"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
"Workers, tolling in the swelter under an Observatory issued heat-stroke warning, denied an hour in the air-conditioning"
As we all know by now, Covid-19 distorts time. It feels like years ago that I praised the Hong Kong government's handling of the pandemic. Yet, in truth, it was April. Sadly, things aren't looking so fine and dandy now. Cases are on the rise with a new record of 149 infections today (July 30).
Meanwhile, the deaths are stacking up at 24. With grim inevitability, Covid-19 found its way into our care-homes, felling the most vulnerable citizens. Besides, our leaders are starting to wobble.
In the league table of Covid-19 performance, Hong Kong was sitting near the top. But I forgot to factor in that Carrie Lam, our Chief Executive, is capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Her first mistake was to surrender to the pressure from the catering sector by allowing gatherings of eight people. This move came before Father's Day on June 21. That weekend the whole of Hong Kong went crazy. People hit the beaches, as others filled the restaurants. A mood of exuberance filled the air. We're back to normal!
In early July, we paid the price as Covid-19 numbers started climbing. Slow at first, and then accelerating. Then it became plain that quarantine exemptions for over 30 groups of inbound travellers helped reseed the pandemic. Cross-boundary goods vehicle drivers, aircraft crew members and company executives with dispensation contributed to the surge. While some had been pointing out these loopholes for some time, the government wasn't listening.
Compelling evidence exists that the recent outbreak in Kowloon, which is working its way through care-homes, came from imported cases. One cluster has the signature of an Italian virus, and the other came from Pakistan. I take some comfort that our scientists can track the groups.
Did willful blindness or reluctance to act creep into the decision-making process? The conflicting messaging from officials are raising doubts. For example, Sophia Chan Siu-chee , the Secretary for Food and Health, proclaimed on July 28 that cases should drop off soon. Immediately others in the government contradicted her stance.
Compounding the confusion are 'experts' — including leading professors and doctors —who are making frequent interventions and statements. These scientists are as divided as the rest of us on how to tackle the outbreak. Further, you can detect in some a political agenda as point scoring is going on. That a few of our leading medics rejected help from the Mainland sounded churlish and partisan.
Then this week we faced a de-facto lock-down. Dining-in at restaurants stopped, and masks must be worn in all public areas. That means indoors and outdoors, including while exercising. The government also encouraged us to stay home.
On the mask issue, the government had the good grace to give exemptions for eating, drinking and on medical grounds; but gave no such favour to smokers. Thus, removing a mask to smoke is an offence. Now, while I'm a non-smoker and would discourage anyone from the habit, this situation is silly. The government is inviting defiance.
But it gets worse. Having banned dining-in, we saw woeful scenes of old folks, construction workers and a multitude of others struggling outside in the heat with their take-away meals. People perched on curbs, on park benches and even between litter bins. Workers, tolling in the swelter under an Observatory issued heat-stroke warning, denied an hour in the air-conditioning. Then following a substantial public backlash, the government relented. Dining-in will resume with social distancing applied.
Of course, anyone with an ounce of savvy would know many people in Hong Kong rely on dining-in. Without it, they struggle. Hong Kong people live in cramped flats, and a fair number cannot cook at home. That Carrie Lam and her team didn't appreciate this dimension speaks volumes of their disconnect from ordinary folk. Remember Typhoon Mangkhut?
Then again, Carrie Lam has led a sheltered life, chauffeured around in a limo, moving from one air-conditioned bubble to the next. Who can forget her struggle to use an octopus card or find toilet paper? That's a result of 40-odd years trapped in the privileged world of a senior civil servant.
One other aspect of these rules shows the government's ignorance; making us all wear masks while exercising outdoors away from others. There is no real-world proof that joggers or walkers have transmitted Covid-19 in the country parks or anywhere else. Yet, getting outside exercise in these stressful times is a palliative that can't be taken if we are gasping behind a damp mask. How many heart attacks, how much ill-health and stress result?
It would be arrogant of me to suggest I have all the answers, far from it. Never has there been a better demonstration that there are no definitive solutions. The 'experts' can't agree, and the government has to balance all manner of conflicting demands across society. But a fair start would be to engage with the community and understand how it works because decisions taken this week suggest senior officials are uninformed about everyday life.
It strikes me the government needs a 'Red Team'. The job of the 'Red Team' is to look at an issue from all angles with a critical eye. The team must be people who didn't help draft or develop the policy. They should assess all its weaknesses and consequences.
'Red Teams' have a solid track record of overcoming the bias of in-house policymakers with group-think imposed by organisational culture. Plus we know that crowds — the public — are better at forecasting outcomes over 'individual experts'. Given Hong Kong's democratic deficit, such engagement is crucial.
So, come on Carrie form a 'Red Team' of ordinary citizens. Use construction site workers, waiters, retired people, office workers, postmen, nurses and shop keepers. Get them in a room with a facilitator, and ask them to critique the likely outcome of a policy change. No fancy papers or deliberations are needed, just plain common sense.
Then the government can avoid reversals with further damage to a faltering reputation. After all, these Covid-19 initiatives will only work with the people's support.
"Bolton dodged the draft for Vietnam; maybe he's not so different to Trump"
Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." Unfortunately, Churchill said no such thing. What he did say in 1948 was "For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history."
Not as snappy, but you get the point. John Bolton's book "The Room Where It Happened" would benefit from some snappiness. This book is in desperate need of an editor. It's an essential account because it brings together many threads of the chaos that frame the Trump presidency. Yet it's a clumsy read and full of unnecessary detail. For instance, Bolton's telling of the attempt to impeach Trump is all over the place.
Bolton, who served as Trump's National Security Advisor for 17 months, has decided to give us his version of history. In doing so, he joins a growing list of authors that pour scorn on Donald John Trump, the 45th president of the USA. Michael Wolf's "Fire and Fury" was the opening salvo in January 2018. Wolf laid the founding description of a dysfunctional president.
Next came "Unhinged" by a former competitor of Trump's TV show "The Apprentice," who took up the role of White House Communications Director for Public Affairs. Omarosa Manigault Newman paints Trump as a foul-mouthed racist. Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, steps up next with "Fear". Based on interviews with insiders, Woodward portrays Trump as lacking the intellectual capacity for the role.
So after these three books, what is the purpose of Bolton's effort? Well, Bolton gives away his motivations by his self-aggrandising tone. He frequently suggests he's the only adult or realist in the room. In truth, the book offers little that's new despite a great deal of detail, much of which is unhelpful to the reader.
Yes, Bolton observes that Trump is 'off the rails' most of the time and unable to master his brief; but we knew that. We also know Trump lacks knowledge and is unconcerned with learning. Plus, Trump has no underpinning ideology or specific objectives beyond looking impressive around other world leaders.
In fairness, Bolton offers a couple of gems to affirm Trump's flaws. For example, we learn Trump didn't know that the UK had nuclear weapons. Also, the Trump official day doesn't kick off until 11:00 am. Moreover, we hear that Trump has a habit of ignoring his intelligence briefers to instead lecture them in lengthy free-flowing monologues that go nowhere. I can sympathise having had a few bosses who also loved the sound of their voices.
Bolton also bears witness to Trump's meanness of spirit; not attending John McCain's funeral exemplifies this vindictiveness. By any measure, McCain was a decent man and a war hero, who shamed Trump.
Trump's dislike of the EU and NATO gets more weight from Bolton's account. Although it's evident that Bolton sees NATO has a US adjunct that must follow Washington's direction. So much for partnership.
That Bolton is a hawk secured him the job because Trump wanted to appear resolute. Bolton comes from the 'bomb them into democracy' camp. You know the sort. It's the mindset that led the US to Vietnam, plus gave us the mess in Iraq. Bolton has had skin in the game for decades, having served both Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan. Thus, you have to ask why he didn't appreciate what he was getting into with Trump? The temptation of power was too much.
Other contradictions mark Bolton. He harps on about international standards and being a good world citizen. Then in the next breath, he's disparaging the International Criminal Court. You can only conclude he's happy to hold other nations to account, but wants a free pass for the USA. It's this hypocrisy and his lack of finesse that marked Bolton as ineffectual in his role. He certainly couldn't steer Trump, resulting in most of their initiatives failing, especially the deal with North Korea.
Despite this, you have to admire that Bolton came from humble origins to his position. He is working-class, yet by his efforts alone earned a reputation for tenacity, toughness and plain-speaking. That candidness also counted against him, as he struggled at times to hold unhelpful opinions to himself.
Of course, Bolton is right on the threat posed by ISIS, Iran and North Korea. Likewise, his disdainful take of the European' end of history' mindset is accurate. But in other areas he's monochromatic, displaying some of the short-sightedness he lays at Trump's door.
It's notable that throughout the book Bolton offers few solutions to tackle the most threatening issues, beyond the failed military options of the past. Having framed each problem in his tough-guy image, he depicts everyone else as weak and naive. This attitude sits uncomfortably next to the fact that Bolton dodged the draft for Vietnam. Maybe he's not so different to Trump.
In the end, what does this book tell us that's new? Not a great deal. You can smooch Trump by flattery, which Xi and Kim did. Trump is out of his depth and lacks knowledge for the role — all said before. Trump tied trade deals to his personal interests, including getting reelected — we knew that.
Along the way, Bolton inadvertently exposes his own faults, including a lack of humility. Also, I didn't find Bolton a satisfying observer of events. Time and again, he's in the room at pivotal moments — but doesn't have much of interest to say about it. In the end, Bolton fails to make his account come alive.
"The unintended consequence of Trump's action is the US loss of influence in Hong Kong."
Is Hong Kong at the centre of a new Cold War? Are we the playground for a conflict between East and West or a useful distraction for Trump's 'clown-world' Covid-19 shambles?
In this febrile atmosphere, people see conspiracies and agent-provocateurs on every street corner. What took place matters less than what someone thinks happened. In all this, the truth and facts are irrelevant. Friedrich Nietzsche's "There are no facts; only interpretations" echoes through these events. Thus, while the evidence of suppression of Hong Kong's freedoms is weak, it's now the trope that trips off the tongue of Western politicians.
The media are busy feeding this narrative. The Spectator magazine ran with this "... even as it absorbs Hong Kong, in flagrant violation of its 1997 agreement with Great Britain regarding the autonomy of the city." OK, this simple statement is incorrect on many levels. Let's unpack it. First, the term 'absorbs Hong Kong' ignores the history that Hong Kong was taken from China by force and is Chinese territory.
Next, whether anyone violated the 1997 agreement remains a matter of heated debate, and it's not clear who can settle the case. Last and critically, Hong Kong was never granted full-autonomy. The 1997 agreement gave the city semi-autonomy with Beijing retaining the power to act in the same manner as the UK when it ruled over this place.
After the implementation of the national security law on 1 July, the Guardian ran a headline "China's Great Firewall descends on Hong Kong." A blatant lie. I still have Facebook, WhatsApp and all the other stuff. Yes, Tic Tok has gone. Tic Tok's departure is by choice, with a long backstory related to ownership of the company. Meanwhile, the VPN providers are pumping out horrors stories to drum up business.
Take a look through the local newspapers to find all aspects of the NSL analysed by a multitude of voices expressing a variety of views. Moreover, there are ample signs that reporters continue to raise difficult questions with officials. When I've asked journalist friends, "what are the suppressed stories?" I get blank stares.
Our hapless Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, when challenged on press freedom, responded with "If all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100 per cent guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of legislation, then I can do the same." This non-answer suggests Carrie may have a sense of humour.
Then last week, Trump removed Hong Kong's so-called special trade status, in an expected move. On the day of the announcement, the stock market went up. What is more, manufacturers anticipated this decision years ago, as many shifted production lines to other jurisdictions. In truth, any impact is minimal.
At the same time, the Hong Kong dollar is testing the upper limits of the currency peg as funds flood into Hong Kong. The Monetary Authority had to sell Hong Kong dollars and buy US dollars to protect the peg. The Financial Secretary claims US$100 billion returned to Hong Kong. Thus contrary to all the naysayers, the NSL brought the stability that business needs.
Likewise, embargoes on equipment sales and cross-training with the Hong Kong Police have few tangible effects. For the past decade, the Force built up a diversity of suppliers. On the training front, for some years, the US proved less suited to Hong Kong's needs. Their over-reliance on guns and outdated kinetic tactics didn't sit well here.
Add to that the tactical innovations the Hong Kong Police made in 2019, which mean the US is losing out from the lack of cross-training. The fact that the Hong Kong Police contained an uprising, without killing a single person attests to the Force's skill. Can the US claim the same? How are things going in Portland? Meanwhile, in Chicago, 1,901 people have been shot this year. That is 550 more than in 2019.
The unintended consequence of Trump's action is the US loss of influence in Hong Kong. As an example, the personal rapport between the US and Hong Kong law enforcement is over. With that goes much-undeclared cooperation that helps fight terrorism and crime. As I know from personal experience, these contacts produce tremendous benefits for both sides.
In the future, a criminal or terrorist that the US wants will wash up in Hong Kong — remember Snowden. Dealing with the arrest and extradition will now face extra hurdles. After all, we currently have a murderer walking amongst us because of the withdrawal of the extradition bill. In short, Trump's sanctions are a blunt instrument probably aimed at assuaging his domestics critics.
So while comparisons with the Cold War are intriguing, these are far from exact and often mistaken. After all, the two scenarios come stamped by significant differences. For starters, China in 2020 has economic clout that the Soviet Union never approached. Thus, any rivalry between the two nations must play out within the context of economic interdependence.
Second, the USA is dealing with a much more robust and adept adversary in China. Beijing's diplomatic reach is substantial, while Trump is busy eroding the USA's international standing. For example, when the USA pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it handed Beijing a win. China could claim, with much evidence, that the USA is an unreliable partner in Asia.
Since then, Trump has picked disputes with all the USA's traditional allies. Even relations with Europe are deteriorating. John Bolton made clear in his book ‘The Room Where It Happened’ that Trump detests the EU and NATO. As long as Trump is in office, no nation can be confident that it won't be a target. That plays into China's hands.
Third, unlike the Cold War, no sharp ideological divide exists between the USA and China. At first blush, that's an unsustainable statement given the differences in governance. But consider that the Soviets hated the West's liberal democracies and sought victory over them. China does not share such a belief. China has a nationalistic ideology, with Washington seen as an obstacle rather than the enemy.
Also, it is interesting that within China, public support for the regime is at its highest level ever. Research from Harvard has found compelling evidence that reinforces descriptions of CCP resilience. You could argue that at every turn, criticism from overseas strengthens the CCP's hand. In that sense, it is all counter-productive if the aim is to inflict damage on the CCP at home.
As the US election approaches, China-bashing will increase with Hong Kong playing into that equation as a useful tool. Further, Covid-19 feeds the frenzy with Trump blaming Beijing for 'allowing it to spread.' Although Trump appears incapable of containing Covid-19 in the US, so what exactly he expected China to do is unclear. At the very least you’d think Trump could see that.
Yet, with Trump's re-election prospects looking shaky, battering China is an easy option. You can see that he will continue to mine the rich seam of gullibility that runs through certain sections of the US population. I'm not sure we've reached the Cold War arena yet, but there is a chilly wind blowing.
Reliance on reactions that evolved to deal with life on the African savannah may not help in the modern world.
After several weeks of steady positive progress, Covid-19 is back with a vengeance. And for the first time, we've had a cluster in an old folks home. That's a worry. Until now, Hong Kong has proven adept at protecting our senior citizens from the ravages of Covid-19. Thus, a scramble is underway to revisit precautions and protection.
Cases amongst taxi drivers and younger people also prompted immediate agonizing. Why is this occurring now? How come the routes of transmission aren't understood? Until all the contact data is in, we can only speculate.
As of 11th July, Hong Kong has recorded 1,432 cases, with seven deaths. That remains a remarkable achievement given our crowded conditions, plus our proximity to the initial epicentre in Wuhan. Plus, we continue to import cases, although it's the local transmission that causes real concern. Therefore the government has responded; social distancing rules are back, and schools are closing early for the summer.
How people respond to any crisis is driving the trends we are seeing. For starters, Covid-19 is not a 'black-swan' event. Scientists warned us for decades that a pandemic was coming. Besides, Hong Kong has a long history of dealing with such outbreaks.
During the SARS pandemic of 2003, Hong Kong suffered 40% of the world's recorded deaths. Then in 1997, LAM Hoi-ka, a previously healthy three-year-old boy, became the first victim of H5N1. That virus raised the possibility of a deadly global pandemic. In total, six people died when H5N1 first jumped the species barrier from poultry to humans. By late December 1997, the government slaughtered 1.3 million chickens in a bid to stop the spread of the disease. This mass cull interrupted the range of the outbreak.
Before that, the infamous Hong Kong flu of 1968 killed an estimated one to four million people worldwide. That outbreak reached its highest local intensity within two weeks before travelling the globe.
While scientists urgently track down the origins and spread of these viruses, the rest of us look on, digest the news and react. Unfortunately, evolution didn't endow humans with the ability to fight Covid-19 specifically. Instead, it provided us with a broad set of responses to dangers, seen and unseen, that drive our actions.
In all pandemics, our psychological make-up steers behavioural biases that help us deal with the crisis. Yet, these same traits can trip us up, especially in protracted events. Reliance on reactions that evolved to deal with life on the African savannah may not help in the modern world. The graph below illustrates human responses to pandemics over time.
At first, we tend to underestimate the personal threat. Our optimism bias and inability to assess probabilities mean we believe it won't impact us. Then as a situation escalates, we exhibit 'herding' behaviours that lead us to follow the crowd. That can drive such events as panic buying as we mirror the actions of the majority.
This response can be beneficial if people follow others to start wearing masks, ensuring the majority take precautions. Likewise, hand-washing and other safeguards that help defeat a virus gather momentum from such 'herding' behaviours.
Although, as we perceive the danger is receding, we ease off. Allied to this is the numbing effect. Hearing of deaths day-after-day can cause us to develop risk-fatigue as we seek a return to normalcy. After a protracted period of secureness, our inherent optimism bias again causes us to think the threat is over.
Thus, over time, we become complacent and take less stringent precautions. This 'letting down of the guard' can spread through a population and provide an opportunity for the virus to reemerge in the so-called second and third waves. On Fathers Day June 21st, Hong Kong began that relaxation process.
Included in our repertoire is a tendency to seek a return to the routine when we perceive a risk has gone. That evolved trait served us well down the millennium — I can't see the lion; therefore, it's not there and can venture out. Thus to sustain our guard, it is necessary to remind the population of the dangers by exploiting fear as a tool.
After all, we use fear all the time to get compliance for ourselves and others. Drink too much alcohol, and you'll damage your liver. Don't smoke, or you will get cancer. Stay healthy, take exercise to avoid a heart attack. The list is endless.
The challenge is getting people to follow precautions when needed, but then letting things relax when possible. This conscious effort of seesawing messages is a delicate balancing act. Several points are worth noting.
Relying on the experts to do the messaging is effective because politicians come to any press conference with a great deal of baggage that clouds their messages. In Hong Kong, Dr Chuang Shuk-Kwan of the Centre for Health Protection has earned a reputation for her steadfast delivery. Dr Chuang ticks the following boxes.
So, keep wearing those masks, wash your hands, clean the high traffic surfaces and avoid crowds unless necessary. And if your place is failing badly, try letting the ladies take charge.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.