Umbrellas in Bloom- book review

When what was to be the Umbrella Movement unfolded in 2014, few imagined it would turn out to be the way it did. The initial standoff with police saw hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers take to the streets to voice their anger against Beijing and then occupy an entire stretch of land in the Admiralty business district, as well as two other parts of town, for months. These Umbrella activists formed a beacon of resistance that endured for 79 days, capturing the world’s attention and frustrating the Hong Kong government and Beijing.
Jason Ng’s “Umbrellas In Bloom- Hong Kong’s occupy movement uncovered” covers this entire movement giving both a superb broad overview and an on-the-ground view, courtesy of spending evenings and nights amid the protesters at the main protest site or village. It’s a fine piece of reporting that explains not just the Umbrella Movement, but how Hong Kong has gotten to where it’s at with the increasing authoritarian influence from Beijing and its voiceless minions in the HK government, and worsening socio-economic conditions in Hong Kong.
Ng breaks down the Umbrella Movement from how it started all the way to how it ended, describing how protesters braved police tear gas to stay their ground and settle in for the long term. They did so by creating a huge makeshift camp that temporarily turned a business district into a surreal village of goodwill and benevolence run completely by volunteers with impressive administrative and logistical operations. Mainland authorities and “analysts” claim, with absolutely no proof, that foreign agents like the CIA were involved.
The author visits the Umbrella village at lunchtime and in the evenings to offer tutoring, then stays overnight and gets to know some fellow activists, including office workers turned volunteers and students turned social activists. It is interesting to see how positive the vibes are at first, with people putting aside their studies or work to commit themselves, but gradually tension builds up as the more extreme protesters get frustrated with the lack of progress and slam the student leaders for inaction.
Besides the reportage of the protest, there are extensive explanations of Hong Kong’s political system and parties, so readers can be fully aware of which parties are pro-Beijing and what the others stand for. If you know nothing about Hong Kong politics, by the time you get through the book you will be a semi-expert.

Whatever one thinks of the effectiveness or futility of the Umbrella Movement, it is undeniable that it awakened strong consciousness amongst many Hong Kongers that cannot be contained. In these seemingly dark times, with a reprehensible Communist regime becoming increasingly blatant and authoritarian, doing things like kidnapping Hong Kongers at will outside the mainland and parading them on TV to “confess,” the resistance and passion that arose during the movement is even more vital now.


HK protests against mainland visitors taking an ugly turn

The latest episode of Hong Kong’s tense relations with mainland China comes in the form of street protests against mainland visitors in the New Territories. Last Sunday was the fourth such protest in five weeks, and saw one hundred HK protesters harassed visitors and clashed with police. The anger was directed against mainland visitors who flood the New Territories, which borders China, to buy things like milk powder, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The problem is that these mainland visitors are not tourists, but parallel traders who buy things in bulk in HK and resell these items in the mainland for profit. The demand in the mainland for what may seem like ordinary things is a result of the proliferation of unsafe or fake items in China.

Many of these parallel traders (mainland sources claim that most or half of them are HKers) make repeat trips daily or weekly, since they are from Shenzhen, the mainland city across the border, and usually have multiple-entry HK permits. These people  make up the majority of the 47 million mainlanders who visited HK last year, and their shopping excursions result in raised prices, scarcities, and the increase in shop rents by landlords, not to mention the crowding of streets and buses by these traders and their suitcases. In addition, there are more stores catering to them across the New Territories which crowds out regular small businesses that do not sell those kinds of items.

Now, all of this are reasonable causes to be angered at the visitors. HK really needs to curb the numbers of mainland visitors and restricting parallel traders is an obvious step.
But, protesters in this recent spate of street protests are taking things too far, clashing with police and directly confronting mainland visitors.

The latest protest last Sunday saw two very unsavory incidents. An old man was pulling a trolley when suddenly a HK protester ran up and kicked the trolley to the ground. The old man was a Hong Konger. In another incident, a mainland woman with a young child was accosted by several HKers who accused her of being a parallel trader. They argued before the woman, whose child was crying, opened her bag to show she was carrying books and not milk powder or other things traders usually get. Besides the old man, at least one other HK person was mistaken for a mainlander and confronted.

As a result of these ugly incidents, many HK politicians, media and public figures criticized the protesters and rightfully so. Even some of the protesters involved admitted things went too far. Disappointingly, it seems that Western media outlets are not covering these anti-mainlander protests and perhaps it is because it goes against the sympathetic stance they have towards HKers due to last year’s Umbrella Movement. It is not surprising as the idea of HKers openly calling for democracy and squaring off against an authoritarian overlord is admirable and inspiring. But the actions of these recent HK protesters does not bode well for Hong Kong and if HK wants to consider itself a truly open, democratic society, it needs to be able to curb these kinds of prejudices as well.

Online, a nasty war has broken out between HK and mainland netizens with angry posts and insults being spread on social media. On the mainland side, I’ve seen a WeChat post by an acquaintance which called on the mainland to block water, electricity and food transfers to HK in response if HK restricts mainland individual travelers from going to HK. This is a very extreme sentiment and somewhat flawed since HK apparently pays a higher rate for its water, but it is not surprising when one considers what some HKers have been saying and doing, as in these protests.

I feel very strongly about this dark turn that HK protesters are taking which I wrote about recently. I wrote an article for Global Times, and another for a mainland website affiliated with state body. My GT article stresses that HKers are right to be angry at the tremendous amount of mainland parallel traders, but not in harassing and physically confronting them. Also, this behavior is not new but a continuation of some rather ugly incidents since a few years ago, when some HKers openly called mainland tourists “locusts,” which still happens now.
My other article also says that the recent protests are taking things too far, and that restrictions should be implemented on the mainland multiple-entry permits used by parallel traders, but not on mainland visitors using regular individual-travel permits who are often tourists.

HKers like these protesters are starting to lose the moral ground and risk obscuring their legitimate grievances about the excessive numbers of mainland visitors.

I held back on calling the HK protesters extremists or radicals, but in truth, some of them really did act like radical hoodlums. They really need to take things down a notch otherwise it will not be inaccurate to label them as such.

HK protests against mainland visitors in HK in five weeks.

Tuen Mun – February 8- thirteen HK protesters arrested
Sha Tin – February 15
Yuen Long – March 1 – dozens of protesters arrested
Tuen Mun, Sheng Shui- March 8- six protesters arrested

2014- A turbulent year for the world, China, HK, and Taiwan

It’s a bit late to be doing a 2014 review so please excuse me. Basically, 2014 was a rough year for the world, for Africa, for the Middle East, for China, for Taiwan and for Hong Kong.
Though none of these could compare to what Brazil had to suffer (football or World Cup fans will know what I mean).**
It was a year of tragedies, armed conflicts, disappearing and crashed planes, and political turmoil.
There was the chilling rise of ISIS, a radical Islamic army that seemed to have sprung up from nowhere, defeated Iraqi soldiers and militias easily, conquered a large swathe of land, and trying hard to turn back time to many centuries ago. An Ebola epidemic spread across three countries in West Africa and infected and killed thousands. There was a short conflict in which Israel went into Palestine’s Gaza Strip and thousands, mostly Palestinians, died. The Syrian civil war still raged on, while Libya and South Sudan saw violent conflicts as well. Ukraine saw a popular uprising that toppled a pro-Russian leader, which then made Russia try to destabilize the country by supporting separatists and taking a part of Ukraine, Crimea, for itself. This conflict had a huge impact on innocent parties when a civilian airliner was destroyed by what was likely a missile, killing almost 300 people on board.

For China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the year was one of big changes as well.

China took a lot of big steps in 2014 in trying to live up to its reputation as a potential superpower. It launched plans to establish an Asian Infrastructure Bank, a BRICS bank, and a $40 billion Silk Road revitalization economic plan. It also continued its crackdown on corruption and widened it by targeting everyone from churches to journalists to drug dealers to Western TV shows to even English teachers. The government (Xi) made history by “arresting” Zhou Yongkang for corruption, making the former interior minister and Politburo member the highest-ranking ex-official to be arrested. The government also pronounced “rule of law” as a major priority in an attempt to enact judicial reform, though obviously without actually changing the party’s overall power.
On one hand, it might look like Xi Jinping and the regime feel supremely confident and are on the right path to making China great while consolidating their rule, but on the other, it is possible to detect a bit of desperate extremism and a sense of trying to cover up domestic weaknesses. The economy slowed down as the problems surfaced with the property market, shadow banking, and industrial overcapacity. The easy growth is over, I feel, and indeed people like Xi and Premier Li Keqiang have stressed the need to undertake major reforms to refocus the economy away from quantity to quality. They’re right, but the question is how genuine they can be in trying to follow their words and to endure the tough economic challenges that will happen. Xinjiang was still a region of turbulence while Hong Kong unexpectedly became a major challenge.

Hong Kong has been suffering from increased poverty, rising inequality and resentment of mainland visitors, and this came to a head later in the year when China rejected allowing open nominations for the 2017 chief executive election. Students undertook a week of street protests before then launching the Occupy protest that shook the regime for a while and galvanized HK society. The Occupy movement faced down the police and suspected mob gangsters and lasted for months in two major parts of HK. Divisions broke out, violence happened, and student activists got a little desperate at the end, but they accomplished an amazing feat. They got the attention of the world, put pressure on China, and ultimately made a lot of people realize that some HKers are definitely passionate about political issues. It’ll be interesting to see how the movement proceeds this year, whether it will launch more protests or disband and retreat. China has showed signs of taking a more hardline stance such as an official criticizing HK schools and suggesting patriotic education.

Taiwan saw major events throughout the year, more than usual, especially in politics. The Sunflower Movement broke out in March by rushing into and occupying the legislature for 3 weeks to prevent a cross-strait services bill from being passed. This brought to the fore the deep dislike and distrust of China among younger people in Taiwan and it marked a willingness of taking desperate actions to stand up for their political beliefs. I admit I was a bit disdainful about the movement as it was occupying the legislation, but I’ve come to reverse my stance.
Then in November, Taiwan’s massive local elections saw the ruling KMT lose several of its strongholds, resulting in an overwhelming DPP victory. This weakens the KMT of course, and President Ma Ying-jeou as well. It also brought into question their pro-mainland stance over the past few years and the loss showed many Taiwanese do not support that.
Taiwan also saw a series of major food safety scandals involving contaminated food and reused food oils, which showed that mainland China does not have a monopoly on gutter oil. Taiwan also suffered a few disasters such as a deadly plane crash in Penghu and a pipeline explosion in a major city that killed dozens.
I think the events in 2014 showed that younger Taiwanese are becoming more vocal and spirited in political issues, especially that of relations with the mainland. This is a good thing, regardless of whatever their stance is, because the current status quo attitude that a lot of Taiwanese have,  with its passive reasoning, isn’t working.
As with the Occupy movement in Hong Kong, the Sunflower Movement and the DPP’s big win in the local elections put a lot of pressure on China in terms of international attention and the actual process of “unification” that the mainland is so eager to accomplish. It is no secret that many Taiwanese do not wish to become part of China, but the status quo, in which Taiwan does not push for formal independence while the mainland claims it but leaves it alone in domestic matters, made Taiwan seem as  if it was steadily resigned to becoming lured into the mainland’s grasp. The Sunflower Movement and DPP electoral victory were very public and unmistakable acts of defiance that showed there are some Taiwanese that don’t accept that.

On the mainland, it’ll be interesting to see how economic and judicial reforms work out and if the regime will continue to be more hardline with its crackdowns. I don’t have a good feeling about society and the future in the mainland since whether the government is genuine or not about wanting to reform the economy, there will be a period of tough changes.

** This sentence about Brazil is tongue-in-cheek. However, other than Brazilians, the World Cup, which took place in Brazil, was probably one of the high points of the year.

HK’s Occupy cleared out but not extinguished

After 12 weeks, Hong Kong’s Occupy protesters were finally cleared from all sites by the police last week. Hundreds gave themselves up and were arrested as the last tents and barricades were removed from the main site in Admiralty last week. While the Umbrella Movement may have been stopped for now, the grievances will still go on. Student leaders have called for more civil disobedience in the form of refusing to pay taxes and delaying rents. It sounds a little desperate but for the time being, they do not have much choice. They’ve also said they will not launch any public protests in the near future, which seems a wise choice. They’ve endured much longer than anyone had expected, and it’s time to retreat and regroup.
On the surface, it may seem like the protesters didn’t accomplish much other than generate positive press and sympathy, but in reality they’ve done some significant things. They were able to rally people in public, and generate passion and awareness about politics and social issues, things that many HKers didn’t appear to care about more. They challenged the HK government, made them pay attention and eventually meet for talks. Most importantly the protesters pushed the political issue of democracy to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, and so instead of just grumbling about it amongst friends or holding annual marches, many HKers know they have and can take action in future. This time, the protests did not result in the intended change, but it can be built upon.

There are two main challenges the government needs to address, exemplified by the two main different sets of protesters. Political change is obviously what the movement came out for (and what attracted the most headlines), but as the protests and clashes in Mongkok showed, social problems are another serious issue facing HK. And this is something that cannot and hasn’t been successfully dealt with by the current political system.

Whatever the case, this was a turning point in Hong Kong and things cannot just go back to normal. The authorities can blame the protesters but they would be fools to ignore the very real grievances.

The biggest problem with Hong Kong’s “democracy”

There is something terribly wrong about Hong Kong’s democracy system. Thanks to the media reports and Occupy protesters, many people know the problem with the 2017 chief executive election and its restricted candidacy process, but that’s not the only major problem with HK’s democracy.
First though, a quick look at the ongoing Occupy protests.

Two months and counting, Hong Kong’s Occupy movement protests are still ongoing, but the APEC summit passed two weeks ago and the HK government made good on a court-approved order to remove protest barricades in front of the HK government headquarters on Tuesday. The majority of protesters at the site were peaceful and even helped the police move some barricades, but some radical protesters made things worse by attacking and vandalizing the front entrance of the government headquarters later in the night, a sign of frustration or loosening discipline. Whatever the case, it’s given the protests a big black eye and public support has been dropping.

In the short term, the protesters seem to have been foiled by the HK government and Beijing. However, this doesn’t change the legitimacy of their grievances which encompass both social and political causes. HK is in dire straits, with a poverty level of 20% and a growing number of working poor among the young which will only worsen over time. The economy is heavily geared toward the finance and property industries, which is largely a result of favorable government policies.
Why and how is this so?

Because getting back to HK’s democracy problems – it’s not only about the chief executive election, which the strong media focus on the Occupy movement, as well as the student leaders themselves, might give the impression of. Hong Kong’s entire electoral system is deeply flawed, because it’s the only democratic system in the world in which corporations vote and control legislative seats!

Corporations do not need to control the vote, they actually vote. This is because they literally own seats which they are guaranteed under HK’s electoral system which grants half of or 35 legislative seats (the so-called functional constituencies) to sectors such as finance, industry and agriculture. So in summary, of the 70 seats in the legislative council, 35 are directly elected from geographical districts (as most democratic elections worldwide are), but the other 35 seats belong to sectors, of which corporate entities choose 20 of these seats. These corporate entities include finance, industrial, commercial, and real estate bodies, which I’m sure most people agree can definitely be trusted to oversee public affairs (sarcasm).

Furthermore in the 1,200-strong nomination committee that formerly chose the chief executive, these corporate entities get to choose 570 people. HK’s 35 elected legislators, who represent almost 3.5 million HK voters, only take up 35 spots, one each for themselves. In contrast, the Agriculture and Fisheries subsector by itself gets 60 spots while finance and financial services gets 36.

It should be noted that when an industry like finance gets to choose 36 people for the committee, that doesn’t mean every single person working in a bank gets to vote. No, the votes are restricted to associations within that sector who issues votes. Taking another example, the construction industry has 18 spots, of which only 274 individuals are registered to vote, along with 482 groups. You can be damn sure that the average rank-and-file real estate agent or construction worker isn’t among that 274.

I’m sure when people say democracy should be all-inclusive, letting corporations actually vote isn’t what they meant.

This faulty system of allowing sectors to hold legislative seats was one that was developed and maintained under the British, so it cannot be blamed on mainland China. However, Beijing and the HK government should realize this is an urgent issue that HKers are not satisfied with and which hinders the governance of HK. It does need to be reformed, whether it be eliminating the functional constituent seats or reducing them. The approval of electoral reforms, both to the legislation and the chief executive elections, is what Beijing has been refusing or at least putting off to a vague point in the future, so they do bear responsibility in this sense.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists show a different side to HK

While I was writing the post below, violence flared up with anti-protests men attacking protesters despite police presence in the evening, resulting in scuffles and the destruction of one of the main protest sites. This might suggest a disturbing development (it’s too soon to tell if the attackers were really HKers fed up of the protests or hired thugs) and one of the student groups has decided to call off talks. ———————————————————————————————————————————————————————— It has been an amazing week for Hong Kong, which started with police using tear gas on unarmed protesters in street confrontations Sunday to Hong Kong’s leader agreeing to talks with the protesters on Thursday night, just minutes before a deadline set by them for him to resign. HK leader Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying did not step down, nor is he going to talk directly with the activists, who’ll instead meet with his number two, HK Chief Secretary Carrie Lam. The protesters, mostly made up of students, have won the admiration of people across the world, including Taiwan and fellow Chinese SAR Macau, as well as a number of hardy souls in the mainland. During the week, the protesters persisted with their “occupation” of several sites in HK, kept up the pressure on the authorities, while also ensuring peace and stability. They’ve also given rise to a memorable symbol – the humble umbrella, whose unassuming but versatile form is as apt as any to signify the movement. Now that they’ve been able to get talks with the HK government, which is a good concession, the protesters will need to ensure it can start soon and that demands can be made directly and reasonably concerning HK’s electoral process. I’ve had doubts about the democracy protesters, especially as their demand escalated during their protests to making Leung CY step down, which is a drastic step that will not likely lead to much benefit for the protesters. However, by continuing with the protests, gaining worldwide attention and putting pressure on both the HK and mainland government, the protesters have done more than I could have imagined. They’ve inspired hope in fellow HKers and their elders, and showed that HKers can come out in numbers for positive change in society. And whatever the outcome of their protests, they’ve changed a major stereotype regarding Hong Kongers. That they only care about money and materialism, and don’t give a damn about politics or society in general. This is a view I’ve held, especially based on family and other personal experience, and these pro-democracy protesters have come out and shaken my perception, forcing me to reconsider what I’ve long thought of as a fact. It also addresses a major criticism of HKers especially from mainlanders that during British colonialism, especially in the decades leading up to the handover in 1997, there was little political activism by HK people in general. HK didn’t have any significant democratic system until the British hastily devised one before handover. The supposed apathy of HK people could be attributed to perhaps a strong attachment and dependence on the British, in contrast to the negative sentiments towards mainland China and Chinese, and a deep satisfaction of life as a British colony. However, those people are not the same people in today’s protests. The current protesters are students and young adults, in their twenties and teens, who are a different generation and strikingly different. There are a few issues that still need to be considered. – There’s been a lot of talk over people in the mainland looking at these protests in HK and being inspired or supportive. Indeed that’s an often cited reason in many articles for Beijing’s heavyhanded censorship of the HK protests. But in reality, the reaction is probably mixed because while ideally one would hope mainlanders can see these protests and admire or support them, many feel the opposite – either scorn or apathy. As it is, relations between HKers and mainlanders have dropped to low levels at the personal level in recent years, and before that, it wasn’t that good either. HKers have long had a superiority attitude over mainlanders, as well as other kinds of people. Perceived rudeness and arrogance by HKers has led some mainlanders to feel that HKers actually would prefer not to be part of China and don’t see themselves as Chinese, which is not an unfair observation. To counter this and improve relations, HKers need to change their mindset and be more open and perhaps show more humility to mainlanders, whether it be visitors, mainland migrants or mainland students in HK universities. – While the main fight is over making the chief executive election fully open and democratic, there’s also the problem of the legislative council being limited and not so democratic. It’s made up of 70 members, but only 35 or half are elected by the public in district elections. The others are mainly chosen by limited groups representing different sectors of industry such as the commercial, industrial and finance (which all have two seats each), and even sports. There has been little talk about legislative reform to enable all or the majority of seats to be elected by the public, but this is just as vital as the chief executive electoral issue. As long as a significant number of seats are taken up by people directly chosen from within business sectors, then those sectors would have a disproportionate influence and be able to push pro-business proposals or conversely block or obstruct social welfare proposals.