[Review] Between a Rock: Simon Cartledge’s A System Apart: Hong Kong’s Political Economy from 1997 until Now

{Written by Matt Turner, this review is part of the “Writing Hong Kong” Issue (December 2017) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films}

Simon Cartledge, A System Apart: Hong Kong’s Political Economy from 1997 until Now, Penguin, 2017. 75 pgs.

System ApartDon’t judge me—I needed money, and, in the nick of time, was offered an editing job at China Daily’s New York bureau, crunching dull business articles and making sure everything fit the format. In that way, it wasn’t too different from a lot of places. But the oft-stated mission of China Daily, “to give the Chinese view,” was tough to swallow—especially since staff would repeat this line verbatim, as if it was a self-evident truth. But between full-page spreads of Li Keqiang, reprints of government white papers and articles practically gushing over Wang Jianlin’s business acumen, “the Chinese view” became clear.

At the end of one night, I was proofing a last-minute article about the legislative oaths of the pro-Hong Kong-independence politicians Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and Yau Wai-ching. Leung and Yau said, “People’s Refucking of Cheena” over and over during their oaths of loyalty, and shortly afterwards both of their legislative tenures ended. The Chinese view being prudish, we toned down the language and emphasised the term “Cheena,” a derogatory term for China used by Japanese colonists. These young would-be reformers were portrayed as separatists in our reportage as well as numerous editorials.

A senior editor hovered over my desk and remarked: “Can you believe they said that? What would make them say that?” She was practically gasping in incomprehension.

Simon Cartledge’s A System Apart: Hong Kong’s Political Economy from 1997 until Now is a short primer on this lack of comprehension, and on what drove Yau and Leung to use such loaded language. Showing the material causes (and beliefs) for such outbursts, it never pretends to be on the side of anyone more than the author—who wants to be left alone to live in the dynamic city of Hong Kong more than anything else. He has little sympathy for Mainland bullying or Hong Kong xenophobia.

Cartledge begins by questioning what recent changes—since 2012—enabled such brazen feelings: “Why does Hong Kong feel different? Forced to pick just one word, I would select frustration—frustration that the city had made so little progress over the previous fifteen years, both politically and economically?” This frustration led to Yau’s and Leung’s elections. According to Cartledge:

Yau and her fellow localists tapped into a vein of popular discontent with three distinct sources: dissatisfaction at the failure of a sluggish economy to produce the opportunities and match the rising standards of living of the decades before 1997, anger at the huge increase in visitors from mainland China and the impact they had on everyday life and fear that Hong Kong’s core values and freedoms were being eroded by a government too eager to ingratiate itself with Beijing.

Many in Hong Kong are upset at the economy and living standards, and the impact the Mainland has on daily living—whether in the form of tourists who stand out, or in the form of a party waiting in the wings to infringe on individuals’ rights.

But here it’s helpful to differentiate the view from the Beijing government from the rest of the tourist caomin. For Party leadership as well as nationalists, the tired metaphor of China is that of a hand, in which any disputed territory is portrayed as one of the fingers. In other words, to lack it would be to cleave a whole into debilitated pieces. And since 1997, the central government literally owns Hong Kong as part and parcel of the public trust—it may be a middle finger, but it’s part of the hand. Furthermore, the belief is that Hongkongers accede to this—those who don’t are antisocial, and probably working for a foreign (Western) government. In other words, traitors.

And from the rest: Hong Kong is believed to be supported by China’s economy, and the behaviour of Lueng and Yau is tantamount to biting the hand that feeds you. The belief is that without the Mainland’s economic support, Hong Kong’s economy would fold and the territory would devolve into luan, chaos, the most-feared. As such thinking goes, it’s only the Mainland’s largesse that prevents Hong Kong from crumbling.

In addition, there’s the common belief that Hongkongers look down upon Mainlanders. The Mainland ownership of Hong Kong is then seen as a bit of comeuppance and, incidentally, expresses Mainlanders’ own ressentiment.

As Cartledge makes clear, the investments of Mainland businesses after the Reform and Opening propelled Hong Kong’s economy into one of its most prosperous periods. After the ’97 handover, the landscape changed, however, as the political class was closely aligned with the Mainland, and stagnation became stagflation. A series of financial crises, and the emergence of Mainland markets, foreclosed on Hong Kong’s prosperity.

“China, the principal source of Hong Kong’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s, has become a competitor in important areas. By the 2010s, for example, the ports of Shanghai and Shenzhen were both handling more trade than Hong Kong. Foreign companies, which once saw Hong Kong as a gateway to China, now access mainland China directly.”

In addition, the Basic Law—the 1990 rules governing China-Hong Kong SAR relations, based on the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that framed “one country, two systems”—enabled China’s chief executive selection, shaping the development of Hong Kong’s economy.

When China drafted the Basic Law, one of its key aims was to put in place machinery to ensure the economy continued running in the same way as before. The obvious way to do this, it seemed, was to allow businesses a big say in policy—hence the decision to make Hong Kong’s first chief executive a businessperson, and to pack the committee which would choose future chief executives with business figures.

The result of this arrangement was more funding for the already-rich, and the rest falling behind in real money, assets and education. Of course, these mineral facts, as George Oppen would call them, lit a stronger local-consciousness, especially amongst college-aged Hongkongers. A poll conducted through the University of Hong Kong determined that a whopping 60% of that demographic considered themselves Hongkongers over Chinese. This is the age bracket, roughly, of Leung and Yau—but not the age-bracket of everyone who voted them into office.

Amongst many, according to Cartledge, there was the sense that “Hong Kong was experiencing an erosion of its traditional freedoms,” however those are conceived. Of course, it’s not difficult to imagine what that perception looks like. All it would take is a visit from Xi Jinping, announcing that China’s Hong Kong military garrison is no longer symbolic, and that there is a “red line”—dissidence—which cannot be crossed. Or, maybe it would take Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Carrie Lam, considering Article 23, a law similar to the “subversion of state power” statutes familiar to China’s dissidents.

So it’s not incredible that the feeling of decline and impotence facing a monolith that literally claims you as its property would be met with exasperation. Since Xi’s visit this July, the Basic Law no longer holds water in the eyes of the Mainland. And Hongkongers are being told to shut up about it—they’re Chinese now.

Cartledge wants to believe that despite this the city will maintain its sense of place amidst the changes being foisted upon it. Despite the fact that Hong Kong’s problems are not problems of character—they are problems of place and system.

Can Hong Kong regain its sparkle? Self-evidently, better leadership would help. A chief executive, who delivered stronger economic growth, affordable homes, greater opportunities for social mobility and protection of Hong Kong’s way of life, might be excused of the lack of an electoral mandate. But as Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang and Leung Chun-ying have shown, Hong Kong’s leaders can’t deliver because of who they are, why they were chosen and the constraints under which they have had to work.

The answer to Hong Kong’s problems isn’t something that can be read in the tea leaves, as China watchers love to say. For Cartledge, significant progress can be made by “making Hong Kong a more livable city”—it will support a higher standard of living than many on the Mainland have, making Hong Kong “a model.” Yet it’s hard not to think that’s what Beijing wants. Like that conservative Laozi said, “keep the people’s bellies full, and their mind’s empty.” That’s worked to a large degree in the Mainland—and if the people’s minds aren’t empty, then they’re endlessly redirected. The situation in Hong Kong right now appears to be the opposite, and that’s the problem: how to keep it that way.


matt-turnerMatt Turner is a writer who lives in New York City. Writings of his can be found in SeedingsAsian Review of BooksHyperallergic Weekend, and forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Bookforum. His translation of Lu Xun’s 1927 book of prose poetry, Weeds, is forthcoming from Shanghai’s Seaweed Salad Editions. He will serve as the guest prose editor for Issue 39 (March 2018) of Cha.

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