James Tam, in this rant, says that the underlying cause of Hong Kong’s current almost-but-not-quite civil war is extreme capitalism. This post is not a response to his, and nor is it about that civil almost-war, but is an acknowledgement that he’s supplied a point of entry for a post I’ve been trying to write for months.
The thought started in an Indonesian island. A company down there, which I’ll call An Indonesian Tourism Developer (AITD) aims to develop luxury tourism in a remote Indonesian island in a way that is environmentally sensitive and socially inclusive. I bought into that line and into AITD. A couple of friends got wind of this, and likewise also bought in.
I think AITD will prosper. But the scales were taken from my eyes when one of those friends commented that, despite the rhetoric, the company is just another bunch of white guys telling the locals how to do things. Given that the company is for all practical purposes a bunch of Australians who happen to be white, guilty as charged. But why, in a colour-blind world, should this matter?
It should matter not because the guys are white or Australian, but because western capitalists are the last people to be telling others how to be environmentally friendly or socially inclusive.
Until the start of the Industrial Revolution, the world was carbon-neutral. People rose with the dawn and slept with the dusk. The food they ate ripened under the sun and the machinery they used was powered by wind or water. This was no bucolic paradise: growing populations cut down forests for timber and fuel, most lived in small villages where they lived poor and died young, and the only political system on offer was monarchy. But, for its many faults, it was a fossil-fuel-free system.
The island in Indonesia, too, is no paradise for many who live there. It is remote, there are few prospects for the entrepreneurial, and many women have their first child before they ever get to make a choice about their adult life. But the island is as close to carbon neutral as it’s possible to be. Yes, there are 50 c.c. scooters everywhere, the sea is noisy with the farts of outboard engines, and what little electricity the island has comes from gas. However, a sizeable majority of the population farms or fishes. Much, though not all of that farming is one crop a year without fertiliser. The fishermen use nets and lines, small scale, with none of the trawling that trashes the ocean.
Back to Australia. There is compelling evidence that Australia has been inhabited for upwards of 40,000 years. Before mass immigration from England in the nineteenth century, Australians lived in groups, some settled and some nomadic. They never bothered to domesticate animals. (Given how easy it is to kill a large kangaroo, how fecund kangaroos are, and how many mouths a dead one can feed, I suppose they didn’t see any point.) Nor did they farm as such, although they did nurture individual plants by watering them and protecting them from other animals.
It’s easy to over-romanticise this. The spread of humanity is characterised by the demise of megafauna – the Maoris arrived in New Zealand about a thousand years ago and had pretty much killed everything bigger than themselves by the time the white guys arrived, and fossil records show that Northern Americans, when they wandered across the Bering strait, started out by eating everything living, moving and big. The worrying possibility also occurs to me that the niche for large kangaroos was created by the anthropological extinction of bigger game. Be that as it may, as animals are renewable but species are not, it is not the case that pre-industrial living was based entirely on renewables. However, it is the case that pre-industrial ways of living were for all practical purposes fossil-free.
Back to today. There is no doubt that the planet is heating. Global heating is accelerating much faster than science predicted. This article for example, says that Greenland’s ice is already, today, melting at a rate predicted for 2070, and another link I’ve lost says that Canadian permafrost is melted to a depth not predicted until 2090. Both of these have huge positive feedback loops: melted ice becomes water, which absorbs rather than reflects the heat from sunlight, permafrost discharges methane, which is a much bigger warmer than carbon dioxide. I personally think it obvious that humans cause this heating, but whether or not we did, all the indications are that our planet is heating up, fast.
Humanity has survived through ice ages and probably became a distinct species about three million years ago when the global temperature was about several degrees higher than it is now. So, humanity will survive. Not all humans will survive – a very large portion will die – but our species is adaptable enough to rough it out. The question is who.
Let’s get back to capitalism. Capitalism is, of course, the concentration of capital. It’s not difficult to accumulate large amounts of capital in village or nomadic societies; it’s impossible. The concentration of capital requires the concentration of humans, and those humans live in cities. The etymology of civilisation is the Latin “civus” meaning city, so the link between capitalism and civilisation is inherent. You may dig your mine or build your nuclear plant in the countryside, but the money comes from the cities.
Now, cities may provide many of the things that make life worth living – concerts, anonymity, the leisure to write blogs – and many of those things require capital. Some are obvious – roads, subways and the internet – some are less so: modern medicine is also very capital-intense. Many of these are good things: they give people longer, more meaningful and fulfilling lives. But an example of the bad stuff, look no further than the food that feeds those cities.
There are lots of cool things you can do in cities, but the one thing you cannot do is grow food. Sure, you can have a potted plant on the balcony, or even a small allotment, but self-sufficiency is out of the question. So, cities outsource their food production. Until about a century ago, fossil fuels only came into that food production only at the edges, to transport food to cities by steam train. Most crops ripened in the sun, such fertilisers as there were, were natural (compost), and most of the work was manual. No longer. From crop dusters to fertilisers to vast combine harvesters to the systems needed to convey and preserve food from “farm” to mouth, modern agriculture could not exist without fossil fuels. And all that hardware means that modern agriculture, far from being a Farmer Jones fairy-tale, is very capital intensive.
A use side-effect – for business – is that man is set apart from his food. And that isolation lets agri-business get away with murder. This is no longer a business about providing a healthy, balanced and sufficient diet. This is a business about pressuring people to eat far more than is good for their own health or that of the environment. Where the agri-business isn’t selling calories that will never be used to produce obesity, it’s about selling to hulks to support their superfluous musculature.
The resulting health problems, too, are good for business. I have mentioned how capital intensive modern medicine is; I didn’t mention that much of it would be unnecessary if the agri-business weren’t creating so many diseased human beings. Global heating, too, is great for business. As Russia and Canada melt, vast tracts of land open up. Greeenland boasts of its great untapped resources – “Hi, come and mine us!” – while the oil giants cheerfully announce that the melting is opening up yet more fossil fuel reserves. Where will it end? In violence. Again, great for business – all those guns and weapons sales.
And this is where we end up. I am a capitalist and a free-market guy; I also believe in freedom of movement of people. I believe that there are rewarding and useful things humanity can do with capital. We can build great hospitals; we can harvest the sun’s energy directly and use that energy to do things that enrich and improve life; we travel our planet (on boat and train) and learn about our amazing ball of rock in the void.
But capitalism ceases to serve humanity when it loses its regard for the human and environmental consequences. The companies that make people eat too much could improve the quality of billions of lives by producing less food and using it better; the fossil fuel industry has the capital to move to a fully green grid in a decade or to if it so chose; the car industry as well as building electric cars could simply build smaller ones – does any human need to be driven around in a machine that weighs twenty times his or her body weight? – and the armaments industry could stop selling to the bad guys so the good guys didn’t have to arm themselves to the teeth against that possible threat.
Back to that island in Indonesia. AITD will probably thrive, but it risks becoming a form of extreme capitalism. The rich and uncaring will fly in, look at poor people as they would animals in a zoo, gorge themselves on the local produce on the basis that it is sustainable – when their very presence destroys that sustainability – swan around on luxury toys, and fly out leaving a carbon footprint bigger than that of the average city in the island.
Is that extreme?
The coming century is likely to see massive human movements as heat and drought drive people from their homes. Capitalism could be part of the solution; it could provide a richer, healthier life with opportunities for all. Extreme capitalism impoverishes the many while enriching the few, regards health as a commodity, and reserves opportunity for those who don’t need it. If extreme capitalism wins the day, those few who survive will not be those who are now rich – because most couldn’t wipe their own bottoms without help, let alone grow their own food – but those who know how to live in nature without gouging it. I wonder what their descendants will think should extreme capitalistism prevail.
I’m feeling quite proud this morning. Yes, I’m an expat and hope to remain so, but with Hong Kong heading south and fast, the likelihood of being forced out looms ever larger. And, yes, I suppose I have a bigger emotional attachment to the land of my birth than I realised. And that land, with the mother of parliaments, has set aside party allegiances and individual gain to protect its democracy.
It’s not that I have any great animus towards Bojo. But any prime minister who, on his very first day on the job in parliament, blows his own majority and then loses a historical vote, cannot be judged competent. Yes, he was dealt a weak hand – May left a mess and both the country and parliament are divided – but he played it badly. Who the hell is Dominic Cheney-oops-Cummings? And why the hell didn’t Bojo learn from May’s high-handed arrogance and try to build a cross-party consensus? If not in the house, at least within his own party?
So, what next? Wednesday’s vote mandating an extension is a foregone conclusion and so, thus, is a snap election in October. It’s hard to imagine that any single party will win. The Tories have lots of money – and the hard Brexit businessmen will no doubt throw even more at them – but the Tories are responsible for the mess of the past three years, and everyone’s sick of that mess. Labour have the grassroots organization they deployed to such great effect in 2017 – but promptly betrayed many of the young people they mobilized and, in opposition, have been a disgrace. The LibDems seem to be making a comeback, but don’t have the money or grassroots support, or, frankly, the time to build either. As to the DUP, UKIP, and others, who cares? The SNP will no doubt sweep Scotland, but won’t make a difference south of the border.
So, another hung parliament? Would that be such a bad thing?
Brexit, like it or hate it, is momentus. Had May formed a cross-party coalition before negotiating with the EU, she could have delivered a deal that would have garnered acceptance. A hung parliament can also become – under anyone but Bojo or Corbyn – a government of national unity. I’m a reluctant no-dealer – I’d rather rescind but that won’t solve anything – but a no-deal is to play politics with people’s lives. If this shambles gets to a Brexit that has the active support of parliament and the country, democracy will have won.
Of course, if Labour becomes the party of rescind, that changes everything…
The Chris Maden Award for Braxen Hypocrisy is struggling to find a home this week. There are just too many contenders, and the race is tight.
BoJo was off to a flying start for writing to the EU to say that the backstop was undemocratic, only to suspend Britain’s democracy. He then went on to place a large part of Britain’s government in Dominic Cummings hands. Boris at least has a mandate – albeit of a mere 93,000 old white Tories – I don’t remember anyone ever being asked if they’d vote for Dominic Cheney. Sorry, Cummings.
The parallels are striking in other ways, too: Bush was a charismatic but not very bright guy elected on a minority and was the front man for Dick Cheney (watch the movie, Vice, for a chilling account of his vice presidency); BoJo is charismatic and not as bright as he thinks he is, and replaces May who was elected on a minority, and appears to be the front man for DC.
But, nearer to my home in Hong Kong, the local Chief Executive (a pompous title for a mayor), claims to be a devoted Catholic, yet authorizes her (also “Christian”) police chief to ever greater acts of violence. Of course, the Catholic Church itself has a long history of both violence and hypocrisy, but in this case, the two wrongs compound rather than cancel each other.
Trump, though a liar, is probably the least hypocritical, but his Brazilian counterpart says he “loves the Amazon” just as he gives ranchers the licence to torch it, and essentially destroys Brazil’s environmental enforcement capability. Macron makes a big self-aggrandizing splash and offers a piffling $20M to help put the fires out.
A tough one, indeed.
This week or two of September will be historic in many ways. If Bojo and Dominic Cheney – sorry – Dick Cummings – sorry, that guy – get away with proroguing parliament, and if the Chinese Communist Party cracks down in HK, freedom will be the big loser. But if Bolsonaro continues on his current course, the planet is fucked. I guess that tips the scales in his favour as recipient of my award.
Let’s be clear. If I’d had a vote, I would have voted remain. I think Brexit is a driven by a bunch of nasty people with a very nasty agenda. But…
A second referendum is not democratic. As a friend observed, had Scotland voted for independence with, say, a 52% vote in favour, and that result had been put back to the people a second time, I, as a then supporter of independence, would have been livid. Referenda only ever happen on contentious issues. If there’s a clear electoral mandate for something, there’s no need for a referendum. So it was with Scottish independence and so it was for Brexit. The people – god I hate the way triumphant Brexit assholes spout the phrase – have spoken.
So, I accept the democratic outcome. I think it’s wrong-minded, muddle-headed and self-harming, but I accept it. Now to the deal. If, in 2016, the Conservative party had been capable of electing a statesman as leader, and if Labour had been capable of articulating a vision, that statesman would have formed a cross-party body to work out in advance what shape a deal would take, what the red lines in the sand were and so on. That statesman would have taken those negotiating parameters to Brussels with a reasonable assurance that the resulting deal would be accepted by parliament.
This is a laughable fantasy. Instead of reaching out, May first attempted to lock parliament out of the process altogether, tried to be a smart ass in the polls and got thrashed, went it alone to produce a deal that, without having ever consulted the representatives who would vote on it, never stood a chance. Labour in opposition had not a single constructive thing to say, but stood on the sidelines taking cheap shots.
Now we have Bojo, voted in by 66% of the Tory party, which amounts to just under 150,000 people. That 150,000 is 97% male and 44% are over 65 years old. That’s the gallery Bojo will play to, and he is not being undemocratic to his support base by ignoring the other 70-odd million people who weren’t asked. It’s become abundantly clear since his “election” that Bojo never had the slightest intention of renegotiating May’s dead deal; but the want of alternatives is not why I now support a no-deal.
The reason is this. The Brexit deal that could have been no longer exists. The EU has deal fatigue, Labour is still playing politics and the Conservatives are dead people walking. There is nothing to be gained from a further extension as, even if Bojo were capable of renegotiating the deal, he’s too much of a dickhead to get it through parliament, and parliament is broken – probably irreparably.
Brexit is a busted flush. It’s time for a new game. Take your losses; get on with it.
Most Hongkongers of my generation can tell you what they were doing in the wee hours of 4 June, 1989. In my case, I was on a work bus returning from ATV’s studio at 3 a.m. The radio was on, and the first reports were filtering through of shots fired in Tiananmen. For the preceding two months I’d marched shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Hongkongers as a show of support for and solidarity with the Tiananmen students. I was not marching because I was a CIA or MI6 plant; I wasn’t paid. I marched because I felt then, and still feel today that democracy is the least bad of all political systems, and that China would benefit from democratisation.
My reason for believing in democracy is that I believe good government is founded on four pillars – the legislature, executive, judiciary and a free press to keep everyone honest – and I believe that voting people out is better than the historical alternative of killing them, not to mention the swathe of misery and violence that has preceded dynastic change through the whole of human history. Democracy is far from perfect – let’s not pretend that the world’s most powerful democracy hasn’t, since the 1960s, pursued a series of wars of aggression, often against democracies (Iran 1953, Chile 1973 to name but two) – but democracy is self-healing in a way that monarchal dynasties are not.
In Hong Kong’s case, the four pillars themselves are in a state of collapse. Since the handover in 1997, the executive has been led by a series of muppets whose major job is to devise policies they think will please or appease Beijing, irrespective of and often at the expense of Hongkonger’s own welfare. The legislature has become more and more stacked with Beijng toadies and the fact that it’s closure since July 1st has had no impact whatsoever is the single most damning testament to its impotence and irrelevance. The judiciary limps on, its independence hamstrung by Beijing’s increasingly unsolicited “interpretations” of Hong Kong’s constitution. The press is heavily self-censored, with many of the owners so craven to Beijing that their newspapers are little more than propaganda.
The pillars are in bad shape, but pillars are only as a strong as the ground that they’re built on – one doesn’t have to be a Christian to see the sense of Jesus’s parable about building houses on sand – and the bedrock upon which the four pillars rest is a civic society. In this respect, Hong Kong is in better shape than many a democracy. I have been moved many times over the years by the time and money that Hongkongers devote to causes: from gymnasia filled with happy howls of children with horrid, debilitating conditions, supported by ordinary folks there to help out as best they can, to a local hillside where an informal club turned a slippery mud path into a proper bricked walkway with a few pummels of bricks, a few bags of cement, and a sign at the bottom inviting people to carry a few bricks each to the top of wherever the staircase’s construction had progressed
Even in the recent confrontations, the protestors have been scrupulous about what they’ve defaced and vandalised. The targets have all been political: no private property. A friend who lives near a site of a recent stand-off observed one protestor about to torch a public rubbish bin. Others dissuaded him, pointing out that the smoke would, in Hong Kong’s canyon-like streets, invade the apartments above. The protestors used oiled bamboo sticks on a steep street to prevent the police coming up (that attempt must have been hilarious to watch), and, when it was all over, sprinkled flour on the street to soak up the oil so that residents wouldn’t be inconvenienced.
This civic life is, I suspect, what most terrifies the Chinese Communist Party. It is something that is stifled in China. I’m not talking about the round-ups of rights lawyers, the suppression of the press, the rubber-stamp nature of the various congresses and the concentration of power in one man’s hands. I’m talking about grass-roots, often apolitical activism. Whether it’s offering a helping hand for a kid’s day out or mucking in to build something the government can’t be bothered to do, the CCP model allows no space for a civic society. As such, even if the CCP were to empower the legislature and judiciary at the expense of the executive – and release the press to keep an eye on it all – the structure would rest on quicksand.
I doubt very much that the CCP sees it that way. I think their belief that the CCP is the sole way of keeping China both prosperous and stable is genuine, not merely self-serving. Only time will tell if they are right. But what the recent massive demonstrations have shown above all is that Hong Kong has a vibrant civic society.
That civic society is governed in part by the Societies Ordinance. This was a colonial piece of legislation enacted to ensure that triads (organised crime) remained illegal. As such, the burden of proof is on the police to show reasonable grounds for suspicion that a society has criminal intent. When the Hong Kong Independence Party sprung up, “criminal” came to include the notion of independence. This widening of the definition of criminal acts was further advanced with the Occupy 9. Otherwise peaceful – if angry – protestors, when attacked by police on the rampage, are now deemed “rioters.” The direction this is taking is clear; and with the resulting chilling effect on civic society, Hong Kong will no longer be free.
I don’t know, and no one ever will, if the CCP planned it this way, but the actions they’ve taken will kill free society in Hong Kong. If it’s planned, it’s murder; if it’s a happy (for the CCP) outcome, manslaughter. I march because I hope to prevent it.
The joys of passing through airports with bookshops! Hong Kong airport has pretty much banned bookshops – the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t do freedom of speech – but on the way through Dubai I was able to pick up some new books which, along with some old ones gathering dust in our friend’s flat near Lake Como, brought me a little up to date.
The pick of a good crop was, for me, The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi. This is a story of growing up in the ravaged Iraq between the first and second American Gulf Wars. It is a fictionalised recounting of the author’s own upbringing, and her friendship with Nadia. The book has a magical spell and invention which serve it well; the innocence of childhood is beautifully written in the early pages, and the gradual awareness that comes with the move to adolescence and adulthood sharply depicted. Here’s a passage from the protagonist when she’s about to enter university, which I quote at length because carving it up would butcher it:
Yes, I am afraid, very afraid of the war. Afraid even of its declarations, its songs, its music and its patriotic poems. How could I not be afraid when planes hover in the sky and deal out death in straight lines?
Why did I have to witness all this in a single lifetime? A war in my childhood, sanctions as a teenager, and a new war with advanced smart bombs when I have not yet reached twenty. How can a normal person tell their personal life story when they move from one war to another as they grow up?
Is there anything uglier than war? How ugly is this world that understands itself through war and blockades! What does civilisation mean when we starve children and adults and then launch missiles at them?
What does it mean for humanity to progress when it keeps inventing ever more hideous paths to mutual annihilation?
Warlight is the latest from Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. I bought Warlight with some misgivings as I gave up on The English Patient less than half-way through: the plot was so thin and the writing so self-conscious that I lost interest. Warlight is a different kettle of fish. Nathaniel grows up in post-war London, abandoned by his parents when he is a young teenager. As he grows up, he is able to recreate his mother’s life (his father’s appearance is little more than a biological necessity) and, towards the end, reconnects and reconciles with her. It is obvious that a lot of background research has gone into the book, but it only rarely distracts from the plot – I found Americanisms such as bookstore for book shop and sweater for jumper, not to mention a drive of “a few hours” from Northumbria to London which, in the early fifties, couldn’t have been accomplished by any land vehicle in less than a very full day – more distracting. What both makes and breaks the book, though, is the language. When the editor allows the author to use his natural style, which is for long sentences, the book flowed, but this was inconstant and staccato bursts such as this not only broke the rhythm but detracted from the whole:
Only in our habits of clothing was there a difference. My journeying from place to place had made me responsible for my neatness. Something like ironing my own clothes gave me a sense of control. Even for working in the fields with Mr. Malakite I washed and ironed what I wore. Whereas my mother would hang a blouse to dry on a nearby bush, then simply put it on…
A new to me but old (2010) book is Elif Sharak’s The Forty Rules of Love. The main character, Ella is a bored housewife who is sent a manuscript to read – which we read, too – and who falls in love with the novelist. This is not so much a novel-within-a-novel as two stories intertwined, one set in fourteenth century Baghdad and the other in modern New England, and both of them love stories even if the loves are of a different quality: Ella’s is more of an escape from, while that of the dervish and Sufi, Shams, in the manuscript, is a journey to: in this case to Rumi, a holy man, with whom he forms a deep spiritual bond. The book cracked along at a reasonable pace and, although I did find myself becoming distracted by minor characters who didn’t seem to add anything much, the ending pulled the threads together very nicely.
Another new-to-me-but-oldie is my friend James Tam’s Man’s Last Song. Set in a future-world Hong Kong, and following a decline and termination of human fertility, Song is the last person ever to have been born. Now entering late middle age, he and half a dozen or so folks are the only ones left on an island that was once home to several million people. More a vignette than a novel, the book is an often hilarious satire, yet retains enough narrative tension to be difficult to put down.
The last of the fiction pile is Natasha Pulley’s first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Nathaniel (a popular name in fiction this summer, it seems) is a clerk with no future until he discovers a watch, while Grace aspires to be a great scientist in a man’s world. From this unfold two semi-fantastic and intertwined romances, set in nineteenth-century London, with mysterious Japanese men and the making of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado opera. “Your science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living” says one of those Japanese men, and imagination is the great strength of this novel. It is playful, energetic and, above all, hints at magic without ever straining the credibility. What does, unfortunately, strain the credibility, is an inattention to historical background facts: Thaniel, for example, wakes in a hospital at one point to the smell of “fearsome disinfectant” when any disinfectant, fearsome or not, would not be invented for another seven years, and worries about leaving fingerprints which would not be a tool of forensics for another twenty. These, however, are minor irritations. The book’s a delight. Read it!
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, today apologised – again – but with words and not actions. She apologised for failing to read the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s youth, but not for attempting to ram through the extradition bill that provoked the huge demonstrations over the past two weekends; she refused to withdraw the bill, suggesting that it would die anyway. (No, I can’t follow the logic, either. Maybe its a moral objection to euthenasia). She asked for a second chance without saying what she’d do with it.
So here are my suggestions:
- Withdraw the damn bill.
- Move out of your mansion on Albert Road and into a public housing estate.
- Donate 95% of the vast salary you earn to charity and see how it feels to scrape by on $15,000 per month.
- Take the MTR or bus to work instead of being chauffeur driven everywhere.
- Clean your own toilet, buy your own food and toilet paper.
- Hang out outside 7-11s near universities and schools. Young people tend to congregate there because they don’t have the money to hang out in $1,000-a-head restaurants.
Etc, etc. The sad thing is that even that exercise in eating humble pie would change nothing. The problem is simple and structural. Hong Kong people expect to have a say in choosing what sort of society Hong Kong is to become. When 70% of youth have been told without being asked that they will never – as a matter of government policy – own a house in the city of their birth; when their money – let’s be clear: it’s not the government’s money but the taxpayer’s – is frittered away on white elephant infrastructure without the taxpayers and taxpayers-to-be being asked; when the government decrees without asked the population that the population will grow by 20% over ten years – without thinking to build 20% more hospitals, schools and retirement homes – people get pissed off.
None of that litany of complaints is about Carrie Lam. It’s about the legitimacy of the decision-making process. There’s an old theory that that legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the governed. A large part of that consent comes through competence, and a large part of competence comes through responsiveness. The Hong Kong government is structurally incapable of being responsive, and therefore structurally incapable of being competent. It is a deep irony that mainland China, while it does back up responsiveness with a fist, has means to funnel good ideas up the food chain. This gives its government a legitimacy to Chinese citizens that Hong Kong lacks.
The letter X, as in Xi Jinping, is pronounced “Sh” in Chinese. Xi Who Must Be Obeyed is the ultimate owner of the current debacle. Until his eyes and ears in China’s shadow government here choose to live in public housing, take the MTR to and from work, and hang out around 7-11s near universities and schools, the disobedience can only grow.
The Ta Kung Po is the most unapologetic of the Communist Party of China’s various propaganda rags. To say that it tows the party line is an understatement – it is a window to the heart and (non)soul of the CCP.
However, that it is unvarnished propaganda doesn’t mean that the high-tech era has passed it by. The Ta Kung Po has a massive public LED display on the exterior wall of their offices in downtown Hong Kong. Last Sunday, 9th June, on the first Million+ march, this display board was displaying patronising nonsense explaining why the extradition law that is the focus of the protests was a good thing, how it would make HK a safer and more harmonious place, etc.
Yesterday, 16th June, on the second Million+ march, the Ta Gung Po’s signboard was back to advertising holiday destinations in China. Not a mention of the extradition law. Though later, it apparently displayed a message saying that the CCP support the suspension of discussions.
I can think of no clearer indication that the marches worked. So I’m happy today.
As a genre, I tend to avoid the self-published memoir. While they sometimes contain amusing incidents, too many are written by Colonel Blimp types with an instructional message for young men and women seeking the benefits of elder counsel for their improvement, and the rest stretch 20,000 words of content into 80,000 words of waffle. Remembering Shanghai by mother and daughter Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao breaks the mould on all fronts. More than a memoir, it is a five-generation family history, but of a family whose main forbear shaped modern Chinese history and whose descendants, if they were not shaping history, at least had front row seats to many of its main events.
The Communist Party of China (CCP) is quick to blame foreigner aggression for the century of chaos that lasted from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The CCP date the start of this to the First Opium War, a war of aggression started by foreigners, it’s true, but the CCP tends to gloss over the far bloodier – and indigenous – Taiping Rebellion that started ten years later, and in which millions were killed while China’s ruling class basically ate cake.
Sun Zhutang was born in 1841, the year of the First Opium War. His beginnings were poor, but at the age of twelve he was sent to work as a servant for a lawyer who recognized a bright spark, taught Sun how to read and write and prepared him to work as legal counsel for government. When the Taiping Rebellion came to his area, Sun, knowing the minds of the peasants better than the generals, rallied the peasants and, after some successes, aligned himself with two of the leading government generals who put down the rebellion.
Sun was rewarded. He was appointed to high government positions, made lots of money, and retired early to make even more money. As was normal in that era, he married and had several concubines, one of which gave birth to two surviving sons. They grew up to be scoundrels, pulling off a brazen heist of their own father’s money, which they promptly blew on fast living. Number 7 son died young, but not before siring the authoress’s father.
“Diedie” (daddy), as he’s referred to in the book, was a man of refined tastes, a lover of artwork, calligraphy and poetry. Although the family fortune had been much diminished, it was still substantial, and he was able to provide well for his family.
Isabel was the youngest of three children who survived infanthood and, as such, “had none of the pressures [her elder sister] endured as a first born, nor the responsibilities of [her elder brother], the only son.” Although her father was strict, she was his favourite: where, for example, her elder siblings had to wear traditional Chinese clothes, Isabel was free to wear Western fashions. LIke her siblings, Isabel was educated at the exclusive McTyeire School for Girls, where only English was spoken, and went to St. Mary’s Hall, an equally exclusive institution. Despite this largely English-language education, Isabel picked up her father’s ear for the allusions that make Chinese poetry so rich:
On summer evenings, soon after dinner was finished, the heavenly scent of night-blooming jasmine floated indoors. I would join the servants gathered outside the kitchen on rattan lawn chairs to gossip and savor the breeze. I can still hear the cicadas grinding their songs to the rustle of plane trees and glimpse the fireflies flitting to and fro, as though connecting the stars in a velvet sky.
This was to be short-lived, however. The family fortune was already in decline, and the family moved to a smaller (though still substantial) house when Isabel was young. Just as Isabel’s grandmother had divorced her grandfather, so too did her own mother divorce Diedie. Just as her grandfather had ripped off his own father, he himself was kidnapped and ransomed only with the help of Shanghai’s top gangster, Pockmarked Huang – who was also the police chief of Shanghai’s French Concession.
On a wider scale, the Japanese invaded when Isabel was still young, and that invasion and the Second World War caused the family, despite its wealth, many privations. These were exacerbated by the civil war that followed the defeat of the Japanese. The communists won, at which point Isabel was dispatched to Hong Kong to join her mother. It was to be many decades before she returned. Her father, sister and brother would remain in China, suffer through the Cultural Revolution, and struggle back.
There are many things that set this book apart. The descriptions of Shanghai in the interwar period are spectacular, not just in wonderful passages such as that quoted above, but also of a society in transition, away from traditional Chinese morality with men free to philander and foot-bound women and towards a less unequal role for women; from the warlord era of Isabel’s birth to the communist era, and from foreign aggression to indigenous brutality (in the Great Leap Forwards and the Cultural Revolution, but in many other quotidian ways).
Much of the historical research for the book was done by Isabel’s daughter, Claire. This could be a liability, but mother and daughter adopt a Ping-Pong approach, with the main narrative written by Isabel and the family history inserted. This works well – it’s clear that Diedie’s literary gifts stayed in the family.
Also, the book is beautifully produced. It has many illustrations, all in full-colour, and is speckled with entertaining break-outs between chapters. My only criticism is that it’s not available in hard-back. Buy and enjoy: you won’t regret it!
Erratum: It is available in hard-back: here.