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.
April 1, 2016
My posts have been fewer lately and part of that is due to the fact that work has been quite busy, but a significant part of it is that I am now based in Hong Kong and not only have a different perspective on the mainland, but am constantly bombarded with thoughts about how this city has changed since the handover nearly 20 years ago.
The other day a new political party was created, the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP). It’s a big deal that any corner of Chinese territory has political parties, especially when a new one is created that calls for the eventual independence of Hong Kong. Of course Hong Kong’s freedoms are protected by the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs Hong Kong until 20147 or for 50 years after the 1997 handover. The centerpiece of the Basic Law is “One country, two systems”, which guarantees that Hong Kong gets to maintain its rights and freedoms during this period. Yet, we’ve witnessed a slow, but steady erosion of this bedrock tenet of the Basic Law as the Chinese government seeks to exert more and more influence over the city.
With the creation of the HKNP, “One country, two systems” is further tested because while the creation of such a party should be acceptable under the Basic Law given that freedom of speech is protected, China is claiming that it actually undermines the Basic Law. What do you think the Chinese government is using to back up its claim? The first article of the Basic Law that states that Hong Kong is an “inalienable part of China”, yet this same document is supposed to protect Hong Kongers from Beijing’s ever present heavy hand and enshrine certain freedoms for Hong Kongers that do not exist on the mainland. So who is right?
Its hard to say in the realm of constitutional interpretation. It’s not like China, or Hong Kong for that matter have a rich tradition of constitutional interpretation. When there are conflicting provisions within the same document, you then have to look at the intent of the drafters. The Basic Law was drafted by China, but based on the Sino-British Joint Declaration, so you can pretty easily guess who stipulated what in the document. The Chinese insisted on the inclusion of this provision and the Brits probably saw its inclusion as worth it since so many other freedoms were going to be protected after the handover. As a former lawyer and someone who spent a lot of time reading case law about statutory interpretation, I am still not sure who wins when one party hangs their case on an opinion asserted in the document and the other side relies on the actual rights enshrined in the document. Making things more complex is the Chinese government’s reliance on the Preamble to the Basic Law that states “Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times . . . .” This statement combined with Chapter I, Article I’s assertion are what Beijing is using to shut down the creation of the HKNP. The other side argues that Hong Kongers have freedom of speech and association and that such freedoms are “inviolable” in Chapter III, Articles 27 and 28. The creation of a new political party would appear to be protected by these guaranteed freedoms and their call for independence is merely speech. It would be different if they were breaking the law in calling for independence, but talking about it is not as clear-cut.
So where do things go from here? That answer is not so obvious. Or perhaps it is. I venture that there will be some delay in the creation of the party. At the moment, the Hong Kong government has not approved the party’s registration. The party will agitate for inclusion and the Hong Kong government will hem and haw, but ultimately Beijing will exert quiet pressure to prevent the formation of the party. What Beijing does not fully get, or perhaps it does and is waiting for this moment, is that the people and ideas that led to the formation of the HKNP are not going to go away. This move is just another step in the emergence of a Hong Kong political identity that is separate from that of the mainland and it only portends more rough waters ahead for Hong Kong – China relations.
March 20, 2016
I think back to the Umbrella Revolution protests here in Hong Kong in the Fall of 2014 and how they sparked by Beijing’s unwillingness to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage in the next Chief Executive election slated for 2017. Since the protests ended, tensions have simmered in the city with occasional outbursts like the Mongkok riots over Chinese New Year and student-led protests at HKU because of the appointment of a new council chairman seen as being a panderer to Beijing. I often get asked how the city has changed since I last lived here in 2002 and the biggest change aside from the common refrain that the city has become “more Chinese” is the emergence of a Hong Konger identity. The problem as an expat is that you don’t necessarily feel this change when you’re wandering around SoHo and the Midlevels. The only way to really tap into it is to read the local papers and even better, wander around some of Hong Kong’s universities. For this change is not being led by those residents who are well established and living here with families, but by the younger generation that looks ahead and sees a future increasingly limited by China’s goal of total control over the city. So it’s natural that the student-led magazine, Undergrad, at Hong Kong University (HKU) published a 60-page article the other week about its vision for Hong Kong’s future after 2047, the year the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” framework expires. What stood out the most in this vision was seeing Hong Kong as independent after 2047, probably the first time anything has been published in China sounding any sort of call for independence of a part of its territory. As you can imagine, this sentiment did not go over well with either Beijing or the establishment here in Hong Kong, including its richest man Li Kai-Ching who basically pooh-poohed the idea that Hong Kong could ever go at it alone. Yet, if you think about it, this call for independence is not as radical as it sounds. Putting aside whether Hong Kong could be viable as an independent city-state, when you feel like your future is fairly bleak as your freedoms are under assault and your calls for greater self-determination go unheeded, calling for independence to safeguard your own freedoms ceases to be such a crazy idea. It’s like getting a divorce when you’re in a bad relationship, which can be bad for any number of reasons. You reach a point in that relationship where you know things are not going to change and it’s beginning to seem hopeless, so breaking away is the only thing that might shake things up. The threat of breaking away could be the jolt that’s needed to engender change without actually breaking up or it might set off a struggle to actually break away from the partner who is doing most of the harm. The students at HKU have their whole lives ahead of them. Many of them were born around the time or after the handover. They have watched their city decline in importance relative to the rest of China and the city’s collective voice get drowned out by the propaganda in Beijing, as well as the naysayers who make up the establishment in Hong Kong, most the tycoons and politicians who benefit from closer ties to Beijing. It’s sad that those tycoons who made their fortunes because of Hong Kong being such a special place are now basically in Beijing’s pocket because there is more money to be made on the mainland than at home. I’m talking about you Mr. Li. A proud Hong Konger you are definitely not. As for the students at HKU and elsewhere in the city, they are reaching the point where they feel like they have nothing to lose by calling for more wide-ranging action, including independence. Beijing seems to think that all it takes it a little more engagement by the local government with its youth to bring them into the fold, but what they’re not realizing is that if Beijing couldn’t tame Hong Kong when the mainland’s economy was booming and could use that growth as a carrot to demand fealty, what makes the central government think a slowing (and increasingly unsustainable) mainland economy with an ever shrinking civic space is going to be attractive to the next generation of Hong Kongers? Don’t be surprised if the calls for independence only grow louder in the coming years.
March 15, 2016
I’ve been remiss in my writing and part of it has been due to setting up a new life in Hong Kong while working a full-time job, but some of it is also due to the fact that my mind has been on overload about the goings-on in the world, including the scary state of American presidential politics, China’s continued descent into the cult of Xi, and the general economic malaise that seems to be afflicting the globe. Of course none of this things are really within my control to change, so you must be wondering why I am getting so worked up about all of this. I think it’s precisely because there is nothing that I can do about the rise of Donald Trump, the mindless sycophants following Bernie Sanders and his call for “political revolution” whenever he’s asked a question on specifics, or China seemingly going backward in terms of openness and transparency as it tries to quell an increasingly restless population.
And yet here I am sitting in Hong Kong, which is technically a part of China and with each passing day, feeling that way based on the headlines of missing booksellers, dismissive treatment of Hong Kong officials up in Beijing, and a feeling of futility here that there is no real point in defying Beijing and it’s plans for the city. Maybe it’s just a general feeling of hopelessness about the world. When you think too much and tend towards overanalyzing while being extremely sensitive, it’s hard not to get caught up in all of these things. As an American living so far from home, it would be easily to cut myself off from the spectacle that is this year’s election, but being far away I feel it more acutely because the distance filters all the noise and all that comes through is the nastiness and anger in its purist form. I won’t go on and on about how frightening Donald Trump is because he is really not all that different from other new-fascist politicians rising all across the world, especially in Europe. The U.S. is just behind on the curve, but now it looks like we’re quickly catching up. I think there was this feeling that the American system and its electorate were created and evolved in such a way as to prevent the emergence of someone like Trump, but at the end of the day the U.S. is no different. What I find disturbing is not that people are saying and doing the things that they are, but that we’re unable to have a real conversation about what it all means. I read some commentators and they tend to think Trump is a good thing because he’s bringing these feelings and thoughts to the fore, but he’s either not equipped or willing to actually spark a dialogue about what this means for the U.S. and our future. It’s that inability that scares me more than anything. I know that there is a lot of hate and xenophobia in America, but until now it was not a strong enough sentiment to fuel a presidential candidate to the fore of either major party. And who do we get? Donald Trump, who more often than not seems like a politicized version of his Apprentice persona incapable of coherent and meaningful thoughts, but instead prone to inciting soundbites and rambling monologues that even the closest reader would be unable to follow.
And then we have Bernie Sanders, who is really the other side of the same political coin as Trump. It just happens to be that his politics align more closely with my own, so he seems less threatening. But if you listen to him, he has no real answers. Ask him how he’ll fight climate change or fund $1 trillion in infrastructure investments and his answer is always the same – political revolution. It’s an insult to Americans that he won’t put forth substantive plans to accomplish his goals, but then again a number of Americans do not seem to care. The young voters who flock to him who don’t know what it really means to live and are probably still dependents under their parents’ insurance policy thanks to Obamacare and those who make so much money that they don’t really care how much it costs to fund his plans. Recently Bernie has been targeting white, working class voters in the Rust Belt with his tirades against free trade. Trade is an easy target and often misunderstood. And that in a nutshell is Bernie Sander’s approach to politics. Take complex topics, boil them down to a pithy one-liner like “take down billionaires” or “dismantle campaign finance” or if all else fails, call for a political revolution and voters cheer him on. At the end of the day, it’s no different than Donald Trump except Bernie seems less odious than Trump because of his seemingly friendly policies. Yet throw in his misogynistic undertones embodied best by the toxic Bernie Bros and his dismissive attitude towards Hillary and you have your very own version of a demagogue on the left.
I did not intend this post to devolve into a commentary on the presidential election, but it’s been on my mind and it’s hard to think about China and the rest of the world when this spectacle is taking place in the U.S. Even China is using our own election as a rationale for why democracy is dangerous and authoritarian rule is safer. It’s also problematic when Trump seemingly supported the Chinese government’s use of brute force in Tiananmen in 1989. So at the end of the day all of these events are interconnected and the idea of America being any sort of leader or guide for the rest of the world is fast becoming a fantasy. I just hope in my heart of hearts that the American electorate smartens up and does something to rescue our country from the abyss instead of chasing the easy candidates who either stand for hate, isolationism, over-simplicity, or half-baked plans for the future.