Monday, June 22, 2009

The best of the worst

There is plenty of competition for the title of "World's Worst Regime". Twenty years ago the Tiananmen Massacre would have seen China in with a strong chance.

Today the Kim Family Empire of North Korea is clearly a leading contender, spending the country's limited resources on developing nuclear weapons while the people go hungry. Robert Mugabe's achievement in turning one of the most prosperous countries in Africa into one of the poorest and most repressive through his greed, arrogance and incompetence also makes him a strong competitor. Saudi Arabia's treatment of women puts it on the list, as does Israel's six decades of trampling on the Palestinians, while Iran is mounting a spirited challenge following the (probably rigged) re-election of Ahmadinejad.

But for sheer out-and-out hypocrisy it would be very hard to beat the unpleasant bunch of aging generals who rule Burma. The BBC reports that they have just jailed two people for 18 months for "insulting religion" after they publicly prayed at a temple for the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This from the regime that showed its deep respect for religion in 2007 by murdering hundreds of Buddhist monks for protesting peacefully!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Be sure to insert your earplugs before listening to the people

A few days ago the government held a "consultation session" with the people of Mui Wo on Lantau Island, supposedly to hear their views on the proposal to allocate a vacant school building in Mui Wo for use by a special school for the rehabilitation of teenagers with drug problems. As it turned out, local sentiment was overwhelmingly against the proposal.

In the few days since then, a series of senior government oficials have made speeches pleading with the islanders to be more understanding of the need for the school, and to accept the proposal. This proces culminated in the Chief Executive himself reiterating this appeal.

Seceral interesting points emerge from this series of events. Firstly, it is obvious that the government has already made up its mind to push the proposal through, and is unwilling to listen seroiously to any opposing viewpoint. In that case, why hold a sham "public consultation" if they had no intention of listening to counter-arguments by the Mui Wo residents in the first place?

Secondly, as I understand it from media reports, the main objection by most islanders is not to the proposal as such, but that they feel (quite reasonably) that any vacant school on the island should be allocated to their own children, who now have to make the long ferry journey to Hong Kong every day to attend classes. The government has apparently given them no answer on this point.

While no reasonable person would deny that teenagers with drug problems need help, the government's rush to move them to this school does not appear to be part of any coherent long term educational planning process. Rather, I suspect it is a panic reaction to several well-piblicised recent cases of young people being found under the influence of drugs in public places, together with pres stories of drug use in leading local chools. The governmen wants to be seen doing something positive quickly about this situation, however ill thought out their response may be.

When are we going to get a government that actually listens to the public, and places long term planning above short term PR exercises?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why Iranians are exactly the same as Americans

Despite all the political tensions between the USA and Iran, at heart Americans and Iranians are exactly the same.

Proof: the Iranians have just done in 2009 exactly what the Americans did in 2004 - re-elected a failed incompetent ill-informed loudmouth of a president just because he said the right things to appeal to religious conservatives.

P.S. (17 June) That is, if he actually did win the election - clearly a large proportion of the Iranian people don't think so. But then, objections to Bush's election were swept under the carpet as well.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ten Things Vancouver Does Better than "Asia's World City"

If you're wondering why I haven't posted much recently, it's because I was in Vancouver for two weeks in late April/early May (probably about my 10th visit in 20 years), where I was too relaxed to blog, and I've mostly been too busy to blog since getting back.

Visiting other places does put one's own home into clearer perspective, and much as I love Hong Kong, it has to be admitted that there are many things it could do better to earn its self-proclaimed "world city" status. For example:
  1. Welcoming visitors: Canada's customs inspections are notoriously intrusive, but at least BC has successfully handled a few cases of swine flu without feeling the need to imprison several hundred tourists for a week because they just might have been in contact with someone who just might have contracted a disease that just might be dangerous.
  2. Brewing: the Vancouver area has a clutch of excellent microbreweries and brewpubs (Steamworks in Gastown being one of my favourites - good food, too) producing beers of great character and flavour. Beers from the longest established of these, Granville Island Brewing, have even surfaced on the shelves of City Super in Hong Kong. By comparison, Hong Kong has one microbrewery, which long ago ceased to brew its sole world class beer, Crooked Island, and today keeps a dangerously low profile.
  3. Selling booze: for whatever historical reason, liquor is not sold for home consumption in supermarkets and groceries in BC. Instead, there are some private beer and wine stores, but the major outlet for booze is the provincial government's liquor stores. If you know Sweden's drab government liquor outlets, deliberately designed to be depressing in a vain attempt to make drinking unattractive, you may groan at the thought. But BC's liquor stores are very different (though they do promote responsible drinking) - spacious, brightly illuminated, well laid-out, cheerful emporia filled with every type of booze you can imagine from all over the world, from Laphroaig single malt to my favourite Belgian Trappist ale, Orval. Generous shelf space is given to local wines and microbrews, and you may find tastings being offered. Nowhere in Hong Kong comes anywhere near the variety of choice offered in BC - and so far as I know, Orval is only available here with meals at the Grand Place Belgian restaurant in IFC.
  4. Shopping malls: how many Hong Kong shopping malls have comfortable seats where you can just sit and relax? Free parking? Fun carts to push the kids around in? Even a little train taking them for rides around the mall? (Answer: one, none, none and none, to my knowledge.) The shopping mall is of course part of North American culture, and Vancouver has some excellent ones - the biggest, Metrotown, is so large it even houses two branches of some stores. But it's not just the physical facilities - why are there so many things it's easy to buy in Canada and impossible to find in Hong Kong?
  5. Nudity - despite some lovely sunny days which saw hardy Canadians shed their winter fleece in favour of T-shirts and hotpants, it was a little too cool during this trip to visit Wreck Beach (picture). But on fine summer weekends, Vancouver's scenic official clothing-optional beach, 6.5 km long, is enjoyed by thousands of people from all of Vancouver's numerous communities in varying states of undress. Number of clothing-optional beaches in Hong Kong: nil (though there are a few isolated spots where you can strip off if you're so inclined).
  6. Cultural diversity: for all its world city pretensions, Hong Kong sometimes seems at heart a conservative provincial Chinese city with a thin overlay of internationalism. Vancouver, by comparison, wears its multiculturalism comfortably. More than half the population is now from a non-English-speaking background (not just Asians), but they rub along peacefully together. Compare the road in Richmond that has a Baptist church, Chinese temple, Tibetan temple and mosque all sitting companionably side by side with the long frustrating attempt by Hong Kong's Muslims to find a site for a new mosque in the New Territories.
  7. Cycling: even in the heart of the city, Vancouver has many cycle lanes and actively encourages cycling as a pollution-free form of transport. While Hong Kong has some good cycle paths in the New Territories, cyclists are far from welcome in the urban areas. This could be because Vancouver's cyclsists generally wear safety helmets and follow the rules of the road, whereas most cyclists here do not appear to be aware that there are any rules, even less that they should follow them.
  8. Recycling: Every home in Vancouver separates its household waste into several categories for recycling, with the result that only a very small proportion ends up in landfills. Cans and bottles go back to the liquor store. If Hong Kong was as serious about recycling, the government wouldn't need to steal sections of our country parks for new landfills.
  9. Conservation: heritage buildings in Vancouver are routinely cherished and restored, while Hong Kong's government has to be pushed really hard to save anything worthwhile from the past - look at the King Yin Lei fiasco.
  10. Greek restaurants: there are probably several dozen of these in Vancouver. For some reason, no Greek restaurant in Hong Kong seems to survive longer than a year, and to my knowledge, there is not even one at present.
  11. Major sporting events: One more for luck - I'll see your 2009 East Asian Games and raise you my 2010 Winter Olympics.
A recent Economist survey declared Vancouver the world's most livable city. Hong Kong ranked 39th out of 127 cities included, the second highest in Asia after Osaka. Harare (Zimbabwe) came last.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

I Should Be There

Every year I promise myself that I will attend the June 4th candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, and there's always some reason why I don't make it. But I do want to mark the occasion here - if only to tell Donald Tsang firmly and clearly that no, you do not speak for all Hong Kong people in trying to sweep the massacre under the carpet. You certainly don't speak for me.