Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dongzhi in China

In the invention of tradition category, it seems that Dongzhi 冬至, or Winter Solstice (22 December), is becoming a new holiday in mainland China.  A friend recently forwarded me the following drawing.

What is interesting about this picture is that the party portrayed looks like a cross between New Year's Eve (with the streamers and funny glasses) and  Octoberfest (with the steins of beer). But Dong Zhi in Hong Kong is a very family-oriented holiday. Families try to have the meal together, and with grandparents and grandchildren there, there are no funny glasses or beer steins. The party in the picture is among friends and peers, not a family event. The characters say "Happy Dongzhi," but no one says that in Hong Kong.

Dong Zhi is celebrated as a special holiday in Hong Kong, and offices close early so that employees can go home and prepare large family meals. Though it is on the Chinese lunar calendar, it is not celebrated as a holiday elsewhere. It seems that as the holiday is being promoted in the mainland, it is being transformed from a family holiday to a peer-group holiday.  Some anthropologists have been arguing that there has been increasing focus on the individual in the mainland, and this "holiday" seems to fit that pattern.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Earlier religious symbols at the protests

Pictures from 11 October 2014, Mong Kok

The first shrine, near Argyle St. on Nathan Rd.



Not very nice: funerary offerings for CY at Admiralty.



15 November 2014, Mong Kok after re-occupation, when the shrine was rebuilt two blocks south.







Saturday, November 22, 2014

Religion and Political Protest

I have been following the ways in which religious symbolism supports and influences Hong Kong's political protests for over a year now. The recent occupations have provided additional examples.
1) "Charm" 符
The picture on the left shows a piece of paper, in size and shape like the traditional "charms" used by Taoists. The writing is also like a charm, but it says "I want real universal suffrage" in Chinese plus a Twitter name for the movement in English. The umbrella is represented on top. Below are other "religious" objects captured one night in Mong Kong. Any comments and additional interpretations are welcome and appreciated.




2) The back side of the Protestant Christian chapel


4) Is there more to this cartoon than what I get?
3) A service in the Christian chapel.

5)Banners from the official Taoist Association are still flying over the Mong Kok protesters.

6) This shows the banners in context.

7) The area of Nathan Rd near the chapel and Guan Gong.

8) This is the Guan Gong altar.
Guang Gong is worshiped by both police and
triads, and businessmen too. More on this
in a future post.

9) Not exactly in the shape of a charm; what is it?

10) Two captions on either side of a bus stop are in the form of a 對聯 and say
"Adversity tests the strength of  character" and "Umbrellas show the people's hearts."




11) At the foot of the altar; seems to by
a typical family earth shrine.
Anything I'm missing?

12) The altar top and offerings.
13) Banner on the left side (stage right)

14) Another view of the altar area, with fengshui bushes on each side.
Note earth shrine on left, and pack of incense sticks available for anyone
to use at no cost (like in many a village temple) on the side of the altar table.

15) Banner on the right side of altar (stage left).
16) This is an enlarged "fortune" from a temple from the corner of the banner
(above) but I don't fully understand its content or the comments on the sides.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The view of Hong Kong from the USA

I often have little patience with the patriotic Chinese students who claim the US media is biased against China, or does not really understand China. I actually don't meet many such people; I generally just hear about them, or read about them in news stories. But I sometimes hear myself saying similar things about the media when journalists talk about Hong Kong. I had one such awkward moment when Jon Stewart had his very funny bit about the Hong Kong protests. Coming a few days after the Alibaba listing, he remarked something to the effect of, "The Chinese are not only doing Wall Street better than us, they're now doing the "Occupy" better than us too!"  Most of us who heard that did a double-take, because of course Hong Kong, at least in this case, does not see itself as "China." Of course Hong Kong is part of China, but the protesters are asserting rights of local autonomy, so it suggests some confusion on his part to lump Hong Kong with "China." It ruins the joke, if you understand Hong Kong. I guess most Americans just laughed.

Then today on Fresh Air, David Edelstein said the following in a review of Laura Poitras' movie Citizenfour about Edward Snowden.
Poitras is very protective of her subject. She doesn't show Snowden a few days later praising Hong Kong's, quote, "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of public dissent," which would be cringe-worthy in light of the current crackdown on Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators.
Well, why is it actually "cringe-worthy"? The protests are now in their 28th day, and are blocking very busy streets in three neighborhoods in a major city. There is no crackdown on free speech, or on the right of public dissent. I honestly can't think of any place in the world that would allow protesters to occupy public places like streets for four weeks. In the case of Occupy Wall Street, the protesters occupied Zuccotti Park because it was privately owned. Edelstein does not seem to understand the issues in Hong Kong: it is not about free speech, but about election rules. The protesters are occupying public spaces to pressure the government. I can't imagine any city in the US allowing such an occupation (well, maybe Berkeley and a few other places, but not New York or Chicago).

I don't say this to defend the Hong Kong government, but to defend Hong Kong society. Many in the pro-establishment camp in HK claim the protests make HK look bad, and Edelstein's uninformed comments suggest they might be right. Others have noted that the civility of the protests honor Hong Kong. But that is only true if Americans do not jump to the conclusion that there is no free speech or dissent in Hong Kong, just because they see riot police and some scuffles on TV. Hong Kong is very different from Mainland China. But uninformed comments and superficial views from the US make the patriotic Chinese right in arguing that Americans are hypocritical, because oftentimes Americans argue for the rights of protesters overseas but would never allow such protests to continue at home. The least the Americans could do is recognize the remarkable civility and peacefulness of the protests (for the most part), and the remarkable tolerance of the government (for the most part).

Of course, since many Americans think Hong Kong is in Japan, maybe I'm asking too much.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The two roads of protest

The umbrella movement has had two choices. One was to try to force the government’s hand to produce a more democratic system for the 2017 elections. Occupy Central tried to use the threat of civil disobedience to make the NPCSC promulgate democratic rules. On this, they failed. Some conservatives claim their very threat made the NPCSC fear allowing more democracy in Hong Kong, so had an opposite effect of what was intended.

The alternative was to create paradigm shift, to change public opinion so much that the government would have to change its position and allow more democracy. The political scientist Kuan Hsin-chi has written:

Gandhi put it nicely that a Civil Disobedience (CD) movement (more precisely, he called it satyagraha) succeeded not because of the powerful pressure exerted directly by the acts of the CD participants on the government, but rather because of a "change of heart" of the majority of the people who eventually became convinced of the morality represented by the movement. Once this change of heart happens, the government has no other choice but to agree to a change. In a nutshell, the impact of CD on social or political development is indirect, rather than direct. Social or political change often starts with advocacy of the minority against the powerful establishment with the indifferent majority of the people caught in the middle. Winning their heart is crucial for sociopolitical development.

The problem for the protesters is that they have viewed their movement as seeking to force the government. They believe they already represent the majority opinion. But there are many who believe Beijing will not yield. The People’s Daily has made it clear that Beijing views any compromise as a sign of weakness. Leaders feel they cannot compromise or it will encourage similar civil disobedience in other restive areas, from Xinjiang to Tibet. China already has thousands of protests flaring up every year. (Nevermind that this approach also makes the situation in Hong Kong seem even more hopeless and frustrating, and can lead to tragedy.)

The occupation of parts of Admiralty, Mong Kok, and Causeway Bay inconveniences some people. Others are simply offended that the protesters are breaking the law with impunity. Unfortunately, many who did or would support the movement have grown exasperated with the protests. And because the protests are spontaneous and the leadership is so diffuse, protesters are not focusing on educating the public about democracy and universal suffrage. They fail to rebut the pro-establishment’s anti-democratic arguments about “national security” and the “irrelevance of international standards.”

In the first few weeks of the protests, the idealism of the protesters awakened Hong Kong. Many who resignedly accepted the power of tycoons and the gradual imposition of undemocratic elections as inevitable were awakened and inspired to protest and take action to create better institutions. Many were embarrassed that it took students to wake them up and take a stand. The danger for the protesters is that the longer “occupations” drag on, the more the public’s frustration and anger at the protesters themselves will grow. Believing that they could force change on the government, the protesters have not pursued the Gandhian approach of trying to change the views of the indifferent majority to the pro-democratic cause. 

Many people sympathetic to the students wish they would declare victory and end the occupations, with the possibility of further protests in the future. But the protesters are determined to wring some concessions. They feel they have not achieved anything, because they define success and changing the government's policies. And in fact, if the protests end, there will be no changes; the government and Beijing will simply believe they were right and they won. 

The government has tried to argue that changes can be made in the future, that this is a long process. The protesters note that this has been said before, and they thought they were going to get "universal suffrage" when Democratic Party members accepted a compromise for the 2012 elections. They no longer trust the argument that changes can be made in the future. CY Leung's comments two days ago "that if the government met the pro-democracy protesters’ demands it would result in thecity’s poorer people dominating elections" only casts further doubts on the government's sincerity in promising more democracy in the future.

The comment also reminds us that democracy was nowhere achieved simply from the benevolence of the elites. As "the masses" increasingly viewed the system as unfair, protests for more say in the system erupted, and the elite were forced, step by step, to extend democracy. So maybe the students and other protesters are right that their only choice is to continue to occupy parts of Hong Kong. They are gambling that at some point, the elites will decide they have more to lose from constant protests than they do from elections. That might not be true in this round of protests, but the protesters have history on their side. Even Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, decided to allow multi-party elections in 1986, realizing that the protests and problems of authoritarian rule were not worth the costs. In addition, the state was stronger once it had the mandate of the people through real elections. So it is hard to say the protesters in Hong Kong are wrong, though many worry about how these protests can end. And we worry that the result may be Hong Kong losing even more autonomy.

In the meantime, the government and protesters are deadlocked.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Farce of the Elite

One of the more absurd details, among the thousands of small and large incidents swirling around the protests, was the attempt by Derrick Pang of Chung Wo Development to punish Hong Kong University by cancelling its HK$20,000 scholarship to the university. The head of the HKU student union is quoted as claiming "this is a form of political suppression on academic freedom and the school's autonomy." Well, not really. A donor can give money for any purpose it wants, though of course a university can reject the money if the strings are too onerous or political. But Derrick's letter is a classic example of elite petulance.  Below is a copy (it is even amazing that he chose to release the letter).

This case illustrates one of the more astonishing aspects of Hong Kong elite culture and philanthropy. The scholarships the rich give to universities are mostly of this tiny size: HK$20,000 is only US$2,564. The HKU scholarship is for two students, so each student is getting just US$1,282 per year. Tuition at HK's universities is HK$42,000 per year, so the scholarship is only covering a bit less than a quarter of a student's tuition. I'm always astonished to see the long list of these tiny scholarships awarded, each with a company or person's name prominently attached, as though it was bringing prestige. I would think these small scholarships would be considered embarrassingly small.

I find the letter really captures the elite point of view. It accuses the university of leading to a divided Hong Kong, when of course the division comes from the government's failure to come up with a moderate election proposal that could marginalize the more radical protesters. The focus on "sound and effectual law system" ignores the frustration that decades of inaction on democracy and inequality have led to. I have no idea what the "political expediency" is that Mr. Pang refers to, but it is clear that in his hot-headed and grandstanding gesture aimed at "punishing" HKU, he has only hurt the students who would have otherwise gotten the scholarship, since none of the money went to the university anyway. Thus, we have another gesture (like a class boycott) that muddles its symbolism. But since it was not much money anyway, and not need-based, no big loss.

This story was in the blog feed of the SCMP yesterday, Sunday, but today it has been removed. I found it at HongWrong.com. I can't imagine why the SCMP removed the story.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Hegemony in Hong Kong

There are many arguments against the "umbrella movement" protest that I find odd. For example, the opponents of Occupy Central have long focused on the economic losses that would come from the civil disobedience. This is typical of Hong Kong; somehow, noting the economic cost is expected to convince people that protests are bad for everyone. I see this as an example of using an economic explanation to trump all other explanations. We see this often in Hong Kong, where economics reigns supreme.

More difficult for me to understand, however, have been those who argue that "Beijing has done so much for Hong Kong"--implying that the protesters are ungrateful and selfish. (See for example the commentary by Zhang Lijia in the SCMP who reports of CCTV colleagues in Nanjing, "The consensus is that the protesters are ungrateful.) This narrative of Beijing doing so much for Hong Kong goes back to the "Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed in 2003, as the SARS crisis was receding. It was indeed intended to be a boost for the HK economy at a time that the SAR was experience an economic slowdown. But the agreement actually just lowered barriers and tariffs, so in fact both sides benefited, and it cannot be viewed as only a Beijing concession. CEPA has also caused many problems for Hong Kong, including the skyrocketing rents, conversions of shops into designer goods stores to cater to Mainland tourists, and the shortage of milk power. But the newspapers reported that angry anti-Occupy Central protesters yelled that students should be grateful for all that Beijing has done for Hong Kong, and I have met Mainlanders who say the same thing. I have always found this puzzling.

The other argument I find surprising is the fury at protesters for "breaking the law." Some seem to be deeply offended about civil disobedience and the challenge to authority that the students and Occupy Central represent. They raise "obeying the law" to a cardinal principle. Of course I believe in obeying the law, but it is pretty standard that protesters will break the law. As long as they don't break windows or bones, it seems OK. I don't remember opponents of "Occupy Wall Street" focusing on the importance of ending the illegal occupation of Zuccotti Park because it was illegal. Here, anti-Occupy people argue that the protesters are hurting Hong Kong's image, and that they are undermining the rule of law. I can partly understand this viewpoint, in that if one disagrees with the students, one would want them to simply obey the law. But I'm surprised that these critics do not see that in fact, peaceful demonstrations (even if illegal) can actually raise the image of a place (Jon Stewart jokes that now China is even holding protests better that the US! John Oliver and Steven Colbert also speak admiringly of the orderliness of the protests; see SCMP story here).  The other view, of course, is represented by HKU law professor Kelley Loper, who says "student protesters are not undermining Hong Kong's rule of law, but are opposing the use of the law as a tool of oppression" (SCMP commentary here).

I have thus been mulling over the question of why some protest opponents focus so much on the benevolence of Beijing and on the importance of obeying every law. I was surprised to find the answer in a textbook about sports. It mentions Gramsci, and his idea of hegemony:
he explained that leaders often maintained power by convincing the people that they governed of three three things: (1) that life was as good as it could be under present conditions, (2) that any positive things that people experienced were due to the goodwill and power of current leaders, and (3) that changing the current structure of their society would threaten everything that people valued. (Coakley Sports in Society p.115)
This really explains a lot. People who cannot imagine things being different, or who are wealthier ro privileged, are afraid the protesters will damage Hong Kong (and if the students protest until the PLA has to restore order, they will have turned out to be right).  Beijing officials and Hong Kong pro-establishment figures often use the rhetoric of Beijing being "good" to Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are China's "children" so Beijing would never do anything to hurt these areas. A Mainlander was quoted in the SCMP as arguing like this to protesters in Mong Kok. Like all governments, Beijing wants it to seem that all good and wealth flows from its policies. And some people believe it, submitting to Beijing's hegemony. Others may see through it, but think that since now Hong Kong is part of China, it is best to just keep quiet. The students are too "immature" to have learned this discourse. They have stood up, and present an alternative discourse. They do not see China as having helped Hong Kong with CEPA, they argue that they are opposed to Beijing using the law to oppress Hong Kong, and the apologize for any economic losses and inconveniences.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The September 28 Protests in Hong Kong

History looks different to every participant, so I wish to record what I saw at today’s protests, and some of the aspects that surprised me.

We went to the protest in part to support the students and partly out of curiosity. I have no intention of getting arrested, but I do think nonviolent support is important, and that it can make a difference in the long run if perhaps not immediately. We had already heard by 2:00 pm that the police had “locked down” the area at the government building, and were not allowing people to join the protesters. The radio did not explain why, but it said that many legislators and democracy figures, including Democratic Party chair Emily Lau, and the very moderate and soft-spoken former legislator Fernando Cheung, had been arrested and taken away to a police station in Aberdeen. The police had arrested the leader of the student group Scholarism, Joshua Wong, and had denied him bail. It is not clear what crimes they were being charged with.

Students directing people in MTR station
At the Admiralty MTR station, there were students telling people to go to Exit C2 and to walk by a circuitous route towards the protests, because the police had closed exit A. When we got out at ground level (now about 3:10), there were hundreds of people milling about, seemingly waiting for something. We soon realized, from their chants, that they were waiting for the police to “open the road” to allow them to cross Connaught Road to join protesters in Civic Square on the north side of Connaught Road (closer to the water). A few dozen police officers, with no weapons or shields, just riot helmets, were at the end of the road preventing this.

Police blocking protesters from road
While we were there, taking pictures, the protesters periodically chanted, but mostly waited. The crowd kept growing, but it was not restless. Volunteers started collecting water, food, masks, umbrellas, and other first aid materials, in a makeshift control center under some overhead passageways.

One odd thing was that the police kept walking through the crowd, for no apparent purpose. At one point, a dozen or so plain-clothes officers wearing “Police” vests and backpacks walked through the crowd (using the same corridor on the edge of the area, next to the new MTR station construction site) and joined the uniformed officers on Connaught Road. Then a group of over 20 officers walked quickly into the area, also down the same corridor but in the opposite direction, and stationed themselves as if they were guarding the construction site entrance to the MTR site. The crowd at time booed or gave thumb down signs to the police, and changed “retreat” to them, but did not harass them. Other police officers, sometimes in small groups of 5 or so, also pass through the group going who knows where. Thus, there was no front line, and it was not clear what the police was doing.
More police arrive to block protesters from Connaught Rd

We were thinking of leaving, and decided to have a look on the western side of Admiralty. I noticed that there were some fire department vehicles arriving, in particular an aerial rescue truck with ladders. Seemed odd, for a protest. When we got to Connaught Road, we saw that a man was standing on the edge of the overpass connecting Admiralty to the Central Government Offices. We surmised that he was threatening to jump. By the time I first saw him at 4:00, there were already officers talking to him. One in particular, with no hard hat or other equipment, held out his hand trying to get him to give up. We waited to see what would happen; it took longer than I expected.

Underneath, the traffic completely stopped. Already when we were there at 4:00, there was a yellow rescue cushion on the street level below him. Though Connaught Road is a 6-lane highway, there is a barrier in the middle dividing the two directions, so cars and buses could not turn around. Drivers could see what was happening, so they got out of their cars.
Protester on footbridge threatens to jump

While we waited, many tourists tried to walk down Connaught Road, but the police (there were only half a dozen) told them to go around. Bizarrely, two Mainlanders got very angry at the police too, and yelled at them in Mandarin. One woman said, “I’m a tourist! Where am I supposed to go?!” (我是旅游客,我怎麻走?)  One person yelled out, "Go home" (回家), which is essentially an anti-Mainlander slur. I felt like someone should say "I'm sorry our struggle for democracy has inconvenienced you!" but she would not have grasped the sarcasm.

At about 4:30, two officers in red, with helmets and wearing harnesses, crossed over the barrier and began to approach the protester from both sides. Oddly, the protester seemingly could not see what was happening, and at 4:32, the two officers in red jumped him and pushed him away from the ledge onto the ground, where he was presumably tied to a gurney we had seen earlier and then wheeled away.

We decided to have another look at where we’d been before leaving, and when we got there, we were shocked that the crowd was much smaller than before. But as we moved forward, we realized that what had happened is that for whatever reason, the line of police protecting Connaught Road had left, and the protesters had moved into the road. They had moved plastic temporary road barriers (used for the MTR station) and put them on their side to make a ramp to cross the cement barriers on the road. Then as we moved forward, we realized that there were several thousand people on the flyover leading from Wanchai to Admiralty. The crowd had gotten huge.
Students collect donated water & supplies

But not everyone is willing to be involved to the same degree. At one point, we noticed a lot of people leaving, so I asked someone next to me what had been just been said (it is all in Cantonese, and I understand maybe 20%). They explained that they had urged people to sit down as a protest, but that those who backed up did not want to sit down. They were there for support, but not to “Occupy Central” (of course, we were not in Central but Admiralty, so the “Occupy Central” movement has a bit of a marketing problem. Some protesters were complaining about this on the evening news).

We left at 5:30, feeling that this would go on well into the night. There had already been spurts of pepper spray from police into the protesters on the far side of the street. The police’s red banners were out several times warning that the police would use additional force if the protesters continued to charge. A human chain passed umbrellas and water to the front line, and we saw a police officer being led away, apparently a victim of heat stroke, and a young protester being taken on a wheeled gurney to an ambulance. When we arrived in Sham Shui Po for an errand, we saw on the TV of a shop (showing an underground station’s live footage) that the police had started using tear gas (and that it was blowing back into their own faces).
View left towards Central district, 17:23

View towards Central Government Square

View right, towards Wanchai
Crowd in Sham Shui Po watching protesters getting tear gassed

Earlier today, my wife was surprised when an acquaintance complained about the students. He said that Hong Kong is now part of China, we just have to get used to it. Michael Chugani, a columnist and Hong Kong gadfly, has been taking the same line. Some people take this “realist” position. Of course, many of them are wealthy, and prefer Communist style elections so as to preserve their privileges. Interestingly, no one in Hong Kong actually says the proposed reforms are actually good. To keep any semblance of credibility, all political figures have admitted that the NPCSC decision was disappointing. CY Leung and others try to claim that because everyone can vote, it will be better than the previous system (in which only 1200 generally pro-Beijing representatives voted). They may be right, but because no one trusts Beijing to liberalize further in the future, democrats will find it impossible to approve the NPCSC-proposed framework. Pan-democrats feel tricked because Beijing constrained “universal suffrage” with a Nominating Committee, which is the same old Electoral Committee, and increased the threshold for nomination from one eighth to one half of Nominating Committee votes.

At the same time, the pan-democrats and Occupy Central activists did not help their cause by insisting on “civil nominations,” even after Beijing had insisted that civil nominations did not comply with the Basic Law, and that the Nominating Committee had to have a role. They could have argued for a larger and more representative Nominating Committee. They could have argued to keep the one eighth threshold. But I wonder if anyone anticipated Beijing would raise the threshold to one half.

But now, Hong Kong is dividing in two: one either supports the students, or opposes them. Some critics insist the students are being manipulated by teachers or even by foreign forces. But others are inspired by the students. I am on an email list of Hong Kong professors, and I’m struck by how many have written that the students make them feel embarrassed that they have not done more up to now. They were saying that they were going to go to support the students today, because they were inspired by their courage.

The news tonight says the protesters are still at Admiralty in the thousands. I’m sure the government wants to clear them by the start of work tomorrow morning. I’m not sure they will be able to. And even if they do, what if they show up in Central tomorrow? How will this end? We got an email rumor claiming the PLA was moving into positions; that is very unlikely now, and would be a disaster for Hong Kong and for China. Surely, though Beijing was foolish in promulgating such conservative election rules, which have provoked the protests we see today. Right?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fading overseas staff in Hong Kong

People often ask what has changed in Hong Kong since 1997, and I have always said that the first and biggest change was the change in immigration rules that made it difficult for Commonwealth residents to work in Hong Kong. Until April of 1997, anyone from Canada, Australia, the UK or other Commonwealth countries could work in Hong Kong without having to get a visa. That changed overnight, and the waiters at bars and restaurants suddenly changed from knowledgeable foreigners ("guailo") to Chinese. I remember that at the British pub "The Bull and Bear," we had to ask for ketchup for an order of fries and the waiter (and older Chinese man with poor English skills) could not understand why we wanted ketchup. Not a big deal, but it marked a difference.
Many of these travelers stayed on in Hong Kong and contributed a lot to the city's arts and cosmopolitan feel. Many worked in government, of course. And many were no doubt taking the places that qualified Chinese could have filled. It was colonial. But it also is part of what made Hong Kong different. These people are now increasingly retired or retiring. The SCMP reports that there are only 150 overseas officers in the force, compared to almost 800 at its peak. The manditory retirement of 55 will see most of these officers retire in the near future. I'm sure Chinese officers will be just as good, but many say that having two ethnic groups in the force made for a sort of "checks and balance" that gave people more confidence in the police.
The government has a mandatory retirement age of 60. The latest to be forced to retire was Bryan Curtis, who turned 60 on Sept. 18th. September 17th was his last day. Bryan Curtis had worked for ICRT in Taiwan, and I had heard him on the radio when I lived there in the 1980s. If I remember correctly, Curtis came to Hong Kong around 1992 and first worked for Commercial Radio, where I was happy to hear a familiar voice. It was like meeting an old friend. Later, as Commercial Radio dropped the English (it originally was bilingual, which was great for learning Cantonese, but that did not last), Curtis was on RTHK Radio 3. He is a natural on radio; he has great articulation, and is funny in a self-deprecatory way. He pronounces words like "what" as "hwat", which I think is the officially correct pronunciation.
Curtis has hosted a great program of financial news, "Money for Nothing," from 8:03 to 8:30. Each morning, he speaks with several guests. Some are regular, like Barry Wood, the US correspondent who was interviewed every Monday, while others are occasional guests, like Frances Cheung of Credit Agricole CIB (who is crazily articulate and concise). He had fun musical interludes like the start of "Pick up the Pieces" by the Average White Band, or the first line from "You Never Give Me Your Money" by the Beatles, and of course, "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits.. It was live radio, so not perfect, but very well done, interesting and informative.
Whenever Bryan Curtis was away reporting or on vacation, the program was difficult to listen to. They tried various alternative hosts, but none really worked. They were tentative, stumbled on names and facts, asked poor questions, and generally seemed to lack the knowledge and confidence to pull it off. Most of all, they were stiff and made the listener cringe.  On the 18th, the first day sans Bryan, they brought back a former replacement  host and a guest, trying to use two people to replace one Bryan. All I can say is that I could not listen. I turned on my BBC and NPR podcasts instead.
I once complained that one of the replacements was really dreadful and not up to the job, and was told that it is hard to get talent with the restrictions on visas. Only people with permanent HK IDs can now be hired at RTHK. As the more experienced old hands retire, the radio station is thus declining. It is clear that, from one point of view, an English language radio station is a remnant colonial institution. But it is also what makes Hong Kong a cosmopolitan city.
Change is always difficult, so retirements are not fun. Bryan got choked up as his colleagues thanked him for his many years of work at RTHK at the end of his last show.  For me, radio voices are like friends, even if they don't know me. Bryan Curtis will be missed.

Friday, September 05, 2014

What is "Universal Suffrage"?

A good sign of the surprise and disappointment at China's NPC Standing Committee decision on Hong Kong's election for the Chief Executive is the tone of coverage in the SCMP. The paper has become much more conservative in recent years, but both articles and commentary reflect the shock and pessimism that most people (I know) feel at Beijing's decision. Even The Economist had predicted Beijing would issue some vague guidelines, to avoid creating a confrontation. Instead, they have placed severe restrictions on who can run, requiring over half of the Nominating Committee to endorse a candidate, and only allowing 2 or 3 candidates to run.

At the root of the problem is the definition of "universal suffrage." Some say that giving everyone "one person one vote" is a big step. After all, there are no such elections in China. On the other hand, as Emily Lau put it, Hong Kong is not North Korea. We all know of many countries where they hold "elections" which are not really elections at all, because the choices have been so circumscribed that the decision is essentially pre-ordained. On the third hand, even in Iran (2009) and Burma (1988), such tightly controlled elections can lead to surprises. On the fourth hand, in neither of these cases did the people's voice triumph.
It is clear that Beijing's fear of a "color revolution" and its need to be in total control won out over the view that a more democratic way of selecting the Chief Executive will lead to more accountability, a stronger mandate to rule, and better government. From this point of view, Hong Kong Pan-Democrats should veto the proposed election format. Margaret Ng has an excellent NY Times Op-Ed piece that expresses this view.

But now Beijing is trying very hard to peel away the democrats' resolve. Tung Chee-wah gave a press conference for the first time since he stepped down as Chief Executive, urging Hong Kong to accept the proposals as a "step forward." And in today's SCMP, an anonymous source claims that Beijing's conservative decision reflected the views of conservative cadres who thought the 2007 decision to allow Hong Kong to have "universal suffrage" had been a mistake. "The source also told the South China Morning Post yesterday that many cadres would be pleased to see Hong Kong lawmakers veto reforms for the 2017 chief executive election."

We can call this the "Brer Rabbit" argument. In an old story of Brer Rabbit story (see here), the rabbit is caught by Brer Fox and says, "I don’t care what you do with me, Brer Fox. Just don’t fling me in that briar patch over there. Roast me, Brer Fox, but don’t fling me in in that briar patch." Of course, the fox does through the rabbit into the briar patch, but since the rabbit grew up in the briar patch, he was not cut by its thorns but escaped unhurt. Similarly, Beijing is "letting it be known" that some cadres would want LegCo to veto the proposals, so Hong Kong would not have universal suffrage.  The democrats should therefore, the argument goes, accept the proposal to spite these conservative cadres.

One fact that has not been commented upon is that with the Nominating Committee still composed of the 1200 predominantly pro-Beijing representatives of tycoons and professions, it is unlikely that any election would actually have more than one candidate anyway. How will more than one candidate get over 50% of the nominations, even if multiple nominations are allowed? Most members of the Nominating Committee will have a clear opinion of who they think will be the best CE candidate. And the candidate will urge them to nominate only one person. Nomination Committee members will not submit a second nomination unless a) they are somehow related or beholden to two candidates and cannot chose only one without offending the other, or b) a second candidate is so weak or unpopular, that nominating him or her does not risk that this person will actually be elected, or c) Beijing tells them nominate a second candidate to make the election look like a real election (in which case this would be related to point b), because this would only happen if it was fairly clear who would win the final election).

The issue in the end hinges on what one understands to be "universal suffrage." Is the act of voting most important? Or does there have to be real choice before the vote is meaningful? Beijing is trying to focus on the "process" of voting. The Pan-Democrats insist that there has to be real choice. Beijing could have avoided a color revolution in Hong Kong by allowing elections that offered choice but were stacked in their favor. Instead, they have gone for total control and a fairly meaningless version of "universal suffrage" that ironically may cause unrest like in "color revolutions" because the election does not let voters let off steam. But Beijing may be right in its calculation. Even Anson Chan is so dispirited that she is quoted in the SCMP as recommending that her family members emigrate.

One other dispiriting aspect of the whole saga is the rapid erosion of "one country two systems." Many in Hong Kong like to think of the city as part of China but not really. Many say they don't want Hong Kong to be "just another Chinese city." So it is striking that it has been a series of Mainland officials like Li Fei who have been doing all the talking about the CE election reforms. CY Leung and Carrie Lam just sit there, in the audience. I'm sure they are happy not to have to act as mouthpieces for Beijing. And this makes clear where these decisions are coming from. But it also makes clear where the power is. When Beijing officials complain of a lack of "dialog", one can only wonder what they mean, because from Hong Kong's position, it seems like Beijing does all the talking and Hong Kong is just supposed to listen. Many will say that that this is not surprising, now that Hong Kong is part of China (certainly that is what they are saying in Taiwan). But it is not what Hongkongers expected by "universal suffrage" and "one country two systems."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hong Kong Democracy: The Slow Motion Train Wreck

If someone has not been closely following the issue of how Hong Kong will elect its next Chief Executive (CE), then the posturing between “Occupy Central” and Pro-Beijing loyalists is hard to understand. Today, we are about to hear from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress what the rules of the 2017 CE election will be. The outlines have been leaked, and it seems they will be very conservative, by which pundits mean it will support control by the rich and Beijing. This will result in protests, and it is likely that the pan-democrats in the Legislative Council will block the reforms, and thus will prevent Hong Kong from have “universal suffrage.” Many who have not followed the issue closely will wonder why pro-democrats are getting arrested in Central and blocking universal suffrage. For us in Hong Kong, we see this as a slow moving train wreck: we can see the collision coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

In general, it is good for democratic reforms to evolve gradually. And that is what the central government keeps saying as it justifies its conservative approach. The problem is, the pan-democrats do not trust Beijing to allow an evolution towards real democracy. When officials claim elections are “Western” or even a Western plot to undermine China, they indicate they do not have any intention of allowing real “universal suffrage”.

Officials keep promising reforms in the future, but at a certain point, people start to view this as merely a stalling tactic.  “Hong Kong's 2017 election is not the end of reform, hints NPC's Zhang Dejiang” (SCMP 22 July 2014) shows the Pro-Beijing forces trying to do the same thing: promise more democracy in the future, in return for limited reforms now. In general, this is a good idea; progress needs to be made step by step, and reform is a long-term process.

The problem is that the Democrats feel burned by the last round. When it was agreed in 2010 that there would be “Universal Suffrage” in 2017, no one anticipated that the threshold for nominations would be raised from 1/8 of Nomination Committee members to one half. Nor did they anticipate that there would be a cap on the number of candidates (it is going to be 2 or 3). As many have noted, this makes the Nominations Committee act like an Election Committee. The problem in the 2012 election, after all, was that both the pro-establishment candidates, Henry Tang and C.Y. Leung, were both considered poor candidates. Tang was nicknamed “the pig” (implying his lack of intellect) and Leung “the wolf” (supposedly because“wolf” in Cantonese is close to the pronunciation of his surname, and because he is considered cunning). The fact is that the 2012 election was a competitive election, with three candidates and considerable uncertainty, except that everyone knew that the third candidate, Albert Ho of the Democratic Party, did not have a chance of getting elected. The Election Committee of 1200 persons included all top elected politicians but was mostly elites selected by Beijing. Though it was good that the Democrats participated, they had no chance of winning. The problem was that the choice was between two poor choices (some said three poor choices).

Now, though Beijing will allow "one person one vote" to elect the CE, they have decided to make it more difficult to get nominated. This will make it impossible for any pro-democratic politician to be elected. The rich of Hong Kong and Beijing both fear a truly democratic CE, who might use populist policies to address Hong Kong's extreme wealth gap. Beijing increasingly views all democrats in Hong Kong as enemies of the state.  People like Peter Wong, a National People's Congress delegate from Hong Kong, tries to make objections to this high threshold seem illegitimate by saying "The electoral arrangement will be seen as unfair if it is designed to help certain candidates run." This is a red herring; it is the conservatives who are making it unfair by excluding certain candidates.

The crux of the matter is what is meant by "a high degree of autonomy." In Hong Kong, many people feel that Hong Kong should be able to elect its own CE, like cities around the world elect their mayors. But Beijing is concerned that the "mayor" might even try to declare independence. This sounds far fetched (only a lunatic fringe talks about HK independence) but Beijing leaders expect to be in complete control, and it is the job of leaders to worry about such scenarios. Instead of trying to find some compromise, both sides have hardened their positions, with many pro-democracy activists insisting on the right of "civic nomination" (i.e. nominating candidates for CE bypassing the Nominations Committee) and Beijing not changing the Nominations Committee, raising the threshold for getting nominated, and limiting the number of nominees who can run. I sometimes wonder if a compromise was actually ever possible.

It is possible that the very conservative approach to be announced by Beijing, and promoted by Hong Kong's rich like Peter Wong, will so inflame the situation that many people who were weary of "Occupy Central" will now be more supportive of the civil disobedience movement. Some in the government realize this, so this week there has been a concerted effort to blame Occupy Central for the conservative electoral rules, saying that the threat of civil disobedience caused the central government to lose trust in Hong Kong and directly led to conservative rules.

One final point. I find it surprising that so many people in the pro-establishment camp have railed against Occupy Central. Why do they find it so worrisome and offensive? The Alliance for Peace and Democracy (which is the name for the anti-Occupy Central group) launched a petition campaign and a march and most pro-establishment figures spoke in favor of it, and CY Leung himself even signed the petition. Much of the movement is well funded and orchestrated; there are many stories of employees being told to sign petitions or lose their jobs. I can only assume the Occupy movement has somehow hit a raw nerve. From one point of view, when the Occupy Central protesters lie down on the street, they can just be arrested and taken away. It will cause some disruption, but it is not the end of the world. The pro-establishment camp has organized all sorts of trade groups, even the Big 4 accounting firms, to speak out against Occupy Central (employees responded a few days later with an anonymous ad in the Apple Daily saying, with a mild vulgarity, “Hey boss, your statement doesn’t represent us."

Why the panic? What I see is pro-democracy activists feeling frustrated after years of deferring their hopes. People say there should be dialog, but at some point, if enough people believe the other side is not discussing in good faith, dialog breaks down and people will take more radical steps. Fortunately, Occupy Central is led by three idealist pacifists, and they have no intention of using violence. The police can also non-violently remove them. With the breakdown in trust and communication, many people will feel civil disobedience is their only choice. Because while it is true that democracy has to come gradually, it is also true that it rarely is won without a struggle.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Religion, Sports and the University President

Our university president is not a soccer/football fan, but he has organized an open air World Cup championship game viewing event both this year and four years ago that is quite popular. Despite the 3:00 am kickoff, about 1,500 people watched the game on the main quad of our campus with President Joseph Sung. This is a classic example of why he was selected president; he is happy to mingle with students, and does it well.

After the event, he wrote a blog about what football (soccer) can teach us about life, and I just became aware of it last Friday when it was publicized by "Mass Mail System" with a link through our university alumni newsletter. I eagerly looked it up since I will be teaching a new course on "Sports and Culture." It is a pretty pedestrian list of values that apply pretty much to anything:
  • Find your place
  • Know the field
  • Play as a team
  • Get up where you fall
  • Guard your integrity
What struck me as odd was that the blog ended with a quote from the bible. People often say that sports is like religion, but that is not the case here. It seems inappropriate to end a piece with a bible quote. He only quoted the bible, and not other religious traditions. This made his statement seem like proselytizing.  Especially inappropriate is the quote he chose:
"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:7–8)?
Note that "the righteous judge" will only smile unto the believers (i.e. those "that love his appearing"). So the quote is not saying that if you guard your integrity and follow good behavior, you will be rewarded. It is saying only those who believe will be rewarded. This is not a universalistic statement, but a sectarian one. 

Upon greater reflection, however, it is probably fine for the president to end his personal blog entries with religious quotes. But then they should not be promoted to the university community through mass mailings. He can write what he wants in his blog, but it should not then be picked up and presented as an official University statement.

I am no doubt more sensitive on this because of my American upbringing. In the US, the tradition was to avoid religious statements in public so as to allow different faiths to co-exist. This tradition is increasingly misunderstood by evangelicals who try to rewrite history and claim the US has always been a Christian nation. As Steven Waldman has shown in Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, "the United States was not founded as a "Christian nation," nor were the Founding Fathers uniformly secular or Deist. Rather, the Founders forged a new approach to religious liberty, a revolutionary formula that promoted faith--by leaving it alone."

I wish President Sung would not assault me with his religion and religious quotes, and would just leave it alone. His religion is his private matter; it can guide his actions and values, but he should not impose it on others. There is no way he can talk about it without it seeming to be judgmental. It may be OK for him to use biblical quotes in his personal blog, but not in messages sent out to the University community and in the Alumni Newsletter. We are, after all, a public, not religious, university.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The False Science of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings



Anthropologists complain about rationalization and bad quantification, but we generally moan about it to each other and are often not very specific. I want to try to explain what is wrong with the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings. I want to argue that the survey is based on bad data and thus gives spurious results. All the results do is confirm loosely held biases, but by presenting them in quantitative form, the league tables become more real and powerful than they deserve.

This year, I was again asked to participate in the survey. I received the following email:

Dear Colleague,
Thomson Reuters is pleased to invite you to participate in the annual Academic Reputation Survey, which will support the Global Institutional Profiles Project and Times Higher Education World University Rankings.  You have been statistically selected to complete this survey and will represent thousands of your peers. The scholarly community, university administrators, and students worldwide depend on the survey results, as they provide the most reliable access to the voice of scholars like you.  

A sample survey is available online. I have to commend ThomsonReuters for their transparency on this; most pollsters try to protect themselves from criticism by keeping their questions secret. 

The heart of the questionnaire are four questions, in which we are asked to list the 15 best research universities 1) in our region and 2) in the world, and the 15 best teaching institutions 3) in our region and 4) in the world. This seems straightforward enough, and I am a great fan of "freelisting" (see in Bernard’s Research Methods in Anthropology or in ANTHROPAC). But people can only list things they know something about.

I do not normally think in terms of “best research universities”; I know of some good scholars in different universities whose work I admire, but in each case, I do not know most of their colleagues unless they also publish in areas I am interested in. I may notice that “State University” appears more often than “Podunk U” in authors’ affiliations, but if State is a large school, I may not actually attribute its frequent appearance to “excellence” in research. It may just be because they are big. It may also be because many of their graduating PhDs still have not found jobs, and are using their more prestigious school affiliation rather than the schools where they teach as adjuncts.

Ranking the “best research universities” may be more of a problem in anthropology, where we do not work in “research teams”, and where there is an emphasis on departments covering the diversity of cultures and approaches to culture, rather than concentrating on one area. I am actually more likely to know which university has a good Asian Studies program than which one has a good anthropology program. If I were asked to list the best universities for the anthropology of China, that would be easier. Recently the Society for Economic Anthropology weblist collectively listed the top graduate programs for economic anthropology. That is a reasonable list: where to go to study a particular subfield. Anthropology PhD students work with a small number of scholars, so it is more important that there be scholars in their primary area of interest rather than a "good program."

The problems with ranking "teaching universities" are even worse. First of all, teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels are totally different. Many large state research universities have huge classes, and undergrads are often taught by TAs and instructors rather than the famous teachers who appear in the catalog. Those famous professors are freed up for research and to work with graduate students. So my recommendation for student is totally different depending on whether they are an undergrad or looking for a PhD program.

In addition, the truth is that most of us have NO IDEA what the teaching environment is like at other universities. (And here I’m not even going into the issue of whether students prefer more experiential participatory learning, or seminar style, or more traditional lecture formats, among many other variables. The idea that there is one teaching scale, good to bad, that we can all agree on is laughable.) Even for two elite universities where I have three data points--students who attended their graduate programs--I do not know how to generalize, as some thrived, and others struggled or were not that happy. I cannot understand how anyone can confidently list the best 15 schools for teaching.

Obviously, the problems with ranking universities for teaching is a point of contention, because it was addressed in the justification of the methodology this year

ThomsonReuters say that respondents who at the start of the survey indicate that their work is primarily teaching “are later asked to identify the one institution they would recommend that a student attend ‘to experience the best undergraduate and/or graduate teaching environment’ in their subject area.”  

They thus assume that those who teach primarily are in the best position to know where the best teaching programs are. This is ridiculous. Most academics who are primarily teachers are overburdened with teaching and struggling hard to try to get a research position. Just because they primarily teach in their current position does not mean they are aware of which universities offer excellent teaching.

Thus, since most people cannot really answer which are the best universities for research or teaching, they fall back on vague images of “prestige” and image. And when one adds in all the universities of the world, the results get even more confused. Do people filling out the survey really know whether Tokyo University or Beijing University or the Sorbonne is good? Aren’t people just filling out the survey based on vague impressions, many of them decades old?

I have noticed that many, indeed most, China scholars in the USA cannot remember the difference between Hong Kong University and The Chinese University of Hong Kong. I know because I am often introduced as coming from Hong Kong University (not correct). I am convinced that a small but significant portion of HKU’s lead over CUHK in THE tables and in other such reputational rankings is due to similar mistakes by the people who fill in such surveys. In medicine and some other areas, HKU may well be better than CUHK. But since HKU does not have an anthropology department, and their history department has gone through serious difficulties, I can confidently say that in a number of the social sciences and humanities, CUHK is stronger than HKU.

Another problem with the survey is more prosaic: the software did not work. On one page, I had not finished filling in the names of universities but hit the “Enter” key instead of the  Tab key and it went on to the next question. There is no way to go back on the survey. Then, when I was asked to select non-university research centers, the page would not let me add any because an error message popped up claiming that center had already been selected. I had to claim “I don’t know of any NON-UNIVERSITY research only institutions in this subject area” in order to go on. I also had to run the survey three times before I could get to the end, because it hung on me twice.

I hope we can pull the screen back and show that there is really just vague bias behind these league tables, and they should not have the outsized importance that they have achieved. I for one refuse to submit my survey. I think it is unconscionable to participate in this fraud. And I urge other scholars to publicize the tricks their deans promote to game the system. The more people realize the fraudulent and unscientific nature of the surveys, and the perverse incentives they engender, the less they will treat them as serious measures of quality.