Saturday, October 3, 2015

Book Review - "Wolf of the Plains" by Conn Iggulden

I started reading this novel with a strange curiosity about the early life of Genghis Khan, having already read three non-fiction titles about his life-time conquests and those of his offspring. I ended up being deeply touched by the skillful crafting of a poignant coming-of-age tale portraying the young and fearless tribal leader. His unbeatable will to survive as a precocious male child of an ostracized and fatherless family in the harshest of environments is destined to make him a formidable tribal head and chart the winning course of his inimitable adult life. Still a young teen, he had to face the sudden loss of a father, heartless betrayals, constant cold and hunger, homelessness, deadly traps and all kinds of brutal life threats. It is hard not to believe that there is some truth in fiction in this case, as it can probably be surmised that what happens to a person in his/her early formative years is most likely to give shape to his/her character.

The novel is sprinkled with occasional gory scenes and graphic details, but also does not lack sentimental episodes. Overall, it is a gripping action-packed read.

The author explains in a note that his chief source of historical details largely comes from Arthur Waley’s translation of a Chinese version of The Secret History of the Mongols, the original Mongolian text of which was written in the 13th century, after the death of Genghis Khan.

Late last year I read The History and the Life of Chinggis Khan: The Secret History of the Mongols, which is the Mongolian scholar Urgunge Onon’s translation of the original 13th century text, and early this year I read Jack Weatherford’s two non-fiction titles: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. These three books together gave me a pretty good picture of the times and lives of Genghis Khan and his successors.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

HKU Symposium Speech

Three years ago I was invited by HKU's Politics and Public Administration Association to take part in a symposium on the subject of land monopoly in Hong Kong. I'm re-posting below the blogpost containing my opening speech that appeared on Asia Sentinel's site on November 22, 2012.

On November 14, 2012, I was honored to participate in a HKU symposium on the topic of land monopoly in Hong Kong. The symposium was organized by the Politics and Public Administration Association of the University of Hong Kong. My opening speech was delivered in Cantonese to an audience consisting mostly of HKU students. To my pleasant surprise, the discussion that followed was highly animated, and from the questions asked, I was heartened to find that these young people have a genuine interest in redressing the injustices that are happening around them.

Here is a translated excerpt of my speech:-

"I would like to focus our discussion today on the relationship between Hong Kong's high land price policy and the tax system.

First please allow me to share my own thoughts and opinions on the subject. Afterwards, the floor will be open for group discussion.

In the July 5, 2010 issue of the Hong Kong Economic Times, it was reported that Hong Kong's five leading developers together own a total land bank of 1,279 hectares of land, which is three times the land owned by the government. It was also pointed out that four leading developers together own 1,000 hectares of agricultural land, which is equivalent to one-fifth of all agricultural land in Hong Kong.

Why are developers so 'addicted' to land? In my view, other than the mentality of regarding something that's scarce as highly worthy of loading up on, another vital catalyst that incites land addiction would seem to be the high land price policy that past and present governments have long been championing.

Let's take a look at the history of this high land price policy.

The policy is not one that's created by the SAR governments. Rather, it was first introduced shortly after the first colonial government was established upon the signing of the Nanking Treaty. The first Hong Kong governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, designated the colony as a free trading port. Being a former British trade minister, he was naturally partial to British trade interest groups and favored free trade policies that ensured their success. But this meant that import duties would have to be eliminated. At the same time, the colonial government, being keen on garnering political support from British traders in Hong Kong, was deliberately aiming to keep corporate profits tax at a relatively low level. Given Hong Kong was then still very much an economic backwater, the meager amount of profits tax was hardly sufficient to sustain the operation of the colonial government. The waiving of import duties was no help either. Moreover, the British government then was too financially strapped to be able to look after Sir Pottinger's government. The first governor therefore had little alternative but to turn to the only remaining and logical source of income - Hong Kong's land.

Auctioning off land lease rights to the bidder offering the highest amount of annual rent was seen as a way out of his government's financial blues. From then on, successive colonial governments have regarded land auctions and tenders as a cost-efficient and highly effective way of collecting much-needed tax revenue.

By the 50s and 60s, the incessant influx of refugees from Mainland China and the resultant demand for land and housing created a perfect opportunity for several Hong Kong Chinese developers to gorge on agricultural land in the New Territories as well as on Letter Bs. By this time, those shrewd developers had already gained a good insight into the weakness of the high land price policy, that is, that government itself has a vested interest in keeping land prices high for the sake of its own coffers. In other words, they realized that whenever the property market took a dip, government would at once respond by holding back land sales, thus providing a cushion to the market. This meant that the market would easily rebound after a short dip. Hence land hoarding was quite riskless.

On the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, the psychological effect alone of the announcement of the annual land sale cap of 50 hectares was enough to give rise to a frenzied speculative mood in the flipping of agricultural land, Letter Bs and properties alike.

In the past few decades, under the operation of the high land price policy, we have witnessed the following phenomena.

Against a backdrop of constant keen demand for residential and commercial land in the 70s and 80s, the few developer conglomerates who had earlier been on a land gorging spree (including utility assets) were able to profit exponentially, with their tycoons acquiring world fame in wealth. The effect of their land hoarding is like the situation where bakeries have monopolized the supply of wheat flour and are thus able to manipulate the price of their baked goods. It is especially significant that they hoarded up agricultural land and Letter Bs, as the private hoarding of these has helped to distort the market critically.

While the high land price policy has helped to create a few economic Goliaths, on the other hand, it has caused immense pain to society as a whole.

On the economic level, since a preponderant portion of society's resources and energy have been channeled to the real estate market, Hong Kong's economy base has been narrowing further and further over the past decades, with many previously vibrant industries dying out, leading to a dwindling of job species. In respect of housing, Hong Kong is one of the world's most expensive places to live, while Hong Kongers have had to put up with ever declining quality of accommodation.

The already dire situation has taken a turn for the worse in the past ten years. The inflow of Mainland capital has been an added impetus in driving an already exuberant property market into uncharted territory. The drastic cut in the supply of residential land and subsidized housing under the Tsang administration has skewed further the overall housing demand/supply imbalance. Many from the low-income group have been forced to live in unsafe sub-divided flats while a lot of middle-class professionals find home-ownership a distant dream. Retail shop rents have recorded explosive growth, with rent increases easily doubling and trebling within short periods of time. Many of our favorite small restaurants and shops have met with their unwarranted demise. Consumer good prices have rocketed along with crazy rent increases. Those who own properties are becoming ever richer, while those who don't are in danger of being decimated.

At present, almost half of government's annual budget income comes from land sales and lease modification and other land- or property-related taxes. Thus, from government's standpoint, keeping the high land price policy intact is not only rational, but downright desirable. But given the daily exacerbation of a plethora of social and economic problems that have arisen directly or indirectly from the policy, is it not time for society to ask a serious question: is the policy one that truly serves the common good?

While on this train of thought, I would like to point out one peculiarity in the handling of the land-related tax revenue, and that is, all land sale income is automatically transferred into a "Capital Works Reserve Fund" each year (this practice dates back to 1982), and this Fund is designated for the exclusive use in infrastructure-related projects. In my view, such a practice not only prevents this vast amount of tax (which is a form of heavy  hidden tax shouldered by all home-owners) from being used flexibly in areas like education, medical services and social welfare, but it actually serves to augment land values further, thus benefiting mostly those land-rich conglomerates. This in fact results in an endless vicious cycle.

One crucial question we need to ask is: does government really have no choice but to rely so heavily on land sale income for its fiscal health?

In my book I did suggest that the feasibility of many types of new taxes can be looked into. These include capital gains tax, wealth tax, dividend tax, a more highly progressive salary tax, and even the reinstatement of the estate duty. The basic underlying concept is that those who are more financially capable should bear a bigger tax burden. Hong Kong is already a very wealthy society and the critical issue is not about the creation of more wealth, but about fairer wealth distribution (不患寡而患不均). These types of taxes can address that problem squarely and are the only way to narrowing the yawning wealth gap.

But any meaningful reform to the tax system aiming to curb government's reliance on land revenue will hurt the deeply entrenched property cartel most, and these vested interests also happen to wield huge political power. It goes without saying that suggestions for reform will only meet with stiff opposition. Still, we should remember and take courage in what Mark Twain once said: "Reflection is the beginning of reform." If only we are willing to ask questions and give our thoughts to prevailing problems, we have already taken the crucial first step.”

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book Review - "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Marie Remarque

This book was first published in 1929, and by the time the German Nazis came to power in 1933, it became a banned book and printed copies were burned (the excuse being that it was a betrayal of the German front-line soldier). The author subsequently went to live in Switzerland and in 1938 was stripped of his German citizenship.

The novel is a heartrending account of trench warfare during the First World War told in first-person from the perspective of the narrator, a nineteen-year old German soldier who has just been drafted into the army along with several of his schoolmates. Throughout the story, the reader is let in on the narrator's intimate thoughts and emotions about the horrors of death and bodily wounds, the necessity of hardening of the senses for the sake of survival and sanity, the dependence on solidarity as a means of escape from constant agony of terror, and the futility of war itself. I loved the author's generous sprinkling of imagery in his descriptive prose.

".....our bodies are like thin membranes stretched over barely repressed madness, holding in what would otherwise be an unrestrained outburst of endless screams."

"Because one thing has become clear to me: you can cope with all the horror as long as you simply duck thinking about it - but it will kill you if you try to come to terms with it."

"We didn't break; we adapted. The fact that we were only twenty helped us to do that, even though it made other things so difficult. But most important of all, we developed a firm, practical feeling of solidarity, which grew, on the battlefield, into the best thing that the war produced - comradeship in arms."

"How pointless all human thoughts, words and deeds must be, if things like this are possible! Everything must have been fraudulent and pointless if thousands of years of civilization weren't even able to prevent this river of blood, couldn't stop these torture chambers existing in their hundreds of thousands. Only a military hospital can really show you what war is."

When I closed the book, I couldn't help asking the question: do we ever learn from history?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Empress Wu Zetian Hardly an Exemplary Chinese Female Role Model

British broadcaster BBC Two has aired two episodes of a 4-part documentary series which records the history of women from the bronze age right up to the present. I watched Episode 1 "Civilization" on Youtube last week and have just watched Episode 2 "Separation". Since Episode 2 is almost entirely about China and Chinese women, with a little about Japan, Vietnam and Korea, I've embedded below the Youtube clip of this episode for sharing.

I have a couple of brief comments on this episode. Firstly, in the opening scene, the renowned Song dynasty painting Along the River during the Qingming Festival (清明上河圖) by Song painter Zhang Zeduan is featured. The narrator erroneously says that the painting is a "fantasy image of the world the Emperor wanted his China to be". Of course her focal point on the insignificant and inferior role of women, who are conspicuous by their absence, is not incorrect. However, the painting is by no means a "fantasy image". It is in fact a realistic depiction of the landscape and real life, both rustic and urban, inside the capital Bianjing (now Kaifeng in Henan Province) during the Northern Song era. Details of daily life activities that are portrayed in the painting are corroborated by Song literary writings, the most eminent of which is a memoir written by Meng Yuanlao, titled The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor (東京夢華錄).

While I completely agree with Dr. Foreman's view that Confucianism cast a long shadow on Chinese women's status in the family and in society, I'm baffled by her elevating Empress Wu Zetian to a female role model status. I do understand her motive in trying to paint the Empress in a meritocratic light from a feminist's angle, but the whitewashing of her vileness and brutality is, in my view, not warranted at all. Wu Zetian was by all accounts a viperish and vengeful mass murderer, not sparing even her own infant daughter and adult son (if what most historians believe to be true is in fact true). Perhaps picking Empress Wu as an exemplary female role model is less than ideal. I would've chosen Mongolian-born, free-spirited Qing Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, who ruled not by power and suppression, but by educating her imperial offspring about open-mindedness, compassion and tolerance.

On the whole though, I find both Episode 1 and Episode 2 of the documentary informative and educational, and would highly commend Dr. Foreman for her efforts.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Book Review - "The Odyssey" by Homer

The version that I read was the Robert Fagles translation and I liked the simplicity and the music of the language. It was like a fantasy story told in the lyrics of a song. I enjoyed both the verse-like form and the roller-coaster narrative, some episodes of which incidentally called to mind similar scenes in the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West (for example, the episode about Nymph Calypso keeping Odysseus a captive is very similar to the scene where a lair of seductive spider spirits want to capture and enslave the monk Xuanzang).

I've always been intrigued by Greek mythology. The way the gods and goddesses of the heavens interact with each other and with the mortals strikes me as illogical and unreasonable sometimes, and at other times compassionate, egalitarian and fair. The odd message seems to be that even the powerful immortals are full of flaws much of the time, let alone helpless mortals. There is a distinct humbling quality to it.

This fundamental work in the Western canon of literature is a must-read for classics lovers as well as fantasy and mythology aficionados.

I look forward to reading The Iliad, to which The Odyssey is a sequel, and I'm going to select Fagles' translation. Some years ago I watched on TV the movie "Troy" with Brad Pitt as Achilles, and I loved it.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Chinese History and Me

In my school days, Chinese History was my favorite subject, apart from Chinese Literature and English Literature. Over recent years, I've developed a passion for reading historical fiction set in different parts of the world. While doing research on Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang for my historical epic, which I've just finished writing, my passion for Chinese History was rekindled. For me as a writer, the distant past is a hidden treasure trove of countless riveting human stories, in particular China's dynastic past.

Several years ago I read Xiao Jiansheng's Chinese History Revisited (中國文明的反思), which I found emotion-evoking as well as thought-provoking. I've just stumbled upon an English translation of the Foreword to the book and would like to share an excerpt of it:-

"In the 1980s, when I was writing the biography Xiong Xiling, Chinese Premier of the Republican Period, I started to systematically re-examine Chinese history. In those days just after China's reforms started, many continued to view history in terms of class struggle, forcing it into this straitjacket of revolutionary proletarian struggle even though it did not apply. Everyone was either a revolutionary or reactionary, even though these overly simplistic distinctions were clearly irrelevant. I reacted against this kind of analysis, and thought a more deeply thought analysis of Chinese history was needed.

Over the past twenty years, studies of Chinese history have improved much. But, on many major questions, the official versions of Chinese history have not made major improvements, and it could be said that they are even incoherent and inconsistent. Many Chinese are unwilling to take a hard look at Chinese history; this means that they do not have a clear understanding of our accomplishments, and are not able to learn from our own mistakes. There is not a clear consensus on what we should throw away, and what we should keep and preserve. As a result, what should have been discarded has been kept, and the core assets of our culture have been thrown away and treated as garbage.

For example, in ancient Chinese times, Laozi's (Lao-tzu) philosophy of respecting and following the ways of heaven, and governing without force; the Confucianists' philosophy of love for fellow humans and treating others as one would have them treat you; the Moists philosophy of universal love, equality and anti-violence were pushed aside as being overly idealistic and unrealistic. Instead violent authoritarianism and the way of the marshes (translators note: local powers which took over local responsibility for order when central authority was weak) were instead praised and prospered. Because the best parts of Chinese culture were not preserved, Chinese culture and civilization did not develop on a healthy path.

Every people needs to have a correct understanding of its own history and culture. Only through this understanding can it judge what is good and what is bad, setting it on a healthy path of development. It is very hard for a people which does not have a clear grasp of its past to have a bright future. If it does not have this understanding and consensus about its past, how can it face the future with confidence?

Even to this day, most Chinese view the Spring and Autumn Warring States period as a chaotic and dark period in Chinese history. If it was indeed such a dark period, then why was this a period where many competing schools of thought and philosophy competed in an open market of ideas? Why did so many philosophers, political and military theorists, scientists and writers flourish during this period? Why did Chinese society grow so much on the political, economic, and cultural levels all at the same time?

Even to this day, many view the Emperor Qinshihuangdi's political unification of China in the Qin Dynasty as a great political act, even though it was a violently totalitarian state. But these people fail to ask that if the Qin unification was such a great act, then why was it that China no longer produced such great political thinkers such as Laozi, Confucius and Mencius? Why has China been condemned to cycles of violent change which have repeated regularly for more than 2,000 years? Why did the Chinese live so miserably under the Qin Dynasty? And why did the Qin Dynasty have such a short life, and in the end, collapse so violently?

Even to this day, many view the Song Dynasty as authoritarian, corrupt, backward and weak, negating any of its contributions. But they forget to ask that if the Song Dynasty was so authoritarian, corrupt, backward and weak, why was it one of the leading cultures and civilizations of its time? Why did it produce gunpowder, the compass, movable type printing, just to name a few of its accomplishments? Why did Song political thought and its bureaucracy focus on worrying before the rest of the people, and celebrating after the rest of the people? Why did the Song produce the great concept of 人生自古誰無死,留取丹心照汗?

Even to this day, many praise the rules of the Qing emperors Kangxi and Qianlong as great periods of Chinese imperial history. But they forget to ask that if this was indeed such a great period in Chinese history, why was it that only 41 years later, China would come under attack from Britain, giving up Hong Kong to British rule, and having to recognize unequal treaties which humiliated China? Why did China become the sick man of Asia, with Chinese men wearing their hair in pigtails like idiots? Why did Gong Zizhen write 九州生氣持風雷,萬馬齊喑究可衰,我勸天公重抖擻,不拘一格降人才。

Now, many Chinese speak of a "revival of the great Chinese culture and civilization". But when they speak of this, have they really thought through what this great Chinese culture and civilization really is? Where has this greatness shone through? What are the parts of this civilization which they want to show? Who is really clear about this, and understands the real issues? If we are not even clear about what are the great parts of our own culture, then how can we even begin to talk about revival?"

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review - "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck

This is a quietly told story of a Chinese farmer's life in the pre-revolution days. My feeling is that I liked it a lot, but not enough to rate it a full 4 stars (the rating would be 3.7 stars).

It is a heartfelt account of life in the grassroots society of that era, with its own epoch-relevant values, superstitions, class distinction and sexist attitude, not any dissimilar to that depicted in other Chinese literary works relating to that era (Ba Jin's The Family, Autumn, Spring comes to mind). What sets this novel apart from those Chinese works is perhaps the absence of bitterness in the narrator's voice, which comes in a calm, surreal tone. Why could the author write in such a tone? It is because she was a foreign visitor living in China only for a temporary period of time. But as a story, it is superbly structured and told with credibly indigenous parlance.