Friday, April 21, 2006

A chip off the old blockhead

The Chinese woman on my television appeared to be screaming abuse at the warm and fuzzy face of Stalinism, China's Premier Hu. Hu Jintao plodded on regardless, delivering his official speech in the brilliant spring sunshine on the White House lawn. Next to him stood President George Bush, looking like he had suddenly realised he was mistakenly wearing Laura Bush's underwear again. The CNN commentary droned on. "The Chinese won't like this but they won't know about it because it won't be shown in China!" the Washington journalist said.

Wrong on two counts. Firstly, I was watching the live broadcast in China, about four hundred kilometers north west of Hong Kong. Secondly, the Chinese people don't speak with one voice, and it certainly isn't that of the senior bureaucrat of the capitalist, Communist Party. Chinese people have many different opinions just like Americans do. Even the Communist Party of China recognises this individuality, actively recruiting billionaire businessmen as well as the occasional worker to join its ideology challenged ranks.

But the party is still fighting a rearguard to censor international news. I couldn't publish this blog on the mainland because sites are usually censored there. So I am inside China writing this report on my lap top, fact checking with the BBC which streams in on broadband. Censorship isn't stopping the flow of information to Chinese citizens. Even jailing the odd blogger hasn't intimidated Chinese web users. Meanwhile the Chinese government is disrupting legitimate web traffic, hampering the modernisation Mr Hu says he wants.

The US Secret Service dragged the protester away. Mr Hu went off to have a nice lunch with Mr Bush. Did they talk about freedom of speech, do you think?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Learning and earning in Australia and Asia

A Hong Kong student asked me, "Why does the Australian government want to shut down student associations?" "Even Beijing isn't doing that!"
Maybe the answer to the question is that while Beijing seems to be becoming more pragmatic and less ideological, Australia is heading in the other direction.
In Hong Kong, students are able to learn about democracy and build networks by joining any of dozens of university backed clubs and societies. In Australia, the Howard government has legislated to effectively close down all university students
because Ministers believe they contain critics of government policies.
It's certainly true that some Australian university staff and students question government actions such as:

• the signing of a free trade agreement which has shifted the trade balance even further towards the US,
• anti union legislation which effectively makes strikes illegal
• anti terrorist legislation which allows detention without trial
• anti sedition legislation which makes Article 23 proposals look tame.

Australian government ministers are angry that their policies have not been embraced by what they dismiss as "intellectual elites". After all, they received rapturous support from the Murdoch dominated, mostly US owned Australian press! The Australian government stays ahead in opinion polls, in part thanks to an economy bouyed by booming coal sales to China, a well nourished fear of terrorism and a hopeless and helpless parliamentary opposition. But after ten years in office, the government parties gained control of both houses of parliament and they feel they can abandon restraint. So now its payback time! Perceived enemies such as conservationists, unionists, students and universities are high on the policy hate list.

But there is a snag here. Education makes big money and has become Australia's fourth largest export. Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has been trilling about all of the money to be made in Asia, in particular China which is Australia's largest source of foreign students. But when you see how much better resourced Hong Kong Universities are than their Australian counterparts, you have to wonder how long Alexander's gold rush will last.

In Australia, ideology has won over pragmatism. Education is seen as being about profit and private gain rather than public good. The government has slashed real spending on universities, forcing them to live on domestic fees and export earnings. As a result, only the very best Australian universities have facilities comparable to nearly all of Hong Kong's universities. The worst Australian universities have campuses which are converted office blocks, provide empty libraries and employ mostly part time teaching staff. The rest of Australia's declining tertiary sector can't compare with the new Chinese institutions springing up not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in regional cities like Zhuhai or Shantou.

Professional Australian academics are more experienced than many in Asia, but they are getting older, with most of them in their mid fifties. With increasing political interference in teaching and research, even more funding cuts, the stacking of university councils with business people, new industrial relations restrictions and poor salaries, many of these Australian academics will be opting for early retirement. The smart ones will be seeking work in Asia.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Wildfires and Ghost Cops

Hong Kong's hillsides were ablaze this week as ceremonial Ching Ming fires predictably got out of hand. More than one hundred such wild fires were reported and extinguished by the vexed authorities. Ching Ming, or clear and bright day, allows Chinese families to visit the graves of Grandma and Grandpa and burn paper gifts which subsequently appear the nether world.
To meet this ghostly demand, shops have been doing a good holiday trade selling everything from paper suits to a paper two door refrigerator (which I thought was remarkably sensible, if Chinese Hell is anything like the Christian one). I saw one family burn a very nice terrace house, complete with two servants to work there. I don't know how the servants felt about the prospect of eternal dishwashing and cleaning, but labour laws are lax here and can be expected to be no better in Hell.
Grandpa got a paper mahjong set, presumably so he could sit around with his mates every Sunday, drinking paper beer and driving the household gods mad with the perpetual clicking of the mahjong tiles. Grandma got a very snappy Mini Cooper to cruise around the afterlife. I hope there's more parking in Hell than in Hong Kong, or she might find herself pursued forever more by Parking Police wielding ethereal tickets.

Hong Kong Police meanwhile, had a big, full dress funeral for one of their number who was gunned down in a shoot-out. The hearse of the dead "hero" was flanked by a phalanx of police motorcycles which swept through city streets clearing the way from the Universal Funeral Parlor in Hung Hom to the burial at Gallant Garden.

The official police story of shooting went like this. Bad cop has a gun used five years ago in a police shooting. He decided that he needs another gun and the best way to get it is to hold up two armed, uniformed constables. He stages the hold up in one of Hong Kong's busiest tourist areas. He times it to coincide with a major anti triad sweep involving hundreds of police only a few streets away. Good cop, the one who benefits from the Police funeral, is killed while his mate is seriously injured. The bad cop is also killed and is therefore conveniently unavailable to give his side of the story. Elected legislators, who are in a minority in the still undemocratic Legislative Council, found the official police story just a little difficult to believe. They want a public inquiry, which the police say really isn't necessary.

So I went looking for a paper Commission of Inquiry to burn on Ching Ming day. Apart from anything else, the thought of incinerating paper barristers and judges appealed to me. But I couldn't find a paper Commission on sale anywhere. I can understand that. Once these fires are lit there is no telling where it will end.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

More dirt for breakfast

The smog is so bad in Hong Kong that hundreds of runners in the recent marathon collapsed and had to be revived. One man died. The Government announced that the marathon organisers had acted properly. The smog..well er.. that is supposed to be mostly generated by mainland China, so its someone else's problem.

When I first came to Hong Kong over a decade ago, the ocean waters were already polluted but the skies were still blue. Ten years ago, I watched shoals of dead fish wash up on a deserted sandy beach at Ham Tin, near the China border. Last night, I saw a lemon coloured sun sink into a grey and gritty sea. Most days now, it's impossible to see from the island to Kowloon, a short ferry trip away. I saw some fish jumping in mid harbour recently, but I think they were just trying to get out of the chemical mix we call harbour water.
Sore throats and runny eyes are common here. People wear masks to walk to work.
Maybe much pollution does come from the mainland where environmental controls are seen to hinder the economic miracle. But if you look out the window in Pokfulam, you can see an Australian coal burning, privately owned power station spreading long noxious plumes across the sky. There is some technology, which can allow cleaner burns, but hey, that might reduce profits. Anyway Hong Kong power stations are working flat out, generating extra power sold to meet mainland demands.

Meanwhile, the streets are choked with private buses belching fumes as they try to get pass chauffer driven limos double-parked outside jewelry stores. Buses were held up for half an hour the other day in Wellington Street, by a big black Lamborghini, parked about a metre out from double yellow no-parking lines. The driver was nowhere to be seen. Two policemen looked on, apparently helplessly.
Private property wins out over public interest every time here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Snivelling about the Avian Flu

Each morning at Guangdong's Shantou university, I awake to the sound of birdsong. Normally this would be a good thing. But I have been living in agrophobic Hong Kong where birdsong means the cry of foul avian flu carriers. After the SARS deaths caused a negative blip in the Hang Seng stock index, the vigilant Hong Kong authorities have been very concerned about the impact unspecified communicable diseases might have, especially on tourism. This view is not necessarily shared by the rugged villagers of Hong Kong's New Territories who are rather fond of our feathered friends and who , as a result, have been tucking into roast birds and rice before Confucius was a boy.

The Hong Kong Civil service are not easily discouraged by this rural intransigence. Every television bulletin seems to contain images of weeping grandmothers being led away as a strike team composed of police, vets and cultural advisors, exterminate the family's pet ducks. There are government ads on television warning that the best way to beat the avian flu is to eat plenty of vegetables and avoid sleeping with chooks. This may be sound advice but its not particularly comforting. The press can be quite alarming. Hong Kong must be the only place in the world where a picture of a dead magpie provides the centre for the front page lead story in the major daily newspaper.

Mainland China is a little more relaxed about the flu. On arrival at Shantou airport, one is asked to fill in a little, rudely printed form. One should tick the appropriate box if one is suffering from HIV/aids, psychosis or hepatitis. Howevere, one should immediately notify the authorities if one has a fever, watering eyes or, curiously, a "snivel". The last category would obviously exclude snivelling Australians although there is no indication as to what would happen if one admitted to it. Everybody just gets a stamp and goes through.

Life in China is becoming much more sophisticated. For about A$6, I bought a bottle of 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon. The label boasted that , "the wine presents a limpid and clear ruby colour". It was called "Greetwill" which I assumed was a misprint of "Great Wall", since there was a photo of the celebrated barbarian exclusion device on the label. However, having drunk a little, I have come to believe that "Greetwill" is a misprint of "Great Swill". It certainly has a lingering aftertaste, but not quite as promised. It starts with a soft burning sensation, not unlike inhaling Kowloon smog, before it explodes in the brain's central cortex like a New Year fire cracker. Mao must have drunk quite a bit of it before he declared the cultural revolution, made the professors wear dunce hats and told people that otherwise unqualified "barefoot" doctors could cure anything from tinea to african sleeping sickness.
I confess it does become more accomodating after the first glass.
But will it stop the avian flu?
Only time will tell.