28 May 2009

A Tale of Three Cities – Part 2 三城故事-中卷


Macau is a rustic peninsula hugged by a muddy, silt-laden estuary of the Pearl River. Petite, laid-back and never prosperous, the middle sister exudes a touch of quaint Mediterrasian charm. In the mid-16th Century, Portuguese merchants turned the sleepy fishing village into a leading entrepôt for the silk and silver trades between Europe, China and Japan. But Macau’s heyday lasted until 1842, when British-controlled Hong Kong, with a deeper harbor and better-run government, dethroned the sandy peninsula as the gateway to the Orient. From then on, Macau was relegated to the role of an adjunct city of Hong Kong and would forever live in her big sister’s shadow.




In the post-war era, Macau survived on revenues from government-sanctioned gambling and the sex trade, making a name for herself as Asia’s Las Vegas and a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah...
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Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.



14 May 2009

A Tale of Three Cities – Part 1 三城故事-上卷



Shenzhen, Macau and Hong Kong are three sisters separated in childhood. Tucked away in the Pearl River Delta, they might have been mistaken for triplets if it weren’t for the vicissitudes of history that put them on such different paths. A century and a half ago, armed strangers came knocking on their door in the dead of night, waking the sleepers out of a national slumber. The mightiest among the intruders, bearing the Union Jack, snatched the oldest sister in the name of free trade, not long before a Latin conquistador ran off with the middle one. Their pillage and plunder would go on for several more decades before a new enemy brought on by a divine wind opened a chapter so dark history textbooks had to be revised.




Good or bad, Shenzhen was the only sister of the three spared from colonial rule. While Hong Kong thrived under British rule and Portuguese Macau carved a niche for itself as Asia’s Sin City, Shenzhen didn’t begin to come of age until 1980 when Deng Xiaoping handpicked her to be China’s first Special Economic Zone. A late bloomer notwithstanding, the southern belle flourished under the auspices of Deng’s Reforms and Openness (改革開放) initiatives and quickly became a poster girl for the country’s pragmatic socialism...


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Read the rest of this article in HONG KONG State of Mind, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong, on Amazon and at Blacksmith Books.



12 May 2009

The Real Aftershock is Yet to Come 真正的餘震還未來



Exactly a year ago, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged the heartland province of Sichuan, killing an estimated 70,000 and leaving another 17,000 missing. Among them were thousands of students crushed by collapsed schools, most of their bodies buried deep under the rubble. Weeping parents, suddenly childless, struggled to fathom how the wrath of nature could be so cruelly selective, flattening school houses but leaving surrounding buildings standing. Premier Wen Jiabao (家寶), determined to score public relations points in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, promised a full investigation into the so-called “tofu dregs” (豆腐渣) construction.



A week before the one-year anniversary of the disaster, the Sichuan provincial government finally got around to publishing the first ever official tally of students killed by collapsed schools. Officials blamed the high death toll on force majeure and diverted media attention to the heroic rescue efforts and the reconstruction swimmingly underway. Human rights watchdogs and the Western press cried foul, and even the normally spineless Hong Kong media ran investigative reports on alleged cover-ups at various levels of government. So far Beijing has yet to break its silence on the controversy, and Wen’s promises to the survivors are yet to be made good.



China began its fiscal decentralization in the late 1970s, giving regional governments enormous administrative powers and virtual economic autonomy. The policy enriched a generation of low-ranking officials and turned them into local lords. In these past several months, however, they have been dogged by the school construction scandal that, like ticking time bombs around their necks, would go off as soon as leaders on high start demanding answers to allegations of negligence and corruption. Diffusing a bomb is a delicate art: it requires great rhetoric and the power of persuasion. To that end, local officials are quick to invoke the self-deceiving, self-congratulating sentiments of duo nan xin bang (多難興邦; literally, through many disasters our nation prospers), the four words that Wen Jiabao famously wrote on a classroom blackboard to motivate survivors during one of his visits to the disaster zone a year ago. Officials urge grieving parents, most of them impoverished peasants from the mountainous regions, to move beyond the past and focus on rebuilding their lives. If only the surviving family members can look at things on the bright side, then even a part man-made disaster has a silver lining.



But when cheap propaganda doesnt work, local governments resort to the use of hush money, confident that money can make the world go around as it so often does for them on the receiving end. Officials show up at the parents’ doorstep with dubiously worded contracts, offering cash payments in exchange for their silence and acquiescence of legal rights. Veteran New York Times journalist Edward Wong likened them to “a multinational corporation facing a product liability suit.”




But in the crass world of local politics, a carrot is so often followed by a stick. Stubborn parents who continue to press for answers and busybody volunteers who assist them are uniformly harassed, threatened, detained and beaten. Street protests are quelled by riot police and trips to Beijing intercepted. Local officials ordered sites of collapsed schools to be bulldozed, in a not-so-subtle effort to destroy critical evidence of shoddy construction. Victims’ lists and construction blueprints overnight became “state secrets.” Outrageous as these actions are, they are not unfamiliar to those who follow Chinese politics. Just last year, parents whose children died from or were sickened by tainted baby formula encountered similar intimidation tactics and found their names added to the list of enemies of the state. Dr. Gao Yaojie (高耀潔), world renowned AIDS activist who has been speaking out about China’s silent epidemic, spends her octogenarian years under house arrest and carries suicide pills in her pocket as a last resort against torture.


So far the carrot-and-stick approach appears to be working. A year after the disaster, over half of the protesting parents have dropped out of the fight and cowered to the government’s iron fist and the daily reality of abject poverty. Attrition warfare, after all, has always been the Communists’ strongest suit. More worrying still for Beijing, the May 12 quake has exposed the widespread corruption and gross injustice that have corroded the party’s rank-and-file. Whereas propaganda and media control might have helped mitigate localized unrest in the past, they are as obsolete as buggy whips against the Internet and the blogosphere. When grassroots activism finally takes hold, no amount of goodwill from double-digit economic growths or a successful Olympic Games or World Expo can prevent an all-out social uprising. That tangible threat, the real aftershock of the May 12 quake, is keeping the head honchos in Beijing up at night. But don’t expect any sympathy from anyone, for even the worst case of insomnia would be a walk in the park compared to the heartbreak of losing one’s only child.

This afternoon, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) led a somber memorial service in the devastated town of Yingxiu (映秀鎮), epicenter of the quake, and paid respect to the thousands of children perished a year ago. What they and their surviving families deserve, instead of more publicity stunts, is an honest commitment from the central government to getting to the bottom of the school construction scandal that precipitated a preventable tragedy. Our children deserve better.

05 May 2009

Return of the Masks – Part 2 口罩回歸-下卷




The H1N1 virus has reached Hong Kong. We knew it was just a matter of time but the news managed to shock us just the same. Signs of a city on full alert are everywhere and feelings of an eerie déjà vu palpable. In a place as densely populated as Hong Kong, no amount of planning or emergency drills will prepare us for an all-out epidemic. Peculiar but somewhat understandable, the citys response to its first confirmed case of the swine flu provides a window on our collective psyche in the post-SARS era. The temptation to offer a few of my own observations is too great to resist.



Take one for the team. The symbolic first case of the deadly virus prompted the government to lock down the Metropark Hotel (維景酒店) in Wanchai, where the infected, a 24-year-old Mexican man, once stayed. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Metroparks sister hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui rose to infamy after one of its tenants fell ill and infected 16 others. And you think lightning doesnt strike twice! Taking no chances this time around, police cordoned off a busy corner of Hennessy Road with crime scene tape, forcing nearly 350 hotel residents and staff into solitary confinement. Like caged animals, the captives are fed nameless food in nameless Styrofoam boxes three times a day, separated from the outside world by a pane of glass. But the governments heavy-handed approach to disease control has gone largely unchallenged. No explanation has been offered for what many would consider draconian measures or a case of over-reaction. After the SARS health scare, citizens have tacitly accepted the socialist ideology that the public good must trump individual rights.



Everybody loves drama. The hotel lockdown makes for sensational news reporting and a perfect setting for the next season of Survivor. A single confirmed case was enough for authorities to raise the public health alert to the highest “emergency” level. At a makeshift press conference, the Secretary for Education teased parents with the possibility of shutting down all schools for the week, only to drop the ill-thought-out idea a day later. As if to outdo the government in histrionics, the IFC and several other commercial buildings have installed body temperature sensors at every entrance, turning places of business into maximum security prisons. On my way to work this morning, I was accosted by a security guard at the lobby who drew a ray-gun out of nowhere and fired it right between my eyes. Before I had time to object, the non-contact infrared scanner had already registered my body temperature to one-tenth of a degree. So much for trying not to stoke fear or cause panic!


Behind every crisis lies an opportunity. In Central, the nerve-center of Hong Kong’s high finance, savvy business owners responded to the viral attack with swiftness and ingenuity. A Chinese medicine shop on Stanley Street cajoles passers-by with a ready dose of flu-fighting herbal tea (感冒茶). Local pharmacies on Queen’s Road Central now offer bundle discounts on hand sanitizers if purchased with antiseptic soaps. Under the escalators on the hilly Cochrane Street, opportunistic street vendors have given up fake handbags and switched to hawking face masks at $50 a box. They are the reason why Hong Kong is ranked number one among the world’s freest economies for 24 years straight.



Every man for himself. The face mask has made its way back into our closets, once again an integral part of our daily outfit. The practice of civilians wearing face masks as a health precaution originated from Japan, where school children are taught at a young age to put one on whenever they feel under the weather. Whereas the Japanese wear a mask out of consideration for others, Hong Kongers do so for a far less altruistic reason: to keep themselves from breathing in other people’s germs. In the face of a deadly viral attack, it’s every man for himself and better you than me.


Do unto others as they do unto us. People around the world are struggling to figure out whether all this hoopla about the swine flu outbreak is a colossal case of over-reaction. In the United States, for instance, the regular seasonal flu claims as many as 36,000 lives every year, whereas the H1N1 virus has so far managed to kill only a couple of people in Texas. Our stock market, ever the beacon of human rationality, shrugged off the outbreak with a week-long rally. Despite signs of the epidemic leveling off, the Chinese government continues to impose aggressive precautionary measures, suspending all flights into and out of Mexico, banning all pork products from the region and singling out North American visitors for quarantine. Mexican President Felipe Calderón lashed out at Beijing earlier this week for “acting out of ignorance” and “taking discriminatory measures” against his people, instantly turning a public health issue into a political hot potato. Not six years ago, China and other Asian governments leveled similar accusations against the West for its heavy-handed response to the SARS outbreak. When it comes to international relations, we dont hesitate to inflict on others the same harm they inflict on us, as victims and victimizers trade places in an endless cycle of injury and blame. That is, perhaps, the saddest part of the swine flu saga.