Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Syrian Dilemma - Why the West Should Avoid a New War

In 2008 Barack Obama, the first black candidate for the presidency of the United States, held a speech in the German capital, Berlin, in front of thousands of people. In those days Obama was a superstar. With the power of his words and the message of hope that he spread throughout America and the world, he conquered the hearts of millions of people who believed that he would bring change and, most importantly, that he would be different, completely different from his predecessor. Many believed that Obama would inaugurate an era of peace, economic prosperity, and international co-operation.

I felt privileged for having the chance to take part in that historic event. I remember how, in the late afternoon of July 24, I and a friend of mine joined the crowds of people who flooded the 17th of June Street in the centre of the German capital. That street was named after the uprising of 17 June, 1953, during which East German workers took to the streets to protest against the economic policy of the Communist regime. The revolt was brutally suppressed by the East German government with the help of Soviet tanks.

The street leads to another symbol of German history, the 'Victory Column', which was constructed after German unification in 1871 to remember the glorious victory of the German troops against France. It was in front of this monumental column that Barack Obama held his inspirational speech. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the atmosphere was great, and it seemed that the US was ready to become again worthy of its role as the country of liberty and prosperity.

So many years after that speech, there is no denying that Obama has disappointed many of his former supporters, including me. He has not radically changed American economic policy and has not delivered the recovery everyone had hoped for. The United States of today is still a country where the wealth gap is too wide, where industry struggles to compete with the rest of the world, where not enough jobs are created, and where hard work does not equate high wages. 

But at least - many people thought - under Obama the US has not plunged into another disastrous war. Yet now even this very last hope risks to be frustrated. 

Friday, 30 August 2013

Where to Stay in Macau - Apartment in Coloane

A few months ago I went with two friends to Macau. As I explained in my earlier post, Macau has much more to offer than just casinos, and I recommend to anyone who stays in Hong Kong for a while to pay a visit to the former Portuguese colony.

In my previous post I forgot to mention where I and my friends stayed, so I'd like to share this information now because it might prove useful to travellers.

Instead of booking a room in a hostel or hotel, we decided to rent an apartment for one night. This is not the cheapest option, but for one or two nights it's certainly affordable. Moreover, we could see how an average apartment looks like and also live there as if we were local people. We used a website called, where you can find flats or rooms to let.

The apartment was located in Coloane, in the southern part of Macau. On the map (see below) Coloane looks pretty far away from the most interesting parts of Macau, but remember that Macau is small. In fact, we always walked from Coloane to Taipa.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Hierarchy, Conflicts and Communication in Chinese Culture

In the West two opposed images of China co-exist. On the one hand, there is the country of Communism, corruption, government repression, and authoritarianism. On the other hand, there is the country of harmony, group-thinking, compromise.

These two images of the same country are almost irreconcilable. How can we believe in a harmonious, peaceful, altruistic society when we not only know of the turmoils and cruelties of the past, but also hear of the exploitation and hardships of the present?

This double image of China is the result of a misinterpretation. In many respects, this Chinese dichotomy echoes another one, an older one. When Japan stunned the world by industrialising within a few decades, Western perceptions of Japan were, too, dominated by apparent paradoxes. As Ruth Benedict pointed out in her masterpiece, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Japan seemed to have two souls that contradicted each other. 

In the eyes of many Westerners prior to World War II, Japan was a riddle. There was the Japan of the samurais, with their culture of honour, loyalty and violence, the Japan of feudal wars, of militarism and imperialism. But on the other side, Japan stood out for her refinement and sophistication, expressed in her arts, manners, ceremonies, and highly developed social structure. Which one was the true Japan? The gentle, cultivated, well-mannered, or the aggressive, cold-blooded, brutal one?

Friday, 23 August 2013

Singapore and the Myth of Free Market Economics

Singapore is a success story. As Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said - with an obvious and well-justified sense of pride - in his monumental autobiography, Singapore moved from being a third world country in the 1960s, to being one of the richest countries on earth by the end of the 1990s.

Singapore's skyline. Photo courtesy of Erwin Soo

Singapore is a city-state. In the middle of the 1990s, it was half the size of Hong Kong, with a population of 3.04 million (Kwong / Chau et al. 2001, p. 1). A former British colony, Singapore's political situation after WWII was tumultuous. The city sought independence from the British Empire, which was granted in 1958. Singapore's leaders, however, did not want to found a separate state, but to become part of neighbouring Malaysia (see map below).

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

How Free Are Media in Hong Kong? About The "Silent Majority" and Media Partiality

How free are media in Hong Kong? This is a question I couldn't help asking myself these days. In a previous post I wrote about Alpais Lam Wai-Sze, a primary school teacher who swore at police officers because they allegedly did not prevent a Communist association from harassing members of Falun Gong, a religious group that is illegal in mainland China.

The media response to this event in Hong Kong was very critical. Not critical of the police, but of the teacher and of Falun Gong. I would go as far as to say that the teacher has been the victim of a slander campaign.

How deep Hong Kong media's self-censorship is, has become clear to me by reading the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The SCMP, which was once considered one of the best English language newspapers in Asia, constantly features pro-establishment, pro-Beijing, and anti-democracy articles. One example of this I could see yesterday, on Monday 19.  

On page A2 appeared the usual column by Alex Lo. I have talked a few times about him, because his pro-establishment stance is very conspicuous and can't go unnoticed if you have a minimum of critical spirit. For instance, during the Hutchison Whampoa strike a few months ago, he clearly sided with the establishment and the business elite by arguing that Hong Kong is by nature apolitical and business-oriented. So, if you talk about politics or disturb business, Alex Lo might say you are not a 'true Hong Konger'. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Chinese Singer Wu Hongfei and the Risks of Blogging

How would you react if you received a visit from the police only because you posted a joke on your blog? I bet you wouldn't be very happy. Most especially if you lived in a country where you might be sentenced to five years in prison. 

Well, this is exactly what was going to happen to Wu Hongfei (吴虹飞, pinyin: Wú Hóngfēi), the vocalist and leader of the Chinese rock band Happy Avenue (幸福大街; pinyin: Xìngfú Dàjiē). Last month she was arrested because of a post that appeared on her Sina Weibo micro-blog. 

Although Wu deleted the post soon afterwards, it had already circulated and it prompted the authorities to arrest her. She didn't imagine that her post would cause her to be detained for a total of eleven days and face criminal charges for "posing a threat to public order and safety". 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Hong Kong and the Anti-Democratic Rhetoric

This month, a video of Hong Kong primary school teacher Alpais Lam Wai-Sze sparked great controversy. During a demonstration on July 14 she was filmed swearing at a police officer. At first it seemed she was protesting against the police cordon and her lack of access, but it later became clear that the reason why she lost her temper was different. Other videos uploaded on YouTube clarify the context of her reaction.

According to the Epoch Times, on July 14 Falun Gong practitioners were harassed by members of the Hong Kong Youth Care Association, a group associated with a Chinese Communist Party agency. The Falun Gong is a religious organisation that is illegal in mainland China, but tolerated in Hong Kong (note).

The teacher scolded police officers in harsh terms for not protecting the Falun Gong practitioners against members of the Hong Kong Youth Care Association, which is known in Hong Kong for having staged anti-Falun Gong campaigns in the past. According to the Epoch Times, "the Youth Care Association shares an office building and staff in Shenzhen with the 610 Office, a Party agency that oversees the persecution of Falun Gong in China, according to a Next Magazine report. The association’s leader is a Communist Party official from Jiangxi Province in mainland China."

Addressing the police officers and pointing her index finger at them, Lam heavily criticised the Communist Party, which she accused of organ trafficking and other crimes, and said the police were protecting "Communist bandits." At that moment, police officers threatened and shouted at her.

The episode was depicted by pro-Beijing media as an act of verbal violence against the police. A video posted on the pro-Beijing media outlet Sunday Oriental doctored the scene so as to misrepresent Lam's behaviour and the policemen's reaction. In fact, the paper suggested that Lam was the aggressor, and it praised the police for handling the situation calmly. On the other hand, media such as the Apple Daily and NextMedia, owned by Jimmy Lai, known for his anti-Beijing and liberal views, criticised the police and defended Lam.

It is obvious from the video that Lam is biased against the CCP. And I personally don't agree with what she said about organ trafficking, nor do I like the offensive tone of her speech. However, I do understand the frustration of a city where a part of the population is crushed under the weight of the CCP central government and Hong Kong's establishment (mostly pro-Beijing).

Here is the video:

Monday, 12 August 2013

Guangzhou Third City in China to Introduce 74-Hour Visa Free Entry

As the Guangzhou Morning Post reported on August 2, Guangzhou is the third Chinese city to have introduced a special 74-hour visa exempt transit for foreign passport holders. A service desk for visa exempt entries into the country have been set up at Baiyun International Airport. Visa free entry permits began to be issued on August 1.

This special regulation allows transit passengers to stay in China's Guangdong Province for 74 hours. The visa free entry is only granted to travellers who take an international transfer via Guangzhou. For example, if you fly from Taipei to Frankfurt via Guangzhou, and you have to wait several hours at the airport, you can go to the special desk, fill in the arrival card, show your valid ticket to a third country and your passport, and you will get a visa exempt stay permit for up to three days. Instead of idling around at the airport, you can take advantage of this opportunity to visit Guangzhou and Guangdong Province.

Passport holders from 45 countries are eligible for a visa exempt transit. The countries are: 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Paramita - Vegetarian Food in Hong Kong

One of the greatest things about living in East Asia is the rich and delicious vegetarian cuisine. I am not a vegetarian or vegan, but I love to eat vegetarian food and if there were more restaurants that offer this kind of food I think I would avoid eating meat altogether.

Two days ago I went with a couple of friends to Paramita, a vegetarian restaurant in Times Square, in Hong Kong's thronging shopping area of Causeway Bay. Let me share with you some pictures I took that day.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

China's Maritime Power, Territorial Claims, and the Neoliberal Trap (Part II) - Philippines-China Relations

China and the South China Sea 

From the point of view of power relations, China and the West are clearly in an asymmetric position, and China can indeed with some justification portray herself as the wronged side, as the victim. However, the fact that China is not the benign and rightful state it simplistically claims to be, is demonstrated by her territorial disputes in the South China Sea. If you look at the map below, you will see the extent of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The maritime territory that the PRC regards as its own is so close to other nations' borders as to endanger their maritime security as well as the livelihood of the people who live by their coasts.

In particular, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands are at the centre of a territorial dispute among several parties in the region. The Paracel Islands (called Xīshā Islands, 西沙群岛, in Chinese) are claimed by the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan), and Vietnam. The Spratly Islands are claimed by the PRC, the ROC, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei (Emmers 2010, p. 65).

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Hong Kong Central Library, Tin Hau Temple and Surroundings on a Hot August Day

It doesn't matter in which form they present themselves - rainy, sunny, typhoon-battered - Hong Kong summer days are a challenge for everyone who likes to take long walks. Today is one of those splendid afternoons in which the glistening sun floods the city with its glowing light and occasional specks of clouds hang in the blue sky. Despite the scorching heat I decided to take a walk around Hong Kong Central library. The temperature stood at 34 degrees Celsius, but the real feel was 39!

How to Get to Hong Kong Central Library

Hong Kong Central Library is located on 66 Causeway Road, Causeway Bay. However, Tin Hau MTR Station is slightly closer to the library than Causeway Bay Station. It takes only about five to ten minutes from Tin Hau to the library. I started my walk from Tin Hau MTR Station.

Night Walk in Hong Kong

Last evening I felt like taking a short walk, but then I ended up walking for almost three hours. The weather in the summer is always hot and humid, however yesterday it was relatively less hot and humid, and there was no rain. I started my walk from Tin Hau and went to Statue Square, between Admiralty and Central. I took a few pictures of the skyline at night. I think I'll never get enough of the amazing Hong Kong skyline, which is one of the most impressive in the world. 

Sunday, 4 August 2013

China's Maritime Power, Territorial Claims, and the Neoliberal Trap (Part I)

On August 2, the Chinese newspaper Global Times published an article advocating the need for China to become a maritime power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has championed efforts to build China into a maritime power at a study session with members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee on Tuesday. Becoming a maritime power is a step that China must take. Its strategic significance will be displayed through this process.

According to the newspaper, which is owned by the People's Daily and is close to the government, China's desire to implement an expansion of its maritime military capabilities is the result of the assertive stance of foreign powers.

Only in recent years has China become aware of the importance of being a maritime power. Many Chinese still have to deepen their understanding of the meaning of this. As China develops, it is possible that China will become a maritime power [...]. 

[T]hese last two years have told us that trouble will seek us out no matter how low-profile China tries to be. Beijing's firm reaction surrounding the Huangyan and Diaoyu disputes has pushed the other parties backward. It remains to be seen whether it can be a new model for dealing with maritime disputes in the future. [...]

Japan is regarded by the author of the article as the main threat to China, and the PRC needs to pursue a policy of deterrence through military strength:

China's maritime competitiveness needs to overwhelm Japan's. By then, Tokyo will be nowhere near as provocative as it is today.
On the same day the South China Morning Post, an independent Hong Kong newspaper, reported on the same issue, avoiding the simplistic and aggressive tone of the Global Times, but reiterating China's quest for maritime power. According to the paper, Zhuang Guotu (莊國土), director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, stated that maritime security is becoming a major diplomatic issue. As the China's maritime reach expands, conflicts with neighbouring countries intensify. 

China can't afford to have its claims to waters off its borders challenged further, Zhuang said, warning that this could trigger a "setback" in the nation's maritime expansion plans.

Is China a Threat or a Victim?

The problem for the present and the future of the world is that China is both a victim and a threat. She has been a victim of foreign aggression and exploitation, and she is the victim of constant smear campaigns in Western media. But at the same time she is an aggressive power whose foreign policy is driven by nationalist ideology and territorial claims. The inherent contradiction of China's relations with the outside world is shown by an article published on August 2 on China Daily, an official government newspaper. The author, Beijing-based scholar Zheng Xiwen, argued that the West has completely misunderstood the concept of the "Chinese Dream" put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Westerners might find it hard to understand the Chinese people's extreme cherishing of national greatness, but China used to be one of the leading powers in the world. 1840 marked the beginning of more than a century of humiliation for the country and suffering for the people. It was not until 1949 that China regained full national independence [...]. 
With millenniums of history, the Chinese nation has made lasting contributions to human civilization, but its falling behind the West in the past centuries has cast a shadow over its national pride. The nation's renaissance is clearly defined, as the goal of the whole nation as the people hope that their traditions and culture can gain global influence as before and the country can become a leading member of the family of nations once again.

It is interesting that the author's claim that the West does not understand China is followed by arguments that actually reconfirm Western fears. In fact, Mr Zheng

1) portrays China as a victim of foreign aggression and as a great nation that had lost her due place in the world. This Chinese self-perception creates the image of a rightful and peaceful China that is surrounded by evil and aggressive powers. It therefore aims at giving China moral superiority. The Chinese government and nationalist intellectuals use the rhetoric of victimisation as an instrument to legitimise government policies and territorial claims. The image of a humiliated China appeals to the emotions, the frustration, the pride, and the anger of many Chinese.

2) employs an extremely simplistic concept of 'the people'. Nationalist ideology is based on the naive idea that the myriads of individuals that form a nation have (or should have) one single will. This rhetoric disguises the fact that national political and cultural agendas are set by certain groups of individuals and lobbies, who subsequently denounce anyone who does not agree with their agenda as 'unpatriotic', or 'treacherous'. In Zheng's view, 'the people' is not the sum of complex individuals with their own ideas, opinions, and wills, but a mass of indistinguishable puppets driven by one sole will - which is the will of the government and of lobbies accepted by the government.

3) reaffirms the idea that China is rising and is striving to become a global power.

The power of this rhetoric lies in the fact that some of its assumptions are indeed true. It cannot be denied that today's world order is unjust. It is a world order based on American and Western supremacy, a heritage of Western economic domination, colonialism and the Cold War. We are now confronted with a similar dilemma that plagued the British Empire before World War I. When Germany grew economically, German elites demanded equal status with Britain, and in order to achieve this goal they wanted an empire and a fleet. The British firmly opposed this claim. They did not understand the contradictions inherent in the world order they had created. If one country has colonies, why should other countries not have them, too?

At the end of the World War II, the United States became the hegemonic power in the capitalist world. It moulded international institutions according to its own will, and its military stretched over all continents. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, American elites fantasised about global American supremacy and the superiority of the American economic and political system. This hierarchical world order in which the United States are at the top of the pyramid contradicts the very democratic principles of the United States. How do you explain to the Chinese that they have to accept this balance of power, that they have to accept American supremacy?

The Chinese side consequently mistrusts the United States and its true intentions. Chinese leaders and analysts suspect that the US is trying to Westernise and split China. Many Chinese resent American involvement in Taiwan, which China regards as a Chinese province, American military engagement in East and Southeast Asia, from Japan to South Korea, from Singapore to the Philippines, and American interference in domestic affairs such as the status of Tibet and human rights. Moreover, American analysts often warn of China as a menace. For instance, the USCC (United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission), a bipartisan commission set up by the US Congress, annually issues reports that portray China as a military and economic threat to American interests (see: Tang / Li / Acharya 2009, pp. 22-23).

As Professor Li Mingjian explained: 

A popular argument by many Chinese analysts is that the United States has been pursuing a two-pronged strategy in the post-Cold War era. On the one hand, Washington is keen to develop commercial ties with China in order to benefit from China's economic growth and seek cooperation with China on major international traditional and nontraditional security issues. On the other hand, Washington has evidently pursued a hidden or partial containment policy, or, according to more moderate observers, a dual strategy of engagement and containment, to curb China's influence (ibid., p. 24).

The ambivalence of the US attitude towards China can be clearly seen in the Taiwan issue. In July 1971 then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited the People's Republic of China and met Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. The result of that visit was the Shanghai Communique, in which the US government agreed that there is only one China (see Davison 2003, Chapter 6). At that time, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) both claimed to be the sole legitimate government of China, and both agreed that Taiwan was a province of China. 

In 1971, the US still recognised the ROC as the legitimate government of China, but in 1979 the Carter administration shifted diplomatic recognition to the PRC, beginning from January 1st of the same year (see Su Chi 2009, pp. 2-3, Dillon 2010, p. 359).

Despite having broken off official diplomatic relations with the ROC, however, the United States maintained de facto diplomatic and economic relations with it via consulate and institutes, and it continued to supply Taiwan with arms, guaranteeing the island's security against a possible Chinese invasion. This equivocal geopolitical game has always appeared suspicious to PRC's politicians and public opinion at large. In fact, it seems that the US has always been very reluctant to treat the PRC as a friend.

However, the faults of Western diplomacy and media coverage of China should not lead us to the conclusion that the PRC is by its very nature a righteous and non-aggressive country.