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.

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