I have been in Hong Kong since January of 2012, and will remain until June 30, 2012, thanks to an invitation by the Advanced Institute of Cross-Disciplinary Studies of the City University. My first visit to the Eastern Hemisphere (according to Western land and water distribution) was to Korea, in May-June of 2009. My first reaction after seeing Seoul from the highway reminded me of my first impression of Chicago, in the early seventies, when I saw it from the Greyhound windows. After my first day and a visit to down town guided by two graduate students, I asked: do you have to be careful when walking around this mega-city. In fact, at that point and being “inside” the city and not looking at from the highway, Chicago and New York seemed to me provincial cities of the past. I asked my guides if the city was dangerous? I did not ask the question directly, I put it in a longer sentence and in the most polite way I could think of. Why, they asked? Oh, yes one of them—who has studied in the West– responded before I had to explain: you are coming from the West were you have to be careful, in Amsterdam, New York, Barcelona, Paris or Buenos Aires. Not to talk about Mexico!
A week later i was in Poussan (or Boussan). I asked the same question, although I have been already alerted, to my hosting colleagues. I was lodged in a nice hotel in front of the beach, and a nice “rambra” between the beach and the road. Memories of Ipanema, in Rio de Janeiro, came to mind. At the hotel in Ipanema, any hotel, one of the first pieces of advice received is: do not walk with your watch, do not take valuables with you, just the minimum, carry the basic money, and be careful with your credit cards. Well, my colleagues in Poussan responded like my students in Seoul: No, you can walk wherever you want and as late as you want and nothing will happen to you. So I asked why, how do you explain that one of the capitalists “tigers”, where money flows, and buildings grow like mushrooms and ten times higher than the highest oak trees in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, why do you, and me now, feel safe in the city? Each time I asked this question I received the first preliminary answer: shoulders went up, lips went a little bit down, a few seconds of silence, and the words: “I do not know.” It was really reassuring to realize that safety comes with not asking questions about it. It looked to me as they, the Korean, were living under the assumption that the world is as it should be. They could have asked: what is wrong with you guys in the West that no one can walk and enjoy the street of a large city (or small, like Durham), without taking care of your belongings, your watch and sometimes, your life? They could have asked, but they did not. I was asking that question in my mind, and pondering why they were not asking it.
In between Poussan or Boussan I went to Beijing for five days. This time the city reminded me of Mexico: huge, about 22 million people; the old Beijing mixing with the corporate city. Phenomenal buildings next to old ones popped up like in a fairy tale, buildings that you can see going through the city, in the inner-city highway from Tiniamen Square to the area of Tsinghua University. Polluted like Mexico and crowded like Mexico. But i felt safe in Beijing. I asked the same question to several people and I received the same kind of answer: why it is safe? Silence, body gestures, I do not know. In South Korea I was pondering if was the “Eastern” version of democracy that could explain the safety in the city. I even risked the idea to colleagues I felt closer to. “Democracy?” they asked in response. Korean democracy, some of them elaborated, is a myth that comes from the West. A myth built on the belief that a multi-party state and a voting civil society constitute democracy. As I told you, I was talking about this issue with people I felt we shared some basic premises. The basic premise here was that if democracy has a meaning, the ultimate goal should be justice, political equality, economic equity, collaboration rather than competition, and the well-being of all rather than the wealth of the few. If these are the goals, and if the goals rather than the means define democracy, then it doesn’t matter how you achieve those goals. Multi-party states and voting civil societies may be one way to do it in certain places, but not in others. That is defining democracy by the institutions and not by the goals is putting the cart in front of the horse.
Recently I went to Singapore where the country is run—like in China and according to current terminology—by an authoritarian state. The story was the same: a very safe place. So, authoritarian states are safe places because they are authoritarian? It could be. Protests are illegal in Singapore. But when the situation gets to the limits, there is no law that can stop people protesting to save their life. That was not the case in South Korea where the state is not authoritarian but democratic; protests are legal, but repressed. It is a safe place while at the same time democratic manifestations are repressed by force, like in France or the US. China has its own chapter in the annals of repression: Tiniamen in 1989, and in Tibet in 2011. What called my attention was that in the democratic state of Korea and in authoritarian state of China, repression of protests demanding democracy are similar to those in the West– in “France 1968” and in the US “Occupy Wall Street.” Moreover, in the US the stories of killers and killing has been increasing, from the killing and attempts to kill presidents, to other reasons (many provoked by racism, homophobia and xenophobia) like the recent case of Trayvon Martin and Mohamed Merad in Toulouse, France . Needles to say that I am not talking here about individual problems, being it the killed (Martin) or the killer who was killed (Merad). I am underlining the fact that both the US and France are paramount historical models of democracy. However, the question of safe mega-cities and democracy remains.
Authoritarian state means here that there is only one party like in China, or a leading party who was able to overrule competing parties, like in Singapore. I am tempting to say that Singapore is an “authoritarian democracy” very similar to Mexico and its Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But why, since the 70s (the end of two decades of modernization and development in Latin America), has Mexico started moving down in in the social fabric and Singapore started moving up, economically and socially? And remember: Mexico had also its “Mexico 1968” in the massacre in the Plaza de Tlatelolco. I cannot find a case of repression in Singapore. You can say, well, there is no repression because there is no protest, and if there is no protest it is because the state is authoritarian. Well, if China is an authoritarian state, then how do you explain Tiniamen and Tibet? They repressed the protest, but did not repress the possibilities and the conditions of protesting. Still, China, Korea and Singapore (just to take three cases I visited), are safe.
I did no say much about Hong Kong yet, except that I have been here for three months. I asked the same question the first time I came here, in January of 2011 and received the same answer. Now I can tell you some stories from my own experience. The idea to write this note came to me, today, while having a cup of coffee at the Pacific Coffee Company, a huge coffee shop in a huge mall, Festival Walk, near by the City University of Hong Kong. I would say it holds between 150-175 seats, in different sections. At 3:00 in the afternoon it is generally packed. It was 3 pm today when I went. It was truly packed. I had to walk around for a while to find a bar stool. I found one at a tall table for two. One side was occupied with a student notebook, a math one. And a coat on top of the bar stool. The student was not there. So I sat at the table. When I sat I realized that next to the notebook, the student had left his or her electronic calculator. Then I realized that there was a chair, which was lower than the bar stool, and on top of the chair a purse, a women purse, red and semi-open. I finished my spinach cake and my cup of coffee, slowly eating, and when I left the student was not there. While having my coffee and enjoying my spinach cake, I realized that beyond the line of tables, lower tables with chairs, next to me there was a table with three comfortable sofas. The table was full of papers, notebooks and books, semi-drunk juices and other soft drinks and on top of the sofa, coats and purses, women purses. No one was there during the entire time I was enjoying my spinach cake.
During that time, many situations came to mind: the day that in a coffee place in Barcelona, my two hosts told me not to leave the computer case on the floor because “they” are smooth and quick. The same advice I received in Amsterdam, in a restaurant on the street. Everyone knows what to do in New York, Mexico, Paris and the like. A few weeks ago I was in the subway (MTR) here. It was not peak hour, but the subway from Kowloon Tong to Central is always crowded or semi-crowded (different from “packed”). There were two ladies chatting next to me, they were speaking in English. Theirs was a casual conversation about restaurants. Then a male voice called my attention. He was telling one of the ladies that her purse was semi-open. I have noticed that in the subway there are signs telling the costumers to be careful, but apparently the menace has not reached the point where one can travel by subway and be distracted about his or her belongings. In Seoul, Poussan, Beijing and Singapore I was informed and so I knew the places were safe. In Hong Kong I know by experience and how nice it is to be in a mega-city and do not be concerned about your personal safety. Hong-Kong, as all know, was a British colony until 1997. But apparently, judging for personal safety conditions in London, I was not advised to be careful there as I was in Barcelona and Amsterdam, but if you Google “safety in London” you will find interesting advices that you will not find if you Google the same subject in Seoul, Beijing, Singapore and Hong Kong. I can surmise that no one will leave the laptop and the cell phone on a coffee table in the British Museum Café and go to the toilet. Safety in the public sphere, in Hong Kong, was not a British legacy. Neither was it in Singapore.
This is indeed an interesting issue to explore: how unsafe Western democratic states are and how safe Eastern democratic and authoritarian states are. I do not have an answer yet. The point being that there is no safe place and that democracy (like any other concept–socialism, God, human rights, Confucius, etc.) could be used to legitimize authoritarian decisions. I am more and more convinced that if democracy is the real goal, and democracy cannot be equated with multi-party states and voting civil society grounded in the type of economy that reproduces coloniality, instead of administering scarcity. Multi-party state and a voting civil society are not the only ways to achieve that goal while some authoritarian states can. A radical decolonial rethinking of these concepts is in order, if our goal are to work toward equality, equity, justice and communal (neither the commons nor the common wealth) cooperation instead of competition, and rewards and recognitions that are not based on money, heroism, start system and individual success.