Sunday, 30 July 2006

Reflections on Personal Pursuits

During the annual retreat on the campus of the Chinese University, a few big questions that I do not have time and energy to think through yet emerged again.

But unfortunately I haven't sorted out the answers to these questions.

Simply put, it seems that so many things that I have been taking for granted in terms of personal goals and strength, have now become objects of serious doubt.

Take my job as an example. A job has always been something to earn my living on, but not necessarily where my interest lies. Of course I enjoy what I am doing, but it seems that I'm just not good at my job at all. Even something that I used to claim specialty on has been challenged, either by myself or others, so many times that the competitive advantage seems to have eroded to alarming levels. More importantly, and disappointingly, the fact that I can rarely identify myself with my job and my indifference for job satisfaction have now developed to a point that preempts further progress in my career, both in terms of quality of work and position. Although people tell me from time to time how smart I am, there is always the connotation that these remarks are referring to my personality rather than my performance. In any case, as in the past 10 years since I have been working, I have much difficulty, if possible at all, to get myself absorbed in my work and strive for the best results as some colleagues do. Someone would be happy or excited at the attendance of an event, for example, but this is exactly what I do not bother to care. I'm simply not a result-oriented person. The process of working can be fun, but I don't care that much about the results, which are often out of my control.

The question is, how can I make a change? Or is it possible at all to change? What can help convince me to be a bit more passionate about what I do, although it is fully acknowledged that it is not necessarily something that I really like?

Without knowing when it happens, but maintaining a certain degree of cool-mindedness and a sense of distance has seemingly become indispensable elements in my personality, even before I came to realise. When many others are excited about a game, at a piece of news or the appearance of a celebrity, I'm just not interested. This indifference has spread to almost everything around me, with only very few exceptions. Once I was told that my ego was too strong, so much so that I don't want to look stupid. Well, yes, but who wants to look stupid? Who doesn't want to know what stupidity looks like? Sometimes I do feel those who get excited or emotional are stupid, and I want to restrain from joining them and making a fuss of something unimportant. But in more cases, I simply find there is nothing important or serious enough that I would bother to react on. Be it apathy, scepticism or even cynicism. Any of these or their combination, perhaps, has been internalised to an extent that even "conditioned reflex" would be insufficient to describe precisely how natural my indifference is.

What is even more worrying is that when I walked slowly in the library trying to find a book to read, I felt that the books on the shelves no longer seem as compellingly interesting as they used to be. I spent hours in the library and still couldn't find a book of interest. What's wrong with me? What am I supposed to do if reading no longer provides me courage, strength and guidance to meet the challenges ahead? Am I still prepared to take the progressive steps to achieve my academic dream? I don't know. I just found this weariness and erosion of a long-time interest confusing and horrifying, because reading and studying have brought me enormous enjoyment and satisfaction since childhood. These mean so much more than a hobby or a pastime to me. All of a sudden, to my own surprise, the passion for decades seems to have vanished almost overnight.

Perhaps there is another pragmatic reason for my recent depression - the degradation of Hong Kong. Social injustice, economic imbalance, policy blunders and ineffectual governance have all dissuaded me from pursuing my dreams since childhood. Neither reading a doctorate nor buying an apartment makes sense anymore. Neither seems financially feasible nor sensible. The opportunity cost seems so great that as the main income-earner for my family, I have serious doubts and concerns about these personal pursuits. Hong Kong has never been a city that truly appreciates knowledge and critical thinking. How am I going to make my ends meet as a lecturer if the teaching and research staff are now employed on contract terms and are made to become salespeople for the highly profitable short-term courses? Buying an apartment on mortgage is a serious and life-time commitment. But property in Hong Kong are notoriously expensive to ridiculous levels. Am I ready to sacrifice my personal and spiritual life for the sake of freedom and security? Am I still free and secure if I am bound by a pigeon hole that costs me a life-time fortune but its value is, at the same time, highly vulnerable to the uncertainties of fluctuating economic conditions and governance blunders? Unlike the days when I was a child and even before, there is no guarantee that I could maintain the current standard of living if I chose to commit myself to either one of the dreams. Yes, I can't realise them all at once and have to make a choice first.

How frustrating.

I must admit that essentially the current depression is derived from a sheer loss of confidence in the future of Hong Kong and my capabilities of sustaining the standard of living as today, among other things. There is little I can do to help change the situation here. And I'm not sure if I can venture and make a fresh start anywhere else - at least this is not a financially feasible option for the time being.

Nevertheless, the ultimate question to which I want a definite answer remains valid. Shall I strive to achieve my dreams of life, or should I yield to the pressure of daily life and live to the expectations of people around me? Is there possibly any equilibrium between these two? If yes, where should the line be drawn? If no, how am I going to make a decision and convince myself to accept the decision as a matter of fact without hard feelings on the personal side?

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

Challenge the Assumptions for GST in Hong Kong

Government officials and political players in Hong Kong are kept busy this summer on various sizzling issues, with the consultation document of the goods and services tax (GST) as the latest addition to the long-winded agenda.

Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of the local population opposes to the introduction of GST in Hong Kong, citing various reasons. It is somewhat out of expectations, however, that the Government has chosen to launch the consultation document at this point of time when there is a handsome surplus in the Government treasury. Few could be left unsuspicious of the political agenda behind this move.

In any case, the arguments in the consultation paper are incredibly weak. Economics students of Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination level should be able to provide counter arguments without much difficulty.

I am no longer an economics student, and I did poorly in this subject more than a decade ago. But GST is something that, once applied, would affect the livelihood of every single person in this city. Perhaps I should also present my two-cents here on the subject, despite my limited knowledge in economics and public finance.

In my opinion, one of the major flaws in the Government's arguments for GST comes in the highly questionable assumption. In essence, the Government has nothing other than "Hong Kong's tax existing tax base is very narrow by international standards", which forms the shaky foundation for all the Government's support for GST. According to the consultation paper, a narrow tax base means "we need a new source of secure and steady income from a broader and growing tax base". By having more taxpayers to finance government expenditure, it is hoped that not only Hong Kong would be better prepared for economic challenges and downturns in future, but would also enjoy an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.

What is more eyebrow-raising is the philosophy of our public finance minister, "Were we to do nothing, then in any future economic downturn we might need, as in the past, to increase tax and cut expenditure on public services." Isn't it an economics ABC to increase public spending at times of economic hardships to help revitalise domestic demand and thus the economy? No wonder it took Hong Kong more than five years to overcome the recession (and believe me, our economy hasn't really recovered nor has transformed into a knowledge-based one as the Government enjoys proclaiming) when our neighbours only took two or three.

The consultation paper also ruled out such options as increasing salary tax, profits tax, stamp duties and rates; and drastically reducing personal allowances for salary tax so that more working people would become taxpayers. The Government said that the first option fails to address the problem of a narrow tax base in Hong Kong, and the latter would not be able to address Hong Kong's excessive reliance on taxation of income as more people grow old and retire. GST is, therefore, the solution.

What bothers me with the Government's arguments summarised above is the absence of depth and logic. It is simply hard to believe that the core members of our highly educated social elite have written such statements with little sense.

My counterarguments are by no means rocket science. Firstly, while Hong Kong's tax base is narrow compared with other leading economies in the world (and, essentially, the West, of which most senior officials still have unrealistic fantasy), it does not threaten Hong Kong's status as one of the world's financial centres. We have a generous surplus in the Government treasury and a huge foreign reserve that enables Hong Kong to maintain normal operations for at least 12 months even if all sources of income are cut off. And under extreme circumstances like the notorious financial crisis in 1997, every responsible taxpayer does expect some temporary tax hikes. And don't forget our unique advantage that Beijing might also be able to offer a hand if needed. Simply put, the fact that the advanced and developed economies in the West have GST in place does not necessarily mean that Hong Kong needs to be yet another copy cat so that it would be recognised as one of the few developed economies in the region. This senseless pursuit for hollow identification with the West without taking into account the unique circumstances of Hong Kong is appallingly worthless.

From another perspective, I would rather question how effectively the Government's five billion Hong Kong dollar annual expenditure on salaries and wages and pensions for the civil service? My experience shows that so many civil servants out there are incompetent and simply not suitable for their jobs. They should have been replaced years ago but they are still sitting where they are, being fed on generous salaries but without achieving what they are expected to. Moreover, recently there have been worrying signs that the Government is expanding again, creating unnecessary positions and structures to accommodate members of those greedy, ambitious but bungling political parties. This is a sharp contrast to the much-touted slogan of "a small government". Why hasn't the Government considered taking concrete steps to motivate and rationalise its workforce and structure, including the countless commissions, advisory boards and statutory bodies, so that the taxpayers' money are more wisely spent before thinking of anything else? Should the Government have exercised better care and a higher degree of responsibility when they deal with taxpayers' money, I'm sure Hong Kong's public finance would be even stronger to the envy of many other governments around the world.

Secondly, GST actually represents a harsh challenge to Hong Kong's well-established reputation and competitive advantage as "shoppers' paradise", which essentially means that shoppers enjoy a wide range of commodities at competitive prices and, more importantly, no sales tax to the buyers. It is true that many other economies already have or are considering introducing GST to help finance government expenditure, but Hong Kong has no pressing reason to follow suit. At a time when other economies levy taxes on consumers, Hong Kong's tax free shopping would be more appealing than ever.

In an attempt to mobilise more support for the introduction of GST in Hong Kong, the Government proposed significant reductions in salary and profit taxes after the launch of GST. It was emphasised that GST is revenue-neutral for at least five years, meaning that it would be devised to widen the tax base, but not to snatch more money from taxpayers' pocket.

What a nice word, but try your luck next time, Mr Tang. Few fellow Hong Kong citizens would believe in this type of clumsy hypocrisy. The five-year grace period doesn't mean anything. All we are looking for is a well-thought, long-term proposal, but not lip service without substance. Your term as the Financial Secretary may expire in five years or less, but our citizenship with Hong Kong is a lifelong matter.

For many years Hong Kong has remained competitive with low and simple income taxes, and it will continue to be so at least in the foreseeable future. I would be surprised to see any economy in the region that would reduce their income tax rates to 10 per cent or lower in order to compete with Hong Kong. This is simply unrealistic. Forget Cyprus, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland and Lithuania, Mr Tang. Comparing Hong Kong with these economies in Europe is simply unreasonable and inappropriate. We have different economic structures and social systems and, more importantly, our target markets are just not the same.

What is even more irritating is that the consultation paper insisted that GST is fair because everyone pays. This is precisely why I consider GST an unfair tax because the Government has turned a blind eye to the widening income gap in Hong Kong and diversified spending powers of the local population. When only less than 10 per cent of Hong Kong's entire population owns or controls more than 70 per cent of its assets and wealth, how could you say it is fair for everyone to pay GST? Isn't it weird and poor logic to think that consumption is always on an upward trend, bringing predictable and stable revenue for the Government? Isn't it obvious that consumption would drop as a result of higher spending costs, Mr Secretary? Or have you forgotten how Hong Kong suffered from economic recession and diminishing domestic demand over the last couple of years?

From the shoppers' perspective, the red tape of tax refund application is yet another problem with GST. According to experience from the West, the fantastic role model for Hong Kong, GST is never easy to administer. Hong Kong tourists to Europe and North America should remember how troublesome it is to apply for tax refunds. I have once received a cheque of some 10 Canadian dollars but when I cashed in the cheque, the bank charged me 30 Hong Kong dollars as the handling fee, eating into a substantial proportion of my refund.

In conclusion, I don't agree with the Government that GST is the solution to better prepare Hong Kong for future economic downturn and financial crises. More prudent and responsible public spending should be sufficient at least for the time being. Taking more money from taxpayers and citizens' wallets and put it in the Government treasury is simply not the right way to go. At the end of the day, more taxes will be unable to fund impulsive and senseless spending. Neither is keeping the money in the safe without spending a penny even when you have to, Mr Secretary.

Monday, 24 July 2006


早已忘記是甚麼時候聽說「嘉玲」的名字的。「嘉玲」當然是指是香港電影 good old days的前輩,不是從蘇州來的劉嘉玲。即使「嘉玲」兩字在娛樂報紙和雜誌中漸成劉嘉玲的暱稱,而提到嘉玲總加上「姐」字識別,但我從不混淆,堅持正本清源,嘉玲是嘉玲,劉嘉玲是劉嘉玲。劉嘉玲不可能成為嘉玲,嘉玲也不會是劉嘉玲。










Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Three Commemorations of 1 July (Part 3 - End)

Pardon me for posting this last of the three-part articles late - if these two-cents are ever read with some patience at all. So many things have happened since the idea of writing about the third commemoration of 1 July - the inauguration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China – first came up my mind, making it even more difficult to start hitting the keyboard.

I have chosen to attempt the hot potato of constitutional reform of Hong Kong, an issue that has been debated for more than two decades and still to no avail in terms of a consensus, let alone any blueprint or action plan.

While the local political circles and the media have recently shown unprecedented vigour to discuss the political future of Hong Kong, unquestionably due to the noisy return of former secretary for security Mrs Regina Ip and high-profile appearance of former chief secretary Mrs Anson Chan in the 1 July rally, too little substance has been found in the rhetoric as relayed in the media. Every columnist or journalist seems to have heard something (presumably useful and newsworthy) from certain sources to help interpret the ambiguous messages floating in the air, out of which, however, few could have sorted out anything meaningful. Simply put, rumours and interpretations are everywhere, but none of them seems relevant and pragmatic in the least possible sense.

This is hopelessly frustrating - at least for someone who has witnessed the political wrestling between Beijing and London during the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, the latest developments in Hong Kong are even worse than what happened between Hong Kong's former and present masters. We have already wasted more than 20 years quarrelling about the same issue and how much more time are we going to spend on this endless debate? How much time can we spare? Can't we re-think our future with a bit more creativity and commitment to our next generations?

The current situation of power struggles, or more precisely, the struggle for media and public attention, among the political elite at the top while abandoning or overlooking public interests at large somewhat reminds me of the so-called Dark Ages of China following the collapse of the glamorous Han Dynasty. Perhaps one of the most painful transitions in Chinese history, it witnessed the crumble of a powerful and unified Chinese empire to the brutal reality of endless foreign invasions and merciless internal warfare. While people were struggling for sheer survival at the grassroots, the desperate educated class, many of whom frustrated officials in the ruling elite, made the painful decision of turning to retreat and retirement in the countryside, and even drugs, alcohol and bluffing, among other things.

There used to be a nice term for bluffing in Chinese, qing tan, literally meaning "pure talk". However, this has never been a good thing in the traditional discourse of Chinese history. "Pure talk" implies rhetoric without action and practicability, and this was often made to share part of the blame for the prolonged sufferings during the Dark Ages when those capable and educated were reluctant to serve the interests of many but, rather, pursued personal interests. Politics became little more than the topic of casual talk to show off one's depth of knowledge to his learned friends.

And this is precisely what I think the current rhetoric about the constitutional reform of Hong Kong essentially is. The fundamentalist belief, or, pardon me for being a bit too blunt, superstition, in universal suffrage among the pro-democracy camp is by all means irritating and impertinent. Every problem Hong Kong encounters or every blunder our honourable government officials commit seems to have a far-fetched root cause that can be traced to or associated with the absence of a democratic government voted by its people. This one-solution-fits-all approach is appallingly irrelevant and tasteless.

People with a basic knowledge of world history should have realised that a successful democracy with universal suffrage must be built on a very strong combination of factors such as an education system that encourages critical thinking and promotes genuine respect of individuals and human rights, an independent educated elite, a strong and politically sensitive middle-class and well-established political parties backed by strong and defensible philosophies with a sufficient pool of talents, among other things. Flawed democracies like those in India and Taiwan are something Hong Kong should never look upon to. Unfortunately history, be it world or Chinese, has never been the favourite subject of local students. Worse still, it is now facing the immense risk of being eradicated from school curriculum once and for all.

That's why Mrs Ip's extract of her thesis published in most Hong Kong newspapers on 4 July was somewhat refreshing. At least she was straightforward in pointing out the key underlying issue of Hong Kong's political system that should be addressed sooner or later, "The dichotomy between the executive and legislative branches is the single most important structural factor accounting for the many governance problems experienced by Hong Kong since the separation of the executive and legislative branches of the government... However, as many prominent scholars of democracy have emphasised, the holding of elections meets only the minimal formal requirements of democracy. To transform Hong Kong successfully into a functional and high-quality democracy, Hong Kong stands to benefit from more comprehensive and in-depth consideration of all the structures necessary for the building of a democratic polity."

I simply can't wait to read Mrs Ip's thesis to see if there is any constructive or interesting recommendations.

While it makes perfect sense for Sir Donald Tsang to dismiss the call for a schedule for Hong Kong's democratisation at this point, the people of Hong Kong are actually looking for something more substantial. We need a blueprint that includes not only the date of introducing universal suffrage for Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections but also, more importantly, the details of how to create a political, social and cultural environment that would make democratisation inevitable and achievable. We need to know what kind of politicians we want to have, which form of political dynamics we want to see, how politicians will be groomed, how partisan politics will be developed, and what kind of constitutional, economic and social reforms will be required to facilitate and reflect these changes. Answers to each of these questions require thorough discussions with the objective of achieving a consensus before rolling up our sleeves to take actions accordingly. Sadly, I don't think the local political players, let alone the middle class or the general public, are ready for this kind of tedious and highly intellectual soul-searching exercise. So many of us in Hong Kong simply have not shrugged off, if they realise this kind of conditioned dependence at all, the mentality that we need a master of some sort to look up to for economic and political benefits, and to make important decisions for us.

Commentator Ma Ka-fai rebutted in his weekly column in Ming Pao today, saying that there has never been any consensus in the formation of mature democracies such as that in the United Kingdom, which was originally no more than a benevolent contingency handed down by the ruling class in face of a political crisis. Very true indeed, that sometimes the ends do come before the means. In the situation of Hong Kong, however, any successful introduction of a democratic political system would be achieved only if some sort of consensus is achieved among the political players and the Government. This is a unique situation of Hong Kong that few predecessors may be found elsewhere.

More importantly, and let's face it, we need the buy-in of our masters in Beijing. Given the complexity of the democratisation process, perhaps there is a bit of truth and wisdom in Beijing's insistence on "progressive development towards democracy", although the actual progress is yet another subject for debate.

In any case, I think most people in Hong Kong, including the political players, have overlooked or chosen to neglect a very important issue. In the eyes of Beijing, rapid democratisation in Hong Kong could spark off an irresistible wave of social unrest that is deemed to cost not only the communist regime but also the independence of China. While it may seem somewhat exaggerated, the widening income gap, along with injustices and favouritism brought by widespread and unstoppable corruption at all levels in the Chinese mainland, provides every legitimate reason for such concerns. Addressing these concerns, however, is by no means the exclusive business of Beijing. One of the most pressing challenges if Hong Kong were to achieve democracy in the near future is to convince Beijing how a democratic Hong Kong would benefit the whole country rather than creating yet another privileged class that is more equal than the others.

We used to be very proud of Hong Kong's historical significance and heritage as a pioneer and catalyst of Chinese modernisation and revolution. But few still remember that this was only possible with Hong Kong's unique status as a foreigner with Chinese origin under British colonial rule. Now that Hong Kong has become part of the country and so closely connected on all fronts, it's time for the people in Hong Kong to re-think its position and how it may help China complete its transformation to modernity in a way that is different from what we used to be more than a century earlier. It is even more apparent that our status as a special administrative region in the People's Republic of China is more of a burden or hot potato to both Beijing and Hong Kong itself than a blessing as we have always wanted to believe.

Monday, 10 July 2006

A Black Sheep Ending to a Clean Carnival of Football and Friendship - My World Cup 2006 Journal (Part 13 – End)

As the Italians held aloft the FIFA World Cup in the sparkling night of Berlin earlier today, representing their hard-earned fourth coronation to mastery of global football, curtains finally went down for the world's most significant sports gala.

The final between France and Italy was very well played, as probably one of the most spectacular and interesting matches in this World Cup. Despite the relatively old lineup in both teams, all players in the pitch demonstrated the highest standard of football with minimal disruptions of corner kicks and throw-ins. It somewhat reminds me of the centennial encounter between France and Brazil 20 years ago, which also coincidently ended with a penalty shoot-out.

Frank Ribery, Lilian Thuram and Eric Abidal in the French squad had an incredibly resourceful presence. Thierry Henry showed excellent commitment and persistence throughout despite his suffering from a worrisome strike in the head in a clash just moments after the final showdown began. Meanwhile, Italy had a wonderful showcase of teamwork that outshone individual glamour, although captain Francesco Totti had a disappointing finale of his career in the national team.

Apparently what was even more disappointing was the unexpected sending-off of Zinedine Zidane in the second half of extra time. His stunning attack at Marco Materazzi's chest earned him a red card that impulsively concluded his football career. Zidane's sending-off in his last appearance in the football pitch left behind not only a dirty spot in his personal profile, but also an irreversible mistake that counteracted to the French struggle for World Cup championship.

My jaws dropped open when immediate playback last night showed how Zidane thrust his forehead into Materazzi's chest and knocked him down. Nobody was prepared for that. I can still remember how the thousands of football fans grumped together in surprise, unwilling to believe that this would have happened to a talented and experienced player as Zidane.

I couldn't believe my eyes as well. I have heard so much about how good a player and a philanthropist Zidane is. His appearance last night again proved himself one of the greatest players in French, European and world history of football. Off the pitch, he donates half of his astronomical sum of income to charitable organisations around the world to help those in need. How could someone like him possibly have such an impulsive but meaningless response to whatever provocation he might have encountered, especially in such an important tournament and his last dance before retirement? I really don't understand.

A final note on the Germany World Cup should be congratulatory to the host that made the world's most popular sports festivity a safe and enjoyable one. It was fantastic to see how people from all over the world enjoyed football together in cheers and laughter, living up to the slogan of "A Time to Make Friends". Concerns prior to the tournaments that this World Cup would have become a target of terrorism and football mobbing proved to be somewhat overstated. But perhaps it is precisely this kind of vigilance that has provided the strong foundation for flawless security planning and implementation throughout the event.

Football fans from this part of the world may share some of my disappointment that few surprises were seen in this World Cup - in terms of performances by national teams from Asia and Africa. Previous miracles of unexpected victories over traditional football powers were not repeated in Germany. This was particularly disappointing when so many Asian and African footballers are now playing in world-class leagues in Europe and exposed to the highest standard of football, but they seemed to fail to bring this back and share with their national teams. This is undoubtedly the result of a complicated combination of factors that needs to be addressed with well-thought strategies and a sense of urgency, if the Asians and Africans are truly serious about making good strides in their football.

Globalisation was also one of the buzzwords in the Germany World Cup. People say that national glory does not seem to be the key element in World Cup tournaments any more, at least not as important as it should be. This erosion of nationalism in football makes the World Cup much more boring than it used to be. People also say that globalisation of football, meaning the wealthy clubs can now spend billions of dollars to set up a dream team anywhere in the world, the thirst for national glory at the World Cup has been receding. National boundaries are no longer meaningful, and, more importantly, the talented players have been exploited so ruthlessly in the local leagues and championships that they are too exhausted to play in the World Cup.

Very true indeed, but the so-called globalisation is far from being global. I would say it is actually a kind of post-modern European exploitation at best. The wealthiest and the most powerful football clubs in the world are all located in Europe, and it is also these European clubs that buy and sell the top cream of football players around the world for profiteering as if the players are lifeless stocks themselves. The domination of European powers in the semi-finals was yet another proof of the extension of European imperialism - something that even the long-recognised football kingdom of Brazil could not resist, let alone rebut.

The editorial of Ming Pao Daily today also made an excellent point. The failure of Brazil and England, despite their squads of stars and overwhelming support of fans, was largely attributed to poor coaching and leadership. Coaches like Sven-Goran Eriksson and Carlos Alberto Parreira devised ineffective strategies that failed to bring the best out of their players. They also failed to motivate players that had been playing for different clubs in various countries and thus had little time to spend together as a team. Most players were left to play on their own for individual pursuits, among personal conflicts and internal struggles, and I shall be surprised if teams like these, if they were teams at all, could achieve anything meaningful in international tournaments.

Sunday, 9 July 2006

Well Done Guys, But We Expect More Next Time - My World Cup 2006 Journal (Part 12)

The month-long saga of Germany World Cup 2006 has reached its final chapter after the closing of the third-place tournament last night. Germany had a 3-1 victory against the Portuguese, although it was irritating and unfortunate for me to have missed the goals in the second half due to technical problems of online television - DARN!

Although Germany did not win the FIFA World Cup as many fans and fellow nationals might have hoped, few would disagree that the coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German striker who was part of the last football legend of his country, was the man who made what Germany achieved this year possible. It was not surprising to learn that 93 per cent of football fans in Germany told an opinion poll that they would like Klinsmann to stay as the national team coach. It was reported today that the German players and newspapers have also launched various forms of petition to persuade their hero.

Football is a ruthlessly result-oriented game. Heroes are created when they bring their teams to victory, by whatever means - remember the dramatic anecdote of "the Hand of God" in Mexico World Cup 1986 and the awesome defeat of Brazil by the French under the miraculous leadership of Zinedine Zidane in 1998 and 2006? At times it seems that the success of a national team comes from nothing but the magic powers of a wizard, who disguises himself as the team leader who is capable of motivating his team mates to drive to their limits with incredible persona and skills.

Few had any hope of seeing what the German national team has achieved today, if they were the minority who refrained from criticising Klinsmann in the first instance for recruiting mostly inexperienced players in the squad. Nevertheless, Klinsmann made history by transforming the German national team by replacing the traditional and somewhat defensive freeman form with an aggressive strategy that puts great emphasis on the strikers. Radical reforms like this requires an incredible amount of courage and determination, and it was by all means inspiring and relieving to see Klinsmann has proved himself right with such remarkable results that so many his early opponents have now converted to stand by him.

Despite their victory against the Portuguese last night, however, the German team still needs to work hard on various fronts to sharpen their football skills before they could take German football further ahead. For example, while Bastian Schweinsteiger was unquestionably instrumental to Germany's three winning goals last night, his overall performance in this World Cup was far from being satisfactory. A lack of experience combined with an absence of all-rounded football skills in the 22-year-old midfielder was obvious. While there is no shortcut to the accumulation of experience, the sharpening of personal skills seems much more urgent if Schweinsteiger would like to make it big in the future.

Another example would be Lukas Podolski, who has just been elected the Best Young Player in this World Cup. To be honest, I don't find him as impressive as many people out there think him might be. He has a pretty good sense of attack, though not as strong as his more experienced team mate Miroslav Klose, but he doesn't have the essential skills to make goals happen as frequently as he wants. All Podolski can rely on is his left leg, and he doesn't seem to have good headers - a long-recognised advantage of German footballers. We have seen so many chances being annoyingly passed out due to a regretful inadequacy of football skills, and I do hope that Poland-born Podolski would not sit on his premature award but work even harder to prove me wrong in his future appearances.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Is It All About Fate? - My World Cup 2006 Journal (Part 11)

What an unbearable disappointment it was to learn early this morning that the Germans were defeated by the Italians in the semi-final - and strictly speaking, the last three minutes of extra time.

How sad! Honestly, I was on the brink of tears when I learned the news. Losing two goals in the last two minutes of extra time were just too much to take over. It was comparable to an unexpected heart attack, much worse than failing to defend a crushing charge in the official struggle of 90 minutes. Everyone was caught by surprise. Everyone was then recklessly left in despair.

Championship was so close, and yet so far away.

Dreams of the fourth coronation for global mastery of football were slipped through the German fingers to the Italian hands. See what the scandalous Italians can achieve in their ultimate encounter with France led by Zinedine Zidane the Great - perhaps the greatest and most respected figure in French football history at least in 20 years.

While many out there might blame that the Germans lost because of a mysterious curse of fate that they would lose to no one but Italians, I believe the disappointing outcome was more attributable to the German players' lack of commitment to win as soon as they could and a prevailing absence of experience in international showdown. As much as the video highlights showed, they seemed to have hoped for a replica of their success in ousting the Argentines by penalty shootout. They seemed complacent to maintain a 0-0 draw in extra time. But they were proved terribly wrong.

The key takeaway here for not only the young German players but also for everyone, especially those in Hong Kong, is painfully obvious. Try your very best until the whistle blows. No one should indulge himself/herself in a false sense of security by his/her previous successes. A trick that plays out well at one point doesn't guarantee equally good harvests in the future. Circumstances change, and human beings are most vulnerable to countless variables in the environment and internal weaknesses. Every game is another game, and we have little choice but to adapt to each of them.

Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly emotional to see how German coach Jurgen Klinsmann whispered words of consolation to his young and grief-stricken players one by one, as if he were talking to his sobbing son who had failed the final examination. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest German football players in history, and he has just made himself one of the most respected coaches of his home country.

Friends who have been reading my two-cents about World Cup this year probably know too well that I am a fan of German football all these years, and more still, Jurgen Klinsmann himself. But I have good reasons for this. Just look at what the German coach said after his team's defeat by the scandal-haunted Italians:

"We're obviously very, very disappointed, no question about it, and that is to be expected when there is so much emotion involved and when it turns out that a dream has died. It really hurts when the other side delivers a knockout punch right before the final whistle - that takes some coming to terms with. Even we coaches need a moment to get over it. But I told the team straight after the match that they can be proud of themselves, that they've done so much and that they always pushed themselves to their limits. We showed that we can compete with the best teams in the world. We almost managed to score, and both teams had their chances, but we came up against an opponent who realised just before the end how to make the most of their opportunities and put the match out of our reach.

"Congratulations to Italy and to Marcello Lippi. All the best to them for the Final. What we now want to do is give a fantastic performance for our fans in the match for third place and play some good football. In any case, the tournament has already been a real success for us and we can feel very proud of ourselves. There are players in the squad who have incredible potential and who are getting noticed on an international level. In a short space of time, they have made incredible progress. We can look to the future with a lot of optimism, and many of our squad have made a name for themselves on the international scene during the tournament." (See here for the official English translation of the coaches' quotes.)

A humble and yet noble speech that showed respect for everyone, indeed. Klinsmann respects his players as much as his opponent, whoever it may be. He never forgets to show his respect and appreciation to those who play against his team, regardless of the result. Check out what he said after Germany's bitter victory over the Argentines and the Portuguese, and you shall see how a true gentleman comes through.

With the much-touted story of fate that Germans have yet to win over the Italians in international football tournaments still lingering in the air, I sincerely hope that the young German squad would not only learn from their coach the essential football skills and strategies that hopefully would restore and revitalise the football heritage of Germany, but, more importantly, the indispensable qualities of taking over glories and defeats like a gracious and dignified gentleman. Only with these qualities would this World Cup's slogan be lived up to - A Time to Make Friends.

Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Three Commemorations of 1 July (Part 2)

As an ethnic Chinese born and bred in Hong Kong and trained as a journalist, I always find it extremely interesting to compare the media coverage in Mainland China and the rest of the world, including Hong Kong, which has been so closely connected to the country and yet has been maintaining some sort of distance from it all these years. The opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is yet another example.

Not surprisingly, the state-controlled Mainland Chinese media - and a good number of their private-owned counterparts in Hong Kong - are overwhelmed with positive coverage, hailing the world's most elevated railway as a "miracle" and a dream of several generations come true. The English media in the West, however, remain somewhat sceptical about the environmental implications and even political consequences of this ground-breaking transport link to Tibet. Only privileged readers like me in Hong Kong are able to enjoy the opportunity of being exposed to diverse views on the same matter before making any personal judgements.

What seems most interesting to me is to see how sceptical and even cynical people outside the country are when they comment on something about the People's Republic. For some reasons, many people seem to have negative perceptions of varying degrees of a communist regime, regardless of what it does. Communism is bad. Communists are ruthless killers and oppressors. Communists make their people suffer. Ulterior, unspeakable motives drive whatever communists do. Communists are stubborn and stupid authoritarians who do not respect human rights and democracy. Communists will do anything that will help them prolong their dictatorship... Let me stop here as the list of allegations of communists can go on indefinitely. What amuses me is that these allegations actually apply, at least to a certain extent, to most government leaders around the world despite the diverse differences in political systems. While communists, especially those in China, share most responsibilities for their poor impressions deep-rooted in people's minds as a result of previous crimes and major mistakes in governance, the devilisation propaganda led by the so-called "Free World" during the Cold War has also, undoubtedly, played an important role to reinforce people's negative perceptions of communists for at least two generations.

Another provoking question of the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is: Where can a line be drawn between cultural integrity and environmental conservation on one side of the scale, and economic progress and social development on the other? This is precisely where the current debate sets in. People against the railway insist that the unique and indigenous culture of Tibet must be protected from being contaminated by modernisation, urbanisation and colonisation by Han Chinese. People supporting the project dismiss their opponents' concerns, emphasising that the authorities have invested billions of dollars to ensure the fragile, primitive ecology along the railway is not terribly disturbed. Their favourite argument is that the railway will bring enormous economic benefits to the region that has been geographically denied from the rest of the country for centuries.

Both sides have excellent arguments and legitimate concerns. But this issue should not be addressed from a bipolar perspective as it currently is. The much-touted cliche of "striking a balance" between two legitimate objectives is by all means easier said than done. And this is exactly why this dichotomous mentality, proven to be unhelpful and destructive by restricting innovation and creativity in problem-solving but encouraging confrontation and hostility, should be completely abandoned. Highlighting only one aspect of the issue without sufficient address to other areas is not going to offer any help in resolving the matter in a satisfactory manner.

I think it is good news after all to learn that the Chinese Government appreciates the importance of environmental conservation by investing more than 1.5 billion yuan (roughly US$187.56 million) on precautions to minimise the railway's environmental implications. However, environmental conservation is a long-term commitment that requires much more than a one-off investment, no matter how big the lump sum is. In addition to strong financial support to fund the long-term conservation programmes, well-thought planning and prudent but effective implementation of the protective measures are essential. Cooperation from all levels of government and stakeholders, including visitors at home and abroad, is also pivotal. While I urge the authorities to pay close attention to the maintenance of the railway and the management of its environmental implications, I restrain from giving the verdict prematurely when sustainable measures may still be under planning, and their effectiveness remains to be observed.

Preserving and sustaining the dynamics of local culture, however, is even more complicated. As culture is so closely associated with the climate, social, economic, political environments and other variable factors that may be unique to a particular geographic area, a one-size-fits-all approach virtually does not exist for heritage preservation, let alone sustainment of its appeal and even revitalisation. More precisely, I do have reservations over replicating the successful case studies elsewhere to Tibet, or even Hong Kong, where the socio-economic conditions are by no means comparable. The only thing that seems fundamental and applies to all is a sincere respect and appreciation of the intrinsic and non-monetary value of local culture. Only when people truly respect something more than the economic benefits or political advantages can they be committed to holistic and sustainable cultural preservation policies and programmes. Although some critics already pointed out that the Chinese Government has failed to address the emerging cultural shock in Tibet, it is understandable that the Chinese leaders may not have the sufficient knowledge that makes them aware of the magnitude of a potential crisis. My frustration lies with the Hong Kong officials who have launched too much propaganda about the cosmopolitan's status as Asia's world city but only carried out a shameful bit of work, if any at all, to preserve our past.

Nevertheless, I do look forward to visiting Qinghai and Tibet, the Wild West of China, perhaps some time next year, before any transformation takes place.

Monday, 3 July 2006

Three Commemorations of 1 July (Part 1)

From this year onwards, the date 1 July means more than the birthday of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It also marks the opening of the world's most elevated railway that runs across the plateaus and steppes of Qinghai and Tibet, and the inauguration of Jeju Autonomous Province in Korea, and many others, including the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

What a date it is.

Few people in Hong Kong have paid serious attention to the inauguration of Jeju as the first autonomous region of Korea, perhaps due to the World Cup fever, or the sweeping propaganda about the 1 July march in Hong Kong as well as the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Only two Chinese-language newspapers reported the news on Sunday with limited coverage. However, I don't think it is a wise decision for fellow Hong Kong citizens to ignore the emerging rival for Hong Kong after Shanghai and Singapore.

Indeed, it may seem a bit too early for Jeju to proclaim itself a free international city comparable to Hong Kong and Singapore. Jeju's inauguration as an autonomous province on 1 July simply marked the official beginning of a five-year plan that sets out various initiatives and infrastructure projects designed to realise Jeju's aspirations of becoming a free international city in North Asia. However, those who have witnessed the never-give-up fighting spirit of the Asian Red Devils in the football pitch, or the Koreans' resolution of restoring a running river in downtown Seoul by digging up one of the busiest roads and transmitting fresh running water all the way from River Han (Hangang in Korean), should never underestimate how far the Koreans can go. If the Koreans say they have decided to do something, there is a very good chance that they are going to make it, by all means, for anything.

Sadly, the increasing ignorance of some Hong Kong people, and, notably, our honourable political and business leaders, reminds me of the complacence of those so-called football powers that resulted in their early drop-out in the World Cup this year. Some of them thought they were still far more superior in terms of quality, without realising that their competitive advantages are eroding and their competitors have been catching up more quickly than expected. Some others simply could not work out a strategy that effectively capitalises their distinctive competitive advantages. Rather, they sat on the old-school philosophy that has been working well for decades without any incentive for enhancement. Examples of both causes of failure can be easily found in Hong Kong in recent years. And this is exactly why I have been so sceptical, or even cynical, about the future of Hong Kong. This is where I was born and bred and I simply don't want to see it fail.

Though hopeless as it may seem, I would like to urge everyone in Hong Kong, at the strongest possible degree, to take a more strategic and holistic perspective in setting out the long-term blueprint for Hong Kong's sustainable development. Don't just leave our future in the hands of the untrustworthy political opportunists, reactionary tycoons and even the propagandists. Standard of life among fellow citizens shall never improve should economic interests continue to dictate the agenda and mentality of public administration and policy-making. Over the past decade or so we have already suffered enough from the bitterly vicious outcomes of an unreasonably strong favouritism towards powerful conglomerates controlled in the hands of a few. What we need in Hong Kong now is perhaps a civilised version of a cultural revolution that inspires a sincere reflection of who we are, what we do, and where we want to go. Only based on the conclusion of this collective reflection can we draw up a meaningful plan of the actions and steps that we should take.

Sunday, 2 July 2006

I Won't Cry for You, England and Brazil - My World Cup 2006 Journal (Part 10)

Just being a bit too excited at the ouster of England and Brazil in the quarter-finals. These were exactly what I expected. The much-acclaimed English squad, the so-called "the strongest in at least 20 years", was flung in their face the ruthless reality that they know nothing about football other than defence. England's defence was undoubtedly among the best around the world, but football is a hunting game that means much more than defending your ivory tower. The inability of shooting the game means that you're poised for failure in the long-run. Luck always takes side with the stronger.

And now the spotlight is turned off on Brazil. For sure, no one would disagree that the Brazilian players are incredibly talented with unmatched proficiency in football skills. However, they failed to orchestrate a synergy that achieves more than the nominal adding sum of their strength. In the case of Brazil, one plus one should be more than two. But they did not do that. The team was in poor shape with internal conflicts and morale problems. Jealousy and mistrust overshadowed the whole team. Worse still, they had to play against the French whom they have not won over in the past 20 years. This is by no means any exaggeration. Veteran football fans shall remember the confrontation between Brazil and France in the Mexico World Cup in 1986. Beyond any doubt, it was truly a "centennial" game by nature as opposed to the largely exaggerated and flattering clashes that have also been labelled "centennial" in recent years. Anyway, the French-Brazilian encounter with Socrates, Branco, Careca, Josimar, Zico, Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Patrick Battiston and many others was a spectacular game that demonstrated the highest possible standard of football in history. It ended with a shootout that finally sent the Brazilians home in tears and despair.

Perhaps the 1998 encounter at the final in France would be more familiar to young football fans. The Brazilians, including the much-acclaimed Ronaldo, simply did not perform up to the standard their zealous fans had expected. The sweeping victory of France with three goals was understandably devastating. And it would not be any surprise for anyone to see that the Brazilians are still haunted by these painful memories.

The key take-away of England and Brazil's losses last night, however, should be something more strategic. As we watched the Portugal-England clash, my brother repeated his point that there is virtually no top-class striker in the English team. The high-scoring forward players in the English league are mostly foreign players from Europe and South America. Canada-born Owen Hargreaves has been the best performing player in the English team in this World Cup, but he is now playing at Bayern Munich with Michael Ballack. Wayne Rooney is a hot-tempered, impulsive bull with extremely low EQ at his best, despite all the compliments he has received from the veteran footballers. His misbehaviour that earned him a red card last night was yet again another proof of my brother's statement.

In any case, the absence of top-class strikers in the English team has been proved to prevent the nation from sustaining its glory in World Cup and other international tournaments. The import of football talents from other countries has not helped raising the standard of football in England.

Interestingly, Brazil's problem is just to the opposite. For generations, it has been a Godsend for Brazil to be the hotbed for grooming top-class footballers, who are then purchased by wealthy football clubs around the world, and, more notably, Europe. Yet it seems that their national league is incomparable to its European counterparts at least in terms of publicity. Players from the national league are often invisible in the national line-up. When the top Brazilian players return and play for their homeland, however, their thirst of personal glory has gradually replaced the common goal of pursuing national pride and sustaining the reputation of Brazil as the kingdom of football. This is especially true when it comes to this World Cup, as shown in the countless news coverage about the alleged personal conflicts among individual players. Brazil, as a major exporter of talented football players, is now facing an emerging crisis of not necessarily talent drainage but the embarrassment of lacking a synergy among the world's top players that may, at some point, cost its global leadership in football.

A summary of European hegemony in football will provide a sharp contrast that helps illustrate the point. The four European powers that have made their way into the semi-finals all have world-class national leagues. But their leagues are characterised by a heavy reliance on local players. Foreign players are of course welcome, but they seldom play a dominating role. Foreign players are expected to bring innovation and stimulus for reform and inspiration, but they are not meant to replace the indigenous players.

Striking a balance between local and foreign players is never easy. Dominance of either side would either sacrifice the opportunity for innovation and further improvement, as we have seen in the case of Brazil, or give up the grooming ground for talented local players when their positions are taken away by foreigners, as in the case of England.

Hong Kong has been following the example of England, and worse still, people are not as interested in local football as they are in overseas, top-class tournaments. I feel sorry for Hong Kong football, when I know that we have a glorious heritage, which has now been ignored or forgotten by most people of my age or the younger generations.

Saturday, 1 July 2006

A Dramatic Struggle of Strategy - My World Cup 2006 Journal (Part 9)

Congratulations, Germany, for winning over Argentina and marching into the semi-final against Italy.

Not surprisingly, Poland-born Miroslav Klose once again became hero with his equaliser at the 80th minute of the game. Goalkeeper Jens Lehmann joined the hall of fame by saving two penalty kicks by Esteban Cambiasso and Roberto Ayala, who took the lead by a header at the 49th minute.

However, I must say that as a fan of Germany for 20 years, I'm not at all satisfied, let alone happy, with Germany's performance last night. Their strategy seemed too conservative to secure a victory within 90 minutes, despite the apparent competitive advantage of Argentina in terms of personal football skills. The strikers were almost invisible in the penalty box of Argentina. The midfielders were too close to their heartland when they were pressed so hard by the Argentines. Ironically, the shorter and smaller South Americans managed to take the lead by heading the ball into the German net, despite the fact that the Germans are by large much taller and supposedly more conversed in headers.

Indeed, the Argentines are never easy to play against. Germany does have the bitter memory of losing the World Cup to Argentina led by Diego Maradona in 1986. In any case, little could have indicated the matching strength of both Germany and Argentina better than the 1-1 draw within 90 minutes last night. What I expected, however, was more upbeat and confident football than what the Germans demonstrated at least in the first half. German coach Jurgen Klinsmann, one of the best footballers in history whom I respect most, was honest and sincere when he remarked after the strenuous victory of his team, "We took a while to settle to begin with and couldn't get into the rhythm we had in other matches."

While I'm not at all happy with Germany’s strategy last night, the most dramatic development set in when the Argentine goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri was forced to withdraw moments after a clash with Miroslav Klose. It was both amusing and worrying to see that Leonard Franco, who was called upon to replace Abbondanzieri, was only putting on his shirt and pants in a big hurry in front of the camera. Obviously he was not ready, and so were his coach and team mates. It was therefore no surprise at all to see the Argentines stepped up their attacks in the German field afterwards.

What was even more amusing though was the substitution of Juan Riquelme, who has orchestrated most of the attacks of his team. Apparently the Argentine coach Jose Pekerman was trying to sit back and secure his team's one-goal victory in less than 20 minutes remaining. This was a typical but disgustingly passive strategy adopted by many established teams in this World Cup, regardless of their opponents, but again this did not work out. I simply could not understand why Pekerman could be so convinced that his team would win with a sheer advantage of one goal when his opponent is the almighty Germany. It seemed to me that he had simply forgotten that while the German squad may not be as good as their forefathers, it is still being led by Jurgen Klismann, one of the men who avenged and beat the Argentines in the Italy World Cup in 1990.

If someone should be blamed for Argentina's failure, I would most probably vote for Pekerman. The Argentines did play well - and honestly, much better than the Germans - but their ouster was largely attributable to an irreversible strategic mistake. This is essentially a good lesson for those football hegemonies that are excessively self-confident, if complacent at all. And once again the Germans have demonstrated excellent sportsmanship by devoting their best to the end of the game, despite the high temperatures and physical overdrafts. Even Michael Ballack had a cramp in his leg but still managed to play until the last moment in extra time and scored in the shootout.

Before closing, I would also like to send my regards to Oliver Kahn, the German goalkeeper who has been left on the bench all these days. Undoubtedly he is very upset, and has openly demanded an explanation from Klinsmann. However, it was by all means an emotional touch when he was seen whispering to Jens Lehmann, who has been taking his place in the World Cup tournaments. Whatever he might have said, I took the liberty to believe that he had whispered words of encouragement and even tips of saving penalty kicks to his team mate in such an important match that proved to help bringing his country a step closer to the fourth World Cup championship.

Gruss zu Kahn! Gruss zu Deutschland!