Thursday, April 23, 2009


The last time most pundits sniffed the wind in this part of the world was years ago, when Patten and his daughters sailed out of the harbour to the mournful strains of Rule Britannia and were replaced by 4,000 of the PLA's best. Since then it's been representation as usual: Xianggangren are an apathetic bunch more interested in making money than politics; the SAR is the world's freest economy; and Cheng Long rules at the box office. Stuff the barren rock; the main game has always been China. Xianggang was the place journalists stopped over on their way to more important stories, like an economy doubling in size every decade, a whopping great dam in downtown Sandouping, or the 2008 olympics. Xianggang was a financial hub, but as far as politics went it was of marginal interest.

There's nothing new in this. For a century and a half the majority of Chinese kept pretty much to themselves and were in turn ignored by 28 governors. Most foreigners living here today have as little understanding of what's going on in the SAR as they did a hundred years ago. Compared to Singapore, another Chinese citystate with British roots, foreigners and locals live in bubbles that hardly bump let alone collide. Expats like to show off cosmopolitan Xianggang to visitors from out of town, but apart from a few pockets where the territory's multiple worlds bump and grind, the SAR is decidedly homogenous - as visits to shopping centres and housing estates away from a few trendy locales demonstrate. Part of this has to with the waves of migrants fleeing the mainland during particularly nasty periods of repression (such as the Cultural Revolution), the educational and cultural policies of successive administrations that maintained rather than alleviated cultural differences, and the kinds of professionals who were posted to the SAR. For instance, the generally low educational attainment of many migrants from the mainland has not been conducive to providing the kinds of skills needed to mix as equals with professionals in the legal and financial worlds here on short-term contracts. Lawyers or analysts working for global legal firms or banks live in a world as removed from locals who provide essential services as those inhabited by dogs and fish. The lack of language skills - on both sides - only exacerbates these differences. On top of this is resentment still festering in some quarters towards colonial rule, and which hinders the development of any sort of integration between foreigners and locals.

There are, of course, many exceptions to these trends. Thousands of locals speak excellent English and have lived or studied abroad. A far fewer number of foreigners speak or read Chinese, or make any serious attempt at exploring the diverse world that constitutes Xianggang. The major English-language daily pays scant attention to local issues, and relies on perilously thin sources. As with the global media, local newspapers see China as the main game. As I have shown on this site several times, comparisons of the ways English- and Chinese-language newspapers deal with the same stories suggest that local stories are not particularly important.

Which explains why when it comes to Xianggang, the world's media doesn't really comprehend a very complicated political, cultural and ideological mix. It is not well understood, for instance, how pro- and anti-Beijing views play out in diverse aspects of life here. People know there are pro- and anti-Beijing newspapers, but few foreigners read the pro-Beijing papers and thus have little inkling of the battles taking place. While it has been a common assumption for many years that the SAR's Chinese are apolitical, many locals have definite views on this fundamental divide. The two major trade union federations are split along this divide, as are any number of other political or cultural institutions. The media, trade unions, educational bodies and institutions and so on are divided into pro- and anti-Beijing camps. This is one layer.

Another layer consists of a generational divide. Several years ago, a female colleague and I needed to make a trip to the mainland. At the very last moment she withdrew on the pretext of poor health. Much later I discovered that the real reason for her reticence was that her father had forbidden her to set foot across the border. He had fled China during the Great Leap Forward as a young man and loathed the CCP. His hatred and fear were intense, and he forbade his daughter - out of love - to embark on any trip to a country whose leadership he profoundly distrusted. A younger generation, which has come of age during a period of relative openness, does not in general harbour such strong feelings. It is worth mentioning, however, that many young people (women in particular) do not travel to China because they are frightened by perceptions of lawlessness, filth and disease. Despite this, younger people are learning putonghua, understand that China presents job opportunities, and think of the mainland as the motherland.

Portrayals of local people as apolitical also misrepresent the role ideology has played and continues to play in everyday affairs. For instance, to speak of the Left these days is fraught with difficulty. Yet in Xianggang it is probably more difficult than in most places to make generalisations about the Left. Older Leftists tend towards Maoism, a strand of thought that whilst perhaps not actively practiced or adhered to still plays a role. But for those who fled Mao, such thinking is resisted. To generalise about migrants is difficult: one the one hand, many loathe Mao and communism, but on the other hand, they are linked to the mainland by clan associations and business relations. Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin distanced themselves from Mao's disasters, and for some migrants this new form of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' is palatable enough to mitigate the memories of harsh times. Even for those whom we might say follow no specific ideology, we can observe an ideology of rejection. This could be characterised more as anti-political than apolitical. Moreover, it is paradoxical that many in the pro-Beijing camp who call themselves Leftists have controlling interests in some of the most powerful business groups in the SAR. Historical circumstances have necessitated espousal of Leftist ideas whilst running property development companies with annual turnovers equal to small countries.

It is difficult therefore to determine why people came out to march on Establishement Day or last night. For instance, today's papers noted that Li Zhuoren [Lee Cheuk-yan - Legco member and president of the anti-Beijing HK Federation of Trade Unions] received one of the loudest cheers from the crowd last night. Were the cheers for him, his union activities, his views on universal suffrage, or for his anti-Beijing stance? Or all four combined? Li's vocal criticisms of Beijing with regard to workers' rights have led to the Chinese government revoking his permission to return to the mainland. Being outspoken has come at a personal cost, but it has won him a great deal of support. Questions like this are commonplace in other countries, but are rarely examined in the English-language press here. A careful reading of pro- and anti-Beijing newspapers provides more answers, but these are confined to the Chinese bubble.

When foreign journalists and pundits turn their attention to the protests you can bet that many of the fissures in Xianggang society will be plastered over without a second glance. A great number of foreign experts will rely soley on English-language reports (cobbling together quotes from various articles and calling it their own), and contextualise the marches as a collective attempt at throwing off Beijing's oppressive rule. It's not that simple, as polls in the Chinese press have shown time and again that to register dissatisfaction with Dong Jianhua or his cronies is not necessarily translated to anger at mainland leaders like Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao. Comments like this don't make sense if the deeper schisms in society aren't fully understood. And nor do they make sense if the lens through which you view current protests is 'anti-Beijing = democrat'. Or indeed 'democrat = anti-Beijing'.

Xianggang Chinese may despise mainlanders who swoop into town and burn holes in their pockets with ill-gotten wealth, sporting bad haircuts and lousy suits. They may march against Dong and Article 23. But don't assume that this means anything more than what it means. To extrapolate some deeper antipathy towards Beijing may be foolish. As indeed it may be to assume being pro-Beijing translates to antipathy towards universal suffrage. When I read a pundit who takes all these factors into consideration - and many other factors about which I am ignorant - then I know I'm in the hands of someone who has done his homework. Unfortunately, there will be few bold conclusions to such articles and I'll be more confused than when I began. But at least I know I'll be getting close to the truth.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Falun Gong

"I do not believe in Falun Gong. I believe in science."

Years ago, I was hanging around in town and came across a demonstration / group-meditation performance right in front of Kings' College [pretty much central in town]. These people were mostly - but not exclusively - Chinese, and were performing what looked like Tai-Chi-lite, with a slightly hackneyed slow-motion grace. I picked up a leaflet being handing out passing pedestrians and milling observers by some of their click.

The leaflet said that the practice being performed was called Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa). This was news to me. It went on: "since 1999 the Chinese government has outlawed Falun and persecuted its practitioners. Amnesty International: 'These Falun Gong deaths in custody are an appalling illustration of the authorities' callous disregard for the lives of people detained solely for their peaceful activities.' "

I watched them perform their breathing and stretching techniques for a while longer, and then signed a petition they had organised, lobbying the UK government to act on behalf of these peaceful men and women, to stop the Chinese government's persecution of Falun and its intentions to eradicate the practice.

This week, I found that leaflet again while tidying up and it reminded me of Falun Gong.

It also contained statistics (257 tortured or beaten to death, over 10000 in labour camps) and named specific individuals that had been, it alleges, killed by Chinese authorities or during custody. One is Mrs Wang Lixuan, who in October 2000 was taken into custody, with her 7mth old son, for appealing against the ban on Falun Gong. 2 weeks later both were dead from torture by police. Medical examination revealed that her neck had been broken and her skull crushed.

from the leaflet:
"Why the persecution? The Chinese government feels threatened because the number of people practising Falun Gong grew to over 70 million, even exceeding the membership of the Communist party. Falun Gong teaches Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance, which the Chinese government says is not consistent with Communism. Falun Gong can not be controlled, bullied, corrupted or bribed or made a source of profit. All official means of appeal against the ban on Falun Gong are blocked. To appeal, practitioners go to Tiananmen Square, sometimes hundreds a day, to unveil banners which say things such as "Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance" or "Falun Gong is good". Police await them, beating them and dragging them to waiting vans, in displays of disturbing violence. The practitioners never retaliate.

In January, 2001 5 people set themselves to fire in Tiananmen Square, among them a 10year old girl. It was claimed they were Falun Gong practitioners – they were not. The teachings of Falun Gong are very clear that suicide is absolutely wrong. Analysis of video and media reports clearly indicates they were not Falun Gong practitoners, and also that the whole event was staged. For example, usually the nearest fire extinguishers are 20 minutes away, but police were already in position with extinguishers at the exact moment of the incident. It seems that these people were used in an orchestrated attempt to whip up more hatred towards Falun."

By now I didn't know whether I should be becoming sceptical about Falun, or once more feel uneasy about the Chinese government's controls. If the Falun Gong leaflet itself says that the Chinese government has to stage dangerous acts in order to fan the hatred, is it then saying that folks in general don’t have much time for Falun Gong?

As always, I didn’t have much to do, so today I’ve been digging up more stuff on Falun Gong. ( I don't wanting to end up looking like Phil Collins did when we was duped into supporting Nonce Sense. ) The whole Falun Gong thing comes off like a strange and surreal mix of Orwellian totalitarianism and a dyspotian underground movement straight from a Hollywoood sci-fi script. The apparent founder of Falun Gong is an ex-trumpet player who inserts spinning emblems, Faluns, into the belly of believers.

After reading various articles, here are my salient conclusions:

Falun was created by Li Hongzhi in 1992, when he mingled the tenets of Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Qigong exercises. He wrote a very odd book, a rambling dissertation called Zhuan Falun, which affected millions - only adding to accusations that Falun Gong is a cult. In it Li says he can personally heal disease and that his followers can stop speeding cars using the powers of his teachings. He writes that the Falun Gong emblem exists in the bellies of practitioners, who can see through the celestial eyes in their foreheads. Li believes "humankind is degenerating and demons are everywhere" - extraterrestrials are everywhere, too - and that Africa boasts a 2-billion-year-old nuclear reactor. He also says he can fly.

He went on to published books, sell videotapes and lecture to mass gatherings, and his organisation grew to 60 million followers, as many as in the Communist party. At this stage China's Elite leaders had barely heard of Falun.

Falun's central tenet is that Li himself, either personally or through his books and videotapes, inserts the Falun icon, a swastika-like Buddhist emblem surrounded by yin-yang symbols, into the bellies of believers. The emblem spins: clockwise to absorb energy, counter-clockwise to emit it. The Faluns on people's bellies can heal diseases, or Li can heal diseases through the Faluns. An advanced practitioner will open a "celestial eye" in the middle of his forehead and see many spinning Falun emblems, supposedly a splendid sight. When practitioners die, they return to their "true, original self," writes Li.

The Chinese Government became concerned Falun, when the number of practitioners exceeded the number of people in the Communist Party. The communist leadership saw what looked eerily like the party itself in its heyday. The Falun organisation was hierarchically structured, with neighbourhood groups, like cells, acting autonomously but in contact with higher levels. In 1999, Falun was outlawed. The government accused it of "spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances and jeopardising social stability." The government crackdown began.

A nation wide "responsibility system" put the onus on local police and government workers, factory bosses and family members to find practitioners and get them to renounce their beliefs. This lets the party evade a simple arithmetic problem: it never had enough jails or police to handle the tens of millions of people who are claimed to have once practised Falun Gong. Instead, it enlists ordinary people to help find practitioners and discipline them. Bosses face fines or demotions when their workers protest. Police officers face heavier penalties for allowing people under their watch to demonstrate than for beating them to death.

Some misguided Falun practioners (or suspected followers, depending on your loyalties) set themselves alight during a Tiananmen Square protest in January 2001. Before that day, many Chinese had felt the crackdown had gone too far - that Falun Gong posed no real threat. With the immolations, the government's propaganda campaign portraying Falun Gong as an "evil cult" that unhinged its followers seemed more credible. Damage control from Falun's leaders after the immolations was handled badly. Instead of acknowledging that the five protesters might have been misguided, they denied any connection with them. Implausibly, the Falun Gong website insists the episode was set up by government provocateurs. Few were convinced by that line.

Yet for all its success in breaking the movement, the government has not yet addressed the sense of spiritual emptiness that gave birth to Falun Gong. Incense smoke flows thick in Buddhist temples across China, and the number of Christians has increased tenfold to about 40 million since the communists first swept to power.