Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong taxi drivers should ask themselves why people prefer Uber

South China Morning Post

Callan Anderson

I note that Hong Kong’s much maligned taxi drivers are up in arms over the encroachment of their business by such “horrors” as Uber, Grab Taxi or any other number of new technological advances.

These advances will help the paying public have a choice in whether they want to arrive at their destination with their stomach in their mouths, the contents of their shopping bags all over the floor, deafened by the radio, or leaving the taxi with the warm smell of stale cigarettes that attach to my clothes like a moth to a light bulb.

Despite taking a taxi three or four times a day, I find Uber to be a godsend as far as quality of service and politeness are concerned, and, to top it all, a journey that does not involve G-forces, speeding and drivers hovering over the accelerator and break at the same time.

I can even rate the driver, with remedial action follow-up if I gave a low rating. (Imagine the shock of rating our taxi drivers in Hong Kong on a five-star grading).

Instead of Hong Kong taxi drivers arranging a go-slow (which is certainly how I would prefer to be driven), they should be the first to fight threats to their business by asking why firms such as Uber are attracting such high levels of business when it is generally more expensive to use.

It is not for prestige, but because it is safer and you end up having a pleasant journey.

Uber and the other services are not the threat; especially as Uber allows users to call normal Hong Kong taxis. The threat is that Hong Kong is not adapting to the market demands that technology and new business offer.

Taxi drivers who have spent vast sums of money on a licence are allowing their industry to be sabotaged by poor service of a few of their fellow drivers.

We are an international city, and that requires us to adapt to global levels of service. Considering Hong Kong is doing all it can to attract business to the region, we need to be seen as a bit more entrepreneurial in our focus, not sucking air through our teeth in disapproval of progress. Without such progress, we would still have rickshaws and sedan chairs to get us out of the pub at 2am.

Callan Anderson, Quarry Bay


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Herd instincts of Hong Kong’s pro-establishment lawmakers point to woeful lack of talent in politics

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Gary Cheung

Gary Cheung says independence of thought appears to be sorely missing in the Beijing loyalist camp, and this includes the party’s new leader

Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, raised some eyebrows with her down-to-earth question at the chief executive’s question-and-answer session last Thursday.

Lee’s was the opening question at Leung’s first encounter with lawmakers since the rejection of the electoral reform package in Legco last month. She asked what action the government would take to tackle the hygiene black spots in the city. In response, Leung unveiled a plan for a citywide campaign to clean the streets.

Lee’s question fell short of the expectations of many people who believed that, as an executive councillor and leader of Hong Kong’s biggest party, she should have raised a bigger issue – such as how the government planned to improve relations with the pan-democrats in the post-reform era.

The accountant-turned-politician is still seen as lacking character and strong personal style, three months after taking the helm of the DAB. Unlike her predecessors Tam Yiu-chung and Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who led the party through some hard times, Lee has yet to show the charisma expected of her. Instead, the softly spoken lawmaker always chooses her words carefully and seldom departs from the expected line.

Tam still has a leading role in the pro-establishment camp even after stepping down as DAB chairman. Lee was nearly invisible in the botched walkout by 31 pro-establishment lawmakers from the legislature seconds before the historic vote on the government’s electoral reform package – except that she joined the bungled move.

Lee, who has been groomed for bigger things by veteran DAB leaders since she joined in 2004, is not the only pro-establishment lawmaker who lacks character. Ng Leung-sing, the lawmaker for the finance sector, told the media after the walkout that he simply “followed the footsteps of other colleagues first, without asking any questions”.

His reply was reminiscent of the famous quote by Lin Biao , once Mao Zedong’s anointed successor during the Cultural Revolution, that “we must implement Chairman Mao’s instructions even if we don’t understand them”.

At the core of such a mentality is the lack of independent thinking among many pro-establishment legislators. It was no accident that many followed others to leave the chamber apparently without knowing why (instigators of the walkout said it was intended to delay proceedings so rural kingpin Lau Wong-fat could arrive in time to vote).

Fourteen pro-establishment lawmakers, including Ng, were returned unopposed in various functional constituencies in the 2012 Legco election; they did not have to put themselves to the electoral test and win over constituents.

Unlike the pro-establishment politicians who have Beijing’s blessings and enormous resources, pan-democratic lawmakers have to struggle to stand on their own feet. Generally speaking, they are more knowledgeable about Legco operations and the rules of procedure. It is hard to imagine them making a similar mistake.

Shortly before the handover, Jasper Tsang told me that the lack of talent was a major obstacle facing the DAB. His words still apply today, and to the whole pro-establishment camp.

The bungled walkout sparked conspiracy theories, from Beijing ordering all pro-establishment lawmakers to be present in the Legco chamber at all costs to press the “yes” button, to the central government attempting to halt the meeting to buy time to win over some pan-democrats.

But as Napoleon reminded us, two centuries ago: “Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence.”

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor

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Invasion of the TV viewer snatchers

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Vivienne Chow

On-demand providers will go head to head with traditional broadcasters as the battle for Hongkongers’ home entertainment spending heats up

The majority of Hongkongers are not entitled to choose who runs their city, but to those who have been yearning for freedom and democracy 2016 is still a promising year — at least in the realm of home entertainment.

Residents will be spoiled for choice this year when it comes to viewing thanks to the emergence of heavyweight newcomers, whether free-to-air television or over-the-top (OTT) subscription-based content providers.

With a population of 7.8 million and a limited advertising pie, is the city’s television industry about to enter a Warring States period which will challenge the dominance of the established players?

The first shots were fired this year when Netflix launched and LeEco (formerly LeTV) unveiled its marquee acquisitions, and another shake-up will occur when free-to-air broadcaster ATV’s licence expires in April.

But while there has been a lot of buzz about the new developments, locally produced Cantonese content is not a highlight of the offerings and commentators a lack of this lack will put be a limitation to success.

Critic and TV scriptwriter Alex Pao Wai-chung said the new players did not present significant competition to established free-to-air broadcaster TVB.

“The new players might bring those who have already given up on TVB back to watching TV, but it is unlikely for them to drag TVB’s core audiences away,” he said. “They can’t compete with TVB.”

He said local content would be key, particularly for over-the-top platforms, to success in Hong Kong.

“They need to meet the taste of Hong Kong viewers,” he said.

These views were echoed by Anthony Fung, director of School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University.

“There will not be a Warring States period for Hong Kong’s television industry unless there are three to four free-to-air TV stations competing with each other,” he said.

The latest weekly TV ratings report showed that TVB’s main channel Jade totalled about 23 rating points during prime time, and nearly 1.5 million tuned in to the dominant Cantonese ­channel.

But compare this to 2005 when a top drama series drew an average of 2.2 million viewers per episode and Korean costume drama Jewel in Palace achieved a record average of 2.9 million viewers per episode.

With free TV reaching 99 per cent of Hong Kong households in analogue and close to 85 per cent receiving digital TV broadcasts, the viewers who switched off TVB present and opportunity as potential customers for the new players.

Changes in the free-to-air arena will see ViuTV, the new PCCW free-to-air channel, begin broadcasting in April after ATV’s licence expires.

Its general manager, Lofai Lo, said the station would target viewers aged between 20 and 50 with “factual entertainment” shows that aren’t available on TVB.

These include variety and reality shows such as a travelogue series starring popular and politically vocal youth magazine 100Most co-founder Lam Yat-hei and pro-Beijing lawmaker Ann Chiang Lai-wan.

Public broadcaster RTHK will also take over part of ATV’s spectrum in April. It will screen drama and documentaries and plans to increase its output of first-run digital TV programmes from 1,345 hours in 2015-16 to 1,550 hours in 2020-21.

Also entering the fray is i-Cable’s free TV operation Fantastic TV, although its launch date is unknown.

The other key battlefront is in the realm of OTT , or over-the-top audio-visual content delivered via the internet, with operators gambling on audiences’ viewing habits migrating from a linear model to an on-demand one that allows them to watch programmes any time, anywhere, and on any device they want.

As Netflix co-founder and chief executive Reed Hastings sees it: “We live in an on-demand world and there is no going back.”

Over-the-top content is only available to those with broadband internet access or mobile data subscriptions – and in Hong Kong that is a sizeable number.

Data from the Office of Communications Authority shows there are more than 14 million subscribers of mobile services running at 2.5G to 4G. Household broadband penetration rate has reached 83.4 per cent.

OTT operators in the Hong Kong market now include Netflix, mainland content and hardware company LeEco and PCCW’s Viu, which are offering a variety of global content.

TVB will also join the battle with the launch of a new over-the-top platform in April, and PCCW’s pay-TV service, Now TV, will also strengthen its OTT platforms.

American giant Fox also plans to shoot a number of mini-series targeting Hong Kong and regional markets starring home-grown faces at US$1 million per episode.

While Netflix offers mainly US drama series and movies, LeEco is attempting to dominate the sports entertainment market through the acquisition of Hong Kong exclusive rights to English Premier League and World Cup soccer matches.

Viu OTT carries Korean dramas alongside Japanese and mainland content, riding on the phenomenal success of Korean wave, or Hallyu.

TVB group chief executive officer Mark Lee Po-on said he did not think over-the-top broadcasters would make a big difference to the local market.

“In each city or territory, local culture plays a key role. It is still the mainstream,” he said.

Lee said local content generated by TVB, current and classic, will be a highlight in TVB’s new OTT platform, alongside content acquired from overseas.

Netflix is well aware of the issue. It is offering Hong Kong viewers the chance to sign up for as little as HK$63 per month with a one-month free trial, but a number of hit shows, such as House of Cards, will not be available here due to territorial rights issues. It doesn’t offer local content either.

Hastings said Netflix was now available to more than 70 million homes in 60 countries worldwide but many programmes were not available overseas due to licensing restrictions.

He said it was a legacy from the past seven to eight years and the network is working on the issue.

It is also attempting to block unauthorised viewing of its library for content that is not available locally.

Netflix will be spending US$5 billion on programming in 2016. Hastings added that the network is producing local content globally, including a sports comedy in Mexico, a crime drama in Italy and a dystopian film about bio-engineering in South Korea.

The experience of HKTV boss Ricky Wong Wai-kay is an example of how tough it can be to sustain an over-the-top offering without a free-to-air offering to back it up.

“It is disappointing that these players do not offer local productions,” he said.

HKTV was launched initially to bid for a free TV licence but its application was turned down in 2013.

Wong went on to secure a mobile TV licence while launching HKTV as an OTT platform to showcase its Hong Kong made drama series alongside its e-commerce business.

But HKTV’s TV operation has been suspended despite it producing a number of acclaimed series, such as The Menu and The Election, as it could not reach an agreement with the government on a transmission system, and as advertising revenue could not sustain its productions, which were costing HK$1 million per ­episode.

“I don’t feel that there is a TV war. I have more Western dramas on my hard drive [than what is offered by the OTT platforms]. With no local productions, they won’t make any difference to the local market,” Wong said.

Loke Kheng Tham, PCCW’s executive vice president of pay-TV, said 2016 appears to be an interesting year because of the new players.

Tham, who looks after Now TV, said she welcomed competition and the station is actively expanding its over-the-top services across all platforms and devices.

Now TV has nearly 1.3 million subscribers – the largest in the city.

It offers more than 180 channels including local news, variety and entertainment programmes.

Last Monday, it carried live the TV Most 1st Top Ten Ging Cook Gum Cook Awards Distribution, a show celebrating satirical covers of Canto-pop songs that poked fun of current affairs from politics to culture and education.

The event became a trending topic on social media, even earning Now TV a hashtag of #thankyounowtv.

“Live events is one of those things that bring people together,” Tham said.

But she stressed that viewers’ behaviour has changed and the station should target the next generation of audiences, and local content is not enough.

“TV used to be a shared device but now content is viewed on individual devices. There isn’t a singular taste. People want a bit of everything. People watch a lot more TV than we think. People like Hong Kong content but they also want US and Korean dramas,” Tham said.

Ultimately, it is consumers who will decide the winners and losers in this battle.

Reaction among netizens on Golden Forum, the city’s most popular discussion forum, showed there was excitement about the greater TV choices, with curiosity about ViuTV and disappointment over Netflix’s lacklustre offerings.

Some said they could find better and more diverse content such as Japanese and Korean elsewhere. Some said they’d rather watch YouTube.

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Hong Kong’s stark choice: gradual integration or slow decay

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Dan Steinbock

Dan Steinbock says the city’s social and economic challenges can only be addressed through more cooperation with the mainland

Hong Kong’s lingering turmoil suggests that its economic future is not assured. Recently, the People’s Daily accused Washington of colluding with Occupy Central protest organisers to try and foment a “colour revolution”. In the West, the charge has been downplayed.

Nevertheless, today, Hong Kong must cope with political, economic and external risks.

Chinese media has claimed Louisa Greve, vice-president of the National Endowment for Democracy, met Hong Kong protest leaders months ago. This has since been denied. But the organisation has long supported pro-democracy groups.

Some pro-democracy leaders have tried to “internationalise” the Hong Kong turmoil for months. In April, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the convener of Hong Kong 2020, and Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, met Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives. At the White House, they told Vice-President Joe Biden that Beijing has been “tightening its controls” over Hong Kong.

The two asked for “a clear assurance that members of Congress are watching developments in Hong Kong closely”. Afterwards, Senator Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Commission on China, warned that Hong Kong’s democracy was “under threat”. The commission has called on the US State Department to revive congressional briefings on human rights in Hong Kong.

In July, Chan and Lee had a similar agenda in Britain, addressing Parliament and meeting Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Similar claims surround other protest leaders, including law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s alleged links with the National Endowment for Democracy, reports of donations to Joshua Wong’s Scholarism group and media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying’s business dealings and payments to neoconservative leader Paul Wolfowitz.

Perhaps efforts at foreign interference are not entirely unfounded. Yet, Hong Kong may have to cope with darker clouds abroad. As a small and highly open economy, the city is heavily influenced by global developments, particularly China’s economic transition. Also, since the Fed is expected to hike policy rates by mid-2015, Hong Kong stands to benefit from tapering, as in the past, but only if the latter is associated with a recovery in US demand. And that is no longer assured.

The external risk is only part of the story. Hong Kong’s retail sales, particularly of luxury items, have been hit in the past six months and the civil unrest has dealt another blow to the economy. The city is critically dependent on China, its largest export and import partner. More than 75 per cent of foreign investment and visitors are from the mainland.

The downtrend in retail sales is likely to continue. Hong Kong firms have underperformed for months amid perceived threats in key sectors, including retail, tourism and property.

Since 2008, cheap mortgages, constrained supply, gross domestic product growth and demand from overseas have pushed up property prices by 135 per cent, which far exceeds the rise in rents or wages. Sharp falls are to be expected.

Hong Kong remains the main offshore renminbi centre, but it will thrive only as long as it remains attractive to the mainland companies’ fund-raising activities. As China’s economic reforms expand and Shanghai evolves into the mainland’s global hub for trade and finance, Hong Kong’s role as a “gateway” is diminishing.

Hong Kong’s greatest threat is not that of “becoming just another Chinese city”, but fading into irrelevance. Most worrisome is the discrepancy between Hong Kong’s economic gains and its eroding social fabric. Despite all the wealth it has reaped from China’s economic reforms and opening-up in the past three decades, its income inequality is worse than in Zimbabwe, as measured by the Gini coefficient. But this polarisation is not the result of economic integration with China, but of inadequate social cohesion in Hong Kong. Nor will it get better by severing ties with the mainland. What Hong Kong needs is more cooperation with the mainland.

Through further integration with Guangdong, the city can greatly alleviate the challenges associated with its maturing economy, ageing population and entrepreneurial innovation.

Before the long hot summer, Hong Kong’s growth was projected to be 2.8 per cent this year and less than 2 per cent in 2015. That was then.

In the short term, the protests are likely to have had a minimal impact on credit fundamentals. But if the situation continues to deteriorate, the probability of a negative impact will increase.

What Hong Kong desperately needs is responsible political development, adequate social policies and truly inclusive economic growth. It is time to choose between gradual integration and slow decay.

Dr Dan Steinbock is research director of international business at India China and America Institute (US) and visiting fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Centre (Singapore).

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For half of Americans, ignorance is bliss

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power says with 50 per cent of the US out of touch with reality, the nation is in danger of abandoning reason, despite Obama’s best efforts

About half of the US is a “culture of ignorance”, and .they appear to feel no shame about it. In the south, the total probably goes up to around 65 per cent, whereas in the north, including California, it goes down to 35 per cent.

It is a rough and ready way of putting it, but the other 50 per cent voted for Barack Obama for president. Obama types are less religious, more scientifically orientated, less racist, more pro health care for the poor, more aware of the world outside, more convinced that war solves little, and knowledgeable to the extent they know their immediate neighbour, Canada, does a much better job of making a good life.

It’s the “culture of ignorance” half that is now pushing for a tougher military response to the menace of Islamic State, for pumping up military muscle vis-à-vis Russia, and is persuading itself that more troops in Iraq could sort out what eight years of military occupation didn’t and couldn’t. It’s this half that tried to sabotage America’s economic recovery after the 2008-09 crash by demanding tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts in social welfare for the poor, and refusing to study or countenance Keynesian uplift economics.

I love America. But I also despise America. I’m afraid of America’s footprint in the world. I think Europe and Canada make sense and America doesn’t.

Dylan Roof, the young man who went into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine worshipers, is a child of the 50 per cent who make up the “culture of ignorance”. He may be an extreme form of it, but the ingredients are all around him. Fifty years after Martin Luther King won historic civil rights legislation and after nearly seven years of Obama, the undercurrent of racism is alive and well. Tied into a knot with the culture of gun ownership and the murders it breeds, it shows no sign of abating.

Half of America sincerely believes that the country both invented and perfected the idea of freedom and that its quality of life is the highest on the planet.

Yet international rankings place America barely in the top 10. Its rates of murder and other violent crime dwarf the rest of the Western world and that of much of the Muslim world. So does the prison incarceration rate, not least of young black men, often convicted of non-violent, petty, crimes. The US’ average levels of educational achievement and scientific literacy are, in world terms, embarrassingly low. The southern “Bible Belt” rejects Darwinian explanations of mankind’s creation and insists the notion that God created the human race in seven days be taught in schools.

America teeters on the edge of abandoning reason. Obama has tried to fight this. He has only partly won. Sad to say, I doubt any successor will do better.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist