Hong Kong – Then and Now

I’ve visited Hong Kong twice in the last 6 months, and what a difference half a year can make.

Back in October, the Covid hotel quarantine programme for visitors and returning residents had just ended (which largely prompted my visit). I still had to undergo a PCR test on arrival, plus regular testing for the first 7 days of my stay. In addition, for the first 3 days I was unable to dine-in at cafes, restaurants and bars, or visit public places (museums, cinemas, gyms, etc.), until I had a blue “all clear” QR code on a tracking app. Masks were still mandatory for everyone, indoors and outside, but the QR check-in system was only sporadically enforced.

Of course, this being Hong Kong, the 3-day ban did not prevent me from taking taxis or public transport, going to work, or shopping. So, earn, spend, travel!

Compared to my previous visit in August 2019, there were no signs of any public protests (thanks to ongoing legal and political measures), nor many visitors from mainland China or overseas. The number of expats out and about in Central was well down (although I suspect a lot of people were still working from home), and I don’t recall there being many crowds even during peak shopping and business hours in the CBD.

I visited M+, the amazing new art museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District – which was probably the most popular location I saw during my stay, in part because admission was still free. There was a really interesting and charming exhibition of art and design in Hong Kong since 1945, from the context of cultural, social, commercial, industrial and political developments.

On a past visit, the ground had not yet been broken on the Cultural precinct, and the only art exhibition on show was a series of pop-up installations housed in re-purposed shipping containers (a link to Hong Kong’s important role as an entrepôt?).

Staying near Clearwater Bay also meant being among fewer people, and even gave an opportunity to visit a beach I had never seen before – where local residents had posted signs to encourage visitors not to despoil this small and natural idyll amid Hong Kong’s ever-expanding reclaimed land development.

Talking to some local contacts, there was a suggestion that the key motivation for scrapping the hotel quarantine programme in October was due to the Hong Kong FinTech Week being held the following month along with the much-postponed Hong Kong Rugby Sevens tournament (both expected to attract lots of bankers, brokers, traders and investors…). Yes, in Hong Kong, money still talks.

Fast forward to March, and my latest visit was a stark contrast. Not only were airfares much more expensive than late last year, but the number of visitors (especially from the Mainland) had also boomed. Now that there were no PCR tests or mask mandates, and as domestic tourism has opened up, it seems everyone was desperate to get to Hong Kong. Apparently, in the 30 days since the mask mandate was lifted, 1.5 million people had entered the Special Administrative Region, compared to the few thousand monthly visitors in previous months.

During March alone, Hong Kong hosted the Clockenflap festival, Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Central, a major golf tournament and the WOW Web3 Summit, as well as the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens restored its regular (and rightful) spot on the international sporting calendar.

Out and about in Central on a Friday night at the Tai Kwun art and entertainment precinct almost felt like old times, with people competing for taxis along Hollywood Road. I also got my fill of art – Joan Miró at the HK Museum of Art, Yayoi Kusama at M+, modern Chinese art at the JC Contemporary, and installations and pop-up shows at the K11 and Landmark malls.

From a business perspective, most of my meetings centred on the recent consultation process for Hong Kong’s proposed regulations on Virtual Assets, due to come into effect in June this year. It’s expected to boost the number of licensed crypto exchanges and brokerages operating in Hong Kong, and is a significant leap forward compared to past conversations I have had on the topic, where there was a general reluctance to engage in any meaningful discussions. Now it seems, whether encouraged by Beijing, or seeing the regulatory push back on crypto in the USA, Hong Kong is seeking to become a regional and global hub for all things web3, DeFi, tokenisation and digital currencies. (Not content with the WOW Web3 Summit in March, Hong Kong hosted the Web3 Festival earlier in April.)

Hong Kong is usually very good at reinventing its economic profile following business downturns and market setbacks – especially in the areas of trade, technology, commerce and finance. Perhaps the shift towards embracing virtual assets is simply a pragmatic move. While a large part of GDP is still driven by property and traditional finance, there is a recognition among some that the future is digital…

As much as things change in Hong Kong, they also largely stay the same. Back in October, there was 100% compliance with the mask mandate – but the vast majority of passengers ignored the compulsory seat belt regulation on buses. A breach of the former would have attracted a HK$1,000 fine; the latter, HK$5,000 and 3 months’ imprisonment.

Finally, talking of masks, it’s not that long ago that masked protestors on the streets of Hong Kong were a major legal and political issue. Since then, wearing any sort of mask on a public march or demonstration has been illegal. While I was in Hong Kong last month, the city witnessed its first authorised protest march in several years (about the environmental impact of land reclamation). In a new twist on the right of assembly, march numbers were strictly limited, and all demonstrators had to wear a visible number to identify them. From the TV coverage I watched, the march stewards contained the moving protest behind a rope cordon – so that participants did not literally step out of line.

(On this last trip, I also took a side-trip to Macau – more on that next time.)

Next week: Revisiting Macau – Asia’s Casino Theme Park


The Crypto Conversation

A short post this week – mainly to give a shout out to my colleague, Andy Pickering, and the rest of the team at Brave New Coin. Andy kindly invited me to help celebrate the 250th edition of The Crypto Conversation, his regular podcast that has featured a pantheon of leading characters from the crypto and blockchain industry. On this recent edition, we talk about my journey into crypto, the highs (and lows) after six years in the industry, some aspects of “trust”, the usual Crypto Conversation “Hot Takes” and of course, a slightly contentious discussion on science fiction. Enjoy.

Listen here:




Next week: The bells, the bells….


Smart Contracts… or Dumb Software

The role of smart contracts in blockchain technology is creating an emerging area of jurisprudence which largely overlaps with computer programming. However, one of the first comments I heard about smart contracts when I started working in the blockchain and crypto industry was that they are “neither smart, nor legal”. What does this paradox mean in practice?

First, smart contracts are not “smart”, because they still largely rely on human coders. While self-replicating and self-executing software programs exist, a smart contact contains human-defined parameters or conditions that will trigger the performance of the contract terms once those conditions have been met. The simplest example might be coded as a type of  “if this, then that” function. For example, I could create a smart contract so that every time the temperature drops below 15 degrees, the heating comes on in my house, provided that there is sufficient credit in the digital wallet connected to my utilities billing account.

Second, smart contracts are not “legal”, unless they comprise the necessary elements that form a legally binding agreement: intent, offer, acceptance, consideration, capacity, certainty and legality. They must be capable of being enforceable in the event that one party defaults, but they must not be contrary to public policy, and parties must not have been placed under any form of duress to enter into a contract. Furthermore, there must be an agreed governing law, especially if the parties are in different jurisdictions, and the parties must agree to be subject to a legal venue capable of enforcing or adjudicating the contract in the event of a breach or dispute.

Some legal contacts still need to be in a prescribed form, or in hard copy with a wet signature. A few may need to be under seal or attract stamp duty. Most consumer contracts (and many commercial contracts) are governed by rules relating to unfair contract terms and unconscionable conduct. But assuming a smart contract is capable of being created, notarised and executed entirely on the blockchain, what other legal principles may need to be considered when it comes to capacity and enforcement?

We are all familiar with the process of clicking “Agree” buttons every time we sign up for a social media account, download software or subscribe to digital content. Let’s assume that even with a “free” social media account, there is consideration (i.e., there’s something in it for the consumer in return for providing some personal details), and both parties have the capacity (e.g., they are old enough) and the intent to enter into a contract, the agreement is usually no more than a non-transferable and non-exclusive license granted to the consumer. The license may be revoked at any time, and may even attract penalties in the event of a breach by the end user. There is rarely a transfer of title or ownership to the consumer (if anything, social media platforms effectively acquire the rights to the users’ content), and there is nothing to say that the license will continue into perpetuity. But think how many of these on-line agreements we enter into each day, every time we log into a service or run a piece of software. Soon, those “Agree” buttons could represent individual smart contracts.

When we interact with on-line content, we are generally dealing with a recognised brand or service provider, which represents a known legal entity (a company or corporation). In turn, that entity is capable of entering into a contract, and is also capable of suing/being sued. Legal entities still need to be directed by natural persons (humans) in the form of owners, directors, officers, employees, authorised agents and appointed representatives, who act and perform tasks on behalf of the entity. Where a service provider comprises a highly centralised entity, identifying the responsible party is relatively easy, even if it may require a detailed company search in the case of complex ownership structures and subsidiaries. So what would be the outcome if you entered into a contract with what you thought was an actual person or real company, but it turned out to be an autonmous bot or an instance of disembodied AI – who or what is the counter-party to be held liable in the event something goes awry?

Until DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) are given formal legal recognition (including the ability to be sued), it is a grey area as to who may or may not be responsible for the actions of a DAO-based project, and which may be the counter-party to a smart contract. More importantly, who will be responsible for the consequences of the DAO’s actions, once the project is in the community and functioning according to its decentralised rules of self-governance? Some jurisdictions are already drafting laws that will recognise certain DAOs as formal legal entities, which could take the form of a limited liability partnership model or perhaps a particular type of special purpose vehicle. Establishing authority, responsibility and liability will focus on the DAO governance structure: who controls the consensus mechanism, and how do they exercise that control? Is voting to amend the DAO constitution based on proof of stake?

Despite these emerging uncertainties, and the limitations inherent in smart contracts, it’s clear that these programs, where code is increasingly the law, will govern more and more areas of our lives. I see huge potential for smart contracts to be deployed in long-dated agreements such as life insurance policies, home mortgages, pension plans, trusts, wills and estates. These types of legal documents should be capable of evolving dynamically (and programmatically) as our personal circumstances, financial needs and living arrangements also change over time. Hopefully, these smart contracts will also bring greater certainty, clarity and efficiency in the drafting, performance, execution and modification of their terms and conditions.

Next week: Free speech up for sale


Ask an expert…

I’m often approached for advice about the work I do. Many of these enquiries come via LinkedIn connection requests, but generally they are thinly-veiled attempts to sell me something, or to gain access to my network, or to get free consulting. So I have developed a number of techniques to flush out the bona fide from the free-loaders.

In principle, I like to pay it forward when I can, where I believe I can add value, without any immediate expectation of material reward. But there are only so many hours in a day, and there’s only so many connection requests I can handle.

On the positive side, recently I’ve been receiving more genuine approaches, where specific expertise is being sought, rather than someone wanting to “connect” or “buy me a coffee”.

A great example is the call I received from a prospective client through my work at Brave New Coin. Dr Michael Kollo is the CEO of Clanz, a new on-line community for crypto traders. Following this initial chat, Michael invited me to be a guest on his podcast, to discuss my personal journey into crypto over the past 6 years with Brave New Coin and Techemy.

The result was a very enjoyable (but hopefully informative) conversation about my views on the crypto industry, based on my particular perspective in market data and indexing. I hope you enjoy it too:


Next week: Vinyl on the brain