A note on South Korea

I mentioned a while ago how Western media covered the Hong Kong protests with the model minority framework. I just saw a video shared by Quartz that offers a similar evaluation of the South Korean protests happening this week:



#魚蛋革命 #FishballRevolution

Happy lunar new year! A common saying at this time of year is 年年有餘, which wishes that each year you’ll have a surplus. Since 餘 sounds similar to the word for fish, 魚, people like to eat fish for new year’s.

Unfortunately fish puns may have been a little too close for comfort this year – a new conflict broke out just a few hours ago in Mong Kok. SCMP reports “Gunshots fired as Hong Kong police clash with hawkers and crowds in Mong Kok on first day of Chinese New Year.” The police chose an unfortunate night to try to enforce a crackdown on street hawkers who sell quick bites throughout the city – with the result that over a year ago Hong Kong saw the beginning of the Umbrella Revolution (or Movement) – 雨傘革命(運動) – and today we’ve got a new term: the Fishball Revolution, 魚蛋革命.

And to top it off, the first character in Umbrella (雨) sounds the same as the fish in fishball (魚).

年年有魚 indeed. May we have fish every year.

Discussing Civility in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Part II

So in my last post I talked about different interpretations of “civil” and “polite” protesters and cultures, and how these ideas underlie the politics of the Asian American model minority myth and the Hong Kong protests. What I didn’t talk about was why being in Taiwan, specifically, sparked this line of thinking. (Most of my photos won’t be closely related to the text, but I hope you enjoy them!)

The Presidential Building in Taipei

The Presidential Building in Taipei

Our first day of the conference focused on putting Taiwan in regional and global contexts. I was most fascinated by the way many of the speakers framed Taiwan’s role in East Asia and the world, and by the way people talked about the United States in relation to that role. And behind all of these discussions was the looming political, military, and economic power of Mainland China.

Speakers frequently talked about how the PRC “marginalized” Taiwan and hampered Taiwan’s desire to participate in the international community. A good concrete example of this is that Nepal rejected Taiwan’s offer to help with search and rescue efforts after the earthquake in April, which is one of things that Nepal needed most desperately at the time. In contrast, Nepal accepted China’s aid.

(On Facebook, a Nepalese Hong Konger reposted an apology to Taiwan “on behalf of my useless government for rejecting your offer to help in the name of geo-politics. I appreciate your offer. And I hope you know that there are more Nepali people who feel the same way.”)

大龍峒保安宮 - The gorgeous Bao'an Temple in Taipei

大龍峒保安宮 – The gorgeous Bao’an Temple in Taipei

This marginalization has a lot to do with how Taiwan’s political status in the world has changed between 1949 and 1971, and the whole “one China” stance that both Taiwan and the Mainland hold. Essentially, the ROC and the PRC claim to be the sole international representative of “China,” demanding that other countries can only have diplomatic relations with one or the other, but not both. When the countries that had relations with the ROC switched their opinions on which China was the true China in 1971, everything changed for Taiwan.

Some background: The ROC under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) first joined the United Nations in 1945, and it maintained its membership after the government relocated to Taiwan in 1949. But in 1971, the PRC replaced the ROC as the sole representative of China to the UN, and the ROC was out. (Fun fact: Over one third of the countries that supported the PRC’s entry to the UN were newly-independent, decolonizing African states.¹)

Museum of World Religions, founded by a Buddhist monk and featuring to-scale replicas of major religious buildings throughout the world

Taipei Museum of World Religions, founded by a Buddhist monk and featuring to-scale replicas of major religious buildings throughout the world

I’m actually not sure whether I should say that Taiwan left the UN, or if I should say that the UN expelled Taiwan. This article from the Brookings Institute (an American think tank that’s been described as liberal, centrist, and conservative) suggests that it was a little of both:

When the crucial UN General Assembly resolution’s adoption seemed already unavoidable on 25 October 1971, the ROC delegation under orders of Chiang Kai-shek walked out of the UN to prevent further humiliation. Resolution 2758 “to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it” was adopted by 76 against 35 votes with 17 abstentions by the other UN members.

Political scientist Denny Roy agrees. From Taiwan: A Political History (2003):

Minutes before the vote (on the UN’s choice between the ROC and the PRC), ROC delegate Liu Chieh announced his government was withdrawing from the UN, allowing Taipei the small dignity of being able to claim it that [sic] chose to leave. (135)

Either way, the speakers at the conference all seemed to say that Taiwan was forced out of the UN.

So after Taiwan was no longer internationally recognized, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in the late 1980s

pursued “pragmatic diplomacy,” in which one strategy was maintaining Taiwan’s international existence through participation in various international and especially intergovernmental organizations. [source]

Chihkan Tower (赤崁樓), the site of the Dutch outpost Fort Provintia, built in 1653. The statues on the right depict the Dutch surrender to Ming Dynasty General Koxinga (鄭成功;) in 1662.

Chihkan Tower (赤崁樓) in Tainan (台南), the original site of the Dutch outpost Fort Provintia, built in 1653. The statues on the right depict the Dutch surrender to Ming Dynasty General Koxinga (鄭成功;) in 1662.

In other words, Taiwan knew it could no longer rely on the backing of the United Nations, the United States, and other Western powers that had bolstered it against the PRC. So Taiwan had to make changes in its relationships with the world – and with its own citizens – in order to maintain and enhance its status.

Indeed, the reason why Taiwan is a democracy at all – why it voluntarily ended what was, until recently, the world’s longest period of martial rule – is because of this strategy. Ching-fen Hu (2005) argues that Taiwan’s democratization was achieved because Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國, Chiang Kai-shek’s son) went through “political learning,” which he defines as “the process by which ‘authoritarians come to realize the benefits, or in some cases their only option for survival, is to move towards a democratic solution'” (26, italics mine). Hu argues,

[…] Taiwan’s growing diplomatic isolation was the driving force behind CCK’s (Chiang Ching-kuo) transformation from head of the feared secret police in the 1950s to political reformer in the 1970s and 1980s. Since Taiwan could not hope to compete with the PRC for power, CCK opted to secure Taiwan’s foreign relations by building a relatively free and prosperous Taiwan […]. So long as CCK was confident in the US commitment to defend Taiwan, there was little incentive to change the political system. Once President Nixon made clear his intention to play the China card, and international support for his regime began rapidly eroding, CCK took decisive steps to Taiwanize the regime and to move toward a more representative government. The US derecognition of Taiwan in 1978 and Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open door policy reaffirmed CCK’s belief that Taiwan must pursue a democratic path in order to survive.

Taipei Tien Ho Temple (天后宮), one of the only places where Chinese and Japanese religious figures are venerated in the same space; here, it's Kōbō-Daishi.

Taipei Tien Ho Temple (天后宮), one of the only places where Chinese and Japanese religious figures are venerated in the same space; here, it’s Kōbō-Daishi.

Hu really emphasizes the fact that Chiang’s decision to undergo political reform hinged on the United States – not the UN. He also highlights the way that Chiang used Taiwan’s democratization to enhance the ROC’s global reputation, in contrast with the Communist-ruled Mainland. He quotes Chiang’s speech at the June 1972 inauguration of Taiwan’s first native Taiwanese governor twice, indicating its importance:

To make greater strides in developing Taiwan today, we must strengthen our democratic political system to ensure that everyone in Taiwan enjoys a freer and more prosperous life in marked contrast to the miserable life under the Communist regime.

And Hu notes that Chiang didn’t take steps just to democratize Taiwan, but also to “Taiwanize” its political system. This meant that where in the past, the ROC had been ruled by “mainlanders” (外省人) and the local Taiwanese (本省人) faced discrimination (and let’s not even get into the discrimination the Taiwanese aboriginal peoples (原住民) faced at the hands of 外 and 本省人), now Chiang deliberately recruited Taiwanese people to join the political leadership (32-3). Lee Teng-hui himself was a native Taiwanese, for instance.

So the political shift at an international level didn’t just change Taiwan’s military dictatorship into a democracy, but it also impacted Taiwan’s social relations. Gradually it brought 外 and 本省人 together as Taiwanese people, in contrast to Chinese people (from the Mainland).

A god struts away in a ceremonial procession outside the Matsu Temple in Anping (開台天后宮).

A god struts away in a ceremonial procession outside the Matsu Temple in Anping, near Tainan (開台天后宮).

Bringing history back to the present, I saw the conference speakers’ discussion of Taiwan’s “marginalization” from engaging with the international community as the continued expression of self-differentiation between Taiwan and China. Certainly China applies pressure to thwart Taiwan acting independently, especially on the international level, but Taiwan uses its underdog status as a political tool as well. It’s a politics of civility. Taiwan claims a number of internationally recognized “good” traits that the PRC is frequently accused of lacking: Taiwan is a democracy, whereas the PRC is a communist state (in name, anyway; certainly not in its economics). Taiwan promotes human rights, not the PRC.

I think this is what I’ve been coming to for the past few months – the idea that this discussion about civility, as most people who visit or live in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau talk about it, isn’t just about whether or not people wait in lines, whether their kids defecate in the street, whether they talk loudly or not. The term 文明, which I often hear translated as “civilized,” is about a lot more than just the way people interact with one another in public spaces from day to day. It’s political, too.

Photo credit: Nathaniel Gonzalez

Photo taken by my boyfriend.

Thus, Taiwan isn’t just a democratic country in contrast to Communist China. It’s distinguished itself in its social policies as well, being very proud to be among the most progressive Asian countries for LGBT rights, with one of the largest Pride parades in Asia. China, in contrast, detained five prominent feminist activists shortly before International Women’s Day this past March. (They weren’t discussing something as controversial as abortion rights, or anything like that – they were planning to protest against sexual harassment.)

Taiwanese activism and social movements are also notoriously peaceful, such as the Taiwanese students’ Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運) which occurred in March and April, 2014. The Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, following just a few months later, drew on the Sunflower Movement for many of its examples and inspirations, including the strategy of nonviolently occupying spaces of political decision-making, and the rhetoric of Hong Kong (or Taiwan) adamantly not being Chinese culturally, socially, or politically. And, as discussed in my last post, we know how polite protests speak to a history of Asian and Asian American stereotypes.

So “civility” seems to permeate discourses of Taiwanese international diplomacy and domestic affairs, and to influence Hong Kong as well.

As much a tourist attraction as Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which I ate at 永康牛肉麵館.

Another tourist attraction: Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which I ate at 永康牛肉麵館 in Taipei.

This Fulbright conference surprised me for showing that civility, as I’d been thinking about it in Hong Kong, wasn’t just limited to these grander narratives. Civility turned out to be something people also used to sell Taiwan and its people. A scholar who researched marketing and the Taiwanese tourism industry claimed, in charts and numbers, that surveys of visitors to Taiwan consistently rated the politeness of the Taiwanese people as one of the country’s most attractive features. Civility and good behavior were a commodity.

Other speakers and politicians made remarks echoing this notion. Though perhaps they had more serious things to say about US-Taiwan relations, they noted again and again, as jokes or asides, how nice Taiwanese people were. Go shopping more, they told us jokingly, support our economy; and be friends with us nice Taiwanese folks. Some talked very seriously about how the United States’ military presence in the Pacific was the key factor in maintaining peace and stability in the region, considering China’s growing power and its desire to see Taiwan reunified with the Mainland; others jokingly thanked us all (“my American academic friends”) for coming to shield them from any bombs that China might have wanted to send over.

Our discussions emphasized Taiwan’s reliance on the United States to prevent its further “marginalization” – and to court us and the rest of the world, Taiwan put its best face forward. Democracy, nonviolence, civility. Be friends with us; we’re so kind. We understand the demands of global humanitarianism; we were educated at Harvard Law and speak your language – and in return, we will work with you politically and economically to counterbalance the PRC. 

One of the other Fulbrighters really pulled these ideas together when he asked whether or not there was really an international “market for Taiwanese independence.” A market. Civility, in a way, seems like a way to open up such a market.

¹ Ian Taylor, China and Africa: Engagement and Compromise (2006), 40.

An intermission

391 - 351-354.2Apologies for the long wait between posts! My grant period has officially ended, and so I was occupied finishing up some archival work the last few weeks. I’m now back in the United States. My next stop after Los Angeles will be Chicago, and then I’ll be moving to the Bay Area to start at Stanford University.

In the time between now and starting school, I’ll be going through some of the documents I got from Hong Kong and sharing some of the more interesting tidbits, especially those relating to ethnic minorities in the city (Indians, typically, since most of the documents I was looking at are about the pre-1947 period when Pakistan didn’t exist as a state yet).

So here’s a starter: A gunfight between 40 pirates and the Hong Kong police on the island of Cheung Chau 長洲 from August 1912. Click on the image to enlarge. Enjoy!

Discussing Civility in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Part I

My trusty guidebook and a nice gift from Fulbright Taiwan

My trusty guidebook and a nice gift from Fulbright Taiwan

About a month ago, I was in Taipei for the annual Fulbright Research Workshop. This conference is hosted each year by Fulbright Taiwan to bring together scholars and researchers working in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

It was a really great experience, and also very strange. Why was it great? I learned so much about Taiwan’s history, its politics, and its culture, and how these all fit into the larger picture of East Asian 20th century history in relation to the world (and by world, I mean predominantly the U.S., but with imperial echoes). Having known very staunchly Taiwanese American individuals in California, I had always thought of Taiwan as defined by its relationship to mainland China – and so to me, Taiwanese history and identity began with 1949.

I had no idea that parts of Taiwan had once been controlled by – get ready – the Dutch (1624–1662), by the Spanish (1626–1642; considering Taiwan’s proximity to the Philippines, this makes sense), by Chinese Ming dynasty supporters (1662–1683), by the Qing government/empire (1683–1895) – then a short period of independence as Formosa, which lasted less than a year (1895) – followed by the Japanese empire (1895–1945), and lastly by the Nationalists (國民黨), which kept Taiwan under the longest period of martial law for any country in the world from 1949-1987 (except that in 2011, Syria won that title).

白色恐怖改治受難者紀念碑 In memory of the victims of the white terror

白色恐怖改治受難者紀念碑 In memory of the victims of the white terror

During this period of martial law, known as the White Terror (白色恐怖), some 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned, and between 3,000-4,000 were executed. Keep in mind that throughout most of this time, the United States backed Taiwan with financial and military support, in order to protect it from mainland China and the global bad guys of the Cold War, the Communists. Taiwan became America’s “cornerstone in the Pacific Rim,” and thus, despite American rhetoric of freedom and liberty, etc, the U.S. supported an authoritarian regime.¹ This is a politically explosive claim, but in comparing the U.S.’s historical role in both, I like to think of this as the period when Taiwan was something like the Israel of the Pacific.

Since 1987, Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), in contrast with the mainland, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC)) has increasingly democratized. This was a very rare and wonderful moment in which a dictator decided to step down, and there are now multi-party elections, social movements, NGOs, big protests, and all that. What’s really amazing to me is that Taiwan has also begun public discussions of the White Terror, as my poor-quality photo of the White Terror Memorial above shows. This discussion has gone to the point of recognizing the government’s role in human rights violations at the very highest levels.

As a friend once said, Taiwan is a special place because it’s one of the examples that disproves the stereotype that Asian (more specifically, Chinese) people can’t have democratic states.

So, visiting Taiwan was a great learning experience! To be in a place and to learn its history, and to feel – tangibly – the ways that the history has impacted the place – that’s what I love about traveling. But of course, all of this fascinating history also makes Taiwan a very strange place. It was extra strange to be a Chinese American and a (temporary) Hong Kong resident visiting Taiwan, attending a conference supported by American and Taiwanese government funding, and thinking about these issues of history, memory, identity, culture, nationalism, while keeping in mind the recent Umbrella Movement and its frequent object of comparison, the Taiwanese Sunflower Movement.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 12.03.19 AMAnd what really struck me, throughout the entire conference, was this notion of “civility” as a Taiwanese trait. This key idea of “civility” has been a constant refrain in Hong Kong as well, especially with the way that foreign media treated the Umbrella Movement as the most polite protest ever (see: the UK Independent, the US-based Quartz, the New York Times…). I commented on it a few times in previous blog posts (see my footnotes here, and notice the use of the word “civilised policing” – directed toward a white officer – in a Tweet here). Hong Kong’s protesters were depicted as so polite, so unusually kind in their persistence, and therefore worthy of global sympathy and support.

That should all be good, positive commentary, right? But it was really uncomfortable to see, as an Asian American. It was too familiar.

For those readers new to Asian American history and to the current racial discourse of Asians in the United States, here’s quick breakdown. Asians have been in the United States for centuries – Filipinos, for instance, landed in California alongside the Spanish in the late 1500s – but it was only in the 1960s that they became seen as what’s now called the “model minority.” Several currents intersected to make this happen. After Japanese Americans were interned in World War II, with all their homes and businesses confiscated, their communities gradually recovered economically. In the 1960s, a huge number of middle- and upper-class Asians began immigrating to the US, bringing skills and capital with them. Around the same time, the four “Asian Tigers” began to become economic stars in Asia. In the 1950s and ’60s, Black Americans agitated for their rights, highlighting the structural inequalities and racism that held them back.

So in 1966, as the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and on the cusp of the turn toward Black Power, sociologist William Peterson wrote an article celebrating the success of Japanese Americans; later that year, a similar article came out celebrating Chinese Americans (read that one here). The gist of the articles was that Asian Americans have achieved success as ethnic minorities in America through their culture of prioritizing education, self-sufficiency, and traditional family values. The underlying message was that if Asians could do it, then America’s social structure, and the world system at large, was just fine – so if Black Americans were having problems, it was their own fault (this obviously ignored the fact that Black Americans came to the US as slaves, while many Asians came as professionals, and had something of an edge up). So while black Americans were chastised for being politically active while not really doing anything productive on their own, Asian Americans were praised as apolitical, quiet, hard-working. (Of course, racial discourse is never just an issue of race alone; there’s plenty of class and gender aspects to this, but I won’t go too deep into them now.²)

Now let’s examine some of the rhetoric around Hong Kong’s protest coming from Western media. I particularly like this BBC article, “Things that could only happen in a Hong Kong protest,” a classic list-style article that lends itself to a quick summary here.

  1. Doing your homework
  2. Apologising for the barricade you put up
  3. Deploying ancient arts of self defence with an umbrella
  4. Concern for how fragrant fellow protesters are
  5. Keeping off the well cut grass lawn when asked by a cardboard sign
  6. Being the tidiest protesters on the block

This sounds quite similar to the features of Asian Americans touted in the model minority myth. To get specific:

  1. We Asian folk do our homework because we prioritize education (see the 2011 Tiger Mom debate)
  2. We apologize for creating disturbances because we typically go with the flow of society (being Confucian and all that)
  3. We have “ancient arts” (resonating with stereotypes of Asia and Asians as “inscrutable,” “mysterious,” “exotic,” etc.; granted, I can see how that line was written sarcastically because the article is written list-style, but the accompanying text certainly doesn’t discuss the joke)
  4. We’re clean and fastidious (contrast this to the idea in the 1880s, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, that Chinese were a serious public health threat because they were unsanitary!)
  5. We follow the rules, even when we’re doing our best to be radical and disobedient (see the Confucian thing)
  6. We outstrip others in everything (see (a) the model minority myth with respect to being better minorities than Black Americans, and (b) the Tiger Mom and Affirmative Action debates with respect to being better than white people at getting into college)

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 12.27.21 AMThis was such a theme that even Jon Stewart did a section on it! (The video’s been taken off YouTube, so here’s an alternate link and a news story.)

China! China, you’ve surpassed us once more. I can’t believe this, first the Chinese beat us at business with Alibaba, now they’re doing protests better than us – they’re beating us at both the Occupy, and the Wall Street. It’s not fair!

Obviously, The Daily Show is political comedy and news satire, so I want to give them them some leeway when it comes to using stereotypes for comedy. Still, Stewart using these terms reflects societal currents and dialogues, and shows they’re important in shaping the way we think about Asia. (It’s also interesting to note that when Stewart starts talking about the civility of Hong Kong protesters, the first person quoted – an Asian man – mistakenly says that “Hong Kong protests now really put the ‘civil’ back in ‘civil obedience.'” If only that slip of the tongue hadn’t occurred.)

Asian Americans definitely took notice of how the media made Hong Kong protesters into another model minority. An extremely popular progressive blog, Reappropriate, argued that Black Americans in Ferguson and residents of Hong Kong share histories of oppression that continue to shape their current political and economic structures, and that those “institutions of privilege that advantage an economic and political elite” were the targets of protests in both sites. This struggle was, the author argued, “the central cause of the Asian American Movement.”

What I found really interesting in the article is its emphasis on the Umbrella Movement as a radical act, similar to the Ferguson protests as an “awe-inspiring demonstration of power,” and as a clear rejection of model minority stereotypes.

…for Hong Kong protesters to speak out as loudly and as compellingly as they are right now is not just an act of defiance against the power of Chinese government authority, but also an act of defiance against the anti-Asian stereotypes that oppress all of us within the Asian diaspora regardless of the land we stand upon.

To be clear, I love Reappropriate. It’s just amazing for the quality of writing and the critical platform it gives Asian Americans to challenge dominant discourses of race, class, and gender in the United States. But I think its Asian American context made the author treat the Umbrella Movement in its early stages as much more radical in its meaning than perhaps the Movement’s protesters meant it to be.

Hi there,  As you may aware, there is an EMERGENCY situation in HK. We are now protesting we believe and what we have been promised to have. That's why we have this protest. We hope you understand our perseverance, and we are sorry for any inconvenience.

Hi there,
As you may aware, there is an EMERGENCY situation in HK. We are now protesting we believe and what we have been promised to have. That’s why we have this protest. We hope you understand our perseverance, and we are sorry for any inconvenience.

The article was published on October 1, before the protesters themselves began to take more physical initiatives in November. October was a time when protesters took pride in their politeness. In contrast with the masked men who started fights at Occupy sites, the protesters emphasized that they were peaceful, civil, non-violent, non-reactive. At that time, I wouldn’t say that the Umbrella Movement was resisting the idea of the model minority – in a paradoxical way, they embraced it. They leveraged it as a political tool to show the world that Hong Kong protesters had the moral high ground, demonstrated in their politeness and their utter civility. See, for instance, the numerous notices posted in public spaces apologizing for their disruptiveness and requesting sympathy – in English, the language of foreign media and the international community. I’m including this photo that I took in Mong Kok on September 29 as an example.

It wasn’t until November and the perceived collapse of the Occupy Central and HKFS leadership that a wide base of people really began pushing for more active forms of protest and resistance through alternative platforms like the Action Stage. That’s what I would call a stronger form of resistance to the model minority myth. But the roots of this resistance, I’d argue, aren’t in responding to a Western stereotype, but rather in responding to a prevailing concern with civility and social order in Hong Kong that activists feel is preventing real change.

So, we have multiple actors casting multiple interpretations around this idea of civility. Western media promoted Hong Kong protesters as civil, and thus implicitly suggested that they deserved attention, respect, and sympathy; this fell in line with the model minority narrative. Asian American progressives promoted the Hong Kong protesters as determinedly not politely docile, resisting not only political oppression from China but also racial oppression from Western stereotypes. Hong Kong protesters (in the early stages, at least) embraced the identity of a nonviolent civil disobedience action and emphasized the civility of their behavior to legitimize the movement. (There’s still the question of just who the protesters targeted as their audience in need of convincing, which I’ll discuss more in the next post.) And now you have me, drawing together these interpretations to try and come up with my own interpretation of civility, what it means, and how it functions.

The concept is really so rich – the term itself brings up everything from civil disobedience and civic participation, to civilized and civilization (which brings us to the tricky questions of Eastern and Western civilizations and values, global values, modern values/traits, and so on). It brings to mind debates over political correctness as well, which then leads to debates over freedom of speech. So much to think about! Thinking about this question has taken a really long time for me, and the ideas I’m putting out here are a first attempt at putting together these pieces.

I recognize that I haven’t talked at all about what I mean by the concept of civility appearing in the Taipei workshop. I’ll get into that in my next post, but in this one I just wanted to go over some of the ideas I’m working with. It’s a lot of information already, and I’ll probably come back and edit things or move things around as I write the next post(s).

To everyone who read this far – thank you so much for staying with me as I mull over these thoughts! I know it’s a lot of text to get through (I hear you, family).

¹Tien Hung-Mao and Shiau Chyuan-jeng, “Taiwan’s Democratization: A Summary,” World Affairs 155.2 (fall 1992): 58-61; and Hu Ching-fen, “Taiwan’s Geopolitics and Chiang Ching-Kuo’s Decision to Democratize Taiwan,” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 5.1 (winter 2005): 26-44 [link].

²Some great books are out on the history of the model minority myth, such as Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (2013), and Madeline Hsu’s The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (2015).

More music

Here’s 新青年理髮廳 New Youth Barbershop’s song《世界最怕唔係荒謬》, or “What this world fears most isn’t absurd.” I’m really sad I didn’t know about this group earlier, but they’re pretty wonderful. And funny. A bit like Flight of the Conchords with a little more serious social commentary. And their videos are fantastic. Sadly, they sing mostly in Cantonese, unlike GDJYB. Enjoy!

Why didn’t Hong Kong have democracy under the British?

It’s been a whirlwind month for me. I recently spent time in Taiwan for a Fulbright conference which brought together all researchers from the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. It’s great to be back in Hong Kong. I started writing this post before I started traveling, but just recently got to come back to it.

I re-read Steve Tsang’s Modern History of Hong Kong (2003), and considering how questions of empire, postcolonialism, and responsibility have been such important topics in the past few months, it made for some interesting thinking. Here’s two posts (1, 2) from this blog on the subject, for instance. I thought it might be useful for me (and for any other readers) to have an overview of his argument, and to think through it a bit.

The typical narrative of Hong Kong, Britain, the PRC, and democracy goes like this, from the pro-democracy angle. After World War II, we had a new set of global dynamics: global decolonization, the Cold War, the pitting of communism against democracy. The founding of the PRC and various purges and social upheavals on the mainland, including the Cultural Revolution, made Hong Kong’s population explode with refugees from persecution. So, strike one against the PRC.

Great Britain, recognizing that its time of global empire was up, wanted to make moves to introduce democracy to Hong Kong. Various colonies were en route to becoming self-governing entities, even if formally still part of the Commonwealth; this domestic autonomy typically led to formally independence after a while. Singapore is one popular example that compares very well to Hong Kong, due to its colonial history, its large percentage of ethnically Chinese residents, and its size. Lee Kwan Yew, who just passed away two days ago, was Singapore’s first Prime Minister in a new political system, starting in 1959, in which the city was autonomous and self-governing in everything except defense and foreign affairs. This gradually led to a merger with Malaysia, then a separation that made Singapore officially independent.

However, the PRC refused to allow any changes to be made in Hong Kong, seeing such reforms as a “virtual act of war,” as former British diplomat Tom Collard argued on September 25 of last year. The politically isolated PRC also benefited from the status quo in Hong Kong, as the city served as a “window” to the outside world until the PRC was recognized by the international community in the 1970s. And thus, the argument goes, despite Great Britain’s desire to grant democracy to its former colonies, the PRC forced Britain to remain a colonial master over Hong Kong. In this narrative, then, although Britain had been imperialist (a bad word in today’s contexts), it had seen the light and wanted to encourage democracy, human rights, and freedom (almost always paired together rhetorically) in all its former colonies; this is further demonstrated by the reforms that the last British governor, Chris Patten, introduced during his term. It was the PRC that prevented Hong Kong from realizing these ideal goals, and it continues to do this today.

So that’s a popular narrative of history. Here is Tsang’s analysis.

Tsang argues that World War II, the decline of the British Empire, the founding of the PRC, and the changing values and demands of the postwar Hong Kong population forced the British colonial government to undergo significant reforms in its governance. It went from being a “benevolent autocracy” before World War II, in which the government only really dealt with Europeans and other “Westerners” and otherwise mostly ignored the majority Chinese population, to being a government that was actively involved with the ethnic Chinese society. Robert Bickers and Ray Yep and other Hong Kong scholars argue that riots and strikes in 1967 forced the government to recognize its own weaknesses and the need for reform.

British imperial rule in Hong Kong transformed itself from an improved version of the pre-war benevolent autocracy into a government that met all the requirements for the best possible government in the Chinese political tradition by the early 1980s. […] While it remained an essentially British colonial administration, it also fulfilled the basic conditions for such a government, namely, efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people. (197)

Despite this, Tsang notes, by the 1980s the population of Hong Kong had developed different expectations – namely, the desire for democracy. Despite all the good that the government offered to Hong Kong, there was no democracy. Why not?

Tsang argues that democratization between 1947 and 1982 didn’t occur because (1) the people did not demand it, and (2) the government was, for the most part, meeting the people’s expectations (207). The government was willing to make reforms and increasingly invited public participation in local governance through initiatives like City District Officers, advisory committees, and district boards. That led to a sort of consensus government. Traits so often associated with democracy, such as the rule of law, protection of human rights, social and political stability, and personal freedoms, were already guaranteed. So, it wasn’t until the 1980s that there was much pressure for democratization itself.

Then what about the argument – so recently and emphatically claimed by various parties during the Umbrella Movement – that the real reason for the lack of democracy was because the PRC would not permit it?

Tsang argues that it really wasn’t the PRC giving signals against democratization – but that it was the British and Hong Kong officials themselves who developed this belief on their own. He writes that throughout the 1950s, and even through the early 1960s, there was “no record […] of any British official or diplomat being told that the PRC would not tolerate democratisation in Hong Kong” (206). What they understood about the PRC regarding Hong Kong’s political status was that the PRC would not be happy about Hong Kong’s independence. 

So, Tsang puts this in the context of the British Empire’s decline. The typical experience of decolonization showed that democratization usually led to a colony’s self-governance, which then led to independence over time. Thus, if democratization led to independence, and the PRC objected to Hong Kong’s independence, then Hong Kong colonial officials came to believe that the PRC objected to democratization (207). It was not democracy itself that the PRC objected to, but independence.

(This actually confirms my thoughts from reading the evidence and conclusions of various media outlets on this subject – see my thoughts under October 27/Day 30 here.)

What, then, led to calls for democracy in the 1980s? Tsang argues that it was due to the start of the British-Chinese talks on Hong Kong’s future. When the British had taken control of the New Territories, it was for a period of 99 years, which would arrive by 1997. There wasn’t really a shift in the political situation between the PRC and Britain that sparked the discussions, but rather an appointment that had been made many years ago.

Tsang argues that the lack of opportunities for direct participation in these negotiations made people “deeply frustrated and concerned about their own future” (208). Both the British and the Chinese representatives, all of them non-elected, believed that they each represented the interests of the Hong Kong people best. But people in Hong Kong had no direct voice, and thus, they began to desire that voice. He talks about alternative methods that Hong Kong people considered to gain some control over their future. Some saw democratization as the best choice, while others thought being co-opted into the new Chinese power structure would be best (230). You might say that today’s political structure and debates are a continuation of this conversation.

Tsang writes that in the Sino-British negotiations from 1982-1984, Deng Xiaoping was adamant that Hong Kong would be under Chinese sovereignty. The British under Margaret Thatcher hoped to renew their lease of the New Territories (and thus of Hong Kong and Kowloon), but Deng was firm in the anti-imperialism stance of the early CCP. Tsang writes, “He was determined to use Hong Kong to wipe out China’s humiliation by the West in the preceding century” (219). More importantly to the issue of sovereignty, was that Hong Kong would be used as a model for Taiwan, which was – and is – the real prize. In fact, the talks did not begin for eight months because the PRC “demanded that the British acknowledge their sovereignty over Hong Kong” as a “precondition” before any serious discussions about begin (221).

Here is my own, potentially problematic, question: Is democracy really necessary, then? Hong Kong has shown that it’s possible to have the rule of law, protection of human rights, and so on, without a democracy. Given, that was an unusual (and perhaps ironic) situation, because Hong Kong was a colony. Its government was modeled after changes in the government of the metropole – changes in Britain would lead to changes in its colonies. What’s happening in HK is that democracy is associated with independence, and each is confused for the other.

9780393974812_p0_v1_s260x420This makes me think about theories that my boyfriend has been introducing to me in the realms of sociology and political science. He studies ethnic violence and democratization in Southeast Asia, with a current focus on Myanmar. Some scholars – particularly Jack Snyder, in his From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (2000) – have argued that liberalization policies, such as increasing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, allows various groups to push for their interests by drawing on nationalist rhetoric. Prior to this liberalization, elites would not have needed to appeal to the public for approval or for legitimacy; however, this change means that elites suddenly do need this. Thus they begin to draw on ideas of nationalism and engage in “nationalist myth-making” in order to bolster their legitimacy and power. This process can be controlled if there are strong pre-existing institutions, such as a “disciplined press” that would recognize rampant nationalism and rumors for what they are. But an “undisciplined press” would instead to the proliferation of nationalist ideas, and eventually, to civil war.

You can read the first chapter of Snyder’s book here. I highly suggest reading it – he has some great stuff to say about the “clash of civilizations,” considering the explanatory lines often drawn between Western democracies and non-Western “anarchies,” “tyrants,” and so on. He writes,

The centerpiece of American foreign policy in the 1990s was the claim that promoting the spread of democracy would also promote peace. Noting that no two democracies have ever fought a war against each other, President Bill Clinton argued that support for democratization would be an antidote to international war and civil strife. Yet paradoxically, the 1990s turned out to be a decade of both democratization and chronic nationalist conflict.

While the world would undoubtedly be more peaceful if all states became mature democracies, Clinton’s conventional wisdom failed to anticipate the dangers of getting from here to there. Rocky transitions to democracy often give rise to warlike nationalism and violent ethnic conflicts. Since the French Revolution, the earliest phases of democratization have triggered some of the world’s bloodiest nationalist struggles.


The central message of this book, consequently, constitutes a paradox. On the one hand, the successful unfolding of a global, liberal-democratic revolution might eventually undergird a more peaceful era in world politics. On the other hand, the transition to democratic politics is meanwhile creating fertile conditions for nationalism and ethnic conflict, which not only raises the costs of the transition but may also redirect popular political participation into a lengthy antidemocratic detour. The three most nearly successful attempts to overturn the global balance of power through aggression—those of Napoleonic France in 1803-15, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany in 1914-18, and Adolf Hitler’s Germany in 1939-45—all came on the heels of failed attempts to democratize. Popular nationalistic energies, unleashed and perverted by the miscarriage of democratic reforms, created the conditions that made possible these bids for global hegemony. Thus, the process of democratization can be one of its own worst enemies, and its promise of peace is clouded with the danger of war.

To be very clear, Snyder’s argument is not that democracy can lead to increased violence, but that the process of democratization can.

It certainly seems like a version of this theory is playing out in Hong Kong now. The media is increasingly polarized, and one of the favorite media outlets of nationalistic pro-democracy Hong Kongers, Apple Daily, does not seem to have the traits of a “disciplined press.” On October 24, Apple Daily reported on an overheard conversation in which several men were recruiting for a “dismantling roadblocks operation,” asked the participants to wear a green ribbon, and described some 30 of those recruited as “A Cha” (a derogatory term used for people of South Asian descent). An overheard conversation! The paper has also been known to publish stories that, once called out for poor journalistic quality, are then removed quietly from the website.

I apologize for the lack of photos in this post – so as a conciliatory gesture, here’s an interesting newsreel clip I found on YouTube about the 1967 riots. Just know that the riots and disturbances lasted much longer than the one week the clip covers, and that the situation was much more complex than simply people of Hong Kong wanting an end to British rule (as that implies that all Hong Kong people wanted this, which is absolutely not true).


As I mentioned in my last post – there’s a lot of documentaries coming out now about the Movement. Henry just sent me this one about (what I consider) the best rock band in HK, GDJYB (雞蛋蒸肉餅).

From the YouTube description:

This is my thesis film for the Diploma in Filmmaking at The International Academy of Film and Television (IAFT) in Hong Kong. It’s a documentary following HK girlband GDJYB’s progress into appearing at the annual Clockenflap Music and Arts festival with the backdrop of Occupy Central.

It’s a beautiful, short video, does a great job of showing the band’s energy – and it’s interesting for showing this intersection of this growing international (Western) trend of music festivals, and of Hong Kong youth moving in those circles.

我要真普選 reappears, in spite of growing divisions

I’ve been offline for a while – grad school decisions have been coming out lately, and I’ve been in the middle of researching schools, scheduling meetings, and so on.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 9.45.40 PM

SocREC’s Facebook post

But the Umbrella Movement is still making regular headlines. Just today, another massive banner reading “我要真普選” (I want true universal suffrage) reappeared on Lion Rock! Check out the video at SocREC.

I had the chance to hike Lion Rock with my auntie here, her husband, and my boyfriend. It was a real treat and a great experience – we saw monkeys and two wild boars! – that really made me appreciate what it must have been to put up those huge banners on such a critical symbol of Hong Kong. (The theme song “獅子山下精神” played at the Lunar New Year fireworks on Friday night – a strong reminder of what that song and the rock means in the city’s official narratives.) We made it up to the lion’s shoulders all right – lots of stairs – but getting to the head, where the banners have been hung, takes a bit more rock climbing than hiking.

It’s kind of a nice thing to see the banner up. It’s like a reminder of what the movement stood for, a call back to 勿忘初衷 (don’t forget the original purpose). And this is especially critical at this moment, where the pan-democratic camp is so deeply fractured. HKU students recently organized and won a campaign to withdraw from the Hong Kong Federation of Students – similar campaigns occurred on at least six other campuses. Here’s the HKU group’s Facebook page, 港大學生會退出學聯關注組 (HKUSU Independence). They’ve been around since late last December, when they first proposed withdrawal from HKFS (see a translation of their proposal, published in Passion Times, here).

20150205_152742I attended a debate at HKU on the subject on February 5, shortly before the week-long referendum began. There were two representatives for (and from) HKFS, Alex Chow and Yvonne Leung, and two representatives against HKFS, HKUSU Independence founder 吳偉嘉 (Oscar Ng) and another male student surnamed 王 (Wong Chun-kit). Throughout the debate, Alex Chow seemed testy and exhausted – and understandably so. He wasn’t wearing his trademark glasses, which I imagine was an attempt to avoid immediate identification and/or confrontations by random passersby. Meanwhile, Oscar Ng spoke more clearly and confidently; to me, it seemed that his partner offered weaker arguments and rebuttals.

The main problems that HKUSU Independence saw with HKFS were, as I understood it,

  1. The lack of transparency in its organization, and the undemocratic process by which its leaders were selected,
  2. The mishandling of various key moments in the protests, and
  3. HKFS’ historical stance toward Mainland China.

A poster at HKU reading, “學聯,無成為另一道高牆。” (HKFS, don’t become another high wall.”

At the accusations of being undemocratic and non-transparent, Alex Chow argued that reforms were possible in HKFS. Regarding HKFS’s stance toward China, he noted that the organization has a long history of social and political activism, and he argued that its stance changed over time according to the students. Still, Oscar Ng criticized HKFS for promoting the notion of a democratic Hong Kong for a democratic China – the idea that was popular in the 1980s, which Martin Lee also discussed, which argues that if Hong Kong is democratic, then it can help influence and support the democratization of the mainland. Seeming harried and tired, Alex Chow returned again and again to the question: What would you really achieve by leaving HKFS, other than fracturing the best platform that currently exists for communication between students across Hong Kong? An excellent question that, to me, has not yet been answered.

Both English and Chinese flyers for the referendum were posted around HKU

Both English and Chinese flyers for the referendum were posted around HKU

In the end, some 6,000 students (39% of the student body) voted, with 2,522 votes in favor of leaving HKFS, 2,278 against, and some 1,300 abstaining (see SCMP’s article here). Considering Oscar Ng’s emphasis on HKFS’s problematic stance toward the mainland, I have to agree with ejinsight‘s report that it “suggests growing support for the so-called localist movement that will focus more on upholding Hong Kong’s interests locally, rather than dealing with Beijing.”

It is rather sad, I think, to see this course of events. Here’s a translation of Apple Daily‘s commentary about the results, “Lessons for Pan-Democrats.” I also read about this year’s contentious HKUSU election, in which one candidate, Eugenia Yip, was criticized as a Communist infiltrator for having been born in the mainland (here’s an article from Reuters that helped kick it into international news, and another piece about it in Foreign Press). She protested that she had come to Hong Kong because she cared about its democratic system – indeed, she was practicing democracy. Her team lost.

In other news, Joshua Wong recently made an appearance at my alma mater, USC, in relation with a new documentary, Lessons in Dissent. Wish I had been there, considering that I missed the showing at HKU! I’m certain that this is only one of many, many documentaries to watch – there are so many other videos created by news sites like Al Jazeera or CNN, along with videos made by local NGOs or religious groups.

Edit (Feb 23): So I’ve been notified that I did not miss the screening of Lessons in Dissent at HKU – but unfortunately I won’t be able to make it anyway. But for anyone who is interested, here’s the poster for the event: Lessons in Dissent HKU

Go check it out!


“The illegal occupation action […] is over”

The clearance of Admiralty was the symbol end to the Umbrella Movement’s physical occupations, though Causeway Bay was not cleared until December 15.

Here’s the report of the Assistant Commissioner of Police (Operations), Cheung Tak-keung, on Admiralty’s clearance. The police closure of the area that had been planned for the late morning did not happen until 2:20pm. A total of 909 people had their details recorded as they left, so that “[p]olice may pursue criminal liability against them later.” The remaining 209 protesters (131 male, 78 female) conducting a sit-in were arrested starting at 4:25pm for “Unlawful Assembly” and “Obstructing Police in Execution of Duty.” Hong Wrong’s photo essay on the arrests shows the many lawmakers, activists, and even celebrities who were taken away.

Cheung also noted the arrests of four other men off-site in the day before the clearance for related offenses, including Wong Yeung-Tat of Civic Passion, League of Social Democrats vice chairman Raphael Wong, Student Front founder Alvin Cheng, and Anthony So, assistant to People Power’s Ray Chan.

The next day, there were still visible markers of the protest at the site left on the streets through taped and graffitied messages. I took photos of some of the occupation’s remnants when I visited Admiralty on the 14th.

That night, protesters continued to take up the holiday spirit as they traveled through Causeway Bay singing carols with Umbrella Movement lyrics. It’s really been a fascinating thing to see how religion and politics are intersecting in Hong Kong – and in China broadly. So many leaders of Occupy Central identify as Christian, and Catholics are a large presence as well. There’s a handful of Buddhist leaders, but the Christians are a far more visible group. And it’d be interesting to look into how Christian women in particular view the movement and the protests, especially considering Christianity’s strange history in China…

On December 13, the police released details on the clearance of Causeway Bay, to take place two days later. Rather than the thousands of officers who had been on standby for Admiralty’s clearance, only a few hundred were expected to be present for Causeway Bay.

So the evening before Causeway Bay’s clearance, I went down to Admiralty and to Causeway Bay to see how both were doing. There was still an occupation at the British Consulate, though it was small in size and had been moved across the street. Tents were still set up along Civic Square on Tim Mei Avenue and at the Legislative Council’s north entrance, near where protesters had so long ago tried to smash through its doors. The protesters there had not yet been cleared because that rotunda is a designated zone for public demonstrations, although the president of the Legislative Council, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, had considered getting an injunction against them.

But as I walked through the rotunda, I didn’t know any of that, and I wasn’t sure why there were still protesters there. So I stopped a pair of people, one a young white woman and the other an older Chinese man, who were chatting together and asked why they were still camped out there.

20141214_140747They pointed to the banner they’d placed at the entrance to the space. They had the right to continue protesting in that space, they explained. We chatted for a while, and I learned that the older man, Bassino, had lived in Hong Kong all his life. The woman, a French student who was in this great program at the Sorbonne that let her travel and study at the same time, had been elsewhere in Asia before the protests and arrived in Hong Kong as soon as she heard about them.

She didn’t speak any Chinese, but she seemed to feel very much part of the group as she talked about couples she knew who’d broken up and new relationships she’d seen form. The two were very kind and welcomed me to join them inside the encampment area, and I ended up staying there for several hours.

Bassino asked me, “Do you drink?” A little confused, I replied that I did, but not very much. Oh, then you should come back tonight! he told me. We’re having a party before everything ends tomorrow. I thanked him for the invitation as I left, but I ended up not going. It seemed like it ought to be a party for their family to say their goodbyes to one another. I wasn’t even sure how I felt about the idea of celebrating at the end of the occupation – was it sacrilegious, somehow? I spent the night at home instead.

The protest area was closed on December 15 for “cleaning and repair works,” which caused people to move to the side of the building near Civic Square. It was reopened on January 7, and provisional measures were enacted to prevent it from being reoccupied. On January 8, new barricades were set up in the designated protest zone “to ensure members of the public with different views could use the Legco facilities and the protest area safely,” but really to prevent anyone from being able to try to storm the doors again.

Though there wasn’t an injunction on Causeway Bay, the site was cleared without incident. The police remarks after the clearance hardly even mentioned the details of the operation, such as the number of people arrested (17). And thus – after 79 days – the occupations were declared officially “over,” as trumpeted by the Chief Executive.

  • This SCMP report offers stories of Hong Kong youth who tried to travel to the mainland. The youth argue that their treatment is alienating a whole generation of Hong Kong youth from developing closer ties with the mainland. My answer is that that’s probably not a major concern for the mainland, which has tons more people happy to move to Hong Kong if current Hongkongers want to leave…
  • Here’s Badcanto complaining about mainland woman publicly defecating in Sheung Shui on December 8. It rarely ever happens that such bad behavior is seen in Hong Kong, but when it does, it gets attention.