27 August 2014

Ice Bucket Challenged 挑戰冰桶


By now you are justifiably sick of watching videos of friends and celebrities dumping icy water on themselves. Search the word #icebucketchallenge on Instagram and you will get over a million hits. The latest social media phenomenon, intended to raise awareness for ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), began in June and had raged to an all-out Internet frenzy by mid-August. Gangnam Style is so two years ago.

Former President George W. Bush joined in the fun

The figures are staggering: in the U.S., the challenge has raised nearly US$80 million (HK$620 million) for the ALS Association in just a few short weeks. 2.4 million videos have been shared on Facebook and 5.5 million mentions have been logged on Twitter. Business schools around the world are re-writing their Marketing 101 course materials to analyze what many believe to be the most successful chain letter stunt in history. 

The campaign has spread from a small coastal city in Florida to virtually every corner of the world – except perhaps North Korea and the Ebola-hit West African nations. The challenge now comes in many shapes and forms. In India, for instance, where drinking water is scarce, participants give away buckets of rice to feed the hungry. Palestinians in war-torn Gaza dunk rubble on themselves to spread awareness about Israel’s indiscriminate bombings.

Rubble bucket challenge in Gaza

In Hong Kong, where fads and crazes catch on faster than a minibus on the Tuen Mun Highway, ice bags are flying off the shelves at convenience stores and supermarkets. The lack of open space is no deterrent to trend-seeking citizens. Thousands have done it the Hong Kong way by standing in their telephone booth-sized bathrooms at home and getting doused next to shampoo bottles and hung towels. Even camera-shy government officials are showing an unusual interest in the publicity stunt, perhaps at the behest of their boss C.Y. Leung, who is grateful for any media distraction in this summer of discontent.

To date, the ice bucket challenge has raised HK$15 million for the Hong Kong Neuro-Muscular Disease Association (HKNMDA). The group, which provides support to ALS patients and their caretakers, has been caught completely off-guard by the craze. With only two full-time staffers, the small NGO outfit is inundated with a deluge of donors’ inquiries and an massive influx of new cash. It is nevertheless a problem that many charitable organizations wish they had.


Ice-bucketing in a Hong Kong bathroom

As is the case for any high-profile campaign, success is inevitably followed by a backlash. Naysayers ranging from regular netizens to newspaper columnists and medical doctors have come out swinging at the ALS challenge. They have focused on five main criticisms: (1) the waste of fresh water, (2) the waste of money on ice, (3) the health hazards of ice bucketing, (4) the potential cannibalizing effect on other charities, and (5) a 21st Century social phenomenon called “slacktivism.” Slacktivists are those who make a minimal effort to help a social cause, such as by sharing a Facebook post or signing an online petition, instead of donating money or volunteering their time. Recent examples includes the #StopKony online campaign against Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony and the #bringbackourgirls petition to rescue the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria.

To show that these criticisms are all a bunch of sanctimonious baloney, I shall rebut them one by one.

Dumping water won't get you many "likes" in California

Waste of fresh water: No one ever complains about the annual Standard Chartered Marathon, which consumed bottled water by the truckload. Once the race is over, runners go home to take a long, well-deserved shower and throw their sweat-soaked clothes in the washing machine, which uses 40 to 45 gallons of water per load. By contrast, the ALS challenge requires an amount of water equivalent to merely an extra 30 seconds in the shower. It also seems somewhat hypocritical to pick on ice bucketers when so many wash their cars every day and leave the faucets running while they brush their teeth.

Waste of moneyWhy not just give the ice money to charity? asks the skeptic. By that logic, kids who bake cupcakes to raise funds for their school libraries should just write a check instead of spending money on flour and eggs. At least dunking ice doesn’t make you fat. And if you really want to talk about wasting money, think of all those benefit dinners held at five-star hotels, where fancy tai-tais spend more on their designer gowns than on the charity. So let’s not jump up and down over a $17 bag of ice.

Health hazards: Doctors have warned that a sudden exposure to icy water can in very rare cases lead to a cold shock, which can be fatal for people with pre-existing cardiovascular problems. Four fire-fighters in Kentucky were injured last week when the ladder they were using to dump water got caught in a power line. But no matter what activities we engage in, there will always be thin-skulled cases and freak accidents. We don’t stop cleaning the beach for fear of stepping on broken glass, and we certainly don’t cancel the AIDS Walk because some guy with a weak heart dies from a heat stroke. In the grand scheme of things, dumping water is pretty safe.

Cannibalization:  Charitable donations are not a zero-sum game. Just because someone sends a bit of money to the ALS Association doesn’t mean that he will give less to his favorite charities. Even if there is a bit of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” going on, donating is ultimately a personal choice. Who is to say that the HKNMDA is less deserving than the Red Cross, or that ALS research is less urgent than curing cancer? If you are unsure about supporting ALS, read up on Stephen Hawking and the staggering contributions the physicist has made to mankind.

Slacktivism: Let’s face it, if people weren’t sharing videos of the ALS challenge, they would have been watching cat videos or posting food porn on Facebook – at least the campaign has given us something a bit more meaningful to divert our attention to. Even if only 5% of the participants actually end up donating money to ALS or learning about the disease, that’s 5% more than before the campaign took off. Slacktivists or not, ice bucketers should pat themselves on the shoulder for giving an overlooked and underfunded disease the global awareness it deserves. The challenge has done to ALS what Yul Brynner did to lung cancer and Mohammad Ali to Parkinson’s Disease.

UK teenage Cameron Lancaster drowned after taking the challenge

My rebuttal notwithstanding, there is one criticism for which I do have some sympathy. William Foxton of The Daily Telegraph describes the ALS challenge as a “middle-class wet T-shirt contest” and a “ghastly narcissistic freak show.” Indeed, few things are more off-putting then 15-minutes-of-famers who make the challenge all about themselves. Make no mistake, men who take off their shirts or women who put on skin-tight yoga tops are automatically suspect. And any video that lasts longer than 90 seconds or that is self-narrated in two or more languages crosses the line into self-promotion territory. I know at least one friend who is so desperate for attention that he badgers everyone he knows for a nomination. That said, none of these minor annoyances can negate all the good the campaign has done.

When it comes to neurological diseases, ALS is as bad as it gets. There is no known cause or treatment, period. In many cases, the patient is left physically incapacitated  other than eye movement and bowel functions  while his mind remains sound as a dollar. Second to finding a cure, the ice bucket challenge is the best thing that has happened to the tragic illness. And if we happen to get a little wet or indulge in a few minutes of self-gratification while telling the world about it, then so be it.

Justin Bieber was so desperate to show off
his abs that he did the challenge twice


________________________

This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "From splash to backlash: in defence of the ice bucket challenge."

As posted on SCMP.com



20 August 2014

Pint-sized Heroes 未夠秤



They used to live in the same residential complex, attend the same school and ride the same bus every morning. They both grew up in devout Christian families and were taught to take an interest in society.

But 17-year-old Joshua Wong Chi-fung (黃之鋒) and 20-year-old Ma Wan-ki (馬雲祺) – better known as Ma Jai (馬仔) – can’t be more different from each other. Joshua is a household name and his spectacled face has appeared on every magazine cover. He is self-assured, media savvy and can slice you up with his words. Ma Jai? Not so much. He gets tongue-tied behind the microphone and fidgety in front of the camera. He is a foot soldier who gets up at the crack of dawn to set up street booths and spends all day handing out flyers for someone else’s election campaign.

Lessons in Dissent by Matthew Torne


The two young men were the subject of a recent documentary by first time British director Matthew Torne. Lessons in Dissent (《未夠秤》), an official selection at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival, centers around the “Moral and National Education” (MNE) controversy in 2012 that drew hundreds of thousands of protestors to the streets. The watershed moment jolted citizens out of their political apathy and taught them that social movements, if properly run, can bring about real policy changes. For if it weren’t for activists like Joshua and Ma Jai, students today would have been sitting in MNE classes and learning how to praise the Communist Party and why they should guard against Western-style democracy.


Boy wonder

Joshua is a pint-sized force of nature to reckon with. He was just 14 when he founded Scholarism (學民思潮) to promote civic participation among the youths. In the fateful summer of 2012, the self-described “middle class kid” mobilized scores of like-minded teenagers and staged a nine-day sit-in and hungry strike at the government headquarters demanding MNE be scrapped. It was his charisma and tenacity that captured the imagination of his peers, inspired many more and eventually cowered C.Y. Leung into retracting the curriculum. Since then, the 17-year-old has been using his new-found fame to fight an even bigger cause: universal suffrage. In the recent Occupy Central poll on electoral reform, Scholarism and its ally, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS; 學聯) put forward one of the three proposals on the ballot. Over 300,000 citizens (nearly 40% of those who voted) sided with the students in the end. There is little doubt that Joshua has already earned a seat at the table next to heavyweights like Anson Chan, Benny Tai and Emily Lau.

Joshua Wong takes the lead


Joshua loves the media, and the media love him even more. On any given day, the school boy may start the morning with a telephone interview with The Times, meet the camera crew of a Dutch television network before lunch and finish a 1,500-word op-ed piece for The Apple Daily by sundown. He carries an iPad to keep track of his back-to-back appointments and taps his stylus on the smart phone screen at a frightening speed. While his friends are busy playing video games, Joshua is debunking political myths on radio talk shows or challenging the establishment on televised debates. “I was in Form 2 [eighth grade] when I started. No one else has ever done what I did.” said Joshua. It wasnt arrogance; its simply a fact. The teenage boy is a prodigy, a savant and a Hollywood child star wrapped into one.

But there is always something sad about Hollywood child stars. All that media exposure has taken away Joshua’s adolescence and his chance at a normal life. He runs on so much adrenaline that he comes off as robotic, if not altogether possessed. Being a public figure has also hurt his public exam results and dashed his hopes to attend a more sought-after university. Notwithstanding these sacrifices, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “So far the benefits have outweighed the costs,” he explained. “I’ve experienced so much and made so many connections within a very short time.” Still, fame can be a double-edged sword. Joshua feels the weight of the city on his shoulders, and that the future of democracy depends on him. Although not a big Spider-man fan, he remembers what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker about power and responsibility.


In a few weeks, Joshua will begin his freshman year at Open University. When asked if he was excited about starting a new chapter, he shrugged, “I don’t think I’ll be going to class much.” Here’s why. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (全國人大) will convene in Beijing next week to discuss, among other things, the nomination procedure for the 2017 chief executive election. Whatever conclusion reached by the Standing Committee is expected to involve some mechanics to pre-screen candidates. As soon as Beijing throws down the gauntlet, Scholarism and the HKFS will fire the first shot of the Occupy Central movement by staging a student strike across all ten universities in the city. “We need to respond swiftly with action. Civil disobedience is the only means to achieving full democracy,” said Joshua, sounding more like Mahatma Gandhi than a freshman-in-waiting

The media love him


The other kid

Ma Jai was 16 when he was bitten by the social activism bug. In January 2010, he joined hundreds of students to besiege the Legislative Council to protest against the cross-border high speed rail link (廣深港高速鐵路), a wasteful pork barrel project that threatened to displace thousands of villagers in the New Territories. The movement opened his eyes to social injustice and political oppression. Armed with a new sense of purpose, the high school drop-out joined the League of Social Democrats (LSD; 社民線) – LongHair’s party – in 2011 and has been working there as a campaigner ever since.

Ma Jai represents the vast majority of social activists who work quietly behind the scenes. A typical day involves making banners and placards, phoning up social organizations and notifying reporters about upcoming events. He and his fellow LSD staff go in and out of courtrooms and police stations like they were public parks. If he isn’t bailing out another party member, he’ll be giving a statement to the police for an alleged illegal assembly. The work isn’t glamorous, but someone’s got to do it. That’s why Ma Jai felt uneasy about sharing top billing with Joshua in the British documentary. “I’m not famous and I don’t want to be famous,” he said. “I am just a cog in the wheel.”

Ma Jai is used to arrests



But activism isn’t only about banners and telephone calls. In 2013, Ma Jai was arrested for desecrating the city’s flag – a criminal offense in Hong Kong – and spent two days in a holding cell while waiting for an arraignment. He has had other brushes with the law. “I have two criminal records. Or is it three?” he couldn’t tell me for sure. Like a true revolutionary, he shrugs off convictions and considers them a badge of honor. He wears Che Guevara on his chest and has Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky on his lips. And when he is not fighting for universal suffrage or an old age pension scheme for all, he is speaking out for foreign domestic workers and new immigrants from Mainland China – groups that have long been considered politically toxic. “That’s why I belong here with LSD. We don’t compromise our beliefs for votes,” he said.

As for Occupy Central, Ma Jai and his comrades are ready for battle. All hands are now on deck to back up Scholarism’s citywide student strike in September and to occupy the financial district as early as October. Despite its reputation for being a lone wolf, LSD has little choice but to take its cue from other political parties. “We are not big enough to occupy Central on our own,” Ma Jai admitted. “We are counting on the rest of the pan-democrats to do the right thing.” He heaved a sigh, as he rolled a cigarette from a pouch of loose tobacco and lit it up.

*                   *                   *

Happy to be in the background

I attended a screening of Lessons in Dissent at the Hong Kong Art Centre last Thursday. During the Q&A session after the show, one of the members of the audience shared her reaction to the film. “I moved here from the Mainland 10 years ago,” the 50-something woman said. “I like Hong Kong because I can speak my mind here without having to look over my shoulder.” She then turned to the film's two protagonists and said, “I don't want this place to turn into another Chinese city. We need you, both of you, to make sure that  doesn’t happen.” The woman was right. The future of Hong Kong rides on star leaders like Joshua  and unsung heroes like Ma Jai – not one or the other but both. We need thousands more like them.

For future screenings of Lessons in Dissent, visit www.facebook.com/lessonsindissentmovie.


_____________________________

This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "In political activism, good things come in small packages."

As posted on SCMP.com