kenny hodgart


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It’s always rush hour in Hong Kong

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

I don’t expect it’s a hugely controversial observation for a foreigner to make that for all their many virtues Hongkongers are possessed of a certain impatience. People here seem to be in a constant hurry: to get out of the lift, to get on the train, to put in more hours at work, to make sure their lunch doesn’t run off its plate. Everything is time lost or gained; results must be instant. There’s a problem? Sack the helper. Send in a tutor. Fire off a dozen instant messages.

The other day, out on my rounds, I took a phone call from an unrecognised number – something I’m usually careful not to do because nine times out of ten when I pick up I’m met with a snatch of music, followed by a couple of rings and then someone saying “wai?” (Which puts me in a distemper, because whoever is on the end of the line made the call, not me). But no – this time it was a member of our much-loved public relations community phoning me about a story. Had I received her email? Possibly… When had it been sent? Just now. Awkward pause. What did it say? Oh, maybe you need to read it and reply to me. Yes, OK. I checked: it asked me if I could acknowledge receipt of an attached document. Dutifully, I did.

Perhaps I do Hong Kong a disservice by imagining things are different elsewhere. Certainly, the proliferation of channels of instantaneous communication, all jammed into your smartphone, means that unless you throw the damn thing away it is harder, wherever you are in the world, to attain serenity. But, really, we’ve arrived at an appalling state of affairs, as a society and a race. Take Whatsapp, for example. It shows when you’re online – so if you’re already having a conversation and someone else starts in with a whole other thread of messages, it’s impossible to duck out without seeming like you’re deliberately ignoring them.

The contention, of course, is that all of this “connectivity” means people are getting on with their lives more efficiently, that they’re doing things quicker and better and with fewer misunderstandings. Rubbish. All it means is that you spend half your waking hours responding to demands for updates and worrying about whether it’s bad form not to reciprocate emoticon usage.

For some people, responding to emails at midnight, or 6am, or two minutes after their out-of-office ping-back has informed you they are on annual leave, shows how hard-working and committed they are. They’re suckers. But it’s also not really their fault: they’ve simply internalised all the angst governments and corporations go about spreading to make us all feel like we’re personally responsible for slackness in the economy. You might spend your days recycling information in the hypomanic mills of the post-industrial knowledge economy. You might labour as a mere pusher of digital pens. But you’re a lazy bastard and anaemic growth is your fault. Got that?

Over the last few decades, time-saving plant and machinery has increased “productivity” in ways that make the sweat of our brows like unto driblets in the ocean. My guess is that we feel a sense of collective redundancy and guilt about this – anxieties which the dismal, and dismally inexact, science of economics can easily be mobilised to bolster. Growth is one thing, productivity another. But productivity growth must also be maintained.

Not all technological innovations are equal, though. And while instantaneous information might be useful in battle, or for nailing criminals, it is not always. Twitter consists entirely of media folk preening themselves and not doing any actual work. Rolling news is increasingly just people talking about what’s in tomorrow’s newspapers, which ruins the fun of buying a newspaper. And real-time market information (at least according to the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Intelligent Investment’ columnist Jason Zweig) is a terrible idea that probably leaves investors worse off over the long run.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my phone is making all kinds of noises and I must go to it – if only to maintain the illusion of productivity.


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Hong Kong politics – the basics

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

I am often struck by how well-informed Hongkongers are about stuff happening elsewhere. After the referendums on Scottish independence and Brexit, for example, many here seem to have more of a grasp on Britain’s complex constitutional affairs than large swathes of the people who voted.

The complexity of Hong Kong’s own affairs is of a different order, however. For a city so inhabited and visited by foreigners, it seems to me that its political situation is not well-understood by onlookers and harder to grasp than most. No doubt this is partly due to a lack of curiosity, and partly because international media take only superficial notice. It’s also because politics here is a conversation that tends to defy the outsider points of access.

Here, then, ahead of next month’s Legislative Council elections, is my stab at a 10-point guide to Hong Kong politics for the ingenue and the bystander – and the hordes on social media baffled as to why the city has its own Olympic team.

1. Everything in Hong Kong revolves around the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. Whenever any action is proposed, someone will protest that it is against the Basic Law.

2. The Basic Law is much-cherished. Disagreement is rife, though, as to what large chunks of it mean, and, more importantly, who gets to decide. Lawyers argue as to whether its legitimacy derives from the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, of 1984, or from the National People’s Congress. The smart money will always be on the NPC making its own mind up. The internet tells me that these days the word “basic” can mean “thoughtless and vapid.”

3. A number of rights and freedoms are protected under the Basic Law, in-keeping with the principle of “one country, two systems”. The two systems it refers to are i) cadre capitalism in mainland China, and ii) crony capitalism in Hong Kong.

4. Article 45 of the Basic Law enshrines the “ultimate aim” of having the city’s Chief Executive elected via universal suffrage. There has been something of a hold-up with this. Last year, lawmakers sank proposals that would have allowed Beijing to pre-screen candidates, reasoning this would be against the Basic Law. The proposals’ sponsors argued, meanwhile, that the breach would be in allowing candidates who opposed the Central Government to stand.

5. There are political parties of the left and of the right in Hong Kong, liberals and conservatives. These distinctions pale, however, against where they each stand on the issue of what to do with the Basic Law.

6. Whenever Hongkongers have time to do anything, they form a new political party. The result is more parties than anyone can count, far less remember the names of. There are currently 16 parties represented in the Legislative Council, alongside 10 independent lawmakers. In the upcoming election, at least three dozen parties have put candidates forward.

7. The largest single party in Legco since 2004, The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, does everything it can to block democratic reform. The Liberal Party is not liberal on social issues and also opposes democracy. It is in accord with the pan-democrat parties, however, in seeking to defenestrate Leung Chun-ying, the city’s current Chief Executive. The pan-democrat camp tends to splinter every so often, like a Roman candle.

8. The last few months have seen the pace of party formation accelerate, primarily under the banner of “localism” – a reaction, in large part, to the stalled delivery of democratic reforms. Polls suggest more and more Hongkongers view themselves solely as Hongkongers, and not as citizens of China.

9. Most localist groups adopt an openly hostile stance towards towards the Central government. The most radical call for full independence for Hong Kong, with some suggesting a period of transition involving return to British rule. It is unclear as to whether Britain has been party to discussions. The English names of localist parties – Demosisto and Youngspiration, for example – often sound like 1980s pop groups.

10. Controversially, six intended localist candidates have been disqualified from running for election, while localist organisations have had difficulty registering as companies. According to the Electoral Affairs Commission, arguing in favour of full autonomy for Hong Kong runs counter to the Basic Law.

All perfectly clear, now? As I thought…


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Blair was an internationalist to the core

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

It’s telling that when they were lining up to scold Britain in 2013, both Russia and China took aim at its self-image. A small island that no-one pays attention to was the verdict of Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. “Just an old European country apt for travel and study” chimed the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times.

Fear of insignificance has rather haunted vital regions of the British psyche, perhaps for as long as the country has been without imperial possessions. Certainly, as detailed in Lord Chilcot’s voluminous and long-awaited report on his inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War, published earlier this month, it haunted Tony Blair.

The former Prime Minister’s determination to go to war, Chilcot tells us, was underpinned by a sense of anxiety about Britain’s role on the world stage. In particular, he wanted to show that its ‘special relationship’ with the United States mattered; that however much George W Bush might have been prepared to walk a unilateralist line in 2003, deep down America really needed Britain on board.

Chilcot’s report is about five times the length of War and Peace. Unpacking it has therefore served as a distraction from the fallout of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – a decision that has caused its own surfeit of angst. It has also meant assessments of the freshly-exeunted David Cameron’s Prime Ministerial legacy have jockeyed with renewed interest in the record of a man (Blair) who left office nine years ago.

The trouble with all of this is that Blair’s enemies – and they are legion, on both the left and right of British politics – hardly needed to read what Chilcot had to say about him, because they had already made their minds up as to the extent of his villainy. However nuanced the report, enough of it can be marshalled to succour the notion that the war was fought illegally – and for some that’s all that matters, as though proving the point might make the big bad world more ordered, more rational.

Britain’s forces were ill-equipped and ill-prepared for war in Iraq. Their attempts to hold Basra ended in humiliation. Unfortunately, knowing these things gives us no better idea of how to deal with failing or failed autocratic and authoritarian states in the Middle East.

As far as Blair is concerned, his part in the downfall of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was at odds with how he approached other despots in the region. In his attempts to seek engagement with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, he understood the trade-off between stability and tolerating intractable regimes. That none of them grew any less intractable led, by and by, to the Arab Spring, and to the civil wars that have followed.

By 2011, however, there was little appetite in the west for new military entanglements. Western powers willed democracy but withheld any meaningful support to see it delivered. In Syria, moderate rebels looked for help where they could get it, only to find themselves engulfed by a millenialist death cult. The result is a murderous stalemate that has caused about 11 million people to flee their homes. The shockwaves from Syria’s collapse are felt in all parts of the Middle East and Europe.

There are those for whom all of this goes back to the invasion of Iraq, for whom Islamic State’s neo-medieval brutality is a phenomenon born entirely of Western fallacy and folly. Neither provable nor completely falsifiable, theirs is a view of the world that will retain its appeal sufficiently enough to ensure, if nothing else, that Tony Blair’s reputation remains benighted, whatever the success of moves now to impeach or prosecute him.

The rueful irony is that for all his foreign policy failures, Blair was an internationalist to the core. His government – reforming, progressive, pluralistic – embraced globalisation and declared Britain more open to the world than ever before. When he stood down, he left it a little less gray and a little more gay than he had found it. Arguably, it’s his vision voters finally rejected with Brexit. Whether it can survive remains to be seen.


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A toast to Xi’s crackdown on boozing

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

Donald Trump apparently once jeopardised a business deal with a group of Hong Kong billionaires by declining to indulge in a drinking contest with them.

According to the unwritten ordinances of contemporary punditry, this preamble should lead – like all Trump-related preambles – into some veiled, or even unveiled, disparagement of his lack of deportment, his racism, and most crucially his hair.

Not today, though. No sir. Even a stopped clock tells the right time every 12 hours and I’m with Trump on his tee-totalism. The man is mad, bad and dangerous enough without getting on the El Dorado. But look: as arguments for abstinence go, the prodigious drinking that attends a large part of both state and commercial activity in these latitudes is hard to beat.

Therein also lies the reason why President Xi Jinping ought to be given some credit for his campaign against the mainland’s drinking classes. Last month (June) brought a win in his efforts to curb what might properly be described as Russian levels of boozing in public life as cadres in Anhui province were told that, with the exception of events involving foreign affairs, or held to attract investment, there would be no more drinking at official dinners – otherwise known as “the office”.

The ban, designed to combat an ingrained culture of “working at the drinking table” according to Xinhua, came in the wake of an investigation into several deaths in the province among functionaries who had been too assiduous in their gan bei toasts and succumbed to alcohol poisoning. It also followed Xi’s move, shortly after assuming office in 2012, to place restrictions on alcohol at military functions. The practice of lower-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army endlessly toasting their superiors was held to be causing widespread liver disease and elevated blood pressure, not to mention chronic badger breath, among the officer class at large.

It’s my suspicion that listening to Party orders of business in Anhui province is not something that can easily be endured sober. It would be wrong to make light of this matter, though. Where politics and drink intersect it is customary to refer to Winston Churchill, and if there is one point about drinking on which Britain’s “Greatest Briton” is clear, it is that no-one but he could achieve what he managed on the drinking regimen to which he was devoted. “I have been brought up and trained to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk,” said the man who liked to drink almost as much as he liked being at war.

The reality is that many who drink to excess in public life are tragic, second-rate characters, and it seems to me the archetype here is Boris Yeltsin, a Falstaffian figure who revelled in representing a tradition of alcoholism bridging Russia’s new era of capitalist autocracy with its Communist and Tsarist ones. As Bill Clinton tells it, he (Yeltsin) once got so bladdered on a visit to Washington that he was found roaming Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the White House, dressed only in his underpants and attempting to hail a taxi. He wanted to get pizza, see. As an adjunct to that, he was completely incompetent, sold off the state’s prize assets to gangsters and started two wars in Chechnya.

In the mainland, where in certain contexts it’s considered bad form to refuse a drink, there’s something of that buffoonish macho spirit of recklessness in the alcoholic brinksmanship of the baijou dinner. As one civil servant in the Anhui city of Ma’anshan told the China Daily: “Many Chinese believe they can judge a person’s quality through observing the attitude and style of one’s drinking.”

It may be that Xi Jinping’s main concern is to see that his country’s officials do not dilute what the writer Yuan Weishi called their “wolf’s milk” – Yuan’s phrase to describe nationalistic indoctrination – with headier brews. Yet while the President’s crackdown on corruption means a little transparency here and there without significantly changing how things work, clearer heads in government as a result of reforming the country’s drinking culture might actually result in actions that make life better for people.


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A mess of Cameron’s own making

This column can also be read at SCMP.COM

On the morning of June 23, the people of Britain will wake up, look outside, and ask themselves how well-disposed they feel towards the French.

If the answer comes back that for all their faults they are charming and dependable neighbours, then Britain’s place in the European Union is safe. If, on the other hand, it’s one of those days where France brews up in the mind as wholly smug and irritating, then the whole European project may be imperilled.

Yes, that’s probably a distortion of what will happen next week. The point stands, however, that the outcome of Britain’s referendum on whether or not to leave the EU will hinge on voters’ gut instincts. With the entire debate consisting of two sets of campaigners (Remain and Leave) lobbing forth outlandish predictions of the dire future that awaits if the result goes the other way, how could things be otherwise?

Depending on who you listen to, staying in the EU will either leave Britons richer, more empowered on the world stage and happier, both at work and in their personal lives, or shoeless, hatless and overrun by foreign criminals. The chasm between these competing views can only fuel distaste for politicians. More fundamentally, though, it should warn us, if warning were needed, that referendums are no way to arrive at practical policy decisions.

There are, after all, good reasons why they are used sparingly in most democracies and hardly at all in Britain. Not the least of these is that they normalise decision-making without personal accountability. The most extreme example of direct democracy is also the nuttiest. The state of California’s ballot initiative allows voters to take much of the business of policy into their own hands. The result is that limits on tax rates permanently depress revenues, which in turn enrages those who vote on bills to spend money on services only to find the legislature has none.

The European country with the greatest appetite for referendums, meanwhile, is France. Charles de Gaulle, who incidentally wanted Britain nowhere near any supranational European body, had them introduced into the Fifth Republic’s constitution in order to override Parliament when it suited him.

There are circumstances where referendums seem entirely justified, of course. Specifically, where existential or constitutional issues pertaining to sovereignty arise, people want straightforward questions to which they can give straightforward answers. Those in favour of “Brexit” frame Britain’s relationship with Europe in such terms, and are committed to re-establishing (as they see it) the sovereignty of Britain’s own parliament – albeit by circumventing it on this occasion. For their part, Remain campaigners, headed by sitting Prime Minister David Cameron, consider Britain to be perfectly sovereign inside the EU. Tellingly, that view seems to be shared by the rest of the world.

What, then, motivated Mr Cameron to call this referendum? In the most charitable analysis, he did so because he wanted to finally give the British people their say on a political union which they had never directly endorsed: the European Economic Community, continued membership of which Britons backed in a referendum in 1975, was merely a framework for trade. Judged in a harsher light, he did it because he thought it would get him off the hook for a while with the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, which he leads. There was, certainly, no great popular clamour for this vote before he committed to it back in 2013.

In the latter scenario, things have backfired. The modest proposals for EU reform Mr Cameron extracted from other European leaders prior to announcing a referendum date are now viewed by his opponents as evidence of a lack of sincerity all along. To be sure, a week out from polling day, victory is within sight: Leave has made gains but most credible observers predict Remain will make it over the line. And yet, even so, there’s something – dare one say it – un-British about throwing a lot of graphs and projections at people and asking them to fight your internal party battles. If they decide to stick it to the French, it’s your mess.