Now that I got my little rant about the state of affairs in U.S. presidential politics, I can turn back to what’s really important – the fact that Pokemon Go has finally come to Hong Kong.  No, I’m kidding about the importance of that event, but it’s fascinating how quickly the Pokemon Go phenomenon has swept the world.  What I find alarming and once again is something that you wouldn’t pay much attention to as an expat in Hong Kong or occasional visitor to mainland China is any and all press freedoms remain under constant assault.  First it was yesterday’s article in The Guardian questioning how Hong Kong’s main English daily, The South China Morning Post (SCMP) conducted an interview with a Chinese activist released from a year in secret detention before she had even seen either her husband or lawyer.  In the interview, she expressed contrition for her activism and the SCMP is only saying that it was aided by an intermediary that it refuses to name, leading many to believe that this confession was orchestrated by the government in the same vein of the on-air confessions pulled from those who have run afoul of the Chinese government.  Then today I was reading about how the Chinese government is cracking down on original news reporting on online web portals like Sina, Sohu, and Netease, which have built up significant investigative reporting arms over the years as more traditional print media like the Southern Weekend have been sidelined by the government.  The Cyberspace Administration of China is relying on a 2005 internet regulation to crack down on these news sites and is now saying they can only publish social and political news that has been sourced from government -controlled news agencies.  In recent years, these websites have covered stories that tend to resonate deeply with the general public including corruption, natural disasters, chemical contaminations, and other social-related issues.  Sina, Sohu, and Netease are like Facebook, Twitter, and Google both aggregating stories from other sources and printing original stories.  Not only will Chinese netizens lose a valuable source of candid and practical news about things like contaminated running tracks at Chinese schools, tainted food, and government officials abusing their positions of power, but it’s another attempt the central government to stamp out alternate narratives and further control the flow of information its citizens receive.  Perhaps it’s because of next year’s 19th Party Congress and the party’s fear that such news will sow discontent ahead of that event, so better to start now to control the official narrative.  Yet this most recent move combined with what has been a slow, but steady erosion in the quality and independence of the SCMP’s reporting since the paper was taken over by Alibaba at the end of last year is a real one-two punch in the face of independent journalism.  Now no one on the mainland expects the press to be free, but these online news sites actually served a public good bringing stories and issues to light that affected large swaths of the population and might not have seen the light of say in the government-controlled media for fear of inciting dissent.  But when press freedoms in Hong Kong come under attack even though they are supposed to be preserved until at least 20147 under the Basic Law, it’s hard not to take such actions here as a harbinger of worse crackdowns on press freedom to come both here and in China.

 

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I’m giving some solidarity with my snowbound friends and family on the East Coast of the US right now as they get hit with their first major snowstorm of the year.  While there isn’t any snow here in Shenzhen, it’s damn cold.  We’re experiencing a polar vortex of our own with temperatures hitting record lows.  It’s 45 degrees in Shenzhen and it feels even colder because most homes don’t have heat and even with heat, they are built without any real insulation since it’s normally warm and humid.  Add the humidity factor into it and it feels even colder because it’s that raw, wet cold that gets into your bones.  I am sitting here at . . . where else?  . . . Starbucks in the mall in my winter parka and wool beanie because someone had the bright idea to leave the front doors of the mall open even though it’s freezing outside.

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Freezing at the mall

Trying my best to type without gloves, but it’s not easy.

I’ve been meaning to write for the past couple of days, but the combination of work and Internet problems from being behind the Great Firewall have made it hard to sit down and do so.

You’ve probably noticed that the stock markets have had a wild week with most of the turbulence being traced back to the much-discussed slowdown of the Chinese economy.  The government reported it’s growth for 2015 of 6.9%, which while the envy of most other countries, was the slowest rate in 25 years.  It’s hard though to tie the gyrations of the market to just the slowdown of the Chinese economy.  That would completely leave out human nature and the irrational impulses of investors or perhaps the all the rational follow-the-herd mentality that often pervades markets.  A sell-off in one market is usually going to lead to a sell-off around the world, especially in this day and age when everything is so interconnected.  But I did not set out to turn this post into a lesson about markets, investing, or even the global macroeconomy.

China never ceases to amaze me in how screwed up and fascinating a place it can be, usually all in the same moment.  The five booksellers from Hong Kong are still missing, though two have kind of turned up.  One who was allegedly abducted from Thailand (and is a Swedish national) went on national television to confess to killing a young girl in a drunk driving incident in 2003 and the other, Lee Bo, who is a British national, is somewhere in Guangdong province, but no one knows exactly where or why.  It’s galling that nearly a month after Lee Bo went missing, we still do not know where he is. Worryingly, the Hong Kong government has asked the central government and Guangdong officials and all they could get out of them nearly three weeks after he went missing is that he is indeed on the mainland.  Chinese officials do not think that the HK government merits a detailed response and so the HK government and its people still remain in the dark about whether mainland law enforcement officials actually came down and abducted Lee Bo, as well as the other four missing men who are connected to this particular publishing house.  What’s more troubling is that the mainland allegedly took these men away because they did not like the content of the books these men were publishing, which tended to be gossipy take-downs of top mainland officials.  All of this adds up to some serious violations of “one country, two systems”, which was the policy that has undergirded the handover of HK from the British to the Chinese.  China has become more and more brazen about violating this policy and the Hong Kong people are truly powerless to stop it.  In the grander scheme of things, it unfortunately dovetails with a number of other moves on the mainland that reflect a central government still attempting to snuff out any sort of dissent.  From President Xi telling government officials that some questions should not be asked to the continued takedown of government officials on charges of corruption to the conducting off war exercises off the coast of Taiwan the other day, nearly a week after the election of Tsai Ing-wen, reflecting a Taiwanese electorate that increasingly sees itself as Taiwanese and not Chinese.  In one bizarre move last week, nearly 45,000 people, mostly from the mainland, criticized Tsai for her pro-independence stance.  It’s known the comments came from the mainland because they were using simplified Chinese characters versus Taiwan, which uses the traditional ones.  It’s bizarre because Facebook is still blocked on the mainland unless you have a VPN, so many suspect it was the work of government-enlisted individuals who were able to evade the Great Firewall to post on her page.  While some Taiwanese supporters pointed out this irony in reply comments, Tsai probably had the best post of all replying, “”The greatness of this country lies in how every single person can exercise their right to be himself or herself.” (“這個國家偉大的地方就在於每一個人都有做自己的權利”)

Tsai FacebookPretty brilliant reply to what was probably a coordinated mainland response seeking to rattle her so soon after being elected.

And that my friends is a bit of what went down this week that leaves me sitting here shaking my head wondering what’s next, but still insanely intrigued and fascinated by the things that happen in this country.  Stay tuned for more.

December 21, 2015

I’ve been in Hong Kong since Friday afternoon catching up with old friends and meeting new ones, which has been really nice after the relative isolation of Shenzhen.  I forget how everyone is connected here and how willing people are to then connect you with others both in the city and around the region.  It’s a small city, which sometimes makes it feel like a village with high-rises all around.  But if HK, is a village than Asia is like a metropolitan area.  My friend El actually referred to the region as a “neighborhood” where HK, Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, and any of the other cities in the region are only a stone’s throw from one another and people move seamlessly among these regional metropolises.

No matter how many times I leave and re-enter HK, I am still amazed at how different the vibe is here versus the mainland. It’s been starker the past few weeks because I have been hanging out up in Shenzhen, which is about 15-20 miles from Central in HK, but still feels like a completely different world.  The differences are not just in how much more pleasant HK feels when you cross the border or how you can basically find every creature comfort you might be missing from home.  It’s an energy in the air that still has not been snuffed out by Beijing after nearly 20 years of the “One Country, Two Systems” approach to governing HK.  Though it’s not like China hasn’t tried, whether it was passing an anti-sedition law in the early 2000s, revamping the education system to make it more China-friendly, or most recently in Alibaba’s purchase of HK’s largest and oldest English-language daily, The South China Morning Post.  This most recent event has raised some alarm bells in the city because while Alibaba is private, much of its success comes from maintaining close ties with the government in Beijing.  While Jack Ma has promised to maintain the paper’s independence and journalistic freedom, it’s hard to imagine him picking the SCMP’s journalists and editors over Beijing if a story were written that somehow displeased Beijing and the Party.  I mean, even in China you read about things being posted online, whether on Sina Weibo or directly on a newspaper’s website and then immediately the post is deleted.  I just read an article about a landslide in Shenzhen over the weekend, which fortunately was in the NW part of the city and nowhere near where I would have been in Shekou, so as far as I know, everyone is okay.  But in an article from the NYT, it was noted that the Weibo page of a local newspaper noted that the debris and dirt pile was illegal, but had been approved by local officials. Then somehow those posts were eventually deleted.

It’s the hint of transparency or journalistic freedom that quickly gets buried (sorry, no pun intended in light of the recent landslide) by the authorities that makes China so hard to comprehend.  I always struggle with how to describe China to people who have never been there, especially when I try to draw a contrast between the mainland and Hong Kong.  I read an op-ed in the SCMP last weekend by George Chen or Mr. Shangkong, reflecting his Shanghai and HK ties, where in his farewell column he muses about what makes HK different than Shanghai. His conclusion – freedom.  He extols the freedom of choice, to think freely and express those thoughts without fear of being silenced.  This freedom flows into everything else that makes HK feel so different than the mainland because as Mr. Shangkong points out, without this freedom, we don’t get ideas and thoughts, which are the things that get us not only closer to the truth, but to solutions to the problems that vex our society. Freedom alllows for iterative thinking to come up with creative ways to move forward.  In China, the government already knows what it would like in terms of a desired outcome and if you put forth an idea that comports with that outcome, great.  If not, you may be rounded up and put in detention.  What ends up happening is that sometimes you get a good idea that moves society forward, but you’re just as likely to get a bad idea without any escape hatch.

Take a look at the recently completed World Internet Conference in Wuzhen where President Xi Jinping gave an opening speech where he reiterated China’s desire to censor the internet on its own terms and basically told the rest of the world to leave them alone.  Though my favorite quote from his speech was when he said, “As in the real world, freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace: Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee for freedom.” I read that and can barely make out any distinction between “freedom” and “order”. It sounds more like total control of the internet from the Chinese perspective, or perhaps freedom as long as it aligns with what the government wants.  Deviate from that point and you’re in trouble.

So I go back to Mr. Shangkong and why HK feels so different from the mainland and perhaps it’s this freedom that has survived nearly 20 years of Chinese control.  But it’s not like this freedom is guaranteed forever. It’s only good up until 2047 when the “One Country, Two Systems” period will come to an end and no one knows what will come next.  Heck, China could change its mind and end it sooner or continue doing what it has been trying to do since it took HK back, chip away slowly at the freedom that makes HK so special.  Either way it goes, what makes HK special is in danger from a central government hellbent on taking HK down a peg or three to the level of the rest of the country.

The Real China?

December 1, 2015

“Where is the real China?”

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been asked variations on this question from the American teachers at our school for which this stint in Shenzhen is their first time in China.  I struggle to come up with a good answer because I am not sure I actually know the answer.  Depending on the day and my mood, I recommend checking out Beijing for a good contrast between the old and new China with a bunch of government formality thrown in for good measure.  Or maybe I extol the history in Xian with its terra cotta warriors and ancient city walls still standing.  Or even Yangshuo (阳朔) for its beautiful scenery and Yongding (永定) with its tulou (土楼).

Maybe Shenzhen is actually the best representation of the real China. 30 or so years ago it was nothing more than a 50,000 person market town through which the Guangzhou – Hong Kong through-train passed.  Now it’s a metropolis of over 15 million people, depending on how many of the surrounding towns you include in that count, and home to an endless supply of high-end malls, one of China’s two stock exchanges, and extreme wealth on display throughout the city.   This dramatic transformation, which at this point has been noted by anyone who has spent time here or in any number of China’s other Tier One and Tier Two cities, is almost a given when speaking about China. However, the teachers for whom Shenzhen represents their introduction to China, something rings hollow about the city and the experience.  It’s not that it’s not pleasant or convenient, but it almost feels too easy and not what they expected of China.  But I have to wonder what they expected China to be if not a temple of consumerism and capitalism with very little in the way of apparent angst about the country’s problems and where it’s going.

Just an aside to note that I must give props to my dad for bringing to my attention Andrew Jacobs’ “Notes on the China I’m Leaving Behind“, which was published in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  In short, it’s his take on where China is at after spending almost eight years on the ground.  It means more to me that my dad brought it to my attention because I’d like to think that it’s my being here on the ground that caused him to stop and read it whereas if I wasn’t here, there might have been the chance that he would have skipped over Jacobs’ piece.   Thanks, dad.

Jacobs notes this disconnect between the shiny veneer of consumerism and deeper problems that lurk beneath this surface.  He writes, “[T]he Communist Party, largely through fear and intimidation, seems to have trained much of the population to channel their energies into the pursuit of consumerism.”  This sentence gets to the heart of what is so strange about China, especially to Americans who are so used to the constant bombardment of negative news that makes it hard to enjoy Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  Most Chinese people seem rather oblivious to the problems around them, including a slowing economy, rapidly degrading environment, disadvantageous demographics, and the detention of anyone who dare challenge the regime.

Shenzhen is even more of a conundrum because it should embody the idea that the further one is from Beijing, the less reverence they have for the government and its policies.  That actually may be true to an extent in Shenzhen, which is richer and freer than most other parts of China, but the vacuum that exists from seemingly not caring about social and political matters is what makes the city feel so strange.  Its proximity to Hong Kong and relatively porous border only heightens the strangeness. Shenzheners cross quite regularly between the two cities, but it’s mainly to shop in Hong Kong because of its better selection of Western good and lower prices.  Yet, Shenzheners bring little else back with them except bags and suitcases full of purchases.

To an American like myself who goes back and forth quite frequently and have been doing so for over a decade, I still marvel at the feeling of how different Hong Kong is from the moment I step off a plane, train, or boat. I don’t know for certain, but would guess that most Chinese people crossing the border just see the city as a giant shopping mall.

Foreign Policy is running a special series on education and the relationship between the U.S. and China.  Zara Zhang, a Chinese student at Harvard, writes about her experience there and acting as a bridge between the U.S. and China.  Her experience at Harvard is a fascinating read, especially as someone who has taught top university students in China.  Among her many observations, one stood out for me at the end of her piece, “If China will one day become a more democratic and open society, it will probably be a result of the effort of this large group of culturally hybrid individuals whose heads are now used to Western thinking — but whose hearts are unchangeably Chinese.”

I have thought about this point a lot and I think it’s what any Western country that hosts a large number of Chinese students at its high schools and universities thinks, too – that by welcoming Chinese students into the halls of Western education, they’ll be imbued with ideas of freedom and democracy and bring those ideas back home to clamor for change.  The question that is not answered is whether those ideas will be subsumed upon returning home once those same students start working and realize that the current system is better set up to reward those with degrees from top universities.   Another way of thinking about it is this – will coming home and joining the existing system prevent these idealistic students from carrying out the reforms they may have been so excited to see through when sitting in a classroom in New Haven, Melbourne, or Oxford?  I don’t know the answer, but I would like to see where the Zara Zhang’s of China are in ten years’ time.

Jacobs’ point that the government has so successfully turned people’s frustrations and desires for change into a force for consumerism could mean that even successive generations with more exposure to people and ideas from outside China might not be enough to correct the social and political problems that China faces if it’s to make that jump from purely an economic juggernaut to a true global power.  For those who wonder if Chinese people actually care about these social and political problems, Jacobs makes it clear that there are people who are disgruntled, but they’re powerless against the huge tide of people who would rather shop than think about what ails their country, especially since there are a lot fewer restrictions on spending money than doing other things.

And for those looking for the real China, if you’re in a city like Shenzhen, you’re probably experiencing it every day.  Just walk to any one of the many malls on a Saturday afternoon and wander around taking in the people milling about and there you have it.  Happy shopping.