Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Freewheeling Schools

It is shocking to find the Hong Kong government has been giving away
money to some schools in the city, only to find they have squandered
it in non education-related activities including buying stocks and
property. But worst of all, the government hasn't bothered to punish
them for the misuse of the money!

The funding is called Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) and it was
established in 1991 to help schools become more independent from the
government and let them decide their own curriculum and admission
rules as well as class sizes.

However a recent audit by the Director of Audit has found that all but
one of the 73 DSS schools have abused this subsidy with sloppy
management and poor accountability. And apparently this has been
happening for a long time too.

For example, Logos Academy in Tsueng Kwan O used HK$51 million to buy
stocks and HK$10 million to buy three properties as teachers'
quarters. Delia Memorial School used government funds to pay a HK$4.1
million tax bill and donated HK$5.1 million to a unspecified
beneficiary.

In addition, 22 schools failed to set aside the minimum of 10 percent
of their fee income for scholarships and free remission plans.

As the government hasn't been watching them through audits and then
issuing warnings and imposing punishment, many of these schools kept
demanding more money from parents for school fees.

It looks like a case of the mice will play when the cat is away, and
the biggest fault lies with the government, particularly the education
department.

Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung admitted yesterday there
was not enough monitoring of the schools, but would not take full
responsibility because the problem had been festering for a long time.

"Many of the problems mentioned in the report were discovered by us
before," Suen said. "The report just [reiterated] them. In the past,
it took rather a long time to rectify the problems. We are loose and
tolerant. We don't want to adversely affect their teaching... so we
discussed the irregularities with them and did not issue warning
letters indiscriminately."

Excuse me? Just because the problem has been going on for so long,
doesn't mean you can't put your foot down and take action to stop this
behaviour. A school lending HK$5.1 million to someone is not a
problem? Or buying stocks instead of making improvements to the school
or hiring better teachers or buying better equipment?

The schools need to be accountable to the government because they get
money from it -- actually the taxpayers.

Which is why Director of Audit Benjamin Tang Kwok-bun is recommending
Suen take a more active role, but also parents should demand
accountability.

It's outrageous educational institutions are playing with money that
should be used to educate young minds. It has to stop NOW.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Word of the Day: Xiao San

The temptation to cheat is very common in China... especially for men.

Pretty women are everywhere, eager to get ahead financially without
having to work.

And for the most part the men succumb to their physical desires
without thinking of the social and moral consequences.

As a result, this leads to xiao san (小三), a euphemism for the third
party in the relationship.

Now China is coming up with a new draft law that stipulates a mistress
will not be allowed to claim any share of property or "compensation
for lost youth" if her man severs the extramarital relationship.

The proposal comes as the divorce rate has risen in the past seven
years. From January to June this year, 850,000 couples split up. And
infidelity is increasingly the reason why many divorce.

Perhaps the government is hoping if this law comes into effect, then
young women would have less of a reason to want to become a mistress.

Sociology professor Xia Yueluan at Peking University said this
signaled the traditional family system should be maintained in a
period of rapid economic growth and confused morals, and that being a
marriage intruder would cause the loss of "both the person and money"
in the end.

"It is also part of a reflection of anti-corruption sentiments," Xia
continued. "Too many corrupt officials were also disgraced for keeping
mistresses."

It'll be interesting to see what happens to the "Judicial
Interpretation No. 3 to the Marriage Law", and if it does get passed,
how many officials will lose their mistresses as a result...

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Moving for Money

I was surprised to read in the newspaper the other day that the
government buildings in Wan Chai -- Immigration Tower, Revenue Tower
and Wan Chai Tower -- will be vacated to make way for more premium
office space.

The 26 government agencies housed in these buildings will have to move
out to other areas like Chai Wan and North Point. There was no time
frame mentioned in the story of when they would vacate the area.

Two years ago Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah cited a 2003
study in his budget speech.

"This will free some land in the central business district for
developing Grade A offices and give fresh impetus to the new
districts, increasing employment opportunities there," he said at the
time.

He added it was not necessary for all government office buildings to
be in core business areas.

The 2003 study claimed 28 million square feet extra of Grade A office
building space would be needed by 2030. And the three government
offices now would be a drop in the bucket at 1.8 million square feet.

Surveyor Pang Shiu-kee said premium office space is at about HK$12,000
($1,545) per square foot, and so land of about 2 million square feet
would be worth HK$21.6 billion.

Immigration Tower and Revenue Tower have always been in Wan Chai and
convenient for most people because of their location. To move them
would just makes things all the more difficult for everyone.

While it's understandable these government offices are sitting on
prime real estate, surely they should also be thinking of how they are
serving their taxpayers if the buildings are moved elsewhere less
convenient.

It's also another argument proving that the government will bend over
backwards for business interests, instead of its citizens.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Posting Good Service

One thing I like about Hong Kong is Hong Kong Post.

The staff at the service counters are quite efficient considering they
are using old school equipment (a book full of stamps and handle
change just using a calculator).

Yesterday I got a card in the mail saying there was a piece of
registered mail to pick up from the post office because I wasn't home
(it's called work, people).

I read the back of it and it said that they would hold the package for
14 days from the date of the card being issued, and after that it
would be returned to the sender.

So I was in a bit of a panic because next weekend I'll be out of town
and by the time I try to pick it up the next weekend, the deadline
would have already passed. And this post office branch opens at
9:30am, and I'm on my way to work at that time.

I called the 24-hour hotline number on the card, thinking it would
probably be just recorded messages, but I managed to get a person on
the line.

He was very helpful, asking me for the reference number of the
package. I couldn't really read the scribble and he even corrected me
on what the last two digits should be.

Then he said that I could pick up the package after 11:30am today,
even though the card said I would have to wait at least two working
days before I could get it. "Just make sure you come before 1pm," he
said, as today is Saturday, a half day.

Great! I can pick up my package today and not have to worry about it.

I started to wonder what it was... a belated birthday gift? A textbook
from my Chinese teacher back in Beijing?

To pass the time I went to the gym and then rushed back at 12:45pm
just in time to pick up the package.

And what was it?

A thin envelope from American Express. To thank me for successfully
applying for its credit card, they were giving me a HK$50 coupon for
Park N Shop. That's the equivalent of $6.44.

I got a piece of registered mail so that I could save $6.44 on my next
trip to the supermarket.

For a coupon worth that much you'd think regular mail would be good
enough and save the HK$14.40 on postage.

If you want good service, you gotta pay.

Gotta love Hong Kong Post.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Perils of the Macau Commute

Digging into some turkey in Macau
Yesterday I went to Macau to try out a Christmas dinner -- on American Thanksgiving.

We had way too much food -- a platter filled with assorted sushi and sashimi, a giant bowl of ice covered with seafood, like raw oysters, cooked prawns, lobster and mussels. Another giant bowl was filled with Caesar salad, the romaine lettuce roughly cut and the bacon left in strips. Then there was a giant bowl of crab and corn chowder that could have easily been served in a cappuccino or espresso cup and that would have been enough of the rich taste.

A side of brussel sprouts, squash and chestnuts
But then that followed with a deep-fried fish with soy sauce, and then the main event -- slices of roast turkey, with mushroom and bacon stuffing, fresh cranberry sauce, brussel sprouts, chestnuts and roast squash.

For a Macanese flourish, we also had African chicken, something I've never had before but definitely will again -- small pieces of chicken marinated in a coconut sauce and then roasted with lots of garlic.

Desserts went back to the Christmas theme -- fruit cake, a kind of ice cream concoction with a gingerbread tree on top, a dessicated coconut kind of mousse, and chocolate ganache cake.

It was kind of ironic having Christmas dinner on Thanksgiving, but I won't say no to turkey.

If dinner wasn't enough there were desserts to polish off
While it's very nice to be treated to a dinner like this, many of us had to schlep over to Macau for the treat.

We were even given complimentary seats in Super Class. Not first class -- Super Class.

This means sitting either in the upper deck away from the ordinary ticket holders, or up at the front shielded by a curtain.

Staff are most attentive to your needs, though the complimentary food is hardly appetizing, let alone healthful.

However my main point about Super Class is that it's usually nice being in this area because it's quieter, or so you'd expect.

Instead, on my way over and return to Hong Kong, my ability to nap was rudely interrupted by men in their 60s (mainlanders) playing games on their mobile phones. They had the volume up so I could hear every time they scored or failed in their attempts to play the game.

So it sounded like they were receiving a text message or phone call every few seconds. Very annoying.

And very juvenile.

How classy... for Super Class.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Determined to Remember the Dead

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei is at it again.

He is now angry at how the government is handling the aftermath of the
Shanghai fire last week that killed at least 58 people and injured
many others.

This past weekend in an unprecedented impromptu move, tens of
thousands of people carried chrysanthemums and white flowers to the
site of the fire to pay their respects to the dead.

Now the government is revealing some of the names of the victims, but
Ai doesn't think it is doing enough.

"We have decided to investigate the identities of all the people who
died in the fire," he said. "There are already volunteers on the
ground in Shanghai, collecting information."

On Tuesday the government claimed that one-third of the victims'
families did not want their names made public which fired up Ai.

"I was exceedingly angry when I saw that on the news this morning," he
said. "The government always says it needs to get the relatives'
permission to release the names of the victims, but this is just a
joke."

He believes this excuse just fuels speculation that the true number of
victims in last Monday's horrific fire could be higher than 58.

At a press conference Tuesday, the municipal government announced each
victim's family would receive 960,000RMB ($144,306). However, Shanghai
government spokesman Chen Qiwei said the authorities were not prepared
to release a full list of the dead.

"In order to publish a list of the victims' names, we need first to
get the victims' relatives' permission," he explained. "At the current
point of consultation, over one-third of the relatives are not willing
for a victims' name list to be published."

Ai says this is stock answer is not unusual; it is typically used in
"any kind of disaster" -- coal mining accidents, floods, fires or
earthquakes.

"They never release the identities of those killed, so there is no way
of checking the figures," he said. "But the compensation will be paid
using public money. The people have a right to know who is receiving
this money."

Ai has a point here. And wouldn't the victims' families want others to
know their loved one died tragically? Don't they want to be accounted
for?

"I believe it is part of the government's job to provide open access
to information," Ai continued. "I don't think it should be up to
certain people to decide how much to release."

Compiling lists is not new to Ai. After the May 12 Sichuan earthquake
in 2008, he and other volunteers created a list of the children killed
after officials refused to provide full statistics. Ai's list is
probably not complete.

And for his public-service actions, Ai was beaten by police in Chengdu
in August last year when he wanted to attend the trial of Tan Zuoren,
who was investigating the shoddily-built buildings. Ai had to undergo
emergency cranial surgery in Germany to ease the swelling in his
brain. It was a life-saving procedure.

Most recently Ai was under house arrest in Beijing when he had planned
a "river crab" party to celebrate the demolition of his newly-built
studio in Shanghai.

Despite this, Ai is undeterred about his latest project.

"I don't believe this will cause me any problems," he said. "They are
already demanding I demolish my studio, so there is nothing more they
can do."

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Dangerous Chess Game

Yesterday it was quite scary to see North Korea provoking the South
just across the border.

Dear Leader Kim Jong-il must be trying to show the world he still has
some power left in him, as well as shocking the United States a few
days ago when an American scientist who visited North Korea recently
reported it has built an ultra-modern nuclear energy facility capable
of enriching uranium.

This latest skirmish is considered the most serious since the Korean
armistice was signed 57 years ago.

Kim is testing the waters to see how far he can rattle his sabre and
get what he wants.

Meanwhile big brother China is very annoyed it was not told ahead of
time about this attack and now all eyes are on the mainland to see
what it will do to deal with this literal loose cannon younger
brother.

US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak
agreed today to hold joint military exercises in the hopes of
preventing the North from escalating attacks. This includes the US
sending an aircraft carrier and several ships to the region as a
signal to North Korea and to China that it must do its diplomatic duty
to the region and the world to keep its ally in check.

China is in a tight spot. It must criticize North Korea for provoking
war, but at the same time not push too hard otherwise North Korea
could escalate its actions further.

"China's relationship with North Korea is one of the factors pushing
Japan, the US and South Korea even closer together," said Professor
Hideshi Takesada, executive director of Japan's National Institute for
Defense Studies. "I expect this trend to continue... the whole
atmosphere is changing and we need to strengthen our discussions."

So far China is trying to get North Korea and other nations back to
the table of the six-party talks. But China has been always been
promoting this even in times of relative peace. Yesterday's skirmish
that left two people dead is a setback for China's diplomatic efforts.

Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University says, "North Korea is a diplomatic
negative asset for China. Every time it does something, the world
thinks China's backing it."

He suggests that China use this opportunity to get the North and South
talk directly, while other mainland experts say the attack was a ploy
by the North to "force" the US into direct talks.

"North Korea is actually keen on talks, but found that the US and
South Korea are not well motivated," says Xu Guangyu, a senior
researcher for the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in
Beijing.

Who knows what will be up Kim's sleeve next. In the meantime the world
will have to watch and tread carefully.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Sad Turn of Events

Zhao Lianhai (centre) has abruptly ended his chance to appeal his sentence
In a complete twist of developments, the tainted milk activist who was
thrown in jail for two and a half years and had pledged to go on a
hunger strike and appeal his sentence has applied for medical parole
in hopes of being released.
Yesterday was the deadline for Zhao Lianhai's appeal of the verdict.
His two lawyers went to the Daxing district detention center on Monday
and hoped to meet with him to lodge the appeal. But instead they got a
handwritten note apparently from him saying they were fired.
"I would like to terminate the relationship of entrusted defence with
Peng Jian and Li Fangping", said the note, and was dated last
Wednesday with Zhao's fingerprint in red ink on it.
His wife Li Xuemei also told the two lawyers their services were no
longer needed.
"I was really surprised to see the note as Zhao trusted us very much,"
Peng said. "As a friend of Zhao, there is something about this that
doesn't make any sense."
Even if the note was genuine, Li Fangping felt suspicious about the
circumstances that led to Zhao writing the note.
"The biggest obstacle is we cannot meet him and we have no idea what
has happened. It was a dramatic turnaround and I can't explain it."
On Sunday the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua tried to sway public opinion
by justifying Zhao's imprisonment, saying he continued his activism
even after his son recovered after getting free medical treatment.
There is no evidence a person, let alone a child completely recovers
from ingesting too much melamine in their system. Surely there will be
health affects for the rest of Zhao's son's life, particularly with
regards to his kidneys and digestive tract.
It's believed the strong support for Zhao from Hong Kong, particularly
from National People's Congress deputies and lawmakers that may have
led to Beijing trying to come to some sort of agreement with Zhao to
make this whole matter die away.
Why Zhao would agree with medical parole is hard to say, but as he has
no job and has been a activist full time since 2008 when the milk
scandal erupted, perhaps there was promise of some kind of employment
and decent salary if he promised to keep quiet and fade into the
background.
Being alone and not having access to his lawyers has probably put a
lot of pressure on Zhao to cave in.
However it is sad he has chosen to take this course of action instead
of fighting on in the legal system to prove that what he did was not
illegal and that he shouldn't have been put in jail in the first
place. Why didn't Zhao want to clear his name?
We may never know.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Picture of the Day: Wedding Photos

Crossing the street for the next shot
Almost everyday after I came out of the gym in the evenings and walked down to the tram station in front of the HSBC headquarters, there are couples taking wedding photos.

They used to only take studio ones that are contrived, so it's refreshing to see photographers encouraging young couples to take Hong Kong photos. That means posing at the Legislative Council building, with the Bank of China building in the background, or posing on the street, as the tram goes by.

The brides-to-be are usually heavily made up, wearing over-the-top hoop dresses, while the guys sometimes wear frilly shirts and pompous-looking tuxedos.

In this case, the girl is even wearing a tiara, while the guy has his tux on, complete with white running shoes, probably for that edgy look.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

My Father is Li Gang

It is sad to see justice in China comes down to money.
 
Last month a female university student was knocked down and killed by a drunk driver on Hebei University campus. When guards tried to stop the young driver, he sped away and shouted out, "My dad is Li Gang!"
 
It turns out the alleged murderer was Li Qiming, and his father Li Gang is the deputy police chief in the city.
 
The son's arrogance infuriated many Internet users who came up with creative poems written in a classical style to incorporate the catchphrase, "My dad is Li Gang!" Now it is a sarcastic term used to shirk from responsibility for even the most mundane chores.
 
At first the family of the victim, Chen Xiaofeng called for justice, hired a lawyer and tried to get witnesses to come forward.
 
But then it seems the university pressured students not to say anything, and Li Gang's colleagues visited Chen's family, offering to strike a compensation deal to avoid going to court.
 
Chen's family was recorded by artist Ai Weiwei in an apparently moving call for justice. But strangely that video posted online was taken down several times.
 
And in an illegal move, China Central Television was able to interview Li Gang and his son, both apologizing profusely in the hopes of swaying public opinion, but many thought they were crocodile tears. The interview was illegal, because in Chinese law, the media are not allowed to enter the detention centre -- only police, lawyers, and legal workers.
 
"CCTV only cares about the upper class and not us victims," Chen Xiaoming's father Chen Guangqian said. "If they found and talked to Li Gang, then they should have found and talked to me too."
 
It seems the State is doing everything it can to protect Li's family. What recourse did Chen's family have, with no guanxi let alone being from a farming background.
 
Chen says Li Gang visited him twice in his hotel room, as Chen rushed to the city as soon as he heard about his daughter.
 
"My first impression was that he was an honest guy, easygoing, apologizing and apologizing," Chen said. "And he bowed. But he didn't cry like he did on TV."
 
In the end Chen's family severed ties with their lawyer and instead accepted 490,000RMB ($69,000) for compensation.
 
Their former lawyer wasn't surprised. "That's how China is," he said.
 
Meanwhile there are questions how Li Gang was able to cough up so much money in a short period of time where policemen in the area are supposed to be modestly paid.
 
There are also concerns of whether Li Qiming will get any kind of punishment at all.
 
Unfortunately Chen Xiaofeng's life is only worth 490,000RMB. But to her family it is a lot of money. And trying to be pragmatic and probably caving into pressure, they accepted the compensation.
 
What lessons does this teach people about rule of law in China? Many parties will try to intervene to prevent cases from going to court. And if they do go to court, much of the time the verdict has already been pre-determined. How is that rule of law?
 
It would have been interesting to see the case go to court. But with the lack of witnesses willing to come forward, it made it harder for Chen's lawyer to have a strong case. 
 
When will the law protect the helpless? When will justice be served?
 
 
 

Thursday, 18 November 2010

More Calls for Justice

It's a sign that One Country, Two Systems is working when 25 Hong Kong legislators of various stripes openly call for the release of tainted milk activist Zhao Lianhai who was jailed last week for two and a half years.

Their appeal came two days before the deadline for appeal -- but Zhao's lawyer Li Fangping is having a hard time getting a hold of his client to sign the appeal application. How convenient for the Chinese government.

In any case, Beijing-loyalist and pan-democratic groups both expressed their sympathy for Zhao in yesterday's debate in the Legislative Council.

Zhao had been convicted of "provoking quarrels and making trouble" after he organized a group seeking compensation for the families affected by milk tainted with melamine two years ago.

"In a civilized era, we cannot tolerate the fact that a plaintiff is made a defendant, and then a prisoner," said Frederick Fung Kin-kee, of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood.

The 25 lawmakers, 23 of which were from the pan-democrats and independents Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Dr Leung Ka-lau jointly signed the letter to the Supreme People's Court calling for Zhao's release.

"We demand respect for, and protection of, citizens' constitutional rights, and the immediate release of Zhao Lianhai," the letter said.

However, pro-Beijing lawmakers were anxious about signing the letter. "There could be repercussions if we over-politicize this case... co-signing a letter is a political action," said Dr Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who had instead signed another letter calling for a retrial.

This recent letter follows one on Monday where 28 Hong Kong deputies to the National People's Congress wrote to the court urging for more lenient judgment on the case.

While Li, Zhao's lawyer was pleased about the NPC deputies supporting Zhao, he said he was having trouble meeting his client. He's already tried three times to get Zhao to sign the appeal application, but strangely can't get a hold of him.

"This is crucial... if we fail to meet the deadline of applying for an appeal, I won't have 100 percent confidence."

Here is where rule of law fails to be upheld in China. A lawyer cannot even meet his client to lodge an appeal. Zhao has already suffered enough injustice by being accused of causing trouble, and now he can't appeal the sentence.

This will only provoke more outrage against the government. Does it really want to create more civil unrest? That is what rule of law is for.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Pride Turns to Fear

Towering inferno rocks Shanghai
The spectacular fire that engulfed a high-rise building in Shanghai on Monday is still counting the losses, currently at 53 dead and 126 injured.

The inferno shocked Shanghai residents, who until then, were proud of having tall buildings in the city as a sign of its rapid development.

Now they are wondering if they will be saved if they live in the upper floors of a high-rise and there's a fire like the one the other day.

Tales of panic and near-death were reported, elderly people scrambling onto bamboo scaffolding waiting to be rescued, while others jumped to their deaths from the 28-storey building. Most of the occupants of the building were retired teachers.

Yesterday eight people were arrested for the fire, apparently unlicensed welders.

Despite the authorities catching the culprits, more needs to be done to regulate buildings in terms of fire-fighting equipment.

Shanghai fire chief Chen Fei admitted the department failed to deploy a new engine capable of fighting fires at heights of more than 300 metres -- and had recently been shown off in a public demonstration.

While some 1,300 firefighters and 122 fire engines took part in fighting the fire, some eyewitnesses pointed out a number of these vehicles were far from the fire and some firefighting teams were even sitting idle.

There are no regulations in Shanghai or China for that matter in making sure tall buildings have sprinklers on each floor to slow the spread of a fire.

The public must also be aware of what to do in the event of a fire, and elderly people should really think twice about living in an upper floor of a tall building.

And as expected, Chinese state media is trying to tone down the coverage of the fire, with the propaganda department demanding that reporters write positive stories and avoid any criticism of the government.

That's why the authorities are putting all the blame on these "unlicensed welders".

But the public isn't fooled that easily; they are questioning the speed at which buildings are being constructed and if they are safe. As homeowners they deserve to know the truth. This is an issue that will resonate for weeks and months to come.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Not Quite Kosher

A few weeks ago I blogged about how people crossing the border to the mainland had to pay an import tax on iPads -- even if they were bringing in their own for personal use.

And now the top customs official in China has finally spoken out defending its authorities for making people pay a tax of 1,000RMB ($150.54) when they are carrying iPads across the border -- even if they are for personal use.
 
Huang Yi, head of the General Administration of Customs Department of Supervision said people had to pay the tax because iPads were now categorized as laptop computers.
 
However, iPads are less than 5,000RMB ($752.72), the threshold for a taxable electronic product in Hong Kong.
 
But Huang said the department determined the value of iPads as 5,000RMB because "most laptops" cost that much and they had to take into consideration "travelers' convenience and officer's work efficiency", according to a report from the Beijing Evening News on Monday.
 
Also this rule is a violation of Beijing's promise to the World Trade Organization, which entitles all information technology products zero-tariff treatment once China joined the WTO. This was pointed out in a letter from the Ministry of Commerce to the customs department.
 
The ministry also criticized the customs authorities for imposing a 20 percent tax which was too high.
 
Zhu Lieyu, a senior lawyer with Guangdong Guoding Law Firm confirmed that what customs was doing was violating China's promise to the WTO on the Information Technology Agreement. He also added the Chinese government didn't seem to realize that most travelers carry electronic devices with them when they travel.
 
"It does cause a lot of trouble to ordinary travelers entering the mainland, so how can they call it convenient?" he asked.
 
"The purpose of joining the WTO is to open the market to other countries and mutually benefit from the openness," he added. "A shutdown or monopoly hurts only our people, who have to put up with more expensive products," Zhu said.
 
It's amusing that the customs department is running its own show trying to collect as much money as it can with its own rules while completely violating promises it made to the WTO. Doesn't the customs department consult with the relevant ministries before setting its own regulations? Just seems like it's all ad hoc, with every senior official having his or her own fiefdom...
 
 

Monday, 15 November 2010

Picture of the Day: Tram Jam

Yesterday road workers were replacing the tram rails that allow the trams near me to do a kind of a U-turn along Connaught Road West in order to get back on track to go east.

That meant the trams could only go back and forth on the same rail instead of a circuit which eventually led to a tram jam in Sheung Wan.

It also meant passengers had to pay in coins instead of using Octopus cards which left many scrambling for change...

Quote of the Day: Wen Jiabao

Premier Wen Jiabao is in Macau to attend Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on's policy address tomorrow.

Yesterday he delivered a stern lecture to Macau's ruling elite on their responsibility to its people:

"It is important to build a clean, transparent, efficient and people-centred government," he said. "It is also important the government works hard to improve the people's standards of living and let the fruits of development be shared by people from all walks of life, especially the poor."

Sounds like sensible words. In fact -- why doesn't he take his own advice?

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Can You Hear Us, Wen Jiabao?

While people in Hong Kong can pretty much freely protest -- like they did today about the jailing of tainted milk activist Zhao Lianhai -- they can't easily cross over to Macau to do the same.

Perhaps it's because Premier Wen Jiabao was in the former Portuguese enclave yesterday...

Some 13 people, five from the Hong Kong Alliance In Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, and seven from the April Fifth Action were denied entry into Macau after making the ferry trip over.

They were trying to hand petitions to the premier calling for the release of Zhao and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

After all, they are only trying to follow the proper process of trying to get redress in China -- handing the authorities a petition.

But Macau officials probably didn't want any trouble with the second-biggest cheese in town, or it was another way to prevent Wen from receiving any kind of petition.

"Seek justice for Liu Xiabo! Can you hear, Wen Jiabao?" members of the April Fifth Action group shouted at the immigration counter where they were stopped.

They were surrounded by 10 officers and then escorted to an interview room where they were told they were refused entry under Macau's internal security law.

"We find the reason given by the Macau government very ridiculous. It said our entry would threaten its internal stability and security," said alliance vice-chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, who was refused entry.

"Asking Premier Wen to carry out democratic reforms and to release Liu Xiaobo -- these are the kinds of views we frequently express in Hong Kong. It is absurd to say such actions would threaten the security of Macau," he said.

It's great to see Hong Kong people trying to see how far they can push the boundaries, and technically, these people should be allowed into Macau.

However, the city is too scared to have anything go wrong, let alone any peep of discontent.

Perhaps this is why senior Chinese officials rarely come to Hong Kong?

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Playing Currency Hardball

American political analysts are saying United States President Barack Obama didn't help the country much at the G20 Summit in Seoul.

He didn't get the trade agreement he wanted with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, though he won points by chumming it up with India in backing up for its bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and reminiscing about his childhood in Indonesia before an erupting volcano cut his visit short by a few hours.

But I want to give him big points for finally addressing the elephant in the room.

At the press conference at the end of the G20 Summit, he straight out said what was on every other world leader's mind but didn't dare say:

"The issue of the renminbi is one that is an irritant not just to the United States, but is an irritant to a lot of China's trading partners and those who are competing with China to sell goods around the world."

He then declared of the renminbi: "It is undervalued. And China spends enormous amounts of money intervening in the market to keep it undervalued."

For years the US has danced around the thought of declaring China a currency manipulator, but now Obama has actually said it. This will probably escalate political tensions between China and the US, but so be it -- the US itself is trying to slightly undervalue its currency to stimulate its domestic economy, much to China's displeasure, as it is the largest holder of US Treasury bills.

It's good to finally see Obama play hardball. He tried the nice, diplomatic route, but got nowhere.

At least now we know where everyone in the room stands, relative to the elephant.







Finally Free

Still a force to be reckoned with... Aung San Suu Kyi
Today is a day of celebration for Burma/Myanmar with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi after seven-and-a-half years of house arrest.

She was triumphantly greeted by her admirers and supporters at the front gate of her house that was previously blocked by police. Someone handed her flowers and she put them in her hair, a symbol that she's back.

In the grainy video footage she looks the same, a bit older, but still her graceful yet fiesty self.

The jubilant crowd was so noisy that reporters who were there said they could hardly hear her even though they were up close to her. They were singing the national anthem, cheering and chanting. Finally the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was able to say a few words.

"Than you for welcoming me like this," she said. "We haven't seen each other for so long, I have so much to tell you." She promised she would have more to say tomorrow at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy which had to disband if it was not going to stand for the elections that were held only a few days ago.

"We must unite!" she said. "If we are united we can get what we want."

Her lawyer, U Nyan Win confirmed she was free, ending speculation that she was released with conditions. There were earlier reports she would not accept any conditions on her freedom. Now everyone is waiting to see how the military treats her as she seems determined to return to her political activities.

So far there has been no word if her youngest son, Kim Aris would be granted a visa to visit her.

He and his brother were brought up by their father Michael, who died in 1999, unable to fulfill his dying wish to see Suu Kyi in Myanmar. She was afraid that if she left the country to see him in the UK she would not be allowed back in.

 Hopefully Aris will be reunited with his mother finally. If the military junta have the guts to free her, surely she can see her son.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Picture of the Day: Passed Out

Performance art or dead to the world? Police investigate
Here's something you don't see everyday on the streets of Chongqing -- or any major Chinese city -- men in business suits passed out on the ground.

There were four young men, all vying for a sales job. The potential employer called them in for a second-round interview and then invited them to lunch.

Eager to impress their boss, they drank as much alcohol as they could. Two of the young men are only university students who are graduating next year.

Needless to say they were pretty wasted.

Three of them passed out on the ground, while the fourth leaned on a telephone pole, muttering and shivering.

And like all "incidents" in China, people just stand around and watch them before someone actually has the brains to call the police, and they in turn contacted the paramedics.

After some puking, the men were hauled into the ambulances.

So not only do you need to have good qualifications and guanxi, you need to hold your alcohol too.

Wonder who got the job.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A Poppy for Remembrance

A poppy from the British Legion
Today is Remembrance Day in Canada, Armistice Day in the UK, and Veterans' Day in the United States.

And for the first time in four years I am wearing a poppy to remember the war dead.

I managed to hunt the flower down at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Central. Right in the foyer hanging along the staircase are bags of poppies, the ones from the British Legion and coin bags, hoping for the honour system that people will donate.

The interesting thing about these poppies is that there are no pins to attach these paper flowers to your clothing so I had to get a safety pin to secure it onto my jacket.

I've only seen a handful of other people in Hong Kong wearing a poppy and I'm appalled there aren't more remembering this day.

I say this because some 1,500 British and Canadian soldiers risked their lives trying to defend Hong Kong from the Japanese in December 1941. By late October the Japanese had already occupied Canton (now Guangzhou) and effectively had Hong Kong surrounded.

On December 8, eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour (December 7 Pacific time), the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. Unfortunately many of the corps were outnumbered and quickly fell. People were massacred, women raped, prisoners tortured before being killed.

Christmas Day 1941 then Governor of Hong Kong Sir Mark Aitchison Young surrendered in person at Japanese headquarters at the Peninsula Hotel. The day was known as "Black Christmas".

This began three years and eight months of Japanese occupation. Liberation did not come until August 15 after the US dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima on August 15, 1945.

While Hong Kong is now part of China, this is a significant part of the city's history that should not be forgotten. It has contributed to what Hong Kong is today.

On this day we wish to recognize those who paid their lives for peace.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Perverse Justice

More irony abounds in China today after a Beijing court sentenced a man to two-and-a-half years in jail for setting up a website for parents whose children were victims of the melamine milk scandal in 2008 after his own son got sick.

Zhao Lianhai was found guilty of "inciting social disorder" according to his wife Li Xuemei.

"Of course we cannot accept this. We will appeal. This is something we have to do," she said.

He founded "Kidney Stone Babies" to provide information and resources for parents after about 300,000 infants were made ill after drinking powdered milk tainted with melamine to apparently boost protein content. At least six babies died.

Police arrested Zhao last December, charging him with the crime of picking quarrels and provoking trouble. That charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail. He's already been in jail for almost a year.

However, with the melamine case, only a handful people were actually tried and convicted, in a few cases executed. But there were never any sentences for the government officials related to the incident that was covered up during the Beijing Olympics.

China did set up a compensation fund for those families whose children were sickened, but interestingly enough, those who allied with Zhao found it practically impossible to be eligible for compensation.

What kind of justice is this? A man, his own son sickened by melamine-tainted milk, is put in jail for trying to help others in the same predicament.

How is Zhao "inciting social disorder"? If anything it is the government itself creating disorder by not following its own laws.

Not protecting its own people and instead itself is beyond shameful. These were innocent people who unknowingly bought melamine-laced milk thinking it would help their children grow healthy and strong. Do they really want to bring down the government? They only want to know and prosecute who is responsible. But instead the government prosecutes them.

Again, what kind of justice is this?

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Pettiness Continues

The Chinese government is trying so hard to keep Liu Xiaobo out of the spotlight, but what it's doing is having the opposite effect.

There seems to be something about Liu in the news everyday.

His wife Liu Xia is still under house arrest. She has a strong suspicion that the authorities will not be allowing her to go receive Liu's Nobel Peace Prize on his behalf next month. As a result, she wrote an open letter, saying she was inviting a number of people to go to Oslo to support Liu.

However many of the names on this list have all had visits from the authorities, having "tea" with them, which means a verbal warning, or even house arrest themselves.

One of the few who has openly declared she will go is dissident writer Dai Qing, who is currently in Canada for an academic conference.

And now people associated with Liu can't even go overseas at the moment.

His lawyer, Mo Shaoping, and law professor He Weifang were stopped at Beijing airport today, not allowed to leave the country to attend a conference in London. The authorities are probably worried they will stay there longer so that they too can go to Norway to accept the prize on behalf of Liu.

Justifiably Mo is incensed and plans to file a lawsuit against the government for unlawfully preventing him from leaving the country, despite the authorities his departure would "threaten state security".

These petty actions are just making the Chinese government look even more irrational, revealing how terrified it is about one person who is not an ax murderer or a terrorist, but a quiet intellectual advocating better rights for the Chinese.




Monday, 8 November 2010

River Crabs for All

It turns out people were not deterred by Ai Weiwei's impromptu house arrest on Friday and instead partied without him on Saturday.

About 600 people showed up at his soon-to-be demolished studio in Shanghai and did eat river crabs.

"We never expected that many," Ai said in Beijing. "After we announced it was cancelled, I thought maybe just 50 people would still come. But some people said it is not our building anymore, it's a building for the 'grass mud horses'. Young people showed the world that they are not going to be intimidated. They showed they can still enjoy the sunshine and listen to music without being afraid."

"Grass mud horse" refers to activists, a homophone in Putonghua for a strong swear word invented to counterbalance "river crab", a homophone for "harmony", a term the government frequently uses to justify many of its policies.

However, from the pictures it looks like not only the young came, but the elderly too, with many seniors holding up crabs and shouting, "Harmonious society, eat river crabs".

And it turns out Ai was released from his shackles of house arrest at midnight Monday; the van without license plates blocking his home in Caochangdi mysteriously disappeared as it had appeared Friday.

Ai hasn't stopped being vocal since being free. He spoke to the BBC today, urging British Prime Minister David Cameron to speak out on human rights because his country, as well as others are profiting from doing business in China.

"We have a government that, after 60 years in power, doesn't give its own people the right to choose its leaders," he said. "This is a society that sacrifices people's rights and happiness to make a profit."

Cameron arrives tomorrow for a two day visit, bringing the largest British delegation to China in 200 years, since Lord Macartney visited in the 1790s.

While British prime minister will probably be talking business with Chinese leaders, Ai wants Cameron to ask why they put people in prison simply because they have different opinions.

We'll all be watching, Mr. Cameron.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

No News is Good News?

Since the first reports of artist and activist Ai Weiwei came out that he was under house arrest on Friday, there hasn't been any news since.

But now I've just read that he would be "free" as of noon today [Sunday] from the Shanghaiist:

"The Beijing State Security and Chaoyang State Security have come to declare the decision of their superiors: Ai Weiwei, immediately until 12:00 on the 7th, is under house arrest. He may not leave his residence. Outside the door of Caochangdi 258 [Ai's studio] the police are guarding. Please take care of the Twitter friends of the demolition of Ai Weiwei's studio in Malu Jiading, Shanghai and the grass mud horses who have come to the river crab feast. Accept my biggest apologies."

Ai would probably have been recovering from a hangover today if he had hosted his farewell party Saturday featuring eight bands and some 1,000 supporters in Shanghai.

But alas some Shanghai higher-ups didn't like this idea -- was it the river crabs that gave it away? -- who concocted this illegal house arrest for some three days.

Is the west guilty of being partial to people like Ai because he tells us what we want to believe in China? Yes. He does tell the truth. But also he speaks ENGLISH. And if more Chinese officials were able to communicate in a common language with the rest of the world, then perhaps China's soft power would really be doing its magic... Well... it would be a start.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Sweet Treat in Central

Amanda Cheng and Andrea Lau of Riquiqui
A small dessert place in Central is garnering good reviews since it opened a few months ago.

Called Riquiqui which means "small" or "tiny" in French, it's a dessert bar that serves three courses of sweet things with a good dose of good conversation and laughs.

Started by pastry chef Amanda Cheng and her cousin Andrea Lau, the small place on Wellington Street offers an intimate place for people to relax and enjoy each bite of their desserts.

Following the concept of a dessert bar in New York, you get an "appetizer" followed by a main course and then petite fours for HK$200 ($25.80) per person. It includes a glass of water, and a choice of tea or a glass of wine.

The place features a long bar, with two tables for two on the side along a dark blue wall. Everyone sits on bar chairs, and above the bar are strings of crystals to create a chandelier effect.
Malt chocolate mousse

At the back of the bar is a gold gilt-frame with the menu handwritten on it, and the selections change frequently. I've already been here a few times and each time have sampled a different main course, such as banana cream pie, raspberry napoleon, and even pineapple polenta with coconut ice cream.

This time we started with a malt chocolate mousse, a narrow shooter glass filled with chocolate mousse at the bottom, topped with small homemade Malteasers. It's not too sweet or heavy either, the mini Malteasers packing quite a crunch to contrast with the smooth mousse.

Next we chose the apple crumble with butterscotch sauce and hazelnut ice cream topped with pistacho nuts. It was literally a bowl of warm crumble with diced apples flavoured with cinnamon that was delicious down to the last bite. It wasn't too heavy compared to other desserts like chocolate ganache cake.

Finally the petit fours are almond cake, marshmallow covered in dessicated coconut and a mini cookie sandwich laced with jam.

Apple crumble with hazelnut ice cream
Cheng and Lau make the experience all the more memorable, easily chatting with their customers on just about anything. Last time it was about MSG and today it was on wrinkles.

If you do come to Riquiqui, make a booking ahead of time to ensure a spot in one of Hong Kong's up and coming little eateries after dark.

Riquiqui
2/F, 12 Wellington Street
Central
2868 3302
www.riquiqui.hk

Friday, 5 November 2010

Ai Weiwei Under House Arrest

Breaking News -- in a bizarre turn of events, artist and activist Ai Weiwei is under house arrest in Beijing after unnamed powerful Shanghai figures made the order.

They caught wind of his plans to have a huge party tomorrow to celebrate his newly-built Shanghai studio being demolished with rock bands and some 1,000 supporters. Ai had provoked the authorities by saying they would eat lots of river crabs, a euphemism for "harmonious", mocking Chinese President Hu Jintao's "harmonious society".

At first Shanghai officials asked Ai to establish a multi-million dollar studio, but after it was completed the officials had an about face and decided it had to be demolished because of his "activities".

Ai was planning to fly to Shanghai to prepare for the upcoming party when they apparently reluctantly placed him under house arrest today.

"They're sorry, very sorry," he said by telephone from his home. "They say they understand me and really agree, but this is really beyond what they can do."

Now that word is out that Ai is under house arrest, there's going to be international condemnation of what is an illegal act. No charges have been laid, only some senior officials who are scared of what could have happened tomorrow.

And this will only prove once again that China is not a responsible power, that is violates the rights of its own citizens purely out of paranoia. Any kind of dissent worries the government at any level and it will react at any cost to preserve its power, even if it goes above its own laws to do so.

So while Ai is under house arrest, the government is also asking European governments to boycott the Nobel Prize ceremony and avoid talking about Liu Xiabo.

How can you ask other countries not to attend such a prestigious event?

China is acting like a spoiled child that is kicking up a fuss when it doesn't get what it wants.

It thinks it can throw its weight around with its economic might. But really it's only a paper tiger until it can prove it takes the higher road instead of petty behaviour.





Thursday, 4 November 2010

Silencing its own Voice

It is disappointing to find the Legislative Council is not going to urge Beijing to free Liu Xiabo.

The motion, tabled by Wong Yuk-man of the League of Social Democrats, was supported by 22 pan-democrats, but vetoed by 28 pro-government lawmakers, with one abstention yesterday.

The debate lasted three and a half hours and in the end the motion was killed.

It's the second time the legislature has defeated a motion calling for Liu's release since he was sentenced to 11 years in prison by subversion on Christmas Day last year.

While it's not surprising Legco doesn't have the guts to tell Beijing to free Liu just as the rest of the world is urging it to do, it's a pity it doesn't take this opportunity as a "democracy" to speak its mind.

We here can freely celebrate Liu's win, and yet the government is too scared to tell its master the emperor has no clothes on.

Just another day in Hong Kong.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Wealthy Beelzebub

A Hong Kong religious leader is not backing down on his statement that rich people like Li Ka-shing are like the devil.

Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai said this during the Halloween weekend in a media interview and yesterday continued to stand by what he said despite the threat of a libel suit. He said it was the prayers of poor people, rather than rich men, that would be accepted by God.

"I have nothing to say about the incident," Law said last night. "But I only hope there will be more angels in Hong Kong. God hears the prayers of the poor people, but in our city the general public has no voice while the rich people do."

Law was criticizing property developers for unscrupulous sales tactics and unfair construction to maximize their profits at the expense of buyers.

While Law is probably saying what most ordinary Hong Kong people think, one would have to believe that someone up there is listening more to the rich than the poor since the former seem to get what they want most of the time, their bank accounts as proof.

Nevertheless, one of Li's subordinates, Gerald Ma, a Catholic, tried to defend his boss.

"Similar to the Catholic Church, Mr Li is passionate in his support for social and charity work," Ma wrote. "I do not understand why he should go through such unfair humiliation."

He added: "Although it is regretful that the Church has good and bad people, God still loves human beings."

However Law would not be undeterred.

Quoting from the Bible, Law said those who neglected the underprivileged "will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life".

Li is not known to be religious so perhaps he finds Law's comments amusing. Or perhaps we will see horns sprouting from his head?

Time will tell.




Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Fact of the Day: Taking a Gamble than Socking Money Away

Hanging out at the casino tables... and spending money -- lots of it
There is an interesting correlation between Macau's gambling tables and China's bank deposit rates.
Last month high-rollers to Macau's casinos set a new record of gambling away 18.87 billion patacas, up 49.8 percent from a year ago, and 23.3 percent from September, according to figures released by the Gambling Inspection and Coordination Bureau.
The whopping amount was more than 11 percent better than Macau's previous record of 17.07 billion patacas set in May.
To put it into perspective, the October amount was more than four times the $567.98 million reaped in Las Vegas in February, the casino capital's best month so far this year.
Meanwhile, last month Beijing raised benchmark one-year deposit rates to 2.5 percent from 2.25 percent. But that wasn't enough to offset inflation which was 3.6 percent in the 12 months to September. So the real interest rate on mainland bank deposits is minus 1.1 percent.
So it's no wonder many are choosing to put their bets on the baccarat tables.
Or are mainland Chinese people even more flush with cash these days?
The real winners are the casino operators, hitting the jackpot practically everyday.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Kindling in Popularity

Kindle users in China can get Twitter and Facebook
While you can't officially get Amazon's Kindle e-reader in China, it's hot property since you can jump over the Great Firewall of China and log onto blocked sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The 3G model uses GSM or global system mobile communication technology with Wi-fi coverage in over 100 countries including China.
Although you can't buy Kindles in China, you can certainly find ways of acquiring them through Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay. According to a news report, a seller in Beijing has sold more than 300 in the past month. He ordered more than 30 to an address outside of China, and then got them into the country a few at a time. Kindle mule, anyone?

Kindle uses its own network called Amazon Whispernet which has wireless coverage through AT&T in the United States and its partner networks around the world. So in this case, there should be a Chinese carrier.

Professor Lawrence Yeung Kwan of the University of Hong Kong's electrical and electronic department hypothesizes mainland internet gatekeepers may have overlooked devices like Kindle, or perhaps think people buy Kindle to read books.

Another possibility is that Amazon and its Chinese carrier may have greed to transfer the connection to Amazon's station, presumably in the US, once the firewall gets a signal from Kindle.

The signal, which is probably encrypted, then goes to the partner network in China so that censors can't see what is accessed.

Unfettered access only works with the 3G models, not Wi-fi, which relies on local connections.

So far Amazon has not commented specifically about this latest observation on the mainland, but in a recent letter, the company addressed privacy and censorship this way:

"Amazon has long been committed to protecting the privacy of customers. We know customers care how information about them is used and shared, and we appreciate their trust that we do so carefully. We are committed to free expression... In addition, Amazon has long been a leading proponent of maintaining the fundamental openness of the internet."

And since border patrols have stepped up in China to make people pay taxes on iPads regardless if it's for personal use or not, perhaps sales of Kindles on the mainland will explode now that the word is out you can finally tweet or facebook to your heart's content -- for now.