Monday, 25 July 2011
CHINA: WHAT IT IS, WHAT IT COULD BE
In an interview in 2008, I was asked whether my loyalty lay with "Hong Kong" or "China." I remember finding the question easy to answer: "Hong Kong, China." In retrospect the interviewers might have thought that I had delivered a convenient answer, one that neither truly satisfied nor offended. But if I had taken another moment to reflect on the question, I might have considered it odd for them to presume that first, I should be loyal to a place at all and second, that if I were, Hong Kong and China would be the only two possible choices. "Loyalty," I think, needs to be earned. What has either place done for me? (I must hasten to add that by asking this question I am also consciously evoking another: What have I done for either place?) What does it mean if one has no emotional attachment to a location, at all? In this globalised world many people drift from place to place, either being forced to or doing so willingly, and some can call none their "home." People circulate, loyalties divide.
That said, my answer given at that point truly reflected my sentiment: Hong Kong first, China second, the two of them prioritized but inseparable. I grew up and was educated in Hong Kong and naturally considered the city my unambiguous home. But China has never been out of the picture. My father is after all an immigrant and he gets great pleasure reminding us that when he was small he used to pick up cow dung barefoot in a rural Guangdong field under the bright sun, half as pastime, half as labour. And at night the moon was large and still, a paper moon on a squid-inked sky. I also have vivid memories of spending some time in China being taken care of by relatives when my two younger twin sisters were born (my mother simply could not handle three young children at once). For example, one Mid-Autumn Festival instead of a colourful folded paper lantern I was given one made of pomelo skin, much like a Chinese Halloween pumpkin. As a two-year-old I did not know the words "nomad" or "exile" but these now play a part in my romanticized version of childhood. In this much simplified and naïve binary in which I deliberately excluded more practical, political and cultural considerations, familiarity and proximity endeared Hong Kong to me and it is family and personal history that painted a romantic picture of the mainland.
Three years on, if asked the same question, it is likely that I would give the same response: "Hong Kong, China," but perhaps not with the same conviction. I am becoming more and more disillusioned about both places: Hong Kong is becoming less Hong Kong and China is becoming less China. Hong Kong, I feel, has begun the process of forsaking its individuality and merging into the "Greater" China, thus literally becoming "Hong Kong, China." The comma no longer signifies for me a subtle priority but the mere perfunctory punctuation of an address. I have seen with dismay and a slight sense of disgust how in just over ten years the city has been if not colonized by China is beginning to kow-tow. The people who run the city are trapped in the more and more urgent need to highlight their Chinese affinities; they see fewer and fewer reasons to express a separate Hong Kong identity. I wonder if my children, if I ever have them, will understand the concept of Hong Kong as a place of its own and not simply just another Chinese city. Or will all these considerations become insignificant when we all have collective cultural and historical amnesia?
But what do I mean when I say China is becoming less? How can it be less? The country is growing in economic and political power and the world's interest in the nation is ever expanding. By most measurements China would seem to be becoming more, excessive even. And it is exactly because the country has become more confident and influential globally that we are interested in publishing a special issue of Cha devoted to the social, political and cultural forces that are shaping the nation. It is not an exaggeration to think that the once self-proclaimed "Middle Kingdom" is now coming back apt as ever as a metaphor to describe its current self-identified position in relation to the rest of the world.
The lessness that I speak of emerges from a strong personal disappointment towards the nation: it is less than I had hoped it would be. How can such an economically impressive country in which the most people have been pulled out of poverty in human history still lag behind in so many respects? Make no mistake, hauling 200 million people from destitution is itself a tremendous human rights achievement, perhaps the greatest one in history. Still, I think of the government's reluctance to address the Tiananmen Square massacre; I think of students who died because of "tofu dregs" school constructions; I think of China's appalling neglect of its environment; I think of the shameful imprisonment of dissidents and artists; I think of the extremely ill-distributed modernity and wealth within the nation; I think of a sometimes dangerous nationalism which insists on Chinese pre-eminence while lingering in victimisation and self-doubt; I think of the growing Chinese belligerence towards the rest of Asia and its continuing racism to others. And that even these complaints could not be expressed openly in China—and maybe not much longer in Hong Kong either—is a painful realisation. Things have improved for sure, the country has opened up remarkably from its former self. And I see in China many things to be optimistic about; one should not be too cynical when more people are living fuller lives than ever before. But I am still left with the feeling that under the current regime, there is a significant deficit between the nation's promise and reality, between the potential energy of 1.3 billion people and what the government's restrictions allow. Simply put, between what it could be and what it is.
All that having been said, I still have hope for a freer, more democratic, more just China, one that if it does not quite embody the totality of the "could be," at least manages to be better than it currently is. And I hope it gets there soon. I want to see it, breathe it, live it, be proud of it. In the meantime, China is what it is or perhaps more accurately it is a near infinity of realities and possibilities. This issue of Cha is devoted to capturing a sense of this complexity, to provide a view of what a few people, both Chinese and non-Chinese, think of this remarkable country at this fascinating juncture in history. In these works, you will see a handful of microscope slides, cross-sections of the contemporary Middle Kingdom, which when read together will hopefully provide a glimpse of the whole. So, take a close look at "The China Issue". It is all we hoped it would be.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-Editor
17 July 2011