HK Election Epilogue

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.

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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.