Andrés Gentry: Profile #13: Roland Soong

The Profiles Series is partly inspired by the Normblog profiles. Some of my questions were taken from those profiles, but most are of my own wording and deal with issues traditionally raised in each individual blog.

Roland Soong posts his thoughts at EastSouthWestNorth. He takes a particular interest in examining the media and the differences between Chinese and English-language media, publishing English translations of Chinese-language articles with commentary in addition to his recommended photos/reading, brief comments, and blog posts.

1. When did you start blogging? What are your goals for your blog?

I have been running two major web sites since 1996. Obviously, the concept of 'blogs' did not exist back then, but what I did can arguably be called blogging. At one of them (, I have written more than 400 articles about Latin America that were published periodically. At the other (, I kept a daily journal about a running club, although I seemed to want to talk about anything else (politics, restaurants, soccer, cricket, etc) except running, but it can be said it was a web site that was imbued with an idiosyncratic personality. The EastSouthWestNorth blog was started in 2003 when I moved back to Hong Kong.

I am not here to change the world and I am not here to impress anybody. At this moment, I am interested in communicating to the English-reading/speaking world about what the Chinese-reading/writing/speaking world is up to. Therefore, many of my blog posts are straight translations of Chinese articles into English, and these are substantively different from what western mainstream media is presenting. This is something that I feel frustrated about recently, and that is why I am doing it now. I may do something else in the future.

2. When you started, what blogs initially inspired your interest in blogging? Why?

I had no inspiring blogger figure back then, and I still don't. My goals are simply different from the so-called A-List bloggers, and their motivations and modes of operations are different from mine. If I have one blogger that I admire most, then it is the Chinese blogger known as Anti -- the way to get respect and consideration is by being thorough and well-researched.

3. Who are your intellectual heroes? What was the most powerful book you ever read?

Susan Sontag, without doubt, is foremost in my heart. I would not be the same person otherwise. Above all, I inherited her sense of guilt and ambivalence about being a privileged intellectual in a western society without any responsibility for the rest of the world. Whereas that sense of guilt impelled Susan Sontag to action, my guilt is compounded by my lack of significant action.

I can also include Elena Poniatowska, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Clarice Lispector, Natalia Ginzburg, Marguerite Yourcenar and Marguerite Duras (by the way, I just noticed that they are all women!). These are the authors whose works I go to bed with every night (that is, I pull a book of theirs off the bookshelf and start reading until I fall asleep) ...

As for books, I would have like to say, NONE, for the reason that no book has changed my life. If I must, I will list Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. After the first few pages, I realized that I could never ever understand another human being. Here was this French-Canadian woman in her twenties writing about the Roman emperor in a way that I could never ever hope to. Alas, I will never understand Hadrian, nor Marguerite Yourcenar, nor any other human being ... there exists an unbridgeable gulf between human beings ....

4. Who are your political heroes?

None. All political figures are crooks and liars, under my default assumption. I do not believe and I will not believe anything that anyone says. I have been lied to for my whole life, whether it was about Free China in Taiwan, the Cultural Revolution in China or the weapons of mass destruction of Saddam Hussein. I will only watch what politicians actually do and accomplish. Nobody has ever received a passing grade yet. I am not necessarily disappointed, because they are behaving as I expected politicians would.

5. What languages do you speak? Where have you lived abroad? For how long? Why?

I speak English and Chinese (Cantonese, Shanghainese and putonghua, in order of decreasing fluency). But I can easily read (and am required professionally to read) French, Spanish and Portuguese (in order of decreasing fluency). There are also several university courses in German and Japanese in my life, but I don't know where they went ...

Here is my personal history: First four weeks of my life was in Shanghai China; next eighteen years in Hong Kong; next four years in Sydney in Australia; next thirty-two years in New York with extensive travel to Latin America and Europe for business reasons; the last three years in Hong Kong. You can figure out my age from adding the years up. I moved around due to external circumstances and not by choice.

6. What was your most memorable experience living or traveling abroad?

1994, San Salvador, El Salvador in the midst of the civil war. My colleague and I were the only two guests at the eerily deserted 500-room Presidente hotel, which had armed guards with machine guns behind sandbags at the front gate. What kind of world was this? I took a short excursion outside the hotel. Right outside the hotel was this forty-feet-tall monument in tribute to the indistinguishable yearning for freedom. As I looked up at the monument, I thought I got it ...

7. How do you see East Asia in the future? Specifically, how do you see China's rise affecting international relations in this part of the world? What other significant trends do you see in East Asian international politics?

East Asia? What East Asia? I regret to say that I have not thought about China in relation to East Asia at all. There are enough problems inside China already.

8. Your blog often looks at the English and Chinese-language media in Hong Kong. What are some general themes in how they report events differently?

In the English-language media in Hong Kong, there is a definite tendency to relieve its readers of those aspects that depend on cultural beliefs that cannot be assumed and therefore will take too long to explain. Thus, they might explain away a major story with a couple of lines that completely miss the point. Or else they don't have the resources to cover the story like the Chinese-language media cared to.

In the Chinese-language media in Hong Kong, they could not care less what the English-only-reading world thinks. That is not their audience. For example, they will not provide blanket coverage of the Nancy Kissel trial, which obviously has the English-reading expat community totally enthralled.

The division simply reflects the fact that 5% of the Hong Kong population are non-Chinese speaking. No surprises here at all.

9. What are the most significant events in Hong Kong's history, from the perspective of a Hong Kong Chinese?

The blogging generation in Hong Kong might pick 1989 or 1997, but they are young whereas I am old enough to say 1967 when most of those bloggers were not even born yet. That was the year when the full weight of the People's Republic of China on Hong Kong was felt; by comparison, 1989 and 1997 were just imaginary events. I was a young child in 1967, and my memories consisted of mob riots and home-made bombs placed in the streets. A whole generation of youngsters (including me) was sent overseas by their parents who did not want their children to live what they saw was the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China. At the same time, let us not be mistaken that this was just a Communist-inspired insurrection, because the behavior of the British colonialists guaranteed that there would be a mistrust of the western world that lingered on through today. 

My personal legacy is that I cannot help but laugh when I hear people like the last British Governor Chris Patten or US Senator Sam Brownback speak of democracy for Hong Kong, when there was obviously no such thing in 1967 under the British colonial administration and they would never ever acknowledge that the 'democracy' idea came to the west only when it was realized that the handover was inevitable. This is the vast distinction between me and the current Hong Kong bloggers because I cannot accept the term 'democracy' on face value.

10. Describe Hong Kong's culture. What values are more and less valued?

I have no idea how to define any culture for any place or people. I only know how to live and love it. There is also nothing more or less lovable about this culture or that one, for they are all unique and wonderful. I am just as enthralled with speaking Cantonese as learning Dominican Spanish (drop all the 's' sounds!). Forget about this question! The moment that I start answering this, I will have lost something wonderful.

11. What are the characteristic errors that non-Chinese make when they think of China? What are characteristic errors that Chinese make when they think about China?

The usual. One starts with a model (e.g. terrible Big Brother) and everything is made to fit into this model. That would be true for all thinking about China. Just because they have always done this does not mean that the next event is the same old story. You have to look at the objective facts all over again and re-think.

Thus I will not never look at the riot in Huaxi/Huankantou or the flash food in Shalan (Heilongjiang) as the logical continuation of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. I would start with the specific facts of the incident and see what inferences can be plausibly made.

12. What is the role of Christianity in Hong Kong? What effect has it had on the society and culture? While numbers are nearly impossible to ascertain, it seems that Christianity is making significant inroads in China. What effect do you believe this change will have?

By inclination, I do not speculate on macro-level social trends. After all, I am just a blogger and I can't pretend that I know where the world is heading towards. 

Personally, I had the unfortunate experience of being exceptionally privileged as a Roman Catholic in Hong Kong/Australia, and that experience was enough to turn me into a diehard atheist. Thus, I hope that Christianity will not make inroads anywhere because it is quite corrupt within.

It would be unfair for me to leave this comment at that without telling you about a personal trauma -- at the age of nine, my parents made a telephone call to an prominent person in the Catholic Church and got me transferred into the top elite Catholic boys' school in Hong Kong in the middle of the school term. The principal escorted me to this classroom -- there were exactly forty tables for forty students, fully occupied. He pointed arbitrarily to a student and said, "You! Get up and make room for the new boy!" The student had to stand while I sat, because I had been referred there by the principal's superior's superior. I hated myself and Roman Catholicism from that point on. And I won't even get into the five hundred plus years of oppression and slaughter in Latin America to save souls in the name of Christ. If the Catholic Church cannot regard itself properly in terms of its history, it should not go anywhere.

13. Is China a nation, a civilization, or an empire?

None of the above. I have no idea what these classifications mean. Instead, I quote the opening paragraph in the preface of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things: An Archaelogy of the Human Sciences: "This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought --- our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography --- breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies'. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that."

14. Does history yield themes or direction? If neither, then what attitude should a person take to society? If both exist then what can you discern from China's history?

I do not see any themes or direction in history, because I cannot see any intrinsic reason why Nazism, Japanese militarism, Stalinism, Khmer Rouge, Bosnia, Rwanda and similar atrocities will not recur just because we have 'made progress.' Therefore, a person will have to watch what people or governments actually do, as opposed to theoretical precepts.

As for China, on one hand, the past of the Chinese Communist Party (as in the Great Leap Forward) does not mean that they are structurally destined to repeat the same. On the other hand, their brand new slogans do not mean that they will make nice. I would watch what they actually do.

15. Is Cantonese Chinese? Is Shanghainese Chinese? If Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Chinese are three separate languages, why the insistence by foreigners and Chinese to call the former two dialects? If they are the same language, why are they mutually incomprehensible?

This is a scaling problem in the globalization process. We live in a city within a nation. We have a local dialect (such as Cantonese in Hong Kong or Guangzhou, Shanghainese in Shanghai, and so on) and yet we need to communicate with other parts of nation with a common language (putonghua). We also live in a nation within the world in which we try to communicate in a common language, which seems to be increasingly English.

I do not regard these Chinese dialects as being mutually incomprehensible. I live in Hong Kong. Within my household, there are people from Ningbo and Kunming. Once they decided to live here, they had to learn Cantonese because they have to. And it really isn't that hard, if you realize that you have to learn it.

The Hong Kong variation of the Cantonese dialect will probably persist for eternity, just as the Chinese language will persist in the globalized economy based upon English, because of local cultural values.

16. Tung Chee Hwa recently stepped down. What do you believe his legacy for Hong Kong in particular and China in general will be?

Tung Cheehwa was not an evil person, but he was flat out not the man for the job. He was the well-intended, fuzzy grandpa in a political environment of confrontation and vitriol. He was destined to be a loser, and it was a wonder why he ever got a second term. His legacy will simply be: "No more 'Mister Nice Guys' for the position of Chief Executive." Hereafter, it will not be a matter of appeasement and accommodation; it will be head-to-head competition and confrontation between the administration and the legislature. This is rather unfortunate, but that is how the system is set up to be. This is a ridiculous and completely unproductive setup. But if people don't like it, they should change the system.

17. Zhao Ziyang recently died. Non-Chinese seemed to have much greater interest in this story than Chinese. Is this observation correct? Whether true or false, why?

How many Americans or Europeans know who Zhao Ziyang is? You must be joking!!! Like 0.00001%! This question must refer not to general populations, but only to those who actually speak up. I once published an academic paper on the theory of the "Spiral of Silence" of Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann about the common fallacy to take the distribution of opinions of those who speak out as the same for the general population. This is a dangerous, because it was exactly how the Nazis created the impression that they represented the majority in Germany. On the matter of Zhao Ziyang, the distribution of opinions should not be based upon only those who are willing to speak out at this time.

Inside China, I would have liked to run an anonymous public opinion survey to ascertain how people feel, but that won't happen, of course. So all is left to speculation. I would say that it is a function of one's age and personal history. For the younger Chinese, it is likely that they have no idea who this person was. After all, they were 5 or 10 years old in 1989 and the subjects of Zhao Ziyang and the June 4 'incident' have been excluded from the public discourse. As for those who were old enough in 1989 to know what went on, I can't get a reading. For the majority of the country who are mostly rural peasants, they did not hear about Zhao Ziyang or the June 4 'incident' back then, and it would have no material effect on them now. For those who were involved or paid attention at the time, I have no way to gauge the preponderance of opinions -- a very tiny fraction have gone into exile and written a voluminous amount of protest materials; perhaps some are still despondent and angry; perhaps some have settled down in middle-class comfort; or perhaps others have even accept that what happened was necessary. I have no evidence about the distribution of these opinions.

18. Why is there such antipathy in China to considering a federal structure of government? Why the need to put such a clear line between its current federal experiments, Hong Kong and Macau, and the rest of the Mainland?

What antipathy to a federal structure? Personally, I have never even thought about this issue. Try asking the same question of an American about the relationship of city/state with respect to the nation -- this is crazy and out-of-the-world. Federalism is not an immediate concern anywhere in China. In this context, we may consider the controversial Tibet issue. Objectively in terms of pure economics, all the provinces would say, "Just let Tibet be a separate country and let it fend for itself, because it is a financial sinkhole for all of us. We give billions to Tibet each year and to what purpose?" Yet, in the end, the provinces willingly acquiesce with the decision of the central government to continue to invest heavily in Tibet, because no individual province pretends that it can understand or override the overall strategic considerations of the central government.

As for Hong Kong and Macau, it is a matter of time before those two systems realize that their future lies with integration within China. It is simply delusionary, even suicidal, for Hong Kong to think that it can dictate what the central government must do. There are fewer than 10 million people in Hong Kong/Macau compared to 1.4 billion in the rest of China. All the current competitive advantages of Hong Kong are transitory in nature, as there is no reason why Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Zhuhai and other Chinese cities could not assume those roles. The only thing left are -- Hong Kong Disneyland and the Macau casinos! And why can't they have Shanghai Disneyland and Hainan casinos soon enough?

19. Do you respect China? Do you fear China? Do you feel you are a part of China?

I neither respect nor fear China. I feel nothing towards China but for the fact that when someone looks at me, they regard me as Chinese. As much as I consider myself to be a citizen of the world, they still regard me as Chinese. I could wave my American passport in their faces, but they still think that I am Chinese. And that is why I have to start thinking about China and being Chinese, and somewhat reluctantly at that.

20. What is your greatest hope for China? What is your greatest fear?

My minimal hope for China is very simple. I just want to see the bottom strata of Chinese society (namely, the rural peasants, the rural migrant workers and the dismissed urban workers) get a material improvement in standards of living as well as opportunities rapidly. This is a big enough task already. Everything else is sundries.

My greatest fear is that I shall wake up one morning and read the Latin American scenario for China -- the Hu-Wen administration has just been overthrown because they were found to be CIA-paid traitors; a faceless military junta has put together a new government of national salvation; the Internet and mobile phone systems have been shut down altogether; all citizens will be required to make self-criticisms; all citizens must be vigilant and report all saboteurs; etc.