Love, respect, and total and utter incomprehension – Hong Kong part 1

hkharbourI went to Hong Kong recently for two weeks. This wasn’t my first time there, in fact I sort of used to live there, for fourteen years. ‘Sort of’ because for eight of those years I shared my time between the New Territories and a school on the North-West coast of England (a bit like Hogwarts except there was absolutely no magic there whatsoever. Or owls).

So I know the place a little, or I used to think I did. But if wisdom is knowing you know nothing, I am much much wiser than ever I was before. I know nothing about Hong Kong. I don’t know how the local accent sounds different to the accent of the town 50 miles away. I couldn’t make a stab at identifying the ten most famous people from my home city when I was growing up. I can’t read shop signs, newspapers, political posters or adverts there.

Originally I intended to write a quick post about this just in case you were interested in what it’s like to go back to the place you used to live in but never understood. I’ve found though that I’ve gone from having a buzzing blank mind about my time(s) there to wanting to explain everything, and keep on writing forever. So this is going to be the first post of a handful about Hong Kong, and today we’ll do a bit of background about the place, its identity and what the current protests are all about.

Things you’ve heard about

But perhaps we’ll get back to my incomprehension and my excuses for it later. Hong Kong was in the news for two reasons while I was out there, both unusual for the city as I understand it. (But of course I don’t understand it)

There’s no point in saying anything about the deaths of Sumarti Ningsih and Jesse Lorena except to express sorrow. I had far rather the UK press hadn’t commissioned all the stuff about the ‘seamy side of Asia’s world city’ – journalists from London talking with a straight face about red light districts and prostitution as if Wanchai were entirely without parallel in the whole of Europe. Hong Kong is amazingly safe – you are less than half as likely to die as a result of homicide there than in the UK.

A month before this sad news had broken, though, you might have read about other areas of Hong Kong – Mong Kok, Admiralty, Causeway Bay – for happier reasons. I found the Umbrella Movement protests so touching before we left that I’d become quite defensive about them. While we were there though, I didn’t spend much time around the protest sites. What could I do there except gawp? How would that help anyone?

As I write today, Joshua Wong, the leader of Scholarism, the first group to call out the protests, has been arrested and banned from an area in Mong Kok. He’s seventeen, by the way, so young and so brave.

All these beautiful shops, and you’re still unhappy?

The people of Hong Kong deserve better than they’ve ever had from either the British or the Chinese governments. Let’s start with the UK: we invented a special type of citizenship that doesn’t provide consular privileges, can’t be passed on to offspring and confers no right of abode anywhere on earth especially for Hong Kong residents. We didn’t establish full suffrage in the 99 years we had both Hong Kong and the New Territories – mind you, you should also note that as late as 1960 China was threatening to send in the troops if democracy broke out. Hong Kong residents never had state-sponsored health care, their benefits are lower than about anywhere on earth. When social housing came to Hong Kong in the 1950s as the result of a fire in a squatter’s shantytown, it promised ‘24 square feet (2.2 m2) per adult and half that for each child under 12‘ and I invite you to imagine the government of the UK ever suggesting that its own citizens have that little space to live in.

In 1984, pretty much as the British were folding their tents, together with Beijing they issued the ‘Sino-British Joint Declaration‘, the tenets of which went forward into Hong Kong’s Basic Law – this is the constitution for the period 1997-2047. For those fifty years, Hong Kong is promised that it is a ‘special adminstrative region’ within China with a capitalist lifestyle rather than a socialist one (I’m sure this meant more in 1984…), increased movement towards democracy, and that various human rights were assured. As will become clear later, an important article of the Basic Law is Article 45, which says:

“The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.[1]
“The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

(Oh look, I’ve started saying ‘we’ when I mean Britain. In the mid-late 80s, the time between the signing of the Joint Declaration and the ratification of the Basic Law I very much felt that Britain were ‘they’.)

A quick digression about language

Whether through accidental vagueness or intentional sleight of hand, Hong Kong’s Basic Law says that “[i]n addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language”. Fair enough, you might think, Hong Kong’s in China, nice of them to keep English on for the tiny minority that don’t speak Chinese, job’s a good’un.

Things are a bit more complicated, though – what follows is my understanding of things, which is necessarily limited because I don’t speak or read any kind of Chinese. Everyone seems to agree that written Chinese as used in official documents is written Chinese. In the PRC they went through a kind of spelling reform in 1956 and 1964 where some characters were replaced with simplified forms, and Hong Kong never did, but this aside, basically any literate Chinese person can write a sentence and it will be understood by other literate Chinese people.*

The spoken word is entirely different. The lingua franca of the PRC is Mandarin. Here’s some spoken Mandarin for you:

Leslie Cheung’s sulk acting is something to behold, no? He’s the one in the Opera get-up.

Meanwhile, something close to 95% of Chinese-language speakers in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. Here’s a bit of Cantonese from Chungking Express:

(love Tony Leung, even though he appears to have dodgy views about Tiananmen Square)

To my ear – and I’m not alone – these sound like entirely different languages. You will often hear Cantonese described as a dialect of Chinese, I think mostly for political reasons. You might think, say, of Bavarian German as a dialect of German, or Geordie English as a dialect of English. The difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is wider by far than either of those examples: it has a different sentence structure, different tones (the pitch at which you say a word in Sinitic languages is an important part of its pronunciation) and Mandarin and Cantonese speakers cannot understand each other unless they have learnt the other’s speech. French and Spanish are probably closer than Mandarin and Cantonese (this is a completely inexpert made-up comparison which linguists are free to snort at.) Mandarin speakers can be quite rude about Cantonese – I’m biased, but I love the sound of Cantonese while Mandarin sounds slippery to me. We all have prejudices of our own.

The status of Cantonese seems to me like quite a big deal: if you live in a country where your rights are prescribed by a written constitution you would want at least that the language spoken by 95% of residents is enshrined as an official language in that constitution. Which brings us to…

Reunification and why everybody can’t all just get along

I am British, of course, and I am an ex-Hong Kong resident. I’m not a great fan of either colonialism or the way power is exercised in the PRC so I have very mixed feelings about 1997. Of course Britain had no business pretending to own a chunk of land in China, but there’s no point in my pretending that back then when I was 22 I felt entirely optimistic about Hong Kong’s future and its security. The romantic in me would have far preferred Hong Kong to become a city-state. That was never going to happen – Hong Kong is entirely dependent on China for food, water, electricity and so on. While China wanted Hong Kong back it was always going to get it.

The first time I went back after the handover was in 2004, and to be honest I didn’t notice a lot of change. Well, that’s not true, as was always the case after I went back after a while, entire new towns had been reclaimed out of the sea and buildings seemingly taller than the Peak had sprouted on the Island, but yeah, that’s Hong Kong. Talking to older expats at the time, they grumbled that things weren’t the same and the place was going to hell in a handcart, but when had they not?

Ten years later it is getting harder to pretend that the PRC are going to leave Hong Kong be for the fifty years of ‘one country, two systems’ promised in the Basic Law. Back in 2012, the HK government attempted to implement a “Moral and National curriculum” in primary and secondary schools with lessons on appreciating mainland China, including ‘[calling] the Communist Party an “advanced, selfless and united ruling group” (進步、無私與團結的執政集團), while denouncing Democratic and Republican Parties of the United States as a “fierce inter-party rivalry [that] makes the people suffer.’ It was this controversy that led to the founding of Scholarism, the students’ group that recently took the lead in calling out the Umbrella Movement protests.

Cantonese as a language is under attack both in Hong Kong and Guangdong province: after attempting to sideline Cantonese as the language of Guangdong TV back in 2010 and being forced to retreat, this year the authorities tried again to promote Mandarin as the only broadcast language. Back in Hong Kong, the HK Government’s Education Bureau asserted that Cantonese was not an official language of Hong Kong, was forced to retract, and also found time to release a video that seems to equate Cantonese-speaking with the Devil. (I have to take Language Log’s word for that; as I mentioned and I will beg forgiveness for in a later post, I don’t speak either Mandarin or Cantonese)

Living standards everywhere in China are rising as people are lifted out of poverty – and a wonderful thing that is, too – not in Hong Kong, though, where the mainland Chinese rich are buying up property and the impractical cut-throat property market has become impossible. Living standards in Hong Kong are falling, for the first time in a long time, and it’s no wonder people are frustrated.It’s true that culture clashes between Hong Kong and mainlanders seem to be all over the place: here’s a row about eating noodles on the MTR (in which nobody comes out that well), here’s a protest against mainland shoppers, here’s a clash between Hong Kong and mainland students on whether they should be taught in Mandarin or Cantonese.

I wouldn’t like to give the impression – unlike Martin Jacques, whose article about the HK protests was a horror of misdirection and condescension – that the Umbrella Movement is all about money or displacement though.

One man, one vote (assuming that man is sufficiently rich and patriotic)

Suffrage and the autonomy of Hong Kong against the power of the much much much larger state of China are at the heart of current concerns. Protesters may be on the downward slope of popular support in HK at the moment – after all, they have closed down 3 arterial roads there for nearly two months by now – but their cause is just and deserves wider support in the Western world. How you decide who has authority over your administration is a fundamental question in all societies – the things the students want are not the meretricious demands of a spoilt generation but something that we take entirely for granted here: that nobody has power over me without my having the ability to vote against it.

Now, bear with me, because a lot of abstract-sounding positions and groups with their names in capital letters are about to follow:

Back in 2007, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong at the time decided that 2017 would be about the right sort of time that the people of Hong Kong could choose their Chief Executive for themselves. In an attempt to move the debate along, in June this year the group Occupy Central with Love and Peace (hey, I didn’t choose it) carried out an unofficial referendum to see which form of choosing the Chief Executive had the most popular support, against the background of the chairman of the Law Committee of the National People’s Congress of China saying in 2013 that whoever the candidates for Chief Executive might be, they must be people who ‘love Hong Kong and love their country.’ Just as they were gearing up for their (well-organised, transparent) survey, China’s State Council thought it might be the right time to release a ‘White Paper‘ reminding the people of Hong Kong that any autonomy they might have was entirely within the gift of the authorities in Beijing, and that a primary duty of anyone who might rule Hong Kong would be patriotism – by which they mean of course loyalty to the PRC. The National People’s Congress in August went on to make this crystal clear: because patriotism and loyalty were needed in any candidate for Chief Executive, there would need to be a nominating committee to approve the candidates for election, after which the people of Hong Kong could choose from between them. As the Umbrella Movement protests went into their third week, back in October, the current Chief Executive, CY Leung explained that of course the students’ demands were unlikely to be met because universal suffrage would mean politics would be dominated by all the poor people that would get the vote.

I’d like you to imagine that the Scottish First Minister could only be chosen from a list of candidates vetted for their love of the United Kingdom. Ha ha ha, right? Well, that’s what Hong Kong is being offered. I’d be annoyed too – I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to do what the students have been doing for the last two months, but I know I’d be on their side.

So too should the UK be – as a signatory to the Joint Declaration, Britain has a role in assuring Hong Kong’s rights under that treaty. Given that I distinctly remember nobody in this country giving a flying one about the rights of the people of Hong Kong when they were under negotiation in the eighties and nineties when Britain administered the place, I shouldn’t be that surprised that it’s not making many waves in the UK now. But we should hold ourselves to a better standard.

I guess the moral of the story might be, if you’re an imperial sort of nation, don’t go seizing bits of land to hold to ransom so you can force your right to sell addictive drugs to the locals because it might end messily a hundred years down the line. The reason the UK ever had any title or interest in that part of the world is pretty inglorious – at time of writing, it’s not doing enough to make it all right again.

Tune in next time for…

I wanted to get that all off my chest because I think my feelings that Hong Kong is being betrayed – by China, by the UK, by the tycoons of the city, and maybe by me – colour pretty much everything I think about the place both now and in the past. I didn’t want to tell you about what a great place it is and was without acknowledging what’s going on there now, and the challenges it faces. Next time I promise to try to throttle back the indignation a little, and I want to say something about what it was like as a place to live. Sound the nostalgia warning.

* There is such a thing as written Cantonese, though it isn’t taught, not even in schools in Hong Kong. This post is really interesting about the use of written Cantonese in the recent protests.

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