Friday, 30 December 2011

Lai's Case Moves Forward

Lai Changxing is facing the music
After 12 years of trying to gain refugee status in Canada, Lai Changxing was finally handed over to prosecutors after investigating him on alleged crimes from smuggling oil, cars, cigarettes, chemicals and other goods as well as bribing government officials from 1996 to 1999 Xinhua News Agency reported.

China's most-wanted fugitive who allegedly made millions of dollars has also confessed to these allegations.

"Lai and other key members of the syndicate have confessed to the facts of the smuggling and bribery without concealing anything," Xinhua said.

The report was the first update on Lai, 53, since he was repatriated back to China on July 23.

Xinhua says he is guaranteed his legal rights and was able to hire a lawyer.

Prosecutors in Xiamen, Fujian province will announce the indictment later. The charges of smuggling and bribery both carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.

One wonders how transparent this trial will be -- seeing as those involving Chinese with foreign passports are conducted behind closed doors it wouldn't be surprising if Lai's case was even more secretive.

In 2007, Gan Yisheng, deputy secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said Lai would not be sentenced to death if he returned. So Lai will be looking forward to a life in prison regardless of the verdict.

It may sound cushy compared to execution, but the government has not said anything about how he would be treated in jail...

Thursday, 29 December 2011

HK Identity Grows Stronger

A senior Chinese official based in Hong Kong isn't happy that most people in the city identify themselves as "Hong Kong citizens" than "Chinese citizens" after a recent survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong.

Hao Tiechuan from the central government's liaison office criticized the poll as "unscientific" and "illogical" the way the questions were posed.

The survey asked 1,000 people to rank how strongly they felt as a "Hong Kong citizen" from zero to 10, with 10 being the highest. The average rating was 8.23 points, a 10-year high. For their identity as "Chinese citizens" the average was 7.01 points, a 12-year low.

When combined into an "identity index" from zero to 100, the respondents had the strongest feelings as "Hong Kong citizens" at 79.1 points, and the weakest was 61.1 points as "citizens of the People's Republic of China".

Hao was irked that "Hong Kong citizen" was even an option in the survey as he said in an interview: "Hong Kong is not an independent political entity. If [a Hong Kong citizen] is not a Chinese citizen, which country's citizen would he be? The correct approach, he said, should be to ask respondents whether they viewed themselves as "British citizens" or 'Chinese citizens".

Media reports added Hao was voicing his personal opinion.

Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu of HKU the author of the survey, has conducted this poll every year since 1997. He diplomatically said he would consider adding "British citizen" to the questionnaire next time.

So why is Hao speaking out about it now in what is considered a rare attack on an academic study?

He obviously doesn't like the results and if this was the mainland, the numbers would probably never be published.

This outburst is very interesting because Chinese officials seem to keep very close tabs on what is happening in Hong Kong and the opinions of its public.

So why should it be any surprise that people here identify themselves as Hong Kong citizens?

Perhaps it's the massive influx of mainlanders coming to the city to live or visit and buying up expensive flats, milk powder, designer handbags and eating up all the abalone and shark fin that make Hong Kong people feel like second-class citizens in their own hometown?

Maybe we are reaching the tipping point of Hong Kongers eager to differentiate themselves from their mainland cousins. They identify themselves as Chinese people, but first and foremost they are from Hong Kong.

What are you going to do about that, Mr Hao?

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Deadly Building

A bacteria was found in one of the government offices at Tamar
It was shocking to hear Secretary of Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung was diagnosed with legionnaire's disease in the last few days. At first doctors thought he had pneumonia but it is now found there are traces of the bacteria that cause the disease -- in his private washroom -- in the new government offices in Tamar.

His office is on the 11th floor and an investigation is underway to get water samples from the 10th to 15th floors of the east wing which connect with the pipes from Suen's toilet.

So far the preliminary tests show the all clear which makes it even more strange why the bacteria was found in his washroom.

While the disease is not transmitted by people, Suen probably got it from inhaling contaminated water droplets. The bacteria is called legionella pneumophilia and is a type of bacteria found in water-warm environments such as water tanks, cooling towers, central air conditioning systems, whirlpools, spas and water fountains.

What really baffles scientists is that the bacteria is usually found in older water supply systems, not a building that was opened only a few months ago.

"The new government headquarters should theoretically be more modern than the older ones," said microbiology professor Ho Pak-leung of the University of Hong Kong. "It's disappointing that such bacteria are found only several months after moving in. Usually they are found in older buildings where pipes are dated and whose maintenance and designs aren't done properly," he said.

"Now that bacteria are found, the water supply system must at least be cleaned, and the design of the water supply system must be examined," he added.

Contractors were racing to finish the new government offices and so there are concerns not enough attention was paid to building them. The building, which looks like a giant upside-down U-shape has been the focus of much criticism. There were complaints of how the government seemed to deliberately make it more difficult for the public to access the site and the logistical challenge of moving some 3,000 civil servants into the building.

Meanwhile the 67-year-old Suen is still recovering in hospital.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen had hoped these new offices at Tamar would be one of his lasting legacies; now it will be remembered as the building that nearly killed one of his lieutenants.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Cooking up a Storm

Chief Executive Donald Tsang may have have a food fight with his ex-chef
Donald Tsang's time as Chief Executive of Hong Kong will be up just over six months from now and already someone's grinding his axe.

Yu Yinping used to work as a chef for Tsang when he was Financial Secretary a decade ago and now plans to publish a book detailing his grudges against the senior civil servant as well as recipes.

The Shanghai-born chef has already written the manuscript and says many publishers are interested in it. Yu is now teaching at a cooking school in Central.

He started working at the financial secretary's official residence on Wong Chuk Hang in December 1999 for HK$15,000 ($1,929) a month.

However he claimed he had to work very long hours.

"On one occasion, I prepared lunch for 22 guests and dinner for 24 people on the same day," Yu said. "At one time Mrs Anson Chan Fang On-sang [former Chief Secretary] was a frequent guest to Mr Tsang's residence... Mrs Chan really liked Shanghainese dishes and Mr Tsang loved expensive seafood such as lobster, shark fin and abalone," he said.

The chef made headlines 10 years ago when he demanded overtime pay from Tsang. In June 2001, the Labour Tribunal ruled Yu was entitled to HK$40,250 in overtime pay. For 10 months Yu worked for Tsang from 6:40am to 7:30pm six days a week. His contract was terminated early in October 2000.

Afterwards Yu went back to the mainland and said he had his own talk show. Tsang later sued Eastweek for publishing libellous remarks by Yu in November 2001 and the weekly magazine had to publish a full-page apology and pay HK$120,000 in damages.

When asked about Yu's latest plans, the Chief Executive's office refused to comment saying it was a personal matter between the chef and Tsang.

Meanwhile Yu says he will not work for any senior government official again after his "unpleasant experience" with Tsang a decade ago.

"Even if Mr Leung Chun-ying or Mr Henry Tang Ying-yen invite me to become their chef in the future and pay me a HK$1 million salary, I would not take the offer," he said. "But I don't mind cooking for them for special occasions if they are sincere in inviting me."

Yu sounds like quite the character, keen on dishing up dirt on Tsang on a matter that has already been resolved.

Some people are just keen to get any kind of attention at other people's expense.

But who knows? The claims might be too good to pass up. And Tsang's preference for shark fin is a good start.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Citywide Referendum

An interesting experiment will be conducted in Hong Kong -- giving ordinary people an opportunity to cast their ballot for who they'd like to be the next Chief Executive.

Veteran pollster Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, head of the University of Hong Kong's public opinion program, plans to hold a citywide vote two days before 1,200 members of the Election Committee hold their vote.

Chung proposes that anyone who is a permanent resident and over the age of 18 will be able to vote on March 23 with results announced later that day.

While the result won't have any official or legal significance, it will be a very good indicator of who the public wants to be in charge of Hong Kong and could sway those Election Commitee voters who promised to take into account public opinion.

Chung plans to use an electronic voting system where people can cast their votes by mobile phone or computer, as well as polling stations he and his staff will set up around the city.

The sophisticated voting system will be able to verify the voters' identities but also protect their privacy. This kind of internet-based voting system has been used in Australia, Brazil, India and Estonia.

Chung estimates 80,000 to 100,000 people will come out to vote, but really hopes the number will jump to half a million.

The cost of administering an e-poll of 50,000 people or more will be around HK$1 per voter and Chung plans to raise about HK$500,000 for the project to meet his ambitious estimate.

He will be asking the three main candidates for Chief Executive to help sponsor the poll, and this includes Henry Tang Ying-yen, Leung Chun-ying and pan-democrat candidate Albert Ho Chun-yan or Frederick Fung Kin-kee.

Chung will decide by early March whether or not to go ahead with the plan and he would not need the approval of HKU.

While many see this possible exercise as a referendum, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office has warned that any so-called referendum in the city would be a challenge to the Basic Law and the central government's authority.

That gives even more reason to vote in this public opinion ballot.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Belated Apology 70 Years Later

A view of Central and Admiralty
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Hong Kong.

In the early 1920s the British knew the Japanese were a threat but by 1938 the latter had occupied then Canton (now Guangzhou). The Brits thought Hong Kong would be hard to defend and decided to work on other new defenses.

It wasn't until September 1941 did the Brits reassure Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek that they would genuinely defend its colony and accepted an offer from the Canadian government for two infantry battalions and a brigade headquarters, some 1,975 people.

C Force, as it was known, arrived on November 16, but not long after Hong Kong was attacked on December 8, 1941, eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Brits and the Canadians were no match for the Japanese, who swiftly took out Kai Tai Airport and various strategic areas in the city including reservoirs.

On the morning of December 25, the Japanese tortured and killed a number of injured soldiers in a field hospital at St Stephen's College along with medical staff.

By the afternoon of Christmas Day, it was clear resistance was futile and the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Aitchison Young surrendered in person at the Japanese headquarters in the third floor of the Peninsula Hotel; the day became known as "Black Christmas".

The occupation of Hong Kong lasted until August 1945, six days after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There are many horrific stories of how prisoners were treated by the Japanese; women were raped while men were tortured or summarily executed.

About 1,600 Canadians captured in battle, 267 of them died in Japanese prisoner of war camps from torture or starved and died in captivity.

And now 70 years later Japan has offered its "heartfelt apology" for its systematic mistreatment of Canadian prisoners who were captured in Hong Kong during World War II.

Earlier this month Canadian Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said Toshiyuki Kato, Japan's parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs, apologized in Tokyo to Canadian veterans in a private meeting.

"This important gesture is a crucial step in ongoing reconciliation and a significant milestone in the lives of all prisoners of war," Blaney said in a statement. "It acknowledges their suffering while honouring their sacrifices and courage."

The delegation also visited the graves of Canadian soldiers at the British Commonwealth Cemetery in Yokohama.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement that the apology would help in healing the "terrible pain and heavy burden of the Second World War." He added it would allow both countries to move forward.

Veterans probably didn't think they would have to wait seven decades for an apology, but better late than never.

May we never forget those Canadians who sacrificed their lives for Hong Kong and the British Commonwealth.

They have helped make Hong Kong what it is today.

Quote of the Day: Socialist Branding

China's propaganda czar Li Changchun is calling for more mainland publishing enterprises in the international market to further promote Chinese culture.

He made the remarks on Friday during a meeting with the publishers of the Library of Chinese Classics and publishing companies that have made significant progress in the global market.

"The publication of the library has shown the world the excellent achievements of the Chinese culture and the significant contribution the Chinese nation has made to human civilization," Li said.

He urged the publishing industry to make greater contributions to "promoting socialist cultural prosperity and building China into a socialist cultural power."

It's another effort to promote China's soft power abroad, but what does he mean by "socialist cultural prosperity"?

Even if a reporter asked Li for clarification on what he meant, he probably wouldn't know how to explain it and just repeat what he said.

But he really means make more money.

With the country's explosive economic growth in the last three decades, the Communist Party of China is trying to make sure it stays relevant these days despite its headlong rush into capitalism.

Hence the need to add the word "socialist" with "prosperity".

As Li is also chairman of the CPC Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilization, it's only in his best interests to keep branding prosperity with socialism.

Because we all know, the more you say it, you'll eventually believe it.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Eight Too Many

A bizarre story has come out of Guangdong where a couple didn't just have one child -- they had eight.

According to the report in the Guangzhou Daily, the wife is a successful businesswoman who tried many times to get pregnant. The wealthy couple spent nearly 1 million RMB to pay for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) as well as two surrogate mothers.

The IVF was so successful that all eight embryos developed and so they kept them to term.

An anonymous source told the newspaper: "The couple were anxious to have babies and had no difficulty in affording test-tube babies, surrogates or living expenses, so they decided to keep them all," he said.

The story was kept a secret until the media discovered a picture of the babies -- four boys and four girls -- taken by a photography studio. The babies were born in September and October 2010.

Note to self -- do not take pictures of your eight brood together in a photo studio even though you want to brag.

Couples are only supposed to have one child unless both parents are single children and have the option of having another.

The penalty for breaking the rules is a fine and loss of some benefits such as free education and healthcare, but for many wealthy couples in China, they don't mind paying the price. However the extra children are called "black children" and technically have no legal rights.

There are probably millions of these children, many in their 20s. What has become of them in their bid to go to school and get jobs?

In any event, people are angry that those with money can get away with having more children because they can pay.

It only creates a greater gap between the rich and the poor -- exacerbating an already serious issue.

So move over Nadya Suleman, aka "octomom" -- there's an "octomom" and "octodad" in China.











The penalty for breaking the rules on planned birth is the imposition of a fine and a loss of some benefits such as free education and healthcare, but for many wealthy couples in China this is a price worth paying. Their children are known as "black children" and technically have no legal rights.

Many people already opt for private education and healthcare and do not mind missing out on the chronically underfunded health system and state schooling.

Guangdong provincial health bureau vice deputy chief Liao Xinbo said: "It's like the rich should have the right to reproduce as often as they want? It's absolutely wrong."

China introduced its one-child policy in 1979 to restrict births in the world's most populous nation.


Stamping Out Jasmine Revolution Aspirations

The Chinese government has marked this Christmas with yet another outrageous prison sentence of someone voicing his discontent with how the country is run. Nearly two Christmases ago it was Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo with his 11 year jail term.

This time it was writer Chen Wei who was handed a nine-year sentence for inciting "subversion of state power".

He has published several essays online calling for freedom of speech and doing away with the one-party system.

Chen was one of hundreds of dissidents detained for going online to encourage protests in China inspired by those in the Middle East earlier this year.

He told the court he was not guilty and that "democracy will prevail" in China, insisting that his freedom to express his opinions is legal under the Chinese constitution.

His wife Wang Xiaoyan says the trial had been "a performance" and that the verdict had been decided before it began. When a trial with such serious charges ends in a verdict in only two hours, it's quite obvious more than just regular procedure is followed.

In addition to his nine-year sentence, Chen's political rights were taken away for two more years, possibly making it the harshest sentence ever meted out on those involved in the so-called Jasmine Revolution that tried to carry the momentum from the movements in the Arab Spring.

Wang, who was present in the court proceedings, said her husband's essays were misinterpreted and that he had done nothing to incite subversion.

"He is a very patriotic man. He did criticize the Communist Party, but that's stating the facts. That is not subversion," she said.

After the verdict was read, Chen did not appeal. Wang explained that Chen knew what the verdict would be and hoped that by not appealing the conviction that he would be able to finish the serving the term quickly and come home.

Chen's pro-democracy bent dates back to 1989 when he was jailed as one of the student leaders who organized protests at Tiananmen Square.

He is also a signatory of Liu's Charter 08, a manifesto that calls for democratic reforms.

The sentence handed down to Chen clearly illustrates the Chinese government's paranoia over anyone agitating for change in the political realm.

Its lack of tolerance for differing opinions reveals a stifling environment where the government refuses to entertain any differing opinions. Anything other than status quo is deemed "subversive".

And for the government, "subversive" can have any definition it wishes it to have.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Psychological Profiles of Leaders

Yesterday I was riveted listening to The Current on CBC Radio, which talked about the psychological profiles of world leaders, specifically people like recently deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Jerrold Post who was with the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA for 21 years where he founded and directed the Centre for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behaviour from 1974 to 1986. He is now Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology and International Affairs and the Director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University.

He talked about the importance of background information of leaders, that their upbringing gave a clear indication of what kind of leader they would be and how critical that information can be when wanting to know how to negotiate with them, and anticipate how they will lead in times of crisis.

One dramatic example he gave was of Saddam Hussein, who Post felt was the most traumatized of leaders. His life was already tragic in the womb as his father died when his mother was pregnant with him for four months; Hussein's brother died after a botched surgery when he was eight months into the pregnancy and then because of these two deaths, his mother had severe depression and tried to abort him and commit suicide.

If that wasn't enough, after Hussein was born, his mother wanted to have nothing to do with him and had him raised by her brother for the first few years of his life until she remarried. And then it turned out his step-father was a violent and abusive man; one can clearly make a link with how Hussein became so brutal towards his people. When his sons were around 10 years old, Hussein took them to watch torture sessions. This is what Post calls "the family that slays together, stays together".

In the case of Kim Jong-il, he had an immense challenge of having to lead North Korea with his father's shadow constantly over him. Kim Il-sung was a guerrilla leader and the younger Kim had no revolutionary experience to speak of. His father was keen to ensure his succession and early on appointed him to learn everything he needed to know, starting with the propaganda department.

However, Kim Jong-un has not had any kind of education in leadership until very recently which makes this period particularly worrying as no one knows what he is like and what his outlook is.

One wonders what the profiles of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are, but one can look back on history and see the Communist Party has learned its lesson from having too strong of a leader thanks to Mao Zedong who built a personality cult particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

Post says when one person dominates a country it is not a healthy situation and calls this "malignant narcissism". The leader does not make the best decisions as his aides become sycophants who are afraid for their lives and families if they do not give suggestions that benefit the leader. Saddam comes to mind.

As a result the Communist Party in China has tried to create what it calls a more democratic system where it rules by consensus rather than by one leader.

While this dilutes power in a good way, it also creates political factions and in China's case, it's between the liberals and hardliners. Both want to preserve the power of the Party but differ in how they propose to do this. The liberals think real political and economic reforms are the solution, while hardliners are extremely conservative and want to make things even more opaque. This creates some kind of balance of power within the Party which in a way is beneficial, but it really is a battle of who has the stronger guangxi.

Also, Chinese leaders do not to reveal too much about themselves personally, but it's these intimate details that make leaders more personable, and Barack Obama is an excellent example.

It's not Party policy to do so; they prefer to rule without much of a face.

But with Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai giving Chinese politics more flamboyance, perhaps the Chinese government will finally give more definition to its facial features.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Picture of the Day: Christmas Carols

Students from Wah Yan College, Kowloon singing carols
On the weekend I was invited to the Hong Kong Country Club for lunch followed by an afternoon session of Christmas carols.

I've never been to a designated caroling session so it was interesting to see an all-boys' school choir from Wah Yan College, Kowloon performing.

Accompanied by a fellow student on the piano, the students sang many popular carols like Silent Night, Jingle Bells and Hark the Herald Angels Sing and we were encouraged to sing along with them.

Back home I wouldn't think a carol sing along was strange, but it felt a bit stiff probably because it was held in an upper crust club with taitais in fur shawls, designer bags and coiffed hair, while some of their husbands sang their hearts out. Perhaps it reminded them of their school days in Hong Kong or in the UK.


Wednesday, 21 December 2011

No More Chicken For You

December 22 is Winter Solstice when the Chinese get together on what is supposed to be the coldest day of the year.

And they should mark the occasion especially in southern China with all kinds of dishes including pork and chicken.

However, the Hong Kong government has found a chicken carcass infected with the H5N1 virus at a poultry market in Cheung Sha Wan.

Taking no chances, the authorities have begun culling 17,000 chickens and ordered the sale of all birds, even imported to terminate for three weeks until January 12.

The government does not know if the carcass was infected locally or from outside Hong Kong.

"I understand that it will cause inconvenience to the public, and the poultry trade will also encounter losses," Dr York Chow, Hong Kong's secretary for food and health said. "However, to safeguard public health, we need to adopt decisive and effective measures to prevent and control the spread of the virus."

Hong Kong is taking no chances after it experienced the first major outbreak of avian flu that spread to humans in 1997. Six people died and the government responded by slaughtering 1.4 million chickens, ducks and geese across the city. That outbreak was linked to chickens and classified as H5N1.

It will be disappointing for the seven million Hong Kongers who mark special occasions with chicken dishes, or eat the bird as part of their daily diet. However, erring on the side of caution, the government is taking extreme steps to protect its people.

Now that I think about it, there are some restaurants like Tsui Wah that is known for its boneless Hainan chicken rice dish, and also Yardbird, a yakitori restaurant in Sheung Wan that is completely centered around fresh chicken parts roasted on skewers.

Perhaps the menu will have a complete shift...

Taking the Reins

The news of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's death is still reverberating around the world as the west is wondering what will happen next.

Normally the Hermit Kingdom rarely allows many images of the country seep outside, but with the passing of the 69 year old, the regime is anxious to show it is in control. There are now pictures of Kim's body lying in state under a glass coffin and grieving mourners.

Much of the focus is on Kim's youngest son and successor Kim Jong-un, who was introduced to the world over a year ago, believed to be in his late 20s.

The sudden death of the older Kim of a heart attack while on a train reveals the leadership succession may have taken place a little too late, giving the younger Kim not enough time to understand the seriousness of his newly-inherited role.

Many wonder how military generals older than Kim Jong-un's father will treat their new leader, as Kim Jong-un has never spent one day in the army despite becoming vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party and a four-star general last year.

Also the rest of the Northern Korean population are expected to mourn for their Dear Leader for 13 days, a long period that BBC is reporting not everyone is complying to.

While there are images showing extreme grief of loud wailing and falling on their knees, the people are also expected to give their respects to this young person who has no tested leadership skills or knowledge.

So while the rest of the world watches for signs from North Korea, they are also looking towards China for signals too.

Beijing has already endorsed Kim Jong-un in official statements and invited the young leader to China for a visit at a "convenient time".

There are expectations Kim will try to maintain stability while trying to establish his power and influence.

Meanwhile the people will be hoping their new leader understands the state is practically unsustainable in its pursuit of nuclear weapons over food to feed the population.

Perhaps the one advantage Kim Jong-un has is that his facial features resemble those of his grandfather Kim Il-sung who is revered as "Eternal President".

As for his ability to lead the nation, only time will tell.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Picture of the Day: Santa Coming to Town

Santa's got his presents all wrapped up at IFC mall
Sorry for the reminder but there are FOUR more shopping days before Christmas.

And I haven't started yet.

However Santa Claus over at IFC Mall in Central seems to be completely organized complete with wrapped presents!

Will be hitting the mall in the next few days...

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A Supportive Voice is Gone

Czech Writer and dissident Vaclav Havel has died at the age of 75.

Just over a week ago to mark the first anniversary of Liu Xiabo winning the Nobel Peace Prize Havel put his name on an open letter calling for Liu's release.

It was also signed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and fellow Nobel peace prize winners Mairead Maguire, Betty Williams, Jody Williams and Shirin Ebadi.

"The international community seems to have forgotten that, a year after the award ceremony, Liu remains in prison in China and in harsh conditions," the group said in a statement. "The committee calls on all those committed to freedom of thought and opinion to join the committee in its efforts to obtain the release of Liu."

Havel was such a supportive figure to Liu, as the latter modeled Charter 08 after Charter 77, a manifesto that articulated the lasting humiliations that Communism imposed on the individual. It called for human rights guaranteed under the 1975 Helsinki accords.

And for that Havel was arrested, tried and convicted of subversion and served three months in prison. In 1979 he was arrested again on charges of subversion and sentenced to four and a half years.

This sounds very similar to what Liu is going through, though his sentence is even harsher at 11 years. His wife Liu Xia is practically a prisoner in her own home, cut off for the most part from the outside world.

According to the New York Times' obituary, Havel was luckier as the severity of his sentence sparked protests from Communist parties in France, Italy and Spain. He was eventually released in 1983.

Who is protesting on behalf of Liu now? Almost all the other Communist regimes and ideologies have fallen, leaving the responsibility to democratic countries to campaign on his behalf.

Which is why Havel was such an important voice in calling for Liu's release.

Of anyone, he knew exactly what the Chinese writer is going through, mentally and physically after having gone through it himself.

In the end Havel prevailed and led his country out of Communism.

Will Liu be able to do the same? It's a long shot. A very long one. If you ask an ordinary person who Liu Xiabo is, most haven't even heard of his name before thanks to Chinese government censorship.

But Liu is a man who lives by his word and he will continue to push for human rights for China and its people after he patiently finishes his prison sentence.

Which is much more than what the Chinese government can say for itself.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

A Start on Clearing the Air

After years of hemming and hawing, the government finally implemented the ban on idling engines which began earlier this week.

It's the Tsang administration's weak attempt at cutting air pollution in Hong Kong.

The basic rule is that all passenger cars cannot idle for more than three minutes; if they do not comply they are slapped with a HK$320 ($41) fine.

And there are also some exemptions, such as taxis in a queue and the first two minibuses in their stands. How does that really help the situation?

It's interesting to note the ban began in December when the temperatures have dropped -- imagine what will happen in the summer. It's legislators' way of trying to gently ease people into getting used to turning off the engine... something most drivers in North America and Europe would do subconsciously.

So far some drivers in Hong Kong have "forgotten" about the new law or they found it impractical to follow.

The latter reason is amusing.

These complaints come from chauffeurs who are at the beck and call of their masters and mistresses who demand that the car be in front of the building they are at even though they are not physically at the front door yet.

One driver named Lam said that if a boss asked the driver to wait for five minutes, it seemed unreasonable for the driver to turn everything off for those few minutes. Also cars could heat up quickly in the summer and would take time to cool down again.

"Many bosses do not like stepping into a hot and stuffy car," he said.

Well, taipans and tai tais, this is the reality of the situation. It's called global warming. We are all trying to do our bit to cut the amount of greenhouse gases in the air, a good chunk of it caused by vehicle exhaust. Most of us who take public transport don't complain about having to wait in the heat, so perhaps you can suffer slightly with a car that may not be cooled down to the temperature you want.

And traffic wardens need to be more strict about enforcing the law instead of just giving polite warnings. No one is above the law.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Keep 'Em Coming

Made a quick one-day visit to Macau today and while Grand Lisboa was humming along with lots of gamblers at the tables, Wynn Macau was noticeably quieter, perhaps a lull in the late afternoon?

Nevertheless, there are concerns next year things will be slowing down in the former Portuguese enclave with the economy faltering on the mainland and also the government planning to put more restrictions on visas to Macau.

Wells Fargo Securities gaming analyst Cameron McKnight says in a recent report that an economic slowdown means growth of Macau's VIP segment "could well turn negative as VIP junkets would require a meaningful capital infusion simply to maintain current volume."

That's because the VIP segments makes up a mind-boggling 75 percent of the total revenue of the world's biggest casino market. McKnight says Macau has enjoyed two years of outsized market growth.

This area has surged thanks to junket operators who bring the high-stakes gamblers to the casinos, give them credit and collect their debts in exchange for hefty commission.

These were doing quite well until China's underground lending system exposed a number of defaults on loans, particularly in Wenzhou. A few businessmen there were reported to have disappeared or even committed suicide, unable to pay back the principle, let alone the exorbitant interest rates. And then there were some who thought they could win back their money if they went to Macau...

"Many VIP junkets have been obtaining money lender licenses in China as a means of legalizing their lending and collection activities on loans related to gambling, legally taking collateral over loans and preparing for the [junket] licensing process in Singapore," writes McKnight.

"Some junkets have been extending loans for purposes outside of traditional VIP gaming, which could mean they are more enmeshed with, and exposed to the same problems as, the shadow banking system."

Both scenarios mean less money will be reaching Macau if it's diverted to Singapore or further swallowed up by underground loan sharks.

However, Macau is still an allure to mainland Chinese not only for its plethora of gambling, but shopping as well. It is so geographically close to China, that the majority are still going to go there.

And with more properties opening up towards the second quarter of next year, such as InterContinental and Holiday Inn, and Sheraton in the third, there's still the cache of going to brand new places...

While there may not be 45 percent growth in revenue, it'll still be strong.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Currying Favour

The race to become Hong Kong's next chief executive is getting more interesting.

Earlier this week Leung Chun-ying found out popularity with Hong Kong people doesn't necessarily translate into votes. Last weekend some 65,500 professionals and business people cast their votes for the 1,200 people who will actually decide the next chief executive.

Leung barely scraped by with 50 of the 1,200 votes, while his adversary Tang Ying-yen has a comfortable lead with 300 to 400 votes. However some 700 are still undecided.

Apparently this spooked Leung and he made a pilgrimage Tuesday evening to the central government's Liaison Office to see what Beijing thought of him. Tang did the same thing.

Both were tight-lipped about their visits.

James Sung Lap-kung, a lecturer on public & social administration at City University said Beijing was not ready to reveal its preference yet.

"Beijing wants to see if Tang can win back more public support and observe his performance in the coming weeks [before publicly backing him]. I don't think they will give a clear blessing to either one until mid-January," Sung said.

Most would think Tang's campaign is a slam dunk, but not for long.

Apple Daily is reporting Vice President Xi Jinping is throwing his weight behind Leung, along with former vice president Zeng Qinghong during the Jiang Zemin years.

The paper is speculating Beijing not only wants someone capable but also popular with Hong Kong people...

Meanwhile Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said Tang and Leung's meetings showed that Beijing's interference in the chief executive race had become increasingly blatant.

"There is no such thing as an iron-clad vote -- a signal from Beijing can take away all the support from one camp," said Ma.

While the two previous chief executive races were pretty much done deals, this one is definitely making things more interesting.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Legendary Sale

Fierce bidding at the auction for Elizabeth Taylor's jewellery
The collection of Elizabeth Taylor's jewellery went under the hammer Wednesday morning Hong Kong time, Tuesday evening in New York and it was a record-breaking one that made over $115.9 million, far surpassing the Duchess of Windsor sale in 1987 at over $50.2 million.

From the hype it gathered thanks to the touring exhibition that went to cities like London, Paris, Moscow, Dubai, Geneva, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Los Angeles, there was keen interest in this sale of a Hollywood collection of jewels amassed over decades.

The record-breaking La Peregrina
The highlight was La Peregrina, a diamond and ruby necklace that sold for a record $11.8 million. Richard Burton had bought her the large 16th century pearl that has been declared as the most beautiful pearl in the world at $37,000 in 1969. She later had it set by Cartier in pearls and rubies, significantly increasing the value of the necklace and with its provenance led to its amazing sale price.

Another was The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond at 33.19 carats, D colour and potentially flawless went for over $8.8 million, making it $240,000 a carat. Jewelers are probably now recalibrating the values of all their giant rocks now.

Her Taj Mahal Diamond, a heart-shaped stone suspended from a gold and ruby chain by Cartier given to her by Burton on her 40th birthday in 1972 also set a record for an Indian jewel at over $8.8 million as well.

The list goes on and on, many of the pieces sold way beyond the estimated price which was probably the perceived value of the jewellery without taking into account Taylor as the owner. But once her star power was factored in, the prices went through the roof.

It was a very successful sale as it demonstrates the world's one percent the other 99 were protesting about, had no shame in shelling out millions of dollars to get what they wanted.

So while it was a good sign that there are people willing to pay top dollar for the "Crown Jewels of Hollywood", perhaps it was the last hurrah before 2012?

We shall see what next year brings -- downward spiral or struggling to keep buoyant.

At least Elizabeth Taylor helped us see off 2011 in glittering style.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Pleasing Cattle Class

Cathay Pacific is FINALLY doing something about its fixed-back shell seats in economy class and will replace them with the traditional recliner seats starting in March.

I sat in them earlier this year on 13-hour flights back home and it was not comfortable. The seat didn't lie back but just curved at another angle. What's the point of that?

People had already started complaining about them as soon as they were introduced, but the airline had to grin and bear it since it cost so much to install them.

And they probably lost some of their customers (me included) along the way.

It's not the first time the airline made a mistake with its seating after passengers complained the old herringbone business class seats were "coffin-like" and were replaced with new winder and longer seats.

Most of the passengers are Chinese -- a number of them are going to be superstitious so don't even begin to start designing things that seem remotely associated with death.

So why doesn't Cathay Pacific listen to its customers in the first place?

Meanwhile back to economy where most of us fly, the first aircraft with traditional seats will start on the routes to Sydney and Toronto (via Vancouver) about three months from now. A total of 36 Boeing 777-300ER and 26 Airbus 330-300s will be refitted by December 2013.

The new economy class seat will have a cradle mechanism where the footstep of the seat will rise simultaneously when the back is reclined to give more support to the back and leg to the passenger than the average reclining seats.

And the airline is also trying to put a spin on cattle class with its premium economy class.

Here the seat pitch or the distance between the rows of seats will be 38 inches, six inches more than Cathay's economy class. Premium class passengers can also get a special menu and a designated check-in counter.

Oooh a whole six inches more. Here is definitely where length matters.

And how much, pray tell is this privilege of six more inches?

Monday, 12 December 2011

Mr Winston Goes to China

The latest advertising campaign
Diamond jeweller Harry Winston is definitely setting its sights on China.

In a conference call with analysts last Friday, Frederic de Narp, chief executive of Harry Winston says the company plans to launch three stores on the mainland next year, including its largest boutique worldwide in Shanghai.

"We are different from other brand names, as we don't see China as the El Dorado for mass luxury at all," de Narp said. "We see it as the most exclusive destination."

Other jewellery retailers like Cartier and Tiffany & Co are also chasing the mainland market and are also opening stores in China's first- and second-tier cities in the next few years.

But of course de Narp was keen to differentiate Harry Winston from its competitors.

"Harry Winston's unique diamond jewellery and heritage brand built upon quality, craftsmanship, design has untapped potential in China as consumers become more selective. We treat China as our priority, and we treat Chinese for what they are: extremely sophisticated. So, we don't go with quantity. We go with quality."

Spoken like a true salesman, but honestly we've heard this spiel before many, many times.

Nevertheless, the company is definitely betting on Shanghai as management consultancy McKinsey has forecast the mainland to account for about 20 percent or $27 billion of global luxury sales by 2015.

For Harry Winston, sales in Asia rose 77 percent year on year to $126.2 million, while in the United States it was up 53 percent at $97.9 million. In Europe, sales decreased 4 percent to $74 million.

But de Narp sees Chinese consumers traveling around the world to buy their luxury brands.

"We learn from them. For example the percentage of bridal rings we sell from our London salon is extremely high to Chinese clients, which is unbelievable because we don't have visibility yet in mainland China."

Not completely true -- Harry Winston has a boutique in the Peninsula Beijing on Wangfujing Street.

Nevertheless, the biggest concern for the company now is hiring Chinese-speaking sales staff to cater to the flood of mainland customers.

"Two or three months ago, we had zero Chinese-speaking people in our salons," de Narp said.

Now they have Chinese-speaking staff in Harry Winston stores in Las Vegas, South Coast Plaza and Orange County. And you'll see more in London, Paris and other international cities.

What's happening in Hong Kong is reverberating around the world -- If you can speak Chinese you can get a sales job.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Picture of the Day: Unfortunately Name

Actress Louisa So promoting products called Nipplesili...
I was waiting at the bus terminus the other day and saw a curious ad on one of the buses.

It said "Nipplesili" and a picture of a woman wearing silicone gloves that looked textured for better grip as well as products like food containers and non-stick cookware.

On the website ewindow.com.hk, the company Elegant Window aims to "provide safe, high quality, valuable and innovative household products with extensive functionalities [sic] as well as beauties for a much better and improved standard of living."

That's all fine and well, using the latest technology to produce silicone products, but why is a company called Elegant Window producing products called Nipplesili?

That's unfortunate. The woman in the picture is actress Louisa So Yuk-wa who is considered the "Cooking Mistress" after winning the comedy cooking show "Beautiful Cooking".

But how embarrassing it must be to have her picture next to the word "Nipplesili"...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Dotted Landscapes

Landscape in Fog, 1996 by Roy Lichtenstein
Gagosian Gallery in Pedder Building always presents interesting exhibitions, and the latest continues to bear the standard.

"Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes in the Chinese Style" is an intriguing one that draws the curious to check out the show.

What do they look like?

Lichtenstein (1923-1997) creates his version of a Chinese painting by using his signature Pop Art style of various Benday dots like the ones from comic strips. The results are undulating mountain silhouettes in the background and bonsai trees in the foreground, or a tiny man on a sampan. He continues in the style of ancient Chinese paintings where nature is overwhelmingly larger than man to create contemplative pieces of work that are also thoroughly modern.

Landscape with Rock, 1996
"I think [the Chinese landscapes] impress people with having somewhat the same kind of mystery [historical] Chinese paintings have, but in my mind it's sort of pseudo-contemplative or mechanical subtlety... I'm not seriously doing a kind of Zen-like salute to the beauty of nature. It's really supposed to look like a printed version," he once said.

The gallery leaflet explains Lichtenstein was particularly interested in paintings from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) and re-interpreted the traditional scenes and motifs using his own established methods and materials.

For the most part the paintings do look like they were printed, but some with crooked trees or shrubs have a bit of sponge painting for a bit of texture.

One that stood out for me was Landscape in Fog (1996) where there's a black mountain in the background, then Lichtenstein has vigorously added a "fog" using a thick brush strokes of blue, white and gray before returning to the regularity of the dots and a small tree on the left hand corner.

Scholar's Rock, 1997
Not only did Lichtenstein study Chinese landscapes, but also how the artists portrayed rocks in their works. The result is Landscape with Rock (1996), a large piece of rock in the foreground that he gives some three dimensional feel with the varying density of the dots, and a creamy-yellow background with a mountain range in the far distance.

His fascination with rocks in Chinese paintings also extended to sculpture. There are also sketches of how he would execute the sculptures as well as the final result. Some versions are various layers of thick board accurately cut and put together and painted in a variety of stripes and colours. Meanwhile Scholar's Rock (1997) is cast and painted in steel.

I didn't know Lichtenstein made these series of works before he died in 1997 and the fact that he made these pieces is very interesting. Not often do you see artists taking ancient Chinese landscape paintings as their inspiration and recreating it in their own style.

Roy Lichtenstein: Landscapes in the Chinese Style
Gagosian Gallery
7/F, Pedder Building
12 Pedder Street
Central
www.gagosian.com

Friday, 9 December 2011

Picture of the Day: Christmas in Central

Sir Paul Chater amongst the Christmas trees
Temperatures have plunged since yesterday to 13 degrees from a balmy 20 degrees earlier and now everyone's bundled up in overcoats, scarves and boots.

And in Next to Prince's Building in Central is Chater Garden where there's a giant 18-metre high Christmas tree in blue this year sponsored by Tiffany & Co.

Chater Garden is named after Catchick Paul Chater, a prominent businessman of Armenian decent.

Among his many achievements, he help set up Dairy Farm in 1886, and three years later Hong Kong Land. Even back then Chater had designs on land reclamation and Hong Kong Land worked on the Praya Reclamation to create what is now Des Voeux Road in Central.

He also helped Hong Kong get electricity, setting up one of the oldest power stations in the world in an old graveyard in Wan Chai. In 1890 the Hongkong Electric Company went into production.

Chater was also an enthusiastic cricketer and loved horseracing, even setting up a stable that won many races at Happy Valley.

From his profile it seem Chater would feel quite at home in Hong Kong today, with the city all lit up thanks to his pioneering efforts.

Wonder what he'd think of all the commercialism of Christmas, particularly this area in Central dedicated to him -- sponsored by Tiffany & Co.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Lopsided Race

The heat is on Chief Executive hopeful Henry Tang Ying-yen as his rival Leung Chun-ying is far surpassing him in the popularity contest.

In the latest survey Leung's support was more than double Tang's at 47.3 percent compared to 23.8 percent of 1,012 respondents.

Some 19.2 percent backed Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai even though she said she wasn't running, and Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan is a distant fourth at 3.7 percent.

The University of Hong Kong conducted the survey days after Leung and Tang formally declared their candidacies.

Leung's edge over Tang was even more pronounced when asked to select one or the other in a two-man race. Leung received 52.7 percent support, giving him a lead of more than 26 percentage points.

Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, director of the public opinion program said, "Our latest survey shows that Leung continues to maintain a comfortable lead over Henry Tang, after a series of campaign activities from both sides."

Tang has failed to close the popularity gap despite having heavyweights backing him, such as former Monetary Authority chief Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, HSBC Asia-Pacific chief executive Peter Wong Tung-shun, Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po and former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-cheung.

Tang has also hired a new public relations team after his two-month contract with AsiaNet Communications expired. The public relations company was blamed for mishandling the disclosure of Tang's extramarital affair(s) in early October.

While it is true only 1,200 chosen ones will actually vote for the next chief executive, most of whom are pro-China, Beijing hinted earlier that it would have to drop support for Tang if he was not popular, as the Chinese government doesn't want to be seen backing a loser.

So now that the popularity poll results are in, what will Beijing do now?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Cramped Living

Investigators still don't know for sure what caused last week's blaze on Fa Yuen Street. While there is no evidence to prove it was cause by arson, the police are not ruling it out entirely.

And while there are calls for the government to put an end to subdivided flats, there is still a growing demand for them.

"Half of the tenants of subdivided flats are young adults who want to save money for private flats and cut their transportation costs," said property agent Daniel Lee Chin-fung, founder of www.hkjoe.com, which offers somewhat attractively designed subdivided flats for rent. "Joe" sounds like the Cantonese word for "rent".

He said the availability of partitioned flats in Sham Shui Po and Cheung Sha Wan had fallen sharply in the last few months from 30 to only a handful.

"Demand is rising rapidly but owners have withheld some of their flats from the market after the government stepped up action on subdivided flats because of safety issues," he said.

The Buildings Department is about to issue removal orders to owners of affected buildings where the fire broke out, particularly those who blocked staircases when dividing flats to increase the number of rentals. The department will also inspect more than 300 buildings throughout the city in the next six months.

And because of the crackdown, rents for these subdivided flats have risen 20 to 30 percent, from HK$2,500 to over HK$5,000 ($322-$643). In that case one can get a legitimate tiny studio for the higher rent.

However, there are many prospective tenants who are looking for upmarket subdivided flats and apparently they do exist.

Videos on Lee's website show flats of about 150 square feet to 230 square feet, with wooden panel floors. They are dubbed "Japanese houses" as the bedroom, living room are divided by a semi-transparent screen and have an "open kitchen" with a sink and range hood.

These flats can go for HK$3,600 to HK$5,000 compared to those with minimal renovation for HK$2,000.

People looking for these kinds of flats are around 30 years old, says Lee, with diverse backgrounds, high school graduates, university and even managers.

Poon Wing-cheung, a real estate professor at City University says the city's limited upward mobility had resulted in a new social class, who have completed tertiary education but earned low salaries.

"They can't afford private flats, but at the same time do not qualify for public housing; they are a group being neglected by our housing policy," Poon said.

This is a sad trend we are seeing in Hong Kong -- people who cannot move up the food chain. We don't know if these people are hardworking or they aren't as ambitious. The fact that they are choosing to live this way shows their budgets are extremely tight.

Regardless, the government should make public housing more available to those who need it. This affects our quality of life, not only mentally but also physically and the society as a whole.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Shock Verdict Deja Vu

I was in Beijing when the Stern Hu incident involving Rio Tinto happened in July 2009, resulting in tense relations between China and Australia.

Hu was charged and convicted of stealing commercial secrets and receiving bribes and was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

At the time Australians were annoyed at then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd aka Lu Kewen for not being able to use his fluent Putonghua and knowledge of Chinese diplomacy to get China to throw out the charges and have the Chinese-born, naturalized Australian citizen Hu out of jail.

But now things have gotten worse with today's verdict of jailing yet another Chinese-born Australian Matthew Ng after another deal that went sour and is now paying for it with 13 years in jail.

Ng was detained in November after he, the chief executive of London-listed travel company Et-China and some shareholders had contracted to sell the company for $100 million to a Swiss firm.

In court, Ng's lawyer Chen Youxi explained the criminal case was orchestrated by a third party as leverage to obtain the profitable Guangzhou company cheaper.

Ng and other witnesses were offered offered release in exchange for Et-China's local joint venture partner Guangzhou Lingnan taking control of the local Guangzhou travel business at a discounted price, but Ng refused the offer.

Guangzhou Lingnan is the largest company owned by the Guangzhou municipal government.

Throughout the trial the prosecution didn't have much evidence against Ng and his colleagues, chairman Zheng Hong and the chief financial officer Kitty Yang.

In fact today the defense had thought today's day in court would be more procedural and so they were shocked when the judge started reading the verdict without warning. Ng's lead lawyer was not in attendance, nor were Australian journalists or diplomats.

Ng was sentenced two years for misappropriation of company funds, 2.5 years for false registration of company capital, two years for work unit bribery, and eight for embezzlement. The sentence was commuted to 13 years. Zheng was sentenced to 16 years, Yang 3.5 years.

China is sending a strong signal that it does not approve of Chinese who emigrate and then return to the country to work using a foreign passport. China seems to view these people as traitors, that they are working for other countries' interests rather than for the good of the motherland.

Obviously having a foreign passport doesn't give these people any diplomatic protection anymore and China has no qualms in trumping up charges when its officials or anyone with really good guanxi feel like sore losers in business deals.

How does China expect companies to want to continue to do business there with such a chilling treatment of foreign nationals?

And let this outrageous verdict be a warning to companies who think they can penetrate the Chinese market and become zillionaires. It's not going to work because China will find a way to screw them over, even if it's not even following the rule of law.

Quote of the Day: Hu Zhanfan's Propaganda Workers

New CCTV boss Hu Zhanfan
Former editor of Guangming Daily Hu Zhanfan is now the new head of CCTV or China Central Television and he has already set the ground rules about journalism in China.

In an event sponsored by the China National Media Association, Hu told his colleagues that "the first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly as a good mouthpiece". He added journalists were kidding themselves if they thought they were independent professionals rather than "propaganda workers".

He warned that those who did not understand this concept "would not go far".

Hu's words were posted on Weibo, China's version of Twitter and response was swift. Some 10,000 comments were made, most of which were quickly erased by censors. "As a media student I feel very depressed," said one with the web name Bao Xiaomao. "People who are obviously doing advertising claim that they are doing news."

Jiao Guobiao, a former professor of media and journalism at Peking University who fell from grace in 2004 after challenging the central propaganda department, said Hu spoke his mind in a relaxed meeting with his peers. "Whether you study journalism or work as a journalist, you are told this mantra over and over again, that you work for the Party and are its mouthpiece. The problem is that only the Party gets a mouthpiece, the public does not get a mouthpiece," he said.

What Jiao says is what employees in state-run media are told in lectures by their editors and senior officials. They are told to serve the Party first -- which means all news should put the Party in a good light before telling the truth. The central propaganda department will contact editors apparently by phone -- to avoid leaving a paper trail -- and instruct them on what can and cannot be reported.

So reporters in state media are basically "cultural workers", propagating the Party's objectives, even in what should be a straight-forward news story. Always have to throw in how the people, economy and society have benefited from the Party.

And when referring to the outrage by young people on the internet, Jiao says: "Kids born in the 1980s and 1990s obviously are not aware of how the system works, so they get angry and indignant. The paradox is that the media has borrowed the Western concepts of objectivity and neutrality, but put them in the service of propaganda. Hopefully things will change in five to 10 years time."

Interestingly Jiao does not explain what kind of change he is talking about...

The person controlling the strings in the propaganda department, Li Changchun had this to say in his speech to the All-China Journalists Association in October.

"The journalistic front must have a high sense of political responsibility and historical mission, deeply studying, propagating and implementing the spirit of the sixth plenum of the 17th Central Committee in order to promote the great advancement and flourishing of socialist culture," he said.

What does that mean? See above.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Skirting the Rules

Last month's elections in Hong Kong resulted in the pan-democrats losing big time, but since then there have been allegations that a number of votes were rigged.

And now the Independent Commission Against Corruption has arrested 22 people who are charged with engaging in corrupt conduct at an election.

The 13 men and nine women aged 21 to 57 allegedly provided false information to election officers by claiming a flat in Yin Chong Street in Mongkok as their residential address. Twenty of them voted in the district council elections that were held on November 6.

This case is crucial not only to stop voter rigging, but also this neighbourhood was where non-affiliated Edward Leung Wai-kuen beat Lam Kin-man of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood by two votes -- 1,045 to 1,043.

Last week Lam lodged a complaint to the ICAC about suspected voter rigging after the media did a number of stories of cases where voters wrote down addresses they claimed to lived in and it turned out the building didn't even have that floor or was a building someone wouldn't live in like a movie theatre.

Lam said he was pleased with the agency's swift action. "My legal advice is that if there is clear evidence that vote-planting has been involved, I can apply to the court to declare the results of the election void," he said Sunday night.

Leung declined to comment on whether he supported a re-run of the election, but was not scared of being drawn back into the saga.

The Democratic Party has found 798 suspicious voter registrations in the district council elections. A number of the cases involved a suspiciously large number of electors registering with the same address or voters whose registered addresses were outside their constituencies.

For example there were 13 electors with seven surnames registered at a flat in Mei Foo Sun Chuen as their residence.

Why does the election office not scrutinize the registration of voters properly? Hong Kong Identification Cards do not list the person's address because people change their addresses frequently here, but why not have them register in person and show proof of address with recent bills or cross check with the tax office?

Yes it's tedious, but that's how one runs a fair election. When people make a mockery of the system how would that give confidence in the public that democracy works?

It just shows the government is not taking the elections seriously, thus showing its stance on universal suffrage by 2017...

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Pictures of the Day: Christmas in Hong Kong

Toy Story aliens greet shoppers at Harbour City
Shopping malls around town are fully decorated with various themes, some executed brilliantly, others need a rethink, or they are cutting back budget-wise.

Last year Hong Kong Land which owns The Landmark had a fantastical display with a giant Santa and Mrs Claus decorated in a red suit of bonbons with skates on top of the fountain. Presents were suspended from balloons floating above shoppers.

However this year it created an intricate mountainous landscape and an electric train running through it. Hardly picture material unless you're a train fanatic.

Elements at Kowloon Station has a massive presentation and one wonders if the designer got the proportions all wrong because it seems like it barely fits in the space, taking up the entire floor to ceiling. In the middle hanging above is a giant chandelier and then below are several thrones... why so many? Or are they they four thrones for the children in Narnia? Actually there are more than four large chairs that no one can sit on because it's roped off. And then outside the column area is a tiny Christmas tree and then a gigantic box holding two silver rings. Is this a hint for men to propose to their significant others with Cartier just a few steps away?

Incomprehensible theme at Elements mall
And why are the reindeer upside down...

Anyway Harbour City is recycling the Toy Story theme used at its sister property Times Square when Toy Story 3 came out. So while it's a theme that's been done before, we particularly like the aliens with their Santa hats. Kids love Toy Story and so do the parents. However, some of my friends noticed while Woody was there, Buzz Lightyear was missing...


Saturday, 3 December 2011

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

In the last few weeks we have had a glimpse into the lives of the super rich in Hong Kong thanks to an ex-wife demanding more money to keep her lifestyle after her divorce in 2008.

There were riveting tales of how Florence Tsang Chiu-wing needed money to buy property in Hong Kong and London, cars in Hong Kong and London, have enough to join clubs in both places and raise a three-year-old daughter.

Her ex-husband Samathur Li Kin-kan and his father Samuel Tak Lee opposed the claim, saying her demands were outrageous. They also alleged Tsang tricked Li into having a baby as he refused to have children, but then the marriage further soured when he was later discovered having an affair.

Since Tsang, 38, had the daughter, Li has only seen the girl twice and does not want to be involved in her life.

It seemed like a tit-for-tat case until it was revealed the father and son had conspired to move virtually all of the latter's assets into the former's domain so that the ex-wife could not get her hands on his assets.

"My father is the only one looking after me," Li said in court. "If I pick a fight with him, I would... be on the street. I have no other choice, so to speak."

According to Justice John Saunders, their forged loan agreement may be considered criminal conduct and has now referred the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions for a criminal investigation.

The court heard how Li spent more than HK$100 million on himself a year. At one point he owned a Boeing business jet, two yachts, 28 cars and millions of dollars worth of wine, among other things, while Lee is the head of Prudential Enterprise, which has real estate around the world and owns the Prudential Hotel in Jordan.

One can see the spurned woman trying to clean out her ex-husband, but at the same time the father and son trying to outwit her by transferring the assets.

In weighing judgment, Judge Saunders ruled in favour of Tsang and gave her more than double the amount she estimated she would need to fund the lifestyle she had while she was married.

So instead of the HK$524 million she asked for, she was awarded HK$1.2 billion ($157 million). The breakdown is HK$250 million for property in Hong Kong, HK$30 million for a London property, HK$2.5 million for two cars in Hong Kong and another HK$1 million for a vehicle in London, HK$5 million for a yacht and HK$4.6 million to join clubs in both Hong Kong and England.

The numbers are completely mind-boggling for most of us, but for the rich, these are just their daily expenses.

As for Tsang, a solicitor, she flashed a billion-dollar smile outside the court. "I'm delighted that the proceeding has now concluded."

It's a major windfall the rest of us can only dream of.

Friday, 2 December 2011

World Class Cuisine

Yesterday the long-awaited Michelin Hong Kong & Macau 2012 guide came out as expected with a few surprises and disappointments.

It has been around in Hong Kong and Macau for the last few years; after being away from Hong Kong for many years, I flipped through last year's guide and was surprised by how some restaurants were lavishly praised with three stars, and others stingily given one star.

I soon found out that none of the reviewers were Chinese and so they probably did not understand the nuances in the various cuisines in China from the ingredients to the skill involved in cooking.

Nevertheless, as one hotel public relations person told me, "It's a GM [general manager's] dream, a PR's nightmare", as the former was anxious to boast about their restaurants while the latter has to issue press releases heralding or defending their stars.

But back to this year's list... and I can only mention those restaurants I have eaten at.

For three stars, Caprice at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong deservedly retains its status, while it's wonderful to see 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo move up to three stars. Chef Umberto Bombana has had many achievements this year including the Miele Guide's Chef of Chefs award last month and now this praise. He will be opening another restaurant in Shanghai at the end of this year.

Meanwhile Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental is excellent, slightly inconsistent but perhaps Chef Richard Ekkebus is now more focused on what he wants to do with the menu.

Shang Palace at the Kowloon Shangri-La gained a star and should do so, as their relatively new chef is doing some innovative Cantonese dishes there, substituting ingredients or creating variations of classics.

Another praiseworthy restaurant is Spoon by Alain Ducasse at the InterContinental Hong Kong. It's becoming more consistent and presents traditional but lighter dishes that better suit Asian palates and climate.

Finally Ah Yat Harbour View has one Michelin star, and I wonder if it was the stilted atmosphere that may have led to the lone star rating as it's a technically excellent restaurant with a fantastic view of Victoria Harbour, but when I went there were only three tables occupied and so it was very quiet...

Another place with an uncomfortable atmosphere is Cepage as it's dead quiet in the small space. As a friend said, it's not a place a man can bring his mistress. The food is beautifully presented and tastes divine, but speaking beyond a whisper is considered too loud.

Also pleased to see Cuisine Cuisine at IFC on the one-star list and it has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds with its innovative presentation, while stalwart Fook Lam Moon retains its one-star status.

Meanwhile one of my favourite restaurants Tim's Kitchen lost one star from two, and from my recent dining experience I can see why, as not all the dishes are consistent.

However it's curious to see Yue at City Garden Hotel get a star as I thought the chef made an admirable effort to be creative, but the execution fell through. It's a good standard Cantonese restaurant, but the new dishes needed tweaking.

This year it seems the Michelin guide is getting more in line with what most locals would consider an excellent restaurant. While the producers of the guide want to create more conversation around food, it's really a marketing ploy for restaurants to boast about their stars and in some cases charge higher prices.

Nevertheless we're proud to have Michelin-starred restaurants in our city, proving what we knew already -- Hong Kong is a city of amazing restaurants, many of them world class.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Risky Business

Today is the 23rd annual World AIDS Day and condom maker Durex has released its latest findings in the 2011 Durex Sexual Wellbeing global survey.

And it seems globally people are taking more chances when it comes to not protecting themselves when having promiscuous sex.

In Hong Kong, almost 30 percent of Hong Kong men admitted to being unfaithful to their wives or partners, as opposed to 16 percent of Hong Kong women. The percentages are higher than those in Taiwan and the mainland. This is highly possible as there are many Hong Kong men who are either based in China or cross the border regularly.

The survey also found Hong Kong men have had at most 16 sex partners on average, while Hong Kong women had four. Perhaps the men included prostitutes as well...

Meanwhile in the United States, 60 percent of American men and women didn't use any form of protection against HIV/AIDS or sexually transmitted infections when they lost their virginity. The number is considered shockingly high when compared to lower rates in other countries such as Mexico (49 percent) and Columbia (47 percent).

About 24 percent of American women who risked not practicing safer sex said it was a mistake they regretted.

US men claim to have had an average of 20 different sexual partners in total, fewer than Canadian men (27) or Australia (24), but more than in France (19), the UK (17) and Mexico (15).

However, American women have had 10 partners on average, the same number as those in Britain and France, but more than in Canada (9) and Italy (8).

HIV/AIDS has been around for over 30 years and after all the AIDS education we've had, people are still taking risks with their lives when it comes to sex.

And probably Durex is even more disappointed that people aren't using its condoms either...

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Fire Strikes Twice

At 4:40am this morning there was a fire on Fa Yuen Street in the Mongkok area that left at least nine dead and 30 injured including a one-year-old baby.

Witnesses said they smelled smoke, something burning before flames erupted. It was first labelled a No 3 fire and then upgraded to No 4 -- the second highest category.

It took firefighters several hours to control the fire using 12 water jets and then it was completely extinguished by 1:28pm.

Four charred bodies were found at the staircase of two tenement buildings nearby.

Police are investigating and not ruling out arson.

The eerie thing is, a similar fire happened in the same area almost a year ago in December. It was a category 3 fire and that time no one died, but six were injured. A 33-year-old man was arrested for arson and setting several fires in the vicinity.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang went to Kwong Wah Hospital to console the victims.

"This is not the first time," he said. "Last year there was also a fire in Fa Yuen Street. It was discussed in the District Council. We have taken measures to separate the [hawkers'] booths from the residential blocks.

"We have also restricted the amount of stock stored [in the stalls] and the expansion [of the stalls]. We have done all these things, but apparently this is not enough. We need to review these measures to prevent similar accidents happening again," he said.

However there are concerns that putting restrictions on these stalls is not enough.

According to a BBC report, the building where many of the victims lived had been subdivided into small spaces called "cubicle apartments".

That's because rising property prices have made it difficult for young people and families to rent a decent-sized flat and must resort to these tiny places that have improper wiring and no proper exits for people to escape in a timely manner.

In June this year four people died in a suspicious fire in a subdivided flat on Ma Tau Wai Road in Hung Hom. One of the victims included a young teenager who was trying to shield her younger sister from the flames. She was an intern in our office. We donated some HK$20,000 to her family, but it will never bring their daughter back.

The government needs to act now on these subdivided flats. Why are they not inspected and then shut down? People's lives are at stake here and two fires in one year is two too many.

But even more so the Tsang administration has not done enough to help the poor when it comes to housing. They have resorted to living in these squalid places and landlords have no qualms taking advantage of their financially-strapped situation.

More subsidized housing should have been built years ago but instead the government was easily seduced by mainlanders invading the real estate market and jacking up property prices, making flats out of reach of lower middle-class families and working poor.

When is the government going to look after its own people first?

We are the flesh and blood of this city. We are the ones who make it run everyday.

Do we not deserve secure and reasonable housing to live in?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Race for Top Dog

It's now officially a two-man race for the Hong Kong Chief Executive position.

Both Henry Tang Ying-yen and Leung Chun-ying have formally declared their intentions and it's shaping up into an interesting race.

Tang is already out in the hustings, shaking people's hands and even allowing dogs to lick his face.

Meanwhile Leung gave an impassioned speech to appeal to the masses. "My mother had her feet bound when she was a child. The image of my mother walking with bound feet, carrying a load that weighed over 30 pounds, to and from the rundown plastic flowers factory for over 20 minutes on each trip, left an indelible print in my mind," he said.

He added each step he has taken up to this point "is like the step that my bound-foot mother has taken. It symbolizes my determination in pursuing my goals."

Leung is mulling taking his campaign out on the streets even though in the end it's a small group of elites who will be casting the actual vote. He wants to be seen as a man of the people while Tang will try to play down his wealthy upbringing as the grandson of a Shanghainese textile industrialist.

"I had no choice regarding my origin, but I can choose how I want to serve," Tang said.

It's also interesting to see prominent people already taking sides in the race.

In Leung's corner there's Shui On Group chairman Vincent Lo Hong-sui, Housing Society chairman Yeung Ka-sing, Dr Lo Chung-mau, head of surgery at Queen Mary Hospital, Hong Kong polar researcher Rebecca Lee Lok-sze and former chief secretary David Akers-Jones.

Leung has also declared he is not a member of the Chinese Communist Party and has not applied nor has he been invited to join.

In Tang's court, there's HSBC Asia-Pacific chief executive Peter Wong Tung-shun, former Monetary Authority chief Joseph Yam Chi-kwong and Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po.

When Leung was questioned why he didn't have heavyweights among his backers, he replied he had no intention of showing off any "stars". "I need talented people who can perform -- rather than just those who voice support and then disappear right afterwards -- to join my governing team," he said.

And then there are animal metaphors abound.

Some are describing the race as being "between a wolf and a pig", referring to Leung's cunning and Tang's perceived stupidity. Both men diplomatically said the analogies were incorrect.

Leung said people would appreciate his honesty, while Tang declared that he was born in the year of the Dragon.

And now long-time Hong Kong resident Allan Zeman has weighed in in Tang's favour, calling it a "big panda versus baby panda" race.

"I would say Henry is a panda, because a panda is loveable. You want to hug him," Zeman said, while describing Leung as a baby panda who was "learning on the job, just about to mature".

Why are people giving them animal attributes?

The race will just degenerate into a zoo.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Retail Competition Heats Up

Gap's first flagship store in Hong Kong has just opened in Central
Hard to believe, but Hong Kong has never had a Gap store until now.

Yesterday Gap's first flagship store here opened in a new building that has been under construction for years in the former Queens Theatre on Queen's Road Central.

My friend and I wandered over there after lunch and popped inside to check it out.

It was packed with curious shoppers like us and eager ones wanting to buy up some American basics.

The store is 15,000 square feet covering four floors, but since the space is quite tight, there is an elevator to go up and down and an escalator that goes down to the basement. It features men's women's children's and baby Gap clothes.

The shop's opening yesterday attracted a lot of attention
Overall the casual clothes looked pretty trendy and the prices were not too expensive, though it seemed a bit excessive for almost HK$500 ($64) for a pair of jeans.

Very thin (read practically transparent) T-shirts were around the HK$120 ($15.40) range and I'd rather go elsewhere for better quality T-shirts.

It'll be interesting to see how Gap does in the Hong Kong market, with Esprit across the street, H&M further down and Abercrombie & Fitch just around the corner. Gap will also be competing with Japanese retailer Uniqlo that offers good quality and value for basics such as jeans and casual tops that are designed with the petite body in mind.