Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong shames itself again by its treatment of domestic workers

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Yonden Lhatoo takes a look at the latest revelations about the plight of foreign domestic workers in the city to remind Hongkongers how it reflects on them

In his classic science fiction novel, The Time Machine, H. G. Wells presents an anti-utopian vision of a future in which humanity has evolved into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The beautiful but spoiled Eloi, descended from the idle rich, enjoy a life free of work on the pastoral surface. The downtrodden, beast-like Morlocks, evolved from the working poor, toil underground in the dark to keep the surface dwellers fed and clothed.

Let’s hope we’re not heading in that kind of direction, the way people in this part of the world treat their domestic helpers from less-fortunate nations. And what a shame that Hong Kong is yet again making headlines in this regard.

How about this for starters: 500 domestic helpers will be sleeping tonight, and every night, in toilets in their employers’ homes. That’s according to a concern group that has just released a survey of the living conditions of 3,000 Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers in the city.

At the same time, 14 per cent of them can’t access toilets when they need them for something other than to sleep in. And about 70 per cent share bedrooms with children, elderly people or co-workers, while 21 per cent sleep in the living room.

In one case, a helper’s bed was fitted into a kitchen cupboard above the fridge and microwave oven. A tiny rooftop room, only 1.2 metres from floor to ceiling, was accommodation for another helper. It makes me ashamed of complaining that I don’t have enough room for myself in my flat.

Yes, many Hong Kong families live in appallingly cramped conditions themselves, but we’re talking here about those who are affluent enough to afford hired help in the first place.

It doesn’t help that the government is an immovable object in the face of calls to ease the live-in requirement imposed on foreign domestic workers, and the opposite of an unstoppable force in making sure they are not treated like something to be folded and stored away for the night.

Now it’s taken a bunch of university students to show us, after their seven-month investigation, that more than 70 per cent of employment agencies here charge excessive fees to domestic helpers, withhold their passports as leverage to squeeze the money out of them, or stiff them in some other illegal way.

“If it’s that tough for them here, they’re welcome to go back home,” the unsympathetic often say. Why such disregard for people who prop this city up on more than one level?

We have about 350,000 domestic helpers serving 280,000 households in a city where families rely heavily on them to look after babies and grandparents while both husbands and wives go to work. They wouldn’t like their incomes halved now, would they?

That’s just the money part. Their other, often unappreciated contribution is the substitute for parenting they provide, and the companionship and care for elderly people who would otherwise be neglected. Like it or not, they are a glue holding the fabric of society together.

Going back to the future with the Eloi and Morlocks, the analogies are not limited to just helpers and employers. It’s about the age-old class divide, the class struggle, and what that could eventually mutate into in the centuries to come.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the best part of the story. The trade-off for the Morlocks’ life of drudgery is that they get to nip up to the surface at night to grab hapless little Eloi and drag them down into the depths to feast on their flesh.

To the Morlocks, the Eloi are actually livestock to be tended and fattened for food. Karma comes in many ways, I suppose.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post

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Hong Kong’s next leader Carrie Lam will still have to rely on some old hands to fill her governing team

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Bernard Chan says despite the appeal of having new people with fresh ideas in the cabinet, the chief executive-elect can’t overlook experience and will seek to groom more talent from within

In barely six weeks’ time, a new government will take office in Hong Kong with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as chief executive. She has had only a few weeks since the election in March to prepare for this new administration. Her No 1 priority must be to assemble a team of principal officials.

The core are the “3+13” secretaries – the chief secretary, justice secretary and financial secretary, plus the ministers for such policy bureau areas as education, development and so on. Naturally, she will want the best people she can find. She is gathering names of possible candidates, and initially approaching people individually to see if they would be interested in serving in the new government.

Although this sounds straightforward, I think we can safely say the selection process is a challenge. Remember that this has had to happen in a short space of time. And bear in mind that we are not talking only about the search for the 16 secretaries – there are undersecretaries and other positions to be filled.

In my view, in order to be a candidate a potential principle official must meet five conditions.

First, they must be widely respected for all-round ability. They need to have media and people skills. Ideally, they should have some public-service experience, and recognised knowledge in the policy area concerned.

Second, they must be willing and able to work with the chief executive-elect and other future colleagues. They have to be personally compatible.

Third, they must be willing to work in the government, and ideally enthusiastic about the idea. If you know anything about the challenges of our political system and the internal divisions in our society, you will not be surprised to learn that this is a real barrier. A lot of people are happy to help from outside – but they do not want to get in the firing line.

Fourth, they must be acceptable to the central government in Beijing.

Fifth, they must be acceptable to the people of Hong Kong.

Even if a candidate can tick all these boxes, there are practical considerations that can still get in the way. For example, a candidate might have a passport from a foreign country. In some cases, renouncing foreign citizenship would be too time-consuming, or involve personal sacrifice. And of course there are other personal considerations, such as an individual’s other ambitions, or a need to put their family first.

The pool of possible candidates is also limited by the fact that politics is not a career in Hong Kong. There are not many routes from local to higher-level political office, or through political parties into government.

Given all these hurdles, we should not be surprised if we learn that Carrie’s transition team is looking for candidates among people who are already in government. I expect some people will groan at the idea of more civil servants and serving officials being moved into ministers’ positions. The idea of lots of “fresh faces” is superficially appealing.

Then again, some citizens might prefer the next administration to draw on in-house experience and talent. Given the challenges facing Hong Kong, this may not be a good time to parachute in a large number of outsiders, even if there were plenty to choose from. As I say, the new administration will need to recruit people for other positions like undersecretaries and political assistants. Given the difficulties in finding qualified senior officials, these positions are likely to produce some of our future political talent. Selecting people for these jobs will be of vital importance.

So the work of finding and finalising the new team is bound to be hard. We can expect some familiar faces, some less familiar ones and some brand new ones – from a mix of backgrounds. But don’t be surprised if a fair proportion come from inside government.

This should not mean that the next administration will lack fresh ideas. In her manifesto, Carrie has pledged to reach out and listen to different parts of the community. That willingness to consider views from beyond the normal corridors of power could be the biggest and best “fresh idea” of all. The truth is that we cannot rely on just 16 people, wherever they come from, for all the answers.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council

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Western and Japanese snub of China’s belt and road summit is a missed opportunity

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Jean-Pierre Lehmann laments the myopia of major Western economies and Japan in staying away from the Beijing-led initiative, whose vision of dynamic cooperation for shared prosperity deserves support
The conspicuous absence of the heads of state from the major Western economic powers and Japan at the belt and road summit this month in Beijing is a big mistake and a missed opportunity for enhancing dynamic and cooperative globalisation.

I live in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is well known among many Chinese as the city in which the International Olympic Committee is located. My flat is near the Olympic Museum and I often walk through the Olympic Museum Park down to the lake at weekends. I did this last Saturday and there were – as there have been ever since the Beijing Olympics – busloads of Chinese tourists. More people from China seem to visit the Olympic Museum than from any other country. This would have been unfathomable when I moved there in 1997.

It is, in fact, one of many illustrations of China’s most awesome achievement over recent decades: the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty and the creation of a vast new urban middle class. As The Economist recently noted: “In 1981, 88 per cent of Chinese (and 96 per cent of rural Chinese) lived below the poverty line; in 2013, only 2 per cent of Chinese were extremely poor.” That is worthy of respect and admiration. If only other poor countries, notably India, could achieve something even remotely comparable.

China’s achievement is all the more impressive in that it was not only unprecedented, but also unexpected. The often proclaimed “era of humiliation” – from the first opium war in 1839 to Liberation in 1949 – was no myth, but very much a reality. Though China was not colonised by any single power, as, say, India was by Britain, it was what Sun Yat-sen termed a “poly-colony” – ie, gang-raped.

While the rising dragon is clearly no sweet pussycat, in comparison to other industrial powers – notably Britain, France, the US, the Soviet Union and Japan – it has been pacific. Thousands and thousands of Chinese come to visit the Louvre in Paris these days, to gape at the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces of art, not to pillage and burn it down as French troops (in cahoots with the British) did to the Summer Palace in Beijing. In 1950, the newly liberated People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet, which was reprehensible, but Britain also invaded Tibet (in 1903/04), not to mention the roughly half of the planet that was conquered and subjected by the empire. In its wars against China, Japan is estimated to have caused some 30 million deaths, along with multiple mutilations, tortures and rapes. I am not aware of a single Japanese killed by Chinese troops in the course of China’s recent rise.

While the US presents itself as the great global moraliser, it seems to forget that its rise to great power status included the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans, wars against its Latin American neighbours and the conquest of the Philippines. While China went to war against Vietnam in 1979 (and lost), in terms of crimes against humanity, it was nothing compared to the war against Vietnam (and Laos) waged (and lost) by the US. Seemingly addicted to belligerence, this century has seen America’s illegal war against Iraq, with all the carnage that ensued.

All this, needless to say, is not to suggest that it is now China’s turn to invade, conquer and pillage. Though China’s 2005 pledge of a “peaceful rise” seems more illusory with each passing year, it would be in the world’s best interests if it could be achieved. Indeed, the implications of the alternatives are cataclysmic. However, in the process, the West and Japan should be conscious of the inevitable scars China bears from past exploitation and humiliation and thus refrain from taking the hypocritical high ground, which seems to be common China policy currency.

It is especially important that China be engaged in the institutional framework of global governance, and that initiatives for enhancing trade and investment, such as the belt and road, be welcomed rather than rebuffed. Yet the opposite has been happening.

As Silvia Menegazzi has stated in arguing why the EU must engage with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), “the decision to launch the AIIB came as a direct result of China’s growing frustration … over only playing a marginal role within the existing international financial system”. This is true of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

As to the World Trade Organisation, the death of the Doha Round is in great part due to the inability of the erstwhile established leaders of the global trading system – the so-called “Quad”, consisting of Canada, the EU, Japan and the US – to integrate China. Instead, the US and Japan proceeded to create their own initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which China was visibly excluded; this way, as they claimed, “we will write the rules, rather than let the Chinese do so”. Surely, the appropriate, constructive and dynamic approach would have been to write the new rules ­together.

Not only did the Japanese-American alliance seek to exclude China by setting up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but when the Chinese launched the AIIB, aimed at financing much needed infrastructure investments across the Eurasian continent, they refused to join and sought to browbeat other nations to follow suit. Fortunately, on this occasion, good sense prevailed in Europe and Asia, as most countries from both joined. However, it does not make it less disappointing that the major Western powers and Japan should be no-shows at the forthcoming summit.

Of course, at this stage, the belt and road represents a vision, a dream, that will face innumerable obstacles – financial, environmental, technological, logistical, social and geopolitical – to translate into reality. It is also without doubt motivated primarily by Chinese interests. But what country ever undertook a major international initiative that wasn’t primarily motivated by its own interests?

The post-war Marshall Plan was not an act of pure American altruism, but rather one of enlightened self-interest.

The potential benefits of the belt and road, if the dream were even only partly realised, could be enormous. The inclusion of the Middle East and Central Asia could contribute to peace and prosperity in these currently dramatically turbulent regions.

As I have tried to stress, China is by no means an angel. Nor, however, as Western and Japanese rhetoric tends to proclaim, is it a devil; or certainly no more so than previous rising great powers. Furthermore, while for much of modern history China was subjugated and marginalised, its quite staggering re-emergence will continue to mark the first decades of the 21st century.

A successful, inclusive, globally collective effort to make the belt and road a reality could be a harbinger of peace and prosperity. It is a pity that myopia and prejudice prevent Western and Japanese leaders from being present at this potentially seminal event.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong