Saturday, 31 March 2012

democracy, chinese style

Last Sunday, a new chief executive was elected who will be in charge of running the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) for the next five years. Note that I did not write ‘Hong Kong elected a new chief executive’: the choice was made by a 1,200-strong committee in what local critics described as a ‘small-circle election’.

There were three candidates: until he resigned to run in this election, as he was required to do, Henry Tang was the chief secretary for administration, second in the government hierarchy, while Leung Chun-ying was formerly convenor of non-official members of the territory’s executive council. Both could therefore be regarded as ‘establishment’ figures. Although Tang had the support of leading businessmen, the territory’s media had long been unimpressed by his intellectual ability, hence his sobriquet of ‘the pig’. Leung, on the other hand, was suspected of left-wing sentiments and if elected was expected to initiate measures to reduce the wealth gap between rich and poor. ‘The wolf’, as he was labelled, was even alleged to be a secret member of the Communist Party. Albert Ho, chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and a legislative councillor, was the third candidate, although he entered the contest with no hope of winning and took part merely to highlight the farcical nature of this so-called ‘election’.

The election committee included property tycoons, business and financial leaders, trade union representatives, politicians, and academics; what it did not include was ordinary members of the public. Given that China has had no experience of democracy throughout its long history, I suspect that the leadership in Beijing imagined that the rest of the world would see this pantomime as democratic and fail to notice that it was little more than an elaborate means of appointing the next man in charge.

If this was the plan, it backfired spectacularly. The election turned out to be more of a contest than the central government had bargained for. Tang was widely regarded as the central government’s choice—his father had been a wealthy Shanghai businessman with connections to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin—but he could not have done a better job of torpedoing his chances if he had actually been trying to do so. First, there was the revelation of an extramarital affair; Tang offered a grovelling public apology but resolutely refused to withdraw his candidacy amid reports that his wife was ‘standing by him’. Tang’s wife was called upon to bail him out again when the local press reported on a 2,000-square-foot basement at his luxury home in an upmarket district of Kowloon that had been constructed without planning permission. This was passed off implausibly as an oversight by Mrs Tang, but the story didn’t go down too well with the Hong Kong public, many of whom live in a small fraction of this space.

Although Leung had the odd skeleton in his own closet—a possible conflict of interest in a design competition ten years ago for which he was a judge being the most striking—it slowly became apparent that he was gaining ground at Tang’s expense. The story about his illegal basement had made it obvious to all but Tang himself that here was someone with no integrity who was desperate to win at all costs. We were therefore treated to the innuendo surrounding a dinner attended by members of Leung’s campaign team and the Heung Yee Kuk, a pressure group representing indigenous New Territories villagers that had votes on the election committee. Allegedly, the dinner was also attended by a businessman with suspected links to a local triad society, but no corroborating evidence was forthcoming.

Finally, in a televised debate, in order to show Leung up ‘for what he is’, Tang claimed that in an executive council meeting, Leung had advocated the deployment of riot police and the use of tear gas to deal with massive demonstrations in July 2003 against Article 23 of the Basic Law, which empowers Hong Kong to pass ‘national security’ legislation. This turned out to be yet another tactical mistake, partly because no one else who was present at the meeting could recall this conversation, and partly because in making this claim Tang was breaching a confidentiality protocol that is in place to encourage council members to speak freely when offering advice.

As election day approached, it was widely believed that Leung had become the central government’s preferred candidate; there were widespread rumours that officials from the central government’s local liaison office were lobbying election committee members on Leung’s behalf, prompting Albert Ho to complain that they were undermining the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. It should be pointed out here that ‘one country, two systems’ is not a principle, merely a catchphrase, something the Chinese government has always been good at coining. I half expected someone to trot out that other 1980s favourite, ‘maintaining the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong’, but this slogan seems to have been superseded by ‘maintaining Hong Kong’s core values’, whatever they are, since the 1997 handover.

In order to stand in this election, a candidate had needed the nominations of at least 150 members of the election committee. Although Tang had attracted the most nominations, in the election itself almost half of those who had endorsed his candidacy subsequently abandoned him. The final result was 689–285 in favour of Leung. More than a hundred electors either abstained or cast a blank ballot. Meanwhile, in an unofficial parallel poll organized by Hong Kong University for members of the public, more than one-third of participants also cast blank ballots, even though they had to stand in line for quite some time for the privilege of doing so.

One should be careful not to read too much into this result, although it probably mirrors the rivalry within the Chinese Communist Party between conservatives and reformers, a contest that the reformers are certain to win eventually. Of more interest is the parallel with politics and politicians in the West. It is difficult to avoid the impression that all three candidates in the recent election are utter mediocrities, which is something that voters in the West have grown accustomed to. One only has to think of the triumvirate of stuffed shirts at the apex of UK politics, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, to make this point. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, President Barack Obama ought to be a sitting duck in November’s US election, yet the best the Republican Party can offer is a choice between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Hobson’s choice is no choice at all, but apart from a few vocal activists Hong Kong’s residents won’t mind as long as Leung Chun-ying does nothing that interferes with or disrupts their traditional way of life.

Monday, 19 March 2012

choice quality stuff

It is as well for his posthumous reputation that Sir Alec Issigonis was the designer of the British Motor Corporation’s iconic Mini car, launched in 1959, because his other claim to fame, as the purported originator of the now well-known witticism, that a camel is ‘a horse designed by a committee’, shows him in a far less flattering light.

The remark may say something about the efficiency of committees, but the suggestion that the camel is somehow an example of poor design is ridiculous. If we take the design brief to be for a large quadruped to live in arid and semi-arid regions of the world, where the going underfoot is often loose and unstable, where forage is often sparse and thorny, where water sources are few and far between, and where temperature ranges are among the most extreme on the planet, then it is the horse that is poorly adapted to survive.

Given such an extreme environment, we must expect the design solution to be extreme too, and so it is. The camel’s large splayed feet resolve the difficulty of walking on loose, shifting sands; its long spindly legs and knobbly knees, compared with those of a horse, keep its body further away from the heat being radiated by the ground beneath it and themselves absorb little heat; and its thick coat provides insulation against that heat. Its leathery lips and mouth are well suited to browsing the type of thorny vegetation that is typically found in deserts and rangelands, and its hump(s), which are composed mainly of fatty tissue, provide a great food reservoir that can be replenished from time to time when greener food is available.

The camel’s internal design is also conditioned by its external environment and the need to conserve water: it is able to drink, at one time, much more water than other animals (typically 100–150 litres) without suffering toxic effects, because its red blood cells can withstand greater changes in osmotic pressure without rupturing. Individual red blood cells are ovoid rather than spherical, an adaptation common in birds and reptiles but not found in any other mammal, so it can maintain blood flow more easily when in a dehydrated state.

The camel can also withstand changes in body temperature that would kill most other mammals, typically ranging from 34°C at night up to 41°C during the day. Only above the higher threshold does it begin to sweat, and evaporation of the sweat takes place on the skin surface, which provides more efficient cooling for a given amount of water lost than if the evaporation were to take place on the surface of the animal’s coat. A camel can also survive a loss of up to 25 percent of its body weight as a result of dehydration, whereas other animals would be likely to suffer cardiac arrest with a weight loss of 15 percent.

Other features that help to conserve water include nostrils that trap a high percentage of the water vapour in exhaled air, urine that is so concentrated that it comes out as a thick syrup, and faeces so dry that they can be used as fuel almost immediately (cow dung has to be dried first). Dust and sandstorms are a perennial feature of desert landscapes, but the camel has this covered too: it can close its nostrils at will, and its long eyelashes keep out blown dust and sand very effectively.

How well the camel is suited to a harsh arid environment can be judged by an unwitting experiment carried out in the late nineteenth century, when dromedaries (the ones with a single hump) were introduced to Australia as beasts of burden. The current estimated population of feral camels in the Australian Outback, all descended from these original importees, is now about one million, and it is believed to be increasing by 8 percent per year. That other imported beast, the sheep, is unable to compete.

Consequently, if you are tempted to repeat Issigonis’ vapid aphorism in the belief that you are somehow demonstrating your cleverness, you just might want to reflect on the knowledge that the camel has been domesticated at least as long as the horse, and that the nomads who did this clearly had a better insight into the virtues of this remarkable creature than you do. The only reasonable thing that one can say that connects a camel to a committee is that a committee would probably struggle to design one that worked.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

the first koel

No, it isn’t Christmas, and that’s not a misprint. The koel is a common bird around these parts, and it has a very distinctive call. I used to think that it was a seasonal visitor, like the European cuckoo, which every year provokes a competition among writers to the national newspapers in England to determine who heard one first. However, this year I heard a koel on 16th February, which is seriously early for a mere visitor, even though we have had a surprisingly mild winter.

The reference to the cuckoo is not a coincidence, because the koel is sometimes referred to as the Asian cuckoo, although the two are not related. However, like the cuckoo it is a brood parasite (laying its eggs in the nests of other birds), and like the cuckoo its call is instantly recognizable. The similarity ends there: while the call of the cuckoo is gently evocative of the English summer, the koel’s call is extremely loud and insistent. Two years ago (Birdsong) I had no idea what I was hearing and described it as the ‘swanee whistler’, because its call resembles the sound made by a swanee whistle as the plunger is pulled out. However, I should point out that the swanee whistle hasn’t been made that can match the volume generated by a koel on full throttle.

Only a week after hearing the first koel, I heard a magpie robin singing. Although these birds are here all year round, they sing only in springtime. But they are the best singers around these parts, and each individual has its own song. It may sound odd to be saying so, but you need to see a magpie robin singing in order to appreciate its song, because the whistling sound by which this bird can be identified is only a part of its repertoire. The background of short chirps and throaty warbles that you hear is easily mistaken for the contribution of other birds, but watching confirms that it is all the output of a single individual.

The song of an individual magpie robin is often very complex (click to play):


Over the past few days, I have been out and about trying to record some of these sounds of springtime; yesterday, I heard a magpie robin singing its heart out at the top of the tree in front of our house, so I rushed up to the roof to record it. Behind the robin, an invisible koel was also sounding off. If you can imagine a piccolo soloist in the front row of a symphony orchestra, interrupted at the end of every bar by a brief glissando from a bass trombone, played fortissimo, in the back row, then you will have a good idea of the musical conflict involved.

The call of a koel drowns out a magpie robin’s song (click to play):


Having mentioned the mistaken association of the koel with the European cuckoo, I am reminded of other local birds that bear no resemblance to purported European relatives. The masked laughing thrush, which looks like a fat partridge wearing a Lone Ranger-style mask, possesses none of the musical talents of its European and North American namesakes. Its local name, ‘seven sisters’, is a reflection of two characteristics: it tends to appear in groups of six or seven; and they all ‘talk’ at once, producing the incessant chatter that is also reflected in the well-known Cantonese saying ‘three women make a market’.

The black-collared starling, like its European namesake, has some talent as a mimic, but it looks more like a parrot or a puffin, apart from the beak. Although these birds can occasionally be seen in large groups, they are more usually seen in pairs, which appear to be arguing constantly. They are the commonest victims of the koel’s egg-laying activities, which may account for their ill-tempered exchanges.

One common local bird that cannot be mistaken for a European lookalike is the red-whiskered bulbul, which has a prominent pointed black crest and red cheeks. Ever since I learned, a few years ago, that the local name for this bird is the ‘court official’, I’ve been unable to observe its fussy antics, constantly hopping from twig to twig, without being reminded of the silly hats that used to be worn by high-ranking civil servants in imperial China. Its song is easily recognized—always the same sequence of four notes—but I sometimes wonder why, if it is able to sing four different notes, it doesn’t sometimes sing them in a different order. After all, it has 4!(=24) permutations to choose from.

It was probably a mistake to equate the koel with the loudest instrument in a standard symphony orchestra, because the ‘telephone ringer’ has yet to make an appearance this year. I’ve no idea of the real identity of this bird, because I’ve yet to see one, but what I can say is that this one is not only loud; it is deafening if heard at close range. And, to make things even worse, it keeps going all night! The ‘fire alarm’, by comparison, has quite a modest call, although the only reason I don’t mistake it for the real thing is that we don’t have one installed.

What the hell was that? A ‘telephone ringer’ deafens the neighbourhood (click to play):


postscript, 7th april
I feel as if I’ve just guessed Rumpelstiltskin’s real name. After years of calling it a ‘telephone ringer’, I’ve discovered that it is a large hawk cuckoo, and like the koel it is a brood parasite.