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.