Monday, March 27, 2017

Kapok: Choice matters

Despite all the loathing at the pre-screening of candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive election in Hong Kong, having a somewhat contested selection process, with a few candidates vying for the top job, does make a difference and bring healthy civic benefits. And this, even though Beijing’s “preferred candidate”, Carrie Lam, qualified with 580 nominations (only 21 short of the majority she will need on March 26), against a mere 180 for Woo Kwok-hing and 165 for John Tsang.
This not to say that the reform package proposed by the Hong Kong government in 2014-2015 and derived from Beijing’s August 31, 2014 ruling on the limit imposed as to whom could run is not a travesty of universal suffrage: it is, from every angle and by any criteria, and it does ridicule the core idea of free choice made by the whole body of citizens.
Moreover, it makes the 2007 Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress ruling on universal suffrage by 2017 for the CE election look like a mockery, even more so after the successful so-called civil referendum of June 2014, with a turnout of close to 800,000 voters, that resulted in 42 percent of the participants backing up the proposal allowing the public, a nominating committee, and political parties to endorse candidates for the top position.
Hence, the frustration, that translated first in the truly unexpected period of occupation of Hong Kong landmarks for almost three months — the “Umbrella Movement” — in late 2014 and then the electoral victories of self-determination-leaning young democrats in the legislative elections of September 2016 as well as the record win of 326 seats by pan-democrats for the Election Committee sub-sector elections of last December.
If the pressure put on Beijing and the establishment has changed in nature, it is still very much present and pervasive, and the very fact that C.Y. Leung was not allowed to stand for a second mandate suggests that the central authorities are well aware of the present state of mind of society — an honorary united-front title hardly compensates.
One could argue that Long Hair’s failed attempt at gathering 38,000 popular nominations (1 percent of the eligible voters, in line with the winning motion of the 2014 civil referendum) for an alternative “shadow election” indicates a serious drop in pressure. Even the unofficial referendum on the chief executive election that ended on March 20 resulted in only 63,076 people participating, and yet the final result was pretty telling: 96.1 percent opposed Lam, and Tsang prevailed. The former financial secretary had started to show his predominance in the polls as early as January, and in the most recent rolling poll administered by Hong Kong University, his overwhelming superiority had grown in strength over the whole month of March, whereas Lam had suffered an equally steady decline.
Quite ironically, the discrepancy between the popularity of one — John Tsang — and the certainty of the victory of the other — Carrie Lam — is in itself proving more stimulating than disheartening. First, because despite the election being decided by so-called “small circles”, the campaign has been all about showing that each and everyone was in tune with the people’s concerns — hence the campaign posters in the MTR and the TV debates. Second, because if this is also working in Beijing’s interest by suggesting that the acceptance of the 2015 electoral reform package could have yielded a more congruent ultimate outcome (with universal suffrage, Tsang would probably win), it is also putting in crude light the exhaustion of the present system, to the point where even though issues get debated, alternative proposals barely look more than cosmetically contentious. The triumph of style over substance.
The campaign was indeed less audacious than in 2007, as well as less farcical and gripping than in 2012, but by giving debate a chance, accountability will be easier to assert. No wonder then that democrats in Macao would have accepted a Beijing-sponsored version of universal suffrage: the one candidate-one seat formula in our SAR is not only grotesque but also totally obsolete!
Published in Macau Daily Times, March 24, 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

Kapok: Clubbing sessions

It’s once again this time of the year when the unique institutional design of the People’s Republic of China displays its highest degree of sophistication: March corresponds to the convening of the “two meetings” or “two sessions”, the gathering of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that started last Friday, a purely consultative body that has been likened to a gentlemen’s club, and the plenary session of the National People’s Congress, supposedly the highest organ of state power.
The CPPCC is the translation of what we call “united front work” in China, meaning in official speech a “multi-party [8 small parties] cooperation and political consultation led by the Communist Party of China”, that is to say the closest thing to a ritualized form of consultation process under the very strict guidance of THE Party in lieu of any democratic undertaking, with no actual power. In this cenacle of happy few — a bit more than 2,000 members — happenings are always possible though, as when Luo Fuhe, a vice-chairman of the CPPCC and the executive vice-chairman of the China Association for Promoting Democracy, breaks ranks and denounces openly the heavy hand of censorship over the internet as hampering scientific research and economic development in the country. He, of course, stops short of denouncing censorship for its adverse effects over freedom of speech, but then, can anyone imagine Edmund Ho or Tung Chee-hwa, both of them equally vice-chairmen, doing the same? After all, they represent the “second system”, in which — fear not — liberal ideas are tolerated and alive, despite the very limited and ever-shrinking grounding of democracy.
The NPC is in another league, with its slightly less than 3,000 members. On paper, it can amend the constitution, enact and amend laws, ratify and abrogate treaties. It also approves the state budget and plans for national economic and social development, and can elect as well as impeach top officials of the state (including the President) and judiciary, and supervise the work of the executive, the military and the judiciary. Zhang Dejiang, its chairman who will retire next year, ranks No. 3 of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Party. Yet, in reality, the NPC plenary session serves mainly as a nation-wide nod giving bonding ceremony that bestows 80%+ approval rates to decisions already taken by the Communist Party — hence the “rubber-stamp” characterization.
Both congresses are in their twelfth instalment, and mandates span over five years. Next year will see the swearing-in of supposedly renewed representatives.
Hong Kong and Macao do participate of course. Hong Kong sends 36 NPC deputies and 203 CPPCC delegates, and Macao respectively 12 and 29 — there are actually more CPPCC delegates from Macao, but they represent other functional constituencies.
If we turn our eyes exclusively to Macao, there is no doubt that our CPPCC delegates describe perfectly what a former member equated to “a sort of chamber of commerce” for the rich and powerful to mingle, to the point where actually some NPC deputies and almost all our CPPCC delegates are members of the Macao Chinese General Chamber of Commerce — a venerable institution that counts more than 150 (!) members in leadership positions! All but one in the CPPCC, as Ng Lap Seng has been under house arrest on corruption charges in the United States since September 2015.
For the NPC, the Macao deputies can be best described as long-term Beijing loyalists. In that respect, they resemble their ancestors of the fourth National Congress (1975-1978), in which the first deputies for Macao were “great patriots” representing business (Ho Yin, the father of Edmund Ho), the central authorities (O Cheng Peng), trade unions (Liang Pei) and education (Sin Wai Hang). Today is about the same — tradition is a Macao thing — except that we also have the President of the Legislative Assembly and a serving Secretary of Economy and Finance! No such thing in Hong Kong of course, but in Macao, conflicts of interest(sss), actual or perceived, are part and parcel of the system.
Published in Macau Daily Times on March 10, 2017

Friday, February 24, 2017

Kapok: Smoking gun

Is it me or are we being treated worse than headless chickens with tar-filled lungs? An opinion survey on to smoke or not to smoke in casinos conducted by the University of Macau and commissioned by the six casino licensees? An appended study on the law-compliant quality of the air surrounding “smoking lounges” performed by an offshoot of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University? To show what exactly? That “87% of employees working in gaming areas recognise the significant improvement of air quality in their work environment” and “60% of employees surveyed support solutions that allow smoking lounges”. And this is supposed to be convincing beyond reasonable doubt and pave the way for expensive and state-of-the-art ventilation systems? This is supposed to be the result of an “independent” enquiry when it bluntly contradicts the government-sponsored survey released in January 2015 that indicated that 74% of the population was in favour of a full ban?
A holy alliance
At the time, Secretary for Social Affairs, Alexis Tam did not mince his words: “The Macao government has made a decision and it’s unanimous: [we are calling for] the implementation of a full smoking ban in casinos. The government will not be harming citizens, casino employees and tourists’ health.” He made it clear that he would not bow to pressure because “even with ventilation systems, this could still trigger negative health effects.” One of the licensees with the oldest installations had failed repeatedly the health bureau tests regarding air-quality standards and another licensee had just been fined MOP100,000 for pushing a bit too far the cat and mouse game all of them had been playing with the new regulations.
Chan Chak Mo and Sio Chi Wai, the epitome of conflict of interests in the legislature 

The two studies are far more independent than the KPMG report of 2015, also commissioned by the gaming operators, that was part of a robust and systematic campaign to twist arms in favour of what had been conceived as the “only” viable solution: the smoking lounges. Even pro-business legislators of the Legislative Assembly Second Committee in charge of examining the amended law had been “shocked” to find the report of KPMG — a global accountancy firm with a longstanding relationship with the tobacco industry — on their desk before even starting their work! But soon, these legislators started to play the “delay” game that had bought them 16 months before the initial passing of the Tobacco Prevention and Control Law in 2011. Introduced in July 2015, the revised version paving the way for a full ban is still under discussion, and the initial resolve is now gone in smoke, despite the secretary and even the Chief Executive boasting to the contrary.
Did not Margaret Thatcher once say "The lady's not for turning"?
In 2007, a World Health Organisation report concluded that “ventilation and smoking areas, whether separately ventilated from non-smoking areas or not, do not reduce exposure to a safe level of risk and are not recommended” and in another brochure, the WHO described how “the tobacco industry and its allies [would] challenge the science on the health effects of second-hand tobacco smoke exposure and propose that designated smoking areas and ventilation are acceptable alternatives.” It then stressed that the same ones would “claim that smoke-free laws are a violation of so-called ‘smokers rights’, or are simply not necessary, not feasible, not enforceable and will have a negative impact on business (particularly restaurants, bars and casinos). These claims are unproven and should not be factored into policy-making decisions.”
A constant disgrace
It is thus rather ironic to have Mr Ambrose So, Chairman of SJM, introducing the results of these surveys on behalf of the six gaming operators, given that it was mainly his casinos that had failed the tests in 2013-2014 and that he had suggested SJM facilities should be exempted from the smoking ban altogether. And although this was not stressed in the press release he introduced, 60% of those sampled are still in favour of a total ban if it was to be implemented: facts are stubborn!
By the way, for those whose brain has been fried by cigar fumes: tobacco smoke produces 10 times more fine particulate matter than diesel exhaust! And I am not even counting the chemicals…
Published in Macau Daily Times, February 24th, 2017

Friday, February 10, 2017

Kapok: The facts, just the facts

With the advent of “alternative facts” and the dereliction of truth, the destructive and all-encompassing reign of opinion has come of age, with emotions as its soldiers. Very soon, albeit a tad late, one comes to realise that with passion comes suffering, as ancient Greeks knew all too well. One fully internalises the gravity of the situation when classical political philosophers start to be invoked, especially the ones who dedicated their lives to reveal the ugly and relentless workings of totalitarianism. All of a sudden, there is no more Godwin’s law to artificially overcome blunt reality.
Among these, Hannah Arendt holds a unique place, and if I had to choose one of her numerous rays of light to provide weight to my own words, I would go for this one taken from her “Origins of Totalitarianism”: “the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.” Without the facts, no well-informed opinion can be formed.
And it is not because our darkness is a little less dark, or our shadows synonymous with vacuous fuzziness that we should not turn our head towards them.
Such was my state of mind when I looked at the subsidies distributed by the Macao Foundation (MF) in the fourth quarter of 2016, but rather than focusing on the last three months, I aggregated the figures for the whole year. Despite being in decline—MOP1.536 billion against MOP1.845 in 2015—this is still a hefty bonanza.

The big winner is the Macau University of Science and Technology (MUST), as its endowment of MOP524.6 million constitutes a staggering one-third of the overall subsidies for 2016! The subsidy for MUST appears to be quite generous—regardless of the private hospital there is to run—when one considers that only 31 percent of the students enrolled in 2015/2016 are local. Moreover, MUST has been the greatest beneficiary of the MF for the past three years, and the 2016 sum is simply unprecedented.
In second, with MOP124 million, we find the Kiang Wu hospital; no surprise there, as the foundation running this private institution is jointly managed by the family of the Chief Executive, the head of MUST and a loyal legislator who made a name in justifying domestic violence.
In third, the City University of Macao, headed by another member of the Executive Council (EC), swiped MOP83 million, whereas the traditional associations (Federation of Trade Unions, the Women’s General Association, and the General Union of Neighbourhoods) are being kept on a stable leash between MOP46.8 and MOP36.8 million. At least 15 out of the 20 most generously funded organisations can be traced in one way or another to a legislator or member of the EC. The legislative elections campaign, limited to 15 days you said?
And yet, by my own calculation—2 percent of the gross gaming revenues per year—the MF has accumulated MOP48.7 billion since 2002. Considering only the last five years (since 2012), this amounted to MOP29.4 billion, whereas actual subsidising (excluding negligible operating costs) added up to just MOP6.2 billion, which is less than 22 percent of the Foundation’s earnings! Where is the money going, and if it is piled up out of prudence, isn’t that excessively cautious?

The ball should now be in the camp of the reporters to search for answers—let’s test the authenticity of the freedom of the press! As it was once remarked by Milan Kundera, the Czech writer who knows a thing or two about despotism, “the power of the journalist is not based on his right to ask but on his right to demand an answer.”
Published in Macau Daily Times on February 10, 2017

Friday, January 27, 2017

Kapok: The virtues of optimism

For reasons most probably linked to my carefree upbringing, I am resolutely optimistic about human nature, and the capacity for good rather than self-destruction. Given the present context, this has become a challenging position to hold: ineptocracy and populism prevail, and rational discourse has been submerged by emotive boasting. One of my secrets for this enduring optimism has been to keep my expectations low: being reasonably hopeful prevents roller-coaster effects, bearing in mind that what goes up will ultimately come down – and vice-versa.
When I read in some headlines this week that Mak Soi Kun, the legislator with the second-highest vote in 2013, was questioning the statistics provided by the Policy Research Office of the government in relation to population growth by 2020, it initially prompted a significant amount of exhilaration in my cortex: could it be that Mr Mak had read my column four weeks ago – the vanity of me! Could it be that the Study Report on the Population Policies of Macao is so obviously baloney that even a below-average – duty wise – legislator realises such and starts to question publicly the basis of such an important piece of decision-making material?
I had in mind that Mr Mak had fulfilled close to zero of the eight promises he made during his campaign, so, I went beyond the catchy titles, and confirmed that apples never fall far from the tree: instead of disputing the forecasted population figure of 710,000 by 2020 as too conservative, he was actually wondering why it was so high. Clearly, Mr Mak does not read Macau Daily Times, and obviously doesn’t get projections and reports from the Statistics and Census Office either, otherwise he would know that the DSEC has made a forecast of 752,000 by 2021 and that given the by-census latest results, the average growth rate of the past five years can reasonably lead us to believe that the population could reach 741,000 by 2020.
But then we will enter an electoral year, so Mr Mak was posturing as the true defender of the “real” Macao residents’ interests. The response of the head of the Policy Research Office was of similar nature: “this is actually just an indicative number,” he said, and of course only a limited happy few will be allowed to enter the gold-paved territory of our beloved SAR! No mention of the thousand hotel rooms opening in the next five years. No mention of the quadrupling of our territory because of the further integration with Hengqin.
Considering what Mr Mak stands for, this is worrying: he has Liaison Office endorsement; he works for the Nam Kwong, a company that openly states that it is “directly under the central government based in Macao”; and he, together with his second in command, Zheng Anting (a former junket operator), represent the Jiangmen communal associations – a very influential grassroots and pro-establishment network of associations of people originating from a neighbouring district (claiming up to 100,000 potential supporters), that benefits from lavish Macao Foundation funding. These are also the people who were directly involved in the Sin Fong Garden imbroglio. I don’t mind that Mr Zheng was not born in Macao, as he actually reflects the electorate: less than 39% of the 2017 electorate were born in Macao, whereas 54% were born in China. The question remains though: what interests are these people actually defending? And the same goes for Mr Chan Meng Kam (also not born in Macao), the so-called “king of the votes” who supposedly gives the communal interests of Fujian a voice in politics.
Contrary to some hasty news reports, there will be fewer people below 30 voting this year, compared to 2013: so indeed, the virtues of optimism will require due cultivation.
Published in Macau Daily Times on January 27th, 2017