kenny hodgart


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The best obtainable snapshot of impending doom in Hong Kong

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM

It is a rare thing these days to find oneself at liberty to read an entire day’s newspaper in a sitting. “Distracted from distraction by distraction … in this twittering world” writes T.S Eliot in Burnt Norton, and he is not wrong. Alright, I skipped 11 other lines with that “…”. Plus: they hadn’t even got television news yet in his day, never mind Twitter. Nor did he have children. But still, he was a man ahead of his time, old T.S.

Printing newspapers will be done away with some day soon, you know. Either that or they’ll become a niche curiosity, like cars with steering wheels, or ivory cufflinks. Or cufflinks of any sort, for that matter. Either way, it’ll be your fault, blog reader – you, with your low attention span and gadabout reading habits, your social media and your windows and your apps. Newspapers are dying because you’ve stopped buying them. You’ve decided to spend the money on other stuff: hot milk blasted with coffee, Netflix, gifts for other people’s already-spoilt children. Frankly it’s a nonsense and you should have a talk with yourself. Just think of the money you’re saving by not smoking all day like everyone did not that long ago. And don’t imagine you’re excused by saying you never used to read the thing anyway. In the old days plenty of people bought a daily newspaper simply in order to leave it unopened on a telephone stand. They threw it in the bin the next day, or hid it under a carpet to be rediscovered years hence, or used it to wrap their grandmother against the cold in winter. And they did so because to buy a newspaper was the right thing to do.

In truth I am out of the habit of stockpiling newspapers under carpets and as guilty as anyone of not reading the ones I remember to buy. But, every so often, mindful of that thing Carl Bernstein said about good newspapers serving up the best obtainable version of the truth each day, I do make an appointment to sit down and read all of the South China Morning Post. It’s still the most therapeutic way, I find, of fathoming what’s what in Hong Kong. Instead of venturing online in search only of that which interests me then falling prey to all manner of bait-mongers, I’m effectively saying: gimme what you’ve got, warts, biases and all.

The snarl I’m coming to is this, though – the snapshot of the truth I gained from scouring the pages of the SCMP the other day was anything but therapeutic. It was, on the contrary, a vision of impending doom, catastrophe, unease, horror, pain, decline, dissolution, war and possibly apocalypse. Such, in fact, was my distress that I failed to take solace from the likelihood that non-newspaper readers are every bit as vulnerable to this tide of ruin as newspaper readers. And in that magnanimous vein, I think I perform a service by relating it.

In the news pages I learned the following: that there is a Cold War-style stand-off at the DMZ; that China is suspected of building a radar system in the Spratlys that may hasten World War III; that intimidation of journalists is being redoubled with a new threat of graft proceedings against state media workers; that the Communist Party’s revolutionary princelings are hunkering down for a “protracted war”. In the introduction to an Insight column, I discover: “One of the most talked-about topics these days is undoubtedly China”. It is an effort to read on.

In Hong Kong there is an alarming rise in HIV cases. There is rape, robbery and assault. Meanwhile, it is suggested financial secretary John Tsang’s budget handouts are having a “placebo effect” on a soon-to-be flatlining economy. Standard Chartered has reported annual losses and its top directors won’t be getting a bonus for 2015. Surely a public fund will be raised, you ask, not unreasonably. In America, a man has been fired from the staff of one presidential hopeful for alleging that another presidential hopeful said the bible did not contain all the answers to everything. (Relax, he said the opposite.)

I read some more about the fallout from the violence in Mong Kok the other week. Richard Wong writes that Hong Kong’s “growing socioeconomic divide… has deepened anxiety, insecurity and conflict in day-to-day life.” Expect more social unrest. In the Property Section, it’s all about property prices “sinking”. I briefly wonder if this is a good thing, at least for all the people who currently can’t afford to buy, but there is no mention of this. Instead, there is cause to worry that spending is down at Chow Tai Fook. It is “depressed”, you see. Draw up one of those keyword cloud things and you will have a picture of the toxic verbal traffic in my head: “economic woes”, “market volatility”, “bleak outlook”, “deeply divided,” “Senator Ted Cruz”.

Finally, there is some light relief as I turn to the sports pages. One of global football’s most dedicated mercenaries, Sven Goran Eriksson – now manager at Shanghai SIPG – says that China will win the World Cup “in a decade”. If you’re laying a carpet, make sure that one goes down nice and flat.


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Note to Henry Tang: Hongkongers have no interest in increasing mainland tourist numbers

This blog post can also be viewed at SCMP.COM

To date, political legitimacy remains an alien concept in Hong Kong. There is but one law in politics, however, and for all the ineptitude and inertia of the Special Administrative Region’s special administrators, they live by it. Failure to do so would be rather to invite the scorn of governing classes the world over, and for good reason, because it is an incredibly simple law. Indeed, all it demands is activity – any activity. Or at the least the semblance of activity. It is, of course, the Do Something law, and it requires that Something Must Be Done. For any problem (or perceived problem) at hand, Doing Something is the thing. Doing Something, mark you, needn’t involve any kind of solution. Usually, spending public money and/or setting up a new body composed of well-remunerated factotums will suffice.

Sure as eggs is eggs, there was always going to be a reaction to figures trickling through in recent weeks and months regarding “reduced” numbers of mainland tourist visits to Hong Kong. First came the calls from the tourism lobby for more government money to arrest such a distressing and inadmissible slide. Yiu Si-wing, the tourism sector lawmaker and director of China Travel Service, suggested Beijing might be approached to consider adding to the list of cities whose residents it allows to visit Hong Kong on individual travel permits. “It is essential that Hong Kong’s hoteliers and shop landlords maintain their profit margins, and the only way we can do this is to beg the central government to keep sending us more nouveau riche suckers from cities we’ve never heard of,” he said. OK, yeah, I made most of that quote up but the gist of it is accurate.

The big issues call for the heavy-hitters, though, and so, after giving the matter the benefit of his consideration, last week Henry Tang Ying-yen took a break from whatever it is he has been doing since failing to become Chief Executive in 2012 to announce that what was needed was a Tourism Bureau to sort things out. Such a bureau would “capture development opportunities”, you understand.

Insofar as the numbers are in any sense down, incidentally, it is their rate of growth which is down. With the headline annual figure rising sharply ever since restrictions on tourist visas to Hong Kong for mainlanders were first eased in 2003, the city now receives some 60 million such tourists, accounting for around 80 per cent of all tourists in the SAR, every year. Analysts predict growth will slow over the next five years to three per cent annually. In anyone’s book that is still more people from over the border coming to Hong Kong, which by 2020 will remain the biggest market for outbound mainland tourists.

Granted, overall market share is down and ergo Something Must Be Done. But still – some issues spring to mind. Chief among these is that capturing a greater proportion of mainland tourist numbers is likely to interest Hongkongers even less than having Henry Tang as their chief executive. It’s not hard to read the public mind on this: popular antipathy towards visitors from the PRC, whether grounded in reason, self-regard or simply narrow-mindedness, has been a consistent feature of Hong Kong life for some time now. And whatever the over-riding sentiment, objections to an ever-increasing mainland tourist presence have more logic to them than any policy of soliciting that presence with no real discernible benefits to Hong Kong.

There is, firstly, the obvious point that the city’s ability to easily absorb more tourist numbers has not kept pace with their growth over the last decade and more. Frustrations over the transformation of a retail landscape that used to serve the needs of local people are also understandable. Equally pertinent, though, is that the economic arguments for attracting lots more mainland tourists are largely poppycock, as has been ably demonstrated by the Post’s Jake van der Kamp on several occasions. Sure, tourism tends to benefit that small rent-seeking class of corporate landlords who call the tune in Hong Kong, but it benefits few others – including, arguably, those whom the industry keeps in low-skilled, low-paid jobs. Meanwhile, the city sees little of the gains from money spent with foreign-owned air carriers and hotel groups, or on imported food, drink and luxury goods. In light of which reality the only sane response to the revelation that increasing numbers of mainlanders are now choosing to visit Japan instead of Hong Kong because it’s currently cheaper to buy a Luis Vuitton handbag there might be: “big f***ing deal.”

The suspicion that some of the concrete Henry has been forced to shovel into his illegal basement in Kowloon Tong may have seeped into his brain is also supported by the fact that Hong Kong already has a Tourism Commission. And a Tourism Board. And a Travel Industry Council. Between them, the first two manage to spend around HK$900 million annually. On what is anyone’s guess. The Tourism Commission, by the way, comes under the Industry and Tourism Branch of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, which is not to be confused with the Development Bureau, the Trade Development Council or the Trade and Industry Department. There is also, note, the Economic Analysis and Business Facilitation Unit, something called the Hong Kong Productivity Council, and, remarkably, an Efficiency Unit.

It’s not hard to get a flavour of what Henry’s envisaged Bureau might be all about besides gobbling up public funds on its own account. The former Financial Secretary and Chief Secretary of Hong Kong has supported every major infrastructure project and/or tourist “attraction” going, from the Kai Tak cruise terminal to Disneyland, the Macau bridge, high-speed rail and the third runway at Chep Lap Kok. In each instance, the Hong Kong taxpayer has been rinsed to keep airlines, hoteliers, developers and landlords in clover.

In an alternative universe, Hong Kong might be able to attract a more diverse range of visitors drawn not only by the chance to sample over-priced international cuisine and shop at Givenchy. That aim would be supported by an agency brimming with ideas to leverage the city’s heritage and cultural oomph. Henry Tang’s imprint would be nowhere near it.


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Five of the best: tales of (non-Chinese) censorship

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM

It is probable that if there was advantage to be had from the sun rising in the evening, the Chinese government would have it so. State media would be full of reports of supper-time breakfasting in Jiangxi province and 1am assemblies of elderly citizens in Shanghai parks.

In the field of economics, presently, China is learning that so long as it permits money to flow freely in and out of the country it cannot sit on interest rates and also expect the yuan’s exchange rate value to hold up. But still it pretends all things are possible; to admit otherwise would be to accept some degree of impotence. 

The point, I think, is that China likes control. And nowhere is this more obvious in what it suffers to be said or written about itself. Chinese authorities prohibit the spread of information and accurate reporting about disasters and their own efforts to cope with them; the country’s history under Communism is only sketchily taught in schools; internet users are required to register themselves, the better to “protect their own privacy”; and journalists are never done being locked up. Meanwhile, the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) not only acts as a censor for domestic media but increasingly for Hollywood too. 

As its transgressors in modern China will attest, censorship is no laughing matter. And yet, and yet: occasionally the whole business just becomes so utterly preposterous and cretinous that it cannot help but add incidentally to the gaiety – in the old sense – of nations to recount it. 

In its wisdom the state broadcaster, China Central Television, earlier this month decided to pixelate the face of Hong Kong actor Wong Hei during a popular Sunday evening broadcast. Wong’s crime was having shared a link on social media to a news report about a book suggesting Zhou Enlai, premier of the People’s Republic from 1949 until 1976, was gay. The risk to viewers of beholding his chiseled visage was, you will appreciate, marked.

Donkey-brained, or simply bizarre, acts of censorship are by no means exclusive to China, of course. Here, then, some more of my own favourite recent examples of half-witted censorship from around the world: 

1. Besides incinerating vast piles of European cheese, in retaliation against Western sanctions imposed over their misdemeanours in Ukraine, the Russians have been been busy banning books. In Yekaterinburg, perhaps eager to take the lead and impress the bosses in Moscow, officials instructed their city’s libraries in August to “prevent access” to anything written by Antony Beevor or the late John Keegan, two British historians whose work is “imbued with the propagandistic stereotypes of Nazism”, chronicling as it does raping and looting by Red Army soldiers across Eastern Europe during their epic defeat of the Wehrmacht. The British eggheads’ source material? Russia’s own archives. Meanwhile, a tit-for-tat “information war” between Russia and Ukraine has prompted all manner of proscriptions on both sides. For its part, Ukraine has blacklisted Russia’s adopted son, the French tax exile Gerard Depardieu, labeling him a threat to national security. 

2. In December, a school in Philadelphia removed Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum owing to its use of a word used commonly in the 1880s: “nigger”. First banned in 1885, in Massachusetts, for being “trash and suitable only for the slums”, the novel was not deemed sufficiently “inclusive” by the school’s principal, Art Hall, who said: “I do not believe that we’re censoring. I really do believe that this is an opportunity for the school to step forward and listen to the students.” One supposes it would be too much to ask  teachers in this day and age to educate students as to the meaning of context or introduce them to anything intellectually discomforting. Better to let them set the parameters of literary criticism themselves. Meanwhile, also in America, the University of Wisconsin’s Inclusive Excellence Center last year added the phrase “politically correct” to its list of censored terms. PC, it said, had become a “dismissive” label used to imply people were attempting to “police language”. Presumably the word “irony” got the same treatment a while back. 

3. According to a producer of Iranian TV commercials quoted a couple of years ago on Iranwire, a blog run by “diaspora” journalists, Iran’s shadowy committee of government censors once embargoed footage, intended to promote a tomato paste, of a chicken in a pot. The bird’s thighs were deemed to be “sexually arousing”. The producer added: “There was a time when women could not appear in commercials, back in the 1990s. If you take a look at the commercials made at that time you would see two men appearing in soap or shampoo commercials. You would think that the commercials were pitched entirely to a gay audience, or for a gay television network, because virtually every ad involved a male couple smiling or sharing some aspect of household life.”

4. In Britain, where the National Health Service does not used the word “obese” in its National Child Measurement Programme for fear of “stigmatizing the child”, but where children are fatter than ever due to lack of physical activity, it often seems the nation’s energies are mostly spent on being offended and gagging people. Germaine Greer, the Australian-born writer whose shoulder has been to the wheel of feminist liberation for almost half a century suddenly finds herself the target of feminist students concerned to “no platform” her. From having been a paragon of radical chic, her views on gender reassignment – she says the urge comes from a form of “body dysmorphia” – now put her in the bad corner with Genghis Khan, Josef Mengele, Bill Cosby et al. “A disgrace to feminism and society”, her sin is to believe that those of us given penises are men. 

5. For all the organisation’s murderous depravity, in reading its edicts one is just as often struck by the philistinism of ISIS. There’s almost, at times, a Spode-ish quality about them (see Spode, Roderick, the British fascist leader in the Jeeves novels). Pigeon-breeding, for instance, is forbidden, because “the sight of the birds’ genitals as they fly overhead is offensive to Islam.” Other things which were outlawed in ISIS-controlled areas in 2015 included: songs and music; the study of maths, evolution, chemistry, music, history, the arts, psychology, philosophy and social studies; participation in sports; women showing any of themselves in public, including their hands; smoking; shaving; and skinny jeans.