Thursday, 31 March 2011

China's Moral High Ground on Libya... Not

Chinese President Hu Jintao rebuked French President Nicolas Sarkozy Wednesday over NATO's enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya.
He said this during Sarkozy's visit to the Chinese capital, which observers say was worded in unusually strong language at the French president, whose country is the only one to formally recognize the rebels fighting against Muammar Gaddafi.
"If the military action brings disaster to innocent civilians, resulting in an even greater humanitarian crisis, then that is contrary to the original intention of the Security Council resolution," he said.
Hu called for an immediate cease-fire and expressed concerns Libya may end up being divided and said force would complicate a negotiated settlement. China, Hu said, "is not in favour of the use of force in international affairs."
China is trying to take the moral high ground, but it is in the UN charter that if civilians are in danger that NATO must step in. Also, NATO is doing what the rebels had requested weeks ago when Gaddafi started turning on his own civilians.
In any case, China probably doesn't want any bombings on its own investments there and hopes Gaddafi will stay in power to keep the lucrative deals going.
In the meantime China's attempt to spin the story about innocent Libyans being killed by air strikes have backfired.
While Chinese state media claims Libyans strongly oppose western intervention, the Libyans made sure China got the word loud and clear.
In Chinese characters they wrote "Mommar Gaddafi is a liar!" which was caught on TV cameras.
And in late February Gaddafi had threatened to execute protesters and send in tanks in order to cleanse Libya "house by house" in an action he compared to Tiananmen Square.
"People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China was more important than those people on Tiananmen Square.
"When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent to deal with them," he continued. "It's not a joke. I will do whatever it takes to make sure part of the country isn't taken away."
Surely the Chinese government was squirming as it still denies a massacre happened on June 4.
The Chinese government must have been squirming when he said this as Beijing still refuses to acknowledge any massacre took place...

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Where is Gao?

Almost a year and no sign of Gao
Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) has disappeared for almost a year and a United Nations agency has demanded the Chinese government release him immediately. Gao was tortured in previous detentions, probably for his work on defending the Falun Gong.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also said in the written statement the Chinese government should "provide for reparation of the harm caused" to Gao. 
"The UN Working Group held that the detention violated international law because Gao's disappearance was punishment for exercising his fundamental human rights and because the government failed to meet even the minimum international standards for due process," the group said in the statement.
Gao was tortured when he was detained in 2007 and last year; against warnings not to, he wrote in detail about his earlier detention in which he was tortured. He told of how he was beaten with electric batons, and burning cigarettes were placed near his eyes among other things.
The Chinese government's response to the UN statement?
It asked the UN body to respect its judicial sovereignty.
While Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said she didn't know where Gao was, she said:
"China attaches importance to cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms. We also urge these mechanisms to maintain an objective and impartial attitude and to respect China's judicial sovereignty.
"I would like to add that China is a country ruled by law, with an independent judiciary that handles cases."
The UN body is maintaining an objective and impartial attitude. The fact is Gao is missing. He has not been seen for almost a year. He was previously tortured. How is that biased?
Does China's judiciary allow for torture? On paper is probably does not. So why do shadowy security people continue to detain and physically and psychologically harm people like Gao without any legal right to do so?
Yu's stonewalling just suggests China is not prepared to deal with this issue -- hoping these defiant statements will put an end to things.
But we will not stop asking for Gao's release until we see him with our own eyes.
And there are many others we wish to ask about too (from 
People who we know have been arrested:
  1. Ran Yunfei 冉云飞 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  2. Ding Mao 丁茅 (inciting to subvert state authority)
People we know have been detained:
  1. Chen Wei 陈卫 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  2. Quan Lianzhao 全连昭 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  3. Liang Haiyi 梁海怡 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  4. Zhu Yufu 朱虞夫 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  5. Guo Weidong 郭卫东 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  6. Sun Desheng 孙德胜 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  7. Liu Huiping 刘慧萍 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  8. Wei Qiang 魏强 (illegal assembly)
  9. Zhang Jiannan 张健男 (illegal assembly)
  10. Yang Qiuyu 杨秋雨 (illegal assembly)
  11. Hua Chunhui 华春辉 (endangering national security)
  12. Li Hai 李海 (inciting disturbance)
  13. Li Yongsheng 李永生 (inciting disturbance)
  14. Wang Lihong 王荔蕻 (inciting disturbance)
  15. Ma He 马贺 (inciting disturbance)
  16. Wei Shuishan 魏水山 (unknown)
  17. Bi Mingkai 薜明凯 (unknown)
  18. Huang Xiang 黄香 (unknown)
People under house arrest:
  1. Tang Jingling 唐荆陵 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  2. Ye Du 野渡 (inciting to subvert state authority)
  3. Liu Xia (Liu Xiaobo's wife)
People being held in mental institutions:
  1. Qian Jin 钱进
People who are missing (an incomplete list):
  1. Liu Guohui 刘国慧
  2. Li Tiantian 李天天
  3. Jiang Tianyong 江天勇
  4. Teng Biao 滕彪
  5. Zhang Shanguang 张善光
  6. Qi Zhiyong 齐志勇
  7. Gu Chuan 古川
  8. Liu Shihui 刘士辉 and his wife
  9. Yuan Xinting 袁新亭
  10. Zhang Tao 张涛 (aka 呆麻雀张)
  11. Zhang Xianle 张献乐
  12. Cheng Wanyun 程婉芸
  13. Liu Dejun 刘德军
  14. Liu Anjun 刘安军
  15. Zhang Haibo 张海波
  16. Lan Ruoyu 蓝若宇
  17. Hu Di 胡荻
  18. Zhang Jingpeng 张敬朋
  19. Li Shuangde 李双德
  20. E Laoda 鹅老大
  21. Peng Xinzhong 彭新忠
  22. Yang Hengjun 杨恒均
  23. Zhou Li 周莉
  24. Wang Yanfen 汪燕芬

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Baby Dilemma

We all know "One country, two systems" isn't perfect, and there's evidence of this in the maternity wards in Hong Kong.

Lots of mainland Chinese women come here to give birth to not only have a child that has Hong Kong residency, but also allows them to have more than one child, as he or she won't have a hukou, or household registration.

And so many women cross the border to have babies that Hong Kong's public hospitals are now short of staff because maternity specialists can get paid more in private hospitals where many mainland women are willing to shell out for expensive services.

Professor Leung Tak-yeung from the Chinese University of Hong Kong's department of obstetrics and gynecology said the public hospitals' newborn intensive care units were 20 percent over capacity, citing the example of twins born last week and there was no room in the maternity ward so they had to be put in the pediatrics unit.

In addition, the turnover of obstetricians in public hospitals in the past year was 11.2 percent, one of the highest among specialists, according to Hospital Authority figures.

This is at a time where the number of births in Hong Kong has risen in the past 10 years, with births by mainland mothers at 46 percent of the 88,000 newborns last year. Their numbers increased by 9 percent from 2009-2010, while the number of births by Hong Kong mothers only rose by 3.5 percent.

There are now calls for the government to restrict the number of mainlanders coming to the city to give birth, otherwise this will compromise health services for Hong Kong mothers and their newborns.

"The number of mainland mothers giving birth in Hong Kong should be controlled," said Dr Cheung Tak-hong, chief of service in obstetrics and gynecology at Prince of Wales Hospital. "We are not against them giving birth here, but we need to ensure the quality of service provision and the safety of [local] mothers and children."

Hong Kong hospitals should really be putting their priority towards Hong Kong women giving birth, but things go into a gray area when it comes to mainlanders coming here to have babies.

It'll be interesting to see how the government handles this pressing issue, which is two-pronged -- more mainland women coming and paying to have expensive deliveries, thus leading to more medical staff leaving the public sector and going to private hospitals.

Given the Tsang administration's track record in the last few months it isn't too promising that something definitive will be done. Can they limit the number of pregnant mainlanders coming in? How would they regulate that? But it is alarming to see so many well-heeled mainlanders coming here to have babies just by opening their wallets.

It just reinforces their notion that money can by everything -- including residency.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Morality of Publicity Stunts

A few days ago there was a story on the newspaper I saw that looked odd. A Chinese woman was shuffling on her knees carrying her sick baby daughter down a busy road in Guangzhou because a man who claimed to be rich said she'd giver her 20,000RMB ($3,047) if she would walk one kilometre on her knees.

She did it but then the man with the online name "Son of the Guangzhou rich" didn't pay up, and the media coverage over this development led to the woman getting more than 280,000RMB ($42,647) in donations. She seemed foolish to think someone on the internet would give her the money.

But now it has been revealed it was all a stunt to tap into people's sympathy and anger.

The mother, Xie Sanxiu has now offered to return all the money and apologized for "hurting the media and society", but insisted she only agreed to do the stunt for her seven-month-old daughter who has eye cancer.

The man who helped plan Xie to do this was Shi Jinquan, a website content manager who also apologized but said this was the only way to raise money and thought it was worth it because a baby would be saved.

"You can say the means were not noble and people were angry, but I'm only trying to help," he said. "Society is so cold and cruel. If she could have got help immediately when she asked for it, I would not have helped her in this way.

"In my personal research of internet communications, anger can easily attract attention, and opinions spread on a very large scale. This was a last resort."

Xie is a garment factory worker with her husband and they already have a 12-year-old son. She gave birth to her daughter Shanshan in August, but two months later found out the little girl has retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer.

The family asked for help from the Civil Affairs Department in their home province of Hubei, but only received a paper that acknowledged they were below the poverty line. Xie tried begging in front of hospitals got nothing, while asking for donations online only got her 400RMB.

Desperate, Xie posted a plea on, asking for donations and that's when "Son of the Guangzhou Rich" replied back with his demand that she walk on her knees.

So she did, specifically on the road where an influential Guangzhou newspaper group is located which got her media attention, especially when the man didn't show up to give her the money he had promised her.

As a result the story was quickly picked up, and anger and sympathy over Xie's humiliation led to a flood of donations.

But it turned out the IP address of "Son of the Guangzhou Rich" was the same as the content manager responsible for where Xie posted her plea. He had also coached her on how to answer media questions. As a result Shi was fired from his job and he was bombarded with calls from people angry that they had been deceived.

While he did suggest she do a physically demanding stunt, one has to admit it drew lots of attention and donations for Xie. She had tried to get help from the government, but it ignored her -- so Shi only tried to help her.

It's a sad commentary on the government for not trying to help its own people -- something Premier Wen Jiabao hopes to reverse in the recent National People's Congress meetings. When the government doesn't listen to them, the people have to resort to other means to get what they need.

Shi himself didn't have the money to give Xie so was he really wrong in helping her with this publicity stunt? It was morally wrong, but was there another way? Apparently there are many sad cases like these posted on the internet everyday. Perhaps Wen should read these pleas online and help at least one a day. Perhaps then the people would really feel like the government is serving the people.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Aquatic Relaxation

My friend took me to the Spa at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental for a Rasul Treatment, which is basically mud slathered all over your body.

But the bonus was being able to use the other facilities in the spa for an hour before our actual treatment.

"Thrones" in the Rasul treatment room
We got to hang out in the thermal bath with spray jets, lounge in the beautifully tiled steam room and lie on the heated recliners while drinking lemon- or orange-flavoured water. By the time we had the Rasul, we were already completely relaxed.

The Rasul is done in a gorgeous copper-tiled area with four "chairs" inset into the four corners of the small room. In the centre is a giant block of white crystal where steam comes out from underneath it. The ceiling is also beautiful, with small lights that look like stars in the sky.

First the therapist put one kind of natural mud on our face and neck. Then for our body she put a more liquid mud, practically covering everything except our hands. She then explained to us the warm heat in the room at 38 degrees Celsius would dry the mud to draw impurities out of our skin. Then after about 15 minutes steam would fill the room and make the mud moist again, allowing its natural minerals to be absorbed into our skin.

As my friend said, it was too bad there weren't recliners in this room as it made it hard to relax while slipping in our tiled "thrones" from all the mud. Towards the end of the steam the therapist came in and gave us cold wet towels that we immediately turned gray from our hands that had smoothed the mud on our bodies and later some water to drink.

After the steam was over, the lights dimmed and moments later a warm shower rained down on each of us from where we were sitting to wash off all the mud. We got to have an extra rinse off in the showers that had sprays coming from various directions.

The treatment wasn't over yet -- after a few minutes to let our body temperatures go down a bit, we were led into another treatment room where the therapist applied lotion on our bodies and gave me a foot massage (or you could choose a scalp massage).

Finally we were led to the relaxation room where you could put on headphones and zone out completely, snack on some fruit and more fruit-flavoured water or ginger tea.

What a relaxing afternoon -- for HK$460 ($59) each. It's practically a mini holiday on the weekend.

5/F, Landmark Mandarin Oriental
15 Queen's Road Central
2132 0188

Saturday, 26 March 2011

One to Watch: Violinist Ray Chen

Chen's CD released in January
Last night after work I went to City Hall Concert Hall to watch the Hong Kong debut of Ray Chen, a Taiwanese-born Australian violinist.

But first -- the first part of the concert.

Yip Wing-sie is still going strong as the city's only female conductor of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta which went professional in 1999. She gave a good introduction in Chinese and English explaining that every year the Sinfonietta participates in the Hong Kong Arts Festival, it commissions a piece by a local composer, and invites a young up-and-coming Asian performer to play with the orchestra.

The commissioned piece was by Tang Lok-yin, called Visage which has its world premiere. Yip gave a hint to to the audience to think of images of the brightly coloured masks used in Peking opera when listening to the music. As someone who is not too familiar with contemporary music, it seemed like things were out of tune or not in time, but did evoke the Peking opera stage with lots of percussion. The piece ended with one of the horns blowing air sound like a whispering cloud.

Tang then rushed to the stage and thanked the orchestra for playing her piece. It's quite brave for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta to commission pieces, but it also shows support for local artists and makes it more community oriented.

The next piece was Bela Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra in three movements, and only the string section was on stage. It was a robust piece with hints of Hungarian folk songs in it, typical of Bartok. Early on in the piece, there was something wrong with concert master James Cuddeford's violin and he switched violins with his colleague who quietly walked off stage. He came back after the first movement was over and returned the violin to Cuddeford who had to play a few solos in the piece.

Chen's earlier publicity photo
After a break the stage was set for Chen. He looked different from his publicity photo and his hair in dire need of a haircut. Nevertheless, he was dressed up in tails and was ready to perform Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35. It seems Chen was very eager to show off his technical skills which he did very well, and it made me wonder why all young performers chose technically difficult pieces early in their career. Perhaps it's an easy way to establish themselves as a star, Lang Lang case in point, who has since moved onto more thoughtful works.

And that's my feeling about Chen -- he's definitely a diamond in the rough and while technically mastering the piece there wasn't that much depth in showing his passion for the music. Nevertheless, we all sat there so quiet that a pin could drop while he performed his solos throughout the three movements. And in the end the audience clapped non stop for him until he finally did an encore with the Paganini Caprice No. 24 in A minor, again a skillful display.

When I attended concerts in Beijing, at the end women in uniforms would walk up on stage with bouquets of flowers and it would have been appropriate here for Chen to have received one, but none was had.

Chen's more recent photo
After the concert he was supposed to autograph CDs and posters and I didn't stick around for that and instead headed to the Mandarin coffee shop for a bite to eat. After finishing my reuben sandwich and reading the paper, a giant entourage arrived and it included Chen who had changed into a T-shirt with a jacket and jeans carrying his 1721 "Macmillan" Stradivarius and a bottle of water.

He didn't know the people he was with, but they seemed to be wealthy arts patrons. They all congratulated him on his performance to which he humbly thanked them in his Aussie accent.

Chen is definitely one to watch in the future and hopefully he grows into a mature and gracious artist.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Reassurances Fall Flat

Daya Bay nuclear plant which is close to Hong Kong
As the Japan nuclear crisis continues for a second week, fears in Hong Kong have subsided over salt hoarding (after derision from the rest of the world), and now have turned to the Daya Bay nuclear power plant that's right across the border in Shenzhen.
The mainland Chinese operator of the plant is desperately trying to reassure Hong Kong people that a nuclear accident like the one at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is virtually impossible.
Daya Bay Nuclear Power Operations and Management Company explained that the plant was built to stringent designs and standards which enabled it to withstand a powerful earthquake, and also that its location meant tidal waves were highly unlikely even though it is located just up the coast from Hong Kong in Daya Bay.
Chen Tai, a nuclear safety specialist at the plant, said tsunami were unlikely to develop in shallow coastal waters. The biggest recorded in Guangdong waters was less than 50 centimetres.
"The only serious casualty I can recall is that one person suffered from a broken finger," he said.
Daya Bay is not in an active seismic zone thankfully, where the area's strongest quake measured 6.0 on the Richter scale was 60 kilometres away in 1991. Chen also said the plant could withstand a 8.0-magnitude quake.
In the wake of Japan's quake, the plant will be conducting two safety drills in June and November.
It's good to know the Daya Bay plant is not in a quake zone, but nevertheless, Chen and his cohorts should not be smug in thinking nothing will ever happen to the nuclear power plant.
Even if there isn't an earthquake, accidents can happen as we saw in Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl.
And even if the plant has disaster contingency plans in place, companies and governments around the world need to start thinking about a number of worst case scenarios that could possibly happen because as what happened Fukushima shows us, almost every disaster happened to it and it's still ongoing.
Also while a disaster plan may look good on paper, in reality it could fail miserably. Companies and governments really need to step up now and examine their disaster management skills. Because anything can happen.


Thursday, 24 March 2011

Another Word for Luxury

Looking for a way into the elite circle

What's wrong with aspiring to have a luxurious lifestyle?
For the Beijing government, the mere promotion of glamour and wealth makes it shudder.
Many of the billboard advertisers in the Chinese capital are real estate developers, golf clubs, sports cars and high-end alcoholic drinks using a string of adjectives and descriptions to evoke images of being rich and having an elite status.
A lot of them also have Chinglish in their copywriting which undermines their lofty intentions, but now the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce wants the words "luxury", "royal", "supreme" and "high class" taken out of billboards by April 15 or face a 30,000 RMB fine.

It feels these kinds of billboards are ostentatious and a stark reminder of the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The administration added these advertisements created a politically "unhealthy" climate.

Last year the central government recorded the average income in the city is three times that of someone in the countryside.

What's also interesting is that the government body said the advertisements should not encourage Chinese to aspire to a "foreign" lifestyle, as many of the wealthy drive foreign brand-name cars, wear European designer labels and drink French wines, preferably Bordeaux first growths.

So what is a "Chinese" lifestyle then? After the Cultural Revolution, those who grew up in that tumultous period only want what they felt they were deprived of. And now that a privileged few have the means, of course they want to be seen having it all. And the easiest way to demonstrate that is to have a "foreign" lifestyle.

Until corrupt officials and the rich are seen spending their money on domestic products, no one is going to aim for a "Chinese lifestyle".
In the meantime billboard copywriters will surely find other ways to describe luxury -- just consult the thesaurus...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Cooking Up Votes

Yan can cook and raise funds for Republicans too
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee (葉劉淑儀) is trying to spice up her political party ambitions by recruiting celebrity chef Martin Yan.
Yep -- the chairwoman of the New People's Party is having the "Wok with Yan" star as an adviser.
She could not be specific on what kind of advice Yan would give, only that she liked his catchphrase, "If Yan can do it, so can you".
Uh huh.
Ip added that Yan was active in politics, as the mainland-born, San Francisco-based chef is involved in Republican fundraising in the United States and thinks he would be a valuable asset in Hong Kong.
"Many Chinese in the US are more pro-Republican than pro-Democrat, as the Republicans are viewed as a more pro-business part. He is politically savvy and will have a big influence," she said. "Martin is from Hong Kong originally, so he keeps up with the news here and he knew me straight away."
Uh huh. One wonders how Yan recognized Ip -- was it for when she won a seat in the Hong Kong Legislative Council in 2008, or was it when she was Secretary for Security and tried to pass Article 23, where some half a million people protested against the anti-subversion law on the streets of Hong Kong on July 1, 2003.

She resigned and went to Stanford to study a Masters a few years waiting for things to cool down; in 2007 she tried to win a seat in the LegCo elections, but lost to the more popular former Chief Secretary Anson Chan.
Regina Ip
For the record Yan was born in Guangzhou and moved to Hong Kong when he was 13 years old. After he got his diploma in cooking he left for Canada.
"He's a charismatic person," Ip added. "I love his catchphrase, '[If] Yan can cook, so can you!' It means the sky is the limit if you just try your best. Martin is a self-made man and a Hong Kong success story. He is very inspiring to many people here."

Yan's cooking shows aren't broadcast here of course, but he periodically shows up in Chinese TV shows talking about various aspects of Chinese cuisine. So it's a bit odd wondering what kind of advice Yan will give Ip's political party.

Ip is also hoping entrepreneur and Ocean Park Chairman Allan Zeman will also boost her party's prospects with his "rags-to-riches" story too.

She admits her party is targeting rich and successful constituents, describing New People's Party as centre-right and unapologetic about its elitist image.

So Ip is not going to be representing the interests of the working class or public-housing constituencies... seems like this is a calculated move on her part to win as many votes as possible.

But Martin Yan as an adviser?

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Intellectual Grandson

Major General Mao Xinyu

What do you do when you're the grandson of the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong?

You become a military official of course... despite being obese. There is speculation the 40-year-old Mao Xinyu weighs over 200 pounds.

Last year Mao was promoted to Major General -- the youngest ever -- and has a PhD in military studies, where he mostly studied his famous grandfather.

And his other claim to fame is appearing frequently on television to give comments, but doesn't seem all that intellectual. In this interview he was rambling for two minutes:

"[About] unlicensed teachers... I want to say... well, my secretary showed me. I want to, well, extend the topic... About unlicensed teachers... I want to... Here... well... well... I want to... just... just not that I want to dodge or what... I want to stress this... Which is to day nowadays those unlicensed teachers... Now our country's this... Speaking of this tea... teaching rank, I think, there is a very important part... called private teachers. Just called private teacher... this, how to say, I've considered... observed for long this private teacher thing."

It took him about 30 seconds to speak an utterly incomprehensible and incomplete sentence. And viewers were hanging on his words, trying to understand what he was saying.

"Private teacher... how to say.. they even... a private teacher from... well, I think... technically speaking, they are not a teacher formally certified by the country. They are... that is to say... they are also, as a private teacher... their... of course, their teaching quality, their calibre is surely not as good as this... this formal normal college kind of thing," he continued.

Then he finally added: "This problem has indeed become a big problem of the education part. This is to say, first, this is to say... In the future, I... I... I mean me... the problem of education, I truly hope that many of this... I hope a large number of, well, private teachers can, through their... effort, their own effort, painstaking study... Um... can improve their own level".

Perhaps Mao's thought is too complicated for him to express?

If only his grandpa could hear him now...

Quote of the Day: Wen Jiabao on Corruption

Yesterday Premier Wen Jiabao spoke to a group of foreign executives in Beijing. He pledged to fight official corruption, saying it "poses the biggest threat" to the country and comparing it to "cancer cells".

"No matter how good the infrastructure is in a country, if there is bad corruption, I don't believe there will be a favourable investment climate," Wen said.

I thought all corruption was bad -- can you have good corruption?

Monday, 21 March 2011

Trying to Win Brownie Points

In the last few weeks China seems to be showing a "people first" attitude in first evacuating over 35,000 of its citizens from Libya and now thousands of Chinese from quake-hit Sendai and the surrounding area.

And then last Wednesday the State Council announced it was suspending approvals for nuclear power plants and would conduct comprehensive safety checks of all of the ones currently in operation in response to the possible meltdown of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Only days earlier officials had said China would press on with its ambitious nuclear power project despite concerns.

A Western observer commented on the Chinese evacuations from Libya, saying it was "a masterful demonstration that China had entered the big leagues as far as global logistics are concerned".

Could this mark a new development for the government, showing true concern for its people?

"Those moves reflect the 'people first' policy, as the government attaches greater importance to people's lives, which has won praise everywhere," said Mao Shoulong, professor of political science at Renmin University's School of Public Administration.

Jin Canrong, professor of Renmin University's School of International Relations believes this 'people first' focus is a response to the demands of the middle class who are highly educated and have a high tendency for networking.

However Wang Yizhou, professor of international relations at Peking University believes government actions were the result of public pressure thanks mostly to the internet.

While it is impressive for China to be proactive in getting its citizens out of dangerous situations, what about applying this 'people first' attitude when it comes to properly compensating people who are being pushed off their land, or justice for the victims of the tainted milk scandal and the earthquake victims from the shoddily-built schools?

Evacuating people from overseas looks good from the outside. But what about helping those from within?

Sunday, 20 March 2011

British Tradition Still Going Strong

Afternoon Tea for two at the Four Seasons
Since the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the mail boxes were removed and coloured green instead of red; street signs remained the same, Queen Elizabeth II was removed from the currency and the city flies the bauhinia flag and the Chinese flag.

But what British tradition is going even stronger than all of these?

Afternoon tea.

It's a favourite past time of tai tais, but everyone seems to like a good bite with a cup of tea in the afternoon and the high-end hotels cash in on it.

A few friends were visiting from out of town and I thought afternoon tea would be a good way for us to catch up. Thinking Central would be best for us, on Friday I tried calling the Mandarin Oriental Clipper Lounge for a Sunday reservation, but it was fully booked. Then I called the MO Bar at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental and it was completely filled up until the end of the month.

Turns out there is a promotion there are the moment where fashionistas can have afternoon tea eating things that designer Stella McCartney likes to nibble on, like inside-out cucumber sandwiches and her spring and summer prints on fondant. It's a steal at HK$200 ($25.64) per person which includes a Stella McCartney gift set too. No wonder the MO Bar was completely booked.

Exasperated at this point I called the Four Seasons and they said it was first come, first served with afternoon tea starting at 3pm. I thought this would be fine as long as I got there early enough.

So today as I was on my way to the Four Seasons, one of my friends called me to say he was already at the hotel. I asked him to put my name down for the afternoon tea. He later called to say I couldn't get a table until 4:30pm. How could that be?

Dessert treats on the top tier
I marched down there and asked the staff what was going on. They showed me a giant wait list and apologized that I'd have to wait until at least 4:30pm for a table. I demanded to know how this could be when it wasn't even 3pm yet and these people weren't even physically here waiting. She eventually explained some people came early and put their name down, probably went to the mall to do some shopping and were due back for their scones and tea.

"So I can come here at 11am and put my name down?" I asked, annoyed that my efforts to go by the rules were in vain. She was surprised I even threw out this possible scenario but did say it was possible. She quickly thought of another solution which was to see if the Blue Bar on the other side of the hotel had a free table.

They did and she personally escorted me there and we had a nice table at the back looking over at a foggy harbour due to the high humidity today. My friends were confused about how I snagged the table but were pleased to see we didn't have to wait.

The afternoon tea set presented in the three-tier silverware is quite good here, and better to share for two, as one portion is HK$200, while it's HK$380 for two. There are some square finger sandwiches at the bottom, cucumber, smoked salmon and ham, as well as a curry chicken, and a mini burger filled with egg salad.

The next tier up has four large scones and generous portions of clotted cream, marmalade and raspberry jam. Finally at the top there are some interesting desserts, a kind of puff pastry with custard in it, a mango mousse with jelly cubes on top, and macaroons topped with strawberries and a bit of gold foil.

We also shared a juicy steak sandwich (HK$180) that came with nice fat fries and ketchup.

We had a good time catching up and were amused watching the next table that seemed to have a power meeting going on that included real estate developer Peter Lam Kin-ngok (林建岳) and they all spoke in Mandarin. While they were chatting, three young leggy Chinese women approached the table, but they were asked to wait elsewhere until they finished their meeting. The men had ordered afternoon tea too but it was left untouched.

It wasn't until after Lam left did the girls return and finish off most of the items on plates with ice tea...

We now know the Four Seasons is where the power brokers are. The ones with the cute arm ornaments...

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Unsustainable Rant

Hong Kong is a completely unsustainable city.

The vast majority of its food and some of its water is imported while almost all the consumer products are imported from elsewhere.

People here don't seem to understand the concept of conserving resources.

I've watched an expat woman leave the water running full blast out of the tap as she washes her face with a cleanser for several minutes. It was only when she saw me turn off my tap as I washed my hands with soap did she turn her tap off.

I've also observed people using five sheets of paper towels to wipe their hands dry when one will suffice.

Today I left my flat to pick up my laundry and saw a BMW (license plate FJ106) idling with no one in the car. I came back at least 10 minutes later to see the car still idling and no owner in sight.

And I have mentioned many times in other blog posts about how this city does not actively push recycling, or environmental awareness on its residents.

Hong Kong really needs to do a reality show where people are taught that the resources we have now are running out and we need to conserve what we have for future generations. I would love to see the shock on their faces when they realize how big a carbon footprint each of them has and what they need to do to decrease it.

Scientists would be on the show explaining global warming and how we need to mitigate the amount of carbon dioxide we release in the air, how idling vehicles exacerbate the problem and how we should all be driving at least hybrid cars, and taking public transport in electric or hybrid buses.

We'd also have experts explaining how to cut down on the amount of garbage we produce each day, the importance of recycling and how it benefits not only the environment but also society, and how to set up recycling stations in each district or neighbourhood.

Then how about a water expert explaining that we can't keep relying on Guangdong for Hong Kong's water supplies -- that we should try to cut down on our usage as much as possible and tell people they need to turn off the tap when they brush their teeth or wash their hands.

Next a chef or nutritionists on the importance of eating sustainably by buying more local produce or at least food that's produced nearby, or heck that we should be instituting meatless Mondays or massively cut down on the amount of meat we're eating. I'm quite shocked there are a number of new steakhouses open in the city. Don't we have enough beef already? While we can import practically any kind of food we want here, is it really that necessary?

And finally tackling consumerism -- how we should severely decrease our consumption habits, whether it be for take out, cheap clothes or useless trinkets that we throw out eventually. While Hong Kong is known as the shopping mecca of Asia, is that all the city is? Can't Hong Kong be known for other things, other than blatant materialism? Or is it too shallow to realize its own shallowness?

Sorry for the rant here, but after eight months here, seeing how this city has hardly progressed in the environmental awareness area is appalling. A few months ago the WWF has named Hong Kong as one of the most unsustainable cities in the world.

Doesn't that shameful reputation make it want to do something about it?

Or it's too caught up in its material world to realize it...

Friday, 18 March 2011

Frantic... for Salt

In the last day or so the media here have been reporting people in China, Hong Kong and Macau are buying up whatever salt and rice they can fearing the next batch for sale will be contaminated by radioactive rain from Japan.

The rumour spread like wildfire in major Chinese cities and soon shelves previously stocked with salt were completely empty and there were scenes of chaos as shoppers fought over supplies in Beijing.

Officials in both Hong Kong and China issued public statements trying to refute concerns about radiation poisoning and the need to stockpile salt. But this hardly did anything to ease the situation.

"I hadn't heard about the salt shortage until then, but as soon as I heard it, I raced out to get some," said one housewife in Shanghai. "I only have a small amount left in the kitchen, and I just don't know how I'll cook if I run out. I have been to several shops already, but no one has any left. I am getting quite nervous now because I think I am too late."

In Guangzhou, shops normally sell on average 180 to 200 tonnes of salt per day, but on Wednesday it was more than 500 tonnes and probably just as much yesterday.

In Hong Kong lots of people, mostly the elderly lined up in front of condiment shops and supermarkets from early morning, even though the salt was being sold between two and 10 times the regular price.

"I don't know what the salt can be used for. But people are snatching, so I'd better hurry," said one elderly woman.

The people believed that ingesting salt, which contains some iodine, would help ward off the effects of radiation, as the workers in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have to take potassium iodide tablets to lessen the impact of radiation poisoning.

However, Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok tried to appeal to people to use their common sense.

"Eating too much salt can cause hypertension and kidney disease," he said. "I think buying large quantities of salt for whatever reason is totally unfounded."

Undersecretary for Food and Health Professor Gabriel Leung added that a person would need to eat 5kg of salt to absorb the amount of iodine contained in an iodine tablet.

Perhaps they'd need to drink gallons of water with all that salt...

Meanwhile a friend from Beijing sent me this little joke he translated from the Chinese:

"A man went on a blind date and the woman asked him, 'What do you have? A house? A car? Enough money?' The man replied, 'Nothing... but salt'."

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Portrait of Migrants

Last week as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival I went to see not only China correspondent Jonathan Watts and author Peter Hessler, but also Hessler's wife and former China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Leslie Chang.

She wrote a book a few years ago called Factory Girls and she is still quoted widely as an expert on migrant workers.

In the non-fiction book she follows two women in Dongguan near Hong Kong as they try to find their way in the world. One gives Chang access to her diary and in it she writes down her dreams and rules to herself, from how to study hard to how to wear eyeshadow.

Many girls leave their villages when they are 15 or 16 years old, working 14-hour days and getting 100RMB ($15.20) a month. They have to share a room with strangers, hope they won't get cheated and in some cases are keen to learn Cantonese in hopes of getting a better job in southern China.

There are some 150 million migrant workers, Chang says, making their move to the cities the largest migration in human history.

For the young women, moving to the city and getting a job is liberation for them. They are not sheltered in the village or coddled by their parents. They can buy whatever clothes they want, wear makeup, style their hair, get a mobile phone. For them this is individualism.

Chang recalls meeting one of the women in her book every month or so, and each time they met, the young woman would have a different hairstyle, or different make up, different clothes or accessories. It was as if she was trying to find her own identity, Chang observes.

What was also interesting was that with all these young people in the cities, they did not have parents or relatives helping them find their mate. Instead they had to try to figure out the whole dating process themselves. Sometimes this led to quickie marriages, sometimes casual sex. All this is new for China on a large scale.

Some people are more ambitious than others. Hoping to climb up the ladder faster, Chang recalls one of the main characters in her book talks her way into a clerk job and instantly gets 300RMB a month, triple her original salary. From there she had the confidence to move into all kinds of work, including various sales positions in pyramid schemes.

Some one-third of migrants in Shenzhen are willing to take night classes with their own money in order to move up. That is ambition. Whether the education is enough to give them a leg up is another matter, but it seems that it's also about confidence and being able to talk one's way into a job that helps too.

Chang observed more women than men seemed more keen on bettering themselves and she attributes it to the girls having less education to start with so they feel like they have to do more to catch up.

Also the clock is ticking -- most factories only want to hire people between the ages of 18 and 25. Factory bosses assume women by the age of 25 will get married and have a child, but not all women are married by then, which is why some are keen to get more education so they can get better jobs and stay longer in the workforce if they don't find Mr Right.

Chang also talked about following one of the women back to her hometown for Spring Festival. After the long journey home by train and then several buses they got back to a small brick house and the girl chastised her parents for the run-down kitchen looking so dirty and didn't they use garbage cans to dispose of their trash?

This shocked Chang, who thought the girl would return home to be an obedient daughter; but instead now that she was the breadwinner in the family, she felt she had a say in how the household was run, and also showing off her superior knowledge she picked up in the city.

These young migrants aren't going to return to the villages once their parents pass away. They are going to stay in the cities because they don't even know how to farm and seeing their parents toil in the fields is not the fate they want. All they know is factory life and yearn to be where the action is.

The government will eventually have to give in and give these people hukou or household registration in the city so that they too can get social benefits like education and health care. These migrants are contributing to the local economy, right? The least the government can do is allow them and their children to feel more welcome in the cities.

After all the government expects more people to live in urban areas so why not make more provisions for them so they can live a more equal life as those with hukou. That's all they want really. Why treat those who have build China's economy to what it is now like second-class citizens?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Wrapped up in Bruckner

The Leipzig Gerwandhaus Orchestra led by Riccardo Chailly

A few weeks ago my uncle gave me a pair of tickets to a concert at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. It was part of the 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival, featuring the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from Leipzig, Germany.

They were good seats too -- in the HK$880 ($112.87) range. He had won the tickets in a lucky draw said he had another engagement that day; knowing that I enjoy listening to classical music, he passed them onto me.

At first I asked an acquaintance who is a musician and composer to go with me, but she was not available. "But you should go because they're really good," she encouraged.

So I asked another friend who I hadn't seen since I came back to Hong Kong and she agreed to come to the concert last night.

When we got into the concert hall the attendants told us the concert would be 90 minutes long without a break -- we were in for a long-haul musical journey.

The Leipzig Gergandhaus Orchestra was founded in 1743 by 16 merchants who started a concert society. It was named Gerwandhaus after the house where the clothe merchants met, and finally adopted the Gerwandhaus Orchestra title in 1791.

Conductor Riccardo Chailly
The current orchestra was led by conductor Riccardo Chailly, a Milanese who has led several top orchestras, including the Berlin, Vienna and New York Philharmonics. He first conducted the Gerwandhaus Orchestra in 1986 and then took up the position of music director in 2005.

Last night they performed Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 in C minor, WAB108 which required not only stamina, but also skill and passion, something both parties delivered on stage.

The huge orchestra filed in, and included a large percussion section and three harps. The members were placed differently than most orchestra setups, with the violins closest to the conductor on his left and right sides, followed by the violas, cellists and bassists were on the left and behind them the tubas. The harpists were on the far right and as usual the winds as the back. As far as I could tell there was only one Asian in the orchestra, a Korean playing the violin with furrowed brows and longish hair to project his artiste look.

I don't know enough about the music to expound on it, but to say that it sounded a lot like movie music, with its dramatic crescendos building up to a climax and then subsiding, only to start again and subside like waves before the movement ended. Another observation was the excellent skill of the musicians, the violinists in particular, who at some points moved their bows back and forth on the strings so quickly and yet the softest sound emanated from them. The same goes for the percussionist playing the drums who also kept the beat at times in the background, again very quietly.

Despite the excellent performances, some members of the audience could not sit still without playing with their cell phones for an hour and a half. The woman sitting next to me kept flipping through her program very loudly and was at a loss of what to do to kill the time. How about concentrating on the music? The man in front of her had finessed the art of passing time by quietly reading through the entire program while the orchestra was playing, but when he was done he managed to sit to the end.

It's interesting how people become so attached to their gadgets -- how will the next generation fare not being able to touch their gadgets for a two-hour concert?

In the end the audience clapped loudly for the orchestra and Chailly, who lapped up the attention. He came out several times, thanking members of the orchestra and going back inside. We were expecting an encore, but it never came. "Perhaps if he did an encore it would take another hour," my friend quipped.

Symphony No. 8 in C minor, WAB108
(1890 Nowak version)
Allegro moderato
Scherzo, Allegro moderato
Adagio, Feierlich langsam; doch nicht schleppend
Finale, Feierlich, nicht schnell

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Admonishment from Beijing

Yesterday Premier Wen Jiabao urged Hong Kong to use its ample reserves and public revenue to take better care of the poor and vulnerable.

"With sufficient government revenue and ample foreign exchange reserves, Hong Kong needs to make the most of the favourable conditions to improve its social safety net," he said. "In particular, to take good care of the vulnerable groups, thus making people in Hong Kong live a better life."

He said this during the press conference that concludes the National People's Congress (NPC), responding to a question about Hong Kong's widening wealth gap.

Wen is hinting the Hong Kong government is being stingy with its money and not doing enough for the underprivileged. But perhaps he was particularly referring to the many mainland Chinese, the poor ones who come here seeking a better life, but find it much harder than they imagined. Also they are not eligible for the HK$6,000 ($769.50) Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah plans to give to all permanent Hong Kong residents and recently the media have done many stories on these immigrants who could really use the extra cash.

One wealthy expat was so moved by the story of one particular family that barely had enough money to live month to month that he sent them a cheque of HK$6,000 to which they were extremely grateful.

So why isn't the government doing the same or even better, taking the lead?

How about giving these people housing and transport subsidies, access to remedial education or skills training, and day care for their young children? That is long term thinking.

Why not set up education foundations for children of poor families to ensure these students have a means of going to school or giving them the resources they need to perform academically well regardless of their economic background?

Isn't that what Hong Kong is about? Giving people a chance?

Historically the then British colony was a place of refuge that sheltered refugees from China escaping attacks from the Japanese and later the Communists.

It was here that they were given a chance to have a fresh start, to rebuild their lives and Hong Kong gave them that opportunity.

Now it has become a cosmopolitan metropolis, but it is shutting out the poor or even the lower middle class as they struggle to buy a flat or get decent paying jobs.

To keep the diversity of the social make up of the city which makes it a dynamic place to live, the government needs to help those in need with subsidies and resources.

Or has the government decided to leave them behind?

Monday, 14 March 2011

Damage Control

The biggest fear in Fukushima, Japan is if there will be a meltdown at the nuclear reactor there and people are either trying to get out or prepare themselves... somehow.

Japan has 55 nuclear power plants, more than any other country besides the United States and France.

While survivors are trying to pick up the pieces after the 8.9-magnitude earthquake on Friday, the Japanese people's greatest concern is not trusting the authorities to tell them everything they know.

"We need them to be more honest," said Kuni, 63, who declined to give his first name. "They may be telling the truth. They may not. We really don't know."

Ken Sasaki, 40, a construction ministry official, said the television images of the reactor building's top blown off didn't lead to great confidence.

"Personally, nuclear power makes me a bit nervous," he said. "But as a nation, I think we still need it."

While the government has issued evacuation orders for a 20-kilometre radius around the complex that affects around 180,000 people, the locals also don't trust Tepco, the company that runs the nuclear power plant.

Tepco hasn't had a good reputation of being forthcoming about nuclear safety issues.

In 2003, all 17 of its nuclear plants were shut down temporarily after a scandal over falsified safety-inspection reports.

Three years later it ran into trouble again when it emerged that coolant water data at two plants had been falsified in the 1990s.

There are also concerns about the safety of many of the country's nuclear plants as many of them date back to the 1970s and 1980s.

"I have been warning about Japan's possibility of a genpatsu shinsai -- a nuclear disaster," said Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and professor emeritus at Kobe University. He said Fukushima was only one of a number of nuclear facilities in seismically unsafe areas.

It's really interesting to observe that even the Japanese, who many of us have an impression are dutiful citizens and obey their leaders, doubt the government is telling them the truth.

The situation with the nuclear plant at Fukushima reveals the lack of distrust -- something that would be practically normal in China, and would definitely have raised eyebrows and probably even protests in Hong Kong.

It looks like Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his government have major tasks to do -- not only to get this disaster under control, but also rebuild its credibility.

And despite the horrific images of destruction on television, it seems the latter is even more critical right now.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Learning from the Japanese

Everyone has been talking about the earthquake and tsunami that hit Sendai, Japan on Friday afternoon.

The images have been jaw-dropping, the black waves push inward, taking everything in their path. Homes are completely destroyed and submerged in water, cars and trucks washed away like toys, and people stranded on rooftops.

A relative said to me today that Chinese media were talking about how orderly the Japanese were in reacting to the earthquake and how they dealt with the situation. All escape routes in company buildings are meticulously planned so that meeting points don't clash with neighbouring firms, and how everyone patiently queued to use the payphone as mobile phone service was down. They also quietly waited in line for the grocery store to open, and repair men even apologized for arriving at a home at midnight to help get power back on.

But would that happen in Hong Kong or China? She said people in Hong Kong would be elbowing past everyone else to get to the pay phone and not caring about anyone else. They would be complaining if the repair men came late. In China people would probably wait in line to get into the supermarket and grab everything on the shelves so that there would be nothing left for other people. I joked that they would buy everything in the store and then sell the food and water at marked up prices.

She said the Hong Kong media were saying we have a lot to learn from the Japanese when it comes to dealing with natural disasters.

Earlier I watched a New York Times video in which Andrew Revkin of Dot Earth explains Japan has three attributes -- wealth, technology and motivation. He said most countries have the first two, but not motivation. The Japanese have lived with earthquakes all their lives and so they know how to prepare for them and they know what to do in an earthquake so they try to have seismic buildings and plan for earthquakes. However places like the Pacific Northwest, Oregon in particular are not ready for earthquakes with schools not up to seismic standards but also because the last earthquake was 300 years ago and people think it will not happen to them.

The devastation in Japan looks horrific and it will take a few more days to properly assess the damage that currently can only be seen from helicopters. It makes you wonder if you are not only prepare for an earthquake but mentally prepared to survive days or even weeks before being rescued.

We can only watch but also admire the Japanese for their resilience. They are determined to make their lives normal again and they will.

In the meantime we need to take stock and think about what we would do in an earthquake. Are we ready?

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Driving Through China

Peter Hessler signing books afterward his talk
On Wednesday I went to hear journalist, writer and author Peter Hessler speak as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. He gave a humorous account of his drive across northern China as an assignment for National Geographic to follow the Great Wall.

He explained that when he drove on his adventure in 2001, there were 44 million Chinese with driver's licenses and last year it ballooned to 140 million. And on top of that 35 percent of the people in 2001 had been driving for less than three years. That's the equivalent of cities filled with 16-year-olds who have just gotten their driver's licenses which makes for perilous driving in the cities. However Hessler only drove out of the city, not within it.

One would think getting maps wouldn't be difficult, but the ones he found gave the vaguest indication of where things are, the scale and many highways or roads didn't even have names. It was later he found out that high quality maps were virtually impossible to get because they were for military use, not leisure driving. So he would have to ask for directions along the way.

During his presentation Hessler showed pictures he took along his journey. He was amazed to find hardly any cars on the highways but there were also warnings not to drive dangerously. One photograph showed a totaled car placed on a pillar as an example of what could happen to you if you don't drive carefully. Another was a sign that read: 40km/h is safest; 80km/h is dangerous; 100km/h will take you to the hospital.

He also described his experience of renting a car in Beijing. One of the conditions of the contract said he was not supposed to take the car out of Beijing. And upon returning the car it would be inspected to see if there was any damage the driver would have to shell out for. He knew this at the time, but also knew that if he told them he was driving the car out of the capital, he would never be able to rent it. He ended up driving the car all the way to Inner Mongolia and back, putting on 4,000 miles or 10,000 kilometres on it.

When he returned the car, the rental company guy were so shocked to see so much mileage on it. They asked him where he took the car. Hessler said he could have lied, but said he took it out to Hebei Province... and then further out... and then all the way to Inner Mongolia and back. The rental car guy called his colleagues over and announced proudly that the laowai (foreigner) had driven the car all the way to Inner Mongolia! How about that!

Oh and the car? It was a Jeep Cherokee, but at that time car sales let along SUVs hadn't taken off yet in China so they were sold cheaply. How? With the four-wheel drive taken out. As a result Hessler was stuck many times in creek beds and in the snow. He had to enlist the help of farmers nearby to pull him out with their tractors.

He also noticed on the desolate highways that there were no highway patrol despite China being such a police state. However, there were many wooden statues of policemen periodically along the roads and Hessler took many pictures of them. He even showed us an inflated one, but it was very expensive because the base had the fan that blew the air to keep the policeman standing up.

What Hessler didn't expect was to see hitchhikers along the road and picked up some of them. Most of them were shocked to see a foreigner driving but were too shy to say anything as most of his passengers were women migrants. They were mostly hitching rides out of their villages and while he tried to make conversation with them, it didn't get too far, probably because he was a foreigner despite speaking fluent Mandarin.

He made the observation that the younger generation tries very hard to differentiate themselves from their parents and grandparents by the way they dress and their habits. What is also interesting to note is that when he visited villages he would ask them the population and many would say it was cut in half. Anyone who was of working age had left to go to bigger cities to work, leaving behind the elderly, babies and disabled.

This has also changed the social dynamic where previously the younger generation would obey their elders, but now they don't ask them for advice partly because they aren't there. Kids in the villages depend more on their teachers for support as they only see their parents once a year. This social development will lead to the death of villages as young people refuse to go back to their hometowns and prefer the excitement of the city.

After his presentation, someone asked what was next for Hessler and he announced he and his family -- Leslie Chang and two nine-month-old babies -- will move to the Middle East in the summer. He explained that he enjoyed the challenge of learning a new language in adulthood and wanted to do that again but this time with Arabic.

He admits his life has been filled with a series of good fortunes -- going to teach English for the Peace Corps in a small village in Sichuan which gave him material for River Town, followed by freelancing long-form feature stories for the South China Morning Post, The New Yorker and National Geographic as well as two other books, Oracle Bones and last year's Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. As one of my peers, he is one of the last few able to write long pieces in a time where we constantly consume bite-sized information.

Friday, 11 March 2011

One Big Happy Family

Breaking news, folks -- all is well in the Stanley Ho household(s).

The second lawsuit the 89-year-old casino tycoon filed on February 16 naming his daughters Pansy Ho Chiu-king and Daisy Ho Chiu-fung was withdrawn five days later and now there is a truce in the family.

"All members of the Ho family have reached full and final agreement based on the principle of 'mutual understanding and mutual accommodation'," said a statement last night signed by Ho on behalf of "all members of the Ho family".

The statement continued to say "A deed settlement was executed March 8 between all branches of the Ho family. We have agreed that we shall work together and continue to develop the gambling business in Macau founded by Dr Ho and operated by the Ho family to enable it to flourish. All the Ho family members shall work together and discharge our duties to further the development of the business of [private Macau holding company] STDM and SJM Holdings with a view of achieving greater contribution to the prosperity and stability of Macau, Hong Kong and China."

Ho's fourth wife, Angela Leong On-kei refused to divulge details, but said: "Mr Ho's shares were distributed among our four families, but it's not appropriate for me to disclose the proportions... it was a mutual understanding and accommodation to make the agreement possible. The most important thing is that the structure of SJM's board of directors and the developmental direction will not be affected," she said.

SJM and STDM are the companies involved in casino operations as well as private investments and they are under the holding company Lanceford that Ho originally lost control of.

Ho's lawyer Gordon Oldham also refused to say anymore except that it was a "settlement between the four parties and Dr Ho to resolve their differences and for each to go their own way".

What's most interesting is that Hong Kong media are speculating the Central Government, ie. Beijing stepped in to mediate in the family dispute.

Whether this is true or not we'll have to see. But it could be possible since China has so much to gain from Macau -- especially those casino winnings...

In the meantime will the Ho family finally live happily ever after?

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Mass Evacuation with Chinese Characteristics

China is breathing a sigh of relief now that it has gotten over 35,000 of its citizens out of Libya.

Excuse me -- how many?

It's 35,860 to be exact.

Of all the countries with expatriates working in Libya, China had the most and had to undertake the largest evacuation in the history of the Chinese Communist Party.

This meant a major test of China's logistics and transport, which included 91 domestic chartered flights, 12 flights by military airplanes, five cargo ferries, one escort ship, 35 rented foreign chartered flights, 11 voyages by foreign passenger liners, and about 100 bus runs.

All these Chinese were working on Chinese projects or businesses in Libya, 75 of which were companies, and 50 that were projects. There were also at least 27 Chinese construction sites or camps that were robbed or attacked before the people were evacuated.

Many of them were probably in construction, as China prefers using its own people and not local people on projects from building roads to buildings. Part of it is communication and work ethic, but mostly it's because of trust and giving employment to Chinese would probably lead to subsidies for the employers.

The crisis in Libya and the subsequent evacuation has probably made the Chinese government and companies think twice about investing in despotic countries. Having to evacuate so many people must have caused them a great scare and not to mention billions of dollars down the drain due to sites being attacked and damaged.

So while the Chinese government may prefer cozying up to these despotic states because it's so much easier doing business, the safety and welfare of its citizens should be paramount. While you may want to bring in your own workers, how can you ensure they will be protected when the leader you dealt with is going down in flames?

In the meantime the people are just grateful to the Chinese government for getting them out of what is clearly a dangerous situation. Dai Huidong, a construction worker, was so worried about what might happen to him that he wrote a will.

"I could not sleep. I thought I was about to die," he was quoted by Xinhua as saying. "In the middle of the night, I got up and wrote a few lines on paper, hoping my family would learn what happened to me eventually."

So when they touched down at Beijing Capital International Airport, he had tears in his eyes.

Another worker, Xiong Xueyin, 27, was also scared, as this was his first job overseas.

"I was afraid that I might die before I could bring the money back. It is not worth it," he said. "It is a relief that we are all safely back."

Will they go back to Libya once the fighting stops and some semblance of stability emerges?

They will probably think twice and the Chinese government will have to think of plan B.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Tough Critics

Donald Tsang trying to make himself understood in Putonghua at Peking University

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen faced a pretty tough audience earlier this week.

They didn't rough him up like what happened to him a week ago, but he faced some tough criticism on his Putonghua.

He gave a speech at Peking University on Monday and spoke about the internationalization of the renminbi in Mandarin.

But his serious topic was of no interest to the students -- they just wanted to complain about his Putonghua.

"I have visited Hong Kong many times," one student said, citing two occasions on which he had to speak English to pedestrians to make himself understood. "I think many mainlanders have encountered this problem in Hong Kong. Chief Executive, do you think it is necessary to promote Putonghua in Hong Kong?"

Tsang quickly apologized before the audience of some 1,000 people that included teachers and students.

"One has to go through a process of learning," he explained. "I did not start learning Putonghua until in my 40s. So please excuse me for not speaking well."

However he added, "Our primary and secondary school students are learning [Putonghua] quite well. I believe the pupils can use it well after several years of learning.

"Many of our young civil servants speak Putonghua very fluently. Thank you for your reminder. We will continue to make the efforts," he said.

One of the students who attended the speech, Xi Jing, said it took him a while to adjust to Tsang's Putonghua.

However, Tony Yung Wah-kwok, a Hong Konger studying law at Tsinghua University said the chief executive's Putonghua had improved, but still needed some work.

Criticism of Tsang's Putonghua clearly illustrates the wide gulf between Hong Kong and China. People in Hong Kong have been speaking Cantonese for generations and it's only since the handover have a large number of people been really learning Mandarin.

While some kids may speak it well, many don't speak it often because they don't need to in Hong Kong. It's only when they work in retail, hospitality or tourism do they really need to use Putonghua and even then it's less than perfect.

Why do these mainlanders expect perfect Putonghua just because Hong Kong is a part of China? It's practically a new language for Cantonese people to learn as they have strong southern accents.

Most Hong Kong people have been speaking Mandarin for less than 20 years -- if by 2047, when "one country, two systems" runs out and the majority of Hong Kongers still don't speak perfect Mandarin, then yes, criticize all you want.

In the meantime we'll struggle with our Putonghua and you struggle to understand us. "One country, two systems" is a work in progress, folks.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Truth About Consumption

Last night I went to one of the events that is part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and was co-hosted by the Royal Geographical Society.

Jonathan Watts is the Asia environment correspondent, probably the only person specializing in this in the region. He has been in China for about seven years and previous to that was in Japan.

When Watts was a young boy in North London, he was told that if all the people in China jumped at the same time, It would create such a force that the earth would spin off its axis and fly off in the universe. The image made such a deep impression on him which is why the title of his book is When A Billion Chinese Jump.

Watts came to talk about his book and also his thoughts on how the Chinese government is tackling environmental issues with the ongoing NPC and CPPCC sessions.

Through a video and slide show presentation, Watts showed shocking images of dried up river beds, polluted water, hazy skies, people getting sick from the environment and beautiful scenery that is relatively untouched during his travels through the country.

He said in the upcoming five-year plan is significant because it previously only affected one country, but now what China does will affect the colour of the sky and the temperature of the planet. The current situation has forced the Chinese government to make changes, limiting the amount of energy consumed and the resources used. It'll be interesting to see if it can enforce this, but it's a good first step in trying to slow down the wreckage of the environment and start to try to find a way that is more sustainable.

The main problem, he said is that people in China want to be like us -- they want to emulate our lifestyles. And we in the west have done nothing to curb our desire to consume. When people in the audience heard this -- mostly Brits wearing designer threads and carrying brand name bags -- they probably felt uncomfortable hearing the truth.

He was trying to explain that while the environmental problems he is seeing, like the extinction of the Baiji river dolphin, cancer villages and dried up riverbeds, we too are to blame for these results. We are the ones who are driving the demand to consume and China is just trying to fulfill it by raping its natural resources and causing major environmental disasters.

The challenge for China now, he said, is for it to find ways to lower consumption, and also to find a development path that focuses on quality over quantity. He says this is China's big test in the next five to 10 years. He added this will also challenge the government in how it gets buy-in from the people -- it may have to become more open in order to get people to agree to changes. If the government continues in its repressive way it could lead to even more civil unrest and not get the desired results.

A Hong Kong woman asked Watts if one-party rule was the answer for China in tackling such big environmental issues. He basically said no because you need freedom of the press and speech to have accountability of the government particularly when it comes to law enforcement, but also that one-party rule is very inefficient and orders don't always filter down to the grass roots level.

Afterwards I heard some people in the audience talking about the shocking images Watts presented and talked about -- perhaps they haven't visited China or read enough about it to know that what he reports on happens on a daily basis. I find there is a huge disconnect between Hong Kong and China, but also how the former is almost a pure capitalist society where consumption drives the city. You are bombarded with images everyday of glamour and name brands, flashy cars and designer handbags that you are practically living in a high-class bubble and want to have a part of the action.

However my three years in Beijing have taught me that I have much more than my friends there in terms of material goods -- in fact too much. The simple lifestyle there showed me I didn't need a lot of things to be happy; having enough to eat, a secure place to live in and just buying necessities was enough to live on. Wearing designer clothes there had no effect because people either didn't recognize them or would think they were fake.

So now in Hong Kong I am trying to continue that lifestyle I had in Beijing, though things here cost much more. In this way I try to keep things real and not get wrapped up in a commercial illusion.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Fact of the Day: China Needs More Malls

Does China really need more malls like this?

Singapore developer CapitaLand believes China needs more shopping malls so it's planning to build 45 more in the next three to five years to make its total to 100.

"Today China has no more than 2,000 malls," said Liew Mun Leong, president and chief executive of CapitaLand. "How many shopping malls will China need? We did our calculations -- 15,000," Liew said.

"If you look at China's consumption, it is now at 35 percent [of the gross domestic product]. We think it will go up to at least 50 percent."

That's a lot of retail therapy.

He may be right when looking at the National Statistics Bureau numbers that disposable per capita income is growing at 13 percent a year on average. Retail sales were up 18.4 percent last year and analysts believe the rise will continue.

But does China really need 15,000 malls? And with the huge wealth gap, the per capita numbers look good, but in reality the income disparity reveals most of the money is in the hands of the few super rich, while the rest are still just managing financially.

Anyway after a certain point all the malls start to look the same with the same stores... what's so special about that?

Why not support local businesses and try to create homegrown brands... isn't that what the Chinese government want to do -- show the world that China doesn't just manufacture products but designs them too?

Comrades! Time to get out of the mall and get creative!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Giving Sharks Some Reprieve

Shark fins drying on the sidewalk in Western District

A bill was recently introduced in California, Oregon and Washington State to not only ban the sale and possession of shark fin but also to serve it.

Reaction in San Francisco's Chinatown was mixed, with allegations that the ban amounted to "the Chinese Exclusion Act in a bowl" from those who sold shark fin and served it, while the younger generation embraced the bill.

The piece of legislation, which is similar to the one in Hawaii, is meant to stop the practice of shark finning, where fins are hacked off live sharks and then they are thrown back into the ocean to die a slow death.

In Hong Kong, there has been a renewed uproar over the continued sale of shark fin in the last few months, when a British photographer took pictures of thousands of shark fins laid out on the sidewalk to dry in Western district.

However, the government hasn't done or said anything to curtail it. Some companies publicly declare they will not order the thick soup at banquets, but upscale hotels and Chinese restaurants continue to have it on the menu. Hong Kong's Disneyland seems to be the only one saying it doesn't serve shark's fin for banquets, and while the decisive decision hurt business in the beginning, environmentally aware wedding couples are still keen to hold their nuptials there.

It's an uncomfortable balancing act the city is doing as market demands outweigh environmental ones, even if scientists claim as much as 90 percent of the shark species have disappeared as 73 million sharks are killed each year.

The Hong Kong government doesn't seem willing to put its foot down to take a stand on the issue (apparently Hong Kong handles 50 to 80 percent of the world's shark fin trade) so it's going to be up to consumers to make the choice with their wallets.

Personally if the soup was placed in front of me, I wouldn't refuse it. It's more about the flavour of the broth than the actual shark fin, which does prove the culinary skills of the chef.

I would never order it -- mostly because I can't afford it. These days the cheap shark fin soups have tiny strands of shark's fin mixed in with other ingredients. I remember the days of having a bowl of clear chicken broth seasoned with Chinese ham and in it a thick chunk of shark fin.

Those days are long gone and probably never to return.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Wishful Thinking

The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) wants to get more young Hong Kong people involved and groom them into "patriotic forces".

The proposal was laid out by CPPCC chairman Jia Qinglin Thursday at the opening of the plenary session.

"We will expand channels of communication with influential figures from all walks of life in Hong Kong and Macau, strengthen contacts with political groups, social groups and representative figures from the two regions, and increase the strength of our work related to young people from the two regions," he said.

Jia added the aim was to constantly develop and expand the patriotic forces in the two cities.

The announcement followed the rise in protests by young people in Hong Kong, especially earlier this week when 25-year-old Steve Wong Chun-kit allegedly assaulted Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen at an event at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Wong was protesting about the government's budget.

Professor Lau Siu-kai, a local delegate to the CPPCC and head of Hong Kong's Central Policy Unit said Beijing was very concerned about the grievances of the post-80s generation.

"It is not only in this report," Lau said. "He [Jia] has told me about this before. In my understanding, the central government pays close attention to Hong Kong's young people, especially post-80s. The government is concerned about their future development, and also their knowledge of China.

"Their anxiety and discontent about the development of the current political system is rising and being expressed through many different channels," continued Lau. "They are questioning the rationality of the current situation and the legitimacy of the current system."

How does Beijing propose to reach out to the young people of Hong Kong and Macau?

Do they really think the post-80s generation in these two cities want to have a dialogue with the Communist Party of China?

To them, China stands for everything they are not.

They read the news about how Chinese citizens are suppressed there and don't get to practice human rights like freedom of speech and protest, and they see the government's mentality that money can solve all its problems which isn't always the case. The environment is one of them.

There is a huge gulf between the establishment and the younger generation, and the CPPCC's hope of bringing these young rebels into the fold is very slim. If one of them did cross over to the dark side, he or she would be considered a traitor or accused of selling out.

These people are not the relatively docile and obedient peers found within the mainland.

For the government, these post-80s know too much to be controlled, which for Beijing is a dangerous thing.