Generation 40s – 四十世代

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As America heads back to a future of small-minded thinking, can China seize the chance to lead?

CommentInsight & Opinion

Tom Plate says the US’ latest foreign policy ideas of ‘America First’, war preparations and a single winner are not actually new, and are not well thought out


In the pantheon of American movies, 1985’s Back to the Future does not rank at the top of temple Hollywood, as do canonical masterpieces such as CasablancaGone With the WindLawrence of Arabia, etc. Yet the movie title alone enriched American argot, and works perfectly to capture the latest turn in US foreign policy. Yes, it looks like it may be “back to the future” again, as in … war preparation.

The Trump administration has revealed defence priorities that have the chilling feel of a cold war emphasis – rather than a no-war aspiration. The world has just been told that the 2019 Pentagon budget – topped up at US$716 billion – comes packaged as an “aggressive defence strategy”. Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, viewed as one of this bizarre administration’s more balanced brains, cites threats from China and Russia. Both political left and right, argue some US think-tank types, seem in increasing concurrence on two nostrums. One is that the Indo-Pacific region is the globe’s number one geopolitical theatre (agree). The second is that America must do much more to counter an “increasingly authoritarian, mercantilist and aggressive” China.

Who knows what the US now wants, but what is worrisome is the ever-hovering Law of Unintended Consequences: one builds up for peace but winds up with war.

This depressing drift reflects conceptual minimalism – an ideology of win-lose, the default of us-vs-them, and rejection of visionary global leadership for petty policy provincialism. “America First does not mean America alone”, President Donald Trump insisted at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland. “When the United States grows, so does the world.” But how can that be the case if it grows small-minded?

Small minds tend not to beget big ideas. One of America’s great diplomats was the late George Kennan, who coined – and mostly even defined – the iconic policy of “containment” as the needed antidote to the poison of the former Soviet Union. And though Kennan’s excoriation of Soviet communism never waned one bit at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he retired to become an unforgettable teacher, the true genius of the containment notion was its aim: not to provoke uncertainty but offer a bedrock of predictability.

But when the USSR collapsed from internal decay, the simplicity of this organising idea went poof as well. One day, out of frustration, a few Washington influentials trekked to Princeton hoping the master might give birth to a new trope, as it were, to reframe US policy. But according to dinner participants (alas, I was not present), Kennan resisted the challenge with the sigh that world was exploding in too many directions for conceptual miniaturisation. At the same time Kennan, who died in 1995 aged 101, had little appetite to advise anyone to go “back to the future”.

The provincialism of Trump is a symptom of the current default to the past, including tariff tantrums and potential trade wars that will harm US consumers as well as foreign producers; but he is not the core cause. The new provincialism goes deep: after all, Trump’s more thoughtful predecessor preferred “leading from behind”. But whether from the back or front, Asian nations from the Philippines to Vietnam – and perhaps also Singapore and Malaysia – need the US to act with intelligence and foresight. What is needed is a committed effort to formulate a cosmopolitan internationalism, fiendishly multisided; but rarely is anything truly important easy to achieve.

The problem with the win-lose paradigm is that someone always loses; the argument for win-win is, “why risk being a loser”? It should not be hard to decide which of these two approaches offers the best odds for geopolitical and economic stability. This outlook would prove less difficult to realise were it matched by an expansive dose of cosmopolitanism from China. Americans worry – and increasingly so – that Beijing is striking a more global posture than Washington but the new “nice” hegemon profile is but a pose. One Harvard professor even titled his latest book (superb, other than the awful title): Destined for War.

China will stumble if it needlessly brews its own cold war rumble. Big powers advance best with little steps. This sensitive point was conveyed at Davos. Singapore’s tactful minister, Chan Chun Sing, came across as more than happy to accept China’s imaginative and ambitious New Silk Road programme as a credible potential trigger for our world economy’s “next phase of growth”. But – seemed the minister’s subtext – Beijing needs to stop scaring people in the Asian neighbourhood half out of their wits if it proposes to begin “leading from the front” with élan. Said Chan: “I can understand and I have heard theories where people are afraid, hesitant about China’s growth. But this is an important historical opportunity for China to convince the rest of the world that actually its actions have a broader perspective … The Chinese have a saying: yi de fu ren – use your benevolence to bring about a global community.”

This felicitous phrase was the one trumpeted by President Xi Jinping in his Davos speech last year. The optics of the current Chinese government plumping for an expansive internationalism contrasted brilliantly – and cleverly – with the self-centred darkness of the then newly inaugurated American president. And it still does. Back to the future – if America is prepared to go small conceptually, while blowing up militarily? Or boldly into the future goes China – yi de fu ren? That’s the daunting, haunting mystery of our era.

Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate’s books on China include the recent Yo-Yo Diplomacy and In the Middle of China’s Future (with an introduction by Kishore Mahbubani)

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Red light on private cars needed in Hong Kong to curb roadside pollution

CommentInsight & Opinion

Mike Rowse says air pollution caused by the combination of traffic congestion and tall buildings has created a health crisis that can only be tackled by cracking down on the number of vehicles on the roads


It is a basic duty of governments to maintain the health and safety of their citizens to the maximum extent possible. If they can’t do that, then they don’t deserve to call themselves governments.

There are two policy areas where our government is close to failing in its duty (some would say has failed): roadside air pollution and peak-hour public transport. The issues are connected, but what is really alarming is that the problems are well documented, the solutions are well known and readily available, yet the likely outcome is that nothing will be done until it is too late. This suggests we have a fundamental problem of governance.

The subject of air pollution is broad and multifaceted. There is the cross-border aspect because of industrial activity in Guangdong province. There is a marine aspect because our busy harbour is close to the urban area. Some measures have been implemented to address these issues in recent years, though many would say too little, too late. To be fair, we should also acknowledge the greater use of cleaner fuels in power generation. Despite these modest improvements, air pollution is thought to cause five premature deaths per day in Hong Kong, and contribute to the deaths of around 20,000 Hongkongers per year.

Specifically on roadside air pollution, Hong Kong has a particular problem because of the “canyon effect”, where we have a large number of tall buildings in proximity. The major cause here is emissions from motor vehicles.

There has been explosive growth in the number of private cars during the last 10 years. We now have over 750,000 vehicles of all types on our roads, more than 540,000 of which (over 70 per cent) are private cars. Their direct contribution to roadside air pollution is modest – probably under 5 per cent. But their very presence on the road in such large numbers creates congestion. These vehicles would cause a lot less pollution if they were able to move more freely.

Which brings us to transport policy. The mainstay of our public transport system is our railway network. This is world-class and does a great job. But as anyone who uses it during peak hours will know – and I suspect this does not include our ministers – the MTR is getting dangerously overcrowded at certain times. The extensions to existing lines and construction of new ones are welcome but at key interchanges, they will bring more passengers and exacerbate the problem. At Admiralty, the situation is already dangerous, tolerable only because of the good sense and behaviour of passengers. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

To reduce the overcrowding and danger, our railway needs to be supplemented by a well-planned network of bus routes. But no matter how good the planning is, it will be to no avail if the vehicles are not moving freely. We do not need more buses on the road: we just need the ones we already have to be able to make more and faster journeys.

Here, the roadside air pollution and peak-hour transport overcrowding problems come together. We must halt the growth in the number of private cars on Hong Kong roads and then take bold steps to reduce the total. We cannot rely on fiscal means alone to achieve this as Hong Kong is a wealthy society and some people will always be prepared to stump up. That means we have to introduce a permit system.

There are various ways in which this might be done. People wishing to buy a car could be invited to bid for one of the limited number of permits to be issued each year (whether by lucky draw or highest offer is open to discussion). Existing owners of cars over a certain age, say 10 years, would also need to secure a permit before their car is relicensed. Any such scheme would be wildly unpopular with owners, but unless draconian steps are taken, the roadside air pollution and transport safety situations will deteriorate.

We cannot continue with a situation where the environment department just records how bad things are, the health department tries to treat the afflicted, while the transport department passively licenses increasing numbers of private cars which add pollution and increase congestion. That is not joined-up government and it is time we had some.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises.

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How Europe is working to solve the plastic waste problem – and Hong Kong can, too

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Carmen Cano

Carmen Cano outlines a new EU strategy involving making recycling profitable, limiting use of non-recyclable plastics, stopping littering at sea and promoting R&D, to keep plastics out of our waters and bodies

Every year, Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30 per cent is collected for recycling. Microplastics are now found in our lungs, air and dinner tables, and damage our health without us even noticing. We need to address this and that is the objective of the new European Union Plastics Strategy.

The strategy on plastics is part of the EU’s transition towards a more circular economy. It will transform the way products are designed, produced, used and recycled in the EU. Now plastics are produced, used and discarded without the economic benefits of a circular approach. This mistake harms the environment. Our goal is to protect the environment while laying the foundations of a new plastic economy that promotes economic growth. This can be achieved by fully integrating the need to reuse, repair and recycle throughout the entire life cycle of products. At the same time, we will continue to develop more environmentally friendly materials. Europe is best placed to lead this transition.

By taking the lead, we will turn a threat into an economic and health benefit, while creating new investment opportunities and jobs. Under the plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and intentional use of microplastics restricted. To ensure the strategy is effective and yields the best results, the EU will measure progress and adapt its policies where needed.

What does the strategy mean in practice? First, make recycling profitable for business through new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increasing the demand for recycled plastic, along with new recycling facilities and a standardised system for the collection and sorting of waste across the EU. This will create a more competitive, resilient plastics industry.

Second, curb plastic waste. Standards in Europe have reduced plastics use significantly. The new proposal focuses on single-use plastics and fishing gear, measures limiting microplastics use, and labels identifying biodegradable, compostable plastics.

Third, stop littering at sea. New measures will ensure that waste generated on ships is not left at sea but returned to land and disposed of adequately. It will also reduce the administrative burden on ports, ships and competent authorities.

Fourth, drive investment and innovation with guidance for national authorities and European businesses to minimise plastic waste, with 100 million euros (HK$956 million) more in support for R&D for smarter and more recyclable plastics.

Get on board the battle to stop plastic polluting the oceans

The EU strategy is not only relevant for Europeans. Last September, the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau held a beach cleaning with more than 100 volunteers at Rocky Bay beach. In less than two hours, more than 900kg of waste was removed, the large majority of it plastic. The world faces an emergency. If we do not change how we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. We must keep plastics out of our water, food and bodies. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more. This is a challenge citizens, industry and governments around the world must tackle together. We hope the guidelines, available online, will be useful to others as well.

The EU will do its part but cannot, and should not, do it alone. Everyone must join in to make the waters clean, the air breathable and the environment safe again. Hong Kong can be a part of the solution and reap the benefits. The EU and its member states are ready to work together with Hong Kong on its plastic and environmental policies.

Ambassador Carmen Cano is head of the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau

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Why do Hong Kong tycoons hold on to their wealth while Westerners give back so much?

CommentInsight & Opinion

Michael Chugani says the Teresa Cheng scandal has led him to question why Hong Kong’s ultra rich prefer to keep their wealth, unlike their counterparts in the West. A conversation with the city’s third-wealthiest man shows there are exceptions

Who would have thought that embattled justice secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s illegal structures would reawaken public anger at how Hong Kong’s rich live?

We know from Cheng’s upscale homes that she is wealthy but nowhere near our tycoons who belong to a class of their own. Once admired for their rags-to-riches stories, they are now mocked by many Hongkongers.

Our tycoons have amassed immense wealth but what always strikes me is how they cling on to it, passing it down to their children instead of giving it back to society. America’s super rich have amassed even greater wealth. The difference is that most have pledged to give it away. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest man, even asked Twitter followers for philanthropy ideas.

Why are the top donors in The Giving Pledge, started by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, all Westerners? Surely that should shame Asians. I have long wanted to ask an actual Hong Kong tycoon upfront why Asians pocket their wealth while Westerners give much of it back to society.

When property and casino magnate Lui Che-woo of K Wah Group obliged, I wondered if I would get straight answers. But that’s exactly what I got over a lunch of takeaway fishball noodles with Hong Kong’s third-richest man.

A huge cultural difference steeped in politics and tradition is why Gates can give away his billions with his children’s blessing while Hong Kong’s tycoons keep their fortunes in the family. Western parents ask their children to make their own way when they come of age but Chinese parents don’t ever want their children to leave home.

That reminded me of how accustomed ordinary Hongkongers are to seeing the offspring of the rich fight over the family fortune. I don’t know if cultural differences will dissipate enough for our tycoons to become like Gates or Buffett but my sit-down with the 88-year-old Lui was like a breath of fresh air.

He pressed the point that he started with little, made a lot, and now wants to give back to the world that enriched him, quoting the Chinese saying that you gain more by giving than receiving. He reminded me of my time in Seattle seeing Gates speak so passionately about easing world hunger and disease.

Instead of dividing his vast fortune among his children, Lui has his own version of a giving pledge – the nearly HK$20 billion Lui Che Woo Foundation through which he does his philanthropy work. His offspring run different businesses and channel profits to top up the foundation.

The HK$4 billion LUI Che Woo Prize has a different mission – handing out HK$60 million a year to winners who have helped advance world civilisation in different ways. It’s relatively new compared to the Nobel Prize or Shaw Prize but is the most generous in prize money.

When you have nearly two hours with a property tycoon who likes to talk about giving, it’s not easy to switch subjects.

Property prices in Hong Kong show no signs of dropping. Photo: EPABut I needed to hear from a property tycoon if home prices in Hong Kong – the world’s highest – will ever ease. He gave me a straight answer. With the mainland’s 1.4 billion population and the growth of the Greater Bay Area, there’s so much money coming in that it’s hard for prices to drop.

I never thought I would hear a property tycoon say the rush to build nano flats is unhealthy but Lui did. Homes have to be at least 300-400 square feet for healthy living. And he was brutally frank about Hong Kong’s disillusioned youth. They already have a lot compared to his own past when a dim sum meal was like a banquet.

You may say I’m a dreamer but maybe one day our other tycoons will also talk more about giving than taking. Maybe one day they’ll say nano flats are a no-no. And maybe one day, they’ll set up Hong Kong’s very own giving pledge.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host