Desultory Thoughts

Sorry, this is not going to be the translation of the desultory thoughts of some 'Very Important Intellectual.'  These will be my own desultory thoughts.

The starting point is Daisann McLane's 'apology', which I will reproduce in full here for the sake of history.

(Learning Cantonese)  The Village People.  September 9, 2008.

After reading this essay from a fellow Hong Kong blogger named Chonghead, I feel like I have been unkind. Or, at least, that I'm guilty of painting the brusque, aggressive villagers of Sai Kung, who harassed me and my fellow Long Hair supporters on election day, with brushstrokes that are too broad and careless. There's a side to these villagers that in the heat and anger of the moment I was unable, or unwilling to see. But Chonghead, an ex-urbanite who lives up in a village in New Territories West, points it out: Those legions of pro-Beijing, pro-government DAB supporters, the troops of the infamous tit piu, or "Iron Vote" aren't casting their vote out of blind obedience. They're voting with passion.

It is not, of course, a passion that we advocates of a free and fully democratic Hong Kong can easily understand. We are big picture people, and our mantra is change! Change the system. Change injustice. Change intolerance. Change the world, or at least our little corner of it. One of our weapons of change is the vote. But in Hong Kong the system is rigged, and just about all a vote can do is hold the line, keep things from getting worse. Even if 60 percent of Hong Kong voters choose a pro-Democracy candidate, the most this will do is secure about a third of the seats, barely enough for a veto. This, in a legislature that by definition is already hamstrung. So the passion gets frustrated, cynicism and indifference set in. The government is all-powerful, there's no use fighting them, nothing will change. On this election day in Hong Kong, 55 percent of the people decided to stay home.

And what about the Iron Vote villagers? Chonghead observes them walking, in the evening, to the polls, large families strolling together cheerfully. They come out, willingly, in droves, to vote. Because they feel their vote has power, that it means something.

But the passion behind the Iron Vote isn't change, but stasis. These are small town folk who want life to stay calm, to stay predictable and same. And they want a gentle, paternal government to ensure that this happens. This is a deep and abiding passion in Chinese village culture--go take a look at a map of Guangdong province and count the number of villages named Ping On--"Ordinary Peaceful".

Actually, this is a deep and abiding passion just about everywhere in the world. I'm thinking about my own country, America, now. Really, how different is the mindset of a villager in the New Territories, from that of the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska? As the U.S. heads into the home stretch of its own big elections, I see nothing but a replay (albeit a more nuanced, complex one) of my little clash with the troops of the DAB in Sai Kung. You've got your people--mainly educated, city slickers--who rally behind the banner of CHANGE. And you've got your small town folk (in the sprawl that is the contemporary U.S., small town is a mindset, rather than a geographical location) who distrust those city types and their so-called "change". Who use their vote not as a weapon of change, but to celebrate who they are, to affirm the as is.

I told you that I felt I had been unkind to the "Iron Vote" villagers. The other day, in the hot sun, defending my banner against their elbows and jeers, I could only see them as an ugly, faceless tribe, not as individual human beings with history, feelings, opinions.

The ugliness is there, but it's not in the Iron Voters themselves. It is in how they are being used. Their honest passions, their love for their homes, their beliefs, are being manipulated for the benefit and profit of others. This is the greatest flaw of democracy. It only works if everyone agrees to play fair, on a level playing field. It assumes nobody will cheat or game the system. Ah, but the high minded and fair minded are always easy prey for the schemers and the powerful (and the "powerful" have many names--DAB, Republican Party, DNC).

That's true in Yuen Long, Hong Kong and is true in Brooklyn, New York and San Francisco. In the fight to keep democracy true, we are all, all of us, village people.

Of course, you must be intrigued by just what 'Chonghead' (aka Hegel Chong, aka Ip Yam Chong) wrote.  Here is the translation:

I agree 99% with Leung Man-tao essay <Why the people of Hong Kong don't want to vote>.  They refuse to vote because of the powerlessness of politics and the closed nature of the establishment.  At my voting station, there were very few people present.  As I held the ballot in my hand , I felt no passion or excitement.  But I came up with the 1% disagreement after I came home tonight.

My home is in the Yuen Long district.  I am not an aboriginal New Territories resident.  When I observed the aborigines cast their votes, I perceived something that I had not contemplated carefully before.

At around 9pm at night, I walked past the voting station at the elementary school in the village.  I saw the grandmother downstairs with her son and relatives.  There were about ten of them heading down to the voting station.  On the way home, I saw a villager walking down the road looking up to a fellow villager on the second floor of his village house: "Hey! Have you voted yet?"

I don't know if they voted for the DAB.  But some people say that theirs were the 'iron' votes.  That is probably correct, but the word 'iron' is not so simple.  They are not robots who are directed by others.  They actually come from different neighborhoods and communities.

I don't feel that the people of New Territories believe that their votes can change the world.  But I don't agree that their votes are based solely upon local interests.  They clearly have great mobilization powers and they want the DAB candidate Cheung Hok-ming from the "New Territories" to be elected because of the common identity.

You can say that the 'iron' vote of the pro-establishment side ensured a conservative pro-government political line.  But is it such a bad thing to have a strong neighborhood/community relationship network?  The democrats have existed in Hong Kong for two to three decades, so why do their their voters not have this kind of neighborhood/community bond?  What does local party work mean?  Are there democratic movements at the community level?  Isn't it a problem when the democrats complain that they cannot find any volunteers for any election?


I take the above to mean that in a democratic society, you ought to respect people for whatever decisions that they make -- to not register to vote at all; to register but not show up to vote; to register, show up and vote for a candidate that disgusts you; etc.  What are your options in a democratic society?  Depriving them of their civil right to vote is not an option.  Instead, you should perhaps try to understand why they do what they do.  In this case, there is that strong sense of neighborhood community that transcends abstract political ideas.

I want to pursue this line of inquiry based upon my personal experiences.  Of course, personal experiences are biased and unrepresentative.  But if you cannot even account for them, what hope do you have of explaining society as a whole?

In 2005, I wrote about a dinner conversation with the shareholders in my apartment building.  I began with a quotation from Max Sawicky:


I'm glad you asked. Because he has the patience to devote his time to stringing together some disparate quotes to compose moronic, self-righteous indictments of "The Left."

Any clown could put together an identical screed, enjoying a harvest of the bumper crop of lunacy issuing from talk radio and the U.S. House of Representatives and arrive at an identical summary judgment of "The Right." The question is, who has a mind that could content itself with pursuing such an exercise?  Nobody I know.  Maybe that's why we're losing.  We dislike being assholes.

Nevertheless, I went on to describe the conversation with this small group of people.  Who knows what this represents?  But they are real flesh-and-blood people that I happened to share the same apartment building with and had dinner with on this evening.  I concluded:

This is just a group of people whom I had dinner with.  They don't represent the population nor do they even represent any particular social stratum.  I am not saying they are either right or wrong about these issues, but this is how they feel.  Given their social standing and financial capital, one must give their opinions due consideration.  The factory owners used to employ tens of thousands of people when they were located in Hong Kong, and they could and want to do the same again if only the conditions are right again.

I am thinking about the Hong Kong political blogosphere.  I must say that those who write about politics are predominantly oriented towards the so-called pan-democratic 'grass roots' mindset.  Who would speak up consistently on behalf of people like my fellow shareholders?  Nobody I know.  This creates a skewed representation of public opinion in the manner of the "Spiral of Silence" of Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann -- a small self-selected group dominates the share of voice among those who speak out, thus creating the impression that they represent the majority.

So why won't they speak on their own behalf?  These people are too busy looking after their businesses to blog!  This leads us right back to the Max Sawicky quote: "The question is, who has a mind that could content itself with pursuing such an exercise?  Nobody I know.  Maybe that's why we're losing.  We dislike being assholes."

Let us forward to September 2008 after the Hong Kong Legislative Council elections.  I may live in the same building as my neighbors, but I am not close to them.  I see them coming in and out of elevators, we say hello and that is about all.  I have no idea if they voted or whom they voted for.  We are neighbors, but we don't share any sense of community.  Maybe they voted for the pro-business Liberal Party candidates.  Maybe they voted for the pro-Beijing DAB because they have business interests on mainland China.  But the counts for my local voting station showed that Raymond Wong Yuk-man (League of Social Democrats) got the highest number of votes.

However, I want to tell you about a completely different social stratum.  Today I went to the local Korean food restaurant that I regularly patronize.  The operating hours are 11am to 11pm.  As with most Hong Kong restaurants, they may be open 12 hours per day but they do not pay their workers to work 12 hours a day.  Instead, the workers rotate through the week so that some of them work 11am-11pm while others only work 11pm-3pm/6pm-11pm on any day.  There aren't that many patrons between 3pm to 6pm and therefore a half staff is sufficient.  If you get 3pm-6pm off, you can do whatever you please but the point is that you are not getting paid.

I showed up today at 3pm and treated all those who were off 3pm-6pm late to lunch.  This was not the first time, as I have done so many times before.  I peppered them with questions, to which they are used to anyway.  Here is the composite picture that I assembled from the answers.

Q. Where do you live?
A. Tsuen Wan.

Q. So you are in the New Territories electoral district?
A. Well, you know better than I do.

Q.  Did you vote last Sunday?
A.  No.  I am not even registered as a voter.

Q. Why don't you register?
A. I don't see the point.  I have no idea who stands for what.  It is too confusing.  Even if I registered, I wouldn't know what I am doing.

Q. Don't you want your freedom, liberty, democracy and human rights?
A. You must be joking.  I don't believe any of that.

Q. Why not?
A. Whoever is saying does not mean what they say?

Q. What do they mean then?
A. They are all looking after their own personal interests.

Q. What are those interests?
A. I don't know.

Q. Can you guess?
A. Whatever they are, it has nothing to do with me personally.

Q. Do you know who "Long Hair" Leung Kwok Hung is?
A. Of course.  I have seen him on television news.

Q. Do you think that he is working for your interest?
A. No.  He is running for office only because of the big salary that goes with the job.

Q. Would you believe that he donates the majority of his salary away?
A. Fat chance.  He probably hires a chauffeur and claims an expense ...

Q. Okay.  Let's switch subjects.  What matters to you?
A. I don't know and I don't care.  Nothing will make any difference.

Q. Do you realize that some of the Legco candidates are proposing a minimum wage legislation where hourly wages shall start at HKD 35 per hour?
A. Ha!  You must be joking!  The newbies get HKD 22 per hour here, the experienced waiters get HKD 33 per hour and the captains get HKD 45 per hour.  Even so, the company is doing everything possible to keep labor costs down.  If the minimum wage rises HKD 35 per hour, I can see them laying off some of the newcomers to cut costs.

Q. Why do you feel that newcomers will get laid off?
A. Look!  Here is a newbie at HKD 22 per hour and here is an experienced waiter at HKD 33 per hour.  Which one (and only one) would I hire at HKD 35 per hour?  Of course, I would hire the experienced waiter!  I would feel really sorry for newbies if that were to happen.

Q. But the restaurant can hire both of them?
A. Well, then.  The money will have to come from somewhere else.  How about raising prices by 10%?  Then business suffers and we are back to layoffs again.  What is the purpose?

Q. Do you realize that some of the Legco candidates are proposing a maximum hours legislation with a cap of 44 hours per week?
A. Ha!  You must be joking!  I work more than 60 hours a week with one day rest.  We get paid on an hourly basis (e.g. 60 hours x HKD 33 per hour = $1,980 per week).  If I can only work 44 hours a week, my income would be reduced to 44 hours x HKD 33 per hour = HKD 1,452 per week.  I am down HKD 528 per week.  Why should I be thrilled?  The solution is that I'll have to get a part-time job somewhere else to make it up.  It is easy to see how this will work out.  If I am lucky, I will work half-time here and half-time down at the Japanese restaurant down the hallway.  Conversely, the workers over there will share the same arrangement.  It just a nuisance!  Why is that good news for us?


This is just one group of people that I encountered.  They do not constitute a scientific sample as such.  "ny clown could put together an identical screed, enjoying a harvest of the bumper crop of lunacy ..."  But why don't you try to strike up your own conversation with the true 'salt of the earth'?

The aggregate statistics are these: There are about 7 million people in Hong Kong, of which about 5 million are adults.  Of the adults, 3,372,007 are registered voters.  On September 7 2008, 1,524,249 (=45.20%) of the registered voters actually voted.  We can discuss interminably about how the votes were distributed and the various machinations behind them (e.g. how the China Liaison Office screwed the Liberal Party).  But what happens to the rest of the people who did not vote?  Screw them for not exercising their rights?  Or is there a social problem that is a lot bigger than anything else?  Well, it is certainly bigger if you just consider the numbers alone (3.5 million out of 5 million did not vote!).  How will you ever convince my restaurant worker friends that their votes (if they register) will actually matter to them in material ways?  That is the real democracy project.