Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Political awareness, Hong Kong style

Earlier this week, I was walking down the street near campus, when I came across the first overt display of political awareness I'd ever seen in Hong Kong. The lack of any discernible political vibe here has been something of a disappointment.

Don't get me wrong, I consider being away from the U.S. during the run-up to election season, which is just way too active way too early, to be one of the unexpected boons of studying in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong occupies this fascinating geopolitical niche between China and the West, and has this interesting Special Administrative Region status, and a very unique relationship with China regarding the appointment of some political leaders vs. the election of others. I thought that, as a result, there would be some simmering political awareness to befit Hong Kong's unique place in the world.

In practice, not so much.

So I was very excited to see a crowd of supporters on the street, campaigning for a candidate for one of the local offices. I watched for a while as they set up shop at an intersection and waved signs in support of their man. Oddly, the crowd didn't make any noise at all...the whole thing was pretty polite and antiseptic, really. But I was genuinely pleased about this development as I walked on toward lunch.

About one hour, one meal, and one haircut later, I passed by the same intersection, and I was stunned to see the same intersection buzzing with political activity, but now for two candidates. The sea of green shirts for candidate #1 on the ballot had been joined by a yellow-shirted group that was carrying signs for candidate #3. Immediately, I was psyched up. Political discussion! Confrontation! Exciting possibilities swirled about in my head. Maybe they'd have a debate! Maybe they'd have a shouting match! Maybe they'd break out in choreographed dance-fighting a la West Side Story! The very prospect of watching some Sharks vs. Jets action unfold before me, however far-fetched, was thrilling.

But then I looked more closely. In a very orderly fashion, the green shirts were taking down their signs. In an equally orderly fashion, the yellow shirts were setting theirs up. Nobody exchanged so much as a pleasantry, let alone an insult or political point.

Apparently, the public demonstration was so carefully planned, so constrained, that each group had a designated time block during which it was allowed to demonstrate for its candidate. And as I've learned in the days since, passing that intersection over and over again, each group is always in the same location, always at the same time. Exit polling after this election would probably reveal a strong correlation between candidate of choice and work/shopping schedule.

The whole thing is so orderly and inorganic-feeling. I guess it makes sense. Can I really complain about them being organized and demure? And it's more political awareness than I saw before.

But I'm still a little disappointed.

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