Labour must learn ‘the country comes first’

Published on Progress on 21st July 2015.

The Labour party leadership contest is a hot mess. What began as a promising debate about the future has now become a political middle that Labour has always been prone to in its century-long history. As the Tories capitalise on their famous victory with ‘tanks on Labour’s lawn’, these are desperate times for the Labour party.

Back in the 1980s, when Labour was just as desperate – suffering successive defeats at the hands of Margaret Thatcher – the right proclaimed victory for conservatism. So when New Labour emerged in 1990s, the left impulsively perceived it as ‘Thatcherism 2.0’ and attacked its advocates for conspiring against socialism.

Yet it was not small-state conservatism that destroyed the socialist left. Rather, it was a rejection of the future – technological advance and globalisation – that prompted the public to ditch socialism. As a result, millions who sought a progressive alternative, or merely a government with a heart, were left stranded in a society defined by Thatcher.

It took the emergence of New Labour to reverse that logical error and for Labour to be trusted to govern again. Today, trade unions ask not how we would reopen coal mines, but how we can work with businesses to create the jobs of the future.

Much of this ‘centre-ground’ rationale has been accepted by the mainstream candidates. To different extents, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall all recognise that, if Labour wants to win again, it can no longer be anti-business and must be trusted to run the economy.

But being credible on the economy is not just about winning elections, it is about putting the country first.

As Tristram Hunt argued in Progress last week, the Labour party, like declining social democratic parties worldwide, is losing that emotional touch with the people.

Our Labour values must connect to a more obvious sense of national identity.

That obvious sense of national identity, I believe, begins with having common sense with the national finance.

Labour lost the 2015 election because it conceded the centre-ground which, as much as the hard left (or the hard right) refuses to believe, is not an ideological construct. It is a political space occupied by those who simply say: You wouldn’t trust a dodgy car salesman with your money, so why should the taxpayer trust a political party that cannot look after public finances?

Labour must present a sensible business plan for Britain if it has any interest in governing. The trouble for some on the left is that they are losing sight of government as they endorse Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, they return to their comfort zone, utter buzzwords that would win applause but never an election, and speak a language of ‘solidarity’ and ‘struggle’ that the country does not understand.

This takes us back to the beginning of the contest – what seems like years ago already – when Burnham said ‘the party comes first always’ in the BBC Newsnight debate, and Kendall quipped instinctively, ‘the country comes first.’

Instincts say a lot about leaders, still more about political leaders. Kendall’s campaign has been by far the boldest and most credible of all so far – the backing of the well-regarded Alistair Darling further confirms that. Yet, even if Kendall fails to win, she will have done the party a service by reminding them ‘the country comes first.’ It is a basic condition for a party of government, one that Labour has forgotten for far too long.

Until Labour puts the country first, the country will never put the party first on the ballot paper.

China: A dream too big to fail

Whatever it takes, the Communist Party will not let Chinese capitalism fall

Published on Backbench on 20th July 2015.

‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was how Deng Xiaoping, the leader who reformed and opened up China’s economy, described his vision for the country.

Earlier this month, with the stock market in meltdown, China’s economy was closer to capitalism with socialist characteristics. With trillions of dollars down the drain, the government fisted its very visible hand at the market violently. Over 50% of stocks were suspended, as state-owned companies were barred from selling their shares. The Communist Party was fighting to save capitalism.

Some have compared today’s China to the Wall Street Crash in 1929. I believe Chinese investors will seek comfort in an example of successful state intervention closer to its historic and geographical proximity – Hong Kong during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis – when the government there took decisive action and protected its currency from speculators led by George Soros, who ‘broke the Bank of England’ with currency speculation just five years before.

For sure, China’s heavy handed approach has deviated from its expected direction of travel towards a more liberal economy. However, as the Chinese Communist Party legitimises itself by performance, the political incentive to intervene always overrides the economics. With more stock traders than Communist Party members now in China, the Party cannot afford to upset a market that only expects gains, irrational as it may be, for the sake of its survival.

When I visited China just over a month ago, it was a different world. The China Dream was going global, with the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the emergence of ‘One Belt, One Road’. We were told about the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ as we were greeted by officials. 2015 was destined to be China’s year.

In particular, the establishment of the AIIB itself was a resounding political win for Beijing. Britain’s determined entry to the AIIB, against the wishes of Washington, was the game changer, as only then did other western countries follow suit. This is a personal achievement no smaller for Chancellor George Osborne than his landmark Budget last week.

By contrast, last week’s intervention by the Chinese government will damage confidence in the nation, and cast doubt over President Xi Jinping’s ability and seriousness about carrying out essential economic reforms, the building block of his China Dream. In a recent report published earlier this month, the World Bank warned China over its ‘distorted incentives’ in the financial market, and highlighted that 95% of high-level bank assets were owned by the government.

Pundits hostile to China have long expected an economic meltdown, followed by a political upheaval marking the collapse of the Communist Party. David Shambaugh, an authoritative academic on Chinese affairs, boldly claimed in January, that ‘the endgame of Chinese Communist rule has now begun… its (the Communist Party’s) demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent.’

While I have criticised Beijing on a range of issues, from democracy in Hong Kong to the Tiananmen Massacre, I shall not jump on the apocalyptic bandwagon, as tempting as it may be.

The China Dream is too big to fail, and the authorities in Beijing know that their fate depends on it. A slump in the stock market will not kill the Communist Party, but a lack of reform in response to its deep rooted problems might do. The future of the Chinese Communist Party future will depend on which way it turns at this crossroads.

Gone not forgotten: 26 years on, it is all the more important that we remember what happened in Tiananmen

An edited version was published on Independent Voices on 4 June 2015. 

As night falls, our tour bus races on to Chang’an Avenue. The streetlights are slightly dimmed and tainted yellow. Barriers are everywhere, as if this country is perpetually on guard. Despite the neon lights and buzzing nightlife, it is a stomach churning feeling as I entered the city Beijing.

I have never been to the Chinese capital before, but these surroundings paint all too familiar a picture. This is the Beijing I recognise through documentaries and history books, the Tiananmen Square I travelled to many times through word of mouth and collective memory. This is the Beijing of 1989, where the People’s Liberation Army indiscriminately murdered students who protested for democracy during that feverish season.

I am in Beijing as part of an overseas Chinese delegation, invited by the Chinese government to exchange ideas over how best to support overseas Chinese. In truth, we all know there is a wider agenda at play, the narrative of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ or ‘the China Dream’ – a phrase repeated at any given opportunity during the week-long trip, as we are showcased China’s latest innovation and most stunning sceneries.

This is President Xi JinPing’s flagship policy goal. It prioritises economic development and national strength over all other concerns, including human rights.

China’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate remains imprisoned, as rights activists are accused of overthrowing the state. The students of Tiananmen fall into the trashcan of history, and June 4th (known as ‘6.4’ in Chinese) propagated as an insignificant event in the shadow of the great achievements of the Communist Party.

Almost 2,000 kilometres away from Beijing, another battle for history and memory commences.

Over half a year since the beginning of the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong, the only place in China where Tiananmen vigils can legally take place, splits over how best to commemorate June 4th.

The younger generation of activists, some of whom refuse to be defined as Chinese, reject their predecessor’s alignment of Hong Kong’s democratic movement with China’s, and instead see June 4th as a caution of the Chinese government’s brutality, rather than a common struggle with their mainland counterparts.

But back in mainland China, the freedom to debate how or if we should at all remember June 4th is an extravagance. In recent days, messages started flowing in on my WeChat (main social media app in China), warning people that the internet police and Baidu (China’s largest search engine) are joining hands in censorship. These messages cautioned users not to share any satirical images to avoid sanctions against individual accounts or groups.

This is the Big Brother state, only cooler and richer than George Orwell could ever envisage. Worse, people actually believe in it.

Across China, people are content with the Communist Party’s legitimacy by performance. China’s economic growth lifted millions out of poverty and put pride back in the nation’s soul. However, as the tides of nationalism sweep across history, the memory of Tiananmen is slowly fading away, before eventually being wiped out of existence altogether.

That is why, 26 years on, it is all the more important that we learn the lesson of history, and to one day fulfil the dreams of those brave souls that sacrificed in Tiananmen Square – a freer country where people can fill their stomachs as well as speak their minds, with no cruel choice presented between the two.


Quorum: Empowering British Chinese Voters

Co-authored with my fellow co-founder at Quorum, Jonathan Lui. Published on Neehao Magazine on 8th April 2015.

The forthcoming election is the most unpredictable in living memory.

With the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck in the polls, and the ‘rise of the rest’ – emergence of smaller parties as contesting forces, British politics has never been so competitive and chaotic at the same time.

This presents an opportunity for all minority groups to have a voice, including the British Chinese community, of which we are from, whose concerns we want to highlight.


The Chinese community has a rich history in Britain. With over 400,000 citizens, the community represents the third largest ethnic group in the UK. Moreover, we are a community of high achievers. Recent sociological studies illustrate clearly that we perform exceptionally well in predominant sectors of society, including educational attainment and employment.

Yet for too long, British Chinese have been apathetic towards politics – more so than wider society. Only 35% of the British Chinese community are registered to vote compared to the national average of 92%. More significantly, there is only one British Chinese in the 750-strong House of Lords, and not a single MP in the democratically elected, 650-strong House of Commons.

Absent in the arena of debate and decision making, British Chinese fail to contribute to the policy making process. Be it in healthcare, education, law and order, race relations or any other area of interest, British Chinese is truly the ‘silent minority’ in our society.


That’s why we got together and founded Quorum – an online platform that visualises the power of the British Chinese vote through the medium of infographics, powered by our co-founder James Lo and his team at Tamar.

In this momentous election, we want to empower voters by providing all that you need to know in order to make your decision to vote, which could swing this election one way or another.

By creating cutting edge infographics, Quorum pinpoints where the British Chinese people hold the balance of power, converts complicated electoral and parliamentary procedures into simple diagrams, and reflects on the British Chinese community’s history and achievements in an interactive timeline.


Quorum strives to serve as a facilitator – to enhance ongoing efforts on voter education and empowerment of the British Chinese community.

Through our varied and respective roles, we came to the realisation that it takes something refreshing to appeal for new audiences within the British Chinese population.

While existing British Chinese groups have done plenty of fantastic ‘on the ground’ work in local communities and Chinese community centres across the country, it is very difficult for these campaigns to speak to the younger generation, many of whom are first time voters and young professionals.

You, the ‘Google generation’, belongs to the online world. That is where we are meeting you.


Yes, politics is important. But it is very often a dull business to deal with. That is why we want to simplify complicated procedures, crunch through loaded facts and figures in all the party manifestos, and explain them in plain English at your service – what we call ‘Manifesto crunch’.

Whether you represent a political or non-political organisation, whether you are speaking on behalf of a business or just as an individual, so long as you back our idea, we are happy to share our infographics with you to further our cause.


Every great idea begins with something trivial, often with just a handful of people. It is the many supporters who are inspired by the idea that make the idea great.

That is our vision. First hundreds, then thousands, Quorum will empower British Chinese voters across the country. With your help, we will change the course of political apathy in the British Chinese community, and achieve the political representation we so desperately need.


Are you with us? Join us on our journey today.

Support Quorum by liking and sharing their Facebook and follow them on Twitter. Keep an eye on Quorum’s website, which will be constantly updated in the coming weeks.


Singapore’s arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy

After uploading a video criticising the late leader, Amos Yee found out what freedom really looks like in Singapore

Published on Independent Voices on 31 March 2015.

While Singapore mourned the death of its founding father, there was one teenager who wasn’t so upset. “Lee Kuan Yew is dead, finally,” proclaimed 16-year-old Amos Yee. “Why has hasn’t anyone said, ‘f**k yeah, the guy is dead’?”

In a YouTube video uploaded last Friday, the Singaporean teenager criticised Lee Kuan Yew (also known as LKY), who ruled the country for over three decades and passed away last week at the age of 91, and called him “a horrible person”.

On his personal website, Amos also uploaded an amateur drawingof LKY having sex with Margaret Thatcher, who was one of his many admirers. “I encourage more fellow Singaporeans who have any artistic abilities [to do the same],” he wrote.

But Amos soon found out what freedom of expression looks like in Singapore. After at least 20 police complaints were made, his video was removed, his website censored and he was arrested.

He has now been released on bail (which was set at £9,800), but is facing multiple criminal charges, including “wounding religious feelings” by describing Jesus and LKY as both “power hungry and malicious”. He faces a fine and up to three years in jail if found guilty.

While the world has indulged itself with endless eulogies to LKY over the last week, Amos’s disappearance has been brushed aside. Leaders of the so-called “free world” found neither words nor time for an unknown teenager who, according to a state-controlled newspaper, “made insensitive remarks”.

No-one can deny that LKY was a unique statesman who that took Singapore “from Third World to First,” to borrow a phrase from his book. He stood between international giants like the US and China, yet Singapore under his stewardship had always punched above its weight, winning LKY admirers from Beijing to Washington.

However, as Amos points out in his video, one of LKY’s “biggest flaws” was that he “honestly thought that money and status equated to happiness”. He led Singapore “to be one of the richest countries in the world – and one of the most depressed.”

Amos is not alone in his grievances with LKY. Just over a year ago, another YouTuber called Steph Micayle uploaded a video called“Why I’m not proud to be Singaporean”. In it, she criticised the country’s strict censorship laws, and called its people “small minded and submissive”, before vowing to leave the country and never return. Many people shared her sentiments, and her video. But it’s only now with Amos Yee that the world is able to see just how far Singapore is willing to go in its quest to silence its critics.

Many hailed LKY’s transformation of Singapore as a miracle. But would really be miraculous is if they stop threatening 16-year-old vloggers like Amos Yee with jail. That would be a start. And then, once they’ve realised they have nothing to fear, maybe they can build a country where prosperity and freedom go hand-in-hand, and aren’t seen as being mutually exclusive.


The Politics of Empowerment and ‘Let It Go’

Published on Progress on 23 March 2015.

This week, Labour’s progressives convened in parliament, to discuss an emerging political agenda that is rising on the horizon – the politics of empowerment and ‘let it go’.

‘Let it Go: Power to the people in public services’ came on the back of a pamphlet of the same name co-authored by Liz Kendall, shadow minister for care and older people, and Steve Reed, shadow minister for crime prevention. The pamphlet is an attempt to lay out a new and radical vision, where government trusts and empowers people to make their own choices in public services.

Lessons of the Big Society

Every government talks about ‘power to the people’ and often falls short of this grand objective.

But none is as farcical as David Cameron’s ‘big society’. The temporarily ‘compassionate’ Conservatives flirted with the flagship programme, before ruthlessly sinking the ship in the early years of the coalition government.

The attempt to substitute ‘professionals with volunteers,’ as Steve pointed out, was an ideologically driven project to roll back the state. And as Lisa Nandy, shadow cabinet office minister argued, empowerment is a ‘huge challenge’ and a simplistic solution in the shape of big society was merely inadequate.

Ultimately, while the Tories wanted to utilise every opportunity to scale down the state, Labour’s progressives envisage a smarter state that is actively empowering people. Whereas the last Labour government enabled choice in the public sector, the next Labour government will need to empower people to make choices that shape services.

Start small, think big

We need to start small and think big. As Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, reminded us: change in public services will only come along with the ‘concentration of great ideas and great people.’ The academy programme only started with three schools, after all. Should we just take politics out of it all together, and let private and third sectors get on then?

No, said Hilary Cottam, founder of Participate. Although Hilary is a social entrepreneur, she does not believe politicians should just get out of the way, as the Tories claim. Instead, she argues that moving resources to where they need cannot be done without politics, and leadership from government is essential in order ‘to make change happen.’

Changing politics to change public services

In the end, politics needs to change in order for public services to change. For too long, we thought we could deliver orders down the pipeline, and the bureaucrats would transform the country accordingly. But unless we understand the centrality of politics of delivering big changes, ‘[Parliament] is full of levers with no strings attached. This cannot go on, and outside politics is changing,’ said Lisa, who was part of the 2010 parliamentary intake.

The politics of empowerment is therefore also about bringing politics to the contemporary world, where real people live and work, where they have no time for ancient parliamentary procedures. It is, as John Prescott would say, putting ‘traditional values in a modern setting.’ Both politicians and professionals need to learn to ‘let it go’ and let people make choices that fit their needs. That is the new politics of empowerment.


Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution might be over, but it doesn’t matter — the pro-democracy movement will only come back stronger

Published on Independent Voices on 15 December 2014.

The moment bailiffs started removing the barricades in Hong Kong’s occupied financial district, the Umbrella Revolution seemingly drew to a final close.

This was not the anticipated ending. When tear gas fogged the sky over Hong Kong in late September, politicians and protesters alike feared a Tiananmen-style crackdown, with the People’s Liberation Army ordering in their tanks. Or when the “counter-revolution” of pro-China gangs attacked and intimidated students, commentators speculated if the movement would be broken up by violence. Neither has happened.

Ironically, the movement was halted by what was its greatest strength – spontaneity. The moment students suddenly broke into the area outside government headquarters, the movement was destined to be defined by it. The willpower of individual protesters survived the infiltration and attacks from police, gangs and counterdemonstrations.

Yet without a unifying figure or strategy, the movement could go only so far. The occupy campaign camp to be perceived as too conservative and ineffective, especially by more radical factions. “[It] needs to be taken to a new level,” Wong Yeung-tat, the leader of Civic Passion, told The New York Times. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable.”

Groups such as Civic Passion are much more openly anti-China. They speak the language of “autonomy” and “deciding our own fate”. They are confrontational and refuse to surrender to the police. And while they are far from representing mainstream public opinions, they have galvanised more clout and sympathy during the past two months than ever before.

This presents Beijing with a bigger problem than the one they feared. Before they vetted political candidates in August, the Chinese government faced a harmless minority of moderates, who espoused upon the ideals of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Now they face far more anti-authoritarian and uncompromising groups, whose ideologies are more akin to Malcolm X than Dr. King.

But the Communist Party is not the only loser. The police force in Hong Kong, long hailed as one of the best in the world (presiding over very low crime rate), are facing its toughest time in terms of citizen-police relations. While it took less than a day to reopen the roads, it will take much longer than that to wash away the horrific images of plainclothes policemen dragging a protester to a corner to beat him up, not to mention police hitting protesters with batons, pepper spray and tear gas indiscriminately – all alien to this city of stability.

There is also an unexpected guest on the list of losers. David Cameron was criticised by MPs for being “weak” over China’s ban on MPs to investigate how the protests were being handled. Under the Joint Declaration, Britain is the only guarantor Hong Kong has if China breaks its promise over democratisation and autonomy. Now that the worst case scenario has become reality, however, Downing Street has done next to nothing.

Although the occupations have now concluded, we certainly haven’t seen the last of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Banners and signs saying “We will be back” were left behind by protesters. And when they return, it will be a new generation of youngsters, battle-hardened, uncompromising, and determined to put everything on the line for the sake of their future.

I recently spoke with someone who had stayed on the frontline. I asked them if the movement was too fragile, and what more can be done. “Worry not,” she said. “Hope lies not with us, but with these kids in school uniform. When they grow up, democracy will come to our city.”


Britain needs a Hong Kong policy

Published on Progress on 5 December 2014.

Seldom is Westminster this united. This week, as China threatens to bar British members of parliament from Hong Kong, parliamentarians condemn China in unison and urge the United Kingdom government to show more strength over Hong Kong’s democratic demands.

‘If you want to be a member of the G20, you have to behave like a member of the G20.’ Richard Ottaway, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, took aim at Beijing. The flame of fury burns across the political divide. China has ‘reneged’ on its commitments and ‘there is no other way of putting it’ said Tory John Baron, as Labour’s Mike Gapes mocked the Communist party for being ‘afraid’ ‘nervous’ and ‘worried’ over the MPs’ visit.

MPs are angry because this is not the first time China has insulted Britain recently. A week ago, China refused MP Richard Graham’s request for a visa over his unflinching support for the Umbrella Movement, forcing the cross-party delegation to abort their business trip. Even before the protests, China humiliated parliament by demanding MPs to halt their current review into post-handover Hong Kong, interfering in Britain’s ‘internal affairs’ – a phrase often used by Beijing to rebut criticisms by the west.

What are actually internal affairs of Hong Kong, however, are suffering from heavy interventions by China. Beijing barring MPs’ entry into Hong Kong illustrates once again the erosion of the city’s autonomy is not abating. As Ottaway stated, ‘immigration is a devolved matter … it’s not for China to ban them.’

China has, in effect, unilaterally declared the death of a solemn agreement it signed with Britain. As Chris Patten explained to the committee, whereas before 1997 Britain was obliged to China for a stable and peaceful handover, after this date ‘the obligations are now from China towards the UK’ on ensuring the completion of democratisation.

We need a Hong Kong policy, separate from our China policy. It must be clear and consistent in recognising Hong Kong’s unique status under the joint declaration. After all, Britain has an agreement with China over Hong Kong only, not Tibet or Taiwan. Hong Kong is a special case, where British interest does not amount to ‘interference’.

If David Cameron fails to deliver this policy, we should start thinking about this in the Labour party.

Hong Kong has been an awkward territory for Labour. It was Margaret Thatcher who signed the joint declaration, John Major who vowed to honour it, and Patten who threw himself into a tug of war with the Chinese for democratic progress in Hong Kong, of which many Hongkongers are still very grateful for.

For too long, we have turned a blind eye on China’s subversion of Hong Kong, as Labour ministers went along with Foreign Office officials’ strategy of avoiding conflicts with China at all cost. We, the party for the working people, should have been the first to denounce Beijing’s crony capitalism and the denial of Hong Kong people’s democratic rights.

We should also be creative in our foreign policy. For instance, why not get our message across via the European Union? As Tony Blair has repeatedly argued, ‘the rationale for Europe today is power.’ Surely we should leverage this power over an issue of this importance, and seek strength in our European allies?

Either way, Britain has a right and a responsibility to defend the seven million people it handed to China in 1997. Seventeen years on, with China breaking its promises, it is about time we remind ourselves of these obligations.