Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Unelected Battle the Selected: Democracy in Hong Kong

Anybody who does not start his day by placing his brains in a sack and vigorously slapping them against a nearby wall presumably realizes that the current agitation in Hong Kong is not just about students.  It represents the culmination of years of struggle against encroaching PRC control by liberal, pro-democracy, and anti-Beijing activists, many of them adults and quite a few of them members of Hong Kong’s professional, political, and intellectual elite.

The annual Tiananmen commemoration begat the Article 23 concern group (security law), which begat the Article 45 Concern Group (universal suffrage), which begat the Civic Party,  the Pan-Democratic political faction in Legco, which begat successful agitation against the proposed security law, which begat the fight against national education reforms, which begat Scholarism and energized the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which begat Occupy Hong Kong With Peace & Love (hereinafter OHK) which begat Hong Kong 2020, which begat the July 1 unofficial referendum on Hong Kong’s future, which begat the Alliance for Democracy and set the stage for the current struggle fight against the government reforms announced by the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

The students are out front now because they are key foot soldiers in the effort; and the adults don’t feel that the time is right for them to mount the stage.

With this context, my expectations for the student-government dialogue were not high and, on paper at least (read the transcript only) my expectations were not disappointed.

It will be interesting to see if this event actually “moves the needle” (American political parlance for an outcome that actually change support levels rather than merely reinforce existing views).  My impression is that it won’t.  

The HKSAR team did an OK job with its basic theme of “5 million Hong Kongers will vote for chief executive in 2017; isn’t that great?” 

The students on the other hand were all “Hong Kong is totally FUBAR, crisis crisis crisis.  Also tear gas.”

I’m suspicious of “corev” (another portmanteau coinage of mine, for “color revolution”) type scripted political movements, and I get my full daily ration of self-righteous teenage impertinence in my own home, so I’m carrying my biases into the analysis.

In any case, I found the students strident and complainy.  They were also, transparently, coached on their tricksy rhetorical moves and sealawyerly parsing of the legal issues, a fact confirmed by the SCMP.

If the pro-democracy movement wanted to score some political points, the students could have offered some “we love Hong Kong, help us save Hong Kong” emotive rhetoric.  Alex Chow, reportedly prone to moist-eyed appeals, could have extended his arms to the government team and implored, “We are your children!  Help us, protect us, don’t beat us, don't teargas us, and don’t sacrifice our future in order to please Beijing.”

Well, maybe if the next dialogue is coached by communications profs instead of polysci profs we’ll get more of that.

But I suspect that the pro-dem forces understand that this struggle is not going to be won in the McCluhanesque “cool” confines of the debating hall; it’ll be won with feet on the street, and maybe it’s time for some poor, brave student to get clonked on the head so the whole white-“hot” outrage machine can start cranking again.

As to what the strategy is—what the students will do, and what the constellation of pro-democracy forces will do in order to support and exploit the student effort—is a matter of some interest.

A recent document dump by pro-Beijing forces purports to provide a window on the pro-dems strategizing through the meeting minutes of the Alliance for Democracy, a grouping of pro-democratic organizations engaged in Occupy-related issues.

I will provide the necessary caveats.  The whole dump could be an elaborate forgery and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some denials from some people concerning the accuracy of the remarks attributed to them.  

One of the more eye-catching documents is dated September 5, and is allegedly the minutes of a meeting organized by the Alliance for Democracy and Hong Kong 2020’s “English Language Group” on the theme of “The Way Forward From the Younger Peoples’ Perspective”.

The meeting convened to showcase speakers from Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students.  It was chaired by Margaret Ng, a barrister and elder stateswoman of the Hong Kong democracy movement.  

Dan Garrett, a bombastic ex-U.S. Defense Department civilian intelligence type (DoD Division Chief, Strategic & Technical Threats, GS-15) who is pursuing what is undoubtedly every retired US civil servant’s  dream of obtaining a Ph. D. at a Hong Kong university, also attended the meeting, and his alleged comments provided plenty of “US black hands fomenting Hong Kong chaos” grist for the pro-Beijing propaganda mills.

I believe Mr. Garrett has denied that his contribution, as recorded in the minutes, was that 

“He had reported to his superiors during his last trip past to the United States about the current state of affairs in Hong Kong and the development of the work I am advancing in Hong Kong.  Washington wishes to continue to promote civic and social forces in Hong Kong so that a movement in for democratic demands can be achieved, especially in order to promote the vanguard role of the younger generation in social movements.  Currently the struggle of various forces with the critical point, it would be very easy for things to blow up…  The United States will protect the student leaders, including provisions for them to go abroad to study and reside.”

Maybe a forgery, maybe the truth, maybe baseless braggadocio, maybe an English-language cock-up as whoever took the notes inadvertently stripped out Mr. Garrett’s nuances and qualifiers.

Indeed, if the documents are genuine, the linguistic/secretarial issues were rather fraught.  A member of the Sociology Department from Hong Kong Baptist University brought along “a Muslim refugee from the Middle East” who purportedly said he could “summon political refugees in Hong Kong to assist Occupy Central and, if conditions were ripe, could establish an extremist (极端) Muslim organization in Hong Kong”. 

This was entered into the minutes without comment. Hope what he really said (or meant) was “activist Muslim organization”. 

Despite these rather obvious flaws, the documents feel real, primarily because there are no grotesque smoking guns.  Just pages and pages of minutiae that are interesting primarily because they illustrate the extent of the planning and handwringing that has gone into the Occupy exercise and some hints as to how the movement will unfold in the next few weeks.

In fact, the one significant omission I’ve been able to identify in the minutes seems to support the case that they are genuine.

I shall explain.

The purpose of the meeting was to build bridges to non-Chinese worthies sympathetic to the democracy movement, including David Webb, an activist on financial issues.

According to the Chinese-language minutes, when given a chance to comment, Webb said:

19.  Steve M Webb: 应该多关注如何保护香港的自由制度,尽量不去触怒中央,如果要真正民主,则必须推翻中国共产党才性。

19 Steve (sic: believe this is mistype for David; see below) M. Webb: More attention should be paid as to how to protect the free system of Hong Kong.  All efforts must be made not to provoke the center (the PRC, presumably).  If we want real democracy, then it would only do to overthrow the Communist Party of China.

Say wha?

As it happens, this September 5 meeting is also the only one for which audio was obtained.  Whoever clandestinely recorded the meeting frequently turned off his recorder and, if impressions are to be trusted, occasionally rolled himself up in cellophane and flung himself down a stairwell.  Just kidding.  Audio quality ranges from acceptable to inaudible.  Audio for about half of the meeting seems to have made its way onto the Web.

Anyway, a lengthy comment from David Webb made it on the tape en clair.  The key graf, as they say, is this:

“The bigger picture in all of this in the last few weeks has become very clear that activists in Hong Kong on the political front are aiming too low.  They should not be trying to fix the Hong Kong system without trying to fix the mainland political system.  And since the mainland government believes that Hong Kong is a potential hotbed for subverting the one-party state, why don’t you make it so?  Why don’t you actually tackle the problem.  Because democracy is on the verge of coming to the mainland…and will bring down the government.  The longer we’re talking about Hong Kong problems and not about the master problem, we’re not going to fix the subsidiary problem and we need to refocus on that—not just you, of course, but the whole pan-democratic movement has stalled out trying to get things done locally and needs to reposition itself as the base for subverting the one party system in China…”

I think this moment is worthy of the pen of Chekhov.  With the invincible self-regard reserved for a wealthy, liberally-inclined, university-educated Englishman who is the proud owner of the chairmanship of the Hong Kong Mensa chapter and a British passport, Webb lectures the rapt Celestials on the proper strategy for total democratic revolution in Asia …

…to the polite bemusement or silent horror of his audience, some of whom have risked their livelihoods, their reputations, and even their physical well-being for almost two decades in order to oppose an implacable enemy who has fought them at every turn and riddled their organizations with spies and informers, one of whom is even now, without their knowledge, recording an exhortation for their vulnerable organization to abandon its carefully crafted strategy of civil opposition to pursue a program of open sedition against the People’s Republic of China…

When Webb concludes, Margaret Ng moves on with a jocular aside about “March march march to Beijing!” to a ripple of laughter.  I can also imagine her turning to pat the arm of the secretary and murmur, “No need for that lot to go into the minutes.”

(There doesn’t seem to be much chance that there was another “Steve M Webb” at the meeting to make different remarks recorded in the minutes.  There is no “Steve M Webb” on the list of attendees.  And in the sequence of audio, David Webb’s remarks are followed by David Zweig’s and Steve Vine’s, in the same sequence as recorded in the minutes).

The other minutes in the dump presumably reflect the contents of meetings conducted in Cantonese by the various Alliance partners, so one would hope that accuracy would be less of an issue.   However, inaccuracies in the minutes by omission, commission, accident, or design are clearly a potential hazard.  So please mentally insert the phrase “allegedly” in all instances below in the event, which seems to me unlikely, that the dump turns out to be a forgery en toto or, somewhat more plausibly, en parte.

In other words, caveat HK news junkies.

The dump, as preserved on the Brothers Democracy website is about four dozen files, mostly scans, including three audio files and four pages of scans of minutes for the September 5 meeting, and scanned minutes for the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (hereinafter, the Democratic Alliance)’s 9th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 25th, and 27th meeting; two “6 Party” meetings (an expanded Democratic Alliance meeting with student, OHK, and other representatives); internal polling on people’s attitudes toward Occupy Central for the period October 10-19; a telephone notification list dated September 10 (marked “Secret’) for marshals for the Occupy Central action anticipated on October 1; an undated list of 近期 i.e. near term meetings for period of September 26 through October 8.

Translating the entire dump is beyond my capacity, anyway, my interest, as is digging into the earlier minutes (9/11/13/14), which date to the first half of the year and focus on the July 1 referendum.  

So here’s my takeaway on what the later documents appear to tell us about the strategizing running up to the NPC’s August 31 announcement, and the subsequent brouhaha.

One of the purposes of the July 1 voting exercise was to undercut the HKSAR government’s report to the NPC characterizing popular attitudes to committee nomination, which apparently described local opinion as divided and thereby gave the NPC Standing Committee the leeway to give decisive weight to  “national interest” over “local preference”.

N.B. In contrast to the “Beijing reneged” line fed to journalists, the internal line as described by Alan Leung was that the HKSAR had “misled” the NPC.

Unless the report is repudiated, the pro-dems don’t have a legal leg to stand on within the framework of the Basic Law and the NPC; what’s more surprising is that they recognize that they don’t even have a particularly strong legal case for direct nomination under the “international standards” for democracy the students are currently trumpeting.

Claudia Mo, a Civic Party stalwart and ex-AFP reporter (which might explain why she has appeared a few times in AFP’s Occupy coverage as a quotable notable), observed that “international standards” seemed unclear.  

Benny Tai, whose job is presumably to make an airtight legal case for the action, instead observed that international practices don’t demand popular nomination.  In fact, the UK doesn’t have direct nomination, as a HKSAR representative pointed out during the student dialogue.  The key stipulation is a matter of principle: Do citizens have real choice?  Do the candidates represent different needs and backgrounds?  The best he could say was that popular nomination would unequivocally meet international standards, not that it was the only way.

Even more problematically, perhaps, the UK opted out of the Article 25 of the Universal Covenant of Civil and Political Rights for universal suffrage and direct elections for Hong Kong during its merrily undemocratic colonial years, and the PRC succeeded to that treatment when it took over in 1997.  The OHK legal case rests on the rather frail legal reed that Beijing inadvertently surrendered its reservation by holding legislative elections.

And that is the best that the cream of the Hong Kong legal profession and the NED—whose job it is to twist Beijing’s knickers on these kinds of treaties—has been able to come up with after over a decade of determined lawyering.

Remarkably, Benny Tai also voiced the concern that another popular referendum might be necessary to legitimate OHK’s demands and allow it to achieve standing as a negotiator, another tip that the case is not a legal slam dunk.  (I might point out parenthetically that I approve of this state of mind, since otherwise we’re left with the metaphysical, undemocratic, and dare I say borderline-putschlike idea that the students can claim the right to speak for “Hong Kong” simply by putting feet on the street.)

So the struggle is in its essence political, not legal.

Without a solid legal strategy, therefore, OHK has turned to a political strategy, that is, to create a rumpus in Hong Kong sufficient to discredit the HKSAR report and reopen the issue. 

It was generally understand that rumpus would have to reach unprecedented levels, beyond the traditional complaining and legal marches, which the government could shrug off.

It was decided that civil disobedience was needed; but it had to be packaged in a way that did not alienate Hong Kong public opinion.

This of course, meant Students!  The younger, the sweeter, the neater, the more studious the better.  

Joshua Wong and Alex Chow participated in the meetings, and demonstrated an unambiguous enthusiasm for civil disobedience.  Chow commented that most of the 500 arrested during demonstrations in July were eager for another action.

But it also required an adequate pretext.

Therefore, prior to the August 31 NPC Standing Committee announcement, there was a lot of handwringing about what it might say and not say, and whether it could be sufficiently spun to justify an avalanche of righteous student indignation on the streets of Hong Kong.

In the event, the NPC Standing Committee announcement, by eschewing any explicit commitment to a timetable for further liberalization, provided the pro-dem movement enough daylight to employ the hyperbolic declaration that the NPC had “obliterated” (抹杀)democracy in Hong Kong.

It looks to me that the pro-dem action was a foregone conclusion, not because of the NPC’s act of democratic homicide, but because of the threat that the Hong Kong electorate might find itself quite beguiled with a cleverly-run 2017 Chief Executive electoral campaign with some attractive candidates, and find itself reconciled to the leisurely tweaking of the nomination process according to Beijing’s preferences and timetable.

The decision to adopt a politically risky campaign of civil disobedience dictated certain tactics.

The first, as noted above, was to use students as the vanguard.

Second, of course, was to obtain favorable media coverage.  Unfortunately, this ploy failed miserably, as the international press turned its Sauron-like critical eye on the movement with the strength of a thousand blazing suns…Haha.  Just kidding.  Coverage from outlets that were not Beijing-bespoke was favorable to an almost embarrassing degree.  

The third was the interesting and dicey issue of how to handle legal and moral liability, especially for students (and also adults, natch) who might be up for a civil disobedience misdemeanor and a night in the clink, but not the resume stain of a felony conviction or an ugly lawsuit.  

I think this goes a long way toward explaining the awkward formulation of “conveners” (召集人) instead of “leaders” to characterize the activities of a movement which is, clearly, carefully planned and led.  If participants show up as a matter of individual choice, and not in response to instructions from “leaders”, then the worst that happens is a minor charge for civil disobedience for the kid on the spot, not a charge of “conspiracy”, “subversion” or, if when property damage occurs or somebody gets hurt or worse, negligent or criminal endangerment or whatever the relevant Hong Kong term is, for some leader.

In addition to event marshals—who, I presume, in this context, are there not to prevent illegal behavior, but to document who did what and got arrested and hauled off where—there are several mentions of the OHK legal team standing by to handle the details of detention.

School officials, it might be noted, have balanced their support for student activism with a clear concern that their students do not get caught in the middle of some riot, violent police action or, worst case, Tiananmen style horror.

What to do after the students hit the streets and, presumably, continue to earn the love and support of the Hong Kong people through their moral authority (to quote Margaret Ng) or via the pity they elicit by acting as pinatas for triad goons and/or impatient citizenry is an interesting and as yet unanswered question on the morning after the dialogue and the students’ well-advertised “disappointment” with the outcome.

An interesting hint was offered by the List of Recent Meetings:

Meeting 3, October 2, 2014 AM: Participants “The Three Occupy Guys”, representatives of Scholarism, representatives of the HKFS, some Legco representatives.  

Topic: Discuss the arrangements for Lee Cheuk-yan to take over after the “Three Occupy Central Guys” go behind the scenes.

Lee Cheuk-yan is chairman of the Labour Party and a Legco representative; he’s also General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and therefore, perhaps, has the ability to supplement the students with a broader collection of adult activists from the political and labor fields.

Lee is a determined anti-Beijing warrior.

Unlike the students, Lee also carries more than a bit of baggage.

As revealed by the Jimmy Lai leak this summer, Lee got HK1.5 million from Lai; since Hong Kong law requires that elected officials declare contributions over HK$10,000, this earned Lee a perhaps politicized though, unfortunately, apparently quite justified visit from the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Lee was apparently able to smooth over most of the awkwardness by belatedly depositing the money with his political party.

As for his power base, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, it is not to be confused with the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, a pro-Beijing outfit about twice its size.  The HKCTU is anti-Beijing and has therefore attracted the favorable attention of NGOs looking for an anti-Communist counterweight.

The most persuasive evidence that the pro-dems are indeed contemplating putting Lee in the front lines (and indirectly, very strong support for the proposition that the Democracy Alliance document dump is genuine) was a massive rip job on Lee in the pro-Beijing press last week  (which China Daily, usually a stranger to Hong Kong labor reporting, also saw fit to publicize), backed up by an equally massive dump of surreptitiously obtained documents.

Most of them concern the HKCTU’s relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy which, according to its annual report, had granted $139, 152 to the HKCTU via one of its subsidiaries, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.  That’s a significant chunk of the NED’s annual Hong Kong funding of $600,000. 

The ACILS’s core mission is apparently to fight Commie trade unions abroad, and the HKCTU has been a favorite beneficiary of its largesse even before 1997.  The dump reportedly included e-mails and agreements detailing over $13 million in payments to the HKCTU over the last 20 years.

The e-mails also revealed that in response to the Jimmy Lai donation brouhaha, the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation stopped a deal with the HKCTU that apparently involved HK$60,000 per month contribution for “administrative expenses”.

Dox enthusiasts can go to the Twitter feed of 旺角脑场起底@mkccwelld for a link to the zipped files.

It will be interesting to see whether Lee Cheuk-yan does shoulder a central role in the next stage of Hong Kong Occupy, given the current rain of poo Beijing is directing his way—and of course, whether the pro-dem media does its usual yeoman job in downplaying or ignoring the story.

Assuming that Occupy Hong Kong is able to keep up the heat on the HKSAR through Lee or via some other individual or organization, the focus of activity would in principle switch to the “Three Guys” in the background: Benny Tai, whom I think of as “Mr. Outside”, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, the moral authority, and Chan Kin Man who, I speculate, is “Mr. Inside”.

Chan Kin Man apparently is an important guy to Beijing, at least in his own estimation, per an August 2013 profile by the New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow*:

For about a decade, Chinese Communist Party officials and scholars regularly visited Chan Kin-man, an expert on civil society in China and advocate of democracy in Hong Kong, for advice on this former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997… “I told them, 60 percent of people want democracy in Hong Kong; 80 percent of young people want democracy. The tide is coming in. There is something coming,” said Mr. Chan… About four weeks ago, the visitors brought “a very clear signal,” said Mr. Chan, gesturing at two green-upholstered, rococo-style armchairs where he said they sat. “They came here to advise me not to support Occupy Central.”
From years of meeting with officials, Mr. Chan believes Beijing’s bureaucrats, who think in terms of quotas and plans, estimated China would be economically developed enough around 2020 to consider greater democracy there, too. 

“They believed that by 2020 China would be a ‘xiaokang shehui”’ — a moderately prosperous society, said Mr. Chan. “And then we can talk political reform in China, too.” 

“They treat 2017 as a starting point. But to us, it’s an end point,” he said. “Free speech, an independent judiciary, a free press, for China, I can wait. But in Hong Kong we are in deep trouble if we wait.” 

“So to me, they should take the first step” and grant the democracy many here crave, he said. “It’s very bold, yes. They have to get used to that. To two political parties in China!”

As I left, he called out: “Visit me in jail!”

I suspect Chan sees his job to serve as the respected and respectable interlocutor with Beijing about the future of Hong Kong, speaking from a position of moral and intellectual authority and with millions of democracy-craving Hong Kongers at his back. 

So here’s what I imagine the most optimistic OHK scenario to be: 

Students come out and win the PR battle so activists can stay on the streets, engage in civil disobedience, and escalate pressure on the government without alienating the public; Lee emerges as the leader of a popular front movement of union/civil society/older students that does the dirty work of maintaining an atmosphere of crisis and giving the lie to the HKSAR’s protestations that sentiment is not overwhelmingly and determinedly against the nominating committees and the functional constituencies; the HKSAR government capitulates, writes a report on the broad unpopularity of anything except popular nomination, and becomes the democracy movement’s advocate before the NPC; the CCP throws up its hands, sends its envoys to work out a face-saving deal with Chan behind the scenes (like direct nomination in 2020), and everybody sings kumbaya.


I wonder if Professor Chan will instead discover that it is the rich, rather than the youth, that hold the upper hand in Hong Kong and that the broad road of co-option and appeasement of Hong Kong’s politicians runs parallel to the steep and narrow track toward true democracy that he is encouraging the CCP to climb.

Anyway, time will tell.

*Tatlow's profile includes another PRC=Nazis jab like her “questioning significance of Tiananmen equivalent to Holocaust denial” piece.  Hmm.  I get the feeling Tatlow is now on the China bashing farm team, and will be called up to the big leagues to fill the morally indignant Euroliberal slot when it’s time for NYT to totally get in PRC’s grill and play the “You’re Nazis!” delegitimization card.

Monday, October 20, 2014

C.Y. Leung Harshing On the Poors Maybe Not as Dumb as You Think

Ah, C.Y. Leung, C.Y. Leung…

Supposedly the HKSAR supremo put his hoof into it again by pointing out that switching from the current nominating committee to direct selection of candidates by universal suffrage would give the poors a big voice in local governance, since half of the potential electorate makes less than US$1800/month.

The liberal fainting couch was instantly overloaded by journo/activist types overwhelmed by C.Y.’s anti-democratic callosity.  Depicting C.Y. Leung as a hopeless ass is, of course, central to the pro-democracy movement's objective of delegitimizing the current officials  and the entire process that selected them.

This gave me free rein to indulge my contrarian/lonely outlier inclinations, and I think I summed up the actual dynamic neatly enough on Twitter that cut ‘n’ paste should just about do it:

CY Leung not as dumb as he looks, maybe. Telling the rich folk "apres moi le deluge". HKO can either say, No! our neoliberal alliance will continue to work w/ the rich to screw the poor! or “Yeah, I guess one implication of our agenda is massive social upheaval.” 

What I've always found amusing is the "HK is a precious pearl that must be protected from the filthy paws of Beijing". Well, the reason for its current pearliness is that the local government & power structure have allied to keep a boot on the necks of the poor for 200 years.  

It would be pretty cool if HKO dared take a bite of the "we believe in taxes/income redistribution" apple. But I think we'll mostly get Look at that stupid CY woof woof woof instead.

Think CY's message is "the pro-dem toffs will promise tycoons everything but once HK goes full demo they won't be able to deliver anything."

The last line is, I think, the democracy movement’s Achilles Heel.  They’ve been trying to sell the Hong Kong tycoons on the idea that full democratization will be a pain-free win-win way to get past the current rancor.  Beijing won’t invade, the stock market will stay yeasty, students will be happy so, Mr. Rich Guy, why don’t you discretely add your voice to the calls to Beijing to drop the nominating commission?

Problem is, once there’s direct nomination for democracy, the pro-dems are probably not going to be able to control or deliver squat.  Despite the media fapfest over the demonstrators as the face and voice of the new Hong Kongers, it looks like the city is pretty well split down the middle between doctrinaire pro-dems and the Meh crowd.  Whether or not the pro-dems can  actually elect a slate pro-business enough to please the well-off, or even avoid a pro-poor panderpalooza if they do win, is pretty much a black box.

C.Y. is saying to the tycoons, “Pissed-off students is the devil you know.  Pissed-off poors with the vote is the devil you don’t know.”

Like I said, not so dumb.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Back In the Day: Ebola "Classic"

The Intertubes tell me Ebola is a big thing nowadays.

Some netizens maybe too young to remember the first Ebola scare, back in 1989, an outbreak among monkeys in a research facility near Washington, D.C.

The event was chronicled in a best-selling book, The Hot Zone, and today it was announced that Ridley Scott is planning to produce a TV series for Fox based on the book.

As readers will learn from the subsequent post, recycled from 2009, Scott did his best to make The Hot Zone into a feature film back in the 1990s, but failed.

Today, as I put it on Twitter, "it looks like Scott's plague-laden ship has come in"; however, I predict the same dramatic problem that plagued him back then (Spoiler alert: major monkey massacre, but nothing else happens in U.S.) may dog the project now, especially since we now actually have a human-killing outbreak burbling along in the Homeland.

This piece was written as the anthrax investigation (you might remember that one, from 2001, perhaps the biggest biohazard freakout between the two Ebolas) was grinding along to one of its faux climaxes.  And there's an interesting contrast with the handling of an important and nasty bug, hantavirus, in the early 1990s.

It offers an interesting perspective on the conflicting policy imperatives of "it's the end of the world; give me funding!" and "Yo lo tengo Oops Yo no tengo" approaches.

Friday, May 15, 2009

“I Want to See Dustin Hoffman Bleed Out of His Nipples”

Biodefense’s USAMRIID Problem

Biohazards bring out the weird in people.

Especially people from USAMRIID—the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.

The quote about Dustin Hoffman comes from Tales from Development Hell (Titan Books, London: 2003), a book by David Hughes that recounts the tortured path that movie projects can take from sure-fire properties to triumph, failure, or terminal residence in the soul-sapping limbo of…development hell.

One of the more entertaining chapters concerns the frantic race between Fox and Warner Brothers to make the first Ebola virus thriller.

Fox had prestige and science on its side, having purchased the rights to Crisis in the Hot Zone, the lauded non-fiction account by the New Yorker’s Richard Preston of a successful effort to contain an Ebola outbreak in a monkey house in Virginia. The producers also obtained the cooperation of the key scientific protagonists in the story—scientists Nancy Jaax and Karl Johnson.

Howwever, Fox’s Tiffany Ebola project, The Hot Zone, never got made. It lost out to the flashy cubic zirconia of Warner Brothers’ Outbreak, a by-the-numbers biothriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Dustin Hoffman.

Hughes quotes an interview with Entertainment Weekly, in which Preston poured scorn on Outbreak:

“It just wasn’t scary. You have scabs that look like Gummi bears. The blood was put on with an eyedropper. In a real [Ebola attack], the men bleed out of their nipples. I would have liked to see Hoffman bleed out of his nipples.”

However, judging from Hughes’ account, Warner Brothers got the movie-making business right and Fox got it wrong. And what Fox got wrong was excessive loyalty to Preston’s book.

Outbreak, an efficient and compelling science fact/fiction thriller with gory and involving scenes of an exploding epidemic, martial law, and desperate scientific detective work that saves humanity, opened in 1995 and pulled in a more than respectable $187 million at the global box office.

The Hot Zone, a fictionalized docudrama that would have featured scenes of scientists earnestly centrifuging blood samples with coathangers and climaxed with the offscreen massacre of a warehouse full of monkeys, lacked the compelling narrative and dramatic core necessary to satisfy the finicky talent actually making the picture.

Ridley Scott was going to direct; he had his ideas and his screenwriters. Robert Redford was going to star; he had his ideas and his screenwriter. Scott and Redford couldn’t get on the same page. And everybody was too invested in respecting Preston’s book to take the momentous and perhaps necessary step of throwing it out the window and punching up the script with some gratuitous nipple-bleeding action.

So The Hot Zone never got made.

But it lives on, both in development hell and in the pages of Hughes’ book.

Hughes’ book also includes this interesting quote from The Hot Zone’s screenwriter, James Hart:

“I went to USAMRIID, and to a person, the biggest problem—and I want to make sure this is said right—the biggest problem they had with the Ebola outbreak at the monkey house was the fact that no human being died. If one human being had died, it would have moved their cause for prevention and preparation for these kinds of outbreaks forward in the government’s mind…So what they wished had happened—and it’s a horrible thing to say – was that a person had died of Ebola brought over here by monkeys, so it would give them the strength and ‘go juice’ to go get government funding…”[emphasis in original]

Possibly this plaintive lament has an eerie resonance for China Matter’s informed and discerning readers.

Can’t pin it down? Let me help.

"I think a lot of good has come from it," he told ABCNEWS. "From a biological or a medical standpoint, we've now five people who have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our [2003] budget into defending against bioterrorism."

That was David Franz, the former bioweapons commander at USAMRIID’s Fort Detrick, speaking in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks—which he devoted considerable effort to trying to pin on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Of course, subsequent investigations showed that the most likely source for the spores was Franz’s own lab, in which some of the world’s deadlier substances were manipulated both by dedicated scientists and an unknown number of careless technicians, racists, and psychologically unbalanced individuals, apparently including at least one person who thought that the best way to protect America was to selectively kill off a few Americans.

The DoJ’s October 31, 2007 request for a search warrant on Dr. Bruce Ivins, the USAMRIID scientists who was officially tagged as the Amerithrax perpetrator after his suicide, makes for interesting reading. Hey, did you know the FBI thinks it can link a piece of Scotch tape to the roll it came from?

I suppose it could be argued that the deceased Ivins was smeared as a convenient fall guy for an investigation that had dragged on inconclusively for seven years.

But I don’t think that the U.S. government would be eager to build its case as the steward of the world’s most dangerous microbes by fabricating allegations that one of its key bioweapons researchers stayed on the job for years despite evidence that he was absolutely nuts--or that he took his work home to punish the perceived American enemies of his staunchly pro-life Catholic/national-security Republican worldview.

According to Ivins’ own e-mails cited in the warrant, he was already undergoing psychiatric counseling in 2000 and the diagnosis pointed to a “paranoid personality disorder”.

"I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind. It's hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior. When I'm being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don't spread the pestilence. . . .I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there's nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs."

Things did not get better after 9/11.

September 26, 2001, "Of the people in my [counseling] "group," everyone but me is in the depression/sadness/flight mode for stress. I'm really the only scary one in the group. ... my reaction to the WTC/Pentagon events is far different. Of course, I don't talk about how I really feel with them - it would just make them worse. Seeing how differently I reacted than they did to the recent events makes me ratify [sic] think about myself a lot."

Ivins shared a poem with a friend in December 2001:

I'm a little dream-self, short and stout.
I'm the other half of Bruce - when he lets me out.
When I get all steamed up, I don't pout.
I push Bruce aside, them I'm Free to run about!

Hickory dickory Doc - Doc Bruce ran up the clock.
But something then happened in very strange rhythm.
His other self went and exchanged places with him.
So now, please guess who
Is conversing with you.
Hickory dickory Doc!

Bruce and this other guy, sitting by some trees,
Exchanging personalities.
It's like having two in one.
Actually it's rather fun!"

One does wonder why it took almost six years to get a warrant to search this guy’s house.

Bruce Ivins sure served up the wrong kind of scary for a biodefense lab hoping to hype its budget.

To date, the anthrax attacks that apparently emanated from Fort Detrick represent the only proven case of anti-American bioterrorism.

In fact, one might argue that the best way to protect Americans might be to close down Fort Detrick instead of funding it.

It looks like the U.S. government has done the next best thing—funneling that multi-billion dollar bioterrorism bonanza into the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ biodefense programs and resources at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while shunting the dysfunctional and demoralized USAMRIID to the sidelines.

The insular culture of USAMRIID seems diametrically opposite of the mindset needed to manage biohazards in a free society.

People with long memories might recall a pre-9/11 outbreak of an disease that claimed multiple human victims in the United States: the hantavirus episode that killed forty five largely Navajo inhabitants of Four Corners, New Mexico in 1993-95.

New Mexico HPS hantavirus had an impressive mortality rate of 50%, Furthermore, it’s delivered just like USAMRIID’s favorite boogeyman—weapons-grade anthrax.

HPS is transmitted as a microscopic and highly infectious pulmonary aerosol, albeit generated prosaically from the urine and feces of infected rodents, not engineered in military laboratories by delusional scientists with too much time on their hands.

However, this lethal incident didn’t serve as USAMRIID’s ticket to the institutional and budgetary bigtime.

HPS attacked anonymous victims in one of the poorest and most remote parts of the United States, not the movers and shakers in Washington or the media types who chronicled them.

And it wasn’t bioterrorism.

So the CDC handled it.

Perhaps because hyping a biohazard is antithetical to the CDC’s basic mission of keeping the lid on and preventing public panic, its response to HPS provides an interesting contrast to USAMRIID’s near palpable PR desperation:

The CDC on Four Corners:

Taking a calculated risk, researchers decided not to wear protective clothing or masks during the trapping process [to capture and identify the rodent vectors]. "We didn't want to go in wearing respirators, scaring...everybody," John Sarisky, an Indian Health Service environmental disease specialist said.

I feel utterly confident in completing the elided phrase as “scaring the shit out of everybody”.

Compare and contrast with James Hart, sympathetically explaining the Hollywood/biowar synergies of the The Hot Zone gang:

All they [USAMRIID] wanted to do was scare the shit out of the public, so they’d have some more juice to go back to Congress and get more funding…

There’s an interesting contrast between how a public health organization—relying on transparency to achieve a relationship of trust with the public in order to manage an outbreak—and a bioweapons outfit—thriving on secrecy, threatened by exposure, and eager to exploit an outbreak in order to seize control of a situation and extend its budgetary and executive reach—handle a crisis.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Trials of Jimmy Lai

I get the impression that the Western press isn’t enthusiastic about reporting on Next Media supremo Jimmy Lai’s rather central role in financing and backboning (a neologism of mine: providing critical support/determination/coordination/encouragement) the Hong Kong Occupy movement.

Jimmy Lai's partisanship, wheeling and dealing, hard-nosed business practices, and antagonism toward Beijing complicate his reformist advocacy and undercut HKO’s “spontaneous leaderless outpouring by idealistic students” framing, and he’s not going to do the movement any favors by becoming the face of democratic agitation in Hong Kong.

From what I’ve seen, when Jimmy Lai’s role comes up, a straw man is promptly constructed out of the “Jimmy Lai is a CIA front” excelsior, contemptuously torched, and tossed aside.  

The Jimmy Lai story deserves better, in my opinion, especially since the focus of the agitation is moving into the Hong Kong Legislative Council, whose pro-democracy faction is heavily funded by Lai and will presumably be responding to Lai’s influence as well as the democratic fire that rages in its collective bosom.

As to why the Jimmy Lai story is not deemed to be worthy of more in-depth and critical coverage, one theory might be that the Western press is consciously pushing a certain pro-HKO PR line and intentionally gives short shrift to the Jimmy Lai angle. 

I tend toward the explanation that, as I put it in a previous post, Big Media is interested in Big Stories.  Democratic ferment sweeping Hong Kong is a big story with implications for China and the entire world; Jimmy Lai’s machinations are just local news.

I can also speculate that news organizations may be guided, consciously or not, by a sense of equity. 

The pro-Beijing press and the PRC media are working day and night to put the hatchet to Lai and shift the focus of the Hong Kong democracy story to him; maybe there’s a natural inclination to shrink from doing the PRC’s dirty work for it and so the mainland’s Jimmy Lai news is balanced with, you might say, non-Jimmy Lai news from the Western side.

Jimmy Lai certainly deserves some sympathy.  It appears that Beijing has been conducting a multi-front war against his media empire, and with considerable success.  His flagship Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily created and owned the splashy tabloid market at first.  However, in recent years its circulation has dropped by a third, to 190,000, thanks to heightened competition and the introduction by the Sing Tao media company of a free newspaper (Apple Daily’s cover price is now HK$7), Headline Daily.

Free is apparently popular, and the most recent circulation figures for Headline Daily is over 800,000 copies per day.  Jimmy Lai’s Next Media group tried to launch a competing free sheet, Sharp Daily, with a target of 1 million copies per day.  However the venture folded a year ago, in October 2013, after absorbing HK hundreds of millions of losses.

As a result, Next Media’s Annual Report was reduced to trumpeting its EBITDA results.  For the layman, the message of EBITDA is, if you ignore our crushing mountain of debt, we can pretend we are making money.  In 2013, Next Media lost HK$ 1 billion, presumably mostly attributable to the Sharp Daily bloodbath; but in 2012, the company had also lost money, a more modest HK$ 200 million.

The fact that Apple Daily’s office is currently blockaded by anti-Occupy forces that have been rather successful in keeping the paper off the streets is not going to help the circulation figures or the bottom line in 2014, either.

Certainly, Hong Kong’s readership can be pleased that they can enjoy their daily paper for free and perhaps not share a thought for the financial beating that Jimmy Lai is taking.  However, it is not being excessively conspiratorially minded to note that Sing Tao News Corporation, the author of many of Jimmy Lai’s misfortunes, is extremely close to Beijing and something more than business competition might have informed the devastating launch of Headline Daily.

Sing Tao News Corp. was owned by the Aw family of Tiger Balm Garden fame until 1998, when Sally Aw, the proprietor was caught up in a scandal involving inflated circulation figures and was simultaneously hammered by the Asian financial crisis and a spate of bad financial decisions.  She escaped legal jeopardy, however, and critics wondered if her close friendship with the Hong Kong Chief Executive and Beijing’s man on the spot at the time, Tung Chee-hwa, kept her out of the courts.  

Sally Aw served as a member of the China National People’s Consultative Congress, the PRC’s united-front talking shop.  The Ho family, which bought her Sing Tao interest, is also very close to Beijing and one is welcome to speculate that the sale was forced upon Aw to make sure the papers stayed in friendly hands.  Charles Ho, the current chairman, also a CNPCC delegate (actually, a member of its standing committee) and is openly identified as “pro-Beijing”.  He heads a rather slush-fundy nonprofit, the Bauhinia Foundation, whose job is apparently to shake the tycoon money tree to fund study of Beijing’s “one country two systems” formulation and, presumably, provide welcome sinecures to deserving researchers and poobahs.

When the Chief Executive previous to C.Y. Lueng, David Tsang, awarded Ho the “Bauhinia Grand Medal”, a piece of bling recognizing unique contributions to Hong Kong (and partially compensating for the loss of those ancient and brag-worthy British decorations) there was considerably griping in the democratic quadrant as to his lack of worthiness.

The Sing Tao group, including its English-language offering, the Standard, has been an important recipient and conduit for the leaks and tittle-tattle concerning Jimmy Lai’s support of the democracy movement.

Sing Tao News Corporation recently announced after tax profits of HK$30 million for the first half of 2014.  Compared to Jimmy Lai’s operation, with its HK billion-dollar loss last year, Sing Tao seems to be doing pretty good.

One has to wonder how long Lai can sustain these losses, and one can wonder if his notorious trip to Burma with Paul Wolfowitz (Lai paid Wolfowitz $75,000 to get him in front of the ruling generals in order to pitch his business plans) was intended to open up a new financial front in a jurisdiction that, unlike Hong Kong (and like Taiwan, which now accounts for roughly half of Next Media’s revenues), is somewhat successfully wriggling out from beneath the PRC's thumb.

One can also speculate as to what would happen to Jimmy Lai’s business interests and personal fortunes if pro-democratic agitation wrests control of the Hong Kong executive out of the hands of his implacable enemies in the pro-Beijing camp.

It might be understandable that some people might think that it’s not right to help out the pro-Beijing pack trying to hound Jimmy Lai into bankruptcy by looking into his role in the democracy movement.

Then again, if Hong Kong democracy is, as we are sometimes told, the biggest and most important story on the planet, then what Jimmy Lai did, what Jimmy Lai does, and what Jimmy Lai wants is probably newsworthy.