Archive for the ‘China’ category


Don’t group Chinese New Zealanders into one faceless bunch

18.10.2018

Some visiting Australian friends have said that they are finding New Zealand politics as interesting as their own, although I don’t think this was meant as a compliment.
   Those of us in New Zealand had a few days of House of Cards-lite intrigue, in that it was stirred up by a conservative whip, in an attempt to take down his party leader. Except it was so much more condensed than the machinations of Francis Urquhart, and, if you were Chinese, Indian or Filipino, in the words of Taika Waititi, it was ‘racist AF’.
   Two of my Tweets garnered hundreds of likes each, which generally doesn’t happen to me, but I am taking that as reinforcing something I truly believe: that most New Zealanders aren’t racist, and that we despise injustices and treating someone differently because of their ethnicity.
   Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross and opposition leader Simon Bridges’ phone call, where the former stated that two Chinese MPs were worth more than two Indian ones, drew plenty of thoughts from both communities, where we felt we were treated as numbers, or a political funding source, with none of us actually getting into a National Cabinet (or the Shadow Cabinet) since Pansy Wong was ousted last decade—making you feel that had other Cabinet ministers been held to the same standard, they would have been gone as well. Here was my first Tweet on the subject:

   While Bridges was quick to apologize to Maureen Pugh MP, whom he insulted in the leaked phone call:

   There’s the inevitable look back through the history of Chinese New Zealanders, who have largely been humiliated since the gold-mining days by earlier generations, and the Poll Tax, for which an apology came decades after during the previous Labour government.
   And the scandal also inspired Tze Ming Mok to write an excellent op-ed for The New Zealand Herald, which I highly recommend here. It’s one of the most intelligent ones on the subject.

   She’s absolutely right: those of us with few connections to the People’s Republic of China don’t like being grouped in among them, or treated as though we’re part of the Chinese Communist Party apparatus.
   Her research showed that roughly half of Chinese New Zealanders were born on the mainland, and that the group itself is incredibly diverse. My father’s family fled in 1949 and I was raised in a fairly staunch anti-communist household, images of Sun Yat Sen and the ROC flag emblazoned on my paternal grandfather’s drinking glasses. My mother, despite being born in Hong Kong, grew up behind the Bamboo Curtain and survived the famine, and didn’t have an awful lot of positive things to say about her experiences there, eventually making her way out to her birthplace during her tertiary studies.
   Tze Ming writes:

This chilling effect is harming Chinese people in New Zealand. Many people cannot differentiate Chinese people from the actions of the CCP (I mean hey, many people can’t tell a Chinese from a Korean), but this is made worse when hardly any authorities on the topic will address the issue openly. Concerns can only erupt as xenophobia against the Chinese and “Asian” population …
   CCP-linked politicians parroting Xi Jinping and promoting Beijing’s Belt & Road priorities don’t speak for at least half of us.

   ‘At least’ is right. My father was born in the mainland where 反共 was a catch-cry in his young adult life. I’m willing to bet there’s an entire, older Chinese-born generation that thinks the same.
   She continues:

It’s endlessly irritating and insulting that both Labour and National have lazily assigned Chinese communities as the fiefdoms of politicians openly backed by the Chinese government.

   That’s true, too. In 2014 I was approached by the National Party asking how best to target the Chinese community. My response was to treat us the same as any other New Zealanders. I’m not sure whether the advice was taken on board, as within months I was invited to a Chinese restaurant for a $100-a-head dinner to be in the presence of the Rt Hon John Key, a fund-raiser that was aimed at ethnic Chinese people resident here. It certainly didn’t feel that I was being treated like my white or brown neighbours.
   The other point Tze Ming touches on, and one which I have written about myself, is the use of the term Asian in New Zealand.
   Let me sum it up from my time here, beginning in 1976, and how I saw the terms being used by others:

1970s: ‘Chinese’ meant those people running the groceries and takeaways. Hard working. Good at maths. Not good at politics or being noticed, and Petone borough mayor George Gee was just an anomaly.

1990s: ‘Asian’ became a point of negativity, fuelled by Winston ‘Two Wongs don’t make a white’ Peters. He basically meant Chinese. It’s not a term we claimed at the time, and while some have since tried to reclaim it for themselves to represent the oriental communities (and some, like super-lawyer Mai Chen, have claimed it and rightly extended it to all of Asia), it’s used when non-Chinese people whine about us. It’s why ‘My best friend is Asian’ is racist in more than one way.

2010s: ‘Chinese’ means not just the United Front and the Confucius Institute (which has little to do with Confucius, incidentally), but that all Chinese New Zealanders are part of a diaspora with ties to the PRC. And we’re moneyed, apparently, so much that we’ve been accused of buying up properties based on a list of ‘Chinese-sounding names’ by Labour in a xenophobic mood. I’ve been asked plenty of times this decade whether I have contacts in Beijing or Shanghai. If you’re born in Hong Kong before July 1, 1997, you were British (well, in a post-Windrush apartheid sense anyway), and unlikely to have any connections behind the Bamboo Curtain, but you’ve already been singled out by race.

   Now, I don’t want to put a dampener on any Chinese New Zealander who does have ties back to the mainland and the CCP. We share a history and a heritage, and since I wasn’t the one who had any experience of the hardships my parents and grandparents suffered, I don’t have any deep-seated hatred festering away. My father visited the old country in 2003 and put all that behind him, too. A republic is better than the imperial families that had been in charge before, and if I’ve any historical power to dislike, I’d be better off focusing on them. So in some respects, there is “unity” insofar as I’ll stick up for someone of my own race if they’re the subject of a racist attack. I’ll write about Chinese people and businesses without the derision that others do (e.g. here’s an article on the MG GS SUV that doesn’t go down the Yellow Peril route). But we’re not automatons doing Beijing’s bidding.
   I’ll lazily take Tze Ming’s conclusion in the Herald:

We deserve better than to be trapped between knee-jerk racists and Xi Jinping Thought. Abandoning us to this fate is racism too.

   I haven’t even begun to address the blatant sexual harassment that has since emerged as a result of the scandal, but others are far better placed to speak on that.

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Google censors at every level—it’s just what they do

11.10.2018

As my final post on Google Plus, I posted the Murdoch Press article on how the company exposed user data between 2015 and 2018, choosing not to disclose it publicly for fear of regulatory scrutiny and damage to its reputation.
   How interesting to note that it has now been removed twice by the powers that be at Google. I have just posted it a third time.
   I wasn’t willing to put even the first time down to a bug. Google censors, and we know it censors.
   It’s particularly bad timing for a company, so fearful of its reputation being harmed, that reports of its willingness to appease Beijing through censorship are emerging in the same week. (Here’s another.)
   Breitbart has got in on the action, too, citing another leaked briefing, contradicting Google’s public statements that it is neutral. You can read the full briefing, entitled The Good Censor, at this Dropbox link provided by Breitbart.
   This isn’t a case of left versus right here—anyone who follows this blog knows that. Breitbart may be warning us about the latest censorship policy, but on the other side, Alternet has been hit, too. It strikes me that the US’s so-called “opponents” actually have many aligned interests, and their common enemy seems to be forces that attempt to suppress independent voices and individual thinking. We know of Google’s love of corporate media and big business, biasing results in favour of them and against independent media, regardless of merit.
   Part of me laments the demise of Google Plus since I’ve recorded many of Google’s misdeeds there over the years—the removal of ‘Don’t be evil’, refusing to come clean on its gender discrimination, the lack of monitoring of YouTube videos, shutting down critics in the US, and the abuse of monopoly powers, among others. That’s just a tiny handful of links between 2015 and 2018—covering the same period user data were compromised.
   One would have to have blinkers on not to see the pattern that has been forming for over a decade, much of which has been documented here.

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The easy-to-spot signs of the social media racist

02.10.2018

As Twitter (and other social media) descend, what’s been interesting is seeing how many of us Kiwis aren’t being terribly original. No, I don’t exactly mean Dr Don Brash thinking that he can import US-style division into New Zealand wholesale without understanding the underlying forces that helped Donald Trump secure their presidency (in which case such attempts here will fail), but I do mean how later Tweeters hunt for keywords and arguments to defend institutionalized racism, sexism, and other unsavoury -isms, then use imported techniques because they saw on television that they worked overseas.
   I recall one not long ago who was evidently looking out for white male privilege, with some pretty standard Tweets prepared and an odd refusal to address fundamental questions—that sort of thing. There’s little point getting into a debate with nobodies who troll, and it’s all too obvious how they emerge on your radar.
   Once upon a time social media didn’t have these types, but then once upon a time, email didn’t have spammers. It’s the natural development of technology that humans tend to mess up pretty decent inventions. But, like spam, we find ways of dealing with it.
   Race was one that came up over the weekend. Now, if you’re against racism, it would stand to reason that busting false stereotypes would be something that you’d savour. Ditto if you’re battling sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.
   I’ve mentioned some of these before, e.g. ‘Asian drivers’ somehow being terrors on our roads, something that statistics don’t bear out. (Or, for that matter, the total lack of truth about ‘women drivers’, who are statistically safer than men.) Among tourists, we’ve established Australians and Germans are the two most dangerous groups. Food has been one that’s been on our minds lately, since my other half managed to find herself ill from eating at two occidental restaurants, and given the amount of research she’s done into the area, I’ll defer to her on the subject. Again it’s an area where I hear myths about Chinese food repeated ad nauseam.
   The thing is that busting stereotypes gives racists less to go on, less of a feeling of superiority, so they’ll begin countering. Women know full well when sexists attack, and racists follow the same pattern.
   A very funny chap sent two swear word-filled Tweets which—and this is the only interesting thing about them—were extracted fully right out of the racists’ playbook. I was only surprised that this was still going on in 2018, hence this blog post, since I thought these signs were so clear by now that no one would be daft enough to try them on.
   Their overriding message: dissing a western stereotype makes you a racist.
   Akin to the ‘I’m not the Nazi, you’re the Nazi’ Tweets and comments seen overseas, there was a suggestion that my lot was just as racist. Now, I don’t deny that any majority race in any country can be racist. It’s how I met one gentleman in Hong Kong who pointed out racism in a schoolbook that had a Filipina caricature—I reached out offering to help. Or calling out the treatment of Malays and Indians by certain business people among my own lot in Malaysia. When you’ve been the minority for most of your life, you can spot it, and you find it particularly tasteless when it’s perpetrated by your own race. (Thanks to #MeToo, it appears some men are getting better at calling out “locker-room talk”, too.)
   But this is a diversion meant to cloud the issues. The intent is to criticize the person (by their race) in order to devalue the argument they make, and not deal with the argument itself. They miss the irony of this and it actually validates your original point. If you can’t answer something civilly, then you haven’t answered it at all.
   In Tweet no. 2 (I wish I had taken a screen shot, as it has been deleted—I didn’t expect the cowardice) was a variation on ‘My best friend is Asian.’ This one was about his partner and stepchildren being Asian, and his own son, who is half-Asian, and how he considers himself Asian. Um, no, you’re not, not from the exhibited conduct, but it’s a feeble attempt to scramble to give his own position a status above yours. Again it’s not about addressing the argument (a classic move in social media), but about debasing the opposition. Another one to look out for.
   Now, if you really were to address this, wouldn’t your best friend being Asian, or having a child with Asian heritage, mean you have a stake in busting myths that could harm that person? That’s not something they really care about, even if it harms those supposedly closest to them. (And those of us in New Zealand have a negative history with the term ‘Asian’, so I doubt you’d actually use it in referencing your ‘best friend’. You’d actually know their heritage, whether it was Iraqi, Asiatic Russian, Japanese, Kazakh, or whatever.)
   Then there are the emotive overreactions, the falsely placed righteous moral indignation that this group is particularly good at. It’s to make you think (unconvincingly) that your statements have potentially offended not just the racist, but, shock, horror, all right-thinking people.
   Think about how a normal person would have reacted, and you have to conclude that no one jumps to uncontrollable shaking anger, the keyboarding equivalent of firing a gun as a result of road rage.
   There’ll be aspects of one or more of these in social media, and those who are combatting prejudice would do well to spot the signs.
   To me, these are signs of unstable characters, akin to an adult having a tantrum. Or they specifically fish for things to make them angry. Now, I don’t know how they dealt with their powerlessness ten years ago, but now they surf among us, hoping in vain to drag you to their level.
   So given they are still around, the local body elections next year are going to be interesting, because you don’t need the Dirty Politics crowd to coordinate it now: it’s a lot easier to provoke this dying group with fake news and let them run riot. On the other hand, it’s also a lot easier to spot them and see the conceit behind them.
   We’re a small enough country for most of us to know this by now anyway. Or so I hope.

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Eighty-three today with Alzheimer’s: a caregiver’s viewpoint

15.08.2018


Above: Dementia Wellington’s support has been invaluable.

Today my father turned 83.
   It’s a tough life that began during the Sino–Japanese War, with his father being away in the army, and his mother and grandmother were left to raise the family on their land in Taishan, China.
   In 1949, the Communists seized the property and the family had to start again, as refugees, in Hong Kong.
   Ever the entrepreneur, during the Vietnam War, Dad and his business partner, an US Army doctor by the name of Capt Dr Lawson McClung, set up a mail-order business for deployed troops. As I recall it, Lawson said that he would be able to secure jobs for my parents—my late mother was a nurse—at his stepfather’s hospitals in Tennessee. We either had a US green card, or one was merely procedural.
   My mother realized we had family in Aotearoa and I remember going with her to Connaught Tower, to the New Zealand High Commission. I didn’t know what it was for, but filling in the gaps it must have been to secure forms for immigration. As Plan Bs go, it was a pretty good one.
   In 1976 came another move as we headed to New Zealand, originally on holiday, given that my grandfather had taken ill whilst here. As we flew in to Wellington, Dad pointed at the houses below. ‘Those are the sorts of houses New Zealanders live in.’ I thought it was fascinating, that they didn’t live in apartment blocks.
   That first night here, on September 16, 1976, it was Dad who tucked me in, which at this point wasn’t typical: it was usually my grandmother who did this. He asked if I wanted to see the two Corgi toy cars that my grandmother had bought me prior to the trip, which I could have if I behaved myself on the flights. I did. He took them out of the luggage and I had a brief look at them. This was an unfamiliar place but it was just a holiday and things would be back to normal soon.
   It was during this holiday that word came that our immigration application had come through. My parents regarded our presence here as serendipitous. They neglected to tell their four-year-old son that plans had changed.
   For the first 18 years of my life, I regarded ‘the family’ as being my parents and my widowed maternal grandmother, who lived with us ever since I could remember—and I remember an awfully long time. We even had a photo taken around 1975–6 of the four of us, that I just remember represented everyone dearest to me.
   As ‘the family’ lost one member to a stroke brought on by Parkinson’s disease and complications from diabetes, and another to cancer, by 1994 it was just Dad and me.
   At the beginning of the 2010s, Dad had a bout of shingles. By 2014 he was forgetting individual words, and I insisted he get checked out for dementia. Around the time of his 80th birthday, in 2015, the diagnosis from the psychogeriatrician was formal, although he could still speak with some stuttering and one or two words unreachable by his brain. The CT scans showed a deterioration of the left side of his brain, his speech centre. Within half a year there would only be one or two words per sentence that were intelligible.
   The forms for an enduring power of attorney were drawn up as 2016 commenced. He was still managing, and he had his routines, but in mid-2018 we decided he should get some respite care.
   He wasn’t happy about this, and it took four hours of persuading, as well as a useful and staunch aunt, who got Dad to put on his shoes and head up with us to Ultimate Care Maupuia.
   We had thought the second visit in late July would be easier but it took 19 hours over two days, an experience which we do not want to repeat.
   Dad had lost the ability to empathize with us and was anxious and agitiated. While he insisted he could look after himself while home alone, there were signs over the last year that indicated he could not. He fell while having the ’flu in mid-2017 and Amanda and I came to a house with all its lights off. We had no idea how long he had been down. By 2018 he would cry if left home alone. Even at his most insistent that he could look after himself, we returned after the first day of trying to coax him to Maupuia to find that he had not eaten.
   The second day was when I called everyone I could think of to find a way to get to respite, since we weren’t going to be around to look after him.
   You name it, I called it, Age Concern aside.
   Dementia Wellington, the police, the rest home, Wellington Free Ambulance, Driving Miss Daisy, Care Coordination, Te Haika, and so on. I spoke to 11 people that day.
   Te Haika said that the issue wasn’t mental, but legal, which was about as useful as telling an American Democrat that Donald Trump was the Messiah.
   Driving Miss Daisy said that I wasn’t in their area but a colleague was, not that I ever heard back from that colleague.
   Dementia Wellington, the police, and Free Ambulance were brilliant, as was my lawyer, Richard Brandon of Brandons. Our GPs at Kilbirnie Medical Centre were also excellent.
   The up shot was that Free Ambulance could take Dad if the enduring power of attorney was enacted, and that would take a declaration of mental incapacity by the GP, which was duly written. He was also good enough to prescribe some medication to calm Dad down.
   However, because it wasn’t an emergency situation, there was no telling when Free Ambulance could come by.
   It did make me glad that they were one of the charities I gave to this year.
   However, you don’t ever imagine a situation where you effectively drug your Dad to be able to put his jacket on and take him to a rest home for respite care. I felt like part of the Mission: Impossible team, except the person being drugged wasn’t a Ruritanian dictator, but someone on the same side. When I say Mission: Impossible, I don’t mean that series of films with Tom Cruise, either.
   On September 16, 1976, you didn’t think that in 42 years’ time your Dad would have dementia and you’d need to break a promise you made years ago that you would never put him in a home.
   You also feel that that photo of ‘the family’ has been decimated, that you’re all alone because the last adult in there isn’t around any more for you to bounce ideas off and to have a decent conversation with.
   I realize I hadn’t been able to do any of that with Dad for years but it feels that much more painful knowing he can’t live in a place he calls home presently.
   And you also realize that as a virtually full-time caregiver who has cooked for him for years—and now you know why I didn’t reenter politics in 2016—that his condition really just crept up on you to a point where what you thought was normal was, in fact, not normal at all.
   You also realize that the only other time he was compelled to leave his home without his full volition was 1949, by a régime he had very little time for through most of his lifetime. You don’t expect to be the next person to have to do that to him, and there’s a tremendous amount of guilt that comes with that.
   Earlier this week, our GP reissued his letter in ‘Form 5’ (prescribed under the Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act 1988), which I drafted, since these procedures aren’t altogether clear. It makes you wonder how people without law degrees might cope. Tomorrow I will meet with Care Coordination and see if Dad can be reassessed based on his current condition. He was only very recently assessed as not needing long-term care so it will be interesting to see if they accept that he has deteriorated to this extent. I’m not a Mystic Meg who can make a prediction on this.
   The rapidity of Dad’s change—one which he himself noticed, as years ago he would complain that his ‘brain felt different today compared to yesterday’—has been a surprise to us, although mostly he is happy at Maupuia and interacts positively with the staff. It’s not all smooth sailing and there are days he wonders when he can come home.
   And I find some solace in that his father, and his mother-in-law, wound up in care for less. My grandfather had PTSD from the war and was unable to cook for himself, though even at the end he was bilingual (being educated in the US) and had successfully quit smoking after 70 years. My grandmother needed care because of her insulin injections but was also mentally fit.
   But part of me expected that I’d see it through with Dad to the end, that these rest homes were some western thing that separated families, and here is part of that immigrant experience.
   The reason you didn’t see as many Chinese New Zealanders on welfare wasn’t down to some massive savings’ account, but a certain pride and stoïcism in being to keep it to yourself. You’re in a strange land where there’s prejudice, and that’s often enough for families to say, ‘F*** everyone else, we’re getting on with it and doing it ourselves.’
   And that’s what we did as ‘the family’. We fought our own battles. Dad was once a helluva correspondent whose letters used words like proffer and the trinity of ult., prox. and inst., and plenty of officials got the sharp end of his writing. When Mum got cancer we brought in our own natural medication because westerners couldn’t fathom that the same stuff cleared my grandfather’s liver cancer in 1976 and healed several other members in the whānau. Dad sacrificed everything to try to save Mum and that was the closest example I had of what you’d do for someone you love.
   When you’re deep in the situation, rationality goes out the window and you’re on autopilot—and often it takes serious situations, like two days’ angst and stress of trying to get someone into respite care, to make you think that staying at home isn’t the best for someone who did, even though he won’t admit it, thrive under rest home care.
   We know that if we left it even later, it would be even tougher to get Dad into care and he would resist his new surroundings more.
   Today’s lunch at Maupuia was curried beef on rice in recognition of Indian Independence Day, a much nicer meal than what I might have made for Dad.
   He has staff to hug and laugh with even if I have no idea where he’s putting his dirty undies.
   And while aphasia means he hasn’t made any new friends yet, I have faith that he’ll do well given the circumstances.
   It’s those circumstances that mean the situation we find ourselves in, with Dad at the home, is one which we’ll roll with, because, like 1949 and 1976, forces outside our control are at play.
   I’d love to make his Alzheimer’s go away given that I already lost one parent prematurely.
   My mind goes to a close friend who recently lost her mother, and her father was killed in a car crash around the time my Mum died. Basically: not all of us are lucky enough to have both our parents peacefully go in their sleep. Many of us are put through a trial. And there’s a real reason some of us have been hashtagging #FuckAlzheimers on Twitter, if out of sheer frustration.
   For those who have made it this far, here are the points I want you to take away.
 
• Immediately upon finding out your parent has dementia, get your enduring power of attorney sorted out, for both property and personal care.
• Dementia Wellington is an excellent organization so get yourself along to the carer support groups, second Monday of every month. Dementia New Zealand can’t help at this level.
• Care Coordination has been very helpful and their referral to Dementia Wellington proved more effective than phoning—however, I should note that the organization changed for the better between Dad’s original diagnosis in 2015 and how they are today.
• You do need ‘Form 5’ from your GP or someone in a position to assess your parent’s mental capacity to kick off the enduring power of attorney.
• It’s OK to cry, feel emotionally drained and ask your friends for support. It’s your parent. You expected to look after them and sometimes you need to let others do this for everyone’s good. It doesn’t mean you love your parent any less. It also doesn’t mean you are placing yourself or your partner above him. It just means you are finding the best solution all round.
 
   Dad is still “there”, and he recognizes us, even if he doesn’t really know what day it is, can’t really cook for himself, and doesn’t fully understand consequences any more. I’m glad I spend parts of every day with him while I’m in Wellington. And while this wasn’t the 83rd birthday I foresaw at the beginning of the year, he is in a safe, caring environment. I hope the best decision is made for him and for all of us.

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The end of US ’net neutrality: another step toward the corporate internet

11.06.2018

That’s it for ’net neutrality in the US. The FCC has changed the rules, so their ISPs can throttle certain sites’ traffic. They can conceivably charge more for Americans visiting certain websites, too. It’s not a most pessimistic scenario: ISPs have attempted this behaviour before.
   It’s another step in the corporations controlling the internet there. We already have Google biasing itself toward corporate players when it comes to news: never mind that you’re a plucky independent who broke the story, Google News will send that traffic to corporate media.
   The changes in the US will allow ISPs to act like cable providers. I reckon it could give them licence to monitor Americans’ traffic as well, including websites that they mightn’t want others to know they’re watching.
   As Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, puts it: ‘We’re talking about it being just a human right that my ability to communicate with people on the web, to go to websites I want without being spied on is really, really crucial.’
   Of course I have a vested interest in a fair and open internet. But everyone should. Without ’net neutrality, innovators will find it harder to get their creations into the public eye. Small businesses, in particular, will be hurt, because we can’t pay to be in the “fast lane” that ISPs will inevitably create for their favoured corporate partners. In the States, minority and rural communities will likely be hurt.
   And while some might delight that certain websites pushing political viewpoints at odds with their own could be throttled, they also have to remember that this can happen to websites that share their own views. If it’s an independent site, it’s likely that it will face limits.
   The companies that can afford to be in that “fast lane” have benefited from ’net neutrality themselves, but are now pulling the ladder up so others can’t climb it.
   It’s worth remembering that 80 per cent of Americans support ’net neutrality—they are, like us, a largely fair-minded people. However, the FCC is comprised of unelected officials. Their “representatives” in the House and Senate are unlikely, according to articles I’ve read, to support their citizens’ will.
   Here’s more on the subject, at Vox.
   Since China censors its internet, we now have two of the biggest countries online giving their residents a limited form of access to online resources.
   However, China might censor based on politics but its “Great Wall” won’t be as quick to block new websites that do some good in the world. Who knew? China might be better for small businesses trying to get a leg up than the United States.
   This means that real innovation, creations that can gain some prominence online, could take place outside the US where, hopefully, we won’t be subjected to similar corporate agenda. (Nevertheless, our own history, where left and right backed the controversial s. 92A of the Copyright Act, suggests our lawmakers can be malleable when money talks.)
   These innovations mightn’t catch the public’s imagination in quite the same way—the US has historically been important for getting them out there. Today, it got harder for those wonderful start-ups that I got to know over the years. Mix that with the US’s determination to put up trade barriers based on false beliefs about trade balances, we’re in for a less progressive (and I mean that in the vernacular, and not the political sense) ride. “The rest of the world” needs to pull together in this new reality and ensure their subjects still have a fair crack at doing well, breaking through certain parties’ desire to stunt human progress.
   Let Sir Tim have the last word, as he makes the case far more succinctly than I did above: ‘When I invented the web, I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission, and neither did America’s successful internet entrepreneurs when they started their businesses. To reach its full potential, the internet must remain a permissionless space for creativity, innovation and free expression. In today’s world, companies can’t operate without internet, and access to it is controlled by just a few providers. The FCC’s announcements today [in April 2017] suggest they want to step back and allow concentrated market players to pick winners and losers online. Their talk is all about getting more people connected, but what is the point if your ISP only lets you watch the movies they choose, just like the old days of cable?’

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If FCA kills Chrysler today, then it’s another chapter of a company weakening its brands

01.06.2018

There’s a rumour circulating that Fiat (specifically, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, or FCA) will kill the Chrysler marque today.
   The range currently consists of two models: the ageing 300 and the relatively fresh Pacifica.
   It seems to be another step in the mismanagement of car marques, especially US ones, something I wrote about many years ago when Condé Nast Portfolio was still running. (Note: it was a published letter to the editor, not an article.)
   Marques do disappear, but when the wrong ones get killed off, long-term it leaves the company in a weaker state.
   DaimlerChrysler found that out in the early 2000s when it decided Plymouth was surplus to requirements. Suddenly, its entry-level budget brand was gone—a very bad move when the recession hit later that decade. Plymouth had been conceived as a low-priced line that kept Chrysler afloat during the Depression.
   DaimlerChrysler then found itself having to sell Plymouth products under the Chrysler marque, which was traditionally the priciest between Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler.
   Today’s Chrysler resembles, at least in market ambition, the one of old, where it offers reasonably good quality vehicles, with Plymouth a distant memory.
   It also offers Fiat a relatively premium brand in the US market. It’s not Jeep, Ram or Dodge, all of which have very different brands, messages and brand equity.
   The fact it is light on product could have been solved long ago if Fiat had adopted the sort of platform-sharing that is now commonplace in the car world—you only have to look at Volkswagen and the Renault–Nissan Alliance, now Renault Nissan Mitsubishi. Even Jaguar Land Rover is realizing economies of scale with Jaguar SUVs and a car-like Range Rover (the Velar).
   While Chrysler found that the 200 had flopped, there was always room for a premium, American SUV to take over from the Aspen, for example. If Jeep can build SUVs on Punto and Giulietta platforms, why couldn’t Chrysler, aimed at very different buyers?
   The truth is that Fiat has a very confusing platform strategy, something I alluded to in earlier posts both here and in Drivetribe, and there appear to be no signs of bringing any harmony to the mess.
   The firm hasn’t been properly merged, and not enough thought has been given to reducing platforms, and sharing them between marques. There’s more in common on this front between Fiat and British Leyland than between Fiat and Volkswagen, which it once vied with to be Europe’s number-one.
   The domestic range has cars on platforms shared with Ford, Chrysler and GM, not to mention OEM vehicles from Mazda, Mitsubishi and Peugeot. I might not love SUVs, but the public does, and the Fiat range is light on them. There’s not enough of a global effort, either: the Ottimo and Viaggio are Italian-styled, based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (or more specifically the Dodge Dart), and they are only sold in China—a ridiculous situation when Fiat doesn’t have a CD-segment saloon in any other market. The rationalization of the range in South America has helped, with the Argo and Cronos streamlining a confusing array of Palio, Linea, Siena and Grand Siena models, but they bear little resemblance to the models on offer in Europe.
   Lancia, which had benefited from Fiat platforms, is practically dead, its 500-based, Polish-made Ypsilon being deleted this year. As models at Lancia died out, they were not replaced. Yet things could have been so much better, had Fiat allowed Lancia the sort of freedom it needed to sell Italian luxury and innovation. Those values are different from Alfa Romeo’s, yet through its conduct, Fiat seems to think that if Alfa and Lancia have similar prices, then they must vie for similar buyers. They never did. It seems to believe that costs will be saved through axing marques and model lines, which can be true in some cases—but those cases tend to presume that what remains, or what replaces them, is stronger.
   I’m not being a Luddite or pining for the “good old days” when it comes to Chrysler. I hold no romantic notions for the brand. But I do know that once they’re gone, the firm doesn’t necessarily find its resources are freed up to pursue surviving lines. It finds that it’s lost a segment that it once fielded.
   It’s sadder to realize that Chrysler, as a group, was much stronger in the early 1990s, with record development times and good platform-sharing. Plymouth was in the process of developing its own identity—the PT Cruiser and Prowler heralded a new retromodern design language that was to spread throughout the range, while utilizing the same platforms as Chryslers and Dodges.
   Fiat itself, too, was a strong company at this same period, riding high on great styling, with a reinvigorated line-up. Think Bravo, Brava, Barchetta, Coupé Fiat, 456, Quattroporte, Delta, Dedra, Kappa, 145, 146, GTV and Spider. A lot of these vehicles were talked-about, and considered some of the most stylish in Europe.
   Last year, in Europe, luxury marques Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi all outsold Fiat, supposedly a mass-market brand. Its market share in Italy and Brazil, traditionally places where it was strong, has continued to dip.
   In the US, it’s the same story, with Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi all outselling Chrysler both last year and year-to-date.
   It’s all very romantic, and good press, to show off premium Alfa Romeos and Maseratis, or money-making Jeeps, but many of these models don’t donate any of their architecture to Fiat’s troubled brands.
   In 2018, when you see that certain Fiat marques aren’t getting access to platforms, you have to wonder why—especially when so many other big players don’t place such restrictions on their brands.
   A new 500 and Panda might be around the corner, but we’ll need to see far more logic applied to the business, especially with Alfa’s Mito and Giulietta looking more dated, Fiat’s range in a mess, and Chrysler barely making an effort in China, a market where its sort of positioning would have attracted luxury-conscious buyers who might prefer foreign brands, such as Buick.
   Even if Chrysler gets a stay of execution, Sergio Marchionne’s successor will have a very tough job ahead.

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PS/2 keyboard one way to get your Windows 10 computer back after bricking

10.05.2018


Everybody wants PS2. Still from The Professionals episode ‘Servant of Two Masters’.

I read this article in The Guardian, thinking: surely, after Microsoft rolled out some terrible updates, it wouldn’t be so stupid as to do one that bricks customers’ computers again? Especially after the bug was reported a month ago.
   The April update worked reasonably well, though I lost my wallpaper. But everything else was there, and I was using Vivaldi, which is a Chromium-based browser.
   Then I rebooted.
   That was it: my computer was bricked. The first boot, a very tiny rotating circle eventually appeared, but I couldn’t do anything except move the circle with my mouse. Subsequent reboots just resulted in a black screen—something, I must say, I had already encountered with an earlier Windows update that saw my having to take the PC back to the shop.
   I rebooted the computer three times to force it into recovery mode, but then there was another problem: neither mouse nor keyboard worked. It was as though USB was dead.
   Out of sheer luck I had a PS/2 keyboard that was unused, and after more forced reboots, I was able to use the old keyboard to look at various recovery options. Remember: no input device on USB works, and this was a bug that had surfaced with the last update in February.
   Forget system restore: the April update is a fresh OS, so there are no restore points.
   I had no choice but to roll back to the previous version I had installed.
   And here I am, back again, an hour wasted. It would probably be longer if I didn’t have an SSD.
   Microsoft, get your QC sorted, because this current model you’ve employed over the last few years simply does not work. I have spent more hours on these updates than with any OS you have ever rolled out, and that includes XP Service Pack 3 on a comparatively ancient system.
   And if you get stuck like I do, and like all those in The Guardian’s article did, I hope you still have a way of plugging in a PS/2 device and have an old-school keyboard lying around.

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We’ve been here before: foreign-owned media run another piece supporting an asset sale

04.05.2018


Clilly4/Creative Commons

I see there’s an opinion piece in Stuff from the Chamber of Commerce saying the Wellington City Council should sell its stake in Wellington Airport, because it doesn’t bring in that much (NZ$12 million per annum), and because Auckland’s selling theirs.
   It’s not too dissimilar to calls for the Council to sell the Municipal Electricity Department a few decades ago, or any other post-Muldoon call about privatization.
   Without making too much of a judgement, since I haven’t inquired deeply into the figures, it’s interesting that the line often peddled by certain business groups, when they want governments to sell assets, is: ‘They should run things like households, and have little debt.’
   This never applies to themselves. When it comes to their own expansion, they say, ‘We don’t need to run things like households, we can finance this through debt.’
   The same groups say that governments should be run more like businesses.
   However, their advice is always for governments to be run like households.
   Has it escaped them that they are different beasts?
   I wouldn’t mind seeing government entities run like businesses, making money for their stakeholders, and said so when I campaigned for mayor.
   Doing this needs abandoning a culture of mediocrity at some of those entities. Some believe this is impossible within government, and there are credible examples, usually under former command economies. But then there are also decent examples of state-owned enterprises doing rather well, like Absolut, before they were sold off by the Swedish government. If you want something current, the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. is one of the most profitable car makers on the planet.
   The difference lies in the approach toward the asset.
   But what do I know? I come from Hong Kong where the civil service inherited from the British is enviably efficient, something many occidentals seem to believe is impossible—yet I live in a country where I can apply for, and get, a new passport in four hours. Nevertheless, that belief in inefficiency holds.
   Change your mindset: things are possible with the right people. Don’t be a Luddite.
   And therein lies why Stuff and I are on different planets.

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Ford to stop selling passenger cars in the US and Canada, save for Mustang and Focus Active

26.04.2018


The Ford Focus Active: by the turn of the decade, this will be the only four-door passenger car Ford will sell in the US and Canada

In a surprise move, Ford has announced that it will cease selling passenger cars in the US and Canada by the early 2020s, excepting the Mustang and the Focus Active.
   The announcement was actually for ‘North America’ but as Ford of México does a reasonable trade on Figos and Fiestas, it’s hard to see the policy be uniform right across the continent.
   It’s a cost-cutting exercise, designed to save $25,500 million in five years, and trucks and SUVs simply make more money for them. Small cars mean small profits. In fact, car sales lag those of the F-series, Escape and Explorer in the US. Shares have risen on the news.
   That means Americans and Canadians will say goodbye to the Fiesta, Fusion (the four-door sedan counterpart to the Mondeo) and Taurus, the last of which is already superseded in China. If you liked the cooking RS and STs, then too bad. Lincolns are losing money for Ford, too, so maybe the Continental will vanish—given the Fusion is history, the MKZ will follow. That doesn’t leave much in the Lincoln line-up.
   My initial reaction was that the economies of scale would worsen: if you’re not developing for a global market, will development costs be successfully amortized in the same period? We have, however, seen the Japanese do reasonably well with products strictly for the North American market, e.g. certain Acuras and Hondas that are sold only in their neck of the woods. We also know most of the costs of the car are in the platform and architecture, and Ford has shown decent adaptability, particularly with the C519 Focus (the recently released Mk IV).
   Ford says the cuts will come from sales and marketing, engineering and product development, as well as material costs, manufacturing and IT, in that order, according to Automotive News.
   The fact that product development and engineering rank so highly there is worrying to me.
   They’re bandying the word efficiency about a lot, and that always has me worried. That’s the word you used to hear from corporate raiders like Slater Walker. Things can look efficient while they’re being weakened.
   CEO Jim Hackett says he’s feeding the healthy parts of the business, ‘and deal decisively with the parts that destroy value.’
   While it’s true that the crossover, SUV and truck markets are strong, as they are in many parts of the world, I can’t help but think that Ford isn’t preparing itself for tougher future scenarios.
   Energy crises can come unpredictably, for one. Ford was late to the downsizing game in the 1970s because it saw the dollar signs with big cars. By 1977, GM had stolen a real march on Ford. By the turn of the decade, Chrysler was back from the brink with fuel-efficient cars while Ford sailed into the red.
   Chrysler found itself too truck- and SUV-heavy with the recession of the late 2000s, and its entry-level nameplate Plymouth had already vanished, thanks to mismanagement by Daimler earlier in the century.
   While there’s not always a need for a full line—AMC taught us that extending yourself too far isn’t always wise—I wonder if Ford is leaving itself vulnerable.
   Crossovers like the Escape, which might outsell the Fusion, are being beaten in the market-place by the likes of the Toyota RAV4, so it’s not as though Ford is that strong in all the markets it wishes to remain in.
   GM, having pulled out of Europe and Russia, might be in better shape because of its position in China. Ford trails GM when it comes to its Chinese footprint, although it will remain in Europe.
   Ford’s Jim Farley says the company is looking at new types of vehicles that are spacious, versatile and economical, which hopefully will fill the gap should economic surprises surface. Because you need something cheap to hook buyers and get them to the brand. That’s not going to happen if Focus Active is the smallest car in the line-up.
   Ford is likely to have these on global platforms. But that signals to me a real need to remain strong in R&D. Failing that, Ford is looking to partner up with someone, and it may already have an idea who that is.
   I am speculating here, since I don’t have any figures outlining what proportion of revenue is devoted to that area.
   Nevertheless, this sounds like an appeasement of Wall Street.
   That leaves one concern over nameplates. Ford has successfully introduced nameplates over the years because the product was right: Cortina, Mustang, Escort, Capri, Fiesta and Focus among them. But it has also failed by killing nameplates and replacing them with ones that had no real goodwill, such as Five Hundred and Freestyle.
   Whatever Ford has in mind, I hope for their sake that the new product is compelling, as much as the Mustang and Fiesta were when they appeared on the market. Both emerged in the wake of economic recessions, with Ford innovating because it had to.
   In this century, Alan Mulally’s time at Ford had a measured, sensible approach, where you could understand the future. There are question marks over what Hackett has planned, and usually we have some clue what these new products will be four years out. All I know of is that the Ranger will make it to the US again, boosting truck sales, but that’s hardly an innovation. That’s just filling a market niche with familiar product.
   Will Ford do Brasil come up with something that can be sold in both North and South America? Perhaps the next-generation Ecosport?
   There are lessons in history that shouldn’t be ignored, and Ford has one of the most interesting pasts of any car maker. There is, however, a feeling from the announcement that this heralds a time of retrenchment, as its profits fall globally, and net income in the US rising for the first quarter in part due to a lower tax rate.
   Remember, Isuzu also once thought it was a good idea to stop selling passenger cars and focus on SUVs and trucks. And they’re no longer around in North America.

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Happy birthday: Autocade turns 10

07.03.2018


Above: Autocade can be hard work—and sometimes you have to put up less exciting vehicles, like the 2001–7 Chrysler Town & Country, for it to be a useful resource.

March 8, 2018 marks 10 years of Autocade.
   I’ve told the story before on this blog and elsewhere, about how the site came to be—annoyed by the inaccuracies and fictions of Wikipedia (who said the masses would be smart enough to get rid of the mistakes?), I took a leaf out of the late Michael Sedgwick’s book and created a wiki that had brief summaries of each model, the same way Sedgwick had structured his guides. I received an emailed threat from a well known British publisher (I’m looking at you, Haymarket, and as predicted in my reply, your thoughts proved to be totally baseless) when we started, and 12½ million page views later, we’re on 3,628 models (I think we finished the first day on 12), with our page on the Ford Fiesta Mk VII leading the count (other than the home page).
   Autocade began as a wiki but with so many bots trying to sign up, I closed off those registrations. There have really been about six contributors to the site, all told: myself and Keith Adams for the entries, Peter Jobes and Nigel Dunn for the tech, and two members of the public who offered copy; one fed it in directly back in the day when we were still allowing wiki modifications. I thank everyone for their contributions.
   A few years ago, I began running into people online who used Autocade but didn’t know I was behind it; it was very pleasing to see that it had become helpful to others. It also pleased me tremendously to see it referenced in Wikipedia, not always 100 per cent correctly, but as Autocade is the more accurate site on cars, this is the right way round.
   When a New Zealand magazine reviewed us, the editor noted that there were omissions, including his own car, a Mitsubishi Galant. Back then we were probably on 1,000 models, maybe fewer. All the Galants are now up, but Autocade remains a work in progress. The pace of adding pages has declined as life gets busier—each one takes, on average, 20 minutes to research and write. You wouldn’t think so from the brevity, but I want it to be accurate. I’m not perfect, which is why the pages get changed and updated: the stats say we’re running on 3·1 edits per page.
   But it looks like we’re covering enough for Autocade to be a reasonably useful resource for the internet public, especially some of the more obscure side notes in motoring history. China has proved a challenge because of the need to translate a lot of texts, and don’t think that my ethnicity is a great help. The US, believe it or not, has been difficult, because of the need to calculate cubic capacities accurately in metric (I opted to get it right to the cubic centimetre, not litres). However, it is an exciting time to be charting the course of automotive history, and because there are still so many gaps from the past that need to be filled, I have the chance to compare old and new and see how things have moved on even in my four-and-a-half decades on Earth.
   Since Sedgwick had done guides up to 1970, and paper references have been excellent taking us through the modern motor car’s history, I arbitrarily decided that Autocade would focus on 1970 and on. There are some exceptions, especially when model lines go back before 1970 and it would be a disservice to omit the earlier marks. But I wanted it to coincide roughly with my lifetime, so I could at least provide some commentary about how the vehicle was perceived at the time of launch. And the ’70s were a fascinating time to be watching the motor industry: those nations that were confident through most of the 20th century with the largest players (the US and UK) found themselves struggling, wondering how the Japanese, making scooters and motorcycles just decades before, were beating them with better quality and reliability. That decade’s Japanese cars are fascinating to study, and in Japan itself there is plenty of nostalgia for them now; you can see their evolution into more internationally styled product, rather than pastiches of others’, come the 1980s and on. The rise of Korea, Spain, China, India, Turkey, México and other countries as car-exporting nations has also been fascinating to watch. When Autocade started, Australia still had a domestic mass-produced car industry, Chrysler was still owned by Americans, and GM still had a portfolio of brands that included Pontiac and Saturn.
   I even used to go to one of the image galleries and, as many cars are listed by year, let the mouse scroll down the page. You can see periods grouped by certain colours, a sign of how cars both follow and establish fashion. There are stylistic trends: the garishness of smog-era US cars and the more logical efficiency of European ones at the same time; smoother designs of the 1980s and 1990s; a creeping fussiness and a concentration on showing the brand’s identity in the 2000s and 2010s. As some of the most noticeable consumer goods on the planet, cars make up a big part of the marketing profession.
   The site is large enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing an academic look at industry using the data gathered there; and I always thought it could be a useful book as well, bearing in mind that the images would need to be replaced with much higher-resolution fare.
   For now, I’m going to keep on plodding as we commence Autocade’s second decade. The Salon de Genève has brought forth some exciting débutantes, but then I should get more of the Chrysler Town & Country vans up …

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