POLITICS – Interests of Conflict Weekly Digest #3

Interests of ConflictBelow is the third digest from our new political commentator ‘Tony Wong’. Hong Wrong will publish a selection of his musings each week, but you can sign up for his full, daily newsletter by emailing ‘subscribe‘ to [email protected] It is “aimed at informed residents who are encouraged to further develop and rebut the arguments made here, and in the media, to create actual, honest and productive political dissent.”

Tuesday: Domestic Maids – The ‘Liberal’ Party of Hong Kong has made it their program to require maids to leave for their home country within 14 days of the termination of their contract, patching loopholes that enabled them to get another job in the city within that time. They also propose a probation period that would remove the duty of paying severance pay if any party chooses to terminate the contract early… Sadly the ‘Liberal’ Party gives no reason why their proposals should be implemented (or these reasons are not even worthy for the South China Morning Post), but it is quite clear what these proposals are leading to: To further deprive foreign domestic helpers of their unalienable right to quit their job by making that choice more and more miserable.

Wednesday: Sales TaxSandy Li writes in the SCMP that if Hong Kong doesn’t impose a sales tax it will lose its status as the number one shopping paradise in Asia. She argues that rent have become such a big cost to shops that retail prices are no longer considered cheap, even if there is no government cashing in with a sales tax. Even though I buy this argumentation, she doesn’t argue how introducing a sales tax would resolve this. Without knowing how much shoppers are willing to spend on products we don’t know what impact a sales tax would have. Who does Hong Kong compete with in the retail market? Hong Kongers love shopping and given our few holidays, our unwillingness to travel to Manila, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and the hefty airfares shopping malls in Hong Kong probably don’t compete with anyone outside the city over Hong Kong shoppers. A sales tax could raise prices even further. As far as foreign shoppers are concerned Hong Kong most likely competes with Guangzhou, Singapore, Shanghai, Tokyo and maybe Beijing, and for them too a 12% sales tax would probably still mean Tsim Sha Tsui is their preferred shopping destination. Coming from Shanghai flights and buses directly to Harbour City are about 1200 RMB return, and you won’t even need a hotel if you are willing to wake up early.

The bags sold at Harbour City cost as much as 20 times that and remain attractive even for shoppers from far away. For Li’s proposal to be effective such a tax would have to have an effect on demand to the extent that rents fall more than taxes rise, an impossible scenario. Even in the best case scenario in which shoppers would immediately stop all their shopping at the instance that prices rise by a single dollar, prices would still not fall below today’s levels. In this case income would merely be shifted from landlords to the government, except that the landlord in the status quo is indirectly the government already… A sales tax would have bad implication on all the small entities in Hong Kong too who would suddenly be confronted with a huge bureaucratic burden.

Thursday: Housing crisis – Security chief Lai Tung-kwok was asked whether he would please go to Beijing and in all honesty propose that the PLA of Hong Kong should be abolished and all their sites turned into residential compounds. The cool thing about this is that Lai actually was under pressure to answer and that’s how it somehow turned into a story. Without needing to tell you what his answer was this story is a good reminder of how all these issues are deeply political and touch upon many issues rooted in the complicated but short history of the SAR. Our government would like to pretend that they are mere technocrats, picked based on their merits and cooperating hard for the optimal solution. Even in this case Lai tries to argue that there is a ‘need’ for these barracks, that they are ‘in use’ and essential to our defense. He could say it as it is, that troops need to be stationed here to ensure the People’s Republic sovereignty over the territory, or he could say it the way many feel, that we are being occupied or something, but he would have to agree that this is a political decision.

Thursday: Transgender rights – Hon Chan Chi-chuen asks a well-meaning but poorly phrased question about transgender people in Hong Kong. His wordings very much make it seem that these are people suffering from a difficult-to-cure illness. Using terms like ‘transgender diagnosis’, ‘treatment’, and stating that ‘a small number of them may need to receive sex reassignment surgery’ do very much portrait the issue in the wrong light. Arguing that ‘patients’ ‘symptoms’ receive attention based on the ‘the urgency of their clinical conditions’ doesn’t quite correct that either. Someone is not necessarily born transgender, someone can merely be uncomfortable with their assigned sexual identity and so identifying as transgender, or not. This may be from an early time on or become clear later but is in no way an ‘illness’ or anything like it. We do learn some interesting facts from the answer, though. There were only around four to five cases per year in the past three years and there is only one surgeon in Hong Kong who is able to perform sexchange operations, and this person will retire in 2015. The government aims at setting up a centre at the Prince of Wales Hospital to centralize all services for the transgender.

Friday: Bus Crisis Redux – Asia Sentinel and Hongwrong write that since the Philippines are a developing country where the police is ill-trained and ill-equipped that somehow excuses the hostage incident of August 2010. Additionally the incident was a lone-wolf incident that happens in a lot of places worldwide and could have happened to anyone. Asia Sentinel even compares it to the balloon accident in Egypt from this February. This is an argumentation heard often these days, and although Hongwrong is right in calling us a little bit obsessed over the incident, we apparently also don’t remember it very well. The fact that the bus was taken hostage by an ex-policeman is already creepy and says a lot about the situation within the Philippine government where it seems like a smart move for a police officer to ask for his job back by kidnapping a bus full of people. Additionally, the incidents that led to the event as well as during the crisis do not at all support the argumentation that this just an ordinary tragedy.

This is my summary of the Wikipedia article:

– The kidnapper, Rolando Mendoza was no ordinary criminal, he wanted attention, which is why he picked a bus full of tourists, and he did want to put the government into an awkward position, which is why he picked a bus covered in Chinese characters. Despite the immorality of his actions his government likely did great injustice to him too. In 1986 he busted a van full of dictator Marcos’ money (which was on its way out of the country) and handled the incident appropriately, against the pressure of his superiors. From then on life got difficult for him, he was charged with gang rape (but eventually cleared), and in 2008 was found guilty in an ugly distortion case in which Mendoza supposedly framed a hotel chef and stole his money. Mendoza denied the charges and says he never got a chance to tell his side of the story. The hostage situation became so problematic because of the fundamental failings of the police. Police tactics were broadcasted live on TV in Hong Kong and Manila, so Mendoza was able to watch every step the police took in real time. He knew the locations of snipers and of the arrival of the SWAT team. He also learned on TV that his brother had been arrested by the police and he demanded that his brother was to be released immediately. That is when Mendoza started to execute the hostages one by one while the police was unable to open the door of the bus, enter the bus or get an aim on Mendoza.
– There were 9 hours of time between the first emergency call and the Philippine SWAT team arriving at the scene, a Hong Kong SWAT team could have arrived within 2h.

I don’t know why the Hong Kong police was not allowed to handle the situation, given their training and equipment and presumed availability, but the Manila police handled it so badly it is borderline malice. The Philippine government plays a big role in this story and I dare to say it was a political hostage situation. Because of the way it was handled, and because thousands of Hong Kongers were sticking to their TV screens all day, watching events unfold live it is easily understandable how people are ‘obsessed’ about the event and frustrated about the Philippine government, who also plays the event down as a lone mad wolf on a sudden killing spree.

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