The final leg of our Sino-British exchange programme took us to Hong Kong for a seminar on state-society relations. City University presented us with a very different experience from the previous campuses we visited on mainland China. Leaving the subway, one enters the main building after crossing a tunnel decked out with banners publicising the high scores of the university in international ranking systems. The department of public policy includes over 30 graduate students conducting research on a variety of aspects of public administration and on the growing citizen participation in decision-making in China. Here we learned about environmental initiatives and civic engagement, political socialisation of the Korean minority in China, and public participation in budgeting.
Most of the students and professors we met focus their study on China. This choice of research topic, we gather, comes along with a trend sometimes called the ‘mainlandisation’. In this context it means more professors and student coming from mainland China, and fewer projects addressing issues beyond China. One of the presentations at the seminar dealt with public participation in issues of environmentalism and sustainability in China. Another presentation dealt with ethnic minorities in China and the role of education and families in political socialisation. China, in its policies regarding ethnic minorities followed the Soviet Union's regional model. But although it had declared a policy of regional autonomy, this was and is still highly controlled and regulated by the state. In the discussion that followed the presentations, it was fascinating to see where the two topics come together. We were told that protests by minorities about environmental issues, are being cast as ‘minority uprisings’ and often quickly and brutally suppressed.
During this discussion, different understandings of the state, class and gender were mobilised to consider 'what matters to the people’ and what room they have to manoeuvre in authoritarian and democratic states. The importance of class emerged when we learnt about the strong link between ethnic minorities and the lower classes. We discussed the ways this class-ethnicity link is often justified through a discourse about ‘lack of modernisation’. Hence, China’s various minority policies range from “Hanisation” (reminiscent of the project of Turkisation of Kurds) to a liberal project of affirmative action based on a points system that boosts the chances of minorities. However, the different strategies China uses to deal with ethnic minorities are being powerfully challenged by contemporary struggles such as those of the Uighurs in North-Western China.
But the learning experience was not confined to the seminar room. Within the University, we visited a small museum dedicated to the memory of the Tiananmen Square protesters, the only memorial of this kind that we have seen (and, we gather, that we are likely to see here). We learned that each year Hong Kong has been the site of demonstrations marking the anniversary. According to news reports, rain did not prevent over 150,000 people from gathering to pay their respects.
Our afternoon at the university reminded us of the great distance we have covered between now and our our arrival in Beijing from the UK, marked by our first walk in Tiananmen square. In relation to Beijing, Shanghai and even nearby Guanghzou, Hong Kong presents a new academic and personal experience.
The sounds, the smells, the architecture of Hong Kong are incredibly different. Struggling for alternative words, we must admit that it’s urban culture is young and trendy, one could say ‘cool’. To define a city or a neighbourhood as `cool,' usually means that it is the very opposite- with gentrification breeding gated communities, luxury products, and a whole other host of anxious petrified "lifestyle" fences and borders for paranoid yuppies. Somehow, Hong Kong feels relaxed and open in the way that certain parts of Indian cities, London and North America do.
In certain Hong Kong streets differences between bodies cannot be contained, quarantined, ignored, or theorised away. They are lived with. The smells of street food rise, as people of all ages, faces and classes watch an outdoor football match at Macpherson Stadium. People bring their children, who play freely in the streets. Old men and young rock ‘n’ roll kids suck on cigarettes as old women hand out sizzling food on sticks or churn fresh juices for tired commuters. Cities often feel like they carry certain sound tracks. Symphonies or Ghazals or boring jingles that fit the tempo and the attitude of the people. Walking the streets of Hong Kong and seeing young people with piercings and tattoos crawling up and down pavements, seeing filipino and Indonesian nannies on their one day off cracking jokes in city parks, Hong Kong seems to move to its own beat. We move with the sway of endless streams of people, trying to feel the rhythm of the city.
While registering the uniqueness of the atmosphere of Hong Kong, one cannot fail to ask why did we feel a sense of comfort, of a load being lifted, when we arrived here? Was it the wide range of food on offer? Was it the fluent English banter from the shop assistants at the station? Was it access to Facebook and Youtube after almost a month of increasingly strained privation?
We can be sure about what did not contribute to this feeling of ease. The Hong Kong border presented the predictable spectacle of a tight knot of people waiting to be inspected by brooding, steely-eyed border agents. But as a prelude, we passed through a medical screening. Agents in surgical masks, gowns and gloves moved through the crowds selecting people for further tests.
Another disturbing scene included many people queuing for super luxury brands such as Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. We were not sure if they were local residents or visitors from Mainland China. The train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong was full of shoppers, so it would not be surprising if the latter was the case. Apparently the Chinese government wants to increase the size of the middle classes in China. This so that they do not have to rely so much on external markets in which to sell the vast quantity of products produced out of the exploitation of poor migrant workers. If the middle classes they are thinking of are these handbag-buying citizens, the ultimate consumer-citizens, how is politics of this country going to develop? Can they resist and fight against corruption or authoritarianism with their expensive bags?
When we put these little reflections together the picture that emerges is of a kind of bastion, protecting a particular sort of international advanced capitalist society from contamination by the rest of the world. We often, lazily, think of Hong Kong and Macau (it's gambling-haven twin) as tolerated and useful exceptions to mainland China. For people coming from the west the experience feels reversed: China seems like the exception to our norms. Perhaps we are trying to find ironies where there are none to be had. Hong Kong is one of the top five destinations for foreign direct investment (standing shoulder to shoulder with the UK, France, Germany and Belgium) when China trails at around 10th place. Hong Kong's uniqueness and its international appeal are perhaps its greatest value for China, but one wonders how long this will continue to be the case.
- The Oecumene Team, 22 June 2013