A tale of caution to Hong Kong?

hk 3d map

Nobody really knows, as a tautological premise, whether history exactly repeats itself (despite the seemingly obvious repetitive patterns if one looks at various cases). While I caution to maintain objectivity – to some degree, this case study, while not necessarily meaning there existed parallels between what happened in Venice and what currently is taking place in Hong Kong, carries directions which may possibly lead to a convergence. Nobody really knows what will really happen in the future, but studying from the case of Venice, one should sense some sort of alert.

The story of Venice was one part of a chapter (Chapter 6 – “Drifting Apart”) in ‘Why Nations Fail’, written by MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson. Basically, this historical case study highlighted how an inclusive government institution, if not supervised carefully, can become an extractive one instead, which ends up inhibiting, rather than stimulating, development in a society.

And here the story goes.

Remark: the case study is entirely written by Acemoglu and Robinson.

*****

HOW VENICE BECAME A MUSEUM

The group of islands that form Venice lie at the far north of the Adriatic Sea. In the Middle Ages, Venice was possibly the richest place in the world, with the most advanced set of inclusive economic institutions underpinned by nascent political inclusiveness. It gained its independence in AD 810, at what turned out to be a fortuitous time. The economy of Europe was recovering from the decline it had suffered as the Roman Empire collapsed, and kings such as Charlemagne were reconstituting strong central political power. This led to stability, greater security, and an expansion of trade, which Venice was in a unique position to take advantage of. It was a nation of seafarers, placed right in the middle of the Mediterranean. From the East came spices, Byzantine-manufactured goods, and slaves. Venice became rich. By 1050, when Venice had already been expanding economically for at least a century, it had a population of 45,000 people. This increased by more than 50 percent, to 70,000, by 1200. By 1330 the population had again increased by another 50 percent, to 110,000; Venice was then as big as Paris, and probably three times the size of London.

One of the key bases for the economic expansion of Venice was a series of contractual innovations making economic institutions much more inclusive. The most famous was the commenda, a rudimentary type of joint stock company, which formed only for the duration of a single trading mission. A commenda involved two partners, a “sedentary” one who stayed in Venice and one who traveled. The sedentary partner put capital into the venture, while the traveling partner accompanied the cargo. Typically, the sedentary partner put in the lion’s share of the capital. Young entrepreneurs who did not have wealth themselves could then go into the trading business by traveling with the merchandise. It was a key channel of upward social mobility. Any losses in the voyage were shared according to the amount of capital the partners had put in. If the voyage made money, profits were based on two types of commenda contracts. If the commenda was unilateral, then the sedentary merchant provided 100 percent of the capital and received 75 percent of the profits. If it was bilateral, the sedentary merchant provided 67 percent of the capital and received 50 percent of the profits. Studying official documents, one sees how powerful a force the commenda was in fostering upward social mobility: these documents are full of new names, people who had previously not been among the Venetian elite. In government documents of AD 960, 971, and 982, the number of new names comprise 69 percent, 81 percent, and 65 percent, respectively, of those recorded.

This economic inclusiveness and the rise of new families through trade forced the political system to become even more open. The doge, who governed Venice, was selected for life by the General Assembly. Though a general gathering of all citizens, in practice the General Assembly was dominated by a core group of powerful families. Though the doge was very powerful, his power was gradually reduced over time by changes in political institutions. After 1032 the doge was elected along with a newly created Ducal Council, whose job was also to ensure that the doge did not acquire absolute power. The first doge hemmed in by this council, Domenico Flabianco, was a wealthy silk merchant from a family that had not previously held high office. This institutional change was followed by a huge expansion of Venetian mercantile and naval power. In 1082 Venice was granted extensive trade privileges in Constantinople, and a Venetian Quarter was created in that city. It soon housed ten thousand Venetians. Here we see inclusive economic and political institutions beginning to work in tandem.

The economic expansion of Venice, which created more pressure for political change, exploded after the changes in political and economic institutions that followed the murder of the doge in 1171. The first important innovation was the creation of a Great Council, which was to be the ultimate source of political power in Venice from this point on. The council was made up of officeholders of the Venetian state, such as judges, and was dominated by aristocrats. In addition to these officeholders, each year a hundred new members were nominated to the council by a nominating committee whose four members were chosen by lot from the existing council. The council also subsequently chose the members for two subcouncils, the Senate and the Council of Forty, which had various legislative and executive tasks. The Great Council also chose the Ducal Council, which was expanded from two to six members. The second innovation was the creation of yet another council, chosen by the Great Council by lot, to nominate the doge. Though the choice had to be ratified by the General Assembly, since they nominated only one person, this effectively gave the choice of doge to the council. The third innovation was that a new doge had to swear an oath of office that circumscribed ducal power. Over time these constraints were continually expanded so that subsequent doges had to obey magistrates, then have all their decisions approved by the Ducal Council. The Ducal Council also took on the role of ensuring that the doge obeyed all decisions of the Great Council.

These political reforms led to a further series of institutional variations: in law, the creation of independent magistrates, courts, a court of appeals, and new private contract and bankruptcy laws. These new Venetian economic institutions allowed the creation of new legal business forms and new types of contracts. There was rapid financial innovation, and we see the beginnings of modern banking around this time in Venice. The dynamic moving Venice toward fully inclusive institutions looked unstoppable.

But there was a tension in all this. Economic growth supported by the inclusive Venetian institutions was accompanied by creative destruction. Each new wave of enterprising young men who became rich via the commenda or other similar economic institutions tended to reduce the profits and economic success of established elites. And they did not just reduce their profits; they also challenged their political power. Thus there was always a temptation, if they could get away with it, for the existing elites sitting in the Great Council to close down the system to these new people.

At the Great Council’s inception, membership was determined each year. As we saw, at the end of the year, four electors were randomly chosen to nominate a hundred members for the next year, who were automatically selected. On October 3, 1286, a proposal was made to the Great Council that the rules be amended so that nominations had to be confirmed by a majority in the Council of Forty, which was tightly controlled by elite families. This would have given the elite veto power over new nominations to the council, something they previously had not had. The proposal was defeated. On October 5, 1286, another proposal was put forth; this time it passed. From then on there was to be automatic confirmation of a person if his father and grandfathers had served on the council. Otherwise, confirmation was required by the Ducal Council. On October 17 another change in the rules was passed stipulating that an appointment to the Great Council must be approved by the Council of Forty, the doge, and the Ducal Council.

The debates and constitutional amendments of 1286 presaged La Serrata (“The Closure”) of Venice. In February 1297, it was decided that if you had been a member of the Great Council in the previous four years, you received automatic nomination and approval. New nominations now had to be approved by the Council of Forty, but with only twelve votes. After September 11, 1298, current members and their families no longer needed confirmation. The Great Council was now effectively sealed to outsiders, and the initial incumbents had become a hereditary aristocracy. The seal on this came in 1315, with the Libro d’Oro, or “Gold Book”, which was an official registry of the Venetian nobility.

Those outside the nascent nobility did not let their powers erode without a struggle. Political tensions mounted steadily in Venice between 1297 and 1315. The Great Council partially responded by making itself bigger. In an attempt to co-opt its most vocal opponents, it grew from 450 to 1,500. This expansion was complemented by repression. A police force was introduced for the first time in 1310, and there was a steady growth in domestic coercion, undoubtedly as a way of solidifying the new political order.

Having implemented a political Serrata, the Great Council then moved to adopt an economic Serrata. The switch toward extractive political institutions was now being followed by a move toward extractive economic institutions. Most important, they banned the use of commenda contracts, one of the great institutional innovations that had made Venice rich. This shouldn’t be a surprise: the commenda benefited new merchants, and now the established elite was trying to exclude them. This was just one step toward more extractive economic institutions. Another step came when, starting in 1314, the Venetian state began to take over and nationalize trade. It organized state galleys to engage in trade and, from 1324 on, began to charge individuals high levels of taxes if they wanted to engage in trade. Long-distance trade became the preserve of the nobility. This was the beginning of the end of Venetian prosperity. With the main lines of business monopolized by the increasingly narrow elite, the decline was under way. Venice appeared to have been on the brink of becoming the world’s first inclusive society, but it fell to a coup. Political and economic institutions became more extractive, and Venice began to experience economic decline. By 1500 the population had shrunk to one hundred thousand. Between 1650 and 1800, when the population of Europe rapidly expanded, that of Venice contracted.

Today the only economy Venice has, apart from a bit of fishing, is tourism. Instead of pioneering trade routes and economic institutions, Venetians make pizza and ice cream and blow colored glass for hordes of foreigners. The tourists came to see the pre-Serrata wonders of Venice, such as the Doge’s Palace and the horses of St. Mark’s Cathedral, which were looted from Byzantium when Venice ruled the Mediterranean. Venice went from economic powerhouse to museum.

*****

 

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Increasing competitiveness: a challenge in Hong Kong’s tertiary education

hong kong

 

 

Yesterday, someone in our Facebook group for international students posted an article, as titled ‘give the opportunity back to local students‘. Penned by a Legislative Council member, this piece uncomfortably raised the issue about ‘reducing quota for non-local students’ per 2016/2017 academic year.

Or, just in brief, I’ll sum up some important points mentioned:

1. Among 15,000 university seats reserved each year for all institutions in Hong Kong, 20% (or 3,000 among them) are solely reserved for non-local students (notably students from China and overseas).

2. This rate of 20%, implemented since 2008, was a drastic increase compared to 4% back in 1996. Among the 3,000 seats for non-locals, one-fifth will be enrolled in courses fully endorsed and funded by government under a stipulation known as ‘university grants committee (UGC)’.

3. There has been notable concern among local students in regard to the diminishing opportunities for them to reserve places in universities, aside of the fact they have to undergo rigorous high-school curriculum (something very common in Asia’s developed countries).

4. What’s the government’s response? Sounds like a ‘fairly simple’ solution: they are considering to eliminate all UGC-funded options for non-local students, which, if passed in legislation, will be implemented as rapidly as 2016/2017 academic year.

While there is no denying that increasing local competitiveness is essential for long-term economic viability of a country/region, doing such measure towards non-local students does sound like, my prior apologies, some kind of jingoist campaign done in any Third World country. Such reality is ironic when it comes to facing globalization, particularly in the beginning of 21st century. With international mobility accelerating everywhere, as well as economic challenges that are becoming increasingly multifaceted and intricate, there is no doubt we need outside talent for some sectors. No matter how unpopular it may sound for local populace, if we rethink about it from a pragmatic point of view, we still need international resources.

But this is Hong Kong, a metropolis its own government so proudly labels as ‘Asia’s world city’.

Talking from a perspective as an international student, there are some concerns in my mind I think I need to express here.

The real roots of the ongoing education problem in Hong Kong lie in the diminishing competitiveness of the city and the funding problem. Just take the education budget as one example. According to annual statistics by Hong Kong government, in 2013/2014 academic year, total education expenditure equals 76.9 billion HK$, approximately 17.6 percent of total expenditure. That is a pretty high percentage compared to South Korea (15.5%), Japan (10.5%), or even China (12.1%). Afterwards, consider the 2013/2014 UGC budget allocated by the government. In 2012/2013 academic year, the amount provided was 15.8 billion HK$, but in 2013/2014 year, instead, the figure slightly dropped to 15 billion HK$. Why the drop occurred? I’m no expert on education expenditure in Hong Kong, but as what I skim and assume from the paper, this possibly suggests there’s substantial reduction in funding towards public institutions. And we all must consider that ONLY 4% of the UGC goes to non-local students, or approximately, as of last year, 600 million HK$. Does eliminating that option completely can increase local intakes in years to come? The answer is yes, but in the long term, Hong Kong’s vision of being ‘an international education hub’ will face further erosion.

Or go for another particular illustration: Hong Kong’s research and development (R&D) budget. In order to positioning oneself as an education hub, it is inevitable that research activities must be intensified. While Hong Kong is always well known to have competed with its Southeast Asian ‘twin’, Singapore (by which the former succeeds in financial services sector), the latter seems to excel much better in education. Just compare how the two city-states spend their money in research: while Singapore has invested over 9 billion US$ to strengthen its quality research in 2014 (source: Battelle), a figure that approaches 2.7% of GDP, Hong Kong’s gross expenditure on R&D remains a mere 15.6 billion HK$ (app. 2 billion US$), a disproportionately low 0.7% of the metropolis’ total GDP. This figure is even three times lower if compared with Mainland China’s investment in R&D, which now goes at 2% of its GDP (refer again to Battelle). With now average research expenditure required to be at least 2% of GDP to boost economic productivity, and for an ideal education hub expected to exceed such percentage, this is an ironic understatement that this Chinese autonomous region still has a very long way to go in achieving so.

Last year’s QS World University Rankings report has also mentioned that Singapore and South Korea were the winners in Asia’s race towards becoming education giants. Both countries have very successfully invested much of the budget to drastically improve their research quality, something that Hong Kong, despite its short-term drop because of major overhaul into four-year curriculum system, has yet to achieve. Internationalization rate among both countries above is rapidly increasing, successfully utilizing all the opportunities globalization can offer, while in Hong Kong, the increase remains largely gradual. In addition, the number of university seats has, sadly, remained unchanged for the last two decades since 1994: at a rate of 15,000 places. While over 28,000 students were actually qualified for higher education opportunities, a dismal 13,000 of them were turned down. Even if the government were to end up eliminating UGC-funded degrees for non-local students starting from 2016 onward, there will remain tens of thousands of ‘lost chances’ for much of Hong Kong’s young generation to attend tertiary education in their own soil (whose university attendance rate is among the lowest in developed world, at a chronically low rate of 18% only).

I’m very afraid the government will take another misplaced decision in the battle for this city’s future.

2014: year in review (by countries, part 3)

2014

 

This is the last article from the series reviewing events that have taken place across different countries this year. Now the last day in 2014, my only expectation towards 2015 is a better year ahead, albeit some difficulties, and some challenges, accumulated from past mistakes, will continue to befall us.

As I forgot to include Hong Kong and Mexico in the first two parts, I’ll just put them here.

 

Hong Kong – if this semi-autonomous region of 7.2 million people used to be known rather for dim sum, skyscrapers, action films, and Jackie Chan, now Hong Kong filled international headlines in 2014 with ‘protests’ being the most popular keyword. Triggered largely in part due to the latest decision by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee in having to screen out candidates in the upcoming 2017 Chief Executive election, which would be the first direct election in Hong Kong, this marked what had been more than two decades of impatience Hong Kong public has been faced in gaining universal suffrage. While the city has achieved monumental economic success since 1970s, the most crucial issues that have never been addressed are the worsening social inequality (Hong Kong is ranked the worst among developed regions’ Gini index, now reaching a staggering level of almost 0.56), astronomical home prices which most people can hardly afford, increasing living costs with low social safety nets, as well as erosion of freedom of expression, by which Hong Kong’s rank, according to Freedom House, has fallen drastically from among the top 15 in 2004 to now 61 a decade after.

But Hong Kong also inspired the world what ‘civil disobedience’ truly meant. Despite several scuffles (mostly infiltrated by certain elements), no buildings were damaged (except the Legislative Councils headquarters’ front window), no cars were burned, and life goes on fairly normal on most parts of the city. People helped each other, students continued to do their homework and studied at night, some set up medical clinics, and others even assisted in trash collection and recycling activities. There is hardly any place doing a civilized protest as Hong Kong has shown.

Mexico – this country of 115 million has long been faced with a massive drug war, having seen more than 100,000 people killed by both security forces and similarly heavily-armed drug cartels, but the forced disappearances of 43 university students, and their subsequent killings, marks the climax of this war, with millions of civilians coming out to the streets to protest both the government and drug lords, who have remained somewhat hypocritical and vicious in this matter. The murder started with student protests in Iguala, by which local police responded with mass suppression, and the subsequent kidnapping of 43 students. Nonetheless, having handed them down to drug lords instead to prosecutor’s office, and having these people brutally murdered, mutilated, and their body remains completely burned, this became what triggered the people to really show their anger. Such tragedy deals another further blow to the country’s current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, who has long been criticized for being hypocritical and not doing enough to solve many of Mexico’s crucial issues.

Pakistan – three gargantuan events have shaken this country throughout the year. Firstly, there’s this mass protest known as Azadi March, by which millions of people again went to the streets to demand an end to the country’s first democratically-elected government, led by Nawaz Sharif. Nonetheless, there remained suspicions that these protests were actually organized by certain elements with close ties to intelligence and military forces, notoriously known to have been partially infiltrated by several Taliban movements. The military itself had previously been in charge of the country’s leadership for decades, the climax of which was the ascendancy of Pervez Musharraf into the power, ending in 2008 after mass protests led by civilians. This march, for the first time, becomes a major test to Sharif’s government to which extent he could balance fragile relations between the authority, critically needing the support of security forces, and the military themselves.

Another one was Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to both Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, both hailing from cognate countries long involved in decades-old conflicts over numerous issues: Pakistan and India. Both of them were actively involved in advocacy towards children’s rights and education, and had faced formidable obstacles in their respective home countries. No matter how often the two nations clash, it was hoped the shared visions of Malala and Kailash could inspire both people to appreciate each other much better.

But the last one remains what becomes the most tragic closing event for the country’s 2014. Taliban, known for always targeting military forces and intelligence services, this time targeted a school attended by innocent kids. More than 150 people, mostly students, were brutally murdered by the ambush led by Taliban forces in Peshawar, leading to huge civilian protests, and a harsh crackdown by Pakistani government into the militants. While it is deplorable to see how US drones continuously invade civilian places – further encouraging Taliban to conduct more attacks, robbing the lives of innocent kids, dreaming hard of a better future, is another useless eye for an eye.

Qatar – other than Al Jazeera as its global media outlet, the country has faced another international scrutiny in regard to alleged abuse of migrant workers in this oil-and-gas-rich tiny Gulf state. With population of migrant workers 1.7 million strong, or 75% of its whole population, how the country handles these people remains a question, especially as Qatar has been selected for 2022 World Cup, with a fantastically planned expenditure of 220 billion US$. It is estimated that among 1.7 million foreign workers residing in this country, majority of them do not have enough social protection from the respective government. What those people will experience in the years to come until 2022 remains a huge stake for Qatar’s credibility, nonetheless.

Russia – first, the world was surprised by how ‘unusual’ Winter Olympics had been, as shown by how the 50-billion-dollar project in Sochi turned into a completely gargantuan white elephant. Many stadiums ended up in decrepitude, hotels were largely unfurnished, and the city turned up pretty merely throughout the Olympics’ season, only to subsequently end up neglected much of the time afterwards.

After Sochi, Kremlin once again shook the world with its subsequent annexation of Crimea Peninsula in Ukraine, a Russian-dominant territory Soviet Union once awarded to the latter back in 1950s. As though not done with Crimea, Moscow continued to silently support pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine, particularly in Donetsk, once one of the country’s most important industrial cities, now turning into a war zone. More than 4,000 people had been killed in the conflict lasting more than 9 months, and it is not expected the conflict will end anytime soon.

Sanctions and a drastic drop in oil prices themselves, again, give this country a hard slap. Ruble values have sharply declined by more than 70%, the worst performing this year, excluding the estimated capital flight at more than 130 billion US$ this year. Foreign exchange reserves, meanwhile, have evaporated almost 50%, leaving the country with less than 200 billion US$ to anticipate the crisis. Worst, Russia’s oil revenues will drop between 90 and 140 billion US$ this year, making 2014 the worst year for this country of 142 million after 1998.

Next year, former Soviet states like Estonia and Kazakhstan will have to be very careful of their giant neighbor.

South Korea – the sinking of MV Sewol became an international spotlight. Over 300 high school students out of 460 people on board a passenger ship heading to Jeju Island were killed as the ship perished at sea, and the reason was what gave the public enough outrage to be expressed at the national government, currently led by President Park Geun-hye: the ship itself has exceeded its sailing age, and there is certain extent of negligence by ship crew when the accident happened. This accident prompted a suicide case by the students’ vice principal, resignation by prime minister, and the subsequent disbandment of the country’s transport safety commission. Also, what was highlighted here is the continued issue of corruption, as well as collusion of power between government and major corporations controlling a large share of the country’s economy.

Another controversial issue is the widespread violence experienced by many servicemen during military service, as recently illustrated by the mass shooting in a military base by one of them.

Sudan / South Sudan – the world’s newest sovereign state faces a devastating civil conflict that had killed thousands of people since last year, driven largely in part by former vice president Riek Machar’s rebellion attempt against the government currently led by Salva Kiir. Millions of people were internally displaced, and governmental functions were mostly paralyzed. Nonetheless, despite infrequent coverage of these two countries, they remain widely discussed within international relations discourse given the influence of the soon-to-be superpower: China. Having staked out many oil and gas possessions in both countries, it is highly important for Beijing to create an uneasy counterpoise and political compromise between them, while also ensuring internal security in South Sudan to not interfere with their extraction activities. This country, in many geopolitical estimates, will become a ‘knot’ in determining of how Chinese foreign policy will transform in the years to come.

Syria – the country’s civil war, which has killed over 200,000 people within 3 years, doesn’t show any signs of abating. The nation remains largely divided, with Bashar al-Assad’s government still having a stronghold in the largely Southern part, while much of the North has fallen to both various rebel groups (often clashing against each other and against the government) and ISIS. Thousands of civilians, former government troops, and various tribal fighters have fallen victim to the savagery displayed by the Islamic State, and with the reluctance of both Assad’s government and rebelling coalitions to dialogue, despite an attempted peace talk brokered by Russia, it is expected that the country’s civil war will not subside anytime soon, even in two or three years to come.

Taiwan – 2014 was particularly not a really good year for this island country. In March, most of the central government was paralyzed by the largest mass protest ever organized since the 1990 democratization, with hundred thousands of students occupying Legislative Yuan’s headquarters in Taipei for nearly one month. This protest was largely triggered by China-Taiwan trade agreements, which many feared would give Beijing a stronger economic leverage towards the country’s survival. With bilateral trade between both countries surpassing 170 billion US$, or 30% of Taiwan’s overall annual volume, and Taiwan’s largest corporations benefiting the most, much of the public is concerned how this free trade policy will determine the country’s long-term existence.

Two more disasters befell Taiwan, with a plane crash in Penghu Islands, and a massive gas pipe explosion in Kaohsiung, devastating several parts and many buildings across the city. Ma Ying-jeou’s administration faced another major blow with the ruling party Kuomintang’s massive defeat in this year’s municipal elections, driven largely in part by public’s increasing dissatisfaction towards the government.

By 2016, with a presidential election already scheduled, this is going to determine the future direction Taiwan will go towards.

Thailand – for the umpteenth time (after nearly 20 times of coup d’etat since early 1930s), Thailand effectively becomes a military junta again, a consequence of lengthy political fights between kingdom-supported military, urban middle-class, and farmers plus rural villagers, who mostly support Thaksin Shinawatra and his associates. To make a long story short, the military junta will not end anytime soon, unless steps have been taken to reconcile both the royalists and the villagers (which so far hasn’t seen any concrete results).

Turkey – When Russia has Putin, Turkey has Erdogan. The mass protests originating from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which later spread into the entire country last year, failed to overthrow Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government; instead, it gave him further legitimacy to alter the current state of Turkey. Beforehand a three-term prime minister, previously hailed for his successful economic transformation of this country of 70 million, Erdogan has been increasingly faced with scandals involving his inner circles, and his increasingly conservative, and oftentimes iconoclastic, views about Islam and the world. This year, Erdogan is sworn in as the country’s president, eliminating the position of ‘prime minister’. Now being head of state and head of government, with numerous cash-draining, oftentimes ‘white elephant’ projects across the country (including a brand-new one-billion-dollar presidential palace in Ankara), the leader is getting more unpopular across much of the country’s youth.

Ukraine – situated in between European Union and Russia, Ukraine remains in difficult position. Much of the nation was fractured with mass protests taking place from November 2013, which ended with a street battle in February this year. While much of the country demand a complete integration with EU, many important elements within the country also want closer ties with Russia, enticed by Soviet-era stability. The protests, later known as Euromaidan, ended up with a bloodshed killing more than 100 people, and the subsequent escape of Viktor Yanukovich, the country’s deposed pro-Russia president.

Nonetheless, the protests ended up exacerbating the current situation in Ukraine, with many of the pro-Russian civilians taking up weapons and declaring their own republics across much of the Eastern part. The country itself was also faced with another threat on its Western part: Moldova, its neighboring state, served as a Moscow-supported bulwark against Kiev. Crimea and Donetsk has been taken, much of the country remains under war, and worse still, an airliner was bombed.

The current government led by Petro Poroshenko (known as the Ukraine’s Chocolate King) has also been faced with internal infighting within the parliament, giving this conflict an uncertainty when it will end.

United Kingdom –  It’s good that Scotland didn’t split up from the country; otherwise UK would have to rename itself, change its flag, and worse, other constituent countries like Wales and Northern Ireland will possibly follow the same way had Scotland chosen to declare independence.

United States – the world’s largest superpower faces its own largest racial tensions since 1960s, with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting large-scale protests nationwide, and subsequent acts of rioting and looting in several towns across the States. A few other African-Americans were also shot down by police, but this also fuels debates whether the police are getting increasingly militarized, or the Blacks are really trying to attack them.

The Republicans’ success in taking control of US Senate gives another blow for Obama’s administration, especially after the last year’s government shutdown in regard to endless debates about Obamacare and other proposed policies that didn’t get passed. With two years left for President Obama, there won’t be much left for him to accomplish given the latter’s strong control of the Senate.

Nonetheless, there’s good news aside: economic recovery has shown its outcome, now at a level of 4%, the highest since Clinton’s era. With Europe still at its teeters, China facing a gradual slowdown, and Japan entering recession, US is now driving the world’s economic growth again for the first time (albeit not so in long term, as long as economic reforms are not activated).

Venezuela – with Hugo Chavez passing away, people once put another populist hope on his former vice president, Nicolas Maduro. It turned out to be wrong: economy remains at a dismal level, and with oil prices further dropping, revenues are increasingly small. Despite Venezuela’s status as currently the world’s largest holder of oil reserves, much of the population remains chronically poor, crime rate remains among the world’s highest (nearly similar to that of war-ravaged nations), and state-organized violence remains dominant in suppressing freedom of expression. Worse, with Maduro’s limited capability in handling the country’s issues, all these invoked massive anger from much of the populace. The country experienced mass protests when hundred thousands of people went to the streets, demanding his resignation.

More than 40 people were shot to death, including former pageants (pageants are the most popular figures in Venezuela, sometimes comparable to government leaders), and Maduro remains in power.

 

 

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Starting from next year, 2015, I will not frequently update this blog anymore, given that there are several things I have had commitment to do so, but this doesn’t spell an end to it (even though there were quite some moments I was considering to simply terminate this blog). It’s just that there are some adjustments I have to do with my schedule, so I hope you, readers, can understand that. I wish you all the best luck ahead, and I’ll see you in 2015.

Timelapse: Occupy Central protests

 

I was so sorry that I had not enough time to go for any live coverage of the protests in Hong Kong Island due to amounting assignments from my university. After these few days, we had heard a lot of news on how these protests were leading to. Scuffles had already taken place between Occupy activists and anti-Occupy groups – some consisted of angry business owners who were affected by the occupation, and some others – possibly Triad members – who were paid by certain pro-Beijing parties to cause unrest. There had also been some divisions among the protesters themselves. Some demanded that the occupation sooner as the longer it takes, the less support they will receive from Hong Kong people; others, in a more idealistic mindset, remained insistent to blockade the whole business district, and some even extremely resorted to taking over government buildings, until an ultimatum was issued by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, yesterday. The 36 hours he gave for the people ‘to disperse themselves’ was seemingly a scare tactic; majority of the occupiers had already resumed with their daily lives as of today. Some people still continue to occupy certain corners of the downtown, but as time goes by, the spirit is increasingly dwindling.

Bad news: democracy hasn’t really been achieved. As already expected, it will take a long period of transformation for this city to achieve such ideals, given the hurdles they face, and the real ‘master’ behind their lives: China. Good news: no tanks are being seen on the streets, no soldiers are used, and violence – no matter how regrettably it was – remained minimal. Change will not come soon, but I believe Hong Kong people have at least done something to let the whole world knows what’s going on here.

Here’s one video I just came across Youtube, also from South China Morning Post, about a couple of Mainland Chinese elders who show up their support – very energetically – for the Occupy Central protesters. A very rarefied moment to see such a beautiful human emotion being involved here (the male repeatedly said: ‘God watches over you! God watches over you!’). Watch the one-minute clip below:

 

Hong Kong protests, as seen over the drone

 

A pro-democracy activist has released a drone to capture the real situation happening in Hong Kong Island right now, as hundreds of thousands of protesters occupy the business district of the city.

People outside Hong Kong, if you are curious enough to know the latest event in this city, you can watch this video as an introductory session.

 

Hong Kong: in China’s shadow

hong kong in dark shadow

 

Two years before the mass protests that now paralyze Hong Kong, Michael Paterniti from National Geographic has already written out a lengthy article that explains how Hong Kong’s future – and also credentials – is being put at stake with encroaching control by Beijing. That is increasingly evident with the recent decision by Chinese government’s National People’s Congress (NPC) to restrict democratic reforms in one of the world’s most important financial and business hubs.

Entering day 5, Occupy Central movement is becoming increasingly larger than ever.

Read the full article in National Geographic, published in June 2012.

 

Excerpt:

 

“If you want to see capitalism in action, go to Hong Kong,” economist Milton Friedman is credited with saying. Yet to idealize the city today as a free market paradise, thriving in its 15th year after the British handover to China, is to sorely oversimplify, if not misconstrue, the darkening forces at work here. It’s to miss the tensions and tectonic shifts beneath the glitzy financial center that Hong Kong shows to the world. In the city underneath, one finds asylum seekers and prostitutes; gangsters with their incongruent bouffants; thousands of Indonesian housemaids who flock to Victoria Park on their precious Sundays off; and those barely scratching out an existence, people crammed into partitioned apartment blocks of “cage houses” the size of refrigerator boxes. While Hong Kong’s per capita gross domestic product ranks tenth in the world, its Gini coefficient, an index that measures the gap between rich and poor, is also among the highest.

Hong Kongers say their city reinvents itself every few years, citing the ever morphing skyline as one visible example. “We feel all of these great changes, but we don’t know how to name them,” says Patrick Mok, the coordinator for the Hong Kong Memory Project, a $6.4 million effort to address Hong Kong’s identity problem by creating an interactive website of old objects and photographs. “The pace of the city is too fast for memory.”

Yes, Hong Kong is changing again, but into what and molded by whom?

Revisiting history – the Hong Kong handover

hk handover

 

The handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997, which anniversary will be commemorated tomorrow, presented two important features into the world’s political reality today: firstly, it signaled the end of centuries-old British Empire, once regarded as the most influential, most overpowering, and geographically largest global hegemony, holding on that title for almost two hundred years. British government, to this day, still partakes great responsibility for its 14 remaining overseas colonies (merely a large chunk of Antarctica and a few rocky islands spread on the world’s seas), whose strategic importance is now hardly matched to that of its last, most vibrant sprawling colonial metropolis. Secondly, the return of Hong Kong also becomes an early signal of what, slowly, will become of its people: that slowly but surely, this city will encounter a gradual phase of ‘total integration’ with Mainland China, one by which has become increasingly obvious recently. Feelings of anti-Chinese resentment run greatly high, and tensions, unsuccessfully curbed by the British administrators on its last days, slowly emerge on the surface.

With massive protests being planned tomorrow, in addition to other campaigns of civil disobedience and a large-scale occupation on the way in immediate effect (despite Beijing’s silent threat by means of ‘white paper’ and other pro-China’s anti-Occupy Central editorials), something the world has hardly heard even two or three years ago (there were huge protests, also, but with little international coverage), Hong Kong, tomorrow officially celebrating its 17th anniversary of Chinese retrocession, will be faced with an increasingly problematic question about the future, and its eventual existence.

And things have started to change after the videos you’ll see below:

 

 

Bonus: Former British PM, Margaret Thatcher, reflected on her decision to return Hong Kong to China, one by which she eventually, a few years later, ‘regretted’. View the video below: