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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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.

What’s In a Preamble?

April 1, 2016

My posts have been fewer lately and part of that is due to the fact that work has been quite busy, but a significant part of it is that I am now based in Hong Kong and not only have a different perspective on the mainland, but am constantly bombarded with thoughts about how this city has changed since the handover nearly 20 years ago.

The other day a new political party was created, the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP).  It’s a big deal that any corner of Chinese territory has political parties, especially when a new one is created that calls for the eventual independence of Hong Kong.  Of course Hong Kong’s freedoms are protected by the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs Hong Kong until 20147 or for 50 years after the 1997 handover.  The centerpiece of the Basic Law is “One country, two systems”, which guarantees that Hong Kong gets to maintain its rights and freedoms during this period.  Yet, we’ve witnessed a slow, but steady erosion of this bedrock tenet of the Basic Law as the Chinese government seeks to exert more and more influence over the city.

With the creation of the HKNP, “One country, two systems” is further tested because while the creation of such a party should be acceptable under the Basic Law given that freedom of speech is protected, China is claiming that it actually undermines the Basic Law.  What do you think the Chinese government is using to back up its claim?  The first article of the Basic Law that states that Hong Kong is an “inalienable part of China”, yet this same document is supposed to protect Hong Kongers from Beijing’s ever present heavy hand and enshrine certain freedoms for Hong Kongers that do not exist on the mainland.  So who is right?

Its hard to say in the realm of constitutional interpretation.  It’s not like China, or Hong Kong for that matter have a rich tradition of constitutional interpretation.  When there are conflicting provisions within the same document, you then have to look at the intent of the drafters.  The Basic Law was drafted by China, but based on the Sino-British Joint Declaration, so you can pretty easily guess who stipulated what in the document.  The Chinese insisted on the inclusion of this provision and the Brits probably saw its inclusion as worth it since so many other freedoms were going to be protected after the handover.  As a former lawyer and someone who spent a lot of time reading case law about statutory interpretation, I am still not sure who wins when one party hangs their case on an opinion asserted in the document and the other side relies on the actual rights enshrined in the document. Making things more complex is the Chinese government’s reliance on the Preamble to the Basic Law that states “Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times . . . .”  This statement combined with Chapter I, Article I’s assertion are what Beijing is using to shut down the creation of the HKNP.  The other side argues that Hong Kongers have freedom of speech and association and that such freedoms are “inviolable” in Chapter III, Articles 27 and 28.  The creation of a new political party would appear to be protected by these guaranteed freedoms and their call for independence is merely speech.  It would be different if they were breaking the law in calling for independence, but talking about it is not as clear-cut.

So where do things go from here?  That answer is not so obvious.  Or perhaps it is.  I venture that there will be some delay in the creation of the party.  At the moment, the Hong Kong government has not approved the party’s registration.  The party will agitate for inclusion and the Hong Kong government will hem and haw, but ultimately Beijing will exert quiet pressure to prevent the formation of the party.  What Beijing does not fully get, or perhaps it does and is waiting for this moment, is that the people and ideas that led to the formation of the HKNP are not going to go away.  This move is just another step in the emergence of a Hong Kong political identity that is separate from that of the mainland and it only portends more rough waters ahead for Hong Kong – China relations.

Divorced from Reality

January 17, 2016

I spent a large chunk of the last week sitting in meetings with our Chinese partner talking about expansion throughout China over the next several years and one thing I was struck by was how all of the conversations were completely divorced from the macroeconomic reality in China.  There was no mention of China’s economic troubles, whether it be the falling stock market, an oversupply of housing, falling economic growth, overcapacity in the manufacturing sector, or any number of statistics that point to a rapid deceleration of the the Chinese economy.  The only thing that came up was the devaluing the the Chinese renminbi and its mention was prompted by the Americans in the room.  Equally absent was any discussion of the current political situation in China, though that is slightly less surprising.  However, on the whole if we were sitting in a roomful of American or European business executives, the economic climate would have certainly been a part of the discussion and even maybe one or two political quips, including some comment about how unfathomable Donald Trump’s candidacy is and the sad state of American politics.  But there was none of that in these meetings.

It’s often something I wonder about when I see people wandering the mall or around me at a restaurant – what do they think about what’s happening in their country?  Do they even know what is happening in their country?  It’s very likely they may not be fully aware of what is going on since they would need a VPN to read foreign news sources and the Chinese media is largely silent as to the country’s economic doldrums.  Plus most people are too busy watching tv shows and movies on their phones to pay attention to the news, whether it’s CCTV or one of the many government publications sitting untouched in the newsstands around the city.  My meetings last week confirmed for me that there is a disconnect between what the reality of what is happening in China and how people are engaging with that reality.

Much has been written about the housing glut in China and no matter what city I travel to, I’m usually greeted with too many cranes to count as I drive into town from the airport. So many cities seem to be all about building new central business districts replete with malls, office buildings, and more apartments.  And yet the question is the same – who is going to move here?  If the government is seeking to continue its drive to urbanize and move the rural population into the cities, I cannot imagine that they are going to be re-settled in these luxury housing developments that continue to rise all over the country.  The malls are a whole other phenomenon.  How many luxury malls does a country need? Apparently there is no limit, but when I was in Chengdu I walked through a few of these new malls and some were eerily empty, both of people and stores.  Apparently the SCMP and I went to some of the same malls.  In Shenzhen the malls seem to be more for strolling than shopping with most people just wandering the mall, taking pictures, eating and drinking, but not really holding shopping bags.

I think at this point there is no disagreement that the Chinese economy is slowing down. The problem is that nobody quite knows how much.  The official statistics are less telling. It’s more about reading between the lines or anecdotal evidence of such a slowdown. It will be interesting to see what number the government announces on Tuesday for 2015 GDP growth.  There is so much gray when it comes to this country and not only on the economic front.

Over two weeks ago, Lee Bo, a publisher of books critical of the Party disappeared in Hong Kong. He was the fifth person to disappear in connection with this particular publisher.  He was last seen at his warehouse in Hong Kong before New Year’s and since then there have been a series of odd occurrences including phone calls to his wife from a Shenzhen number where he is speaking Mandarin rather than the Cantonese he uses at home and a letter to his wife that he is going to be away for awhile taking care something on the mainland.  The Hong Kong government has asked Beijing where he is and over two weeks later they still have not received an answer.  The issue at stake is that because of the whole “one country, two systems” between HK and China, Chinese law enforcement officials are not supposed to be coming into HK and taking away HK residents.  They are supposed to go through proper legal channels if they have reason to want to interrogate someone.  Coming in and secretly ferreting a HK resident across the border is a serious violation of the principle behind “one country, two systems”. It’s more than problematic that Beijing has not given the HK government an answer as to  Lee Bo’s whereabouts and shows a serious lack of regard for HK and its autonomy.

So I digress.  The point of all of this writing was that I still wonder if Chinese people actually know what’s going on with their own country or simply do not care.  I don’t know if I will ever be able to get a straight answer.

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.

I’m sitting here in a restaurant/cafe/space called Oolaa on the border of Soho and Sheung Wan.  It’s the kind of place that did not exist in Hong Kong ten years ago or even five years ago.  They have good coffee, a brunch menu reminiscent of New York bunch, and free wifi.  Today is a Special Administrative Region holiday celebrating the 15th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from the U.K. to China.  Hu Jintao, the Chinese president was in town to swear in the new chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who is replaced every five years.  Keeping in line with the theme of succession issues on the mainland that have dogged this year’s transition, the swearing in and concurrent anniversary in Hong Kong were anything but smooth.  There were protests in the streets, hecklers at the swearing in ceremony, and a general dissatisfaction with Beijing.  I’ve often remarked over the years that the city felt different since the handover in 1997 with more and more Chinese influences creeping in, but being here this time things feel yet again different.  It’s as if a pendulum is swinging in another direction, a direction Beijing is not happy with.  I was first in Hong Kong in the summer of 1998, a year after the British handed the city back to the Chinese.  Right up to the handover there was fear for Hong Kong’s freedoms and whether Beijing would come down with a heavy hand on the relative laissez-faire attitude that prevails in this city.  People made plans to flee if that happened by getting Canadian, Australian, and British passports and moving assets offshore.  After the handover and when Hong Kongers realized that the sky was not falling, aided by the massive inflow of money from the mainland, people began to relax about being under China’s control.  However, in recent years as the gap between haves and have-nots has widened and China plays fast and loose with its promise to let Hong Kongers elect their own chief executive, people have begun to sour again on Beijing’s rule.  The protests and botched chief executive selection process this year have only exacerbated these feelings.  I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but there has been a steady awakening of Hong Kongers political consciousness over the years and it’s only going to increase with time.  Will Hong Kong demand independence and try to go the Singapore route?  Doubtful, but the city will continue to be a thorn in Beijing’s side.  Complicating matters is the fact that Beijing uses the One Country, Two Systems model in effect here as possible enticement for Taiwan to return to the motherland’s fold.  Thus, Beijing is in a bind because to show that it is serious about maintaining Hong Kong’s autonomy until at least 2047, it has to carefully balance this commitment with the desires of the Hong Kong people, which may make for some interesting compromises in the future.

On a different note, last night I had dinner with an old colleague and friend from my investment banking days.  He and his wife moved here from Europe and we were talking about the increasing number of Europeans that I have noticed in my travels throughout the region, whether it’s here, Beijing, or Shanghai.  He said that the most pronounced increase has been in the number of French people abroad and mentioned that there’s something like 100 new French people arriving in Hong Kong each month.  The number sounds small, but that’s over 1000 people a year.  It’s such a phenomenon that even the New York Times picked up on it.  I knew this was a trend, but to have some confirm it based on his own experience was extremely interesting.

For now, I am just glad to be here and enjoying the sunshine, but not the humidity.  I guess it will prime for my eventual return to New York.

Here are some pictures from Shek O that I took yesterday just to remind everyone that Hong Kong is more than skyscrapers and malls.

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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