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Some Thoughts On Last Week

24.04.2020
John Batten
John Batten

Covid-19 continues its spread around the world, meanwhile Hong Kong’s infection rate is dramatically slowing. Meanwhile….

West Texas Intermediate oil futures prices for April crashed into negative territory: oil producers potentially need to pay buyers to take oil off their hands as there is dwindling storage facilities for the world’s surplus oil. Closing an oil well is not like turning off a tap: it is difficult and expensive and, turning it back on is equally difficult and expensive. I hope this dumping of price doesn’t spillover to the dumping of physical oil into our oceans. And, at these prices, alternative renewable energy becomes relatively more expensive. Where does this leave action to alleviate climate change? Just a few months ago, Greta Thunberg was in the news every day, now it’s just the virus.

Oil futures mirror one aspect of the world’s real economy: a sudden and unparalleled drop in demand for oil as airplanes don’t fly and cars aren’t driven. In contrast, stock markets, particularly Wall Street, has hardly priced-in the future difficulties facing the world’s economies over the next six months, one-year and three-year time frames. The immediate, real economy is seen in rising unemployment, vacant shops, empty hotels, plummeting advertising, mortgage defaults. Stock markets, however, are not yet reflecting the economic fallout of worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns.

Andrew Luk on a Tai Kok Tsui street, 21 April 2020.
Andrew Luk on a Tai Kok Tsui street, 21 April 2020. (Photo: John Batten)

I met artist Andrew Luk for coffee in Tai Kok Tsui. Andrew looks great in a face mask. Actually, most people look great in a face mask. Face masks adorn the face like a hat, but masks are much more enigmatic and tantalizing: it’s Venice at Carnival time, magic in a mask. And, isn’t it remarkable how we still recognize family, friends, and neighbourhood acquaintances who wear a face mask? The eyes, the eyes: through them we can see, beneath the face-covered mask, a smile or grimace, pleasure or anger.

Tai Kok Tsui’s streets were full. People were out and doing what we always do: playing, shopping, eating, working. Later that day, the government announced a further two weeks for bars, public libraries and leisure facilities to be closed. But, the kids just want to play again – and, surely, there is safe social distancing when playing tennis or football or exercising in a park? Or, is waiting in a long line for post office services safer than sitting and studying in a library? Does the government have a plan to re-open Hong Kong businesses and public facilities after 7 May? The public’s not waiting for the government, they’re making their own decisions: playing, shopping, eating, working, as best they can – right now.

Teenager shooting at an open goal on a closed football pitch, near Che Kung Temple, Tai Wai, New Territories, 20 April 2020. (Photos: John Batten)
Teenager shooting at an open goal on a closed football pitch, near Che Kung Temple, Tai Wai, New Territories, 20 April 2020. (Photo: John Batten)

The police arrested 16 democrats, including the patrician Martin Lee, the meticulous Margaret Ng, and the committed Chairwoman of the Central & Western District Council, Cheng Lai-king. Give them their day in court! Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s most senior barrister and an icon of democracy, would give an impassioned speech in his own Nelson Mandela court moment. Then, he would be immortalized on “Free Martin Lee!” posters and T-shirts around the world.

There has been constant sniping between pro-democrats and pro-establishment legislators over the police being given a 25% increase in funding in the government’s recent Budget, which is slowly being debated in the Legislative Council. And, amidst differing opinions on what is and isn’t ‘interference’ in Hong Kong’s governance, the China Liaison Office and the government made numerous hurried clarifying statements about the Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office’s role in Hong Kong and whether Article 22 of the Basic Law applies to these two Central government entities. There is no interference and Article 22 does not apply, we are now told!

This scrambling to get that message out reflects Beijing’s fear of the possibility that pan-democrats will replicate their recent District Council successes in September’s Legislative Council election. If negotiation is the true art of politics, then it has rarely been tested in Hong Kong as mainland and Hong Kong government officials have consistently refused to meet and negotiate with the pan-democrats. The Legislative Council and its current impasse to debate legislation is a mess, but what do you expect if negotiation is never initiated? Despite all the rhetoric and bluster criticizing the current deadlock, the Legislative Council is (still, thankfully) an independent body that must be left to work its way through that impasse.

Andrew Luk’s Haunted, Salvaged installation currently showing at de Sarthe Gallery. (Photo: John Batten)
Andrew Luk’s Haunted, Salvaged installation currently showing at de Sarthe Gallery. (Photo: John Batten)

Andrew Luk is showing Haunted, Salvaged (2020), an ambitious mixed media installation, at de Sarthe Gallery in Wong Chuk Hang. It is partly a kinetic sculpture that sparkles and shifts: it moves as a honeycombed landscape and as an imaginary abstracted ecosystem. Luk explains: “Fundamental to the artwork is the realization that humanity is not only a part of nature, but by extension the entities and forces that humanity creates – such as culture and technology – are (also) part of the natural world…Contained in these entities is the fundamentally human capacity for self-destruction.”

That hits the spot. Despite Beijing pushing to exert more ‘authority’ over Hong Kong, there is a remarkable opportunity for the pan-democrats to regain lost ground in the legislature after the self-inflicted oath-taking debacle and for the city to not go down the road of further self-destruction by repeating last year’s violent protests. The alternative, as great politicians would say as they campaign in the pull-and-thrust of true democratic elections, is much simpler: “Let’s vote the bastards out!”

John Batten
John Batten
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