The night air was heavy; smelling of the sea, fish, and cigarette smoke. I sat at a small table with a motley group of individuals at a local hawker centre in Tuen Mun (新青山灣沙灘餐廳). Sitting to the right of me, an Australian man with a beige flat cap recently came back from Tianjin, China, hoping to get government funding for a business proposal–it was a user experience project that I have been volunteering my time towards. China was the seed for a troubling topic–the hypocrisy of Democracy–a frequent matter discussed during my many months in Hong Kong. After the table had a few beers, I could feel the topic ominously bubbling up. The table soon erupted into a histrionic political commentary on the state of American affairs and the brainwashing “Western” media. I am a loud, pugnacious American, so I refrained from excessive commentary as to avoid getting into a rhubarb with my coworkers. I want to keep an open mind. Quoting Robert M. Pirsig, “your head is like a cup. It has a limited capacity and if you want to learn something about the world you should keep your head empty in order to learn it.” What if I was wrong? Too quick to judge a system that works for a billion people. Ultimately, I was not swayed, but they brought honest critiques up. An unfortunate facet of Democracy is its very foundation–every vote counts. Democracy gives power to those you would not even trust to make you a decent omelette, let alone have a say in a complex government. Why should a government allow a climate denier to vote or even become a politician? Enforcing such a stance is the equivalent of political vetting; it is a slippery slope, and one that has little, if any, checks and balances.
At the time of the conversation, the Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang were under international scrutiny. It was an example of government-led conformity and fearmongering; a Machiavellian stratagem to sinicize religions deemed a threat to the government. It was highly disturbing behavior, and even more so that people supported it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Political Economy highlights the importance of conformity–the will of the individual is that of the states. The political state must keep equilibrium with the will of the individual, whose needs must be satisfied. Religions such as Islam and Christianity conflict with the ideologies of the ruling party. A congregation of non-Han Chinese groups may threaten to break that tightly controlled conformity.
At odds to the statements flying across the dinner table, a small, Northern Chinese woman sitting across from me recently came back from interviewing students in Shanghai, hoping to design a program encouraging independent thought and critical thinking for Shanghainese students. One of the more memorable questions asked was the simple inquiry of a paper’s color. A distressing answer came from a young girl whose lives an overbooked lifestyle; she did not see the reds, blues, and oranges reflecting from the surrounding environment onto the paper, only claiming to see white. The overall testing revealed that students were not good at making observations and coming to their own conclusions. I am not implying that creativity cannot exist in a bubble; China has clearly proven that to be false, however, people are naturally inquisitive. If you pick up an apple and someone tells you it is an orange, you simply do not accept it is an orange. Needless to say, the conversation made me uncomfortable and tried, maybe too hard, to not give that away. I finished my food and took the bus back to my apartment. I was a bit dazed by the exasperating conversation, letting the dialogue roll around in my head, thinking of clever rebuttals that will never leave my lips.