Indecency at the top a reflection of society?

As we get deeper into 2017, I’ve struggled recently to focus too much on politics. It’s not that I’m unaware of major issues like Trump’s presidency, Brexit and Hong Kong’s upcoming Chief Executive election. With the US slowly descending into a political comedy, as Trump picks fights or causes controversy almost every time he opens his mouth or meets with somebody, Europe struggling, and China trying to be assertive, it’s not hard to feel that the world is going to crap. Actually it’s not, but it’s hard to think it’s getting better either. The truth is that I didn’t seem to care too much to even feel pessimistic or complain anymore. But I think I really need to shake that feeling because apathy and ignorance are probably worse than pessimism or cynicism.

A lot of people were shocked, dismayed or even revolted by the idea of Donald Trump winning the US presidency (I was quite shocked as well). Likewise, the Brexit referendum result had a similar impact on a lot of people. It’s almost as if somehow, it became alright, even laudable to be openly nasty and spout sexist, racist, and simple-minded nonsense. And it’s not just Trump. Closer to Hong Kong, you can look at the Philippines and their president who boasts of killing people and acts like a clownish tough guy, but more seriously has launched a state campaign by encouraging police and vigilantes to execute “drug dealers” in the streets. Besides the UK, far-right politicians are making headway across Europe, invoking closed borders, violence against minorities and immigrants, and extreme nationalism verging on racism. Even in Hong Kong, the localist movement (I admit a bit of sympathy) at times express stances at times that contain traces of racism and hate.

It seems like suddenly, we’ve reached the point where democratically elected leaders of countries are people championing discrimination, isolation, belligerence and misogyny. Added to this, we also have the surge of far-right movements, open hatred and violence against immigrants, and “alternative facts” – false or manipulated news that is accepted as true by many.

But honestly, I think the real danger is this is a reflection of society. There is a lot of casual racism, malice and dishonest behavior that happens all around us. Back when I used to live in China, I used to rail a lot about negative behavior, but it is apparent that callous and malicious behavior happens a lot all over. Hate crimes, for instance, seem to be on the rise in the US and Britain. Just the other day, a white American shot two Indians in a Kansas bar because he thought they were Muslims (even if they had been, it still would not be right). People seem to be indulging in the most casually obscene ways to kill others, like driving trucks into crowds of people out on the street having a good time. Cyber-bullying can become so vicious that kids commit suicide due to online taunts or extortion or their reputation tainted by being involved in unseemly incidents, even when they are the victims, which is exacerbated by social media.

Ironically, technology appears to be a big reason why there is so much ignorance and hate in society. Rather than being something to broaden our knowledge and awareness of issues and people around us, for some, technology is a tool to foster more hate and ignorance. Fake news, alternative facts, and social media all play a role in disseminating false information that ramp up hate and intolerance, and not to mention stupidity. It would be silly and amusing if it weren’t so tragic at times, like the aforementioned American who shot and killed people because of mistaken ethnic identity. While it might be faintly amusing to think the US, the world’s only superpower and supposed leader of the free world, has plunged to such depths, it’s not amusing when one thinks of the worse things that happen in the developing world, especially Asia. The governor of Jakarta, capital of Southeast Asia’s largest nation Indonesia, supposedly one of the top emerging economies, was put on trial in December for blasphemy. Remind me again what century we are living in?

I am not saying every single ignorant and racist person is a Trump or Brexit supporter, because that would be too simplistic and too lazy an explanation. Besides, it also allows us to wallow in moral complacency. In actuality, I think there were probably Obama or Hillary supporters who were not exactly good guys too. Likewise not all Brexit Leave voters are monsters or Remain voters angels. But more importantly, let’s not pretend there aren’t people in regular life spouting racist or sexist garbage or flaunting their arrogance.

Maybe I’m not expressing myself clearly – I tend to think about different things and see common strands but am unable to  tie it together well enough. But we are living in a sorry period of history, when despite widespread impressive technology and wealth and knowledge, there are a lot of people who don’t know right from wrong, who don’t know real from fake. This applies to knowledge, this applies to morals, and it applies to behavior.

When the unthinkable happens

Well, what many of us didn’t think was possible turned out to be possible and I think we all know what I’m talking about. The next US president will be a callous, racist, contemptuous billionaire who has denigrated women and Muslims and Mexicans and has no experience in public office. What is scary is that not only did he win this election despite his despicable conduct, such as being accused by many women of molesting them, being heavily reported on, but he won it with a sizable margin winning even previously staunchly Democrat states. One day after, I still can’t believe this happened, and when this man is actually sworn in in January, it will be a dark period for the world.

After Trump’s victory, I can’t help thinking about the Brexit referendum in the UK in June, when “Leave” actually won, to the consternation of a huge segment of the population, the media and pundits. Not just only because of the shock of the result, but the fact that the more supposedly unpopular and disingenuous campaign won – Leave with their scare tactics and exaggerated, false promises, and Trump with his racist and vile comments against women and minorities, not to mention his boasts about not paying taxes. Yet it would be foolish to casually dismiss, as tempting as it seems, Trump voters as ignorant, uneducated fools. His victory probably says a lot about the true state of society in the US, there are many people who are caught up in poverty, unemployment or other difficult circumstances, and/or sick of socioeconomic inequality and corporate dominance (monopolies, closure of small businesses, huge gap between executives and workers pay).

Now, the US will have to face up to an immediate future where it voted for a president who purposely antagonizes women and minorities, has simplistic views towards foreign policy and will likely push forward domestic laws that will make America a more closed and less global-looking nation. George W Bush also comes to mind, and it’s stunning to think he seems like a reasonable president compared to Trump.

A lot of American folks and the media will have to come to grips and try to understand why so much voters supported Trump. Is it because of desperation, an urge to rebel against “the system,” ignorance, or just plain nastiness? While Trump handily won more states and electoral votes than Clinton, she won the popular vote, and it should be noted that the Libertarian and Green party candidates won more than 4 and 1 million votes respectively. If only some of those 5 million votes had shifted to the Democrats, or conversely had not been drawn away from the Democrats, it could have been a different story. The Democrats also need to take a good, long look at themselves and where they and Hillary went wrong.

This week has been a bad one for politics, because before the US presidential election debacle on Tuesday, Hong Kong suffered a blow when Beijing announced it would ban two localist legislators, as I wrote in my last blog post, due to their pro-Hong Kong independence sentiments. However, the worse consequence is that by issuing this ruling based on their “interpretation” of Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45, Beijing interfered in Hong Kong’s law, a significant breach of the “one country, two systems” that is supposedly in place. There is also talk about Beijing wanting to ban more legislators due to their making certain statements during their oath-taking. Things have been happening quite fast since the weekend, and Beijing seems to be wanting to do more than just make a statement, but make it clear they have had enough. In doing so, they are showing more of their true colors, but this is something many of us already know.

Hong Kong’s legislative fiasco escalates into clashes

Hong Kong’s legislature has been in the spotlight in the last few weeks, even making it into international headlines, but not in a good way. The reason is that when all of Hong Kong’s legislators were sworn in three weeks ago, two localist first-time legislators altered the words of the oath to refer to China as “Cheena” with a bit of profanity, as well as held banners saying Hong Kong is not China. Initially Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching were told to retake the oath, but this was then overturned and the issue was taken to the courts.

But then, Beijing waded in by claiming the right to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law to determine whether Leung and Yau can be banned. To make it crystal clear, the mainland’s top official in Hong Kong said Sunday morning those two would not be allowed to be sworn in, a decision which goes against Hong Kong’s democratic process and laws, and opposes the will of Hong Kong voters. Well, thousands of Hong Kongers, as well as Leung and Yau, didn’t take that sitting down and immediately marched in the afternoon and protested outside the Liaison Office on Sunday evening, clashing with police.

In the past three Wednesdays, (when the legislature meets), the legislature has become an action-packed scene with stormings (by the two young radicals after being banned), scuffles and a walk-out inside the legislature chamber and protests outside. Leung and Yau belong to localist party Youngspiration, whose main goal is Hong Kong’s right to self-determination or basically independence. So while this controversy has propelled Hong Kong into the international news again, like with the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the bookseller kidnappings last year, the legislature has become a spectacle and unable to conduct much real business, and worse, gave Beijing a reason to interfere in Hong Kong’s political affairs by claiming the right to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law to ban Leung and Yau.

I can’t say I want Hong Kong to be independent, but the Chinese government and regime are certainly not something civilized society would really want to be under, and what many respectable citizens would want to support. Unfortunately, Yau and Leung’s actions during their swearing-in ceremony were not the most mature or effective thing to do, and the controversy it caused has resulted in two major consequences. One is it has made the legislature into a farce (which admittedly it has often been in the recent past) unable to conduct normal business, having dragged on for three weeks already. Second is it has given Beijing an excuse to interfere in Hong Kong’s political process, claiming that it needs to intervene to uphold stability and prevent independence from being discussed in the legislature by the two “traitors.”

I certainly don’t think the two are “traitors” and should be barred from being sworn in just because they did not acknowledge Hong Kong is part of China. Moreover, it shows is how weak in terms of principles that China and its Communist regime is, and why Hong Kong’s freedoms and rights matter even more. Also, the pro-Beijing lawmakers need to take some blame for the legislative circus because they were the ones who walked out when the two young lawmakers were set to re-take their oaths, causing this controversy to be prolonged.

However, I wonder if the two young novice legislators, when they did what they did, knew what they were doing. Were they expecting and prepared for the escalation of this issue and Beijing’s interference? If they did, then maybe it is a cunning way to force the issue of Hong Kong’s political reform and future to be confronted by the authorities now. But if they didn’t, then their actions during the swearing-in ceremony would have been just a reckless stunt. Given Beijing has taken the next step and the localists responded tonight with their protest, this fiasco might signal new tensions and conflicts in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong votes in localist legislators

Sunday was a momentous occasion for Hong Kong politics as the legislative elections took place, the first since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. After all the pre-election controversies with banned candidates and growing independence cries from new parties and Beijing’s ominous warnings, the burgeoning localist movement won eight seats, more than 10% of the total number of 70 seats, while the pro-Beijing groups maintained their majority with 40 seats.

The fact that localist candidates won seats will make for very interesting and potentially more confrontational political exchanges in the legislature in the near future. One of these eight winning localist candidates was Nathan Law, one of the main student leaders of the Umbrella Movement. As Hong Kong writer Jason Ng says in the Guardian, “if Beijing has raised the stakes, then Hong Kong voters appear to have seen the bet and raised it.”

About 58% of the electorate or 2.2 million turned out to vote, which is very high for the legislative elections. For myself, I couldn’t take part in this “historic” moment because I hadn’t registered and the deadline had been a couple of months ago.

However, the legislative elections represents one of the bigger problems in Hong Kong politics. That’s because the legislative system must be one of the world’s most complicated and unfair ones. Rather than first-past-the-post vs proportional representation debate, the major issue with Hong Kong’s system is one of the fact corporations and industries literally get to vote and elect actual legislators. This is because the 70 seats are divided into 35 geographical constituencies and 35 functional constituencies, though 5 of these are “superseats” open to all non-functional seat voters. The latter are the ones where industrial and other sectors get specific seats so you have insurance, finance, commerce and even agricultural and fisheries selecting legislators solely to represent their interests. As a result, a mere few hundred thousands voters get to choose these 30 seats, compared to several million for the 35 geographical ones! This system actually started under the British, as a way for the business sectors to retain some control over the running of Hong Kong, but obviously it is not a fair or effective system (disclaimer: I do work for an organization that is involved in the functional elections). This feature from HK Free Press shows exactly how complicated the system is.

Another complicated aspect of local politics is that there are a ton of parties. Just to name a few, there are the pro-government DAB and BPA, the pan-democrat Civic Party, Labour Party and People Power and localist upstarts like Demosisto and Youngspiration. To keep things simple, there are three main camps. First, the pro-China parties, which as is obvious from the description, always side with the authorities, including both the HK government and Beijing; second, the pan-democrats are a diverse bunch that strive for increased democracy and oppose the pro-China groups, and the localists, which are a younger and more radical group that openly criticize Beijing and most controversially of all, support Hong Kong independence.

Meanwhile, in mainland China, was the election covered, seeing as how worried state newspapers had been beforehand? Not at all, with the exception of a couple of articles, according to David Bandurski who searched a database through over 300 mainland newspapers. Furthermore, but not surprisingly, China also unleashed its customary censorship as Weibo posts and a BBC World broadcast about the HK elections were respectively, deleted and cut off.

Britain’s post-Brexit pondering

It’s been over two weeks since Brexit happened in the UK and political events have become even more uncertain. Financial instability and widespread shock happened in the UK and worldwide, but rather than calm down, the UK’s domestic politics has become more unstable with the Prime Minister David Cameron stepping down, the ruling party set to choose a new leader and hence PM, notorious UKIP leader (and pro-Brexit advocate) Nigel Farage resigning, and the opposition Labour Party trying to get in on the fun by attempting to force out its leader Jeremy Corbyn. All this while the actual exit from the EU remains in limbo with some still hoping or praying it wouldn’t actually happen. It’s fair to say all this political drama has overshadowed the practical ramifications of Brexit.

For me, it was very disappointing. I wanted the UK to stay in the EU, so I was saddened by the referendum’s result. I support the UK in the EU, not for economic reasons but because of what the EU represents. I see it as a continental body that represents a bold vision of uniting multiple nations in various ways and actually doing that. Whereas the United Nations is just a gathering of countries and assorted multilateral organizations, the EU actually is a body of nations that cooperate and act as one in various ways, from law to education to freedom of movement. Yes, it has a lot of problems, from bureaucratic excess to increasing powers that limit individual nations’ sovereignty and policies, and the way how the issue of the waves of Syrian immigrants was handled was not very efficient, with Germany offering open arms while other nations closer to the EU’s boundaries were reluctant and badly overstretched. But in a world of still significant tensions, the idea of a continent of nations united in various ways and speaking with a united voice on important issues is necessary. With the US being the world’s sole superpower and rising giant like China, not to mention Russia, acting like a belligerent bully, it is imperative that Europe still have a great role on the world stage.

Of course, I am not a citizen of an EU nation nor do I live and work there. On a personal basis, my sole experience of the EU was traveling across parts of Western Europe last year and being able to cross boundaries without showing my passport and using a single currency, the euro, across different countries. But it was seeing the blue EU flag flying alongside the national flags in official buildings in France and Italy that really reinforced the idea of European unity.

And I think that’s where the Remain campaign went wrong in the UK. Rather than emphasize the idea and vision of the EU as well as border-less travel and work, they focused mainly on economic benefits in terms of trade and single-market access. For a lot of lower-income and older British who are undergoing tough times, that is a hard sell if the economy already seems terrible to them. Then again, the UK has also had a lukewarm relationship with the EU, for instance, they still retain their own currency (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and they are not part of the Schengen Zone, which encompasses much of the EU and enables borderless travel. When it comes to foreign policy, the UK has tended to operate independently from the EU and its main core countries Germany and France.

I also don’t want to fall into the trap of labeling British Brexit supporters as poor, uneducated idiots who all didn’t even know what they wanted (admittedly some of them really didn’t and thus deserve to be criticized). Even though the UK is supposedly a wealthy, developed country, it has its fair share of economic inequality and poverty, with parts of the country neglected and underdeveloped. It is also well-known that London is heavily, disproportionately supported in terms of government funding and other resources, so other parts of the nation are not as well funded and thus not prospering. Therefore it stands that some of those who voted for Brexit do have legitimate grievances with their government and with the EU, and they should not be universally derided.

However, will they still be as resolute in accepting the consequences of what they accomplished? Will those who voted to stay in Europe accept it as well? Will the UK be able to handle the consequences, economically and politically, not to mention stay intact given the rumblings from Scotland about leaving? All this means that UK politics will be very interesting for at least the rest of the year.

DSC07507
Chambery, a small town in Southern France near the Alps. The flag on the left is Savoy, the region. 

Taiwan takes to the polls for new leader, legislation Saturday

This Saturday, Taiwanese will go to the polls to select a new president and legislature.
The outcome of the former may not exactly be a mystery while the result of the latter might bring on a new dawn. The presidential race has been lopsided so far and a potential humiliation may be in store for the ruling party, the KMT, which has lagged since the start and had to replace its candidate halfway through the campaign.

If the DPP wins, Tsai Ing-wen would make history by being the first female Taiwan/ROC president. What would be more momentous though is that DPP victory would mark the triumph of a growing pro-Taiwan movement and the resounding rejection of a pro-China strategy undertaken by the KMT that over the past eight years has striven to boost ties with China.
Ties have increased yet local salaries have stayed stagnant or even fallen as the economy has all but shriveled up and lost much of its competitiveness while growing in dependence on China. Tsai was also the DPP candidate in the last election in 2012, but lost by a small margin to the current president Ma Ying-jeou. As such, since her defeat, she has grown and continued to attract more support. It is no surprise as the bookish, low-key Tsai has stayed on point whilst refusing to buckle under pressure or indulge in negative tactics. In contrast to the former president Chen Shui-bian, the first from the DPP, Tsai is less charismatic and confrontational, which has reassured the US and made it hard for China to attack her.

Tsai’s likely victory will not please Beijing, which is ok. The more serious issue is that Beijing’s displeasure often raises the chances of tension and conflict, something which is forgotten because a lot of media and observers give the impression that Taiwan is to blame. Here’s a good article about how silly it is to deem an island of 23 million as the provocateur regarding relations with the giant, authoritarian country across the straits.

I don’t expect anything drastic to happen from China’s side soon, if Tsai wins, but I can’t say for the future. Even still, the tide is turning for that country as evidenced by its slowing economy, stock market woes, and its increased censorship and persecution, not to mention its blatant South China Sea provocations.

The decline of the KMT, who some even forecast may lose the legislative elections as well for the first time, illustrate the folly of their pro-China strategy. They believed that Taiwan’s prosperity would be gained by fostering close ties with China and being utterly dependent on China for trade, tourism, investment and so on, whilst engaging in relatively foolish spats with the US, the Philippines and even Japan. Indeed, mainland trade and tourists have increased significantly but with little effect on the overall economy.

It is time for Taiwan to look to the future and stand up for itself. There is no need to turn its back on its Chinese heritage, but there is no need to bow down to its giant bullying neighbor and tie itself down.
I hope that the elections will be fair and peaceful, and that the right person will win.