Living in Hong Kong you sometimes feel that cynicism is an inadequate response to what’s going on and that sarcasm is not really up to the task of trying to make sense of it all.
To illustrate this feeling here are some recent random examples. Put together they constitute a pattern of behavior.
There are strict laws in place forbidding Mainland law enforcement officials from operating in the SAR, yet Democratic Party member Howard Lam alleges he was hustled over the border, beaten up and dumped back in Hong Kong after been warned not to maintain contact with Liu Xia, widow of Liu Xiabo. In a society where the police could be relied upon to thoroughly investigate this matter without fear of political meddling, confidence in the value of the investigation would be high; however following the disinterred police response to the abdication of the Causeway Bay booksellers, confidence is low.
The new Chief Executive has nothing to say here but she had plenty to say about her August visit to Beijing where wise and extremely helpful Mainland officials are, apparently, going to help us develop as an international financial center, yes, that’s what she said with a straight face.
Guangdong authorities, presumably also wise and helpful, took three days before bothering to inform their Hong Kong counterparts that a collision in the Pearl River Delta has produced a major oil slick heading to the South of Hong Kong. The new undersecretary for the environment said there was no delay here even though measures could have been taken to reduce local sea and beach pollution. Our supine officials fully understand that they are not allowed to criticize their Mainland counterparts.
The head of a Tuen Mun primary school is alleged not only to have artificially inflated the school’s registration roll to ensure higher government subsidies but also forced teachers to stand at border crossing stations handing out leaflets to attract more pupils and, bizarrely, bullied them into buying cake coupons for the school in return for being granted sick leave.
Although we have a vast and overbearing education bureaucracy, how come none of the bureaucrats spotted any of this while doling money out to the school? And what about the schools supervisory committee, were they asleep on the job or simply complicit here? The time-servers who proliferate in the public sector underwhelm at every opportunity.
Then there are the growing allegations over abuse at juvenile detention centers. The Correctional Services Department, predictably, says that this is news to them because all previous reports of abuse have either been withdrawn, rejected or are still under review. The disciplined services are very good at protecting their own people but where is the protection for citizens who are in their custody – yes, I know that includes criminals but the strength of civil society is tested not at its strongest but its weakest points.
Meanwhile property developers are busy rolling out new plans for nano-apartments that, given the price of local property, are about the only thing many buyers and renters can afford. In allegedly prosperous Hong Kong, people are being crammed into smaller and smaller living spaces yet the government claims that tackling the housing problem is one of its highest priorities.
The reality is that the government is largely oblivious to the housing problem as it focuses on the different issue of the property problem and addresses this with a series of consistently ineffective measures aimed at lowering prices. If the government were really interested in housing matters it would be focusing on social housing and improved home ownership arrangements.
A golden, or should I say a tattered thread, connects all these random examples of official arrogance, stupidity and a woeful lack of interest in standing up for the citizens that public servants are supposed to serve. And they wonder why Hong Kong people protest so much.
Caption:Our reward for toadying to the Mainland.
Integrating the Pearl River Delta to form a Greater Bay Area conurbation is founded on the compelling logic that the largest urban area in the world, with high incomes, leading manufacturing and education facilities, and a stock of accumulated human capital unmatched in any emerging market can only bring about greater prosperity. We are at the center of this and can buttress this mix with a greater degree of liberty and the rule of law.
The economic benefits of faster transport, more efficient linkages between airports, and continued regional specialization are real. Professor Richard Wong of Hong Kong University’s School of Economics and Finance has shown that our “soft skills”, not least a common law system that allows for efficient contracting and adjudication of disputes, provide the region a soft power that is world class.
Yet the Pearl River Delta is not the only region in the world to have these advantages, and we can learn from successes – and failures – elsewhere. Perhaps the greatest urban and industrial center of the last century was the Tri-State Region, which includes New York City and large parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, with a population of around 23 million. We do not need to dwell on the positives of the region, a world-class center of industry, commerce, education, and culture. However, we should learn from its mistakes.
I have visited this region for 30 years and observed at first hand its ups and downs. Right now, greater New York is in eclipse. Minor repairs to Penn Station have been billed as delivering the “summer of hell” for commuters. The tired infrastructure is showing more stress than ever. The homeless are returning to Manhattan’s streets. Shop vacancies are increasing as taxes make services and goods less competitive. Favorite diners and haunts are closing. Friends that have seemed fixtures there for decades are moving away.
Much of this comes from failures of governance. As it had evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tri-State Region had the best infrastructure in the world. Private companies competed and built the railway networks that linked the region as well as New York’s famous subway. The enterprising boroughs and cities of the region would compete to attract talent and business.
However, from the New Deal onwards, the role of the governments in the region grew. In the name of efficient coordination across state lines, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bureaucracy, came to own or operate much of the port, rail, road, and air transport infrastructure in the region, thus sowing the seed for its present miseries.
Bureaucratic and political management stifled commercial and economic incentives. The result is deplorable. The three states of the region all rank in the highest 10 for state tax burden, and New York is at the top of most lists. The region is beset by problems such as unfunded pension liabilities for public employees. Projects across jurisdictions have been hotbeds for corruption, delays, and union power, driving up costs.
The Greater Bay Area – and Hong Kong – should take heed by privatizing the airports, bridges, and railways owned by governments. Privatization will improve management, lower costs, and reduce the scope for corruption. The private sector will keep its assets well maintained and promote regional linkages on business terms.
The most intractable problems of the Tri-State Region come from the involvement of the Federal government, states, and unaccountable regional authorities. The Greater Bay Area should therefore encourage jurisdictional competition to foster governance. Not only is our autonomy vital, so is the ability of our neighbors to look after their own interests – region-wide authorities of any kind, with the inevitable bureaucracy – and corruption – that they entail, should be resisted at all cost.
Taxes must remain low and liberties high. The great regions of the world are created by people, not bureaucrats, and people are attracted and retained by keeping the fruits of their enterprise.
Caption:A giant bureaucracy in the making?
A month or so in and Carrie Lam, our new Chief Executive, already seems to be a step up from any of her predecessors, as she seems to have a bit better grasp of what leadership is about.
And, most encouragingly, she seems to have a sensible and refreshing approach to making actual decisions, rather than hiding under the futile charade of public consultation process, which is an apparent sop to some skew-eyed version of democracy.
I loved her reply to those calling for a public consultation on the immigration arrangements at West Kowloon Station, a rebuttal which seemed to be rather Thatcher-like – determined yet not without some personal charm.
Under the Basic Law, it is the government’s role to lead rather than launching some nonsensical public consultation every time it wants to implement a policy – a process that solicits the same tired views from the same tired vested interest groups that sheds neither policy insights nor adds value whatsoever.
And what is the big issue with West Kowloon anyway?
In 30 years we become part of China and the British left 20 years ago. So what is all the fuss about having some small part of Hong Kong effectively ceded to the PRC. This type of ambiguity in the Hong Kong-China relationship has been a key to our success, and one need look no further than Kowloon City to be reminded of this.
People are waiting to be led and given a sense of purpose. And whether you like either project or not, I have to admit that Lam started well with the Lok Ma Chau Loop initiative and the Palace Museum announcements, both of which had the squealers squealing for more public involvement. The manner of the announcement of these projects started to build a sense of determined momentum.
And how grateful we should be.
The discredited democrats in the Legislative Council may kick and squeal as they stop getting their beloved public consultations, but maybe they will finally realize that it is their job to help implement and adjust policy within the framework of the Legislative process. That is what they have been elected to do. They have not been elected to run public opinion polls.
Well, now the democrats are the ones under pressure. After the removal of the more juvenile members of their team in the Legislative Council, they are faced in Carrie Lam a leader who is competent and confident. They need to wake up and realize that they could well become an irrelevance if Lam also starts to deliver on some of the social issues that impact everybody’s day-to-day life.
And maybe her timing is fortuitous, as she comes on board at a time when land income is at record highs and high-value commercial sites on the harbor front are coming on line. While she can look to huge, relatively secure, revenues into the Capital Works Reserve from commercial site sales, Hong Kong is also finishing spending hundreds of billions of dollars on projects that represent dreadful returns on our money and the worst of vanity projects, such as the Macau Bridge and the speed train line.
And it is not only the asset side that looks healthy. On the liability side, the civil service pension liability, the notional liability of which John Tsang managed to increase by accounting magic by HK$400 billion, will quickly dissipate given that the scheme was closed to new members in 2000, as it passes its peak liability in coming years.
So, having been an optimist on Hong Kong’s future for all my time here, I can start, in my own mind at least, to point to some very early signs that we now have a leader who can gain the respect of those who agree or disagree with her, and accept her leadership as being considered and firm and to the benefit of the greater good.
Maybe we also start to see why so many opposed her candidature.
Caption:Thatcher-like? (Apple Daily photo)
In December of 2009 the Far Eastern Economic Review, the journal of record for Asia, closed its doors. At a lunch several years earlier my boss, Jimmy Lai, told the top management of Dow Jones they should sell the Review. It didn't go over well. Last week, our parent company started the process of selling Next Magazine. As we saw from the last issue of Next, which blistered Mr. Lai, it too was not a decision that went over well with Next's senior editorial team.
Multiple people, including many journalists, asked me how Mr. Lai could let his own magazine attack him. I explained, as one of our senior managers explained to me. "Next is Next, and if they drag Jimmy off to jail we report it." I make no bones about my love for that attitude. Yet I also understand the business rationale for the sale.
Magazines the world over are in trouble. No one owns a story for more than a few hours as aggregators steal weeks of reporting in minutes. That Next lasted as long as it did, with the indulgence of an ownership that gave Next every chance to turn it around, is remarkable. Yet in the end Next could not overcome a fierce China-inspired advertising boycott and online competition with our flagship, Apple Daily.
The latter first. CNN on cable has CNN and Headline News (HLN), but online, it is only CNN that prospers. Same applied to Next. Its readers came to the Apple site over Next by a ratio of 35 to 1 in terms of page-views. Magazine giants, Time Inc, Conde Nast, and Der Speigal all suffer the same conundrum, and all are moving towards a central platform. Not every title survives such move.
But that does not mean Next is at an end either as a brand or a platform. Some have taken issue with the idea that advertisers would return under new ownership, but there would be no pratical or politial reason to continue with the boycott.
Our company is cut off from nearly 60% of all advertising in Hong Kong. HSBC, Standard Chartered, Hutchinson, Sun Hung Kai Properties, all China companies, and even small retailers are chased from our pages and platform. If Next can turn out a decent product advertising will go to it. It might be fair to give a prospective buyer credit for recognizing this market fact.
As for Apple, with nearly 38m page views per day, we are benefiting from a scale that does bring advertising and the shift to programmatic favors us, even with lower rate.
Emotions are high in our office, but selling is the right thing to do. It's right for our shareholders, for our staff who will retain their jobs, and for senior staff who can join Apple should they wish. Another Jimmy Lai is not on the horizon as a buyer, that ship has sailed.
It is also a fallacy to say that Next is dead. Is Ming Pao dead? Is HKEJ or even the SCMP out of the game? Yes, they are not Next, but there are hundreds of journalists all over Hong Kong who are doing good work. Whether sneaking things by their owners or the owners simply looking away, publications owned by those not on Beijing's blacklist often do good work. The future is not locked in.
We are in a political standoff with our unelected masters up north. It's actually a bit thick to think that there is no fallout for the media. Nor is it realistic to think that print media can escape the fallout of the Internet. If Time is considering a branding change away from its iconic name and a complete reorganization of its magazines to compete online, then how does Next escape?
Nothing stays the same. Times change. Selling Next is an unwelcome change, but it is not in anyway the end of the story of our group. Apple is strong, our readership loyal, and in true Dunkirk spirit our major shareholder will go on with the good fight.
Caption:Next being Next.
As the Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo was facing his last excruciating days the usual suspects busied themselves trying to blacken his name, pointing out his flaws as a human being and disparaging his importance as a freedom fighter.
A special place in hell reserved for these people but as they do their worst they also, inadvertently, highlight something about Liu and indeed all the other people who have the courage to stand up to tyranny.
A ‘normal’ person will, quite understandably, seek to avoid the horrendous consequences of defying tyrannical governments. Authoritarian regimes have a habit of punishing their opponents -- along with their families -- and it takes a very special mindset to accept these consequences.
Liu Xiaobo could have been under no illusions that his defiance would weigh heavily on his family. His wife Liu Xia has gone through the hell of house arrest and continual harassment, which brought on depression. Her brother Liu Hui was also jailed on highly dubious fraud charges. This method of terrorizing families of dissidents is well known in China.
Those who defy the authorities therefore have to appreciate that their defiance will cause great pain to those closest to them. A so-called ‘normal’ person will think very carefully before going down this path.
However if no one stands up to the bullies of authoritarian regimes, nothing will change. The extent of the sacrifice that this requires can be seen even when the dissidents succeed in their efforts.
Take the example of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who was forced to leave her two sons in England while she returned to her country to fight the ruling military junta. She was also forced to abandon her terminally ill husband, who desperately needed her, but he supported her efforts to end the dictatorship. When she succeeded, after a long struggle, her relations with her children deteriorated to a state of estrangement.
It was a heavy personal price to pay and it has been paid time and again by dissidents, even those who managed to escape. This is seen very clearly among the exiled Chinese dissident community, many of whom have survived torture and imprisonment only to discover that exile is another kind of torture, marred by bitter factionalism, sour personal relations and, for many, an existence shrouded in restlessness and a sense of hopelessness.
Some years ago during a Singaporean election I interviewed, Chee Soon Juan, one of the government’s most articulate opponents. The price for his defiance was dismissal from a good job at the National University of Singapore followed by the typical Singaporean method of jailing and bankrupting opponents by use of defamation suits. They also face a barrage of media abuse.
At the time I saw him he was running for election. He cheerfully admitted that the rigged system would ensure he could not win but as he was saying this, prayers ended at a mosque opposite the outdoor coffee shop where we were sitting.
Young men poured out of the mosque, spotted Chee and started chanting ‘Dr Chee, Dr Chee’ as they waved enthusiastically. ‘You certainly seem to have some support’, I said. He sighed and replied, ‘yes, they all support me but not one of them will dare to vote for me, they want me to do the fighting but they are not going to take a risk I don’t blame them’.
‘Normal’ people simply cannot take the risks that ‘abnormal’ dissidents take even though they wish them well and may occasionally engage in their own small acts of defiance.
The result is that dissidents are left to do the heavy lifting and end up leading complicated, often harrowing lives that may well produce less than saintly human beings who carry the burden of inflicting awful damage on those closest to them. But in a world without Chee Soon Juans or Liu Xiaobos, tyranny always wins.
Caption:Not a ‘normal man’ (AFP photo)
In the west, country after country, government budgets have spiraled out of control, creating persistent deficits and leading to rapidly rising debt. The United States is not known internationally for its extensive welfare state, although that is a misnomer, but government debt that was 30% of GDP in 1980 had risen to 60% by 2005 and now sits at 104%. By similar measures, China’s general government debt rose from 20% in 2000 to 46% in 2016.
Despite the natural prudence and caution of Hong Kong people, because the government has no net debt, we can be complacent about our capacity to increase government spending. To avoid the spiral, we need to understand what causes debt to get out of control and have a good understanding of where we are starting from.
Although Hong Kong is not a large issuer of debt, the government does have substantial liabilities. The largest of these is government pensions, which are not funded at all by a separate pool of investments to meet those obligations. Financial liabilities of the government are now 43% of GDP, up from 30% a decade ago. In the five years that Leung Chun-ying was Chief Executive, government pension liabilities grew at a compound average rate of 9.9%. Those liabilities are valued using a defensible 4% discount rate, but with 10-year US government bonds yielding just 2.4%, those liabilities could prove to be much higher. Indeed pension liabilities have been revised higher in 11 of the past 13 years.
We have become accustomed to thinking of the HKMA-managed investments in the exchange fund as a surplus just waiting for a rainy day or to be spent. Look at our government’s balance sheet, and you will find that the exchange fund investments of HK$853bn are not even enough to cover the HK$875bn value of the pension liabilities. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Former Financial Secretary John Tsang was often criticized for parsimony, but the accrual accounts of the government paint a different picture. During the five years to March 2016, operating expenses grew rapidly at a compound rate of 7.7% per year, more than the 7.1% growth in revenues and far more than the 5.7% growth in nominal GDP.
Where did the money go? Health spending grew at a compound average rate of 11.8% each year over five years and social welfare spending 9.4%. Those growth rates are under current policies. How much room for new policies is there when demographics are pushing those costs ever higher? With these costs rising and expenditure growth higher than revenue growth, we are already on a path that without changes will lead to budget deficits. We are just one policy error (say a universal pension commitment) away from a spiral toward real fiscal problems.
Policymakers inevitably confront the law of the golden goose. Operating revenue growth has been higher than GDP growth over the last 13 years. Non-operating revenues like land premiums and investment returns have also grown rapidly. Under our current low-rate tax system, revenues have grown faster than the economy. Raising tax rates to boost revenue is likely to kill the goose that lays that golden egg.
One of the key reasons that revenue grows faster than the economy, is that we attract businesses managing activities from other countries and increasingly those from China. Nothing can turn Hong Kong into “just another Chinese city” more forcefully than removing our taxation and rule-of-law edge over the mainland.
Surpluses from past fiscal prudence have been absorbed by rising civil servant pension liabilities. Contravening Article 107 of the Basic Law, spending is increasing faster than revenues or GDP. Public clamor and politicians’ promises are accelerating this trend. Though not known for keeping his policy pledges, the former Chief Executive did – to our detriment – deliver on his promise to increase the role of government and public spending. Time to check our spiral-down towards fiscal disaster.
caption : Taking the knife to the golden goose? (Apple Daily photo)
There is an old saying along the lines that if you continue to do the same things you can only expect the same results. And therein lies the story of our various administrations over the last twenty years.
It really is very difficult to see where there have been any major changes over this period in either the quality of the people who govern us, namely middle-class career civil servants, or how we are governed, as the early attempts to inject vitality into the economy by privatizing state-owned housing and companies ran aground on the reefs of the vested interests.
Carrie Lam at least holds out the hope of being able to take on the civil servants that, according to my sources, are one of the key obstacles to progress, as she has a reputation internally for challenging the civil service codswallop that usually stifles any new initiative. And underpinning this codswallop previously was the key fantasy that John Tsang promulgated, namely that we do not have any money and cannot afford to do anything anyway.
With Tsang out of the way, we can start to spend our money to help our society to get ahead. Whilst a vexed youth is not unique to Hong Kong, we are one of the few societies in the world that can actually afford to tackle the poverty of opportunity and hope that seems to afflict this particular generation.
The pernicious penny pinching of the Tsang years, recognized by Beijing as a key reason why the generally decent Leung Chun-ying found himself hamstrung when it came to major policy changes, is seen as a key cause of social discontent.
One senior Leung appointee long ago explained to me the ridiculous economics that their bureau had to operate under in those years. Although they were an active bureau with a very significant impact on our lives, and the public patently wished to see them play a more important role, they were saddled with an annual spending increase cap. Normally it was one per cent.
Well, that is sensible, it may be argued, as we do not want our government to waste money. But wait for the kicker.
In fact the increase included the amounts that had to be paid to civil servants in their annual pay rise. So if that was, say, 4 per cent, it meant that the cash available for providing – let alone expanding and upgrading – services actually fell. This is what happened year on year. Requests for money, just to maintain services, fell on deaf ears as the mantra that the administration had no money echoed through the halls of power.
Indeed, I was interviewing a young former civil servant who wanted a new career a little while back. When the discussion came around to public services, this young woman, after only five years in the service, vehemently repeated the mantra that they had no money.
So, Carrie, let’s get over the illusion that we have no money. We are rolling in it.
Fortunately, the Financial Secretary laid some of the groundwork for change in this direction in the last Budget when he upped the projected income from Land Revenue to 3.3 per cent of GDP and now we just need to abolish the Capital Works Reserve Fund. Then, with the surplus on recurrent revenue we would show on this accounting convention let’s put in purposeful long-term initiatives on housing, healthcare, and education with a view to running down the reserves over time to the levels needed just for the monetary base.
And this is not socialism. There is sensible self-interest as we make sure that all members of society enjoy the fruits of their work while it is equally vital, in an ageing society, that we make sure that we maximize the opportunities and skills of all generations.
And for those who criticize, just ask them what they expect to happen to the US$300 billion in reserves that we have, in today’s money, when it comes to 2047.
Puff, I guess.
caption : The sinkhole of our reserves.
Our people are amazing. For 20 years Beijing has pulled every dirty trick, bought off every available toady, and even exerted force, but still has failed to bring our great city to heel. The bravery and sheer force of will to defy our overlords in the north is a story of true courage and resistance by a people who have largely kept intact the freedoms and rights granted in 1997.
Yet, twenty years on, I fear we are losing our greatest strength in resisting China’s constant effort at eroding our freedoms. Economic freedom. Or more precisely, the freedom to choose.
If we own our homes or rent from a private landlord, if our incomes are not dependent on government, and if we can freely do business without needing a government chop, how can we ever truly be controlled by Beijing? Can a regime completely control those who have the ability not to depend on government?
It is our freedom not to bow to Beijing for our livelihoods that is our greatest defense against its control. With our economic independence intact, we are ruled by President Xi not because we worry about our homes and jobs, but because he has tanks.
Now Xi will always have tanks and Beijing will always have coercion through force. Yet what they do not have in a free and lightly-regulated economy is the ability to control our economic outcomes. If they cannot control our income they cannot fully control our politics. And in Hong Kong, while not easy, ours is the long game. Every part of the economy the government does not control is a building block for keeping our political freedom and individual rights.
Not surprisingly, Beijing knows this, which is why since the time of Old Man Tung, getting us hooked on the opioids of government money has been the preferred means of political control. In terms of favors for property tycoons, taxpayer money for an industry, or even pay for pro-Beijing protesters, Beijing has set a world-class patronage system attempting to buy our political acquiescence.
Now, our new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, intends to take the assault on our economic freedoms to new heights as she openly calls for intervention in the economy by picking industries to support, providing subsidies for small business, and growing a government bureaucracy to “help” us.
Is there any question a government grant or special permit will not come with political strings attached? Few bite the hand that feeds them, and just as the great tech giants in China such as Tencent and Alibaba bow to Beijing, so too will Lam’s favored industries.
Since 1997, the attack on the colonial policy of positive non-interventionism has been underway, as the idea of government staying out of our business has never been part of Mao's little red book. Yet, let’s not blame Beijing alone for the turn away from economic freedom.
Many in our democratic camp are at heart European leftists: our student activists prefer Jeremy Corbyrn and Bernie Sanders to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and our well-meaning NGO expat and academic communities think Hugo Chavez did a good job in Venezuela. If not for the struggle for democracy, be assured I would lay down on the tracks to derail our democratic camp from getting its hands on the levers of public finances.
Free people require free markets, and free markets thrive in a low-tax environment where government exercises a light regulatory touch. As we head towards 2047, what stands between us and political surrender to Beijing is the free market and the economic freedoms it enshrines.
Lam may well be the wolf in sheep’s clothing as she sets about destroying our open market via handouts and picking winners among our industries. Free money is hard to refuse. But then again, it is not really free, as it means our tax dollar and, worse yet, the diminishing of our strongest tool in keeping “one country, two systems” to its true and original form.
Caption:Wolf in sheep’s clothing
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Hong Kong to preside over the HKSAR 20th anniversary celebrations, he will be heavily shielded from contact with ordinary people; indeed the same level of screening applies to lesser persons, such as our Chief Executives when they leave their bunkers.
Xi will only get to meet the usual bunch of fawning sycophants joined by others who do not quite fawn but can be relied upon to assure him that Beijing’s policies for Hong Kong are working really well.
The people of Hong Kong will only have a walk-on role in these celebrations, they will be allowed to attend all manner of exhibitions, take part in contests and be passive observers at the lavish set piece displays that are so loved by the Chinese Communist Party, whose idea of a party is to gather masses of people together while their leaders literally tower above them, waving and speechifying.
Spontaneity is most definitely not on the agenda because officials do not trust anything that they themselves cannot control. To some extent that is how things work in most countries these days, not least because the appalling threat of terrorism looms and governments are rightly nervous about large gatherings of people.
However there is an important difference between security considerations (which thankfully are less pressing here) and simple distrust of the people. Even in places such as France, Britain and Belgium, which have suffered serious terrorist attacks in the recent past, government leaders are still to be found mingling with members of the public who have not been pre-selected by officials.
Indeed as British Premier Teresa May discovered after the recent tragic fire in West London, members of the public were not shy in booing and heckling her. The Queen however got a much better reception but it was not of the carefully orchestrated kind that will be seen on 1 July here.
Yet again what we learn from the way that the HKSAR anniversary celebrations are being organized is that the thing the ‘party of the people’ most distrusts are the people.
Then there are the empty slogans and key messages of these celebrations. They start with togetherness, described by government propaganda as providing the ‘lynchpin’ and explained as being about ‘how we contribute to our country, and our country supports us; and how we can enrich and expand our extensive network of international connections, here and abroad’.
Next up on the slogan front is progress, official propaganda tells us that in all sorts of areas ranging from economic progress to social indicators and, don’t laugh, heritage protection, ‘the HKSAR has a good story to tell’. Presumably the widening poverty gap, the continued failure to achieve decent housing for ordinary people and plans to start dismantling the country parks are all part of this good story.
The third so called key message is opportunity; the official propagandists are rather confused over what they mean by this, but they have plenty of platitudes in stock, such as saying that opportunity ‘can happen by chance. It can be nurtured or created’. Apparently the by chance thing hardly matters here because the government is doing so much to provide these opportunities hum.
What is missing in its entirety from the official version of what the SAR is celebrating is any mention of the words ‘high degree of autonomy’; also ignored are all provisions of the Basic Law concerning the fundamental rights of citizens (Articles 24-41), plus the crucial universal suffrage pledge contained in Article 68.
So, the shiny new world of the Hong Kong SAR as it enters its third decade is seen through official eyes as a hazy combination of excellent progress, abounding but not specified opportunity and, crucially, there is emphasis on just three things: integration, integration and integration.
Caption:INTEGRATION! INTEGRATION! INTEGRATION!
Our government thinks the people are sheep. My grandfather was a sheep farmer. He complained, in colorful language, that sheep were the least intelligent animals, incapable of making decisions and even of trying to save their own lives. So sheep are herded between paddocks for pasture, herded away from danger, and herded to shearing sheds or to slaughter. Sheep do not make decisions for themselves.
Our government has designed a transport system that treats the people as sheep. They have outlined this approach in the Public Transport Strategy Study, released last week. It is an approach devoid of citizens as decision makers, and devoid of choice, human behavior, and market as well as cost considerations. It is an exercise in careful central planning worthy of the controlling institutions in an Orwell novel.
The singular goal of the government's strategy is to crush the private car and any form of transport that is not controlled by the plan. The private car is the enemy, a monster that if not controlled will consume us all. To be fair, its strategy does allow for a choice: the planners, oblivious to our climate and ageing population, will encourage us to walk more.
Save perhaps for walking, every permitted mode of transport is controlled and planned. The most favored is the railway system. Our shepherds love their perceived efficiency, predictability, and total controllability. Franchised buses, whose routes, rules, and fares are all firmly in the planner’s grip, come next. Public light buses are tolerated, but with a lesser role in this farmyard hierarchy. Near the bottom is the taxi, providing “personalized, point-to-point” services for those troublesome few who stray from the flock. Not that our planners like the taxi – they are full of complaints that perpetual licenses limit their legal scope for control.
Every mode of transport has its place in the plan. There might be private ownership in form, but not in substance. There is some competition, but strictly guided and controlled. Room for innovation is strictly proscribed. Private cars are simply a nuisance to be minimized. They cause congestion and pollution and demand space.
So as a result, there is no room for modern ride-hailing apps (Uber, Lyft, or Didi Chuxing) or their business models. They are not in the plan. For these innovative services, pricing varies with demand by the second; the number of vehicles in service goes up and down during the day; existing resources are better utilized; people may find a new income source; services are closely monitored by users and improved; inferior providers are weeded out of the industry; and rides can easily be shared.
That is just the start of a transport revolution. These AI-coordinated, algorithm-driven services prepare for a future of “transport as a service” that might involve some private cars or even driverless vehicles in complex networks controlled by private and corporate ownership. That future could keep vehicles on the road all day and night, with far less need for parking and better coordinated traffic. These could be private and point-to-point services with variety, class, flexibility, and much lower costs.
This is perfect for Hong Kong, but it is not in the plan. Instead there is some crack-brained scheme for more expensive taxi “franchises”, giving monopoly rights to three franchise owners to operate 200 vehicles each in a simulacrum of a modern ride-hailing service.
There are some pretty good elements in our transport system. The MTR is a good service, kept honest by competing internationally. Trams and ferries are part of our heritage. However, the private cars of today, or the market-driven personalized transport networks of tomorrow, are not the enemy. What we need is competition, flexibility, and fair prices, not better plans. That might mean some services fade away. The taxi might not be the future. Licenses and franchises might lose value.
Planners say what is not permitted is prohibited. This is not liberalism. This is not freedom. This is not Hong Kong.
Caption:Fixing this with more government plans?
We continue to defy our detractors, as we have done for much of our history. Asset prices are strong and the dissent that is seen by some as a weakness, and not a key strength, seems to continue to have little adverse impact on our day-to-day lives.
Of course, dissent, and our unwillingness to be controlled, guided, and manipulated have always been key features of our culture, which has ensured that administrations here have, for much of the last 170 years, been very wary to intervene and dictate to us.
Apparently, the shots fired more than a hundred years ago at the British when they first landed in Taipo, trying to enforce their administrative rights under their new lease, still echo in the ears of our distant rulers today.
However, in recent years there has still been far too much intervention by the administration in trying to “pick winners” and not enough attention to what the basic role of government should be.
Given the huge amounts of cash that have been wastefully extracted from the economy and put into dead-end assets such as US treasuries - our so called rainy-day money - it is a wonder that the economy has done as well as it has over the last decade or two. Now that a new administration is coming in, it is time to take a fresh look at how we do things.
We need, in a considered and structured manner, to take a proportion of our reserves - over and above that needed to back the Exchange Fund - and invest it in our economy as opposed to lending this huge stockpile to other countries at ridiculously low interest rates.
And here, investment is not about more roads – we had HK$43 billion more of them coming in the current fiscal year by the way – it is about our social infrastructure, about healthcare, about education, about a safety net, and about housing.
The population of a successful and very wealthy city should not have to wait years for simple medical operations, nor should people have to get private medical insurance, which is in effect a tax on the poorest, in order to be assured of getting a decent service.
Similarly, our education system is a dead end for many young people who aspire and work hard but simply don't have a chance to get to university or undertake meaningful apprenticeships and skills training.
And, as to housing, public housing initiatives should stop being based on an apparent desire to provide hugely subsidized accommodation for most people over 18, as some sort of entitlement, but should be tailored to meet the needs of those truly in need, such as people living in expensive, dreadful, and often dangerous, private accommodation.
While education, healthcare, and housing reforms are ultimately multi-decade projects, it is also important and perfectly possible to introduce supply-side reforms in key areas that impact people’s daily lives.
First off, the administration should make sure that employers’ contributions to the MPF are vested in their employees the moment they are paid while making sure that no previously paid sums are netted off in the case of unemployment. Even if this means that the administration has to pay.
Secondly, the administration should announce that, on a graduated basis, it will move to a regime whereby any person who submits to a test annually can hold a taxi license. This will revolutionize drivers’ lives, lower fares, and destroy the HK$120 billion taxi license oligopoly.
Finally, the administration should announce that it will acquire industrial buildings from owners at prevailing industrial rents or prices, compulsorily if need be, and oversee their safe conversion to temporary housing for those with extreme needs.
Be bold and change the game, so that those in society who are getting by far the worst deal can start to believe that the game will not be permanently rigged against them, or else this new administration will, like its predecessors, just drown in the maelstrom of invective and counter-invective.
Caption:Change the game of invective. (Apple Daily photo)
The mood of the people of Hong Kong has become a rather persistent subject of news coverage over the last several years. Is the middle class content? Are the poor depressed? Are the students angry?
In the run up to the 20th anniversary of the handover, the mood and outlook of the our people are nearly always framed in a negative, near fatalistic premise. It's an unwarranted slant, for it is a sign of Beijing's ineffectual control over our city that such questions matter.
Unfortunately, "our mood", has become an unhealthy preoccupation of our media and political class that has fostered an unhealthy pessimism among our people. Our democratic leaders, even the pro-democracy press, Apple Daily included, have preached doom and gloom for so long that many in Hong Kong, especially our young, have drunk the Kool-Aid.
Their listless outlook on life strikes me not as youthful impatience or immaturity but rather as an infidelity to their generation and a failure of the individual spirit. To listen to the young political activists and many of the under 30 crowd is to be inundated with not just material and spiritual complaints, but to observe, as I do with great sadness, an inability to understand that our battle with Beijing requires not a dystopian drama of depression and gloom, but rather the radiating spirit of happy warriors content in their daily struggle against comical, but dangerous, toadies.
Our struggle for democracy is not a fight against the dark, but rather a celebration of free people and free markets. You cannot sell hope with despair, nor illustrate a bright future with darkness. (And for the love of God, would pro-democracy folks stop wearing black.)
The localists rant about a lack of control over their political destiny yet fail to understand that they, and their elders, have fought the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a regime that controls a nation over 200 times larger than our small territory, to a near standstill since 1997. No, we don’t have democracy, and no, we must not be satisfied with our current lot.
Yet, and it is of no small feat that we have turfed out two Chief Executives and never lost control of Legco. The latest pronouncements on Hong Kong by Zhang Dejiang wasn't a call to new restrictions or controls, rather a restatement of what we have heard since the handover. We have the Commies playing a broken record.
And as we fight, maybe for another 20 or even 30 years, we fight with the message that has always been at the heart of our success, of a people striving for democracy, living in a free, open, and transparent society and a vibrant and thriving market place. Could there be a more heartfelt and hopeful message?
The value of our free and open market in the fight for democracy has been missed by many in the pro-democracy camp. Too often, with their leftist bent, they confuse a free market with property tycoons running amok. This is a silly outlook unworthy of a sophisticated people, for there can be no freedom without a free market. For it is only in a free and open market where Beijing cannot exert its brute force that we may survive. If Beijing can't control our earnings and properties how can they control us?
In the 1950's and 1960's, US civil rights activists were backed by doctors and funeral parlours, i.e. those that were beyond government control. In Hong Kong, it is hedge fund managers who hand off brown envelopes, bar owners who allow fundraisers, and thousands who respond to online funding drives or fill buckets in streets and student halls. It is the market that supports democracy.
As we come to the 20th year under Beijing's watch it is quite forgivable to see a bleak future. But that's a mistake. No, we don’t have the upper hand, and the struggle remains a long road. Yet, what we have is potent - and to an authoritarian regime - devastating: goodness, decency, open markets, and free expression. Go forth Happy Warriors.
Caption:Go forth the fight against dangerous toadies.
Exposing the stupidity of bureaucrats is an endless task but it’s a job that needs doing. Sometimes this stupidity is relatively harmless but still profoundly annoying. Take the recent case of officials from the Food and Environmental Health Department (FEHD) removing a public bookcase from Third Street in Sai Ying Pun.
The bookcase was put there for local residents to offer used books to other residents at no cost. This is a form of recycling, much advocated by the government, however the public hygiene officers saw it as a health hazard.
The FEHD is in the forefront of bureaucratic stupidity because its clipboard-wielding officials just love to march around the streets identifying non-existent problems and ‘fixing’ them. They seem to be happiest when clamping down on people enjoying themselves.
Living in Sai Kung, I have the dubious pleasure of watching dour-faced bureaucrats descending on this town in droves. Sai Kung residents, and the many other Hongkongers who visit this place for relaxation, are guilty of the cardinal offense of enjoying themselves. This is manifest in a number of truly shocking ways, for example they just love eating al fresco, and because this is a rural area, they often come along with their dogs.
This has propelled the good folk at the FEHD into a frenzy of activity because they have discovered chairs and tables in areas where they should not be and, as for pets, well they should not be anywhere. The beauty of Sai Kung is its relaxed atmosphere where adults, children and pets mingle amicably making good use of outside spaces.
However it is very, very hard to obtain a license for outside seating. I know of one company that has been waiting for three years with no sign of progress. Thus it is indeed true that customer demand tempts restaurant owners to place seating outside.
Recently no less than twelve officers were dispatched to one tiny outlet that literally had no more than a couple of outside tables, of course the owners were fined and passers-by were treated to a display of what looked like a major criminal crackdown.
Strangely, however, on the sea front where the traditional Chinese seafood restaurants are run by politically connected bosses, FEHD officials keep away and turn a blind eye to infringements of their own barmy rules.
In some ways this is all quite amusing but occasionally the bureaucratic mind produces serious and damaging outcomes. The prime example here is the Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macau bridge, which is becoming notorious for fatalities; so the Commissioner for Labor Carson Chan was summoned to Legco to explain what the government was doing to ensure worker safety.
Chan left legislators open-mouthed when he produced fatality and injury figures that were well below those in media reports. Not only had his department failed to update figures beyond the third quarter of last year, but he managed to minimize the problem by arguing that his department was only responsible for injuries on the bridge or on land, other injuries occurring in the sea were the responsibility of another bunch of bureaucrats. Not only is this heartless, but it provides an insight into the bureaucratic compartmentalization that allows officials to avoid taking the blame for more or less everything.
Idiot bureaucrats are an easy target for ridicule and we, the public, can get wooed into a sense of fatalism over bureaucratic stupidity but it comes with real costs, not just those of keeping these people in jobs but sometimes it costs lives, sometimes the costs are more mundane.
The bottom line is that Hong Kong has too many bureaucrats performing totally unnecessary tasks. The FEHD is a standout in this respect but consider, for example, the scandal of the number of paper shufflers in the Social Welfare Department compared to those actually doing something useful in an area where this work is much needed.
Caption:Identifying non-existent problems and ‘fixing’ them.
It may come as a surprise, but there is quite a lot of trawling of websites for official papers and statistics that goes into writing a column such as this, as it cannot solely be based on mere opinion and reflect my inherent biases - at least without some justification.
I am, as such, an experienced user of our administration’s internet sites and have learnt, through sheer determination and hard work, to get some sense out of them.
However, using completely outdated technology, they are clumsy, unattractive and lack any intuitive feel. It would appear that they have never been refreshed in terms of the user experience since the earliest days of the web, when I used to play around with the first Microsoft web-page software, some 20 years ago. What any self-respecting website uses today is a computer coding language called HTML5, which has spawned the stunning, colorful, corporate websites you see today.
Try the Census and Statistics website and you will certainly find it easier to buy their printed monthly digest, if you can find it any more; while the Planning Department website, which could be a fantastic dynamic celebration of the great city - for all its faults - is not worse than those that my children were producing before the turn of the millennium.
Well, a long diatribe on the poor quality of our beloved administration’s websites may seem to be a rather futile exercise, but this poor quality says it all about the administration’s own lack of vitality and insight when it comes to technology.
It really is not sufficient just to have John Tsang throw a few token paragraphs about cloud computing, along with a few tech buzzwords, into his budget speech, or to have the incoming Chief Executive say that the best use of an island in the middle of the Shenzhen River will be as some ill defined “tech park”.
I may be almost as old as Tsang, but with two children and a daughter-in-law in their twenties who earn a decent living in “big data”, “fintech”, and “social media”, respectively, and live in Brooklyn and Shoreditch, I think I have more than a mere theoretical understanding of the dynamism of this market.
For all the rhetoric and buzzwords, what has driven us forward in the practical application of technology is the progress that we have made in being able to bring massive computing power online at almost no marginal cost.
This underpins all the applications out there, whether it be on your phone, or in being able to process massive amounts of data in science, or in the latest developments in machine learning.
Of the three members of my family involved in these areas, not one of them has ever worked in a “Science Park” or received a subsidy for their business from government. The idea of a “Science Park”, for them, is as outdated as using semaphore flags to send a message. What they have seen, and what their industries have benefited from, is the massive outsourcing of IT systems and design from public sector bodies that wish to lower costs and massively improve their customer satisfaction, while also gaining new insights to improve services through the data they collect.
While our government has dithered and dallied and made almost no progress in this area, whole chunks of services in the UK, such as vehicle licensing and medical record storage, have migrated to the cloud under the UK government’s formal Cloud First policy, which is now four years old.
CY Leung wanted to transform Hong Kong into a “smart city”. Our government can start doing that by moving all its activities with the public onto the cloud. Just moving all customer interactions and record keeping for the Housing Authority, the Hospital Authority, and the Welfare Department would give a huge boost to innovation in Hong Kong, and the benefit would be enormous, as it has been elsewhere in the world.
We don't need subsidies, we don't need more concrete. We merely need innovative thinking in the administration.
Caption:All subsidies, all concrete, but no innovative thinking.
In an earlier column I mentioned the MPF as an example of the risk of a complacent government. The diligent team at the MPF Authority wrote back, objecting to that characterization and citing the default investment scheme (DIS) as a desirable reform. This is an edited version of my response.
Don't think that by talking about complacency and the MPF, I was suggesting that the MPFA has not been active. On the contrary, the MPFA has vigorously sought to extend its role and influence. The complacency that I was talking about was the unwillingness to consider root-and-branch changes to a system that was basically misconceived.
Firstly, why is a mandatory retirement system needed at all? Hong Kong people have long proved capable of supporting themselves and their families through prudent financial management. They understand their risk appetite like no centralized scheme can. They jealously guard their returns. Only individuals can decide for themselves when it is time to save for a downpayment on a house, when to put aside separate money for retirement, and when it is prudent to shift asset allocation conservatively.
The MPF has hindered the development of private services advising on retirement. It has largely eliminated companies using attractive private pension schemes as an employment benefit. It has bred complacency. Contributions to the MPF will not be adequate to build an endowment that anyone can live off in retirement. Yet because the MFP is in place and the government has thereby assumed responsibility for retirement income, too many people stop thinking about retirement except in terms of what is mandatory.
Secondly, the DIS was a distraction. The focus should have been a real and easily implementable choice and control over your own retirement savings, not a "default" option. The system creates captive single providers to each employer, and in turn provides individuals with a menu of options so restricted, so difficult to change, and so costly to operate that good performance is almost impossible.
An alternative would be a US 401K style of system where individuals control their own money and make their own investment choices. Why not allow 100% of the money to be in bank deposits? Why not allow extensive use of ETF's with low fees? Why not allow "self managed" funds like those available in Australia? Why not allow individuals to choose their own provider that stays with them, no matter who the employer might be?
Thirdly, the rules that the MPFA has put in place create bureaucratic requirements for all providers and employers that drive up costs. Existing providers are within their rights to charge what the market will bear, but the MPF scheme has created many barriers to entry and left many providers without economies-of-scale, and the changes in recent years have added hugely to operating costs, with little offset for those making the investment. DIS simply makes it even harder for anyone to make money by helping Hong Kong people invest and prepare for retirement. Whilst the DIS fees are lower, they are not low! The 0.75% default compares unfavorably with the 0.15% for low-cost corporate bond ETFs in the United States.
Fourthly, the DIS has been established at the peak of a 30-year bull market in bonds. At that peak, the default scheme imposes more investment in bonds that will grow with age to 80% of the funds for those over 65. That would have been very prudent and low-risk for the last 30 years, but could well be disastrous over the next 30, if interest rates rise. DIS is not necessarily a low-risk option. Risk depends not just on the allocation to equities, but also on the duration of the bonds.
The MPFA should think very carefully about how to introduce more competition and real choice, and make individual investors central in the system. Recent "reforms" have only strengthened the case for restoring investment freedom and eliminating the MPF.
Caption:Exhibit A of a complacent government.
Okay, we get it. China is big. China is powerful. Not gonna argue with Beijing’s propaganda machine about China leading the world in nearly every worthy pursuit there is, be it education, industry, trade, or cold cash.
Yet being big isn't being great, and greatness is never measured in numbers alone, nor ordained by raw military power, or achieved by propaganda. A nation’s place in the league of greatness is earned by its moral stature in the world as much as it is by its economic and military might. Unfortunately, with a client state like North Korea, China is not seen before the world’s eyes as a leader among nations, but rather a towering giant abdicating its duties.
Xi Jinping is not seen at the negotiation table working to resolve the North Korean problem, but rather sitting on his hands waiting for an acceptable outcome to be hammered out by other leaders. He is not even leading from behind.
It's not 1953, US Marines are not at the Yalu River. So instead of being a buffer against a hegemonic power, North Korea has turned into a decrepit fence imprisoning China in the past. Worse yet, behind that fence is President Trump's "Smart Cookie" that China backs, who is building missiles for nuclear warheads meant to engage not only Japan or South Korea, but the US and Europe.
It would be nice to demand that China must have democracy and free expression before it can be accepted on the world stage. Thanks to western appeasement bought by its massive market and investments, China has long climbed over that bar.
Being on the world stage is however not the same as being a key player setting that stage. After all, Putin too gets a photo op at APEC meetings. Does a proud emerging China want to be seen as Putin's Russia?
North Korea is at once the albatross on China’s neck and a client state that brings nothing but humiliation: Can the world take seriously China’s ascent to be a global power if it is impotent in taming an infantile despot?
Imagine the peace dividend that solving the North Korean problem can bring to Asia: Markets will not be roiled by sabre rattling, China's banks will not be hampered by EU and US scrutiny, Japan and South Korea will not be re-arming or developing their own nuclear weapons. Yes, China will reap the largest chunk of this peace dividend if it can solve the North Korean problem by taking nuclear weapons off the hands of that reckless brat.
All this brings us back to China's quest for greatness, an obsession that is on display in every Belt & Road show that China puts on. Yet with any rise to power there is an internal rot, and the failure to tackle resolutely this great flaw holds a nation back from leaping to greatness. For China, that rot is a nuclear and belligerent North Korea.
Great nations do not have murderous client states.
It is tempting for President Xi to leave well enough alone and count on the West to once again cave in on North Korea. That's a dangerous bet with President Trump as well as Prime Minister Abe. North Korea has nuclear and chemical weapons. Unchecked, it will eventually shoot off a missile that is capable of reaching US soil.
The US will not allow a nuclear capable Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in the hands of a juvenile despot. Neither can China allow such instability in Asia.
When flight patterns become precarious over North Korea, that undermines all commerce and makes harder Hong Kong’s task to persuade US financial giants to relocate here from an uncompetitive Wall Street. If war is imminent on China’s Northeastern front, where air and land are being polluted by North Korean nuclear tests, hi-tech factories are not going to be built there.
Time and circumstances dictate that President Xi is the Chinese leader who must act to bring a resolution to the North Korean impasse. The time to act is now.
Caption:A good bye long over due.
For once, it seems that the government has actually had a good idea; but it is not half as good as it should be and raises some very troubling questions over the mentality of the officials who dreamt this up.
The idea comes in the form of a new annuity scheme for retirees, scheduled for implementation next year. It offers those over the age of 65 a way of investing in return for a guaranteed income, with flexible arrangements for both getting out of the scheme and passing residual funds to inheritors.
The catch, and it is a very big one, is that to get anything approaching a decent monthly payment from this scheme – in the region of HK$5,000 - requires an investment of HK$1m. And, by the way, women will get a smaller return because they tend to live longer – that doesn’t look too good either.
So, beneficiaries of this scheme will need a substantial sum of cash at hand. That will not be a problem for many middle-class families, but it is way beyond the means of a great many people who can only dream of having HK$1m in the bank.
Therefore elderly people most in need of retirement support will be left out of this scheme. Aside from senior citizens of modest means, others are in a far worse situation, one in three elderly people are living below the poverty line.
The government approaches this dilemma with one-off handouts and a variety of puny schemes that just about keep the elderly poor on the rails but fails to address the fundamental problem. The bureaucrats shy away from getting to grips with elderly poverty and resist the notion of a universal pension system.
They argue that there is no point in using public funds to support both the well off and the needy – an argument that is so thoroughly flawed as to be almost laughable.
As anyone with half a brain understands, the whole concept of a universal pension is that everyone has a stake in it and so everyone contributes to its funding but the well-off make higher contributions than those with less money. This is how all national pension schemes work. Although they are far from perfect, they ensure that the specter of extreme poverty does not cast a shadow over the lives of the elderly, and indeed the thoughts of younger people, who live in fear of old age poverty, becoming burden on their families.
It’s not as if our government is short of funds to help the elderly; there is always enough money for vastly expensive cross border projects, there is also plenty of cash to be frittered away on things like the pending 20th HKSAR anniversary celebrations, and then there are the repetitive handouts for the better off, such as waving Business Registration fees and the like.
The money being ‘given away’ is, of course, the public’s own money and, as ever, the question of how it should be disbursed is a question of priorities. When you have - and that is what we have - a non-elected government, the pressure to distribute money to ordinary people is much reduced and accompanied by pompous declarations of not wanting to create a dependency culture.
However, as the new annuity scheme demonstrates, there is a way of using the public’s savings to provide a degree of comfort in old age and it could well be the basis for a truly universal scheme that works for everyone.
As matters stand, the only people who are guaranteed a comfortable retirement out of the public purse are the bureaucrats who administer that purse. They are secure while the streets are dotted with elderly people limping around collecting litter for recycling so that they can be sure of eating. Maybe this state of affairs is part of a cunning plan to revive enthusiasm for Marxism!
Caption:Should have gone into civil service.