Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Dull Ache of Democracy

I try not to give my foreign friends too much crap about politics and all since, well, the obvious. Instead I've lately just become an apologist for the "ought" of U.S. politics rather than this "is" (which frankly has never been stellar). In Hong Kong, no seems particularly shocked about Orange Hitler and the general stupidity of the American people, but I've found myself arguing about how it is a DEFINITELY BAD THING and NOT NORMAL to a lot of people. Mostly white males, of course.

Hong Kongers, for the most part, are generally more concerned with their civic lot in life, which has been disheartening to hear many of them tell it. The gradual erosion of freedoms is obvious, and worse, it is happening through the democratic process as the rich and influential cozy up to the central government. The local independence groups make it worse by provoking "Schoolmaster Xi" and his cadre with unrealistic demands, while the average local just seems want to maintain what freedoms they have. Though the parallels are eerie, I'm not really afraid of similar things happening back home because (Herr shitgibbon aside) we have over two hundred years of experience in negotiating the paradox of this goofy thing called democracy, albeit imperfectly. HK folks, on the other hand, have never been independent fully independent or known full suffrage. Furthermore, their current ward, the PRC, considers the latter to be an untenable political philosophy (for recent evidence, see "shitgibbon," above). To me, there are real risks in overreaching for independence, especially when the national pride of Greater China is on the line.

This is why I think its so important to treasure the freedoms that are still there, and in that regard HK is lucky. July 1st was the 20th anniversary of "Handover Day," which means there's a lot more of the color red in the city, but was also "Protest Everything Day," when the city has its annual Democracy March. It's relatively non-controversial event, largely because it is not just a massive demonstration for civil liberties and suffrage, but rather a general gathering for groups and causes of all kinds, ranging from migrant rights to pensions to the protection of the feral cattle on Lantau. Heck, even the Mainland brought out its little contingent.:

I attended the event year, and even marched in it for about a hundred feet, just to say I did.  Overall, I found it to be a wonderful, motley gathering, representative of HK's diverse civic culture. It's fun to the read the signs, especially when they've been translated into questionable English, like this one about the new Chief Executive Carrie Lam:

Image may contain: 1 person, crowd and outdoor

Besides being an excellent airplane, "777" sounds like "penis" three times in Cantonese. It's also how many votes from the electoral commission she received, ergo puns. I'm still not sure what the "Christian" bit means, but I chalk it up to the local habit of making odd connections between various topics or embracing weird metaphors and naming conventions like "Youngspiration." Allegedly Lam is Christian, so perhaps any association with male genitalia is scandalous? Or maybe its just calling on her to behave like a good Christian politician. Given my experience of most Christian politicians, that's probably a bad idea,

Of course most of the marchers are still doing it for democratic values.While numerous protests elsewhere were pre-empted by the 5-0, local anti-establishment parties like HK Indigenous and Demosistos (see "naming," above) were well-represented at the event. I saw plenty of "Free Liu Xiaobo" posters, Xi facemasks and even the occasional yellow umbrella. The attendance was apparently anywhere between fifteen and forty thousands, depending on who you want to believe. Apparently that's small compared to past years, but to me it was a lot of people. Compared to the usual civic apathy I encounter in the states, even during these DARK TIMES, Hong Kong is a politically-active place. Even with all the despair that seems to radiate from this city these days, such things give me hope.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Nationalism is Bad

I don't typically agree with my hyper-liberal friends on Twitter. Sure, there are economic factors behind racism, sexism, and such, but that doesn't excuse Trump supporters; Whatever its flaws, I'm not going to blame neoliberalism for Les Deplorables. I was raised in the South and know that even during the fat years racists are still racists. But there is one thing we can probably agree on: nationalism is bad.

Part of this is self-preservation: This election year doesn't give me many reasons to be proud to be American, other than the higher probability that we won't elect a demagogue than we actually will. The fact that it has come to this is embarrassing. But my biggest concern is that I have Chinese friends who I want to stay friends with, and only a post-national world really guarantees that. Fortunately the other side seems to see it the same way. According to "China-watchers" Chinese patriotism is about regaining the pride they lost over the past two or three centuries of Western dominance, mixed with pursuing a special kind of middle-class success, aka the "China dream." This more or less jives with the attitudes I encounter among my friends. Sure, this kind of patriotism has its excesses—I don't care what maps exist. There is no way the whole damn South China Sea belongs to China (Republic of or People's Republic of)—but this is something 'Murica has demonstrated quite frequently.

Of course both my Chinese friends and myself could be living in an elitist bubble, and our views don't reflect those of the proletariat. In the U.S. there seems to be a major misconception that the Chinese, on average, are more intelligent and rational, which I think stems from the stereotypes of Chinese Americans, combined with that glowing mystique we often give to foreigners; For instance, the British sound more charming and enlightened due to their accent. What is forgotten is that every country has its share of uncultured, anti-intellectual philistines. While my opinion is that Chinese culture, in general, pays more respect to pragmatism and education than my own, this does not mean ignorance does not abound (it most definitely does). I don't really use Sina Weibo, but I can only imagine areas of it are like Reddit, but in Mandarin, with the commentariat calling for the complete annexation of Japan. With respect, though, the Chinese as a whole are fairly modest in their national ambitions, at least compared with the American adventurism of the last decade. Seeking ones "rightful place" is not the same as trying to take over the world or spread one's ideology.

Of course, the Chinese government's obsession with territorial sovereignty and, perhaps more importantly, the survival of the Party, has fed nationalistic rhetoric and the suppression of dissent. Hong Kong is a tricky issue for me personally because I want to be supportive of both sides of the autonomy debate. It's quite obvious that freedoms are being eroded here (especially among the theological community), but localist parties like "Youngspiration," besides their terrible names, are also bad at moderation, boycotting events for being "too Chinese" and yelling obscenities when being sworn into office. Such rhetoric only worsens the prejudice the locals have for their northern cousins and vice-versa. Sure, tourists are always annoying, but aside from the problems of parallel trading and the clogging of the pedestrian arteries, they bring lots of money into the city.

My point is that there is a perfectly acceptable level of compassionate disdain one can have toward ones geopolitical neighbors without being an ass. For instance, I would allow a Midwesterner to sleep in the cold even though they would probably find it bracing and strengthening of their Lutheran merit. I also become quite jingoistic during national sporting events. But these things are the proper cathartic releases of national pride.

Fortunately it seems like most Hong Kong locals are able to find a happy medium between enjoying their freedoms as Hong Kongers while also being proud Chinese. During the Olympics many switched between supporter their athletes (who never win) and the PRC's. I also felt a similar "both-and" attitude earlier this month during China's national day, when Hong Kong put on a decent fireworks display over the harbor. Many of my Mainland friends are saddened by the rhetoric that comes out of Hong Kong these days, as well as the prejudice they often feel. My hope is that things like that reassure them that it's not all as black-and-white as it seems, that there is a complexity to being Hong Kong Chinese—and being a person of any citizenship really—that defies choosing one identity or the other. As a foreigner, I really will never be able to fully understand what it means to be Chinese in any shape or form, but I do appreciate the freedom I have in this city, and know that it can only be preserved through continued mutual understanding and a respect for the ambiguity of being Hong Kong Chinese.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Hong Kong Voting: An Unhelpful Guide

This past Sunday was election day in Hong Kong, in which a whopping 58% of the city voted for the Legislative Council, aka "Legco." 58% is a good number a for legislative election, don't you think? Hong Kong takes pride in its politics, despite the election season seeming to only be about two months long, in contrast to the mandatory 2 years in the States (4 for Presidential elections). Over the past few weeks I've seen countless young volunteers bowing while handing out literature at the malls and MTR stops. Vans with candidates' faces emblazoned on the sides would bound down the streets megaphoning campaign propaganda in indecipherable Cantonese. Thanks to the residual energy from the "Occupy Central" and independence movements, many 20-somethings were running for office this time around.

I was so moved by this aura of civic duty that I wanted to vote myself, though of course they wouldn't have allowed this, me being merely a non-permanent resident. Despite this wicked disenfranchisement, I found myself glued to the Hong Kong Free Press webpage on Monday to watch the live results. It was immediately apparent that I never would have even known to vote for in the "New Territories, East" constituency, let alone understand how elections even work in this city. This is because Hong Kong politics MAKE ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE. There are about forty-thousand damn parties each with names ranging from the sensible, such as the "New People's Party," to the ones reminiscent of late-90s Christian pop bands (looking at you,"Youngspiration"). To simplify things, the media usually divides this morass into the "Establishment," "Pan-democrat," and, more recently, the ""Localist" blocs. The Pan-Dems have been the traditional opposition bloc, usually less-than-enamored with Beijing and its policies, but after the results of this election they will have to make space for these insurgent young Localists and their more radical views.

Even more peculiar, only about half of the seats in the Legco are "geographical" constituencies up for direct vote. The other half are elected by "functional" constituencies that represent members of certain trade groups, such as agriculture, insurance, and even art. There's no constituency for clergy (perhaps wise) but some religious leaders are appointed to vote along with another thousand-or-so lucky elites to select the Beijing-approved Chief Executive in that election. As odd as it sounds, Hong Kong's odd electoral process would seem to ameliorate certain problems, such those that arise from corporate and union lobbying. Why spend millions of dollars trying to influence a dingbat poli-sci major/law grad when you get to select your own rep who knows the industry? (well, I guess one patsy probably wouldn't be enough) Another benefit of such an indirect process is that it lowers the risk of nutjobs possibly being elected, unlike in CERTAIN OTHER COUNTRIES.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Nida Break

Typhoon Nida, the first "Signal 8" typhoon to hit Hong Kong this season and my first real tropical cyclone, was a bit of a letdown. Apparently an "8" is pretty severe, but the results were underwhelming as far as natural disasters go. As far as know no one died, which is fortunate of course, but for a storm that pretty much hit the city dead-on you'd expect a little more ferocity. The hurricanes that I have (vicariously) experienced have always seemed worse. Maybe typhoons are just not as strong, or maybe Hong Kongers just know how to deal with the wind and storm surge, just as they have mastered LANDSLIP (which I am also glad did not happen, because now I am not living at the base of a mountain, but on top of one).

It's possible my decision to hunker down in my apartment, with its apparently-vibranium-reinforced walls, prevented me from really experiencing the squall. Others when out to get knocked around by 90-per-hour winds, or at least left their windows open to enjoy the free air-conditioning. As much as I had been sweating the past week I probably could have used a natural shower and blow-dry. Based on my roommate's description, I probably made the right decision. Even if it wasn't as powerful as it could have been, playing chicken with Nida's winds would have put me at risk of getting hit by tree branches, bamboo-scaffolding, or worse, FLYING SNAKES.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

On Coastal Defense

As residents of a plucky little colony/administrative region, Hong Kongers do not have much to show for "military prowess," needing to latch onto the martial patriotism of the larger, more powerful nation-states of which their city has always been a part. Recent sentiments of independence aside, the SAR has always been either geo-politically British or Chinese. For instance, the South China Sea dispute has been covered objectively by the Hong Kong press, but if push came to shove, Hong Kongers would probably side with China's claim, just as Taiwanese government did. This highlights the peculiar position the PRC and its wayward "provinces" are in: Each seem proud to be Chinese, just not according to the same historical and political point-of-view. In Hong Kong's case, its colonial legacy further complicates its modern political and ethnic identity, as there will always be something distinctly "British" about the place.

The Museum of Coastal Defense is a wonderful example of this. Tucked away in the eastern corner of the Island, this lonely museum rests atop an old British fort that once defended the entrance to Victoria Harbor. It's a wonderfully-designed museum in a hilly campus which includes a number of vehicles, recovered artillery pieces and the excavated magazines of the original batteries. The main building itself is built upon the original fort, letting you walk around the original fortifications.

Perhaps most pertinent to Hong Kong's complicated national history are the exhibits of the sovereign empires and nations that have been responsible for its protection. The Ming and Qing displays were closed, but I expected these would have discussed Chinese naval power in southern Guangdong prior to Hong Kong's founding. Much of the museum is obviously dedicated to the colonial period, highlighting the difficult conditions endured by the British troops stationed there. Discomfort, disease, and mortality were startlingly high for a garrison that didn't do all that much until they had the stuffing kicked out of them by the Japanese in 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor. The fort's guns were already obsolete by the time they were needed, though this is an irony common to warfare (Maginot Line, anyone?).

The final little exhibit is the obligatory shout-out to the People's Liberation Army garrison stationed in the city, focusing on the peaceful transition of power in 1997. Surprising, this display is tucked away in a little corner of the museum. While this is probably because the PLA and PLA Navy haven't had the chance to prove their gallantry, unlike the British in their malarial conditions, it's still a testament to just how much Hong Kong owes the British for its historical legacy and territorial contours, an inconvenient truth for those trying to make the former colony more Chinese. Had the museum been more centrally-located and more frequently-visited, I would expect the Chinese angle to more played up. However the museum's Ming and Qing exhibits are already a bit of a stretch in an attempt to reclaim HK for the China, given that these dynasties were sovereign over the area at time when Hong Kong did not actually exist. Instead Kowloon peninsula was governed by a few rural clans.  Despite any embarrassment it may cause (perhaps valid given the "unequal treaties"), the museum is a repository of the SAR's colonial history, leading to the question of how Hong Kongers can embrace their Chinese future without forgetting their non-Chinese past.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A Day At the Races

Hong Kong likes to race things, which contrasts it a bit with "Greater China," which seems more inclined toward team athletics (though every millennial Han male, wherever he is, seems predisposed toward basketball). Of particular note are the horse races, whose importance may have to do with the former colony's propensity toward British things as will as the popularity of gambling in the Pearl River Delta region (see also "Macau"). Whenever I ride the MTR on Wednesdays or Sundays I see many middle-aged males reading the horse profiles or whatever you call them on their way to the Shatin or Happy Valley racecourses, or alternately, one of the off-track betting branches of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The HKJC is one the biggest and oldest institutions in the SAR, having taken a great deal of other peoples' money over the past century to fund important public services, such as my  cheap dormitory.

However, one thing that HK shares with the rest of the Chinese world is Dragon Boat racing, the sporting-cum-cultural event that takes place on whatever day of the Chinese calendar the Dragon Boat (duan wu) festival happens to take place, usually around the summer solstice. According to legend, the festival begin when the famous minister Qu Yuan was so depressed by the political situation in ancient China that he committed suicide (as classical bureaucrats and philosophers are wont to do, along with writing poetry). The local townsfolk were so distraught by this that they raced boats out to retrieve his drowned body.

This somber origin seems largely ignored in favor of the competitive races that pit political bodies and businesses against each other for bragging rights. It's not very different than rowing, except each person has only one paddle and the luckiest team member (in my view) gets to pace the whole effort by pounding on a giant drum. Each boat is also decorated with a dragon head and tail. There are three classes of boat (small, medium, and large), but the biggest boats are the most fun, the combined intensity of the rowers, drummers, and helmsmen evoking a Viking war party, or its hypothetical Asian equivalent.

Though Shatin district has its own races, a friend invited me to out to Tuen Mun, way out in the western corner of the SAR, to see theirs. Lining the town's harbor were freighters and junks displaying vibrant red and yellow flags and, presumably, the names of the various corporate entities and public utilities sponsoring each boating team. I was lucky enough to get into the staging area where most of the teams prepared, hydrated and rested. Each group had a tent as well as access to a cohort of young men that risked tetanus infections while swimming out to secure and retrieve their boats. The more well-funded teams and their posses had their own ships in the harbor from which to shove off. I was told to dislike them.

Unfortunately the team my friend and I cheered for did not make the finals, outclassed by EVIL SEAFOOD CONGLOMERATE and their crew of highly-paid and possibly steroidal jocks. It was comforting to find out even those sports with ancient cultural significance are dominated by money and shady tactics.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Much Ado About Political Nothing in Hong Kong

Last Saturday was the annual Tiananmen Vigil in Victoria Park, remembering the massacre of protesting students 17 years ago, but I did not attend. Part of this was laziness, but I also wanted to check out the competing event “On Hong Kong’s future through the meaning of June 4th” held at my school. This rival forum was put on by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a collection of the student unions from the major Hong Kong universities. As you may note above, I was relegated to the English-interpretation room. 

Why was there a rival forum, you ask? Basically, the HKFS pulled out of the Vigil due to the rise of apathy (and antipathy) toward Mainland democratic reform in favor of Hong Kong independence. "Localism" has been on the rise since the end of the Umbrella protests over a year ago, part of the rising disillusionment over ever being able to negotiate with the central government. For some localists, Chinese democracy is irrelevant because Hong Kong isn't China. 

Its likely impossibility aside, I sympathize with the cause of Hong Kong independence, but not like this. There are valid reasons for greater autonomy, but this should not require rejecting solidarity with other Chinese who want the same. Hong Kong is inevitably tied to "Greater China" politically, economically, and historically, and any fight for greater freedom is going to be part of a greater struggle. Even if Mainland Chinese have largely forgotten June 4th, Taiwan, Singapore and the rest of the world have not. If Hong Kongers want greater control of their destinies, they must find it in a more sympathetic way. Dreams of independence should come from hope for greater freedom, not hardhearted resentment. Nationalism is a battle Hong Kong cannot hope to win against the Party-state, and one Taiwan has know well-enough to avoid (so far). As a U.S. southerner, I know all to well the problem of seeking independence for the wrong reasons. Sure, the symbolism of not going to the park makes a statement, but it is a statement one that is outrageously cynical.

Worse, all such an ideology like this does is divide the democratic front of Hong Kong even further. With so many factions wanting concessions from Beijing, it doesn't help to fight over minutiae like attending a remembrance service. The factionalism in Hong Kong is astounding, and it must warm the hearts of the cadres to the north.