Generation 40s – 四十世代

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If American and Chinese youth believe in closer Sino-US ties under Trump, it’s time the experts did as well

CommentInsight & Opinion

Tom Plate says optimism among randomly sampled youth about the future of the China-US relationship, and the Donald Trump presidency, may well prove the power of positive thinking

Surprise! Few parents, perhaps ­including those in brand-adoring Asia, realise that Stanford University, on America’s sunny West Coast, is tougher for kids to get into than Princeton, Harvard or Yale. One star centre to which some of its best students – and faculty – gravitate is the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre (Aparc), in the heart of the campus. It focuses only on the Asia-Pacific, and no one does it better – whether Harvard or anyone else.

And so, given the fallout from President Donald Trump’s jaunt through Asia, and as I’d been previously invited by the research centre to hold forth on China-US relations, the moment to head up north from southern California had come.

True confession: put me in front of avid students, and I am the happiest clam in the harbour. During the session, one laser-sharp undergraduate, born in Vietnam, had a subtle China question that almost knocked me over. The first-year ­student inquired with indignation why I (allegedly) underrated her home country’s historic and heroic resilience to China’s aggression.

I managed to evade her total moral condemnation only by ­deploying Henry Kissinger’s famous quip about how one can do virtually anything successfully with the pragmatic Vietnamese – except invade them. She liked that.

At the end of the excellent 90 minutes, a brief opinion questionnaire I’d prepared was passed out to seminar attendees. Would relations deteriorate under Trump? Was war with China all but certain? And, if politicians on both sides of the Pacific could be kept from interfering in the bilateral relationship, would the American and Chinese people, even left to themselves, wind up with a better outcome?

I took their responses back to my university – Loyola Marymount (LMU) – and put the same triad of questions to my Asia class. Would there be significant differences of perspective? After all, the Stanford group weighed in much older – ­invited were faculty as well as other adult professionals from upscale Palo Alto, in addition to Stanford students; my Los Angeles sampling was comprised entirely of LMU students, aged 20 to 23.

Surprise again! There were hardly any significant differences. By a composite near landslide of 2-1, the vote was that relations with China would get better under the controversial Trump. Secondly, only 4 per cent felt war was all but certain. (Lopsided and inspirational.) And 78 per cent assessed that US-China relations would improve if only political figures on both sides would park their big egos elsewhere and leave everything to “the people”.

That seemed like genuine California dreaming to me, but what do I know? We so-called experts tend to get bogged down in the details of transpacific tensions [4] and differences – and they are serious ones. But it would be a happy notion ­indeed were the China-US relationship not so poisoned in American public opinion as to be beyond ­redemption – as suggested by these two campus groups informally and very unscientifically surveyed.

As for comparable mainland opinion, this is notoriously hard to gauge. Just as American polling establishments have been messing up – again and again their predictions miss the mark – scientifically solid opinion-taking in China is an even tougher pursuit.

Perhaps a touch more revealing, precisely because it is self-generated and random, are the views of the Chinese people in the heat of social media usage. While monitored by government censors, their social media is nonetheless so sprawling, robust and accessed that, at this point, it counts as virtually China’s “great wall” of self-reflection and revelation. (Westerners who think the Chinese people have utterly no thoughts of their own are very seriously misinformed.)

So a bright, bilingual mainland-born LMU student undertook a survey of Chinese social media opinion of post-trip Trump. Like my quickie polls, this was no rigorous social-science sampling. But it was an ­honest snapshot – and the results were similarly unexpected.

It turns out that the Chinese like what they see of Trump because he is so atypical. Social media users, discouraged from expressing blatant political views, tend to depict him as a TV star and “web celebrity”, with “funny facial expressions” and “using interesting words”.

Reports my researcher: “For these people, Trump is not a negative character for China. He seems really funny and he is nothing like other serious presidents. For them, that seems a big plus.”

Not everyone was positive, of course. Some worried that businessman Trump is one sly fox of a trade exploiter; some referred to the Chinese saying: “A weasel paying a New Year’s call to a chicken, with no good intentions.”

They view Trump as not stupid but worry that he will drag China into the complicated North Korea issue even more.

But, on the whole, the TV star image of Trump appears to be playing nicely in China, notably better than the dreary picture presented by the East Coast US news media.

What I learned last week was no more than a split-second snapshot of the moment, at the end of the day no more conclusive or predictive than is – say – the Dow Jones Industrial stock average at midday.

But for those of us who like to stay positive about the China-America relationship, a bit of sunshine cannot be so bad for our sense of balance. Professor Gi-Wook Shin, the Aparc director, lifted his eyebrows as high as mine over the apparent optimism, in north and south California. Positive thinking can generate a power all its own.

Columnist and professor Tom Plate, whose recent book on China is Yo-Yo Diplomacy, thanks LMU Asia Media staffers Deng Yuchan and Yi Ning Wong for their assistance


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Hong Kong will embrace mobile payments – eventually

CommentInsight & Opinion

Ken Chu says it will take time for Hongkongers to adapt to using mobile phones to pay for goods and services, as they need to overcome the habit of using the Octopus card, as well as security concerns


I often hear people deplore that Hong Kong is lagging so far behind mainland China in technology because mobile payments like Alipay and WeChat Pay are not widely available. More accurately, Hong Kong has just started to play catch-up in mobile payments.

To be fair, Hong Kong is not an innovation and technology backwater. It may be true that we do not have a robust innovation and technology industry and market, or giant e-commerce and tech companies. But, as far as innovation, science and technology are concerned, we do quite well.

Indeed, our universities, two of which are among the top 50 in the world, often achieve groundbreaking discoveries in scientific research projects. Sadly, ordinary folks are unaware of them.

Hong Kong is also among the top innovation start-up hubs globally, according to a world-leading US research group. The issue here, then, is not so much whether Hong Kong is lagging behind in innovation and technology but how quickly mobile payments can dominate the consumer market.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah attributed our attitude to mobile payments to our successful Octopus card.

Launched in 1997, the Octopus card was hailed as a pioneer in contactless, cashless payment methods. Over the years, Hongkongers became accustomed to using the card to pay public transport fares, buy goods at supermarkets and pay at fast-food stores. It is also easy to top up the value of the card at any convenience store in the city. Old habits die hard, and it will take time and incentives to get people to change.

Decades ago, “Don’t leave home without it” was a popular advertising slogan for a credit card commercial, summarising the usefulness of such a card. Today, smartphones have acquired the same status and become a daily necessity. In mainland China, it is even said that it wouldn’t be a problem to leave a wallet at home but one absolutely cannot leave home without a mobile phone; they can be used to buy almost anything, anywhere in the country. The ubiquity of mobile phones provides fertile ground for the growth of the mobile payment market.

Hong Kong boasts one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in the world, yet its mobile payment market is still in its infancy. One reason often cited is security; in fact, the secretary for innovation and technology once said in a radio interview that he preferred an Octopus card to any e-wallet because of the security risk. However, stored-value smart cards like Octopus are not as convenient and versatile as most mobile payment apps and methods. With the latter, there’s no need to carry a card; instead, just use an enabled mobile phone to make the payment.

There is another challenge to the growth of the mobile payment market in Hong Kong: privacy concerns. Some people shudder at the idea that an electronic mobile payment service provider can learn when and where a user has made a purchase or transaction, as well as what they bought.

The mobile revolution is sweeping the globe because of its tremendous convenience. A thriving mobile payment market will surely empower the fintech industry. If Hong Kong is to hang on to its status as an international financial centre and innovation hub, the city must embrace mobile payment technology, to bring benefits to the government, economy and individuals. For the government, tax evasion and money laundering can be largely eliminated. For businesses, a more attractive and effective consumer incentive scheme can be structured to expand its market share. And, for individual consumers, convenience is the biggest benefit.

It will take time for Hong Kong consumers to truly appreciate the convenience of mobile payment apps but I am confident that the scheme will soon be widely adopted in the city; after all, Hongkongers are highly receptive to new things.

Dr Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group and a National Committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference

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今天,與同事聊天,不時會聽到吐苦水,說教學評核讓大家不敢對學生太過harsh,怕被學生「e死」(即teaching evaluation時給予很低的分數),於是便有grade inflation(老師派grades時「手鬆」)、為學生提供詳盡的lecture notes(副作用是讓學生考試讀notes就夠而不會主動多看書)、不敢訓斥學生的不是,甚至有把學生當作是clients,以「顧客至上」的心態去看待。







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Cashless societies seem convenient, but Hong Kong should think it through first

CommentInsight & Opinion

Peter Kammerer says we need a debate over going cashless, which benefits shoppers, stores and governments, but also has some worrisome implications for privacy, individual financial security and also government debt

Fintech Week in Hong Kong may not seem the right occasion to raise questions about rushing headlong into a cashless future. But there are as many downsides for all the benefits of ditching banknotes and coins. They involve privacy, choice, security and, for financially troubled governments, survival. As much as we should embrace a hi-tech way of life, there’s also a need to debate what’s best.

Not being able to see makes me a natural convert to electronic payments. Give me an app or a card over a handful of notes of uncertain denomination any day. The Octopus card was a blessing when introduced in 1997 and the day of the shop that Amazon envisages, with no checkouts and apps linked to bank accounts, and where sensors deal with transactions, can’t come soon enough for some of us.

Tech giants like Alibaba and Apple see their apps driving such a future and a visit to the mainland or Sweden, where cash accounts for 2 per cent of transactions, shows just how willing some are to embrace the idea. Try to use cash in some Shenzhen restaurants and you’ll get a worried frown; some no longer accept it. It’s all about convenience and there is a concerted push for Hong Kong to follow, in order to – as Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, said recently – be “more fashionable, modern and efficient”. (Alibaba owns The South China Morning Post). Hong Kong’s government has embarked on a course of promoting innovation, science and technology.

Credit card companies, and now those involved in electronic payment systems, portray cash as backward and inefficient. It’s difficult to argue against industries that aim to make life easier and create jobs. But as the cashless supermarkets Amazon is trying out in the US show, it’s as much about job creation as making jobs redundant.

Governments may see such losses as inevitable or negligible when compared to the advantages. Going cashless eradicates money-laundering. Their most effective tools to crack down at present are resource-heavy monitoring of currency and bank accounts or scrapping the high-denomination banknotes criminals favour. They can also track transactions by having access to records and more easily shut down money supplies, as in Uganda in February last year to keep funds out of the hands of the opposition during elections.

It’s why the Swiss have been so worried about the introduction of an equivalent of the Octopus card for trains; they fear authorities will spy on their travel patterns. Many shops in Switzerland also prefer cash to credit cards and there have even been pushes by lawmakers to make the use of banknotes and coins permanent, the thinking being, as Swiss people’s party member Manuel Brandenberg put it to Bloomberg last year, “cash is property and cash is freedom. It empowers the individual because it’s tangible wealth.”

There’s another matter that the wealthy Swiss government doesn’t have to worry about, but others may fear; a cashless society will prevent a government from printing banknotes to get out of debt or induce inflation. Robust security systems are also needed to lock hackers out.

A printer watches over a press printing US$1 bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in March 2015, in Washington, DC. One side-effect of going cashless would be that governments could not print money to get out of debt or devalue currency. Photo: AFP

Such discussions aren’t taking place on the mainland in the scramble to be modern. Nor have we heard much in Hong Kong, although the idea that cash is king also has firm adherents here, as in Japan, where credit card use is low, too.

That reticence is still seen at bank counters, among taxi drivers who prefer tips in cash and in the surprising number of shops and restaurants that demand cash only. Such restraint offers hope for those worried about the drive to go cashless, and space for a much-needed debate of the issues.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post