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Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement overview

17 Oct

For the past month, Hong Kong has experienced an incredible street movement that sprung up to demand open candidacy for the 2017 chief executive election. It started with a week-long student boycott and protest, then continued into a public occupation that took place in several key sites including outside the main government offices. It captured the world’s attention and admiration and China’s disdain and heavyhanded censorship, but more importantly it seems to have forced Hong Kongers to think deeply about their society and its problems. The movement seems to have decreased in the past few days with HK’s chief stating his administration will meet with the protesters, though the latest controversy involved police brutality earlier this week. The protesters, many of whom are university students, may not be victorious in getting what they wanted in the short term, but they have proved an inspiration to many and shown that a new generation of HKers do care a lot about society rather than shopping.

Here are a few key links to help you understand the protests and some interesting aspects.

The BBC covered the protests quite well, providing a lot of indepth reporting and analysis.  Actually they covered it so well that they were blocked in China just this week, while Instagram was blocked from the very beginning of the protests. On the mainland, the HK protests were first ignored, then censored, and finally covered but in a very slanted way. In addition, mainlanders who expressed support for the protests were also arrested and detained.

Political reform and full democracy are widely known to be the main stated goal of the protesters, but the problems with Hong Kong lie beyond politics and this article provides a very good take on the property curse that afflicts HK. Home prices have skyrocketed, while good jobs are inadequate and the economy has not diversified enough, meaning that many young HKers see a dismal future, one that is reinforced by the current political system where business and property tycoons have enormous influence.

The protests became famous worldwide, helped by the use of a popular symbol – the humble umbrella. As a result, the protests have been termed the Umbrella Movement or Revolution (the latter I don’t quite agree with).

While the main sites were led by students outside the HK government offices in Admiralty, protesters in Mongkok, a working class district in Kowloon, created their own feisty protest zone, one which involved a more diverse mix of people than the Admiralty site.

A lot of Western media, politicians and observers showed support for HK protesters, but so did Taiwan where members of the public and even the president himself spoke out about democracy. This cross-strait support is not surprising in a general context, as ties have grown between young activists who detest and fear China’s government and its increasing influence. For many Taiwanese who cherish their democracy and abhor the mainland’s system, it was natural to support and be sympathetic towards HKers striving for democracy as well in the face of mainland opposition.


Taiwan’s toilet issue and more

10 Sep

Here’s a very good critique of the issue of toilet paper disposal in Taiwan, that encompasses problems with Taipei’s infrastructure and appearance, and inequalities in resources between Taipei and the rest of Taiwan. In Taiwan, as in parts of East Asia, specifically Hong Kong and mainland China, toilet paper is not flushed down the toilets after usage, but thrown into bins, presumably because plumbing and sewage systems cannot handle the paper. While true for much of mainland China, including Beijing, it may not be so in Taiwan, which is where the writer makes valid points, from wondering why the plumbing infrastructure can’t be upgraded to handle the dastardly toilet paper, to why Taiwanese don’t think about this issue too much. It’s not only about disposing of toilet paper of course, the same critical questions posed could be asked about many aspects of society and behaviors in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s big firms’ succession issue

4 Aug

A lot of large successful companies in Taiwan are family-owned and managed, but a lot of the original founders have stayed on and retained control. This leads to the obvious problem of what happens when the founder passes away or retires. The main issue is that these founders often like to keep control of their companies, reigning over all affairs and micromanaging. For instance, take Foxconn or Hon Hai, the world’s largest contract electronic goods maker, and its owner Terry Gou:

Some years ago, Mr Gou enlisted the help of a group of academics, including Mr Tang, to develop a successor training plan. The plan was later disbanded after it became clear that no-one would be able to take over from Mr Gou until he started to delegate more.

“He can pick up [the] phone and call Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,” says Mr Tang.

“How can he transfer [these kind of] connections to his successor?”


China’s brand conundrum

28 May

Yet another world’s top brands list came out last week, with Google and Apple the top two brands respectively. Several Chinese companies are on the BrandZ Global Top 100 list, which is good. But what can’t be ignored is most people outside of China have probably never heard of them, since none of them are truly globally renowned. This isn’t a new problem nor is it a mystery. The Chinese government, companies, and the public are mostly aware of this problem, with the government pushing for Chinese brands to go global and firms spending more on research and development. Why does it still exist? Copying and counterfeit goods (not to mention fake stores and hotels) is probably the first thing that a lot of people think of, but a closed business environment, and rigid corporate and educational system are also big factors.

In a way, it’s not all bad because for a lot of Chinese firms, China itself is the world. A home market with the world’s biggest population and a restricted business environment, one that has barriers to foreign companies, make for a hugely profitable climate, especially if one is a state or state-backed firm. Yet is this the right way to go? Especially when Chinese firms don’t fare well when going up against foreign competitors, even on home turf.
Banks also favor lending to large firms, which are often state-owned such as mobile telecom operators (China Mobile, China Unicom) and airlines for example, thus allowing them to maintain monopolies. Even the banks themselves (ICBC, Agricultural Bank, Bank of China) are all state-owned (there is one major private bank in the whole country).
And benefiting from limited foreign (and perhaps superior) competition and closed business environment at home is actually a hindrance when competing overseas, which is why success in China for Taiwan companies doesn’t equate to global success.

Besides political and business culture, another big danger is social culture. This leads to complacency and the lack of urgency and desire to innovate or be creative, both due to a culture of copying and of doing whatever is profitable rather than take risks.

From the Guardian article (2nd link above):
We get these endless things from the government saying there should be more innovation and brand building,” says Paul French, chief China market strategist at market research firm Mintel. “But there isn’t anything behind it. The problem is that no one really wants to invest in innovative design. It’s very market-led. So if reports come to the stores that red shirts are selling, they’ll tell their in-house designers to design more red shirts. This means the designers don’t get a chance to do anything.”

There are Chinese brands of course. While some, like Lenovo, were obtained through acquisition, others like Huawei, Haier (home appliances), and Xiaomi (smartphones) are truly homegrown. Chinese tech giants Alibaba, Sina and Tencent dominate local Internet fields like social media, search and e-commerce, and in the case of the latter’s Wechat app, is making an attempt to get into overseas markets. Even so, it’ll be a long, hard journey for Chinese brands to become as well known as Japanese or even South Korean ones.

Murky murder cases, and Sunflower aftermath

12 May

Strange and disturbing events happen in China a lot but this one is especially so- basically people have been charged and imprisoned for murders only for the supposed victims to appear years later, alive and well. It’d be one thing if it happened once, but there’ve been several instances, and it’s an indication of big flaws with the justice system and police behavior. Forced confessions, the use of torture during interrogations, the detaining and threatening of a convict’s mother and brother, ignored petitions, and the acceptance of sketchy evidence without verification are some of the ugly events that took place with in cases.

Taiwan’s “Sunflower Movement” got a lot of attention with its 3-week long occupation of the legislature in March, during which it succeeded in getting a cross-strait services act to be halted and earned a lot of public support. However, things haven’t been as smooth ever since, with fragmentation and radicalization. Growing awareness and interest in politics and democracy have a result, which isn’t such a bad thing if it succeeds in making more Taiwanese care.

Acer and Asus’ middle-ground tablet problem

5 May

Two of Taiwan’s main tech brands Acer and Asus are in a quandary in the tablet wars, due to competing with mighty Samsung and Lenovo on one front, and with white-box brands on another front. This makes them firmly mid-level brands, which isn’t exactly a bad thing. These companies do come out with new products from time to time – netbooks, tablet with a detachable keyboard, and combo phone-tablets. However they don’t have the marketing muscle or desire as larger rivals like the aforementioned Samsung.

Xi’s reign at one year, China 105 years ago, and Taiwan’s Chinese music industry

12 Mar

Xi Jinping has been in power for one year and his reign is already noteworthy for the ongoing crackdown on corruption and official extravagance, as well as projecting a more people-friendly image. However not everything is all bright and sunshine since crackdown on public criticism has also continued and media and political freedoms have not been increased.

Take a look at China from over 100 years ago in 1909 in these photos of people, cities and scenery.

Taiwan is on top of the Chinese music scene, but can it maintain its success?

Taiwan’s declining brands

25 Nov

Taiwan has several tech companies which are well-known worldwide, but in recent times they haven’t been doing so well. HTC, Acer, and even D-Link have struggled, and in the case of the former, have dropped significantly. Taiwan’s Commonwealth magazine has a good article about the case of Acer, the world’s second-largest PC maker. Acer’s recent lack of success, covered in another Commonwealth feature, has become so dire that according to a Taiwan tech executive: “It’s over. The branding dream of Taiwan’s high-tech companies has come to an end.” I wouldn’t be so gloomy but I am also not surprised. Problems like lack of innovation, research, marketing, proper structure, and vision could all be found in Taiwan companies. While Taiwan companies may not become titans anymore like Acer, they can still prosper as smaller brands.

Hong Kong v Taiwan

8 Nov

Hong Kong versus Taiwan – see this interesting matchup here through a series of drawings by a Taiwanese artist living in Hong Kong. It’s kind of funny, kind of fascinating, and kind of untrue. In general, Hong Kong people appear to be more individualistic and blunt while Taiwan is more collective and polite, which is not surprising. HK is also portrayed to be softer than Taiwan, such as in dealing with typhoons. Taiwan does get affected by stronger and more frequent typhoons but it can’t be ignored that if things are really bad, typhoon holidays are often announced, sometimes even in the middle of a workday. It’s definitely true that people in Taipei walk slow and casually, even in the subway which was annoying. About the arguments on subways, I’ve never seen something like that in Taipei, especially blunt and in-your-face arguments or fights. On the other hand, I can only speak for Taipei as I’ve never lived elsewhere in Taiwan. Maybe down south in Kaohsiung things get more rowdier sometimes.

Taiwan’s tech-brand woes, and its cute obsession

1 Oct

On Oct. 1, I bring a few links on … Taiwan. The first two are about an issue that’s intrigued and perplexed me in recent times. Basically, Taiwan has several well-known tech brands like Acer, Asus, and HTC, but lately these brands, especially HTC, have been in serious decline. The Commonwealth story goes over why the brands fell but doesn’t provide much new details. Complacency, lack of international knowledge and flexibility in decision-making, failure to adapt quickly to changes and inadequate attention to marketing are some of the main reasons. From my own minor experience in the tech industry there, I’m not surprised. The BBC one goes a little deeper and focuses on culture as a main factor. Taiwanese-Chinese culture doesn’t emphasize innovation, but rather prioritizes stability and conservatism – the latter owing more to the family-run closed ownership structures of many companies. Both articles finish with some optimistic signs for tech so it’s not all doom and gloom. While I don’t feel too sympathetic, I feel Taiwan does deserve to have at least one or two major brands.

The final link is about Taiwan’s love for cute things – “ke’ai” culture. It’s similar to Japan, and is most obviously noticed in things like the (over)abundance of Hello Kitty and other “cute” cartoonish objects, and behavior traits like speaking in very low pitched squeals, which many 20-something girls, and even some older ones, do. The writer states that Taiwan may do well to promote itself as a “a Mecca of ke’ai ” but I’m not so sure.