Chipping In – Protests in Macau


Published on The Economist’s Analects blog -

KNOWN for its casinos and conservative society, the city-state of Macau is a magnet for the rich in search of decadent fun. It is rarely the site of political protest. But on August 25th around 1,000 of Macau’s dealers and servers took to the streets to demand pay hikes and better working conditions. They are among those who support an unofficial referendum on Macau’s political future, which began on August 24th at polling stations and online.

Jason Chao, a 29-year-old software developer and the president of the Open Macau Society, a local pro-democracy group which helped sponsor the poll, hoped it would “help people draw connections between things like inflation and high cost of housing and the political system.” The poll asked residents if they support universal suffrage by 2019; and whether they have confidence in Macau’s current chief executive, Fernando Chui, who is running unopposed for re-election later this week, on August 31st—the same day the poll results are due to be released.

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Hong Kong’s unofficial poll: The votes are in


Analects, The Economist - ORGANISERS announced on Sunday night that nearly 800,000 Hong Kong people had voted in a 10-day unofficial referendum to pressure Beijing to allow “genuine” universal suffrage in the city’s next elections. A large majority, 88% of voters, said local lawmakers should veto any election reform bill that does not satisfy international democratic standards, according to the activist group Occupy Central. The exercise had withstood powerful and sophisticated cyber-attacks on its online polling platform as well as a steady stream of condemnations from central government officials and mainland state media.

Currently, the chief executive is picked by a committee of 1,200 members in a city with a population of 7.2m. The Chinese government has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but has ruled out public nomination for candidates and insisted that only candidates who “love China” should be eligible. Occupy Central, an umbrella group of democracy activists, has threatened to stage mass protests paralysing the streets of the city’s main financial district if election plans do not meet international standards. It will now support a reform plan chosen by voters that calls for the public to be allowed directly to nominate candidates for the 2017 chief executive election. 

Commenting on the poll for the first time today, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who chairs the official public consultation on political reform, said the government would take note of the opinions. But a government spokesman said it is unlikely public nomination of candidates would be part of the official election reform proposal, scheduled to be released by the end of the year. Before taking office any chief executive elected in Hong Kong must also be formally appointed by Beijing.

The State Council’s release of a white paper on Hong Kong’s political future earlier this month had enraged and politicised many moderates in the city, who accused Beijing of having reneged on agreements in the Sino-British declaration that said Hong Kong would maintain its capitalist system for 50 years, until 2047. The report emphasised that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy “is not full autonomy” and the city’s ability to govern itself is subject to authorisation from the central leadership. On Friday, hundreds of Hong Kong lawyers marched in a protest against a section of the report that called judges “administrators” and said they have a “basic political requirement” to be patriotic. 

“Before the white paper, I didn’t support Occupy Central. But after the paper came out I thought it was important to take action,” said one voter. Another, a local lawyer, said: “The white paper alarmed me because it shows Beijing is no longer concerned about keeping up appearances. It seems perfectly content for the rest of the world to perceive ‘one country two systems’ as fraying at the edges if not unravelling completely.”

But not all in Hong Kong support the movement. In a joint statement published on Friday in the Hong Kong Economic Times, the “Big Four” accounting firms—PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Deloitte and Ernst & Young—warned that the Occupy Central protest, if it were to go ahead, would bring “instability and chaos” to the markets and damage Hong Kong’s status as an international financial hub.

University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai, who started the movement in January 2013, said that a month earlier he had worried that few would vote in the group’s survey because among moderates, anything that directly opposes Beijing’s wishes tends to be seen as radical. Now, after a “much higher than expected” show of support at the polls, Tai said: “I still cannot be sure whether people in Hong Kong are prepared to directly confront China. At least now people are prepared to express their views and their disappointment clearly to Beijing”.

The poll ended as protesters were preparing to take to the streets Tuesday for an annual pro-democracy protest marking the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1st, 1997. This year, organisers expect more than half a million people to participate, potentially making it one of the city’s largest demonstrations in recent history, as levels of dissatisfaction with Beijing’s control of the territory reach new heights.

(Picture credit: Philippe Lopez/AFP)

Hong Kong referendum: Voting to vote


Analects, The Economist - MORE than 400,000 votes were cast online Friday in the first day of an unofficial city-wide referendum on democratic reforms in Hong Kong, according to organisers, who have alleged that forces possibly connected to the Chinese government have been trying to sabotage their efforts. “Let’s keep it going!” said Occupy Central, a civil disobedience group, in a Twitter post reporting the tally. 

Mainland authorities have made no secret of their disdain for the campaign. They have called the referendum “illegal and invalid” and an “outright challenge to the Basic Law”  the foundational document of Hong Kong’s governance since its return in 1997 to Chinese rule.

In the week before the scheduled start of the referendum, a website developed with local universities to accept online votes received billions of hits in an apparent denial-of-service cyber-attack. The independent Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily, which has given extensive coverage to Occupy Central, was also taken down by cyber-attacks in the run-up to the referendum. 

The Chinese government has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but has ruled out public nomination for candidates and insisted that only candidates who “love China” should be eligible. The Occupy Central group plans to mobilise thousands to stage a mass sit-in on the streets of the city’s financial district if Beijing does not allow voters to have genuine choice among candidates.

In a recent editorial —pegged to a violent protest at Hong Kong’s main government offices Friday by 200 villagers angered over plans to bulldoze their homes—the city’s security chief predicted similar violence and disorder on a large scale if Occupy Central’s sit-in plans come to fruition. This follows the education chief’s stern warnings that participation in civil disobedience activities could cause “consequences” for teachers and students. A pro-Beijing group, “Silent Majority”, has released a bilingual video warning, with ominous music and dramatic graphics, of mass destruction and possible deaths if Occupy Central protests go ahead. 

All this tumult comes a week after the release of a white paper asserting Beijing’s control over Hong Kong enraged many residents. In addition to ten days of online voting, the referendum includes a full day of in-person voting on Sunday at 15 polling stations scattered across Hong Kong, with another 10 stations open on June 29. Organisers say that the physical polling stations can handle a maximum of 70,000 voters each day.

This highlights the importance of the alleged interference with the online voting system. “If less people are able to vote, we will lose a lot of our bargaining power,” said Occupy Central member Edward Chin, a hedge fund manager who heads the group’s finance division. 

Faced with powerful opponents, the democracy activists are turning to old-fashioned strategies. The former head bishop of the city, 82-year-old Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, has led a 7-day “Walk for Universal Suffrage” to raise awareness about the referendum while in the evenings, bankers and celebrities have joined activists to sing protest songs on crowded city streets. It remains unclear whether the surge at the polls means the public will continue to support the Occupy Central movement. What does seem clear is that if Beijing is to be moved by the results, it will be in the direction of hardening its line.

“No plot by a so-called ‘civil disobedience movement’ to force the central government to make concessions on principles and on its bottom line stands any chance of success,” said an unnamed official in the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, according to a report by the state-run China News Service.

Hong Kong’s politics: No paper tiger

Local artists bite photo copies of the white paper "One country, two systems" to simbolize people's speech has been disregarded and to urge people to vote in an unofficial referendum in Hong Kong

Analects, The Economist - PEOPLE in Hong Kong have responded with alarm, and some defiance, to a white paper issued by China’s leaders about the city’s political future. In rallies outside Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong on June 11th, politicians and protesters burned copies of the report and accused officials of treating the city’s constitution “like toilet paper”.

Legislators accused Beijing of reneging on its treaty obligations under the 1984 Sino-British declaration, signed between Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, to make Hong Kong a semi-autonomous region of China. The agreement said Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and maintain its capitalist system for a period of 50 years until 2047; and many of the city’s social and political freedoms (such as being able to protest against the Communist Party) have indeed been retained.

But the white paper stressed that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy “is not full autonomy” and the city’s ability to run its local affairs comes solely from the authorisation of the central leadership. It also says that Hong Kong residents hold “too many wrong views” with regard to the “one country, two systems” principle that governs the territory’s relationship with Beijing. The white paper’s suggestion to “above all be patriotic” has grated with many who object to equating patriotism with support for the Communist Party. The report also provoked the ire of the city’s judiciary for suggesting that judges have a “basic political requirement” to love the country. The Hong Kong Bar Association hit back with a statement warning that imposing political tests on judges would undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law.

Some protesters see a silver lining. Coming days after tens of thousands of people held a candlelit vigil to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and weeks before an annual pro-democracy march on July 1st, many observers say the white paper may prompt bickering local politicians to work together and motivate the public to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations. “We should thank Beijing for adding fuel to the fire,” said Benny Tai, one of the leaders of Occupy Central, a protest group. It has threatened to rally thousands of protesters to paralyse the city’s financial centre if the electoral proposal that the Hong Kong government is scheduled to release by the end of the year does not meet international standards.  On June 22nd Occupy Central will hold an informal city-wide referendum asking citizens to vote for their preferred type of electoral reform.

The chief executive of Hong Kong (a city of 7m people) is currently picked by a committee of 1,200 people. The Chinese government has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but insists it has no obligation to allow an open nominating process. Many in Hong Kong believe that limits will be imposed on who is able to stand.

The bluntness of the Chinese government report has led some to suspect that leaders in Beijing are deliberately provoking dissent in order to justify a crackdown. Zhou Nan, a former head of the party’s liaison office in Hong Kong, has called the Occupy Central movement “illegal” and said the People’s Liberation Army could intervene if the planned protests escalated into riots. Foreign communities in the territory have also expressed concern, with some chambers of commerce taking out adverts in local Hong Kong newspapers urging the Occupy Central protesters to back down. That seems unlikely, and the city looks set for a long, hot summer of political dispute and angry protest.

Bitcoin in Hong Kong: Still different

bitcoin hk

The Economist, print edition – INSIDE the world’s first Bitcoin store in Hong Kong, a visitor from Tokyo hands over a wad of thousand-dollar bills and waits for a clerk to process the transaction on a laptop. Moments later, a notification on his phone shows that bitcoins have been added to his “digital wallet”, one more transaction in a city that has become a regional hub for the crypto-currency.

Entrepreneurs in Hong Kong are scrambling to offer new services for bitcoin investors and enthusiasts in the region, despite a dip in confidence after the collapse of Mt Gox, a Japanese online exchange. The former British territory’s status has been enhanced by mainland China making it hard for the Bitcoin business—banning financial institutions from dealing in bitcoins and closing the bank accounts of online trading platforms.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, continues to be run under the “one country, two systems” set-up, agreed before it was handed back from British to Chinese sovereignty. So it has its own monetary authority and its own British-style legal system. A slew of startups are racing to lay out a network of Bitcoin ATM machines (where you pay money in to obtain bitcoins) and to open exchanges for online buying and selling,  while a handful of bricks-and-mortar businesses  are starting to accept payments in bitcoins.

As in so many areas, straightforward regulations and high-quality local talent have been the key to Hong Kong’s early success. Promising ventures have found no shortage of capital in the city. Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong tycoon and Asia’s richest man, was an early investor in BitPay, a Bitcoin payment technology.

Still, the industry is experiencing growing pains, too. Two of the city’s first Bitcoin ATMs stopped working soon after being set up in March. Aurélian Menant, a former investment banker who left his job last year to start Gatecoin, a digital-currencies exchange website, waited nine months for his company to be granted a licence as a money-service operator.

Yet in spite of the teething problems, many observers believe Hong Kong’s transparent legal framework and its position on China’s doorstep can make it a leading global centre for Bitcoin, just as it has been for many other commodities. Authorities in the city have made their position clear. John Tsang, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, told a room of teenagers recently: “Bitcoin is not a currency. Just like your armour in World of Warcraft, since we don’t regulate those, we won’t be regulating Bitcoin.”  In addition, any assets gained from the buying and selling of bitcoins are subject to the city’s attractive low flat-tax rate.

Some think the key for Bitcoin startups is to attract capital from flush mainland Chinese investors. The problem for David Shin, a Hong Kong banker who launched Cryptomex, a Bitcoin crowdfunding investment platform, is that investors in China “like to hoard their bitcoins”. Mr Shin hopes his venture could coax them to invest in startups, and that those businesses would in turn improve the security of transactions and earn digital currencies wider legitimacy.

Refugee-screening system slammed as a confusing ‘shambles’


The roll-out of a new system to screen refugees is mired in confusion and a lack of transparency, says a report out today.

More than half of 260 protection seekers canvassed say they urgently need clarification on how to file a claim, according to  Justice Centre Hong Kong, formerly the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre.

“No one knows how the new system  works and we’re so afraid about our futures,”  asylum seeker Ansaari, from Somalia, said. “My first priority was to survive so I ran here, but now all I can do is wait and worry.”

The government introduced the  Unified Screening Mechanism in March  after it was ordered by the Court of Final Appeal last year to  identify genuine refugees from the United Nations’ refugee agency office in Hong Kong.

The new system brought under one process claims based on risk of a returnee facing persecution, torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It covers  about 6,000 cases.

But the report says there is no dedicated website or phone number to provide information about the process, while the information that is available is too technical for many claimants to understand. The government  also has not clarified whether successful claimants will be allowed to settle in Hong Kong or will be resettled elsewhere.

“This is a shambles,”  Justice Centre’s executive director, Aleta Miller, said. “It seems this is a deliberate ploy to make it as difficult as possible for people seeking protection to access it.”

Hong Kong’s screening process has in the past invited abuse by some protection seekers, who filed claims with the government and the UN as a way to stay in the city and work illegally, sometimes for a decade or longer, as the applications wound through the parallel systems..

Report author Victoria Wisniewski Otero said: “It’s in everyone’s interest that the system is not crippled from the start by a backlog. People with genuine need have been waiting for so long, and while processing cases quickly should be a priority, it is important that a high standard of fairness is not sacrificed. Sometimes it is a matter of life or death.”

Human rights lawyer Mark Daly said he was concerned that the legal community, lawmakers and others were not consulted in setting up the new system.

“There’s been such a long backlog of cases and delay that even starting the system now is 10 years too late. The duty lawyer service, government and Bar Association need to do a better job of providing details on where claimants can get advice so they know how difficult the battle is.”

A Security Bureau spokesman said  the Immigration Department had given claimants a letter referring them to a notice on its website for more details, and reminding them to seek advice from their duty lawyer or legal representative.

Additional reporting by Christy Choi 

Published in the South China Morning Post on May 21, 2014 


Book Review: Leftover Women, by Leta Hong Fincher


Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China
by Leta Hong Fincher
Zed Books
4 stars
Joanna Chiu

In China’s biggest cities, well-educated women in their 20s are turning down promotions at work or even quitting their jobs, fearing they might become too old or too successful to find a husband. Their insecurities are stoked by government campaigns accusing single women of being sexual degenerates with unrealistically high expectations of men.

Tsinghua University sociologist Leta Hong Fincher makes a convincing argument that a century after Chinese feminists helped spark a revolution that overthrew the Qing empire, women’s rights have experienced a dramatic rollback.

While life wasn’t necessarily better in the early days of communism, there wasn’t a wide wealth gap between the sexes, and the state did not encourage early marriage. Now, intense pressure on professional women to either rush into marriage or stay in unhappy unions means that much of the mainland’s newfound wealth is controlled by husbands and rates of domestic violence are alarmingly high, according to data analysed in the book.

Former journalist Hong Fincher was largely responsible for introducing the Chinese term sheng nu, for unmarried, “leftover” women over the age of 27, to the world with a 2012 op-ed in The New York Times. In the article, she noted that the earliest mention of sheng nu on a government website came shortly after the government appointed the All-China Women’s Federation in 2007 to help “upgrade population quality” in response to “population pressures”.

Since then, state media has published scores of reports aimed at shaming “high-quality” women into marrying and having a child for the good of the nation. A 2011 Women’s Federation column stated: “Many highly educated ‘leftover women’ are very progressive in their thinking and enjoy going to nightclubs to search for a one-night stand … It is only when they have lost their youth and are kicked out by the man, that they decide to look for a life partner. Therefore, most ‘leftover women’ do not deserve our sympathy.”

Meanwhile, there is an overabundance of Chinese men struggling to find wives because of factors such as the one-child policy. But Hong Fincher notes that the millions of unmarried men tend to be uneducated and poor; their bachelor status is seen by the state as a threat to social stability. “Chinese men continue to enjoy a privileged position in society in spite of the sex ratio imbalance. It is easy to see the rationale for a campaign playing on the natural insecurities of single women instead,” she writes.

The book contains fascinating interviews with men and women mostly living in Beijing and Shanghai, where residential property is the most expensive. In Beijing a 25-year-old with a covetable government job gave her life savings to her boyfriend so he could buy an apartment – in his name alone – in preparation for marriage, saying she felt she had to “compensate” for her success by ceding ownership of their home. She now has little legal recourse should she get divorced.

Studies show that women without secure housing are more likely to stay in an abusive marriage. These factors lead to women being shut out of what Hong Fincher considers the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, valued at more than US$27 trillion in 2012.

Hong Fincher’s success in publicising her research over the past two years might have the unintended effect of dampening interest in her excellent book, with media outlets having already jumped on the absurdity of a 27-year-old being branded an old maid in China. But it would be unfortunate for this topic to be labelled passé. Leftover Women shows that marriage pressures have extremely damaging social and economic consequences.

It is a must-read for anyone interested in the modern condition of Chinese women.

Published in the South China Morning Post