceptance. This needs to go further than setting up a website. 3-D models, artist’s impressions and so on would have to be exhibited and feedback sought from the community.

If there’s enough groundswell support, the next step is to present it to government, probably via the District Council, in such a way that they can think they thought of it. As government will first push the idea out to a consultancy, it would be important to make sure that the Terms of Reference for the consultancy are favourable – i.e., not whether, but which option.

After that, who knows.

I don’t have any of the skills needed, but I’d be happy to coordinate if enough people are interested in being part of this. So leave a comment on the blog if you are, and we can take it from there.

 

Freedom and Bureaucracy

The Great Confusicator brought to mind, after his speech in Poland, one of the reasons I ended up in Hong Kong.

…on both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger… . the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.

When I left Scotland, it wasn’t because I had given up in the face of a vast pile of regulations. It was more that I never even tried to get started. The doing of simple things was just too daunting. The company at which I worked, a company of three partners and four employees, had just applied for a some government innovation grant and received a stack of paper a foot tall to complete. The principals decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Add to that the statutory reporting, taxes and the rest, and starting my own business was just too hard.

I was, in short, pretty much on the same side as those Brexiters who hate Brussels, and the Tea Partiers who hate D.C., in part because of their distance and apparent unaccountability, but in part because they don’t like regulations in principle.

I saved up, travelled the world, and a year and a half later wound up in Hong Kong. I had the clothes on my back. I knew nothing of the place. But I soon worked out that starting a business was simple and inexpensive. So I did. And, in my line (IT consulting), Hong Kong remains a great place to do business. I interact with the tax department once a year and get pestered by the occasional government questionnaire, but that’s the limit of the regulatory burden.

I’m lucky. In other areas, Hong Kong has become a nightmare of red tape. An acquaintance represents a global MBA programme that needed a building here. The building they were given had to be inspected by not one, not two, but 17 government departments. It can take months for a restaurant to get a food license, and even longer for a liquor license. Although Hong Kong has a severe shortage of housing, providing bed-sit style accommodation here is economically infeasible if done legally. A bus company tried for years to run electric trolley buses only to give up in the face of bureaucratic obstructionism, and Uber runs only by staying under the radar. Hong Kong, in short, is not the free-wheeling place it once was.

These regulations have come into being in two distinct ways. Both are related to protection, but the protections are of different types.

Take restaurant licensing. I am a great believer in caveat emptor, but that applies to the quality of the food, not the safety of dining. If I cook a friend a meal, I take extra care over the ingredients I purchase, over the hygiene and preparation, and so on. But a chef in a restaurant cooks for strangers, he’s rarely the person who purchases or prepares the ingredients, and he unlikely to wash the dishes or mop the floor. He is certainly not the person who maintains the fire protection.

Having government regulations that enforce hygiene and fire standards therefore leaves me free to concentrate on the thing that matters: the quality of the dining. Yes, the regulations increase the cost of doing business and restrict the freedom of people to enter that business, but those same regulations also increase my freedom because I’m not constrained to spend my time checking stuff that I’m not qualified to check and don’t want to have to check.

So, although Hong Kong’s process needs streamlining, the principle of licensing restaurants is to protect patrons – and I’m in favour of that. Being burnt to death or spending a week in a hospital recovering from dysentery is not the way I want to use my freedom.

The reason Uber fell foul of the Hong Kong authorities was also protection. The law in Hong Kong says that insurance will only apply to fare-paying passengers in licensed vehicles. Uber vehicles don’t have licenses, so the passengers were uninsured.

But that law is a construct. The only conceivable reason behind it is to restrict passengers to using licensed vehicles – taxis – and with a taxi license going for almost USD800,000 (yes, almost a million US dollars, almost half a million pounds sterling), the taxi owners have a strong vested interest in maintaining their monopoly. They, not concerned passengers, were the ones who pushed the government into taking action against Uber.

These two cases seem quite clear cut: the first protects the public from unscrupulous or careless operators; the second protects a vested interest. Not all cases are as easy. I was once told that fire-proof paint used in restaurants had to meet a certain specification, and that paint of that specification was available from one and only one company, which happened to be owned by the fire chief’s brother (or something). Whether or not the story is true, there are cases where the public is being protected, but someone gains. But in general some regulations protect the public and some regulations protect vested interests, and while the former very often make us free to act without fear, the latter restrict the economic freedom of others to compete.

I think we can agree that regulations of the second type should be abolished, or at least modified in such a way that it does not restrict the freedom to compete. But what about the first type, that protects the public from unscrupulous or careless operators?

The alternative is litigation: if I go to your restaurant and you poison me, I sue you.

It seems to me that the acceptability of litigation depends on the type of society. The U.S., with class action cases and contingent legal fees, encourages it, (and some of it is quite frivolous). The British system, in which class actions are difficult and legal fees always up front, discourages litigation. It comes down to a societal choice: risk-averse societies prefer regulation because the cost is predictable; risk-tolerant societies prefer litigation as the upside is higher.

So, you can be free to chose with a certain assurance that minimal standards are enforced, or free to sue if it turns out they weren’t.

But the context of Trump’s remarks suggest that none of this is germane to, or even part of his and the right’s attack on “bureaucracy.” Both Trump and the British Conservatives have committed that for every new regulation introduced, two (or three in the UK) should be removed.

This is so arbitrary that it may as well be random. The scientific way forwards would be to classify regulations into those that increase freedom and those that are monopolistic, clarify and streamline the former and abolish the latter. But without at least a semi-scientific approach – say a random sample of a few hundred – there is no basis for assuming that a half or a third of regulations restrict freedom.

Indeed, Trump’s Executive order has nothing to do with freedom. Not once is the word “freedom” even used. And the criteria by which regulations are to be judged? Here’s the text (Executweet Order 13771, 2(d)):

The Director shall provide the heads of agencies with guidance on the implementation of this section. Such guidance shall address, among other things, processes for standardizing the measurement and estimation of regulatory costs; standards for determining what qualifies as new and offsetting regulations; standards for determining the costs of existing regulations that are considered for elimination; processes for accounting for costs in different fiscal years; methods to oversee the issuance of rules with costs offset by savings at different times or different agencies; and emergencies and other circumstances that might justify individual waivers of the requirements of this section. The Director shall consider phasing in and updating these requirements.

To the extent that this isn’t gibberish, it’s cost, cost, cost. Not a single mention of freedom. But only costs to the federal government rather than the freedom of business or actual people. (And, as to the UK, we don’t know because the link above points to a page here which was withdrawn – although it’s notable that what’s there was a 90-page regulation about removing verbose regulations. Perhaps even its authors realised the self-parody.)

So I can only assume that the real target of the Tea Party and Conservative rhetoric is neither quotidian protection of the public nor the feathering of nests, but a third type of regulation. Here’s an example.

In the early 1970s, scientists spotted a large and growing hole in the Ozone Layer. Unchecked, this was an existential threat not only to humanity, but to life on this planet: the Ozone Layer keeps out ultraviolet radiation that is deadly to many life forms. The cause was a type of chemical known as a CFC and the result was the Montreal Protocol, that banned them. This treaty was successful: the Ozone Layer is on its way to recovery.

The Montreal Protocol was implemented by creating regulations in every signatory country. So what type of regulation resulted? The protocol feathered nobody’s nest, and it was to protect the public, so it would seem to fit into the first of the two categories I proposed. But the fire and hygiene regulations I mentioned above protect the public from identifiable others. In the absence of regulation, victims (or their survivors) can sue identifiable others.

The Protocol protects individuals – all of us in this case – from an identifiable threat. But there is no identifiable other, no one I can sue. And in this respect, it is quite different to dining regulations. There is no alternative, there is no identifiable other to sue.

Regulations such as those in support of the Protocol are, rather, an expression of a common goal – in this case, survival of our species. And this, given the political context, is the type of regulation that’s under attack. And it’s under attack precisely because there exists no legal alternative to regulation. I can sue a power plant for poisoning the ground water and giving me cancer, but I cannot sue an entire industry no matter how egregious their injuries: regulation is the only protection.

This is not freedom, but licence. Licence to act as irresponsibly as you please. And of course, the underlying target is environmental protection in general and climate change in particular. (And to those who argue that climate change has nothing to do with the fact that humanity has dug up 100 million years of sunshine and spewed it into the atmosphere in 0.00002% of that time – well, to put it as politely as I can, the burden of proof falls on you.)

But there is one other type of regulation, and one that lays bare Trump’s own hypocrisy: the Executive Order. Trump’s been in power for less than six months, and has now passed 38 Executive Orders – more than Obama (at 37) did in his entire first year. The Tea Party and the British Conservatives have no problem with regulations as such. Their problem is with protecting the dying and desperate carbon industry to which they’re beholden, and the out-moded economic model that goes with it.

Streamline regulations that protect individuals from the unscrupulous, rescind those that create monopolies. But the primary duty of government is to defend the realm, and the type of regulations under attack, that defend our very existence from the threat of climate change, exist to defend the realm from an existential threat. Those who would abolish such regulations are therefore, by definition, traitors. So the president of the US is a traitor. That’s the depth to which it has sunk.

Thirty Years

I arrived in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong on the First of July, 1987.

I’d first like to thank President Xi for coming to town to attend my trigintennial celebration. China promised that there would be fifty years of no change (五十年不變), and they have delivered in style: shame on anyone who says that the Chinese Communist Party can’t be trusted to keep their promises.

However, although Hong Kong’s political and economic system has remained unchanged since the handover, even the CCP is (gasp) not omnipotent, and a couple of changes have slipped through the cracks: cheese and trees.

When I first arrived, despite an expat community of several tens of thousands, cheese was almost unobtainable. The Chinese regarded milk as a drink for babies, and found it unimaginable that any rational person would put coagulated baby food in her mouth.

And that was just the start of the cultural divide. Although there were local adaptations of Western food available in Hong Kong (just as there are of Chinese food in the West), the thought of sitting down to gnaw through a lump of half-cooked flesh with semi-raw vegetables on the side was – well, pretty much what the idea of chicken’s feet was (and is) to most Westerners.

Now, walk into almost any supermarket, and there’s cheese a-plenty. A sign not only of changing tastes, but also of the fact that many of those who were attending university overseas when I first arrived are now parents whose children have acquired those same odd tastes. And a sign also that the divide between expat and local society, although still there, has narrowed.

And trees. I’ve hiked in Hong Kong since I arrived, but when I first arrived nearly what little forest there was, was planted, and with non-indigenous species. It wasn’t for want of indigenous species; it was because at Ching Ming and Chong Yeung in spring and autumn, families went to traditional sites to sweep graves, left incense burning, and, after they’d left, those smouldering joss-sticks set whole hillsides on fire. All hillside fires in Hong Kong are man-made – the only source of natural fire is lightening, which only happens in monsoons and typhoons so is always followed by rain. As a result, indigenous species, unlike those in, say, Australia, never evolved fire-resistance. Every hill fire – and they were beautiful ribbons of orange – killed whatever new growth had taken root.

During Chris Patten’s time, one of those fires killed and severely burnt a party of hiking children. Since then, the number of fires has dropped. The result is that the local species have prospered. And today, walking in the New Territories, the forest floors are in primary growth: clear of leaves, with most life thirty feet above me in the canopy.

So: though it’s none of my doing, Hong Kong has changed for the better in some ways. A fact that will be completely lost on Xi and his entourage, and their endless gabfests about Hong Kong people concentrating on the economy, blah blah blah, when it is their own mis-governance that has seen the economy stagnate. Fifty years of no change, delivered.

Welcome, President Xi

It’s official: Xi Jinping is coming to town.

Here’s an early and famous photo of Chris Patten’s early days in Hong Kong:

Patten Tart

He wasn’t surrounded by security goons, the police didn’t have to glue the bricks to the ground to prevent people from picking them up and throwing them at him, and although this may have been staged, it didn’t have that feel to it.

A couple of years later I was out for a hike and came across him, a retired dignitary and their wives. There was no security. Perhaps the two drivers were armed – I don’t know – but I wasn’t stopped, frisked or the like: Patten gave me a friendly nod, which I returned, and we went on our respective ways.

President Xi, by contrast, will be staying at the Grand Hyatt where “For security reasons, hotel rooms in several floors will be vacated and people will have to receive a security check before being allowed to enter the hotel” and will be too busy on the Great Hong Kong White Elephant tour to sample egg tarts.

So here’s a little ditty to welcome him (by the way, “X” is pronounced “Sh” in Chinese, and Jin would rhyme with “bean”, so “She Jean-ping” is about as close as I can get in spelling that a native English speaker would recognize):

You’d better watch out

You’d better not cry

You’d better watch out

I’m telling you why

Xi Jinping is coming to town

Well he’s bringing lots of tanks and guns

And a great big army too

And when he brings them to Hong Kong

He’s gonna drive them over you (splat)

[Chorus]

He knows which books you’re selling

He knows when they’re taboo

He’ll get that filmed confession

And that’s the end of you (oo)

[Chorus]

He don’t like independence

He knows just what’s at stake

So he will change the Basic Law

And a pyre of freedoms make (yeah!)

[Chorus]

There’s National Education

And we are all Chinese

And if you’re not on board with that,

Well, get down on your knees.

[Chorus]

And if that doesn’t earn me a knock on the door at 4 a.m., I take it all back.

Educating Uniformity

In a recent article, George Monbiot agonises about how the media got it so wrong on Corbyn. Monbiot’s complaint is that the journalists and pundits listened to each other telling each other how awful Corbyn was rather than listening to Corbyn himself.

The reason this happened, Monbiot says, is how the media recruit journalists. In the old days, he says, journalists came from all walks of life. Many had little formal education, and few had university degrees. Now, journalists have university degrees, and this leads to a remoteness. As a result,

[journalists] spend too much time in each other’s company, a tendency that’s fatal in an industry that is meant to reflect the world… What counts is not only the new people and new ideas you encounter but also the old ones you leave behind. The first ambition of a journalist should be to know as few journalists as possible; to escape the hall of mirrors.

The malaise which Monbiot identifies is, I think, a lot more widespread than he realizes. I think it is also true of life in large corporations, governments and NGOs.

When I first looked for work, most of the world was run by people without university degrees. In the 1970s, only about 10% of school students went on to university. Some went to polytechnics (which have since become universities) and others to vocational training. But the vast majority went from school directly into the workforce.

As a result, most of the managers I then knew, both as friends and as colleagues, had started at the bottom and worked their way up. The first job of one friend was filling the inkwells at a bank branch; another was offered a job on the basis of his ability to catch the rugby ball unexpectedly hurled at him during the interview. Both of them, and many others like them, went on to hold senior jobs with major responsibilities.

Looking around the corporate world today, it is almost impossible to find such people. No large corporation will employ anyone who doesn’t have a degree.

At the same time, universities in the Anglophone world have become much less diverse places – and I don’t mean in the ethnic terms by which they measure diversity. I went to university in 1979. The composition of my cohort was reflective of the general population: probably 70% were from working class backgrounds and many were the first in their families to go to university.

In 1981/2, between my third and fourth years (Scottish universities had four-year courses then), Thatcher slashed university funding. This resulted in a drop in the university population and a rise in polytechnic and college populations. The value of student grants had already been severely eroded by inflation, thus putting parents under more pressure to top-up the grants. This hit low-income families disproportionately. The combination of these two factors – perhaps a kind of tipping point – resulted in a sudden demographic change: the 1982 cohort was observably not working class.

What academic research I’ve been able to track down reinforces the point: when loans came in, working class families didn’t want to take on the risk of a loan, (see also here) and the introduction of tuition fees has further exacerbated the problem. Higher education is increasingly becoming the exclusive province of the well-off.

The result is that universities lack diversity (warning: I don’t have access to the full text of this paper, so I may be taking the findings in the abstract out of context). The people universities take in are raised in a near-identical middle-class way, those they spit out are even more uniform. And, when the graduates go into the corporate world, any originality they may have clung on to despite university is soon scorched out of them.

The result is twofold. As a consultant, I frequently have to attend meetings at which a whole bunch of people with identical upbringings, career trajectories and prejudices reinforce their own mistakes. The result ranges from mere inefficiency to magnificent follies.

The more pernicious effect is societal: opportunity denied. The fact that social mobility has tanked since the Thatcherite colonization by the middle-class of the university system may be an unexpected consequence, but is no coincidence. And this brings me back to Corbyn and Trump. I am neither a Corbynista nor (as readers may have inferred) a Trumpite, but their appeal was to those for whom opportunity lacks: the working class and the young. I’m not saying that Trump’s or Corbyn’s (diametrically opposed) policies will work, but that’s who they targeted and hence the press’s inability to predict it, and the corporate and governmental inability to comprehend it.

(My thanks to SB for lambasting the original of this post. That forced me to back up my statements with research – always a good thing.)

Epistle to Carrie Lam (1)

Dear Carrie Lam,

Welcome to your new job. Since before you started, you have been the target of a lot of criticism. One of the most consistent is that you are resistant to new ideas.

However, in your thirty years in the civil service, the Hong Kong government has executed many bold new ideas. They built the mid-Levels escalator and a waste compacting plant in a giant cave under Mt. Davis. And, for that matter, in a quiet revolution, the government has made the delivery of its own services almost completely electronic.

The problem is not your government’s ability to execute original, life-improving ideas. So, in the spirit of can-do optimism that characterizes Hong Kong, in this series of posts, I’m going to present a few ideas of my own. These ideas are intended to:

  • Improve the quality of life for Hong Kong people in a day-to-day way.
  • Be bold. There’s nothing like timidity or stopping half way to ruin a good idea.
  • Result in something the HK government can showcase.

Here’s my first: pedestrianise the whole of Tsim Sha Tsui. No, really. All of it. Read on.

Nearly all major cities in the west have large pedestrian precincts. They lead to vibrant inner cities, much lower air pollution, and bustling businesses.

Those cities have much higher car ownership than Hong Kong; here, less than a fifth of the population owns a car. The four fifths who don’t own cars are squished on to narrow pavements that are made crowded by the need for road space for, and forced to breathe the pollution emitted by cars belonging to the one fifth. So more pedestrian precincts in Hong Kong would materially improve our lives, and could be made to do so in such a way as to minimise the inconvenience to the one fifth who do own cars (and who are themselves, at least some of the time, also pedestrians).

Why TST? It’s self-contained in a way that almost no other old part of Hong Kong is. Unlike say, Causeway Bay or Mong Kok, it’s not on the route from somewhere to somewhere else. It’s a destination, not a transit point. So the traffic impact can be more easily predicted and managed. And also, because it’s my own spiritual home in Hong Kong and I think it could be much more pleasant than it is.

Here. courtesy of the omnipresent google, is TST.

TST

It’s full of good stuff for tourists and locals alike – shops, restaurants, hotels, museums. But it’s unpleasant. Drivers trawl around in constant traffic jams, pedestrians are constantly ducking cars, buses and the usual vehicular idiocy. The pavements are jam-packed and the street-level pollution is awful. What should be a fun experience is a chore.

So the idea would be to make everywhere south of Austin Rd, east of Canton Road (with the exception of Kowloon Park Drive), north of Salisbury Rd and west of Chatham Rd, a pedestrian area. Crudely (as I have no other tools available to me):

TST PZ 2

This begs a few questions:

First: Why these boundaries? The thought is this: in order to get people (and vehicles with permits) in and out, it makes sense to allow vehicular access on all sides. The circuit formed by Chatham Rd, Salisbury Rd and Kowloon Park Drive / Canton Rd, and the existing bus terminus at the Star Ferry, do this.

This circuit already has numerous bus stops served my many routes. It has three MTR stations (TST, TST East and Jordan) to ferry people in and out by public transport. And, of course, it has the Star Ferry.

Second: Private cars: where will they park? The main car parks in the area are on the roads in the circuit above: Ocean Terminal and Harbour City on Canton Rd, the new New World Centre on Salisbury Rd., and many in TST East on Chatham Rd.

Within the area itself, there are only two car parks of any size. One is in Austin Tower, which could be served by keeping the first 50m or so of Austin Ave open:

Austin Ave

The second is the much larger car park in the basement of Mirimar Tower on Nathan Rd, of which more in  a moment.

That still leaves hundreds of metered spaces. What about these?

I suggest they go under Kowloon Park. That’s right: under, beneath. Hollow out a huge, artificial cavern and turn it into a combined car park and public transport interchange.

This may sound barmy. But the underlying geology is rock and, if engineers can fit the South Island and the Shatin-Central MTR lines under Admiralty, and the latter also under Hung Hom stations with (thus far) no disruption, surely excavating a huge hole in the bedrock under Kowloon Park is do-able. It will be expensive – but the advantages outweigh the cost.

This also could give access to the Mirimar car park:

Mire Kln Park

Those red lines are intended to indicate tunnels. That little road between Austin Rd and Hillwood Rd that’s so small it doesn’t even have a name would become a steep down ramp into a tunnel that leads to both the Miramar and underground Kowloon Park car parks, and the exit would be on to Austin Rd. The Kimberly Rd exit / entrance to the Miramar car park would be shut (and the landlord allowed to convert it at no land premium to valuable retail space).

Third: Nathan Rd. Be bold! It makes no sense to have a pedestrian area cut in two by a major traffic artery. Extend Kowloon Park into the part of Nathan Rd. north of Haiphong Rd, and turn the part south of Haiphong Rd. into an open mall. Provide covers and sitting-out areas so that it’s pleasant even in rain or strong sunshine. Encourage street food, buskers, that kind of thing.

A lot of buses use Nathan Rd. However, Kowloon Park Drive, Canton Rd and Chatham Rd will have much less traffic as a result of the massive car park, so most buses could be re-routed along these. But also include a public transport interchange in that big hole under Kowloon Park so that services could terminate there, beneath Kowloon Park, at the north of the area, rather than at the Star Ferry or the PIT at TST East Station.

Fourth: Local access within the area can be provided by bikes (like Boris-bikes in London), tricycles and, for those with limited mobility, solar-powered golf carts such as the ones used by the Jockey Club in the Kau Sai Chau public course.

Fifth: Vehicular access for residents and businesses in the area. This is surely no problem. All major cities in the West have huge pedestrian precincts, and management of the permitting and limited traffic access that residents and businesses need is a solvable problem (and one that will require numerous “study trips” by senior civil servants to these cities – listening, guys?).

Sixth: East-to-west public transport. This is a non-objection as there is currently no east-to-west public transport within the area. The government once mooted, however, a monorail from Kowloon Station in West Kowloon running all the way to Hong Hum station. perhaps it’s time to blow the dust off that plan?

Seventh: Carve-outs. The danger of making exceptions is that they soon become the rule, and what started as a bold scheme becomes a timid tweak. But I can see two cases for carve-outs. The first would be the Kimberly Rd / Austin Avenue area, which provides access to two car parks and quite a lot of hotels:

Cut out 1

The idea being that the area south of the red line is pedestrianised and the area north remains as-is.

This has a big impact on the overall pedestrianisation: There are lots of little shops and restaurants in this area that would gain from it. On the flip side, most of the remaining residential stock in TST is in this area, and residents may have a view. (As most don’t drive and have nowhere to park even if they did, I suspect they’d support pedestrianisation.)

The second area is in the south: the three blocks containing the Sheraton, Peninsula and YMCA would gain little from pedestrianisation:

Cut out 2

Middle Rd would remain open to traffic, and traffic would be able to cross Nathan Rd at Middle Rd. The Nathan Rd pedestrian area would start at the red line and extend north.

At first blush, then, it seems that the objections can be overcome. As to the advantages, anyone unconvinced can visit TST on the date of your inauguration, 1st July, when, for a few hours, TST will be fully pedestrianised.