Hong Kong protests reach 100 days

It’s been 100 days since the Hong Kong protests started, which means Hong Kong’s protests are now into their fourth month. On the surface, things may have seemed to be improving after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the dreaded extradition bill would be withdrawn.

But in reality, there have been ramped up violence, not just on the streets, but in the airport and the subway stations. Even worse is that besides protester clashes with police, who themselves have committed some brutal acts, there have been savage fights between protesters and pro-government/China thugs. It’s getting to the point where each successive weekend brings on more protests and violence, which seemingly outdoes the previous weekend’s clashes.

While I support the protests and I like that many Hong Kongers are discovering a growing sense of identity, I think that some protesters are resorting too much to violent means such as throwing firebombs, vandalizing MTR stations, and beating up individuals (the rationale is that pro-government thugs have been doing the same so revenge is necessary).

That said, there have been peaceful protests. While you might have seen news scenes of protesters facing off against riot police, there are peaceful protest actions taking place, often during the week. These involve human chains across Hong Kong, atop mountains, and even in front of schools. There have been rallies by medical workers, teachers, seniors, students, and even civil servants.

Besides these, I hope that people can focus on more non-violent means of protest such as general strikes (which have already been tried but should be tried again), boycotts, and even blocking off malls and hotels owned by local tycoons.

There is a lot of debate on the root causes of the protests, beside the opposition to the extradition bill.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s top financial hubs but unlike other hubs like New York and London, it is only that and nothing more. Hong Kong is overcrowded and cramped, heavily dependent on finance and commerce, while the local cultural scene (arts, music, writing) is very small. I wrote an article last month arguing that Hong Kong has been failing itself and its people long before these protests.

But unlike some pro-government people or Chinese state propaganda, I am not claiming that the issue is only economic. People are not going to simply stop protesting or start liking China if they get bigger homes or more money. The problems of Hong Kong are both economic and political, with an elitist and out of touch government combining subservience to the central government in China with the coddling of local HK tycoons.

Hong Kong has a limited democratic system in which only half of the legislators are elected by the general population while the other half are elected by sectors. So basically, corporations literally vote for their own lawmakers, which makes Hong Kong unique in a dubious way. And people cannot vote for the chief executive at all, as she is chosen by a committee of 1,300 people, most of whom are pro-government, and this is after being approved by a much smaller screening committee.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s political and civil freedoms have been gradually curtailed over the past few years as opposition lawmakers have been disqualified for petty reasons, and protest leaders of 2014’s Umbrella Movement have been arrested. You’ve also had booksellers being kidnapped in Hong Kong and detained in China, while a Financial Times editor being effectively banned from Hong Kong after his journalism visa was not renewed.

The protests have led to an unofficial anthem as well as a slogan – “Liberate Hong Kong- revolution of our time“. Some people mean it literally while others do not, but it is clear as I mentioned above, there is a growing consciousness of a Hong Kong identity.

After over three months of protests and street clashes, Hong Kong’s economy is suffering. Tourism is down, retail sales are down, and Hong Kong’s credit rating even got downgraded by Fitch earlier in September. But that is actually part of the plan for some protesters. Because even when Hong Kong was thriving, many people were not benefiting.

Tourism for instance is largely dependent on mainland Chinese visitors and much of what they do and buy only benefits a small group of people. It’s the reason you see so many identical chain stores and pharmaceutical stores selling milk powder and so on – they mostly cater to mainland visitors.
I also think Hong Kongers can benefit from doing less shopping and with less malls.

Even property prices and sales are down, and nobody is crying over this.

That said, it is probably not a good idea to visit Hong Kong for a holiday these days. While hotel rates are cheaper and the malls and tourist attractions like Disneyland are much less crowded, you won’t know when a MTR subway station will be closed or when streets will be filled with tear gas and fighting. While my area has not seen much disturbances, that changed on Sunday when quite a bit of fighting took place.

Amid all this, one thing is for sure. This will not be over anytime soon, though a potentially ominous day is coming up.

This is one of the many “Lennon Walls” that have sprung up across Hong Kong, displaying notes of encouragement, posters, and drawings supporting the protests. They also feature announcements of upcoming protests, functioning as a community notice board.

This Could Hurt- book review

Even though my mood has been affected by the turmoil in Hong Kong for two months and counting, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been able to do some reading.

Normally, human resources isn’t exactly the type of topic that great stories are made of, but I have a thing for workplace novels. This Could Hurt- a novel is about a HR head of a New York research marketing firm who goes through some major work drama and crisis, while rallying her team around her.

Rosa Guerrero has risen to the top of the corporate ranks as an executive VP and chief of human resources at her firm. But with a tough economy (the book is set in 2009) and rising unemployment, she faces the hard task of culling headcount at the company, not to mention within her team. Having already been affected by previous rounds of job cuts, the HR department includes a capable female VP of communications who has hit a rut, a dedicated family man who is unfortunately mediocre at his work, an ambitious young Wharton grad, and the VP of employee benefits who is fiercely loyal to Rosa.

Early on, there is controversy over the sudden departure of Rosa’s longtime number two, which has something to do with theft and family issues. But this is only a sideplot, because the story quickly moves on. Having already had to fire her number two, Rosa will need to make a hard decision on firing at least another of the execs on her team mentioned above. This is where the hardhearted and sometimes deceitful nature of office politics rears its ugly head as people jockey for position to become Rosa’s new number two, criticize their colleagues behind their backs, and plot their way to other jobs whilst neglecting their work.

Workplace drama is only half the story here, as the personal lives of Rosa and her executives also play a significant part. Family tensions, financial problems, and romantic struggles are all issues afflicting the main characters. One person has to cope with his wife cheating on him, while another tries to be more open with his homosexuality. The author does well in focusing on the characters’ personal lives, which makes them believable and sympathetic. Of course, all of the main characters are senior or mid-level executives and from time to time, it’s hard to be too empathetic.

When Rosa suddenly has a stroke which leaves her with serious memory problems but otherwise intact, her staff have to try and pull things together to ensure Rosa and themselves are able to survive the corporate restructuring.

One issue with the book is that the ending, which I won’t divulge, drags on. It’s not too predictable nor saccharine, but there were a few issues that could have been resolved better.

Many years ago, I read and reviewed And Then We Came to the End, a fantastic novel by Joshua Ferris about employees at an advertising agency. While that one still stands out as the best workplace novels I’ve ever read, This Could Hurt runs a close second.

Hong Kong turmoil continues

I’ve been away for a while from here, not because of a break or holiday but because things have been rough recently. Not so much for me personally, but Hong Kong. If you have been keeping up with international news, you’ll know Hong Kong has been through a lot of protests and clashes. Not to mention a general strike, attacks by triads (HK gangsters) in a train station and on the streets, a mall battle between police and protesters, and the vandalism of police stations.

Just this Monday, for the first time in decades, Hong Kong experienced a general strike which even included the airport as hundreds of flights were cancelled due to “sick” air traffic control and other staff. This was followed by several planned rallies, then street protests and clashes between protesters and police in multiple districts. In the morning, there were stoppages on the subway as protesters blocked doors and prevented the subway cars from running. As a result, a lot of people couldn’t come to work and in the afternoon, we got let off early in case there were similar transport disruptions in the evening.
There were even attacks by suspected gangsters on protesters in at least two areas – this led to a scary rumor that triads would be returning to one of these areas on Tuesday to attack people, which resulted in shops closing and people being sent home from nearby offices early, including mine.

All this has caused the Hong Kong government and chief executive Carrie Lam, who spoke on Monday after almost two weeks of refusing to talk to the public, to stick to their usual ineffectual stance of criticizing the protests while not providing any real solutions. China is getting peeved as well, as its officials gave a press conference today where they warned protesters and “foreign forces”. They had given one last week too, which shows how worried they are. But the big question is whether China will send in its PLA soldiers or PAP paramilitary.

Right now, both the HK and Chinese authorities have denied that, but if the protests continue, Beijing might lose patience and send in armed forces. I don’t think it is a coincidence that last week, almost 20,000 Chinese police were at a ceremony in Guangzhou while on Tuesday, thousands of Chinese riot police participated in a drill in Shenzhen. I think if China does send armed forces into Hong Kong, it will be the PAP paramilitary, which I wrote about for Foreign Policy.

I am worried about this possibility. I think the protests and clashes are escalating and that China is growing impatient. At the same time, if Chinese soldiers or paramilitaries actually step into Hong Kong and fight the protesters, that will be a huge red line that once crossed, will damage Hong Kong in so many ways. I don’t think the Chinese government cares about lives, but Hong Kong is an international finance hub, and if it loses that status, China will be terribly affected. After all, so many Chinese companies are in Hong Kong, raising money and conducting transactions, not to mention money laundering.

But while I support the protest movement’s overall goal of stopping the feared extradition bill as well as the broader aims of getting Lam to step down and calling for genuine democracy, I don’t agree with everything that the protesters are doing. They have been clashing a lot with the police on the streets, and over the weekend, took to attacking police stations. The police have done a lot of questionable and excessive actions themselves, but at the same time, it is a fact that some protesters do set out to confront the police as well as that there has been a level of restraint. While the HK police have arrested over 500 people since the protests began in June, keep in mind Russia arrested 1000 protesters in a single day!

I don’t want the protesters and police to batter each other since at the end of the day, they are all Hong Kongers. Even despite the rumors on social media of video clips showing a few Hong Kong policemen talking Mandarin or unable to understand Cantonese, which implies these policemen are mainland Chinese agents, and not real Hong Kongers. What would be worse than the conflicts now is if China’s PLA or PAP comes in and fights the protesters. That is something I hope I am wrong about.

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.