Friday, June 23, 2017

Kapok: Half-full, I say!

Most things in life are about perspective. Even a supposedly clear-cut situation can be seen with very different eyes.
Back in 2008, then American Senator Barack Obama remarked in Philadelphia that he had been deemed by commentators as “either ‘too black’ or ‘not black enough’”.
In my home country, France, the recent absolute majority won in the legislature by Emmanuel Macron’s former political movement — after being elected President he had to resign from “On the Move!” — was construed as either “massive” (with 308 seats out of 577, it is one of the biggest since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, whereas the movement was created only in April 2016) or “disappointing” (given the abstention rate of 57.4 percent  the highest ever, and the somewhat under-performance when considering pre-ballot predictions).
Clearly, the glass can be seen as either half-full or half-empty, and this is usually determined by initial expectations and never-ending commentaries.
The same could be said of the just announced new leadership in Hong Kong.
On Wednesday, Carrie Lam, the soon-to-be sworn-in Chief executive, unravelled 21 members of her cabinet that will start working after July 1. Doubters regarding her promise to herald a “new style of governance” have stressed the elements of continuity: the top three principal officials will stay the same — that is Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen and Financial Secretary Paul Chan — and most of the positions will be filled by promoting under-secretaries, senior civil servants or deputy commissioners, while another three will remain in their positions — Lau Kong-wah as Home Affairs chief, Wong Kam-sing as environmental chief and Nicholas Yang as innovation chief. Critics are thus talking about musical chairs at best, and rumours are rife: did the Liaison Office veto some names or did some people plainly and simply refuse?
Yet, the very fact that one — only one, killjoys would say — of these senior officials has been drawn from the pan-democratic camp is truly ground-breaking, although it was somewhat to be expected. By recruiting Democratic Party co-founder and former lawmaker Law Chi-kwong as the new secretary for labour and welfare, Mrs Lam is indeed on the side of innovation; something that would never have crossed the mind of CY Leung. Would it have, it most probably would never have been accepted by the pan-Dems, as “689” (one of Mr Leung’s most amiable nicknames) had come to embody everything that was wrong in Hong Kong’s political past, present and future. Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive from 2005 to 2012, might have, and actually was advised to do so, but either lacked the courage or the proper credentials to follow suit; his long years of service in the British colonial administration led him to be more Catholic than the Pope!
Mrs Lam must find ways of mending the severely damaged relations between state and society in Hong Kong, and recruiting Mr Law is but a first step. The same could be said of the nomination on Thursday of Ronny Tong, a former pro-democracy lawmaker from the Civic Party and a co-founder of the Article 23 Concern Group, to the Executive Council, the consultative body that meets every Tuesday to “[assist] the Chief Executive in policy-making”. Pessimist observers will argue that Mr Tong has become too “moderate”, just like his think-tank “Path of Democracy”, but if not him, who else?
Now, could we ever imagine the same for Macao? Of course not, as this is a process in which pressure is coming from above AND below. Far from validating the common-sense aphorism that “high expectations lead to great disappointments,” Macao is actually creating a proverb of its own: “no expectations at all prompt absolute cynicism”! In the end, this can only be conducive to a rude awakening, unless of course legislative elections become meaningful…
Published in Macau Daily Times, June 23rd 2017

Friday, June 09, 2017

Kapok: The art of euphemism

Macao has a bit more to offer than an unlucky hand at a Baccarat table on the Cotai Strip. By unlucky, I mean that although about 2/3rds of Macao’s GDP is derived from gambling, this constitutes about 4/5ths of the government’s revenues thanks to an effective tax rate of 39 percent on gross gaming proceeds: players have to lose if Macao is to win. Thus, by a bit more, I imply something that has little to do with money. First euphemism.
Heritage is what comes to mind, and a simple glance at the UNESCO World Heritage entry for our SAR — listed since July 2005 — reminds us of Macau’s unique character: “With its historic street, residential, religious and public Portuguese and Chinese buildings, the historic centre of Macao provides a unique testimony to the meeting of aesthetic, cultural, architectural and technological influences from East and West. […] It bears witness to one of the earliest and longest- lasting encounters between China and the West, based on the vibrancy of international trade.”
Yet, extensive descriptions of these “places of memory” fail to indicate that “vibrancy” comes in many guises: most of the buildings were somehow built thanks to riches derived from opium trafficking and the horrendous coolie trade, and of course from gambling activities. Lou Kau, the nineteenth-century merchant whose mansion remains part of the heritage centre, made his fortune selling opium and operating gambling dens. If the traditional Fantan game was the main deal, Lou Kau also operated the vaeseng lottery, largely based on the results of the Qing Imperial Civil Service Examinations. Opium consumption and gambling were seen by Chinese reformers and nationalists as the two vices putting China to its knees, and gambling was ultimately banned in Guangdong, pushing Lou Kau to commit suicide in 1906 because of the debts he had incurred across the border. Second euphemism.
Let’s face it, these heritage landmarks, a crucial element in the government’s supposed diversification efforts, could be better managed. This is what Sharif Shams Imon, who oversees the Heritage Management Programme at the Institute for Tourism Studies, hints at in the very interesting interview with Business Daily this week. For him, if the government has failed to provide a Protection and Management Plan, despite UNESCO’s many requests, it is simply because “the government has to go through certain procedures and it has its own political environment.” The UNESCO admonition, ever since the first concerns with the Guia lighthouse just one year after the listing in 2005, is a warning and could ultimately lead to a simple de-listing. So, the government is not doing what it should and certainly not hiring people who could help do what it should — another remark of Prof. Imon. Unfortunate delay? Third euphemism.
And then, Prof. Imon praises the role of civil society: “civic society, and intellectuals and professionals, should act like a check and balance body. So if there is a thing that the government could do in a better way, they raise their voice and talk about it.” This is all great, and exactly what the New Macau Association (NMA) — they must feel lonely! Fourth euphemism — did in December 2016 by going to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to argue that the “visual integrity” of the Guia Hill and Monte Fortress was being threatened by the height of construction projects authorised in Calçada do Gaio, an integral part of the buffer zones defined around the World Heritage sites. This is what ultimately led the Macao government to send in March 2017 “a report on the state of conservation” that had been requested by the UNESCO early in 2015!
Commenting on the report, UNESCO is showing signs of impatience: on top of recommending Heritage Impact Assessments be carried out for all new major construction projects, it is asking for its own pre-emptive review of the Master Plan for New Reclamation currently being drafted.
Published in Macau Daily Times, June 9, 2017.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Kapok: Suicide in Macao

Émile Durkheim was the first academic to dedicate a whole book to suicide. In his seminal work, the French sociologist was able to distinguish between egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic forms of suicide, along a double axis of social integration and moral regulation. The book was published in 1897, and although it has been criticised, especially for its exclusive reliance on aggregated statistics, it still constitutes a reference and has helped design public policies to address what represents a crucial indicator of the soundness of an entire society. The plight of a few can lead to the destruction of the whole.
No wonder that the hanging suicide of a 16-year-old girl on May 2 triggered wide coverage in the Macao press and later made Secretary for Social Affairs Alexis Tam express his genuine grief, instructing the relevant administrations to fully investigate the case and provide counselling to those in need. His overall message to youth, despite the clumsiness of the wording “not to act silly”, was to exhort young people to “cherish life”. Having acted both swiftly and comprehensively, to Mr Tam’s credit Macao’s suicide rate has dropped significantly in the past few years, standing at 8.2 per 100,000 individuals in 2015 if only residents are included and at 9.6 if the whole population is taken into account. The world average was 10.7 the same year according to the WHO.
Back in 2008, I had the privilege of inviting to Macao Paul Yip Siu Fai, the director of the Hong Kong Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention who had just edited a book on Suicide in Asia. At the time, Prof. Yip had emphasised that Macao’s suicide rate for 2007 stood at 16 per 100,000 (a figure I was never able to reconstruct), higher than the world average of 15 and clearly higher than Hong Kong’s 13. He emphasised that one of the shortcomings was the lack of detailed statistics and in-depth research about the situation in our SAR. Nevertheless, something must have been done right regarding awareness, portraying suicide in the media, reducing access to lethal methods of self-harm, identifying potential cases, educating the young, addressing the problems of the survivors and putting in place suicide prevention programs.
Yet, providing statistics, the very first task towards adequate surveillance and monitoring, remains problematic.
Firstly, statistics about suicide in Macao are only released once a year on "World Suicide Prevention Day" on September 10 and somewhat overexposed on World Mental Health Day on October 10. Not only can it be deemed prejudicial — is suicide solely a mental illness? — it is also clearly not enough, with insufficient detail — age, sex, education, etc., are important elements – and not accessible to the wider public.
Then, turning to the statistics from the Health Bureau — available since 1996 — one notes many discrepancies: there are no statistics for suicide before 2001 and the method of counting drastically changed in 2007 and led to a (downward!) revision of the total numbers for 2004 and 2005. From 2007, the gender breakdown is no longer provided (men used to be the majority) and the rate per 100,000 disappeared from 2007 to 2013, resurfacing only in 2014. But even then, a rate of 7.8 for 2015 is given, whereas the Health Bureau made its communication on September 10, 2016 [corrected], based on 8.2: which one is right? What about the peaks of 2004 and 2011: any explanations?
According to Paul Pun, the head of Caritas, some 305 and 222 suicide-related phone calls were made to Caritas’ Life Line in 2015 and 2016, including respectively 4 and 8 when the act was about to happen. Women are the most at risk (respectively 179 and 136 cases). Now the Blue Whale Game is also menacing Macao and a collective suicide attempt was indeed prevented just last month…
Please Mr Tam, provide us with more and better statistics. 

Published in Macau Daily Times, May 26, 2017.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Kapok: The warning behind the praise

In the morning of May 9, while addressing a large audience supposedly representative of the Macao population, Chairman of the National People’s Congress Zhang Dejiang insisted on a task the government of the Macao SAR had to carry out: “Contradictions within the society never cease to exist; among poor people contradictions exist; among rich people contradictions exist; among majorities contradictions exist; among minorities contradictions exist; contradictions are to be found everywhere, regardless of time and place; what is crucial is how we correctly identify, get hold of and properly handle the issues, the difficulties and the contradictions.” In a sentence of only a few lines, “contradictions” — it has to be plural as there are many of them — appeared seven times!
For anybody slightly familiar with the history of Communism in China, the use of the word (maodun, 矛盾) rings a particular bell.
First, because it is markedly associated with Mao Zedong himself, who expanded on an original text from 1937 (“On Contradictions”) to develop his thinking in one of his most famous speeches entitled “On the correct handling of contradictions among the people,” delivered in February 1957. Given the comparisons that now exist between Mao and Xi Jinping, and that Zhang’s southern tour is perceived as a preparation for the one President Xi will embark on at the end of June, it is no overstretch to consider that Mr Zhang was actually uttering Mr Xi’s words.
Second, because in the 1957 harangue, Mao famously explained that “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend [was] the policy for promoting progress in the arts and sciences and a flourishing socialist culture.” It was a confirmation that criticisms were welcome, thus echoing the call for intellectual renaissance and freedom expressed by Guo Moruo, the intellectual from whom Mao had taken inspiration.
Third, because by drawing a line between what was termed “antagonistic contradictions” and “non-antagonistic contradictions”, Mao was indeed enriching the Leninist approach to class struggle, indicating that some contradictions — the ones that exist “within” — were acceptable, and even welcome as unavoidable, as long as they did not transform into contradictions “between” the people and what Mao called “the enemy”. As a first example of enemies, Mao mentioned “Japanese imperialists, their Chinese collaborators and the pro-Japanese elements”, which is rather ironic considering how some families in Macao started to build their fortune during World War II.
Of course, when it comes to the Hundred Flowers Campaign, one has to be extra careful: when Mao realised there were more than a few people expressing their discontent with the direction the Party was taking and that he was himself being targeted, contesters were rapidly hushed and soon persecuted. The tactic thus backfired, and the ones who suffered the most were those who had believed, reluctantly at first, the openness to be genuine. Yet, if Mao’s former physician Li Zhisui is to be trusted, it is only because the criticism became massive that the campaign turned tragically sour. Ultimately lingers the idea that some “contradictions” — political, economic and social — can become unacceptably unsettling if they are not handled properly.
Bearing in mind the context has changed, I cannot help thinking that the very fact only six “representatives” were able to openly express their opinions after Zhang Dejiang’s address serves as confirmation that behind the overall praise might lie a warning: if the contradictions were to become more antagonistic in nature, wouldn’t the Macao Chinese Chamber of Commerce (Kou Hoi In), the Federation of Trade Unions (Lei Cheng I), the Kaifong (Leong Heng Kao), the Women’s General Association (Wong Kit Cheng), the rising Fujian faction (Si Ka Lon) or Chui’s hench(wo)men (Eva Lou) be held responsible?
Let’s hope that these self-proclaimed “representatives” will not interpret the message as an invitation to tighten the screws: after all, the recent by-census indicates that about a quarter of Macao holds a tertiary degree… No more is ignorance bliss!
Published in Macau Daily Times, May 12, 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

Kapok: The pitfalls of populism

It does not happen very often but Mr Fong Chi Keong has a point when he warns the government of the dangers of “populism” in Macao, adding, in plenary session of the Legislative Assembly, that the issue of how the government deals with public opinion and democracy has to be resolved properly.
Topping his concerns is the situation in Europe and what he calls “the paradox of democracy”. From his own reckoning, this so-called paradox was coined by analysts, an admission that in itself is worth stressing as Mr Fong has repeatedly characterised experts and scholars as “useless”. For him the contradiction lies in the overpowering capacity of the people to influence policy-making whereas very few citizens actually master the complexity and the ins and outs of institutional politics and economic development, and simply speaking, lack the ability to form an informed opinion. The consequence being on the one hand that people’s participation is seen as both “excessive” and “blind” (his words), and on the other that citizens can easily be manipulated.
Mr Fong then highlights the two main aptitudes that a government must display if populism is to be warded off. The first is for a government to face its responsibilities. Failing to do so, in his mind, will put the people at a loss, fuel social hostility and ultimately help populism blossom.
Mr Fong’s main target appears to be the excessive recourse to “public consultations”, in which he sees a distortion of the political system, an indication of the weakness of the government’s capacity to change things and a clear lack of self-confidence. And then, if the government does eventually uphold its responsibilities, it needs to act as a mediator — a second necessary skill — in order to mitigate the adverse effects of ongoing developments. Here, the main example given by legislator Fong is the conciliation role the government needs to play in labour disputes, at a time when labour movements have grown in autonomy and thus more demanding.
This is all very well, and being French and having just participated in the first round of France’s presidential election that many have dubbed a “triumph of populism”, I can concur: when “populism” wins, public policies rooted in reason and social stability are put at risk. But then this is one of the characteristics of democracy: sovereignty resides in the people, and even though it might look messy, it also means that people can rebel without resorting to revolution by using the legal channels of election, even if it means breaking away from the European Union or putting in the White House a whimsical twitting-maniac as the most powerful leader of the planet. Is it challenging? Hell yeah! Are democratic institutions crumbling? Well, Brexit is being engineered by Theresa May along the idea of a “deep and special relationship” with the European Union and Mr Trump has experienced a few setbacks regarding the scrapping of the Obamacare, enforcing illegal travel bans or even letting go the North American Free Trade Agreement.
What does Mr Fong actually mean by populism in a place where the Chief Executive runs unopposed and only 41% of the legislators are returned via universal (competitive) suffrage? What does he mean by the government not “assuming responsibility”? By his own token, given that Mr Fong was one of the most vocal opponents of the domestic violence law (ultimately passed) and the staunchest supporter of the 2014 perks’ bill for senior officials (ultimately withdrawn following the most important street demonstrations since 1989), what would “taking his responsibility” mean? My guess is a bit of courage and for him to resign.
The root cause of populism is not democracy: it is the perpetuation of illegitimate and plutocratic community leaders who have proven time again their incapacity to make the right choices for the common good. In a democracy or even in a result-driven autocracy benefiting the majority, the paradox can somehow be resolved more or less peacefully…
Published in Macau Daily Times, April 28, 2017