25 August 2016

Legco Election Special: Part 1 - Hong Kong Island


Voters heading to the polling station this September 4th will find a longer ballot than they did in any previous Legislative Council (Legco) elections. In the Kowloon West district, for instance, the number of candidates went from nine in 2012 to 15 this time around. Choosing from a dozen or so candidates in any given district, all sporting the same deep gaze and promising a better future for Hong Kong, can be a dizzying proposition.

Meanwhile, the latest poll numbers from the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Program put the opposition candidates significantly behind their pro-Beijing rivals. In the New Territories East district, one of the fiercest battlegrounds, the pan-democrats may win only one of the nine available seats. These men and women – our defenders – need all the help they can get on election day.

Get out and vote

So read on if you want to steer clear of the pro-Beijing camp and navigate the murky waters of the increasingly diverse (read: fractured) opposition. In this five-part election special, I profile the three most bankable candidates in each of the five districts, all of whom will answer the same five questions in hopes of winning your vote.

In Hong Kong Island, my top picks are People Power’s Christopher Lau Gar-hung (candidate #2), Demosistō’s Nathan Law Kwun-chung (candidate #8) and Civic Party’s Tanya Chan Suk-chong (candidate #14).

*                      *                     *

Question 1: Beyond rhetoric and slogans, what concrete action or achievements can you point to that distinguish you from other candidates?

Chris: C.Y. Leung admitted that he is fearful of filibusters. People Power and the League of Social Democrats are the only two parties that are committed to using that and other procedural tactics to block undesirable bills in the legislature. In the absence of a truly democratic Legco, active resistance is the only tool we’ve got and that’s what I intend to do.

Nathan: Some voters may not take me seriously because of my young face, but my track record, including years of activism and social campaigns, has shown my unwavering determination to monitor the government and hold its action accountable. 

During the Umbrella Movement of 2014, I was part of a student delegation that faced off top government officials in the one and only round of negotiation on electoral reform. Even though the dialogue was unsuccessful, we managed to put pressure on the government to explain itself to the public and set a precedent for student activism. After the Umbrella Movement, I continued to forge ties with various stakeholders in civil society to push forward political reform. I, together with my friends Lau Siu-lai and Eddie Chu Hoi Dick, both of whom are also running in this election, have been doing community outreach and educating voters on social issues. In addition, we have spent considerable time conducting policy research. I believe my energy and determination represent a new and hopeful approach to local politics.

Tanya: It has always been my belief that politicians cannot isolate themselves from the public and work solely on their own, especially in the face of the growing political challenges brought on by C.Y. Leung. It explains my effort to stay closely connected with civil society in previous years. For instance, I’ve been collaborating with different civil bodies to draft the Tree Bill and push for better tree management. I’ve also joined forces with a number of civil organizations such as the Victoria Waterfront Concern Group to protect our harbor and improve town planning.

These achievements are the living proof of my commitment to the city. I hope to move Hong Kong forward on that basis and be the lawmaker who bridges the gap between political parties and civil society.

Chris is passionate about universal
retirement protection and isn’t afraid
to filibuster
    

Question 2: If you win, what issue(s) will you put at the top of your agenda and why?

Chris: Apart from the continued fight for true democracy, I intend to make universal retirement protection my number one priority. I’m a pension consultant by profession and I care a great deal about this pressing issue. I believe our elderly deserve to live much better lives, especially considering how much they have sacrificed for the city’s economic prosperity.

I am open to any form of universal pension scheme. An easy win will be to raise the fruit money [old age allowance] to $3,500 a month [from the current level of $1,290].

Nathan: I take the role of a lawmaker very seriously. I intend to introduce a new political agenda in Legco and debate the future of Hong Kong openly on the legislative floor. The first and foremost battle is the protection of Hong Kongers’ interests. In recent years, our government has squandered tens of billions of taxpayer money on wasteful infrastructure projects, from a cross-border bridge to an express rail link and an airport runway, all of which have reported cost overruns and delays. My priority as lawmaker is to put a stop to these and other bad government initiatives. 

Moreover, I hope to do my part to align the pan-democrats and build the opposition’s momentum, not only to resist bad government bills but also to propose good ones – to the extent we can within the limitations imposed by Article 74 of the Basic Law [which prevents individual lawmakers from introducing bills relating to public expenditure or political structure] – for the betterment of Hong Kong.

Tanya: Hong Kongers’ core values have been arbitrarily destroyed since C.Y. Leung took office in 2012. Even probity – one of the values we cherish the most – is being encroached. If I manage to return to Legco, my priority is to invoke Legco’s Powers and Privileges Ordinance to investigate Leung’s $50 million payment from UGL [an Australian engineering company] and the recent turmoil in the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). We need to safeguard our probity against further erosion.

It’s beyond dispute that Leung is the culprit for Hong Kong’s many social ills. I’ll work to hold him accountable not only for his corruption, but more importantly, the damage he has done to our society. If the pan-democrats manage to crush the pro-establishment camp in this election, we can thwart Leung’s re-election bid and get Hong Kong back on track.

Nathan intends to hold the government
accountable inside Legco while continuing
his street activism outside 


Question 3: Our legislative process is plagued with the stubborn existence of the functional seats and unfair rules such as the “separate vote count” mechanism. When the system is so heavily stacked against the opposition, what will you do differently and what are you prepared to do that your predecessors haven’t already tried?

Chris: As I mentioned earlier, filibusters and other procedural tactics are the only tools available to us to rein in our government and prevent undesirable bills from being passed. The key to an effective opposition is to have more legislators who are willing to engage in these tactics.

As we have seen in the four years since C.Y. Leung took office, the government will yield to our demands if there are enough pan-democratic lawmakers to filibuster and stall legislative debate by making quorum calls. That’s why we need more legislators like myself in Legco who aren’t afraid to take up active resistance.

Nathan: Pan-democratic legislators have been doing their best in Legco, but not everyone is exercising his or her powers to the fullest extent. Filibusters are a tried and tested tactic – but I believe it’s far too weak if it’s carried out by only one or two individual lawmakers. We need a concerted effort within the pan-democratic camp to come up with a better plan. Using my connections and credibility in civil society, I intend to galvanize public support for filibusters, bill amendments, as well as direct action outside Legco through social campaigns.

Tanya: The current mechanisms of functional constituencies and separate vote counting are so unfair that they have all but removed Legco’s statutory function to monitor the government. The first thing we must do is to come out and vote on September 4th in order to safeguard the pan-democrats’ majority in the geographical constituencies and prevent the pro-establishment camp from arbitrarily amending Legco’s rules of procedure, which would further restrict the statutory function of Legco members to veto unjust bills.

Furthermore, I suspect the government will initiate a number of controversial bills in the coming Legco term, including the re-introduction of an anti-subversion bill under Article 23 of the Basic Law. As a member of the pan-democratic camp, I promise to do my best to resist these initiatives while upholding my non-violence principle. What action I’ll undertake depends on the circumstances and I’m not in a position to disclose any plans with specificity at the moment.

Tanya wants to be the bridge
between lawmakers and civil society
    

Question 4: What is your stance on independence? Do you either condemn or support the movement?

Chris: I won’t condemn the independence movement. I believe in liberal values and I believe that it’s squarely within the rights of Hong Kong people to determine their own future, including declaring Hong Kong a separate state.

That said, I don’t support the independence movement given the present political reality. To gain de jure independence from communist China could lead to bloodshed – a price that no one in Hong Kong is prepared to pay, at least not at the moment. The independence movement doesn’t have any international support either. I believe that fighting for genuine self-determination, for instance by amending the Basic Law to give the city more autonomy, is a better way forward and in the best interest of Hong Kong people.

Nathan: Independence is one of several alternate futures for Hong Kong, the discussion of which shouldn’t be silenced. A number of pro-independence candidates have been barred from running for this election, and I intend to safeguard their voices in Legco.

To me, the call for independence reflects our collective despondence toward the current political environment. Since the handover, our freedoms, civil liberties and living standards have all been deteriorating. Many feel hopeless about their future and rights, knowing that communist China isn’t prepared to grant them full democracy in the foreseeable future. But I don’t believe that now is the right time to either support or condemn the independence movement. Before we talk about independence, we must first achieve self-determination.

Tanya: Even though I don’t support the idea of independence, I firmly respect the discussion of it. The freedom of speech, the right to vote and the right to stand for elections are among the most important core values in Hong Kong. Political screening of pro-independence candidates is clearly arbitrary and unconscionable. I’ll defend these voices against political suppression, whether or not I agree with them.


As for the city’s future, I’ll work to ensure that Hong Kongers play a meaningful part in the negotiation of our fate beyond 2047 [when the one country, two systems policy ends]. We didn’t have any say during the handover talks thirty years ago and I won’t let that happen again.


Question 5: If you had to choose the next chief executive from the pro-Beijing camp, whom would you pick and why?

Chris: People Power won’t send any candidate to stand for an undemocratic chief executive election, nor will we nominate or vote for anyone in such an election. This is to show our total rejection of the system. If I’m elected as a lawmaker and become eligible to vote in the chief executive election [as a member of the exclusive election committee], I’ll vote for no one – pro-Beijing or otherwise.

Nathan: I’ll oppose any nominee from the pro-Beijing camp. During the Umbrella Movement two years ago, I called for civil nomination [a proposal to allow individual citizens to nominate candidates in the chief executive election] and demanded Beijing to withdraw the 8/31 framework [an announcement concerning the 2017 chief executive election issued by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on August 31st, 2014, that rejected, among other things, civil nomination]. I didn’t give in then and I won’t compromise now. 

Tanya: I won’t pick any candidate from the pro-Beijing camp unless they support and promise genuine universal suffrage. I firmly reject any sort of censorship of candidates in any election. Universal suffrage for the selection of the chief executive is a solemn promise enshrined in both the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration. My determination to fight for a free vote won’t waver.

If I manage to return to Legco, I’ll demand electoral reform be re-launched outside the confines of the 8/31 framework. My goal is to achieve genuine universal suffrage without citizens being forced to choose someone from the pro-Beijing camp.


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Other top-of-the-ticket Legco candidates in the Hong Kong Island geographical constituency include Wong Chi-him, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Cyd Ho Sau-lan, Cheung Kwok-Kwan, Chim Pui-chung, Cheung Kam-mun, Sham Chee-chiu, Wong Wai-kay, Chui Chi-kin, Paulus Johannes Zimmerman, Hui Chu-fung, Kwok Wai-keung.




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This article also appears on Hong Kong Free Press.

02 August 2016

Zhongxiao, Who Has Abandoned You? 中校,你被誰拋棄?


Last week, a Shenzhen district court sentenced Wang Jianmin (王健民), the 62-year-old publisher of Hong Kong-based political tabloids Multiple Face (《臉譜》) and New Way Monthly (新維月刊》), to five years and three months in prison. His editor-in-chief, 41-year-old Guo Zhongxiao (咼中校), received two years and three months. Their crime? Selling magazines on the mainland without state approval.

The sentencing of the two Hong Kong journalists drew immediate comparison to the abduction of the five booksellers earlier this year. Events that would have been dismissed as isolated incidents now look increasingly like a pattern. They form part of a broader context in which these and future crackdowns on the city’s press freedom must be analyzed.

Yet, did we let the jailed journalists’ domicile temper our public outrage?

Guo (right) and Wang

I met Guo five years ago on social media. At the time, he was a staff editor for the Hong Kong news magazine Yazhou Zhoukan (亞洲週刊or Asia Weekly). His Facebook posts, alternating between commentaries on Chinese politics and selfies from his hiking exploits on the MacLehose Trail, caught my eye. In a city where people were never more than three degrees of separation apart, we quickly became friends.

Every once in a while, ZX – which was how I addressed him – and I would meet up for lunch to share thoughts on politics, blogging and digital journalism. A Hubei native, he would speak Putonghua to me and I would respond in Cantonese. We communicated just fine – only on rare occasions did we resort to scribbling Chinese characters on restaurant napkins.

ZX was something of an Internet celebrity in China. The blogger-cum-social activist got his big break in 2002 when his blog article “Shenzhen, who has abandoned you?” (《深圳,你被誰拋棄?) went viral on social media on the mainland. The 10,000-word manifesto, which criticized city officialdom for not doing enough to maintain Shenzhen’s competitiveness, earned him a meeting with the mayor. In Chinese politics, that’s about as rare as a hunk of mutton-fat jade.

Using his blogosphere stardom, ZX went on to co-found Interhoo (因特虎), an online think tank that advised government officials on economic policies. In 2003, he was named “Netizen of the Year” and one of China’s top 10 citizen journalists. His claim to fame landed him a coveted job offer a year later from the prestigious Asia Weekly in Hong Kong.

ZX's book, published under an alias in 2003

ZX’s success story inspired me to write a short story titled “Going South”, published in an English-language anthology in 2012 – roughly a year after we first made our acquaintance on Facebook. In April that year, I booked him for lunch near his office in Chai Wan to give him my new book. In return, he gifted me a signed copy of his book Shenzhen Shuipaoqileni, which was written under an alias and based on the blog article that had started it all.

It might have been at the same lunch that ZX told me his plan to leave his job to become editor-in-chief of two young political tabloids, Multiple Face and New Way Monthly. After spending eight years cutting his teeth at Asia Weekly, he was ready to flex his muscles elsewhere.

The two magazines specialized in exposés on the Communist leadership. The intense power struggles among rival factions and the often salacious private lives of high-level party members – the same topics covered ad nauseam by the publishing house operated by the missing Hong Kong booksellers – made for sensational reading. The spectacular downfall of erstwhile political superstar Bo Xilai (薄熙來) in early 2012 had further fueled the demand for tabloid journalism and played a part in persuading ZX to seek greener pastures.

But ZX’s career change wasn’t the only move he had in mind. The mainland expatriate had just become a permanent resident of Hong Kong and could not wait to move back to Shenzhen with his wife and newborn child to save on housing expenses. His newly-minted Hong Kong ID would allow him to commute between the two cities with relative ease. Always a skeptic, I reminded him of the risk of living on the mainland and writing so liberally about it. Still, he was willing to take his chances.

A 2012 edition of Multiple Face

If life is a gamble, then my friend had rolled the dice and lost. If he ever thought that writing for a magazine was less risky than running one, or that a Hong Kong citizen working on the mainland enjoys the same relative immunity as do his Western counterparts, then he had been grossly mistaken.

In May 2014, less than two years after his move, ZX, along with the magazines’ publisher Wang, was taken away by Chinese authorities. Upon learning about their disappearances in the news, I tried contacting my friend by phone and by email but to no avail. I asked for assistance on social media and reached out to a number of pan-democratic lawmakers, but nothing came of that either. Pleading with the Hong Kong government to intervene diplomatically seemed out of the question.

My call for help had largely fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps the capture of two mainland-born journalists – who have decidedly mainland-sounding names and who can barely speak a word of Cantonese, despite their permanent resident status – did not give the matter a sufficient nexus to Hong Kong for local politicians or journalists’ groups to act.

Or perhaps playing the dangerous game of tabloid journalism while living on the mainland was so patently unwise that they were considered “fair game” by mainland authorities. Among the people I talked to, there was a palpable sense of “What were they thinking?”

Shenzhen Police sent out a tweet on 30 May
2012 announcing Guo's arrest

It was not the only time that the domicile of an arrested person mattered in public opinion. The disappearance of Lui Por (呂波), a Shenzhen resident and the first of the five Hong Kong booksellers to go missing, was a virtual non-event in the local news cycle. The incident did not gain traction with the media until two months later, when his Hong Kong-based colleague Lee Po (李波) was believed to have been abducted in Hong Kong by Chinese authorities.

Apathy can also be easily rationalized. People I approached for help cautioned that making a lot of noise south of the border might hurt more than help, considering that the accused were already in Chinese custody and at the mercy of their captors. Besides, Communist operatives were not known to bow to public pressure in Hong Kong and it was advisable to let the legal process run its course.

With that, the case faded into oblivion. In the intervening months, so much had happened in Hong Kong and abroad that depressed and distracted us: the Occupy Movement, the rise of localism, terrorist attacks in Europe, Brexit, Donald Trump. If it weren’t for the easy comparison to the missing booksellers saga, the journalists’ sentencing last week wouldn’t have even registered a pulse in the press.

ZX is due to be released as early as the end of this month – he gets credit for the 26 months he has already served while in detention. When he finally regains his freedom and somehow manages to make his way back to Hong Kong, I will tell him how immeasurably sorry I am about his ordeal. I will tell him how utterly absurd it was for a magazine editor to be convicted for running an illegal business. I will also tell him what happened to him may just as easily happen to any of us, and that our collective inaction was short-sighted, if not altogether shameful. And I hope he can find it within himself to forgive me and all those who have failed him.

Protest in support of the missing booksellers

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This article also appeared on SCMP.com.

As posted on SCMP.com


15 July 2016

Unfit for Purpose 健身中伏

Twenty years ago, a Canadian entrepreneur walked down Lan Kwai Fong and had a Eureka moment. Eric Levine spotted an opportunity in gym-deficient Hong Kong and opened the first California Fitness on Wellington Street, a few steps away from the city’s nightlife hub. Business took off and by 2008 the brand had flourished into two dozen health clubs across Asia. There was even talk about taking the company public on the Hong Kong Exchange.

Then things started to go south. The chain was sold, broken up and resold a few times over. Actor Jackie Chan got involved and exited. The Wellington Street flagship was evicted and shoved into an office building on the fringe of Central, while key locations in Causeway Bay and Wanchai were both lost to rival gyms. What was once the largest fitness chain in Hong Kong began a slow death that preceded the actual one that stunned the city this week.

It needs a corporate workout

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This article appeared in the 16 July 2016 print edition of the South China Morning Post. You can read the rest of it on SCMP.com.



As posted on SCMP.com