Saturday, 30 June 2012

Celebrating in the Style of One Country, Two Systems

President Hu Jintao reviewing the PLA soldiers in Hong Kong
President Hu Jintao is in town and his visit started off with a bang -- visiting the 3,000 People's Liberation Army troops and their military hardware in Shek Kong yesterday.

We were more than a little surprised to see him in an open-top car and the rows of missiles, helicopters, armoured cars and infantry vehicles as well as tanks and mobile launchers.

Did we have all these weapons and military gear in Hong Kong and never knew about it?

His driven inspection was eerily similar to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, dressed in his sombre dark Mandarin jacket and microphones lined up as he greeted the soldiers.

Then today things got interesting when Hu visited the cruise ship terminal being built at Kai Tak.

As the Chinese president walked by, an Apple Daily reporter shouted, "President Hu, the people of Hong Kong want the truth behind June 4 to be revealed, do you know this?"

Hu heard the question and turned to the journalist but continued walking away.

So much for his personal pledge when he arrived of "... I hope to walk more, see more and personally feel the development of Hong Kong, and to understand the life and expectations of Hong Kong people".

The reporter was immediately detained and questioned for 15 minutes.

"He told me that my yelling was breaking the rules," the reporter said.

Journalists shout questions at American President Barack Obama and other heads of state all the time.

Obviously Hu is in another class of his own.

And then tonight there was a big musical bash held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, just steps away from his room at the Grand Hyatt.

Practically all the big stars were there including pianist Lang Lang, opera singer Warren Mok, Cantopop stars Kelly Chan Wai-lam, Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and oldie stars like Sally Yeh Yip Sin-man and Kenny Bee who even brought his young and lively daughter Chung Yi to sing with him on stage. She looks gorgeous and didn't seem to have any stage fright at all.

However most notably absent was Jackie Chan, a perennial at these events, and it was interesting to see CoCo Lee singing her heart out as she's better known in Taiwan than Hong Kong even though she was born here. Perhaps she's keen on conquering the mainland market?

Nevertheless, there were six hosts of the show, two from the mainland and it was so obvious from their appearance and presentation that they were from China. They had no clue what the Cantonese hosts were saying and smiled politely.

What was also interesting about the many acts, particularly the ones involving young people, was that it was pretty much inclusive. There were people of all shapes and sizes on stage -- something that would have been unheard of in China where a performance in front of state leaders would ensure everyone looked uniformly good.

Instead there were overweight people mingled with others, singing and dancing. That was pretty cool to see.

At the very end, perhaps at his request? Hu was invited on stage to shake hands with every performer standing in the front row. He made sure he had a few words with Cheung and Chan, and put his hand on the cheek of Kenny Bee's daughter.

Organizers made sure this celebration would not be ruined and for the most part it was picture perfect.

As for tomorrow with a massive protest rally planned barring adverse weather, things may not look as rosy.

Friday, 29 June 2012

An Outpouring of What's to Come

We are having the perfect storm in Hong Kong now, just in time to mark the 15th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China.

In about an hour the tropical cyclone warning will go to T8, but that will be around 11:30pm when most people are at home anyway.

Nevertheless, it coincides with Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit who arrived today for the festivities.

We haven't seen him, but a massive police presence -- everywhere.

Just like when Vice Premier Li Keqiang was in town, the men in blue with florescent yellow vests are out on the streets every few metres from each other as if a crowd of people are going to suddenly swarm them.

Wonder if they are still standing outside now as the gusts are getting stronger and rain is coming down?

In any event we hope the typhoon which is projected to pass closer to Macau than Hong Kong will quickly make its way onto the mainland so that Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's last day in office can be a relatively smooth one.

The last thing he needs is a natural disaster on his way out.

Meanwhile the incoming rains remind us of the heavy downpour 15 years ago. Prince Charles had to shout to be heard because of the the thunderous rain and he stoically stood drenched in his uniform as the British flag came down for the last time.

And now we have Tsang leaving with his tail between his legs while incoming Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying also has his tail between his legs even before he's sworn into office.

Fifteen years. What comes around, goes around.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Penny-Pinching Officials

Grab yourself a government car at cut rate prices
We know the Chinese economy is slowing down, but by how much?

The latest reports are that officials in the county and provincial levels are fudging their numbers to try to make it look like China is not experiencing a hard landing, but one of the more reliable indicators is electricity usage and for the most part there are record-setting amounts of coal stocked up which is used to make power. Electricity production and consumption are pretty good indicators of where China's economy is at.

And now there is another good indicator -- car sales.

Turns out cash-strapped local governments are auctioning off fleets of official cars to keep the books from spilling with red ink.

This past weekend, Wenzhou, a southeastern coastal city that was hit by the cooling economy, sold 215 cars for 10.6 million RMB ($1.7 million). The municipality is planning to sell 1,300 cars -- or a whopping 80 percent of its fleet -- by the end of the year. Did it really need all those cars in the first place? Or has the city really fallen on bad times?

About a year ago businessmen in Wenzhou were skipping town or in a handful of cases committing suicide because they could not pay back their mounting debts.

Many other cities across the country are also tightening their belts, from Datong in the north to Kunming in the south. Officials are cutting back on lavish banquets, curbing trips and the numbers of luxury cars that are the assumed entitlement of bureaucrats.

Apparently government car auctions are nothing new, but the fact that they are happening more often and a greater number of cars up for grabs indicates these governments are trying to do all they can to stay afloat.

Thankfully they have been instructed not to sell vehicles like ambulances and police cars, but definitely frivolous wheels that do not belong to a government trying to set a good example of relative austerity.

The economic downturn has directly affected land sales, where officials used to get most of their coffers. Fiscal growth is 20 percentage points lower than last year.

The Financial Times is reporting China spends about 100 billion RMB on official cars every year, though it's hard to know for sure as the government refuses to release figures on exactly how many cars are for government use to avoid stoking public anger.

And surely these governments are selling these cars at cut-rate prices to get the cash. So why not own a "pre-loved" black Audi, the favourite car of officials and look like a hot shot. Apparently one in every five Audis in China is a government car.

Perhaps officials themselves are taking this opportunity to own their own car at cheap prices and doing their civic duty at the same time...

In any event it shows the Communist Party's pragmatism when it comes to money. They are willing to sell off their excess to generate some income.

One wonders what the citizens think of officials selling government cars at fire sale prices when they used taxpayer money to buy them in the first place.

So with fewer cars, less lavish banquets and trips, perhaps this means Chinese officials will lose weight and exercise more.

In other words, be like every other person in China?

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Outrage Continues

Feng Jianmei is still recovering in hospital, her husband missing
Chinese officials have totally mismanaged another story that happened around the same time at Tiananmen activist Li Wangyang's "accidental" death -- forcing a woman seven months' pregnant to have an abortion.

The latest now is that two officials in Zhenping county, Shaanxi were sacked yesterday for violating state and provincial government family planning policies when they abducted Feng Jianmei and forced her to have a lethal injection into the fetus she was carrying to induce a late-term abortion.

Her story shocked not only China but the world when a picture of the 23 year old was published with a blood-soaked fetus lying beside her in hospital.

It confirmed that planning officials are still violently enforcing the one-child policy, as Feng was pregnant with what would have been her second daughter but failed to pay the 40,000 RMB ($6,290) fine.

An investigation report confirmed local officials had demanded the 40,000 RMB from Feng's family as a "guarantee deposit", that her Feng's husband Deng Jiyuan said was actually a fine for the second child. The report said the officials had no legal grounds for collecting such "deposits".

The two officials sacked were Jiang Nenghai, chief of the county's family planning bureau and Chen Pengyin, head of Zengjia's township government. Five other officials were given demerits.

However, Deng Jicai, Feng's sister-in-law, wondered why the people who were directly responsible were not punished.

"Jiang is seemingly innocent as he has only just assumed the position," she said, adding that as far as she knew, Jiang was attending another meeting elsewhere at the time and was unaware of the forced abortion.

The other issue is that husband Deng Jiyuan has been missing since Sunday after he was harassed by local officials and thugs because he gave interviews to foreign media about their mistreatment.

His sister said the trouble started when he planned to go to Beijing for a TV and online video interview about the abortion. He was watched, followed and even beaten when he tried several times to leave for the capital. Four or five men even followed him to the toilet.

"They followed us and said they would take us by car wherever we want to go," she said. "We felt like prisoners."

The harassment got worse when the family was interviewed by German weekly magazine Stern on Friday.

On Sunday, some 40 men and women arrived at the hospital and carried two banners that read, "Beat the traitors soundly and expel them from Zengjia township".

"They shouted and shouted, saying we were ungrateful and traitors since the government had promised to solve this matter but we still talked to foreign media," the sister continued. "My cousin, who took pictures of them, was injured, with bruises and scratches all over his body."

Officially the Chinese government is proud of its one-child policy, claiming it has prevented hundreds of millions of people from further populating the earth, doing its part for the world in terms of using resources.

But at the price of physically and psychologically harming women and their families, all because they want to have another child.

And then the social and economic impacts are now being felt with the first generation of little emperors and empresses all grown up and self absorbed, demanding more and unable to accept failure because of their coddled upbringing, not to mention their materialistic attitudes.

The one-child policy has also led to not enough people replacing the senior population, and so there is only one child to look after six people -- four grandparents and two parents.

And need we mention the massively skewered gender ratio that has way more men than women, resulting in lots of young men with lots of testosterone and no where to channel it?

The one-child policy is seriously flawed and needs to be changed.

Officials in the family planning department -- a euphemism for enforcing the one-child policy -- believe they are doing their job when they successfully coerce people into having abortions. If their population numbers rise too much, they are punished, hence the heavy-handed tactics.

This method of controlling the country's population is a violation of human rights.

The most interesting aspect of this case is the complete silence from top leaders President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

The fact that they have said nothing on this case reflects their stance on the one-child policy and that there will be no changes in the immediate future.

Meanwhile what is perhaps even more infuriating is that the two sacked officials will eventually surface somewhere again in the near future.

No one has learned their lesson.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Shanghai Metro Gets a Dressing Down

The picture posted on Shanghai Metro's weibo
When a woman gets into a packed subway train, she has a high chance of being inappropriately touched or photographed during her ride.

This is particularly the case in Asia, such as Japan, Hong Kong and China, where some perverts or ham sup lo as we say in Cantonese, do anything to look up a woman's skirt, down her blouse or even touch her breasts.

A few months ago a guy in Hong Kong was caught with a crazy mirror like contraption strapped to his shoe that took pictures up women's skirts. The lengths some people go for kicks.

And now the Shanghai Metro is warning female passengers to "have self-respect" and not wear revealing clothing, particularly now in the summer heat. On its microblog post, the transport agency claimed sexy clothing would provoke sexual harassment.

The post included a picture of a young woman wearing a sheer black dress standing on the subway platform. "Dressing like that, it would be unusual for a lady not to be harassed," it said. "There can be perverts on the subway and it's hard to get rid of them. Please have self respect, ladies."

The Shanghai Metro thought this public service announcement would be received with thanks for its thoughtfulness.

But instead the reaction was the exact opposite.

"What I wear is my basic right, it does not deny the rights of others," wrote a blogger known as SOY-BEAN-E.

A burqa-like reaction to the subway's warning
University of Macau postgraduate student Li Sipan wrote in Shanghai's Dongfang Daily yesterday that female internet users reacted negatively to the post because women felt repressed by society about what was proper to wear in public spaces. "Women demand a public space with no censorship and respect for their body's sovereignty."

While Li comes from the only child and "me generation", young people in China are more eager to express themselves and fashion was one outlet they didn't want regulated.

Others reacted by dressing up in a burqa-like outfit to be photographed in the subway train, poking fun at the admonition of tempting perverts.

Shanghai University sociology professor Gu Jun said the subway's dress code suggestion could be seen as a war of the sexes.

"Men see women's sexy way of dress as an expansion of women's rights in public spaces, and they feel threatened," Gu said.

What's interesting is that some 70 percent of the nearly 17,000 respondents on a Sina weibo online poll yesterday said that women should dress more conservatively on the subway and that the dress code had nothing to do with discrimination.

Were most of the survey takers men?

One microblogger named bingqing_8962 asked, "If you don't respect yourself, how can you ask others to respect you?"

First of all, just because someone is provocatively dressed doesn't mean they don't have self respect.

Secondly, there are some young women who have no clue what is proper dress, or realize that they are inviting sexual harassment wearing skirts that barely cover their bottoms, or see-through blouses and plunging necklines. So there is some need for fashion education, but also that others should accept what people are wearing as self expression.

Here in Hong Kong we have some student interns in the office for the summer and some of the young women are inviting stares because of their state of dress. Obviously no one has told them what the dress code is in the office and are wearing things to hang out with friends or go clubbing.

We just need a some more education and we'll all be one harmonious society again.

So button up!

Monday, 25 June 2012

Is 2012 the Summer of Discontent?

President Hu Jintao's tie always matches the flag
Chinese President Hu Jintao will be coming to Hong Kong this Friday to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the handover.

But instead of being greeted with cheers, he'll probably see (or his minders will make sure he doesn't see) the jeers from the public.

Many Hong Kong people are annoyed at how much Beijing has interfered in the city's affairs despite the promise of "one country, two systems".

As time goes by there seems to be growing interference, most of it unwanted. Part of it also are Hong Kong's leaders second guessing themselves and preferring to please their bosses than think long term about what's best for the city.

In any event Hu is probably hoping his announcement of many initiatives to boost the special administrative region's economy will quell the anger, but money doesn't necessarily appease people these days.

Most recently they are upset at how Chinese officials have handled or rather mishandled the Li Wangyang incident, where the Tiananmen Square activist was found dead in his hospital apparently from hanging but this was impossible as Li was practically blind and deaf and his hands were shaky from his mistreatment in prison.

So how to voice discontent to Hu on July 1? The annual protest rally is planning to start from Victoria Park at 3pm and walk over to the new government complex in Tamar.

The event, organized by the Civil Human Rights Front expects at least 50,000 people to participate in the march, but is hoping for more than 218,000 at last year's rally.

This is could happen with the various grievances people have, from Li, to rising property prices, poor environmental protection and now Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying's illegal structures in his home on the Peak.

The possibly large turnout will not be something Hu will be pleased to see; it will probably scare him to see how out of touch the Hong Kong government is and the massive gap between the rich and the poor.

But then again, Hu will be relinquishing power in a few months anyway.

So what's it to him anyway? He can leave it to Xi Jinping to deal with.

The beauty of politics.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Paper Blues

Cardboard is now worth less... so is it still worth it to recycle?
Although the Euro crisis is on the other side of the world, it's already affecting the elderly men and women in Hong Kong who try to scrape a living collecting cardboard boxes and papers for recycling.

These scavengers used to earn HK$1 per kilogram of cardboard, but nowadays only get 70 cents per kg.

That's because analysts are projecting a subdued pre-Christmas peak season from July, which affects the demand of key users of recycled packaging like toy and electronics manufacturers.

As a result, people like Mrs Lau in her 50s who supplements her income as a janitor, can now only make about HK$20 a day collecting cardboard in places like Lan Kwai Fong in Central.

Hong Kong and Europe -- the UK and the Netherlands in particular -- are the biggest exporters of cardboard to China. However mainland Chinese cardboard manufacturers are reporting lower demands than expected for this coming Christmas, according to Steve Emington of letsrecycle.com.

"Chinese cardboard mills and box makers have good stocks of finished product so will not be buying as much used cardboard from Britain," he says.

"There are hopes that the market for used cardboard will start to stabilize, although it may fall below HK$968 a tonne in July, with some expectation that it could level off at around HK$907 for some time."

Waste-paper merchant Yong Xiaofang owns Fat Kee Environment Recycle Company in Hong Kong. She said she used to get 10 tonnes of cardboard and newspapers per day from collectors, but now only receives about 6 tonnes.

"A lot of the elderly who sell us cardboard were very angry that we don't pay as much now," Yong said. "They yelled at me and thought I was cheating them, until they learned from the news that it's the economy -- not us -- that decides this price."

And to make an extra dollar or two, some of the people sprayed water on the cardboard to make it heavier.

Just as we are having a protracted discussion about how the Hong Kong government should be doing more to encourage recycling in the city, now it's hardly financially feasible to do it.

The environmental movement is stalled yet again.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Questionable Integrity

With a week to go before he becomes the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying is facing calls for his resignation when it was discovered he had six illegal structures in his home on the Peak.

He claimed they were existing when he bought the house in 2000, but his credibility is questioned as his former opponent Henry Tang Ying-yen was derided for his illegal basement in his home in Kowloon Tong.

Leung apologized for the second day in a row and last night even took reporters around his house to show them what the Buildings Department had deemed as illegal structures. They included a 240-square-foot basement that was there when Leung bought it, a covered parking space and 40-ft one-storey structure.

"I am responsible for the mistakes -- which stem from negligence when I bought the house -- and I will settle the issue as soon as possible," he said. Apparently work will start Monday as today is a public holiday.

What's even more strange is that Leung claimed to have hired professionals to inspect his property for illegal structures, so either they are incompetent or he is not telling the truth.

The pan-democrats are calling for Leung to resign, saying his integrity was "bankrupted". Albert Ho Chun-yan, the pan-democratic candidate who was defeated in the March vote for CE is considering filing an election petition. Ho's Democratic Party has already filed a complaint with the Independent Commission Against Corruption alleging Leung made false statements, possibly breaching election laws.

This issue is seriously creating a potential constitutional crisis that is making people further doubt Leung's already tattered credibility.

What is hard to understand is why the Buildings Department is so weak in not cracking down on illegal structures in the first place. Do building owners, architects and contractors submit different floor plans to this government bureau and no proper on-site inspection takes place during and after construction? Or does the Buildings Department not care about enforcing the rules?

Does this mean every other residential building has illegal structures, or does it only pertain to the rich? Why are people allowed to buy homes with existing illegal structures?

There are too many questions, but perhaps not enough time to answer all of them before Leung takes office a week from now.

It's another reason for people to get out on the streets on the same day and protest and his illegal structures on the Peak will be added to the already long list of grievances. Is this going to be a repeat of July 1, 2003 when some half a million people came out on the streets to protest?

We shall see.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Apparent Confession

Japanese paper Asahi Shimbun is reporting that according to Chinese Communist Party sources, disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai's wife Gu Kailai has allegedly confessed to killing Briton Neil Heywood.

She apparently told investigators she killed him to avoid him from revealing the illegal remittances of billions of dollars overseas that he helped her funnel out of the country.

The 53-year-old lawyer claimed she felt "driven into a corner" by the investigation into her financial dealings and allegedly gave specific details on how Heywood was killed.

It is believed Gu was receiving undeclared income from the early 1990s and that she transferred some $6 billion to accounts in the names of relatives, and acquaintances in the United States, UK and elsewhere. It is believed Heywood helped her set up these accounts and funnel the money into them.

She also apparently admitted to taking bribes, telling investigators she received cash from numerous companies because she was the wife of Bo.

In other news, Cambodia has caught another foreigner who has been linked to the scandal, French architect Patrick Devillers. It is believed he also helped Gu with the remittances.

While China and France have asked Cambodia to extradite Devillers, Cambodia will not extradite him to neither country.

We shall see if Asahi Shimbun's report is correct in the next few months...

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Picture of the Day: Paper Bags

Gucci's top handle bag... in paper
I walked past this Gucci store at the Landmark today and there was something new in the shop windows.

The coveted stylish handbags were there -- but made for giants -- out of paper.

But not just any paper -- recycled paper.

On the window it says "Recycled Paper" in Chinese, English and Japanese to prevent environmentalists from shrieking in horror when they see this latest artistic creation.

The recycled paper version of the stirrup top handle bag
What's also interesting is that around the corner at Louis Vuitton, those window displays also use paper to make a series of men's shirts that are folded up, while in another smaller window there are a bunch of "flowers" made of paper. Mind you, there is no clarification about what kind of paper is used.

Are window dressers now jumping on the paper bandwagon? Or have they all caught the origami bug?

In any event it's refreshing to see the creative use of paper. And yes, recycled paper gets extra brownie points.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Growing Local Patriotism

Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, director of the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme is going to get into trouble with mainland officials again.

His latest survey finds Hong Kongers' mistrust of the central government is at its highest level since May 1997.

Of 1,003 respondents, 37 percent -- up 3 percent from March -- distrusted Beijing, compared with 44 percent in May 1997.

The rise, explained Dixon Sing Ming, a political scientist at the University of Science and Technology, said "the rein on human rights has tightened since the ending of the Chinese Olympics" and "the issue of [the treatment of dissident] Liu Xiaobo, echoed by other cases, has created intense disappointment and worry among Hong Kong people."

Chung said the high level of mistrust was "probably due to the incidents of [disgraced Chongqing party boss] Bo Xilai, [blind activist] Chen Guangcheng and [the recent suspicious death of Tiananmen activist] Li Wangyang".

"The case of Bo also shows that the China model is unhealthy, given the risk of corruption and political instability had Bo become a top leader," Sing said. "The results show Hong Kong people have an impression that the Communist Party is intolerant of dissent and is willing to resort to high-handed repression [to silence its critics]. The intolerance and repression are a world apart from Hong Kong people's core values."

In addition the survey also found 53 percent of respondents were confident in the future of Hong Kong, compared to 58 percent in March.

We're now taking cover to avoid being in the crossfire when Hao Tiechuan of the Central Liaison Office responds to these latest findings. Last December he blasted Chung for his survey as being "unscientific" and "illogical" because the professor's survey found locals' sense of being "Hong Kong people" was at a 10-year high.

And now with the 15th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong days away, we're not surprised to see people connecting their identity to the city even more.

With Cantonese and traditional characters under attack, residents treated as second-class citizens in its own shops and restaurants, Hong Kong people want to take back their city.

Wonder what Hao has to say to that.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

HK's Income Gap Widens Further

Tackling povery in Hong Kong is a stormy issue
The gap between the rich and the poor in Hong Kong is getting steadily worse.

The Gini coefficient -- a complicated calculation that results in a number between 0 and 1, and the closer to 1, the greater the income inequality.

Based on income data from 2011, the latest calculation is that Hong Kong is at 0.537. It was 0.533 five years ago, and 0.451 in 1981.

Hong Kong's number is among the highest among developed countries, as Singapore is 0.482 and 0.469 in the United States.

This is more ammunition for poverty advocates to argue that despite economic development, the government has not done enough to alleviate financial issues among the poor.

Meanwhile officials are warning income disparity will get worse in the next few years with an increasing aging population that removes more people from the workforce.

According to the Census and Statistics Department, the number of "economically inactive households", families where no one is working, increased by 48 percent from 280,000 to 420,000.

The Census department also showed that the median monthly income for the city's poorest 10 percent, including those who received social security assistance, dropped from HK$2,250 ($290) per month to HK$2,070 in the past five years, while those in the top 10 percent made HK$95,000 compared to HK$76,250 five years ago.

Commissioner for Census and Statistics LIly Ou-yang said yesterday the legislation of minimum wage laws and economic growth had helped low-wage earners, but also helped the wealthy as well so the wage gap did not close much if at all.

Also chief executive of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service Christine Fang Meng-sang said the government should no longer assume economic growth could improve the living standards of the poor.

Poverty advocates have estimated more than 1 million people in Hong Kong live in poverty, though strangely the government does not have an official definition. Does this mean it doesn't even recognize they exist?

Hopefully incoming Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will finally address the problem properly. On Sunday he said a preparation committee for an anti-poverty commission would be revived in order to set out policies to help this sector of people who badly need assistance.

There are families who live on about HK$100 a day which seems virtually impossible, but true.

Chan Yik-ping has a family of four who depend on her husband's waiter salary of HK$8,000 a month. One quarter of it is spent on rent for a small cubicle in a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po, and then milk forumula and diapers for a new baby cost HK$2,000.

"I just took the baby to see a doctor today. It cost HK$100 and it's already the cheapest in town," Chan said. "It's nearly impossible for four people to live off just HK$8,000."

The family applied for public housing four years ago and have yet to hear if they can move to a bigger living space.

"My biggest wish is to be assigned a flat in a public estate soon. The children are growing up and it's getting more crowded here. My older son [who is 12 years old] has always wanted his own room, and I feel sorry that I haven't been able to give him that."

It's amazing these people manage to survive in this expensive city.

We hope Leung will enact some long-term policies that will really give these people the help they need.

A real concerted effort to tackle poverty is not a quick fix but a long road ahead.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Talk is Cheap

One of the financial institutions I bank with here always lures me in for a chat whenever I go to a bank teller.

And because I usually use the ATM or online banking, I forget they like to drag me in and discuss my financial goals for the next 10 years when I'd only planned to be in the bank for five minutes.

The bank teller suggests that I should be looking at investment options and her colleague could give me some information about it.

This past Saturday I said sure, but warned I was in a hurry. "It will only take 10 minutes," she said.

Wrong.

A young sharp-looking man in a suit led me to his office and then I quickly realized this was not going to take 10 minutes and nor was it just passing some brochures to me.

He looked up my banking information and said that since my cash was not making any interest in the bank, why not invest it?

And then I retorted that I'd already invested with them before and was not happy with the returns which is why I'd cashed out over a year ago.

He seemed completely unfazed by what I'd said and went on to suggest that I park my investments in mutual funds where a big percentage of the companies invested were from China.

I said I wasn't interested because the country's economy was slowing down, but he tried to reassure me by saying the government was controlling the economy and purposely putting the brakes on.

But I replied that China had a serious problem of overcapacity and countries like Europe and the United States weren't buying the overproduction so things were just going to get worse.

What was really interesting was how unflappable this guy was in trying to sell me investment products I didn't believe in at all.

He just kept trying with the next one and the next. Even a minimum of $1,000 was enough to start investing.

But in this economy I have no appetite for that and just want to see how things go first.

After I'd given him more than 10 minutes I pleaded I was in a hurry and managed to flee his office.

So while we see how things go with the euro, please remind me stay away from the bank teller at "The world's local bank"?

Sunday, 17 June 2012

An Optically Shrewd Move

Ever since he was elected, there's been a lot of scrutiny over Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying's stance on political issues as there are concerns he's a card-carrying Communist.

Pan-democratic lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China has been on Leung's case for the last several weeks in particular. Lee criticized Leung for not attending the annual June 4 candlelight vigil at Victoria Park or for not saying anything about the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

And last week a protest march 25,000 strong demanded Leung directly press Beijing to investigate activist Li Wangyang's suspicious death on June 6, but he only said: "I believe the central government would be aware of Hong Konger's view on this issue."

However Leung shut his critics up yesterday when he observed a minute's silence to mourn Li at a policy forum organized by the Neighbourhood and Workers' Service Centre in Kwai Fong.

Organizers only told him about the mourning ceremony only minutes before he was to take the stage. At that point there was no way for Leung to back out or say anything and so he rose with other audience members and bowed his head. He did not make any comments on Li during the forum.

Political observers say this was a smart move on Leung's part to assuage public concerns in the run-up to the 15th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China and President Hu Jintao will mark the occasion with a visit to the special administrative region.

People are looking too deeply into Leung's actions and words when it comes to politically sensitive issues like these.

We all know he is walking a very fine line: Beijing is his boss and he doesn't want to be seen doing or saying anything that will anger China. At the same time he needs to be aware of Hong Kong people's expectations of him in how he reacts to issues important to them.

Leung is not going to say things that go against Beijing, so stop bugging him about it; there is no point in visiting these concerns.

Why not focus more on what he can speak about -- Hong Kong issues.

I'm not defending Leung, but I'd rather we channel our energy and efforts into areas where we can get some results.

After this event, it will be interesting to see if other pro-democracy groups inviting Leung to events will try to pull a fast one on him like this one yesterday where he had no choice but to go along, or will his office demand that it be given a detailed rundown of the schedule otherwise he will not attend?

We shall see.

In the meantime let's leave the man alone to play his cards. Unlike outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Leung is no coward.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Why Demolish Our History?


The Hong Kong government has its own West Wing, and it has decided to demolish it.

It's located on Queen's Road Central where it intersects Ice House Street and extends all along Lower Albert Road.

While it may seem like a non-descript low-rise building, it has a lot of historical and architectural significance.

Built in 1959, the West Wing was built with very good materials and is still structurally sound. I watched a TV program a few months ago where an architectural historian praised the building for its design, with clean lines and that it was well built, that it would be a pity to see it knocked down.

After that there was some public momentum protesting that the city needed to retain more of its heritage. They also worry the huge old trees will be cut down during redevelopment.

However, the government has deemed the East and Central wings, which have higher a heritage value will be kept for use by the Department of Justice.

The West Wing will be knocked down to make way for a 26-floor office building and a 7,600 square metre leisure area accessible to the public. The government will retain ownership of the new building while a private developer would build it and then operate it for a certain period of time before returning it.

But protestors feel this is not fair -- as taxpayers, they own these government buildings and believe they have a say in how these buildings should be used -- and leaving them as is or restoring them for other use is what they have in mind.

Why is the government so intent in knocking down our own history?

And how could the Antiquities Advisory Board justify only giving the West Wing a two heritage rating out of a three-grade scale, while the Central and East wings have a one heritage rating each? They were all built around the same time.

It just shows how pathetic the government is when it comes to preserving heritage sites. Retaining the existing building and re-purposing it for the public is the best way to use the space.

But no -- it is only thinking in the short term of trying to put more coffers in its already full treasury.

Just like the issue with air quality in Hong Kong -- the government refuses to acknowledge the right solution and the long-term benefits.

The real issue is -- when will it listen to us?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Picture of the Day: View From the Top

I just got back from the opening of View 62 by Paco Roncero, which is in the revolving restaurant space in Hopewell Centre.

It's Hong Kong's only revolving restaurant now and it has an amazing 360-degree view of the city.

But getting up there involves taking a series of elevators to the 62nd floor and one of them is a glass elevator from the 17th to 52nd floor.

This is the view of Wan Chai and beyond at just about the 50th floor.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Triumph of Quiet Determination

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
We are so thrilled Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has arrived in Europe, her second trip abroad, but probably her most important to date.

She is now in Switzerland and will later go to the UK, France, Ireland and Norway, where she will finally make her speech for receiving the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

This is Suu Kyi's first visit to Europe in 22 years since being under house arrest for 15 of them.

What is interesting to ponder is how she is reacting to all the changes around her. For over two decades she was isolated from the rest of the world and now she is pretty much free to move around in it.

When she was under house arrest, the internet was just starting to become big, iPhones and iPads, MP3s, DVDs, hybrid cars, as well as new buildings and extensive political developments.

Her Nobel prize speech will be highly anticipated since it was her elder son Alexander who gave the speech 21 years ago.

In his acceptance speech he said:

"I know that if she were free today my mother would, in thanking you, also ask you to pray that the oppressors and the oppressed should throw down their weapons and join together to build a nation founded on humanity in the spirit of peace."

Who knew she would actually be able to physically leave Burma and give a speech?

The power of the human will knows no bounds. When it has decided its path, it cannot be shackled nor can it be tortured to submission.

She is the perfect example of quiet persistence, peace and inner strength.

Her ability to leave the country without repercussions symbolizes the triumph of humanity despite suffering through adversity.

Suu Kyi is proof that miracles can happen.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Hiring Private Eyes to Spy on Kids

You know things are bad when parents don't communicate with their children about serious social issues like alcohol, drugs and sex, and resort to hiring private detectives to spy on their kids.

That's what's happening in Hong Kong these days with moms and dads who are suspicious of their children who may be involved in drugs or trading sexual favours for money.

Global Investigation and Security Consultancy's Philic Man says she more often than not has the evidence some young people are up to no good.

Last year her company handled 298 investigations into children, a 68 percent jump from the 177 cases in 2010.

In 155 of last year's cases, the kids were confirmed to be involved in compensated dating (basically arranged prostitution), a rise of 121 percent.

Another 120 cases involved drugs, up 34 percent.

Only 23 of the cases turned out to be false alarms.

From April to December last year, police arrested 43 young people involved in compensated dating, but the number has dropped to four in the first five months of this year. Meanwhile the Central Registry of Drug Abuse reported 2,006 drug abusers under the age of 21 last year, a drop from 2,811 in 2010.

"Children are more careful now... they carry out these activities at home or in a rented room. So they become more 'invisible' and its harder for police to catch them," Man said.

She said most clients were anxious parents who had problems communicating with their children.

"We are not social workers or those who fight on paper only," she said. "We stalk, monitor and install devices to look after their children, to prevent them from straying."

Man helped a middle-class couple bust their 16-year-old daughter, a student at an international school, who took drugs at a yacht party.

The detective also found twin 13-year-old sisters from a low-income family involved in compensated dating last summer.

In most cases, Man says, the children did not know they were being spied on and many will never know how they were caught. Man suggests to her clients that they not disclose the evidence to their children and instead seek help from social workers or psychologists who also work in her company. In more serious drug abuse cases, she refers them to rehabilitation centres.

With summer coming up, Man expects to be busier with young people with more time on their hands to party.

Meanwhile social worker Lam Yeung-chu of the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention doesn't think parents hiring private detectives is a good idea as it could damage the relationship between parents and children if they ever found out.

"Before they hired detectives, parents should look back and think if there is anything they can do to improve themselves. It is always a bilateral problem," she said.

To some degree this new development is not surprising as most parents are busy working full time and develop guilt complexes of not spending enough time with their children and try to compensate through money or material goods. Others have no idea how to develop good communication channels with their children and resort stiff punishment without any kind of productive discussion.

At the same time parents here are caught in the trap of having to work harder and longer hours just to provide for their children and so they cannot be there for their offspring all the time.

And so private detectives like Man are going to continue to be busy, for the most part confirming parents' worst fears for a while yet.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Students' Chinese Skills Are Falling

Hong Kong students must learn to write characters properly
It's not surprising to find youngsters in Hong Kong cannot write Chinese characters anymore now that they depend on texting on computers and mobile phones.

The decline has led educators to observe students are unwilling to make an effort to write out complex characters or compose proper sentences.

Karen Li Oi-wan, who has taught Chinese at secondary schools for 25 years has noticed pupils are getting lazier about writing Chinese characters. Instead they create ones that look similar -- which she says is a sign of declining language skills in recent decades.

"Unlike in the 1980s, it is common to find wrong characters in students' writing today," Li said. "They even get common characters wrong... for homework, they also ask to type it out on the computer rather than write it out."

Li's comments reflect the results of the now defunct Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination -- that was replaced this year with the Diploma of Secondary Education -- which shows the results in Chinese language are getting worse.

Last year, just 30.2 percent of candidates earned at least level 3, the rough equivalent to a C grade in the exam, down from 42 percent in 2009 and 38.1 percent in 2010.

Students must reach level 2 standards to qualify for the last two years of high school.

There are fewer candidates who are getting the highest scores, or level 5*. The percentage fell from 1.8 percent of students in 2010 to just 0.4 percent last year.

Those who reached level 5 fell from 5.2 percent to 1.3 percent, and for level 4, the number fell from 17.9 percent to 8.5 percent.

However, there was no significant drop in English language, with 40.1 percent passing level 3 or higher, the same as in 2009 and up from 38.9 percent in 2010.

Form Three pupil Phoebe Choi admitted her Chinese was poor and explained she and her peers don't have much motivation to write Chinese characters properly.

She said that when they communicated on social networking sites like Facebook, they used their own self-invented language or code.

"Sometimes it is difficult to decipher the codes, but everyone is using them, and you feel like an outcast if you don't follow," Choi explained.

"Technology has had a very big impact on me. There are so many characters I don't know and I am put off by Chinese books," she said.

Nevertheless, when compared with mainland Chinese students who also have the same gadgets, their Chinese standards are still high as learning classic literary texts is compulsory in school.

Essays dating back to the Han and Ming dynasties are part of the curriculum for mainland secondary schools. The National College Entrance Examination or gaokao also tests students on their knowledge of the subject. Students are also not allowed to type assignments on a computer.

Ho Miu-ling, a former Chinese teacher in Hong Kong said the problem with the city's students is that they are taught the language the same way English -- as a second language, rather than making it a priority.

Why is the Hong Kong education system coddling students when it comes to learning Chinese, in particular Cantonese?

We must be working harder to preserve the language as much as possible -- and that starts in the classroom.

In the meantime students must be taught by their parents and teachers the importance of learning Chinese properly and how it affects our culture -- Hong Kong's culture, its identity and its people.

No wonder people believe Cantonese is disappearing and it's our fault.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The New Must-Buy in HK

Perhaps the most hilarious news of the week is that mainlanders are coming to Hong Kong not to just to buy Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags, powdered milk and Apple gadgets, but to stock up on... Yakult.

It's a Japanese probiotic milk drink that has a strain of the bacterium lactobacillus casei that apparently aids in digestion.

But the drink has so much sugar -- 18g for every 100g, but the beverage is packaged in 65ml bottles. Soft drinks and orange juice have about 10g for ever 100g, but are in much larger bottles.

The reason why mainlanders are coming to the Fragrant Harbour for this drink?

There was a rumour that drinking Yakult could enlarge breasts, whiten skin and even cure cancer.

And because they don't trust the products within their own country, mainlanders have been coming here and buying Yakult by the caseload.

However with a dose of skepticism, one would realize those rumours were false.

We like the one about enlarging breasts, but surely drinking too much Yakult would actually lead to diabetes at least with so much sugar in it?

This is what happens when 1.3 billion people do not have critical thinking skills...

Remembering A Fighter

Protestors march on the street to remember Li Wangyang
This afternoon there was a protest march in Hong Kong mourning the death of activist Li Wangyang who died in suspicious circumstances earlier this week.

In the front of the procession were two men carrying a wooden pole each and hitting it on the ground every few paces, while most of the mourners wore white and even wore a white bandage around their eyes, perhaps signifying the flimsy bandage that was found around his neck that was tied to the window sill, as the authorities claim he died by suicide.

And now there's even more outrage that his body has already been cremated and the marchers demanded an inquiry and that incoming Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying press Beijing for answers.

Li's friends insist his family did not consent to the cremation and a legal expert has said that if anyone destroys a body without consent could face imprisonment.

This also comes a day before the autopsy that the family also did not agree to.

Leading the procession with wood planks
"Can we say no if the government orders us to [create Li's body]?" the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy quoted an unnamed member of staff at a funeral parlour in Shaoyang as saying.

A worker at the funeral parlour told a Hong Kong media outlet that Li's sister and brother-in-law had consented to the cremation, but friends of the 62-year-old say they have seen no evidence from the authorities of his family's approval.

The handling of this entire incident is absolutely shameful.

For a start Li did not have to die.

He was already physically destroyed from his 21 years in jail and only last year had been released. He was practically blind and deaf, his hands were shaking and he'd lost a number of teeth.

Li also had a number of ailments so why not leave the man alone and let him live in peace?

Instead he dies in suspicious circumstances -- supposedly from hanging -- except both his feet were on the ground.

There was no opportunity for an independent investigation nor autopsy. And now all the evidence is gone.

Thankfully Hong Kong Cable TV interviewed him a week ago in this video, showing a still spirited Li, who despite his physical obstacles was still passionate about his cause and did not regret his decisions and actions that landed him in jail.

This is how we should remember him.

But how will we ever find justice for Li?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Poking Fun at Travel

Last night my friend YTSL got tickets for us to see the Hong Kong Singers perform a show at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre near where I live.

Even though I've lived in the area for almost two years I have never been in the civic centre before! How embarrassing. But it's got many resources in terms of box offices, online ticketing and lots of brochures for arts events happening around the city.

The Hong Kong Singers have been around for almost 75 years which is an amazing feat in itself. Apart from no performances during the Sino-Japanese war, the theatrical group has been putting on a number of musicals.

The one we saw last night was called Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, inspired by Wendy Perrin's book of the same name published by Fodor's.

We already knew we were going to have a fun evening when some of the actors dressed up as flight attendants and instructed audience members to put their bags under their seats and fasten their seat belts. Some people were surly and demanded their bag of nuts, while another asked for a blanket.

The male flight attendant responded by going to her seat and promptly sitting on her lap, telling her to hug him tight and let the warmth envelop her.

Then another guy shouted he needed a blanket too and the flight attendant replied, "I'll get back to you later," with a wink.

The two-hour show was a series of scenarios mostly sung or acted out with musical accompaniment from a keyboardist and base with some audio special effects.

For example one on-going skit was a guy on the phone trying to get through the airline's phone directory system to book a flight and we could easily related to his frustrations.

Another sang about losing his luggage, or all the extra charges when renting a car from Hertz.

We particularly liked "Private Wives" where a divorced couple meet on their respective honeymoons.

They are surprised to bump into each other and they drink to each other's marital bliss.

The ex-husband claims he is still attracted to his former mate, but she will have nothing to do with him and her comments start getting more sarcastic.

She reveals she's had three husbands since him and when she asks her ex to describe his bride, he replies, "Tall dark and handsome".

It turns out he has married a man.

Another hilarious song called "Acapulco" had a hippie-ish woman describing the wonderful time she had with in the Mexican city, particularly with her guide, even acting out the sing-song version of the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally.

Some of the singers were stronger than others, but overall it was a well thought-out show. The bare stage was not important -- putting the onus more on the cast to give solid performances. We had a fun evening with lots of laughs and impressed by the local talent in the city.

Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know
June 6-10
Hong Kong Repertory Black Box Theatre
8/F, Sheung Wan Civic Centre
345 Queen's Road Central
Sheung Wan
www.hksingers.com





Friday, 8 June 2012

Making Evidence Disappear

Now it seems, things in Dongshigu village in northeast Shandong province are back to normal.

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng's hometown isn't the prison it used to be -- because local authorities have destroyed all signs of any kind of containment due to an upcoming investigation, including the "black houses" where Chen's supporters were detained and beaten.

"Not a shred of evidence is left after they've destroyed everything at the scene. Everything has been moved," Chen Guangfu said. "The two guard posts that were built specially for putting Guangcheng under house imprisonment at the entrance of the village," he said. "For the past two years, countless netizens endured violent beatings in these houses."

Instead of rings of thugs encircling the village, people can now move freely in and out after the two men's families were barred from leaving for years. The local authorities had encircled Guangcheng's home with walls, cameras and guards that apparently cost more than 30 million RMB ($4.7 million) a year.

But now all this evidence is gone as Chen had asked Premier Wen Jiabao in a video message to investigate local authorities who kept him a prisoner in his own home for two years after he was released from prison.

And so now when investigators come to Dongshigu village to see what is going on, they will see no signs of any kind of intimidation or incarceration, or surveillance.

They will write that nothing happened and all these allegations are false.

After they leave, the walls, guards and cameras will come back out again since they have so much money to spend.

So much for Chen trying to paint local authorities into a corner -- they have tricked him again.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Suspicious Demise

Li Wangyang (left) with his friends who visited him in Shaoyang
Only days after the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, one of its pro-democracy leaders is dead.

Li Wangyang was serving a prison sentence when his sister and brother-in-law discovered he was dead in his hospital ward in Hunan province on Wednesday.

The 62-year-old was supposedly under 24-hour police surveillance when the two relatives found Li hung from a ward windowsill by a bandage wrapped around his neck, with both feet on the ground.

It all sounds very suspicious because they were told the death was by suicide and on top of that the couple have been taken away by police.

Meanwhile the body has also been taken away without the family's permission and detained the relatives in a hotel.

According to New York-based Human Rights in China, Li had been sentenced to 13 years in prison for "counter-revolutionary" crimes for organizing workers in Shaoyang into an autonomous union during the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

Li served 11 years and then was released, but then was given another 10 years in jail in 2001 for "inciting subversion" after he tried to sue the authorities over his mistreatment in prison that nearly left him blind, deaf and numerous other health problems.

A local activist named Huang Lihong said after Li's death was discovered, more than 40 police descended on the hospital and took his body away, making it impossible for his family to determine the exact cause of death.

Huang said she too was escorted by police from the hospital and told to stay at home.

Only the day before his brother-in-law, Zhao Baozhu said he'd see Li.

"Last evening we were together, Li Wangyang did not show any signs of suicide; it is strange," he told AFP. "Li Wangyang is a man with a strong mind and strong spirit."

Days before June 4, Li had said in a television interview that he never regretted his fight for justice.

"The souls of the martyrs deserve to finally find some peace," said Li, referring to those who lost their lives in the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Meanwhile Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in China said Li died "unusually".

"We cannot rule out that security guards monitoring him tortured him to death and faked a suicide," the centre said in a statement.

Outrage is the only way to describe our reaction to Li's mistreatment not only in prison, but also his suspicious death.

The local authorities think they can punish with impunity which is the height of arrogance.

If China wants the world to see its people are governed by rule of law, then Li would still be alive and well.

In the meantime we will make sure Li did not die in vain.

Beijing has created another martyr who joins the many others fighting for justice. They will continue to haunt Zhongnanhai as long as it takes.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Greed Changes Hong Kong

Hong Kong landlords continue to be greedy -- to the point of evil.

The latest story is a 72-year-old sock seller who is now back on the streets hawking her wares because she can't pay the rent anymore.

Au Yuk-ho used to lease a 250-square-feet store in Causeway Bay for HK$70,000 ($9,022) a month but the landlord doubled the rent to HK$150,000.

She's only selling socks and nylons! Pretty impressive that Au, nicknamed Yuk Jie or Sister Yuk, could pay the rent and have enough left over to raise a family of five children.

Even more amazing is that even though she has resorted to selling her socks on the street, she bears no grudges.

"I won't go hiding at home, sobbing and complaining about cruel reality," she said. "I have cast away my dignity, but I won't give up."

Luckily Yuk Jie has a strong loyal customer base even though she's very blunt and doesn't even allow customers to finger the merchandise.

"I was nasty, some said, but they should know I was the owner and sales lady all in one," she said. Anyway, despite this, they still return."

Meanwhile, the owner of Leighton Bakery, known for its egg tarts and fried egg with ham buns, will be closing the shop at the end of June after 40 years.

Unlike Au, Lam Shek-yam owned the 400-square-foot store and sold it for HK$140 million, making a healthy profit as he bought it for HK$13 million in 1996.

"My wife, my daughters, my 10 staff and I need a good rest starting from next month," said Lam. He has brewed milk tea 362 days each year.

"The only thing I will miss is my customers, some of whom regularly buy up to a dozen egg tarts in an afternoon."

Lam got into the business when he was just 12 years old and neither of his two daughters in their 30s want to continue working at the shop.

Not only is it because it's hard work and long hours, but also because the price of ingredients has increased significantly in the last few years. For example in the last year a 50kg bag of sugar had doubled to HK$250 while the price of flour and lard had also doubled.

Au and Lam are not the only mom and pop shops to close due to insanely jacked-up rents.

Hong Kong is fast losing its unique local flavour only to make way for homogenous chain stores we see on every other street corner.

Is this what we want our city to look like?

But we don't have much choice since we don't "own" Hong Kong.

Nevertheless kudos to Yuk Jie for carrying on her trade.

She's definitely got the Hong Kong can-do spirit.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

China's Air Quality Debate Continues

The US Embassy in Beijing -- where's the monitoring station?
The war of words continues between Beijing and the United States consulate over air quality.

Since 2008, the US embassy has posted air quality readings in the capital on Twitter, stating the PM 2.5 reading and advising if it was safe or not for people to go outdoors. It has more than 19,000 followers.

The postings led to local residents wondering who was correct as there was a big discrepancy between the American and Chinese air quality readings. And only this year did China start releasing its PM or particulate matter readings of less than 2.5 micrometres in size, about 1/30th the width of a human hair.

In the end, this past March, the Xinhua News Agency reported the Chinese government aimed to cut PM 2.5 levels by 15 percent by 2015 compared with 2010 levels.

But will China meet its own targets?

Which is perhaps why it has fired the latest salvo in the air quality debate by telling foreign embassies to stop publishing data on air pollution levels in the country, saying only the Chinese government has the sole authority to do so.

In a briefing today, Wu Xiaoqing, a vice minister of environmental protection said foreign embassies releasing such data were interfering in China's internal affairs. He did not specify the US, but its consulates publish hourly pollution readings in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Wu said the monitoring and publication of data on air quality involves the public's interests and falls under the "authority of the government," Wu said. "We hope that individual consulates in China respect China's relevant laws and regulations and stop publishing the unrepresentative air quality information."

In response, US Embassy spokesperson Richard Buangan said in a statement the readings are "an unofficial resources for the health of the consulate community."

Meanwhile Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin waded into the debate, saying in a briefing in Beijing that embassies can measure air pollution and give the information to their staff, but not broadcast it on the internet.

The US Embassy readings are taken from one monitoring station within the consulate and follows the pollution level rating according to the US Environmental Protection Agency which is more stringent than the Chinese one.

It's quite amusing to see the Chinese government trying to use the "authority" card in this latest round of the air quality debate.

But really, whose readings are people going to believe? China or the US?

Strange Coincidence

An interesting side note to June 4 was that China's censors blocked the term "Shanghai stock market" on weibo or popular microblogs yesterday because the index fell to 64.89 points on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Another bizarre twist is that the Shanghai Composite Index opened at 2346.98 points, which is June 4, 1989 backwards.

Perhaps the Chinese markets are trying to tell us something?

Monday, 4 June 2012

We Remember 23 Years Later

A sea of candles in Victoria Park
I just came back from attending my second Tiananmen candlelight vigil at Victoria Park tonight, marking the 23rd anniversary.

Participants inching their way into the park
My friend and I got there a bit later than last year so there was already a massive crowd trying to get into the park. There was no pushing, but very orderly despite the throngs of people.

We were thinking mainland Chinese who came out of the shopping malls in Causeway Bay might be wondering why there were hordes of people and go follow them to see what all the fuss was about.

Along the way we saw some strange performance art and activists trying to make an extra buck with T-shirts and cloth bags; the new one this year was a tic-tac-toe and the numbers "6" and "4" in various squares.

There were also politicians on the democracy band wagon. First we saw Longhair Leung Kwok-hung appealing to people for donations, and after passing him the next loud voice was People Power activist Wong Yeung-tat, who was recently released from jail for three weeks for civil disobedience. He was sentenced in March for gate-crashing a public forum on a government proposal to scrap Legco by-elections.

Watching some curious performance art along the way
Instead of asking for money, Wong incited the crowd saying "F*** off Leung Chun-ying!" and many eagerly followed his chants. It seemed he was keen to create more trouble again.

We finally made it into Victoria Park and got our requisite candle and paper cone holder and set off to find a spot to sit down. The place quickly filled up and we sat to the right of the stage, but way back.

The event was similar to last year with the same songs, and speeches, but a few different things to the program.

Exiled Tiananmen leader Wang Dan gave a video message and widow Guo Liying, who lost her husband in the crackdown, both saying how thrilled they are that Hong Kong was still commemorating the event and that the fight for vindication of June 4 was still not over 23 years later.

Activist Fang Zheng, who lost both his legs when he was run over by a tank came to Hong Kong for the event from San Francisco.

Fang Zheng was able to attend the event this year, his first
He thanked the crowd for coming and admitted he was at a loss for words of what to say and shed some tears after his speech.

Perhaps most moving was seeing the news footage of Tiananmen at the time, watching the tanks rolling in, people running in all directions, doctors with blood-stained lab coats trying to save people and people carrying bodies in sheets. It was a vivid reminder of the time and why we had all gathered together.

Very heartening was seeing so many young people, many of whom were not even born 23 years ago, eagerly taking part in the event.

While we were glad we went, my friend and I wondered why there weren't more stirring speeches to get the crowd whipped up with emotion. It would have been good to have a short, but emotional speech in English, Cantonese and Mandarin so that everyone was covered.

Participants chant demanding for vindication of June 4
Nevertheless, it was amazing to see so many people stop and reflect -- and vow to never forget those who lost their lives 23 years ago today.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

A Defector in the Evil Empire

The Asia Society is putting on its summer film series featuring several movies and documentaries from around the region.

I watched on this afternoon called Crossing The Line that was released in 2006.

In 1962, an American soldier, James Dresnok was sent to guard the demilitarized zone or DMZ in South Korea, but then crossed the border and became a North Korean citizen.

He told his story for the first time on film recalling why he defected to one of the United States' biggest enemies.

The documentary is narrated by Christian Slater and we soon meet Dresnok, well into his 70s. He's a large man, round face and very straight forward.

We soon learn that he grew up in a family that fell apart -- his mother wanted out of the marriage and took him with her where they basically slept in the car every night.

He returned home to find his father had remarried and Dresnok was not welcome into his father's new family.

The boy ended up in a series of foster homes and didn't quite fit in.

Having dropped out of high school, he looked for another "home" where he would be looked after and joined the army a day after his 17th birthday.

However Dresnok didn't like it too much -- he felt the rules were even stricter than the ones in the foster homes and found it difficult at first.

Nevertheless he made the best of it and got married at a young age, thinking he would be able to start fresh again with his own "home".

Then he was posted to West Germany for two years but when he came home his wife told him she'd taken a lover and their marriage was over.

Dresnok was devastated -- he said he never once cheated on his wife during his posting but she couldn't handle his absence at all.

Private James Dresnok
He reenlisted again and this time was posted to South Korea.

The DMZ was a very dangerous place -- the border was marked by flimsy tape and the Americans claimed the North Koreans would create trouble by moving the tape and then start shooting at the US soldiers, claiming they had wandered into North Korean territory.

Being there was literally a war zone and there were casualties.

For Dresnok, he felt his life had no meaning and that there was no way out -- he could live or die and he wouldn't care.

One day he disobeyed orders and visited a Korean woman he was in a relationship with and his superior was ready to court marshall him.

This propelled Dresnok to walk away from his post and enter the DMZ armed with only a shotgun. The area was apparently littered with mines and it was then that the young soldier wondered if he would make it out alive let alone be captured.

When he made it to the other side he was surrounded by North Korean soldiers and was almost killed by them when their superior ordered Dresnok arrested as a prisoner of war.

It turns out not only Dresnok had defected, but three others as well in quick succession. This was a major coup for North Korea and the government used them as propaganda to prove that communism was something Americans thought was good.

They even acted in movies directed by the then young Kim Jong-il. He got them to portray evil American characters who had to be destroyed by the North Koreans.

In the end Dresnok worked hard to fit in, learning Korean and was invited to lecture students periodically in English.

Did he feel used by the government? He doesn't seem to think so. Or was he saying this because he was being filmed in North Korea?

Then there is the interesting topic of marriage. Three of the four men married non-Korean women because North Koreans wanted their race to remain pure. Some of the non-Korean women were allegedly kidnapped and sent to North Korea to mate with these Americans. The fourth man did marry a Korean.

Dresnok today in Pyongyang
As a result Dresnok's two children by his second marriage are blond and brunette. Watching his eldest son James speak English is strange, as he talks with an accent because he was born and raised in North Korea and speaks more Korean than English.

After his wife died from an illness, Dresnok took a third -- a half Korean, half Togolese woman and they have a very young son.

Talk about a Bennetton family in North Korea of all places.

Throughout the documentary, Dresnok is seen smoking and drinking often, which leads to the the final scenes of him visiting his doctor who tells him many times to cut his smoking and drinking as his health is failing, but he continues these habits anyway.

Crossing The Line was a fantastic documentary, not just in the way it was told, but also the various subplots and how the film crew was able to have pretty much free access to make the film in North Korea.

After we viewed the film, one of the researchers present at our screening suggested that because this film would not be shown in North Korea the government didn't seem to care so much and this was the third film the group had done there and had a pretty good track record.

Nonetheless, with such powerful political undertones in the documentary, one would think the government would have completely shut down any possibility of making this film.

But we're glad it was and executed well, revealing complex characters and motivations, historical context and meaning.

Crossing The Line
UK, 2006, 90 minutes
Director: Daniel Gordon
www.


Saturday, 2 June 2012

Where's the Money?

The Venetian in Macau is bigger than the one in Sin City
A good indication China's economy is slowing down is to look at Macau's casino tables.

The gambling capital's revenues only rose 7.3 percent to 26.08 billion patacas last month, the slowest growth since July 2009.

This has led to Macau gaming stocks falling slightly on Friday.

"One of the main reasons is the slowdown in VIP revenue. I do not rule out the possibility of a slowdown in the China economy as a factor," said a Hong Kong stock analyst.

It could also be that the casinos haven't collected all the debts from their VIP customers, at least two of them come from mainland Chinese banks.

Yang Kun, an executive vice-president of Agricultural Bank of China, was detained a few days ago in Beijing by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China.

It was because the commission received complaints about illegal gambling activities in Macau that were linked to Yang, as well as the misuse of a bank client's account.

The amount of money he allegedly misused is unclear, but one source said: "It must be a big case involving big money, given the high level of Yang's position and the quick action taken by the government. He was internally advised not to travel abroad, even just a trip to Hong Kong."

Another source said Yang went to Macau several times with business friends and the group lost money during at least one gambling trip there. Because Yang and his friends owed large sums to the casinos, complaints emerged and later came to the attention of the anti-corruption commission.

Yang had worked at Agricultural Bank of China for more than 20 years and was considered a rising star...

Meanwhile another banker was also caught for similar allegations.

Brand manager He Juxin of China Minsheng Bank was detained by police in Beijing as he is linked to Yang's case.

Both He and Yang are believed to have close ties to a businessman named Wang Yaohui, chairman of conglomerate Zhonghui Guohua Industry Group.

In addition to being Minsheng Bank's top executive in charge of brand and marketing, he is also the director of the Minsheng Art Museum, which was established and funded by the bank to collect and exhibit valuable artwork.

Apparently He and Wang share an interest in art; sources also said Wang, with Yang's help, obtained loans from Agricultural Bank of China to shore-up money-losing property projects in Beijing and finance the chairman's personal hobbies, including gambling and buying art.

Now that the three are being investigated, how many others have fallen into similar situations?

It's only a matter of time before more debts will be revealed and increasing indications that Beijing must really clean house and rid itself of corruption and graft for good.

It can't keep functioning as it is right now forever... can it?

Friday, 1 June 2012

15 Years Later, New Rules for the CE

The Chief Executive of Hong Kong should regard himself as "the chief servant of the people".

That's the finding of an independent committee that spent three months looking into the scandals Chief Executive Donald Tsang was embroiled in earlier this year, caught hanging out with tycoons on a yacht in Macau, to a cheap deal to rent a penthouse in Shenzhen.

The committee, led by former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, said Tsang would have been open to prosecution for accepting favours from tycoons under a new law it is proposing, as for the past 15 years there have been no guidelines for the chief executive to follow.

Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying welcomed the recommendations and pledged to implement them as soon as possible.

The committee is proposing it be a criminal offense for the chief executive to solicit or accept any advantage without the permission of a statutory independent committee. In turn, offering an advantage to the chief executive without lawful authority or a reasonable excuse would also be considered an offense.

It added the chief executive must follow the rules at least as strict as those for political appointees and top civil servants.

"It would be a criminal offense for the chief executive to accept any advantage, including any gift, hotel accommodation, any purchase or rental of premises at an undervalued price, any passage, whether on a commercial airplane, private jet or private yacht without the permission of the committee," Li said. "We advise the chief executive to follow the maxim, 'if in doubt,' don't."

The maximum penalty would be one year's imprisonment and a fine of HK$100,000.

It seems the description covers practically all the wrong doings Tsang did in his years as CE.

And it's pretty amazing he and former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa were able to get away with having no rules apply to them at all for the past 15 years until now, when a news photographer happened to catch Tsang on a luxury yacht in Macau.

"The present system is totally inappropriate and has a fundamental defect that it exempts the chief executive from the strict regime applied to politically appointed officials and civil servants," Li said, adding Hong Kong's leader should not be above the law.

The former chief justice refused to comment on whether Tsang set a bad example, and instead said improving the system was the key.

Earlier Tsang had said he followed his own "internal rule" when accepting benefits.

"The absence of documentation on such a matter is not consistent with the proper conduct of public administration," Li said. If the new rules are implemented, all gifts would be recorded in a register and made available to the public.

Tsang is a career civil servant and still he did not feel he had to follow the rules or establish them formally as chief executive. Being a church boy didn't deter him from taking advantage of his standing at all either.

While all these new regulations are great, Tsang will not be subject to them.

What is hard to understand is that before 1997 no one went over the rules and regulations of the chief executive and realized there was a major loophole in terms of accountability?

There are less than 30 days left to go before Tsang leaves office and he leaves behind a legacy of free-spending ways and cozying up to tycoon buddies for a good here and there.

Makes Grandpa Tung look like a saint.

Ah the perks of being a CE.