Latest travel distraction is the world capital of the technocommercialists. Of course, it’s a city that I adore to the edge of brain-stem seizure. Just seeing the Kowloon container port is almost enough to persuade one that the process on this planet is actually going OK.
Naively, I had expected that Mandarin would have made some obvious inroads since the last time I was here (roughly six years ago). No sign of that, though. It’s quite stunning how much English there is here, and the extent to which English remains the default alternative to Cantonese. That has to have important implications in respect to the cultural foundations of Hong Kong autonomy.
Expeditionary inertialization due to exhausted children prevented exploration getting off the ground today. Nothing too adventurous is likely to happen, but I’ll try to record a few sporadic notes here. Hong Kong is an iconic city, with an exceptional intensity of sociopolitical meaning, so it should be possible to discuss — and even argue about — it.
I’m only here (with family) for a few days, then returning to Shanghai for six weeks of solitary, extremely high-intensity production. After Thursday, if anybody has extravagant demands to make, it’s the time to make them. Whatever is ever going to be possible should be possible soon. Most likely, I’ll learn some crushing lessons about project feasibility, because all my excuses will be gone.
ADDED: Hong Kong has to be a critically important example for the development of the sovereignty discussion. It’s almost certainly the freest society in the world, whilst quite clearly under the sovereignty of a nation that, even to its its most ardent defenders, equally certainly isn’t. Perhaps this doesn’t rise to the level of a paradox. After all, up until 1997, when it served (retrospectively) as a crucial case of the neoreactionary thesis — distinguishing liberty and democracy with extreme clarity — the structure was not altogether different. Even then, the colonial metropolis was evidently pitched at a far lower level of liberty than its comparatively small, powerless, and insultingly disposable possession. Given the international image of the PRC, however, it would surely be hard to argue that the peculiarity had not been exacerbated.
In Hong Kong, the PRC ‘oversees’ an outpost that operates as a zone of uninhibited reflection upon its ideologically hyper-sensitive motherland. There are many ways to explore this. It connects with the larger issue of Cantonese ethnic self-consciousness — a topic of truly immense significance for China’s medium-term future. It has important academic and media dimensions. It also shapes the concrete reality of China’s engagement with the world, especially in its most ‘deterritorialized’ or cosmo-capitalist dimension.
On this trip, the area which brought it most into focus was the visual arts. Most particularly, a fascinating exhibition at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center called Light before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974-1985. This show covered material that might have been found in Shanghai today, except what would have been explored approximately, cautiously, and with nervous cunning in Shanghai, was brought together brazenly and (for anyone habituated to mainland cultural norms) provocatively in Kong Kong. The message of the exhibition was stark: Socialist Realism was benighted, and the cultural escape from the command economy era was a liberation from totalitarian night. The three decades from 1949-79 were a horror story, from which China has been released. It scarcely needs to be said that this is not a narrative in conformity with the ‘official’ PRC storyline of Reform and Opening, and its historical meaning.
Setting aside the details of the show, for the moment, the questions it raises concern Hong Kong, China, sovereignty, and cultural autonomy. Does China surreptitiously appreciate this offshore zone of critical leverage? Does it merely tolerate Hong Kong’s role as gadfly, due to the preeminence of other factors, and interests? (Chinese mainland capitalism clearly makes massive use of the ‘One Country Two Systems’ arrangement, in many different ways.) How functional is a peripheral zone of exorbitant freedom, considered abstractly, as an appendage to large-scale authoritarian social structures in general? Could this be the way that a rational apparatus of power realistically discriminates, eagerly seizing upon an invaluable exemption from impractical universalism? That is what Outside in suspects.