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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Today’s New York Times had an article about Ordos in Inner Mongolia and the local government’s efforts to build a brand new city about 15 miles south of the old city.  Reading the article, I was struck by how similar Ordos’ expansion appears to what is happening in Linyi.  North of the Benghe River, the local government has embarked constructing a new city from scratch.  New luxury towers and villas have sprung up on what was once farmland for as far as the eye can see.  Like in Ordos, the first tenant in this new “city” will be the local government, who is moving its offices from the old city around People’s Square (人民广成) to the new city north of the river.  Residents are presumably the next to follow.  The NYT article does a good job aggregating what I have been saying in my posts about Linyi and its many splendid towers with no one living in them.   While its amazing that a government can harness so many resources to build a new city entirely from scratch, the wonders of today’s state-driven capitalism can easily turn into tomorrow’s follies.  Only time will tell.

View of Linyi's new city north of Benghe

I’m sitting in a tiny coffee shop near the 体育西路 metro station and I can actually access my blog without going through the Yale VPN that I have been using all year because WordPress has been blocked by the mainland censors.  It’s funny that I can access my blog using the Chinese internet, but the New York Times this morning reported that YouTube has been blocked in China due to the posting of some pro-Tibet videos showcasing violence against the local population.  Ah, the inconsistencies of an authoritarian regime never cease to amaze me.

Last weekend I was in Anhui province for our Yale-China spring conference.  Anhui is a rural province located due east of Shanghai and it was my first time there.  We met to talk about teaching, to visit the school where four fellows are based, and spend time together before the fellowship ends in June.  We visitied Xiuning Zhongxue (休宁中学) and had a chance to sit with the students during English library hour, similar to what we did when we visited Yali Zhongxue in Changsha last semester.  However, there were noticeable differences between the students of the two schools.  In a group of twelve girls, every single one of them came from a family where both parents were farmers.  There was a definite difference in socio-economic status from the other parts of China I have lived and visited.  It was interesting to spend time in a part of China that is so rural and less developed than GZ or the other cities I have spent time in.  In addition to spending time at the conference, we took a trip to visit some UNESCO World Heritage villages that are signature examples of Anhui architecture, white, almost stucco-buildings with dark roofs.  I managed to squeeze a run in through the fields outside the school grounds.  A common local crop is rapeseed and the yellow flowers of the plant were in bloom.  It’s also known as youcaihua or 油菜花.  So there were fields of these yellow flowers as far as the eye could see.  I would post pictures, but my computer is temporarily down for the count, so I am borrowing this one from my friend, Carol who was also there.

The Fields of Rapeseed Flowers in Anhui

The Fields of Rapeseed Flowers in Anhui

One of the things I noticed as I was running through the fields was the amount of garbage that was on the side of the path, as well as in the stream running through the fields.  One possible explanation for this abundance of waste is that there is a lack of a developed waste removal system, so people just dump things wherever they can.  It definitely marred what was otherwise a beautiful run through these fields with water buffalo alongside the path the whole way.

We returned from Anhui late Sunday night and I have been teaching all week.  In my “Persuasive Rhetoric Through Current Events” class, I am doing a unit on satire and American humor.  On the first day of class, I asked my students about satire in China and they all yelled out “caonima” 草泥马 or the grass-mud horse I blogged about last week.  I was flustered at the mention of a taboo topic and played the ignorant foreigner as I asked my kids to explain it.  After they did, all I said was that the grass-mud horse was an excellent example of satire.  Once again I wondered if their mention of this topic was a test or the beginning of a genuine dialogue about satire in China.  Before I could explore that avenue further, the conversation moved on to different types of satire and talk about watching the Simpsons in class.  This morning I actually showed an episode of the Simpsons from Season 18 where Homer becomes a volunteer fireman after taking sleeping pills.  My students enjoyed it and were able to pick up on the main themes being satirized.  I am looking forward to when they have to write their own satirical skits in two weeks.

So here I am in China blogging without a VPN while millions of Chinese people are unable to access YouTube.  Sometimes censorship is so unfair.