What will become of Hong Kong?

On a wall in my bedroom hangs a framed photo of the Hong Kong skyline. I’m quite proud of the shot, which I took myself during a short visit 18 years ago. You can see the Bank of China Tower in the middle, and the old Star Ferry Terminal in the foreground (before they tore it down).

The picture is a testament to my deep fascination with a place to which I have no obvious connection. I have friends and former colleagues who have lived here, whereas I myself have visited only three times, and then quite briefly (plus transiting the airport a handful of times).

The city has, however, left a strong impression on me as a melting pot, a fusion of East and West, and a place with a rich and somewhat turbulent history.

I have actively read books set here, notably John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour and James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, but also made my way through The Last Governor, a non-fiction account of the former colony’s final years under British rule.

In one of my earlier forays into poetry, I even wrote my own ‘ode to Hong Kong’:

descend into the haze

simplified or traditional
neither is sufficient
ninety-nine years is forever
where skyscrapers come and go
at the blink of an eye

man of the world, man on the street
living together and never meeting
six-lane highways to future and hope
restricted access, divided in unity

up on the peak the air is clear
the city shrouded in smog
but from below, looking up
even the sky’s no limit

fragrant harbour
an oasis in the world
belonging nowhere
encompassing all

It is with sadness I watch what is happening in the city this year. The ‘haze’ I was referring to back in 2003, was just smog and masses of people; not tear gas and a murky future.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a 50-year deal ensuring “one country, two systems”. This meant guaranteeing the people of Hong Kong freedom of speech and assembly, notably absent in mainland China. Nearly half-way through that period though, it seems plausible that Hong Kong in 2047 will look much more like Shanghai, and much less like London.

Whether Hong Kong is Chinese or not is a moot point; the handover is long gone, as is the era of colonialism. Should Beijing intervene more heavy-handedly, it is well within their right. What is more, for all our nostalgia and solidarity, nobody will be rushing to Hong Kong’s aid. You don’t offend the dragon on its home turf. Just look what happened to the NBA.

And whatever importance Hong Kong has as an economic powerhouse may eventually be eclipsed by Shanghai and Shenzhen. By copying its economic success, minus the freedoms, China may eventually render Hong Kong obsolete, along with any democratic ambitions its people may have had.

When I look at the photo on my wall, however much I want to support the protesters and their cause, these are the prospects that come to mind. I do hope a brighter future is still possible.

Nobel Committee Resumes Relevancy

The Nobel Peace Prize has been marked by some odd choices in recent years. First, there was the climate hype of 2007, which didn’t have all that much to do with peace. Then, there was last year’s obsession with Obama, who at the time hadn’t done much besides making speeches (which he doesn’t do nearly as much or as well any longer). One might suspect that mere jealousy that Obama visited Copenhagen twice last fall spurred the Norwegians into wooing him to come to their party.

Anyway, today’s announcement cannot be said to irrelevant. Controversial, sure. But that’s the whole idea. Liu Xiaobo is the first Chinese national living in the PRC to be awarded the peace prize, or any Nobel Prize. This is ironic, given that China in its rise to global power has been obsessed for years with winning a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Now that they finally do get one, it’s awarded to a dissident serving a prison term for “inciting the subversion of state power”. He wins the prize primarily for co-authoring a petition demanding human rights, political reform, and real democracy. The same act that got him jailed in 2008.

It is comforting that the committee still has guts to challenge the powers that be. China had threatened Norway that awarding the prize to Liu would seriously damage relations between those two countries. Of course the committee is independent of the Norwegian government (probably an unknown concept to the Chinese), but essentially, this is the Nobel committee telling Red China: “Up yours!” Well, someone had to.

Naturally, the announcement has made headlines in media across the world, including CNN and BBC, but also Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. China’s national news agency, Xinhua, however, is silent. For now.

Beijing: Boycott or Engagement?

Recent events have put China in the spotlight once again as an oppressive regime that abused human rights and what not. China’s friendliness with Sudan, their alleged oppression of minorities in Tibet, and the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing have led numerous western figures to denounce the regime, protest the Olympic torch relay and even call for boycotts of the Olympics. There is no easy answer, but let’s get real for a moment.

I don’t believe the Tibet situation has been handled very well. China should long ago have taken up on the offer to meet the Dalai Lama. He is not a separatist, and he could be the key to a peaceful normalisation if only Beijing would swallow their pride and start talking to him. While calling the crackdowns in Lhasa genocide is surely exaggerated, there probably have been mishandlings of the minority. In principle, Tibet should have the right to declare independence, but that may not even be the wish of the majority – the Dalai Lama does not call for independence, only greater autonomy.

I am also of the opinion that China (as many other nations) could do more to pressure Sudan in the case of Darfur. We should continue trying to convince China that action here is needed. Hardly a cause for boycott, though.

When it comes to freedom of speech in China, I generally take the optimistic stand that quite a lot is actually tolerated. I do not know, however, whether I would be able to write so openly on this blog if I were in China. (To any PRC readers: I’d love to hear your comments, if possible.)

These disagreements with China are to some a cause for boycotting the whole or parts of the Olympic Games. While the Olympics are a huge media event, it is still a very cheap shot for western politicians wanting to look good and human rights-oriented. The reality is that nobody can foresee a regular economic boycott – this would not be affordable to any western economy, especially not under the current downturn. Bashing the Chinese now is a hollow call with fairly few consequences.

Some then would argue that greater measures are needed. Michael D. Peabody writes today on the Spectrum Blog that free trade with China has not, as previously thought, lead to improvements on human rights, and that “as an individual consumer you do have the choice to effect a positive change in China, and you can vote with your wallet.”

I disagree. I think that human rights, while still not equal to Western Europe or America, have improved in China. And no matter what, we may never agree on which rights are fundamental. America historically have a tendency to promote on democracy and freedom of speech, while Europe is more focused on social security and living standards. Yes, China may lag behind in democracy, but their progress over the last decades in living standards, economic freedoms, quality of life, and also freedom of religion are staggering.

Furthermore, history should teach us that boycotts rarely actually give the wanted results. Think of Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, or even the Mohammad crisis. Economic sanctions sound nice and peaceful, but usually fail to deliver. There are things that we may disagree on with China, and they should not be overlooked. However, as stated previously on this blog, I believe engagement is a much more worthwhile option than boycott.

A Night at the Symphony

Last night the New York Symphony Orchestra performed in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. That event may well go down in history as a groundbreaking thaw in the relations between the rest of the world and one of the weirdest regimes the world has ever seen. So would a proposed visit by Eric Clapton later this year. Or it may, as hawks would imply, simply be seen as yet another propaganda tool by master propagandists who would make George Orwell proud.

The first group would applaud dialogue as the way forward and see cultural engagement as a boon to relations, notwithstanding the possibility of interpreting the move as a recognition of the regime.

It is funny, therefore, that the same group of people would be so critical of this fall’s Olympic Games in Beijing. Prince Charles has announced his absence from the event (for the record, he hasn’t been at the Olympics for decades). Certain people would also have Danish Prince Frederik stay home to protest human rights abuses and what not. Fortunately he has been wise not to meddle in politics and accept the fact that Denmark has good relations and many cultural and economic exchanges with the People’s Republic of China.

If engagement is the solution in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, than how much more is it so with China? This was understood by Nixon when he visited China in 1972. And by most accounts, China and North Korea are worlds apart. Both are communist by name, but China is a modern country with free markets and widely enjoyed personal freedoms. North Korea is more akin to 1984.

This is not to say that everything is perfect in China, but boycotting a country rarely produces good results on either part. The Olympic Games in Beijing will be a great leap forward for China. Whether that can also be said about last night’s concert in Pyongyang, only the future will tell.

How to Spend a Day in Hong Kong

Next Tuesday, the 16th, I’ll be in transit in Hong Kong for the better part of a day. I’ve been there a couple of times before, so I’m thinking I’ll go into the city and just wander around, maybe take the tram up to the Peak and enjoy the view. But that will probably leave me with still some hours to spend. Any other suggestions?

UPDATE: Well, in case anyone’s interested, I had a great half day.  I came in very early while it was still dark, and a little rainy, but it turned out to be a quite nice and sunny day. I have posted some pictures on flickr.