ON the threshold of ubiquitous IT

The information world today tends to be characterized by placing the letter “e” in front of words for everything. But this will soon become old-fashioned with ubiquitous computing and mobile communication technologies increasingly permeating every sphere of our lives. A new¬†information society – one that starts with the new buzz letter “u” – already seems to be here, if partially.

Initially promoted by the Japanese government, the concept of a ubiquitous information society (uIS) was recently featured at the World Summit of Information Society (WSIS) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as a new paradigm of Internet development.

The word “ubiquitous” meaning existing everywhere, uIS describes a high-speed broadband-networked IT environment, linking people with people and people with goods and services via applications – from mobile phones and entertainment to car navigation systems and digital homes fitted with information and sensor appliances; and linking goods with goods, with no restrictions on time and space.

In such a system, people are connected to the network through an array of devices, including PCs and electronic tags. One day soon computers will literally disappear into the fabric of our lives and their use will become so intuitive that we’ll hardly notice them. The advance of technologies will enable people to exchange information and transact business anywhere, anytime, unhampered by power lines or devices. Businesses will change the way they distribute and sell goods just as e-commerce does now.

In the foreseeable future, a microwave oven will be able to automatically download a recipe for a particular meal when a user orders the dish. In the wired car, the embedded computer will search and play music from a home-based hard drive, or monitor traffic conditions to find an optimal route to the office. A system using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags will tabulate grocery items in a cart and send the bill to a mobile phone account.

These breakthroughs will drive the engine of societal growth and advanced economies will strive to include ubiquitous computing as a critical component of their national IT strategy. The Japanese government, for one, has invested significantly in the creation of a ubiquitous network environment for future IT development. The Korean government has launched a “u-Korea project” to promote enabling technologies and products in the next six years.

I believe that moving towards uIS is of great importance to Hong Kong. In spite of the considerable development of our IT industry, further progress will be difficult to make without rethinking the IT strategy. A new technological paradigm will foster new industries, such as uCommerce, mobile and wireless applications, digital content and other valued-added services, thereby creating jobs and raising income levels in the IT sector.

Other businesses in the private sector will benefit from the transformation and will be to add value and improve business productivity and efficiency level. They will witness new business opportunities and place Hong Kong in a better position to take advantage of the co-operation with mainland enterprises.

With uIS, eGovernment initiatives will be better deployed and there will be greater transparency to governmental processes and transactions. The quality of life of the citizen will improve.

Hong Kong already has one of the world’s most advanced IT and telecommunications infrastructure, and high penetration of mobile phones and the Internet, and these should naturally support the establishment of a uIS.

For its realization, however, the new IT paradigm requires extensive government participation and commitment to support, direct and fund the dynamics of uIS.

Policy initiatives such as the Digital 21 Strategy will not be enough. Additional financial support, particularly, to R&D in ubiquitous computing technologies and applications would be crucial. The government will also need to invest in the development and sustenance of highly-skilled people capable of making technological breakthroughs happen.

On the side of caution, it is also important to evaluate the impact on our society. Hong Kong is continually exposed to change and is vulnerable to competition. The government will therefore need to rethink strategy and pursue programs that will help us leapfrog the technology and capability levels of our competitors.

Hope of a new beginning

The 82,000 people who turned out for the June 4 candle-light vigil called for the vindication of the June 4 massacre and power to the people. This, the highest turnout in the special administrative region’s short history, was a response to Beijing’s ruling against universal suffrage, and a sign of protest against diminishing freedoms.

Beijing’s furious assault on Hong Kong’s aspirations for democracy can be traced to last July 1, when 500,000 people took to the streets. The democratic aspirations of the people were grossly misconceived by the central government to be a quest for independence.

Driven by the fear of losing control over political development in Hong Kong, Beijing responded by ruling out universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008. With the tacit permission, if not the express consent of Beijing, officials, senior ex-officials and late-night callers alike began to exert political pressure on talk-show hosts. Now, even the sanctity of the ballot box is at stake.

The Tung administration’s response has been frustrating. It neither stands by its people, nor tells Beijing that no one in Hong Kong wants independence. Above all, it fails to defend the core values and interests of Hong Kong.

To add fuel to the flames, pro-Beijing critics have smeared the intentions of peaceful and rational protesters. This will only deepen misunderstandings. Protesters and democrats are using the most peaceful means conceivable to convey their democratic aspirations, and our clamour for direct elections is a quest for better governance, not independence.

The core values that we cherish so much, and which make Hong Kong tick, are being eroded as a result of Beijing’s hardline policy. This will undermine Hong Kong’s survival as a free and vibrant city. For Hong Kong to continue to thrive, it is imperative to bridge the mistrust and misunderstanding through genuine and sincere dialogue. The democrats have never opposed the central government, or the Tung administration, for the sake of it. Our actions are driven by a commitment to better and more accountable governance. Above all, no one in Hong Kong has ever sought to usurp power, nor have they called for independence.

Signs abound that the militant approach adopted by Beijing and excessive interventionism have alienated many in Hong Kong. Dissatisfaction has reached alarming levels. The trust that the central government was at pains to build is now being eroded. If there has been a communication breakdown between Hong Kong and Beijing, and the misconception of our democratic aspirations has led to this stalemate, it is high time to stand together and rebuild trust.

And this involves open-mindedness and an appreciation of differences on the part of all parties. Differences can only be bridged by a sincere attempt to understand the mindset of Hong Kong people. By the same token, the policy of sidestepping the Democrats and barring us from entering our motherland should be reviewed. In this connection, I hope Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s offer to meet us on Friday will mark the beginning of more regular contact. Now that we have taken a step forward, he should act as a bridge between the Democratic Party and Beijing, and enable us to engage in a dialogue.

For historical reasons, we have a unique relationship with our sovereign. We share a unity of purpose with our motherland – we all want Hong Kong to continue to thrive and become Asia’s world city. Our past and future success rests on our ability to preserve the freedoms we enjoy, and the rule of law.

A democratic majority in the Legislative Council will enable us to better monitor the administration and improve governance. It will also correct the systemic flaws by making the government more accountable and responsive to public opinion.

I urge you to demonstrate again on July 1, to show the people’s power. Voice your democratic aspirations. Show your commitment to defend the core values that we cherish so much.

Letter to Hong Kong

The appointment of two new members into the Executive Council and the new political landscape in the Legislative Council has been the latest talk of the town. In a desperate attempt to breathe fresh air into the cabinet, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hua appointed legislator Mr. Bernard Chan and Mrs. Laura Cha into the Executive Council. To Mr. Tung, the appointment would bring opinions from different sectors of the community to his cabinet, and that Exco’s decisions would be more in line with the public’s interests.

The new Legco is posing greater challenge for the Tung administration. With 25 democrats, pro-government legislators eager to be seen as distant from the administration, as well as the ‘critical minority’ keen to exhibit its ‘critical significance’, legislators will give Tung and his ministers a hard time securing Legco support. Prompted by the need to make sure that government policies and bills are passed in the increasingly assertive LegCo, Tung appointed Mr. Chan from the ‘critical minority’ camp. Mr. Chan is a member of The Alliance which was believed to have backed Emily Lau’s chairmanship of the Finance Committee and stirred up a hornet’s nest. The appointment might also have stemmed from the consideration that he represents both the business sectors and the welfare sectors. Speculation was rife that Mr. Tung had approached Mr. Leong Kah-kit from the Article 45 Concern Group to join his cabinet, though what actually happened is anyone’s guess. Attempts to include dissenting voices in his cabinet, let alone like-minded people, will only tinker at the edges, and will do little to significantly improve governance.

It is high time for Mr. Tung to do some serious soul-searching. The National Security legislation saga ended in the dramatic resignation of Mr. James Tien from the Executive Council. The government’s lack of legitimacy and its unpopular policies have made Tung’s allies waver. Uncertain of securing Legco support for government policies, the only means left is to appoint Legco members to Exco to secure their votes. But a close tie with the administration is a kiss of death, and it is doubtful whether this will secure votes.

The ability of the Tung administration to improve governance hinges on its political will to get to the root of the problem. For Legco to assume a more meaningful role than a mere talk shop, the systemic flaw has to be rectified immediately. The majority of Legco is elected by a small section of the electorate while a majority of the electorate has resulted in a minority part of Legco. 62% of all the votes went to the democrats but only 25 of them were elected. This lopsided system warrants an immediate review. Only an entire legislature returned by direct elections will enable the public’s views to be fully reflected in the legislature, and give the public a genuine say in policymaking.

Tung is facing a more assertive and pro-active Legco in a highly charged political environment, and a cabinet reshuffle will do little to confer the legitimacy badly needed by the administration, which can only be achieved by direct election of the Chief Executive. More than 60% of the votes in the Legislative Council election were cast for democrats whose platform include direct election of the Chief Executive in 2007 and direct election of the entire legislature in 2008. This is a resounding call for full democracy and should be taken seriously.

But there is still a long way to go. Rumours were rife that the central government liaison office had intervened in Legco’s internal affairs. Thinking that the Public Accounts Committee and the Constitutional Affairs Panel should be kept tightly under control, the liaison office meddled in the negotiations of the chairmanships of these committees. Apart from undermining confidence in Hong Kong’s autonomy and the principle of ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’, Beijing’s interference in Legco also reflects how little trust Beijing has in the people of Hong Kong. The democrats have been rational and have never threatened to block proposals from the administration for the sake of opposition. The fear that the pan-democrats will paralyse the administration, or embarrass it for no reason is largely unfounded.

The maturity and rationality of the Hong Kong people can be seen in the September Legco election and the 1 July march in the last two years. Not only are they ready for democracy, they also want their call for direct elections to be heard by taking to the street and through the ballot box. And they are looking forward to the time when their call is heeded. It is high time to trust the people of Hong Kong and revisit the decision of the National People’s Congress to rule out direct elections in 2007 and 2008.