Sunday, September 30, 2007

Different Women, Different Fates

Like a lot of other teenagers from my generation who came from financially struggling families, my very first income-generating stint right after graduating from secondary school was tutoring. In those days of economic stringency, when newer handed-down clothes were already luxury items for me, a seventeen-year-old, the burden often fell squarely on the first-born child of cash-strapped families to find ways of contributing to the family coffer soonest possible, especially when the supposed breadwinner had never assumed the responsibility of feeding his offspring.

Anyway, even if one’s wish to find a tutoring job were urgent, whether one could quickly land an offer depended a lot on whether one had the right relations. I was fortunate to have a rich aunt (my father’s sister) who befriended a lot of rich tai-tais through mahjong playing, one of whom, through my aunt’s introduction, engaged me to tutor her nine-year old daughter for a monthly fee of HK$100. My mother used my first month’s income (I handed every cent of my income to my mum) to buy me my first ever new winter overcoat at the Dai Yuan department store (大元百貨公司) in Causeway Bay (situated at approximately where the Sogo department store now stands). It was a greenish-brown checkered knee-length woolen coat with fake-fur lining, bronze buckles and a hood and it was British made. I kept it for a long time.

Let’s turn back to my tutoring job. There was one particular episode that has distinctly stuck in my mind. One day when I showed up as usual at 3:00 pm at Mrs. C’s (my employer) residence, which was located at Fung Fai Terrace, Happy Valley (now redeveloped into Celeste Court), I discovered that the household had a TV taboo, which was whenever it showed any movie starring a certain Hong Kong actress (I’m not disclosing the name for obvious reasons), the TV set had to be turned off at once. As I entered the luxury apartment, I heard Mrs. C shout her command grouchily to the servant who was dusting the sofas, “Turn off the TV right now! Who turned it on?” Although I thought it strange at the time, wondering nonetheless what on earth could have made Mrs. C so mad, the matter slipped my mind until towards the end of my assignment, when I learned about the background story from my aunt.

It turned out that Mr. C, who was a very successful businessman, had been keeping the actress as his mistress in a separate residence with his wife’s knowledge. The actress was very famous too and had played the leading lady role in numerous Cantonese movies, opposite actors like 張英, 胡楓. It goes without saying that she was much younger and prettier than Mrs. C. In those days, rich men keeping concubines and mistresses was almost seen as a symbol of status in a male dominant society. There was little choice for the poor wives: they either had to play deaf and dumb or face the harsh reality of divorce, which, other than bringing on ignominy and disgrace, would mean the end of economic security and possibly being alienated from their own children. It was really not a choice for women who had practically no earning capacity. While I sympathized with Mrs. C, it also dawned on me that education of the self, through conventional or unconventional channels, is the sine qua non for females to gain their economic independence.

I guess Hong Kong women are lucky to have become liberated, having come a long way from those dark days of male chauvinism. However, this brings to mind the still lurid situation of many women in Southeast Asia, especially in the Philippines. Last night I happened to be watching a documentary made by CBC on the subject of prostitution in the Philippines, which made me sick to the stomach. Girls as young as twelve to fourteen are forced into prostitution by abject poverty. They are held in captivity in dirty cubicles and are made to “service” as many as fifteen customers a day. There is just no hope for them to be saved from the inhumane scourge of a wicked society that is bent on decimating females. They often die at a young age from AIDS or other diseases. Can such a society be called civilized, or even close?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing

I’ve been trying to refrain from commenting on Hong Kong’s political scene, not least because I have been since an early age under the influence of my French teacher who believed that “politics is the opium of the mind”. Of course, another reason is that I know too little about, let alone understand, Hong Kong politics to be qualified to write anything about it.

It just strikes me as odd that Hong Kong seems to have an extraordinary cult of worshipping senior administrators, or at least admiring their capability almost to the point of adoration. This fact is borne out by Donald Tsang constantly getting high popularity ratings soon after his “election” (although they have been steadily dropping ever since).

Now once again, Hong Kong people are getting all excited about the imminent face-off between two former senior civil servants, Anson Chan and Regina Ip, in the contest for the legislative council seat left vacant by Ma Lik.

My question is: why do people fuss over two former administrators? No matter which of the two ultimately wins, neither one is going to change things for Hong Kong people. Haven’t Hong Kongers had enough of the stuffiness, inherent snobbishness, the lack of imagination, inside-the-box thinking and overall inflexible, follow-orders working style of these typical obedient subordinates of the former British masters, who used to care more about their own public office career with all the attendant perks than about the real-life hardships of the ordinary people on the streets? Can they really be expected to change their mindset overnight, notwithstanding their attempts to shake off their old aloof, patronizing image by taking to the streets and making apologetic speeches? They may have administrative experience on their side, but leadership qualities, a sense of right and wrong, compassion and empathy are far more important attributes for a truly effective politician.

Without the presence of the British as driving instructors, I have strong doubts about senior civil servants in Hong Kong being naturally better choices as politicians than any reasonably well-educated, well-intentioned professionals (especially the self-made ones) from the private sector, as appears to be the popular belief. At least with the latter, there might be a chance for a breath of fresh air in the present stale political climate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Myanmar Near the Tipping Point?

Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the face of long-time political oppression and abject poverty, the Burmese people’s deep-seated anger has finally erupted in the form of street protests led by the monks. Everything happens for a reason. In Myanmar (current name for Burma), decades of gross social and economic inequalities under the rule of a repressive and corrupt military government are very near, if they have not already reached, a tipping point.

The only twist is that, according to Amy Chua’s “World on Fire”, since so-called market-oriented policies were introduced in 1989, reversing three decades of socialist central planning, ethnic Chinese who make up about 5 percent of Myanmar’s population, in collusion with the military generals, have been the impetus in worsening the society’s imbalances.

Here are some excerpts from the book that may help us understand better the background situation and underlying sentiments there:-

“Free markets are supposed to lift all boats, and indeed often do. But this is distinctly not the perception of Burma’s roughly 30 million ethnic Burman majority. In their view, markets and economic liberalization have led to the domination and looting of their country by a relative handful of ‘outsiders’, chiefly ethnic Chinese, in symbiotic alliance with SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council)……..”

“Meanwhile, just below the surface, anti-Chinese hostility seethes among the Burman majority. As hatred of SLORC intensifies, hatred for the Chinese intensifies as well, not without justification: Crony capitalistic relationships between SLORC generals and Chinese entrepreneurs, not to mention arms sales from China, have been critical in propping up Burma’s reviled ruling junta. But in the current reign of fear, there is no avenue for venting resentment, whether against SLORC, the rich Chinese, or the market-oriented policies that have allowed both of these groups to make hundreds of millions while indigenous Burmans become an increasingly subjugated underclass in their own country……”

“It is an understatement to say that, in terms of financial and human capital, the vast majority of indigenous Burmans, roughly 69 percent of the population, cannot compete with the country’s 5 percent Chinese minority. Three-quarters of the Burmans live in extreme rural poverty, typically engaging in paddy production or subsistence farming…….”

“….as ethnic Chinese developers in the nineties snapped up all the prime real estate in Mandalay – making fast fortunes as property values doubled and tripled in the chaotic new markets – indigenous Burmese Mandalayans were pushed further and further away from their native homes. (In 1990, SLORC had already forcibly relocated dissidents and Mandalayan monks.)………”

“Today, ethnic Chinese Burmese own nearly all of Mandalay’s shops, hotels, restaurants, and prime commercial and residential real estate. The same is more or less true in Rangoon……”

Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that the monks’ peaceful marches will not lead to violent clamp down by the rulers, yet again. It might be time for the Chinese living in Myanmar to do some soul-searching and hopefully such incidents might help them realize that happiness built upon others’ pain cannot last long.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Writing on the Wall

According to this Newsweek article, the warnings are all written on the wall in respect of China’s unsustainable asset bubble, with imbalances even worse than those experienced in pre-bust Japan in the 1980s. It also gives a succinct analysis of how a probable US meltdown caused by the current credit crunch could trigger the inevitable implosion of China’s bubble, which has been formed out of two decades of over-reliance on fixed asset investments and export growth and further compounded by excessive speculation in the stock and real estate markets.

In respect of the stock market bubble, this article by David Webb is a must-read.

In their zeal to make impeccable preparations for the Olympic coming-out party, would the Chinese top officials have spare time to read the writing on the wall?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tea Time!

If Hong Kong people were asked what aspect of English culture had affected their personal lives most from the colonial days, I guess varied answers would pop up, depending on their own experiences. My own answer would be, apart from the English language which I love, the uniquely English habit to enjoy afternoon tea, which I had learned at a very tender age, although not directly from the English but from a distant uncle (a second cousin of my father’s) and aunt.

When I was a small kid, my mother used to take me and my two siblings to family gatherings on some weekends at the home of this uncle and aunt who lived in a spacious flat on Robinson Road with their adopted teenage son and a servant. The usual program would be: the grown-ups would play mahjong in the living room while the kids would watch self-made mock movies created by our cousin in a bedroom.

This uncle had been educated in England and worked as a lawyer in a well-known law firm in Central. He liked to wear the Chinese-style “cheong-sam” when he went to the office. As he had a lanky physique, it worked perfectly for him. When he was home though, he would opt for the more comfortable Chinese-style front-buttoned top and pants. His wife, my aunt, liked to wear “cheong-sam” even at home and was always softspoken and gracious. The furniture in their home was mostly made of red wood, and the walls were decorated with Chinese calligraphy and paintings.

My younger sister and brother and I always loved such gatherings, as we had the chance to play with our cousin who was obsessed with making mock movies and who never failed to surprise us with his new creations. Another reason was that this was the only household we knew then who served English-style afternoon tea.

Each time we were there, at four o’clock sharp, Ah Yuk (the servant) would call the kids to the dining room, where the table would be set for tea, complete with an English silver teapot, fine china tea cups and saucers, dessert plates, a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar, a big tin of English assorted biscuits and a plate of egg tarts and cakes. The adults would stop their mahjong playing and join us. While they would be busy chatting away, we, the kids, would raid the tin of biscuits with gusto. When competition became keen over one favorite sort, it would usually be resolved by way of “stone, paper, scissors”.

Those occasional treats for us ceased when I became a teenager. As Hong Kong’s economy was starting to improve, western-style restaurants sprang up everywhere. There was one in Wanchai, on the street (天樂里) that connected Leighton Road to Hennessy Road (on which Central-bound trams from Happy Valley run), that became my favorite in my high school years, although it was only on special occasions that I was taken there to have afternoon tea. It had nice western décor with dark blue carpets and upholstery (I can’t remember the name of the restaurant) and served an afternoon tea set that included English tea and waffles with butter and syrup.

These afternoon tea experiences left an indelible imprint on my memory. Throughout my adult life, nothing delights me more than the simple pleasure of having a nice cup of black tea with milk and sugar and some pastries in a lazy afternoon on weekends and holidays. Even the world-wide craze for Starbucks coffee and their fanciful drinks hasn’t been able to change this afternoon tea habit of mine!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Reality Show Featuring China

ESWN has posted a Chinese article from wenxuecity.com that describes and comments on the contents of a documentary produced by the Japanese NHK television group titled “激流中國 : 富人與農民工” (“China in a Raging Current: The Rich and the Peasants”). The article has provided links to the documentary video clips on Youtube. The documentary is in Japanese with Chinese subtitles, but you wouldn’t need to know either language to understand.

I have translated the article below.

“Documentaries produced by NHK are quite well known internationally. I think the reason is that apart from having unique angles, the films reflect the truth and are objective and fine-tuned. Although using the example of Li Xiaohua who is the richest man in Beijing and who claims to have a net worth of US$2 billion may be a bit extreme, the projection of the peasants’ way of life is however very close to reality – a condition which generally exists in vast expanse of China and is something that I have personally witnessed.

This is a reality that China cannot avoid facing: most of the nation’s resources are controlled in the hands of a small vested interest group, with wealth churning among a number of elitists; the rich have no need to work hard for their wealth while the poor toil exhaustively for miserable returns. The wide gap between rich and poor stretches further apart by the day.

I used to be under the impression that our country’s decision makers were really focused on rectifying this social impasse, mighty as they are on their high pedestal declaring their ambition to create a harmonious China. But unfortunately in the documentary I saw several powerful big shots whose faces are frequently seen on television appear at Li’s 56-year birthday bash, chatting and joking with the affluent business moguls. The party is just a microcosm of a reality: that power and money are happily married. Those in power provide information and money-making opportunities for the rich, and may even change the rules of the game in their favor. Those with wealth provide the powerful with money, pleasure and an easy life.

A young man featured in the film becomes a wealthy big shot relying on “guanxi” built up by his father who is an incumbent senior government official. The rich young man has bought several apartments in Tianjin for investment purpose. It seems that NHK has stumbled on a common trait for China’s rich people. What Deng referred to as “common wealth” has taken on another meaning: it is the common wealth of the powerful and the rich.

When the film turns to the poor peasants and their families, I feel that I have fallen from a surreal world of prosperity into an almost tangible world of reality. What I see in the film are many different versions of my personal experience in my home village. In a country where development splits two-ways into urban and village, the villages are using their depression to shoulder the prosperity of the cities and the peasants are using their hardships to prop up the urbanites’ good fortune. The social security system only covers the city population, but not the village peasants. While the city people enjoy employment, medical and retirement social benefits, the peasants have no choice but to leave their families behind to find work in cities in order to earn some cash to pay for their children’s education and their elders’ medical bills. But the ever inflating living costs are racing the peasants’ ability to earn in a marathon. So when they fall ill, they have to endure it; when they get hungry and cold, they have to bear with it. There can be no stopping for breath, not even one moment of rest is possible!

Children of peasants are often left behind in the villages by their parents who have gone to the cities to work. They miss their parents badly but can do nothing except to bear them in their hearts. In writing an essay titled “My Dream”, they show that their single wish is to be able to go to university, work in cities and take their parents to the cities to live.

Society has never been fair. It is impossible to have absolute fairness. Yet under the present unbridgeable wealth gap, the least those in power can do is to make it possible for the poor’s basic subsistence needs to be satisfied. But the reality is: the poor are not just poor, they actually cannot see any certain path leading them out of their fateful destitution. Such social anomaly where the poor can only get poorer and wealth continues to flow within the elite’s confines, it is not a matter of laboring pain of reform but is something that can only be called tragic.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Storm Looming

Recommended reading:

U.S. Banks Brace for Storm Surge as Dollar and Credit System Reel
By Mike Whitney (Counterpunch)

An excerpt:-

"A more powerful tsunami is about to descend on the United States where many of the banks have been engaged in the same practices and are using the same business model as Northern Rock. Investors are no longer buying CDOs, MBSs, or anything else related to real estate. No one wants them, whether they’re subprime or not. That means that US banks will soon undergo the same type of economic gale that is battering the U.K right now. The only difference is that the U.S. economy is already listing from the downturn in housing and an increasingly jittery stock market. That’s why Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson rushed off to England yesterday to see if he could figure out a way to keep the contagion from spreading."

It must be pretty serious business if the U.K. bank run could incite the U.S. Treasury Secretary to take the trip there!

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Partial Glimpse into Hong Kong's Reality

Two news reports best illustrate the state of dichotomy Hong Kong is now in. On the one hand, loaded developers bid feverishly over a piece of land to an astronomically high price (by world standards), while on the other, one in five Hong Kong people (20 percent of the total population) are trapped in the lowest echelon of society, where a 2-person household has to struggle with a miserable HK$7,000 per month income.

It is not infrequent that we hear government officials beam on how euphoric Hong Kong’s economy has been since the dismal days of SARS in 2003, backed up by healthy statistics. Perhaps they have been telling the truth, at least partially. The big question is: where has the new found wealth gone and how has it been distributed?

Less than a week ago, we had this announcement from Hong Kong’s largest developer, Sun Hung Kai Properties: the company has raked in a net profit of HK$21.23 billion for the year ended June 30, 2006 and it plans to fork out a further HK$33 billion for investments in the Mainland, where it already committed HK$44 billion in funds.

The net profit figure, compared with the year 2002 when it recorded a HK$8.52 billion profit, reflects a growth over four years of 1.49 times. The disheartening news is that the company has been channeling most of its profits into the Mainland in the last few years, and thus has not even been helpful in creating more employment in the local construction industry, which has been contracting yearly as a GDP contributor since 2001. Sun Hung Kai Properties is already among the latecomers who have jumped on the China property bandwagon. Others before it include Cheung Kong (Holdings), Henderson Land and New World Development, who have all secured huge land banks in the Mainland, using their Hong Kong earned profits.

So, who has been responsible for stimulating growth in the local economy? A quick look at the export data would provide the answer. The total exports in the post-SARS years showed year-on-year growth as follows: 2004: +15.9 percent; 2005: +11.4 percent; 2006: +9.4 percent. And import and export trade contributed to more than 20 percent of Hong Kong’s GDP in each of 2003, 2004 and 2005. If not for the hard-working efforts of the small import/export traders and enterprises, Hong Kong’s economy would probably not been as buoyant. Of course, its buoyancy also undeniably owes greatly to the booming finance sector, thanks to China dishing out IPOs to the SAR. But those lucky enough to be employed in this sector are hardly more than just a handful, and they, together with senior executives of the oligopoly of conglomerates and senior civil servants, typically take most of the cream off the income pie.

Thus we have a situation where rent-seeking developers have in recent years created immense wealth, just as in the past decades, but have redirected the newly found riches (partly from cash-rich Mainlanders who buy properties in Hong Kong) into the Mainland for investing purpose, leaving little benefit for Hong Kong’s economy, while the economy has relied on finance services and exports for most of its growth.

Meanwhile, as the export industry, like the red-hot finance industry, is not labor-intensive and thus has not been able to benefit a wider sector of the working population. The retail industry, although also showing strong growth, typically employs only an unskilled (low-paid) but young group in the labor force, despite the rapidly aging population. (It comes as no surprise that those aged between 45 and 65 make up the biggest increase (34%) in the below-poverty line group over the last 5 years.) Besides, many retail businesses have had to struggle with daunting rent increases from their ravenous developer landlords and can hardly afford to be generous employers. Between 2001 and 2006, the real wage index only saw a dismal 0.6 percent growth.

The above may not be the full picture of what’s happening in Hong Kong’s economy, but it might help to provide a glimpse into reality as to why more people are becoming poorer as the economy registers blooming growth, and why the wealth gap keeps stretching.

Looking forward, with a GINI coefficient already at the same levels as in Latin America, there doesn’t appear to be any silver lining…….

Friday, September 14, 2007

Speaking Up Against Injustice

Jared Diamond conveyed this well-argued statement in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel”: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environment, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

Perhaps it is also true that a person’s mentality and beliefs are shaped by his/her own life experiences, rather than by his/her race or class.

I can still remember how impressed I was when I heard a white Canadian co-worker at a company in Toronto make this rebellious remark: “I’m not paid enough to think – I am only a secretary!” For someone like me who had always been taught that it was natural for female workers to be submissive to bosses or superiors and to do whatever work they demanded, that remark totally changed my outlook on the boss-subordinate relationship.

Female workers at the time (we are talking about three decades ago) were often taken advantage of, in that they were made to do servile work like serving their bosses coffee, running their bosses’ personal errands and sometimes even shouldering executive responsibilities, in addition to handling normal secretarial work, while being only paid a dismal salary. It was normal for highly paid managerial staff to take the whole afternoon off to play golf (presumably with clients) while leaving their secretaries to the mundane task of manning the office. What was even worse was the bosses’ inconsiderate behavior and condescending attitude towards the female staff. It was a time of blatant gender discrimination in an unequal society, in Canada as well as in Hong Kong. (I know things have improved a great deal in corporate Canada since that time, but perhaps to a lesser extent with Hong Kong companies.)

A few weeks after voicing her opinion, that co-worker resigned from the company. On her last day, she heroically stomped into her boss’s room, lashed out at his overbearing and inconsiderate behavior towards her and other junior staff and slammed the door behind her when she came out.

The image of that scene has stuck in my mind ever since and she has remained one of my heroines (another one is Simone de Beauvoir). Her brave action helped to shape my belief that to fight injustice, the first thing one must do is to speak one’s mind against all odds. It was a valuable lesson that my schools had never taught me. In the times of my childhood, meekness was expected of the female gender.

Talking about injustice, there was one social phenomenon in the colonial days that particularly irked me. It was the unspoken rule that local Chinese were required to speak English when spoken to by British people. I felt that this was totally unjust. Why weren’t the British required to speak Cantonese, when they lived and worked in a basically Chinese society?

I debated on the issue with one of my British bosses then. He told me that it was in the Chinese’s own interests to be able to speak and write good English, as English was a commonly used international language. I agreed with him on this point, but I was still not convinced as to why the British didn’t bother to learn the language of the place they resided in. After all, they were the guests and we were the hosts. Shouldn’t they at least have the courtesy of speaking the language that their hosts spoke? I felt so strongly about this issue that I wrote a letter to the editor of the South China Morning Post on this topic, arguing that breaking the language barrier depended as much on the British as on the Chinese. It got published, although I didn’t know if it had any impact or not.

Over the ensuing years, I have tried to stick to my principle of speaking my own mind whenever I detect gross injustice, but not as vigorously as I would have liked, not least because of livelihood realities. Still, I would like to think that I have done my part, as I firmly believe in what Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It’s immodest of me to regard myself as good, though….(smiley)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Is HKEx a Public Body or Private Club?

It was the crack of dawn on Tuesday, October 20, 1987 in Hong Kong. The U.S. stock market had tanked more than 22 percent on Monday. Inside Financial Secretary Piers Jacobs’ residence the clang of the wailing phone shattered the morning silence. The caller at the other end was Ronald Li, patriarch of The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong, an amalgam of four previously independent stock exchanges. What happened afterwards is history.

It was only in the previous year that the four independently owned and managed stock exchanges in Hong Kong had been merged into one single entity governed by one set of rules and regulations, in order to project a better image of Hong Kong being a free market-oriented and properly regulated international financial center. In those unruly pre-unification days when insider trading had been the norm rather than the exception, the four exchanges had often been accused of being run as private clubs by self-serving, vested interest groups, at the expense of small investors on the street.

Those four exchanges were: the Hong Kong Stock Exchange which was the colonial legacy, the Far East Exchange which was owned by Ronald Li, cousin of Bank of East Asia chairman David Li, the Kam Ngan Stock Exchange which belonged to gold dealing guru Woo Hon Fai, and the Kowloon Stock Exchange which was run by a commodity trader.

But on that fateful day, the ideals of the unification of the stock exchanges were utterly defeated. The image of Hong Kong as having a free market was ruined as the stock and index futures markets were arbitrarily ordered to close for four days, not so much for the credulous purpose of diffusing the shock to investors from the U.S. fallout as for the self-serving reason of attempting to limit losses on huge shareholding positions of interested parties. Unfortunately, rather than showing an orderly decline as desired, both the stock and index futures markets went into a freefall when the markets reopened on October 26, plunging 33 percent. Massive defaults by futures brokers followed and the futures exchange clearing house collapsed, bringing down with it the futures exchange and Hong Kong’s international reputation.

The irony is the 4-day closure of the markets, rather than helping to mitigate price falls as intended, only served to exacerbate the already jittery nerves of punters and max out the subsequent share dumping and index futures shorting.

Amidst fierce criticisms by international stock and futures brokers of the four-day market-shut-down interventionist move which was deemed obnoxious in a free economy like Hong Kong, culprits (or scapegoats, depending on who’s telling the story) were named and punished. The catastrophe led to the establishment of the watchdog body, the Securities and Futures Commission. The colonial government also appointed Sir Wilfrid Newton, then ex-chairman of the MTRC and an expert on financial crisis management, to start restructuring the futures exchange and its clearing operations.

The major lesson from the 1987 carnage seems to be that equity markets are best left to their own forces provided that appropriate regulatory mechanism is in place. But the HKSAR government has often found it hard to leave stock markets alone, albeit often declaring itself a devout disciple of free market principles.

Still fresh in people’s memory is the government’s 1998 share-buying spree, using HK$118 billion of Hong Kong people’s money without so much as the slightest intention of consulting them first.

Now we’ve been told that the SAR government already owns 5.88 per cent of Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing (HKEx), which makes it the single largest shareholder and a “minority controller” of the public organization, along with five others. It is not known whether the buying act will continue, but the share price of HKEx has already spiked up 17 percent since the announcement last Friday. Besides, according to David Webb, the corporate governance expert, it also owns through the Exchange Fund HK$150 billion worth of Hong Kong equities, or equivalent to 3.2 per cent of the free float of each company in the Hang Seng Index, making it the second largest investor in Hong Kong stocks.

There are talks about the SAR government planning to merge HKEx partially with the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Hence its scrambling to seize control of HKEx is probably because it wants to ram the plan through without any unnecessary struggle.

We have certainly come a long way from the days of insider trading, but with the government getting its hand deeper and deeper into Hong Kong’s stock market, it begs the questions of how free, or how planned, our economy really is, how much of an “insider” the government wants to become and, most importantly, whether HKEx is going to be run more and more like government’s private club with little accountability to the public.

Monday, September 10, 2007

HKSAR Government is Grossly Obese

David Webb has written a well-analysed piece on Webb-site.com on the SAR government's hoarding up on Hong Kong equities, the most recent purchase being of shares in Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing (HKEx):-

http://www.webb-site.com/articles/interven2.htm

In the conclusion of the article, he said,

"Whatever the real reasons for the Government's purchase, it sends a very negative signal to the market as a whole, and increases uncertainty. Until now, the Government had not visibly intervened in the market since 1998. How much of HKEx do they intend to buy, and when? Will they tell us if they have bought or sold more? Are they willing to underpin the share price with further purchases if the stock falls? What other stocks do they intend to buy?

The increasing exposure of the Exchange Fund to HK Equities, now estimated at HK$150bn (before the increase in HKEx) or 3.2% of the free float of each company in the HSI, is also worrying on two levels. First, it puts the Government in a position of conflict of interest in relation to the companies it invests in at the same time as dealing with them, taxing them and regulating them, and second, it also means that in the event of a financial crisis in HK, the Exchange Fund will be piling up investment losses at the same time.

On conflicts of interest, take, for example, the electricity companies with which the Government is negotiating a new scheme of control which may reduce their fat returns, or the property developers with which it negotiates land premiums, or the telecom company it regulates on interconnection tariffs with mobile operators.............

There really is no need to have any equity exposure at all. We often have to call on listed companies to return surplus capital to shareholders rather then punting the stock market. The same applies to the Government: it has surplus funds and should return them to the community in the form of revenue reductions (tax, rates and duties), not invest them in the market. If the Government were a person and money were fat, then this patient is grossly obese............

This ridiculous hoarding of public wealth cannot continue indefinitely. It's time for a complete rethink of the Government's financial management."

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Flat Owners: Beware of Duress

If you think that as the registered owner of a piece of private property you have the right to live in that property for as long as it physically lasts, so long as you are not behind with utilities and rates payments, think again.

Ever since The Land (Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment) Ordinance was enacted in 1998 and came into operation in 1999, developers in Hong Kong have been able to force auction of the entire residential building for redevelopment purpose, provided they have already acquired 90 percent of the units in that building.

As reported in The Standard, the authorities are considering, in view of demands from developers, lowering that forcible sale threshold to 80 percent where the building in question is at least 40 years old.

If they pass this into law, this is what it means. If you are the owner of one of the ten remaining units (in a 50-unit 40-year old building) that have not yet been acquired by the interested developer who already owns the other 40 units, no matter how unwilling you are to sell your unit for whatever reasons, you will have no other option but to surrender. Owners of the other nine remaining units will face the same fate. Under current legislation, the developer needs to have acquired 45 units first before he can apply for compulsory sale of the whole building.

Our private property right is supposed to be protected by law in a society that embraces capitalism like Hong Kong. But I guess, under the circumstances, it depends on whose private property right we are talking about.

Aggrieved flat owners in affected buildings are in fact in a similar situation as those distressed property owners affected by any of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) redevelopment schemes. The former and the latter are on equal footing in one aspect: both groups don’t have any redress channel. The aggressor in the latter case is the quasi-government body whose motive is arguably public interest, whereas in the former case it is the private developer whose motive is private profit.

According to the Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau’s industry consultation paper dated March 2006, there are over 7,500 private buildings in Hong Kong that are aged 40 years or over (about 20% of the total number of private buildings).

In the present booming property market, developers will no doubt be coveting older buildings in what has traditionally been classified as luxury residential areas. In this respect, some flat owners in say upper Mid-Levels or Ho Man Till Hill, once their building is targeted for acquisition, might find their private property right a little precarious.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Test of Sincerity is Between the Lines

On 4th September, 2007 Donald Tsang hosted a forum to consult university students from the mainland, Hong Kong and overseas on his upcoming policy address. If one reads between the lines of the CE’s speech and responses to questions from students, one could not help but come away with the impression that the administration is still trapped in its old mindset: “do not rock the boat”.

On the subject of Hong Kong’s gaping wealth gap and poverty, the CE started off in defensive mode, saying that such a challenge is universal in all developed economies, particularly in the renowned financial centres like London and New York. He then made it clear that it is not the government’s business to arbitrarily redistribute income. In other words, government should do nothing to prevent the rich from getting richer, but rather should make sure that the poor will not get poorer. My question is: if the rich and super-rich are forever getting larger and larger portions of the economic pie, what modicum of it, if any, will be left for the working class and the downtrodden in society?

According to government statistics, the average annual rate of change in the Real Wage Index between the years 2001 and 2006 is 0.1% per annum, whereas during the same period Hong Kong’s GDP per capita enjoyed a 5.1% per annum growth. The Real Wage Index covers workers at supervisory, technical, clerical, craftsman and operative levels and is inflation-adjusted. Doesn’t that huge gap between wage and economic growth tell us something that government may be too embarrassed to admit? Should the bar benders and social workers be blamed for wanting to share that spectacular economic growth, especially when already highly-paid civil servants have been allowed corresponding pay raises and shorter work weeks?

There is a Chinese adage that goes: “If you want to know what goes on in a person’s mind, you only have to listen to his spoken words.” (欲知心中事, 但聽口中言), From Tsang’s words, one might have a fairly good guess that the administration is not about to tackle the wealth gap, as Tsang indicated that redistribution of income is not an option, nor is it very serious about dealing with poverty, as Tsang kept evading the minimum wage issue at the forum. His pledge not to allow cross-generation poverty seems so empty.....

Tsang likes to compare Hong Kong with cities like New York and London. Let us compare the actions of Hong Kong and those of New York on their separate attempt to tackle the issue of poverty.

It took the Commission on Poverty, established in 2005, two whole years just to come up with a long-winded Report, which was released on 14th June, 2007. Other than talking over and over again about the meaning of poverty and classifying the poor into several categories like the unemployed, the working poor, children, youth and the elderly, the Report was short on delivering creative ways of solving the problem.

In the concluding passage of the Executive Summary, it says “The Commission believes that poverty issues are becoming increasingly complicated and can no longer be satisfactorily resolved by the efforts of any one sector alone. Joint efforts from the community, the Third sector, the private sector and across the government are required to search for more sustainable partnerships and innovative solutions.”

Lots of words on paper followed by more words and scant action over a span of two years.

In contrast, as described in this article by Reid Cramer of the New America Foundation, since announcing government’s initiatives to tackle poverty last December, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has formed in March this year a public-private partnership with US$50 million in funds raised from a number of foundations for the purpose of launching some pilot programs. Bloomberg pledged US$150 million a year to the poverty project, with some of the required funds to be raised from the private sector. The money is earmarked for testing out innovative programs including a new conditional cash transfer (CCT) incentive program which would allow the unemployed to invest in their own future, replacing the traditional dole-out welfare aid system. It will also be used to set up a Center for Economic Opportunity, which is charged with R & D functions as well as program evaluation responsibility.

Words followed by money and action within a matter of months.

Who is the more sincere one here?

It looks like Hong Kong workers and grassroots only have themselves to rely on to initiate any changes to livelihood issues.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Capitalism and Democracy

Does capitalism lead to democracy? Or vice versa? Or do they go hand in hand?

The Economist guest blogger, Chris Coyne, believes that capitalism tends to lead to democracy, as he says in his post:

"To reiterate the connection between capitalism and democracy, free markets tend to foster democracy because private property, which is central to any notion of capitalism, produces a sphere of autonomy that grants each individual certain liberties. Private property disperses power and shields each person from coercion. Further, well-defined property rights tend to encourage the emergence of private civil associations. As I discussed in an earlier post, these private associations provide individuals with an alternative form of governance where the state is ineffective or absent. A robust civil society fosters self-reliance and individual responsibility, characteristics necessary for any liberal democratic order."

However, he also points to the importance of having a set of game rules to deter unproductive activities like rent-seeking, corruption and crime:

"The sustainability and progress of economic, political and social liberties are outcomes of two opposing forces. On the one hand, there are “productive” activities, including wealth creation, the development of private associations and the protection of political liberties. On the other hand, there are “unproductive” activities, which include rent-seeking, corruption and crime. Unproductive activities undermine economic, political and social liberties. The ultimate outcome of these two forces is directly dependent on the rules of the game. To the extent that we agree that economic and political liberties are desirable ends, the task is to design rules that raise the relative cost of engaging in unproductive and predatory behaviors."

There are also interesting comments on his post. The debate goes on and on ....

Perhaps somewhere in that ongoing debate there lie some lessons that Hong Kong and China can learn.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

English Skills in China and Hong Kong

Ordinary Gweilo’s post about ludicrous translations of Chinese menus makes me want to rant on the poor standard of English in Hong Kong these days.

Before I do that, I just want to remark that good translation work depends very much on a good understanding of both Chinese and Western cultures and the ability to master both the Chinese and English language. In my opinion, the general standard of translation in the Mainland is below par is because the majority of ordinary Mainland Chinese (even the fairly well educated ones) are still very much strangers to Western culture and are unable to speak simple English, let alone master the language.

Those lucky enough to have received Western education overseas and good exposure to Western culture would usually end up working for multinational corporations either in Hong Kong or the Mainland, or stay and live abroad altogether, thus leaving the domestically educated, whose standard of English cannot be anything but sub-par, taking on less well paid jobs in government and public institutions. Therefore I am not surprised to hear that people working at places like the Beijing Tourism Bureau are not up to the task of producing good translations and their work often tends to be hilarious.

It is a good thing though that at least the authorities are aware of China’s English and translation skill deficiency in general and are taking steps to improve on it. Hopefully, the Olympics are going to bring about a general elevation in China’s standard of English and understanding of Western culture, amongst other things. Let us face it, China is still a developing nation which has yet to catch up with and learn from the English-speaking world in a lot of areas. Let us also be aware that English-speaking businessmen and professionals from the West are scrambling to learn the Chinese language because they want to learn from and about China. So there is no question of any loss of face for the Chinese trying to learn English and the Western culture. It is merely a two-way exchange that would enhance mutual understanding and respect.

Ironically, the development in Hong Kong seems to be running in reverse gear. Ever since the implementation of Tung Chee-Hwa’s ill-advised policy of teaching in the mother-tongue, the standard of English among secondary school and university students went from bad to worse. In recent years, there have been abundant reports that multinational firms are constantly complaining about the acute shortage of local staff with reasonably good English skills, both written and spoken. These go some way to show that that policy has done more harm than good.

It is simply paradoxical for Hong Kong to claim to be an international financial hub on the one hand, and on the other to have a dearth of suitably qualified staff whose basic skill sets should include good English skills.

Before over-zealous patriots start throwing stones at me for daring to promote the language of the hateful colonial gweilos, let us ponder for a moment on the pragmatic side of the issue. Using the words of my former boss, “It is only in the interests of Hong Kong people to speak and write good English. After all, English is the international language used in the business, finance, science, technology and medicine arenas. Being able to master the language is a prerequisite to a successful career or enterprise.”

It would really serve no purpose to use excuses such as nationalism, decolonization, respect for Chinese culture etc. etc. to deprive Hong Kong people of their right to properly learn to master the English language, spoken and written, which has more or less been hampered by the teaching in the mother-tongue program.

My nephew is one of the victims of the society slighting the learning and usage of the English language, made even worse by that program, in the days following the handover. His parents sent him to Vancouver to continue schooling here last year because of total frustration with Hong Kong’s education system. At grade 10 (equivalent to Form 4 in Hong Kong), his English standard was found to be far below that required for that grade and as a result he had to take extra-curricular English lessons. After struggling for a year, he made some progress and got just passing grades in English at his final exams. If he can’t catch up with his classmates in his grade 11 and grade 12 years, he will not stand a chance of reaching pre-university standard of English and will possibly be declined university entry because of it.

I can now understand why some parents in Hong Kong are willing to fork out a fortune to try to get their children into English-speaking international schools.