kenny hodgart

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When Xi meets the Queen – what won’t happen

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

The last time a Chinese leader was given a state reception in Britain, in 2005, Queen Elizabeth pulled on her smartest red hat and coat and put it to President Hu Jintao and his lady wife: “Have you come far?”.

The monarch’s civility was slightly undermined, however, by her heir to the throne – Prince Charles played truant, muttering off-stage about human rights and the Dalai Lama. The UK’s then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, meanwhile, spoke excitedly of “an unstoppable momentum” towards democracy for China. When the Chinese delegation left, the staff of Buckingham Palace were ordered to count the spoons.

OK, fine, that last bit was guesswork. It is impossible to know what goes on in the households of heads of state. It may be that Prince Philip, aka the Queen’s other half, aka Phil the Greek, hides spoons in guests’ luggage for his own sport. Still, now that Britain is desperate to become “China’s best partner in the West” – as the country’s Finance Minister George Osbourne put it in Beijing the other week – the parameters for any meaningful exchanges not involving the (proverbial) hoisting up of British skirts when Xi Jinping touches down in London later this month have narrowed.

In any event, here are just a few of the possible turns unlikely to be taken by events after plain-speaking Phil, 94, has broken the ice with a joke or two about the Japanese and fallen sleep.

1. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, will insist that in return for a) welcoming Chinese involvement in new UK nuclear power plants, b) turning a deaf ear to American concerns about the security implications thereof, c) jumping on board with the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and, above all, d) investing £700,000 (HK$8.2 million) to assist Chinese citizens who may wish to go on holiday to places in the north of England, British ministers do not in future expect to incur the Chinese state’s diplomatic wrath for talking to harmless old men from Tibet.

2. Mindful of the Chinese love of pork, Mr Cameron will then seek Mr Xi’s advice on how to handle those who write and publish materials alleging Prime Ministerial misadventures involving dead pigs. And how to stamp out seditious communications in general.

3. Mr Xi will thank the Prime Minister for dancing so nimbly to China’s tune but remind him, portentously, that always someone must pay the piper. The Queen’s bagpiper will nod sagely. China’s paramount leader will then thank his hosts for knowing when to “shut up about all that human rights crap, not like the Americans”, adding that Mr Osborne is a man of high principle who is respected throughout China and the world and that the two countries are now best friends forever. He will also promise to keep throwing chickenfeed at the minister’s pet projects and that the £700,000 will not be spent by officials on a night out in Macau.

4. Onto his second whiskey sour, Mr Xi’s charm offensive will continue with an apology to Britain’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, whose members were barred from entering Hong Kong earlier this year. He will blame the unfortunate episode on an administrative cock-up, praise Britain for giving the world parliamentary democracy and vouch that his administration approves of universal suffrage – for voting out contestants on Chinese Idol.

5. The Queen will ask after the well-being of Zhou Yongkang and observe that by contrast to the unfortunate former Minister of Public Security’s grizzled rug, Mr Xi’s own hair seems vibrant for a man of his years. She will then ask the President if he would like to pet one of her corgis.

6. Jeremy Corbyn, the new hard-left leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, will attempt to engage Mr Xi in a discussion of Lenin’s 1904 pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and about the timetable for achieving socialism on earth.

7. Charles will announce “sod it, I never wanted to be a constitutional monarch anyway”, harangue Mr Cameron for being a pushover, and for doing so little on behalf of the endangered Patagonian Toothfish, let rip on China for being ghastly and appalling, and then finally settle in to some light Buddhist chanting, the noise from which will waken Phil the Greek from his slumbers.

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Scots and Japanese locked in new space race

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

It’s become one of those things people drop into conversations to make themselves sound knowledgeable: Japanese whisky is the best in the world nowadays. Better than the stuff from Ireland and America, don’t you know, and also that place where they make Scotch. Yes, yes: Scotland.

It is true that the Japanese are winning all sorts of awards for their whisky. Most notably, something called the Whisky Bible last year named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, by Suntory, the world’s best whisky, with nary a Scottish entry in the top five.

The ascendancy of Nipponese nips should come as no surprise. For a start, it is well-known that the Japanese are terrible swots and brilliant at copying other people’s things and making them better. And secondly, they’ve been at it for long enough: Suntory was founded in 1923, which is ages ago. Back then, most Scotch was still undrinkable, and most people in Scotland were blind and/or raving mad on account of it.

The sudden popularity of Japanese whisky, catalysed by the whole winning awards thing, was not foreseen, however – even by its distillers. Which is why, as it happens, they’re running out of casks that are ready to bottle.

Meanwhile, the Scots have not taken this reverse lying down. No danger – if the Japanese (and the Taiwanese, whose Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique won best single malt at this year’s World Whiskies Awards) can make proper whisky, then, by the ghost of John Logie Baird, cultivating a little tea is not beyond the ingenuity of my fellow northern Britons.

Earlier this year, a smoky-tasting white tea grown on Scotland’s very first tea plantation, in Perthshire, by The Wee Tea Company, was duly named best tea in the world at the Salon de The awards in Paris. I have no idea why the French consider themselves so expert on the subject, but there you have it: Scotland rules tea.

Now I read that, contrary to the notion of it being the quintessential English drink, Scotland also rules gin. According to the London Times, UK exports of gin are up 37 per cent in five years, largely due to demand for premium tipples from Scottish distilleries, including Hendrick’s and Tanqueray. In Georgian and Victorian times, Londoners drank so much gin it rendered men impotent and women sterile, but seemingly now even that which is labelled “London dry gin” is more likely to originate from Scottish stills than English ones. One can almost hear Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s secessionist First Minister, cackling away.

Now that things are going all “craft” on the gin front, Hong Kong, predictably, has its very own circuit of gin bars run and frequented by men with awful Victorian-sized beards and charging modern-day Shoreditch prices, only doubled. Good luck to them, although the drink’s aptness to induce maudlin tendencies does not, perhaps, commend it altogether in an era of impending economic dissolution.

It has long troubled me, incidentally, that your average Hong Kong barman cannot grasp that gin and tonic is served with lime (or indeed lime juice instead of tonic, if you’re the subaltern in John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song). All too often lemon, with the wrong gin, introduces an unwelcome hint, I find, of Pocari Sweat – the Japanese sports drink made from Pocaris, that lesser-known member of the citrus family.

I hasten to add here that on its own Pocari Sweat is a faultless beverage and an excellent hangover cure. As such, I can think of no more fitting product to pioneer branding on the moon – as it will next month, when its owner, Otsuka, sends a rocket there with a capsule containing Pocari Sweat, in powder form. The company’s laudable idea is that at some future date, present-day children inspired by the mission to become astronauts will touch down and be able to relieve their hangovers, or perchance simply their thirsts, by mixing the powder with the (currently arid) moon’s own water.

What is not admitted by the Japanese is that their designs are very much part of a beverage-centric space race in the making. The Scots, their principal adversaries, struck an early blow: some vials of unmatured malt from Ardbeg Distillery on Islay have just returned to earth after being transported to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket in October 2011. The whisky had orbited the earth for 1,045 days and was found afterwards by the distillery’s tasters to have a more “intense” flavour, although it’s unlikely they were about to declare “it tastes just the same” after going to all that trouble.

Another other piece of whisky-related news is that Whisky Galore!, the 1949 Ealing comedy set on a remote Scottish island, whose inhabitants appropriate a shipwrecked cargo of whisky, is currently being re-made. I would not be surprised to discover that the whole story has been relocated to space, nor that some role had been found for the Japanese as villains.

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In praise of the SCMP’s ‘Around the Nation’

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

A woman destroys an ATM machine in a fit of rage. Another wins a hair-growing competition. A man, drunk, drowns in a manure pit. I know I am far from alone in finding the South China Morning Post’s Around the Nation page one of its most compelling sections. Countless conversations with editorial staff and SCMP loyalists assure me of this. Often, however, there is a tone of slight hesitation in their admissions – a wavering, I think, lest too pronounced an enthusiasm be taken to intimate a lack of seriousness about news.

Anyone familiar with this blog will acknowledge that if it does not always provide the final word in serious-minded comment, then it will at least include one or two from somewhere nearing that end of things. More generally, the SCMP is considered a serious organ – the sub-editors may quibble at the word, but its news and analysis tends more towards the intellectual than what used to be called “human interest”, even when it was about pets. With ATN, this order is subverted. Reader, a word here in its praise.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to, buy the paper and you’ll see it: Around the Nation is a round-up of stories that have been making the headlines in sundry corners of the mainland. Some are routine – a new infrastructure project here, a government denial about something over there. Others are anecdotal but still marginally un-extraordinary: a man cracks a window during a quarrel on a bus with his girlfriend; a woman has to receive medical help after playing mahjong for three days solid. The most memorable can usually be filed under bizarre, gruesome, heartwarming, comical or downright appalling, although none of these categories is exclusive.

You would probably be right to identify this as tabloid journalism. A fine tradition, and one in which I’ve dabbled, and frequently defend, but make no mistake – it’s often voyeuristic, mawkish and vulgar. The snobs have a point. Doubtless, too, it serves as an instrument of distraction, particularly in a country such as China where “proper” journalism gets throttled. And this is all before one considers how things have evolved online, where it seems the only way for media organisations to thrive is to deploy armies of clickbait wallahs to churn out titillating content, and to hell with its veracity.

There is, I think, a case to be made that our appetite for the weird and wonderful, the salacious and the shocking, is such that a journalism that caters to it offers a valve – one that’s not inimical to but rather part of life in a civilised society. This applies, moreover, regardless of how far that society may or may not be shaped by the principles of Athenian democracy. In its way, though, ATN offers both less and more than this valve function.

For one, ATN is mediated, a digest from other sources, for English readers in Hong Kong and elsewhere. There’s therefore an element of revelling in the wacky things that seem to happen in the mainland, puzzlement at the jarring effects created by awkwardly-translated phrases or sketchily-explained cultural mores, uncertainty at the degree of comic intentions. (What are we to make, for example, of this detail, included in a story about a pig which surprised visitors to a Buddhist temple in Wenzhou province by prostrating itself as if in prayer? “Photos posted online amazed some internet users, while others claimed the animal was suffering from a vitamin E deficiency.”)

At the same time, details omitted leave us wanting to know more, or attempting to piece things together in our imaginations, as we skip from the fantastical to the mundane to the brutal, mind-mapping the country, wondering what’s fact, what’s hearsay and what’s been embellished by eager hacks. The stories about mahjong casualties and failed blackmail attempts on local officials have an ageless quality, like folktales. Earlier this year it seems there was a spate of burglars breaking into homes then falling asleep.

Meanwhile, the outbreaks of violence or cruelty, the crazy people doing crazy things, the health scares, the exam stress – all contribute to a sense of modern China, even if they don’t tell us what modern China is. In Henan, a grave-visiting business opens for people who don’t have time to visit their own deceased relatives. In Chongqing, a farmer sells his ox to go looking for his runaway son.

ATN may be tabloid journalism by numbers on the one hand; on the other it offers a dispassionate window on a diverse country enduring the pangs of development. All human life is there. Animal life too.

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How China farted under poor Americans’ noses

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

Time was they were sort of unreceptive when it came to Communists, the Americans – a bit disobliging, all things considered. Not to overstate matters, during the Cold War normal human vitality often seemed indivisible in the American imagination from a desire to kick Bolshevik butts. That was the main thing I took from watching the 1984 version of the film Red Dawn, at any rate.

For better or worse – the former, one supposes – American attitudes towards modern-day Communist China are several degrees mellower. Indeed, tacit acceptance of China’s rise looks at times to have given way to a new dread of upsetting it and being thus dis-invited to the party. Being nice about China in blockbuster movies is one manifestation of this. Giving Chinese state-backed companies a role in the immiseration of America’s poor would seem to be another.

Smithfield Foods, until recently the world’s largest pork producer and processor, used to own hundreds of pig farms in North Carolina alone. These farms consist of three important elements: pigs, giant sheds for housing them and adjacent “lagoons” into which millions of gallons of their faeces and urine are deposited. The cesspits are emptied at intervals, their contents sprayed as a noxious mist over nearby fields.

In 2013, Smithfield sold out to Shuanghui, China’s largest pork producer, for US$4.7 billion, a 31% premium on the company’s publicly traded share price. The two had been weighing a partnership deal before the Chinese firm made a bolder offer, financing the purchase with a US$4 billion loan from the state-owned Bank of China.

Now effectively the owner, at a conservative estimate, of 1 in 4 American pigs, Shuanghui has been busy expanding production for export back to China, where the middle classes prefer not to eat anything reared in the motherland for fear of it being contaminated. This in turn appears to have increased levels of hydrogen sulphide and ammonia wafting into properties near U.S. farms, causing complaints of burning eyes, breathing difficulties, headaches, hypertension and anxiety.

Many of those affected in North Carolina are on low incomes. Many are black. Most have little option to move away. But a fightback of sorts is underway: in the last year some 500 individuals in the state have filed two dozen lawsuits against Shuanghui’s subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, complaining about the smell from its farms.

Initially, these actions sought to fix ultimate responsibility on the Chinese Communist Party. “Red China has taken a huge dump under the noses of the American people and been allowed to get away with it,” ran one writ – which, mark you, I have paraphrased. Last month, however, Shuanghui’s attorneys got their way, as a judge ruled any references to China, pork exports thereto, the CCP or even Smithfield being Chinese-owned, were inflammatory, irrelevant and off limits. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have proposed debarring newcomers to hog farm neighbourhoods from filing nuisance lawsuits and making losers in court pay corporate farms’ legal bills.

Voices were raised at the time of the takeover as to the wisdom of green-lighting Chinese control over such a large segment of the U.S food chain. Daniel M. Slane of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission told Congress he had concerns over Shuanghui’s strategic ties to the Chinese government, preferential access to subsidies, and so on. Debbie Stabenow, Democratic Senator for Michigan, worried that the Chinese company meant to use Smithfield’s processing technology to build up its own capabilities at home and undercut U.S. pork exports to the Pacific Rim. In the end, though, faith in open markets, and in Chinese money, prevailed.

Simply a case of one private company buying another is how Smithfield’s CEO, Larry Pope, described the merger in a Senate hearing. Only it clearly never was that simple, was it? In-keeping with its efforts in the field of currency manipulation, credit from Beijing gives Chinese companies a huge advantage over competitors in the U.S. and elsewhere.

What we’re seeing here is partly about China securing stable food supplies for itself – the country already consumes about 50% of all pork globally and demand is rising sharply. In line with the government’s soon-to-elapse 12th Five Year Plan, Chinese businesses – state-owned or otherwise – have been investing in food assets around the world. Americans are far from alone in worrying about their producers being undercut or about Chinese corporations cornering markets. It may be tempting to shrug those concerns off as paranoid, but it’s probably judicious to wait until deals comparable to the Smithfield one are being sanctioned the other way round.

For America, making its own poor folks sick through turning swathes of itself into a hog farm capable of sustaining expanding waistlines in a formerly hermetic Communist state whose ruling party used to order its own agriculture along collective lines is perhaps both an achievement of sorts and further evidence of a crisis in the idea of American exceptionalism. After all, the whole point of an American-led world order was surely to encourage strains of American-style capitalism elsewhere. But being stung on the buttocks by globalisation was always a possibility too.

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How the positivity industry prefers us to worry

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

I’ve been receiving a torrent of communications from the positive thinking brigade lately. I don’t know what prompted it. Maybe it was something I googled. Or something I wrote on here: maybe I create such an impression of charlatanry that I’ve been fingered for susceptibility to charlatanry in general. Reader, how should I know?

At any rate, the email invites have been coming thick and fast: from mind coaches and self-belief gurus, character educators and positivity activators. They wish to show me the way, they say, to unbridled confidence, success, happiness. Some merely offer to help me build my “personal brand”.

As described in The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-being, a recent book by a chap named William Davies, this is all very lucrative stuff. Vast operations are at work nowadays to benefit from making us worry – about how optimally engaged we are in our jobs; how fulfilled and confident we are in ourselves; in short, how brilliantly we’re doing. I doubt very much if the sum of human happiness is increased at all.

According to Davies some occupational psychologists are keen on companies sacking workers who do not show the proper enthusiasm for their advances. The Maoist tenor of that approach might sound a little extreme, but it does seem to chime with my experience on the handful of occasions when I have been forced by employers to attend motivational workshops and the like.

What I have noticed, see, is that for everyone in these situations who instinctively gets it, for everyone who has his or her self-belief calibrated the way the psychologists might desire, others are there out of fear: fear of not getting ahead; worse, of being left behind. Often they appear to have been ambushed by the notion that being bumptious and insufferable is the only way to get where they want to be.

Perhaps the idea that most frightens such people, then, is this: that self-belief and self-promotion may not in fact be enough, on their own, to guarantee making it to the top, that no matter how good your personal brand or your CV, unfortunately other factors, such as ability and, yes, connections, also come into play.

As an aside, a couple of years ago the veteran Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten published a memorable, if somewhat canting, riposte to a young journalist who had asked him how he’d built his personal brand. The main lesson was never to intimate that a columnist might be a self-publicist. However, Weingarten also railed, righteously, against the internet generation’s preoccupation with “eyeballs” and against that weasel thing “content” (which, lexicography being satire’s carousel, must – I submit – be ripe for replacement by the equally nebulous “ingredients”).

The point, sort of, is that brands are essentially shallow constructs – no matter how they’re dressed up in marketing’s “Vision, Mission, Values” b***cks. Online, though, everyone’s at it: the imperative is to demonstrate how fascinating and fabulous you are. Problem is, a world full of shiny, happy, self-confident people doesn’t ring all that true. No matter what the “science” of positive thinking says, and no matter how much we fake it, we can’t all be winners all of the time, can we?

Maybe it’s partly a question of upbringing: I was always taught not to bang on about myself, not to brag. If nothing else, socially it’s a killer – nobody’s really interested in people who are full of themselves; it’s the listeners and the empathisers who tend to make the best friends. And the same must go, I suppose, for the super-engaged and the super-motivated – the grown teacher’s pets who spend every waking moment composing work emails. How do they have lives?

We ought to worry, I think, for the future mental health of those toddlers we keep hearing about who have four-page CVs and are being put through kindergarten interviews. For most people, I imagine, the knowledge that the world does not revolve around oneself arrives as a blessed relief. Unfortunately, the plainest truths often run against the cultural grain.

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Overheard at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

“Now George, I’ve said I’ll take care of this so behave yourself.” It’s late and two elderly English couples are trying to settle their bill. The women perch squiffily on their stools, looking about ready to drop off. George is putting up a valiant effort but it’s clear he’s losing ground. “This is my club, George, and when we go to your club you always pay for us.” And then comes the clincher: “It’s just Christian values, George. They might be unfashionable but that’s how I was brought up.” A reverential lull is allowed to fall on the conversation. “Christian bloody values.”

“I think we have to be wary of making FGM an issue about ‘us’ and ‘them’, you know,” says an Australian woman, loudly. “The whole attitude is very neo-colonial, don’t you think? I mean, who gets to decide that western ideas about sexual freedom are superior? Colonialism was all about male phallic dominance – we mustn’t encourage a colonialism of the clitoris.”

“It sounds just like the old days,” says the local Chinese journalist, referring to a recent flashpoint: the incident of the Swedish diplomat throwing a tantrum at staff after being denied a table for 12 guests. “In fact, some things haven’t moved on at all,” she tells her companions, three suited western males. “White people have always felt superior in this club, but foreign journalists are still paid more in Hong Kong, so what’s changed there?” The men sip their drinks and give the matter some thought. “Of course, the Vikings had a decent-sized empire,” offers one. “But they never made it this far east.”

A Scotsman is telling a story. “I’ve just come out my building and I’m walking down the hill,” he says. “And you know where those posh flats across the road are? Right, well I’m going past and something catches my eye, like something going down really quick. And I look over behind this skip on the road and there’s a guy lying there. His legs are all mangled and he’s not moving, and he’s, well he’s f***ing dead – there’s no point even checking for a pulse. What the f*** can you do? So, anyway, I call for an ambulance and – no kidding – the guy says they’re too busy and can I call back. Eventually I persuade him to take a note of where I’m calling from and hang up. Meanwhile, there’s a crowd of people gathered around the dead guy and they’re all out with their phones taking pictures. Seriously, I have no words.”

Something dabs the right corner of my vision like a damp cloth. I look across the bar and a couple are crying together; sotto voce, yet somehow unguardedly. Look away, instinct says – but these don’t seem like normal, private tears. He’s mid-40s, with an intent face, Western; she’s younger, Asian, but with a CNN accent gone slurry from wine. It’s 4pm. They’re insensibly sloshed, holding hands and, I realise, praying to the Almighty Lord. Through a cloud of ecstasy, I hear her call: “Help me, Jesus, to be my better self.” The bartender, on his rounds, sets a bowl of peanuts before them. “More drinks?” he asks.

“Well, y’see, when y’leave the place you can get lifetime membership,” says Jack. “That’s what I got – this here card. Just a piece of cardboard back in those days, with your number on it and the photograph. That’s me there. Yeah, well, I was considerably younger then. It’s been 20 years since we went home to America. Always wanted to come visit again, my wife and I, but we never did, God rest her soul. I’m here now, though. Yessir, I’m doing it like we said. Changes? Oh, you bet. Hey, but you know what? It’s like old Marcus Aurelius said – the universe is change. I’m just taking it all in. And y’know, the FCC is still standing. That’s something.”

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If Scotland ‘could’ make it alone, what about Hong Kong?

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

In the long campaign that culminated with Scotland rejecting independence from the UK in a referendum last September, pro-Union politicians are held to have “gone negative”. Be that as it may (and hey, look, it’s a hard task making “No” sound positive), many of those same politicians – including British Prime Minister David Cameron – were frequently to be heard conceding that “of course Scotland could make it on her own” if she opted to.

Beyond population size, Scotland and Hong Kong aren’t closely comparable. What’s more, the idea of independence remains a somewhat specialised interest in Hong Kong in a way that it is no longer in Scotland. But still – try to imagine, just for a moment, the words “of course Hong Kong could make it on her own” sally from the mouth of any mainstream Hong Kong politician, pro-establishment or pan-democrat, let alone from the country’s actual head of government. Cannot? Fair enough – at times, that little word seems to wear well as the SAR’s unofficial motto.

It’s hard to say which goes first: aversion to the question or pessimism about the outlook for Hong Kong if it could somehow reject the first bit of “one country, two systems”. Equally hard is to discern whether those fears are more or less potent than the ones attendant on Hong Kong’s de facto assimilation into mainland China. Whatever, it’s not a discussion that is generally had without the shutters coming down. Without “preferential treatment” from the mainland, goes the coup de grace, Hong Kong would cease to benefit from its rise. Food supplies, water, energy, employment: all would be at risk. Uncoupled, we’d be isolated, bereft, screwed.

It may be a minor point of detail, but few of these contentions are cut-and-dried. “[In the unlikely event of Hong Kong declaring independence] I am not worried about food and water,” HKUST economist Carsten Holz’s tells me. “Food can be imported from anywhere in the world – anything that comes by container costs pretty much the same, no matter from where it comes. Water can be gained from the ocean.”

In terms of food, one might consider an end to import monopolies (Ng Fung Hong, anyone?) to be an economic good in itself. Reports also indicate Hong Kong pays way over the odds for the water it gets from the Dongjiang River and could better utilise what it collects in its own reservoirs. Meanwhile, on energy, there are cross-border power flows to meet supply shortages both ways, meaning that Hong Kong frequently exports electricity to Guangdong.

If you need a model for how these resource issues might be handled more efficiently by an independent Hong Kong, just consider that most solvent of Asian city-states, Singapore. Over the years the Lion City has drastically reduced its reliance on Malaysia through expanding its portfolio of LNG suppliers, pioneering urban agriculture and investing in water recycling, freshwater reservoirs and desalination.

The likely fate of Hong Kong’s financial industry is another matter. The sector is a huge beneficiary of the yuan’s internationalisation, of so-called dim sum bond trading, and of companies investing here in China-listed shares. The official rhetoric during the Occupy protests was that, if it came to it, Hong Kong could simply be bypassed in favour of other financial centres, whether off-shore or in China itself. The question begged is why that’s not happening already.

Instead, Chinese companies continue to raise far more in Hong Kong IPOs than they do on the mainland’s own exchanges. Most finance people will tell you that for all the veiled threats, the mainland still depends on Hong Kong for investment in and out just as much as Hong Kong depends on those same money flows. Hongkongers may be wary of Hong Kong becoming “just another Chinese city”, but the fact that it’s not – that it offers a stable investment environment, the rule of law and enforceable regulations – is what attracts foreign companies. Like Rabelais’ Gargantua waltzing a Chihuahua, the two sides dance around these issues.

For Holz, the big “unknown” is employment. “Much would depend on the mainland regime’s response to Hong Kong declaring independence,” he says. “If it blocked all ties, there would be an immediate and probably severe impact on employment in Hong Kong.” But, he adds: “I am not sure there would be such a drastic response as I suspect that many leading individuals in the regime have private interests in Hong Kong.”

Up until recently, any putative independence movement seemed little more than a straw man for official mouthpieces intent on promoting Article 23 sedition legislation. Such intent has, however, given grist to the mill of a growing “localism”. As we have seen with regard to the June 4 commemorations this year, younger pro-democracy activists question the point of championing democracy for mainland China when efforts in that direction have achieved so little to date. For many living in a city where mainland money has helped push property and business rental prices to breaking point,“one country, two systems” begins to look more and more like a forced marriage.

As recently as Sunday, Beijing’s man, Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei, made it clear it is almost as pointless to agitate for democratic rights in Hong Kong itself. Paving the way for Hong Kong to elect leaders who do not owe their mandate entirely to Beijing could not be tolerated, he acknowledged, as this would be to assent to Hong Kong evolving as a separate political entity. In that sense, concessions on electoral reform might be likened to devolution, which in Britain was meant to settle questions of political legitimacy but instead freed the constitutional genie from its bottle. To mix the metaphor somewhat, that bottle is still being shaken up – as Beijing is likely to have observed.

“The idea of independence is like narcotics,” was Exco member Arthur Li Kwok-cheung’s warning on the subject in March. Narcotics can be harmful, of course, but sometimes liberating too. They also tend to be illegal. Talk of independence isn’t, yet. It may be the unlikeliest of outcomes for Hong Kong – but that doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t have its eyes fully open to what it might mean.


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