Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Trump’s America has given racism a new lease of life by making a mockery of its diversity

CommentInsight & Opinion
Amy Wu finds she had been living in a bubble of a multicultural America, as she learns a few home truths on discrimination and the newly blurred divide between conservative and liberal states

I am a big city girl, having lived in New York, San Francisco, Washington and Hong Kong, all of them cosmopolitan, international, if not progressive cities when it comes to the arts, culture, gender and politics. Diversity, exposure and acceptance – whether racial, sexual, gender or socioeconomic – was, in retrospect, taken for granted.

Diversity was a given – my Caucasian, ­Indian and Latino friends celebrated the Lunar New Year and Autumn Moon festivals alongside me, while I celebrated Diwali, St Patrick’s Day and their children’s quinceañeras.

In Hong Kong, my colleagues ­included Britons, Australians, Filipinos, Indians, Singaporeans, South Africans, and people from many other countries. In coexisting, we learned about each others’ ­cultures and backgrounds. There were certainly cultural and linguistics barriers, but I was privileged enough to be exposed to such a ­diversity of cultures and thought.

Under this new administration, discrimination, and at times racism, seems to have reared its ugly head in everyday life

I use the word “privilege” on purpose; it wasn’t until the aftermath of last year’s US presidential election that it hit me that, in living in these big metropolises, I had lost sight of the rest of the country, and the reality that I was not part of the majority but rather the minority.

Under this new administration, discrimination, and at times racism, seems to have reared its ugly head in everyday life. I noticed the shift in the election year, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns started to be ramped up.

Maybe I had been a bit slow in noticing, since I had always lived on one US coast or the other. I hesitate to say I had been living in a bubble, but the bottom line is that it was a bubble. My friends in big cities called the states in-between “flyover states,” a way of saying these states were second-tier.

Many of us had never visited states such as Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi, and if pushed would admit that we had little desire to. And yet, the results of the election clearly showed that the majority of people in the “flyover states” were Trump supporters, and in many cases conservative in thinking.

So imagine my surprise when I moved to Fresno in 2015. As the fourth largest city in California, sandwiched between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Fresno is working-class and known for its three-digit summers and, as I fast discovered, conservative outlooks.

Imagine my shock when, over drinks, a friend turned to me and asked me to vote for Trump. “Why?” I asked. “It’s obvious and just look at what Obama did or didn’t do, let’s start with the health care fiasco,” she said.

I was taken aback. Until that point, my friends had been mostly Democrats, supporters of Barack Obama and Clinton, and several were advocates for women’s rights, same-sex marriage and a comprehensive immigration policy.

Well, maybe we could have a lively discussion, or even debate. But no such luck. “You are going to vote for him, right?” my friend ­repeatedly asked.

When I moved to Salinas last year, about two hours south of San Francisco, the conversations often had a similar ring.

Why should I have been shocked when a winery owner rolled his eyes at me and said, “Of course”, when I asked if he agreed with Trump’s plan to build a US-Mexico border wall. “Best idea ever,” he said. And then the unimaginable happened. “The Chinese know a lot about walls too,” he said, nodding at me.

None of this should have surprised me since it was all happening in the aftermath of the new Trump administration. There were shifts, however slight, in the kinds of ­stories I was writing about, in the tone of the conversations, and it seemed to trickle down to everyday life as well. Maybe there was a segment of the public who felt they now had the licence to expose their raw feelings and viewpoints, whereas they were hemmed in before.

This new chapter brought changes. I was driven out by my landlady and her husband for no reason, even though I paid my rent on time and rarely came home and used the kitchen or bathroom. They started leaving notes accusing me of leaving a drop of water by the sink, and for a week turned on the jacuzzi right outside my room even though it disturbed my sleep. By contrast, they were sweet to the other two tenants, who were white.

“I think they are racist,” one of my colleagues commented. My father concurred: “These days there are some segments of the population who don’t treat Chinese very nicely.”

It’s hard to attribute how much of the shift is due to President Trump, or what the true impact is of his executive orders on immigration, the impending border wall, and the finger pointing and accusatory tone that he uses when talking about Chinese workers stealing jobs from Americans.

It isn’t just the Chinese. I live in a city that is predominantly Latino-Hispanic, many of them migrant workers who work in the fields.

On a similar line, I was infuriated when a 40-something white man, jobless and able-bodied, said he ­refused to work in the fields. “It would be too taxing on my body,” he said. Does he think the Mexicans enjoy the back-breaking labour of picking lettuce in the fields, with ­often 10 hours under the sun?

And then there was the viral story of David Dao, the physician who was dragged out of a United Airlines plane by security officers after he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. It matters that he was Asian. Would the same have occurred if the passenger were a tall and strapping white man? Somehow it seems unimaginable.

These snippets and stories tend to create an aura that is disturbing and at times dizzying. Ultimately there is nothing surprising about racism and discrimination, but it is sad when we’ve taken three steps forward but could potentially be moving backwards.

Amy Wu is a journalist based in Salinas, California

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Avoiding the pitfalls of a knowledge-based society

BusinessGlobal Economy
A new pluralist society of specialised knowledge workers is emerging. That means our leaders need to be on their toes to avoid the mistakes of the past

Knowledge will be the key resource of society in the future. In rich countries, knowledge workers already make up half the workforce and are growing in numbers. What will this mean for society, politics and the economy?

The impacts are likely to be greater in the social sphere than the economic one.

The first thing to note about knowledge workers is that they are capitalists, because their specialised knowledge represents their human capital.

High knowledge workers such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, clerics and teachers, have been around for a long time but, increasingly, knowledge technologists – who work with their hands but use a lot of knowledge acquired through formal education (not apprenticeships) – will dominate the workforce.

Their strong identity with their work and their professional knowledge makes them cohesive, often well-organised and able to form autonomous associations.

Technological progress since the 1970s has been biased towards those with knowledge. As a consequence, the relative wages of better-educated workers have risen relative to less educated ones. This has been the primary driver underlying economic inequality and also the intense competition that students and young workers face today.

Another interesting and related trend is that the knowledge economy will be characterised by people spending fewer hours at work earning income and longer hours acquiring knowledge and enjoying leisure.

Professor Robert Fogel has estimated the average American male householder spent 80.6 per cent of their non-essential hours (essential being things like eating and sleeping) on income-earning work in 1880. This had fallen to 41 per cent by 1995 and is projected to drop further to 23.6 per cent by 2040. The rest was spent on “voluntary work hours” which includes such things as leisure and learning time but also caring for others and community involvement.

The late Professor Robert Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Photo: SCMP PicturesIncreasingly, the coming generation will be more concerned about their interests outside the work market. For them, personal or spiritual satisfaction will be as important as, if not more important than, material satisfaction.

The impact of all this on politics is that the knowledge economy is creating a new pluralist society of specialised knowledge workers. Exerting political power means having to be well organised and well connected.

Large business enterprises, universities and, more recently, the third social sector of (mostly nonprofit) community organisations are all examples of well-organised, non-government organisations.

The market has facilitated business organisations by mediating conflicts through the price mechanism. Among non-profit organisations, though, politics is the only mechanism for mediating conflicts unless the bulk of their funding is borne by the clients they serve. Very often it is sensible to fund through vouchers spent by clients rather than direct subventions to organisations, if the government is the primary funding source for non-profits.

Single-cause interest groups can dominate the political process and subordinate the common good to their own values. How to balance the common good and the special purpose of the non-profit organisation is a question that must be answered if the new pluralism is not to destroy the community.

Earlier pluralist societies imploded because no one took care of the common good. To avoid this, the leaders of all institutions will have to learn to be leaders beyond their own walls and become leaders in the wider community.

The specialist, pluralist characteristics of the next society will mean more splintering into numerous institutions, each more or less autonomous, each requiring its own leadership and management, and each concentrating on its own specific work. These will be the source of society’s strength. Pluralism is necessary. The challenge is to protect this strength from its own destructive forces.

History has shown us that divisive interests can have destructive powers. Agriculture declined in the wake of industrialisation, which led to widespread protectionism. Manufacturing is also declining and being accommodated with similar protectionism in the form of subsidies, quotas, and regulations. One would expect the transition to the knowledge economy to also be accompanied by greater regulation of the economy to protect declining sectors. Can we learn to avoid the follies of the past?

As knowledge technologists become dominant in society, they will become a political force. They have invested heavily to acquire specialised skills and become human capitalists. They will be keen to protect the value of their investments. But in the face of competition from around the world, they will not be averse to protective regulation and legislation. This would weaken the market mechanism for mediating conflicts among groups and organisations.

In a globally integrated world, leaders must see beyond not only the walls of their own organisations, but over national borders. The tribe in the twenty-first century is the global tribe. The new pluralism requires civic responsibility, which means giving to the community in the pursuit of one’s own interest.

It is not apparent what kind of new politics is needed to balance the common good against the pursuit of personal interest. Meanwhile, politics has taken a direction for the worse. It will take time to sort things out.

Richard Wong is the Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong

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Hong Kong has been left behind in China’s digital revolution

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

William Zheng

William Zheng says it’s time to admit the city is now lagging behind the mainland following the digital leap forward across the border. Hong Kong can catch up by seizing opportunities for both business and investment

Urban planning and social engineering have given Hongkongers and Singaporeans a modern lifestyle admired by many, including mainland Chinese. But after the great digital leap forward on the mainland over the past decade, this may no longer be the case.

My recent visit to Hangzhou (杭州) was eye-opening. At dinner at a restaurant, my companions and I were shown a QR code instead of a menu. We scanned the code and the system connected us to the restaurant’s WeChat mini app, where all guests could see one another’s order and add or delete items easily. For payment, Alipay or WeChat Pay was preferred to “troublesome” cash.

Over the next few days, my renminbi notes remained untouched in my pocket. Everywhere I went, I used Didi Dache or Uber for transport. Store owners, including those selling roasted sweet potatoes on trishaws, were happy to accept mobile payments, even for amounts below 1 yuan (HK$1.10).

While many Hongkongers use their Octopus cards for payment, chat with friends on WhatsApp and share their lives on Facebook and Twitter, mainland city dwellers are paying their bills through Alipay, talking on WeChat and sharing their lives on Weibo. The mainland’s great firewall has created an interesting digital divide across the Shenzhen River.

Nevertheless, censorship and tight internet controls have done little to dampen the spirit of start-ups on the mainland. Attend any start-up pitching session in Shenzhen and you will be amazed by the speed of learning, the passion and the ambition of young technopreneurs who dream big. And you will be impressed by the huge risk appetite and deep pockets of Chinese tech investors.

Projects abound in areas such as e-commerce, online payments, the sharing economy, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Although some industries have fallen victim to the bullet-train speed of the Chinese internet economy, leading to empty malls, the efficiency and convenience brought to Chinese consumers is phenomenal.

Hong Kong, once the most modern city in China, has fallen behind. Many rightly point out that our education system is not promoting creativity, costs are too high for start-ups, and society’s tolerance of failure too low.

Furthermore, the ability to change in scale is a key factor in an internet economy, and many innovators in Hong Kong, who are not familiar with the environment and user habits on the mainland, find it hard to grow. Chinese technopreneurs, meanwhile, can easily replicate their services to over 660 Chinese cities, serving 700 million users.

Hong Kong could still benefit from the Chinese digital leap forward. Hong Kong merchants should work on WeChat and Weibo more and incorporate them into their marketing and mainland development strategies. If Hong Kong retailers could learn to use Alipay and WeChat Pay to serve mainland tourists, they would have fewer cash management problems.

The city could also learn to invest in the field. The city’s tycoons, who made their wealth in more traditional industries, should review their risk appetite and attend the pitching sessions in Silicon Valley, Shenzhen or Shanghai, listen well, and invest cleverly.

Hongkongers should ask themselves: do we want to admit that the mainland has overtaken us in internet development? And, how do we move out of our comfort zone and integrate into the fastest-growing part of the Chinese economy?

William Zheng is a veteran journalist who has served and led major Singapore and Hong Kong media organisations in his 20-year career

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Crackdown on tax havens is just another way to ensure citizens can’t escape the clutches of big data

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson says the trend of government and business tracking our every move – in some cases, in an attempt to deter crime – exposes us to another kind of danger, that of surveillance

In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky fired a broadside against all the Victorian do-gooders who dreamt of a perfectly rational society. “You seem certain that man himself will give up erring of his own free will,” he fulminated. He foresaw a ghastly future in which “all human acts will be listed in something like logarithm tables … and transferred to a timetable … [that] will carry detailed calculations and exact forecasts of everything to come”. In such a world, his utilitarian contemporaries believed, there would be no wrongdoing. It would have been planned, legislated and regulated out of existence.

We are nearly there. Or so it seems.

Yes, I know. Corruption is impure. Crime is a felony. And illegal immigration is against the law. Altogether: Sin is wicked! So I should have cheered British Prime Minister David Cameron’s international anti-corruption summit last week. I should be a paid-up supporter of the campaign to close down tax havens. I should be glad to see the back of 500-euro bills. And I should feel a thrill of patriotic pride when I hear Boris Johnson pledge to regain control of Britain’s borders.

And yet every one of these steps towards a more perfect world makes me feel Dostoevsky’s disquiet.

Now, I do not condone corruption, tax evasion, organised crime or unregulated migration. Nevertheless, I am deeply suspicious of the concerted effort to address all these problems in ways that markedly increase the power of states – and not just any states but specifically the world’s big states – at the expense of both small states and the individual. What makes me especially wary is that today, unlike in Dostoevsky’s time, the technology exists to give those big states, along with a few private companies, just the kind of control he dreaded.

Consider some of the most recent encroachments on liberty. The British government announced it will set up a publicly accessible register of beneficial owners (the individuals behind shell companies). In addition, offshore shell companies and other foreign entities that buy or own British property will henceforth be obliged to declare their owners in the new register. No doubt these measures will flush out or deter some villains. But there are perfectly legitimate reasons for a foreign national to want to own a property in Britain without having his or her name made public. Suppose you were an apostate from Islam threatened with death by jihadists, for example.

Or consider the phasing out of the 500-euro bill, fondly known in the underworld as the “bin Laden”. I have little doubt that when someone elects to transfer one million dollars by putting the equivalent in “bin Ladens” into a small bag and handing it to someone else, both parties are up to no good. Yet getting rid of bin Ladens is the thin end of a monetary wedge.

Economist Ken Rogoff is one of a number of economists who want to get rid of banknotes altogether. They argue cash is an anachronism, heavily used in the black and grey economy, and easily replaced in an age of credit cards and electronic payments. But their motive is not just to shut down the mafia. It is also to increase the power of government. Without cash, no payment can be made without being recorded and potentially coming under official scrutiny. Without cash, central banks can much more easily impose negative interest rates, without fearing that bank customers may withdraw their money.

The state wants data. What you earn. What you spend. Where you are. But what the state knows is just a fraction of what Facebook knows about you. The reason Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire is that, as you blithely share your likes and dislikes with family and friends, you tell Facebook almost everything there is to know about you. Advertisers will pay Facebook vast sums for that information. But do you really think advertisers are the only people who want Facebook’s data? (Fact: it was one of the internet companies named as collaborators in the US National Security Agency’s leaked Prism surveillance programme.)

We thought it was Big Brother we had to worry about. It turned out to be Big Data.

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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From VW to HSBC, there’s a simple reason why so many CEOs fail to spot rogue behaviour

South China Morning Post

Stephen Vines

Information overload is making us oblivious to what’s often in plain sight

In the wake of practically every corporate or political crisis two questions are asked: First, was the person at the top aware of the problem and second, if so, what did they do about it?

The person at the top is key because there was a time when the “buck stops here” principal was thought to prevail. In other words someone was prepared to assume ultimate responsibility.

Nowadays the great panjandrums who run the world’s biggest companies get visibly agitated when asked to explain why things occurred on their watch. A case in point was the response of Stuart Gulliver, HSBC’s chief, when he was hauled before a British parliamentary committee looking into the banking crisis. Gulliver argued that he could not be held responsible for everything that went on in his bank: “Can I know what everyone of 257,000 people is doing?” he asked, concluding, “Cleary I can’t”.

More specifically questions were asked about whether Martin Winterkorn, the former Chief Executive of Volkswagen, was aware of an email dated May 24 2014, that specified “irregularities” with US emissions tests for two VW diesel vehicles. This memo was part of what VW described as Winterkorn’s “extensive weekend email”; one of the reasons proffered for why he may have overlooked it. Other internal documents, that subsequently came to light, suggest that VW went to some efforts to cover its tracks as the vehicle testing scandal mushroomed.

Responsibility is being dodged because those at the top insist they are suffering from information overload. This affects everyone, as the days are long gone when information distribution was more restricted and far lower in volume, consisting mainly of phone calls, possibly faxes and telegrams and big piles of documents. We are now bombarded by emails and other electronic messaging which, in theory, is more convenient and efficient but in practise may be producing a volume of information that is too vast to absorb.

There is a thin line between what those at the top need to know and what they are capable of knowing. However and understandably those at the top rarely get the benefit of the doubt when the brown stuff hits the fan and questions are asked about why nothing was done on the basis of previous information.

Why, for example did the Belgium authorities seemingly ignore specific warnings from Turkey about the terrorists responsible for the recent Brussels airport and subway atrocities? Did US President George W Bush read the 2001 security briefing warning about Osama Bin Laden’s determination to launch a direct attack on the American homeland, an attack realised in the 9/11 events?

It is always easier with hindsight to pontificate on what should or should not have been done. But, in this case, for example, was the Central Intelligence Agency warning sufficiently specific to provide a basis for action?

And what happens when more junior officials deliberately withhold information from their bosses? Tidjane Thiam, the relatively new broom at the top of Credit Suisse, says that staff in his bank’s market’s division deliberately withheld information about risky bets. No doubt his anger is genuine but there are questions to be asked about whether more probing questions should have been asked by the bank.

In almost all instances of vital information not being acted on in a timely fashion there is evidence that the information was sitting there waiting to be read but either as a result of incompetence, arrogance or straightforward neglect that information lay dormant.

The excuse of information overload is plausible but it seems to be part of that dreaded syndrome where people complain of being too busy to do this or that. The reality is not that they are busy but incapable of organising and prioritising their work. It may be a bit of a cliché but, in my experience, it sure as hell is the case that if you want to get something done, ask a genuinely busy person to do it.

There are many excuses for ignoring information or failing to take account of it but most of them come down to poor organisation. Just because we all suffer from information overload does not mean throwing up your hands and declaring, “I give up”.

On the contrary this proliferation of information is useful but will only be valuable to those who succeed in sorting out their priorities.

Sometimes there are good reasons why the person at the top is not informed of some vital matter but the health of all organisations rests on the idea that the buck stops somewhere. Life is not fair, so there will inevitably be a degree of unfairness when bosses are compelled to fall on their swords for events beyond their control. Yet fall they must because information overload is no excuse for ducking responsibility.