18 March 2010

The High Speed Rail Controversey: An American Perspective

Since I arrived in Hong Kong a half year ago, the biggest political story has been the proposed high speed rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Apparently the young people in HK are really upset about this. I don't get it.

Recently, the SCMP documented the evolution of this movement from a community issue centered around villagers trying to keep their homes, to a mass political movement that has sparked political activism among many young people in HK. Chu Hoi-dick, one of the leaders of the movement, is quoted as saying, "When I first started, it was a community issue. My goal was to help villagers keep their homes. No one should be sacrificed because of a railway or because of any development." Really? How is this a rational political position? No one should ever lose their home because of any development? How would any nation or municipality ever create any public infrastructure under this standard? It's absolutely preposterous, yet somehow the SCMP doesn't mention the absurdity of Chu's statement. In a city as densely populated as HK, nothing could ever get built if you couldn't ever demolish anyone's home to build a public good.

Now I'm American, and as such I'm all for the rights of individuals. But even Americans know that sometimes people have to lose their homes because that land is needed for something that benefits society. OK, not all Americans know this. Many of the ones who don't are currently involved in what is called the Tea Party movement. This is a bunch of conservatives who think that it's immoral to raise taxes on individuals so that the government can provide a public good (in this case, what they object to is poor people receiving health care). Which brings me to my main point. This anti-rail campaign is essentially a conservative movement. The two basic arguments seem to be that individual property rights trump collective goods (the nobody should ever lose their house nonsense quoted above) and that it's just too expensive (or that the costs outweigh the benefits). It's ironic that young people in HK seem to have similar political opinions to a bunch of old, rural, uneducated and generally misinformed Americans.

Since the first argument is absurd on it's face, let's address the second one: it's just too expensive. I have no doubt it's very expensive, but taxes in HK are insanely low (it helps that the defense budget is zero). And I don't think there's much danger of a tax hike because of this project, so what are people so upset about? Public services and infrastructure work pretty well in this city, but that's because people invested in them in the past, and continue to do so.

My president has proposed several high-speed rail networks linking major American cities. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional US political system won't allow him to accomplish this goal, which would be of great benefit to the US economy. The auto and oil industries will surely succeed in limiting the scope of high-speed rail in the US. And the Tea-partiers will be right there by the corporations' side, shooting themselves in the foot because they oppose government spending.

I'm no fan of Big Beijing, but I sincerely wish that my government was forward-thinking enough to cover my continent in high speed rail. Whatever the economists say about the cost/benefit, does Hong Kong really want to be the one major Eurasian city that isn't part of the high speed rail network eventually connecting Shanghai to Paris?

I understand that a lot of the anger expressed in this anti-rail campaign is really frustration about the lack of real democratic influence in the political process. I feel your pain there. The US has had universal suffrage since 1776...ok, maybe 1865...no wait...1921. Ok, we realistically attained universal suffrage in 1964, except for the brief, computer-enhanced hiatus between 2000 and 2006. My point is this: the vote can be bought, influenced, suppressed or miscounted, but political speech is a fundamental human right. Use your right to protest wisely. Remember the boy who cried wolf.


  1. Gee I thought the Tea Party are a bunch of tea lovers who feel the need to advocate drinking tea over coffee. I didn't know the part that they are uneducated, stupid and mostly conservative. Anyway I think this piece is one of the few coherent pieces I can follow not necessarily agree. So now Chu is now a Dick, oh brother.

  2. Nice post but you've missed something. It's not merely that this is expensive - it's that it's expensive and there are cheaper alternate routes. Public mistrust of the government in HK is running at an all-time high and people are upset about the government "railroading" this particular route down our throats without really explaining why they have chosen this option over the others; the perception being that once again this is being engineered to pour more money into the pockets of HK's billionaire boys club.

  3. Spike, I never said the current plan was the absolute cheapest and most efficient way to build a high speed rail network. But are those cheaper outcomes actually politically viable? It doesn't seem like it. In a political system that has even moderate democratic elements, it's pretty hard to build anything without paying off the political power players. That's just the way the world works.

    Take the health care bill in the US for example. Is it the most efficient bill imaginable? No. Is it the best way to serve the public intest? Of course not. But the perfect bill isn't one of the options. It's this bill or no bill. That's reality. So yes, there's plenty of payoffs to powerful people in the health care bill. But do I oppose it for that reason? No. Between the current politically viable bill and nothing, I choose the current bill.

    If you really want the kind of government efficiency you seem to be after, I think you want autocracy, not democracy. Getting rid of the functional constituencies won't solve the problem of government waste, and it won't get rid of corruption either. Democracy is messy; there are a lot of interests that need to be satisfied before anything can get done.

    I get that people in HK don't trust the government, and that they feel left out of the decision-making process. Welcome to the club. That doesn't mean you should oppose a plan that is likely to benefit HK in the long run, just because there are hypothetical, but non-viable, plans that are better.

    If the message is really that there's a better plan and that it's more efficient, then street protests probably aren't the way to go. Street protests, by their very nature, have very simple messages. In the case of these street protests, the message everyone hears is simply "NO."

    I've been in my share of protests, but mainly against war, torture, loss of civil rights, that kind of thing. I've never protested corruption or government waste because those things are business as usual in a democracy. If you go out in the street and clash with the police over business as usual, who's going to listen to you when there's really something to protest?

  4. Welcome to the secret commie unit, Wes! I've not told you, but we're often accused of being pro-establishment by the pan-dem bandwagon, probably because the idea of democracy they have = always getting what they want. Now they're going to say, "Goddammit! The Big Bro paid this gweilo to write this!"

    But you spoke my mind. I'm glad that we have you in the team!

    Spike, thanks for pointing that out, too.

  5. Of coz Henry is happy becoz Wes, you're wasting your word count again!

    Whether the cost is expensive must be assessed according to the benefit, which can only be known in future and Team Chu always fail to address. (It's pointless to translate the cost of the XRL into how many fishballs we can have)

    In our colonial times, people complaint about the cost of our Chap Lap Kok airport too. Turns out it's one of the most efficient airports in the world. No one says a thing now.

  6. I know I know. Too long. My apologies. Sometimes I can't help myself.

  7. Well, it's not a tl;dr to me; I like it!

  8. just kidding. i read every word of it!

  9. A very good post. Having been based in China now for a month, I'm definitely not a fan of Big Brother, with all the restrictions it imposes (shh... I can only access blogger.com, facebook, youtube etc through secret proxy servers. Yes, I have to read Libertine's Pub this way...). But at the same time Big Brother have also done many good deeds (drastically lowering the illiteracy ratio, improving standards of living etc...)

    Perhaps I have been away from HK for too long, so this is only my very humble opinion, but far too many people in Hong Kong hate everything that Big Brother does, regardless of whether it's actually good or bad. It's like the exact opposite of blind love, they "blind-hate". Examples include calling simplified Chinese characters are called "Evil Text", villagers here also look down on people from Mainland, even though that's exactly where their grand-parents came from.

    I guess that the High Speed Rail protests stem from the same hidden contempt they have. Maybe they don't want to link up with the rest of Red China. Now, if there was to be an underground tunnel, direct to Tokyo, I'm sure there wouldn't be any protest even if it bankrupts HK.

    Henry, don't worry, I've been labeled a "secret commie" by many. My only crime is that I try to look at the pros and cons of the actual issues, rather than being prejudiced.

    My fear is that if these post-80s / post-90s "democrats" get into power one day, they will probably run an even more totalitarian regime than Big Brother...

  10. Daveed, I can assure you they will.

    Feed us a few guest posts when you have time! And make sure we gather when you come down the Village next time!

  11. Henry, will try to write something soon, now that I have written most of my lectures for this semester...

  12. Daveed,

    I suppose we have reasons to oppose simplified Chinese as "evil texts" if traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese are understood correctly in the Chinese context. It is part of the Chinese cultural heritage and some people in China were trying to strip us of the right to use traditional Chinese. It was on the news before.

    And the fact that most of the time we look down on them is probably inevitable as what they have usually done deserves no respect at all.

    Actually, there are also other factors that have to be considered for the building of the High Speed Railroad. The protest was not just due to our hidden contempt.


  13. The simplification of Chinese characters started way before the Communists took over in 1949, because even the Nationalist government wanted to reduce the illiteracy ratio of its people. You can see this in many documents produced during that time. However, this whole topic was politicalised after the Civil War, where Traditional v Simplified became Good v Evil! Chiang Kai-Shek reverted the character 台 (as in Taiwan), to 臺, as well as other already well-established simplified characters like 万,点,个.

    Imagine having to write the real proper traditional characters for 吃 and 才, I'm sure you'll cry for help too. It's only because we're so used to these characters that we think they're OK, without knowing that these are actually also simplified forms.

    As for looking down on groups of people, isn't that the same as racism? Would you look down on a black person, because some tribes in Africa still practise cannibalism? Of course, I have come across many mainlanders who have no manners, jump queues, spit in public etc... but I've also come across a fair share who are extremely polite and courteous, very knowledgeable and capable. Can we judge a book simply by its cover? Can I say all HK girls have 港女 characteristics?

    Better stop here before I'm forever condemned as a Commie!!

  14. Daveed,

    Please allow me to make myself clear. I am aware that the simplification started way before the Communists took over China. But back then, those simplifications were reasonable. The simplifications in China nowadays are rather unreasonable because it's easy to confuse what it intends to mean in traditional Chinese. Moreover, sometimes those simplifications are unreasonable because it prevents us from appreciating poetry, literature, and calligraphy properly.

    I don't oppose people using simplified Chinese, but they shouldn't condemn people for using traditional Chinese just because they are using simplified Chinese.

    That's not a very good analogy, I am afraid. I am quite sure mainlanders who piss and spit in public are far more than Africans who still practise cannibalism. Of course, there are Chinese who are courteous and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, they only belong to the minority. So I think it's reasonable to generalise them. Don't blame me for using such generalisation. Blame the majority. In like manner, it's sensible to say most HK girls have 港女 characteristics.


  15. Wow...Willie.

    I admire your courage in the last paragraph. That is a racist comment.

  16. And I anticipate the closing down of the Pub, for Eric's post today and your racism there.

  17. So it's fair to say ALL philosophy students are arrogant, IGNORANT, RACIST and pretentious asshole? or is it just you? oh wait. they ARE all assholes, just look at Henry lol (I'm sorry but, no matter how you tried to justify it, it's never REASONABLE to use stereotypes, you need to get out more)

  18. hey love, to apply my philosophy in fashion, i'd say "never judge a designer piece by its 'made in China' label". blink*

  19. Eric,

    No, it's not fair to say all students are arrogant, ignorant, racist, and pretentious asshole. And I have never said "all". Rather in the 港女 example, I used "most". Moreover, I used "like manner". That means if the case is the same as that of mainlanders, it is sensible to say most HK girls are 港女.

    Besides, some stereotypes are good such as most black are good at sports or singing. What I am saying is that it's reasonable to generalise them and say most black are good at sports or singing.


  20. Will, no need to argue with them, you're way beyond their league, leave this group!


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