Hong Kong and other pains

i. Fragrant Harbour

A colleague recently asked me whether it would be a good idea for him to commit to his holiday bookings and visit Hong Kong in October. Given the recent chaos in the city, he was understandably hesitant about the trip. He did not, for instance, want to find himself trapped in a foreign country under a military lockdown or be accidentally tear-gassed. My colleague’s question triggered a cascade of thoughts that I have felt compelled to write down here.

Over 16 consecutive weeks of demonstrations have taken place as of me writing this piece. The protests upset me. They truly do. While I have no personal stakes in Hong Kong, it is one of my favourite places in the world and the city left a great impact on me when I visited it at the start of 2018 during an unusual and emotionally vulnerable period in my life. The tumultuous images of these protests are of familiar locations rendered unrecognisable, of an iconic place slowly being dismantled before the eyes of a world.

I support the Hong Kong protestors. In the face of such imperious forces, these men and women are inspirational. The percolations of history are unpredictable, but I believe we are observing a historical flashpoint in the region. The word that keeps coming back to me in my mind is the economic notion of “hysteresis”. That is, the system has been shocked into a state of permanent change. There is no turning back for Hong Kong’s residents, no backdoor to reverse time. These protests have knocked its civil society on an irreversible path dependency. The consequences, whatever they may be, of these protests are likely to ripple for years to come, and casual observers who dismiss them out of hand will be disproven as myopics.

But I am also a melancholic supporter. To breathe the oracle’s vapours even deeper, I cannot conceive of a happy ending to this story. Hong Kong as we know it has an expiry date under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, one which is clearly being accelerated. Hong Kong as it currently is — an effective city-state with a detached currency, domestic policy, civic culture, and immigration system — will dissolve into China ahead of schedule and, as we have seen to date, with runnels of blood, sweat, and tears.

Extreme violence (of the June ‘89 variety) is certainly off the table. There are too many international eyes and the city is no longer the economic crown jewel that it once was for China. Maybe there will be deaths. Maybe, with additional concessions and backtrack, there will be moments of uneasy moderation on the streets. But I do not see a world where Beijing can concede. The protestors’ four remaining core demands are politically unacceptable for the authorities. Its wholesale rhetoric and bedrock principle of “one country, two systems” sweeps away all other possibilities. The fight going forward for the people of Hong Kong will likely be ugly, exhausting, and fatalistic to the psyche. There will be no stable equilibrium till the final, depleted punctuation mark.

But is it still a worthy, even remarkable, fight? Certainly, even with the acknowledgement that history’s Goliaths tend to win. Here they stand, they can do no other! How can anyone who sympathises not feel a swell of romanticism? A part of me sees this as a last, noble flash of energy before the secular decline. Such is, too often, the history of Asia. A hopeful revolution followed by a languishing nation. A burst of reform followed by a recession. A tyrant toppled, only to be replaced by another insidious dynasty. Such is, too often, the history of the world. The arc of a universe that is long and bending, but ultimately splutters, out of gas, and in the middle of nowhere.

ii. Coherency, or lack thereof

There. I’ve exhausted all the analysis I am capable of. But this is not in actuality a piece about the Hong Kong protests. This is in actuality a piece about our failure to coherently think about China. Or rather, my failure to do so.

My mental models fail when I try to think about China. I get stuck with contradictory theories and confounding particulars. There is a potential remark that can be made here about the inscrutable, mysterious East, but it is a dreary trope I refuse to entertain. I will merely say this: why do I not write critically about these things more often? I was born there, I still have relatives there, I have visited there repeatedly, I frequently watch Chinese films, I am utterly surrounded by its influences and its people here in Melbourne, and my family is doggedly — nay, aggressively — insistent that China’s culture and values are inside me as well.

I do not read or write the Chinese language, mind you, and I can barely speak it. But even with that in mind, you’d think my particular circumstances would give me something coherent to state about the country, wouldn’t you? Yet I’m frequently clutching at straws, disjointed, and inarticulate in my discussions about the country.

In part, it stems from my concern with being judged in certain circles. I have Chinese friends and associates, including on social media, that I feel reluctant to share my views around. I’ve had to navigate around both extreme anti-Chinese and pro-Chinese individuals who, for whatever reason, thought I would make an amiable test audience. Once, I even had the pleasure of being acquainted with a man who shared with me his (unpublished and largely unreadable) 400-page tract about how much Western democracies can learn from the Chinese model of leadership.

Likewise, I fear the judgment of some of my close friends who are scholars in worldly, complex fields, who are more articulate than I could ever hope to be on matters of country and culture and geopolitics. I am only human, I suppose — my skin being at times as thin as rice paper. And I’m guilty of indulging in Communist kitsch and social media nonsense with China’s ossified radical left ideology, as though being aesthetically tawdry is a meaningful substitute for genuine knowledge. (We’re a generation of doomed ironists if anything else, me and my pseudo-intellectual ilk.)

The China topic is a topic that intimates me because it disproves the maxim of openness to viewpoints. Conventional wisdom claims that being constantly exposed to different, contrasting viewpoints is intellectually healthy and strengthens insight. I find quite the opposite happens. It leaves me with a lot of noise I can barely sort through. You can certainly say this is a problem with any fraught subject, but whereas many people naturally find themselves in snug echo chambers on certain issues, I’ve been tossed and turned about without a roof overhead.

iii. Mea culpa

I think about what Hong Kong might mean for the strength of Taiwan independence and what it might mean for Western spheres of influence in the Asia-Pacific and what all that might uncomfortably mean for the future geopolitics of Australia.

I think about how much Chinese foreign investment is stressing the market and the outsized consumer welfare we’ve gained from trading with China. I think about how great China is in racing ahead with renewable energy and about how China is one of the worst things to ever happen in recent decades to climate change. About the extraordinary Chinese growth miracle and China’s botched and falsified economic statistics.

I think about how people who cry for Tibetan independence are wasting their breath on a lost cause and a political impossibility. Or about how I told that Falun Gong activist who tried to shove a pamphlet in my hands outside the State Library to piss off. I think about the steaming pile of ordure that is the Nine-Dash Line claim.

I think about how epic its history is and how soulless its contemporary culture feels. About the Belt and Road Initiative and how it’s 50% concerning and 50% probably really dumb. I mull over how much I hate Chinese logograms as an awful, inefficient writing system and how I feel an aversion to Mandarin more generally. And I reflect on how I nonetheless try to converse in Chinese with pretty female coworkers who are learning it.

I think about how there are foreign influence operations associated with Chinese international students and how we still really need to treat these international students better. I think about Jacinda Ardern’s brave stand against Islamophobia and then I think about her willingness to have a photo op with the CPC leadership, the same leadership that has interned hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in “re-education camps”.

And what does this make me? The same as you, I imagine. Scattershot, unfocussed, a flurry of syllables in every direction. Often, I suspect, I am too inconstant, too worried about static bias, too easily swayed by both sides of the argument. Too many mutterings of “but on the other hand” and too much wading in the stream to pan for idealised nuance. “Two sides to every question, yes, yes, yes…” wrote the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. “I held back when I should have drawn blood / And that way (mea culpa) lost an edge.”

iv. Identity

But this is not in actuality a piece about how hard it is to understand China. Nor is this a piece about the Hong Kong protests. This is a piece about how incomplete I feel on the issue of my own identity.

When asked whether I am Chinese, I am always very careful in replying that I am of “Chinese heritage”. Heritage is safe. Heritage conjures up dusty family trees and dull paragraphs about genealogy and lineage. Heritage is a faintly visible satellite that orbits around the present. It doesn’t commit you to anything.

I am far more reluctant to claim Chinese ethnicity. It is wholly accurate from a strict dictionary definition, I suppose. But ethnicity also dredges up claims of shared cultural norms and values, or even a kind of determinism, genetic or otherwise, in your very identity. I shiver at these notions. I feel contempt for them. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not some kind of racial recalcitrant, a person in deliberate denial of personal facts.

The question of “who I am” has been a constant, grinding source of conflict between myself and my parents, from my childhood through to the present day. There were constant fights in my old family home over my Western social norms, over my resistance to Chinese values, and my inability (and unwillingness) to learn Chinese. Occasionally the fights were abusive. Their logic was brutishly simple: I was born in China, ergo I was Chinese. And because I was Chinese, I had to exhibit certain personal characteristics or there was something defective in me that had to be fixed, even forcibly so. I do not claim to be special in this respect: this is a problem unique to countless immigrant families, where children and their parents are endlessly at odds over disparate belief systems.

Language was frequently the core issue. For them, the ability to know Chinese was critical to my very essence, so my inability to understand it generated endless acrimony in the house. I went to years of Chinese school where I was at the bottom of the class, frequently judged by teachers and peers — in stark contrast to my actual academic performance in formal schooling. My parents would constantly tell me how worthless, how incomplete I was. They’d warn me that I’d be ridiculed and humiliated if I failed to learn Chinese; that I’d be treated as a social reject by Chinese people. Even worse, they’d go the extra mile and threaten that I’d never fit into Western society, that “westerners” would never welcome me.

It has been pleasant living by myself as an independent adult in Australia, deliberately self-quarantined from family. In my infrequent communications with them, I force myself to listen to all kinds of nonsense. Claims with sexist underpinnings, claims with racist underpinnings, claims at odds with my values, and conspiratorial claims (including nasty ones about why the Hong Kong protests occurred). It can be so isolating. I think of some of my white friends and how they claim to be at odds, socially or politically, with their families. How lucky they must be. At least, they can converse competently in the same language as their parents and have a coherently shared national background.

v. Because I do not

To this day, my family speaks about me needing to be closer to “my” people. Yet who are my people? Where is this implicit community I supposedly belong to? They don’t exist because they are an undefinable concept. I have never been around them and they have never been around me. I cannot touch them. I cannot converse with them. They are phantoms.

This path has only one landscape. Loneliness. A tinge of inadequacy. A sense of missing some essential part of myself. A tune in my head telling me I will never belong. Maybe one day I will find peace with this. As it stands, I don’t feel like a New Zealander anymore. Nor do I feel particularly Australian either, despite having spent the entirety of my adult life here. And I will never utter the lie that “I am Chinese”.

It doesn’t seem right that I’ve become so preoccupied on matters of personal identity, not when there are so many things in my life to attend to, not when there is so much more of myself in need of cultivating. I often contemplate how nice it would be for my strength of ego, my sense of a vulnerable self, to weaken and wane. It would be nice for my inner voice to dissolve.

But as of now, I remain untrained in escaping from the pernicious effects of muddled identity. If the personal is political, and if I run away from myself enough, I will eventually hit escape velocity from this world, right? As T.S. Eliot wrote in “Ash Wednesday” about turning away from the material and towards devotion to higher (and in his case, spiritual) matters:

“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn”

And yet the claws of my personal, tiresome world keeps twisting me back to face the material. They are firing rubber bullets into unarmed bodies in Hong Kong and all we can do is watch from the ringside. No one can turn away right now.

— 25th September 2019

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