Monday, October 6, 2014

Empire, Chinese Style ("Why the Leung Face?")

"Look Left"
Since Hong Kong uses a British-style left-hand driving
set-up, flaneurs are grateful for ubiquitous reminders that can
save pedestrians from being blind-sided -- e.g. by a double-
decker bus barreling down the narrow streets. (Do those
signs foretell HK's future political orientation as well?)
I'm right there with the protesters in Hong Kong - in my mind, anyway.

I traveled frequently to Hong Kong during the '80s and '90s, and the streets the demonstrators are currently occupying are some of the most familiar to me in the world. I look at the online maps showing the main areas of the occupation, and I can summon up the details of these places, block by block, from memory.

Back in those days, I often stayed in a hotel on the Kowloon side, and I loved starting the day by walking the few blocks to the ferry pier. The Star Ferry boats shuttle back and forth continuously between the Kowloon and the Hong Kong side, and it's exhilarating to take the short 5-minute ride that weaves through the fantastic harbor traffic and deposits you in Central. You walk out of the ferry building on the Hong Kong side, and you're looking up at the futuristic Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Building - symbol of British colonial control of the territory.

50 HK Dollar note, featuring the Norman Foster-designed HSBC building
Currency in Hong Kong is supplied by banks as bank notes. During the period
of British control, the notes were supplied by the two large British banks
in Hong Kong - Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Corporation, and Standard
Chartered Bank. Today there is a third supplier: the Bank of China.

Next to the HSBC building is the old Bank of China building - once the center of the People's Republic of China presence in colonial Hong Kong, and now superceded by the new BoC building by I.M. Pei, several blocks to the east. (The old building now houses the "China Club" -- a celebration of all things Chinese, from retro Shanghai style to Mao nostalgia -- conceived shortly before the 1997 handover by Hong Kong impresario David Tang.)

A few steps to the west . . . well . . . you get the picture . . . . With each step, you're traversing ground rich with meaning.

As I say, in my mind, I'm traversing those same blocks with the demonstrators.

I've thought about it and I have one thing to say about the current protests, as well as a few questions to ask. 

One Thing: "The emperor is far away . . . . "

Like everyone else, I am concerned about what is going to happen in Hong Kong, and I worry that there may be violent repression as there was against the student demonstrators in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

I'm holding out hope that this situation is different because of geography. Although it may seem like an arbitrary distinction, I think it is, in fact, significant to the leaders in Beijing that this group of students is far away in Hong Kong and that other group of students was right in their faces in the central square of the seat of power, Beijing.

A truism from Asian History 101 is conveyed by the expression, "Heaven is high and the emperor is far away." In other words, China is a big place, and it makes a difference whether you're at the "center" or in some relatively distant corner of the empire.

Broadly, this translates into a sense in traditional elite Chinese culture that south China is almost like another country. (This was reinforced by the elaborate centralized government bureaucracy that enabled the development of an "inside-the-Beltway" mentality in China long before Washington was born.)

Occupy Hong Kong, October 2014
This gathering centers on the government buildings of the Hong Kong
administration. The building in the near distance (right rear) with the glowing
triangle outlines and twin antennae is the Bank of China building.

Substantial scholarly effort has been devoted to analyzing the characteristics of "empire, Chinese style." I have found the collection of essays edited by John K. Fairbank, The Chinese World Order: Traditional China's Foreign Relations, to be especially helpful. To summarize, the historians observed that in many different examples of relations with (nearby) neighbors, traditional Chinese rulers exhibited little interest in outright control or even material advantage, but did angle successfully to obtain nominal submission, accompanied by explicit, universally readable symbolism. The classic form this took was the tribute mission, in which ambassadors came and offered gifts to China -- frequently resulting in the receiving of substantially greater gifts from the rulers of China. (Hey, it's the thought that counts.)

I think this is particularly valuable as we watch what happens in the months and years ahead in numerous areas of China, as China seeks to hold its empire together.

It also bears comparison with what we observe in the months and years ahead about how the United States behaves as it seeks to hold its empire together.

Some Questions

There are questions that are worth thinking more about and discussing.

What is the relationship between Occupy Hong Kong and the U.S. occupy movement? Are they siblings? Cousins? Or is this OINO ("occupy" in name only)?

What's with those Hong Kong students? I have known lots of young Hong Kong people, and I always knew they were smart and sophisticated. And worldly. So how did this current crop of students -- en masse -- get so political?

"HK you are not alone!"
"A student protester walks past umbrellas with words of support
written on them at the pro-democracy protest site near the
government headquarters in Hong Kong on Saturday, Oct. 4.
The protesters' use of umbrellas — among other equipment — to
shield themselves from the potential pain of tear gas and
rubber bullets has helped earned the movement the name the
'umbrella revolution.'" CBCNews (Wong Maye-E/Associated Press)
What's the 100-year plan? Great Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Most Westerners applied a Western approach to understanding what this meant: "Well, that's over with." China, on the other hand, stated that it was the beginning of a process. Maybe now would be a good time to try to imagine how they are seeing things.

Make that "100-year plans" (plural). As indicated above, there are numerous areas of China that are contested territory (physically and politically). I touched on one of them -- the Uighur area of Xinjiang -- in a recent blog post. How can we get our heads around what governance means for a China that has a half dozen pots on low boil?

What's the U.S. role in all this?  I was startled to see an analysis from Russia and other sources suggesting that the U.S. had instigated the student protests in Hong Kong. My own experience has always led me to believe that the last thing the U.S. cares about is political rights in any part of China - it's all about "what's good for business." (See "Remember June 4") What's the truth?

In the days and weeks ahead, we have an enormous opportunity to better understand how people in one of the most important places in the world think and operate. It is tempting to get caught up in the momentary play-by-play -- What will Hong Kong Chief executive C.Y. Leung's next move be? (Is he just a tool of Beijing?) -- but what would be truly valuable would be for us to convene many more conversations about the underlying issues, and the big emerging directions.

"Students march to the Government House in Hong Kong to push Chief 
Executive C.Y. Leung to acknowledge their grievances, Sept. 25, 2014."
 The banner translates as "Hope lies in the people" (The poster of Leung -- bearing
vampire fangs -- requires no translation.) Source: Radio Free Asia

Related posts

Can you think of a concrete symbol of a social protest movement that has gained as much traction?

(See HONG KONG'S UMBRELLA: An Icon for the Ages )

Large protests in Hong Kong have been occuring in Hong Kong for decades. Street demonstrations at the beginning of 2010 exhibited a new high in diversity, expression, and energy.

(See #0101hk: Visual Imagery of Hong Kong Protests Jan 1 2010 )

"The idea of following up their momentary contact hardly crossed his mind. It would have been inconceivably dangerous even if he had known how to set about doing it."

(See When Did "Free Assembly" Become "Inconceivably Dangerous"? )

It may be difficult to see today that the success of our movement in the future will depend on Chinese activists having the same freedoms that activists in the West enjoy. But, I predict, that is precisely what will make all the difference.

(See What is the US Peace and Justice Movement Doing for Dissidents in China?)

Doesn't politics and diplomacy call for the deft engagement with figures such as Ilham Tohti, in order to find breakthroughs that accommodate everyone, rather than a scorched earth approach? One answer that comes to mind: power holders in China are much more familiar with other ideas about how to "send a message."

(See CHINA: Where Minority Nostalgia is One Thing, Minority POLITICS Quite Another )