Archive for June, 2013

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; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Air Asia Indonesia performance doesn’t fly

June 23, 2013

Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes says “Indonesia is the jewel in our crown.” If he’s serious, he’d better upgrade his royal caretakers.

I’m a longtime Air Asia flyer. I’m used to the budget carrier’s no-frills, pay-for-it-if-you-want-it approach laden with creative surcharges, and I’m resigned to its at best indifferent customer service. But my experience with Air Asia Indonesia was a shock.

First, there’s the absolutely tacky – and in many jurisdictions likely illegal – practice of requiring that each passenger pay in advance for baggage, whether they have any or not, rather than being straightforward and simply adding that mandatory charge to the base fare. While Air Asia has always dug up ways to charge for services, it’s never gone to this extreme, making customers buy something regardless of whether they want or need it. That goes against the entire Air Asia ethos.

Far worse was the experience when I tried to fly Air Asia Indonesia from Bali to a family wedding in Makassar. My wife’s youngest brother was getting married, so she and our six year old daughter both had key roles in the ceremony. En route to the airport – I’d been on assignment for – we got caught in Bali’s extraordinary traffic as it prepares for major international meetings later this year, and arrived at 2:40pm for a 3:30pm flight.

The employee at the desk refused to check us in, even the plane had not even arrived at the airport. And, of course, Air Asia wouldn’t consider rescheduling our flights or refunding our money. We asked him for let us talk to the supervisor; this employee claimed he was the supervisor. We asked him to let us talk to the people at the gate to see if they could help us – again, the aircraft hadn’t arrived yet, so it’s not as if boarding had already begun – and he refused. As my wife pleaded and our daughter cried, the employee seemed to delight in our predicament, rather than show any desire to help us.

We appealed to other airport personnel, including the security staff, to assist us. They recognized the absurdity of the Air Asia employee’s behavior and tried to intervene on our behalf. Again, the Air Asia employee refused to show any common sense or common decency. Instead, he became confrontational and aggressive toward us. We were in a completely ridiculous situation, but it was clear that the person who could fix it wouldn’t.

Fortunately, we found an alternative flight to Makassar with another carrier at substantial additional cost, and missed nearly all of the evening ceremonies due to the later flight time. All of this unhappiness could have been avoided if this one Air Asia Indonesia employee had chosen cooperation rather confrontation as his mode of customer service. When purchased our new tickets, we couldn’t help notice that the Air Asia ticket counter’s thick glass window had been broken; apparently we are not the carrier’s first dissatisfied customers in Bali.

Perhaps worst of all, I wrote to Air Asia about the incident via its website with full details, including the name of the employee. I got an acknowledgement that the item was received but no further response. I tried to follow up without success, then began the whole process again, and again got no reply. No one at Air Asia had the guts to stand up and say the employee followed our rules and we stand by his actions, or to apologize and say they’d try to ensure future customers didn’t face similarly suffer in situations that could be fixed so easily.

So let me now ask Tony Fernandes whether he thinks his employees took good care of Air Asia’s crown jewel in this case. I look forward to his response.

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; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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