05 December 2016

The Young and the Reckless 廢青新政


Oathgate, the political firestorm that started two months ago and has dominated the headlines ever since, is showing no signs of dying down. Like a molten lava flow, the slow-motion disaster continues to threaten everything in its destructive path: the city’s rule of law, the recent Legislative Council election results, the fledgling anti-establishment coalition, and the already dwindling trust between Hong Kong and mainland China.

It all started with a bad idea gone wrong. At the swearing-in ceremony in October, Yau Wai-ching (游蕙禎) and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang (梁頌恆) – firebrands who ran on a pro-independence platform and were among half a dozen young candidates voted into Legco – draped themselves in a banner bearing the slogan “Hong Kong is NOT China” and used an archaic racial slur to refer to the People’s Republic in their oath.

"Hong Kong is NOT China"

By now it is clear that the two overplayed their hand and underestimated Beijing’s resolve to stamp out any and all secessionist ideologies. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee issued an interpretation within weeks of the provocation, to clarify the oath-taking provision in the Basic Law and bar from office any lawmaker who did not follow the prescribed wording of the oath or who lacked “sincerity” when taking it.

With only themselves to blame, the pair lost the seats they had fought hard to win, after months of bruising televised debates and taxing election campaigns endured by both candidates and voters.

But they have done much more than shoot themselves in the foot – they have recklessly endangered the entire anti-establishment bloc.

Last Friday, the Chief Executive’s Office confirmed the opposition’s worst fears by initiating legal action to unseat four other lawmakers – “LongHair” Leung Kwok-hung (梁國雄), Nathan Law Kwun-chung (羅冠聰), Edward Yiu Chung-yim (姚松炎) and Lau Siu-lai (劉小麗) – all of whom had also strayed from the original oath. Long Hair called the government’s move a “coup d’état” to overturn the Legco election results.

If the government prevails in court and if some of the seats held by the disqualified lawmakers end up going to the pro-Beijing camp in the ensuing by-election, the pan-democrats may lose their jealously guarded majority in the geographical constituencies, as well as the critical veto power to block bad bills relating to electoral amendments that require a supermajority vote. All hell could and would break loose.

From the left: Yiu, Law, Lau and Leung

The delicate balance of partisan power aside, Oathgate – and the Basic Law interpretation it triggered – has already plunged the city into a constitutional crisis. Since the handover, Beijing has exercised considerable restraint towards its right to interpret the Basic Law, acutely aware that each interpretation chips away at Hong Kong’s rule of law a little more.

Insulted and outraged by the duo’s publicity stunt, the communist leadership was left with no choice but to deploy that blunt instrument once again.

But that’s not all. The incident has given Beijing an opening – if it ever needed one – to tighten its control on the unfettered freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Already, there is mumbling within the city’s ruling elite about the need to enact a much-dreaded anti-subversion law, a discussion that has been shelved after a record number of citizens took to the streets in 2003 to oppose it.

A silent march to mourn the death of the rule of law

Still, the most damaging impact of Oathgate is the diversion of public attention. The seemingly interminable saga continues to push all other news stories off the front page and distract citizens from substantive issues that are more pressing and deserving of their focus.

Before Yau and Leung were thrust to the fore, another opposition lawmaker – Eddie Chu Hoi-dick (朱凱迪) – was gaining traction with his investigation of a scandal involving a major land development project in New Territories West. Chu was well on his way to expose the long-standing collusion among the government, property tycoons, rural community leaders and the triads, making a compelling case that those complicated business ties are the root cause of the city’s stubborn housing shortage.

Thanks to the bumbling duo, however, Chu’s good work has been all but obliterated, and his one-man crusade to take on the establishment is not likely to regain momentum any time soon.

In the coming months, all eyes will be on the next chapter of Oathgate, as the court battle to defend the four seats will continue to play out and, if and when that fails, there will be another round of irksome and polarising election campaigns before voters have to head to the polls again.

Chu's good work has been sidelined

That the political fallout has worked in Beijing’s favor has left many wondering whose team Yau and Leung are really on. Social media is ablaze with rumors and speculation that they are in fact moles hired by communist operatives to stir the pot, and that the appearance of chaos and ungovernability in the SAR would then give Beijing a convenient excuse to purge Legco of the opposition – or at least weaken the pro-democracy coalition.

So far, the evidence supporting these conspiracy theories has been circumstantial at best. Some point to Yau’s internship years ago at Ta Kung Pao (大公報), a Beijing-owned newspaper, while others question why neither she nor Leung has been able to produce any photo of themselves at the Occupy demonstrations in 2014, even though they touted themselves as “paratroopers” (Occupy protesters-turned-politicians) during their recent election campaign.

Are the two undercover agents serving the Dark Lord, or are they bona fide political rookies who have misjudged Beijing’s temperament and unwittingly committed political self-immolation? We may never know. What we do know is the wreck they have left behind and the long-term damage they have inflicted on the city.

Who team is she on?

When asked by a reporter about their future plans, Yau and Leung answered: “We want to go back to our ordinary lives.” Yes, walk away and let the rest of Hong Kong clean up your mess.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that young politicians armed with passion and an electoral mandate can do tremendous good as well as serious harm. If channelled constructively, as do lawmakers like Eddie Chu, their energy can achieve great things and move the city in the right direction. If used recklessly, however, the power can consume those who wield it and everybody around


____________________________________

This article appeared on SCMP.com under the title "Oath-taking pair overplayed their hand, and the damage to Hong Kong is dire."

As posted on SCMP.com


29 November 2016

What’s Killing Hong Kong Bookstores?

Earlier this month, Page One unceremoniously announced the closure of its megastores at Harbour City and Festival Walk, ending the Singapore bookseller’s nearly two-decade stint in Hong Kong. The news came less than two years after Australian outfit Dymocks shut down its IFC Mall flagship and exited the city.

Reaction on social media to the loss of yet another bookstore chain was both immediate and damning. While some attributed Page One’s demise to competition from e-books and online retailers, many put the blame on the lack of a robust reading culture in Hong Kong. Still others pointed their finger at greedy landlords and the sky-high rent they extort from retailers.

But what really killed Page One? An autopsy is in order to examine the cause of death of the book industry’s latest casualty.

When will he go?

E-books
: The technorati have long prophesized the end of paper. Portable and affordable, Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers are the physical book’s worst nightmare. But are they really?

After years of rapid growth in the past decade, e-book sales appear to have reached a plateau. In the UK, digital content sales fell nearly 2 per cent last year, while physical book sales grew in the same period. A similar reversal of fortune is happening in the United States, where industry experts cite “digital fatigue” as the primary cause of e-books’ gradual decline in popularity.

E-books have been even slower to catch on in Hong Kong, largely because not as many Chinese titles are available electronically. Contrary to common belief, they are not responsible for Page One’s death.

E-book sales have plateaued

Online retailers: Popular sites such as Book Depository and SHOPinHK boast free delivery and sizeable discounts – between 10 and 25 per cent. They offer convenience, savings and a selection that traditional bookstores find hard to beat.

Still, the two platforms cater to somewhat different customer groups: readers who already know what they want (usually international bestsellers) versus those who need to browse and be inspired. The latter are less inclined to make a purchase unless they can leaf through the pages or check out what else is on the shelf.

Store experience matters the most to buyers of children’s books. On weekends, many Hong Kong parents take their kids to physical bookstores where they can pick out a few choice titles, curl up on the carpeted floor and read the text out loud before taking them home as a treat. And so, while online retailers do peel away sales from traditional stores, the former can’t match the shopping environment offered by their brick-and-mortar counterparts. E-commerce did hurt Page One, but it didn’t mortally wound it.

They've come too late


Reading culture: The joy of reading is lost on most Hong Kongers. We tend to read for utility and not pleasure. That’s why investment manuals and travel guides outsell all other genres, whereas literature and fiction are the perennial underdogs. Chinese-language bookstores such as Joint Publishing (三聯), Commercial Press (商務) and Chung Hwa (中華) rely heavily on the sales of textbooks and exam aids.

Our reading culture has long been the bane of the publishing industry. Over the years, booksellers have evolved and adapted by expanding their product offerings to stay afloat. Eslite (誠品) and Bookazine, for instance, have carved out significant store space for stationery, snacks, toys and sundry paraphernalia.

So had Page One. Its Harbour City flagship resembled a small department store, complete with a restaurant and tea house. What’s more, the chain knew what it was in for when it opened shop in aliterate Hong Kong. It didn’t go out of business because its customers suddenly changed the way they read – because they didn’t.

Girls reading at Bookazine

Retail rent: We love to blame all social ills on the property market, and we do so for good reason. In Hong Kong, rent accounts for over 20 per cent of a retailer’s operating cost, nearly twice the industry norm overseas.

To understand the landlord-tenant dynamics, I spoke to Shonee Mirchandani, owner and managing director of Bookazine. To my surprise, she was quick to debunk the myth that commercial landlords are bloodsucking villains. “It’s simple supply and demand,” she said. “If a store space is overpriced, retailers will look somewhere else. At the same time, we don’t expect a free pass from our landlords just because we sell books. We are running a business and so are they.

The relationship between shopping malls and retailers are symbiotic: mall operators bring in foot traffic and they charge market rates for it. “Yes, rents are high in Hong Kong, but our costliest stores [in terms of monthly rent] are also our most profitable,” Mirchandani confessed. “There are many reasons why businesses fail. It’s not always the landlord’s fault. In fact, it’s often not.

Dymocks IFC no more


None of the above: The suite of market forces we have considered thus far – technology, reading culture and retail rent – affect the entire book industry. None of them explains why some players thrive while others flounder. Dymocks and Page One have both bitten the dust, but their competitors continue to grow. Eslite opened a second location at Star House last year and added a third in Taikoo Shing 10 months ago. Bookazine recently launched new stores in Repulse Bay and Discovery Bay. More branches are being planned.

The difference between success and failure boils down to the basic law of evolution: well-managed businesses survive and mismanaged ones don’t. Dymocks failed in Hong Kong in large part because the franchise was poorly run, according to an industry insider. The head office offered little support to the franchisees and set unrealistic turnover targets.

Page One, on the other hand, misread the book market. “They specialised in high-end art and architecture books and neglected non-fiction titles that Hong Kongers love,” said Pete Spurrier, owner-founder of Blacksmith Books. “Expensive art books are a niche market and it can’t really sustain a business.” As if to prove the point, Basheer Design Books in Causeway Bay announced this past weekend that they have decided to call it quits.

Eslite sells not only books but a lifestyle


Cash flow mismanagement is another common pitfall for booksellers – or any retailer for that matter.

Most businesses fail because they burn cash faster than they can make it. Dymocks owed millions to creditors when they folded. Page One reportedly spent over HK$20 million – money it hadn’t yet earned – on fitting out its sprawling Harbour City flagship. Now in receivership, the chain has left in the lurch scores of unpaid publishers, distributors, interior designers and contractors, according to local news reports.

Luck and timing also played a big part in sealing Page One’s fate. Its expensive renovation works coincided with the Chinese government’s crackdown onpolitically sensitive titles, which dried up a main source of its income. Shortly after the chain moved into Harbour City, direct competitor Eslite unveiled a multi-storey, state-of-the-art lifestyle megastore a block away at Star House, siphoning off both traffic and sales. At roughly the same time, Page One lost all six of its airport branches to Chung Hwa. The series of unfortunate events, all occurring at a time when the chain was most financially vulnerable, dealt a blow that precipitated its eventual death. Call it bad luck and bad timing.

So let the coroner conclude his post mortem examination with a few wise words from a bookseller who has beaten the odds. “Running a business is a gamble,” Mirchandani said. “You need both skill and luck. I’m driven by fear – the fear factor is what makes us adaptable and viable.


____________________________________

This article also appeared on SCMP.com.

As posted on SCMP.com


28 September 2016

What's Next for Joshua? 黃之鋒去向

A lot has happened in Hong Kong in the two years since tens of thousands of student protesters occupied the city’s major thoroughfares to demand a free vote.

The so-called Umbrella Movement, which began on 28 September 2014 and went on for 79 days, was followed by a period of protest fatigue, polarization of society and increasing intervention by the Chinese government.

But for Joshua Wong, a mainstay of that movement and a household name both at home and abroad, the past 24 months have been a chance to reflect and reassess.

Boy wonder

Earlier this year, Wong disbanded a student group he set up in 2011 and co-founded a political party with fellow protest leader Nathan Law.

In the general election three Sundays ago, Wong, who at 19 was too young to run for office, took a back seat. He campaigned for Law in a bid for one of the 40 democratically elected seats in the city’s legislature. Law went on to win the election and become one of six fresh-faced lawmakers elected on a platform of increased autonomy from China.

And so, for the first time since was catapulted to international fame – after successfully thwarting the Hong Kong government’s attempt in 2012 to introduce a patriotic curriculum in primary and secondary schools – Wong was not the center of attention.

The day after his election win, Law appeared in major newspapers around the world. It was him – and not the much more famous Wong – who took live interviews with CNN and the BBC. In one telling photograph taken at the vote counting station, a jubilant Law was pictured cradling a bouquet of flowers while surrounded by cheering supporters. Standing next to him in the image was Wong, whose face was all but eclipsed by the oversized bouquet.

Law (center) and Wong (blocked by flowers)

Wong appeared unfazed by how the spotlight had shifted to his friend.

“I don’t mind being Nathan’s sidekick,” said Wong, in a sit-down interview at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a short walk from the main protest site in 2014. “In fact, I’m relieved that someone else is in the limelight for a change.”

“During the general election, I made sure that Nathan took center stage so that voters chose him because they knew him and not because they considered him my surrogate.”

Being in someone else’s shadow seems hardly cold at all, especially if you were named one of the world’s top ten leaders by Fortune magazine – as Wong was in 2015. The teenage student leader takes three to four interviews each day and holds daily meetings with like-minded activists and politicians. His jam-packed days begin at 9am and end well past midnight.

Wong’s schedule has not changed much since he graced the cover of Time magazine shortly after the Umbrella Movement erupted. The foreign press frequently compares him to that other teenage activist, Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, in terms of charisma and name recognition.

His fame notwithstanding, Wong said he considered Law an important – and equal – partner. “We have so much on our plates: policy proposals, press interviews and community outreach. Neither of us can do it alone. As a lawmaker, Nathan will fight inside the legislature. I’ll continue my fight on the streets.”  

Part of that fight is to garner international support for the city’s pro-democracy movement. Before the recent election, he and Law toured Britain and the U.S., giving speeches at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Stanford. With Law now focusing on the upcoming parliamentary session, Wong will take up the bulk of the overseas speaking engagements. The next couple of months will see him travel to Bangkok, Washington D.C., New York and Miami.

Wong addressing students at Oxford

Wong now appears less fidgety than at the height of the 2014 protests when he spent nearly three months camped on the streets outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters. He smiles frequently and no longer checks his smartphone every 15 seconds. What hasn’t changed is his signature bowl haircut and heavy-framed spectacles. His denim shirt and cargo pants are those of a typical Hong Kong teenager.

But Wong won’t be a teenager for much longer. He turns 20 in a few weeks and will lose his status as a student leader when he graduates from university in 2018. And if he doesn’t manage his career carefully, the comparison may shift from Malala Yousafzai to Macaulay Culkin or other failed child stars.

Wong knows that time is his biggest enemy. That’s why he filed a judicial review prior to the general election to overturn the minimum age requirement for election candidates – a fight he ultimately lost. The next election is four years away.

In the meantime, his prospects remain murky.

Wong currently attends Open University, which ranks last among the nine universities in Hong Kong. While he does well in his political science classes, his grade point average has been pulled down by non-core subjects with which he struggles, such as statistics.

A lackluster transcript aside, Wong’s main career hurdle is perhaps his name. Being a high profile political activist who was recently convicted for his role in starting the Umbrella Movement means that  in the long term  a career in politics may be his only option.

Jobs in both the public and private sectors are out of reach. No bank, telecom company or property developer – by far the largest employers in the city – would want to associate its name with a thorn in Beijing’s side.  

University ranking 2016

Still, friends like Matthew Torne, the British director who shadowed Wong for months while filming a documentary that chronicles Wong’s campaign against the patriotic curriculum, have urged the teenager to think long and hard about whether a career in politics is the right move.

“I’ve told Josh on more than one occasion that he needs a backup plan, such as a solid education from a reputable university overseas,” Torne said. “Josh is smart enough to know that voters are fickle and that he needs to think beyond politics.”

Wong appears to be listening to his friends counsel.

“I want to wipe the slate clean with a master’s degree aboard,” Wong mused. His ever-growing rolodex, which boasts professors at top postgraduate programs around the world, will come in handy when he is ready to take a hiatus from public life.

“I haven’t made up my mind about what I’ll do after spending a year or two overseas,” he confessed. “Outside politics, I suppose I can work for an NGO or do some freelance writing. I may even consider academia.”

For now, the protest leader gets by on a modest monthly allowance from his parents, with whom he and his brother share an apartment in a middle class neighborhood. 

When he doesn’t eat at home, his meals are paid for by politicians and reporters. Foreign trips are funded by institutions that invite him to speak.

“My biggest expense is cab fare,” the teenage activist said almost apologetically. “I’m always running from one place to the next, and I don’t have time to take the bus or the subway.” In Hong Kong, taking taxis instead of mass transit is considered a luxury for students.

“Other than that, I’m a pretty low maintenance guy.”

Director Torne (right) and Wong

_________________________

An shorter version of this article was published in the 28 September edition of the Guardian.

As the article appeared on theGuardian.com