Monday, September 19, 2011

What's Different in HK, Part II


Despite Hong Kong’s reputation as a sort of laissez faire paradise, the local authorities are amazingly paternalistic about public safety. One indicator of this is the endless run of fencing along virtually all roadways everywhere. These fences prevent one from crossing the street except at designated areas. Sometimes there is a fence running down the center of the street for extra measure—so that jaywalking would require hopping three fences! Often there is no break in the fence for blocks. As you might imagine, the fences can be very inconvenient.

In the subways, too, there is glass running along most platforms with sliding doors that only open when the train is in the station. In cities like Chicago, it’s easy to fall off, land on the third rail and be electrocuted or run over. Not in Hong Kong.

Another indicator is the campus security here at Lingnan University. Every entrance to campus is gated. A guard checks in every entering vehicle. All of this is despite the fact that the crime rate in Hong Kong is minimal. The guards also patrol the grounds—they are very nice and they definitely create a sense of security on campus. But they won’t let Quin and Berkley do anything remotely fun. The one grassy area on campus is roped off, I guess because there is a hill there. We tried to throw a baseball around in a parking area, and the guards demanded we stop, apparently (based on his gesturing) concerned someone might take a ball to the head. And they’ve shooed the boys off the cool, wooded, steep slope that runs up across the street from our apartment.

So, I guess entrepreneurial risk is acceptable; personal and physical risk is not.


I’ve written before about the amazing complexity of language in Hong Kong, so I won’t speak much about it here. But, I will point out one basic way Hong Kongers differ from Americans: most are bilingual and many are trilingual, especially among the younger generations. And I’m not talking the equivalent of knowing “hola” and “c’est la vie.” I’m talking totally fluent. Very impressive. While American universities are increasingly squeezing out foreign language requirements, and foreign language study at the primary level is rare, Hong Kong students study English and Mandarin from the time they enter school, and take all their university classes in English.

Media and Politics

(Disclaimer: these are my views and in no way are intended be associated with the State Department or the US government, who sponsor my stay here as a Fulbright Scholar. The Consulate has asked us Fulbrighters to remind our blog readers of this point.)

Someone described Hong Kong to me as a democratic society that’s not democratic. I think that’s very accurate. It’s a democratic society in that there is clearly freedom of press and freedom of speech. In this, it is like the US. In fact, these freedoms may be even more salient to Hong Kongers because of the contrast with their brethren to the north. Political protests are common. The media is amazingly robust. There are 18—18!—Cantonese newspapers here, and about half a dozen English ones. This is a city of 7 million people, a little smaller than New York. American cities are lucky to have two, maybe only one, newspaper. And the papers run the entire ideological spectrum (including some that are distinctly pro-Beijing).

Despite this robust civil society, Hong Kong falls short of what many would consider a democracy. First, there is the big question mark surrounding its relationship with China. Since its handover from Britain to China in 1997, Hong Kong has become, technically speaking, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) within China (Macau is also an SAR).

Now, China is of course not a democracy, but it has announced its commitment under the Basic Law to let Hong Kong govern itself until 2047. This creates a situation described as “one country, two systems.” And, indeed, Hong Kong has been left alone by the Chinese government (though there is certainly an attempt by Beijing to influence politics here, but more as a special interest that lobbies, contributes to candidates, shapes public opinion, etc.). But, as every Hong Konger will nervously admit, there’s really nothing preventing Beijing from scrapping the Basic Law and bringing down the hammer (and sickle). Though there is some debate about the legal provenance of the Basic Law, in practical terms it is the Chinese government, not the Hong Kong public, that is the source of the Hong Kong Constitution. So democracy in Hong Kong exists only as long as Beijing lets it.

But even if we look strictly at Hong Kong as it is now actually governed, we find some surprising practices. Most importantly, the legislative branch, known as the Legislative Council, or LegCo, is a 60-member body split evenly between a combination of “geographical constituency” seats and “functional constituency” seats. The former are elected by the public, using a party-list proportional representation system (which is common in many democracies, though exotic for most Americans). The functional constituencies that elect the latter seats, however, are essentially special interests. These constituencies are like trade associations and include Insurance, Education, Catering, Medical, Real Estate, etc. The members of these associations actually get to elect members of the legislature. It’s as if American lobbyists were actually given seats in the US Congress!

Knowing that Hong Kong has a vibrant democratic society, you might guess that this arrangement doesn’t sit well with voters. And you’d be right. In fact, there is a press for reform, known as “universal suffrage.” This would convert all of the functional seats to geographical ones by 2020. This would bring democratic practice in line with ideals, at least for 27 years.


And now we come to the final and thus most important, most noteworthy difference between the US and Hong Kong. There is decent beer in Hong Kong, but it lacks the variety and quality of American craft ales. Though one can get good beer by finding a British-style pub, most of the beer available in stores or restaurants is light lager. Luckily, the biggest seller, Tsing Tao, is actually very good—much better than American lagers like Budweiser. But, it’s still a light lager. There is some stout available—both Guinness and Tsing Tao Stout can be had. But what I really miss are the hoppy, malty ales you can get just about anywhere in the US. Having had the beer here, I can say without prejudice, bigotry or narrow-mindedness: the beer is better in America.


  1. Interesting stuff. I bet the guard rails and fences come in handy with the boys! But I did a quick search of Boston newspapers. There are 10, representing many philosophies, in a city of 650,000. Not too shabby. However, none in a foreign language! What's with the US? Everyone knows kids learn languages easier at a younger age. Is it arrogance? Is it the conservative right? Is it budgets? It just doesn't make sense to me. C'est la viper que lastima. Recuerdos a todos.

  2. Meant to say "c'est la vie". Not "viper".

  3. Hi Doug = we look forward to the blogs you and Shannon are sending and it is very educational as we would not know otherwise. As for the beer sorry we cannot send any. But as long as you have one that u enjoy all is good. How is the gin there?? Sports are very important in the states. What is the importance of sports to the people of China??? Love Dad

  4. Dad, haven't found gin, but we have bought some Absolut vodka. Our neighbor has also found some decent blended Scotch--remarkable since it cost only about U$7!

    Sports are big here, but it's almost all about soccer. The TVs on the subway show news and the sports highlights are all European soccer. We went to a soccer game in Tuen Mun last weekend. The local team moved up this year to the Hong Kong First Division. The place was packed and the fans were pretty rowdy. It was fun.