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things may have seemed to be improving after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the dreaded extradition bill would be withdrawn.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.

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.

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

Who needs April Fools Day anymore?

April 1 is tomorrow and I’m sure most of us know what that means. But the thing is who needs April Fools’ Day now, when it seems like idiocy and absurdity are around us all the time in the world? Paraphrasing a comment I saw on an online forum about a Southeast Asian country, I can extend it to the world and say it’s almost as if every day is April Fools.

The most obvious example might be the UK and its ongoing Brexit mess. Despite the original deadline actually having just passed (April 29), the British parliament are still unable to decide what they want to do. Every day there is some kind of vote, which always fails, and the prime minister even promised to resign if MPs would support her bill, but even then she failed. The British parliamentarians can’t agree on whether to support Brexit, whether to hold an election, whether to have a full or a partial Brexit. It’s a little frustrating to me so one can imagine what lots of British people must be thinking.

In the US, you’ve still got a joker in power but at least he’s not a Russian stooge, or at least there wasn’t enough proof. It hasn’t stopped Donald Trump from feeling even more confident and giving his enemies verbal jabs in bombastic speeches and tweets.

In Hong Kong, the government has decided to solve the problem of inadequate public housing and supposed lack of land by building thousands of homes on new man-made islands in the sea. And it will only cost at least US$80 billion (HK$624 billion). Keep in mind this is Hong Kong, which boasts one of the world’s most pro-big business, pro-tycoons governments, and one would have to be dreaming to think that US$80 billion will be spent on affordable housing.

With all this nonsense happening in real life, it’s going to be tough to come up with convincing April Fools’ stories. Talking to colleagues last week, maybe only something uncontroversial and banal would do like “UK leaders decide what they want for Brexit” or “Donald Trump says [something sensible]”.

Doing the unthinkable in Hong Kong- slowing down

I’ve been spending some time in Hong Kong recently so I think it’s fitting I publish this short essay below which I first wrote last year on whether Hong Kong should try and slow down.

As a major regional business hub, many Hong Kongers take pride in working and talking quickly. An English-language book released by a local well-known HK writer a few years ago (and which I bought) was titled “No Place for Slow Men,” implying only fast doers thrive in Hong Kong. Indeed, Hong Kong is full of fast talkers and movers and shakers. But is this really something to continue to be proud of?

While Hong Kong is a bustling business hub that tops many business-related lists, it has developed an unabashed money-first mentality and a stressful society that lags in certain measures of livelihood including happiness. Maybe Hong Kong should take a look at elsewhere in the region.

Take Taiwan as an example. The stereotypical image of Taiwanese are of people that are laid-back, friendly and not in a rush. While there is a lot of truth to it, the fact is the “laid-back” Taiwanese are not sitting around relaxing and doing nothing. Many working Taiwanese face just as much or even more stressed than their counterparts in Hong Kong. Salaries are much lower, annual leaves are shorter, and working hours are among the highest in the world.

Frankly, as someone who has worked in both Hong Kong and Taipei as well as on the mainland, my Hong Kong colleagues were no more hardworking than those in Taiwan or Beijing, actually took more days off and seemed the most happiest, spending much more time hanging out in the office and chatting.

When it comes to customer service, the difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong is like night and day. And the politeness is matched by efficiency. As someone who has lived in Taiwan, I can safely say that going to the bank, hospital or convenience store is almost always a quick and efficient experience. Over the last decade, I have flown on Taiwanese airlines Eva Airlines and China Airlines as well as Cathay Pacific many times and I would say service on Eva and CA are better than Cathay, especially in recent years.

Going beyond work ethic and customer service, Taiwan has achieved significant progress in areas like recycling and e-government.

In Taipei, residents must separate food waste, paper, plastics and regular garbage into different bags so they can be recycled accordingly. In contrast, the HK residential building I lived in did not offer any recycling so I had to take my paper waste to the public bin out on the street or even to my workplace. The local recycling industry is small as the vast majority of Hong Kong’s waste is sent to mainland China. Hong Kong has no paper recycling plants nor is food waste able to be utilized. Hong Kong is however set to implement a new garbage fee on the public to help reduce waste. Similar schemes have already been undertaken in Taipei and Seoul, while Hong Kong’s will start, not right away, but sometime in late 2019. It is striking that the speed with which Hong Kong authorities approach business-related matters is not replicated in policies that are not economic-related.

Let’s also look at Hong Kong’s regional rival Singapore. Almost every other week, it seems there is at least one article in local media about yet another area in which Singapore has outperformed Hong Kong. Yet I remember once overhearing in my workplace elevator a Hong Kong lady give her opinion on Singapore to someone next to her, “It’s alright, but the people walk so slowly there! They are not fast like us [Hong Kongers].”

Nevertheless, those Singaporean “slowpokes” have outpaced Hong Kong in things like Smart City initiatives and mega-projects like Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa. One can just as easily look at the more spacious and green urban layout and the affordable and bigger public housing flats, and see a big gulf between Hong Kong and Singapore in the latter’s favour.

Hong Kongers might still revel in thinking they walk and talk very fast, but that hasn’t prevented others from overtaking them in many aspects. As unpalatable as it might sound to Hong Kongers, being less obsessed with moving fast, taking the time to concentrate on issues other than business, and being more considerate might actually be a good thing.

Maybe it is time Hong Kongers should consider slowing down a bit, and realize fast is not always the best.