Enough is enough.  Or is it?  I live 13 hours ahead of Washington, D.C., so when I wake up in the morning I am hit with the full force of the day’s news versus the usual sporadic updating of headlines I would normally be subject to if I was still living in the U.S.  Reading about the absurdity that is American politics in such a concentrated form means my morning coffee is usually punctuated with quite a bit of head shaking, the occasional expletive, and calls and texts back home filled with words like “ridiculous”, “crazy”, “nightmare”, “horrible”, and “insane”.  I often feel like I have run out superlatives to describe what’s going on and we’re only a month into what is supposed to be four years of a Trump presidency.

Just when I am about to write about how the latest tweet or actual utterance is going to ruin the republic, something else happens that’s even worse than what preceded it.  The upside to not writing about what’s been going in real-time is that I have had a month to let things sink in for a bit of perspective, though I am not sure what good perspective is when facts are lies and lies are facts and when we have double-speak coming from within the same administration, whether it’s about our commitment to Europe or relations with Russia.  What’s missing from all this activity are actual policies, which to some may be a good thing, but it also means Trump can perpetuate the lies he needs to solidify support from his base.

I think it’s important to meet with and record interviews with his supporters to understand why they stand behind this man.  The Washington Post, part of the cabal of fake news, had an article with quotes rom Trump supporters.  Forget about the actual article and it’s macro point about a real divide in the country and focus on the words of his supporters.  They believe Trump and his attacks on the media and feel as if he is not getting a fair shake at things.  Trump’s PR plan is masterful in that his supporters believe him hook, line, and sinker.  When he says he saved thousands of jobs with the signing of an executive order or that Sweden suffered a terrorist attack, his supporters only look at the his tweets or the headlines that support his point of view and make up their minds.  This blind following begs the question – when do they lose faith?

That question is one that vexes me to no end.  What will break this almost spell-like enchantment with Trump?  Will it be when Republicans actually do something to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and people realize that when they next go to the doctor, they have no insurance?  Will it be when people who thought Trump was bringing back their jobs are still unemployed two years later?  Will it be when he gets us embroiled in another global conflict and American troops are being sent into battle?  Will it be when he launches a trade war and inflation skyrockets as the cost of imports soars?  I worry that given where we are as a country, none of these things will matter because Trump has these people hooked on the twin beliefs that all news that runs counter to his narrative is fake and any problems that arise will be deemed to have been handed to him by his predecessor, even a year or two on from when Obama was last in office.  Perhaps the better question is this one – what happens if his supporters, in spite of bad things continuing to happen, do not lose faith in him?

Then the answer depends on what the so far feckless Republicans decide to do about Trump and his lies.  I won’t even begin to discuss the Democrats because they’re still out in the wilderness trying to figure out the best way to make themselves heard.  It’s the Republicans, the part y of the majority, that have the power and moral imperative to ensure that Trump does not destroy the republic.  Yet, what we’ve seen from Republicans is more of the same that they pulled when Obama was president, except now they are in power and actually have to do something to ensure that our country continues moving forward.  House Republicans led by the increasingly unprincipled Paul Ryan are still talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails when it’s possible we may have a president and his administration colluding with what should be the true enemy, Russia.    Thank goodness for Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who while perhaps not aligned with my politics, speak about protecting the same country that am proud to call mine.  But other Republicans have not shown the same respect and concern for our country, blinded more by advancing a specific agenda that would be meaningless if what made America truly great was no longer.  Yet these Republicans are unable to see what could be the unraveling of America as a beacon of freedom, liberty, and democracy.  Rather they continue to operate in an environment that is increasingly looking like a quaint anachronism, where Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, left and right, were all we had to worry about when governing.  Unfortunately, it’s bigger than that.  It should not matter what side of aisle or political debate we are on.  Rather this is about America and the future of our country, what is stands for at home and abroad, as well ensuring we have something we’re proud off to hand off to future generations.

Today we face a president and his inner circle of truth-bending loyalists who boast of non-existent policy achievements and disavow themselves of any mistakes or errors in the first month of this administration.  Yet we have others hanging out in the other branches of government, namely Congress, willing to look away while he chips away at the foundations of our country in the hopes that they can get some policy concessions out of him.  Such behavior is not only short-sighted, but increasingly so partisan as to be nearly non-American.

 

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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.

Slumbering No Longer

June 8, 2012

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After sleeping for nearly 12 hours last night, my fingers are crossed that I may have kicked the jet lag in one night. Usually I end up going to sleep and waking up at the crack of dawn, but perhaps the two glasses of wine and (very strong) vodka martini were the secret. Those twelve hours of sleep were without my usual jet lag kicker – an Ambien to help prolong the sleep cycle. I’m now sitting in a cafe in the 798 Space, an area of old warehouses that has been turned into a mini-neighborhood of galleries, exhibitions, cafes, and shops. I’ve seen all of the must-see sights of Beijing on previous trips and 798 has always been on my list of things to see, so I’m glad I made the trip out here today. There are some pictures below from 798.

Last night, I had dinner in Sanlitun (三里屯), which is one of the many mixed-use developments to have risen in Beijing in recent years. It’s home to China’s first Apple Store, opened to coincide with the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The area also has many bars, restaurants, and shops including Uniqlo, Nike, and Starbucks. The is a “bar street” just north of the shops filled with all sorts of watering holes. I went to a restaurant called Mosto in a complex called Nali Patio (那里花园), which resembled a large plaza with outdoor seating and restaurants spilling onto terraces on the upper floors. The complex had a definite Moorish feeling to it with the white stucco and arches. Below you can see some pictures from Sanlitun. Mosto has been heralded as one of the best newcomers to the Beijing restaurant scene, at least as lauded by Time Out Beijing and other English publications. The restaurant could have been situated anywhere with it’s mix of foreigners and middle-upper class Chinese customers. (Okay, Taylor Swift’s “Back to December” is now playing in this cafe, which also means I know this song). Actually, whether it’s Taylor Swift or Mosto, I am always reminded about how powerful globalization is when I come back to China. Sitting in the U.S. and listening to politicians rail against globalization and foreign influences, it’s nice to see other parts of the world still embracing foreign culture, and in turn this softer form of globalization that gets buried in the political rhetoric of free trade, immigration, and the economy. But I digress. Dinner was good, but I just looked around, much as I always do in China and marveled. Not for the pace of development or the ostentatious displays of money, but for the development of a seemingly robust society in spite of the government’s best efforts to control thoughts and speech. I saw kids in Starbucks reading art books and fashion magazines. 798 is filled with galleries of Chinese art curated by Chinese curators. Creative juices are flowing and people are learning about things outside
of the well-policed government channels. Combined with the rising discontent over real and perceived inequalities and injustice in Chinese society, it makes for a potent combination.

I met a friend who is an American lawyer here (and indirectly contributed to my restful sleep by taking me out for drinks) and we were talking about China’s future. In the middle of my 30 plus hours of being awake, we stumbled on to the topic of China’s future. Having been here two and a half years, he said he noticed a change for the worse and it was part of his reason for wanting to return to the States. China is not going to have a full-blown revolution in the mold of the Arab Spring, but there are so many strains of discontent evident in society. That discontent combined with greater freedoms to travel, think, and create means that something is going to have to give. As the type of life that exists in Beijing and Shanghai spreads to third, fourth, and fifth tier cities in various forms, the pressure for change is going to grow. Throw a fraying social contract of economic growth in exchange for passivity and the pressure for change becomes greater. I’m not going to speculate on what that change will look like. It could be on a small scale writ large like the recent village elections in Wukan or it could be peaceful marches in dozens of cities like the Occupy Wall Street or Moscow demonstrations. The challenge for the latter to happen is coordinating online or via mobile phone when he government’s censors work overtime to prevent such action.

Whatever it may be, China is moving towards something different. The question is what.

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