Thoughts on human nature after Japan

They form orderly lines. They throw no tantrums. They do not loot or take advantage of their fellow sufferers. They bear what fate has presented them, even after watching loved ones swept away in brown sludge, even as radioactive clouds snow on them. They do so because of who they are, as individuals and as Japanese, and because they understand that however bad it gets, they must avoid making it even worse through their own actions.

Some 50 of them even stayed in the reactors until commanded to return, like modern samurai, fighting the splitting atoms so that less death may issue forth, knowing that they will suffer and die because of it. Radiation, too, is a divine wind, a kamikaze. In form less Homeric, more insidious, it yet demands the same of the samurai.

They are individuals, yes. But they are also members of a culture, and there is a shape to their response. Isn’t there always? People behaved differently in Port-au-Prince. And again in New Orleans. And in Christchurch.

I once happened to find myself living in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak. It was a fascinating time. (This was one of the articles I wrote.) The virus largely hit the different “regions” of China — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and the mainland. And each place revealed itself to be not only “Chinese” but unique, in ways that surprised even those living there.

I recall (what not everybody there may perhaps now choose to remember) that in some of the Taiwanese hospitals, some (not all) of the nurses and staff fled the virus, yielding to their fear, abandoning those who had come there in need. For them, the individual and the family was all there was. There was no community, no neighborliness, no society. Yes, they were aware that they were thus making the situation worse, by spreading the virus. But worse-for-others did not count.

The Singaporeans responded as expected: with ruthless and relentless efficiency, cordoning off and quarantining with no regard for those being separated from loved ones, whether they were confirmed infected or not. The rules were draconian, but nobody broke them, nobody pleaded special treatment. The individual was entirely subordinated to the group, and Singapore suffered least as a result.

The mainlanders also showed their ruthless side. Uniformed cadres barricaded entire towns, cutting them off from the world as in an Albert Camus novel. But the un-uniformed mainlanders did not respect these rules as the Singaporeans accepted those of their government. Individually, many (though not all) tried to escape, evade, be the exception. Whereas the Singaporean authorities chose merciless truth to gain and keep credibility, by reporting every case, the mainland Chinese defaulted to their customary secrecy, and nobody believed anything at all. Singapore was harsh but trustworthy, the mainland simply harsh. And the mainland suffered the most as a result.

And then there were the Chinese of Hong Kong. How surprised we, the expats, were by their response. How surprised even the Hong Kong Chinese were. Each nurse and doctor and customs official and neighbor, it seemed, did his duty. And they, too, chose unforgiving truth, reporting every turn for the worse so that we believed them when they finally announced the turn for the better.

And yet the Hong Kong Chinese were not like the Singaporeans. In Hong Kong, they did make exceptions in their quarantines, they did wait before cordoning off housing blocks, because they balanced the suffering of the individuals inside against the interests of the society outside. Was it civic values picked up, unwittingly, from the former colonial master? Was it something else? Something made them different. Hong Kong suffered more than Singapore, but less than Taiwan and the mainland. And when it was over, everyone in Hong Kong was proud.

Last year, we debated the topic of heroism here on The Hannibal Blog. As usual when intellectuals debate anything, the subject recedes until everybody wishes it had never been forced into hiding. And yet we all intuited all along that you know heroism when you see it.

Freedom lessons from Hong Kong (2): democracy


How liberating

Recall, for a moment, the famous lad who went out one Friday night, ordered gin with orange juice and got tipsy. He went out again Saturday night, ordered vodka and orange juice and got tipsy again. He loved being tipsy so much, he went out and bought himself a whole liter of … orange juice.

Let’s now look at the role of democracy in freedom. Is it the gin or the orange juice?

Last time in this thread–an emerging ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘–I shared with you my experience of living in Hong Kong as an instructive way into understanding life in today’s America. In brief: I felt freer in Hong Kong than anywhere else I have ever lived; I feel less free in America than anywhere else I have lived.

Even as my fingers still touched the keyboard, I started bracing myself for some inevitable rejoinders. Of which the first and most obvious is: Hong Kong is not a democracy, whereas America proudly is!

Coming clean

I once belonged to a salivating pack of expatriate journalists in Hong Kong who loved to scrutinize every Asian government we covered based on its minute-by-minute body language toward democracy.

  • More democracy = approve
  • Less democracy = disapprove

It was an evergreen topic for us, easy to pitch to an editor, easy to write, easy to be smug about. Hong Kong, during its suspenseful transition from British to Chinese rule, was a particularly good place for “democracy” stories. If an errant Falun Gong meditator from Ohio or Liaoning so much as got stuck in his Lotus pose, I was ready to suspect sinister interference from the Mainland.

On the Mainland, whenever I got stuck in an interview, I whipped out that word, democracy. In Taiwan and the Philippines, officials occasionally played the trick on me: They whipped out the word to buy time. After all, what else could I possibly demand as long as the place was, you know, democratic and thus surely free.

In America, George W. Bush was composing entire inaugural addresses around just two words–freedom and democracy–as a way of explaining wars and himself. Very few people called him on that particular association. The two do seem to go together.

Hell is other demos

Actually, they do not. They can, but they need not. In Foreign Affairs, twelve years ago, Fareed Zakaria coined two powerful memes: Illiberal democracy and liberal autocracy. (That’s liberal as properly used.) He simply observed that there are an awful lot of democracies–ie, countries whose governments are chosen in elections–today whose citizens are anything but free. And there are quite a few autocracies whose people are free. Hong Kong is one of them.

Another free (ie, liberal) autocracy in history was colonial America, before the British started imposing exotic new taxes. The king was far away and left the colonials alone. They had no say in government, but did not care because they were free to live their lives. I once read somewhere (if anybody could point me to the link, I would be grateful) that this was the freest period in American history.

Next came taxation. Then the call for none of it without representation. Then the constitutional convention. And how did our founding fathers approach the issue? James Madison, possibly thinking of ancient Athens, said that:

Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and conflict; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

In general, the founding fathers believed Polybius: the best government balances monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Without such balance, monarchy becomes tyranny; aristocracy becomes oligarchy; democracy becomes mob rule. Today, this skepticism about democracy lives on in a small circle of libertarians/liberals such as Ron Paul, who worry about “majoritarian” oppression.

If you read this to mean that I am against democracy, you have misunderstood this post. I am not necessarily against it. And yes, I do love Winston Churchill’s wit. I am merely pointing out that democracy can coexist or conflict with freedom. Some of us have got used to seeing the two together, like orange juice and vodka in a screwdriver, and have made an inappropriate association.

But democracy is irrelevant to our topic. The origin of freedom is to be found elsewhere. And we will look for it.

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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.