15 May 2016

My One Minute with Regina 我和葉劉的一分鐘

My friend and I arrived at the front desk of a casual restaurant on the mezzanine floor of the Mandarin Oriental. There was a young couple standing in front of us. The maître d’ flashed a smile and led them down the long hallway into the dining hall. The restaurant didn’t look full, and so we waited our turn.

A few seconds later, two older women approached the restaurant and proceeded to stand right in front of us. They blocked our way, like two secret service agents ready to take a bullet for us if someone pulls out a gun. They showed no interest in making eye contact or acknowledging our presence. It was as if we were invisible to them.

Regina, which means "queen" in Latin


One of the women was hard to miss. She was Regina Ip, a senior member in C.Y. Leung’s cabinet and a divisive figure in local politics best known for her role in pushing a controversial anti-subversion bill in 2003. The bill failed, she resigned, and so did her then boss Tung Chee-hwa.

I decided not to make a fuss, for two reasons. First, I wanted to give Ip the benefit of the doubt. It was entirely possible that she just wanted to look for her friends who had already been given a table.

Second, I wanted to know if Ip would avoid the rookie mistake of behaving like a swaggering politician. After C.Y. Leung’s now-infamous “bag-gate” incident – the chief executive allegedly pressured airport staff to deliver a forgotten bag to his daughter at the boarding gate in violation of security protocols – it would be far too easy, almost stereotypical, to assume that all self-important government officials act above the law – and basic social etiquette.

And so I waited. Meanwhile, my friend Jeremy, who isn’t from around here, had no idea who this woman with an aggressive hairdo was. He started to give me looks, amused by the queue-jumpers.


The "first family" embroiled in bag-gate

A few more seconds later, the maître d’ – an impossibly gracious Eurasian woman – returned.

The moment of truth.

The maître d’ walked behind the counter and smiled to me and my friend. I smiled back and said, “For two, pleas….” I hadn’t even finished my sentence when Ip’s female companion lunged forward and made a “V” sign. “Table for two!” she growled.

“Is this woman for real?” Jeremy protested.

Confused, the maître d’ asked politely, “I’m sorry, but who got here first?”

“We did,” I said, giving a slight head tilt.

“But you see, we called the restaurant to let them know we were coming,” Ip finally spoke. I turned and stared at her, transfixed by her warped logic.

Ip saw the look on my face and said, “We really did, you can ask the restaurant!” 

I believed her. But it wasn’t the point.

“It doesn’t matter,” she conceded, “You two can go in front of us.”

“No, no, you two go ahead. It doesn’t matter to us either,” I countered, rejecting an offer that implied I was the one who had cut the line.

By then, the maître d’ had heard enough testimony from both plaintiffs and defendants. She must handle this kind of minor disputes several times a day.

“Right this way, gentlemen,” the maître d’ returned a verdict.

As she walked us down the hallway, the maître d’ furrowed her eyebrows and said, “I am really sorry about what just happened.” I wasn’t sure whether the half-Caucasian staffer had recognized Ip, but she wanted to apologize for her just the same.

“It’s not your fault,” Jeremy replied. He then turned to me and said, “Those two need to learn some manners and wait in line like everyone else!”

“Did you know who the taller woman was?” I asked my friend, before giving him a three-minute crash course on local politics.

“I don’t care if she was Michelle Obama!” Jeremy quipped. “Is that how things work in Hong Kong? Do all politicians think they don’t need to follow the rules?”

The "crime scene" at the Mandarin

That last question plunged me into deep thoughts. Jeremy might not know much about local politicians, but his remark summed up their holier-than-thou attitude rather accurately, even over an incident that seemed so insignificant.

I wasn’t angry with Ip. During our 60-second encounter, she was never rude – her companion was – but she wasn’t. She might have even passed for a nice lady. She was careful to avoid clichés like “Do you know who I am?” or “Manager! I need to speak to the manager!” – as so many of her peers would or could have said if placed in a similar situation. Even if she had thought it, she was smart enough not to say it.

Instead, I felt bad for her. As much as I find her political stance regrettable, Ip has a lot going for her. Her public service experience, education credentials and willingness to play ball with Beijing make her a formidable contender for the Government House. 

In the end, however, it won’t be her politics (she is an unabashed Beijing loyalist), or her naked ambition (she makes no secret of her aspirations for the top job), or even her superiority complex (she has been caught on camera giving reporters and service people a hard time) that will do her in. She is guilty on all three counts, of course, but none of them is politically fatal.

Her Achilles’ heel is her tone deafness, which explains why she has called foreign domestic workers seductresses of married men, compared wearing animal fur to eating meat, proposed to lock up asylum seekers in detention camps, and believed restaurant lines don’t apply to her if only she gives the manager a heads-up. She honestly believes she is right, convinced by twisted reasoning that makes sense only to her but that fails the most elementary of sanity checks. 

For decades, she has been living in a bubble, surrounded by hand-shakers and brown-nosers at her beck and call – like her lunch companion who had no qualms about riding on her coattails to reap even the smallest advantage in life. Over time, she loses the common touch, and so goes the common sense.

If and when she decides to throw her hat into the ring, Ip won’t be running against other hopefuls like John Tsang or Carrie Lam – she will be running against herself. And that’s the toughest battle in the world.

She made enemies of 350,000 FDWs



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This article also appears on Hong Kong Free Press.

As posted on HKFP.com

28 April 2016

Baptism of Fire 炮火的洗禮

“Drop dead, traitors!” wrote one Facebook user. “Stop swindling money from gullible supporters,” said another. Further down the comment thread, the Photoshopped picture of a young man with a noose tied around his neck received dozens of likes. “Your corpse will rot on the street and we will celebrate!” the caption read.

The lynching victim depicted in the picture was Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), the once-idolized student leader who, at the tender age of 14, led tens of thousands of citizens to thwart the government’s attempt to introduce a patriotic education program. The darling of foreign news media appeared on the cover of Time’s Asia edition and was named one of Fortune magazine’s top 10 world leaders in 2015 alongside Pope Francis and Apple CEO Tim Cook. There were even whispers that he should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Yesterday's hero

But what a difference a year makes. Today, he is the prime target of what amounts to Cyber-bullying. Thousands of blistering comments plaster across Wong’s Facebook page and that of his newly-minted political party Demosistö (香港眾志). The trolling – the Internet slang for online harassment – is so relentless, and the name-calling is so vicious and disruptive, that you easily forget what the original post is about.

“My five-year honeymoon is over,” said Wong, who turned 19 last October, on the telephone yesterday. He was referring to the early years of his political career when he enjoyed a degree of immunity from criticism. “Now that I’m running my own political party, I expect the public to hold my feet to the fire,” he confessed, admitting that the halo above his head has slipped. “If the criticism is valid,” Wong added, “I take it to heart so I can do better in the future.”

In reality, most of the online commentary is less than constructive. The trolls, who never fail to respond within minutes of a new update, go by aliases like Billy Bong and On Dog Joshua (on” is an expletive in Cantonese meaning “moronic”). At the same time, there is no shortage of keyboard warriors who use their real accounts under their real names. The vast majority of them are diehard supporters of localist parties such as Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線) and Civic Passion (熱血公民) – radical splinter groups that call on citizens to use “any means necessary” to resist the Sinofication of Hong Kong and ultimately declare independence from Mainland China.

When asked whether the troll army is an organized group mobilized by a political force, Wong explained, “We need to distinguish between localist sympathizers and localist parties, and not lump the two together.” Sympathizers are netizens, according to Wong, and they are uncoordinated and self-motivated. Political parties, on the other hand, are by definition organized groups. Most of the trolls belong to the first category. “Netizens take whatever I say out of context and sometimes put words in my mouth,” Wong protested. “You can reason with a political party, but it’s very difficult to reason with a netizen.”

Don't try to reason with him

Feeding time at the zoo

While Wong bears the brunt of the vitriol, he is by no means the only target. Fellow Demosistians such as Nathan Law (羅冠聰) and Oscar Lai (黎汶洛) also find themselves in the cross hairs of the ad hominem offensives.

Last week, when Wong and Law embarked on a North American university tour – Wong was invited to speak at Harvard, Yale and M.I.T., among others, while Law focused on Stanford, Berkeley and other West Coast colleges – the attacks reached a fever pitch. The troll army sneered at their “paid vacation” and called it “shameless self-promotion” and an “embarrassment to Hong Kong.” “Who the f** gives you the right to speak for us?” one asked, before a chorus of assailants joined in for an online free-for-all.

“The purpose of the trip was to spread the word about our political situation and rally international support for the self-determination of Hong Kong,” said Law over the telephone, hours before his scheduled flight from San Francisco to Vancouver for a speaking engagement at the University of British Columbia, the final stop on his week-long tour. “We didn’t do any fundraising for Demosistö, and all travel expenses were paid by the universities that invited us,” he added.

When asked about the timing of the trip – less than a month after Demosistö was launched – Law explained: “Until now, Joshua and I had been very busy getting the new party off the ground. At the same time, we had to do the talks before the spring semester ends in North America. That was it – there’s nothing opportunistic about our schedule.”

Wong's and Law's university tour


How it all started

The spat between the student leaders and the localists goes way back. During the OccupyMovement of 2014, Wong and the Hong Kong Federation of Students (of which Law was a core member) had constant run-ins with various splinter groups. Four days into the movement, Wong held an anti-government rally outside the Golden Bauhinia Square where the National Day flag-raising ceremony was to take place. Wong and his Scholarism followers were accused of forming a human chain to sabotage the attempt by a legion of firebrand protesters to storm the square to disrupt the event.

“That whole ‘human chain’ accusation was bogus,” Wong argued. “There were dozens of us staging a mass protest that morning. We had turned our backs to the Chinese flag in silent protest and formed crosses with our arms. We never physically stopped anyone from doing anything. It was a misunderstanding that has kept snowballing since then.”

And snowballed it has. The National Day ruckus was followed by similar incidents throughout the 79-day street occupation, in which localist groups challenged the legitimacy of Wong and HKFS leaders to make decisions for protesters and slammed them for standing in the way of escalation plans.

But it gets worse. In the eye of the localist sympathizers, the recent rebranding of Scholarism into Demosistö has turned Wong and Law from ineffective leaders to political rivals  and even election spoilers. That Demosistö and Hong Kong Indigenous will be going after the same voter base – the young, progressive vote – in the September general election has added fuel to the raging fire. That also explains why localist supporters have been going after the new party with more ferocity than they do their declared enemy: Communist China. 

Wong accused of sabotaging other protesters' action during Occupy

Resistance is futile

Until recently, the trolling had been one-sided, and the Demosistians had not hit back. Two weeks ago, however, Wong made the mistake of responding to a supporter of Edward Leung (梁天琦), spokesman of Hong Kong Indigenous. The supporter had left a Facebook comment criticizing Demosistö’s $2 million fundraising campaign. Wong defended his solicitation of small online donations with a short reply: “We don’t want to court secret benefactors,” implying that Leung’s party is funded by a dubious financial backer.

Wong’s regrettable remark was political red meat for the trolls, and the teenager was slaughtered on social media for leveling an unsubstantiated attack against Leung. The next day, Wong issued a public statement on Facebook apologizing for his gaffe. Not surprisingly, the apology was not accepted; it has fired up his critics even more.

“There isn’t much else I can say or do,” said Wong, sounding frustrated and exhausted. “If I am wrong, I stand corrected and I take responsibility for it. But if netizens continue their irrational attacks, I need to stand my ground and push back.”

Apology not accepted

As much as Wong and Law try to take the flak in stride, personal insults still sting. The phenomenon underscores the toxicity of local politics and the severe polarization of society in the post-Occupy era. Anger and frustration have boiled over, and once-political allies can become sworn enemies over the slightest of misunderstanding or disagreement.

“[Criticism] comes with the territory,” Wong sighed. “I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”

Law, on the other hand, takes a more defiant stance. “I’m happy to listen to constructive comments and learn from them,” he said. “But for groundless, malicious attacks, all I can say is: what goes around comes around!”


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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Baptism of fire for Joshua Wong and his nascent political party."

As posted on SCMP.com


11 April 2016

Off to a Rocky Start 香港中箭

Hang Seng Bank has frozen its deposit account. Cybersquatters have occupied its domain name. Its hastily organized press conference, held last Sunday night in a subterranean auditorium, had all the trappings of a student council meeting: it started several hours late and the live streaming on YouTube was interrupted so many times that the number of viewers hovered around 300 and at times dropped below 20.

If that is any indication of the challenges facing Joshua Wong’s new political party, then it is in for a bumpy road ahead.

The launch

Demosistō, the grown-up version of Scholarism – which Wong founded four years ago to oppose C.Y. Leung’s patriotic education plan – is meant to help the 19-year-old and his posse shed their school boy image to better position themselves for a serious Legislative Council bid in September.

Wong is hoping that the new party with an intelligent-sounding name will wipe the slate clean and allow pro-democracy activists of all ages to join without looking like they are crashing a high school party. For instance, 60-year-old filmmaker Shu Kei (real name Kenneth Ip), who was present at Sunday’s press reference, would have looked oddly out of place if he were to be introduced as a new Scholarism recruit.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the high-profile rebranding, and so far there has been more criticism than praise. The word Demosistō, a portmanteau created by Boy Wonder himself, combines the Greek word for "the people" (demo) and the Latin word for "I stand" (sistō). No one other than Wong himself seems to like the new name. In fact, the word isn’t even grammatically correct: it loosely translates into “I the People stand” (sistō being the first person singular of the verb sistere).

Netizens are quick to call the awkward appellation a public relations blunder, invoking the famous Cantonese proverb that “to be given a bad name is worse than to be born with a bad fate.” One commentator joked that the name sounds like “demolition,” some sort of contraption invented by Joshua Wong to destroy the traditional pan-democratic parties. Other people took issues with the party’s logo that was designed around the letter “D,” saying that it looks like a mobile phone SIM card.

It really does look like a SIM card

Things have not gone smoothly for the party’s official website either. The domain name www.demosisto.com has been claimed by an anonymous party. When clicked, the link goes to an empty page with a villainous taunt to Wong: “U still [have] no site?” Outsmarted by their political opponents, Demosistians begrudgingly settled for the next best thing: www.demosisto.hk. A skeletal version of the site was launched hours before the press conference on Sunday.

But that’s not all. Demosistō’s fundraising effort has been stunted by delays in the company registration process, as well as HSBC’s refusal to open a bank account for the party to receive donations. To date, every financial institution approached by Wong has told him to take his business somewhere else.

As a result, all donations had been funneled through deputy secretary-general Agnes Chow’s personal savings account, which presented audit and transparency issues. Then yesterday afternoon, Hang Seng Bank suddenly notified Chow that her account could no longer accept deposits, with immediate effect. The situation just went from bad to worse.

With the entire financial system stacked against them, it remains unclear whether Demosistō will manage to meet its HK$2 million crowd-funding target in time for the Legco election campaign season that is set to begin as early as this summer.  

HSBC, one of the self-censoring banks

The good news is that jokes about names and logos will eventually pass, and that banking and other administrative issues will be sorted out or gotten around somehow. The new party will gain traction and warm to voters as long as it has a solid policy platform. So far, however, Demosistō is long on ideology but short on actionable plans.

The party’s website remains a work-in-progress – the “Policy” tab currently displays a blank page with the words “coming soon” in Chinese. It leaves open the question of where Demosistō stands with respect to policy issues from universal retirement protection to cross-border relations, to the party’s willingness to engage C.Y. Leung’s government and even Beijing officials to break the current political impasse.

What we do know is that Demosistō will continue Wong’s non-violent approach to the fight for universal suffrage and greater autonomy for the city. He has called himself a “centrist” and placed his new party halfway between radical localists who call for Hong Kong’s independence through “any means possible” and the pan-dems who do little more than shout slogans and issue strongly worded statements in response to bad government decisions.

Yet, the middle path can be fraught with peril. A centrist party may wind up pleasing no one and alienating voters on both sides of the opposition aisle. On one hand, moderate constituents who worry about the emergence of radical forces will find Demosistō’s “self-determination” rhetoric too incendiary for comfort. On the other hand, voters who buy into the localists’ take-no-prisoners tactics will dismiss Wong or any of his Demosistians as just another career politician climbing the greasy pole.

What’s more, now that the new party has officially thrown its hat into the ring for the upcoming elections, it has turned old allies into new rivals. Once-friendly faces like Alan Leong and Long Hair may suddenly stop returning Wong’s phone calls. There will be no one to offer ground game advice or coordinate voting tickets to avoid siphoning votes from each other. In the gladiatorial game that is local politics, it is every man for himself.

A formidable rival


But there are worse things than a cold shoulder. Like wild animals unleashed from underground dungeons, localist sympathizers wasted no time in their vicious attacks against the new kids on the block. Social media trolling began within minutes after the Demosistō Facebook page was launched, replete with a liberal use of expletives and colorful epithets.

Still, Demosistō’s biggest trouble may be coming from within. Of the party’s four core members, only chairman Nathan Law and vice chairman Oscar Lai are old enough to stand for election in September. While the Occupy movement made both men household names, they are as much untested as they are saddled with political baggage.

Lai, the former spokesman for Scholarism and Wong’s longtime sidekick, has been the butt of many jokes ever since he was found stalking the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung and repeatedly photo-bombing the candidate during the Legco by-election two months ago. Lai was given the nickname “Magnet Man” – the Cantonese catch phrase for a camera hog – for sidling up to the pan-dems for cheap media exposure. His high-profile announcement that he was severing ties to Scholarism and throwing his support behind Yeung just days before the by-election made Lai look mercenary and opportunistic.


Struggling to be noticed

If Lai comes off as a shameless attention-seeker, then Law has the opposite problem. In front of the camera lens, the former Lingnan University student union president and Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) secretary general often appears demure and distant – someone who would make a better academic than a firebrand politician.

Moreover, Law has been criticized for not taking responsibility for his ineffective leadership during Occupy, culminating in his disastrous call for protesters to besiege the government headquarters at Tamar, that hastened the demise of the movement. That and subsequent missteps by the HKFS leadership eventually prompted half its member universities to leave the federation a year ago.

All that has made Demosistō a risky proposition for Joshua Wong. He has put all his political eggs in one basket by making the bold move to disband Scholarism. Forced to sit out the September elections, Wong can only campaign for Lai and Law without knowing how much of his aura and star power can be transferred to them.

It is a high stakes gamble not only because the opposition vote will be split three ways among the pan-dems, the localists and his centrist party, but also because Wong has made himself the face and voice of Demosistō. If his surrogates – Lai and Law – make a poor showing in the September elections, winning only a tiny fraction of the overall votes, it will call into question Wong’s leadership and whether his prodigious fame will eventually flame out.

Scholarism no more

Nevertheless, if there is one thing we know about Wong, it is that the teenager is full of surprises – the kind that has helped him reinvent himself each time critics are about to write him off as an overgrown child star.

This is a young man who combines the acumen to have put forward a proposal for civil nomination even before Occupy began and the foresight to urge the city to look beyond the current political wrangles and focus on life after 2047, the year when the Basic Law expires and "one country, two systems" ends.

Wong has a knack for knowing where to place his chips and how to make a winning bet for both himself and the causes he fights for. No matter how shaky things may look for Demosistō at the moment, he is not one to be written off just yet.

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This article appears on EJInsight under the title "Joshua Wong’s new political party is off to a rocky start"

As posted on www.EJInsight.com