East and West and Hong Kong

Like many others, my journey to being a Sinophile began in Hong Kong. In the summer of 1979 I spent 3 months in the city on an internship, teaching English and working in the office of the Chinese Church Research Center. When not working, I explored the city, taking random bus lines to the far-flung parts of town. In the course of the summer, I fell in love with the city. I remember seeing a t-shirt in a tourist shop that I thought captured the essence of Hong Kong. It said “There’s east and west; and then there’s Hong Kong.”

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During the years I lived in China, I returned often to Hong Kong — for meetings, conferences, and to visit friends. I have the fun things I like to see and do when I’m in town: a trip across the harbor on the Star Ferry; ride Bus #6 from Central to Stanley Market (it’s better than a roller coaster); eat fried rice or fried noodles in one of the seemingly millions of mom & pop noodle shops; stroll the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Because of my love for Hong Kong (and my love for China), I am watching with great interest and unease the situation unfolding in Hong Kong this week. It’s hard to explain what is going on in three sentences, but let me try. As part of the “One Country, Two Systems” formula agreed upon by China and Britain, the Chinese government promised direct elections in 2017. Recently they announced that the candidates would be chosen by Beijing. This did not sit well with Hong Kong citizens.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that, and there are issues of economics and national identity at play as well. Fortunately there is excellent reporting coming out of Hong Kong that delves into these complexities. If you’re interested in some good reading on what is going on and what it might (or might not) mean for the future, I recommend the following articles to get you started:

Fate of Hong Kong Rests in Xi Jinping’s Hands (September 29, 2014, Toronto Globe and Mail)

What happens in Hong Kong over the coming days will tell us a lot about where China is heading in the era of Xi Jinping. A negotiated solution that appeases some or all of the protesters would suggest China finally has the kind of leader that the Communist Party’s undemocratic “meritocracy” was supposed to produce. The sidelining of Mr. Xi’s enemies – and his own genuine personal popularity among ordinary Chinese – gives him the power to surprise everyone in how he handles the Occupy Central movement.

A crackdown, particularly one that involves use of the People’s Liberation Army, would tell us China is in for another dark decade of stifling repression.

The Day that China Came to Hong Kong (September 29, 2014, China File)

Beijing has no good choices. The resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, one of the protestors’ many demands, is no longer unthinkable; the Special Administrative Region’s first Chief Executive, shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, stepped down in 2004 after massive protests. But Leung’s resignation would not solve the governance problem that entombs Hong Kong, that of a wealthy, well-educated city without an accountable government. If Beijing acts true to form, and in line with what we have seen to date from Xi Jinping, sustained protests could see Beijing order the Hong Kong government to end the protests, whatever that takes. On Sunday night, the government was forced to put out a statement denying that PLA troops, who are stationed in the city, were moving tanks in for action.

Hong Kong is different now.

Hong Kong People (September 29, 2014, The New York Times)

This past Sunday — when the phalanxes of riot police moved aggressively to clear the streets of peaceful protesters — Hong Kong became just another Chinese city. It was the moment when the “one country, two systems” formula Hong Kong was promised on its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was finally laid bare as unworkable.” […] But even as the protests continue to swell, Beijing seems to hold all the cards. Yet even if it succeeds in tamping down the anger in Hong Kong — which is unlikely — its gains can be fleeting at best.The moment that Hong Kong citizens have been dreading for 17 years has finally arrived. 

The slogan I saw on that t-shirt 35 years ago seems even more true today.

Related Posts:

Make it Look Like a Parade

Three Decades in China; Four Trends

I Heart Hong Kong

Bound for Hong Kong

 

 

 

 

Stealing Tea and Saving Face

On our 5200-mile road trip last month, I listened to the audio version of the book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

 

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

Here is the Amazon description of the book:

In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish Botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to the British plantations in India. Fortune’s danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.

The book is a treasure trove of historical information about China in the mid-1800s, as well as all things related to tea. Occasionally, there are cultural gems to be mined. In chapter 5 Rose describes an incident that took place in Hangzhou between Fortune and his servant, Want. Having failed to follow Fortune’s instructions, they find themselves in the city of Hangzhou, where if it is discovered that Fortune is a foreigner and not a Chinese official (he was disguised as one), he could be killed. So he gives the servant a public scolding. In the course of describing this incident, Rose (perhaps inadvertently) gives one of the best descriptions of the Chinese notion of “face” that I have found anywhere!

But Fortune’s recriminations had little effect, for a master’s scolding his servants publicly only served to build their self-esteem, or “face,” as even a reproach was a tacit declaration that the servant was important enough to merit the notice of a wealthy mandarin. In China “face,” or mianxi [sic] was a concept that a Westerner like Fortune did not instinctively understand, describing as it does the prestige and reputation one gains from every human interaction. Relationships in China were defined by the reciprocal obligations between people, whether of the same or a different status, and every individual existed within a network of influence, a matrix of duties and social connections, or guanxi.

The family came first, then the extended social neighborhood. “Face” expressed a person’s position within his or her network and was the mechanism by which the Chinese assessed their obligations: which orders to obey, which favors to grant, and which supplications and apologies to make. A son might perform humble acts for his father, or an employee might bow before his master or a student before his teacher, but in turn the father would have a set of defined responsibilities to the child, the master to the slave, and the teacher to the student.

However subtly they were expressed, mianzi and guanxi were inescapable facts of life in China; then as now they forged the social fabric of the nation. Social connections determined the measure of justice received and discrimination suffered. While no Chinese person was free from these relationships, many peasants had very little face and therefore little access to justice, wealth, or freedom. When social obligations were met, someone gained face and an increase in status; when a person failed those to whom he was socially connected and thereby obligated, he suffered loss of face (diumian) and a downturn in his social standing. When Wang was shouted at by Fortune for failing to follow orders, it demonstrated to the world that he had responsibilities to an important man. Wang lost face with Fortune, while simultaneously gaining it in the wider neighborhood of Hangzhou.

Face was a very Confucian concept. The great philosopher, whose ideas gained influence during the Han Dynasty, 206 BC-AD 220, described a world where familial connections and obligations to ancestors were the highest good and the greatest aim of an individual. A single person was nothing if he did not bring honor to the world from which he came.

A foreigner in China had no network of relationships of prescribed duties and no social capital, and therefore lacked any obvious signifiers of face. Many foreigners handled their outsider status adroitly. They engaged in relationships with the Chinese immediately, offering gifts and favors to officials and higher-ups; they recognized that a servant did not just serve but was owed things other than monetary reward, such as honor and respect. Fortune, however, seems to have paid little attention to the finer points of Chinese social interaction. He treated the Chinese as he would any employee: demanding excellence, refusing to hear excuses, and chastising failure. Wang and Fortune would travel together on and off for years, and the servant valiantly tried to negotiate the workings of guanxi on his master’s behalf. Wang effectively created Fortune’s identity as a mandarin by forging a fictitious network of prestigious connections for him, elevating his master’s face (and, not incidentally, elevating his own status by association). He also bribed and negotiated on Fortune’s behalf, not just for favors, but for face. (p.69-71)

“Note to self,” I thought, as I listened to this passage while driving across the deserts of eastern Oregon, “find a print version of this book and post the passage on my blog.”

Done!

Finding Samuel Lowe

On September 2, the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report blog posted an article about a Jamaican-Chinese woman’s search for her roots.

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Growing up in New York’s Harlem, Paula Williams Madison knew she had a Chinese grandfather, even though she had never met him.

When people found out, she says, most of them would make comments such as “Really? You don’t look Chinese.” Others would laugh. Even so, she always intended to track down her mother’s father and learn the full story of her multi-ethnic Jamaican-Chinese family.

By the time she found them, her tiny American family had expanded to about 400 living members and a family tree that goes back 3,000 years. A new documentary tells the story of that journey and the discovery of a family that today extends from Shenzhen, China, to Kingston, Jamaica, and Los Angeles, California.

Ms. Madison, 62, spent much of her career at NBC, and retired a few years ago as an executive at NBC Universal, one of the first black women to achieve that rank. She says she waited until retiring to pursue her dream of reconnecting with her Chinese family.

Before, “I did know a handful of my cousins,” she says. “Now there are about 40.”

The story is told in a film titled “Finding Samuel Lowe.” Below is the trailer for the film. (Click here if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video clip.)

What a fantastic story!

To learn more about the film and it’s upcoming premiere, visit www.findingsamuellowe.com.