30 March 2011

Apocalypse Now - Part 2 現代啟示錄-下卷

The sakura season in Tokyo has barely began, but the city is already draped in dazzling shades of pink and white. The blossoms arrived just in time to welcome the all-important day of April 1, when, by tradition, the first day of school coincides with the first day of work for hundreds of thousands of university graduates entering the work force. Crisp white shirts, new black suits and brown leather attaché are as ubiquitous as the spring blossoms themselves.





This year, the triple threat of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis have cast a thick shadow on the season of hope and renewal. Each day citizens wake up to the new reality of a nation teetering on the brink of a Chernobyl-type disaster. Nearly a month after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, TEPCO, operator of the damaged Fukushima (福島) nuclear plants, remains utterly incapable of containing the radiation leaks. To cool down the overheating reactors, sea water, fresh water and water with neutron-absorbing boric acid were dumped every which way from helicopters, fire engines and a 20-story tall truck donated by China. And when contaminated water started to build up and leak into the ocean, the power company tried to stop it using liquid glass, saw dust and even old newspaper. TEPCO’s kitchen sink approach to a mounting environmental catastrophe takes us right back to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a year old, where every solution seemed just as bad as the problem itself. And if the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history had raised public awareness over the safety of offshore drilling, the Fukushima crisis has no doubt rekindled worldwide debate over the wisdom of nuclear power, even when used in resource poor, energy hungry countries like Japan.




So much has been made of the Japanese people’s patience and self-sacrifice in the face of extreme adversity. Words like gaman (我慢; endurance), muga (無我; selflessness) and omote-ura (表里) – that national requirement to keep all negative emotions locked up inside – were tossed around all over the Western press. At evacuee shelters, men and women of all ages organized themselves to keep the premises clean and the rationing of provisions orderly. Residents stranded within the radiation zone became self-reliant, melting snow to make drinking water and chopping up bamboo to make chopsticks for themselves and others. In big cities like Tokyo and Yokohama, citizens unplugged all home appliances except for their refrigerators to conserve electricity for those who needed it more. A legion of anonymous power plant technicians dubbed the “Fukushima Fifty” stayed inside the pitch dark facilities to resuscitate the backup cooling systems, despite lethal exposures to radioactive iodine and cesium. In a true collectivist society, not even certain death is a price too high for the greater good.




While the nuclear crisis has brought out the best in the Japanese people, it has also brought out the worst in their government. The Kan administration has been widely criticized for being less than forthcoming about the true extent of the radiation leaks. Is it simply a case of bureaucratic tendency to downplay bad news with vague language, or is it a reflection that government officials have become far too cozy with powerful corporations? Instead of pressuring TEPCO to get their act together, the government turned to the people and called on them, with the help of Emperor Akihito (日皇明仁) no less, for more understanding, more patience and more sacrifices. But all that gaman, muga and omote-ura is about to run out, as citizens struggle to grapple with the political reality that the frequent changes in leadership – 14 prime ministers in the past 20 years – have brought about little or no change in policy and accountability.




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The southwesterly wind strengthens as spring rolls into early summer, carrying with it traces of iodine-131 that will slowly thin out over the South China Sea. Just the same, the new round of radioactivity blown from northeastern Japan promises to throw hypochondriac Hong Kongers into renewed paranoia. Days after the nuclear explosions in Fukushima, hundreds in Hong Kong along with many more in Mainland China overran supermarkets buying up table salt, soy sauce and anything that contained iodine to fend off thyroid cancer. There was a run on all things Japanese, from baby formula, abalone and dried scallops to camera lenses and even cars. Ugly human behavior in times of an epic disaster is not uncommon, but exposing our selfish, every-man-for-himself true nature because of a disaster 3,000 miles away had to be a first. Our tendency to panic and switch off all common sense becomes all the more laughable when you consider how Hong Kongers inhale massive amounts of much more harmful carbon monoxide and lead particles from vehicular exhaust and factory emissions on a daily basis and yet no one bats an eyelid. Whatever the situation, it seems, we can always count on a few bad apples to embarrass us in front of our Asian cousins.




A far more intriguing aspect of the Chinese’s reaction to the continuing nuclear crisis in Japan is perhaps all the conspiracy theories that have been swirling around on the Internet. Reports that trace levels of the highly toxic plutonium were found near the crippled power plants have, rightfully, drawn our attention. Japan’s decision to use plutonium (purchased from France and England) in their nuclear reactors when uranium is much more abundant and much less expensive has fueled suspicion that the country has been secretly turning spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium in a furtive attempt to counter China’s rising hegemony. It would be months if not years before we find out whether these conspiracy theories hold water. For now one thing is certain: nearly six decades after the Pacific War, many of us still wonder whether Japan has really learned its lessons from World War II, and whether that frightful imperial flag would one day fly again and lead the country down the same gruesome path it did two generations ago. For why else, we wonder, would the Japanese government still leave out the truths about its wartime atrocities from history textbooks?



13 March 2011

Apocalypse Now - Part 1 現代啟示錄-上卷

On the early spring day of 11 March 2011, as citizens were busily preparing for the upcoming cherry blossom season, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck northeastern Japan, the biggest seismic event ever recorded in the country’s history. The powerful quake unleashed a 3o-foot high tsunami that swept across the Pacific coast of Honshu (本州) Island and leveled everything in its path. By the time the tremors ended and the water receded, entire cities and towns as far as the eye could see were reduced to a landfill of sludge and rubble. Sendai (仙台), the closest major city to the epicenter with a population of one million, was pummeled beyond recognition. Successive explosions at nuclear facilities near the quake zone spewed radioactive materials into the air. If this was Mother Nature’s way of proving her dominion over man, she had done so many times over.




Around 2:30pm Hong Kong time, 45 minutes after the big temblor hit, I received an email from someone in the Tokyo office titled “EARTHQUAKE” in all capital letters. Mika, a colleague of mine doing a deal with me, had sent the message to tell me that she had lost her Bloomberg connection and that she would not be able to send out the term sheet she had promised me. I told my dutiful – and in this case rather insane – colleague to forget the stupid term sheet and hide under her desk in case of aftershocks. An hour after receiving Mika’s harrowing email, iPhone videos of the earthquake captured by Tokyo citizens began to trickle in on CNN and YouTube: office towers swaying like reeds, frightened office workers running to open space, subways, Shinkansen and other mass transit coming to a complete standstill. As is the case for many natural disasters, the physical devastation preceded the economic one. The Nikkei index fell nearly 17% in the first two trading days after the quake, the kind of decline not seen since the 1987 market crash. But the actual economic impact of the twin disasters of earthquake and tsunami remained too vast to ascertain. Apocalypse had befallen Japan and the rest of the world looked on in awe and disbelief.



Like many others in Hong Kong, I was glued to the television screen watching the endless loop of raw footage playing on the 24-hour news channel. One of the first things that struck me was how calm and composed Japanese citizens appeared. There was no screaming, no mass panic and certainly no violence or looting. All I saw was quiet, orderly citizens lining up outside convenience stores and at telephone booths. Part of it is that earthquakes are simply a fact of life in Japan, a quake-prone nation where minor tremors can be felt several times every year. Elementary schools hold monthly earthquake drills and train small children to duck under their desks and run away from simulated fires. There is a fire proof cushion on every seat in the classroom that can be turned into a bousai zukin (防災頭巾; protective hat) to be used during evacuation. A Japanese friend of mine once told me that it is not uncommon for him to wake up in the morning and find his bed having shifted inches away from the wall. But awareness aside, another explanation for the general tranquility is that Japanese people are disciplined, self-restrained and remarkably civilized. Not even the worst crisis since World War II would betray the sense of mutual respect and dignity so ingrained in the national psyche. It saddens me when I compare how one people behaved in their worst hour to the way the Chinese did in their best, when visitors trampled over each other and elbowed their way into the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, presumably a proud event to showcase China’s civility and modernity.




The other thing that struck me about the news footage was that almost every structure survived the powerful quake. Surely the coastal area had been completely ravaged by the unstoppable tsunami – fishing boats, cars and standalone homes were swept away like bath toys. But by and large there have been few reports of collapsed buildings, a testament to the Japanese government’s extraordinary preparedness for natural disasters. Japan has put in place strict building codes to ensure every structure withstand seismic shocks, including the use of some of the world’s most sophisticated springs and dampers systems. All the expensive earthquake engineering that for decades has pushed up construction costs finally paid off, bearing out the age-old Chinese saying that it is worthwhile to feed an army for a thousand days if you can use it for an hour. Then there is the early warning system: as soon as the first tremor was detected, J-Alert, the nationwide satellite-based system broadcast announcements to local media so that citizens were given sufficient time to get to safety. Within hours of the quake, brigades of jieitai (自衛隊; self-defense forces) were bused to the scenes by armored vehicles, while helicopters were deployed to airlift patients from hospital rooftops. Neatly packed supply kits stockpiled in nearby bunkers containing water, dried food and flashlights were promptly handed to victims. This is a government with a plan, a plan designed to minimize casualties and maximize survival in the event of a national crisis. The same cannot be said about that other superpower. Just six years ago, the world witnessed in horror the way the United States bungled the rescue efforts after Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane, overran the city of New Orleans. Six years later, with memories of their government’s mismanagement and lack of leadership still fresh on their minds, many Americans must be watching CNN in marvel of the Japanese government’s efficiency and organization.




Watching the earthquake and tsunami unfold in Japan, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if something this big happened to Hong Kong. For starters, an earthquake, even one of much less magnitude, would turn every tenement building in the city into a pile of rubble like the collapsed building on Ma Tau Wai Road (馬頭圍道) last year. And it was only a month ago when concerned residents in Wanchai reported tremors in their homes as a result of nearby construction. It would be unimaginable the kind of complete destruction an earthquake could do to a city that fills every occupiable space with pencil buildings up the hills, down the shore and inches from each other. What’s more, the earthquake would force the nuclear power plant at Daya Bay (大亞灣) in nearby Shenzhen to shut down. But Hong Kongers would probably be kept in the dark about radiation leaks, for its operator China Light and Power (中電) doesn’t always tell us what is going on as we so horribly found out last October. Then there is the tsunami that would swallow every square foot of reclaimed land on the north shore of Hong Kong Island from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan, as well as the entire Kowloon peninsula up to Lion Rock. In Central alone, a 30-foot wall of water would push debris all the way up to SoHo and even Midlevels. But don’t count on our government to be of much help. Despite years of drainage projects, Wing Lok Street (永樂街) in Sheung Wan and Ho Sheung Heung (河上鄉) village near Fanling are perennial flood victims vulnerable to even moderate rainstorms. Just last week, a water main on Wong Ngai Chung Road (黃泥涌道) broke and it took the Water Department a total of 6 hours just to locate the valve to turn the water off. Residents and restaurant workers waited late into the night for water trucks that never came. Compared to Japan, Hong Kong is a place utterly unprepared for any emergency situation. Our overpaid, underworked bureaucrats wouldn’t know the first thing about disaster recovery and would instinctively look to Beijing for direction, all the while jealously guarding its HK$260 billion foreign reserve as a political lifesaver. My only hope is that citizens of Hong Kong could be half as civilized and well behaved as their counterparts in Japan so as to prevent the city from plunging into a complete anarchy should any large-scale natural disaster befall us.




In the days and weeks ahead, Japan will have to deal with more aftershocks and nuclear power plant malfunctions. The death toll will continue to climb and gut-wrenching survival stories will come to light. What will not happen, however, is another humanitarian crisis like Katrina and Haiti. In its darkest hour, Japan has proven itself a true superpower, one not measured by its GDP growth or military prowess, but by the way its citizens and government work together in times of national crises. As we take our hats off to the Japanese for their grace and civility, we must put on our thinking caps to figure out what to do with our own sclerotic government.