December 21, 2016
Much has made of Trump’s shake-up of foreign policy norms even before he’s officially taken office, whether it’s connecting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, having his daughter sit in on meetings with both Japanese PM Abe and Turkish President Edrogran, or launching misspelled Twitter rants in China’s direction. I’ll be the first to admit that after Trump’s call with Tsai, I was somewhat elated that someone had recognized how impressive Taiwan’s efforts had been to create an open and democratic society in a little over 20 years. For someone who has been an amateur Sinologist his entire life, I was also startled that I liked that the two had spoken. I was startled because I, like many in the foreign policy establishment, had taken the official “One China” policy as a given for maintaining regional stability and had never contemplated challenging it in any sort of way for fear of what the consequences may be. Yet, with his phone call, Trump called China’s bluff and the world did not end. However, I cannot give him credit for being any sort of visionary possessing a coherent world view or adherent to any discernible tenets of foreign policy. I think it was purely accidental that this phone call started a dialogue about what the “One China” policy means and to what ends both sides will go to maintain a fiction that has served everyone well for nearly 30 years. One only has to look at Trump’s subsequent actions to see that this seeming stroke of brilliance was not pre-meditated on his part (his staffers may be a different story) and does not reflect a President-elect with a strategy or plan for advancing U.S. interests abroad. His follow-up tweets and interview on Fox News that he could use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to extract concessions on trade from China demonstrate that he understands nothing about U.S. – China relations and Taiwan’s place in the middle of that power dynamic, but merely took a phone call from someone congratulating him on and inflating his ego for winning the election.
Where does that leave U.S. – China relations when Trump assumes office next month? If we try to extrapolate the type of foreign policy he and his team are going to conduct once in office, it might be instructive to examine his reaction to China’s seizure of an underwater drone off the coast of the Philippines. Upon hearing about the incident, he blasted out a tweet calling the act “unpresidented” and once it had been settled that China would return the drone, he then tweeted to “[l]et them keep it!” While there is seemingly not much to go on here, the worrisome takeaway from all of Trump’s commentary on U.S. – China relations, commentary being a generous word to use to describe his tweeting, is that the man does not have a clue as to what he’s doing and the people surrounding him are encouraging this no-nothing behavior. At worst, Trump and his team believe unpredictably poking China like a third-grader to provoke a reaction is the best approach to calibrating U.S. – China relations and advancing his “America First” agenda. This approach completely ignores the nuances of U.S. – China relations and the search for common ground on issues like climate change and North Korea that the Obama administration worked so hard to achieve. While U.S. – China relations are anything but easy or predictable, it is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the global order and will only continue to become more so as China continues to rise and the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.
I have argued here before and perhaps now believe it even more, but the U.S. needs a new grand strategy when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region. Recent history shows us to be reactionary throughout the region, whether it’s stationing more U.S. troops in Darwin or carrying out more multilateral military exercises to respond to a rising China or slapping even more punishing sanctions on North Korea after their latest missile test. Rather than reacting, we need to be proactive to create a regional architecture that promotes peace and prosperity in the region for everyone, including China. Even the TPP, which would have gone a long way towards laying one part of the foundation for such an architecture, was flawed in that it kept China outside. The U.S. decision to remain outside of the AIIB was another such decision that was more a reaction to China having created the institution rather than actually thinking about what the U.S. could do to shape it as a founding member. Unfortunately, we now have a President and his attendant team taking power that barely knows the meaning of the word strategy when it comes to foreign affairs, let alone something that requires more forethought and nuance like a grand strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.
September 5, 2016
It’s exciting times here in Hong Kong as the results from yesterday’s election trickled in over the course of the day. When all was said in done, over 2.2 million people or 60% of the 3.7 million eligible voters turned out to cast ballots, which was a record high and surpassed the turnout in 2004 that came on the heels of the 2003 street protests where over 500,000 Hong Kongers marched to protest to possible passage a new security law that at the time could have severely curtailed freedoms here. I was not able to vote because I am not a permanent resident, which only happens after you’ve lived here for over seven years. But back to the main issue at hand, the results. Of the 70 seats, six went to candidates from new parties advocating for either greater self-determination or outright independence from China after 2047, the year “one country, two systems” is set to expire under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The success of these new parties is a big deal for Hong Kong’s future because the six pro-democracy candidates are all under 40 and represent a break from the traditional pan-democrats who stood in opposition to the pro-Beijing lawmakers because rather than work under the premise that Hong Kong is a part of China and gently nudge Beijing to introduce more democracy in the city, this new guard wants Hong Kong to take matters into its own hands and push from the ground up for a greater right to self-determination. The New York Times does an good job of summarizing the results and hints at what it possibly means going forward. Suffice it to say that the pan-democrats plus the localist / radical contingent took 30 seats in the 70-seat body with enough seats to veto those measures that require a super-majority to pass. On a grander scale and as someone who considers Hong Kong to be a second home with the city being the first place I had ever been to outside of the U.S. save for Canada and where I lived for two years after college, the election results represent a break with the way things had been done in this city in the nearly 20 years since the handover. It had been a tug-of-war between the pro-Beijing and pan-democrat lawmakers with what has been a pretty consistent string of Chief Executives. Now with the introduction of this new element, which I prefer to call the self-determination or localist group instead of radicals, is seeking to create a space for Hong Kong to figure out its own destiny and prepare for life after 2047. The big variable is how Beijing handles this outcome and what happens going forward. The central government is completely focused on the G-20 meetings in Hangzhou, so the response has been muted and I would not blame the government for ignoring it with so many heads of state from liberal democracies in town. The electoral outcome is an embarrassment and worse, an indictment of Beijing’s approach towards Hong Kong since the handover, especially in recent years with the half-assed approach to granting universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive and the alleged abduction of the five booksellers, which was a clear violation of “one country, two systems” since they were taken into custody outside of China. The people of Hong Kong seem to be waking up and realize that China is not the benevolent overlord they wanted Hong Kongers to believe they were, though they have done little of late to reassure the city given the slow and steady erosion of freedoms here. I leave with this final thought, which I will unpack in another post. Much has been made about how Hong Kong could not go it alone and I don’t know the ins and outs of whether independence is completely doable, but one thing to consider with independence or even greater self-determination would be the ability to revamp the Hong Kong government and create a prime minster or president-type position that would legitimately be tied to the legislature to ensure that both branches of government are working together versus the current system with legislative and executive branches that are completely disassociated from each other. Such a revamped government with proper accountability to the people of Hong Kong and not Beijing might actually be able to do something to prepare Hong Kong for its next act and effectively tackle the challenges this city faces. It’s just a thought.
September 4, 2016
I walked out of my apartment building in the Midlevels to the scene below.
It’s September 4th, which means it’s Election Day in Hong Kong. However, this is not like the election days we know in the U.S. where you can vote for candidates at the federal, state, and local level. Today’s election here is only for the Legislative Council or LegCo and while all 70 seats are being contested, only 40 will be chosen directly by the people. The remaining 30 are chosen by smaller groups of voters representing various industries and social groups, most of whom are thought to support Beijing. Historically, the LegCo has been comprised of two parties or factions, those pro-Beijing and those arguing for more democracy in Hong Kong. This election marks the introduction of a third faction, those identifying as “localists” meaning they’re calling for greater autonomy for Hong Kong and at the most extreme, independence from China. This election is is also being closely watched because it’s the first one since the Umbrella Protests in 2014, which many credit with giving rise to the localist movement and rousing Hong Kong’s youth from their much written-about political apathy. The outcome of this election is already being discussed as determining the trajectory for Hong Kong as it rides out the remainder of “one country, two systems”, which does not come to an end until 2047. Such talk may sound dramatic, but the inclusion of any localists in the next LegCo will formally introduce a new dimension to the political debates in this city and if played correctly by those in the chamber, could mean greater gains in future elections.
Something I have written a lot about since moving here is a pervading sense of sadness about the path Hong Kong is on. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t because Beijing ultimately calls the shots. This election embodies much of what makes me worry about Hong Kong’s future and carving out a path that allows the city to remain dynamic and unique without becoming just another Chinese city. As I was walking to Hazel & Hershey to compose this post over a very refreshing iced Americano, I was stopped by a woman along the stretch of politicking on Robinson Road. She was HK Chinese, but lived in London and had come back for ten days to canvass for the election on behalf of Alvin Cheng and his Civic Passion party, one of the higher profile participants in the Umbrella Protests who was ultimately arrested and sentenced to 21 days in detention. She was telling me how the mainland had “parachuted” people into Hong Kong in the past year and applied for them to get permanent resident cards so that they could vote in the election this year and tip the results in favor of pro-Beijing parties. She proceeded to tell me how she could tell who the Mainlanders were their “style of clothes” and use of Mandarin. She also told me that a lady had come up to her the other day who was from China and told her she was “ruining China” by campaigning on behalf of Civic Passion. While there may have been strands of a conspiracy theory in her talk with Beijing sending people to Hong Kong to tip the election, it’s not wholly inconceivable given the embarrassment to Beijing if localist parties win seats and gain a legitimate forum for their calls for greater autonomy and even independence from China and the very noticeable population of Mainlanders living in the city. Yet what I find even more insightful about this woman’s comments is the “us vs. them” mentality that if we could graph over time, we’d see a steady increase in such an attitude among a growing portion of the Hong Kong population. Commenting on their dress, physical attributes, and language show a rising awareness of differences between Hong Kong and the rest of China though they are all Chinese. Once again it mirrors what has happened in Taiwan over the last 20 or so years where the Taiwanese identity has superseded any feelings of loyalty or identity with the mainland. Or take another city-state with a sizable Chinese population – Singapore – and while many comparisons are made between Hong Kong and Singapore, few raise the idea that while there is a large number of Singaporean Chinese, seemingly very few identify with China or have an emotional loyalty to the country based on their shared ethnicity. Now Singapore has been an independent country for over 50 years, but what is to prevent Hong Kong from evolving in that direction, at least in terms of forging its own identity distinct from China. If you read the back of the Civic Passion flyer I received, it’s interesting to note that they are not calling for independence, but something more akin to advancing a Hong Kong identity and safeguarding the city’s autonomy as it was supposed to be when the “one country, two systems” set-up, all through “constitutional reform”.
Something noticeably missing from the run-up to today’s elections was a spirited debate about the issues. Part of the problem is that the city has a Chief Executive who is not a part of any party sitting in the LegCo, but effectively put in place to be a puppet of Beijing, so the likelihood of bringing a platform to fruition through cooperation between the legislative and executive branches is low. I think the lack of debate is also due to the oversimplification of candidates’ positions to either pro-Beijing / establishment or pro-democracy, so with the introduction of the localists this binary oversimplification becomes harder to perpetuate. Of course the democrats and localists need to win enough seats to maintain an effective veto, which would require 24 seats to thwart the passage of those acts that require a super-majority.
The debate that did take place in the run-up to the election was mostly relegated to what was happening on the sidelines. Two weeks ago there was a lot of talk about censoring discussion of independence in Hong Kong classrooms with various comments coming from government officials about the danger of such discussion in the schools and the need to reinforce the notion that Hong Kong is an “inalienable” part of China. Even the Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, weighed in stating that “there is little, if any, room for secondary school students to discuss [Hong Kong independence]. Because from perspectives such as historical, political, constitutional arrangements and stipulations in the Basic Law, it is very clear that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of our country. What room for discussion is there?” Such talk would seem like a clear violation of the freedom of speech enshrined in the Basic Law, but then again these do not seem to be times where the rule of law means all that much in a city where China has been stealthily and steadily encroaching on freedoms.
So I sit here and wait for the results from today’s elections secretly hoping that some of the localists win seats and the pan-democrats, including the localists maintain enough seats to hopefully foster some meaningful discussion in the LegCo about Hong Kong’s way forward in the run-up to 2047.
July 25, 2016
I’ve just returned to Hong Kong after two weeks of what I think is a very typical twenty-first century vacation where it was ostensibly supposed to be about unplugging and enjoying time with family and friends, but ended up being more of a hybrid of work and vacation with the boundaries never as clear cut as I would have liked. My trip home also happened to coincide with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, which means I was able to catch bits of pieces of what was a very dark and angry four days, culminating in an acceptance speech by Donald Trump that perfectly embodied all of the hate, fear, pessimism, and anger with a dose of the ridiculousness that characterized not only the prior four days, but much of his campaign. And yet coming back to Hong Kong, I am still happy to be an American. There is always something about these trips that makes me appreciate where I come from in a way that I did not when I was younger and lived overseas. While part of it may have to do with the abundant choice in America’s stores, there is also something about being home and recognizing I am a product of my home. Now being happy to be an American and proud of my country are two different things and after witnessing the debacle that was the RNC last week, my pride is being held back until the outcome of the presidential election in November. There is a lot of hate and fear in the U.S., which is part of the same strain of hate and fear that propelled the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit vote and almost saw a right-wing nationalist get elected to the presidency in Austria. Beyond these countries, fear and hate are mobilizing large parts of electorates in other European countries as we seem to be caught in a moment where openness, tolerance, and optimism are in short supply. I understand that I am fortunate as someone who has been able to live and travel around the world and have benefitted from globalization in ways that large segments of the world population have not, but it also frightens me that those who are fearful of the future or angry about what is happening around them cannot take a step back and put things in perspective and realize that we are better off today in so many ways than we were yesterday. I can’t pretend to know what it is like to have lost one’s job and struggle to find another one because there are no job opportunities available to them, whether its because they simply do not exist where they live or they do not have the requisite skills to get a new job. I can’t pretend to understand a feeling of being trapped or in despair because I can’t pay my bills and am one medical emergency away from not being able to keep a roof over my head or food on my table. Yet, the irony in all of this is that it’s me or more accurately, people like me who do not have a clue who are supposed to come up with the policies to help people facing untenable life situations. One thing I can understand is the appeal of someone who seems to offer a quick fix or has no qualms scapegoating individuals and worse, entire groups of people. It’s comforting to have someone give voice to the things you may be thinking and to attack those whom you perceive as partly responsible for your lot. What I have been struggling with is how to connect with people who feel disconnected and angry with the way things have gone, but in a way that is constructive and positive versus destructive and negative. Unfortunately, the Democrats have not done any better than the Republicans in figuring out how to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. What the Democrats have done for the most part is not degenerate into name calling and personal attacks, but have actually had debates on policy including the proper role of government in righting these wrongs. It’s just hard to stomach policy debates when you’re worried about where your next paycheck in coming from or you feel threatened by all of the changes taking place by you. It’s easier to hark back to another time when things seemed simpler and frankly better. Even I do that sitting here thinking my life was so much easier when I was younger, but forgetting the angst that came along with adolescence. I am not trying to pretend I can understand the anguish, hopelessness, or fear that seemingly large segments of the American population are feeling, but I can relate to the idea that we tend to look at the past with rose-colored glasses because it’s known whereas the future is a giant unknown and these days tends to be tinged with darkness. The challenge is to find a way to regain that optimism that makes Americans uniquely American. If this post sounds at all jingoistic, I apologize because I am also deeply aware of my country’s flaws and will be the first to acknowledge them, but I also know that in spite of the whatever terrible thing may be happening in the U.S., whether its obstructionist government, a recession, buffoonery among our political class, or more common lately, a gun-related tragedy at every turn, we as a people tend to rise above and move forward. What scares me now and something I feel more acutely being over 8000 miles from home, thus able to look at things with more perspective, is that we seem to be losing the ability to look and then move forward. That inability to keep progressing is what may be the most worrisome thing about where we’re currently at as a country. One side of our political spectrum has decided to capitalize on that inability and turn it into a rallying cry to govern. The challenge for the other side is to figure out how to appeal to the desire in all of us to move forward and be even better tomorrow than we were the day before, regardless of party affiliation or personal circumstances. If there ever was a time when we needed hope, it’s more so now than it seems to ever have been, whether it was 1860, 1932, or 2008.
June 21, 2016
It’s been quite some time. Again. I feel like weeks go by in the blink of an eye out here and I think about all of these things I want to write about, then something else comes up to keep me away from doing it. But one of the smartest and wisest people I know, my mom, suggested I set aside some time every week or two to write something, which should help me get back into the habit of doing it more regularly. And it’s not because I have not wanted to write, but more because the demands of work and challenge of disentangling work from what I want to write since often my ideas arise from something I am doing for work has made it easier to just not write at all. Yet that’s not why I started this blog or in the grander scheme of things, why I cam back to Asia. I am here this time around because for the rest of my career, I want to help others better understand China. Unfortunately, you can’t understand what’s going on here by just sitting in the U.S. and reading about things. I wanted to be back on the ground experiencing what’s happening here first hand and hopefully get that much closer to becoming an “expert” on the region.
So now that I’ve given some context to my absence, I can write about what’s been on my mind of late. As you know, I now live in Hong Kong and I am always careful to make a distinction between the city and the rest of China. I don’t know if others are as exacting about the relationship between this city and the mainland, but as someone who has been coming here since 1998, one year after the handover from the UK to China, and considers himself an amateur scholar of China who has also lived up there, I know that there are major differences between the two territories. However, of late it seems like those lines get blurred more and more. The latest incident surrounds Lam Wing-kee’s return to HK after spending nearly eight months on the mainland. Lam was one of the five booksellers detained in China for selling politically sensitive books in HK, a city that is supposed to have the right free speech, so the publication and sale of these books would not be a problem here. However, China claims he was selling these books to mainlanders and actually shipping and bringing them to the mainland, which is not allowed. That right there should give you a sense as to how different the two places are. I have often written about and remarked on how devoid of what’s going on around them many mainlanders seem to be, existing in a kind of middle world where most of what they know is spoon-fed to them by the government-directed propaganda machine. Anyway, Lam returned to HK to supposedly get the hard drives with the bookstore’s customers’ names on it and turn it over to the Chinese authorities. Instead, as soon as he returned at the end of last week he held a press conference detailing his captivity in China, including what the special operations forces made him do. Now there has been damage control on all sides with the Chinese government and pro-Beijing politicians in the city trying to discredit him and those decrying the dismantling of “one country, two systems” and advocating greater independence holding him up as a hero. While there may be some inconsistencies in Lam’s story, I attribute part of that to being held in captivity and ill-treated by his captors for months on end. Anyone’s memory would be a bit hazy at best after an ordeal like that. I am also skeptical of those trying to discredit his story, especially those from the Chinese government or affiliated with it because if there was nothing to hide, this ordeal would not have dragged on for eight months and Beijing would have been forthcoming with details from the get-go.
Yet I digress. I write about this incident again because I am either asked how I like HK since being back or listen to people visiting for a week or two extol the city’s virtues, of which there are many. But for someone just dropping in and out or even those expats who live in the pure expat bubble, China’s ever-encroaching shadow over the city wouldn’t register for most of those people. Perhaps I read too much or it’s just something to which I am particularly attuned because of my background and history with this part of the world. but it’s happening and it’s unclear what the next move is on either side – whether it’s those here advocating for a change in the relationship between HK and China whereby HK has more autonomy or those in Beijing who see any dissent from the people of HK like a baby throwing a tantrum, albeit very public tantrum that must be quieted. What I wonder is to what lengths will Beijing go to actually prevent this simmering situation from exploding. Acquiescing is not really an option for Beijing, so there is either an uneasy tolerance with subversive moves to quiet the dissenters or something more overt and potentially more explosive.
When I am asked about how I feel about HK or listen to people go on how awesome it is, I try to explain that it’s a city that while still cool in so many ways, feels like it’s lost its way. When I first came here in 1998, it felt like a magical place that was a real hybrid between East and West with an incredible infrastructure and everything just seemed to hum. Now I wonder if the power outages in the MTR stations and rows over the size of garbage bins on the street portend something worse for this city – a place with no leadership and no plan to differentiate itself in the face of a ruler intent on snuffing out the things that made this city so special. It’s telling that the leader is the Chief Executive (CE) and since the handover there has not been one CE who people would consider to have been an effective leader. Of course when China is the one effectively picking the CE and so famously pushed off universal suffrage in 2014, sparking the Umbrella Protests, it’s in their best interest to not choose a leader who actually dares to lead too much. For if they chose a leader with leadership capabilities who could actually serve the people, that same leader might also rally his or her people to turn against Beijing. So rather than pick someone who could accomplish something or give this city back it’s purpose or raison d’etre, Beijing chooses feckless and ineffective individuals who are basically their puppets to lead this city down a path of meandering mediocrity. Now don’t get me wrong. I love this city and think it still has a lot of potential, but without someone at the helm who has vision and actually represents the people, you are going to have a city that merely exists rather than inspires. On top of that, you have a legislature that is sort of elected by the people and definitely represents elements of the population that would never find a voice in the CE’s office. But the CE does not come out of the legislature like he or she would in a parliamentary system and the CE is not elected by the people, so you have a figurehead who is also divorced from the rest of the city’s governing structure and ultimately answers to one – Beijing.
I fear I paint a rather helpless picture and at times it feels that way. There is a resignation underlying most things in this city that HK is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. I’d use more colorful language, but I think you get the point. Resignation is not inspiring and it’s unclear where the city goes from here. Stay tuned.
April 17, 2016
This past Thursday, I was fortunate enough to visit a Chinese school and spend some time with middle and high schoolers. It’s been a few years since I was last in front of Chinese students when I was teaching at Linyi Normal University, so I was excited to get back into an academic setting and see what was going on with the next generation in China. It was a quick trip to Jinan where I was tasked with presenting our U.S. schools to these students and their parents for study abroad opportunities. I was then given maybe an hour or so to “interview” 20 or so students, which only allowed for come cursory conversations about why they wanted to study in the U.S. and their favorite and least favorite subjects.
What was interesting about the whole exercise was the motivation of these students to sit down with a random American guy and answer my questions all with the intent of wanting to study in the U.S. next year. I needed a system that guaranteed some consistency, so I asked all of the students why they wanted to study in the U.S. and quite a few replied that they were drawn to the “blue skies” and “clean air” of the U.S. Others extolled the quality of the teachers and freedom to do what they want in school, such as extracurricular activities. Yet others told me that they saw a year in the U.S. as a way to help guarantee the ability to study there for college.
While it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about what’s going on across a certain generation in a country as large as China, the numbers behind my day in Jinan support the proposition that more and more Chinese parents see educational opportunities outside of China as more advantageous for their children than staying within the Chinese system. In 2014, over 450,000 Chinese students studied abroad, up from about 115,000 a decade ago, and that number is sure to continue to grow. Spending the day in what is really a tier three city, but only tier two because it’s the capital of Shandong province, these kids took time out of their busy day to wait in line to meet with me and other school representatives with the hopes of spending a year or more overseas.
The Chinese government is also aware of this growth in students seeking to opt out of the Chinese educational system and is worried about Western values infecting their students. There has been a subtle shift in certain major cities like Beijing and Shanghai to discourage international education options. In Beijing, the government has allegedly stopped approving international programs and in Shanghai, the government mandated that some programs to slash their fees closer to the level of ordinary schools, which would make it harder for them to operate. Motivating the government is the desire to ensure that students remain patriotic, but it’s also a short-sighted attempt that goes against the wishes of large swaths of China’s upwardly mobile middle and middle-upper class that sees these programs as the extra push to get their children into a university overseas and out from underneath the constricted Chinese educational system. Prevent enough of these parents from being able to send their children to such programs and you have another segment of the population with a grievance against the government, which is not something that they want to happen. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Keep students from these international programs to presumably preserve the Party and system, but run the risk that their parents raise bloody hell from being denied the opportunity to send their kids to such programs. It’s not clear that Beijing can win and as I’ve learned about China, if you block one path, people will simply find another way to achieve the same ends. And in the meantime, as long as there are enough kids who yearn for blue skies and more extracurricular activities, Beijing is going to have trouble preventing it’s kids finding a way to find such things.