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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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.

My apologies for being offline the the past three weeks, but I was back in the States for Chinese New Year to see family and friends, as well as take care of some work over there and just returned to Asia this past Monday where I’ve been busy working and setting up my new home in Hong Kong.  So it’s fitting that I am sitting at my beloved Starbucks in the Garden City Mall in Shenzhen about an hour or so before I am due to move out of my room here and bring all of my worldly possessions to Hong Kong, meaning all four suitcases-worth.

Heading home for any extended period of time and then returning to China means that I have some room to process all that’s happened during the time I’ve been here, as well as answer questions from family and friends about what they might have seen or heard about China in the news.  The two topics dominating any conversations I had about China were either the stock market and economy or the continued crackdown on political and civil liberties, including the ongoing case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers.

Having some space from China, I still feel that this is a country heading in the wrong direction at the moment.  It’s not that it can’t or won’t turn itself around, but almost daily there is another news headline that makes me shake my head and wonder what’s really going on here.  The latest was President Xi’s visit to the country’s major news and media organizations in China explicitly telling them to act as a mouthpiece for the party.  This new policy is another attempt to exert greater control over another aspect of Chinese society that has the potential to create social instability.  However, like many previous moves, this one smacks of insecurity and coming at a time when there are questions around China’s ability to manage its economy, it’s clear this is another attempt to mask potential problems that may exist in the system.  If these problems somehow were brought to light, there is a real fear that people would not be happy and social unrest could erupt.  Definitely not a move of a leader in control of his country.

Beyond that, I have been thinking more about Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and other cities that see themselves as other in the context of Greater China.  Hong Kong is probably the most salient example of this trend in light of protests over the years against certain actions taken or policies put forth by the mainland.  The largest of recent memory being the Umbrella Revolution in the fall of 2014 triggered by Beijing shifting the goalposts on universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.  The alleged kidnapping of the booksellers has only added accelerated this feeling of “other-ness” that seems to run deep among Hong Kongers.  However, more interesting and something that only really hit me this morning as I was being driven around Shenzhen in an area known as the Hi-Tech Park where some of Chinas biggest tech companies have their offices including Tencent, ZTE, and DJI. I saw all these twenty-something tech workers running to work and the scene could have just as easily been one from Silicon Valley.  Shenzhen is a city trying to build its future on technology and finance as it firmly sheds its industrial past.  More interesting is the fact that very few people in Shenzhen are actually from Shenzhen, so the city does not have to hew closely to a long-established culture.  Many people (mainly foreigners visiting or living here, including myself at times) bemoan the lack of a deep-rooted culture.  But my riding partner that morning who has lived here for quite some time even though she is not from here framed this lack of a deep-rooted culture in a positive way that I had not considered before.  She claimed that this lack of culture meant that the city was building something new from the ground up, which made Shenzhen much more open than any other Chinese city that is hemmed in by its past.  You can see it in all the new skyscrapers, shiny shopping malls, and tech companies pushing the Chinese innovation storyline.  But I had not thought about it in terms of what it means for a city and its outlook, as well as its place in the national narrative.  The conversation was sparked by my question about whether Shenzhen was different than other parts of China and upon receiving an emphatic “yes”, I followed up and was presented with this theory.  If Shenzhen can perhaps be added to the “other” category because of its short history, lack of a strong local culture, and welcoming people from all over China with easy access to Hong Kong, I wonder what this means for the future of the city and more importantly, China as perhaps other cities begin to see themselves as different than the rest of the country, which would be a rather backhanded way of unravelling the social cohesion that President Xi working so hard to maintain.  Something to be explored further in another post, but wanted to get it out there because it’s something I feel like I am going to be thinking about for quite some time.  But now I must finish packing and make my way back to Hong Kong.

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.