Election Day HK-style

September 4, 2016

I walked out of my apartment building in the Midlevels to the scene below.


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”.


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.


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

For the past week and a half , my friend Gus from New York has been here visiting me in China.  As I type, he’s sitting in the Hong Kong airport waiting for his flight that has been inexplicably delayed. Note to all of you: Air Canada is kind of a mess.   Not only did they lose his luggage in the Beijing airport for two days, but now they’ve pushed back his departure time by nearly six hours.

Gus and I started in Beijing a week and a half ago and spent four days there taking in the various local destinations and culture.  Then we made our way down to GZ where he met the other fellows, watched my students perform their own satirical skits, and sat in on a meeting at Guangtong, the LGBT group I volunteer at.  The trip ended in Hong Kong, where we’ve been since last Thursday.  

Having Gus in China was not only amazing fun, but I learned a lot about today’s China through his eyes since this was his first time in the country.  His Asian exposure has been limited to a trip to Japan and there are really very few cultural comparisons between China and Japan, so he basically landed in Beijing as a blank slate.  

I fell in love with Beijing over the course of the four days I was there.  So many people have told me that it is their favorite city in China and I was prepared to be a contrarian and not jump on that bandwagon.  However, Beijing is perhaps the best example of China’s meteoric rise and it’s future ambitions.  Not only are there the requisite cranes dotting the skyline, massive holes in the ground, and superb architectural statements punctuating the city’s landscape that come with a city trying to send the world a message, but there’s also a unique vibe running through the city that I had not yet felt during my time in China.  Most of China feels like it’s in a hurry to get somewhere, a feeling which Beijing shares in, but I also felt the stirrings of a unique modern culture forming.  Given its status as a capital city and the large presence of foreigners both living and visiting the city, it’s not surprising that there are a lot of foreign influences in the city, from the hippie-like coffee shops of Nanluogu Xiang to the proliferation of restaurants specializing in foreign cuisines throughout the city.  What’s amazing about all of these foreign influences is that they are being adapted and molded by the Chinese and it gives the city its own feeling of sophistication as it becomes comfortable in its own skin.  So much of China feels derivative, meaning that one city is really indistinguishable from the next save for size and the number of shopping malls.  Some will argue that Shanghai has a vibe similar to Beijing or that Shanghai is China’s New York and Beijing is Washington DC, but I just feel like Shanghai is trying to become a derivative of Hong Kong.

Anyway, I digress.  It was through Gus’ observations that these things became more apparent to me.  GZ next to Beijing was like the real China and the differences between the two metropolises was readily apparent.  But it was so cool to be able to share my job, my friends, and my daily life with one of my good friends from home.  He now understands what I do during  my day-to-day in this crazy place called GZ.  

Ending the trip in Hong Kong was probably the best because it really feels out of place after spending any time on the mainland and I think it could have ruined Gus’ perception of GZ and Beijing if he had started in Hong Kong.  Last night we wound up at the wine and cheese bar called Classified (which is a great chill place to relax on a nice day with a glass of wine and some good cheese) on Hollywood Road towards Sheung Wan and after Gus came back from the bathroom, he exclaimed that the setting felt straight out of New York.  It was if the owners had gone to New York or some other city and copied every last detail down to the giant chalkboard listing the wines being sold by the glass.  Even since when I lived here from 2000-02, the city feels like it has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the mainland by providing a city that doesn’t feel like China. What that means is kind of unclear and whether that’s a good thing is debatable. but there does seem to be a subconscious (or not so subconscious) desire to differentiate Hong Kong from its caretaker to the north and perhaps the way to do that is to create a place that almost feels like the anti-China.

Now Gus is gone after a week and a half of some interesting experiences in Greater China.  I am heading back to GZ for what I feel is the last push with the semester ending in a little over two months and will continue to report on my going-ons up there.