kenny hodgart


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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.


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Her Majesty was probably just trying to be polite

This column can also be read at SCMP.COM

If you didn’t know better, you might have been excused last week for thinking The Global Times had suddenly unearthed a sense of humour.

In a piece only published in its Chinese-language edition, the sister paper of The People’s Daily lambasted the “barbarians” in the British media responsible for reporting on Queen Elizabeth being captured on video describing Chinese officials as “very rude”. “As they experience constant exposure to the 5,000 years of continuous Eastern civilisation, we believe they will make progress” when it comes to manners, the paper declared, adding a description of British journalists as “’gossip fiends’… who bare fangs, brandish claws and are very narcissistic.”

It is quite probable that some British journalists merit this characterisation. Some may even feel flattered by it. In their narcissism, moreover, they may not have considered how fortunate they are not to be bundled off at airports for crossing their political masters, as happens in China. Whatever their feelings, though, one must resist the urge to discern satire in the pages of a Communist Party mouthpiece. Indeed, the view expressed by The Global Times rather confirms something we all knew anyway and which the British monarch has exposed afresh: that the Chinese state takes itself rather more seriously than is good for it.

Let’s just recap how an off-the-cuff remark blew up into what the world’s news channels were on hand to label an “explosive” diplomatic wedge. At a garden party at Buckingham Palace last Tuesday, Her Majesty was introduced to the police commander who had been responsible for overseeing security arrangements ahead of Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain last October. As this police commander related how a Chinese delegation had walked out of a meeting with the British ambassador to Beijing, Barbara Woodward, the Queen said: “They were very rude to the ambassador.”

Pressed into welcoming Xi with the full pomp and pageantry of the British state by a government desperate to grease up to the world’s rising superpower, the Queen would have been well aware that his emissaries had been, well, somewhat demanding. It has been reported that they wanted Chinese security officials to be allowed to carry guns and for anti-Chinese protests to be banned. Both requests were denied; however, during the visit a bodyguard tried to insert himself alongside Xi and the Queen in her royal carriage. Sources have revealed, too, that the Palace had to insist that none of the delegation use laptops or tablets during the state banquet in Xi’s honour. The President’s support staff had their own food flown over from Beijing. Moreover, on a previous visit to Britain, in 2014, premier Li Keqiang’s minders complained that the red carpet rolled out for him at Heathrow Airport was not long enough.

In short, if the Queen felt that Chinese officials had at various turns been “very rude”, she almost certainly had good reason for it. Unfortunately for her on this occasion, her own officials let her down by allowing a private conversation to be first filmed then released to media outlets. It has been suggested that she might have been more guarded, but for goodness’ sake, the woman is 90 years old and has spent her entire adult life being guarded. Not for nothing is she parodied for being anodyne in conversation.

One can only speculate as to what Xi Jinping might have had to say in private about his visit to Britain. Perhaps he thought the beer he shared with Prime Minister David Cameron revolting; perhaps he found it amusing that the English Football Association inducted a Chinese player, Sun Jihai, into its Hall of “Fame” when very few people in England know who he is; perhaps he misinterpreted protestors’ two-fingered salutes as gestures of friendship. In any event, some poor hack would be made to pay the price if it ever got out.

As for the Queen, in this day and age she has no choice but to tolerate members of her own fourth estate dragging up their country’s imperial past, and the opium wars, and calling her a hypocrite. In reality, when it comes down to it, she probably just thought it polite to agree with a policewoman.


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Saying women are more ethical than men does not make it so

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

“Women are not only stronger… they’re more ethical,” said the fashion designer Donatella Versace in a recent interview, adding: “the future belongs to women.”

I have been reminded of these comments over the past few days, by the fall from grace of Brazil’s female president, Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff is being impeached, having failed to dispel links to a scandal involving kickbacks from Petrobras, the state-owned oil conglomerate, while she was the country’s energy minister. In that fate, she is rather less fortunate than Cristina Kirchner, who was president of neighbouring Argentina until last December: Kirchner managed two full terms, despite numerous claims of corruption, misuse of public funds and falsification of public statistics against her administration.

I grant you, being completely and utterly bent is something for which Latin American politicians are renowned. And sure enough, most of Rousseff’s political opponents, including the male ones waiting to supplant her regime, also stand accused of offences: perjury, money laundering, misappropriating dosh, forging documents, you name it. Politics in Brazil sounds like a barrel of laughs, unless you’re one of the governed. But, anyway, the point is this: the route to advancing equality of the sexes taken by women like Rousseff appears to be equality of venality. What happened to being more ethical? Eh, Donatella?

In the US, however vile and unpleasant Hillary Clinton’s opponents on the right, she knows better than to campaign on an ethics ticket. Firstly, she is a Clinton. And secondly, it seems improbable that she has ever held a position on any issue that hasn’t been tradeable for votes. Nevertheless, a two-fold pitch of being a woman and, by way of corollary, not Donald Trump, should be enough to put her in the White House. If that sounds like an oversimplification, it’s one that’s backed up by the polls: electing America’s first female president is the top reason given for backing the otherwise unloved Hillary in 2016.

The notion that women are a pacifying force in public life, that they are more collaborative and compassionate than men, who all want to be Julius Caesar, was perpetuated in the U.S. by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Plenty of evidence contradicts that thesis, however. In a meta-analysis of  studies involving more than 12 million people, researchers at Iowa State University found an almost 80 per cent overlap between men and women on more than 75 per cent of psychological characteristics. In everything from morality to risk-taking, intelligence, personality traits, leadership style and satisfaction with life, they discovered men and women are just about the same.

The problem here for men arises in deciding which of these competing narratives is less likely to rouse feminists to anger. On the one hand, while they may encourage us to question what we think of as male characteristics, what moron among us would dare to deny any aspect of what women decide constitutes womanhood? On the other hand, it is probably as reckless, if not more, to state a belief in differences between the genders – unless one is willing to go the way of the gelded sycophant and admit that women are just better all-round at being human in the 21st century. That may well be the case but, Jesus, get some spine lads.

Back to actual politics, and women in it, though. For every Catherine the Great, Russia’s enlightened despot, and every Cory Aquino, who was regarded in the Philippines as a national treasure, I will show you a Wu Zetain and a Gloria Arroyo. Wu, who ruled China for 15 years from 690 AD, is thought to have strangled her own daughter in order to frame a rival. Arroyo, who left office in 2010, remains under hospital arrest in Manila, charged with plundering state coffers.

In Britain, opinion is still divided on Margaret Thatcher, but compassion and collaboration are not words unhesitatingly thrown her way. When she died, the singer Morrissey called her “A barbaric terror without an atom of humanity.” Another conservative, Angela Merkel, fares rather better in her country’s affections, but her approach to diplomacy has been described as “Kissingerian”, for which read cunning as a rat.

On the left, Indira Ghandi was a ruthless political operator who went to war with Pakistan and ruled India by decree during a two-year state of emergency. Julia Gillard’s backdoor grab for power in Australia would have impressed Machiavelli. And, seemingly quiescent over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, even Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi has let her halo slip since her release from house arrest in 2010.

None of this is to argue against having more female politicians. According to the United Nations, the percentage of women in politics globally has almost doubled in the past two decades, but it’s still only at 22 per cent. Some places are going at the issue with less zeal than others. Lots of countries now have some kind of gender quota system in place, though. And where I come from, the government in the devolved Scottish parliament has a completely gender-balanced cabinet, in addition to its three main parties all having female leaders.

It is rare nowadays that we get to say Scotland represents the future of anything. In this instance, though, it does. Personally, I think anyone who wants a career in politics should be put in chains, but the quotas? I’m all for them. In the west, women are doing better in education than men and they’re starting businesses at a higher rate too. Online, social media networks are culturally feminised spaces. Why shouldn’t public life fall in line? More quotas, I say. Women-only shortlists. Ban men from standing for election. Ban them from leaving the house. Just don’t tell me women are going to run the world differently.