Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Asia’s world city? Hong Kong is mediocre at best, if we’re honest

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-21
Peter Kammerer says stagnant Hong Kong, with its low liveability rankings, need only look at Melbourne to see what a real globalised city offers residents by way of living
standards and civil liberties

Hong Kong’s government has been throwing around that tired old “Asia’s world city” tag since 2001. Anyone who gets to experience what’s on offer elsewhere knows that’s not true; it may arguably have been once, but no longer. We’ve fallen so far behind on representing global standards and values that such a claim is a joke. It’s time to rebrand, with an eye on honesty.

This was brought starkly home during a recent trip to Melbourne. I worked there in the mid-1980s and found it a pleasant enough city, but not sufficiently special to make me stay longer than two years. I moved to Hong Kong and was captivated. But the longer you stay somewhere, the more comfortable and less demanding you get; and I realise I’ve become far too complacent.

Melbourne has moved ahead by leaps and bounds since I lived there, which makes me realise how little Hong Kong has changed.

There’s culture, art and sophistication in downtown Melbourne; pedestrian precincts, roadside dining, street art and performance, free inner-city trams and large areas set aside for leisure pursuits – all with pristine air to breathe. This is a place that thinks about people and puts them first.

I’m not the only one impressed. The Economist Intelligence Unit has, for the past seven years, put Melbourne at the top of its annual global liveability ranking of 140 cities (Hong Kong placed 45th in the latest, and Singapore 35th). Lifestyle magazine Monocle’s top 25 liveable cities list for 2017 has Melbourne at number five, with Tokyo at the top, Hong Kong 15th and Singapore 21st. US consulting firm Mercer’s yearly quality of living study for expatriates ranked Melbourne at 16th, with Vienna at the top and Singapore 25th. Hong Kong only managed 71st.

These studies take into account factors like rights and freedoms, social and political stability, infrastructure, food prices, rent, public transport, education and air quality. Australian, Canadian and Western European cities usually take the top spots. In Asia, Japanese cities fare best, with Hong Kong and Singapore close behind.

Given that the research is by European and North American firms, their results understandably reflect liberal Western viewpoints.

In a world of globalised business, employment and education, it’s right to expect certain standards. Rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, and a reasonable quality of living are as essential as infrastructure, to attract major firms and talented employees. A city that doesn’t offer such fundamentals is bound to lose out. Cities are expected to follow trends and make improvements.

Melbourne has done that well and it’s paying off, with a booming economy and population growth in line to make it Australia’s biggest city by 2031. Hong Kong hasn’t had such dynamism. Worse, for all the gloating of the government’s Brand Hong Kong website about the city being “anchored on the bedrock of the rule of law”, with a “fair and stable society that cherishes freedom of expression”, there are those among us who increasingly have their doubts.

Recent comments by Beijing officials, court rulings and a continued lack of genuine democracy are just the start. High poverty levels, unfair treatment of ethnic minorities and the elderly, congested traffic and bad air quality say much; there’s been little, if any, change since we started contending to be a world city.

Those denied gay marriage, bike riders told they can’t have cycle lanes in urban areas, those lamenting the lack of outdoor eateries and shopping zones free of vehicles and diesel-choked streets, make plain we’re not what we claim to be.

So let’s rebrand. The obvious choice is Asia’s Mediocre City.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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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
2017-11-21

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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Why, in the age of artificial intelligence, real wisdom is needed most

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-15

Roland Chin says with artificial intelligence predicted to eliminate most human agency, ethical and social challenges are inevitable. But those can be met through human wisdom nourished by the arts and humanities

At a time when artificial intelligence (AI) is all set to revolutionise our lives, we must ensure this heartless mighty power is enriched with the wisdom of humankind that comes not just from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects but also the arts and humanities – like creative media, music, poetry and literature.

At a UN meeting last month, one question was about how to help people in parts of the world with no clean water, no electricity, and no internet access. Sophia, Hong Kong’s panellist, responded: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed. If we are smarter … AI could help proficiently distribute the world’s existing resources like food and energy.”

Who is Sophia? She is a Hong Kong humanoid robot officially invited to that UN meeting. Created by a local company, Sophia has appeared on TV talk shows and called attention to the digital divide made wider by big data and AI. Those blessed with both will gain huge competitive advantages, and those without will suffer.

But the “haves” are in the minority, and over half of the world has no access to the internet. Internationally, AI is being deployed as a strategic weapon in additional to a nuclear arsenal. But AI is problematic, especially in areas that call for subjective moral and ethical judgment, where the repercussions of growing AI application are at once profound and unknown. In embracing its promises, the scientific community is increasingly concerned about the ethical and social challenges it presents. Recently, two AI robots trained to communicate with each other began talking in a language their creators failed to understand, causing the alarmed scientists to shut down the project. Sophia may not be the lovely creature we want her to be.

It is widely predicted that, within a few years, neuro-electronic chips implanted in our body could hardwire our brain so that we communicate not via text or voice, but through brain signals linked to virtually unlimited computing power in the cloud. Just the thought of going to an appointment could automatically trigger a driverless car to pick you up. If a mere thought could trigger an action, then we’d better control our thoughts and fantasies. And if our brain signals are tracked just as our mouse clicks are tracked, then our privacy or even our freedom of thought could be in jeopardy.

Ethical AI-related issues are far more complex than technological ones. Given the moral dimensions of technology, we must recognise that we need to give our younger generations not just a solid grounding in STEM subjects, but also in the arts and humanities.

We must be alert to AI’s impact on humanity in all its ethical complexity. If we take humans out of the decision-making, how will driverless cars, and humanoid and AI-based decisions change our world? Should robocops be allowed to kill? Who is responsible for accidents involving driverless cars, or for robots that go rogue and commit crimes, or when autonomous weapons self-deploy? And what about a human falling for a Sophia 2.0 capable of emotion and affection?

Here I recall the words of the late Steve Jobs: “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” In the age of AI, liberal arts education is our missing link with the new world.

First, a liberal arts education sharpens our critical thinking, and shapes fresh views and alternative perspectives essential to innovative thinking and to understanding what people really need. Second, it prepares students for change, broadens their horizons, and enables them to face the unknown and the unforeseeable. Third, with its focus on the community, it turns our students into service leaders and civic-minded citizens and moral beings, ready to tackle the digital divide, the AI gap and other global inequalities.

AI turbocharges human efficiency and productivity. People used to say that intelligence sets humans apart. But when intelligence itself is artificial, what makes us irreplaceable is not just brain power, but the human heart. In the age of AI, it is human wisdom nourished through the arts and humanities that can make us whole and our world sing.

Roland Chin, chair professor of computer science and president of Hong Kong Baptist University, has taught and worked in AI


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Hong Kong will embrace mobile payments – eventually

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-07

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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People-first transport system eludes Hong Kong even as other cities race ahead

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-07

Peter Kammerer finds it hard to understand why, with its wealth of information and financial resources, the Hong Kong government is not adopting any of the bold ideas that are giving advanced societies cleaner air and a higher standard of living

 

Hong Kong’s top officials travel the world for meetings and to look for new ideas. They see and experience the best and our trillions of dollars in spare cash makes it easy for them to adapt and adopt.

Yet, on any given working day at rush hour, our so-called premier districts of Central and Causeway Bay are bottlenecks of people and vehicles, congested, polluted and unpleasant. The conclusion can only be either that the people who run the city on our behalf don’t much care about us or that they’re part of the sector of society that prizes cars as a status symbol.

It’s a different story in major cities in Europe and North America, where there’s a push for people-first downtowns. Roads are being given over to pedestrians and cyclists and, increasingly, electric cars. Public transport systems are being expanded. It’s all in the name of clean air, healthy living and, yes, “people first”.

Even Singapore has caught on. The government has announced it would stop issuing additional licences for cars and motorbikes from [2]February, keeping growth at zero per cent, because there simply wasn’t enough land for more roads. The move is in addition to taxes and fees that make car ownership in the island nation among the world’s most expensive.

Hong Kong has the same land scarcity problem, but our car numbers are going up. Some 11,955 additional private vehicles were registered from January to August, compared to 15,151 for all of 2016. Hong Kong has long been near the top of global lists of cities with the most vehicles per kilometre of road. Street-level air pollution hits unhealthy levels in the busiest districts numerous times a year.

There aren’t any new plans to make changes, either. A much-delayed road tunnel from Central to Causeway Bay has long been touted as the solution to congestion on Hong Kong Island. It has been given as the reason there’s no need to introduce electronic road pricing in Central; there’s no alternative route, the explanation goes, so no need to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, London and others.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan doesn’t even see any urgency about raising the first-registration tax for new car purchases, believing it to be a last resort and favouring soft approaches like discouraging ownership by making public transport more user-friendly. Keep in mind that this is a man who contended last month that car ownership was rising because young people were unable to afford homes and were buying cars instead to “ let body and soul wander off once in a while”. Well, if this is the guy in charge, those of us who want a better city are obviously fated to be bitterly disappointed.

But let’s be positive and believe that our government has our needs and desires at heart. Our leaders may be unelected, but they’re among the highest-paid officials in the world and they’re using our tax money, so they have an obligation to do right by us, surely. I’m not being naive here, simply mindful that a refusal to get with global trends will make Hong Kong ever more backward in the eyes of potential expatriates, tourists and forward-looking residents.

For inspiration, think Singapore or Vancouver, where a 10-year vision for better transport is under way. We can go even better with Oslo. The Norwegian capital is on course to keep its inner-city car-free by 2019. Paris, Madrid, Dublin and Milan have similar, though smaller-scale, plans. In Oslo, the first of its on-street parking will go later this year, to be replaced by wider footpaths and cycle lanes. The focus is on walking, cycling and public transport. This is the future we need, not more of the same and worse.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post