Monday, October 20, 2014

Communist or Capitalist - What's in a Name?

Support for Free Market System

This year's Pew survey on global attitudes towards future wealth is full of intriguing questions and results (is Life Success out of one's control? Will the next generation have a better future than yours? Is Inequality a major challenge? How important is education and hard work to success?). Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between a nation's economic growth and its people's overall levels of optimism.

Among the polling results, the question posed in the graphic above produced a particularly curious paradox: Vietnam and China, two of the world' s last remaining so-called Communist countries, are among the staunchest disciples of the free market economy. This result may be causing Karl Marx to stir yet again in his grave. More likely, however, he is remaining stock-still, having long ago abandoned delusions that his collectivistic prescriptions are still being followed anywhere.

Hope, mixed together with industriousness and dashes of ingenuity, is a powerful tonic for getting people off their butts in the quest to make money and improve their lots. In underdeveloped markets, people generally seem to believe that there is nowhere to go but up, so why not go for it. Meanwhile, the emerging markets of Asia have had a taste of growth and its people seem hell-bent on continuing to chase their fair share of it. Ironically, perhaps, it's the "old world' countries of Europe (and surprisingly Japan) that seem to have gotten lost in their belief in free enterprise and prefer to paw through what goodies there might be for doling around by the welfare state.

Another intriguing driver of hope lies in views towards wealth disparity, as laid out in the table below. Here also, Vietnam and China - two countries that have whoppingly wide wealth gaps and high Gini-coefficients, seem least concerned about the notion that there is a thin, dense layer of cream at the top of their economic cakes. These people might have chosen to take their pitchforks and protest banners out into the streets and seek to topple their lords and masters. Instead, the people of these countries simply want to keep their noses against the millstone and grind out more money and better lives for themselves. Good on 'em.          

Inequality Seen as Major Challenge

One final note: the communistic North Koreans were not included in this survey. Had they been, there is little doubt that, given the importance over the past few years of the free-trade and black market for goods in keeping the citizens alive at even a subsistence level, they too would have also given the wild and wooly practice of capitalism a big thumbs-up. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Hong Kong - Cronyland

At the risk of adding yet more blah-blah-blah to the global debate about Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, the table above speaks volumes. Therefore, little else needs to be said. The table from The Economist was initially posted on this website in March of this year (for full report, read Asia One Percent: Crony Nations). Some of the consequences of this level of economic disparity are now on full display in Hong Kong. Repression of economic, political and social opportunities in an advanced, educated society simply leads to baaaaad things.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Robbing the Baron

Hey, seen a maid sporting a Rolex?
No one should feel amused to hear that someone has been burgled. However, if that victim happens to be Hong Kong's Cecil Chao - the property billionaire who has made a second career of openly serial bachelorhood, and who has famously offered HK$500 million to any bachelor who can set his lovely lesbian daughter Gigi back onto the path of heterogamy - perhaps a little schadenfreude might be excused. As reported in the SCMP, he is the latest of several burglaries in Hong Kong of tycoons.
In Mr. Chao's case, the storyline is that someone approached his 20,000 square foot mansion (modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house) late at night, climbed in through Mr. Chao's latest girlfriend's bedroom window, made their way into a bathroom which contained a safe, pried it open, and then took off with six antiques, five watches and twenty items of jewelry worth HK$10 million (c. US$1.2 million). This incident happened when the property's CCTV happened to be shut down for repairs.
A few questions of curiosity immediately spring to mind:
  • Is it coincidence that the burglaries were made while much of Hong Kong's police force was preoccupied with the Umbrella Movement?
  • How can this not be an inside job, since the thief was probably aware of the wonky CCTV system as well as able to negotiate the labyrinth of Villa Cecil to find the safe?
  • Why is there a safe in a bathroom anyway? Has Mr. Chao cornered the local market on Viagra and rhino horn powder? 
  • Why does his girlfriend have or need her own bedroom? Is Stud-man Cecil only half the man he once was? Or maybe this is the modern-day version of Raise the Red Lantern, where the rich Chinese tycoon chooses between his many wives each night by hanging a red lantern outside her bed chamber.
While authorities are investigating, Mr. Chao is not commenting. That's unfortunate, because it would be good to know if the HK$500 million reward for the lucky winning he-man is still on offer, or whether it will be revised. To, say, HK$490 million. 


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Night for Umbrellas

Menace from Afar?
A stirring image of the third night of protests in Hong Kong related to the Umbrella Revolution. Lightning, thunder, heat and a couple of hundred thousand people willing to endure it out in the open.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Season for Brollies

The dragon snorts. Time to cover up.

Tis the season for umbrellas in Hong Kong. Late September is marked by residual days of summer, with either tropical sunshine or typhoons that blow in from the east across the South China Sea. On sun-splashed days, Chinese women shelter their hard-won alabaster skin from damaging UV rays under parasols, many brightly patterned, frilly or predictably kawaii-ed by Hello Kitty. Stormier days bring out a wider range of brollies, from the upscale Burberry variety to more pedestrian US$8.00 7-Eleven types to cheekier models emblazoned with messages such as "Shit, it's raining."

This week, the good people of the Hong Kong SAR have found another reason to keep their favorite umbrellas close at hand. The menace has not been preceded by a UV rating, typhoon signal number or amber thunderstorm warning, but instead by red and black banners held aloft by the local police demanding that crowds (peaceful though they may be) disburse. Uncooperative crowds have then been pelted by clouds of tear-gas or pepper spray. The public's defense has been limited to donning plastic goggles and surgical masks, and ducking under a phalanx of nylon shields.

This is the first time in almost fifty years (since 1967) that Hong Kong's police have used such aggressive crowd-control measures against its own people. Ironically, the complaints in 1967 were by left-leaning communist Chinese sympathizers against British rule, rather than democracy-craving citizens (mostly young students) protesting against Beijing's increasingly heavy handed governance. History, like storm systems, sometimes has a petulant way of coming full circle.

A long brewing irritation caused by a myriad of political, social and economic issues between Hong Kong and China over the past few years seems to be hitting full boil. How long the now erupted brouhaha will continue is anyone's guess. However, no analysts on either side of the current issue believe that amicability will be restored anytime soon. Meanwhile, Hong Kong's stock market, property prices and already-flagging retail sales will likely come under serious pressure, particularly given that the social unrest is occurring during a critical week for tourism and shopping - China's National Day holiday. The merchants and those who live off of their welfare may likely face tough times for some time yet. 

When people live at the feet of an active dragon, they need to expect to be hit with expectorants that inevitably get snorted out its nose from time to time. Sadly, umbrellas do not appear to be much of a shield against such peppery and tear-inducing snot. Looking ahead to the next few days, we should all hope and pray that they won't be tested against even more lethal projectiles.    

Guess which one is the Burberry

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blundering Indian Newscaster Told "Xi ya!"

As reported in this BBC article and other news sources, at least one Indian citizen will not recall fondly Xi Jinping's recent visit to India - the newscaster who inadvertently referred on-air to the Chinese President as "Eleven Jinping". The unnamed newscaster was summarily fired for the blunder.

In the view of this blogger, the canning seems like unduly harsh punishment. First of all, the newscaster should be commended for knowing his/her Roman numerals. Too few people these days bother to study the classics.

Secondly, perhaps the reporter was offering a subtle indictment of the Chinese government's recent heavy-handed clampdowns on human rights. Perhaps the steadily-consolidating power of the current Chinese leader seems rather imperious to more than a few observers. "Jinping the XI" does have a certain ring to it, particularly when considering that he is the eleventh person to act as China's head of state since the PRC was formed in 1949. Coincidence or not?   
In any event, the Indian newscaster is far from the first person to take liberties with Mr. Xi's name. As put together by the Foreign Policy magazine's editorial staff, here's a list of ten Xi headlines NOT to use:
1. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea: "Xi's Gotta Have It."
2. A profile of his teenage years: "Xi was only 16."
3. His second visit to Iowa: "There Xi Goes Again."
4. His portrayal in Chinese state media: "Isn't Xi Lovely?" (Or "Xi Will Be Loved.")
5. A Chinese Gorbachev: "Xi Change."
6. Bizarre policy choices: "Xi Moves in Mysterious Ways."
7. A definitive chronicle of his speeches: "That's What Xi Said."
8. His meeting with Henry Kissinger: "The Old Man and the Xi."
9. On a conflict with the current head of the disciplinary committee: "He Said Xi Said."
10. His stylish sartorial choices: "Ain't Nothing But a Xi Thing."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Louis XIII of Rolls Royce

Rolls Royce Phantom Extended Wheelbase Macau
The motor car
Louis XIII Macau Hotel Stephen Hung
The casino
The man (on the left)
Luckily for the Rolls Royce Motor Car company, there's a new king in town, or at least as far as they are concerned. His name is Stephen Hung, he is a flamboyant 56 year old Hong Kong billionaire real estate developer, and he has just put in the largest order in history for the Rolls Royce Phantom. The deal is for a fleet of thirty of the uber-the-top cars, worth a total of $20 million, or roughly $667,000 a piece. As reported in this Business Insider article, the bespoke cars will be utilized by Mr. Hung's forthcoming Louis XIII Hotel and Casino in Macau, an ultra-luxury property catering to China's super-rich which might just make the palace at Versailles look like a university dormitory. The fleet of extended wheelbase Phantoms will ensure that the casino's top end clients will never have to confront Macau's chronic taxi shortage when they want to go casino hopping. Instead, they will be nestled in a gold-plated interior with diamond-studded timepieces by Graff. The opulent styling will match that of the hotel itself, which will offer accommodations costing as much as $130,000 per night. And both car and building seem to have taken creative inspiration from the man himself, who has been sporting red-dyed hair of late. As he has been quoted saying, he is at the point in life when he can do whatever he wants. These days, he seems to be in the mood to throw caution to the wind in the face of Macau's slowdown and Beijing's anti-corruption campaign, and make even extravagant French kings blush.