One of the principal lessons we should impart on this Establishment Day is the value of Hong Kong’s diversity. Thus, it is of great concern to me when I hear our president, Mr Hu Jintao, say that Hong Kong’s political leaders should oppose foreign forces interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. The colonialists packed up and left fifteen years ago. The “foreign forces” in Hong Kong today are entrepreneurs, teachers, students, business leaders, writers, and employees that want to make Hong Kong a better place for everybody. Even what is “local” in Hong Kong has a dozen shades of Punti, Teochew, Toyshan, Hakka and multi-generation non-Chinese families. This diversity of differences mesh and merge to give this a city a vibrancy in economy, character, and culture that no other city in the People’s Republic has. I left the mainland for Hong Kong two years ago in part because I would always be “foreign” – always a “them.” In Hong Kong, I am a small part of the “us.” Being different here is normal. Mr. Hu needn’t pit citizens against each other to make those of Chinese descent identify more as mainland Chinese, a task they empirically fail at more each year. Both Mr Hu and other “foreign forces” can all be part of the “us” coming to a big table with small pieces to complete the puzzles Asia’s World City faces. In this regard, leaders from Zhongnanhai would be better advised to come to Hong Kong with fresh ideas during their next visit instead of the overt displays of force – in rhetoric and ceremony – that have defined this trip.
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::: My apologies for typos. I recently suffered a hand injury and this is my first essay using voice dictation :::
I wanted to write for a moment about the issues concerning the latest Hong Kong Chief Executive election. People are clearly upset about the results. The issue, I feel, is that the election was a farce of a farce. This will take a moment to explain because Hong Kong politics are difficult to understand. Even as a Political Science major and former American Government teacher, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the nuances and math of the system. The same can be said for Hong Kong education system(s), but that’s for another day.
The first farce was election itself, meaning that it’s a word that sounds something quite like democracy but in reality it isn’t. But we had a full show with debates and candidates and arguments inside of free press. While Hong Kong copies most institutions from the United Kingdom, the political system is shaped a little more like America’s: meaning is not unitary government, there are separate branches. We have a legislative and executive branch. The legislative assembly is often shortened to Legco. Half of the seats on the Lecgo are voted and in a way familiar to most Americans in that the representatives represent certain districts of the city.
The other half are a different political beast entirely and something I’ve not seen in any other polity. They’re called Functional Constituencies and they represent various sectors of the economy and local governance. Information technology companies get a vote, as does the transportation industry, as do the banks and the tourism sector. In some ways I like the blunt honesty of the system. While American companies and special interest groups are forced to indirectly buy and influence votes, Hong Kong simply gives them the vote in proportion to their actual power.
Unlike the Legco, neither districts nor people have any voice in the Chief Executive election. Instead, the Functional Constituencies choose a 1200 member Election Committee who in turn choose the Chief Executive. So what we have is institutionally enshrined oligarchy wrapped in the veneer of limited democracy (the first farce). The saving grace is that the choice is at least in Hong Kong, with an autonomous local oligarchy, instead of Beijing. So while Hong Kong people aren’t exactly happy with this arrangement, the choice of Chief Executive at least seems to be local.
This election threw that farce out. Arguably, this happened because Beijing was trying to be more democratic. The issue was that the oligarchy supported Henry Tang while common people seemed to despise him. Only a week ago he seemed to have all the votes he needs lined up. That was before Xi Jinping called a meeting of important oligarchs in Shenzhen and informed them that Beijing wanted CY Leung, the more popular of the three (unpopular) choices. This is because Beijing wanted the next Chief Executive to have popular support.
So therein lies the second farce. In trying to correct for the first farce of faux democracy, Beijing exposed the second farce of local, autonomous decision-making. In so doing it became a farce of farce. The decision was neither democratic nor local. Instead, we had sloppy popularity contest with an incompetent and indecisive puppet master pulling the strings behind the stage.
The South China Morning Post reported today that plans for a “national education” have been shelved for a few more years, until 2015. Without too much exaggeration, the purpose of the curriculum was to make Hong Kong students feel more Chinese. Specifically, a version of Chinese-ness inspired by the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing. The idea was proposed by Mr Bowtie after Hu Jintao remarked “on the importance of giving Hong Kong children a better understanding of China’s development and identity.” A puppet knows where his strings lead.
This would be done primarily with learning to “sing the National Anthem, understand the Basic Law, attending national flag raising ceremonies, supporting national sports teams, and appreciate and understand Chinese culture.” Unsurprisingly, many have called this brainwashing. At issue is that Hong Kong Chinese are a very different type of Chinese than Mainland Chinese, as Cam McMurchy recently wrote at depth on. The most clear measurement of this has been the increasing number of Hong Kongers who identify themselves first as Hong Kongers and second as Chinese. Which, of course, the Standing Committee in Beijing ridicules as “unscientific.”
As a relatively recent guest in Hong Kong and a former long-term guest of the People’s Republic (but I repeat myself?), I have mixed feelings. I instinctively react negatively to Beijing dictating anything to Hong Kong. But I don’t automatically sympathize with the locals because I don’t think they’ve got a much better idea. A post-colonial identity needs to be constructed, but it needs to be the product of a territory-wide discussion about what our current and historical experience has been.
I think, in many ways, Hong Kong is too localist. I’ve written before that I have strong feelings against the rise of Cantonese as a Medium of Instruction in Hong Kong. I think Hong Kongers don’t really know what it means to be a citizen of Hong Kong. They forget that they are mostly the progeny of relatively recent migrants, mostly because of how quickly they dropped other regional dialects for Cantonese. Hong Kong, as far back as paleolithic times, was a rocky outpost with people from around the region coming in and out. The arrival of the British and the increase in trade brought in migrants from around China and the world. I have a Portoguese/English friend on my island whose family been in the region for six generations. That’s longer than many of my “local” friends. I don’t think there’s an intertwining unique history of a unique people, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Gordon Mathews, a scholar on Hong Kong identity at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that “the greatest fear Hong Kong people have is Hong Kong becoming just one more city in China.” I fear that for most of Hong Kong sees their city as a cleaner Guangzhou – cleaner government, cleaner streets, cleaner subways – with a colonial legacy. Most of us attracted to Hong Kong see something altogether different: arguably Asia’s only truly global city. Hong Kong needs to forge a common post-ethnic identity that comes to terms with 2047, when handover to the PRC is complete. An identity that doesn’t cringe at the thought of Filipino domestic helpers being one of “us.” With an identity like that, Hong Kong can move forward on a lot of other educational problems – like where to place non-Chinese students in Hong Kong. Until then, the “us vs them” will remain Mainland vs Cantonese-speaking Chinese. I don’t know exactly what it would look like, I only hope that it begins and that it eventually includes ethnic minorities, permanent/long-term expats, and even the arrivals from the Mainland as well as the other 90% of Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong. Together, we’re constructing a unique identity that we need to put to words and ideals.