Hong Kong gets slammed with seven tropical storms a year on average and escapes flooding with a drainage system that looks like a set from a James Bond movie. NBC’s Ian Williams reports.
In a wrongful termination lawsuit, the former head of Sands operations in Macau has accused billionaire gambling mogul and Republican supporter Sheldon Adelson of links to organized crime, approving prostitution in his casinos, and making questionable payments to Chinese government officials. Adelson strongly denies any wrongdoing. NBC News' Ian Williams reports.
Updated at 2:51 a.m. ET on Nov. 13: MACAU -- There is a scene in the 1952 black-and-white movie "Macao" where Robert Mitchum is welcomed by a border guard as he enters the then-Portuguese colony. The guard tells him: "It is our fine hope that all visitors to Macau should feel as untroubled here as Adam in the Garden of Eden." To which Mitchum replies gruffly, "'Untroubled’ -- that ain't the way I heard it."
While billionaire Sheldon Adelson is no Robert Mitchum, he is now discovering that a city that has been a goldmine for his gaming company can quickly become a source of unwelcome problems.
In the 2012 campaign, Adelson was the Republican Party's biggest contributor -- by some estimates the largest political donor ever. He donated millions to Mitt Romney’s campaign -- a political gamble that did not pay off.
One side effect, Adelson himself believes, has been to put Macau, the "Casablanca of the East", under sharp scrutiny.
The election may be over, having cost Adelson tens of millions of dollars, but his business activities here continue to face serious allegations of wrongdoing.
‘Without casinos, Macau is nothing’
Tiny Macau (population 555,000) has tended to be overshadowed by Hong Kong, its bigger, brasher neighbor an hour's ferry ride away across the mouth of the Pearl River. But over the last few years it has overtaken Las Vegas as the gaming capital of the world, and its revenues are now five times those of Sin City.
"Without casinos, Macau is nothing," a taxi driver said. "Casinos are everything here."
Joao Pinto, the news and program controller at local television station TDM , added: "Casinos are the blood of this city. They are a huge machine printing money, every hour, every minute, every second."
Adelson's Las Vegas Sands owns three vast casinos here, including a gargantuan version of his flagship Las Vegas Venetian.
He was in Macau in April for the opening of the first phase of his latest venture, Sands Cotai Central, which the company has described as "arguably the largest and most ambitious development in the history of the hospitality and gaming industry."
Macau accounts for more than half of Sands' revenues and profits.
Before Macau was returned to China in 1999 after 400 years of Portuguese rule, gaming had been a monopoly run by a Hong Kong-based billionaire named Stanley Ho.
One of the first things the Chinese did was to break that monopoly, and Sands led the charge through the newly opened door, though several U.S. casinos are now here too, including Wynn Resorts and MGM.
Takings before the handover were a paltry $2 billion; last year Macau's casinos took in $33.5 billion.
A different atmosphere - and culture
Most of that is Chinese money. Macau is the only place in China were gambling is legal, and the American gaming companies quickly concluded that the market was potentially enormous.
"Gambling is part of Chinese culture," Pinto said. "It always has been."
But the atmosphere is very different from Las Vegas.
Walk across the vast casino floor of the Venetian in Macau -- the biggest gaming floor in the world -- and there is a hushed intensity, even when it is crowded. The stillness is only punctuated by the occasional cheering of a lucky winner, who will immediately attract a host of followers, looking to emulate his or her luck.
Luck and fatalism play a big role.
"People don't come to Macau to enjoy themselves," David Green, who advises the Macau government on gaming regulation, said. "People seriously see it as a potential way of changing their lives."
Yet most of the action takes place away from the casino floor in what are called "VIP rooms," the private spaces for the really high rollers who account for most the takings and the profits.
How would Pinto, the Macau journalist, define a Chinese VIP?
"People with (a) huge amount of cash, who don't mind gambling it away," he said.
In China, that usually means rich businessmen and government officials -- which are frequently one and the same thing.
"To my understanding from having monitored the situation carefully, the bulk -- 60 percent -- of the profits of the western casinos appears to be associated with the VIP room operations," said Steve Vickers, who once headed Hong Kong's Criminal Intelligence Bureau and now runs his own corporate intelligence company, Steve Vickers & Associates.
"Macau is a complicated place, a very complicated place," he said.
Part of the reason for that are tight controls -- in theory -- on the amount of money that can be taken out of mainland China, and no official system for collecting gambling debts in the country. Companies known as junkets fill this void, organizing trips to Macau, extending credit and enforcing the collection of debts.
Many of the junkets are reputable companies, but others are heavily influenced by organized Chinese crime groups, the triads.
"I'm not saying that all the junket operators are triad-related," Vickers said. "But I would say that nearly all the Chinese junket operators that I have had a look at, while they may not themselves by owned and controlled by triad societies, have some connection with them. That's the nature of the beast."
Amid the uncertainly ahead of the 1999 handover, Macau was gripped by a triad war, with gangster-like executions and bombings, as rival gangs fought for control of the junket trade and the VIP rooms.
More recently, there has been relative peace, possibly because the size of the economic cake has been growing so fast -- up to 40 per cent a year. (It has showed signs of slowing, however.)
A recent spate of violence has raised fears, as has the expected release from prison later this year of a man knows as "Broken Tooth" Wan, a notorious triad leader who was at the center of the earlier wars.
Adelson's problems began with the sacking in July 2010 of Steve Jacobs, the head of Sands' Macau operations. He launched an unfair termination lawsuit in October that year, alleging that he was asked to do improper things.
That in turn seems to have triggered in early 2011 the SEC and Justice Department investigations under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
As Jacobs’ case has ground its way through Nevada courts, his allegations have become increasingly lurid -- claiming that Adelson personally approved a "prostitution strategy" for his casinos, had triad links, and made questionable payments to Chinese government officials. The latter accusation related to the employment by Sands of a well-connected local official.
Adelson has strongly denied the claims.
"When the smoke clears, I am absolutely-- not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent -- positive that there won't be any fire below it," he said at an industry conference last year. He has also described Jacobs' suit as "pure threatening, blackmail and extortion."
When I contacted Ron Reese, Sands vice president for public relations, he told me that the company takes the SEC and Justice Department investigation very seriously.
"We cooperate fully, but others are exploiting the situation for political or personal gain. We are looking to find a resolution of these issues," he said.
Sen. John McCain hardly helped matters when he suggested in an interview that Adelson's reliance on profits from foreign (and in particular Chinese) casinos provided a route for foreign money to enter the election campaign.
"Obviously, maybe in a roundabout way, foreign money is coming into an American campaign," he told PBS.
Sands clearly feels that in an election year the whole thing has become highly politicized, but that was probably inevitable once Adelson emerged as the Republican Party's biggest contributor.
He is clearly hoping that attention now moves elsewhere and he can continue unhindered with what he believes is a perfectly legitimate business
But there is no doubt that America's most expensive election ever has put tiny Macau under the spotlight like never before.
More world stories from NBC News:
Hong Kong business travelers say they are frustrated by a recent decision by the United States to allow visa-free travel for Taiwanese coming to America, the South China Morning Post reported.
"It's disappointing, because we've been asking for it for quite some time, and they still won't give it to us," Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Ya-chung told the Post last week. "We behave well, never cause trouble and spend handsomely, so why do they give it to Taiwan and not Hong Kong?"
On Oct. 2, Homeland Security announced self-governing Taiwan will join 36 other countries whose nationals may visit the United States without a visa for 90 days, The Associated Press reported. China is not among these countries, but Hong Kong has lobbied for many years to be granted the visa-free status, according to the Post.
A senior State Department official told the AP that including Taiwan in the visa waiver program was consistent with the U.S. commitment to "robust, unofficial relations" with the island.
Richard Vuylsteke, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong told the Post that the chamber had been lobbying the U.S. State and Homeland Security departments for more than five years.
"All of the reasons Taiwan was approved... Hong Kong is also very strong in," he told the Post. "My private speculation is they don't know how to handle mainland Chinese with [Hong Kong] resident status."
In Taiwan's case, waiving the visa requirements is also viewed as a response to the island lifting import restrictions on U.S. beef, the AP reported, as well as a reaction to President Ma Ying-jeou's easing tensions with China.
More world stories from NBC News:
A powerful typhoon swept through Hong Kong, pounding the region with heavy rain and strong wind. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.
By Ed Flanagan, NBC News
BEIJING – Hong Kong battened down the hatches Monday and rode out the strongest typhoon to hit the city in 13 years.
For the first time since 1999, Hong Kong raised its Signal 10 typhoon warning – the highest on the city’s weather observatory scale – for several hours Monday evening as typhoon Vicente pounded the region with gale force winds said to have reached speeds as high as 101 miles per hour.
Hong Kong authorities reported 129 people were injured by the typhoon, with as many as 30 of the injuries caused by flying debris scooped up by the high winds. Seven incidents of flooding were reported in Hong Kong’s New Territories region.
Meanwhile, Beijing suffered through a 10-hour downpour over the weekend that dumped 6.7 inches of rain in parts of the city and as much as 18 inches in the worst hit parts on the outskirts of Beijing in what is being called the worst flooding to hit the Chinese capital in six decades.
The subsequent severe flooding killed at least 37 people in the country's capital and affected nearly two million people, sparking millions of angry messages and complaints on China’s Twitter-like service, Weibo, in recent days. Users posted countless home videos and pictures of cars struggling through wheel-deep water, waterfalls cascading down into Beijing's subway entrances and cars being swept away by the currents.
The differing level of destruction between the two cities provoked outrage at Beijing’s government, with critics asking why the city’s infrastructure failed to buffer the storm.
The brewing storm sent office workers scrambling home as they hurried to avoid a partial public transportation suspension in the lead-up to the storm. Non-essential government offices were also closed early Monday and port and airport authorities shut down operations until the storm passed.
During the worst of the storm in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the BBC reported that 60 flights were cancelled, an additional 60 more delayed and 16 diverted.
By Tuesday 8 a.m. local time, the Hong Kong Observatory reported a weakened Typhoon Vicente was heading away from Hong Kong, allowing public transportation and flights from Hong Kong International Airport to resume. Trade on Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index also resumed earlier Tuesday.
The typhoon is reportedly creeping its way into China’s Guangdong province, where weather experts were warning that Vicente could still dump as much as 12 inches of rain in affected areas.
The typhoon comes as China is experiencing serious weather disturbances throughout the country. Near China’s central metropolis of Chongqing, heavy rains have caused flooding and brought the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest hydropower dam – perilously close to its largest flood peak this year.
Critics pound government’s response to Beijing storm
While Hong Kong seemed to weather the storm, nearly every aspect of the government’s response to the Beijing flooding has been criticized by the public, with much of the anger being directed at the shoddy drainage system. Netizens have also been quick to complain about the Beijing municipal government’s lack of preparedness for dealing with the disaster and the city’s failures in weather forecasting and deploying a good storm-warning service.
Beijing officials are saying that economic losses from the storm will surpass $1.5 billion dollars. But the PR hit to the city’s vaunted new infrastructure just four years after its coming out party during the summer Olympics has been far more costly -- especially considering the relatively minor damage suffered by Hong Kong from a major typhoon.
Public outrage over Beijing deaths
“Hong Kong just experienced the biggest typhoon in 13 years, but there are only seven reports of flooding, one report of landslide and no one died,” wrote one angry poster on Weibo comparing the Hong Kong typhoon with Beijing’s flooding. “The media effectively announced the alert, and reported the complaints of its citizens…The whole society functions under the normal rhythm.”
“The rainfall in Beijing and the typhoon in Hong Kong,” stated another irate poster. “Two completely different systems are shown in the same mirror.”
Sensitive to the great public outcry, Weibo began censoring overly critical posts on the subject of the Beijing floods. Citing alleged directives from the Beijing Municipal Committee Department of Propaganda, the China Digital Times posted reputed orders from the department that called for “public opinion guidance concerning yesterday’s rainstorms” in the form of state-run media shifting the focus of its news stories away from issues like the failure of the city’s drainage system to features that “emphasize the power of human compassion over the elements.”
On the edge of the Gobi desert, Beijing has not always had to deal with large rainstorms like Hong Kong, which is regularly in the season path of typhoons in the South China Seas area. Still, with more heavy rains expected later this week, local officials here will certainly be feeling the heat to keep the city largely dry throughout the rest of this rainy season.
NBC News’ Tianzhou Ye contributed to this report.
Thomas and Raymond Kwok, two brothers who control Sun Kai Properties, the second largest property company in the world, were arrested by Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption Thursday, scandalizing the city. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.
BEIJING – If you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, you’ve undoubtedly walked by a building built or managed by Sun Hung Kai Properties, the second largest property company in the world and one of the small number of prominent developers that control real estate in this land-scarce region.
To say that the Kwok family, which controls Sun Hung Kai, has played a part in constructing Hong Kong’s iconic skyline would be massive understatement. Three of the tallest buildings in the city were constructed by the firm as well as one of the region’s more surreal icons, a replica of Noah’s Ark which doubles as a hotel and theme park. (The Kwoks are evangelical Christians.)
So when news broke that the company’s co-chairmen, Thomas and Raymond Kwok, were arrested on Thursday by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), it caused an uproar that has scandalized the city of 7 million and caused the firm’s stock to tumble.
Make that plummet.
In trading Friday on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Sun Hung Kai’s stock price plunged 13 percent, for a loss of $4.9 billion in market value.
It was easily the company’s worst loss on the market in 14 years, according to Bloomberg News.
Though no charges were publicly announced and the Kwok brothers were released late Thursday evening, their arrest at the same time as the reported detention of Rafael Hui, the number two in the Hong Kong government from 2005-2007, has some speculating that the arrests were related.
If so, the arrests one again underscore the tight relationship between Hong Kong’s government and local property developers, both of whom are in a perpetual race to keep up with the housing demands in the world’s most densely populated city.
Mercurial rise not without its issues
With estimated holdings of $18.3 billion, the Kwok family is the 27th wealthiest family in the world, according to Forbes Magazine. Their company, which was founded in 1963 by family patriarch, Kwok Tak Seng, has risen to prominence by breaking into every facet of the property business, from residential to hotels to industrial development.
Bobby Yip / Reuters
Thomas Kwok (R) and his younger brother Raymond Kwok, both Vice Chairman & Managing Director of Sun Hung Kai Properties, listen to a question during a news conference announcing the company's interim results in Hong Kong in this March 11, 2009 file photo.
By the end of 2011, Sun Hung Kai was reported to have a land bank of 46.7 million square feet of gross floor area either completed or in development. The group also owns 26 million square feet of farmland in Hong Kong’s New Territories that is in the process of receiving planning permission to be converted to building land.
That translates into an astounding amount of property under Sun Hung Kai’s control in a city where land is extremely precious.
The company and the family have also long been in the spotlight in Hong Kong. When the family patriarch died in 1990, he left the reins to his eldest son Walter, who became chairman and chief executive. In 1997, Walter was kidnapped and held for a week before his family paid a ransom of more than $77 million to have him released.
Walter returned to the company after his release, but eventually the family relationship unraveled when Thomas and Raymond Kwok dethroned Walter in 2008.
With the support of their mother, the two brothers charged Walter with being unfit to run the business and after a nasty struggle, eventually took over. Thomas, 60, runs the construction of new developments and Raymond, 58, is in charge of the company’s finances.
Are Hong Kong’s business and political interests too close?
The arrest of the Kwok brothers and Rafael Hui by the ICAC comes at a time when Hong Kong is dealing with a number of incidents that bring into question just how transparent and corruption-free the former British colony is today.
On the face of it, the city has a good reputation. The Heritage Foundation calls Hong Kong the world’s freest economy while Transparency International calls it the 12th least corrupt country and/or territory in the world. (The United States came out 10th and 24th respectively.)
But the relationship between real-estate developers and the government has long been a source of simmering tensions in the crowded city. Opposition leaders and some social groups have long criticized the cozy relationship between the government and the developers.
Thousands took to the streets in March to demand that the city’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang quit after he was was accused of accepting invitations for lavish yacht dinners and private jet trips from local businessmen.
In elections for the city’s next chief executive just last weekend, the winner Leung Chung-ying, campaigned on a platform of providing more low-income housing in the city.
Some argue that the Kwok scandal is the next in a storyline of business and government blurring together too closely. However, the fact that the ICAC went ahead with this investigation suggests that for the present time at least, the mechanisms in place to deter and uncover corruption are still strong in Hong Kong.
Where this investigation goes from here will go a long way towards determining whether this latest crisis of faith in Hong Kong is the next step in a gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and financial freedom or one that rights it once and for all.
A court yesterday sentenced a mainland woman convicted of helping expectant mainland mothers to give birth in Hong Kong to 10 months in jail.
BEIJING – Earlier this week my colleagues Adrienne Mong and Bo Gu reported on the growing issue of mainland Chinese women crossing the border into Hong Kong to give birth and the subsequent tension that has been brewing in the former British colony.
Well, Hong Kong’s courts made news yesterday when they sentenced a mainland agent to 10 months in jail after she was found guilty of two charges of “making a false representation to an immigration officer” and “breach of condition of stay.”
It was the first such conviction of a “birth tourist” agent in Hong Kong.
The agent, Xu Li, 29, a former babysitter from Hubei province was found to be assisting expectant mainland mothers in navigating the administrative and legal processes required to give birth in Hong Kong. Besides that, Xu helped to find accommodations and to arrange pre-natal checkups for her clients.
Such facilitators can normally charges their clients between a few thousand yuan and 20,000 yuan ($3,200) for their services in navigating the system
Hong Kong’s Immigration Department is said to be pursing prosecutions of up to 40 other such mainland agents and 20 local intermediaries who help mainland mothers give birth in the Special Administrative Region.
Mainland mothers are eager to give birth to their children in Hong Kong, which like the United States, affords the ride of abode to Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has pledged recently to curb the influx of mainland mothers-to-be, who accounted for an astounding 45 percent of the 88,000 births in Hong Kong in 2010.
A photo from August 2011 shows an aerial view of Central District in Hong Kong, China.
Hong Kong means “fragrant harbor” in Cantonese, but to me as a young girl in the 1980s it meant “mysterious dream.”
My family, like millions of others in mainland China, didn’t own a television at the time. But the most enjoyable after-school activity for me and my friends was to go to the home of our one neighbor who actually had a TV to watch Hong Kong kung-fu series.
He had a black-and-white TV, but managed to make it look like a colored one by gluing a few translucent colored plastic straps on the screen. We were happy enough with a fake colored TV. We were also all fascinated by the Hong Kong soap operas. None of us could speak a word of Cantonese (the dialect spoken in Hong Kong), but we all could sing a few songs in perfect Cantonese; the shows’ themes songs played repeatedly on TV.
People talked about Hong Kong like it was a paradise of milk and honey: “Mr. Li got a new watch from his relative in Hong Kong! Look at him!”
We also heard stories of mainlanders swimming across the sea between neighboring Guangdong province to sneak into Hong Kong, seeking asylum or a free life.
In those old days, Hong Kong was a land of “capitalist” treasure, closed off to mainlanders like me, but open to the rest of world. Hong Kong was a lofty faraway dream that none of us thought would ever come true for us.
Just a few years later, every family in my hometown could afford to buy a TV, a refrigerator, and a telephone. Some richer ones even got themselves video cassette players.
Then on July 1, 1997, we were told that Hong Kong was finally handed back to China after 100 years of British colonial rule. We were told to be proud of the return of the lost land cut off from its mother ship for a century.
It’s true that since Hong Kong’s handover it is no longer such a mystery – but in many ways it is still a world away for many mainland Chinese.
Not so open for mainlanders
For instance, on a recent trip, I left Beijing one hour earlier than my American colleague – but she arrived in Hong Kong several hours before me. She was able to hop a flight directly from Beijing to Hong Kong, but because I’m from a small city in mainland China, I was denied that privilege.
Not every mainlander can go to Hong Kong anytime they wish. For starters, they need a special blue pass that is issued only for trips to Hong Kong and nearby Macau. Like a regular China passport, this special pass is only given out by local police in the person’s hometown.
Take me, for example. Even though I have been living in Beijing for many years, I have to fly back to my hometown to apply for that blue pass. (I could apply for one in Beijing if I had Beijing residency, but I don’t and it is extremely hard to obtain.)
And – unlike my American colleague or most visitors other countries – I need a visa to go to Hong Kong.
Someone like me, who doesn’t have relatives or a business in Hong Kong, can only get a seven-day group tourist visa to visit. Individual tourist visas are only available to residents of many Guangdong province cities, such as nearby Shenzhen, and big cities in other provinces.
So to get there for our recent assignment, I had to fly to Shenzhen, known for its cheap labor and numerous factories. From there I took a bus from Shenzhen airport to the Shenzhen side of the Hong Kong border, where I met a travel agent.
The agent filled out a form to show the company had organized a “tour group” for me. Then he took me to the border inspection, where the officer stamped the form and my blue pass.
The border officer, the agent and I all knew I wasn’t joining any “tour group.” Everyone knew I was going to Hong Kong on my own. But I had to detour first through Shenzhen, with its population of 15 million, because I’m from a smaller faraway city (population of 3 million), not Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou.
Anchor baby battle: Hong Kong vs. China
Biggest surprise: bookstores
Hong Kong didn’t strike me as anything special when I first saw it in person. I had seen the city so many times on TV.
But certain things did surprise me. I was stunned by its bookstores: biographies of Chinese politicians, memoirs of dissidents, books about corruption and power struggles between Chinese officials were openly available. I could find any of the books normally banned in China.
I also noticed Hong Kong has the fastest escalators I’ve ever seen. There, everyone walks fast. Nobody would stop for me and my colleague when we tried to interview people on the street. In fact they didn’t even look at us. They were always rushing as if they had very important business to take care of.
The variety of food and drink in Hong Kong is also amazing, but it’s much more expensive than in Beijing and Shanghai. That doesn’t stop tons of mainlanders from buying it though. They come here to buy iPhones, computers, high-end cosmetics and expensive clothes. The mainland might have been Hong Kong’s poor cousin for decades, but with mainlanders’ new-found wealth things have completely changed – almost.
There is still an impression in Hong Kong that their nouveau riche cousins have a bit of impolite country bumpkin in them.
Once when I entered Hong Kong I was struck by a sign on the wall: “Please cover your mouth when you sneeze.” This is a sign I have never seen in the mainland.
In fact, during all my 16 years of mainland education, not a single teacher or parent ever told students, “don’t spit in public” or “wait in line.” There was no such thing as etiquette education back then.
I don’t know what’s going on in schools now, but I certainly hope the children in kindergarten these days are told to cover their mouths when they sneeze. (And I find it funny when I hear that Hong Kongers criticize mainlanders for being “loud.” I have the impression that the Cantonese are the loudest people in the world.)
Some friends tell me the recent tension between Hong Kong people and mainlanders – over issues like birth rights – is exaggerated by the media. Some other mainland friends say they clearly feel the hostility expressed by the locals. Some scholars say it is actually a conflict between Western and Eastern cultures, due to Hong Kong’s colonial past and international flavor.
Exaggerated or not, I sure don’t want to be called a “locust,” an insult currently being hurled at mainlanders by their Hong Kong brethren.
Many mainlanders yearn to have the same lifestyle as Hong Kong people have –just like the one Hong Kongers pursued all those decades when they left mainland China.
Tens of thousands of mainland Chinese women travel every year to Hong Kong to give birth so their children can enjoy the former British colony's benefits. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports on the growing tension the trend has fueled between Hong Kong locals and mainlanders.
HONG KONG & SHENZHEN, China – Anchor babies. Birth tourism. Cross-border births.
It’s a growing global phenomenon driven by Chinese with wherewithal and wealth. Chinese from a China that – even as it continues to grow and open up to the rest of the world – still faces a restrictive enough present and an uncertain enough future that they choose to give birth outside of China.
Some do it to avoid the one-child policy. Many do so for the benefits the child will receive as a citizen of the country into which it’s born: free or better education, the freedom to travel, good social services, a safe haven.
But a close second is Hong Kong, the tiny former British colony of 7 million people.
Since its return to Beijing’s oversight in 1997, and as China has made it easier for its people to travel, tens of thousands of mainlanders regularly head over the border to book up maternity wards at Hong Kong’s good quality and affordable public hospitals.
Of the 88,000 births in Hong Kong in 2010, roughly 45 percent were delivered by mainland Chinese women, according to Hong Kong's government.
The growing number of cross-border births isn’t just straining health care resources and the local population’s goodwill. It’s also helped to provoke an identity crisis that 15 years after the handover has alienated local residents from their northern neighbors.
A business catering to pregnant mainlanders
For four years, Gordon Li has been running a business from Shenzhen, southern China, arranging travel to Hong Kong for pregnant mainland Chinese women.
Many Hong Kong locals believe their quality of life is being eroded by mainland China---including the air.
(*Gordon Li is not his real name; he did not want to divulge his identity. Just last week, another agent from mainland China pleaded guilty to breaching Hong Kong immigration laws for helping mainland women give birth in the city. It was Hong Kong’s first prosecution of its kind and, given the current mood, may not be the last.)
“We work like a travel agency [and] the fee depends on the client –whether they want to stay in a luxury hotel or a small hotel, etc.,” said Li, who charges his clients between a few thousand yuan and 20,000 yuan ($3,200) to navigate the system. Most of his customers are from the mainland’s wealthiest regions like Guangdong, Zhejiang, Beijing, and Shanghai.
Li estimates that he has helped at least a few hundred mainland women to have babies in Hong Kong. “Last year was the most,” he said.
His early clients were trying to get around the mainland’s strict one-child policy, but today most of his new customers travel to Hong Kong because, Li says, there are “a lot of conveniences.”
The public health system in freewheeling capitalist Hong Kong is considered better and safer than it is in its communist neighbor. Maternal mortality ratio statistics collected by organizations like the World Health Organization support Hong Kong’s reputation for good quality health care for mothers and newborn babies.
Every day, more than 10,000 students who live in mainland China cross the border to go to school in Hong Kong.
Other benefits for newborns include being automatically eligible for “the right of abode” in Hong Kong, which means becoming permanent residents. Which in turn means unfettered access to free public education considered superior to that in the mainland; political freedoms; and ease of travel anywhere in the world.
And they are entitled to all of this without giving up their China citizenship.
In fact, more than 10,000 mainland Chinese children who were born in Hong Kong, but live in China, go across the border every day to attend school in the former British colony.
Hong Kong is fed up
Huang Lijuan is a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher from Guangdong Province. She and her husband, Tsing Ho Nan, a 32-year-old engineer from Hong Kong, met in Shenzhen and moved to Hong Kong after getting married.
“I’m three months pregnant, and the due date is August 5,” Huang told NBC News one afternoon in a community center in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong. “But I haven’t been able to book a hospital bed in a maternity ward. All of the public hospitals are fully booked.”
“There are 80 to 100 [mainland women married to Hong Kong men living here] who are pregnant, but they failed to book any hospitals to deliver their babies,” said Koon Wing Tsang, an organizer with the Mainland-Hong Kong Families Rights Association. Like Huang, they are all casualties of recent restrictions on non-local women.
Under popular pressure, the Health Authority (HA) in Hong Kong has instituted quotas for non-local residents. Currently, only 3,400 births by non-local women are permitted at public hospitals this year – down from 10,000 in 2011. Private hospitals are allowed 31,000 births by non-local women.
“The government and the HA are committed to ensuring that local pregnant women will be given priority in the use of the services over non-Hong Kong residents (non-eligible persons, NEPs),” said a Health Authority spokesman in a written response to NBC News requests for an interview.
But even the new quotas may not be enough. As Huang found out, all the maternity wards in Hong Kong’s public hospitals – and many private clinics – are fully booked until September.
Moreover, the quotas don’t prevent mainland women from using the emergency wards as a last resort. More than 1,600 such births last year were delivered in Hong Kong’s emergency rooms – an unnecessary medical risk since such wards are not equipped or staffed properly for deliveries.
Some Hong Kong government officials have raised the possibility of an outright ban on mainland Chinese women giving birth in the city, but critics have argued enforcement is problematic.
Others have suggested ending the practice of granting automatic permanent residency status to babies born to non-local parents. To do so, according to legal experts as well as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang, would mean having to reinterpret the Basic Law – the territory’s mini-constitution.
Any such action would require consultations with Beijing, which could prove to be a political minefield for Hong Kong, which prides itself on its Western-style democratic values.
'Locusts' & 'running dogs'
Adding fuel to the fire is a recent series of tense confrontations between local and mainland residents.
Last month, Hong Kong citizens were outraged over a report that a Dolce & Gabbana boutique had banned local shoppers from taking photographs of its shop, but allowed mainland Chinese tourists and other visitors to snap away. A Facebook campaign days later galvanized more than a thousand people to protest outside the shop, forcing it to shut early.
Barely a week later, a heated dispute broke out on the Hong Kong subway when a mainland Chinese child was asked to stop eating on the train – a practice banned in the territory. The argument between locals and mainlanders was captured by a cell phone camera, and the video went viral on the Internet.
Tensions were further inflamed by comments from a Peking University professor, who when shown the video of the subway dispute, called the territory’s residents “running dogs of the British imperialists.”
This month, a group of concerned Hong Kong citizens bought a full-page ad in a popular mainstream Chinese-language Hong Kong daily newspaper that called mainland visitors “locusts.” The term refers to the large numbers overrunning the territory to consume all its resources.
The "Locust" song, which features anti-mainland China lyrics, has gone viral on the Internet in Hong Kong.
A “locust” song even made the rounds on the Internet, with spiteful lyrics poking fun at mainland Chinese, and inspiring at least one group of young Hong Kong men to roam around singing the song at visiting mainland Chinese.
An identity crisis
“I think the real reason that Hong Kong people are upset is because they feel helpless politically,” said Wen Yunchao, a mainland blogger and activist now living in the territory. “The rules they believe in are being broken by all these mainland visitors, and yet they still have to rely on China economically.”
Dr. Elaine Chan at the Center of Civil Society and Governance at Hong Kong University agrees the tension is “a manifestation of something deeper.”
“Hong Kong people do not have a very positive view of mainlanders,” she said. “Not just because they are buying properties and not just because they are buying all the luxury goods. But also because of how they carry themselves.”
Both Wen and Chan argue there’s an underlying sensitivity to and awareness of the fact that Hong Kong is bound up with China –culturally, historically, politically, and economically – and yet there remains a gap in fundamental values between the two: in terms of the rule of law or basic civility. That tension makes some people in the territory uncomfortable.
For now, Beijing has remained silent at least on the cross-border births issue, although authorities in neighboring Guangdong province have promised to find a solution.
But another hot-button topic may soon eclipse that of birth tourism. The main topic of conversation last week was a government proposal to open up the border to mainland Chinese drivers and their vehicles. Concern over road safety issues is so great in Hong Kong that an online petition has already gathered 7,000 signatures.
With additional reporting by Bo Gu.
NMA can turn a story around in as little as 90 minutes.
TAIPEI, Taiwan —They are the faceless but spunky purveyors of animated media.
And for about a year we’ve been curious about who is behind the sometimes hilarious, sometimes shocking, but always edgy computer-generated “news” reports produced by Next Media Animation (NMA).
Spots like the now-infamous retelling of the Tiger Woods car accident, the rap battle on the U.S.-China currency dispute, and air passenger rage over the U.S. Transportation Security Authority’s enhanced airport checks. This week alone, NBC News got some love with two spots that poke fun at us: American tv network coverage of the U.K. royal wedding and rumors about Today show anchors.
NMA's report on rumors of Today show anchor changes.
NMA is owned by Next Media Limited, Hong Kong’s largest publicly-owned Chinese-language media company, which publishes Next Magazine and Apple Daily, a popular Hong Kong newspaper that has a separate Taiwan edition.
The animation group, however, is based in Taipei. So top of the agenda during a recent weekend trip to Taiwan was—after feasting on local fare, of course — a visit to its office and studio.
NMA came to widespread international attention in late 2009 with its report on the Woods scandal, which went viral, garnering 6 million hits and still counting.
Yet it took several more months of trial and error before NMA’s animated videos became consistent hits online. Some early hiccups included behind-the-scenes at the White House featuring a voiceover actor depicting President Barack Obama.
“They were all dialogue driven,” recalled Michael Logan, the Content and Business Development manager at Next Media Animation. “That was the format we tried early on, and we found it didn’t work.”
But a quick succession of triumphs followed, including one about allegations by a hotel masseuse that former Vice-President Al Gore had groped her during a stay in 2006 and a biting look at the roll-out of the iPhone 4, with Steve Jobs as Darth Vader and a cheeky nod at the spate of suicides at Foxconn. One of our personal early favorites was an unflinching take on the late night talk show dispute involving NBC, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien.
A bi-cultural outlook
The NMA team comprises some 300 people in Taipei and a handful more in New York—all of whom are responsible for producing some 210 minutes of animation every week for the Hong Kong and Taiwan editions of Apple Daily and Next Media TV, also based in Taipei.
Logan helps to helm the international team. The eight editorial staff members in Taipei are a mix of Taiwanese who have spent time in the U.S. and, in one instance, South Africa, and Westerners who all have some degree of fluency in Chinese and have experience working in Greater China. Four more work in the New York office, which also includes native Taiwanese. Most are former journalists.
In fact, when they aren’t all busy brainstorming on how to lampoon the latest tabloid celebrity—the international team functions much like a news agency such as Reuters or Associated Press by providing straightforward animation reports on hard news.
“Someone in Germany can come to our website and pull down [a 30-second package that we’ve produced] and use it for their publication,” explained Logan, an American with a multimedia background and a Columbia journalism graduate school degree.
But what they’re increasingly well-known for is their edginess.
Like its media cousin, Apple Daily (which has been banned in mainland China for years), NMA doesn’t shy away from tackling material politically sensitive to Beijing.
The team covered the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and has been contemplating “doing something on Ai Weiwei,” a high-profile Chinese artist who hasn’t been seen or heard from since he was detained on April 3.
“With stuff like that, it’s about striking the right tone,” said Logan. “[Ai’s detention] is such an important topic that we don’t want to take it too lightly.”
Everything else, however, they do thumb their noses at—an approach that given their popularity seems to be succeeding.
“Certain themes work well on the Internet,” said Logan, outlining narratives that portray a sense of affronted justice; are celebrity-driven (“I call it celebrity plus misery”) and are not already captured on video; or employ their newest experimental format, like the rap battle.
“We’re working on one about Obama versus Gadhafi,” he continued. “We’re still trying to figure out who will voice Gadhafi.”
A rapid turnaround
A defining feature of NMA’s work is the visual humor, which is Taiwanese; much of the creative input comes from the storyboard artists, who are predominantly from Taiwan.
They’re also the production linchpin. Although the writers come up with the initial ideas, they talk through the concept with the storyboard artists. (Every script is bilingual, written first in English and then translated into Chinese.)
NMA employs 300 staff in Taipei.
In the meantime, the artists have only half an hour to come up with the storyboard, and everything follows on from that critical step: the animation, the modelling, the motion capture, the music and sound effects, and the final editing.
An entire production cycle takes about three hours although in a pinch they can turn a story around in 90 minutes.
Part of what enables NMA to produce their spots so quickly is a constantly growing database of models, an invaluable resource for the animation. The team also uses motion capture, which can be expensive but time-saving.
NMA has two studios used for motion capture. One is equipped with 30 4-million pixel cameras and the other with 30 16-million pixel cameras, according to Thomas Tong, the head of NMA’s motion capture department.
All of this enables NMA to churn out two to three satire pieces a day every week.
“Speed is very important, and timing is key,” said Logan, who cited the example of Casey the Punisher, a 16-year-old Australian who struck back at a school bully. Within 24 hours of the story surfacing, NMA had produced an animation that’s still getting hits.
Driving traffic to the boob tube
“It used to be that they said, if you’re not on TV, you don’t exist,” observed Logan. “For online video, if you’re not on YouTube, you don’t exist.”
NMA posts all of its satire pieces on its website as well as YouTube. Most of its audience is American; in fact, 46 percent is in the U.S., followed by Australia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
And satire is what NMA hopes will get it a bigger profile on a more old-fashioned medium: mainstream television.
“Our online presence is what got us noticed and is what is getting us contract work,” said Logan. “Success for us is to have a permanent, lasting presence on TV as well.”
After doing contract work for the Cartoon Network and BBC’s Newsnight program, NMA has signed a deal with Spike TV, a division of MTV Networks. Early last month, it produced a 30-minute special for the cable channel called, “Charlie Sheen’s ‘Winningest’ Moments.” Consisting of 13 animated segments, the show drew 700,000 viewers—pretty respectable for cable.
“We’re excited about doing the next one,” said Logan.
In the meantime, the team continues to be hard at work, dreaming up with ways to entertain and inform.
Ok. We know the mainland Chinese have a thing for imitation goods.
But Hong Kong?
Thanks to the folks over at ChinaSmack, we’ve learned a little belatedly that a U.S. President Barack Obama lookalike was used in a KFC television ad to promote a new Fish Fillet Soft Roll. (The commercial was aired for a limited time in Hong Kong only just ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the U.S. last month.)
Change is good, says the advert.
He better believe it.
After all, he’ll be sending a new ambassador to China in the spring.
Btw, Yum Brands – a Louisville, KY, company which owns KFC – posted higher than expected quarterly earnings yesterday. It gets a third of its revenue from China, where it operates more than 3,700 restaurants, mostly KFC outlets.
We marvel at Hong Kong every time we visit it.
Not for its glitz and glamour, restaurants, or shopping.
Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Hong Kong is prized as much for its rule of law as for its iconic skyline.
But because even though it sits on the edge of mainland China, was handed back to Beijing in 1997 and has more than its fair share of folks kowtowing to the central government up north, it's still not China.
In Hong Kong, we can access anything we want on the Internet without having to resort to using a proxy server.
In Hong Kong, a ragtag group of Falun Gong followers has a permanent stakeout by the Wanchai ferry pier.
In Hong Kong, large banners decrying the banks or injustices decorate prominent buildings in the Central business district.
In Hong Kong, people still take to the streets to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or rally to secure the release of imprisoned mainland Chinese activists like Zhao Lianhai.
And it’s the place where many mainland Chinese students who don’t want to study in the West will choose to pursue graduate studies in journalism, because while Hong Kong “is Chinese,” one such student told me recently, “it is not China.”
Retrial tests Hong Kong's judiciary system
This tiny miracle of a place has managed to maintain its identity as an autonomous territory that values Western freedoms despite all the death-knell cries leading up to the handover from the British to Beijing 14 years ago. And, critically, it still enjoys a legal system independent of mainland China, one which is based on English common law.
But it’s a precious balance.
A retrial for Nancy Kissel, a Michigan native charged with the 2003 murder of her husband, Robert, a Merrill Lynch investment banker from New Jersey started Tuesday. His body was found bundled up in a carpet in the basement storeroom of their luxury apartment in an exclusive hillside compound overlooking Hong Kong island.
It was alleged back then that Kissel had drugged him with a milkshake laced with sedatives, thereby earning the case the “Milkshake Murder” moniker, and then bludgeoned him with a brass ornament. She was convicted of murder in 2005 and sentenced to prison for life; her subsequent appeal in 2008 was rejected.
However, early last year, the Court of Final Appeal – Hong Kong’s highest court – overturned the conviction, citing a series of errors in the first trial.
Although the murder case drew widespread news coverage for apparently underscoring the mix of sex, money, and drugs in Hong Kong’s expat high-life society, it’s now attracting attention for an entirely different reason.
The value of rule of law
“People have begun to question - because of the Kissel and other cases - whether the system is meting out equal justice to everybody,” said Francis Moriarty, an RTHK senior political reporter who also chairs the Press Freedom Committee of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong.
Another high-profile case involving the niece of a local judge of the Court of Final Appeal fueled perceptions that a different set of rules applies to the territory’s elites or wealthy. Last year, Amina Bokhary was handed a one-year probation order after being convicted three separate times for assaulting police officers. The sentence provoked an outcry in Hong Kong for its perceived leniency, particularly as it was the third time she had committed such an offence.
Adrienne Mong / NBC News
The Parkview residential complex where the Kissels lived commands striking views of Hong Kong.
“People look at this [Kissel] case and say, wait a minute, if Mrs. Wong in Tin Shui Wai just under financial pressure and whatever reasons may have been…picks up the chopper and does him in, is she going to get a chance for a trial and an appeal and a Court of Final Appeal and a retrial and a stay of proceedings?” said Moriarty. “People know that money buys you certain things. That’s accepted. But if the disparity that’s given to the ordinary person and the justice that’s given to those who can afford it is too great, then it adds to the social tensions.”
But others argue that the Kissel case does not show up the Hong Kong legal system in any way. If anything, it’s the opposite.
“This is a retrial of the whole issue, of whether or not [Kissel is] guilty of murder,” said Ian Candy, a former principal magistrate and now Senior Teaching Fellow in the School of Law at the City University of Hong Kong. “It doesn’t test the system in any way. It’s an example of the operation of the system.”
Nevertheless, the Kissel case is being closely watched.
“The one thing that people hold onto here is the rule of law. The rule of law is very important in Hong Kong, because it’s the biggest thing that separates out Hong Kong from China,” said Moriarty. “And so it’s precious.”