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June 21, 2007
Fanny Law's talking out of school

While the HK papers have devoted acres of newsprint to the Institute of Education inquiry, most people don't know or care much about it. Yesterday the ICAC's Fanny Law quit because the report said she had been naughty when she was still part of the Education Department. Her crime?

Law was found to have improperly interfered with the academic freedom of former lecturer Ip Kin-yuen and the director of the institute's Center for Institutional Research and Development Cheng Yin-cheong when she telephoned them after the two had publicly criticized education policies.

Law had asked for the dismissal out of anger or frustration but "it must be remembered that Mrs Law was the second most senior government official in charge of education in Hong Kong.

"Her demands and complaints, even if made casually, carried significant weight and, more particularly, could be viewed as attempts to silence the Education and Manpower Bureau's critics. It was unacceptable that she did not express her opinions openly and through proper channels, but instead in a manner with the semblance, if not also the substance, of intimidation and reprisal. The commission disapproves such behavior unequivocally."

She was pissed off, called these guys up and now she's being crucified for it. Meanwhile outside the ivory tower this kind of thing happens all the time, albeit not reported in newspapers. The principles of "academic freedom" and tenure are cherished jewels in universities, to protect academics and allow them to pursue their studies without fear and favour. Personally I'm struggling to see the crime here that's resulted in Ms. Law's resignation.

But more interesting was what Ms. Law said when she resigned:

Clearly, there are serious and irreconcilable differences between me and the commission over the boundary of academic freedom.

"To safeguard the dignity of a civil servant in the implementation of government policies and in the discharge of duties, I have decided not to remain in the public service. I have no regret about leaving the public service, but I do have concerns. If my departure could stimulate discussion and reflection on the unhealthy political situation in Hong Kong, this would be my last contribution as a civil servant."

She's been out of the public service for a matter of hours and she's telling everyone about the "unhealthy political situation" in Hong Kong. Is it that the public service is losing its grip on the city and government? Or something more? That's where the real story is...but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for more. I'd love to know what Ms. Law's alluding to.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 14:01 in the Hong Kong democracy/politics category
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June 18, 2007
Hong Kong schools

The Sunday SCMP started banging the drum about the rapidly rising prices of debentures at private schools in Hong Kong. Starting last weekend, they repeated the effort this Sunday, albeit with little new information. But proving that in this part of the world it's been a slow news week, now The Economist has joined in and has a story on the debenture issue. It's reproduced in full below the jump. Now there are two conclusions that could be drawn from the rising price of schooling here: firstly that the market is doing its job (which is how The Economist sees it) or there is a market failure here because supply is not able to respond to demand. When was the last private school established in HK? Surely there's a large market gap for an entrepeneur to open up schools here given the rapidly rising demand. And it shows the ESF, while providing some kind of hybrid public/private education, is not valued in the same way as the private sector schools.

How long will it be until we hear calls from the private sector for the government to "do something"?

Continue reading "Hong Kong schools"

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 11:54 in the Hong Kong people category
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June 12, 2007
Watching China

"China has become rather like Israel..." Rick Perlstein talks about James Mann's The China Fantasy

Thanks to Gordon for the pointer

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 13:55 in the
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June 11, 2007
Why Hong Kong lawyers cross the road

It turns out, not to anyone's surprise, that Hong Kong's lawyers are just like their counterparts the world over....from last week's SCMP (I'm catching up):

Mercenary considerations had assumed greater prominence than ethical standards in the legal profession, the chief justice said yesterday. "In this competitive environment, commercial pressures have led to the profession becoming more like a business," Andrew Li Kwok-nang said at a 20th Biennial LawAsia Conference session on ethics.

"The virtue of the profession, which distinguishes it from a business, is that in its practice, the selfish pursuit of economic success is tempered by adherence to ethical standards and a concern for the public good," he said. "But this virtue has been eroded. To put it bluntly, mercenary considerations have assumed much greater prominence at the expense of ethical standards."

Obviously the chief justice hasn't heard of Adam Smith, the invisible hand and that pursuing self-interest is serving the public interest. But the judge is a lawyer, and we all know lawyers are a "profession" (i.e. a protected guild that can restrict entry and competition for their own benefit). And lawyers would never allow avarice to sully their reputations...
Mr Justice Li cited the case of a client who asked his lawyer for a breakdown of his bill. The itemised account included a charge for "recognising you in the street and crossing the busy road to talk to you to discuss your affairs, and recrossing the road after discovering it was not you".
Absolutely brilliant. It's almost worth paying that bill a reward for the creativity and imagination it takes to come up with stuff like this. Lawyers live in 6 minute increments and crossing the road is never easy.

Thanks to J. for the pointer.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 14:41 in the Hong Kong people category
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Lucky numbers

The people in charge of the economy are captains of economics, using science and precision to guide the lives of millions....right? Perhaps not, says our very own Sir Don:

The stock market would have collapsed and banks forced to raise interest rates by 50 percent had the government not stepped in with HK$120 billion in 1998 to force speculators to retreat, said Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen...Many foreign speculators had expected us to fight till the Hang Seng Index had climbed to 10,000 points, but we decided to make a sudden halt at 7,800, which was proposed by [Monetary Authority chief executive] Joseph Yam Chi-kwong and Hui, who insisted such a move would give us good luck as the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the greenback at HK$7.80."...

"We only intended to fight the vultures by going back to step one. Norman Chan, Rafael Hui and I are all superstitious about 7.8 as our lucky number, where our US peg-link stays and our index finally hit rock bottom at 7,800.

Thank God the peg isn't at 2.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 08:07 in the Hong Kong economy category
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June 06, 2007
The problem of history

The Chinese Communist Party does it's very best to limit all news and views on the events of June 4th, 1989. But not teaching history can have its consequences...not merely in the (in)famous Marixsm that it is repeated as farce, but in the law of unintended consequences too. The SCMP (new site, still unlinkable and not even working today) reports:

A young woman unaware of the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown is believed to have let an advertisement saluting the mothers of students killed in and around the central Beijing square make its way into a Chengdu newspaper, highlighting the national collective amnesia about the events of 18 years ago.
To be fair, it's hard to call it "collective amnesia" when the government doesn't let its citizens know where there is to forget.
Two sources with connections to the Chengdu Evening News, which ran the controversial 13 character classified adverstisement on Monday, said the woman, who worked for an advertising company responsible for the newspaper's classified section, was in charge of receiving content from clients.

A man visited the copmany on May 30 and the woman took down the advertisement - which read "Saluting the adamanat Tiananmen Mothers" - from the client without knowledge of the June 4 crackdown, the sources said.

"She called the man back two days later to check what June 4 meant and the man said it was [a date that] a mining disaster took place," one source said. The woman's age was not known but the source said she had just graduate from school.

Now I don't know what they teach in Chinese schools, but there aren't too many mines around Tiananmen square.

Still, the whole story leaves the question as to how Beijing deals with a new generation who know nothing of Tiananmen. Is ignorance always bliss?

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:19 in the China category
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June 04, 2007
18 years: Tiananmen Square


Taken from a large collection of AP photos with captions.

Also: Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 08:27 in the China category
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May 31, 2007
China bubbles and pork

It's a truth universally acknowledged that China's stock market has all the hallmarks of a bubble. As further proof, The Standard reports on a sample of Chinese bloggers' reactions to yesterday's stock market sell-off. That so many bloggers are even talking about the stock market is the first piece of bubble evidence today. The second are the reactions themselves:

"If you want to drag down the market, why you don't you also drag down the unaffordable medical and educational fees so that we could have a better life too?" one blogger exploded, obviously hoping to deliver the message to the regulators.

"Now that you can sleep well with everyone scared away [from the stock market], our nightmare has begun because we have kids to feed and a whole family to take care of!"...Some retail investors said they would take their revenge today.

"Now that all stocks have become cheaper than ever, I would pour in all my money, including that saved for my children's education, into the market and give you not just a headache, but a big terrible fever!" another blogger wrote.

And today's third piece of evidence:
Currently, 100 million people in China have brokerage accounts - nearly one-tenth of the country's population. Mainland media reports say there are people quitting their jobs to become full-time stock traders. In several cases, their investments have reportedly earned them three times their monthly salary in a week.

Monks have even left their monasteries to try their luck on the stock market.

Remind you of the late 90s, perhaps? And here's the final piece of evidence:


"If you don't want to be a burglar, invest in stocks." - City police department.

In other Chinese economic news, the rapidly rising price of pork is having a big impact both in China and Hong Kong. Yet another symbol of excess liquidity chasing not enough pork?

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:09 in the
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May 30, 2007
Cartel proof

Does Hong Kong need some kind of anti-trust/competition law? Let's take a look at yesterday's Government property auction, as reported in The Standard:

Tuesday's auction also saw Manhattan Garments, controlled by Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun, outbid K Wah International (0173), Chinachem and four unidentified bidders to secure the other lot on Tsing Lung Road in Tuen Mun for HK$960 million - the high end of market estimates of HK$800 million to HK$1 billion. The sale price was 64 percent above the HK$585 million opening bid.

Manhattan Garments general manager Patrick Chow Kwok-choi said the company would be the sole developer and may commit about HK$1.5 billion to develop townhouses. Manhattan chairman James Tien said 60 to 70 townhouses ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 sq ft each will be built on the site. He estimated construction costs at between HK$2,000 and HK$2,500 psf.

The legislator expects the townhouses to sell for about HK$10,000 psf, representing a potential profit margin of more than 40 percent.

Now I agree they are taking on a good degree of risk and these estimates may not pan out. But at a 40% profit margin, that's a pretty good return on risk. The more interesting question is how does the cartel decide who gets what?

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 11:57 in the Hong Kong economy category
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May 29, 2007
Inside the fake factory

Apologies for the prolonged absence.

To keep you going while I get back into things, Justin Mitchell visits a factory making fakes watches in least I think the factory is real. The tag line beings "Inside a counterfeit factory in Shenzhen..." The metaphysics of whether a factory could be real or fake while making fakes is something best left to someone else.

On another note, it has been incredibly clear in Hong Kong the past week or so, as the rain washes away the typicaly haze and pollution. The shame of this city is it is beautiful to look at when you can see it.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 13:14 in the China economy category
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May 11, 2007

This site will be going into hibernation for about a week as I'll be travelling to one of the few places left in the world where there is no internet. You're welcome to guess where...and it's not North Korea.

My co-bloggers are welcome to contribute during my absence (or at any other time).

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 12:18 in the Site Stuff category
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May 09, 2007
Collusion in Hong Kong

So what will it take to force the HK government into enacting a competition law? Perhaps yesterday's land auction. The SCMP reports:

A Sino Land-led consortium won a residential site in West Kowloon for a less-than-expected HK$4 billion yesterday after the government issued an unprecedented warning to developers over their conduct during the bidding.
Last week, the Lands Department sent a letter to the Real Estate Developers Association reminding developers they must "behave properly" during the auction - which was interpreted as a warning against colluding during the bidding process to keep down prices.

At the last major sale, in March, Sino Land acquired a Tai Po site after its chairman, Robert Ng Chee-siong, was seen during the bidding holding discussions with Nan Fung Development. The privately owned Nan Fung then dropped out of the bidding and after the auction the two companies announced they would jointly develop the site.

Sino Land and Nan Fung were the major partners in yesterday's winning consortium, which also comprised K Wah International and Chinese Estates Holdings. They secured the 86,758 sq ft site on the 29th bid of the auction for HK$6,147 per square foot yesterday, about 10 per cent less than analysts estimated.

When collusion hurts the government's coffers, you can be sure the next step will be anti-trust and competition law. It's OK if cartels keep prices high to rip-off consumers or flat buyers, but if developers are going to game the government they're in for a hell of a fight.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:02 in the Hong Kong economy category
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Taiwan's boxing ring


If this happened on the street, people would be charged with assualt. But in Taiwan's parliament, it's all ok...

Rival lawmakers exchanged punches, climbed on each other's shoulders and jostled violently for position around the speaker's dais Tuesday, as Taiwan's legislature dissolved into chaos over an electoral reform bill...
And some interesting characters were involved:
One of the main protagonists was Yen Ching-piao, a KMT-aligned independent lawmaker who has been convicted of corruption, attempted murder, illegal possession of firearms and attempting to pervert the course of justice, but is free pending an appeal.

Yen, a short, squat man with owlish eyes and the piercing look of a mafia godfather used his large physical presence to try to create a corridor to Wang, but to no avail.

During the melee a small group of police stood by without intervening.

Man, imagine how much interest there would be in Legco if they did this kind of thing.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:41 in the Taiwan category
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May 08, 2007
Vini, Vici, Visa

While Hong Kong's press was whipping up a frenzy of worry about the disaster that was to be golden week, the Mainlanders who weren't coming or who were coming but weren't going to shop actually went and spent their backsides off.

Labor Day Golden Week proved to be a roaring success with 505,170 mainlanders pouring into Hong Kong between April 28 and May 7, according to figures supplied by the Immigration Department on Monday.

This was a massive 21 percent jump on the 415,446 who visited Hong Kong last year over the same period, and came despite the bad publicity the city has been getting in the mainland media, including reports of shoppers being ripped off by unscrupulous traders.

But the biggest surprise of the Golden Week bonanza was the fact the Tourism Board received only 13 complaints from April 28 to May 6, an average of one complaint for every 40,000 visitors.

According to a Tourism Board spokesman, these were mainly about the services provided by hotels or rude staff. There were no complaints concerning shopping.

One of two things has happened: all the media focus has forced the tourism and retail trade to clean up their act, or it was all a beat up over a couple of isolated incidents. Actually, there's a third, more sinister theory...perhaps the tourism trade got a few ideas from those Falun Gong displays at the various tourist spots around town.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:34 in the Hong Kong category
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May 07, 2007
Bottom dollar tourism

On the weekend the SCMP had yet another article on the "Mainland tourist rip-off" theme they've been hammering away on for weeks. This time a reporter joined a trip from Beijing (I think). It cost 1,888 yuan for 4 days including flights, accomodation, meals etc. The reporter was staggered that the food was ordinary, the tour guide put the hard sell on them and they went to many shops where the guides get a commission.

What's the shock? If you pay so little for a trip to the Big Lychee, do you really think you'll be dining at Spoon and shopping at IFC? Do you think the tour guides are doing it because they love showing Hong Kong off to mainlanders out of the goodness of their hearts? There are legitimate tourism issues such as fakes in Hong Kong. But not having a tour that's up to scratch because you pay bottom dollar isn't one of them. If mainlanders are coming to Hong Kong for a view of hard-boiled capitalism, they're getting a front row seat.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:05 in the Hong Kong category
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May 03, 2007
Macau riots

Macau's Labour Day riots have at least achieved some measure of success: they've got people talking. There's plenty of advice streaming out of Hong Kong as to what the problem is and how to fix it, while newspaper editors give thanks to the protesters for filling many column inches. Jake van der Kamp in today's SCMP gives a concise summary (reproduced below the jump) of why ordinary Macanese workers felt pushed into rioting. And in all the reporting, at least in Hong Kong, there's just a hint of schadenfreude. For many years Macau has gathered the garlands while Hong Kong faced the brickbats...and one can sense the smug smirks in Hong Kong Government offices as they say "But that would never happen here..."

More interesting is this article in the (still gated, still the same old) SCMP which looks at the differing media responses in Macau and Hong Kong to the riots:

The media in Macau was more muted than their Hong Kong counterparts yesterday in their coverage of the Labour Day march in which police fire on protesters. While Hong Kong papers ran reports questioning the police's handling of the protest, Macau's focused on the force's insistence that opening fire was justified.

"It is down to a difference in culture," Chinese University political analyst Ivan Choy Chi-keung said. "Macau is a place dominated by pro-Beijing, pro-government people, and you can see many civil groups are set up and run by these people."

He said the disparity could be traced back to the 1960s - while Hong Kong's leftists were sidelined, those in Macau gained the upper hand. Mr Choy, who taught at the University of Macau in the early 1990s, noted that Hong Kong was a more open society.

"The big newspapers in Hong Kong are kind of anti-government - cynical about the government," he said. "The two biggest Macau newspapers, the Macau Daily News and Jornal Va Kio, are owned by pro-China people and in sympathy with the government."

Perversely, the Macau riots reveal an openly capitalist economy. Open immigration has kept wages down even though per capita GDP is shooting through the roof. Growing inequality has lead to resentment and anger that has spilled over to the streets. What is the solution? Some kind of redistribution of wealth to keep the poor quiet, for example through housing subsidies? That worked in Hong Kong. Or just wait and hope the trickle-down effect can override the downward pressure on wages from mainland immigration?

And most of all, are the right people watching? In many ways Macau is a microcosm of the large economic and social forces at play in China. The stresses of inequality, the impact of migration (in China's case, from the farm to the city), the discord between growing GDP and a lack of real wage growth, social order, corruption and more. They might hope it's an isolated incident, but Macau could well be China writ small, in more ways than one.

Continue reading "Macau riots"

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:43 in the Macau category
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May 02, 2007
Froth and bubble

Just keeping a track of these things for my book: "China didn't even the bubble, but...":

New A-share trading accounts opened by frenzied mainland retail investors look set to exceed 10 million for the year next week when China's stock market resumes trading after the Labor Day holidays.
Some 4.75 million new accounts were likely added in April alone, according to the latest data from the China Securities Depository and Clearing Corp.

The single-day record of 311,110 new accounts was set April 24. For the five days ended last Friday, a total of 1.48 million new accounts was recorded - a weekly record...Many mainland investors are suspected of opening more than one account - inflating the number of retail investors entering the market - nevertheless the speed of new accounts being opened over the past two months is dramatic.

And are you still puzzling why the A Shares (ie those listed on Chinese exchanges) are at such massive premiums to H Shares (shares in the same companies but listed in Hong Kong)? This might help:
It is believed the new accounts would have become active immediately. Assuming each account holder invested a conservative 20,000 yuan (HK$20,302) into the A-share market, this translates into more than 4 billion yuan pouring in each day for the past three weeks - a staggering 60 billion yuan.
As an example: Chalco is worth almost the same as Alcoa, based on its A shares. The A shares closed at 18.51 yuan, while the H shares closed at HK$9.29. The HK dollar is pretty close to parity with the yuan. So the A shares are double the H shares, but because there's not way to go short those A shares the arbitrage remains wide open (put that in your efficient markets theory). Here's a quote from the article:
A shares, available only to mainland residents, trade at a premium to their Hong Kong counterparts as China's markets are flooded with funds but short on investment options, while investors in the Hong Kong market tend to be more rational and cautious, Yip said.

For example, A shares of Jiangxi Copper (0358) closed Monday at 25.12 yuan, or a 127 percent premium over its H shares, which closed at HK$11.20. Sinopec Yizheng Chemical Fibre (1033) trades at a 300 percent premium of its A shares over its H shares.

Naturally this has lead to Hong Kong fretting that it will lose its status as the main centre for raising capital for Chinese firms. But if you're a Chinese firm, you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't offer shares into such a market.

At least you can tell your grandkids you were there during the madness.

Update: Over at Marginal Revolution, some bubbles can be good for the economy.

And Philip Bowring on China's baby steps bubble.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 11:56 in the China economy category
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May 01, 2007
Things you didn't know could kill you

SADS: Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.

Useage: The Chinese judge accused of corruption died of SADS, not cuts to his face, gashes across his lip, mistreatment by China's police, torture or stubbing his toes. "There were no reports that torture was used to extract a confession, or bodily harm caused by guards, or an assault by cellmates."

Of course not.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 14:15 in the Health category
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