When you wake up in the morning intent on joining a pro-democracy march in China, its one of those things that sounds impressive to brag home about. Images of angry, weapon yielding masses, Molotov cocktails, and a single man standing in front of an advancing line of tanks are thrown around liberally. I wasn’t sure if I was exactly ready to stare down a tank, but this morning I was ready to stand up and demand democracy from those crazy communists in China.
So, I put on my best fitting running shoes, protective long pants, and of course, grabbed my camera before heading out of the door.
Then, on the way there, I stopped by Starbucks and grabbed a chai tea…venti size.
“Huh?,” you remind me, “Andy, you can’t light a chai tea on fire and throw it through a storefront window!?”
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Chinese-American relations have been on shaky ground for quite some time. In the last decade alone: an American military plane crash lands while spying on China, all ends well but the Chinese threaten to keep the plane; Americans love the “low prices” of their Chinese-manufactured goods, but then turn a blind eye when sweatshops are discovered; America need China to negotiate with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program and everyone is buddy-buddy,but then tainted Chinese toothpaste shows up in American consumer’s bathrooms, spurring threats of US Congressional trade sanctions.
Asked by Pew Researchers in February 2006 whether they viewed China’s emergence as a world power as a “major threat, minor threat, or not a threat to the well being of the United States,” 47% of Americans saw it as a major threat, while 34% called it a minor threat (that would mean 84% of American see China as a ‘threat,’ either minor or major).
“How can the people of China support an oppressive authoritarian communist government (with an emphasis on the word ‘communist’) that doesn’t even let their people read Wikipedia!?” asks an American.
“Isn’t it hypocritical for America to mettle in our country over isolated ‘human rights violations’ that we ARE trying to clean up, when they’ve just made a total mess out of The Middle East against the wishes of the rest of the world!?” asks a Chinese.
The reality of it all is that things are a bit different then most seem to perceive based on what I’ve seen, and my experience during the pro-democracy march helps to begin to illustrate this (And my hope is that my upcoming posts about my travels in China will help me share my new found perspective on this relationship).
You see in the end its much more complicated than, ‘the kung fu masters, oppressed by the communists’ versus ‘the freedom-loving Americans’ (as many Americans often see it). And its much more than the ‘hip-hop wearing American’s with cool movies and TV, power-mungering around the world’ (as many Chinese often see it). Things on either side of the Pacific are a little bit different than most perceive.
Let’s start with Hong Kong.
As it turns out, the pro-democracy march I speak of was held July 1, 2007 in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, though officially part of China, is not really like the rest of China—but it IS China. It developed for 150 years on its own as a British colony before being handed back to the Chinese government on July 1, 1997 (10 years ago), with the requirement that the Chinese Communist Party make no changes to the laws for 50 years. (The most embarrassing thing about being an American here is that huge number of Americans who believe that Hong Kong is in Japan?….including the Oscars.)
So despite what you hear about China, Hong Kong is a bastion of freedom, consumerism, internationalism, Chinese culture, wealth, air conditioning, busy streets, sleepy cafes, wide beaches, tall skyscrapers and, often contrary to the general intuition of those who have never visited, it is home to:
- The world’s freest economy (the US is tied for third)
- The world’s most efficient subway system
- The world’s best airport (as voted in passenger surveys)
- One of the lowest tax rates of any developed country (if it were a country), at a flat rate of 15% (the US ranges from 25%-39%).
- The above mentioned tax rate with a respectable per capita income of $27,466 USD (as opposed to Mainland China’s $2,001USD and America’s $44,190 USD)
- The world’s best shopping (more Louis Viton stores than Paris, France, plus all the cheap goods from China you could ever want)
- 1.3 mobile phones/person (The US is at .74.), with one of the world’s most advanced cell phone networks
- Unfiltered internet, unlike Mainland China (so everyone can read Wikipedia, and does)
- Reportedly, the most Rolls Royce’s per capita.
Not exactly the Hong Kong you were thinking of, eh? Hong Kong has all of this, yet the citizens are not allowed to:
- Assemble without a permit (though the law grants ‘the right to assembly,’ in theory it can be limited by the permit process, though the freedom to assemble is generally respected)
The debate to pass “universal suffrage” (i.e. one person, one vote) in Hong Kong is a complicated, long running debate, and may never find an end—right now the legislature is elected by a sort of representative democracy in which representatives of different sectors of society vote on behalf of their sector for the legislature and the head of the government. (On its surface it seems pretty fair, but there is a lot of accusations of fixing by China’s Central Government in the process.)
So Hong Konger’s have low taxes, great subways, and lots of Rolls Royces, but they can’t vote and are discouraged from mass assembly.
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All this is what had me walking down Hennessy Road on July 1st, 2007 in Hong Kong, with an empty Starbucks cup and a camera, not quite sure what I was about to see.
What I did see was between 25,000-50,000 people (depending on who you ask) of all sorts—Chinese, British, French, German, American, Filipino, young, old, fat and skinny–all marching in a four hour long protest (it was actually more of a parade than a protest) across Hong Kong Island to the government’s main offices.
What struck me most about it was that not everyone was chanting and screaming for ‘universal suffrage’—as the protest organizers had promised. Sure they had that in mind, but they also had a hundred other causes as well, from stopping “genocide” in China, to the freeing of Tibet, to domestic workers rights, to putting an end to the ill-treatment of Hong Kong’s orphaned pet population (“Hong Kong’s should adopt a ‘No-kill policy’ to pet over-population,” declared one sign). The signs were as varied as the faces of the people and though it was, at its heart, a pro-democracy march (calling for the government to give all Hong Konger’s a vote), it was really a march for much more—and I guess, that’s the point of democracy: anyone can stand up and fight for whatever they want and in any way they choose. This is a right that has not always been respected in Hong Kong’s long history, and maybe something that some of my American friends take for granted.
But coming from a small, liberal, hippie, protest-oriented town in middle America (Iowa City), a town known as the home of the university that first admitted men and woman on an equal basis, one of the first towns to have fair housing laws to allow African-Americans affordable housing, and most recently a key campus in the worldwide “Students Against Sweatshops” movement, I’ve seen a protest or two, and know how to exercise my right to assemble. The protesters in Iowa have their own causes too: “Farmers for Fair Trade Coffee,” “Iowans for Peace in Israel,” or one of my all-time favorites “Students Against Students Against Sweatshops.” In the end, everyone has their own cause and they stand up for what they want—-and in a free society, that’s the point, right?.
In the end, maybe the scenes (both in Hong Kong and Iowa) were summed up by two Europeans I caught rigging up hand-made signs on a curb as I walked across Hong Kong. Wide smiles crossed their faces as they chuckled and stretched long strips of grey duct tape on the back of a piece of ripped cardboard, taped to a bent broom pole. As they tossed the tape roll aside, exchanged glances, laughed a bit, and ran into the melee of 50,000 protestors, I was just able to make out what their sign said: Hastily written in plain black marker across their ragged piece of cardboard were the words, “Down With Evil.”
And maybe that sums up the experience best, I think we’re all against evil, however we define it, but I guess that’s also where the problem lies too, because what we may think is ‘evil,’ might actually turn out to be a lot more like us then we might at first have imagined.
See more photos from the march in my Flickr account by clicking here.
What you can do now:
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See more of Andy’s photos from the Pro-Democracy March in my Flickr account.
Read about Hong Kong, Japan and The Academy Awards.
See some of Andy’s photos of Hong Kong Places