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.

Power to the People

July 3, 2012

Just a quick word before heading to bed.  After a wandering around Central in a suit for meetings with law firms and quick jaunt to Jordan across the harbour to see my tailor, Louis, I met up with friends to go to a 川菜 (Sichuan) private kitchen in Wanchai and then a Taiwanese dessert place in Causeway Bay for some shaved ice.  The good food aside, my first meeting this morning was in the building (and quite possibly the same floor) where Salomon Smith Barney’s offices used to be when I was an investment banking analyst.  Walking down the escalator and across the overpasses this morning towards the harbour was kind of trippy because I used to do the same walk over ten years ago.  The feeling wasn’t quite deja vu because I was fully present in the moment and could easily link it back to the past event, but it was one of those moments when you realize in some ways how far you’ve come and in others you are still very much the same person you were all that time ago. with just a touch more awareness.

As you all know, there were protests this weekend in Hong Kong against many things including the swearing in of the new Chief Executive, the environment, housing prices, human rights on the mainland, education, jobs, and practically any other social, political, or economic cause that you can think of.  When I asked Hong Kongers I know how they feel about things here, they express a lack of trust in C.Y. Leung, the new Chief Executive, but there is also a resignation that nothing is going to change anytime soon.  I don’t know if that resignation comes from the wisdom (or jadedness) of older age or from a very practical view that as long as China calls the shots from Beijing, change in this city is not going to come anytime soon.

I read an interesting op-ed piece in Monday’s South China Morning Post by Lau Nai-keung, who is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee.  What this means is that Lau is on the committee that makes sure that the Basic Law is being follows. The Basic Law Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that enshrines its freedoms and way of life until 2047.  One could argue that Lau is a Beijing sympathiser and his op-ed piece is not the most clearly written, but it tries to lay out an argument that pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong are looking to use people power to both weaken the government’s hand and force Beijing to allow universal suffrage for the Chief Executive in 2017.  The piece also seems to argue that the pro-democracy forces are just waiting for China to collapse so that Hong Kong can go its own way as a truly autonomous city-state more akin to Singapore with real elections.  While it’s an interesting notion to think about Hong Kong as an independent city-state, I am not quite sure what Lau is arguing for except that if the pro-democracy forces keep pushing people power, then the chances that a national security law will be implemented as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law will be nil.  It sounds to me like Lau wants this law passed as one who has been ordained to uphold the Basic Law, warts and all.  It also sounds like he remembers quite well what happened when the Hong Kong government tried to pass a national security law in 2002 and sparked the largest protests to date on Handover Day in 2003 with upwards of 350,000 marching in protest of the law.  The man is afraid of what the people might demand and what Beijing may decide when pushed to the brink, but yet he does not offer any real solution to the problem except to almost blame pro-democracy forces of “peacefully subverting the system” as provided for in the Basic Law. 

I need to give this some more thought, but I have been thinking about it since it’s so timely and sometimes half a thought is better than none.

Mainland or China?

October 8, 2010

Congratulations to Liu Xiaobo for winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  Unfortunately, he is under arrest and it’s unclear how he’s going to be able to claim his prize.  The Chinese government is also none too pleased about his win, calling him a “criminal”, which I am sure is one of the nicer things that the government could say about him on the record.  But the Chinese government is threatening that Chinese-Norwegian relations could be in trouble due to the issuance of the prize to someone they consider to be subversive.

During my time in Hong Kong, I stumbled upon an interesting, but common distinction when talking with people about my time in China.  I had coffee Monday with one of my former students from SYSU who is doing her PhD in Economics at Hong Kong University.  She kept asking me about my time on the “mainland”, but when I found myself speaking with other friends they refer to my time in Linyi as time spent in “China”.  So some people use “mainland” to refer to make a geographical distinction between Hong Kong and China because they are part of the same country and others use their given names as if it’s a subtle defiance that Hong Kong is really a part of China.  It’s easy to place the line of demarcation for such usage between those who are Chinese nationals and everyone else, but I received a text message from someone from New York who said that they “saw me in China”.  I was pretty sure that it wasn’t in Linyi that this sighting took place, so I texted back and asked if he meant Hong Kong.  He did and it made me wonder not only what the heck someone from home was doing in Hong Kong the same time I was there, but also why he was referring to Hong Kong as China.  Perhaps I am old-fashioned and thus refuse to call Hong Kong “China”, even though it is technically a part of China through the whole “one country, two systems” framework.  But spend time in Hong Kong and it feels so far from China, even with all of the Mandarin on the streets these days.  Hong Kong is not China, but tell that to someone from the mainland and they will insist that it is a part of China.  I know logically that it is a part of China, but maybe it’s my Western mindset that prevents me from being able to bring myself to refer to it as such.

View of Midlevels from new IFC Mall