30 June 2012

One City, Two Worlds 一個香港, 兩個世界

I woke up early this morning and remembered a small incident that took place a year ago.

Where the trivial incident unfolded

It was 6:45 on a Friday evening, and the weekend traffic had already built up feverishly in Central. I got in line at the minibus stop outside the McDonalds on Connaught Road, eager to get home. People and vehicles were moving in every direction. Patience was in short supply. A half-dozen double-deckers all tried to dock at the same time, unable to outmaneuver each other and unwilling to give in. Car horns began to blare from behind, while frustrated passengers pointed at different vehicles to assign blame. It was a complete chaos. Then suddenly, a mounted traffic policeman came out of nowhere, blue lights flashing authoritatively on the side of his white motorcycle. I thought to myself: this is why I love Hong Kong. Barely two minutes into a traffic situation, the efficient Hong Kong police arrived on the scene, a white knight to the rescue. I was impressed.

The policeman turned off the siren on his bike, dismounted and started waving his arm. But instead of directing traffic, he signaled for the buses to move to the side, like Moses parting the Red Sea. Soon after, a black Audi A8 came through the tunnel of double-deckers and pulled over not ten feet away from me. The door flung open and out came Financial Secretary John Tsang (曾俊華) flashing his signature mustached smile. He walked toward the office building next to McDonald’s, where he was received by several men in black suits. As soon as the coterie disappeared into the building, the Audi left. The traffic policeman got back on his motorcycle and drove off immediately, oblivious to the pandemonium he left behind. It was as if he didn't see any of us. In the next 15 to 20 minutes, the buses inched their way through the gridlock and the traffic jam eventually ran its course. During that time we were all left to our own devices. I was angry.

It was as if he didn't see any of us


*                              *                              *

Today, Hong Kong celebrates the 15th anniversary of the Handover. To be more precise, our government celebrates the 15th anniversary of the Handover. Chairman Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) arrived on Friday to kick off his three-day visit. In a series of carefully choreographed press events, Hu saw model homes, inspected construction sites and reviewed the 3,000 People’s Liberation Army troops based in Shek Kong (石崗). The festivities culminated in a state dinner held last night at the Wanchai Exhibition Centre, attended by political leaders and business elite and entertained by local and Mainland celebrities in a garish variety show. It was a night of self-congratulations, when social climbing, political ambition and greed dissolved into one emphatic champagne toast, all under the benevolent eye of that feared and revered paramount leader.

Hu has turned Hong Kong into Pyongyang


Just a stone’s throw away from the Exhibition Centre is Hennessey Road, the main route of today's rally organized by local advocacy groups. For the vast majority of the population, reverting to Chinese rule calls for lamentation, not celebration. And on every July 1, we take our lament to the street and spend the sweaty day in a million man march from Victoria Park to the government headquarters in Central. Frustration and resentment against the establishment have been festering for years and they erupt once a year on Handover Day. There are the usual calls for universal suffrage and complaints about high property prices and China’s human rights records. Protesters litter the streets with anti-government flyer, the heat of their collective grievances simmers the summer air.

July 1 rally, an annual tradition

*                              *                              *

In the past week, every newspaper in the city has published its own look-back on the past 15 years. With watershed moments like the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the financial tsunami in 2008, there has been no shortage of materials for a compelling review. I too was tempted to write my own look-back piece to express my sentiment on the 15th anniversary. I could have cataloged the list of our achievements and failures on the rollercoaster ride since 1997 or launched another impassioned tirade against the many social injustices in our city. But I didn’t. Instead, the whole day I kept thinking about that one trivial event I witnessed in Central a year ago. Strange, because the incident bears no relevance to what most Hong Kongers have on their minds today: the widening wealth gap, the economic dominance of property oligarchs and our civil liberties being eroded daily despite the “one country, two systems” promise from Beijing. 

The SCMP published a special magazine to look back
on the past 15 years, one of many in the market

I didn’t understand my fixation on that small anecdote until I turned on the television and saw a recap of Hu’s state visit in nauseating detail. Then it dawned on me that a common thread runs through that trivial incident in Central, the Handover celebrations and the state of Hong Kong 15 years on. More than ever before, there is a fundamental disconnect between our government and the general population. The few who govern the city – none of them chosen by us – go on with their business and we go on with our own. We are as invisible to the ruling elite as the gridlock traffic was to that unconcerned policeman. Without a mandate from the people, our government has a mind of its own and does things we never ask it to do: from organizing the lavish commemorative events this week to funding wasteful infrastructure projects, rolling out the brainwashing national education curriculum and clamping down on street protests with excessive police force. On the other hand, issues that we are asking our government to address, such as the growing income inequality and our economy's over-reliance on the financial industry, are left untouched. Under our tilted political system, where the chief executive and half the lawmakers are handpicked by the establishment, the government is increasingly out-of-touch, unaccountable and decoupled from the populace. It is as if we operate in two separate, very different worlds. The disconnect is a chilling reality that every citizen has accepted as part of our unique way of life. With C.Y. Leung’s leadership already stunted by his own duplicity and an uncooperative legislature, a realignment between what they do and what we want seems ever unlikely. And that is all I can think about on this 15th anniversary of the Handover. 

Pessimism abounds over the next five years

19 June 2012

Three Blind Mice 三隻盲鼠

    Three blind mice, three blind mice
          See how they run, see how they run
     They all ran after the farmer's wife
          Who cut off their tails with a carving knife
     Did you ever see such a sight in your life
          As three blind mice

       - English nursery rhyme

The blind mice unite

*                         *                         *


Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) is a blind man. He is also a self-taught lawyer.

Chen comes from a small village in southern Shandong (山東). He made a name for himself as a “barefoot lawyer” helping peasants and the disabled take on tax authorities and big businesses. Although he deals with a broad range of social issues, Chen focuses on women subject to forced abortions and sterilizations. China’s four-decade-old one child policy has been a financial bonanza for local governments across the country. Women pregnant with a second child must pay a fine, which is bureaucratic speak for hush money. Those who can’t afford the bribe will “consent” to an unwanted medical procedure, just like 29-year-old Feng Jianmei (馮建梅) who made international headlines last week for being coerced to abort a seven-month pregnancy.

Chen’s advocacy work made him unpopular in both the public and private sectors. In a place like his hometown, unpopularity can have dire consequences. In 2006, he was arrested for “organizing a crowd to disrupt traffic” and served four years and three months in prison. After his release, he and his wife continued to be harassed, beaten and placed under house arrest. Two months ago, the blind lawyer made an improbable escape by climbing over a stonewall in his backyard. With the help of an underground network of activists, Chen traveled 300 miles to the capital city before he scampered into the U.S. embassy in the dead of night. Negotiations between Beijing and Washington over his fate threw both sides into a diplomatic quagmire. Chen left China three weeks later and is now a “special student” at New York University Law School.

Chen under house arrest


*                         *                         *


Li Wangyang (李旺陽) was a blind man. He was also a longtime political dissident.

A Hunan (湖南) native, Li was arrested days after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre for counter-revolutionary crimes and served 21 years in prison. Throughout his jail term, he called for the vindication of the massacre and went on numerous hunger strikes. His recalcitrance made him a frequent subject of torture and solitary confinement. By the time he was released in May last year, he had lost his front teeth, his eyesight, hearing and mobility. Ever defiant, Li continued to speak up against China's one-party rule up until his death.

Two weeks ago, Li was found dead by his hospital bed. According to local authorities, the severely disabled 61-year-old hanged himself by making a noose out of bed sheets. But few believe that a tough nut who survived two decades of hell fire in prison, who carried the nickname “iron-man activist,” would take his own life or do so without leaving a suicide note, not to mention a photograph circulating on the Internet showing his feet touching the ground when he died. It would appear that Li had joined a long line of dissidents who were “suicided” (被自殺), a new term coined in blogosphere to describe state-sponsored murders clumsily staged as a suicide. To cover their tracks, Hunan authorities had Li’s body cremated promptly after conducting a dubious autopsy.

Li hanging at the hospital window,
cause of death: "suicided"

*                         *                         *

Zhou Yunpeng (周雲蓬) is a blind man. He is also a poet and songwriter.

After finishing university in Liaoning (遼寧), Zhou began traveling across China, performing on the street and at bars and coffee shops. With a distinct folk slant, his baritone beats out gut-wrenching ballads of heartbreaks. He sings not of unrequited love and failed romance, but of government corruption and social injustice. Although many of his politically sensitive works have been banned, Zhou continues to be a prolific writer. In the past two decades, he managed to record four albums and launch two magazines, as he drifts between the underworld and the tightly controlled upper world.

Zhou is best known for writing Chinese Children (《中國孩子》), a song about the misfortune of children born into the murky world of modern China. The twin evils of income inequality and corruption bear down on the young like a freight train: those who contracted the HIV virus from tainted blood transfusions and those who fell sick after feeding on melamine-laced baby formula. The most haunting lyrics in the song, however, recall the infamous 1994 Karamy Fire (克拉瑪依大火) in Xinjiang (新疆) that killed almost 300 school children. The fire broke out during a theater performance attended by students, teachers and visiting members of the Communist Party. Survivors blamed the high death toll on a local official’s order for the students to remain seated to “let our leaders exit first.”

Zhou travels across the country with nothing 
but a guitar and a conscience

*                         *                         *

Although the three men cannot see, their stories open our eyes to the bleak reality of grassroots activism in China. In a country that tolerates no dissent, civil rights activists are household pests to be eradicated in whatever way necessary. Chen, Li and Zhou are the three blind mice that crawl the thin line between advocacy and subversion, all the while dodging the farmer’s knife that threatens to cut off much more than their tails. Their struggles and the causes they fight for lay bare the unaccountability of local authorities, as well as the inability of the central government to intervene. That all three men happen to be blind not only captures our attention, but also underscores the indiscriminate effect of these systemic failures.

Since Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms in the 1970s, the Communist regime has done wonders for the nation. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, old cities transformed into modern metropolises. With the country's G2 status, high speed trains, an Olympic Games in Beijing and a World Expo in Shanghai, and even men and women in space, national pride is at an all-time high. To the vast majority, the benefits of economic transformation far outweigh the costs. But don’t tell that to the mothers who lost their children on Tiananmen Square 23 years ago or to the wives of the dissidents tortured and killed since then. Forgive them if their calculus of costs and benefits are a little different from ours.

The story of the three blind men compel us to examine the wisdom of economic development at any social cost. They make us question whether prosperity and dissent have to be mutually exclusive, and whether moral bankruptcy is a prerequisite for affluence. And if murders and massacres can be justified by the collective good, what does that say about us as a people? Modern China is a society of grim irony: it is where the blind see more clearly than the sighted, and where the disabled are trampled by the enabled. Forgive me if I didn’t jump for joy when Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou 9 (神舟九號) blasted into orbit this week. 


This essay is dedicated to the late Li Wangyang who struggled and died for the betterment of the country he loved.

An ambitious space program, but at what cost?