After a chaotic week in Hong Kong

The tensions have been building up, at least since I had moved to Hong Kong in 2006: dangerously unequal income distribution, monopolistic real estate development, and fading prospects for the young. I left Hong Kong and moved to Bejing in 2011.

After a century of British occupation, China left Hong Kong untouched and in the spirit of an experiment, whether an ultra-capitalist system can deliver superior living conditions and what can be learned from this. It has been evident for years that this experiment has failed. The British had set up a system of mistrust to the Hong Kong Chinese, and a tight mechanism of checks. But they did not build up a Hong Kong Chinese elite, which would be able to step into their role and at least lead somewhere. Like all their colonies, Britain has ruled these places for the benefit of Britain, not the local people. The tale that Britain brought infrastructure and education to colonies is often distorting the fact that this was only to exploit the colonies more efficiently and to have qualified servants. This is how Hong Kong, for example, became a city of accountants and completely failed to build up technical knowledge or the capability to innovate. Until today, large parts of the education system are mere training entities for useful skills. Very rarely, you find an educated person, and if so, they often come from the Chinese Mainland. One of the last British stunts before the handover was to make the British electric power socket compulsory, to fill their own order books, and make things incompatible to China. Divide and conquer down to a micro-level. I am sure the last British Governor, Chris Patten, has more romantic things to say. That's something they do well: talking.

Four months ago, the bubble burst (a second time). Millions demonstrated peacefully against the implementation of an extradition agreement between the Hong Kong SAR and its mother country. Hong Kong has extradition agreements with many countries. And given that one of the key "services" Hong Kong has to offer, is money laundry and facilitating asset transfers, you can imagine that China does not appreciate having a save heaven for economic criminals within its own borders. But sure, you can't ignore the fears of millions, so the extradition bill was withdrawn. But the frustration, of course, stayed because the extradition bill had nothing to do at all with the shortcomings of Hong Kong's governance. I guess it could have been anything sparking unrest.

Since then, the peaceful protests have bred a violent group going on rampages destroying public and private property and using iron rods, slings, brick, Molotov cocktails (petrol bombs), and sharp objects against citizens and the police. For what I have seen, the police are handling the situation very defensive. Just the fact that there have been until today no casualties is terrific. I cannot believe in any other country, at this level of violence, you would have nobody killed yet.

I have talked to University students ganging up for rampages. They don't know a lot of facts and have a very naive belief in what they think "democracy" can do. Riots give them a sense of belonging and "purpose" in their, at other times, boring and quite meaningless lives. Luckily most of them learned their infantry skills from catching Pokemon and other video games. I do believe they live in some augmented reality. But that they have no clue what they are doing, does not mean they can't be physically dangerous. If you have ever seen what happens in a chicken stable when they start hacking down on a chicken that struggles: this is how these kids fight. They smash from the back people who are struggling, and then they run. Not exactly Bruce Lee. At the same time, they talk of "police violence" and even demand an independent investigation. My guess is that this investigation would find that the rioters have been treated very mildly. Too mild for my taste. But that's perhaps a different cultural viewpoint.

The infrastructure is undergoing repairs, while the rioters now focus their violence on Mainland Chinese shops and tycoon's property. I had to tell a bunch of them off today who wanted to make trouble to the staff in a Park & Shop convenience store (owned by Li Ka Shing, who definetly is a contributor to the struggles of Hong Kong people). They would really harass some of the poorest of the poor Hong Kong shop workers, laboring in this store "to teach Li Ka Shing a lesson". What a bad joke! I can't help thinking of the Nazi mob in Germany in 1933 looting and burning Jewish stores. This was the beginning of a very dark chapter in world history. I hope here things clear up and start to tackle the real issues. In the end, most of Hong Kong's problems are homemade. And if China would not protect and support Hong Kong SAR, most of the accountants here would be already back to fishing.

Star ferry to Kowloon. The good news is that it’s not crowded.

Star ferry to Kowloon. The good news is that it’s not crowded.

I understand, it’s hard to “think outside the box”, if you live like that (opposite Belcher’s Towers, Pokfulam)

I understand, it’s hard to “think outside the box”, if you live like that (opposite Belcher’s Towers, Pokfulam)

Stanley Tin Hau Temple

Stanley Tin Hau Temple

Graduating the Masters in International Management

Today I had the honor and privilege to address the students to address students of Tilburg University’s Master of International Management Program at their graduation ceremony. In US schools, this is called “commencement speech”, and I like to keep it in the spirit that it is mainly about things to come. We are increasingly releasing students into an unpredictable future. There are unprecedented opportunities and threats side by side. Increasingly education will be the key to finding solutions and inventing the skills needed for problems of which most are still unknown. What makes Tilburg University special, compared to the other schools I teach, is that it is a humanistic university. As a natural scientist by training, I have often ignored the social sciences side of problems. That’s why for example we discussed Climate Change since the 80s but got nothing substantial done until (hopefully) today. This is what we can’t afford to continue doing and without “Understanding Society” (the slogan of Tilburg University) many of our technical capabilities will be in vain or even backfire. First of all, I wish all students graduating now all the best for their professional and personal future. But there is also something for me in graduation events. It’s always a bit like graduating again myself, role up the sleeves, and go out shaping the future with the best I can. This is how University work is a real win-win situation. Good luck to all. See you out there.

In the Aula of Tilburg University - Understanding Society

In the Aula of Tilburg University - Understanding Society

The utility of Sports Utility Vehicles

After a tragic accident involving an SUV in Berlin, killing four pedestrians, a debate started on this vehicle type in cities and whether or how to curb it. I don't know the details of this specific accident, though it appears out of the question that SUVs are not suitable for city traffic. It is a fact that these cars have worse pedestrian protection, and even the Land Rover Defender was discontinued because it does not comply with EU regulations. Mercedes was continuing the old G Class model, which is also not fulfilling, knowingly lobbying against discontinuation. In my logic, this is negligence. The German ADAC, the dominant association for car owners, is in a way for cars what in the US is the National Rifle Association (NRA) is for guns. They were shaken by fraud and corruption a few years ago, and that they are a tax exempted e.V. (social enterprise) is a mere joke. At least in the current debate on SUVs, they are not coming up with "freie Fahrt fuer freie Buerger"-bullshit again. Don't get me going on the speed limit debate on German highways. It's really like guns in America. Of course, a general speed limit makes sense. And no, driving 200 km/h is not a human right. It's just stupid and dangerous.

My first company car was a Landrover Defender V8. But wait, I was working in an opencast coal mine. I used it as a high-end tractor. In one case, I was even pulling a Caterpillar back onto the track. I also used rugged SUVs traveling Iceland, the Australian outback and Frazer Island, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. The idea to have an SUV in a city is just ridiculous.

Facts are that most SUVs have worse pedestrian protection in a crash. They have dominantly wider bodies and are not suitable for narrow roads, especially when there are bicycles around. They need more space to park. They have a higher air drag, a worse payload ratio (when primarily used as people carrier), and they are more heavy than equivalent passenger vehicles. So, they do need more fuel. Some now say that the use of this accident for a discussion on SUVs in cities is polemic. Maybe right. But why do we need a disaster to discuss something long overdue? And what is the debate actually about? Utility vehicles have their utility. And this is not to carry people downtown.

SUV is an attitude.

SUV is an attitude.

Amsterdam Canals

Seeing a city has a lot to do with perspective. For example, one winter, I commuted with ice skates to my office in Beijing on the frozen canals in Chaoyang District. It was like being in a different city altogether. Then, also in Beijing, I took 30 times different commuting routes, and like this came to places I would have never seen otherwise. Most people only consider the shortest way, because they only think of its utility getting to work and back hassle-free and fast. In the long run, and expanded to all areas of life, efficiency makes stupid. Also, the first impression of a city defines a lot how you feel about it: the road you take, the station you arrive, people, you meet first. So, when I come to a city the first time, I take good care of how I enter it and who I see first.

I was reminded of this impact of your perspective when last weekend, a friend took us out on his boat through the canals (gracht) of Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a lovely city - traditional and progressive and innovative at the same time. Seeing it from the waterside, made it even more clear to me. What I mean, is the perfect blend in traditional and modern architecture and city planning, the cultural richness, liveliness, and for example that Amsterdam will be a fully electric car city by 2030. I like coming to Amsterdam, no matter from which angle. But the boat’s view was again an exceptional one.

Starting my 5th year coming to Tilburg University

Yesterday was the kick-off of the new intake of the Master of International Management at Tilburg University. Vivacious, smart, and mature students. Today I taught them the first time, and it was great fun. There is a lot of construction happening on the Tilburg University campus. It’s shaping a lovely learning and teaching environment. Frequently arriving on new schools, I know how tedious the first few hours of setting up logistics can be. But here, no matter what: consider it done. And it will be done. Tilburg is sometimes seen as an “underdog city” - a former wool and textile capital which had to reinvent itself. And it did reinvent itself without considering its limits but building on its possibilities. It is my 5th year coming here, and I enjoy every bit of it.

Valkenburg aan de Geul (Limburg, Netherlands)

Castle ruins, impressive caves, châteaus, forests and lots of history reaching back to the Roman time: Valkenburg aan de Geul was a lovely weekend stopover on the way to Tilburg. Also, the weather was superb, the food excellent and last but not least people are extremely friendly. A trip to Maastricht is just 20 minutes away: a vibrant University town, lifely and with an impressive11th-century Basilica in its center. I personally always enjoy the Netherlands coming from Germany. Holland is better managed, more practical, and maintains its character at the same time. There is a lot of effort put into making things neat: the home, the garden, oneself, the car ... and I have often experienced a great sense of community. Cities have a colorful mood, and even I am not a big fan of larger towns, even Amsterdam is a place I feel comfortable, and also Rotterdam has its kind of charm. Tomorrow, I will continue the journey to Tilburg, where I will again stay about a month at the University. It is usually the time, the seasons change from summer to fall, and I am looking forward to my stay there.

The heat is on in Malta and I am back North

August is the hottest month in Malta. It’s the time when public life falls into a long rest between noon and 4 p.m. and then gets to the feasts. So did I, and I relaxed a lot. Not much to do, so not much done and here just a few snapshots and impressions from the short ways in Valletta and the Three Cities. By the time I post this, I am already out of holiday mood again and facing a rigoros schedule of content and travel: Germany, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Germany, Russia, and a few small Trips between the lines. Even Hong Kong will be chilly against August in Malta.

Evening view over to the Old Bakery, which is now hosting the Malta Maritime Museum

Evening view over to the Old Bakery, which is now hosting the Malta Maritime Museum


"It was beautiful to fill your silence"

Since my return from Lebanon, I have been busy with preparing the B+L Zukunftsforum. It is an annual event of B+L to present views on the future of the construction supply industry and discuss them with clients. There are always two main blocks. One is the presentation of the forecasts of volumes in residential and non-residential construction by regions and countries. This data is also provided in the Global Building Monitor (GBM), which is the data portal of B+L. But in the event, we also have the chance to tell the story behind the numbers, and especially when we divert from numeric models to quantify the effects of policy changes, this becomes extremely interesting. The other block is to discuss work on future trends affecting the industry, such as digitalization, demographic changes, and their impact on the demand side and shifts in the distribution channels. It was an excellent event, and we start joking that Cologne is the "Davos of the Construction Material Industry." But seriously, there is a lot of expertise and experience on parade, which is far different from a "conference" but displays facts and figures for the industry.

Already during that preparation and unfortunately ongoing, I was busy with moving. This became a complete nightmare, so I was happy to get away for a concert of Cristina Branco in Bad Homburg as part of the Rheingau Musik Festival. I like Portuguese Fado and also her interpretation of it, which became more modern over the years. What surprised me was the age structure of the audience, which was more on the old side. It may be that the marketing of the Rheingau Musik Festival did not reach a younger audience, or also that Bad Homburg is a spa and retirement town. But if this would be the target group of Fado, then about half of the audience would be dead in 20 years, and with it a big part of this culture. The quote of Ms. Branco, which made me laugh, was when she thanked the audience with: "It was beautiful to fill your silence." That's about how passionate it can get when you sing for Germans in Bad Homburg.


Welcome to Beirut

Once upon a time, Beirut was dubbed that it has been the "Paris of the Mediterranean". This goes back to the time before the tragedy of a vicious 25 years lasting civil war from 1975 to 1990. It left 120 000 dead and lead to over a million Lebanese leaving the country. It is no surprise, you find Lebanese presence nearly all over the world today; often with multiple passports, well educated and with extremely professional and entrepreneurial spirit. Professional opportunities are limited in Lebanon today, and still many leave or at least keep a multinational spirit. Today there are an estimated 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. That makes about every second person in the country a refugee. Some had the means to find new homes, but many of the less fortunate live in tents in refugee camps for example in the Beqaa valley, close to the Syrian border. Today, you can drive with no problems to Damascus. But refugees are hesitating to move back, partly because the Syrian government does not encourage such moves. The refugees take, of course, any job they can get, and the unemployment among Lebanese is about 40 %. A lot of indicators would suggest the security situation should be bad in Lebanon and for example the US travel advice sound hysteric as always. But you will meet the most friendly and hospitable people in Lebanon. Still, the situation is fragile, even though on an improving trend. Lebanon is a beautiful country, and should there be stability any less corruption, I guess that it may have a great future. These preconditions are moving slowly in the right direction, and there is hope this may continue.

On the bright side, Lebanon is beautiful, has the most hospitable people with extremely good humor, excellent food, and multicultural and open society. This alone is already enough to make me visit again soon. Welcome to the re-emerging "Paris of the Mediterranean*.

Obviously, Beirut is the backdrop of multiple thrillers, one of them “Beirut” set in 1982. Below is the trailer.

And there are at least two price winning Lebanese movies, which are a must see. Please find trailers below.

Search for the middle of the world

Searching the middle of the world is a very legitimate calling, I find. Stories of such searches have been told in many ways. For some, like Jule Verne, it is an expedition to the geometric center of the globe. For others, like Ursula Priess it is the encounter with stories and people in Istanbul, as she wrote in “Mitte der Welt: Erinnerungen an Istanbul” (The Middle if the World: Memories on Istanbul). I have visited this beautiful and magic town for a few days and was unfortunately only able to browse through her book before departure and not to read it properly, similar to also just scratching the surface of the town. I will for sure read the book upon return to Germany and blend it with my impressions. Luckily I read Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul, memories of a city”, which is a Turkish memoir which I liked a lot.

My main task here this time was to understand the economic momentum concerning the construction material industry. It is research done regarding the Zukunftskonferenz of B+L GmbH in July 2019, in which the future of residential and non-residential construction output will be forecasted and discussed. The basis of this. are quantitative models which have been developed for over 20 years. For cases with big question marks and large political interference, we conduct fact-finding trips and meet and interview industry insiders in the country. And this is what brought me to Istanbul.

Since the attempted military coup in July 2016, Turkey has been in the light of scepticizm. As one of the three main factors for driving construction output is people's confidence in the future, this is not helpful. When the Turkish Lira lost value against the US$ by about 30 % in a crash in mid-2018, this was also an expression of this sentiment and was driving inflation up to around 20 % today. The bank lending rates are also about this high (20%), which does not combat inflation, because other stimulus activities overcompensate this. One effect is, that nobody borrows money to buy residential property. Those who would have the money to do so, rather deposit it in the bank, where they get a higher interest return than they would ever get by renting out. And currently, if you need a home, renting is the much better deal. Even the potential demand for residential units is high with a young population of 80 million, the low confidence and bad financing situation brought construction to a shrieking halt. For developers, now it's a "wait and see game" which the ones with the deeper pockets are likely to win. For office buildings in Istanbul, some talk about a utilization of only 2/3. And walking through the places, this seems plausible. I spare you the photos of abandoned construction sites and homes for sale and offices for rent. But I do post some pictures of the bright sides I encountered below. The brightest though were the people I met, which will be for obvious reasons not represented by photos. Turkey is one of the most friendly places when it comes to its people. And I do wish them well.