Election Time

I pity the electioneering teams in our area. The short cold winter evenings must be testing their enthusiasm. People are not likely to stand long with their front door open to discuss local and national politics.

The most talked-about issues are complex and need more discussion than a few minutes on the doorstep. I doubt if many canvassers are invited inside for a cup of tea and a chat.

This is how democracy works in Ireland (at least at election time) and it took us many years of struggle, even physical, to get this far.

I can’t help comparing it with the situation in Hong Kong, China and other parts of the world where elections, if they exist, are a lot different.

In Hong Kong the recent demonstrations have not been about the right to vote, they already have local elections for local issues. As a permanent resident I voted there for a number of years.  What they now want is freedom to have a say in the big issues, like choosing the officials who make laws and try to balance the budget.

In China some experiments have been made at district level but precautions are usually taken to make sure the Party candidate wins.  National elections are a long way off.

In other parts of the world, the struggle for both local and national elections is just beginning.

Here, you hear complaints about people who would cross the ocean to fight for democracy but won’t cross the street to vote. Or is it the other way around?

New Year: Ireland and China

The daffodils are out in our garden already.

Every year I am amazed by their sudden appearance. We did nothing to deserve or encourage them, yet one dark rainy day, there they are!

It is the first sign of Spring and the ‘New Year Festival’ celebrated in China and elsewhere on 25 January, is in Chinese, the ‘Spring Festival’.

It is still a big occasion in China – this year over 440 million trips will be made on the 217 mph high-speed trains alone as people struggle to be reunited with their families in the countryside.

The bond is still strong as there are many first generation city dwellers whose memories and ties to their ‘old village’ remain alive. It used to be like that in Korea but as people get more settled in the cities the link is weakening.

The New Year has got off to a bad start for the government. Taiwan voters showed they are in no hurry to be re-united with the Motherland though they are not seeking a complete split either.

The good news is that China has made considerable progress in reducing water and air pollution. This is one area in which it is in agreement with the rest of the world.

A Fresh Approach to Studying Chinese Culture

In a Chinese city, surplus funds were left over after a project was completed and the local Party standing committee met to decide whether to use them to renovate the elementary school or the prison. Everyone had a different opinion.

Finally, one experience committee member set everyone straight: “In this life, how many of us are likely to have to attend elementary school again?”

There was silence. Some people wiped sweat from their brows. Others drank tea.

Soon after, everyone reached an agreement: Fix up the prison.

This is an example of Chinese humour and studying humour can be a good means of learning a language and understanding the local situation.

Is Oriental humour much different from Western? You can judge from the above.

It might be a help to know that Party leaders are under constant threat of investigation to test their loyalty, often the reason given is corruption.

However it may be hard to collect other examples of Chinese humour. The government takes it very seriously. Humour is now almost absent from the annual Chinese New Year TV extravaganza knows as ‘the Gala’.

Humorous sites are also quickly shut down. One had an estimated 200 million followers, mostly workers.      

Sadly, that window for studying Chinese language and local culture is unavailable for the present.

Sad Christmas in China

It won’t be a happy Christmas for Christians in China.

The efforts over the past two years to turn Christianity into a state religion, actively supporting government ideology, has meant that Christians need to conceal their religious identity once again. 

The threat of alternative Christian values has led to the demolition of many churches, the removal of public Christian symbols and the rewriting of the Bible to give it a communist slant.

School principals visit parents to warn them not to bring their children to religious services. If they do there will be retribution, even job loss.

Portraits of the president, Xi Jinping, Party slogans and the national flag are hung behind altars and at the back of the church in place of religious images.

Government-endorsed church leaders tell their congregations that their first duty is to the State, only second to God.

‘Red Wednesday’, a day to draw attention to the plight of persecuted Christians, was celebrated on 27 November worldwide. Churches and public buildings were bathed in red lights in in Australia, the Philippines, the USA , Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal , the Czech Republic, Hungary and the UK.

Did you notice it being celebrated in Ireland?

Behind the Scenes in Hong Kong

At present the Hong Kong ‘riots’ seem paused as both side wait to see how the other will react.

An interesting question remains, are there any outside influences involved, either foreign anti-China groups or mainland dissidents?

While most Western and many East Asian democracies support the protesters there is no evidence of any them being actively involved, not to say the instigators.

Within China, public and social media have been used to spread conspiracy theories that the United States and Britain are behind all the troubles. They condemn the protests strongly, support the Hong Kong police and call for compulsory patriotic education in the city.

Most ordinary people on the mainland just continue to get on with life, which is improving gradually. The public media that touch their lives seldom mention Hong Kong.  The social media-savvy may have an idea of what is happening but any mention of the protests is deleted. 

There is a rumour, emerging from the mainland, that a group within the Communist party that is opposed to President Xi might be involved.  His increasing efforts to bring about his ‘China Dream’ has led to his taking increasing control of the country despite the lessons of the Mao Era that one man should not have complete power.

His clampdown is particularly felt in religious circles where possession of more than one copy of the Bible may now be regarded as a crime.

Using Hong Kong to raise an opposing voice might be tempting for the opposition.

A Home like a Cell

‘7K for a home like a cell’ was one of the slogans painted on walls in Hong Kong during the riots.

I found out that it means you pay 7,000 Hong Kong dollars (812 Euro) a month for a tiny apartment, like a cell.

Obviously the concerns of many Hong Kong workers are as much about living conditions as democratic ideals. However they know the two are closely linked – the local Hong Kong government may be to blame for the housing, education and medical care problems in the city but those who caused the problems were appointed by Beijing in the first place and so the problem starts there.

Recently Leo Goodstadt, the highly respected Hong Kong scholar, wrote ‘A City Mismanaged’ in which he describes how the city has deteriorated since it was united with the mainland in 1997.  He traces the mistakes of the four Beijing-appointed Chief Executives who were in charge. They gave more attention to big business and balancing the budget than to social needs.

 In Hong Kong most people live in apartment buildings ranging from 10 storeys to 40. In Mong Kok, near the Columban apartment and the scene of many of the riots, they say that if all the people came down to the street at the same time there wouldn’t be room for them.  Most of the apartments are tiny and in disrepair.

It was this, and also the limited possibilities for third level education and medical treatment, that brought Hong Kong’s hard-working people out on the streets and swung the recent local elections in favour of the anti-government democrats.

They have sent a clear message to Beijing, now we wait to see what response will be made.

Photo 1: slogan in Hong Kong

Photo 2: the people who voted

Up-date on Hong Kong

As the situation in Hong Kong becomes more serious the focus is on university students. They provide the energy and ingenuity for the campaign but the unexplained element is their violence.

So far one of their five demands has been met, the extradition treaty with the mainland has been scrapped. The second (resignation of the Chief Secretary) is possible (she probably wants to resign anyhow), as is release of those arrested.  However the other demands (independent enquiry into police brutality as well as greater democratic freedom) are not so simple as the enquiry would bring up Beijing’s involvement in policing and the plan is to bring Hong Kong closer to mainland laws, not to make it more independent.

Since at least two of their demands won’t be granted, why do the students continue?

It could be that they are making a point: in the future Beijing will be more careful and slow down its plans to integrated Hong Kong fully into the mainland’s system.

When I was there recently I noticed that the word ‘revolt’ was appearing more in the slogans plastered on walls. Previously the demand was for greater self-governing, a non-threatening desire most of the population would share.  

The spirit of Tianmen Square is in the air but the outcome could be much the same, it has not changed China much. Some believe that real change comes only after a violent clash between two dominant social groups though that has never provided a long term solution.

The situation in Hong Kong is coming to a head and another section of the people, who sympathise with the students but not their methods, is waiting on the side-lines to see how it will affect them. More about them next time. 

Photos: 1. Calls to revolt.  2. The peaceful Hong Kong tourist knew.

Youth Impact

Did you notice the connection between Hong Kong, Chile and Cork?

In Hong Kong I saw the determination of teenagers rioting against the lack of democracy in the city as the Chinese government tightened its grip on freedoms.

In Chile, teenagers stormed and wrecked metro stations to protest a rise in fares and deteriorating social conditions.

In Cork a hundred young people answered a called to gather, masked, in the city centre to loot a sports shop. Fortunately they were stopped by the Gardai.

In all three cases, the young people dressed in black, wore masks or balaclavas, were mobilised by social media and engaged (or prepared to engage) in destruction.

In Hong Kong they said they were protesting for their future and that of their birthplace. They were highly organised and courageous. It was the task of one young girl to go around with a bucket of water into which she would put gas cylinders fired by the police in order to extinguish them. If she were stronger, she said, she would join those throwing stones.

Their parents, in most cases, knew what they were doing and sympathised.

In Chile the methods used were much the same and the protest was on behalf of those suffering financially despite an improving economy.

In Cork, it was different. The young people just seemed to want some exciting activity as part of an anonymous group.

Young people are idealistic and now easy to mobilise through social media. While their goals are usually laudable they can be manipulated by older people with less positive agendas. The ‘flash gatherings’ are likely to spread. I saw them in Hong Kong, but Chile and Cork bring them closer to home.

Back from Hong Kong

I am just back from Hong Kong where the disturbances (or riots) are still in full swing at weekends. Shops and hotels were complaining about fewer tourists but locals and visitors had no trouble getting around and enjoying the cooler weather (though it was still a hot 28 degrees.)

The city itself has not changed much in the past three years but soon I recognised a change in the people.

The initial sense of inevitability and mild optimism with which Hong Kongers had greeted the Handover in 1997 was gone. In its place was a sense of rebellion, dissatisfaction with social conditions and a fear for the future.

I tried to understand the different grievances: those who were unhappy about housing, schools and medical services did not necessarily want independence and the young people who called for independence seemed more interested in their future than in present issues.   

There seemed to be three different groups involved: those dissatisfied with the way Hong Kong had been managed in recent years and the social problems this caused, the young who did not want to see semi-free Hong Kong become another tightly controlled Chinese city and the hard core rioters who seemed intent on bringing matters to a violent conclusion.

There is another group too, but they do not appear on the streets. They are anxious about the damaged caused by the riots but are content to let the city continue drifting closer to China until it became too uncomfortable for themselves. Many of them have foreign passports as a safeguard and some assets overseas.

Everyone I met asked, ‘What do you think of the disturbances?’ and had their own interpretation of what was happening. I’m still trying to sort out my own impressions. By next week they should be clearer.

Photo 1: Waterloo Road outside the Columban apartment near Mongkok, a center for protests. Rioters ripped out railings along the street to use in barricades and lit a fire in the middle of the road.

Photo 2: Slogans are daubed on all the main streets. This one says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’

A Chinese Dish — Humble Pie

At the launch of ‘The Irish and China’ book in Trinity last week, I was asked why so many Irish who had lived in China found resemblances between the two peoples.

I have come to the conclusion it is something very human that was preserved in both traditional cultures. In neither civilisation is boasting seen as ‘cool’, people feel ashamed if they hurt another‘s feelings and indirect speech is common in order to show respect for the person you are talking with.

I remember being told in Korea never to say ‘No’ to a request. Rather, say ‘I will think about it.’ We have much the same habit in Ireland. Some would criticise traditional Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Irish for this roundabout way of talking but it does show a commendable consideration for others.

Both cultures accepted that the individual should not be the centre of everything but part of a common effort to get on with each other and find happiness in the process.

In China, Korea and Japan this attitude was modelled and kept alive by Confucianism. In Ireland and Western Europe, up to recently, it was passed on through Christian practices and communities.

However modern culture, giving priority to personal emotions and urges, threatens this openness of ‘give and take’, of contributing to making society better for all and expecting others to do likewise.   

When I put forward these views at the ‘Launch’, no one contradicted me. Perhaps it is a sign that politeness has not faded from Irish culture!