On a recent trip to Hong Kong I was a bit shocked to see two big construction projects underway that seemed to me to be in the speculative stage when I lived there. One was the construction of an additional runway at the HK International Airport—Environmental groups had been opposed because of wanting a stop projects that involve land reclamation from the ocean. The other construction project is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge across the Pearl River delta. This bridge will stretch 30 miles across the ocean and further integrate Hong Kong with mainland China. This project is controversial because it requires only one border crossing—mainland China—rather than the usual two—Hong Kong and mainland China. Already there is great nervousness in Hong Kong over mainland China’s increasing influence and an inability of Hong Kong institutions to sustain their character and rule of law. While I was there, a bookseller disappeared and ended up in China without any record of his leaving Hong Kong.
How do you negotiate your relationship between political entities under these conditions? This is the debate in Hong Kong and it is one that divides generations and families. Most Hong Kong people will tell you that their culture is a pragmatic culture. The pragmatism of Hong Kong may be tied to the larger Chinese culture. There is a saying about being blessed to live far from the emperor. The idea has been to continue to live your life underneath what may be happening within the larger official circles. Or as I sometimes think of it—you need to learn to read the tea leaves in order to constantly adjust your life o you can continue to live and avoid direct confrontation.
Pragmatism would tell you to be sensible and realistic in how you deal with mainland China—work within the realities. However, a more prophetic voice arose more recently in Hong Kong in the Umbrella Movement, especially as young people worry about their future. Everyone has the same desires for Hong Kong, but they have different perspectives on how to deal with the reality they have been dealt.
Hong Kong pragmatism is in contrast to the characteristics that cultural analysts often use to describe American culture. Such characteristics include valuing action over contemplation and dichotomous thinking in terms of right or wrong. My trip to Hong Kong has led me to think about this latter characteristic. My neighboring state of New Hampshire has license plates that say: Live Free or Die! You have two choices. I understand that dying is pretty definitive, but what if we can’t agree with what it means to live free? Do I have to die, or can I pragmatically decide to live and negotiate my way forward with others with differing ideas? If every American “stands firm” out of necessity of maintaining their principled and pure stand, then what does this mean pragmatically on the ground?
Don’t get me wrong. I am actually quite sympathetic to the need for the prophetic. But the prophetic has to grapple with the pragmatic, recognizing the painfulness of compromise. The meta-narrative of American culture has been described along the lines of the Lone Ranger: a hero rides in from the outside and overcomes evil and saves the town. But then what? Pragmatically what happens next?
One of the cultural gifts of the United States to the world may be the prophetic. Martin Luther King and the Civil Right Movement characterize this. The cultural gift that Hong Kong and China could contribute to American culture may be that of pragmatism. We need both the prophetic and the pragmatic if we are going to peacefuly live together with others at every scale of society.
My daughter’s thoughts on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge? She doesn’t want to ever go on it. Is this because of its meaning in the larger political landscape and her love for Hong Kong? No. In this instance it is pragmatic. Given the poor safety record of the new high speed rail lines in China, she says she will take the ferry, even with its associated motion sickness.