Posts Tagged ‘China’

Knowing Hong Kong’s place

June 30, 2013

US leaker Edward Snowden’s short, unhappy stay in Hong Kong highlighted the confusion about my adopted hometown’s status under Chinese sovereignty. The July 1 anniversary of the 1997 Hong Kong handover is a good opportunity to clear things up.

First, let me say that, like most Hong Kongers, I’m of two minds about Snowden, though perhaps for different reasons. I’ve held a US security clearance, and I didn’t take the responsibility lightly. I also can imagine the weight Barack Obama’s administration feels to protect the American public because, unlike the George W Bush people, it can’t bask in the belief that an attack that kills thousands of Americans is science fiction. It’s also a political fact that the Obama administration got more heat for a guy on an airplane with explosives in his underwear who was apprehended without causing damage than the Bush administration got for ignoring a memo that warned Al Qaeda was determined to strike the US and doing nothing to prevent the thousands of deaths that resulted from that tragedy (not to mention the phony war it drummed up in its aftermath), unless buying expensive shoes, sporting a bad haircut and flapping your overbite are anti-terrorism measures.

I also feel very strongly about the right to privacy and snooping into our personal lives. I’m quite sympathetic to the argument that the National Security Agency wasn’t collecting any more information than Google, phone companies and big data aggregators do. To me, that means we should be fully exposing and debating what those private companies do, rather than expanding these hidden privileges to the government.

Snowden presented Hong Kong with an unwelcome dilemma. It was caught in the middle of a dispute involving two of its most important partners. His disclosure of US spying at Chinese University of Hong Kong rightly raised questions about the US-Hong Kong relationship. Snowden’s revelations of US cyber espionage on the mainland provided juicy political ammunition for China to counter US accusations of China’s hacking of US targets. But the US-China relationship is far more important than anything Snowden could offer. So getting him out of their hair Hong Kong was a good thing for all.

It was troubling to see Cyd Ho, one of Hong Kong’s leading pan-democratic politicians, ask Beijing to reveal its position on Snowden before Hong Kong courts heard his case. But it’s not Hong Kong’s place to get in the middle of a Sino-American dispute, unless Hong Kong itself is the subject.

But far more wrongheaded than Cyd Ho’s deference to Beijing was the stream of US politicians bloviating about Snowden taking his secrets to China, as if Hong Kong is just another city in China. The whole point of Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region (SAR) of China is that it’s not just another city in China.

The Basic Law, the mini-constitution for post-handover Hong Kong, guarantees the former British colony a “high degree of autonomy” in its domestic affairs for 50 years, with Beijing having a leading role in defense and foreign affairs only. (Snowden’s connection to foreign affairs gives local politicians an excuse for deferring to the mainland.) That high degree of autonomy includes freedom of expression and western style civil liberties that remain distant dreams in the mainland. Hong Kong has more than 7 million people, its own currency, its own courts and its own official language. There’s still a border between the Hong Kong and mainland, and citizens of each need permission to cross it. Deng Xiaoping summed up relationship best: “one country-two systems.”

The Hong Kong government makes it own laws with the help of an elected legislature. The electoral system isn’t terribly fair, but as much blame for that lies with the British and Hong Kong elite as Beijing. The British ruled undemocratically for 150 years and only began caring about giving Hong Kong’s masses a voice when the clock was running out. The local Chinese elite the colonial government leaned on were largely disinclined to cede power.

The relationship between China and Hong Kong is not analogous to the US government and a state. It’s more like the US relationship with Puerto Rico; few American would say that a person who went to Puerto Rico had thrown himself into the arms of the US intelligence services. But the US and Puerto Rico are in some ways closer than Hong Kong and China: Chinese citizens cannot freely visit, live and work in Hong Kong and vice versa.

As I wrote in Hong Kong On Air, everyone wondered how well “one country-two systems” would hold up after the handover. The problem, in these ensuing years, hasn’t been the structure but Hong Kong’s elite.

Hours after the handover (and completely unrelated to it), the Asian economic crisis hit the region as currencies collapsed. The crisis began China’s transformation from a supporting player amid the Asian tiger economies to the region’s leading dragon. Before the handover, Hong Kong expected to be the rich teacher to the mainland, but Hong Kong and China’s economic fortunes were abruptly reversed. Since the handover and the SARS epidemic of 2003, Hong Kong’s economy has become far more dependent on the mainland.

Despite that development, grassroots Hong Kong recognizes that loving China and doing business with it doesn’t mean loving the Communist Party’s rule. People here rose up against a plan to put mainland propaganda into the school curriculum and continue to campaign for free, direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, its head of government. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers turn out annually to commemorate the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that still cannot be spoken of across the border.

But Hong Kong’s elite have always been dependent on whoever’s in charge. Propaganda about Hong Kong and Singapore as the world’s freest economies notwithstanding, local tycoons got rich by kowtowing to leadership for favors and licenses. For example, property is the source of most wealth in Hong Kong and the government owns all the land, not exactly the way Adam Smith drew it up. Hong Kong’s rigged electoral system gives those tycoons disproportionate say in the legislature and lets Beijing chose the people who choose the chief executive. These so-called leaders put far greater emphasis on “one country” than “two systems” and skew outsiders’ views of Hong Kong. Their laxity about safeguarding Hong Kong’s prerogatives represents the small circle that elects them, not the majority of Hong Kongers.

What the tycoons and their acolytes fail to recognize is that they have the most to lose if Hong Kong really does become just another Chinese city. Fortunately, the people who ride the subway instead of Rolls Royces and Bentleys keep standing up to prevent it from happening. At least some of us recognize where our best interests really lie.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

China seen from the bottom up

November 11, 2012

As China picks its next leadership in a discussion among a tiny fraction of its elite, the vast majority of Chinese are still just trying to get by.

Sheng Keyi’s novel Northern Girls depicts the lives of migrants from the countryside to cities that have helped fuel the China’s meteoric economic growth. Sheng moved from Hubei province to Sheng to work as a young woman and published Northern Girls in Chinese in 2004; the English translation was released this year. Northern Girls can be seen as a fictional prelude to Factory Girls, based on interviews with migrants.

I talked to Sheng at the last month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali last month. Our interview vividly portrays the inheritance of China’s new leadership: a society that’s increasingly unequal, where material wealth expands alongside moral bankruptcy. The interview, posted on Asia Times, is also a reminder that many Chinese novelists living in China do their best to stretch the limits of state tolerance. Like leaving behind family and the familiar for the unknown metropolis – as my own mother did, moving from Portland, Maine, to New York City – writing from the heart in China remains an act of extraordinary courage with no guarantees beyond plenty of hard work in a hard place.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Macau casino revenue numbers hide real news

November 1, 2012

Over the past few months, Macau casino revenues have disappointed. October’s new revenue record of MOP27.7 billion (US$3.46 billion), while welcome, represented a modest 3.2 percent increase over revenue a year ago. But behind the numbers, key changes are taking place that will transform Macau.

After years of increasing domination by VIP players provided by junket operators, for about a year mass market gamblers have been driving revenue growth. As I wrote in the October issue of Macau Business, the trend will show its biggest impact beyond the casino floor.

A related trend is the swing toward Cotai, covered in the July issue of Macau Business. Three casino operators already have resorts in Cotai, the entertainment area built on landfill between Macau’s outer islands, and this year the government has approved development applications from the other three. By the end of 2017, there will be at least six new developments in Cotai, built for some US$15 billion.

Things will surely be different by then. But Macau’s shakeup has already begun, with its effect felt as far away as Beijing and Wall Street.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Next Hong Kong handover due in 2017

July 1, 2012

Fifteen years ago today was the apex of Hong Kong’s time as the center of the universe. My novel Hong Kong On Air recalls that incredible time.

Fifteen years later, you can debate whether China has become the center of the universe or whether Hong Kong is better or worse now. What’s certain is that Hong Kong has become far more dependent on China. The Asian economic crash of 1997 that immediately followed the handover – but had its causes elsewhere – and the 2003 SARS epidemic combined to turn the tables on the relationship between Hong Kong and China. It may have been a coincidence brought about by events, or it may be the product a calculated strategy by Beijing, but today Hong Kong needs China far more than China needs Hong Kong.

CY Leung takes the helm today as Hong Kong Chief Executive as the unelected head of the territory, chosen by a handful of handpicked Beijing loyalists. Beijing has promised that five years from today the chief executive being sworn in will be chosen in a free, democratic election by all the people of Hong Kong. If Hong Kong and China hope to enjoy a new version of the golden times Hong Kong On Air describes, that promise must be kept. Everyone who loves Hong Kong and everyone who loves freedom should join hands to convince Beijing to keep its word.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.

US taxman breaks Willie Sutton rule

April 9, 2011

When asked why he robbed banks, legendary holdup man Willie Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” America’s Internal Revenue Service is breaking that rule to target US citizens living overseas. The IRS is mandating billions in government and private sector resources to gather unprecedented levels of financial information to conduct what’s probably a wild goose chase for overseas tax cheats born of bureaucratic sophistry.

The drive to more closely monitor the estimated 5.3 million American citizens living abroad grew out of a crackdown on tax cheats inside the US. Swiss banking giant UBS – where former Texas Senator Phil Gramm serves as vice chairman – actively recruited citizens within the 50 states to participate in tax evasion schemes using overseas bank accounts. That led to increased scrutiny of overseas bank accounts, and since nearly all Americans living overseas have foreign bank accounts, they’ve become primary targets.

As I wrote for Asia Times, the new regime includes a vast expansion of heretofore largely unenforced rules on reporting of overseas bank accounts that will extend to investments and even credit card transactions, creating mountains of data for the already overburdened IRS and huge new headaches for overseas banks, brokers and US citizens.

Many in the financial services industry are balking, and many Americans see the new rules as invasions of privacy. China-based US accountant Laurence Lipsher, author of Larry’s 2011 Tax Guide for US Expats and Green Card Holders in User Friendly English, fears the IRS request for comments on the new rules could be like Chairman Mao’s “Let 100 Bloom” campaign that was used to identify dissidents.

The thirst for government revenue in the face of mounting budget deficits helps fuel the focus on expatriates, since more Willie Suttonic ideas such as closing corporate loopholes or raising taxes on top earners are off the table. While some Americans overseas claim that second home in Monte Carlo as tax residence or live lavishly in company-paid villas with servants and limos, most are just working stiffs, often getting by on incomes laughable by US standards.

In one instance documented by American Citizens Abroad, an expatriate that accepted the IRS “voluntary disclosure” invitation to correct previous oversights found tax liabilities of less than $200 accompanied by penalties of $60,000 on their $300,000 life savings.

What would Willie say?

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Macau’s record year means less of more

January 12, 2011

In 2010, Macau gaming revenue set another new record at 188.34 billion Macau patacas ($23.5 billion), capped with its biggest monthly haul ever in December. Gaming industry experts are convinced that Beijing will continue permitting vast quantities of the mainland’s wealth to leave via Macau’s baccarat tables.

But grassroots Macau benefits little from its influx of tourists and money, and there’s no coherent plan to change that. Efforts at diversifying the economy from its reliance on gaming, in the few cases where they’ve progressed past the talking stage, remain fruitless. As I wrote in Asia Times, the hospitality industry suffers from a plague of Macau see, Macau do: emulating rivals’ (mainly unsuccessful) ideas rather than daring to be original. The government looks increasingly unable to spend its vast wealth, now estimated are more than $25 billion for a city of 550,000, to benefit residents.

Macau has become a great place to bet or buy Gucci, but an increasingly poor place to live and work. In the long run, that’s not good for anyone. Even if Macau’s ruling elite and gaming industry don’t realize it, Beijing surely does.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Sands China rolls 7-8 craps in Macau

December 10, 2010

Bulletin: My blog entry Twenty reasons Barack Obama stinks has been nominated for the 3QuarksDaily Prize in Politics. Please vote here if you enjoy the piece. First prize is $1000, and, of course, a quark. So please vote now.

Macau aims to diversify its gambling-addicted economy, a course Beijing urges at every opportunity, as the city’s gaming revenue climbs beyond $2 billion a month. Last week, Macau rejected Sands China’s bid for Lots 7 and 8 to build a new casino resort in the Cotai entertainment district. But Macau’s decision may have no connection to economic diversification.

A subsidiary of US-based Las Vegas Sands, Sands China has spearheaded efforts to create an Asian version of the Las Vegas Strip in Cotai, a landfill connecting Macau’s outer islands of Coloane and Taipa. Following its $12 billion master plan, Sands China has already opened the Venetian Macao, and the Four Seasons/Plaza complexes, and has another 6,400 room casino resort under construction. Sands China says it invested more than $160 million in Lots 7 and 8 based on an informal grant from the Macau government several years ago.

In tiny Macau, land is the most valuable commodity, and the government controls it. Formal approval for land concessions in Macau routinely comes long after the designated developer begins work. Sands China has every right to feel that it got a raw deal. It has appealed the decision to Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on. The company could also take its case to court. But in Macau, where matters are habitually decided behind closed doors and without public explanations – news about Lots 7 and 8 came from Sands China, not the government – it’s tough to beat the house.

Losing Lots 7 and 8 hurts Sands China but, as I wrote in Asia Times, the meaning for Macau is far less clear. Denying the application seems to be a move to limit future gaming, but it’s likely that the land will be granted to one of Sands China’s rivals to build its own casino resort.

Macau’s government may have a grudge against Sand China, even though it’s the casino developer that provides the most diverse non-gaming amenities at its resorts, including shopping malls, a 15,000 seat arena, a Cirque du Soleil production, and a 1,000,000 square foot convention center, all money losers to date. Macau added insult to injury by staging an unprecedented vice raid Friday at the Venetian Macao during a visit by Las Vegas Sands chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly has a rocky relationship with government leaders.

Or Macau could be signaling it will limit growth for outsiders, defined as anyone not named Ho – as in local gambling godfather Stanley Ho. Ho and his children have stakes in three of Macau’s six casino licenses.

The saga of Lots 7 and 8 unmistakably illustrates that Macau’s unelected, unaccountable government can and will act arbitrarily. Smart investors will understand that hard reality trumps Macau’s glittering casino revenue numbers.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Author Ma Jian links Nobel Peace Prize, Bali

October 11, 2010

This year’s seventh annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival featured Chinese writer in exile Ma Jian, who I interviewed for Asia Times. The author of Beijing Coma, Ma has chosen to write books about China from outside, going back only for visits that he reports include frequent questioning by police.

Coincidentally, while Ma was in Bali, fellow democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to change the system from inside China. It’s fruitless to debate whether Ma or Liu is working most effectively to win freedom for the People’s Republic of China. It’s much more important to remember, and beyond debate, that Beijing’s rulers and their Communist Party are responsible for suppressing freedom and democracy in China.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Baseball makes its pitch in China

September 30, 2010

In the US, Independence Day on July 4th features barbecues, fireworks and baseball. October 1 marks the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, featuring parades, speeches and, maybe someday, baseball, too. Major League Baseball began promoting baseball in China by training China’s team for the 2008 Olympics. With baseball out of the Olympic movement after the Asian Games in November, critics say MLB has squandered its best chance to build grassroots support, sell merchandise and win TV audiences. As I reported in Asia Times, MLB officials say they’ve barely begun their quest to win Chinese hearts and minds and find baseball’s equivalent of NBA star Yao Ming. Earlier this year, China’s designated professional sports entrepreneur Kenny Huang issued press releases about branching into baseball, so it may be the early innings of a contest between MLB and the home team in the world’s fastest growing consumer economy.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

Crackpot threatens book burning

September 25, 2010

Hello. I’m Muhammad Cohen, and I have a stark warning for the American people.

My novel of Hong Kong On Air, a story of TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie, is now on sale at bookstores throughout the US and online. If you don’t buy my book, then I’ll have to burn it, and for the security and tranquility of America, you don’t want me to do that.

I’m a Muslim – Muhammad Cohen – and burning my book will offend the 2.1 billion Muslims across the world. It will offend Muslims in Afghanistan, where America’s finest are in harm’s way. So if you don’t buy my book and make me burn it, you’ll be putting our troops at risk.

I’m also Jewish – Muhammad Cohen – and burning my book will offend the world’s Jews. If you don’t buy my book and make me burn it, you’ll be inviting trouble from the powerful American Jewish lobby, not to mention thousands of doctors, lawyers and accountants.

My book is Hong Kong On Air – Hong Kong, like in China – and burning it will offend 1.3 billion Chinese. China already makes just about everything we buy, we’re in hock to China up to eyebrows, and they’ve got nuclear weapons. Burning my book is bound to get on China’s bad side, and that’s no where to be.

Hong Kong On Air is about the global media, especially big, family controlled global media that reaches across television and newspapers. Burning my book will get the powerful global media angry, and give them another reason to tap your cell phone.

I’m originally from Queens, the New York City borough that’s closest to America’s heartland. If you make me burn my book, Jerry Seinfeld will haunt you, and Sarah Palin will never stop tweeting you.

If you don’t buy my book, you’ll offend America’s sense of humor because Hong Kong On Air is the funniest book you’ll read this year. You don’t want to get on the bad side of the comedians who make America laugh every night, guys like David Letterman, Jay Leno, Glenn Beck and John Boehner.

I used to be a baseball writer, and I’ve still got plenty of friends in the game. Burning my book will anger people who make their living swinging wooden clubs and throwing rock-solid objects at great velocity with pinpoint accuracy – they could come looking for you. And, rest assured your ballpark nachos will never have jalapenos again. Besides, baseball remains America’s national pastime and if I burn my book… well, you can do what you want to me, but I’m not going to stand for you insulting the United States of America.

So, buy Hong Kong On Air, tell your friends to buy it, and give it as gifts. After you read it, post a review on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and wherever else you can think of. Or the smoking book could turn out to be a mushroom cloud.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.


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