Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Rise of the machines: China’s robotics market can only grow

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Winnie Tang

Winnie Tang says with rising demand for both service and industrial robots and strong government support buoying the industry, Hong Kong will do well to nurture its edge in technology

China is engaged in a historically unprecedented effort to develop its robotic technology industry as it tries to catch up with the global leaders. At Alibaba’s Singles’ Day shopping extravaganza this year, for example, the sales of one model of a vacuum-cleaning robot jumped to 315 million yuan (HK$380 million), double last year’s sales and 150 times that of 2011.

Service robots assist human beings, typically by performing tasks that are dull, dirty or repetitive, such as cleaning floors. The robot usually looks nothing like a human – the vacuum-cleaning robot mentioned above, for example, is a round machine. Currently, there are three main types of domestic robots: small home appliances that perform basic household chores, machines that assist in childcare, and humanoid robots designed to provide company for the elderly and those with disabilities.

In China, development has mainly focused on small home appliances. An industry insider says there are three stages in the evolution of the domestic robot: tool, governor and companion. Presently, China is still at the “tool” stage, where robots are mainly used to do household chores. To progress, the country must enter the “governor” and “companion” stages, where the main objective is social interaction. There’s a major push in this direction as population ageing becomes a challenge in China and the developed world.

Japan, for one, is leading in the field of humanoid robotics. Recently, it launched the world’s first robot that can express emotions. The robot does not do any household chores but is designed to “make you happy”. It can read emotions, recognising tones of voice and facial expressions, as well as give you “ardent attention”, make small talk and even tell jokes. The robot was sold out within a minute.

In China, the demand for industrial robots is even greater. According to the 2015 survey of industrial robots by the International Federation of Robotics, the global operating stock of industrial robots in the country in 2014 was estimated to be close to 190,000, or 13 per cent of the global total. The figure is expected to surge to 610,000 by 2018, amounting to over a quarter of global demand. These robots are now mainly used in the automobile industry and by manufacturers of electronics products, such as smartphones and tablets, for quality improvements.

The relatively low penetration of robotics in the Chinese manufacturing sector today means improvements are likely to be dramatic when they come. According to the survey, China’s robot density is currently a mere 36 units per 10,000 employees, compared with 478 units in South Korea, 315 in Japan and 292 in Germany.

Hong Kong should not be left out, since it actually has a competitive edge in the field.

Take Insight Robotics. Founded by home-grown innovators, the fire detection robot, which is equipped with a thermal imaging camera and a high-speed computer vision processor, is able to locate a single tree catching fire within a radius of 5km. DJI, a world-leading drone maker, is another legend. The founder of the multibillion-dollar company was educated at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the idea for the start-up was conceived while he was there. Meanwhile, Chinese University of Hong Kong has also been actively promoting medical technology development through the introduction of robotic technology.

What’s more, according to the International Federation of Robotics, among all the companies in the service robot market, 15 per cent are start-ups less than five years old. Continued growth and innovation in the industry is to be expected.

China’s demand for both service and industrial robots is tremendous, and Hong Kong must hone its edge in research and development in the field. The newly established Innovation and Technology Bureau [5] can help in that respect. I therefore have high hopes that our young people will grasp this golden opportunity to develop Hong Kong into a technological centre in advanced robotics.

Dr Winnie Tang is a founding member of Hong Kong Professionals and Senior Executives Association


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Hong Kong’s waste problem: A stinking trail of missed targets, data errors and misdirected efforts

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Tom Yam

Tom Yam says a government audit of Hong Kong’s waste reduction efforts makes clear who is to blame for our growing mountain of rubbish

In the private sector, a chief executive accountable for such rotten results would have been fired.If an organisation misses targets, mangles statistics, mismanages capital assets, underestimates costs, undertakes trifling projects and underperforms in a critical task year after year, will it survive?

The answer is a resounding “yes” if it is the Environmental Protection Department.

The Audit Commission recently issued a report on the government’s management of the garbage, officially known as municipal solid waste, which Hong Kong produced over the decade to 2015. The Environmental Protection Department is responsible for waste management and has an annual budget of HK$2.05 billion to do the job.

By every measure, including the department’s own as set out in its Policy Framework for the Management of Municipal Solid Waste (2005-2014), and the Hong Kong Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources (2013-2022), it fell short.

Key performance indicators for waste management have all deteriorated. Per capita waste disposed daily increased from 1.27kg in 2011 to 1.35kg in 2014. Waste recovered and recycled dropped from 49 per cent in 2009 to 37 per cent in 2013. Food waste increased from 3,227 tonnes per day in 2004 to 3,648 tonnes in 2013.

The policy framework set a target of disposing of 25 per cent of waste in landfills by 2014. As of 2013, 63 per cent was still dumped in landfills.

The department’s data, used to manage ongoing programmes, is rubbish (pun intended). The Audit Commission cites a litany of statistical errors. The amount of waste recovered for recycling was inflated because the department included waste imported for processing. Its forecast of a 50 per cent drop in food waste from school lunches was overstated because only 12 per cent of students ate lunch in school. It could produce no quantifiable data to explain its changing assumptions about the serviceable life of the landfills. It now claims that all landfills will be full by 2018. The Audit Commission believes they should last some years beyond 2018.

The department priced phrase 1 of the Organic Waste Treatment Facilities, to recycle mainly food waste, at HK$489 million in 2010. But because it omitted or significantly underestimated the cost of some components, the cost surged to HK$1.589 billion in 2014.

Target dates for rolling out the producer responsibility scheme for six products, based on the “polluter pays” principle, have not been met. Only the first two phases of the plastic shopping bag levy have been implemented, in 2009 and 2015, six to eight years behind target. The scheme has yet to be implemented for the other five products – waste electrical and electronic equipment, vehicle tyres, glass bottles, packaging materials and rechargeable batteries.

Only four of the 12 government departments have signed up to the Food Wise Hong Kong Campaign, which promotes reduction of food waste, two years after its launch.

With great fanfare, the department did launch a series of waste reduction, recovery and recycling initiatives. Their impact, however, has been inconsequential. Net reduction of plastic shopping bags disposed of in landfills in 2009-2013 was 11,544 tonnes, or an infinitesimal amount of total waste disposed.

As of June, only 4.6 per cent of the 43,091 households in 16 public rental housing estates were taking part in the food waste recycling scheme, fewer than half the department’s 10 per cent estimate. Though not discussed in the Audit Commission’s report, the recyclable waste collected in the three-colour recycling bins is no more than 900 tonnes per year, or 0.02 per cent of the waste generated.
Here’s where the department’s record truly stinks: the Audit Commission’s 2015 report on the dismal state of Hong Kong’s waste management echoes its 2008 report

The HK$308 million EcoPark in Tuen Mun was trumpeted as a hi-tech hub to develop a recycling industry. But the industry remains at the lowest rung of the value-added ladder, mainly collecting, baling and packaging waste materials. One operator started 24 months later than stipulated in the tenancy agreement. In another lot, operations started five years later. From August 2008 to June 2015, a HK$16 million pilot food waste treatment plant was operating at only 22 per cent of capacity.

Despite all these failings, here’s where the department’s record truly stinks: the Audit Commission’s 2015 report on the dismal state of Hong Kong’s waste management echoes its 2008 report. At the time, the Legislative Council’s Public Accounts Committee expressed serious concern over the management of the Environmental Protection Department as well as “deep regret and sadness that the secretary for the environment lacks a sense of urgency and is not proactive enough” in tackling the problem of municipal solid waste. Seven years later, nothing has changed.

The audit report describes a mismanaged organisation that lacks coordination with other government departments, produces inaccurate information and statistics, and engages in inconsequential efforts to tackle waste reduction and recycling. It cannot effectively manage ongoing programmes, resulting in missed targets and deteriorating performance.

In the private sector, a chief executive accountable for such rotten results would have been fired. Yet the previous environment secretary, Edward Yau Tang-wah, is now director of the Chief Executive’s Office. The current one, Wong Kam-sing, is this week attending the UN climate change conference in Paris. The Environmental Protection Department’s director, Anissa Wong Sean-yee, has been in her job since 2006. Despite the audit report, all three are likely to keep their highly paid jobs in Hong Kong’s non-accountable government.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

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District Council election results shatter myth of political apathy in Hong Kong

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Alice Wu

Alice Wu says both the voter turnout and the winners’ roll show clearly Hongkongers care about how politics is conducted, and did not overreact to sloganeering and divisive tactics

Electioneering for last week’s district council elections was dull, but the results were spectacular.

Voter turnout, at 47 per cent, was unprecedented for elections at the district level. Despite the lack of an “election atmosphere”, voters came out on their own volition, turning conventional wisdom – that pro-establishment candidates would be at a disadvantage with a high turnout – on its head.

It simply wasn’t true. In terms of the percentage of votes received, a fall of 1.36 per cent cannot be called a setback. The pro-democracy camp’s 1 per cent increase is equally insignificant.

With more voters heading to the polling stations, the pro-establishment camp actually fared quite well. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong – the city’s largest political party – fielded fewer candidates this year. It might have lost a number of seats (from 136 in 2011 to 119), but it garnered more votes.

Others, considered to be more moderate within the pro-establishment camp, made gains. For the New People’s Party, its gain is a testament to its growth and maturity as a party.

However, pro-establishment “oldies”, the DAB and the Federation of Trade Unions, have a lot to think about. With the growing appeal of moderates, they too must reconsider whether they must do more “political work” – like bridging divides instead of accentuating them.

Voters expect more than just protests in a divisive political environment. Reaching across divides, facilitating compromise and providing solutions are political assets.

While the DAB was clearly not the winner of this race, the Democratic Party was the clear loser as a party, accounting for only 27 per cent of fielded candidates (37 fewer than 2011) and gaining fewer overall votes. Democratic Party veteran Albert Ho Chun-yan’s loss might trigger another round of calls for the party to rid itself of its “big brother heavyweights” election strategy, and give more opportunities to younger members.

Whether the Democratic Party is ready to face this remains to be seen. Like its counterparts in the pro-establishment camp, it comes down to whether it has the political will to change its deeply entrenched culture. For the Democrats, it’s a “big brother” culture, from its leadership, its way of ostracising the young and moderates, and its decision-making process.

Most spectacular of all was that the results defied pre-election “predictions”. Was it the citywide verdict on the Occupy movement as some have suggested? No. That would have made electors much less sophisticated than they have shown the world to be. The election was about much more than voters’ reaction to one political event.

It was a reaction to all that has transpired – the prevailing ideologies that gave rise to the movement and the way political forces engaged with one another. And for that, the results show very clearly how the electorate feels.

Among the clearest indicator is the people’s call for change. By not giving a knee-jerk response to sloganeering and, therefore, shattering all efforts to predict the results, they quietly came out in large numbers and instigated change – however subtle – in a most dignified manner.

They also sent a clear message to politicians and Beijing that political apathy is a myth, and that, aside from livelihood issues, people care about politics and the way it is conducted, and that voters can handle political diversity.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA

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China’s services sector is growing, but far too few Chinese are spending

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Stephen Roach

Stephen Roach says the success of its economic restructuring will depend on boosting low levels of private consumption, and that can happen only with improvements to its social safety net

Structural change and rebalancing are formidable undertakings for any economy. China has been focused on these objectives for five years – seeking to transform a powerful yet unbalanced growth model based largely on exports and investment into one driven increasingly by its consumers. Success is essential if China is to avoid the dreaded “middle-income trap”.

The results have been mixed. China has been highly successful in its initial efforts to shift the industrial structure of its economy from manufacturing to services. But it has made far less progress in boosting private consumption. China now has no choice but to address this disconnect head on.

The performance of China’s services sector has been especially impressive in recent years, with its share of gross domestic product increasing from 44 per cent in 2010 to 51.6 per cent in the first three quarters of 2015, according to official statistics.

By contrast, consumer-led growth has been much slower to materialise. After bottoming out at 36 per cent of GDP in 2010, private consumption’s share of GDP inched up to 38 per cent in 2014.

With its prowess in central planning, China has always been adept at engineering shifts in its industrial structure. But it is apparently far less proficient in replicating the DNA of a modern consumer culture – specifically, in altering the behavioural norms of its people.

The disconnect between surging services and lagging growth in private consumption has been accompanied by a steady rise in the urban savings rate to 30 per cent in 2014 (from 24 per cent a decade earlier). This has occurred despite a significant increase in the personal income share of the Chinese economy. Chinese families have been reluctant to convert much of this newfound income into discretionary spending.

China’s rising urban savings rate in a climate of vigorous per capita income growth reflects a persistent preference for precautionary saving. Unfortunately, this is a rational response to the uncertain future faced by the majority of families, underscored by the lack of a reliable social safety net. Moreover, anxiety over inadequate provisions for retirement is set to intensify as a rapidly ageing population enters the most vulnerable phase of its life cycle.

The good news is that the 13th five-year plan appears likely to address these concerns explicitly. Early indications suggest it will focus on the missing piece of consumer-led rebalancing: a strong social safety net. A proposed consolidation of rural and urban plans for pensions and critical health care is particularly important, as is a commitment to allowing workers to transfer their hukou (residency permits) – and the associated social welfare benefits – wherever they move.

But the biggest breakthrough in reshaping societal norms was replacing the one-child policy with a two-child limit beginning in 2017.

Over the past 35 years, China’s powerful growth model has yielded extraordinary progress in terms of economic growth. But speedy implementation of the shift from production to consumption will be vital if it is to remain on course. That will require resolving the disconnect between the structural shift to services and the behavioural norms that will shape the spending habits of its people.

And that means overcoming the understandable caution of Chinese households in the face of an uncertain future. Converting fear into confidence is a daunting task for any society. China is no exception. The focus on resolving the macroeconomic disconnect is thus very encouraging.

Stephen S. Roach is a faculty member at Yale and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia.

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China must unblock Google Scholar and keep the internet open for its researchers

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton says denying students and scholars in mainland China access to a good research tool like Google Scholar only impedes scientific progress

Most people are familiar with the various free applications available on the internet. Google gives us Gmail and Google Photos, for example, in exchange for our eyeballs, which can be targeted for advertising.

One Google application that many are probably not so familiar with is Google Scholar. Using it, which is free, has added great convenience to the lives of researchers. Type in the name of a scholarly author or keyword and it quickly generates pages of links to research articles by the author or to the most cited articles associated with the keyword.

Even better, most recently, the links to many articles are not password protected, so scholars can instantly retrieve full articles or even chapters that have been scanned into Google Books. The convenience that Google Scholar is now providing researchers in an effort towards advancing knowledge cannot be overstated.

With this backdrop, it is curious to note what has happened recently on the mainland. Google Scholar is no longer available there. And Gmail has become unstable for mainland users. For scholars on the mainland, losing their Gmail account is a nuisance, but most savvy users either have a backup account, or find another provider. However, researchers who have suddenly lost access to Google Scholar are seriously inconvenienced.

It is no secret that Beijing and Google are not the best of friends, which is why it has a diminished presence in China. Of course, it is not the only victim of the Great Firewall. Wikipedia, YouTube and a host of other Western media sites are also blocked.

However, Google Scholar is a benign site. The vast majority of links it generates are to scientific articles, such as medical studies. It appears to generate little if any revenue, so blocking it does not hurt Google’s bottom line. The most it appears to do for Google is create goodwill towards its brand.

And that charity is silently appreciated by millions of researchers and students around the world – except, now, scholars in China. They are left to perform a time-consuming dance with proxy servers in the remote hope of getting hold of the papers they need. This, however, risks getting in trouble with Chinese law. Imagine getting arrested for downloading a scholarly article that could aid research towards finding a cure for a disease.

Differing politics is inevitable. Here in Hong Kong, we are reminded of this on a daily basis. However, when it comes to advancing scientific knowledge, our differences should be set aside in the understanding that research is for the common good of humanity.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education