Recent Notes from Hong Kong

Earlier this month I spent a few days in Hong Kong, on my way back from Europe. Hong Kong was my home for 6 years – before, during and after the 1997 Handover – and I have continued to visit on a regular basis ever since. While I didn’t directly witness any of the latest clashes between pro-democracy campaigners and the police, I did see (and hear) the knock-on effects of the past 6 months. I also spoke to a range of people living and working in the city – from local residents to long-term expats; from small business owners to entrepreneurs; from corporate employees to public servants; from teenagers to senior citizens. Whatever their particular views on recent events, their one common hope is that the situation can be resolved peacefully, and soon.

“Maze of Today” by Wu Guanzhong (2007) – Image sourced from China Online Museum website*

The trigger for the current protests was a proposed extradition law between the Hong Kong SAR and the rest of the PRC (as well as Taiwan and Macau). The bill was highly contentious, given the very different legal systems between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Serious concerns were expressed by the business sector, the legal profession and the general public. These concerns were given wider voice by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who joined the first of the peaceful mass marches at the start of the summer. Since then, nearly every weekend (and at times during the week) there has been direct action in the form of marches, strikes and occupations – sometimes leading to street battles between police and protestors, images of which have been seen around the world. These events have been accompanied by allegations of police brutality, the alleged use of agents provocateurs, and suggestions that the protestors are either terrorists, traitors or a threat to society.

On one level, Hong Kong continues to operate normally (although getting into the international airport is a little trickier since it was the target of so-called “stress testing” of the public roads and transport system). On the other hand, it certainly feels quieter than normal, and visitor numbers are down – as much as 40% overall on one measure, with a 90% decline in visitors from the Mainland. (My flight from Europe was barely half full.)

With the increased protest activity at weekends, public transport can be tricky. Some subway stations are suddenly closed without much warning from Friday evenings onward, and the express train from Central to the airport bi-passes the usual intermediate stops. On the Sunday I was there, there had been a mass gathering in Central, and access to the nearest subway station (for the local train service back to Kowloon) was closed, so there was an orderly queue of several hundred metres as people waited for the Star Ferry – many of the passengers dressed in black t-shirts, the unofficial uniform of the protest movement.

Given the recent bans on marches and gatherings in public places (notwithstanding Hong Kong’s right to peaceful assembly) a strange phenomenon has emerged. Each night, at around 10.30pm, local residents open their apartment windows and start chanting slogans associated with the pro-democracy movement. It is both eerie and extremely moving.

This nightly display certainly evokes the sense that no-one wants to see complete chaos or a violent end to the protests, so they chant in hope that a peaceful solution can be found. Otherwise, hope will give rise to despair, and with it the slow, painful decline of Hong Kong as a global city – a multi-cultural, international hub for trade, commerce, finance, ideas and innovation that combines notions of east and west, new and old, pragmatism and spiritualism.

The protestors have issued a set of five key demands. One relates to scrapping the extradition bill, which has now been withdrawn by the Hong Kong Chief Executive. Three relate to the protests themselves – removal of the term “rioters” to label the protestors; an independent investigation into the police response and alleged brutality (and even into police in-action when protestors were attacked by counter-demonstrators with seeming impunity); and an amnesty for all protestors who have been arrested to date.

The fifth demand, Universal Suffrage in direct elections for both the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s Parliament) and the Chief Executive, is a lingering issue from the Umbrella campaign of 2014 (when large parts of the city were occupied in protest at Beijing’s decision to “defer” one person one vote). It’s probably even more contentious than the withdrawal of the extradition bill. To summarise: the Basic Law is Hong Kong’s Constitution. It is supposed to enshrine the city’s pre-existing common law systems for a minimum of 50 years after the Handover. Under the “One Country, Two Systems” regime, designed to govern Hong Kong’s legal, political and economic relationships with the Mainland, the people of Hong Kong were assured that their way of life would continue as before after 1997.

Article 45 of the Basic Law, states that:

“The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

The above has to be read in conjunction with Article 15 (Beijing directly appoints the Chief Executive), and Annex 1 (defines the candidate selection and election process – which has been revised in recent years).

The challenge is that the Central government believes it has to keep control over both the candidate nomination process, and the membership of the Election Committee (election college). On current evidence, the people of Hong Kong are unlikely to get to directly elect their own Chief Executive, nor nominate the candidates of their own choosing. (And the Legislative Council will continue to comprise members who represent “functional constituencies” – elected representatives voted in by their peer groups from various vested interests.) Even if they did directly vote for the Chief Executive of their choosing, Beijing would reserve the right not to confirm them in office, and would appoint their own candidate instead.

Of course, it’s not that Hong Kong was particularly democratic under colonial rule – the Governor was technically appointed by the British Monarch (on the advice and recommendation of the British Foreign Secretary), and acted as the Crown’s direct representative.

On another level, the model for the Election Committee is something like the US Electoral College that formally elects the President, based on the delegates elected by each State. This process was seen as “a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens”.

Finally, I was given an interesting interpretation of “One Country, Two Systems” by an elderly gentleman I spoke to on the MTR one day. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Australia” I replied. “Ah, near New Zealand. Same country.”

* My reason for choosing the above picture of Hong Kong by Wu Guanzhong to illustrate this blog is two-fold:

First, the painting is called “Maze of Today”, rather an apt title for the current state of affairs. Second, while I was working as a publisher in Hong Kong in the 1990s, my company licensed another Hong Kong picture by Wu for the cover of an introductory book on the law of the Hong Kong SAR. The first edition was issued in 1996, with a second edition in 2001 – and it still appears to be on the Hong Kong University reading list for law students, and cited in other law books as recently as this year.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night

 

The Metaphorical Glass Jaw

As I get older (maybe not necessarily wiser), I feel that as a society, we are becoming far less tolerant and yet far more sensitive – something of a paradox, possibly linked to a decline in personal resilience and a lack of quality and robustness in public discourse. And for a country that is both a secular state and a liberal democracy (and definitely not a theocracy), there has been a surprising amount of debate in Australia recently, about the need for a new or revised “freedom of religion“.

John Stuart Mill – Image sourced from Wikimedia

Much of the commentary has been prompted by the thoughtless and potentially harmful remarks by a professional sports player, who espouses a particularly fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Because the very public expression of his personal beliefs led to the termination of his employment, this has been interpreted as a curtailment of the player’s freedom of religion.

Without getting too legalistic (and there is an administrative review pending), the player’s public statements were out of line with the social values and civil rights espoused by his employer – to the extent that they could bring this particular sporting code into disrepute. It was also a repeat incident. At the very least, these comments could have led to a reduction in the employer’s revenue from sponsors or spectators. (And let’s consider that his comments drew so much attention because he had the privilege of a public platform, one which came as a result of his employment status and his professional profile.)

According to this player’s particular creed, his human-constructed belief system permits, condones and even encourages the use of language that bullies and belittles people who don’t adhere to his own views on sexuality, lifestyle choices or even “belief” itself. While much has been said about the homophobic nature of the said player’s tweet, let’s not forget he also targeted atheists in the same context, simply because they are non-believers.

As I frequently tell customer call centres, who often like to blame the “system” for their own organisation’s failings, a system is only as reliable as the people who design and run it. So, if being an adherent to a particular belief system means you have to hold and profess abhorrent views, especially those that are out of step with civil society, then clearly there is something at fault at the heart of that mechanism.

I recently heard a speech by a retired judge on human rights and civil liberties. He referred to an aphorism attributed to John Stuart Mill, in connection with his treatise “On Liberty”, and the harm principle:

“Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins”

In other words, you may be free to say what you like, but Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative freedom means that (despite Voltaire’s standpoint in defence of free speech) even your verbal punches are not permitted to interfere with or harm someone else’s rights – yet alone instill in them a fear for their personal safety and human dignity.

Nowadays, some might say that too many people are prone to having a metaphorical glass jaw – that they take offence too easily, and seek to find malicious intent in any views or comments that they find objectionable or that do not accord with their own world view. Equally, people can (metaphorically) stick their jaw out, seeking to provoke a reaction by drawing attention to themselves, so that they can claim “foul” when they bang up against a countervailing fist. The boundary between personal rights and freedom of expression is becoming increasingly blurred.

When it comes to calls for the special protection (and even promotion) of religious freedoms, I have something of a problem. Quite apart from the entrenched social prejudices inherent in many organised religions, it seems incongruous that such institutions can claim tax benefits as charitable bodies, and receive public funding while enjoying exemptions from certain anti-discrimination laws.

Although we don’t have a law against heresy in Australia, we still have blasphemy laws in most States. Even though they are rarely invoked, the fact that they exist reinforces the notion that far from needing a “freedom of religion”, religious beliefs are somehow already seen to be above the law. Surely, in a multi-cultural, secular and pluralistic society, religious beliefs will have to take their chances alongside (and rub up against) the rest of human constructs and natural systems – science, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, sociology.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Health Tech & Med Tech Pitch Night

 

 

 

 

Separating the Truth from the Facts

There was almost a look of horror on Rudy Giuliani‘s face when he realised what he had done in saying “Truth isn’t truth”. His reputation as New York Mayor at its most challenging time, not to say his career as a lawyer, may have been completely undone by this latest pronouncement on behalf of an administration that has increasing difficulty in separating facts from fiction (or “real fakes” from mere “fabrication”?).

“Doh!” Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

In our post-truth age, one where we have had to accommodate “alternative facts” and “fake news”, language, if not the truth, is usually the first casualty in this war of, and on words themselves.

If one was being charitable, it could be argued that the struggle between “facts” and “truth” is like the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism: so, in the former, words have a finite meaning when used in a particular way or structure; whereas in the latter, the same words can have different meanings depending on the context of the audience.

But rather than critical theory, I think we are actually dealing with a phenomenon I first encountered about 20 years ago, while working in China. A report in the China Daily regarding a constitutional matter that was before the courts said that in order to fully understand the issue, it was “important to separate the truth from the facts…”.

Next week: The party’s over

 

Startup Vic’s Professional Services Pitch Night

For the first of Startup Vic’s monthly pitch nights for 2018, professional services were put under the spotlight. There is a public dialogue on the types and numbers of roles that will disappear due to automation (the professions are no different) and here were four startups seeking to engage in that conversation. Assuming that every industry and every occupation is vulnerable to disruption (and should be alert to the potential opportunities that presents), why should accountants and lawyers feel left out?

Image sourced from Startup Vic Meetup page

Myaccountant

With the promise of enabling users to lodge their BAS return from a smart phone, this app is aimed at micro businesses that struggle with bookkeeping and accounting tasks. Since accounting software packages do not support direct BAS lodgement (although expect this to change…), the app charges $39 per BAS, with no bookkeeping or accounting fees, and shares the fee with the accountants who do the lodgement.

The app is able to extract data from vendor APIs such as Expert360, Airtasker, Uber, etc., and connect to users’ bank accounts. Since launching in January, the app has generated 200 sign ups, with very little direct marketing or paid acquisition so far. The app is also aiming to achieve ISO 27000 (information security).

The panel of judges would have liked to have heard more about the acquisition strategy, and how the app deals with income and expense categorisation, different tax rates, zero rated items, and export sales etc. They also wondered about the competition, and overseas markets

Contractprobe

Developed by Neural Contract, this product uses machine learning to review contracts in 60 seconds. Using a scoring model, it rates documents according to established best practice and bench-marking, suggest sample text for missing clauses, and identifies problems found.

The service is available for ad hoc use, under a monthly subscription, or as custom packages.

According to the founders, the service can save 40% of the time usually spent on contract reviews. It offers a high level of privacy – the uploaded contract, report and transaction ID is deleted upon completion (although it wasn’t clear what records are retained for the purposes of clause analysis, data and analytics – including client profiling and user context.)

To reassure any lawyers in the audience, the product stills relies on human input to apply judgment to the choice of clauses, for example. However, a clear value of the review process is ensuring that phrases and key words are properly defined in the contract.

The judges wondered where this product fits in with open source documentation and pre-drafted documents, whether there are specific verticals more suited to this service, and what trust and liability issues might arise. Is it more of a “clause-spotter” rather than an expert system? How does it address statutory clauses, and the question of whether clauses are actually enforceable?

The service has about 40 clients, including law firms, and is now moving into corporate clients.

Businest

This product is designed to help with cashflow management, which the founders describe as an “iceberg” issue. They point to data that suggests 87% of SMEs have issues with cashflow.

Claiming to use AI to coach SMEs and accountants, the goal is to allow business owners to focus on what they do best, and move accountants from “compliance to advisory”. Applying its own algorithm to cashflow analysis, the service also provides training content to advisors.

Offering both SME and advisor pricing models, the founders have launched a pilot with MYOB. They also point to market research and commentary (CEDR, AFR, CPA, CA…) that indicates the market wants it.

The judges felt that the banks won’t rush to endorse the service (although under the open banking data protocol, they won’t be able to prevent customers linking their accounts) because they are used to the interest they charge on overdraft facilities and credit cards.

Brandollo

This is a marketing tech start-up, aimed at SMEs that struggle to access tailored advice. Targeting B2B clients, in the professional services sector,  with less than 80 staff.

Briefly referring to the use of AI and ML, the service claims to reduce marketing costs by 80%. It offers a brand gap analysis and makes recommendations, that can be implemented without external help. The process looks at execution issues, content requirements, and actual solutions.

Aiming for 200,000 clients in 5 years (currently standing at 200+), the main competitor is Benchmarketing. Brandello offers a freemium model, with a 3-tier paid-for service. They can connect clients to experts, provide a quote to execute and then take a commission on the resulting solution.

 

Based on the judges’ verdict, the winner was Myaccountant. While the people’s choice was a tie between Myaccountant and Contractprobe.

Next week: The General Taxonomy for Cryptographic Assets