Freedom lessons from Hong Kong (1)

From late 1999 to 2003, I lived in Hong Kong. In personal terms, I had some ups and downs there, but that is of no interest here. What’s interesting is that Hong Kong is the freest place I have ever lived in.

In Hong Kong, the authorities and bureaucracies leave you alone.

And this–being left alone–is one simple first definition of freedom. How much time do you spend defending yourself against weird paperwork that shows up in your mailbox? In America, a lot. In Hong Kong, at least when I lived there, almost none.

Let me summarize what I recall to be my interactions with Hong Kong bureaucracies (not counting the ones that I interviewed as a journalist):

  • I had to get my visa when I moved there, and to renew it once during my stay. Since I have two passports, I even made some paperwork mistakes that needed to be corrected. I personally showed up at the immigration agency each time. Total time spent in 4 years (filling out paperwork, waiting in line): 9 minutes!
  • I had to file Hong Kong taxes. (Not German or British taxes, since those countries do not harrass their former residents or citizens when they go abroad; but also American taxes, since the United States, like North Korea (!), asserts global jurisdiction over its citizens.) Total page count of my Hong Kong tax forms, including bilingual translations into English and Chinese: 2 pages! Number of boxes filled in with a money amount: 1! Estimated time spent in 4 years filling out my Hong Kong tax returns: 13 minutes!
  • Then, of course, there were all those other forms that I had to…. Oh, wait. No, there weren’t any. That was it.

Those of you living in America or the European Union, but especially America, might be starting to guess where this is going. Think about the crap that you get in your mailboxes, look at your file cabinets, weigh the paper of your correspondence with your bureaucracies. Read their tone (“on penalty of perjury”). Observe how bureaucratic and official America makes you feel.

Two questions:

  1. Do you feel free? (I am not asking you to enumerate the usual lists of freedoms in the plural–speech, press, association, etc. I am asking you how you feel. Beleaguered or free?)
  2. Do you understand your affairs and interactions with official bureaucracies? (I am not asking whether you can point me to the relevant file for each bureaucracy; I am asking whether you comprehend why your are paying this tax rate and not that, why this form showed up and not that, whether you have set up everything optimally or not, et cetera.)

I am guessing that quite a few of you are already inhaling to inform me that I could not have, should not have, must not have felt free in Hong Kong, that colony of first the British and then the Communist-Chinese empire. China! What about democracy?

Ah. Let’s re-examine that particular issue anon.

22 thoughts on “Freedom lessons from Hong Kong (1)

  1. The more we risk, the less free from bureaucratic pestering we become. (Spoken by a harassed small business owner…) the greedy landlord, payroll taxes, city business taxes, police alarm system taxes, and more. And yet?

    I suppose those who buy few things, who isolate themselves from society as best they can, who don’t register to vote, and who avoid this club we call humanity, might not get so many letters from Capitol One’s No-Hassle Rewards credit card services. And yet?

    What I have been noticing lately is the lack of outrage about anything from so many Americans.

    Numbness, Boredom, Laziness ?

  2. You’ve opened up a veritable Pandora’s Box!!

    Living neither in the USA nor Hong Kong, I can see why you experienced Hong Kong as the Land of the Free.

    However, excessive bureaucracy may be the price one pays in the “developed world” (excluding the USA) not to suffer excessively if one “falls through the cracks”, and to have a somewhat equal society.

    Would I be correct in thinking that the consequences of “falling through the cracks” in Hong Kong are alleviated somewhat through the extended-family culture there, so that the family will care for its unfortunates, in the way the state does in the “developed word” (excluding the USA), where family ties have weakened?

    But would I also be correct in thinking that, despite Hong Kong’s stronger family ties, the gap between its rich and poor is larger than would be tolerated in a more bureaucratic-bound western European society?

  3. Sorry, Cheri. I was on the phone. What did you say about outrage?

    Haven’t you heard my new Mantra? Get over it Grandpa (Grandma).

  4. Christopher:

    Help me get on board here. Why do you repeatedly exclude the US in your post as part of the developed world?

  5. Hi Steve – If I left the impression that the US isn’t part of the “developed world”, the fault is mine.

    Of course the US is part of the “developed world”. What I meant, was that the US has certain values different from those in the “developed world”. For instance the issues of gun ownership; of universal health care; of resources devoted to the armed forces (the US accounts for almost 50% of the entire world’s defence spending); of its incarceration of criminals (5% of world’s population, but 25% of its jailbirds); of its murder rate; of its fear of big government; of its detestation of socialism; of its gap between rich and poor; of its war on drugs; of its religiosity.

    I could go on, but I think you’ll get my point: that the US incorporates many values which are different from those in the rest of the “developed world”.

    By pointing all this out, I mean not to criticise, for the US has so much about it which is wholly admirable, which sprang from its unique history.

  6. Yeah, I don’t know about US but in Sweden the Tax declaration used to be a pain in the ass. These days it has been made easier and consists of 2 papers (4 pages) most information is already filled in but…
    If you have your own company or trade stocks you have to study books to do it right!

    I am more concerned about the governments efforts to restrict Internet freedom. China did it a long time ago. In the western world they are working with restrictions in both EU and US. Australia I suppose you already heard about…
    I have to articles about it in my blog (the link) from Mars 12 and 22.

  7. Mr. Crotchety:

    The last time someone said to me, Gramma, get over it!, Noah and I were inspecting a large tree that had fallen across a trail we walk.

  8. Good morning Christopher:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. Don’t worry about the critique process; its healthy and I have taken Mr. K’s suggestion to steel myself. I am interested in your observations and have to give them some thought. Each of your points of course could be discussed in a single thread. I am, again, provoked to thought, which is why I participate here. I am thinking…

    Have a great weekend.


  9. Fantastic comments all around, guys. As so often, all I can say is: Blessed is he who has sophisticated readers.

    I actually want to devote bespoke posts to the points you raise here. So keep discussing, and I will try to respond.

  10. I think, Andreas, that you’ve, through your blog, unwittingly created a modern-day, cyberspace version of the “Bloomsbury Set”.

    • “Bloomsbury Set”: I am blushing. Honored. Delighted.
      But does this mean that we all have to start sleeping together?

      Incidentally, my grad school digs were around the corner from their preferred Bloomsbury digs. That was not so long ago, but before CCTV cameras. Er, I hope…

  11. Christopher:

    I LOVE the Bloomsbury District, assuming that is the Set you are referring to and the culture, literature, etc… that it has spawned over the years. One of my four sons studied abroad there for 4 months-it gave me an excuse to go over and spend some time in London.

    Wow- in thinking about Freedom and the early observations about Hong Kong and the like in this thread; I did notice CCTV everywhere throughout London and surrounding areas-while it certainly made me, as an American from the Wild West, feel more safe, it sure seems like there is little privacy with those little cameras everywhere. It could really put the kabbash on trying to steal a kiss or engage in some innocent petting with a girl on a late night trip home on the Tube. I feel a short story coming on…

    Jonathan enjoyed the show with Marilyn, first at Ronnie Scott’s and then Irish Coffee at a little bar down in Piccadilly Circus. During the evening he had become overwhelmed with emotion and felt a little out of control, not unlike a Russell Terrier upon seeing a cottontail in the field. He was so instantly attracted to Marilyn-dressed in black with such beautiful lines. Her hair was pulled back tight into a ponytail that curved in a sassy way at its most distal reaches all framed by the tortoise-shell Wayfarers placed precisely above her brow.

    Her eyes were on fire, moving, beckoning, and enticing Jonathan who was at risk to become the first documented case of spontaneous human combustion.

    As they left Piccadilly Circus on the blue line headed for Russell Square, he risked it all by placing his right hand on the small of her slight swayback leaning over to give her a soft and tasteful kiss on the cheek. But…BAM, over the loudspeaker a voice shouted “MIND THE GAP-MIND THE GIRL AND KNOCK IT OFF”. Shocked and embarrassed, Jonathan looked up and nestled between a placard for Harrod’s and a map of the TUBE was a little CCTV camera. They were watching…

    I know…I need to stick with my day-job…


  12. I looked at the related posts. The Time article says, “[…]Life for its seven million residents is a tension-filled mix of long working hours, fierce career competition, and the constant pressure to make more money to survive high rents and costs.”

    This sounds like where I live, but with long tax forms. I think the lure of opportunity or ‘getting ahead’ is the benefit to justify the cost.

    I could spend 13 minutes doing my taxes if I’m willing to pay enough (I do, almost).

    The U.S. Government bureaucracy is near some tipping point. (I hope.) There is great potential to exploit electronic data storage, exchange and retrieval. This could be tremendous for transparency and access. On the other hand, cyber security could neutralize the ability for government to run more e-efficiently. Also, things like thumb drives and laptops, are becoming almost useless to a government employee because they are difficult or burdensome to secure (like Obama’s Blackberry). I like to think it’s just the dark ages. We’ll get through this.

    And, Cheri. I wish I could ‘get over it.’ I just like to be flippant to seem tough.

  13. Steve:

    (Thanks, A, for allowing me to have an inside conversation with Steve. I realize this dialogue is unrelated to freedom.)

    Thanks for your kind words. I am doing everything I can to stave off the ravages of time.

    As far as a picture, you need a WordPress blog. Just start one (as Andreas did, standing up, in an alley) and add your Gravatar (picture).

    My new blog will house my fiction.

  14. When I studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I had more paperwork to fill out for my study abroad ‘debriefing’ at the University of Washington then I did in my entire stay in the country.

    @Crotchety: But who’s going to tip it? My generation? We’re getting sucked up into blissful ignorance, working for a company where we can afford to fall in Category 2 of Andreas’ post tax day thoughts, or category 3 where we ignore it altogether. Your generation? A federal employee who spent 5 weeks conducting a background investigation on me didn’t know what Facebook was, and between my 5 investigators that called more than 40 people on 3 continents nobody thought to google my name. On the point of bureaucracy I feel very pessimistic.

    • Now I know what you were talking about! Amazing what they put you through.

      Just to be clear: It was the UW, not the CUHK, that dumped all that paperwork on you, right?

    • I’ve had more time to think about this since I commented. I don’t know who! Naturally, the US Government is very concerned about computer security. The implication being that, if you gain access to a networked PC at Yosemite National Park, you’re just clicks away from steering an Air Force drone toward the Taj Mahal. (I don’t know how that’s supposed to work). If the Government continues to impose ever-greater security on its computers, the computers will become useless. I imagine the earnest employee having a slave computer set up just to run virus scans, Windows updates, network updates, etc. 24/7. Meanwhile, the real officing happens across the street at a coffee shop with a MacBook and a wireless connection. Something’s gotta give. What if Google ran Government computing? Imagine Gsocialsecurity, Gmedicaid or GIRS (not very catchy, but you get the idea) (OK, GIRS is catchy if you kind of growl while doing your taxes). (Ironically, G is for Google, not Government). Meanwhile we’re regressing to a virtual world of an English protectorate where everyone sits around thumping rubber stamps onto useless pieces of paper (we call this e-mail). In terms of transparency, I fantasize about the Government eventually moving to some sort of cloud computing for the things Government needs to do. Government employees have a password for their stuff ‘behind the desk’ while the public has access to the front. For example, you want to see the operating budget for the USDA? Fine, look it up online – but you can’t change it unless you’re Secretary Vilsack. (I have better fantasies, but there’s a different website for that).

    • I am all for cloud computing, for the government and everybody else. But: It won’t solve the issue of complexity.

      It does hide one sort of complexity–technological–from the end users (including government employees) and transfers it to the boffins who design the server farm. But it does nothing to address the other forms of complexity that keep Americans from understanding their own relationship to bureaucracies (eg, tax returns).

      More importantly, please provide a link to that website for your better fantasies.

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