Monday, February 6, 2023

Review: Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong

This book is part history, part memoir

There are several books about the 2019 protests and Louisa Lim's Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong combines numerous threads that are subtly woven through the chapters and then magically come together into a striking record. 

One thread is Lim's family history and childhood in Hong Kong, another is her interest in a crazy artist nicknamed the King of Kowloon who painted childlike graffiti all over the city, and the last thread about Hong Kong's history and how the once barren rock transformed into an international metropolis thanks to British policies and the sheer hard labour of the Chinese, mostly refugees.

Throughout its entire history, Hong Kong's people were never given a say of their fate. In the negotiations leading up to the signing of the 1984 Joint Declaration by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, there was another group tangentially involved -- the Unofficials.

Author and journalist Louisa Lim
They were a small group of local elites who tried to advise the British to not trust the Chinese, but they were completely sidestepped and felt betrayed. 

The proof is in a series of confidential interviews these Unofficials gave to Hong Kong political scientist Steve Tsang in the 1980s and 1990s with the promise they would be kept secret until 30 years later, which is now.

Lim read every single page and distills how the Unofficials felt at the time, betrayed by the British despite their loyalty, and trying to keep a brave face in front of the public as all their negotiations were to be top secret -- not even their wives or friends were to know what was discussed.

And it is interesting to note how these Unofficials' fears of what would happen to Hong Kong have come true, how the vagueness of the Basic Law would lead to Beijing interpreting it, and not give Hongkongers the rights they were promised, which have led us to where we are today.

Another fascinating read is when she recalls the time she was a reporter at TVB during the 1997 handover. The TV station had planned programming to the minute for up until the handover ceremonies were held, but then were completely lost the following days afterwards as to what they should focus on, much like the city trying to feel its way with the Basic Law as its new constitution.

She also interviews the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, now decades later on looking back on what happened to the city. His response was far from the polished politician he usually is.

Tsang with his numerous graffiti writings
The book then moves fast forward to 2014 and the Umbrella Movement, how it was such an extraordinary protest at the time for the city, but also marked the beginning of the authorities using lawfare -- weaponising the law against defendants like Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Joshua Wong Chi-fung.

Lim notes how the movement, which paralysed the city for 79 days, ended so abruptly that protesters found it difficult to process and figure out what to do next.

That came five years later in the 2019 extradition protests that exploded into months of protests on the streets. Lim shuttled back and forth between Melbourne and Hong Kong to cover the protests periodically. Not only was she trying to cover them as a journalist, Lim was trying to process it all as a Hongkonger -- what was happening to her city?

It's something many of us were grappling with as we watched the street battles, the violent clashes, the blank-faced government officials and the determined protesters day after day. 

Meanwhile Lim also weaves into the book her obsession with Tsang Tsou-choi, a poorly-educated man who believed Kowloon belonged to his ancestors and thus him, and began protesting by painting crude Chinese calligraphy on government property. In a way it was also his way of marking his territory.

She recalls how he was written off as a madman and then suddenly became a superstar, his work even exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and auctioned off by Sotheby's the following year. 

The early extradition protests in June 2019
To Lim in a quirky way he represented Hongkongers fighting for their rights, and how he is an important part of the city's art development and culture.

Sadly she notes how Beijing has a strong hand over Hong Kong in the last few years, observing how the government labelled the protesters as "rioters", thus changing the narrative, and brutal police tactics seemed to have repeated how protests in Chengdu were shut down in 1989.

And she mourns how press freedom ended the day Jimmy Lai Chee-ying was arrested, followed by the swift demise of his paper, Apple Daily.

"A million copies were printed for this city of 7.5 million. They sold out. The next day the newspaper's entire archive vanished from the internet. As Beijing imposed its narrative control by force, it was simply too dangerous for other versions of the past to exist," she writes.

Indelible City is an incredible book, deftly weaving these threads together to create a page turner for anyone who is interested in Hong Kong and its history. 

Many times I found myself nodding my head in agreement or thrilled to read someone else had come to a similar observation or conclusion as me. I was not the only one.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Balloon-gate Ends with a Bang

The moment the balloon was shot down by an F-22 fighter jet

The deed was done -- an F-22 fighter jet shot down the giant Chinese so-called weather balloon as it was hovering over the Atlantic Ocean, six miles off the coast of South Carolina.

Thus came the end of the balloon saga, following US President Joe Biden's order.

"I told them to shoot it down," he said on his way to Camp David. "They said to me, let's wait until the safest place to do it."

Biden gave a statement after the ballon was shot
And so it was shot down at 2.39pm EST, and the Pentagon said the Navy and Coast Guard would recover as much of the debris for further examination.

Meanwhile the Chinese expressed its "strong discontent and protest" about the downing of the balloon, repeating its explanation that it was a civilian aircraft that had inadvertently strayed into North American air space.

"In these circumstances, for the United States to insist on using armed force is clearly an excessive reaction that seriously violates international convention," the Chinese foreign ministry statement said. 

"China will resolutely defend the legitimate rights and interests of the enterprise involved, and retains the right to respond further."

The US told the Chinese the possibility of them shooting down the balloon -- it was floating over the US for seven days, thus giving the Chinese several opportunities to own up to the incident, but apparently its reason was not convincing enough.

The debris is being recovered for examination
Some experts say the balloon may have been literally a trial balloon to see how the US would react, and others say perhaps Beijing is testing its latest surveillance capabilities.

In any event, there is now a second balloon flying over South America... 

What is hard to understand is why this balloon mission was given the green light at this time, further ratcheting up tensions between China and the US. Is Xi Jinping looking for a fight on the last day of the Lunar New Year?

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Blinken Cancels China Trip over Balloon

The errant Chinese balloon was spotted over Montana

All the talk in the last 48 hours has been about a gigantic white balloon the size of three buses that was spotted over Billings, Montana.

The Pentagon sent up F-22 fighters to check it out and later identified it as a Chinese spy balloon which raised even more eyebrows.

But that large floating blob caused US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to cancel his highly anticipated trip to Beijing on the weekend.


Because the Chinese authorities claimed the civilian weather balloon used for meteorological readings blew off course and mistakenly entered US territory. For the record is also crossed British Columbia from north to south.

The US side didn't buy China's reasoning and Blinken immediately kyboshed his trip.

For the Chinese to claim the balloon is civilian is laughable as civilians would not be allowed to even launch weather balloons like this in China. Besides, US atmospheric sciences professors say it is preposterous the Chinese would not know the balloon would end up in North America.

The balloon was flying at 60,000 feet, the height at which many commercial airliners fly, which is how someone spotted it in the first place -- on a plane.

The incident caused China experts to research all they could about weather balloons and modes of espionage -- this is not the first time a giant balloon has been used for spying -- and a lot of questions as to why the balloon was not just shot down (it is too high up and there were concerns about debris scattering everywhere).

However there is the option of shooting it down later when it is above water, probably the Atlantic Ocean, where the balloon seems to be heading.

Blinken was supposed to fly to Beijing 
As China expert Bill Bishop points out, this should really be the time Blinken goes to China to have a dialogue about this incident, but China's explanation for the errant balloon did not make it conducive for him to go to Beijing for a friendly chat. 

On Friday Blinken called Wang Yi, China's top foreign affairs official to cancel the trip and said he would come "when conditions allow".

Wang's response included the line: "China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law," according to the Chinese foreign ministry's website.

Sino-US relations sour over a balloon... and that will be recorded in the history books.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Hong Kong Activists Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

Hong Kong activists have been nominated for the Nobel prize

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers have nominated several Hong Kong pro-democracy activists for the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

They include Cardinal Joseph Zen, Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, and Joshua Wong Chi-fung of the now defunct Demosisto.

New Jersey Republican representative Christopher Smith, and Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, nominated the group "because they are ardent champions of Hong Kong's autonomy, human rights and the rule of law", according to the statement by the lawmakers.

Smith and Rubio are part of the CECC
Smith and Merkley lead the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which advises the US Congress on policy towards China. Other members of the group include representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.

They also nominated journalist-turned-politician Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam, Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, a lawyer for a disbanded civil society group, and labour activist Lee Cheuk-yan.

"The nominees are representative of millions of Hongkongers who peacefully opposed the steady erosion of the city's democratic freedoms by the Hong Kong government and the government of the People's Republic of China," said the statement.

"Through the nomination, the members of Congress seek to honour all those in Hong Kong whose bravery and determination in the face of repression has inspired the world."

All the nominees have been charged under the national security law that was imposed on Hong Kong in July 2020.

Wong and Zen are two of the Nobel nominees
This is not the first time Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize -- Rubio and other CECC lawmakers nominated the entire opposition movement in 2021 in response to the national security law.

If anything this announcement brings attention to the plight of these nominees, almost all of them still in jail for around two years with no chance of bail, except for Zen. The 91-year-old was recently allowed to attend former Pope Benedict's funeral in the Vatican; after Zen returned he was in hospital for a few days because of breathing difficulties.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Hong Kong's Splashy Welcome

Were TVB dancers recruited to kick off the presentation?

Hong Kong's back, baby!

That's what the Hong Kong government wants the world to know.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has just launched a HK$2 billion (US$255.2 million) campaign called "Hello Hong Kong" where 500,000 free airline tickets will be given away along with free welcome drinks at select bars and restaurants across the city. One would assume champagne and cocktails, not Hong Kong-style milk tea at a cha chaan teng...

Lee all smiles in launching HK$2B campaign
At the kick-off event held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Dane Cheng Ting-yat, head of the Tourism Board, also boasted some 250 events will be held in the city, including Clockenflap, Rugby Sevens, and Art Basel.

The Tourism Board will also give away 1 million vouchers for welcome drinks, discounts on attractions as well as food and drinks and transportation. Do they mean Uber or the Star Ferry?

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po also talked about Hong Kong entering a new development phase.

"We are actively returning to normalcy. Nothing can stop us from bouncing back... We eagerly welcome friends from around the world to come, see and experience for themselves the vibrancy and dynamics of our city."

He also says the government will provide accurate information about Hong Kong to the world as people overseas might have misunderstandings about the city.

"We will try our best to explain," Chan says, adding he wants visitors to come and "feel Hong Kong's loveable sides".

Where's the women in this stage?
Since when was the city cuddly?

More importantly how can the government erase the stark 2019 images of police with batons hitting protesters holding up umbrellas, and officers shooting rounds of teargas? With over 300,000 people leaving Hong Kong for the United Kingdom alone in the last two years, surely it's a sign they cannot live in their own hometown anymore, while some 1,300 political prisoners are still languishing in jail.

But this is the Chinese way of doing things -- moving on and pretending it never happened, wallpapering over the problem in the hopes no one remembers.

Will this flashy campaign actually work? It depends on who the government wants to target. There are those who have missed coming to Hong Kong for three years, while others have yet to discover the place.

Those who have recently visited tell me it feels different from before, but can't quite put their finger on it. They know the city has been hit hard by Covid-19, but don't really know or understand how the national security law has dismantled the city as they knew it before.

But hey -- no need to worry about that now, Hong Kong's back, baby!

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Grandpa Chan Faces Hefty $510K Legal Bill

Chan hugs a protester, worried about his safety in 2019

The Hong Kong Department of Justice has no qualms about weaponising the law in prosecuting as many people as possible related to the 2019 protests, and even before that in the Umbrella Movement in 2014.

One senior tried to use the law to hold the Hong Kong Police Force to account by legally challenging it over displaying identification during the 2019 protests.

Chan Ki-kau is known as Grandpa Chan, and he and his group, "Protect Our Kids" made up of other middle-aged and elderly people, tried to stand between the protesters and the police for several months in 2019. 

"Raptors" did not wear identifiable ID numbers
He would wear a cylindrical hat around his head that he fashioned himself out of paper, googles, and a plastic raincoat as he and others tried to convince the police not to physically harm the young people on the streets.

Sometimes members of the group would get tear-gassed and pepper sprayed, and young protesters would help them, including Chan get medical attention. "Protect Our Kids" and Chan also got a lot of attention, showing that even seniors were out on the streets.

One observation during the protests was that the police Special Tactical Contingent (STC) also known as "raptors" did not wear their individual identification badges -- only vague code numbers. That made it impossible for residents to file complaints about specific officers -- and Chan felt this was illegal.

In June 2019 he filed the initial challenge and alleged that it was "unlawful and/or unconstitutional" for the police STC not to display their unique identification numbers during operations on June 12, 2019.

Chan's legal challenge was dismissed
However, in November 2020, Judge Anderson Chow dismissed Chan's application, citing evidence that STC had never been required to display individual identification.

Chan was later ordered to pay the Department of Justice's court fees by January 17 this year.

The DoJ initially asked for HK$510,000 in legal fees, though Master Dick Ho at the High Court decided Chan should pay HK$2,000 less.

Does Chan even have that money to pay such hefty fees? Did the DoJ really spend over half a million dollars in preparing for this case?

Even if people tried to crowdfund to raise money to help Chan pay the fees, it might be considered an illegal act.

That was demonstrated in February last year when an expat wanted to help domestic helpers pay Covid-19 fines for gathering. The fines were HK$5,000, more than the monthly salary of these helpers, but the then secretary for labour and welfare Law Chi-kwong said helping to pay these fines could be considered as "abetting a crime".

Many seniors tried to mediate with the police
There is no word on how Chan will pay this massive legal bill, but the heavy-handedness of the punishment seems overboard to the extreme. The case wasn't even tried in court...

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Chief Executive Dismisses Call for Independent Covid-19 Inquiry

Lee says the government is constantly reviewing its policies

"Nothing to see here" is what Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu says in response to the proposal of holding an independent inquiry into the Hong Kong government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At a press conference he dismissed the call made a week ago, saying there is no textbook solution on how to deal with the health crisis.

"The epidemic situation has been changing rapidly, and local governments respond in real time according to the situation. There is no recognised best or standard solution," he said.

Yuen called for independent inquiry last week
"I agree that we must sum up experience to ensure that we can effectively respond to different threats, and that is what the government has been continuously doing -- to sum up experience and optimised measures to ensure we have the ability to respond."

Infectious diseases expert Yuen Kwok-yung floated the idea several days ago and only now has the government responded, perhaps waiting for Beijing to craft what to say?

Yuen was hoping the inquiry would look into the government's deficiencies in areas such as virus-tracking, isolation and testing in the early stages of the pandemic, as well as review the large-scale outbreaks in elderly care homes.

It's a way of making the authorities accountable for how it managed the pandemic, but Lee shot this down, claiming the government is constantly reviewing its processes and improving them.

He said since taking office last July, he launched mechanisms to constantly review and improve the administration's pandemic policies, such as setting up a command group to lead government departments' response to the crisis. 

Lee also said he strengthened the public healthcare system and made decisions based on scientific evidence, among other measures.

Hong Kong focused on luring visitors to the city
And anyway, Hong Kong is moving on from the pandemic.

"We have been planning to reconnect with the international world, as well as fully reopen the border with the mainland. These are the results of the government's continuous review and continuous optimisation of policies," he added.

The two main goals are to focus on promoting Hong Kong to overseas and mainland visitors, while also planning for the return of full normality while constantly reviewing the city's capability in handling crises.

Basically, nothing to see here, move along.

Lee said he also assigned Deputy Financial Secretary Michael Wong Wai-lun to conduct a full review of the use of isolation and quarantine facilities, and to decide when the land could be released for new developments in phases, while reserving enough space for possible future crises.

Basically there will be no airing of dirty laundry in public -- it will all be done internally. You'll just have to trust that we are doing this in your best interests...

Yuen seems to be throwing out his last political salvo in an attempt to get the government to face up to its failings during the Covid-19 pandemic. Will he be thrown to the wolves or given the cold shoulder? Stay tuned!

Review: Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong

This book is part history, part memoir There are several books about the 2019 protests and Louisa Lim's Indelible City: Dispossession an...