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Hong Kong, flavors of social responsibility

Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand

Never in my life have I imagined that people washed sidewalks the way they washed dishes. When I arrived in Hong Kong, the first thing I noticed was how well-kept public spaces were, from the subway system to the shopping malls. Someone was always mopping, even when the floors already gleamed. I was in awe.

“Yes, Hong Kong people are very loyal,” my friend said. 

That word surprised me. “Loyal” seemed a bit heavy-handed for what I saw as a hygiene issue. The phrase I had in mind was closer to “socially responsible,” but I brushed it off as a translation confusion. I soon learned, however, that “loyal” wasn’t so much a misinterpretation as it was a cultural attitude that I didn’t fully grasp at the time.

From mandatory hall activities that closely tracked attendance, to signs beseeching citizens to keep their subway clean, I felt a strong sense of social duty in Hong Kong. Whereas I was always scouting out the best waiting spot in the New York subway, Hong Kong had arrows directing people into lines, one for people exiting the train and two for entering. Some trains were only accessible by elevator, so it was normal for attendants to shepherd one group after another in and out, trying to expedite the process.  

Yet, these conventions weren’t a suggestion — they were mandatory. Those who broke the rules, particularly Mainland tourists unfamiliar with the city, were at risk of finding a picture of themselves posted online misbehaving, a type of public shaming which some see as good bystander behavior. In Hong Kong, people see themselves not as polite but devotedly law-abiding. Those who circumvent the laws are not just a nuisance but a disturbance of the social norm, usurping the collective good. That’s a lot more judgment than most of us are used to from the average stranger.   

Despite its strict sense of collectivity, Hong Kong wants to be a free and open market. Yet just a few weeks into the semester, I learned about a debate held in a previous year where locals complained of too many Mainland students at the university. This semester, in the election for the university’s student council, the school saw its first mainland Chinese candidate, a woman named Eugenia Yip. Though she changed the spelling of her last name to the Cantonese version, it did not protect her from suspicions that she was scheming with the Chinese government to infiltrate Hong Kong with communist ideas.

“They think that we are brainwashed, but we are just trying to make our lives better,” a student from mainland China told me. “They are the ones who think that they are fighting for everyone.”

To her, young adults in China have a far greater sense of independence and personal space — a “do your own thing” culture. A student from Singapore, however, said he preferred working with students from mainland because of the stronger sense of camaraderie, noting that Hong Kong students tended to divide up the work on day one and turn in their own part at the end. He didn’t see Chinese teamwork as coerced, unhappy or inefficient, as Hong Kong expects of communist culture, but as friendly cooperation driven by mutual benefit, which is actually the heart of free market philosophy. On the other hand, Hong Kong, the self-proclaimed British democracy, is the one that has shaped people into contributing their minimal obligation.  

It’s easy for us to look at those we don’t understand and think that they must be so oppressed and ignorant. I once watched a YouTube video of a Chinese girl playing violin and one of the comments suggested that she looked woefully unhappy and that someone should stop forcing her to play. The following comment said, “She played beautifully — what do you expect her to do, dance?”

We often look at a Chinese child studying and see a victim being starved to get A’s rather than a bright student working toward a better future. We look at the one child policy and see a scandalous violation of reproductive rights rather than a nation realizing that everyone would starve if it didn’t mitigate overpopulation. We should worry more about ourselves, because it is when we are most convinced of our own freedom and superiority that we in the most danger of losing it. Without self-criticism and doubt, we might soon find that it is other people who are looking at us with pity. 

Lin Lan is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in Economics. Her column “Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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