Sunday, 25 September 2016

Car-Free Day Hong Kong Style

Trams are still going by while booths occupy both sides of the roads
I was looking forward to checking out NGO Clean Air Network's event called "Very DVRC" or "Very Des Voeux Road Central", with the promises of removing cars from a 200-metre stretch of the busy thoroughfare from 10am to 4pm.

The idea came about 16 years ago from the Institute of Planners, who had suggested the entire area from Western Market to Pedder Street be completely car free. But in execution, Clean Air Network had to severely scale back and try it out with a small area, from Western Market to Wing On department store.

Some guys having a mini soccer match on a side street
I had visions of perhaps Occupy 2.0, large free spaces to roam around on the streets. However when I got there, people couldn't really walk on the roads because the middle of the street was occupied by trams that were still moving along the tracks, though at much lower speeds for safety reasons, and they were cordoned off.

The sides of the roads that vehicles would have used were occupied by booths, some 40 of them, ranging from making arts and crafts to fitness clubs, making mini Chinese flower banners, planters out of plastic bottles and even a mini soccer pitch.

There were musicians performing songs and one spot had colourful beanbags to sit on, and even a group that advocates giving hugs for 21 seconds.

I talked to a young enthusiastic woman called Winnie who said there was scientific research that said if people hug for 20 seconds then it helps release hormones to reduce stress. She also hoped the exercise would help people have more physical encounters rather than on social media. The extra second? Just to make sure your embrace definitely long enough.

The roads were carefully cordoned off for safety reasons
Former lawmaker Paul Zimmerman was also there and was pleased to see the event a reality and watched how people reacted to the carnival-like atmosphere. It's too bad he didn't get voted in, but he is someone who is always advocating for Hong Kong to be a more people-oriented city, to make it more accessible by walking rather than driving.

He feels that when a city is more walkable, people have more chances of bumping into people they know, and that in turn creates more dialogue and debate, and hopefully in the end makes people happier.

But there seems to be more cars on the road -- is it because there is a larger group of wealthier people who can afford them? Is it because public transport like the MTR are frustrating commuters so much that they don't have the patience to deal with it? Or is it because public transport doesn't adequately service the areas they live in?

Signs like this reminded people to watch for cars...
These questions need to be answered -- not with more roads, which is what the government likes to do. The current big infrastructure project is the Central to Wan Chai bypass that is taking years to build and will even cut into Victoria Park, something that the public didn't find out until it was too late to stop it.

Today's experiment was interesting, but perhaps it was too crowded a space, or the area wasn't quite right. Or maybe I'm just nostalgic about the occupation of Admiralty almost exactly two years ago when thousands of people converged on the bypass and created an ad hoc friendly community.

Are those days gone forever?

Saturday, 24 September 2016

China's Legal Eagles Silenced

Beijing lawyer Xia Lin was convicted of fraud and jailed for 12 years
The hope to change China from within through a civil society has suffered yet another setback with the jailing of Beijing lawyer Xia Lin, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud.

At his sentencing, Xia, his wife and supporters vehemently rejected the prosecutors' claim that he had defrauded four people of 4.8 million yuan (US$780,000).

But Xia and his supporters say the funds were legitimate loans, and that the charge was a reprisal for his combative legal work.

One of his most famous clients was Ai Weiwei
The 46-year-old had previously represented artist and activist Ai Weiwei when the authorities ordered Ai's company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, to pay US$2.4 million in back taxes and fines for tax fraud.

Xia was then detained in November 2014 when he agree to defend Guo Yushan, an activist and writer in Beijing who was also detained and later charged with running an illegal business.

Guo was released in September last year.

As for Xia's case, it doesn't seem to have been processed according to rule of law; Chinese legal experts said in a petition in June that there were repeated delays in Xia's case, and he didn't have access to his lawyers.

While it was expected he would not win his case, Xia and his supporters didn't expect such a heavy sentence.

"After he heard the verdict, Xia Lin said the case had been procedurally unfair and he was being persecuted for his rights defense work, for the cases he took on," one of his defense lawyers, Ding Xikui, who was in court for the verdict, said. "He is planning to appeal."

Xia was detained after he agreed to defend Guo Yushan
In a tribute published on Tuesday on an overseas Chinese website, Guo said Xia "never altered his initial intentions. From a commercial lawyer to a human rights lawyer, the road of life he took became rockier and rockier, but more and more soul-stirring".

Xia is one of several hundred lawyers and rights activists jailed for their work on human rights issues in China. His supporters say his case was part of the government's campaign to silence Chinese rights lawyers who have challenged arbitrary state power.

Earlier this week more than 100 lawyers signed a petition calling on the National People's Congress to stop the police and other government authorities from harassing and persecuting criminal defense lawyers trying to represent their clients.

The letter said the abuses had "deviated from the course of legality, destroyed legal order, and thoroughly disappointed people's hopes in the government".

It's a worrying sign that rule of law in China has less meaning in reality and that rule by fear continues to grow.

These lawyers are so brave. They had thought the law would protect them while doing their work. But it appears the Party is beyond the law.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Does the Liaison Office Get Hong Kong?

Wang Zhenmin has been stationed at the liaison office since January
The Chinese government may have people on the ground in Hong Kong gathering information about the people and the city, but it doesn't seem to want to try to understand what's going on.

At all.

The legal head of Beijing's liaison office here said Hong Kong is ill and needs medication, caused by the growing talk of independence -- which he ruled out for "1,000 years and forever".

It's either 1,000 years or forever. Which one is it?

Wang Zhenmin believes those advocating Hong Kong's separation from China are acting out of fear that the mainland's success is eclipsing the city's.

Sixtus "Baggio" Leung says Wang's comments are "laughable"
Someone really has his head above the clouds.

"Hong Kong's prosperity and stability is largely because of the motherland," he said. "Some people then think that now the motherland is developing well, Hong Kong will go downhill. It is heartbreaking to see some people going for extreme means to destroy Hong Kong."

Err... no one is really thinking that theory, Mr Wang; it is rather that Hong Kong people are tired of our dependence on the mainland and Beijing meddling in our affairs. None of us wants to destroy Hong Kong, unless the mainland has other plans for us.

He went on to declare Hong Kong would remain a part of China "for 1,000 years and forever", and that no one could break them apart.

Sounds so romantic and yet does Hong Kong have a choice in the matter?

The Basic Law expert said Hong Kong should serve as a role model for the country's economic and democratic development, along with the rule of law.

"If the 7.3 million people in Hong Kong mess up democracy and only bring extremism, violence and separatism, how can the 1.4 billion people on the mainland pursue democracy without fear?"

Is he insinuating there will be democracy in China?

Rimsky Yuen says advocating separatism breaches Basic Law
And he shouldn't he give us credit for no violent incidents on September 4, the day of the Legislative Council elections when 2.8 million people turned out to cast their votes?

Wang is the same person who raised eyebrows in April when he warned that those who discussed independence for Hong Kong in a "large-scale" setting were not only violating the Basic Law, but could also be committing "treason" and "sedition" under existing criminal laws.

That set off a debate on whether talking about separatism was considered "sedition", and the Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung warned that advocating independence was a breach of the "relevant" provisions in the Basic Law, and incompatible with the legal status and overall interests of the city.

While Wang said he was open to discussing whether "one country, two systems" should continue after it expires in 2047, he revealed that he personally preferred to maintain the
status quo.

Localist lawmaker-elect Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang, who advocates self-determination, dismissed Wang's take on the rise of separatism as "laughable".

"When we discuss the question of independence, we are driven by the invisible hand from the Communist Party that is meddling with our rights and freedoms," Leung said. "It has nothing to do with China's economic strength."

While Wang was here at the University of Hong Kong from 1993 to 1995, and served on the Basic Law committee from 2006 to 2008, his recent time here only started from January this year.

Perhaps he feels he has to play up the rhetoric because of his position, but that just only demonstrates Beijing's lack of sensitivity to the issue or a belief in the heavy-handed approach will bring bring stray attitudes around.


Thursday, 22 September 2016

Flexible Employees, Flexible Space

The bank has dome some creative cost-cutting by moving staff to hot-desks
It's quite shocking to hear financial giant HSBC has decided to cut costs further by moving 300 of its staff into a hot-desk office in Causeway Bay.

These temporary office spaces are typically used by freelancers who want to do some work or having meeting space, or start-ups who aren't ready to commit to a lease yet and may be expanding too quickly to estimate how much space they need.

But HSBC is going a step further by moving its digital and transformation teams to WeWork, an American-based co-working office provider with an office in Causeway Bay.

The bank has rented more than 300 desks at WeWork, which is the largest corporate membership subscription in the Hong Kong market so far, according to Cynthia Chan, manager of office specialist Asia Pacific research at CBRE.

An idea of what WeWork looks like in Causeway Bay
"Co-working offices can provide a flexible alternative for banks looking to reduce their footprint or for short-term project space," she says.

Chan adds tenants in co-working spaces are not required to pay deposits, take out long leases, or make large capital out-lays on fit outs.

According to the WeWork membership plan, the starting price for a hot desk is HK$6,200 per month, and that includes the use of the venue for seminars, workshops or events. Children are even welcome to come in.

This compares to HK$8,170 per month per person for a traditional office space, based on a company with 300 staff in Causeway Bay and would need at least 27,000 square feet. The monthly total bill would be HK$2.45 million for a three year lease.

But with a rented co-working space, the savings work out to HK$23,640 per person annually.

That's serious penny-pinching.

HSBC isn't the only bank looking at co-working spaces, as Chan says these kinds of offices can help manage fluctuating staff numbers due to uncertainty in the economic markets.

While the bottom line probably makes the bank look good to shareholders, HSBC insists the move is not a cost-saving measure.

"As HSBC accelerates the build-up of our digital capabilities, our space in WeWork will allow our employees to collaborate in an open plan and agile working environment," says Andrew Connell, HSBC's regional head of digital, retail banking and wealth management, Asia-Pacific.

We can't help but wonder if other traditional businesses will be looking to co-working spaces as the most cost-effective way forward. But how would employees feel about working in a space that they are constantly sharing with others? Where do they keep all their stuff? In a locker? Or take everything with them all the time?

Co-working spaces takes working in a cube farm to another level.