Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong needs a world-class concert hall, not more museums

CommentInsight & Opinion
Vivienne Chow says the stunning new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg is proof of how a concert hall can revitalise a city, and holds a lesson for Hong Kong’s new leadership

As world leaders converge in Hamburg for the G20 summit, one of the highlights for the VIP guests will be enjoying Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 in the city’s brand new concert hall, Elbphilharmonie.

The stunning building with a glass facade was designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron and features advanced acoustics. Located right at the Hamburg harbour, it was built on top of the historic Kaiserspeicher, a former warehouse. The 866 million (HK$7.6 billion) concert hall is a piece of cultural infrastructure that Germany takes pride in.

Since opening in January, it has become a new travel destination in Hamburg, with shows perpetually overbooked. Unlike Berlin, Hamburg is not known as a cultural city, but its people are now thinking about how to reinvent this historic port as a cultural capital.

Concert halls play a vital role not just in a city’s cultural life but also its image on the global stage. Many of Hong Kong’s top civil servants are fans of classical music and concert regulars. But their passion has not led to the development of a world-class concert hall, which Hong Kong deserves.

We only have a concert hall in the Cultural Centre complex. There was supposed to be one in the West Kowloon Cultural District. But, after 20 years of debate, delays and cost escalation, the plan to build the concert hall has been deferred. Instead, we are expecting a Hong Kong version of Beijing’s Palace Museum, with HK$3.5 billion in funding from the Jockey Club.

A protester at the annual July 1 march in Hong Kong holds up a wok-shaped artwork bearing pictures of (top row, from left) NPC Standing Committee chair Zhang Dejiang, President Xi Jinping, former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying and Chief Executive Carrie Lam, as well as (bottom row, from left) liaison office director Zhang Xiaoming, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Wang Guangya, on the 20th anniversary of the handover. Photo: AFP

Culturally speaking, we are in more urgent need of a world-class concert hall than another museum. We already have visual culture museum M+ and the Old Bailey Galleries at Tai Kwun. Government facilities such as the Heritage Museum and Museum of Art have long been showcasing historic works of art.

It will certainly benefit Hong Kong to have the Palace Museum in the long run. But the urgency is intriguing, compounded by the fact that witnessing the signing of the deal was among the first items on President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) agenda when he visited last week.

Beijing is wary of the fact that, 20 years after Hong Kong’s return to the motherland, the hearts of its people are drifting further away. Will the Palace Museum help bring Hong Kong people closer to the mainland culturally? Or will they, particularly the younger generation, find it an arbitrary imposition to revolt against?

Hong Kong has already lost a great deal to regional rivals in the past two decades. The new government must give serious thought to cultural priorities.

Vivienne Chow is a journalist, cultural critic and founder of Cultural Journalism Campus. She is also an honorary lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong

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Why the West and Japan should stop preaching to a rising China

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann says the imperialist powers of old should acknowledge their own bloody history of plunder and exploitation, and work with Beijing to find a path to a peaceful rise, which so far is unprecedented

This year marks the anniversaries of a number of Asian historical landmarks. July 1 was the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to China. August 8 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Asean declaration, the founding document of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This Friday, July 7, marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China, triggering the Pacific war that lasted until Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945.

July 7 should be a day for reflection. Such was the case on June 6 three years ago, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, when the French president François Hollande hosted, among others, US president Barack Obama, Britain’s David Cameron, Canada’s Stephen Harper, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. This was one further indication that, while there are tensions in the Atlantic, the breakout of war, as occurred twice last century, is extremely unlikely.

Over the decades since the end of the second world war, there has been a great deal of dialogue, confidence-building and the establishment of solid institutions. Germany, for all the atrocities it committed, has been an exemplary European citizen and is arguably the Atlantic’s greatest guarantor of peace, just as it has proffered unconditional apologies.

Just as Germany has been the solution for peace in the Atlantic, Japan remains a critical problem for peace in the Pacific. In light of the composition and conduct of the Japanese government – with, inter alia, the Defence Minister Tomomi Inada paying regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a sort of mausoleum for Japanese war criminals – it is highly unlikely that there will be reflection, let alone apology.

The Pacific war and its many ramifications tend to be ignored in Japanese education and public discourse generally. July 7 will not be marked by public forums among Japanese leaders, let alone with their Chinese, Korean, Singaporean or Filipino counterparts.

Instead, we hear of Japanese kindergartens spreading anti-Chinese and anti-Korean xenophobic messages and hotel chain proprietors (Toshio Motoya of APA) distributing in all rooms copies of his writings in which he denies the Nanking massacre occurred and claims that the Korean “comfort women” were not sexual slaves but prostitutes.

But the lessons from July 7, 1937 extend beyond Japan. The 21st century is witnessing the rise of another great global power: China. Though there has been a good deal of debate among Chinese intellectuals on the implications of great power rise, illustrated in the seminal 2005 article by Zheng Bijian (鄭必堅), “China’s Peaceful Rise to Great Power Status”, there has been little reflection among the other great powers on how they might contribute.

If one looks at, for example, the current membership of the G7, all the countries, with the sole exception of Canada, achieved great power status through war, conquest, plunder, imperialism, exploitation, enslavement, and so on. Thus, while Japan is a major problem for peace in the Pacific, its warmongering corresponded to a pattern set by other G7 members, including the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy – and indeed by others including the Netherlands, Belgium and Russia.

While it has become seemingly pervasive for the Western powers and Japan to mount their high moral horses and admonish China that it should “play by the rules”, they fail to explain why at the time of their rise to great power there were no rules or, if there were, they were egregiously flouted.

Thus, the eloquent 1839 letter by the Canton commissioner Lin Zexu (林則徐) to Queen Victoria, imploring her to stop her subjects from forcefully infesting China with opium, was contemptuously ignored. Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the “great” powers plundered the planet, including of course China. What rules were the British and French playing by as they pillaged the Beijing Summer Palace in 1860?

Nor is the behaviour of the Western powers just ancient history. American atrocities perpetrated against Vietnamese and Laotians continued into the third quarter of last century. As depicted in the excellent book by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, in fact the US has been pretty much continuously at war throughout the second half of the 20th century and most recently in the 21st, with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of the most compelling recent publications on the rise of China is by Geoff Dyer, The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China, in which he draws compelling parallels between the rise of the US as a great power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – manifest destiny, the Spanish-American war of 1898-99, resulting in the colonisation of the Philippines, and so on – and the rise of China in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine, seeking to establish a US exclusive sphere of influence over Latin American, ultimately came to concrete fruition a few decades later with, among other things, the metamorphosis of the Caribbean as an “American lake”. This, Dyer suggests, is comparable to what China is aiming to do vis-à-vis Southeast Asia generally and the South China Sea [9] in particular – that is, that it should become a Chinese lake.

The argument that these were different times with different parameters does not wash. The main difference from a Chinese viewpoint was that, whereas then the Western powers and Japan were extremely strong and China was extremely weak, today, the Western powers, the US in particular, remain strong while China is no longer weak. Thus, in seeking to draw inspiration from the methods and achievements of great powers rising, what models are there other than the Western and Japanese imperialist nations? There is no precedent for peaceful rise.

This should not, of course, imply that while previous great powers looted and engaged in outrageous brutality, it is now “China’s turn”. But it strongly suggests that serious and honest reflection is called for, not only on the part of the Japanese, but also on the part of the other great powers, and on that basis to engage in genuine dialogue – not sermons – with China. Instead of getting on their moral high horses, sermonising from the alleged position of liberal values, far more constructive would be to admit – and eventually apologise – that in fact they behaved often abominably, feeling bound by no rules except that might is right.

This would seem the only viable means to engage China in its rise to great power, to contribute constructively to the unprecedented peaceful rise, and thereby to have some hope that peace may reign. Finally, after centuries of warfare, one could hope that great power bellicose rivalry might be relegated to the dustbin of history.

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

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The Asian financial crisis teaches the need for bold reform, but is China listening?

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

William Pesek

William Pesek says regional economies that appear to have recovered from the crash are struggling with structural problems and stagnating incomes, as policymakers baulk at needed reforms. Beijing, now facing similar risks, should take note

My favourite Asian crisis story involves Robert Rubin, an elevator and a pile of cash.

It was September 1997, and I’d just exchanged US dollars in our Jakarta hotel lobby. I was taken aback, and vaguely embarrassed, by the huge stack of rupiah I received – all with colourful money wrappers. In the elevator, I ran into then US Treasury secretary Rubin and one of his top lieutenants, Timothy Geithner. I was among a handful of Washington journalists accompanying them around Asia. Rubin looked at my loot and deadpanned: “I see you found time for a drug deal.”

That was 2½ months after Bangkok’s July 2, 1997 devaluation set Asia’s reckoning in motion. The good news, 20 years on, is that the Thai, Indonesian and South Korean currencies recovered and reserves were restocked. Banking systems were strengthened and economies made more transparent. Capital accounts were loosened and market regulation tightened. Wages bounced back, too. The bad news: income gains have largely stalled in recent years. Is the real legacy of that regional crisis a regional middle-income trap?

That’s when per capita income tops out at, or below, the US$10,000 mark, as it has for Thailand (about US$6,000), Indonesia (US$4,000) and even economies that technically avoided the worst of the crisis – including Malaysia and, perhaps, the Philippines. And while South Korea is the top of the income class – and a proud escapee of the middle-income category – it’s since been ensnared in a higher-income net.

What went wrong? In the immediate years after 1997, technocrats in Thailand, Indonesia and Korea implemented the International Monetary Fund’s reform playbook to modernise financial systems. Strong US demand did the rest, enabling Bangkok, Jakarta and Seoul to export their way back to 5 per-cent-plus growth. But the return of rapid gross domestic product growth deadened the urgency to do the real heavy lifting; weaning economies off exports; building credible institutions; increasing productivity and innovation; diversifying trade links; eradicating corruption; devising better energy strategies; and separating the public and private sectors.

Blame the “Cult of GDP”, something to which Asian leaders have long been susceptible. When heady growth returns, policymakers declare victory, pop the champagne corks and shelve painful upgrades. In the two decades since 1997, Asia’s crisis victims revelled in buoyant equity markets, claimed economies had decoupled from the West and toasted the tidal wave of bankers abandoning New York and London and relocating to Hong Kong and Singapore. And besides, China’s boom would keep the good times going. The cost of leaders believing their own press was slower wage gains. Asia is learning the hard way that “boosterism” is no replacement for economic retooling.

A large painting depicting the late Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is seen outside the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre last month. Thailand has experienced two coups as a succession of leaders failed to spread the benefits of growth. Photo: EPA
A large painting depicting the late Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is seen outside the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre last month. Thailand has experienced two coups as a succession of leaders failed to spread the benefits of growth. Photo: EPA

Thailand has experienced two coups as a succession of leaders failed to spread the benefits of growth and get the state out of the financial system (it has been in the hands of a military junta since May 2014). Indonesian incomes are stagnating as reform fatigue and parochial squabbles – over everything from access to natural resources to openness to foreign trade and religion – distract Jakarta. Progress stalled in Malaysia as scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak clings to affirmative-action policies benefiting ethnic Malays at the expense of competitiveness. In the Philippines, too, Rodrigo Duterte is putting a bloody war against drug pushers and users ahead of raising Manila’s economic game.

Korea beat the middle-income trap, but it’s now ensnared in a higher-income funk. Seoul’s failure to reduce the role of the family-owned conglomerates towering over all corners of the economy and catalyse a start-up boom has average incomes stuck near US$27,000.

Similar criticism could be hurled at Hong Kong, as it commemorates the 20th anniversary of its return to China. While per capita income is 11 times Indonesia’s, Hong Kong hasn’t expanded its growth engines beyond finance and overpriced property. The cost: exploding inequality that’s delegitimising the city’s Beijing-picked leadership and feeding combustible social tensions.

Bold structural changes are always easier when crashing currencies leave leaders no choice. Unless Asian governments relocate some of that 1997 urgency, they will rely more on debt to fuel growth than entrepreneurship and higher productivity. Little good would come of that. That’s Thailand’s big challenge as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha tries to find his reformist mojo. It’s Joko Widodo’s problem in Jakarta as he struggles to take on vested interests working to regain power over the government. It’s also President Moon Jae-in [4]’s task in Seoul as he deals with a fresh bubble in household debt and rampant corruption.

And what of China? Few questions matter more than whether mainland incomes can reach US$10,000, and beyond. Never before has global stability been so dependent on such an opaque, unbalanced and developing economy. China “definitely has the potential to further catch up with the high-income countries and avoid [getting trapped]”, write Asian Development Bank economists Linda Glawe and Helmut Wagner. “However, the future performance of China’s economy depends on further reforms.” Those changes include altering a debt structure not unlike that of Thailand and other Asian governments, circa 1997.

For most, Asia’s collapse was just as unexpected as Wall Street’s 11 years later. China’s growth engines, it’s worth noting, are tantalisingly familiar: explosions in debt, credit and unproductive investments; chronic overcapacity; quantity of growth trumping quality; a sprawling shadow-banking machine; surging non-performing-loan ratios; policymakers drawing down currency reserves; regulators prodding domestic companies to go public before their time; and complacency among markets about how fast things could go awry. Beijing is treating the symptoms of its excess, not the root causes, in ways that are feeding ever-bigger bubbles. What’s more, US President Donald Trump’s threatened trade war is an ever-present threat to Asia.

Beijing, in other words, must do better than the class of 1997 in learning from past mistakes and preparing for future prosperity. Economic reform, remember, has something in common with the elevator in which I bumped into Rubin 20 years ago: it has the power to lift populations to new heights or leave them on the ground floor. Asia must work harder to ensure incomes regain an upward trajectory.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.

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10多年前,我就用過《呂氏春秋》中的「刻舟求劍」比喻來說香港的政治發展:「楚人有涉江者,其劍自舟中墜於水,遽契其舟曰:『是吾劍之所從墜也。』舟止,從其所契者入水求之。舟已行矣,而劍不行, 求劍若此,不亦惑乎?以故法為其國與此同。時已徙矣,而法不徙,以此為治,豈不難哉?」




延伸閱讀:Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity(West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)

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Why Hong Kong’s property market won’t crash – this time

CommentInsight & Opinion
Andy Xie says although Hong Kong’s fragile economy remains unhealthily dependent on the property sector, the asset bubble today is unlikely to burst, as happened after the handover. Stagnation is the bigger worry


Property is at the centre of everything in Hong Kong today, much like it was 20 years ago on the eve of the handover. Soon after the handover, prices collapsed, hitting rock bottom in the spring of 2003. They have since clawed their way back up, and some. With the 20th anniversary of the handover now upon us, will history repeat itself?

The similarities between now and then are only skin deep. In 1997, Hongkongers were extremely optimistic about the future. Foreigners agreed. The mantra was that China was set for explosive growth, Hong Kong, being China’s window, would be the conduit for all the money flowing to the mainland, and Hong Kong property would rise and rise on that money. Most bubbles occur because people got carried away. Hong Kong in 1997 fell into that category.

When the Thai baht collapsed, it exposed the problems in the East Asian boom. When foreign money pulled out, the Hong Kong property market collapsed. It showed that hot money was the driver for Hong Kong’s property market, not growth.

The collapse of the bubble exposed a greater challenge facing Hong Kong’s economy. The city prospered on China being closed. Arbitraging on China’s inefficiencies was the foundation of Hong Kong’s prosperity – being in Hong Kong offered a seat on the gravy train. The Hong Kong government taxed the privilege through high property prices to fund itself.

But, after China joined the World Trade Organisation, the gravy train was derailed.

Hong Kong has never faced up to this competitive challenge. For years, mainland tourism kept the retail sector afloat. But, is the future for Hong Kong youth to be shopkeepers?

Meanwhile, investment immigration juiced up the property market. It turned a whole generation of youth into property agents harassing pedestrians in the posh shopping districts. The latest financial boom is very much driven by grey income fleeing China. After 20 years, Hong Kong’s economy hasn’t built a lasting foundation.

This economic fragility is reflected in the popular pessimism today, in contrast to the widespread optimism two decades ago. Why, then, is there a property bubble now?

Three forces have been at work.

First, after the property collapse in the late 1990s, the city’s ruling class shrank supply to prop up prices. The initial plan to launch 85,000 public flats, a key component of Tung Chee-hwa’s housing programme, was abolished. Minimum prices were assigned to subsequent land auctions, cutting supply in a low-price environment. Even the land marked for public housing was later sold to private developers. When incomes are not rising, cutting supply can increase prices.

Second, after the 2008 property collapse in the US, the Fed cut interest rates to zero and kept them there for a long time. With an exchange rate pegged to the US dollar, Hong Kong has the same interest rate, and debt demand increased accordingly. Household debt has increased to 70 per cent of gross domestic product from the previous peak of 50 per cent in 1997. The debt, of course, has piled into the property market.

Lastly, China saw a massive increase in corruption in the decade after 2002. The grey income flooded into Hong Kong, much of it enabling cash purchases of properties. The flood of mainland money, in addition to juicing up property demand, has kept Hong Kong’s interest rates even lower than America’s.

However, all three forces are now reversing. Housing supply is likely to increase substantially in the coming years. Though still low relative to the population, the increase will have a big impact, because the prices are so high relative to income. US interest rates are going up. And, China’s crackdown on corruption will last for years to come.

Hong Kong’s property market is likely to behave like Japan’s in the past two decades, not like it did itself two decades ago. The US economy is not as strong today as it was then, and US interest rates may peak at 3 per cent this time, not like the 6 per cent then. Besides, China is much bigger now and will surely intervene if the market collapses like in 1998.

After its property bubble burst in 1992, Japan’s banks didn’t foreclose on their delinquent borrowers. That prevented the snowball effect in a bubble collapse. However, while such a response would save the economy the pain of a 1998-style collapse, the slow adjustment would trap the economy in stagnation, because capital could not be relocated into new productive areas from the bubble economy.

Hong Kong has been trapped in a property curse, which could last another two decades, diverting its attention from the main challenge of meeting the competition from millions of graduates from across the border joining the workforce each year.

Two decades ago, for a similar job, a Hong Kong salary was 20 times that on the mainland. Now it is three times. How long can Hong Kong justify the differential? It is already less competitive in education and infrastructure than tier-one mainland cities. The gap will only widen. Unless big changes are made, salaries in Hong Kong will not rise and may even decline.

Andy Xie is an independent economist