Around The World In 80 Days, Day 25: One Country, Two Systems?

(Li Xin/AFP via Getty Images)

Larry Alex Taunton Founder, Fixed Point Foundation
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This article is part of a series documenting travels around the world. Read the previous entry here.

Hong Kong.  The name is derived from Cantonese meaning “fragrant harbor.”  Perhaps Hong Kong smelled like potpourri when, in 1841, the English first amputated this city of more than 230 islands from China’s Manchu Dynasty.  But not now.  The fragrance is that of a locker room full of big sweaty men who’ve spent their afternoon doing Kung Fu.  Entering our hotel lobby, you are greeted with an overpowering Old Spice-like aroma that is meant to counter the smell of the city just outside the doors.  It is the same everywhere in Hong Kong.  Going in and out of buildings is to alternate between the warring scents of air fresheners and the inside of a dumpster, or, as P. J. O’Rourke puts it, between “Sh*t and Chanel.”

This is all very much in keeping with the city that is Hong Kong.  Alternately rich and poor, free and increasingly undemocratic, British and Chinese, Hong Kong is full of contradictions—and it’s more than a little chaotic.  A local told me Hong Kong has much in common with Singapore.  Having just come from Singapore, I had to disagree.  Both are capitalistic, but, so far as I can see, the comparisons end there.  Singapore is beautiful, clean, and orderly.  Same with Japan.  (Only they do it without Singapore’s draconian laws.)  Hong Kong is none of these things.  The air pollution alone is enough to kill you.  Do a quick Google Image search of Hong Kong.  Got it?  Now, here’s how you can tell the real from the fake photos: any that show a crisp, clear skyline are as phony as Pamela Anderson’s, uh, lips.  You never get a crisp, clear skyline in Hong Kong due to the thick air pollution that hangs over the city as if it were the permanent host to Grateful Dead concerts.

“We will be lucky to get out of this city without getting sick,” Zachary observed with a note of resignation.  He’s onto something.  So many of this city’s residents wear surgical masks that you’d think it’s full of surgeons.  The cab driver, receptionist, waiter—they are all wearing them.  You start to feel left out.

The sidewalks serve as a nice metaphor for the chaotic nature of this extraordinary place.  Seemingly designed like a malicious Chinese puzzle, they often twist and turn pointlessly or, worse, take you nowhere.  Anyone who has walked them knows what I am talking about.  Add to them the people, and Hong Kong has a lot of people.  This city is 12 times more densely populated than New York, so walking on these sidewalks is a close approximation to running with the bulls in Pamplona, but with old ladies and their pushcarts playing the role of the bulls.  Not only are you dodging the veritable human avalanche, this time of year you are also dodging the water dumped indiscriminately onto pedestrians from the air conditioner condensation tubes that seem to pour and drip from every window of this city—and that’s a lot of windows since Hong Kong has twice the number of skyscrapers as New York.  A travel guide says: “Women in Hong Kong carry umbrellas even on sunny days.  This is to protect their skin.”  Nonsense, I say.  Five minutes on these sidewalks and you know precisely why they carry them.

And yet, somehow it all works.  The warring cultures, sights and sounds, and even the chaos.  Hong Kong is the New York of the East.

Zachary’s dislike of this city was almost immediate.  I get it.  It is, as I say, chaotic.  But I like it.  No, wrong word.  I respect it.  I mean, I would never want to live here.  I am used to hills, trees, clear skies, wide open spaces, and, well, I prefer to speak to people who don’t look like they are about to remove my liver.  It is also my nature to avoid crowds.  The noise of a Manhattan, much more that of a Hong Kong, wears on me.  I go to such places only when I must.  Even so, I recognize that in this I am expressing a preference, not making a moral judgment.  My preferences aside, Hong Kong is a remarkable city of industry, prosperity, and, for much of its history, freedom.  Were we scoring Hong Kong as an independent country, I think we would have to give it a 7 out of 10.

But it isn’t an independent country.

In 1997, the British government officially transferred the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China.  Uh, oh.  According to the terms of that treaty, the life and economy of Hong Kong were to remain essentially unchanged for fifty years.  There was to be “One Country, Two Systems.”  Twenty years on, there is “One Country and an effort to impose One System.”  This means that any evaluation of Hong Kong must include an evaluation of China, and how am I supposed to do that since the Chinese blocked my visa, and thus my entry, to the Chinese mainland?

Fortunately, I have already been to China.  In 2010, I went to both Beijing and Shanghai as part of a US business delegation.  To say that I was impressed is an understatement.  Shanghai, as I have said, makes any US city look Third World.  The service and work ethic are models of efficiency.  The common people I met were friendly, hospitable, and generally proud of their country.  As for communism, you soon realize that China is no more communist than Singapore.  The Chinese dumped faith in Marx and Lenin a long time ago because they know socialism doesn’t work.  The people who believe in that naïve, unworkable, utopian ideology no longer live in Beijing, Moscow, or Hanoi.  On the contrary, socialism’s modern advocates reside in such places as London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and, increasingly, Washington.  (And Pyongyang, of course.)  No, China isn’t communist; it’s fascist, combining a hyper-capitalistic economy with a dictatorial regime, proving false the idea that free markets mean free societies.

And like Singapore, it seems to work.

Take, for example, a perpetual problem in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, where there is an ongoing debate about the rush hour congestion of Highway 280, a central artery running through the heart of the city.  I cannot recall a time when there wasn’t some debate or plan to fix the problem.  Politicians have campaigned on it.  Town Hall events have been held to discuss it.  Decades have gone by and only very little has been done.  That’s because democracy is slow and messy.

By contrast, the Chinese would solve the problem inside of six months.  They would throw thousands of workers at the project, double the number of lanes, and annihilate everything that stood in the way—houses, businesses, trees, historic properties—everything.  Now, if you are one of those people who are regularly stuck in 280 traffic, this is good news.  But if your house or business is in the way, too bad.  This is the way life is in modern China.  There are no civil rights and, surprisingly, little sense of the past if that past gets in the way of progress.  I’m as capitalistic as Donald Trump, but it was with horror that I watched from the 30th floor of my Shanghai hotel as an entire city block of historic homes were demolished to make way for a new high rise.  BOOM!  Gone.  No doubt the Great Wall will receive similar treatment if it’s in the way.  This is what the Federalist Papers would call the “tyranny of the majority.”  But it’s really the tyranny of the Communist—which is actually fascist—Party.  Civil rights just aren’t a thing in China.

China isn’t a free society, even if it is a freer society than it was, say, 50—or even 25—years ago.  In a moment that is the stuff of a dramatic movie, I grossly misjudged the degree of this new freedom.  Attending a lecture given by a Chinese economist at the University of Beijing, I was pleasantly surprised when he was somewhat critical of the policies of Chairman Mao.  This was, I thought, an indication that we were speaking freely, honestly, about the past.  As the lecture continued, he said something like: “Critics of Mao’s reforms point out that his measures for implementation were excessive.”

This irritated me.  Genocide is more than an “excessive measure,” and Mao was unquestionably a bloodthirsty, genocidal maniac.  Over the years, I have heard similar statements regarding the Holocaust, minimizing it subtly, as if it wasn’t so bad after all.  I couldn’t let this go.

“‘Excessive?’” I said, so that the full room of students and business executives could hear me.  “I’ll say! Let’s be clear, Mao killed between 40 and 70 million of his own people.”

Silence.  Total silence.  I felt like Ann Coulter at Berkeley.  One Chinese student sitting next to me, a fellow who had been quite friendly while touring me around the campus, literally backed away from me.  The economist paused, looked around the room and at the doors, and then continued nervously.  No one argued the point.  It was as if I had said nothing.  They were afraid.  This is what societies with a history of violence and repression look like even after they’ve liberalized a bit.  The lingering cultural memories of Chairman Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square are not just things of the past.  They shape the present—unless, of course, you want to read about them on the heavily-censored internet.  In that case, they simply never happened.

But I have great hope for China, and it comes from an unexpected quarter and in surprisingly large quantities.

During that same trip, I attended a church service in Beijing.  The church was Chinese rather than one of those ecumenical “international” churches composed of expats.  Before entering, police inspected my passport and scribbled a few notes.  They did the same with all other attendees.  It was Palm Sunday and, despite the intimidation tactics, the place was utterly packed.  What I shall never forget is the character of their worship.  The fervency of it was unlike anything I had ever seen in an American church.  No one left.  No one slept.  No one looked bored.  People leaned in when the preaching began.  They all knew the government was taking careful note of who they were, and, yet, they came anyway.  I am in awe of such people.

Since that visit in 2010, the Chinese government has cracked down on Christians, destroying their churches, imprisoning or fining some Christian leaders, and denying travel visas to others.  I remind you that this is the same country that denied my visa unless I signed a document agreeing not to write about China.  A friend who does business regularly in China theorizes that they were less concerned with what I would write than with whom I would associate.  “People in China can’t access your website.  They control that.  The government doesn’t want you engaging Christians in China as you did last time.”

What is it about Christianity that makes the government so nervous?

“No totalitarian authority nor authoritarian state,” wrote the late Francis Schaeffer, “can tolerate those who have an absolute by which to judge that state and its actions.”  This goes far to explain the antipathy of communist and fascist regimes for Christianity.  They well understand that Christians do not recognize the power of the state as absolute.  Moreover, where temporal law and eternal law are in conflict, the Christian may, in good conscience, violate the former while clinging to the latter.  It is much to the better of us all that many have done so.  History is full of examples of courageous Christian men and women who, at the risk of their own lives, sought the destruction of evil laws and regimes.  By contrast, socialism exalts the state in the place of God.

And that is why Christians are so dangerous to regimes like this one.  It is also why I have hope for China.  At the grassroots level and reaching up, Christianity is spreading through China like it once did through a rotten and corrupt Roman Empire.  Hong Kong is a launching point for missionaries into the mainland and for a democratic movement led by Christians.  They are pushing back against Beijing’s increasing restrictions on the freedoms the people of this city have enjoyed for so long.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Christian institutions have become part of Hong Kong’s civil sensibility.  While the protests are specifically for democratic elections in Hong Kong, some see a broader struggle to protect that culture from China’s communist government as it increases its influence on the city.  Christianity has been a visible element of the demonstrations, with prayer groups, crosses, and protesters reading Bibles in the street….

The involvement of Protestants and Catholics in Hong Kong’s protest movement is an added concern for Beijing … Protestant pastors based in Hong Kong have helped propagate the evangelical brands of Christianity that have alarmed the Chinese leadership in Beijing with their fast growth.

If the growth of Christianity alarms authorities in Beijing, and it does, then they should be very alarmed indeed.  Officially, Christians number roughly 4 percent of China’s population.  Unofficially, that figure is as high as 20 percent—because no one believes the government’s figures, not even the government.

“It is growing fastest in the provinces,” one government official told me on the condition of anonymity.

“Are you a Christian?” I asked her.

She offered a sly smile.  “Yes.  And there are many more of us.  The government knows the data on our numbers is grossly inaccurate.  That is why they are so panicked.”

Grossly inaccurate is right.  According to Foreign Policy, China is set to become the largest Christian nation in the world by 2025.  And, as we know, a little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough.

To put an anecdotal exclamation on this point, on Sunday, Zachary and I were Ubering our way up to Victoria Peak when, at a traffic light, dozens of pedestrians, almost all women, crossed in front of our car.

“Why is this crowd mostly women?”  I asked the driver.

“Church.  They are coming from church.”

Later that afternoon we went back to this church.  Hundreds of people were gathered around the facility, almost all of them Filipino women.  There are some 170,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong, 140,000 of them being women who are working as domestic servants.  Here, on this hot and humid Sunday afternoon, they were singing, drinking tea, eating a quick meal, and enjoying the fellowship of others who shared their faith and their culture.  They were waiting their turn to get into an already packed church.  So busy is this church on Sundays that they have ten services.  Zachary and I watched in amazement when, as the umpteenth service ended, hundreds of these women entered one end while hundreds exited from the other orderly and efficiently.  It was clearly a well-rehearsed routine.

Protestantism, by far the largest Christian element within China, is growing much faster and, because it is decentralized in a way that Catholicism is not, has proved much harder for Beijing to control.  Having reached and surpassed critical mass, such efforts are Sisyphean.

So how does one score a country like China?  Any country with an opaque, undemocratic, and absolutist regime cannot rate high.  But China has that elusive and essential quality that so many other countries with governments like it lack entirely—hope.

China Star Rating: 4/10

Larry Alex Taunton is a cultural commentator, freelance writer, and the author of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens and The Grace Effect.  You can follow him at larryalextaunton.com or on Twitter @larrytaunton.

Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.