National coronavirus success stories

The coronavirus pandemic still has a grip on most of the world and our lives, but there are a few bright spots. After over three months, here are a few countries in Asia and Oceania that are succeeding in one way or another in containing their respective outbreaks and resuming some parts of normal life.

Taiwan
I might be biased since I’m very pro-Taiwan and reside here, but the fact is much of society is still functioning like normal. This includes schools, offices and stores, as well as sports! As I’ve written before, Taiwan’s response includes early vigilance, proactive measures and transparency, as well as cooperation with private firms on making much more facemasks than normal. Taiwan did experience a small surge of imported cases from visitors and returnees coming back from the West in March, as well as a naval ship cluster, but they have had many days with zero or just one or two daily cases.

Vietnam
Remarkably, this country of over 90 million has less than 300 cases and no deaths due to the coronavirus. They did do a partial lockdown but there’s already talk of easing it. And just like Taiwan, taking early measures like shutting their land border with China and mass quarantining helped a lot. The one factor that hinders more recognition of Vietnam’s success is that as a Communist country, the government controls all information and the media is restricted and censored. There is a likelihood that the actual numbers might be higher but even then, not by too much, according to some experts.

South Korea
In contrast to the two countries above, South Korea got hit really hard by the coronavirus and at one point, had the second-most cases in the world. But despite over 10,000 cases, they implemented rigorous measures like mass testing, contact tracing, and public mask-wearing, and have managed to “flatten the curve” to the point where they only get low double-digit daily cases now. The public also played a big role as they voluntarily stayed home or closed down their businesses without being ordered to, so in a sense they did have a lockdown but it was a self-enforced one. South Korea might arguably be the most impressive success story because they actually experienced a mass outbreak within a short time and seem to have defeated it.

Australia and New Zealand
As the only non-Asian countries here, the two neighbors both enacted hard lockdowns but have reached the point where easing is being discussed and even a “bubble” involving the two countries. Both countries have managed to clamp down on daily infections and keep the death toll at a minimum, which is laudable. New Zealand implemented a lockdown when there were only 102 cases, which has helped them contain their outbreak. Australia implemented a lockdown much later (when they had over 4000 cases) but in the weeks since then have also managed to contain the outbreak at a reasonable level. In both countries, widespread testing and contact tracing were implemented. New Zealand did reference Taiwan as an example, which is why they did the smart thing of cancelling mass gatherings very early, unlike some Western countries which continued to hold large sporting events and concerts until their outbreaks hit hard.

Hong Kong
At one point in February, HK was being likened to a failed state due to being a state of panic over the coronavirus and a perceived lack of toilet paper and instant noodles. But HK soon got past that and has reached a point where, like Taiwan, they have enjoyed zero-cases days. HK people do love wearing their masks, maybe overly so, but it has helped with containing the coronavirus so that there have been no hard lockdowns. Schools have been closed since February and there are social distancing limits on restaurants and public gatherings though. And like South Korea and Taiwan, rigorous quarantine measures and contact tracing have also been implemented.

 

No matter what, it’s still necessary to stay on guard and keep up precautionary measures, even here in Taiwan, and the situation could easily change quickly.
For now, hats off to all these countries (and Hong Kong) for beating back the coronavirus and let’s hope that more countries can follow in these countries’ footsteps soon.

Unhappy Lunar New Year

It’s only three weeks into 2020 and I think it’s fair to say things aren’t looking up much compared to 2019. It’s almost like if fate is saying, “if you thought 2019 was bad, you haven’t seen anything yet”. I mean when 2020 started, there was a brief scare over World War III because of the US assassination of the Iranian general. Of course, it kind of fizzled out when Iran threatened revenge, then shot down a civilian airliner by mistake. Still, Australia’s wildfires raged on and it almost seemed unstoppable, killing dozens of people and many millions of creatures.

But for those of us in Asia, specifically in or near China, then there is a terrible development going on, which is an outbreak of a SARS-like coronavirus in the major city of Wuhan. Having only become known a month ago, the disease has expanded all over China as well as to Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and even the US. I’m really livid about this whole issue because there was certainly some kind of cover-up during the early stages when China clamped down on information or pretended that everything was smooth.

We’ve reached the stage where Hong Kong now has two confirmed cases and lots of people are wearing masks, but this is nothing compared to China where people everywhere are in a sort of panic, and Wuhan, a city of 11 million, is now under lockdown. As of today (Thursday, January 23), all forms of transport out of that city as well as their subway have been shut down and people are basically being forced to remain. In a way, that’s understandable but it’s an indictment of the shoddy and haphazard way the local and national authorities have handled this whole issue.

Despite this post’s headline, I do wish everyone a happy Lunar New Year but most of all, stay safe and sound.

Looking back at a tough 2019


There’s no hiding the fact that this year has been really rough in many ways. From political crises to growing unrest to economic problems, 2019 has had it all. Hong Kong has been in the midst of domestic turmoil for seven months with the protest movement looking very likely to continue into the new year. Even more deadly protests have taken place in Chile, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, India and several other countries. Environmental tragedies also happened, especially in Australia where giant bushfires have been raging out of control.

Besides protests, there were also serious geopolitical issues. Brexit will likely happen in January after Boris Johnson actually became prime minister of the UK and then won the election at the start of December. The US and China remain locked in a widening impasse that is about much more than just trade. And of course, China’s imprisonment of over a million of its minority Uyghurs was revealed to the world, to the point where China had no choice but to spin it as some kind of anti-terrorism rehabilitation campaign.

China also kept up its bullying of Taiwan through stealing its diplomatic allies, reducing Chinese visitors to Taiwan and trying to lure Taiwanese professionals to China, but Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-wen has held firm. More encouragingly, many Taiwanese have woken up to the threat of China and for the 2020 presidential elections, Tsai has surged ahead of the opposition candidate, a formerly populist mayor who has been revealed to be an incompetent and pro-China tool, though one can never be too careful.

Personally, I had a mixed but somewhat decent year. I moved back to Hong Kong earlier this year for work, while I managed to also do a little writing including about the protests. To be honest, I had no idea the protests would grow so big and last for so long, but I do think that the signs were there in hindsight. Even as I write this, there have been protests on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and there is a big one planned for New Year’s Day as well.

I didn’t do much traveling due to work, with only several brief visits to Taiwan and a short trip to Bangkok, one of my favorite cities. I did several hikes in Hong Kong but then hurt my foot in the middle of the year. I tried to rest for several months by not hiking, only to re-aggravate it recently.

I appreciate the opportunity to work in Hong Kong again, though this has also made me appreciate life in Taiwan more. I admit I don’t enjoy the crowds, the materialistic culture, and cramped spaces in HK, and being unable to hike, both due to my foot issue and the protests, took away a lot of the joy from being here. However, I have developed a significant respect for the protest movement, whose original aims of opposing the dreaded extradition law and the HK authorities I have always supported, and I hope that it can persist and lead to better changes for Hong Kong.

This year has shaped up to be one of struggle and resistance, both in Hong Kong and around the world, and sometimes this means that conveniences and certainties that we once took for granted have to be shed or broken. Not just political and societal developments on a broader scale, but also aspects of our daily lives such as questioning the effect of technology and social media companies like Google and Facebook on our mental health and thinking, and the increasingly serious effects of environmental and climate problems.

But while some people have said they might be glad to see the end of 2019, there’s no guarantee that 2020 will be better.


The views above and below were taken from the same hilltop in Hong Kong Island. 
 


Hong Kong wasn’t just all protests and hiking of course. Two nice new places that have opened are Tai Kwun, a restored former colonial court and prison complex, above, and the Mills, a restored former textile factory, below.


Two faces of Bangkok – modern, above, and heritage, below

Taipei’s traditional Spring Festival Dihua street market, above, and hiking in northern Taipei, below

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.