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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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.

December 21, 2015

I’ve been in Hong Kong since Friday afternoon catching up with old friends and meeting new ones, which has been really nice after the relative isolation of Shenzhen.  I forget how everyone is connected here and how willing people are to then connect you with others both in the city and around the region.  It’s a small city, which sometimes makes it feel like a village with high-rises all around.  But if HK, is a village than Asia is like a metropolitan area.  My friend El actually referred to the region as a “neighborhood” where HK, Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, and any of the other cities in the region are only a stone’s throw from one another and people move seamlessly among these regional metropolises.

No matter how many times I leave and re-enter HK, I am still amazed at how different the vibe is here versus the mainland. It’s been starker the past few weeks because I have been hanging out up in Shenzhen, which is about 15-20 miles from Central in HK, but still feels like a completely different world.  The differences are not just in how much more pleasant HK feels when you cross the border or how you can basically find every creature comfort you might be missing from home.  It’s an energy in the air that still has not been snuffed out by Beijing after nearly 20 years of the “One Country, Two Systems” approach to governing HK.  Though it’s not like China hasn’t tried, whether it was passing an anti-sedition law in the early 2000s, revamping the education system to make it more China-friendly, or most recently in Alibaba’s purchase of HK’s largest and oldest English-language daily, The South China Morning Post.  This most recent event has raised some alarm bells in the city because while Alibaba is private, much of its success comes from maintaining close ties with the government in Beijing.  While Jack Ma has promised to maintain the paper’s independence and journalistic freedom, it’s hard to imagine him picking the SCMP’s journalists and editors over Beijing if a story were written that somehow displeased Beijing and the Party.  I mean, even in China you read about things being posted online, whether on Sina Weibo or directly on a newspaper’s website and then immediately the post is deleted.  I just read an article about a landslide in Shenzhen over the weekend, which fortunately was in the NW part of the city and nowhere near where I would have been in Shekou, so as far as I know, everyone is okay.  But in an article from the NYT, it was noted that the Weibo page of a local newspaper noted that the debris and dirt pile was illegal, but had been approved by local officials. Then somehow those posts were eventually deleted.

It’s the hint of transparency or journalistic freedom that quickly gets buried (sorry, no pun intended in light of the recent landslide) by the authorities that makes China so hard to comprehend.  I always struggle with how to describe China to people who have never been there, especially when I try to draw a contrast between the mainland and Hong Kong.  I read an op-ed in the SCMP last weekend by George Chen or Mr. Shangkong, reflecting his Shanghai and HK ties, where in his farewell column he muses about what makes HK different than Shanghai. His conclusion – freedom.  He extols the freedom of choice, to think freely and express those thoughts without fear of being silenced.  This freedom flows into everything else that makes HK feel so different than the mainland because as Mr. Shangkong points out, without this freedom, we don’t get ideas and thoughts, which are the things that get us not only closer to the truth, but to solutions to the problems that vex our society. Freedom alllows for iterative thinking to come up with creative ways to move forward.  In China, the government already knows what it would like in terms of a desired outcome and if you put forth an idea that comports with that outcome, great.  If not, you may be rounded up and put in detention.  What ends up happening is that sometimes you get a good idea that moves society forward, but you’re just as likely to get a bad idea without any escape hatch.

Take a look at the recently completed World Internet Conference in Wuzhen where President Xi Jinping gave an opening speech where he reiterated China’s desire to censor the internet on its own terms and basically told the rest of the world to leave them alone.  Though my favorite quote from his speech was when he said, “As in the real world, freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace: Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee for freedom.” I read that and can barely make out any distinction between “freedom” and “order”. It sounds more like total control of the internet from the Chinese perspective, or perhaps freedom as long as it aligns with what the government wants.  Deviate from that point and you’re in trouble.

So I go back to Mr. Shangkong and why HK feels so different from the mainland and perhaps it’s this freedom that has survived nearly 20 years of Chinese control.  But it’s not like this freedom is guaranteed forever. It’s only good up until 2047 when the “One Country, Two Systems” period will come to an end and no one knows what will come next.  Heck, China could change its mind and end it sooner or continue doing what it has been trying to do since it took HK back, chip away slowly at the freedom that makes HK so special.  Either way it goes, what makes HK special is in danger from a central government hellbent on taking HK down a peg or three to the level of the rest of the country.