Xi’s books of the year
Jan 19, 2018 (WiC 394)

One strength of WiC is the way our curation of content points to trends. A couple of years ago we barely ever mentioned AI (artificial intelligence). Over the past 12 months readers will have noted the topic was mentioned at least once every issue. And sure enough, President Xi Jinping is keen to be associated with the game-changing technology too. The front page of the China Daily this week carried the headline: “ Xi’s bookshelf illustrates goal of developing AI powerhouse”. The bookshelf was featured in the Chinese leader’s video address to the nation at New Year. It soon attracted the attention of those trying to work out what he was reading. It was deemed significant by netizens that two of the most prominent books on display were about AI: The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine will Remake Our World by Pedro Domingos; and Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane by Brett King. “The president has attached great importance to the development of artificial intelligence,” mused the China Daily, clearly delighted by the Chinese leader’s highbrow scientific reading matter (it doesn’t mention it, but Michael Wolff’s new account of the White House – Fire and Fury – suggests President Trump does not read books, preferring cable TV).

Meanwhile the Financial Times reports that Alibaba’s AI system bested the average human score in a global reading test using the Stanford Question Answering Dataset. It was among several AI systems to participate in the exercise, and tied in top place with Microsoft’s. Commented the FT: “While Microsoft and Alibaba won by the slimmest of margins – at accuracy levels a few basis points above humans’ 82.3% in providing exact matches to questions – the tie provided a fitting symbol of the AI arms race being waged by the US and China.”

Mahjong’s losing the phoney war
Jan 12, 2018 (WiC 393)

Think of England and to many it will conjure up images of warm ale and a game of cricket on a village green. Turn to China and an equivalent image likely evoked is of pots of piping hot green tea and the clack of mahjong tiles being placed on a table. Mahjong is a quintessentially Chinese game, but as the South China Morning Post reported this month, its popularity is waning steeply, most especially in Hong Kong.

A new study shows that only one in 50 young people in the city now play the traditional Chinese table game at least once a week, down from one in 12 around five years ago. And in 2017 only 18% of Hongkongers between 18 and 64 years-old played the game at least once a month, versus 28% in 2012.

For decades gathering four players around a square table has been a favourite social activity for Hongkongers (the opportunity to gamble on the game’s noisy outcome helps too). Families bonded over the game during festival like the Chinese New Year celebrations.

However, the findings by the Ipsos market research firm suggest the game’s popularity is evaporating, especially among the young. The survey of 5,074 locals showed only 6% of Hongkongers played the game weekly, versus 10% half a decade ago. Older people remain the greatest devotees but it is thought mahjong is losing out where younger players are concerned because of competition from smartphones, online games and social media apps.

Carrie on co-locating
Jan 5, 2018 (WiC 392)

The completion of the Transcontinental Railway in 1869 was the moment America became truly “united”. However, the project had been stalled for more than a decade – even after the discovery of gold in California in 1848 – as politicians in the northern and southern states disagreed over the railroad. It took the Civil War to finally break the stalemate.

Fast forward to present day Hong Kong where a high-speed railway has been under construction to link the former British colony with mainland China. The opening date of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, however, could also be stalled by political resistance.

The thorniest issue at stake lies in how to arrange the customs and immigration procedures for passengers – given a joint checkpoint proposal in West Kowloon has spooked concerns that mainland law enforcers will be given full jurisdiction on Hong Kong’s soil.

Following a spate of delays, Beijing tried to come up with a speedy resolution last month when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the top legislative body in mainland China, officially rubber-stamped the so-called co-location plan.

The plan still needs to obtain the approval of Hong Kong legislators. A number of them, most notably those from the legal sector, have been appalled by the NPC’s decision, which they believe has compromised the territory’s rule of law.

Facing a race to make sure the bullet train will commence operations later this year, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has also joined the debate. “If you ask me, it shows the elitist mentality or double standards held by some of the lawyers in Hong Kong. They think Hong Kong’s legal system is paramount while the legal system of the mainland – a big country with a population of 1.3 billion – is not right,” she told reporters last week.