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Rethinking the World Order

According to economic historian Angus Maddison, in the year 1820, the Chinese economy was the world’s largest, accounting for approximately 33% of global GDP. At the same time, India’s was half that, with 16%, and a youthful United States around 1.8%. Europe ranked second in this GDP league table with 26.6%. (Here’s a link to the 200-page OECD report. If you’re interested, see p.46)

19th century Canton (Guangdong). Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

It was around this time that British opium traders began to export Indian-grown opium to China, an act, ostensibly in support of the principles of global free trade, that impoverished both India and China. The import of opium was illegal under Chinese law, but the fading Qing dynasty was unable to stop the smuggling, principally through Canton, or Guangdong as it is known today. In this period began what the Chinese now call “the century of humiliation” where they could not compete with superior western naval power and suffered internal fragmentation. In subsequent decades, China ceded territories to Germany, to Britain, to France and to Japan. One of the few happy results of these forced occupations is that China’s best beer, Tsingtao, comes from the Jiaozhou Bay area that was ceded to Germany. Tsingtao beer was listed as the world’s top-selling beer in 2017.

Guangzhou today. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Canton street view. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons

By 1952, the picture had changed dramatically. Europe’s share of world GDP was 29.3%, the US 27.5%. China’s GDP had dropped to 5.2% and India’s to 4%. Today, nearly 200 years after the first opium war, it looks as though China is resuming its old dominance, with close to 20% of world GDP; this time as a united country that willingly trades with other countries around the world. So, contrary to what is often written in the media, maybe China’s expanding global  influence is not really so threatening. From the Chinese perspective, they are merely returning to their rightful place in the international world order. Rightful place this may be, but the accompanying geopolitical shifts are worrisome to many countries, especially Asian ones. India now wears a necklace of potentially hostile naval bases in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, and in Pakistan, all built and financed by China. Until Duterte came to power, the Philippine leadership worried about Chinese occupation of the Spratly islands that are claimed by six countries: Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei. China has now pre-empted the discussion by building a military base there.

The increasingly authoritarian rule of supreme leader Xi Jinping does not bode well for China. Neither does the crackdown on Uighur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, or independence movements in Taiwan and Tibet. Meanwhile, climate change looms over the entire world, so amidst rising prosperity in the region, there are tough geopolitical questions to be dealt with in every corner of it. So here’s a toast to some schoolgirl or boy who, unknown to the world today, will come to power and find answers to some of these questions in the decades ahead.

Sophia – Elon Musk’s fears come to life?

Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have often said that AI is the greatest threat facing the world today. Here’s maybe an early example of what they worry about. Meet Sophia, the first draft of an uncannily human-like creation.

Waiting for Grace

Grace came from nowhere, caught me unawares, like when you’re sitting in a park totally engrossed in your whodunit and suddenly there’s a delicious aroma of baking bread, yeast and dough with overtones of garlic and perhaps the gentle bubble of melting cheese, sizzling oil and fat, and you wonder what else is in the pizza topping, book totally forgotten, and you remember that you haven’t had breakfast yet, only a cup of coffee and you came out of the house to run a couple of errands on a Saturday morning, wandered into a bookstore on the way home and found this book someone had raved about, bought it on impulse and sat down to read and then were lost in the murder mystery. Life’s something like that. Creeps up on us. The best lives are lived mostly unplanned. Correction! The best lives are planned and then lived with so many deviations from the plan so that we ultimately arrive at a destination more perfect than we could ever have imagined. Life is as perfect as you make it to be. No great secret here. It’s what you make of it. I know that. You know that. So how do I imbue Grace with that knowledge without preaching?images

Yes, Grace! There’s me on that metaphorical park bench, reading the metaphorical whodunit of life and then, like the waft of baking pizza smells, Grace sneaks into the corners of my mind, invades it with tendrils of soft enticement and then I’m completely lost, I have to type, to search, to pin down this elusive character who beckons with so much mystery. What is Grace made of? How did she come to be? She has certain powers; powers that she herself is not aware of, perhaps. So how does she comes to know her own power? Is she humbled by it? Do they, these powers, make her over-confident and over-reach herself?

So for a frenzied three months, I sat down and typed. I typed in the morning and I typed in the evening, sometimes late at night I woke up with a vision and I was Grace seeing the answer to a puzzle, a mystery. Who poisoned the harmless old lady’s friendly Jack Russell terrier? And why? And why was the old lady so sure the poisoning was deliberate? What a shock to find that on this idyllic, almost paradisical, island! It was an island in the South China Sea near Hong Kong, very hot, very steamy, and the writing was like an outpouring from a fever of the brain. But somewhere in the soul of the scribe sits a heart of ice that dissects and says, no, no; this is implausible, this cannot be true. But life is like that! Life often cannot be true, and yet these things do happen. Take the disappearance of MH370, for instance; the best aviation brains and experts in the world still cannot deduce what happened, or how; until recently, a bit of wreckage was washed ashore that perhaps will provide some conjecture of the truth. But a novel does not have this luxury. And so the fevered search for the soul of Grace continued.

More about Grace in the next post…

Nature’s Bounty



Hundreds of these large orange blossoms strewn on the path to the beach from a tree overhead. The nameless profligacy of Nature’s bounty. Surely the earth has enough for all if we use its resources wisely.

Indian Khanna grows in profusion beside a walking trail on the outlying islands.

Indian Khanna grows in profusion beside a walking trail on the outlying islands.

My apologies for the long delay in posting, but I am privileged to be truly living in a state of grace. More on that in the next blog!


A FRIWAFTT* essay about Hong Kong

This posting is a bit of a FRIWAFTT (as in fools rushing in…) about the ongoing standoff between the Occupy Central/Umbrella Revolution protests (dominated by young people) and the Hong Kong government (as a proxy for the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China).

Economic newspapers over the past several years have pointed to the rising Gini coefficient of income distribution in China. Jonathan Kaiman, writing for the Guardian newspaper in July 2014 says that China’s “Gini coefficient, a widely used indicator of economic inequality, has grown sharply over the past two decades. A Gini coefficient of zero represents absolute equality, while one represents absolute inequality. About 20 years ago, China’s Gini coefficient for family net wealth was 0.45, according to the People’s Daily website, a Communist party mouthpiece, but by 2012 it had risen to 0.73.
According to some analysts, societies that have a Gini coefficient of more than 0.40 are at increased risk of widespread social unrest. Data from the OECD gives the US the highest Gini coefficient in the G7, after taxes and transfers, at 0.39, followed by the UK at 0.34 and Italy at 0.32.”

The website socialindicators.org.hk lists the Gini coefficients for Hong Kong in 1981 and in 2011 at 0.45 and 0.54 respectively. In 2012, the Chinese government refused to release the country’s Gini coefficient to the World Bank and the UN. Using data from six surveys conducted by five universities in China, University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie estimates China’s Gini at around 0.55 in 2012, perhaps a more accurate figure than the 0.73 of the Guardian article cited above.

China’s leadership has proved to be extraordinarily astute and capable in walking the tightrope between managing its exploding economy and keeping a firm hold on political power in the years since Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.” From the point of view of the Chinese leadership, the Hong Kong protests could prove to be a heaven sent opportunity to experiment with ways to nudge the Gini downward on the island before attempting to repeat the exercise on the mainland. If this long-term positive scenario plays out, then one should expect more turbulence in Hong Kong over the short to medium term while the necessary political nudging and jostling takes place.

*The author applies the FRIWAFTT label (fool rushing in where angels fear to tread) to himself since he is neither an economist nor an expert on Hong Kong affairs, but merely an observer with strong opinions that one is thankfully free to express in Hong Kong.


Wake up, world. China is changing.

The recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have undoubtedly triggered change in China, according to Han Dongfang, a 1989 Tiananmen activist who now works in Hong Kong as a radio commentator. Since the gist of my post today comes from articles by other authors, a few acknowledgements are in order. First of all, thanks to Larry Willmore and his “Thought du Jour” blog posting on Hong Kong, reproduced in full (text in italics) below.

Secondly, thanks to Joe Studwell for his sensible and measured op-ed, published in the Financial Times of 7th October, on where the focus of the protests should lie (What Hong Kong needs is not a strategy that backs Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, into a corner, but one that resonates with his own mindset. This is why the protesters should refocus on Hong Kong’s tycoon economy, and the anti-competitive, anti-consumer arrangements that define it.) Anyone interested in Hong Kong should read the whole editorial!

And third, thanks to Han Dongfang and Quartz digital magazine for “advice from a 1989 activist.”


You may think, like the Heritage Foundation [and Milton Friedman!], that Hong Kong is a free market. However, except for external trade, it is not. ….Cartels are everywhere in Hong Kong. Supermarkets are a duopoly, one whose pricing power allows the chains to charge higher prices for the same products in some of Hong Kong’s most deprived areas. Drug stores are a duopoly. Buses are a cartel: high-priced, mostly cash-only, running shoddy, dirty diesel vehicles with drivers who earn a pittance. Electricity is provided by two, expensive monopolies that handle everything from generation to distribution, one on Hong Kong island and the other in Kowloon. The container ports are an oligopoly, with the world’s highest handling charges. Yet they will not supply onshore electricity to vessels, which must instead run diesel generators that pollute the city air.Joe Studwell, “Hong Kong should focus its fight on the tycoon economy“, Financial Times, 7 October 2014 (ungated link).

Joe Studwell is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge (UK). His latest book is How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region(Grove Press, 2013). He blogs at joestudwell.wordpress.com/.

Mr Studwell writes from the political left, so overlooks two features of Hong Kong that illustrate the paucity of free markets. First nearly half the population lives in public housing. Second, anyone with a Hong Kong ID is eligible for subsidized medical care in public facilities. There are 41 hospitals and 122 outpatient clinics run by the government’s Hospital Authority (HA), but only 13 private hospitals.


Echoes of a Million Mutinies: Hong Kong Day 5

VS Naipaul, in his prescient book, A Million Mutinies Now, published in 1990, painted a pointillist portrait of India, a country on the brink of an economic revolution. In it, he described the lives of scores of people from all walks of life; high and low, peasants and urban sophisticates, politicians and professionals. Based on these interviews,  he showed a multi-hued society on the cusp of economic revolution. The economic revolution did come to pass in India, and is still taking place, with periodic stutters caused by many of the factors he mentions in his book; religion, caste, corruption, gender bias, or ethnic and linguistic divides.

Meanwhile China has raced ahead economically, leaving its equally populous Asian rival in the dust and smog of its success. Some political theorists surmise that democratic institutions are a natural outgrowth of economic prosperity. If so, China is ripe for the emergence of democratic institutions, nowhere more so than in Hong Kong, which has several decades of stellar growth rates and high living standards behind it. The generation of young people leading the sit-ins have grown up in a prosperous country with unrestricted freedom to travel. They have seen the world and now are impatient with the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt to dictate terms of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy promised by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. Under this principle, there would be only one China, but distinct regions such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan could continue with their own capitalistic and political systems while the rest of China used the socialist system. Walking through some of the barricaded streets of Hong Kong on October 2nd, day 5 of the “Occupy Central” movement (now also called the Umbrella Revolution because of the wall of unfurled umbrellas that were used to deflect the pepper spray that police initially used against the strikers), I was reminded by posters telling protesters to stay calm and avoid violence, that today was Gandhi’s birthday.

Recycling: part of Hong Kong's revolution

Recycling: part of Hong Kong’s revolution

Recycling: part of Hong Kong's revolution

Recycling: part of Hong Kong’s revolution

CY Leung is the head of the governing Legislative Council...

CY Leung is the head of the governing Legislative Council…

Two busloads of armed and uniformed policemen arrived in unmarked buses while we were passing by the police headquarters on Lockhart Road. At the nearby Legislative Council complex, the path was barred by a a solid phalanx of policemen behind barriers. A crowd of people stood opposite the barriers, and waited and watched, continuing their vigil. The atmosphere was very calm, with a few anxious faces in the crowd. A man walked around handing out surgical filter masks in anticipation of possible police action. Some young people sat cross-legged on tarpaulins, mats or flattened cartons, chatting in groups, reading or simply resting. A father squatted beside his son, visibly proud, arm around the boy’s shoulders, deep in conversation. A family sat together sharing a picnic. One girl was obviously immersed in her homework. Jason Ng, a Hong-Kong born lawyer, writer, pro-democracy activist and blogger, spent several hours after work helping students with their homework. Jason writes: There is a renewed sense of neighborhood in Hong Kong, something we haven’t seen since the city transformed from a cottage industry economy to a gleaming financial center…. This is the Hong Kong I grew up in. See his blog at http://www.asiseeithk.com/ for more of his posts and in-depth accounts.

Larger crowds today, probably on account of the holiday.

Larger crowds today, probably on account of the holiday.

It was a sultry afternoon. A young man and woman walked past us in opposite directions, spraying people with a welcome cooling mist of water from pump spray flasks. A knot of people stood in front of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Corporation, listening to a young man dressed in black T-shirt and trousers speak passionately in Cantonese. Most of the listeners were older, his parents’ generation, and they heard him speak with avid interest. One old man stood beside him eyes squeezed tightly shut to suppress tears, his mouth twisted in a grimace of pain.

We got home at 8 in the evening, moved by what we had seen, and wondering where all this would end. On the news, the Communist Party was making threatening noises, in typical fashion blaming foreigners for fomenting what is very clearly a home-grown protest. I searched for literature that documents societies moving from dictatorship to democracy and found this deeply insightful paper by former Harvard professor Gene Sharp. Here is the link.


The most important insight I gained from a quick reading of the above paper is Sharp’s idea of permission, where he explains that for a dictatorship to work, large segments of the population must give tacit permission for this to happen. What we are seeing in Hong Kong these days is the withdrawal of this permission to dictate. I wish for millions to support this courageous and peaceful protest in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, a Black-capped Lori feeds undisturbed in the nearby Edward Youde Aviary

Meanwhile, a Black-capped Lori feeds undisturbed in the nearby Edward Youde Aviary


Hong Kong, Occupy Central: Day 3

This is a remarkable revolution and although there are a few older leaders associated with the movement, the overwhelming impression on the streets is of a protest organized and led by the young, mostly students in their teens and early twenties. They are all polite, disciplined and determined. Meanwhile, many of the older generation, the parents and grandparents of the youth on the streets, remember the wrath of Beijing in 1989 at Tiananmen Square, and tremble at home in fear. On Day 2 of the demonstration, a remarkable thing happened. The police over-reacted to the peaceful demonstrators and tried to clear the field using tear gas and pepper spray against the young people. Within hours, many of these cautious older people were out on the streets, protesting the use of force against their children.

I spoke to a well-dressed young woman, who was among the demonstrators. She said she left her office from time to time during the working day and joined the crowds for an hour or two in a gesture of solidarity. A few companies apparently gave their employees tacit approval to join in the demonstrations if they wished instead of coming to work.

Food and water stockpiled, and trash collected by volunteers

Food and water stockpiled, and trash collected by volunteers


Protests at the gates of the Legislative Council

Protests at the gates of the Legislative Council

Let’s hope for all our sakes that the people calling the shots in Beijing, the President and members of the State Council, do not follow in the footsteps of their predecessors in 1989.


Walking along the Dragon’s Back

Colorful name. Spectacular trail. Went on a 2 hour hike along a ridge of the Hong Kong hills. Apparently voted the best Urban Hiking trail in Asia by Time. As beautiful as some of the best mountain walks in Austria, with two important differences, 32 degree heat, and ocean views instead of mountain valleys on two sides. Here are a couple of photos.


After the descent down a steep trail, there’s a beach in a small curved bay with a few surfers in the water and medium big waves; and the village of Shek O with a line of restaurants. The choice this evening fell on Thai  food at a roadside restaurant. Excellent choice. All electrolytes and other post-hike necessities of life tastefully replenished in the course of 2 hours.


Usagi is expected to make landfall in Hong Kong on Sunday evening around 7. Hurricane Usagi is currently the most severe tropical storm of the year and the meteorological office has warned everyone to stay indoors and secure all doors and windows. We have three lovely bonsai trees on our terrace that survived the force 8 gale of early August, but Usagi is reputed to be a force 10, so we will borrow a hand trolley from a neighbour tomorrow morning and move the three heavy urns indoors.

Celebrating mid-autumn in Hong Kong

Mooncake.jpgChinese Mooncake

Today, September 19th, is the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival that is widely celebrated in China and Vietnam, and the following day is a public holiday. It is a time when families traditionally get together to celebrate a good harvest. It coincides with the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar. It’s also called the Moon Festival because of the association with the full moon, or Mooncake Festival because these are eaten at this time. Typical mooncakes are round or rectangular pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 4–5 cm thick. This is the Cantonese mooncake, eaten in Southern China in GuangdongHong Kong, and Macau. A rich thick filling usually made from red bean or lotus seed paste is surrounded by a thin (2–3 mm) crust and may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. Mooncakes are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea.

Here is a nice link with photographs of the festivities in Hong Kong, including a lantern exhibition and Fire Dragon dance performances.