Election Day HK-style

September 4, 2016

I walked out of my apartment building in the Midlevels to the scene below.

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Election Day on Robinson Road

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”.

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Civic Passion’s Platform (of sorts)

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.

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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.

Time For a Divorce?

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.