December 26, 2007

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Book Review: We Deserve Better by Hemlock

A recent change in circumstances has meant that posting to this site is likely to be far more infrequent going forward...whether that is a good or bad thing I'll leave for you to judge.

As part of my holiday season reading I've just read Hong Kong diarist (blogger seems to prosaic) Hemlock's We Deserve Better: Hong Kong since 1997. Fans of his website looking for more of the witty and satirical ins-and-outs of daily Hong Kong life are not going to find more of the same: there's no Winky Ip or Odell in these pages. Instead this book is a calm and flowing history and political analysis of the Big Lychee over the past decade. It is no surprise to find that Hemlock's is an insightful, thoughtful witness and commentator in addition to a diarist without peer.

The first 12 chapters are a potted modern history of the first decade after the handover of Hong Kong, with the crisis-ridden Tung Chee-hwa's mishaps and mis-steps well covered in intimate detail. By intimate I don't mean that we get a minute by minute coverage of the period, but rather closely observed recollection and commentary of the bad and good (yes, there was some). Hemlock is a talented writer and the pages fly by as a reminder to those of us who lived through it and giving a taste of what it was to be witnessing a great city being pummeled by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. One could quibble with some of what the author has chosen to put in or leave out but that will always be a matter of personal taste and Hemlock managed to cover a vast amount of ground in a short number of well chosen words. The book takes the action up to mid 2007, just after The Don's re-election, and it is entertaining to imagine what Hemlock would have made of more recent events such as the "through-train" stock proposal and purchase of shares in the Hong Kong Exchange by the central government. Perhaps later editions will include an expanded 2007 chapter but what is striking is the common patterns and reactions by various players, almost regardless of the event or crisis at hand. Hemlock's gone some way to unlocking the codes and practices that really drive this city, bringing clarity to a deliberately murky world.

What makes the book come into it's own is the final three chapters. Hemlock takes a broader look at what ails the city and where it could go with a bit of imagination and guts from the ruling class in the city. In the final chapter he even speculates on a way to get from the political dead-end the city finds itself in (and which suits a great many) to something resembling a functioning polity. It's obvious to Hemlock and the reader that even this modest way forward is more a flight of fancy than a realistic guess as to where Hong Kong will get to in the next ten years. What amazes is that Hong Kong succedes in spite of the institutional inertia that actively works against what makes the place work so well. I would have preferred Hemlock to devote more to these last few chapters, further developing both the problems with and solutions to Hong Kong's governance.

One can understand Hemlock's desire for anonymity. He clearly has access at a high level to many of the movers and shakers in Hong Kong and that is part of what makes both his website and this book great: we are giving a peek inside the closed doors we would normally not even be aware are closed. But therein lies the shame of it as well: here is someone that loves this city, has interesting and creative things to say about how it is run and should be governed and yet must hide behind a nom de plume. We are both richer and poorer for that.

This book should be compulsary reading for every member of Legco, Exco, the senior levels of bureaucracy, the oligarchs, policy secretaries and members of the ruling class. For anyone who has lived through or watched post-handover Hong Kong it is both a handy memory-jogger and thought provoking read. And for anyone that is a student of political economy it is a case study of a bastardised political culture that is both dysfunctional and unique. Don't buy this book expecting a "best of Hemlock's website". But do and buy and read it to see how Hong Kong got to where it is and how it might (but only might) be going.

posted by Simon on 12.26.07 at 02:20 PM in the Hong Kong democracy/politics category.


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Okay, it's been two months since your last post and now you say future postings will be "far more infrequent." Does that mean just once a year.

That's a shame because back in your "hey day" I thought this was one of the most essential sites in HK.

But I do understand how life has a way of getting in the way and priorities changing over time.

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Okay, it's been two months since your last post and now CRMyou say future postings will be "far more infrequent." Does that mean just once a year.

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I hope not...but the famous show business maxim is to keep 'em guessing...

posted by: Simon on 01.03.08 at 09:48 AM [permalink]

I thoroughly enjoyed 'We Deserve Better' and by and large agreed with Hemlock's final summations. I picked it up last summer whilst in England and it sits happily on my bookshelf in Malta at the moment, having been sufficiently entertaining and provocative to earn a spot in my luggage when I moved.

A future in which Hong Kong's local political discourse and indeed progression, is relevent is probably only acheivable by the means he sets out.

I'll be back in the Big Lychee on business at some point during the year but Hemlock's measured extrapolation of Hong Kong's course since 1997 seems (and indeed has already proven) so clairvoyant that the act of actually revisiting Hong Kong in order to gauge its circumstances, joins 'asking a taxi driver's opinion' in the pages of the Big Book of Political Frivolities.

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