I started this blog as a bridge between East and West; a way for each of us to better understand the other and, in the process, ourselves. That has not changed. I have no desire or intention of wading into the world of geo-politics any more than I have because it is, in the end, a messy business. In no other aspect of our lives – with, perhaps, the exception of love – are we more influenced by precognitive conclusion than when it comes to the world of politics.
The advent of 24/7 media, including instant social media, has only aggravated the problem. It has not brought us together as one would expect the global dispersal of truth and knowledge to do; it has further polarized us. Part of the reason, of course, is that a lot of what is pushed around the world through social media is simply not the truth. And part of it is simply that while social media has changed the way in which we receive data, it has not fundamentally changed the way in which we process it.
That said, those with a certain precognitive perspective could argue that my last post regarding my recent trip to Hong Kong was – well, I got it wrong. I disagree. And I will tell you why. But not in an attempt to battle ‘fact’ with ‘fact’, since those are really quite hard to come by and even harder to verify. I will tell you why because I think this offers an opportunity to learn more about the subtler points of Eastern and Western culture and how they are different and how they overlap.
But let’s first start with perspective. I have seen all of the Western news feeds coming out of Hong Kong. Yes, I live in Beijing and just a few minutes ago I flicked through BBC and CNN and both are providing live coverage of events in Hong Kong and neither is being blocked. And the pictures I’ve seen of the crowds involved, frankly, could have been taken in any train station in any major city in China.
China has 1.4 billion inhabitants. Hong Kong, it is true, has only 7 million residents, BUT it has the highest population density in the world. And who is to say that all of the people you see are Hong Kongese. There are 100s of ferries and buses shuttling between Mainland China and Hong Kong on a daily basis – 24/7.
Secondly, as I have noted many times, the Chinese are receiver-oriented communicators. That is why communication between two people who do not share strong guanxi – and the obligation that flows from it – often sounds more like an argument than a discussion. And this is particularly true among the people who speak Cantonese and live in the south of China, including Hong Kong. As a businessman I know that when I am in a negotiation progress is only made once the shouting begins. Until then no one is really paying attention.
Also as I’ve noted, Chinese culture turns on relationships and all relationships are personal. That is precisely why strangers on the street won’t hesitate to stare at you for long periods of time. It is not uncivil to them; as it may be uncomfortable to you.
And because of this the Chinese tend not to defer to institutions. They don’t feel the same sense of obligation to do what some institution tells them to do – e.g. the government – as a Westerner would.
As a result of both of these things, the Chinese do not run from commotion in the street. They run toward it. They want to see what is going on; even if the government has asked them to stay home and out of the way. I have heard several interviews of people involved who were essentially saying, “I wanted to check it out.” They, however, are still in the news feeds, no matter what their reason for being there.
And what about the umbrellas, which the Western news media appear to be trying to turn into the symbolic sledge hammers that were used to bring down the Berlin Wall? Look back through my past blogs. How many umbrellas do you see? The fact is that I saw just as many umbrellas in Hong Kong last week as you are seeing on your television set this week. Hong Kong is hot, brutally hot, and women prefer their skin to be lighter rather than darker. It is the social standard of beauty, democracy or not.
But now we have “Umbrella Man”, the modern day version of “Tank Man”, one of the more iconic pictures of the 20th Century. But was this a moment in history ultimately defining a man, or a man attempting to define himself, and his own notoriety, through the staging of cinematic history?
Tank Man, after all, had a specific, pro-active purpose. Tanks were advancing. He stopped them by standing in the way. What, however, was the purpose of Umbrella Man taking his photogenic stance at that particular place? There were no tanks. I saw far more military hardware on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. No one, as far as I can tell from the footage, was advancing on anyone.
To be fair, I have no idea who Umbrella Man is. He may be brilliant in intellect and generous and kind in disposition. But the reality remains, none of us know. Not me, not you, and certainly not the news anchors that so desperately want you glued to your television.
Everyone seems to agree this is a very young crowd. One of the first leaders to be arrested was 17, not even old enough to vote in most Western democracies. The oldest arrested protester that I’ve been able to find is 22. God, what I’d give.
You can be brilliant at 17. You can even be right. What every 17 year-old inevitably struggles to do, however, is to put things in context. They have none. And sometimes that’s good. More often than not that is exactly why young people are the ones who change the world.
I no longer have the luxury of youth. Nor the intellect, perhaps. But I do have context. Lots of it.
And I stand by my previous post. Visit Hong Kong. It’s a beautiful place with smart, hard-working, energetic people with a sense of idealism that you can only find at the juncture of East and West.
I post this, by the way, on the eve of Chinese National Day – the day the Western media is tempting us to believe that all you-know-what will break lose in Hong Kong. Am I confident or mad? We’ll see. There will be activity, I’m sure. The media alone will make Hong Kong look quite crowded. Just remember to put it all in context.
Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.