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 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.