27 June 2016

Brexit Lessons for Hong Kong 脫歐的教訓

It was an otherwise beautiful, balmy Friday in Hong Kong, if it weren’t for the cross-Channel divorce that put the world under a dark cloud of fright and disbelief.

Asia was the first to be hit by the Brexit shock wave. BBC News declared victory for the Leave vote at roughly 11:45am Hong Kong time – hours before London opened – and sent regional stock markets into a tailspin. The shares of HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank, both listed on the Hong Kong Exchange, plunged 6.5 and 9.5 per cent, respectively...

It ended in divorce

________________________


This article appears in the 29 June 2016 print edition of the South China Morning Post. You can read the rest of it on SCMP.com.


As appeared in the printed edition of the SCMP


19 June 2016

Hero’s Return 英雄歸來


It was supposed to be a slow news week. Chief Executive C.Y. Leung was away on holiday and his deputy Carrie Lam had just returned from a nine-day trip to America. The front page story was meant to be the grand opening of Shanghai Disneyland Park and the bizarre sight of Mickey and Minnie dancing on stage in gold dresses. The headline? “Snow White spends new wealth on bling from Chow Tai Fook.”

Lam Wing-kee at the press conference

Then, a bombshell.

Lam Wing-kee (林榮基), one of the five booksellers missing since last winter, came out of the woodwork on Thursday night with shocking revelations about his detention in the mainland. Like a POW who had escaped from enemy camps, Lam gave a blow-by-blow account of his eight-month ordeal in Ningbo, an industrial city south of Shanghai and 1,100 kilometers from Hong Kong. Throughout his captivity, he was never told his charges or given a phone call. He was put on suicide watch and forced to make a scripted confession before his release a few days ago. During the hastily-held press conference, Lam fought back tears and thanked Hong Kongers for their support. He also called on the city to “say no to tyranny.”

To the viewers watching on television or online, Lam’s testimony confirmed a few things about the city’s grim political reality – none of which they didn’t already fear and know.

First, much of the crime and punishment in China is overseen not by the gong’an (mainland law enforcement) but by an extrajudicial body called the “Central Special Unit” (中央專案組). It answers only to the Communist Party and allows operatives to bypass whatever limited due process that exists in the law books, such as access to legal representation and a maximum detention period. The unit is so secretive and powerful that Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok (黎棟國) nicknamed it the Mighty Division (強力部門).

The five missing booksellers

Second, in the event of an arrest in the mainland, citizens cannot expect the SAR government or the Hong Kong police to be of much help. The arrestee will have to either wait it out or agree to a false confession and a lifetime gag order in exchange for a release. During his involuntary confinement in Ningbo, Lam was all on his own. On the Legco floor, bureaucrats paid lip service by “expressing concerns” and promising to “reach out” to their Chinese counterparts. But like that snooty girl at the bar who fakes a phone call to look busy, they probably never picked up the phone or even knew what number to dial. 

Third, any remaining pretense that the “one country, two systems” framework is intact has been shattered. At the press conference, Lam confirmed that Lee Po (李波), one of his fellow abductees, had been taken away by force while he was Hong Kong, suggesting that mainland agents are not afraid to make a cross-border arrest if they so choose. No matter how vehemently Lee himself tries to deny that claim, he still hasnt been able to explain how he managed to enter China without proper travel documents. Any sensible person can figure out which man is telling the truth and which man is telling forgivable lies to protect himself and his family.

Brave as it is, Lam’s decision to go public is fraught with enormous peril. Openly defying the Communist Party invites harassment and even physical assaults by hired thugs or secret operatives – just ask Next Media’s Jimmy Lai (黎智英) or Ming Pao’s Kevin Lau (劉進圖). Surely enough, Lam, who has now joined the ranks of high-profile whistleblowers like Edward Snowden  has become a fugitive in his own city. While traveling to China to visit his girlfriend is clearly out of the question, he has to look over his shoulder – whether at home or in countries like Thailand – for assailants and kidnappers. 

Then there is the psychological warfare to wrestle with. Since the press conference on Thursday, local newspapers like the Sing Tao Daily and HK01 have already published a slew of damning stories attacking his credibility. Three other previously kidnapped booksellers, including Lee Po, have gone on record to discredit his testimony. To avoid reprisals in the Mainland, Lam’s girlfriend in Shenzhen has called him a selfish lover and a con man. Every trick on the communist playbook, from character assassination to actual death threats, will be hurled at Lam in the coming weeks and months. It will take a heart of flint and nerves of steel to endure it all.

The smear campaign begins


Lam’s courage to come forward when so many others have stayed silent is not lost on his fellow Hong Kongers. Thousands braved the summer heat in a march this weekend to show their solidarity. Even the ever-cynical localist groups, who normally have a bone to pick with just about anyone, have been relatively muted (instead, they ridiculed citizens for attending a “feel-good” rally and berated the pan-dems for turning it into another fundraising event). For a few days, it seems, Hong Kong people have set aside their differences and united to commend Lam’s heroism.

What’s more, the Democratic Party – the bane of voters ever since then-chairman Albert Ho’s (何俊仁) Faustian handshake with the Liaison Office sealed the fate of the 2010 electoral reform – appears to have found redemption. In his most desperate hour, Lam sought the help of neither Long Hair nor Joshua Wong. Instead, he went straight to Ho and clung to him like an exhausted child at the press conference. In so doing, he reaffirmed Ho’s status as the elder statesman within the pro-democracy camp. If the Legco election were to be held this week, the Democratic Party would have easily turned those brownie points into votes. It is a pity that election day is still 11 weeks away and by then much of that aura will have likely dissipated.

The missing booksellers saga has been a game-changer for Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland. It has triggered not only widespread anxiety but also a new wave of mass emigrations. Equally significant, Lam’s revelations have exposed the Communist Party’s blatant lies and dirty tricks. Half a century after the Cultural Revolution and nearly 20 years into the handover, little seems to have changed in the communist leadership’s strategy or mindset. This past week has made clear that no amount of gold or bling can mask the party’s stench or cover up its filth. In the meantime, Hong Kongers have learned to trust no one but themselves. Lam is right: what happened to him can happen to any of us. We are all in it together.   

Mickey and Minnie in gold

________________________

This article also appears on Hong Kong Free Press.



As posted on HKFP.com

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



________________________

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!”


___________________________

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