26 February 2016

Citizen Kwan 大市民

If you speak Cantonese, by now you have must have watched it at least once or possibly more times. You must have shared the link with your family and friends and urged them to watch it too. If asked, you can probably quote a few zingers from it verbatim.

I am referring to the anti-government tirade by Kwan Wing-yi (關穎怡), a self-described “concerned citizen,” at a special Legco meeting to discuss retirement protection earlier this week. The video went viral on social media, receiving 300,000 views on YouTube in just 48 hours. Netizens have added English subtitles, turned her words into a rap song, and even called on her to run for Legco in the September general election.

Kwan, an unlikely heroine

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of viewing – or understanding – the Cantonese-only clip, here’s a recap of Kwan’s three-minute rant.

On the government’s proposed pension scheme, she said:

Your so-called ‘universal’ retirement plan puts an $80,000 asset limit on applicants but only offers them a paltry payment of $3,230 per month. Are you kidding me? There is so much government-business collusion and inflation these days that we can’t even buy a catty of contaminated vegetable for $30!

People like [Labour and Welfare] Secretary Matthew Cheung (張建宗), who makes $300,000 a month, have no idea how much we struggle to make ends meet, or else he wouldn’t have made the callous, cold-blooded remark that $16,000 is a very decent income [for a two-person household].

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) rejected the need-blind proposal [favored by the public] because she claimed it would lead to a government deficit. What she said made me laugh out loud! The government spent hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on white elephant projects like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and the high-speed rail link, only to nickel and dime the poor on social programs. How dare she mention the word deficit! Pardon my language, but these corrupt bureaucrats are worse than thieves!

Hands off our money, old hag!

On law and order:

What happened to C.Y. Leung after he accepted $50 million in secret payments? Nothing. What happened to the seven police officers after they beat up a citizen in a back alley? Nothing. [...] What happened to the pro-Beijing camp after it blatantly rigged the district elections? Nothing!

In our topsy-turvy city, firing shots into the air is considered compliant with police protocol. The ethical standards for the government and the police are as ‘flexible’ as the arm of the officer who hit passersby with his baton and called it an ‘extension of his arm.’ Lawmakers are permitted to spread unfounded rumors in Legco, like the one about one of the abducted booksellers taking a speedboat to China to procure prostitution.

To be honest, I am worried that after making this speech today I too may disappear and ‘go to the mainland using my own methods.’ [Kwan was again referring to the missing booksellers who had presumably entered China without proper documentation]. Why bother with retirement protection when our personal security is unprotected?

The five booksellers still missing after months

On the chief executive and his cabinet:

Since taking his job, C.Y. Leung has lost his conscience – then again, maybe he never had one to begin with. I want to offer Leung, his senior staff and the Hong Kong Police a piece of advice: there is something called karma in this world.

There isn’t much we can do to stop you now, but future generations of Hong Kongers will be watching you. Your karma will catch up with you one day!

As soon as Kwan’s speaking time was up, the meeting’s chairman switched off her microphone to stop her from spewing more anti-government venom. But the damage was already done. Her harangue was uploaded to YouTube within minutes and was held up in the echo chamber of the Internet as the ultimate indictment of C.Y. Leung’s failed administration. Kwan became an overnight social media sensation, all for venting frustrations that so many others have failed to put into words.

Netizens credited her success to her well-chosen tone. She delivered the sort of angry wife scolding based on logic understood by ordinary citizens, with none of the abstruse political speak preferred by the traditional pan-dems. Even a “C9” (師奶) – an unsophisticated housewife in the local vernacular – is able to grasp the convoluted political issues covered in her speech.

But perhaps it is who she is that has made her tongue-lashing so powerful. 

Kwan has no discernible political affiliation or agenda. She has no constituent to please or ideology to preach. She is, it seems, just a fed-up citizen who is tired of being a passive bystander and has to blurt out the truth, like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes. By calling out the government in a simple, relatable way, Kwan might have changed more minds in a few days than any of the slogan-shouting pan-dems or brick-throwing localists have in years.

A Hong Kong pig under the Communists' care

Gong chu (港豬), which literally means a Hong Kong pig, is a popular Cantonese catchphrase to describe citizens who choose a steady livelihood over civil liberties, or those who are thankful for economic handouts from Beijing despite having their freedoms gradually taken away. Kwan’s refusal to be a docile farm animal is a testament to the long-term impact of the occupy movement, which put citizens through a kind of social awakening not experienced since the Tiananmen Square Protests.

Impressive as it was, Kwan’s Legco appearance has not been universally praised. Criticisms are coming from both ends of the political spectrum: the moderates found her rhetoric too aggressive, while the radicals said it wasn’t nearly aggressive enough. 

The latter group, comprising mainly localists, took particular issue with her reliance on karma as a form of political comeuppance. To them, the Buddhist belief in retribution is just a self-deluding old wife’s tale to make the oppressed feel better about their plight when they lack the courage to take real action to change it. Karma won’t stop bad governments from doing bad things, the localists sneer – only a revolution will.

If there is a moral in this story, it is that to counter the ruling elite’s growing impunity, the opposition needs all the help it can get. The pan-dem lawmakers will push back government officials in Legco debates, the radicals will resist riot police in street protests, and ordinary citizens like Kwan will use their sharp tongues to engage and educate the masses in every day dialogues. They will each do their part and give what they can, instead of constantly ripping into each other and bickering over whose method is the only way forward. As the city heads into an election weekend where two opposition candidates are siphoning off votes from each other and effectively handing the victory to the other side, citizens are well-served to remember the fortune cookie wisdom that we are stronger together than apart.

The pro-Beijing candidate is most likely to win this weekend's election


This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Hong Kong activist's anti-government tirade goes viral as social media users hail her for voicing Hong Kongers' frustrations."

As posted on SCMP.com

21 February 2016

Yeung versus Leung 楊梁戰

This Sunday, residents in the New Territories East (NTE) district – which includes Sha Tin, Tai Po, Sai Kung and surrounding areas – will get to decide the political future of the entire city. That's when a by-election to fill the Legco seat vacated by former Civic Party member Ronny Tong (湯家驊) will be held. A social media war over how NTE residents should vote has reached a fever pitch. Not since the five-constituency de facto referendum (五區公投) in 2012 has a by-election drawn so much public attention and polarized the city into such diametrically opposed extremes.

Edward Leung (left) and Alvin Yeung

Why the election matters

We begin with a refresher on local politics.

Legco is a 70-seat legislative body comprising of two houses – the Functional Constituencies (FC) and Geographic Constituencies (GC) – each having 35 seats. The FC is stacked with Beijing loyalists handpicked by big business and special interest groups. Because it marches in lockstep with our equally unelected chief executive, the FC is a lost cause as far as government oversight is concerned. By contrast, the GC (including Ronny Tong’s vacated seat) is democratically elected and represents our only hope within Legco to impose some form of checks and balances on government actions.

When it comes to making laws, Legco is clinically schizophrenic. While bills introduced by the government require all 70 Legco seats voting together, bills proposed by individual Legco members must be passed by each of the GC and the FC voting separately. This bizarre, only-in-Hong Kong voting procedure is commonly referred to as “separate vote count” (分組點票).

Until Ronny Tong resigned last June following the defeat of the 2015 electoral reform bill, opposition lawmakers carried a razor-thin 18-17 majority in the GC over their pro-Beijing rivals. As a result, motions initiated by the pan-democratic lawmakers, such as the one to investigate police violence during the 2014 occupy movement, would be passed by the GC but defeated by the FC. Likewise, any proposal from the pro-Beijing camp would sail through the FC but get shot down by the GC. That’s about as fair as our lopsided legislative system gets.

But this dubious balance of power only works if the opposition controls the GC. Should one of the pro-Beijing candidates snatch the contested seat in the by-election next Saturday, the balance would be tipped from 18-17 to 17-18, thereby handing the majority control to the other side – at least until all Legco seats are once again up for grabs in the next general election in September 2016. In other words, if the opposition fails to hold on to that critical seat, there will be nothing to stop a lawmaker from the dark side from initiating dangerous proposals and having them rubber stamped by both Beijing loyalist-controlled houses.

Under this doomsday scenario, the biggest worry is a Legco rule change to put an end to filibusters, a motion that only members of Legco's Committee on Rules of Procedure can initiate (and hence having a GC majority matters). The filibuster is currently the opposition’s only effective weapon to delay or derail bad government bills like the copyright amendment (dubbed “Article 23 of the Internet”) and funding requests for wasteful infrastructure projects that squander billions of taxpayer dollars. For instance, C.Y. Leung’s pet project to create an innovation and technology bureau – accused by the pan-dems of being yet another pork barrel project to benefit political friends – was stalled for several years by Long Hair and his People Power friends. But if the opposition’s GC majority goes, so goes its ability to filibuster.

Tipping the balance in the GC

Frontrunner’s blues

There are seven candidates vying for the GC seat. All but two of them are Beijing loyalists (such as DAB’s Holden Chow (周浩鼎)) or faux opposition (such as Democratic Party reject Nelson Wong (黃成智)). For most freedom-loving NTE voters, the real choice comes down to two candidates: Alvin Yeung (楊岳橋), barrister and longtime Civic Party member, and Edward Leung (梁天琦), HKU philosophy major and spokesperson for nativist group Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線).

The by-election is a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all proposition, which means Yeung and Leung are in the same quagmire that beset Eric Chu (朱立倫) and James Soong (宋楚瑜) in the Taiwan general election a month ago, or, for those with a longer memory, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in the 1992 U.S. presidential election. It is a political truism: candidates with similar political leanings siphon votes from each other and often end up handing the election to the other side. Political cannibalism is every bit as savage and tragic as it sounds.

In the past, if two pan-dem candidates found themselves running head-to-head in the same election, they would either hold a primary or work it out among themselves behind the scenes. In the latter scenario, the candidate with weaker poll numbers would graciously bow out in the best interest of the entire opposition – the so-called “big picture” argument.

Bernie Sanders (left) and Hillary Clinton

But not this time. Frontrunner Yeung and political newbie Leung are strange bedfellows who represent two vastly different factions within the opposition camp: the mainstream pan-dems and the nativists. Whereas one prefers to sit down and talk, the other demands supporters to stand up and fight. That Yeung and Leung share a common political enemy is not enough to make them friends, much less allies. To the delight of their pro-Beijing rivals, there has been no coordination within the opposition. A gracious bow-out by either candidate is out of the question.

For months, the pan-dems had hoped that Yeung would carry enough votes in NTE, a pan-dem stronghold, to win the election notwithstanding the vote leak to Leung. But the fish ball riots on Chinese New Year’s Day altered the calculus. Overnight, radical groups like Hong Kong Indigenous became the people’s heroes, especially among the post-80s and post-90s. To these young (and many of them first time) voters, nativist warriors finally put their money where their mouth was and risked prison by standing up to the authorities during the police clashes. Dozens of them have been arrested and charged with rioting which carries a maximum sentence of ten years if convicted. Their personal sacrifices have added fuel to the rising localist movement in the post-occupy era.

The fish ball riots have bolstered Leung’s popularity and strengthened his poll numbers (Leung himself is currently on bail after being charged with participating in a riot). In the zero-sum game that is the Legco by-election, barrister Yeung finds his frontrunner status greatly diminished. That, combined with the prevalent views among the new generation that traditional pan-dem parties are out of touch and don’t “get” them, is giving Yeung a taste of Hillary Clinton’s blues after Bernie Sanders came out of nowhere and won the New Hampshire primary.  

Fish ball riots, a game changer

Why you should vote for Yeung

If you subscribe to the big picture argument, as do the majority of pro-democracy citizens aged 30 or above, then the clear choice is Alvin Yeung.

After all, no matter how much some Democrats in the United States are “feeling the Bern,” they need to consider the reality that Hillary Clinton has a much better chance of defeating the Republican nominee in the presidential election. Likewise, even if you prefer Edward Leung’s “any means necessary” rhetoric to Yeung’s waistcoat-and-necktie preppy charm, why “waste” your vote on a political unknown who won’t win and will effectively deliver the seat to the pro-Beijing camp?

Strategic voting aside, Yeung is a likable guy. For years, he offers pro bono legal services to anti-government protesters, including many in the occupy movement and most recently the fish ball rioters – the very people who are now jeopardizing his quest for a Legco seat. Although Leung’s supporters have questioned Yeung’s motive for defending the Mongkok protesters in the run-up to the by-election, their accusation does not hold up considering that any association with street violence would and did invite attacks from the establishment and alienate Yeung’s peace-loving electoral base.

Yeung also represents a new generation of pan-dems who is less saddled with political baggage. The 35-year-old barrister is determined to change the old boys’ club culture and bridge the generation gap between traditional parties and young voters. Unlike his mentor Ronny Tong, he is more inclined to fight the system from within by joining forces with Long Hair and other firebrand lawmakers. Yeung does not want voters to “settle for” him solely because of the big picture argument. He wants them to pick him for who he is and what he stands for.

Alvin Yeung (left) and Ronny Tong

Why you should vote for Leung

If you believe that parliamentary politics in Hong Kong is dead and that the battle to free the city from the ever-extending claws of Beijing is fought on the streets and not in Legco, then 24-year-old Edward Leung is your man.

The logic is simple: why bother with the big picture argument or any of the gibberish about the 18-17 majority when the legislative process is so inherently and hopelessly unfair? Forget about blocking bills and filibustering, because local politics needs not small fixes but a complete overhaul, and an overhaul can only come about through resistance and revolt. Sending another slogan-shouting, finger-wagging pan-dem like Alvin Yeung to Legco will do absolutely nothing to change the status quo. Voting for Leung, even if he doesn’t win, will send a clear message to the establishment that nativism is a force to reckon with. And if he does win, C.Y. Leung and his cronies will have to brace themselves for a lot worse than projectile bananas on the Legco floor.

In fact, who ultimately wins the by-election doesn’t matter all that much to Leung and his supporters. In their minds, the big picture argument is simply another permutation of the pan-dem fear tactics designed to protect their dwindling political power. For all the nativists care, Holden Chow can take the contest seat and the pro-Beijing camp should go ahead and wreak even more havoc in Legco than they already have – it will only serve to expose how utterly grotesque the system is and galvanize the city al the more for an all-out revolt. Scorch the earth and torch the sky, and a new world order will emerge.

As radical as the rhetoric sounds, it has its appeal – especially to the frustrated youth. For one thing, Leung’s platform of violent resistance is clear and easily understood (compared to Alvin Yeung’s sometimes muffled message). For another, many voters are growing increasingly disillusioned with the pan-dems, who have been in the fight for democracy since the 1980s but none of them has much to show for it. Their efforts have created an illusion of “doing something” but amounted to “achieving nothing.” Long Hair’s filibusters might have succeeded in delaying the technology bureau for years, but who had the last laugh when funding for it was eventually approved? The Legco rules are so stacked against the opposition that it is likened to a four-card hand in a poker game: knowing that you could never ever win with one card missing, would you keep playing or would you throw the cards and flip the table?

Leung has successfully turned the by-election debate into a referendum on the entire pan-dem platform. Running as an outsider and gaining momentum with his rare combination of youth, intellect and passion, he has tapped into the bubbling public anger and sucking up the youth vote faster than Bernie Sanders. There is much more to this nondescript, bespectacled college student than meets the eye.

Edward Leung at a rally

With power comes responsibility

With the way things are going, neither Alvin Yeung nor Edward Leung will win the by-election, and Holden Chow is poised to become the chief beneficiary of the vote split. But will it actually matter if Legco is broken and beyond repair?

That question is being put to hundreds of thousands of NTE residents entrusted with the power to determine the political fate of Hong Kong. If you happen to be one of them and haven’t yet made up your mind, your deliberation over the next few days boils down to this: what direction should the opposition take going forward? It is the eternal struggle between evolution and revolution, between peaceful resistance and violent rebellion, between fixing what is broken and breaking what cannot be fixed. It is as much a battle of ideologies as it is a question of morality. So while this article does not purport to tell you how to vote, it does entreat you to think clearly and choose carefully, no matter whom you end up voting for. You owe the city that much.

Candidates for the Legislative Council seat for the New Territories East geographical constituency: Lau Chi-shing, Nelson Wong Sing-chi, Holden Chow Ho-ding, Albert Leung Sze-ho, Christine Fong Kwok-shan, Edward Leung Tin-kei, and Alvin Yeung Ngo-kiu.


This article appears on EJInsight under the title "Yeung vs. Leung: Who to vote for in upcoming Legco by-election?" 

As posted on EJInsight

10 February 2016

Year of the Fire Monkey 火猴年

Mo was a street vendor. He sold food out of a pushcart in one of the busiest areas in the city. Because hawking without a permit was against the law, Mo spent much of the day running from the authorities who pursued him with more vigor and less mercy than they did armed robbers. Each time Mo got arrested, the police would confiscate not just his goods but also his only means to a livelihood: his cart and the scale he used to weigh food. Mo didn’t understand why the government would go after little people like him when it had far bigger political and social issues to deal with.

The Fish Ball revolutionary

If you think Mo was one of the dozens of food hawkers in Mongkok who were at the front and center of the so-called Chinese New Year’s Riot that rattled Hong Kong just 30 hours ago, you would be wrong and not even close. Mo’s full name was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable seller who doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in 201o. His public suicide had fueled so much public outrage toward the Tunisian government that street rallies organized in his honor would turn into riots, and riots would snowball into an uprising that would be known to the world as the Jasmine Revolution. The unpopular president Ben Ali would step down a month later, the country would be fully democratized with a free election by year’s end, and citizens in the rest of the Arab World would be inspired to demand similar political reform. All that, because of one unknown street vendor.

Never underestimate what the little guy can do.

That appears to be the lesson of the day for C.Y. Leung and his dysfunctional government. Revolutions often begin with the most inconsequential and unlikely of events. Ben Ali would never have imagined in his wildest dream that a 26-year-old hawker could upend his presidency. Just the same, our chief executive would not have predicted that a few shots of tear gas would trigger a 79-day occupy movement, or that a run-of-the-mill crackdown on unlicensed food stalls of curry fish balls, beef tripe and stinky tofu would provoke an all-out riot. It is believed that whatever happens on New Year’s Day will repeat itself throughout the year. If Leung is a superstitious man, he should brace himself for many more unpleasant surprises in the Year of the Fire Monkey.

Bouazizi at the end of his rope

The significance of the fish ball hawkers lies in their very insignificance. Many in Hong Kong are asking the same question that Bouazizi had asked himself: why did the government systematically target these petty outlaws and mobilized an army of riot police to go after them and their supporters, when, well, the five missing booksellers are still unaccounted for, none of the cases of police brutality during the occupy movement has been resolved, tens of thousands of public housing residents continue to drink water from lead-leaching pipes, and the high-speed rail link project with a whopping $85 billion price tag is delayed and may possibly be abandoned at the expense of taxpayers. Then there are the chronic political Gordian knots like the cross-border tensions, the marginalization of Cantonese, and, above all, the broken promises of universal suffrage that have left the city of seven million despondent and disenfranchised.

And so this so-called “Fish Ball Revolution” really isn’t about fish balls at all – it is about citizens fed up with the daily abuse by an unelected and unaccountable government led by an unelected and unaccountable chief executive. One commentator compares Hong Kong people to a battered woman, who, after putting up with years of domestic violence, finally snapped and threw a beer bottle at her husband. That sums up why protesters in support of the food vendors hurled bricks and set garbage on fire during the predawn police clashes on Tuesday. It was the same pent-up anger and resentment that pushed Bouazizi over the edge. Surely, the vegetable seller did not set himself on fire because he had a bad day – it was years of harassment and intimidation by the local police that made him do the unthinkable. For frustrated Hong Kongers, three and a half years of C.Y. Leung dismantling the city bit by bit has just about done the trick.

Tear gas is so two years ago

Much like the occupy movement, the Chinese New Year’s Riot has polarized society and torn the city asunder. On social media, sympathizers hailed the violent clashes as a game changer that has finally put Hong Kong on par with the rest of the world, where protesters have the chutzpah to throw rocks and set vehicles on fire instead of sticking to slogans and banners. The pacifists, on the other hand, were quick to condemn the brick-throwers and fire-setters as radical and extreme. When the dust finally settles, however, the hawks will likely have the last word on this round of debate, for no matter how “radical and extreme” Bouazizi’s self-immolation may seem to some, most reasonable people would place the blame on the oppressive government instead of the man who gave his life resisting it. Likewise, no matter how rash and misguided the protesters appear, none of them would have risked prison by throwing bricks at the police if they had better, more effective ways to make themselves heard.

One of the five stories that make up Ten Years (《十年》), the surprise box office hit that posits a grim future for Hong Kong, is about a woman who commits self-immolation outside the British consulate in protest of the country’s failure to uphold the Sino-British Joint Declaration. With street protests becoming increasingly intense and the city looking more ungovernable by the day, what seems like a far-fetched conjecture may well become a terrifying reality. Unless we find a way to cool the rising political temperature, it is perhaps a matter of time before protesters set more than just garbage on fire and we have our very own Mohamed Bouazizi.

A game changer


This article appears on Hong Kong Free Press under the title "Never underestimate the little guy: what the Mongkok clashes have in common with the Arab Spring."

As posted on HKFP.com

This article was reproduced on The Wall Street Journal's opinion page. 

As posted on WSJ.COM