27 March 2014

Occupy Taipei 佔領台北


They call it the Sunflower Revolution. Last Tuesday, scores of university students stormed into the legislature in Taipei and took over the premises. Their grievance? Kuomintang (國民黨), the country’s ruling party, tried to ratify a controversial trade agreement with Mainland China without proper review by lawmakers. A few days later, a smaller group raided the cabinet building but were later removed by riot police. In all, over 10,000 people participated in the largest student-led protest in the country’s 65-year history.

Rebels with a cause


Things are relatively tame in the second largest city Kaohsiung. Around 200 people – students, taxi drivers, store owners and office workers – congregated outside Kuomintang’s local office on Jianguo First Road (建國一路). That’s where my brothers and I found ourselves this Sunday. We took pictures with our big cameras and chanted slogans with the crowd. The organizers spotted us and invited their “supporters from Hong Kong” to say a few words on stage. We thanked them for asking but politely declined. We told them our Mandarin isn’t very good. In truth, we didn’t know enough about the trade pact to say anything intelligent.

As it turned out, neither do most people in Taiwan. False rumors about the trade pact abound. The fear that Mainlanders will be allowed to buy their way into Taiwan, for instance, turned out to be misplaced. The agreement does not confer either citizenship or permanent residency. It all goes to show how little public discussion – and proper consultation – there has been over the agreement, which takes us back to what triggered the student protest in the first place: the government’s unilateral move to push through a contentious bill without a line-by-line review. 

Me, among the protestors in Kaohsiung


So what’s this agreement and what’s in it?

Formally known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA, 服貿), the pact was signed in Shanghai in June 2013. It is one of two major sequels (the other one being the not-yet-signed “Agreement on Trade in Goods”) to the high-level, largely symbolic Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA, 兩岸經濟協議) inked in 2010. CSSTA is all about opening up the service industry in both countries. It aims at creating cross-strait investment opportunities in dozens of service-related sectors (64 in Taiwan and 80 in China), such as banking, healthcare, tourism, films and telecommunications. Among other things, CSSTA will allow qualified professionals in Mainland China to apply for short-term (three-year) visas to work in Taiwan, and vice versa. Mainland corporations, such as banks and mobile service providers, will be able to set up branches and offices in Taiwan or purchase stakes in Taiwanese companies within the permitted industries, and vice versa. 

Overwhelming opposition


CSSTA is long on commitments but short on details. Exactly how many visas will be issued each year and what level of foreign investment is permitted will be the subject of further negotiations. Implementation is to be monitored and specifics are to be worked out in the years to come. So while CSSTA is a meatier follow-up to ECFA, there is still a way to go before the rubber actually hits the road.

Neither the lack of understanding nor the lack of details about the trade pact, however, has stopped people from condemning it. It is so for two reasons. First, the public is offended by not so much what is in the agreement as the way their government has tried to pull a fast one on them. President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) attempt to slip the bill under the radar screen is just another confirmation that he is more concerned about salvaging his tattered legacy than looking out for his country. CSSTA was intended to be the stone that kills two political birds: on the one hand, it is a step closer to the economic integration that the China-friendly Ma has been engineering. On the other hand, it is a badly needed jolt to the languishing economy for which he is blamed. But everything has now backfired. The Sunflower Revolution has not only turned back the clock on cross-strait relations, but also taken a further toll on Ma’s dwindling popularity. His approval rating has been hovering at a pitiful 9%, the lowest among leaders in the developed world.

He makes Nixon look popular

The second reason has to do with the natural suspicion of a unification-obsessed China. Many Taiwanese view ECFA and CSSTA as baby steps in Beijing’s quiet, carefully planned annexation of the renegade island. Bit by bit, Mainland Chinese companies backed by the Communist machine (to whom money is no object) will buy up Taiwanese assets and put the country’s economy and national security at risk. The dubious benefits of a hastily-drafted trade agreement are far too high a price to pay for the country’s autonomy. And people don’t need to look far. This kind of creeping economic imperialism is already happening to their cousins in Hong Kong, where signs of gradual Sinofication are everywhere. Before they know it, Hong Kong – and Taiwan for that matter – will become the next Crimea.

There is no telling how much longer the student protestors will stay, or be allowed to stay, in the legislature. Two days ago, Ma Ying-jeou agreed to hold talks with student leaders to try to end the standoff. One proposal is to set up a mechanism for the legislature to scrutinize the implementation of CSSTA and future trade agreements with Mainland China. Whatever the outcome is, the saga has been the best thing that happened to the Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨, the main opposition) since Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) won the presidential election in 2000. Here in Hong Kong, we watch the unfolding events in Taipei with interest and envy. With our own political crisis brewing over the 2017 chief executive electionwe wonder if our university students will be as brave as their counterparts in Taipei. We wonder if sunflowers will ever bloom in Hong Kong.

Today's Crimea, tomorrow's Taiwan


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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Why a little-understood trade agreement upsets so many in Taiwan."

As posted on SCMP.com



15 March 2014

When Friends Turn Toxic 當好友變毒友


I have known Thomas since we sat next to each other in third grade. Last month during dinner, I shared a piece of good news with my friend of 30 years.

“Guess what? I finally put a downpayment on this flat I told you about!”

Rather than hearty congratulations, I got a look of displeasure, or a “black face” as the Cantonese people would put it.

“They say the property market is about to crash, you know,” Thomas hissed, suddenly a macroeconomist. “I, for one, am not in a rush to buy.”

For the rest of that evening, a single thought kept playing over and over in my head: Thomas has gone toxic.

*                    *                   *

Toxic friendships are a new urban epidemic


Toxic friends are friends who have grown bitter, unsupportive and downright unbearable over the years. They undermine our achievements but secretly compete with us. They may sneer at our career advancements, make cynical remarks about our love lives or call us names behind our back. It is their passive-aggressive way of reminding us that we are no better than them. They bring so much negativity to the relationship that spending time with them often leaves us mentally drained and physically exhausted. We call them “frenemy” because the line between friend and foe has become so blurred we have a hard time telling them apart.

Among the many manifestations of a toxic friendship, none is more common than the cardinal sin of envy. To our toxic friends, success is a zero-sum game and every achievement we make in life is a personal affront. As envy turns into jealousy and jealousy into resentment, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to share anything without first worrying about how they would react. Jealous people have a knack for making everything about themselves, as did Thomas when he took my home ownership as a jab at his renter’s status. While some people see that as narcissism, I think it is insecurity in poor disguise. Sadly, what happened with my friend that night was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of growing bitterness I have observed over the years.

Sounds familiar?


They say a friend in need is a friend indeed. Though having seen friends like Thomas gone toxic over the years, I am starting to think if the contrary is true. I believe that it is far easier to find friends who would stick around when we are in trouble, than friends who would cheer us on when we succeed. The former is what I call “foul weather friends” – people who are there for us only when we are down on our luck – perhaps it makes them feel superior – but turn bitter the moment we start to do well. Foul weather friends lack the most basic ingredient in any human relationship: the capacity to be happy for one other. Thomas is a case in point.

But I can’t pin it all on him. In the age of oversharing and instant posting, peer comparison is intense and endless. Keeping up with the Joneses no longer means having a greener lawn or a bigger garage, but who gets more “likes” on a vacation selfie or restaurant check-in. If life is but a collection of happy moments, then our Facebook walls, where only the good is flaunted and the bad is conveniently left out, would be public chronicles of our fabulous existence. Even though Facebook has only been around for ten years, it has inflicted enough damage on our self-esteem that psychiatrists are advising us to stay off it from time to time for fear of social media depression. The pressure to outdo each other in the virtual world is beginning to poison friendships in the real life.

Objects on Facebook are less perfect than they appear


Hong Kong is a hotbed for toxic friendships, not least because the lack of personal space is constantly pitting us against each other in a cage match of one-upmanship. That’s why wearable wealth like Rolex watches and Chanel handbags is being rubbed in our faces on a daily basis. But in our concrete jungle, a falling tree doesn’t actually make a sound if there is no one around to hear it. That means neither a new BMW nor a two-karat engagement ring is real unless there is an audience to show off to. That, contrary to what Dionne Warwick has led us to believe, is what friends are for.

What’s more, the city’s rampant materialism is compounded by a peculiar cultural phenomenon: our insistence to hang out with our high school buddies well into our adulthood. Despite all the people who have come in and out of our lives, they are the ones we choose to be our BFFs. Over the years, however, the sharp edges of our childhood images are worn down and sweet memories of time past give way to meaningless competition. Even if we don’t have much in common with our school friends any more, we continue to keep tabs on each other’s successes and failures. Every time we get a news update from an old schoolmate, whether it is the class clown making partner at a law firm or the homecoming queen filing for divorce, we make a mental note to work harder to stay ahead of the curve. 

We love hanging out with high school friends


A toxic social environment breeds toxic friends. While not everyone will turn out like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, bad friendships are a reality with which many urbanites must wrestle. So what do we do when a friend turns toxic? The most common response is to suck it up and write it off as c’est la vie. Calling a toxic friend out will invariably get ugly, for someone who begrudges us for our achievements will unlikely take a constructive criticism well, much less do something about it. He will invariably turn the tables around and accuse us of doing the same to him. And we will most certainly be caught off guard and start wondering if he has a point, for who among us is without sin – or an occasional black face?

Another reason why we tend not to confront a toxic friend is that doing so will likely put an end to the friendship. It is an outcome most of us try to avoid, not only because we believe it is better to have a frenemy than an outright enemy, but also because we develop a certain level of emotional attachment to our friends no matter how draining the relationship has become. Criminal psychologists call it the “Stockholm syndrome.” It is another term to describe the fear of loneliness. After all, no one enjoys scrambling for company to go to the movies when the weekend rolls around. And so we choose to stay in a hurtful friendship even if it makes us unhappy.

Some friends are mutually toxic


But not me. After careful deliberation, I came to the conclusion that my friendship with Thomas was beyond repair. I decided to stop reaching out to him and, as if acting on cue, he too stopped reaching out to me. We haven’t seen each other for nearly a year now. Last November, I missed his birthday for the first time in 30 years. Breaking up with anyone – especially a friend I have known and cared about since I was nine years old – is hard, but sometimes it has to be done.

We make friends in different ways, but almost always by serendipity. Friends tend to fall into our laps, like the kid who happens to live next door or the co-worker we run into at the pantry by chance. Just like that, we become friends and start hanging out, bound only by thin threads of common interests and shared experiences. While a few of them will blossom into something rewarding and enduring, others will fail the test of time, not for the lack of a good heart, but because we advance in life at a different pace. In some instances, letting go is the only way to prevent a soured relationship from festering, as it is the case for Thomas and me. Even though the two of us are no longer friends, I will always consider him a good teacher.

You've got to do what you've got to do

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This article previously appeared in the March 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO

03 March 2014

Black Wednesday 黑色星期三


I seldom wear black. But I have this black T-shirt I put on two times a year – once for the Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration on 4 June and the other for the pro-democracy protest on 1 July. Over the years, this T-shirt, the only piece of black clothing I own, has come to symbolize both sadness and discontent.

Since C.Y. Leung moved into the Government House in 2012, I have been wearing my black T-shirt a lot more. If it wasn’t for a mass protest against the national education curriculum, it was for a demonstration in support of HKTV’s bid for a broadcasting license. There seems to be plenty of sadness and discontent to go around these days. Surely enough, yesterday morning I found myself once again rummaging through the closet looking for my protestor’s uniform, this time to defend the future of our press freedom. With a heavy heart, I slipped the black thing over my head and made my way to Tamar.

A dark day for Hong Kong

*                *                 *

What happened this past Wednesday has shocked the city to the core. Kevin Lau (劉進圖), former editor-in-chief of Ming Pao – one of the city’s major Chinese language newspapers – was attacked by two knifemen on his way to breakfast in Sai Wan Ho. We don’t know which is worse: that Lau was stabbed six times in his back and legs, or that it took place in public and in broad daylight. The assault reeks of the brazenness we expect only in the Mexican drug war or a turf battle between rival gangs in Russia. It makes Hong Kong, one of the safest international cities in the world, look like a lawless backwater.

Stabbed six times and now a poster boy for press freedom


Violence against the press is not unheard of in our city. There were a handful of high profile incidents in the past two decades. In May 1996, for instance, tabloid magazine publisher Leung Tin Wai (梁天偉) had his left forearm and both thumbs chopped off by attackers right in his office. Two years later in 1998, an equally vicious attack left Albert Cheng (鄭經翰), outspoken businessman and politician, hospitalized for two months. Just last year, Chen Ping (陳平) of iSun Affairs (陽光時務週刊), Jimmy Lai (黎智英) of the Apple Daily and Shih Wing Ching (施永青) of AM730 were either attacked or issued death threats. As recently as last month, firebrand radio talk show host Tam Tak Chi (譚得志), better known by his nickname Fast Beat (快必), was roughed up by a group of men outside his studio.

These violent episodes all have one thing in common: the crime never gets solved. Despite offers of multi-million dollar rewards, the bad guys go free and the police investigation goes cold after a few months. Even if the police manage to capture the assailants, perhaps with the help of eyewitnesses and security cameras, they won’t find out who the mastermind behind the attack is, ever. But we can’t pin all the blame on law enforcement. In this day and age, a text message and the target’s headshot are all it takes to order a hit. Anonymity has emboldened the cowardly; technology has enabled the mercenary. That puts journalists – people who make a living upsetting the apple cart  in an ever vulnerable position.

Albert Cheng, left for dead after a gruesome attack 


When there isn’t much else the police can do, the burden of crime investigation falls on the shoulders of the journalists themselves. Ming Pao staff is currently sifting through dozens of news stories overseen by Kevin Lau before he was let go by the newspaper in January (his termination is a whole other story) to identify what might have gotten the editor in trouble. Among the possible culprits, the one that has generated the most interest is Lau’s exposé about offshore assets stashed away by Beijing’s ruling elite. Written in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the story is believed to have ticked off some powerful big wigs up north. So far, the ICIJ has found no evidence linking the attack to the investigative report and so the guessing game continues.

Whoever ordered the hit on Lau, however, probably hadnt quite thought the whole thing through. If it’s vengeance, then why not take him out altogether but instead let him live to tell the tale? If it’s intimidation, why wait until after the news report has already been published? And why go after an editor who has already left his jobNone of it seems to make much sense to us. Then again, the scariest thing about thugs has always been their irrationality and tenuousness of a motive. Sometimes “just because” is reason enough to slash a person with a 12-inch knife.

Lau's report on the hidden fortunes of the Chinese leadership

Whether it is intended or not, the people behind the brutal attack has made an example of Kevin Lau. The brutality and irrationality of it all has sent chills down the spine of every journalist in the city. For if it was Lau last Wednesday, it could be you and me tomorrow. It is not so much that all investigative reports will invite a deadly reprisal but that they might. It is not so much that reporters must look over their shoulders before breaking a story but that they feel they should. The attack on Lau has given journalists one more thing to think about before they hit that “send” button, something that they didn’t need to think about heretofore. The mere possibility of violence has cast a dark shadow over their desks. And so to those who question what the stabbing of one man has got to do with the press freedom of the entire city – I won’t name any names – and to those who wonder why “expert analysts” are needed to get to the bottom of the heinous crime – they know who they are  here is their answer.

*                     *                    *


Yesterday’s rally began at the government complex in Tamar and ended at the nearby police headquarters. There were thousands of participants, all dressed in black, many of them reporters and journalism students. They carried placards bearing the words “They can’t kill us all,” a phrase borrowed from the infamous Kent State University shootings in 1970 in one of the darkest chapters in 20th Century American history. The choice of words is apt, for last Wednesday may well be one of the darkest days in post-Handover Hong Kong. And so there I was, once again in my black T-shirt, chanting slogans and praying for Lau’s recovery, all the while looking at a city that suddenly felt a bit foreign to me. 

A sea of black in Tamar


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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Hong Kong's black Wednesday."

As posted on SCMP.com