M’goi

There are people outside of Hong Kong who think that Hong Kong is a part of China like it is actually a part of China.  For instance, I have a friend who posted a picture of the awe-inspiring skyline of Hong Kong Island, and above it the status read: “I am in China!”  I also have friends asking me on Messenger, “How’s life in China?” Sure, geo-politically, Hong Kong is indeed part of China.  Culturally, however, many Hong Kongers proudly identify themselves as non-Chinese.  Ever since the takeover, the Hong Kongers have been desperately trying to maintain their identity by fighting to keep Cantonese in the public arena.  Many Hong Kongers are resentful of the Mainland Chinese speaking Mandarin and trying to impose on them.  In previous posts, Wes and I had discussions about how Big Beijing try to assimilate an area by reducing the local language to a mere dialect.  Today, I experienced a Hong Konger’s passive aggressive attempt to maintain his cultural and linguistic identify in a rather perverse, but in some ways, charming, manner.

It was pouring rain after Thomas and I had lunch at this crazy spicy noodle place in Sham Shui Po. Since I didn’t have an umbrella, I decided to buy one at the Circle K at the end of the block.  I walked into the little cramped store, and there was a young man working at the counter.

In Mandarin, I asked, “Do you sell umbrellas?” I learned very quickly when I first started to work in Sham Shui Po that people’s English ability is limited in this neighbourhood.  In fact, many looked relieved when I switched from English to Mandrain.   As a result, I automatically speak Mandrain when I conduct my daily business during the work hours.

The young man working at the counter looked to be in his early 20’s.  He  looked at me as I was speaking to him, and he nodded his head ever so lightly.

“How much is it?”

He mumbled something in Cantonese under his breath.  I shook my head and gave him a quizzical look.  He looked up and without looking at me, repeated what he had said previously in an annoyed, louder tone, as if my presence was bothering him.  I’ve had this experience with other Hong Kongers; they seem to believe that by speaking louder, this imperial language speaking fool would instantly understand what was said.

At that moment, Thomas came up closer to me.  He is a tall, good looking white guy.

“How much is it?”  I said, in English this time.

The clerk noted Thomas’ presence.  “The big one is $49 and the small one is $42.” He spoke back to me in English, his tone audibly calmer and more pleasant.

“May I see them?”

He turned around and bent down to reach the cupboard  to fetch the umbrellas.  He then put them down on the counter for me to inspect.

“I will take this one.” I said as I pointed to the small umbrella.

As I was groping around my bag for my wallet, the clerk carefully cut off the tag on the umbrella for me.  Then I gave him some money and he gave me the change.

“Thanks” I said as I picked up the umbrella from the counter, and walked out the store with Thomas behind me.

I opened my brand new Circle K umbrella as I stepped out into the rain.

“Did that just happen?” Thomas asked.

I laughed.  “Yup, it sure did.”

My lazy unwillingness to learn Cantonese had made me appear to be a Mainlander speaking the imperialistic language imposing on the local population.   Next time, I better greet the store clerk with, “M’goi.” Then I can speak whichever language I want without coming across as an imperialistic fool.

An Open Letter to the CCP Concerning Press Freedom in HK

Dear Chinese Communist Party,

I’m not one of those Americans who thinks the way we do things in ‘Murica is always better than the way others do them, but when it comes to propagandizing and controlling its population…well…USA #1!.  Comparing the elegant sophistication of the US authorities to the brutishness of the Chinese is like comparing a samurai sword to a meat cleaver.  US propaganda is so good that many Americans don’t even think of their media as propaganda.  Not so in China, and increasingly not so in HK.  So my advice to my current masters is to be a little more like my former masters (or HK’s former masters).  Try a subtler approach when it comes to HK people.

You see, HK people are not like Mainland Chinese people.  I know, you guys like to think the difference is that they have been conditioned by the British into believing in all this civil liberties crap, but the history is a little more complicated than that.  When HK people were rioting in 1967 and China Commie sympathy was reportedly prevalent in the colony, the British behaved very much like you might have: they locked up journalists and closed down newspapers.  But they quickly realized that this did them more harm than good.  Tony Elliot, the political advisor to HK at the time, stated, “The experience of the last six months has shown that interference with the press produces more violent reactions than anything else.”  HK got freedom of the press because the people fought for it, not because the Brits wanted them to have it.  Press freedom was the lesser of two evils for the British authorities, and I believe it is the lesser of two evils for Big Beijing as well.   You know that anti-subversion law that you’ve been trying to pass for so long?  You know, the one that HK people protest every time you try to pass it?   My advice is to drop it, and control the press in ways that won’t stir up so much animosity.  The more bluntly  you exert control over the HK media, the less useful that control becomes.

The way they do things where I come from is less obvious and therefore more effective.  The rulers of my country are the financial and corporate elite; they control the politicians and they control the media, and they do it mainly by (quietly) giving gifts.  You guys could totally do the same thing; a “free press” and “democracy” make control easier, not harder (I’ll explain the democracy part in another post).  In my country, we have a “polarized political debate” because Republicans and Democrats shout at each other on Fox News and MSNBC.  We have “liberal” newspapers like the New York Times, and “conservative” ones like the Wall Street Journal, but when something is really important to the political elites, as during the lead up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, everybody falls in line.  Then they go back to shouting at each other over gay rights and abortion, while both sides support the same basic foreign policy and economic agendas.  This “polarized” political climate makes anyone who speaks outside of these bounds look like an extremist, and extremists/dissidents are better ignored than brutalized (compare Amy Goodman/Ai Weiwei).  In the US, the mainstream (note the adjective, meaning not extremist but also meaning constrained by the profit motive) media are controlled through advertising and ownership.  Nothing that’s against the interests of corporate/finance hegemony can be published by the mainstream media in the US, because nearly 100% of advertizers are corporations.  Questioning corporate hegemony is simply not profitable, no conspiracy, no corruption necessary.  I notice that you guys have gotten into this game too, and that you’re pretty good at it in fact.  Unfortunately for you, some people in Taiwan have also noticed your press control prowess.  Again, a more patient approach will get you more of what you want, in the long run.

That article I just linked to is instructive, not because it documents how the CCP influences media outlets around the world by withholding advertising, denying visas for foreign reporters, and rewarding loyal journalists in HK and Taiwan while using China’s economic might to punish disloyal media groups (of course y’all know all about that).  It’s instructive because the institution that wrote it (Freedom House, a “Non-Governmental Organization” financed largely by the US government) would never be so impolite as to turn such analysis against its sponsors.  See how that works?  The US can criticize you, and it looks like an impartial NGO is doing it.  But when you criticize the US in your state controlled newspaper, the propagandistic nature of the criticism is just too obvious to have any effect on people (like those in HK) who grew up with a “free press.”  Speaking through state-controlled media detracts from your message, completely overshadowing the legitimacy of many of your claims.  What you need is an institution with a reputation for objectivity and independence.  There are no such institutions in Mainland China.

The other thing that detracts from your message is your tone.  You see, to those of us with Western sensibilities the way  you write just sounds childish.  So let me give you some advice that I give my students.  Be judicious with your adjectives and adverbs.  Just as the use of “very” tends to weaken whatever it was intended to strengthen, when your propagandists write something like, “China on Friday responded to the United States criticism and irresponsible remarks of its human rights situation by publishing its own report on the US human rights issues,” the sentence is rendered ineffective as propaganda by the word “irresponsible.”  It just makes it too obvious that the reporter is not objectively reporting what the CCP says, but is actually a mouthpiece for the CCP.  This is why the South China Morning Post is a much more useful propaganda tool for you than is the China Daily.  The fact that the SCMP is published in HK, and is at times mildly critical of your policies is precisely what makes it more credible.  Notice that the New York Times was so much more useful to the Bush administration in making its case for the invasion of Iraq than was Fox News, which was too obviously allied with the Republican party to be taken seriously by anyone who was the least bit skeptical in the first place.  To liberal-minded Westerners, the China Daily and Fox News sound exactly equally ridiculous.

A free press in HK can be useful to you, but only if you use a softer touch.  If you want to be able to effectively influence media savvy people all over the world, the legacy of press freedom in HK is your most valuable asset.  Currently HK’s reputation for press freedom is depreciating so quickly that the credibility of its independent papers may reach the level of the China Daily or Xinhua.  Once lost, it will be nearly impossible to restore.  So use your financial muscle to encourage self-censorship, but be patient.  Use the carrot, avoid the stick.  Eventually, you’ll find that journalists have subconsciously adopted your frames to the point that they don’t even think of it as self-censoring, and the public won’t either.  But if you’re too eager to take control of HK, you risk destroying the very institutions you wish to control.

In exchange for what really is my bestest most honest advice to you, all I ask for in return is a better CCP troll.  I don’t want to sound ungrateful.  Kayo and I were flattered that our lowly blog had enticed a seemingly enthusiastic Commie troll to comment on our posts about attitudes toward Cantonese as a language!  But that guy was a bit of an amateur.  No offense.  With his emotionally charged anti-Cantonese bigotry, he did such a good job of making himself look foolish, I felt like there was nothing left for me to do!  So if we could have a slightly more culturally sensitive troll, that would be super duper awesome  (for all involved parties) 🙂 🙂 Promise we won’t censor 😉

-W