The River

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A great river flows, its waves wide and calm
Wind blows through rice flowers, bearing fragrance to both shores
My family lives right there by the water
I am used to hearing the punters’ call
And seeing the white sails on the boats

This is the beautiful Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this expansive stretch of land
Everywhere there is wonderful scenery to behold 

How flower-like are the young ladies
How big and determined are the hearts of the young men
In order to usher in a new era
They’ve woken the sleeping mountains
And changed the face of the river

This is the heroic Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this stretch of ancient land
There is youthful vigor everywhere

Great mountains, great rivers, a great land
Every road is broad and wide
If friends come, there is fine wine
But if the wolves come
Those who greet them have hunting guns

This is the mighty Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this stretch of warm and friendly land
There is peaceful sunshine everywhere

(Translation from Wikipedia)

In a University of Hong Kong (HKU) auditorium full of attentive listeners, a question was asked about “the first song in your life that inspires you”.  “Frank Sinatra’s My Way,” answered one man sitting in the front row. “What about you?” “It should be a song that senior students taught me in college, My Motherland,” said the man next to him.

The one asking the question was Lung Ying-tai, one of the best-known Taiwanese intellectuals of today and a former Culture Minister. The occasion was a “Hall of Wisdom” lecture she was giving about the power of songs in transcending time and history. The second respondent was Dr. Albert Chau, Vice President of Hong Kong Baptist University, a scholar who attended HKU in the 1970s. The song he mentioned was from the soundtrack of a 1956 Chinese movie that portrayed the China’s heroic efforts at the Battle of Triangle Hill in the Korean War.

The answer acted like an electric current that electrified the air in the room. The chemistry in the atmosphere suddenly became interesting. There was giggling in the audience. Lung, seemingly unaware of the song, asked how it sounded like. After a brief, awkward moment of silence, a few in the audience began to sing, in a hesitant, humming voice. “A great river flows, its waves wide and calm…” More people joined in and in no time it became a resounding chorus. “This is the beautiful Motherland. This is the place where I grew up.” On the stage, Lung watched the scene with curiosity. She laughed profusely, and then encouraged everyone to clap for those who were singing. The episode ended in a largely friendly atmosphere.

Two months later, when video clips of this exchange emerged on the Internet, those involved, particularly Lung Ying-tai, found themselves in a much less congenial environment.

“A mysterious embarrassment”(谜之尴尬), as nationalist outlets such as Guancha described the incident. Other outlets were even more blatant: “a slap on the face.”(打脸) They presented Lung’s response as a sign of humiliation rather than just humorous play-along, implying that Chau’s choice of the song served as a direct refute of Lung’s preaching.

In recent years, some people on the mainland have grown increasingly critical of Lung’s signature message of a liberal humanism, the elevation of fundamental human values ABOVE political disputes. Her declaration of “a disinterest in the rise of a great nation but a deep concern for the dignity of its small civilians” once won her applause across the Taiwan Strait, but has since met with ever stronger pushback. The occasion provides those who detest Lung an opportunity to get it even.

1949: River and Strait

Year 1949 was a defining watershed of Chinese history and of the fate of millions of Chinese families. As the People’s Liberation Army crossed the majestic Yangtze River with thousands of hired junks and pressed against Kuomintang’s last strongholds south of the river bank, Nanjing (the capital) and Shanghai, millions started their humiliating retreat across the Taiwan Strait. The Republic of China, which endured years of gruesome war against the Japanese fascists, was driven to exile not only by the militarily more capable Communists, but more importantly, by the infinite appeal of a People’s Republic serving the starved and embittered mass fed up with Kuomintang’s corrupt rule.

The river of history has diverged, irreversibly, since then. And it became a theme that writers such as Lung, herself the offspring of a Kuomintang official displaced to Taiwan, explore. In her Hong Kong lecture, she mentioned the ancient tunes of Silangtanmu (“The fourth son visiting his mother”) and the tender love songs written by Chen Gexin, a songwriter who earned his reputation in Shanghai in the 1930s. For the generation of Lung’s parents, the songs represented a past and a home that were forever gone. They exposed the wounds of those severed from homeland, and through their soothing tunes, healed the homesick souls.

Lung also touched on other types of songs. Those are songs with an overt political message. Jokingly, she referred to the kind of Kuomintang propaganda songs that she as kid was taught to sing: “Fight the communists! Eradicate Zhu (De) and Mao (Zedong)! Kill the collaborationists!”

There was no ambiguity as to what kind of songs Lung held to be superior. Those that appeal to the fundamental human emotions: the connection between mother and song, the love of men and women, are especially powerful when they imply a kind of subtle protest against the dehumanizing force of politics. It is in this line of thinking that she brought up the tragic fate of Chen Gexin, the songwriter whose songs warmed the tortured hearts of so many drifters in Taiwan, who himself remained in the mainland and was later sent to a labor camp like many of his peers in art and literary circles. It is seen as a case of politics devouring those who were simply being human, which for an intellectual like Long, represents what’s fundamentally wrong about political struggles.(Though there is evidence of Chen collaborating with the Japanese during the war.)

Her most famous book in the Chinese-speaking world, Great River and Sea: 1949, expands on essentially the same theme. By recreating the separations and suffering caused by the turmoil of the last year of the Chinese civil war, she tries to transcend party politics that have defined the dynamics between both sides of the Taiwan Strait by appealing to the shared values of family, filial piety and love. “Is there really a winner of the civil war? Everyone is a loser in that war. And I’m proud of being a loser’s daughter,” she writes in the preface of the book.

This intellectual tendency may explain why, at that very moment, Lung was caught a bit off guard. “My motherland” surely doesn’t fit into her category of humanizing songs above politics. But she might have also underestimated the song’s transcending power, a different kind. In her written response to the controversy, published by Southern Weekly, she admitted that her first reaction when hearing Chau’s answer was that “this was a Red Song (红歌)”, which implies cheap communist propaganda. Even though she maintained that she immediately understood what Chau meant by bringing up the song, a reminiscence of a special period in contemporary Hong Kong history, when young students looked at socialist China as an inspiring alternative to corrupt colonial rule, she somewhat downplayed the significance of the spontaneous chorus in the auditorium, suggesting that it would be a mistake to try and derive too much from that moment: “The river was just a river.”

The mother nation complex

For Lung’s more serious critics on the mainland, who are willing to give her the credit of handling the situation with grace, her major problem is the almost blind universalism that wipes out any meaning in the country’s historical struggles of the early 20th century. As scholar Liu Yang puts it in his piercing criticism, Lung’s attempt to depoliticize those songs she mentioned in her lecture erases the clear moral values originally imbued in them. “(For something as universal as “death”, there is a difference between the death of a murderer and that of a martyr… Without the sacrifice of the men and women that defend the nation, the tranquility of the river would not have be cherished this much.”

A similar critique can be found about her book on the civil war. It argues that her emphasis of the suffering and the “human cost” of the civil war blurs the historical responsibility of the Kuomintang government and belittles the sacrifice of those who fought in the Chinese revolution, as if it was a value-free natural disaster.

Liu attributes Lung’s intellectual leaning to her “confused” identity: the lack of a fully-grounded national affiliation pushed Taiwanese intellectuals such as Lung to embrace a “supra-national” set of universal values, which allows them to declare themselves “world citizens” and build their cultural confidence around the assumed “end of history”: they are on the right side of a lineal progression towards a liberal end-state. But the “return of history” in recent years and the reemergence of religious, racial and class strife globally make her ahistorical treatment of themes such as human suffering “embarrassingly inadequate.”

World citizen or not, it is pretty clear that at the very moment, there was a discernible disconnection between Lung Ying-tai and Albert Chau. The song got lost in the narrative that Lung painstakingly constructed at the lecture and became a disruptive outlier. And Lung’s dismissal of its significance not only met with criticism from the mainland, but also invited a pushback from within Hong Kong.

Even though Prof. Chau himself never came out to explain his choice of the song, those who are familiar with the Hong Kong of his student years provided their interpretation of what happened. They believe that by invoking the song, Chau was paying tribute to the “Fiery Red years” of the 1970s, where young students of Hong Kong, disappointed by the corrupt colonial rule of the British, turned to the Motherland for inspiration. The northward affection was a combination of a successful “united front” campaign waged by the communist government on the mainland and a genuine longing for a national identity that brought pride and dignity. Commentators brought up almost forgotten historical events such as the 1971 Hong Kong student protest against the United States for attempting to “return” the Diaoyu Island to Japan along with Okinawa and the subsequent tour of a Hong Kong student delegation in the mainland, carefully organized by the Chinese government to impress them with the achievements of the socialist state (in the middle of the Cultural Revolution). The tour successfully ignited the imagination of Hong Kong’s youth, still under the influence of leftist student movements everywhere in the world, about the possibilities of a socialist alternative to capitalist colonialism. In its aftermath, the Hong Kong student movement decisively oriented itself to the motherland, and one of its major achievements was the establishment of Chinese as official language in the British colony.

As a University of Hong Kong student of the class of 1979, Chow was possibly involved in the last wave of student activism of that era. Later on, a booming local economy and the mainland’s abandonment of a revolutionary position by itself would mute much of the movement’s core appeal.

Almost 40 years later, the buried memory of that decade surfaced again on the Chinese Internet with a new found relevance. When Luwei Rose Luqiu, a well-known former TV journalist from Hong Kong, cited those events in a Weibo post, she clearly took aim at a more recent sentiment on the mainland: “Some of those students were disheartened after what happened in 1989. The rest of them were considered ‘unpatriotic’ for their participation in the Umbrella Movement. But they continued to love the country by their own principles.” There is bitterness in such response: when netizens and media on the mainland hailed Chau’s act of national solidarity, they were probably unaware of where his national imagination came from and whether it’s identical with what’s broadly understood as patriotism by the mainlanders, just as the democratic ideals manifested in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement were widely perceived as separatist impulses on the mainland. Other commentators built on Luqiu’s historical recollection and recounted the continued tradition of Hong Kong’s college students to orient themselves toward the motherland in the 1990s. At that time, students organized reading groups that brought in high school students to discuss the future of Hong Kong and of the motherland, “reading for the progress of history and the rise of China.”

This is a kind of complex that Lung Ying-tai probably didn’t fully grasp. The moment she branded “My Motherland” a “red song”, she underestimated the emotional appeal of those simple lyrics. As people pointed out, “red songs” typically referred to those created during the Communist Party’s Yan’an years (when it was a rebel government conducting socialist experiments in a mountainous enclave) and later during the Cultural Revolution. In both periods, songs were often overtly propagandist, unabashedly praising the Party or Mao himself. But “My Motherland” is different. Written in year 1956 as an interlude in a Korean War themed movie, its expansive lyrics transcend the war and the politics of its time. Rather, it speaks to the very fundamental aspiration of the Chinese people, who at that time, had barely emerged from the decades of turmoil and humiliation that preceded the founding of the People’s Republic. The folk song style (which the song writer borrowed from popular tunes of the early 1950s), the idyllic image of the scenery along the “big river” (which was based on the Yangtze River) and the overall mood of confidence and pride expressed in the song reflect the Zeitgeist of a newly built country finally able to defend itself. Despite the disastrous years that followed, the spirit of the song never stopped inspiring those who believe in national rejuvenation.

On Weibo, people also reflected on the ironic fate of the song in China, further complicating the categorization of this communist era oeuvre as pure propaganda. As one commentator recalled, the song, along with others that were not blatantly “revolutionary” in their messages, were banned during the Culture Revolution. Its creators, including the director of the Korean War movie, were persecuted as “Rightist elements”.

 

All those nuances were either lost or muted in that October encounter in Hong Kong. Lung Ying-tai could not immediately “get” Albert Chau’s spontaneous expression of his affection for the “motherland”. Nor was the complexity of a Hong Kong professor’s national aspirations fully understood by a mainland audience who hailed it as a rejection of Lung’s universalist message. Rather unfortunately, Luqiu’s account was met with another round of bickering about the legitimacy of the Umbrella Movement, a sign of deep-rooted division between today’s Hong Kong and the Mainland. The situation made some lament the “lack of shared assumptions for dialogue”.

If history is indeed a river, it seems that the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China have each drifted on different rivers for too long. Even with the best intention and an openness for conversation, they find themselves unable to step into the same river anymore.

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Li Ka-shing’s Indignation

李嘉诚

What on earth can agitate the steely Superman? It turns out all it takes is an article written by some dubious “researcher” from a Chinese institute.

On Sept 29, the 87-year-old Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, nicknamed “Superman Li”, broke his cool by releasing to the Chinese media a statement in response to a controversy that had been raising eyebrows all over the country in the past two weeks. It started with an article titled “Don’t Let Li Ka-shing Run Away” that appeared on the WeChat platform of a major think tank run by the state-owned news agency Xinhua. In that article, author Luo Tianhao accused Li of being ungrateful and opportunistic by cashing out his real estate properties in mainland China and moving investments to Europe. It then moved on to instruct Li to do three things, with a tone at once condescending and menacing: invest in lower profit industries in mainland China; hold on to “symbolic” properties in the mainland and Hong Kong as a token of his loyalty and confidence; do more philanthropy. The author also spent a good portion of the article belittling Hong Kong’s business tycoons and highlighting their relative “dispensability” compared to the early days of China’s reform and opening.

As many Chinese observers have pointed out, the significance of that particular article is probably overblown by its somewhat unfortunate pick-up by the Xinhua-affiliated think tank. Likely what happened was that some inexperienced editor in charge of its WeChat account innocently carried it without realizing the potential explosiveness of its content. Commentators also dug out the bogus nature of the author’s numerous self-claimed titles, revealing that he was nothing but an aggressive self-promoter.

In a society where the ruling elites are accustomed to communicate in codes and hide political intentions behind cryptography, the probability of the signal-hungry public to misread or over-interpret things runs high. But even if this is a classic example of overreaction to an essentially trivial piece of opinion, the waves it stirred up and the fact that people so naturally associated it with some sort of high-level intention speaks to a deep-rooted concern that had been fermenting over this past summer.

Economists were among the first to cry foul of the mentality embodied in the article. They dubbed it “anti-market” and maintained that Li Ka-shing’ accumulation of wealth in the mainland was essentially a market phenomenon and should be encouraged. Applying moral judgments on market transactions (including cashing out) is going to affect the business community’s confidence in the system itself. The same sentiment also defines the reaction to the government’s botched effort to rescue a sliding stock market in the summer. Instead of “letting the market play a decisive role”, the authority displayed an assortment of administrative weaponry: suspension of IPOs, banning short selling and arresting a journalist whose exclusive report about the possible wrapping-up of governmental rescue efforts sent the market downward again. In both the Li Ka-shing and the stock market cases, observers sense the ominous encroachment of the logic of power into the sanctity of the marketplace, the former features demagogy, mass mobilization and coercion, while the latter run under the principles of contractual spirit, mutual consent and free will.  People satirically refer to the authority’s stop-running-away mindset as “the foundation of this strong nation” and a “panacea” to every conceivable problem the country faces.

But as business writer Wu Xiaobo writes, in the case of Li Ka-shing, as in many Hong Kong tycoons of his generation, the line between politics and market is never that clear-cut. He even considers Li the symbol of a business philosophy that treasures and embraces the partnership with an ascending power. By supplying the power with much needed capital and support, Li got handsome returns from his investment and therefore became the “biggest winner of China’s transition.”

That ambivalent relationship with power becomes an original sin that Li’s critics exploit. The author of the original article argues that since real estate development in China is almost impossible without some forms of governmental “benevolence”, Li’s cashing out is no less than an equivalence of betrayal. His status as the richest Chinese man on earth (only recently taken over by Wanda Group’s Wang Jianlin) also means that every move he takes carries a symbolic meaning beyond the transaction itself. As early as 2013, when Li’s initial shift of his portfolio to outside mainland China and Hong Kong drew public attention, Wang Shi, president of one of China’s largest real estate developers, sent out a Weibo post reminding everyone: “The very shrewd Mr. Li Ka-shing is selling properties in Beijing and Shanghai. This is a signal. Be careful!” And when China’s economic troubles make business transactions, be it stocks or real estate properties, an issue of allegiance, Li finds himself caught in a spot utterly uncomfortable.

It is particularly unfortunate that Li, a man who builds his life time of business career on optimally timed transactions on a global scale and an extreme prudence in cash flow management, would have to respond to morally charged allegations of ingratitude and disloyalty. Li’s Chinese biographer, Xu Zhiyuan, once compared Li with the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Akio Morita, all of whom were short-listed for the London Times’s 1999 award of the “Entrepreneur of the Millennium.” Unlike his great peers who had either enjoyed large home markets or generous government support, Li launched his business from a tiny free port city. From the very beginning he had to face the global market or perish, and up until this point his global portfolio still stands out among Chinese businesses.

His relationship with mainland China has also been complicated. Originally coming from Guangdong province, he spent a good part of his adolescent years sending back money to his mother and siblings who remained in the mainland while he struggled to make ends meet in Hong Kong, where his father died abruptly of tuberculosis and he himself almost died of the same disease. It was this attachment to his hometown that brought him back in the 1980s to set up the first university in the region of Chaoshan, so that kids from the same modest roots as his could receive first-class education. A 2013 profile of Li in a Chinese magazine also took note of his interactions with then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Even though Deng individually received Li twice in 1986 and 1990, an absolute privilege, it was until after Deng’s 1992 speech in Guangdong that finally inject confidence in Li of China’s future. As a perfect example of his signature prudence, Li only started large scale investment in the mainland after that point, which sets him apart from Hong Kong’s other pro-Beijing tycoons who got into the game much earlier.

Xu, his biographer, noticed a sort of “unsophisticated patriotism” in Li. “His generation has experienced violent turbulence (in modern Chinese history). They have a special craving for a wealthy and strong China, and a deep affection for its traditional culture. For them, China is not only just a market. It’s an identity and a place where they can help change.”

This probably explains the tone of Li’s response to the article which sounds hurt and indignant. It is already quite unusual for the old man, who largely stays out of the spotlight, to make such a statement to begin with. The brief press release to the Chinese media contains a distinct personal touch of Li Ka-shing. In response to allegations of him being “unpatriotic”, he listed contributions to the mainland through his multi-billion dollar foundation, in particular the Shantou University endeavor which he dedicated more than a quarter of a century of his time. He quoted Su Shi, the poet from a thousand years ago, to describe his own sense of belonging: “Where my heart finds its inner peace, I call it my homeland.”

He strikes back at the article as “chilling” and representing a “cultural revolution mindset.” Yet while he defends his business decisions as based on a sound and common-sensical logic detached from political considerations, he also makes a gesture that shows his acute sense of his place: “We should not let this meaningless fight over words to become the focus and a distraction from the important message that President Xi tries to send through his state visit to the United States.” The old man, the second richest Chinese on this planet and a self-described “compassionate lion”, is following the thousand-year-old tradition of the Chinese merchant class: showing his subordination to his King.

In Hong Kong, a Shallow Blog of Reconciliation Has Deep Implications

Fanshuike

(Image Courtesy of Apple Daily)

“Do Hong Kong people detest all mainlanders? No! Basically, we resent those whom our mainland brothers also resent: the ‘rich rednecks’(土豪), who are loud everywhere they go, have no taste, and are bad-mannered and self-centered.”

This is a quote from a widely read post on WeChat this week which is supposedly written by a Hong Kong author. The post is a response to an earlier incident that has once again rattled the cyberspace in both Hong Kong and mainland China.

On Mar 9, video footage of an act of aggression against innocent passers-by in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong, started to spread on social media. In the video, a group of Hong Kong youngsters, some of them masked, were shown bullying a woman and her little daughter from mainland China, whom they considered “parallel traders.” The little girl was terribly scared while her mother angrily quarreled with the offenders. There are also reports about the same group of bullies going after an old man who later turned out to be a native.

This is just another episode of the ominous drama that has been unfolding in front of the eyes of this country in recent years, from the milk powder frenzy to ugly confrontations at popular shopping locations, where Hong Kong nativists harassed shoppers from mainland China with abusive languages such as “locusts”. Even though many incidents look trivial in the details (some of them concern individual mainlanders’ etiquette in public space), when amplified by print and social media, the collective effect is a rapid alienation of the two communities (mainland and Hong Kong) from each other.

New incidents like the one on Mar 9 only rubs salt in the old wound. Not surprisingly, the Chinese cyberspace is filled with vitriolic comments and abuses that do not deserve much analysis. What interest me more are the spontaneous attempts at reconciliation on social media, which are different from the official posturing and clumsy off-line efforts. Some of such attempts use the usual tactic of distancing the “mainstream Hong Kong society” from the obvious act of extreme, showing evidence that the majority of the Hong Kong public condemns such behaviors. Even though it might be true in this particular case, it has limited effect on mainland Chinese netizens who have long associated the perceived hostility with the Hong Kong society as a whole. Some liberal commentators on Weibo tried to discount the mainlanders’ indignation by challenging them about their reactions to atrocities within the mainland. But such a provocative stance only further agitates those who are rightly offended.

This is when the aforementioned WeChat post appeared. To turn around a prevailing mood of mutual resentment, the author makes use of a story that happened almost in parallel with the bullying incident: a mainland laborer in transit from Singapore was stranded at Hong Kong International Airport after he missed his next flight. The man was so hungry that he pulled out an electric rice cooker from his luggage to cook meal in the middle of the airport. But instead of scolding him for “bad manners”, the local people extended helping hands to him after learning of his misfortune. Building on such a show of goodwill by the Hong Kong public, the author tries to strike a tone of reconciliation by invoking a vague sense of “class solidarity” as is shown by the quote at the beginning. By explaining the resentment in such terms, the author seems to be appealing to a sentiment on the mainland (a general loathing toward the newly rich) that he believes cuts across the Hong Kong/mainland divide. What the post also does, though, is throwing the entire Occupy movement under the bus in order to appease the uneasy mainlanders (“Most of Hong Kong people don’t care about politics. Only a tiny bunch of them gets ‘high’ with such things — and they had all shown up at last year’s Occupy Central activities.”).

If this vague invocation of “class solidarity” is more of a superficial show of goodwill to deflect tension, what it does highlight is the overall absence of such “value outreach” in Hong Kong’s social movements for the past few years.

Actually there have been serious arguments for the Occupy movement to proactively tap into the prevailing moods on the mainland to advance its objectives. In the middle of the intense stand-off last year, author and fellow blogger Joe Studwell wrote on the Financial Times that the movement should try to “resonate with (President Xi Jinping)’s mindset” instead of backing him into a corner. To do so, he argues that the movement should turn its focus to Hong Kong’s “tycoon economy” and the cartels that have been ripping off the ordinary people and strangling competition. He implies that China’s top leader, with his own anti-monopoly sentiments, might be more sympathetic to such a line of campaigning.

I’m not sure if Xi really cares that much about monopoly in Hong Kong. And it is probably too risky for a whole movement to play into the mindset of a single person. Nonetheless, the argument is still refreshing in the sense that it is one of the very few that have stressed the importance for the Hong Kong social movement to connect with the “zeitgeist” on the mainland. But what makes this argument unique also underlines the ironic truth that it is probably very far from a shared idea among the movement’s leaders. The consequence is a missed opportunity in creating real resonance between the two societies that could have made the movement much more politically potent for those in power.

In her in-depth piece tracing the intellectual evolution of both Taiwan’s Sunflower movement and Hong Kong’s Occupy movement, commentator Zhang Jieping recounts how, over the course of time, a set of complex forces re-shaping both societies’ socio-economic orders get reduced to a simplistic, politically charged concept of the threatening “China factors.” And by over-emphasizing the “China factors” in a multi-facet movement that is as much about resisting the erosion of local  governance systems as about fighting an unjust domestic economic order, activists run the risk of alienating a constituency that could have proved helpful for their struggles, as authorities in China increasingly need to accommodate public opinion in decision making. That might be the price of lumping individual milk powder shoppers together with power-wielding oligarchs.

Throughout the Occupy movement that garnered the entire world’s attention, public opinion on the mainland was distinctively characterized by a deep “antipathy” if not outright hostility. Even if much of it can be attributed to the heavy censorship and biased coverage by mainstream Chinese media, it is still disheartening to see the movement failing big in relating to an audience that had been equally disgruntled by political corruption, economic inequality and social injustices.

As the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has reminded the Hong Kong students, “Without economic rights, without social justice and solidarity, a ballot is merely a fetish.” Even if class solidarity might be just a myth, a value-based alliance is still worth exploring for those who truly care about the future of both societies. At least some mainland netizens are making efforts in this direction.

 

 

Milk Powder Nation

This week, a Hong Kong judge destabilized two fault lines deep in China’s national psyche with just one comment, causing earthquakes in the Chinese internet space with far-reaching aftershocks. As the Standard reports, Fan Ling court principal magistrate Bernadette Woo Huey-fang lashed out at parallel traders for smuggling infant formula from Hong Kong, and called the mainlanders’ reluctance to buy China-made milk powder a “national shame.”

Her comments definitely touched a raw nerve with a society already ultra-sensitive about the safety of its food. Ever since the first tainted milk powder scandal in 2008, the Chinese public’s confidence in the country’s dairy products has virtually collapsed and never fully recovered. In that incident, thousands of young children were sickened by infant formula laced with melamine, an industrial chemical added by producers to boost “protein” readings of their products. As a result of this and many other food scares, every new scandal will cause a heated national venting of discontent, which increasingly takes its target at the government. Early last year, the public debate about McDonald’s selling expired meat in China took an unusual turn when voices sympathetic to the American fast food chains started to challenge mainstream media’s “unfair” treatment of these companies. The commentators turned their fire toward the government, which they thought should be held accountable for not fulfilling its supervisory role over the Shanghai-based Chinese company that supplied the expired meat to McDonald’s. The debate marked a dismantling of the dominant nationalistic narrative that “foreign companies,” instead of domestic regulators, are to blame for such food scandals.

Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong judge’s comment unleashed another round of venting. Under the Weibo post by “Headline News,” a popular online news account with more than 30 million followers, the thousands of comments overwhelmingly shared the sentiment of the judge, with some going even further by claiming that there are too many national shames to give a damn. Serious commentators used the opportunity to deepen the discussion into a questioning of China’s “national strength:” The public’s insecurity about milk powder is a reflection of their lack of confidence in the country’s competence in general.

What the judge probably did not expect was the fact that she inadvertently stumbled on another fault line that has been very shaky since last year. Just when Chinese netizens were airing their disappointment with food safety, another line of questioning started to develop. “It is more shameless (for the Hong Kong government) to set restrictions for people to buy safe milk powder.” This came from comments picked up by BBC Chinese. Apparently it was referring to the quota system that the Hong Kong government set up in 2013 in response to a public outcry against mainlanders buying up powdered formula. Hong Kong parents complained that it was depriving their own babies of the access to this crucial product. Under the quota system, individuals leaving Hong Kong are allowed to carry no more than 1.8 kg of milk powder (roughly two cans), or they may face penalty and even jail time. A commentator at Southern Metropolis Daily echoed the sentiment of the BBC comment and questioned the value of the quota system itself, claiming that a “new equilibrium” of milk powder supply had been reached in Hong Kong under which the needs of both the Hongkongese and mainlanders could be met without restrictions. But other commentators’ concerns went way beyond the quota system per se. For them, a general anti-mainland tendency in Hong Kong should draw more attention, and this milk powder incident can easily be used to lend power to political oppositions to the mainland.

“We should not allow those who advocate ‘Hong Kong independence’ to use ‘anti-smuggling’ as a camouflage,” an op-ed on the pro-mainland Ta Kung Pao proclaims.