Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

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.

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