Friday, May 18, 2018

Kapok: Paper tigers vs. paper planes

The Sulu Sou case has been an embarrassment ever since the youngest directly elected legislator had his mandate suspended last December 4. Twenty-eight legislators ridiculed themselves and showed to the community their lack of respect for the independence of their own institution and sheer contempt for the very idea of popular sovereignty.
Cowardice was then added to silliness when we came to realize that the secrecy of the ballot would remain inviolable. One can only suspect that Messrs. Coutinho, Ng, Au and Miss Lam were the ones not falling for this disgraceful self-serving “Yes Minister” standpoint. As often in Macao, suspicions and conjectures are what we are left with.
For a while, we believed that the farce would have to stop if the very notion of separation of powers was to survive. In January, bowing down to the pressure of an educated few, sponsors of the legislature’s resolution aiming at banning a judicial review of the legislative process leading to Mr Sou’s suspension had to back down and withdraw their suspicious attempt at preemptively hiding up their mess.
If people as professional as Vong Hin Fai and Kou Hoi In had been exposed for the utter incompetence of their hasty move, it was reasonable to imagine that due processes would be more strictly enforced in the future. The rescheduling of the trial to May 14 was a positive sign and followed a request coming from the defence, thus allowing both parties to lay down their arguments more thoroughly.
What we have seen on Monday and Tuesday this week during the trial, however, appears to indicate that some lessons were not learnt, leading the defense lawyers to denounce an attempt at turning the whole conundrum into a “political trial”: the crime of “aggravated disobedience,” for which Messrs. Sulu Sou and Scott Chiang stand accused of, entails a prison sentence of maximum two years… and without a hint of consideration for the proportionality of sentencing, this is what the prosecution is asking for!
While fooled Sin Fong residents or tricked small-time Pearl Horizon investors get a mere slap on the wrist and a few thousand patacas in fines for indeed seriously disturbing public order, young democrats would deserve a 2-year sentence, and for what exactly? Throwing paper planes in an empty garden and walking on the streets instead of the sidewalk for a few minutes in the idlest district of the peninsula?
As everybody has come to realize, the target is not two years, but rather a month or so: if sentenced for more than 30 days, Sulu Sou will lose his seat for the rest of the legislature.
To the dismay of the defence lawyers, the prosecution spared no effort — some of them barely legal — in trying to darken the whole picture: but by desperately trying to prove the “aggravation,” the prosecution somehow forgot that it had first to prove the “disobedience”!
On the side of tricks, charges that had been dismissed in pre-trial talks were shamelessly reintroduced in the discussion, without the defence being made aware and against all judicial procedural rules. Had the authorized route not been followed? Absolutely not, as the march actually did end under the Nam Vam Lake Nautical Centre white tent — not going up to the Legislative Assembly does not constitute a “disobedience”. I know: I was there and witnessed the talks with the police and the call from the organizers to disband! Thus, a mere 10 individuals went on their own to the Chief Executive official (empty) residence: never blocking the traffic, and never reaching Penha Hill Garden, as barriers had been actually set-up (in advance!) at the very entrance of the Estrada de Santa Sancha. For an order to be disobeyed, it has to be stated first, and a few minutes delay in reaction are not in themselves acts of disobedience.
The question is thus simple: will Messrs. Sou and Chiang be punished for actual crimes, or rather for portraying the Chief Executive as a pig on May 15, 2016? Or should we go back to May 2014?
Published in Macau Daily Times on May 18, 2017

Friday, May 04, 2018

Kapok: Toothless labor organizations

I was recently reminded that in the years leading to the handover, the Portuguese administration had expressed the wish, almost on an annual basis, to move forward with the long-delayed passing of a trade union law in Macao. However, at the time, with the constraints of the transfer of sovereignty becoming more pressing, all projects or proposals of law had to be submitted “informally” for prior approval to the Xinhua News Agency, the one institution that served as Beijing’s unofficial representation prior to the establishment of the Liaison Office in 2000.
Few people remember that the Xinhua News Agency had itself replaced the Nam Kwong in 1987, and the latter is still a force to reckon with in present-day Macao, both economically and politically, as it employs, for example, the likes of legislator Mak Soi Kun, who, in the past few weeks, has been making his high-pitched voice heard in favor of installing CCTV cameras all over the streets while recommending teaching “national security” in schools.
Xinhua’s refusal to “grant” a trade union law to Macao is easily understandable. For a start, the move was considered as useless: in the People’s Republic of China, the All China Federation of Trade Unions was (and still is) a mass organization directly supervised by the Chinese Communist Party, thus the mere idea of an “independent” relay in society representing the workers’ interests did not strike a chord. Moreover, the Macao Federation of Trade Unions (FAOM) already existed — “sponsored” by the Chinese communists at the end of the 1950s [actually early 1950s]— and it had faithfully served its purpose by ensuring stability for the good sake of the colonial administration and swiftly channelling the political guidance of Beijing. Finally, the initiative looked rather suspicious: after all, the colonizers had had ample time to pass such a piece of legislation, why the sudden rush? Why now and not then?
Could things change for the better after 1999? Looking back at 1992, that was the year when Fernando Chui Sai On got elected for the first time at the Legislative Assembly on a ticket representing… the Macao Federation of Trade Unions! The charity arms of business interests in the territory take good care of the most deprived members of society, so much so actually that it prohibits them from being genuinely represented.
Thus, although the right to form and join a union is enshrined in Article 27 of the Macao Basic Law and constitutes a significant component of at least three international covenants and conventions of which Macao is a signatory, there is no way the benevolent entrepreneurs who run the show will ever introduce such a law on their own, without a strong enough push from the ones vying for it. Legislator José Pereira Coutinho knows it more than anyone else: he tried to introduce a trade union law on nine occasions and failed flatly every single time. And even when he got the support of the “yellow” FAOM — in this part of the world, we say “tofu union” — it was never enough to tilt the balance in the right direction.
Back in 2007, when we still had dozens of independent organizations taking to the streets and 5 or 6,000 demonstrators showing up on May 1, some saw the possibility for a very embryonic bona fide civil society to develop. That was the time when plainclothes policemen would shoot in the air to intimidate the crowd! The next year, the wealth-partaking scheme went into effect.
Fast forward to today: May 1 has become a total fraud! The FAOM organizes banquets with the government on the evening of April 30, and its main demand concerns a few extra bank holidays that fall on Sundays! The most vocal demonstrators defend their property rights, and trust more the Liaison Office than Mr Tam! Meanwhile, labour rights in Macao have remained the same since… the mid-1980s! Consumers of the world, Unite!
Published in Macau Daily Times on May 4, 2018

Friday, April 20, 2018

Kapok: Reconciling the irreconcilable

Maybe it was mere slip of the tongue. Maybe it was simply a manner of speaking. Or maybe it was truly what was meant. Yet, when the Chief Executive seemed to imply in his out of the cuff response to an unscheduled question addressed by legislator Ng Kuok Cheong that Macao had been “imposed” the mutual recognition of driving licenses between the mainland and the SAR in order to satisfy the grand plan of regional integration defined by the central authorities, it caused indeed more confusion than relief.
After all, legislator Ng was bringing up the matter because of a widespread public concern that this would indeed affect traffic very adversely, bearing in mind that this mutual recognition had been originally pitched by the government as a way to facilitate things for Macao citizens. Even though this is not antagonistic, it does suggest a logical discrepancy that has far-reaching consequences as to what presides over the design of a public policy: either you initiate or you obey, and then for whose benefit?
Beyond what it reveals once more of this Chief Executive — his clear inability to argue for what is supposed to be his own policies when he cannot mumble a written document — this mishap might prove to be useful in the end as it will allow to open a debate on the adequacy of such a  highly debatable scheme. The very same day, suspended legislator Sulu Sou was staging an event outside of the Assembly contesting the validity of the already proclaimed government dispatch regarding the mutual recognition, as both the haste of the proclamation and the lack of justification(s) for it seemed to clearly indicate that “a bigger power” — to use Sulu’s wording — was at play.
This is all the more saddening that the government, and Mr Chui in particular, are in the midst of trying to sell the latest fad for an ever-bright and prosperous Macao beyond gaming: the development of the Greater Bay area! It is no secret that the vision to integrate further the urban continuum between Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Huizhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen, Zhaoqing, Hong Kong and Macao was the centrepiece of the discussions for Macao’s representatives who attended the “two meetings” in Beijing in March. It was especially true for the twelve Macao representatives at the National People’s Congress, including four (Ho Iat Seng, Kou Hoi In, José Chui Sai Peng and Si Ka Lon) who are concurrently members of the Macao Legislative Assembly.
So, when I read that “many lawmakers expressed doubts regarding the influence and relevance of the Greater Bay Area plan”, I can perceive a sense of irony in the journalist’s report, especially as Kou Hoi In himself took the lead in rhetorically raising some questions. The Chief Executive’s exposé had been — to remain polite — dreary: “promote infrastructure connectivity”, “enhance the level of market integration”, “build a global technology and innovation hub”, “build a modern system of industries through coordinated development”, “build jointly a quality urban environment”, “cultivate greater strength in international cooperation”, and “support the establishment of major cooperation platforms”.
Over the past month, pro-establishment legislators have been all over the place in trying to illustrate, sometimes very creatively, what the Greater Bay Area could entail: such is the case of Si Ka Lon who is now suggesting the creation of a sea reserve for international tourism, or Zheng Anting (Jiangmen belongs to the network of eleven cities) who would like the scheme to facilitate the relocation of aging citizens on the mainland. In the Chinese press of Macao, it is no less than 1,155 articles that focused or dealt with the “Greater Bay Area” since mid-March: no wonder then that the Chief Executive appeared to be obsessed with an ever-increasing integration of Macao in the Pearl River Delta!
But how, when and for whose benefit? In the questions addressed to Mr Chui, there was absolutely no mention of Hengqin and its ongoing development. Yet, the island was the subject of 150 press articles in Chinese over the same past month: beyond the slogans, reality bites!
Published in Macau Daily Times on April 20, 2018

Friday, March 30, 2018

Kapok: Wynn-lose or win-win?

Think about it: the viral #MeToo campaign is only five months old, and yet, it is bringing down the rich and powerful the world over!
It started in the United-States — Los Angeles, to be precise — and targeted a single individual, a despicable male who had used and abused of his position of power to act as a predator vis-à-vis female employees, actresses and secretaries alike.
Apart from the offensive and illegal acts, what made producer Harvey Weinstein even more abominable were his typical blunt demeanor and gruff appearance — out of shape to say the least — that contrasted so much with the sheer beauty (and presumed power) of some of his most famous preys.
In French, the #MeToo hashtag was converted into #balancetonporc, which was translated in English with various degrees of literal rendering as “rat on your dirty old man” (BBC), “expose your pig” (The Guardian) or “squeal on your pig” (The Guardian and CNN). In the West, for those who have spent too much time contemplating the Chinese zodiac, a pig or swine does not equate with wealth but rather with muck (scum if you prefer) and the irrepressible disgust it triggers in the one confronted with it. Actually, a swine in English also means “a contemptible person”.
The “Me Too” expression goes back further in time, and is documented as having been coined by social activist Tarana Burke as a rallying campaign on the Myspace social network back in 2006. The original idea was to empower victims of sexual abuse in underprivileged neighborhoods by triggering a movement of empathy, sympathy and ultimately solidarity. “Me too” was a liberating cry to shake isolation and break free from domination. Victims were inspired to get together in order to tilt the balance of power — imaginary or effective — to their advantage and ultimately outplay their tormentors.
The #MeToo 2.0 has proven far more potent, and thanks to the virality of social networks (Twitter this time), the momentum to expose and bring to justice abusers — and not only display empathy for and with the victims — has proven unstoppable.
Closer to us, Steve Wynn, who, in late January this year, was still boasting with confidence about the probable renewal of his casino concession in Macao come 2022 is now forced into an early retirement, and possibly much more severe penalties. First he had to relinquish his executive position with the eponymous group he had founded, and then sell his entire stake in Wynn Resorts Ltd., including 5.3 million shares to his Macao competitor Galaxy Entertainment Group. Very soon the very name of Wynn will only be but a mirage!
Allegations of repeated sexual harassment on his part are now reaching a point where the whole group (the corporation) is being investigated for gross cover up, over decades, of the misdemeanor of its founder. Even a chequebook made thicker by the recent sale of all his shares might not allow Mr Wynn to reach consecutive out of court settlements with all the victims and the ones who are guilty by association.
Just like in the case of Mr Weinstein, Mr Wynn’s downfall is a clear indication that nobody is out of reach. But contrary to October, it is the conventional press — The Wall Street Journal — that brought to the fore the allegations against Mr Wynn, and thus social networks played a very limited role. Good old fact checking by a team of journalists in the United States unraveled the story, and beyond the predator turned scapegoat, it is a whole system that is being exposed. And yet, without the widespread concern and awareness created by the social network campaign starting last year, conventional journalists might not have dedicated so much energy in looking into the matter and their editor might not have deemed such a report front-page material.
We now know that in Hong Kong more than one in ten women working in shops, bars and restaurants admit to having been sexually harassed at work and that one in seven women in the general population acknowledges having experienced sexual violence.
In Macao, the Las Vegas of the East, ignorance is still a bliss!
Published in Macau Daily Times on March 30, 2018

Friday, March 16, 2018

Kapok: Everyone's responsibility

Instances of censorship are pretty straightforward and rather easy to comprehend. This is the realm of “black and white,” and for some, more normatively, “good and evil.” There was a time when censorship had actually a pretty neutral connotation, as the etymology is derived from the work carried out by Roman censors, whose job was to do head counts.
Today, the word itself is overly pejorative, as it has come to mean gross and heavy-handed state encroachment over freedom of speech and more generally freedom of opinion. It is commonly associated with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, within which there can be only one opinion, the dominant and abusive one uttered by the despot for the former and the absolute and compelling one of the enlightened leader and his party in the latter.
Let’s not venture into characterizing Beijing’s regime today: even though we are rightly entitled to worry about an ever-increasing concentration of power in President Xi’s hands — now for an indeterminate length of time — Chairman Xi is no Chairman Mao, whose historical record, as far as mass-murdering one’s own population is concerned, places him in the first row in a league of dictators that includes Hitler and Stalin.
Yet, we know that censorship is everywhere in China, and not only targeting separatist advocates but also broader liberal considerations — does Document No. 9 ring a bell? Even the recording of an expressive contemptuous eye-roll exhibited during a press conference held on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress can be wiped clean in a matter of hours from the Chinese internet and cost the offending journalist her job.
In Macao we are supposed to enjoy the benefit of a different system, and this up to 2049: this is true for the economy — although sometimes one really wonders about the actual meaning of non-commend economy in the SARs — and even more so for the political landscape. Without going into the details of the Macao Basic Law (58 articles out of 145 deal with the political structure proper to the SAR), let’s just remember that according to article 5, “the socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in the Macao Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”
Why then the Script Road, Macao’s main literary festival, had to cancel the coming of three participants, namely Jung Chang, James Church and Suki Kim? The former, we presume, because of the very critical biography she co-authored about Mao. And the latter two, because of their writing, fiction and non-fiction, about North Korea.
First, we were told, “the authorities” — no particulars given — had deemed the presence of the three authors “inopportune,” and thus had warned that they could be refused entry at the border by Macao’s immigration services. The co-director of the festival, who is to be lauded for unravelling the story also announced that he would be resigning from his position right after the end of the 2018 edition, a fine balance between being principled and displaying respect towards invited parties and organizing staff.
Then, the local relevant authorities — the secretary for culture and social affairs as well as the secretary for security — denied any implication. Ultimately, the main director of the festival admitted that the sagacious advice had come from the Liaison Office! Now we are talking about cancelling altogether the festival next year.
I was myself confronted to this kind of advice supposedly coming from the Liaison Office: in one instance, a rector refused to cave in, and in a second instance, another rector tried to force my hand to cancel the event. But then, the director of the Liaison Office lost his job over corruption charges two years later and the second rector is still awaiting a generous intake of mainland students.
I say it loud and clear: there are enough gatekeepers supposedly representing Macao and presently sitting in the two assemblies in Beijing, and the Liaison Office — which department there? — does not necessarily reflect Beijing’s actual stance. Regarding things of the mind, losing your dignity means that you lose everything.
Published in Macau Daily Times on March 16, 2018