As you know I recently turned 60 years old, which in Chinese terms means I have lived one full life cycle. And I chose Hong Kong, one of my favorite cities in the world, to celebrate. I left two days before the protests and demonstrations began.
And I have watched with great interest as events have unfolded ever since. As I have lived in China for more than 7 years now I frankly marveled at the restraint shown by the authorities. It couldn’t have been easy for the young policemen and women on the front line to face such pressure on a daily basis. They are doing their job; trying to support their families. In most cases they are men and women just like you and me.
I have to admit, however, that I have marveled even more at the resilience of the demonstrators. It was clear from the beginning that they weren’t going to change anything. It remains clear today. So, why go to all this trouble?
And now, when the inevitable has happened, and the people of Hong Kong have forced, or tacitly authorized, however you look at it, the government of Hong Kong to return the city to some sense of normalcy, there is genuine despondency, and in some cases outrage, among the demonstrators and their supporters.
This, as ‘a lion in winter’, as Winston Churchill referred to my state, has given me great pause. What does it all mean? What does it say not just about the state of Hong Kong, but the very state of the world? While in Africa, and now America, they fight the potential of the next black plague, young people in Hong Kong view their struggle through a similar lens of urgency and importance.
How can this be?
President Xi Jinping could have crushed the Occupy movement at any time. He wouldn’t even be out of breath. But he didn’t. And that, to me, is a testament to the man and to the new China.
To his critics, it is 1989 that held him back. Who are we kidding? If he felt any constraint it was for strictly personal reasons. The world would have done no more to him than it has done to Vladimir Putin for annexing Crimea. The world has changed. The West does not wield that kind of unilateral power to stand in judgment any more.
If there is anything I have learned in life it is that things are seldom as they seem. So what, exactly, were the protestors there for, day after day after day? Democracy, after all, is a vague concept with many dangers (e.g. the potential influence of special interest groups who fund expensive campaigns) and difficult to define benefits. If it is so powerful why do so few people actually exercise their right to vote in America?
An editorial in China Daily took what I believe to be the predictable overriding Chinese perspective in asking, what are the results? China has lifted more than 300 million people out of poverty in just one generation, an accomplishment never before achieved by any political or economic system. What, the editorial asked, has democracy done for India, Egypt (the Arab Spring), Iraq, or Afghanistan? What has it done for Americans since the financial crisis of 2008, other than further polarize wealth and income?
There are many ways to rationalize the comparison, of course, but that is not my point here. My point, which I have made repeatedly in this blog, are that the Chinese are inductive reasoners with a holistic worldview who will always put results above process.
Westerners are the opposite. In our extreme devotion to the scientific notion of cause and effect we will always focus on process first. We call them principles, but all principles must ultimately become processes to be applied.
Perhaps the youth of Hong Kong, like youth everywhere, really don’t know what they want. I didn’t at that age. But they know what they fear. It is what we all fear. The fear of being marginalized; of living our lives without meaning or purpose.
Technology, I fear, has intensified the problem. We now have access to so much information. And yet we process it in much the same way we always have.
And that means we often use it to compare. What do I see compared to what I experience in my own life? What do I see compared to what I know? What do I see compared, most importantly, to what I expect in my own future?
You need to be pretty well-grounded to digest so much information and news and not have it overwhelm you. Not many people are. One very bright colleague of mine confessed that she had stopped watching television because she was having difficulty digesting it all, feeling more and more isolated, and exhausted from her inability to sleep soundly.
Many, I believe, including the youth of Hong Kong perhaps, believe that democracy, as a principle, is an anchor that gives us a firmer footing in a world in upheaval. I have control. I can elect my government. I can control my future and my life.
For those of us who have lived in liberal democracies, of course, we know that this is not entirely true. At the individual level I feel no more in control of my government than does the average student of Hong Kong.
But I think the real problem is that we believe we can be grounded by impersonal values and systems. As Freud said, “All of life is personal”. We are the central characters in all of our dreams and nightmares.
And so it is in life. Finding firm ground; finding your personal center of gravity, if you will, is a very personal process. It’s a process, I firmly believe, we spend far too little time working on today. What do you believe? Few people can give you a very well-defined answer with personal relevance and everyday applicability.
I believe that the essence of leadership is sincerity and humility. But you can be neither if you don’t know who you are. Both require intense self-reflection, a process I encourage my staff to do every day, even in the office. It’s that important.
Family can be a source of grounding. Religion, as well, although this, too, can become truly impersonal, leading to the potential for losing your anchor, not securing it.
Service to others, which is really just a broader form of family, is, I believe, the most powerful way to ground yourself.
In Mainland China the obligation to family has provided centuries of grounding, although that is being challenged today by the emphasis among youth on finding fame and fortune, often in some far-away mega-city.
And what about the students of Hong Kong? Beijing, I assure you, will not change its mind. It won’t. They must know that.
But perhaps there is a silver lining here. The students, in the most literal sense, stood together. They bonded. And perhaps, through that bonding, they began to find their center of gravity; they planted a small anchor in the sand.
Let us hope.
And in the meantime I encourage each of you to consider what grounds you. What do you believe in? What are you committed to? How do you find purpose in life.
It only takes a few minutes per day. And, trust me, you have the time. You may need to adjust your priorities. But if you work at it I’m sure you will find it to be a very useful exercise, indeed, that will give you comfort in the data-saturated world we currently live in.
Contact: You may contact the author at email@example.com
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.