Archive | February, 2014

Hong Kong’s press freedom knifed in the back

27 Feb

It’s a rather sombre Noodle entry this week after the shocking news that former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to is in critical condition after being attacked near his home by a knife wielding motorcycle “hitman”.

For those not familiar, Lau was recently removed from his role as chief editor of the independent Chinese language daily and replaced by a pro-Beijinger in a move widely seen as yet another attempt to muzzle Hong Kong’s press freedom.

Just last weekend 6,000 protestors gathered in the wake of Lau’s demotion and a growing sense that Beijing is increasingly interfering in their SAR’s affairs in a way which is undermining the “one country, two systems” ideal HK was founded on post-97.

Ming Pao has apparently put up a HK$1m reward for info leading to the arrest of Lau’s attackers, who struck around 10.30am on Wednesday as he was walking from a breakfast eatery in Sai Wan Ho Street, Shau Kei Wan.

The 49-year-old was apparently slashed three times by the motorbike passenger, once on each leg and another cut exposing his chest cavity and lungs.

Police “sources” told the SCMP “it was a classic Triad hit”, intended to “warn him”, and presumably any other outspoken journalists in Hong Kong.

So is it really a Triad hit? And in that case, are the Triads now carrying out the will of the Communist Party?

Getting local gangsters to do their dirty work would certainly enable a canny bit of plausible deniability on the part of the latter. Just as it manages to keep arms length from any cyber incursions on foreign targets, so using the HK underworld as a proxy would keep Xi and co’s hands nice and clean, whilst scaring the crap out of outspoken local editors (if there are any left).

It’s not a given though. The criminal underground gangs of Hong Kong have historically been fiercely pro-China (ie anti-British/Russian/American etc) but not necessarily pro CPC. Is it simply that, like most local businessmen, Triad leaders don’t want to see the press rile their Beijing-allied business interests?

Or is this all just a massive bit of misdirection? A third party using the MO of the Triads to confuse the cops….

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club had the following statement:

The Club reiterates its view that the growing number of attacks against members of the press in Hong Kong needs to be taken seriously by the local administration. Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and international city will suffer if such crimes go unsolved and unpunished.

No shit. There were 18 attacks on HK hacks in 2012, compared with one or two assaults in previous years, according to the HK Journalists’ Association. It’s still low compared to some repressive regimes, but then, Hong Kong is nominally a rule of law kinda place.

Either way there’s about as much chance of the perp being caught as charismatic CY Leung hosting his own prime-time BBC1 chat show. No-one really wants them caught, despite the tough words of the SAR government. Imagine the face-loss involved in HK and Beijing if they were? The police are clueless and incapable, even if they wanted to. Whoever did it probably slipped over the border many hours ago.

So where does that leave Hong Kong and its rapidly diminishing press freedom? Well, it’ll certainly be a few more positions down on RWB’s Press Freedom Index this time next year, that’s for sure.

I said last week that self censorship was the most insidious type of censorship because it’s virtually impossible for the public to find out how or why a story has been altered or spiked to suit the political leanings of its editors. Well, with the added incentive of “not getting knifed”, I’m pretty sure from now on there’ll be more journalistic punch-pulling going on in Hong Kong.

The brilliant thing about creating a climate of fear is that you only have to sanction something like this once and human nature will do the rest.

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George and the locusts, coming soon to a former colony near YOU

20 Feb

george osborneThere’s probably something about living in the shadow of the world’s most populous nation and pre-eminent global authoritarian one-party state, that can’t help but make one a little jittery. At least, that’s my over-simplistic explanation of why Hong Kongers seem so quick to mobilise in protest. Last week all the fuss was about the not-so-subtle erosion of the SAR’s enshrined press freedoms while this week the news cycle has been dominated by a rather ugly anti-mainlander rally.

In the sort of irony bypass that’s become wearingly familiar to anyone following public protests in Hong Kong and China, around 100 locals paraded the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui on Sunday waving anti mainlander banners and scuffling with passers-by. The reason? They believe HK is full up and can’t take any more of these rude, uncouth big spenders from across the border. They conveniently glossed over the fact that tourism makes up a decent wodge of Hong Kong’s economy (around 4.5%) and that they were being pretty rude and uncouth themselves on the Sunday march, shouting slogans like, “Go back to mainland China”.

The Communist Party of China has spent the past 60-odd years carefully constructing the narrative that the Middle Kingdom and its territories (Taiwan, Tibet etc) belong to a unified Han race; a kind of master race of the East rising once again to its rightful place at the centre of the universe. I guess Hong Kong didn’t get the memo. Want some more irony? The protesters also shouted the word “Shina” at mainland shoppers on Sunday. That particular moniker was last used by imperial Japan back in the day as a derogatory word to describe China. Want another? The Sunday protesters were apparently carrying British colonial-era Hong Kong flags to signal their otherness from the mainland.

You’ve got to hand it to the protesters, they’ve managed to do the unthinkable and actually arouse some sympathy for the hapless ‘locusts’ caught in the crossfire. All that those bum bag and velour leopard skin onesie-wearing gits want to do is spend a shedload on some gaudy luxury goods, jump a few queues and act rather unsympathetically to their surroundings, which is not strictly speaking illegal. As I’ve said before, Hong Kong has made a rod for its own back in allowing developers to build luxury shopping mall after luxury shopping mall to attract these tourists. It’s no wonder why the SAR is so limited when it comes to theatres, arts spaces and non-tourist oriented shops/bars/anything.

Go George!

I have a theory about this particular protest. I reckon it was incited by the UK Chancellor as a classic bit of magician’s misdirection, so he could slip into the country almost unannounced this week. Now I’m not quite sure why gorgeous George has decided to make a speech about the UK economy from Hong Kong today, unless the rationale was that the last remaining group of people on the planet who might not be tempted to give him a good shoeing are the Mr and Mses of the British Chambers of Commerce here.

Or it might be that only local business leaders in Honkers are predisposed to take George and his ridiculously high fringe line seriously. “Balanced economy? You don’t even have a balanced haircut mate.”

Anyway, Lord Gideon of Tatton has shared his message that the UK economy might just be ever so slightly too reliant on consumer spending and the City of London. So well done there, exactly what every economist worth his salt, and the Governor of the Bank of England, has been saying for rather a long time now.

Still, thumbs up for getting there in the end chancellor. You can go back to the UK now, and while you’re at it can you take some of these revolting Chinese with you? We’ve got enough take-aways here as it is.

Hacked off in Hong Kong: the slow painful death of a free press

14 Feb

hackDo you hear that? That’s the sound of 1,000 Old Etonians shouting “I told you so!!” at the top of their over-privileged lungs. Why? Because of what’s happening to Hong Kong’s much cherished press freedom.

This week two reports were published and the verdict was in – this former colony can no longer be said to have a free press. There were always suspicions and concerns that Beijing would come to influence the media here post-97, but it only influences in the way that George Best drove under the ‘influence’ of alcohol – let’s be honest, it’s pretty much rolled up the white flag.

The first report, Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, now puts Hong Kong in 61st out of 180, three points down from last year, below those democratic bulwarks of Burkina Faso, Moldova and Chile. To put this in perspective Hong Kong was 34th in 2010 and 18th in 2002. So what went wrong?

It’s certainly not the fault of the hacks. Well, not most of them. Many still maintain the proud tradition of holding the authorities to account and speaking the truth – which was to be fair  a hangover of the colonial days – or at least they try. Local radio host Li Wei-Ling, who has been described as “critical” of the local SAR government, was sacked this week after nine years in her role in what she claims was a deliberate attempt to muzzle her.

No, the problem lies with vested interests. Reporters Without Borders had this to say:

The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its “Liaison Office” is increasingly compromising media pluralism there.

The problem is that Hong Kong media is owned now almost entirely by businessmen with vested interests in China. In fact, more than 50 per cent have been given seats on major political assemblies, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Add this to the fact no-one wants to piss off the big bucks advertisers from the mainland and you’ve got a recipe for a fourth estate not fit for purpose.

It’s not that the media is always Beijing’s lapdog – the SCMP today reported, for example, that the Town Planning Board is about to give the Chinese PLA a piece of prime harbour front land on which to build a “military berth”. However, the issue is that as readers we don’t know how much self-censorship goes on. This is the most insidious form of censorship, not like the blatant stuff that goes on the mainland, where this week the Ministry of Truth issued an order for all websites to censor the Reporters Without Borders story. This Register headline neatly sums up the irony: the censors effectively censoring a report about censorship.

Another scathing report out this week, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, quotes award-winning former SCMP hack Paul Mooney on the issue of self-censorship.

“The problem is that people on the outside can’t tell what’s being censored on the inside. What outsiders can’t see is what is being ignored, spiked or rewritten in order to play down critical stories,” he said.

The CPJ continues:

Mooney built his career on investigative and human rights reporting but during the last nine months of his employment, he had only two news stories in the newspaper, and one of them was about pandas. “I don’t believe the China editors rejected all my story ideas. I think [Wang] Xiangwei told them not to take anything from me,” he said. 

Wang Xiangwei, for the record, was the SCMP’s new editor at the time, the first mainlander to be put in charge of the venerable old rag in its history, in itself an ominous statement of intent.

Hong Kong’s press freedom is enshrined under the Basic Law, the mini-constitution drawn up as part of the UK handover deal. However, it very soon won’t be worth the paper it’s written on, and thousands more former colonisers will have the self-satisfaction to know that it was they, not the current shambles, who were in charge during Hong Kong’s true glory days.

Luang Prabang: waking the Sleeping Beauty of Asia

6 Feb

luang prabang umbrellaLove or loathe China, you’ve got to hand it to ‘em, they know exactly how to plan a major holiday season. Celebrating the lunar new year means you get to take a few days off in arguably the most depressing months of the year: January and/or February. Now as much as staying in Hong Kong and watching the fireworks explode over the harbour appealed, I’d already seen a TV news mock-up of exactly how they’d look about a million times. So where to?

Laos is the only landlocked country in southeast Asia. A tiny, mountainous land jammed in between China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Often overlooked by travellers in need of a Thai green curry fix or those who fancy staring at the unmarked graves of Khymer Rouge victims, it’s still mercifully under-developed. I can’t attest to anywhere else in the country, but Luang Prabang, in the north, is the most charming little Asian city I’ve ever been to. Honest; I do not use the ‘c’ word lightly.

sunset luang prabang

It was part of French Indochina, but has been wonderfully preserved by a combination of UNESCO and the strict oversight of a single party socialist government – the sort that seems so beloved of countries round those parts. Colonial buildings are filled with craft shops, cool bars and great restaurants serving genuinely delicious (not ‘I’m-only-eating-this-crap-because-it’s-authentic’) grub. There is a strict curfew which kicks in about 11.30pm – unless you head to the out-of-town bowling alley – but even this didn’t put me off. After all, there’s always getting hammered in your hotel room watching News 24.

Thanks to its geography, everything we ate was local and organic (pesticides being too expensive for farmers to use and transport infrastructure basic to say the least) and bloody great. Cooking oil was, or is, expensive in Laos so the cuisine is more about grilled, steamed, or stewed things rather than sautéed, or deep fried.

Local lightly spiced sausages and cured saucisson (cheers France); grilled game, buffalo and river fish know generically as ping; meat or fish stuffed into bamboo with egg and aromatics and steamed to a kind of savoury custard; soups and stews flavoured with local basil (very aniseedy) lemon grass, ginger, lime leaves and local bitter greens; laab salads; and the ubiquitous jaw beong, a fiery-sweet local chilli jam mixed with buffalo jerky that did wonders for my lunchtime chicken baguette. It was all brilliantly fresh, zingy and cheap – even in some of the town’s most expensive restaurants a meal never came to more than £20 a head with booze. On the last day we discovered this list of delights is only skimming the surface of a huge variety of indigenous dishes – understandable give the country boasts over 100 ethnic tribes.

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Some-ping

As the former royal capital and an intensely religious place, Luang Prabang has some great sightseeing fodder, including over 30 monasteries – the best of which is Wat Xieng Tong, built in 1561. These manage to blend effortlessly with the low rise white washed colonial buildings and the generally laid back, smiley vibe from the locals to create a place rightly described by the French as La Belle Endormie (Sleeping Beauty). Even with the in-pouring of hocking, obnoxious Chinese tourists from across the border – who, our taxi driver told us, were banned from driving in the town last year because they blocked all the roads – the place was still a joy.

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Xieng Thong monastery

So make sure Laos, or at least Luang Prabang, is on your next Asia trip. I don’t exactly agree with one-party states but this is one of Asia’s poorest countries and tourism a fast-growing industry so you could do worse than come over and sink a few Beer Lao in the spirit of foreign aid.

More smug photos to follow:

beer lao

pak ou caves

Pak Ou Caves

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Sunset over Luang Prabang

 

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