Hong Kong people fight a dreaded law

I’m sure most people, if they’ve watched the news recently, must have seen the events in Hong Kong. There was a million-person march on June 9, a street protest on June 12, capped off by a two-million-person march on June 16. Besides those, there have been smaller protests outside the police headquarters and government buildings, as well as a gathering this past Wednesday ahead of the G-20 meetings in Osaka, Japan.

The reason for all of this is an extradition bill that was proposed by the HK government which would allow extraditions of anybody in HK, including visitors and expats, to mainland China. If passed, this law would mean everyone in Hong Kong could be extradited to the mainland for any perceived offense in its opaque justice system. What this means is that almost every sector of Hong Kong society has expressed concern and fears, from activists, teachers, lawyers, to even businesspeople, who are usually pro-government and pro-China. This explains why Hong Kongers were so angry and desperate that millions of them took to the streets more than once to protest this extradition law.

As most people know, China is an authoritarian country ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. This means the party stands above everything, including the legal system. Chinese courts and judges are all party-controlled and laws are rubber-stamped and arbitrarily applied at the whim of the authorities. Forced confessions, disappearances (Fan Bingbing being a famous example) and a 99% conviction rate (if the state arrests you, that’s it for you) are all common characteristics of the Chinese legal system. There is no uncensored media so you can forget about having journalists cover your case fairly.

While Hong Kong belongs to China, it operates with distinct autonomy under “One Country, Two Systems.” So while China is a communist authoritarian state, Hong Kong retains a partly democratic legislature, media and civic freedoms and rule of law, including an independent judiciary. Over time, China has tried to reduce some of these freedoms via the Hong Kong government, whose chief executive (the title of HK’s leader) is appointed by China.

As someone who’s strongly against China and the CCP and who was born in HK, I support the anti-extradition law movement. I have wrote about this issue and I also took part in two of the marches, which I wrote about as well.

The government was stunned enough, as well as embarrassed, to postpone the extradition bill. There has been talk from government figures that it probably will not be put back on the table again, so in effect it has been withdrawn. However, many people do not trust the authorities and they demand an official withdrawal.

Here are photos of the June 9 march, which featured over a million people. 
People mostly wore white to signify justice.

It was mesmerising to see so many people fill up the street in a sea of white. I stood on this bridge just watching for about 10 minutes, then walked down to rejoin the crowd.

Just across from the government headquarters, which was the final destination of the march, police stood along these barriers to prevent marchers from occupying the road. On June 12, protesters did occupy this road during the day.

Then the following week, on June 16, two million (not a typo) people came out to march. It was definitely much crowded than the previous week and much slower.

In contrast to the previous week, marchers wore black.

Everything under the Heavens-book review

In recent times, China has risen to become arguably the world’s second power and potential global bad guy. China is now an economic, industrial, military and geopolitical power, but not content with this, it is challenging the US for regional supremacy in Asia. China’s huge ambition is driven not just by the urge for power or economic wealth, but also its perceived historical status as the center of its world. As such, China saw itself as the supreme civilization around which smaller and lesser nations and peoples submitted or paid tribute to. Everything under the Heavens- How the past helps shape China’s push for global power explains how this superiority complex came about by looking into China’s past.

The author Howard French, who has extensive experience reporting and writing about Africa and China, delves into China’s relations with different neighbors like Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Delving into history, French shows how China developed tributary relationships with these smaller states on its periphery, as well as its ties to them.

For example, China had control over Vietnam for 1000 years up until the 11th century, after the Vietnamese managed to drive the Chinese out and maintain an independent status (minus a few decades when the Chinese Ming Dynasty invaded and gained control before being driven back out, as well as colonization under the French in the 19th and 20th centuries).

French also goes into China’s trade relationships with the maritime kingdoms in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia, such as Malacca, from which the Straits of Malacca is named. China’s claim and militarization of much of the South China Sea, which lies much closer to Southeast Asia than China, is derived from historical times when supposedly Chinese traders and fishermen sailed most of the sea. While this does not exactly confer ownership to China, somehow its Communist rulers have twisted logic to claim that it does.

It’s easy to see how China came to see itself as the center of the region which it firmly dominated both in scale and power. From the 19th century, the rise of Japan caused a rude shock when it managed to challenge and actually defeat China in a war (which is how Taiwan became a Japanese colony from 1895-1945). However, before that, China’s defeats to the UK and France in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century caused great shame, from which the current Communist regime has milked a “Century of Humiliation” narrative to the present day which fuels both a vindictive desire and victim mentality against the West. For the Communist regime, a return to the days of lore before the 19th century when China was the unquestioned and dominant power in the region is their goal, but the US and other nations must prevent this blast to the past.

French concludes the book with an excellent assessment of the strengths of China and the US, that also goes hand in hand with a good summary of China’s precarious future with declining economic growth and a rapidly aging population. French advocates that the US must try to cooperate with China but be firm when it needs to be. This is exactly the scenario that is playing out now, though cooperation is probably the last thing on both countries’ mind.

Engel’s England, and Better than Fiction-book reviews

If you want to learn more about England beyond the touristy and famous places, Engel’s England is a book you should try. This massive book (over 500 pages) covers the entirety of England as author Matthew Engel visited all 39 historic counties as well as London itself. However, let me first make it clear that this is a book aimed more at English readers than international ones. The book isn’t about introducing the counties to foreign readers but searching out and highlighting the essence of these places. That means it can get really local in some parts, with a lot of local descriptions and references such as obscure traditions or festivals specific to the county, town or village. Engels drove a lot especially to little-known small towns and rural villages, which does make much of the book “off the beaten track.”

This also means that you get a really in-depth feel of these counties and their assorted towns and villages. Big cities are often skipped or briefly mentioned, such as Manchester in the Lancashire chapter. I learnt that Leicestershire still practices foxhunting, while cricket was invented in a southern coastal part of England (I’d always thought it originated more in the middle). I also learnt about Rutland, England’s tiniest county which was actually abolished before being reinstated after a campaign.

I admit parts of it were tough to get through, especially in the beginning, but the more I read, the more I enjoyed it.  Some chapters were a pleasure to read. But in the end, I felt like I completed a major journey of my own.

Lonely Planet sometimes publishes some good collections of travel tales, and Better than Fiction- True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers is one of these. Featuring true travel accounts from 32 fiction writers, the book is packed with fun stories, poignant reflections, narrow escapes and even a reporting trip. That is exactly what travel is like. Travel can be adventurous or scary, uplifting or teach us painful life lessons. Regardless of whatever impact you get out of it, travel should always be something you can treasure.

The stories take place all over the world from Antarctica to Africa to Fiji. The authors include travel writers (of course), as well as literary big names like Joyce Carol Oates and Isabel Allende and detective novelist Alexander McCall Smith. There are some fun stories, but it’s not all fun and games. One of the grimmest stories takes place in Xinjiang, China, where the author hires a driver to visit local places and eventually gets tracked down and stopped by the police, who force her to return to the hotel. The driver was not so fortunate. Even though this was many years ago, Xinjiang was under heavy police control.

It’s a very good anthology of real-life travel stories that shows that travel can be a lot of different things.

 

Hong Kong Island hiking


Hong Kong is a great place to visit and explore, but a tough place to live, at least if you’re not on a hefty expat package. The place is just so crowded, cramped, and even a bit rundown in some parts. I’ve been here for a while now doing some work and it feels even more crowded than a couple of years ago. The politics has been crazier recently, and not in a good way. I wrote something about that and I will probably write more about it here too. But if there’s one positive aspect of Hong Kong, it’s that the hiking is still really good.

There’s a lot of hiking on Hong Kong Island, the small but bustling island that gives Hong Kong its name, especially on its eastern part. While Victoria Peak gives you famous views of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, hiking in Quarry Bay lets you enjoy a ridge walk that takes in Quarry Bay and Tai Tam reservoir and sea to the south (when it’s not hazy). At the easternmost part of Hong Kong Island, there are good hikes to the coast and to peaks that allow you to gaze at Shek O so that you’re looking at the famous views of Dragon’s Back hike, but from a different direction.


Hiking along Mt Butler

Quarry Bay and Tai Koo, which face Kowloon East to the north

Tsueng Kwan O, eastern Hong Kong (not the island). That’s my foot in the photo.

Looking out to Shek O and the southeastern part of Hong Kong Island

Chai Wan, easternmost built-up part of Hong Kong Island

Looking out at the East China Sea and Tung Lung Chau island

Walking the Nile-book review

As the world’s longest and most famous river, the Nile possesses an significant aura of legend, mystery and fascination. Being the cradle of the Egyptian civilization, the Nile has had a role in recorded human history since almost the beginning. But few have ever walked along the entire Nile, which is where British explorer Levison Wood comes in. Starting from the source of the Nile in Rwanda, Wood trekked along the river over 6,437 kilometers (4000 miles) with various African guides through Uganda, South Sudan, and Sudan to its end in Egypt where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. This journey is the subject of Wood’s Walking the Nile.

The journey starts off in Rwanda, where, contrary to popular belief, the Nile begins from a humble forest spring that becomes a river flowing to Lake Victoria, where the source was previously thought of as being. During these early stages, Wood and his brash and jaunty guide-turned-friend Ndoole Boston mostly trek through forest and swamp, as well as stay on the shores of Lake Victoria. There are brief pauses at cities like Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and Uganda’s capital Kampala. Wood provides a somber overview of his impressions of Rwanda and its attempt to move on from the horror of the 1994 genocide. While the country has succeeded in becoming an orderly and stable nation, it has also turned into a security state with shades of authoritarianism.

There is also a fair bit of commentary on the history and politics in other countries like Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan, which to me is refreshing. I think that while exploration and travel are great for knowing more about the world, this should include current events or history or politics of places. In a continent like Africa, with its mix of ethnicities and cultures and the impact of colonialism, it’s even more fitting to know more about local history and developments.

Things begin to get really hard as Wood moves northwards. At one point, he is joined by a couple of journalists who plan to walk with him for a week and report on it. Tragically, during an extremely hot day, one of these writers, Matthew Power, gets heatstroke, collapses and then dies. Wood calls for an evacuation and he is understandably shaken. Wood soon resumes the journey while still having some doubts in his mind.

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, presents an extraordinary challenge as it was (and still is) in the grip of a savage civil war. Lots of cash and official help were what got Wood into the country and even then, it was a precarious situation. Wood travels through the Sudd, a large swampland, where he stays with a river cattle-herding tribe, the Mundari, and is bested by them in wrestling. But after reaching the town of Bor, he encountered fighting between rival factions, which forced him to abandon part of the trek. He flies to Sudan and continues it from there. It was sad to read about the savage fighting and dire conditions in this fledgling country, which itself was borne out of war after having fought for its independence for decades against Sudan. It’s hard to feel any optimism for South Sudan.

Sudan does not get much good press or have a good reputation in the world (though this might be changing with the recent peaceful overthrow of its longtime leader). But civil war and conflicts like Darfur aside, Sudan was home to grand ancient civilizations like the Nubian Kushite kingdom. Wood highlights Sudan’s own pyramids in Meroe (capital of the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kush), which might be smaller but no less fascinating and certainly much less crowded than Egypt’s. Part of the journey sees Wood and his companions, including two friends of his, travel through the eastern edge of the Sahara, the Bayuda, which the Romans had ventured thousands of years ago.

When Wood reaches Egypt, things settle down and the journey becomes a steady progression. Walking the Nile is a fine travelogue that combines adventure with current affairs, archaeology and anthropology. It’s not surprising that Wood went on to do further treks through the Himalayas, Central Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and Central America. The man is as intrepid as they come.

 

Europe travel-Vatican Museums, one of the world’s best


When I visited Italy a few years ago, I have to confess that I almost didn’t want to go to the Vatican. I found Rome really fascinating with so much to see. Luckily, I decided to visit the Vatican on my final day in Rome otherwise I would have missed out on one of the best museum experiences in my life. This would be the Vatican Museums, a grouping of fantastic museums boasting beautiful and historic artworks, sculptures and painted ceilings, including Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the famous Sistine Chapel.

The Vatican Museums is a grouping of over 20 Christian and art museums situated within one complex featuring over 50 galleries. It’s designed so that visitors can only go mainly in one direction. It’s smart because it allows you to take in everything on display, prevents people from getting lost, and eventually leads to the Sistine Chapel.

I went on a weekday and it was incredibly crowded, especially at the entrance where the line extended outside and around the corner (I’d booked a ticket online so I got to avoid lining up). Inside was just as crowded, though when you’ve spent time in China as I have, you never mind crowds anywhere else.

The museum is well worth enduring the crowds. There are beautiful paintings, lifelike historical sculptures, colorful painted ceilings, resplendent tapestries, and more. One of the most fascinating exhibits is a gallery of giant color maps of Italy created in the 16th century on the walls on both sides, while the ceiling is filled with golden decor and paintings. There are outdoor courtyard, with one featuring Roman sculptures as well as a more spacious one with lawns and giant bronze orbs.

While most of the artwork and exhibits are hundreds or even over a thousand years old, even dating back to Roman times, there are also galleries with modern contemporary paintings as well as a few done by 20th century masters like van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling is great, though it’s hard to appreciate it fully with all the people inside and the guards yelling at people not to take photos (it’s forbidden, allegedly due to the ceiling’s image rights being owned by a Japanese company; some say it’s to allow people to enjoy the artwork better).

I don’t think I covered everything in the Vatican Museums though I was there for at least 3 hours. I certainly wouldn’t mind going back to visit it.

How to get there: Get off at Ottaviano subway station and walk southwest.
Note: To avoid lining up, buy your ticket online (there is a small booking fee).


Perseus with the head of Medusa