A letter from Hong Kong

Coronavirus may be keeping us at home, but the RSAA is lucky to have members who can give us views from across Asia.

This contribution is from Martin Purbrick (@mtpurbrick), honorary local secretary in Hong Kong.  Martin is a regular contributor to Asian Affairs


4 April 2020

GKpGPNBL_400x400The Coronavirus affecting us now is not the first time that we have lived through an epidemic in Hong Kong, and not likely to be the last. Hong Kong people have experienced Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, H5N1 Avian Flu in 1997 (killing six people and the first human transmission of this virus), and the “Hong Kong flu” in 1968 (named as the first reported case was in the city) which affected half a million residents.

We started to hear about Covid-19, the new Coronavirus, at the end of December 2019 (which seems a lifetime ago). In early January those of us working in large organisations activated our response plans, with employee communications, face masks distributed, frequent cleaning of everything (door handles, lift buttons, tables, toilets, etc), all of the things that we had learnt during SARS. Hong Kong people reacted quickly for one reason – They were scared. We were all scared not only because we know the death that epidemics can bring to large cities, but also because we have experienced the difficulty of trusting information from the government in mainland China.

Covid-19 came after six months of violent political protest and a crackdown by the police that seemed would never end. News media reported nothing else, people at work talked of nothing else, and we were all obsessed (and divided) by nothing else. Yet in early January the large protests stopped. This was due to more than the Coronavirus. The police have arrested over 7,000 people since June 2019 when major protests started, which has helped stop violence. The protest movement, which involves a wide range of civil society groups, changed strategy after success in the District Council elections and is now focussed on the September elections for the Legislative Council in which they aim to defeat pro-establishment parties and embarrass the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing. Yet protests continue, despite social distancing from fear of the Coronavirus.

On New Year’s Day the police dispersed a large peaceful march numbering according to the organisers hundreds of thousands. On 3 January, 20,000 teachers protested against government “white terror” (referring to efforts to silence people). On 19 January, tens of thousands attended a rally against the Chinese Communist Party, that was cleared by police firing tear gas. Small scale protests still occur frequently, usually to commemorate protest events such as the 21/7 attacks in the Yuen Long MTR (train) station, the 31/8 incident at Prince Edward MTR station, and the 8/1 2016 riots in Mong Kok.

The anniversaries of protests events illustrate the Chinese love of numerology. The protest events are remembered as 21/7, 31/8, 8/1, etc.  Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Government, is referred to by most local people as “777” (“chat chat chat” in Cantonese), which refers to the number of votes she obtained in the election for her position. The Cantonese in particular use the sounds of some numbers to associate with names. Cantonese for Four is sei, which sounds like the word for death. Eight is baat, which sounds like the words for prosper and wealth (I confess that I added 888 pounds to the bidding price for my flat in Edinburgh in an effort to have luck with the purchase!).

Protest slogans are widely popular, and have become virus slogans. During the protests people would chant in Cantonese “Heung Kong yan ga yau” (“Hong Kong people add oil”, meaning “keep going”). In July 2019, a Cathay Pacific pilot became a local hero when just before landing at the Hong Kong airport he said in a pre-landing announcement “Heung Kong yan ga yau”. Ironically, this also became the rallying cry in Wuhan when the locked down population started to shout out of their high-rise apartment windows “Wuhan ren ka yau” in Mandarin (“Wuhan people add oil”). In March residents from Hubei Province fought against Public Security Bureau (police) officers from Jiangxi Province after marching with police officers from their own area across the Jiuliang Yangtze River Bridge that joins both provinces, chanting “Hubei ga yau” (“Hubei add oil”). The cause of the clashes between Hubei and Jiangxi people (and police) was a tangled web as such incidents often are in China, but it brings us back to the Coronavirus as Hubei people who have been locked down for three months in their homes vented their frustrations.

The protests seem a very long time ago, although most of us fear that they will return in the summer as the government refuses to seek reconciliation and the protest movement is readying for the next round. No doubt when major protests do return they will replace the Coronavirus in the 24-hour news cycle. The top stories in the South China Morning Post this morning are “Is Hong Kong’s Basic Law standing firm at 30?” and “Hong Kong bars and pubs shut as coronavirus tally rises by 43”.

The first story refers to the 30th anniversary of the endorsement of the Basic Law, the constitution of Hong Kong, by the National Peoples’ Congress of China on 4 April 1990. The Basic Law is the foundation of “One country two systems” which was the basis for the return of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the Peoples Republic of China. Following the violent political protests of 2019, the dire unpopularity of the local government, as well as widespread local antipathy towards the governing system and culture of mainland China, many have suggested that “One country two systems” is not working. This issue remains the single greatest challenge facing Hong Kong in the long term.

The other story is of course about Covid-19, which has taken over all of our lives in Hong Kong and around the world. The number of confirmed cases in Hong Kong has reached 845. Hong Kong is doing well with a relatively low number of confirmed cases and only 4 deaths. Clearly that number can change and we all continue social distancing and careful hygiene.

Today is Ching Ming (Qingming), falling on the 15th day of the Spring Equinox, when Chinese people gather in family groups to sweep the graves of their ancestors and make offerings. This ancient Chinese tradition is affected as less people will travel to mainland China to visit tombs of ancestors and the government has banned gatherings of more than four people, which will cause them to stay away from graves. But Chinese tradition endures. Shops in Hong Kong selling paper products to burn for their ancestors to use in the afterlife, such as banknotes and expensive luxury items, are this year selling paper face masks, paper health care products, paper drugs, and even paper dolls dressed as doctors and nurses to assist the dead against the Coronavirus. Thankfully, Chinese culture has a solution to every problem.

Martin Purbrick


Sir David Akers-Jones GBM KBE CMG

Sir David Akers-Jones, local honorary secretary of the RSAA in Hong Kong, died on 30 September. Martin Purbrick, a regular contributor to Asian Affairs, remembers his life.

 Sir David Akers-Jones, who has died aged 92, lived in interesting times on the south coast of China and was part of some of the key moments in the modern history of Hong Kong as a colonial civil servant from 1957 to 1987.

Sir David Akers-JonesBorn in Surrey, England, in 1927, Akers-Jones left home in 1945 to join the British India Steam Navigation Company, paying 50 Guineas to be indentured as an apprentice for four years during which time he sailed around the coast of India, to Australia, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, the Seychelles, and the east coast ports of Africa. After sailing the Indian Ocean for four years, he returned to England to study at Oxford where two fortuitous events occurred. Firstly, he met and married Jane, the love of his life. Secondly, he joined the Royal Central Asian Society (now the Royal Society for Asian Affairs) after a conversation about Asia one evening at the gate of his college with a man walking his dog. He stayed with his true love Jane for 45 years until she passed away in 2002, and was an active member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs almost until his own death.

Akers-Jones joined the Malayan Civil Service as a Cadet in 1952 and first attended the School of Oriental and African Studies to learn Malay before starting to learn the Chinese Hokkien dialect when he arrived in the colony.  He was first posted as District Officer in Alor Gajah, Malacca, for only a year before Malayan independence and then decided to accept a transfer to Hong Kong in 1957. After a brief spell in the Commerce and Industry Department, Akers-Jones was appointed in 1959 as District Officer for Tsuen Wan, a rural area fast developing with new industry and urban housing. He recalled that his work involved setting out terms for the removal of villages, finding land for a community centre, persuading the meat merchants to take their pigs to the slaughterhouse, building a temporary market for the butchers, fixing the boundaries of a Taoist institute, convening the first meetings of a hospital board”, and a long list of even more diverse tasks that no one person could ever be trained for. He also served in Islands District in 1961 and then Yuen Long District from 1962 to 1967.

From 1967, during the communist inspired unrest fomented by the Cultural Revolution, Akers-Jones was Deputy District Commissioner in the New Territories and was a key part of government response to the communist bombing campaign, liaison with the British military, and negotiations with Chinese officials that started with listening to readings from Chairman Mao’s red book of writings. Such was life in the New Territories that the sensitive border work often involved such delicate tasks as in October 1966 negotiating with a fleet of mainland fishermen who claimed that they in fact owned the oyster beds off the coast of Yuen Long.

After the turbulence of communist disturbances ended in 1968, Akers-Jones became Principal Assistant Colonial Secretary (Lands), a very grand title that according to him involved a never ending stream of paper and files. This was in fact a critical role and he navigated the renewal of Kowloon land leases that expired in 1973, sensitive as the Chinese always considered the land to be a part of China and only under British administration. He was part of the momentous period of development of Hong Kong led by the Governor Sir Murray MacLehose, which involved building housing for 1.5 million people in urban areas and another 300,000 in rural areas, leading to the construction of “New Towns” that dominate the landscape of modern Hong Kong.

He continued his long association with rural communities and in 1973 was appointed Secretary for the New Territories where he led the building of the Sha Tin New Town, which is now home to a population of over 650,000 people. In his 12 years in this role he led an administration that built new homes for 1.5 million people, mostly new immigrants from mainland China. What an extraordinary achievement. His civil service career continued as he was appointed as a member of the Executive Council (advisors to the Governor) in 1978, as Chief Secretary (the most senior civil servant) in 1985, and was acting Governor for six weeks whilst Sir Edward Youde was on leave.

Akers-Jones not only contributed to the Districts to which he was posted, but also worked with several friends to form ‘Outward Bound Hong Kong’ in 1970, which he recognised could be of immense benefit to young people who grew up in crowded urban environments with limited physical exercise and activities. He was a lifelong supporter of Outward Bound, having formed the branch in Malaysia whilst a District Officer, and later become Honorary President of Outward Bound Hong Kong.

Akers-Jones was a “friend of China” and in the early 1970s was one of the few British colonial officials to visit mainland China on multiple occasions and be welcomed by the authorities. He saw first-hand the changes taking place in China in the 1980s and revelled in the stunning scenery, travelled the Silk Road, and revered the ancient culture paying his respects at the grave of Confucius at Chufu.

During the early 1980s, Akers-Jones was at the heart of discussions between the British and Chinese governments regarding the issue of sovereignty of Hong Kong after 1997, resulting in the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984 between the two countries. He was critical of efforts by the British government after 1984 to expand the electorate, first increasing elected representatives on District Boards and later under Governor Chris Patten adding voters to “functional constituencies”. In this regard Akers-Jones was an administrator and not a politician, a product of colonial rule rather than democracy.

The career of Akers-Jones was best summed up by former Governor Sir David Wilson, who wrote that “He must rank as one of the last of that great breed of District Officers who knew intimately the people and the area for which he was responsible.” He was a capable colonial administrator who became close to the people he worked with, learning first Hokkien and later Cantonese, but he was not a bureaucrat and the words of Akers-Jones himself from his memoire are a telling reminder for the current government of Hong Kong:

“Papers on policies and projects did not gather dust: government was a living, bubbling thing and needed these spontaneous injections of both ideas and energy to keep pace with the challenge of the need, without any significant natural resources, to provide a livelihood for the swelling population, and to keep stoking the fires of burgeoning prosperity.”

We could benefit from his experience and wisdom now during these troubled times in Hong Kong. Sir David Akers-Jones will be missed as an exemplary civil servant who was dedicated to the people in the communities he administered, as a member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs for over 50 years, and as a decent man who lived in the most interesting times.


Batumi: Marseilles of the Caucasus

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I did, however, manage to arrive two days early to take a look at the town and surrounds. This was my second time in Batumi. First had been in 2009 when I was a PhD student, which may or may not account for the fact that our short Georgia trip with friends remains a blur. One day in Tbilisi, and then back to Istanbul via Trabzon after a half day in Batumi. I remembered the old town. I remembered a trip up a hill to see a botanical garden. I remembered the Ali and Nino sculpture by the sea: perforated metal figures of a man and woman that move towards one another, merge, and then separate again.

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Paul Cheeseright is a former FT correspondent, and also is a member of the Asian Affairs Editorial Board.

Maurice de Cazenove was in his early 20s when he arrived at Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as a young career officer of Marshal Leclerc’s Expeditionary Corps aiming to reclaim French control of Indochina.  He was in Vietnam for two years from 1946.  He recaptured some of his memories of that time when we met three weeks before he died, aged 97, in his family home. Continue reading


The Return of the Prodigal: A Turk visits Central Asia

Nagihan Haliloglu is an assistant professor at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and a resident of Istanbul.

In his introduction to Mehmet Emin Efendi’s 1877 travelogue on Turkestan, Ahmet Mithat Efendi says that anyone interested in Ottoman history and culture ought to visit Central Asia ‘to appreciate how much a tribe that is originally Turkmen has changed in the six intervening centuries.’ It is indeed difficult for a Turk to visit Central Asia and not to feel like the prodigal offspring who has consorted too long with strange folk too far away. I was able to visit Uzbekistan in April, with a group of friends and their families a few months after the visa was lifted for Turkish citizens, and two weeks after Turkish Airlines added Samarkand to its Uzbek destinations. You could say that as Turkmens of Ahmet Mithat Efendi’s description we missed the target by a couple of hundred kilometers and landed in the wrong –stan. But we did make it to Khiva, the seat of the Turkmen state of Khwarezm, at the end of the journey. Before the trip I was telling myself that these borders in what used to be called Turkestan – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan combined – did not mean a thing. However, in Samarkand, Bukhara and even in Khiva shop owners kept asking me ‘Turkmenistan?’ when I tried to speak Turkish with them, and I thought there might, after all, be something to these distinctions. Continue reading


An Englishman in Japan

Dr Carl Hunter formerly served as an officer with the Green Jackets, and is now the managing director of Coltraco UltrasonicsHe travels extensively in Asia, and is a member of the RSAA. Here, he writes a letter on a business trip to Japan.

I smoked a cigarette on an immaculate sidewalk in Tokyo. A well-dressed man in overcoat and face-mask passed by waving his hand across his face. I was unclear whether he was waving away the smoke –  he was 10 yards away from me after all – or whether he was really waving away the foreigner. Continue reading


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Political Islam[1] has dominated political doctrine in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for the last forty years. But jihadi[2] violence has contaminated its image (but not the faith of most Muslims) and regional support across the Middle East and North Africa is receding in the face of recent experience. If political Islam has not run its course, it is diminished. Its alternative in most regional perceptions is not democracy but autocracy, including military regimes. Continue reading


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The absence of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, first vice president of Afghanistan and leader of the Junbish-i Milli Party, poses a significant challenge to the security and stability of the Afghan state, on top of those it already faces. Sexual abuse allegations were made against him and two other members of his party earlier this year, but he has not faced trial for them as he left for Turkey in May on the grounds that he was seeking treatment there for ill-health.

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Robin Lamb was formerly British Ambassador to Bahrain and now the executive director of LBBC. He is also a member of the Council of the RSAA. Here, he looks at the background to the current dispute between Qatar and its neighbouring Arab states.

On 5 June 2017, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE broke off diplomatic relations and cut transport links with Qatar over its alleged support for Islamic terrorism. The Yemeni government and the authorities holding power in eastern Libya followed suit. Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Kuwait and Oman have not and Kuwait has continued attempts to mediate between Qatar and its neighbours which it was pursuing before 5 June. On 8 June, Qatar’s opponents proscribed 59 people and 12 entities from Bahrain, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Continue reading