Tuesday, September 30, 2014

My Thoughts and Observations on the "Umbrella Movement"

I’ve been refraining from commenting on Hong Kong current affairs because I feel that observing development of events in Hong Kong from far away has its limitations, which would cloud my judgment and render it unfair.

However, over the past few days, something momentous and of historical importance has taken place and has unleashed on me too great an emotional impact for me not to at least record my thoughts and observations, even if these may be partial and biased.

The deep rift between Beijing/HKSAR governments and Hong Kong’s younger generations over political reform has come to a head, and boiling discontent over social and political issues has finally erupted into what is now termed the “Umbrella Revolution”.

What has been bugging me most is Beijing’s and the Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung’s obtuse and patronizing attitude towards the voices of the students and the supporters of the OCCUPY CENTRAL movement (now termed the “UMBRELLA MOVEMENT”, because umbrellas were used by the protesters to protect themselves against police’s indiscriminate pepper spraying) over their demand for true democracy. Those in power do not have one ounce of respect for the movement supporters and have not even deigned to communicate with them direct in an honest manner. (I will go into the background of the dispute later.)

All they could do so far is to keep parroting the same stale line that political reform has to be in accordance with terms laid down in the Basic Law. BUT WHY DOES THAT HAVE TO BE? If what is laid down in the Basic Law is against the wishes of the majority of Hong Kong people, why can’t it be changed, not to mention that it’s merely a matter of difference in interpretations, with Beijing’s interpretation open to ridicule? They keep avoiding the singularly most essential question, which is a question of diluting the political power now concentrated within the wealthiest elite of Hong Kong, as represented by the 1,200-member election committee, all of whom grovel to Beijing, and whom Beijing’s princeling elite are in bed with.

Perhaps the reason they keep avoiding the issue is because they know too well their position is untenable. They know very well that Hong Kong people’s demand for true democracy is grounded in society’s wish to dismantle the propertied ruling class who are essentially the same elite that influences every policy-making decision of the SAR government and who wields political power through the 1,200-member election committee as well as through the functional constituencies in the Legislative Council.
When CY Leung was asked in a recent press conference whether he was actually protecting the rich people’s interests by refusing to budge on the political reform proposal, he replied, in the usually devious and sly way, that his anti-speculative measures are proof that he is not on the property cartel’s side. Who does he think he can fool? His measures have failed to even stop the property market from continuing to rise, let alone scratch the surface of the deeply entrenched interests of the cartel. Let us not forget that it was he who appointed Franklin Lam, the notorious property speculator and big fan of leading developer Sun Hung Kai Properties Group, as an Executive Council member. Let us also not forget that it was CY Leung who refused to put into place rental control regulations to ease the pain of low-income renters and those dwellers of cage homes and subdivided flats.
I am aware that Hong Kong society has been divided over the controversy of the political reform proposal. Roughly there are two camps of thought: one is about support of the HKSAR government-led and Beijing-approved version, which is very little different from the status quo (i.e. maintaining the 1,200-member nominating (election) committee consisting of Beijing-friendly elitist personnel for the pre-selection of the 2017 Chief Executive candidates, and capping the number of candidates at two or three, on whom the populace can then vote); the other camp is about rejecting the reform proposal outright and pushing for genuine universal suffrage – i.e. for all citizens to have the right to nominate the CE candidates and to vote on the nominees.

The insistence on all citizens’ right to nominate is grounded in the latter camp’s belief that the Beijing Government wants to pre-empt pro-democracy personnel entering the race, thus maintaining total control on the CE candidates, a fact that is much resented by Hong Kong’s young people and pro-democracy legislators and their supporters, as is evident with their hatred for C Y Leung, who is regarded as Beijing’s puppet and who is inclined towards autocratic governance like his masters,  including suppression of freedoms. (His endorsement of the Hong Kong Police’s use of pepper spray and tear gas on peaceful protesters on September 27 and 28 is one sound proof of that inclination.)

Although I have no solid data to back me up, I would tend to think that those who are on side with Beijing and the SAR government and think that democratization is a long process and should be taken one step at a time, typically belong to the upper- and middle-class who have accumulated certain wealth and social status and who are most afraid of changes and of pissing Beijing off. In fact, many of my school friends (post 50s) are inclined towards such mentality. It seems to me that they are not that well informed and are unaware that on record, Hong Kong has been fighting for democracy for 30 years. While I understand the mind-set of these people, I beg to differ in opinion and stance. You can call me naïve, but my sympathies would always lie with those who have ideals and dare to act or speak up for social justice and civil freedoms.

There are much too much inequality and injustice in Hong Kong for it to be able to move forward as a model metropolis of the 21st century with equal opportunities for all and better social welfare for the underprivileged. Thanks to Hong Kong’s young people, we can see some silver lining that change is possible. I am glad to see that the international community is at last paying attention to their bravery, spirit, self-discipline and uprightness.

No one said it better than Joshua Wong (leader of Scholarism): if the students don’t come out to stand in the frontline, who will? All I can do is quietly support these students and youngsters and pray for their safety.

 If only China is visionary enough to grasp this opportunity to allow Hong Kong to be the beacon city for democracy, it will instantly earn itself international respect and applause. This would be a much much better display of soft power than those Confucian Institutes.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

News Video re: Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong

This video includes English (CNN) news version:-

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Latest Video of Activities in Hong Kong

Shame on Hong Kong Police - they are using teargas on peaceful protesters under unprovoked circumstances! The more violence the Police use, the more supporters are coming out.

Please follow me on Twitter (@alicepoon1) for latest updates.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Video of Sit-ins by Students on Sept. 27 & 28 at Civic Square, Hong Kong

After five days of peaceful class boycott by members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (undergraduates) and Scholarism (secondary school students led by 17-year old Joshua Wong), the class boycott turned (at midnight on September 27, Hong Kong time) into a peaceful overnight sit-in at Civic Square, a public open space in front of the Government Headquarters building, when their demand to speak to the Chief Executive (C. Y. Leung) was not met. During the time, the police used pepper spray indiscriminately on the unarmed students and their supporters and scuffles broke out. Police arrested Joshua Wong, leader of Scholarism and denied him bail. In the pre-dawn hours of September 28, riot police moved in to clear out the protesters by force from Civic Square, which is public space open to all citizens.

The class boycott and sit-in are part of the civil disobedience movement in protest against the Chinese Central Government's refusal to grant genuine democracy to Hong Kong (i.e. universal suffrage with citizens' right to nominate CE candidates instead of the proposal of limiting the nominating right to a small circle of 1,200 CCP-friendly members from the elite and limiting the number of candidates to two or three). These activities can be viewed as a prelude to the "OCCUPY CENTRAL" movement initiated by HKU law professor Benny Tai, which is the main act of civil disobedience planned for October 1, 2014.

This is the video that records the sit-in and rallies:-

As of the early morning of September 28 (Hong Kong time), Benny Tai announced that the "OCCUPY CENTRAL" movement would begin immediately.

For those of you who reside in the United States, please show your support of Hong Kong's democracy aspirations by signing this petition addressed to President Obama:-


What Hong Kongers fear most is that the present CE C. Y. Leung or the next pre-screened CE will bulldoze through the legislature the obnoxious Article 23 (which is a national security and sedition law aimed at repressing freedom of assembly, of speech and of the press), which will definitely turn Hong Kong into the next Tibet.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Review - "Animal Farm" by George Orwell

I had been wanting to read this allegorical novel for a long time but never got round to it until a couple of days ago. Thanks to my Goodreads friends who gave me a much-needed push, I have finally read it.

Orwell wrote the manuscript between 1943 and 1944, subsequent to his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which he described in Homage to Catalonia (1938). His own personal experience with the Communist purges in Spain taught him how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of even enlightened people, and this was what inspired him to write Animal Farm.

The book was meant to expose and condemn the Stalinist corruption of the original socialist ideals. But it probably didn’t occur to Orwell at the time that the book’s revelation would also apply so aptly to other parallel or subsequent authoritarian regimes.

In the book we see how an ambitious demagogue’s (Napoleon’s) unchecked power turns him into a cruel and self-serving despot, preying on an unwary group of ordinary folks for his own personal benefit and the benefit of his cronies. The controlling tactics he employs are incitement of fear and insecurity in those under his rule and terrorizing them, changing the laws at will to suit his whims, entitling himself and his cronies to exclusive privileges (so as to establish an authoritative status), using trolls to disrupt any rational discourse, spreading malicious rumors about his opponents, telling blatant lies to confound the masses, convincing them that hardship is good for them and imposing a cult of personal worship.

In the Animal Farm, what Napoleon preaches can be easily summed up in this maxim: “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”

If you substitute the word “Animals” with the word “Men”…..

I personally find the allegory adds a certain charm and endearing quality to this sobering novel.

P.S. Without genuine democracy, Hong Kong will be like Animal Farm, oppressed by Napoleon and his cronies, who will say to Hong Kongers that "the truest happiness lay in working hard and living frugally" (so that they can stuff themselves to the gills)!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review - "The Red and the Black" by Stendhal

This novel is much more than a bildungsroman. Set in the Restoration Period (1814 – 1830) in France (i.e. the restoration of the Bourbon  monarchy to power after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte), it is a story of the social-climbing feats and two separate love pursuits of the lowborn protagonist Julien Sorel from a keen psycho-analytical perspective, threaded through a richly textured social and political fabric with a satirical undertone. This fabric, unique in a historical sense, reflects the then ongoing contentions for wealth and power, often tainted by hypocrisy, greed, corruption, sycophancy and chicanery, among the chief stakeholders in society, namely: the clergy, the pro-Bourbon aristocrats (called “legitimists”), the ministers and the provincial parvenus. Such was the order of the day for the constitutional monarchy in the Restoration Period. The embedded message of the novel is to say that there was no place in the circle of stakeholders for the plebeian class in that era.  In this grain, the novel almost hints at great social discontent that was brewing and that, in reality, led to the final breakup of the Bourbon monarchy.

As for the protagonist, Stendhal seems to have made him out to be more human than heroic. Like all humans, Julien Sorel naturally has his strengths and weaknesses and makes mistakes. It should not be surprising for readers to learn that he, as a person born into poverty, desires but at the same time despises the high society of his times. His incessant inner struggles with his own moral principles during his social ascent and his final choice of lover are perhaps enough to tell readers that he is ultimately a man of conscience.

Stendhal is considered the creator of the psychological novel. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to him as “France’s last great psychologist” in his 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil. Regarding The Red and the Black, given the meticulous way Stendhal describes paradoxes and tensions between rational deliberations and emotional sentiments that go on in his principal characters’ hearts and minds, especially where courtship and love relationship are concerned, I would tend to agree with Nietzsche.

The version that I read is a Kindle edition which was translated by C. K. Scott Montcrieff from the 1925 Bossard Editions of the text of Le Rouge et Le Noir, Chronique du XIXe Siecle.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

This was an engrossing and breezy read. The novel is narrated in first person and tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of Edward IV, in her prime years. For someone like me who has only limited knowledge of English history, this novel also provides an intriguing glimpse into the bloody period of English dynastic rule that was marked by internecine power struggles between the House of York and the House of Lancaster in 15th century England, more commonly known as the “Wars of the Roses”. The period covered by the novel is from Spring 1464 to April 1485.

Driven by ambition, lust for wealth and power and perhaps even loyalty for the love of her life, this queen assumes it her duty and obligation to manipulate, cajole and coerce all those around her, including her own kinsmen and children, to get at what she wants at all costs – preserving the ultimate honor and privilege, the throne, for posterity. Scheming, plotting and even witchcraft are her natural means, especially after her royal husband’s untimely death. Viewed from another perspective though, she is the shining beacon of wisdom, foresight and self-preservation in peaceful times and, in times of turmoil, she becomes a bedrock of bravery, tenacity and resilience. She seems to possess all the necessary qualities for success. But I have to admit that I do not like her calculating character.

While the novel was unquestionably an engaging read, I had a little problem with the first-person narrative and the use of present tense throughout, which I found incongruous for an ancient character and ancient settings.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book Review - "Imperial Woman" by Pearl S. Buck

This historical novel was first published in 1956, some forty eight years after the death of the last Qing Empress Cixi (named “Tzu Hsi” in the book). It tells her extraordinary life story from childhood to the time near her death.

The author skillfully weaved intricate historical accounts of Cixi’s 47-year reign (her reign was in most part unofficial) which was marked by her tyranny, paranoia and xenophobia, with enthralling fiction that paints a lively portrait of her person, complete with colorful characterization and romantic love.

After so many years, although there is general consensus that Cixi was a strong-willed and manipulative ruler, opinions are still divided as to whether she was shrewd and fair-minded in state affairs or whether she was obsessed with vainglory and self-interest. It would seem that Pearl Buck did succeed in presenting a somewhat balanced view, with sympathetic undertone.

There is no lack of evidence showing Cixi’s hard-heartedness and scheming nature in dealing with whoever she perceived to be her enemies, but then she was after all just a lonely, insecure and helpless woman locked within the unforgiving Forbidden City, trying first to preserve herself and later to shoulder an impossibly heavy state burden in times of great turmoil (with internal rebellions and foreign enemies at the gate). On the one hand, she could be extremely petty-minded, vengeful and ruthless when her feathers were ruffled, on the other she could also be gentle, considerate and gracious to those who loved her and were loyal to her. As sympathetic as Buck tried to be, she didn’t make any effort to gloss over the Empress’s lust for extravagance, pomp, jewelry and luxury as well as her reckless self-indulgence. However, in order to soften Cixi’s image, the author lent her power of imagination and created a life-long, handsome lover for the Empress, who is said to have fathered her only son – Emperor Tongzhi (named “Tung Chih” in the book). This creation not only served to bring out the woman side of the Empress, but also helped to spice up the entire novel a good deal.

I think it would be fair to say that Cixi was not any different from other tyrannical despots, past or present, east or west. When a nation leader has absolute power, unchecked in any way, he/she is bound to fall into the trap of megalomania and varying degrees of narcissism, to the detriment of all those under his/her rule.