Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
The 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty is approaching. It's natural to now review the past two decades. Of course, that process will involve the compulsory comparisons to the colonial era. I don't find such comparisons always useful. You are not comparing like with like. Many things have changed. Hong Kong has evolved, whilst China continues on its spectacular transformation. Thus, it's not logical to make direct comparisons. Nor is it helpful to the evolving debate on Hong Kong's future. What happened, happened.
In any discussion on Hong Kong’s current standing its easy to fall into one of the polarised camps. The so-called pro-democratic politicians will say Hong Kong is a mess. Everything is negative, freedoms are gone and Hong Kong has a bleak future. The pro-government types will paint a rosy picture. Hong Kong is booming, freedoms are assured. Whilst, the future is all brightness and opportunity. All things considered, the truth is somewhere between these two positions.
In the past 20 years, China has emerged onto the world stage. A big hitter with economic clout. It has growing military muscle and is not ashamed to make its presence felt. Driving this is a collective memory of China's humiliation by Japan and the West. The Communist Party harnessed that nationalism to get cohesion across the Chinese race. In the process, it has pulled millions out of poverty. Such an achievement has had its costs. Environmental damage, upheavals and pogroms scarred the process. Nonetheless, China's achievements over the past decades cannot be dismissed nor downplayed. History is unlikely to witness again such a relentless enhancement in living standards. Plus, executed over such a short period.
Hong Kong played a part in that process. At first, Hong Kong was China’s window to the world. Then, a source of expertise, financial acumen and hard cash. Hong Kong is also pivotal to the process of restoring national pride. Hong Kong's return to China’s sovereignty was an unequivocal signal. Here was a nation set on course of reunification. Meanwhile, sitting off China’s south-east coast is the big prize … Taiwan. That's proving an altogether different challenge.
So, as far as I’m concerned, the fate of Hong Kong is seen in the context of China's history. Layered on top of that are international power plays and the shifting of the balance of power between nations.
Over the next month, I’ll seek to comment and review how matters are progressing. By its nature, my opinionated analysis won't gain favour with all. I sought to break my commentary into broad areas, such as the economy, crime and education. In reality, all these areas intersect. The shambles in the education system is because of policies flip-flopping. Likewise, economic innovation has stalled due to the stalemate in politics. Thus, each area interacts with the next. It’s a complex matrix of influence that I’ll seek to unravel.
On the wider world stage. China now stands in a position of prominence. Its economic wallop undisputed, whilst on the military front, its power is growing. Beijing has emerged as a confident defender of its territory, status and people. Assertive at times, it will no longer will sit back if its interests are threatened. Some naive politicians in Hong Kong have failed to recognise or understand this. To their shame they have overplayed a weak hand, inviting Beijing to take a suspicious view of Hong Kong.
With the distractions of Brexit and the diminished US under Trump, China's political space has expanded. It has more room for its agenda. Moreover, China is less likely to listen to criticism from these nations. The US needs China to deal with North Korea and the UK needs China for trade. So, bleating about events in Hong Kong will fade.
Even now the fall-out from their ill-conceived Occupy movement is being felt. The pro-democrats have done more damage to Hong Kong's progress than any other group. They have vetoed progress towards democracy, stalled projects, whilst engaging in petty squabbles.
Having lived through 17-years of the colonial era and 20-years of Chinese rule, I'm well placed to observe events. So, let's see how this develops.
Probably not. With 100 billion planets in the known Universe, it’s likely that life exists out there. The conditions needed for carbon based organic life are well known. Moreover, these conditions are not unique to Earth. So, how do we meet up with our fellow life-forms?
There are a few factors that make contact a challenge. The first is proximity, in both time and distance. Even if alien life coincides with us in time, the vastness of space makes linking up improbable. The distances involved are staggering. Communication by current known channels has a limit called the 'speed of light'. Thus, if we did hook up, a delayed conversation would unfold over centuries. If the extraterrestrials advanced to a level that allowed them to reach us, another question arises. Would we even recognise them as a life-form? A sentient ball of gas may go unnoticed. It's not something within our experience. Then, you’ve got the whole issue of communication; interpreting and understanding them. There are no easy answers.
We are currently looking for other life-forms using our human-based technology. It's the only option we've got. Whether this is the right way to search is a mute point. Even so, our adoption of maths as the universal language is logical. Prime numbers present a useful signal because nature doesn't manifest them. In this regard, the movie 'Contact' was spot on.
If we did make contact, what would be the consequences? Governments have been preparing for that eventuality since the 1950s. The U.S. military has a seven steps procedure. You can assume that extraterrestrials will adopt something similar. The first step is covert observations from a distance. Which raises the question are we being watched now?
The second step is covert visitation. This is observation up close, taking an assessment of technological abilities. The key to this part of the process is assessing the level of hostility likely to be encountered. Weapons systems would be of prime interest. Again, you’d want to know if things get nasty what can the other side do.
Moving forward with the third step, covert or open contact is made… close encounters of the third kind. After this, we go through various stages of introduction and communication.
In all this there are tremendous risks for our civilisation. The continued existence of mankind is in jeopardy. A good part of humanity will exhibit shock, others will express elation. A third group will accept it in their stride. Of course, emotions will range across that whole spectrum. But let's recognise we’ve been talking about it for decades. Movies and TV shows have conditioned us to the possibility, so I’m not expecting a complete melt-down.
On top of that emotional outburst, the world's religions will need to reconsider their position. Their underpinning tenets are no longer sustainable. The Gods will see their status eroded, although no doubt the blind faithful will hang on to their dogma. Religions have an uncanny ability to perform mental gymnastics in the face of facts. Able to twist their doctrine to meet new circumstances. Alien contact will cause them some soul searching. Yet, don’t expect them to concede.
A danger comes in the reaction of institutions that feel their status is under threat. For example, the Catholic Church. Seeing its teaching laid to waste, it will be fearful for its future. Then angry. It may mobilise its influence to disrupt acceptance of our true position in the Cosmos. History tells us it is capable of such behaviour. Look at the treatment of Servetus and Galileo. One burned at the stake, the other locked up for life to prevent the spread of scientific facts.
That first contact will have a profound impact on our modern infrastructure. Be ready for the Internet and IT systems to fail. Overwhelmed by an unmanageable surge in usage, it will falter. We’ll be exchanging information, expressing opinions on a scale never seen before. Even minor emergencies, such as plane crashes, can produce similar effects. Moreover, the blackout will fuel fears and apprehension that we are under attack. Demands to destroy the aliens can be expected.
Contact brings other risks. The exchange of diseases is possible. Each side will need to take precautions to protect itself. Assuming the aliens are an organic life-form, all aspects of life on Earth are at risk.
The next troubling aspect, is communication between us and the alien. This takes us into a whole realm of dilemmas. Communication is a complex, nuanced process. Variations in intellectual abilities and comprehension are relevant. Can we even recognise the form of communication? As mentioned above, maths provides a good starting point.
Finally, the ultimate question must be … do they come in peace? Stephen Hawking takes the negative position. He draws parallels with the Europeans first landings in North and South America. That didn't end well for the natives. Not only did diseases have an impact, plundering of resources took place. Those that resisted were wiped out with their culture.
Others take a different view. They posit that advanced technological cultures emerge once cooperation and peaceful coexistence exists. Such a view holds that the advanced nature of the aliens culture equates to their benign nature. That’s assuming that their culture has such qualities as compassion and empathy. What is more, they have an understanding of its application to us.
Before answering that final question, let us contemplate why aliens would come to Earth. The ability to cross vast distances of space, survive the journey to arrive at Earth suggests a life-form far advanced on us. If these extraterrestrials are so clever then why bother with our unremarkable planet? Earth has no unique resources. There is nothing of value here the alien cannot produce or source elsewhere. Yes, we may be of some esoteric interest to an alien academic writing his doctorate. Beyond that, why bother venturing to this distant spiral arm of the Milky Way. You've some 100 billion other planets to pick from. The odds are remote they are coming our way.
In the movie 'Contact' the extraterrestrials have a phased plan of exposure. The protagonist, Ellie Arroway, is put at ease by the extraterrestrial appearing as her father. The venue is a serene tropical beach. She is told they'd be in touch again later. The purpose is to allow humans time to assimilate that first contact. We must deal with a myriad of issues before moving forward. Whether we'd get that sort of lead-in, an incremental introduction, is unknown. Assuming we are dealing with an intelligent extraterrestrial, I’d like to think we would.
Weighing it all up, in my assessment aliens coming here would not be hostile. But, all things considered, we need to have a discussion around how we’d respond. Because if caught off-guard, the consequences for our species could be severe. Beyond that, all we can do is wait for ET to say ‘Hi’ and trust he is congenial chap.
Another terrorist atrocity. This time Manchester, England. A stoic northern English city. It gave us Oasis, Davy Jones of the Monkeys and former Prime Minister David Lloyd-Jones. Home to the mighty Manchester United, home to great seats of learning. Home to innovation and industry. A city with a diverse culture, and not without its problems. Yet, a city that reinvigorated itself in recent decades to gain a certain cogency.
Now it's the site of an evil attack. Targeted by a religious nut job filled with hate. An attack aimed at children and young people enjoying themselves. It’s a cliche I know … an attack on our very culture and way of life. The origins of this attack germinated in the tenets and incantations of religion. On this occasion, it's an Islamic religion. In the past, Christianity bore similar fruit. Campaigns against nonbelievers, wars and whole community destroyed.
We have to recognise that all religions assert their supremacy. They are the chosen ones, the right path. Which in extreme cases leads to the slaughter of those who are opposite. Granted, not all religions are at equal fault. Although, each has the possibility of fostering hatred of those outside the fold.
We must recognise that “religion poisons everything” to quote Christopher Hitchens. Anthropogenic fantasies formed in antiquity morphed into the religions we see today. These twist minds by providing simplistic solutions, the easy fix. Especially if that mind is already traumatised by events. With a morality based on ideas developed centuries ago, you will struggle in the modern world. If you draw upon a world-view formed by ancient illiterates, things will look out of kilter. One would hope that since the enlightenment we'd moved forward. The evidence suggests not.
No one should deny that religion can provide comfort and solace. No humane person would deny a grieving parent or partner that opportunity. Moreover, religious gatherings can lift up the spirits, bounding people and communities. Religion gives propose to some. Yet, I can say the same of the Caravan Club or the Boy Scouts. God, whoever he is, doesn't always have to enter the equation.
If we are to defeat terrorism we need to finally put to bed silly notions of Gods. The associated hubris that surrounds religion distorts the human in us. As sentient beings, we already know right from wrong. We don’t need religious texts ladened with threats to recognise the correct course of action. Likewise, we don’t need to set 'man-against-man' because each holds a different opinion.
Religion is in many ways an easy option. It offers certainty, answers and solutions. The snake oil salesman makes the same claims. We’ve learnt not to buy the snake oil. Standing on the shoulders of Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Dawkins, we can cast aside the fantasies of the past. Embrace a rational humanists approach. Then we will stop blowing up eight-year-old girls attending pop concerts.
There already here. The Hong Kong Pan-Dems, a loose collection of pro-democratic politicians, are making a mess of things. Again. Faced with an open goal, they are celebrating before the ball even gets kicked into the net. This is typical of their juvenile antics. Events should have given the Pan-Democrats an easy win. Their arch-nemesis, Chief Executive CY Leung, was in their sights.
The background to this vapid episode is straight forward. CY is alleged to have interfered in the work of a LegCo Panel investigating him. The Vice-Chairman of the Panel was caught red-handed taking advice from CY on how the agenda should operate. The evidence was irrefutable as the amendments appeared in a draft document. CY admitted he forwarded his opinions to the Vice Chairman, Holden Chow. It’s no surprise that Chow is a member of the pro-government camp. Thus, the Pan-Dems had a sure win on their hands. Yet, they are about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
To be credible, the Panel needs a fair, open and transparent investigation. With Pan-Dem member Kenneth Leung on board, such lofty principles are sacrificed. Leung is the respondent in a libel action brought by CY. Further, Leung has made frequent public statements that show his contempt for CY. Surely, this makes him an inappropriate person to sit on a Panel that is passing judgment on CY. Common sense tells you that.
The Pan-Dems managed to remove Holden Chow. They correctly asserted his position was untenable. The same principle should apply to Kenneth Leung. The only difference is his status as a Pan-Dem. Should he continue on the Panel, it is easy for critics to state the Panel has reached biased conclusions. Thus, dismissing any findings. CY wins and the Pan-Dems look like amateurs.
Moreover, the Pan-Dems are about to burn time and energy on a motion to impeach CY. Their timing is brilliant. CY will stand down at the end of June. So, regardless of getting support for the motion, the Pan-Dems don't have enough time to see the motion through. Nonetheless, they press on with this folly. One can only draw the conclusion, the misguided Pan-Dems are point scoring and grandstanding. It is certain that Kenneth Leung is far from humble. He comes across as a self-important, pompous sort, who is enjoying the limelight. However, his constituents can rightly ask why is he engaged in this nonsense, when we have real issues to deal with.
It cannot go unremarked the Pan-Dems cite the rule of law as their guiding principle. The related concepts of fairness and integrity pepper their conversation. And yet, by allowing Kenneth Leung to remain in position, they compromise these ideals. The Pan-Dems need to set aside their hubris, play the long game and then the ball will land in the net.
Oh my gosh, oh my gosh. I have tried to avoid writing about Trump. But after the last week, it is unavoidable to jump into the unfolding events. With his presidency still at under 200 days, it is now clear that things could spin out of control. So, resistance is impossible with so much happening.
For clarity let's run through the main events in sequence. First, Trump fires the head of the FBI, James Comey. The FBI was conducting an investigation into alleged collusion between Trump's people and the Russians. Second, Trump admits he did seek to influence the investigation. This is despite White House statements to the contrary. Then, third, in a bizarre twist, the day after firing the FBI head, he entertains the Russians in the White House. During this meeting, Trump handed over classified information. This intelligence came from the Israelis. Once again, the White House denied it happened. Only to have Trump contradict them. He asserts he can hand over whatever information he wishes to whoever.
Meanwhile, it is reported that the Russians are laughing at Trump. They brag about his former security advisor, General Flynn, being used to influence Trump. By the way, Flynn had to resign for lying about his connections with Turkey and the Russians. It’s also suggested he stopped a US military attack on Ragga in favour of the Turks.
Fact. All 17 US intelligence agencies agree that the Russians sought to influence the presidential election. Yet, Trump still invited them to the White House. Moreover, there appears to have been no consequences for their actions. In fact, the contrary. Trump has embraced them. That in itself should be setting off alarm bells.
The fired FBI head has resurfaced to reveal that he kept notes of all contacts with Trump. This follows threats from Trump that he may have recorded their meetings. Trump may come to regret his treatment of Comey. The man enjoyed high levels of popularity in the FBI. Agents don't like the treatment Comey received. Threats and intimidation have a way of backfiring with law enforcement officers.
To get to the bottom of all these issues, a special counsel is now appointed to investigate the matter. Former FBI director Robert Mueller is the man and the investigation is now criminal. Thus, Trump has no input or control. Don’t forget the US constitution is designed to protect the nation state. This is what Trump is now up against.
Even with all this, let's not get ahead of ourselves. The unfolding events look like a wet dream for the Democrats. Yet, their enthusiasm for impeachment looks a little misplaced. The Republicans hold a majority in deciding whether the process should go forward. To date, few Republicans have come out to talk about impeachment. They are seeking the facts. Playing a waiting game. Plus, restraining them is the fact that support for Trump remains strong among Republican voters. Timing is also an issue. With mid-term elections due within 18 months. The Republicans will be looking for this episode not to have a significant impact. At this time they can argue that all we have is a ‘he said, she said’ situation with little tangible evidence.
Sight should not be lost that Trump remains a ruthless operator and an effective communicator. He can reach out to his support base to deflect much of the criticism. His hard-core supporters will continue to believe his difficulties arise from a biased media. He'll play that 'fake news' card as much as possible.
Dangers do lurk in all this. Driving Trump’s response will be his overriding survival instinct. Let's not forget that he enjoyed a surge in support when he launched cruise missiles at Syria a couple of weeks ago. The impact of that move registered with the Donald. This weekend he has a US naval task force sitting off the Korean Peninsula. An incident there would be a useful diversion.
In summary, nothing is proven at the moment. The omens are hard to read. Trump will fight with all the tools at his disposal. There, perhaps, sits the greatest risk. Some political commentators are already getting ahead of themselves. Bill Maher is taking bets the Trump will be gone by Christmas. I'm not so sure.
Even so, the White House is in chaos. Distracted by the need to fight fires, getting legislation through will prove tough. Despite this, Trump may be able to hang on, deflect attention and defend his presidency. Having said that, we are now in uncharted waters. Never so early in a presidency has such a situation arisen. Comparisons with Watergate whilst not apt will continue to be made. Meanwhile, the Donald is feeling the pressure. His petulant outburst at a Coast Guard graduation ceremony this week was telling. A cornered man, I have no doubt he will come out fighting.
Recent events got me thinking about how much we’ve removed death from our modern society. One death in the family and a near death got me musing on the subject. The way things are going most folks will go through life having never seen a dead body. As a police officer, you see a lot, as do nurses and doctors. The rest of society is increasingly isolated from the reality of death. Yet, no matter how you cut it, we remain breathing defecating lumps of meat, with a large brain. That brain allows us to foresee our own demise.
I have to say that Hong Kong has a less maudlin attitude to funerals and death than western cultures. The lachrymose displays evident elsewhere are less frequent here, although that is changing. The annual pilgrimage to family graves is a day out, with the whole family joining. Ancestor worship is less daunting to me than the rituals of the monotheistic religions. I've yet to see anyone being too emotional on one of those events.
Nonetheless, like in the West, Hong Kong is moving towards removing contact with or witness to death. For example, few folks die at home these days.I guess we are all uncomfortable with it. I saw my colleagues adopting all sorts of strategies in the face of death. Dark humour is always a useful ploy, as long as the relatives don’t hear or anyone not in on the joke. Adherence to the routine of procedures allowed some to cope. It’s a process. Do the body search, fill out the forms, take the fingerprints. Whilst others treated the dead as living and still present.
"I'm now going to search your pockets, is that OK?”
Human societies have adopted comprehensive strategies to cope. Religion offers the afterlife, as we continue for eternity. That dotty notion gets support from elaborate rituals. Incantations guide us into that new realm, giving credence to a process that has no basis in science. Some assert that near death experiences lend credibility to the afterlife concept. People report the big white light, with calmness prevailing as its approaches. Oxygen starvation produces similar results as the brain shuts down. Thus, there is a scientific explanation for the phenomena. Sorry.
Whole industries are now built around the cult of appearing young to ward off the approach of death. All signs of its approach are erased. Never mind the cosmetics and hair dye business, not to mention the plastic surgery. Look at the ladies in their sixties dressed like teenagers. Now I know I’m on rocky ground here. Ladies, dress with some sense of dignity. But I digress.
It's difficult that our big brain allows us to realise that religious mumbo jumbo is a soft option. A roost to assuage our very human fears of the unknown. Meanwhile, we are keeping thoughts of death at bay by isolating the old in ghettoes. We call these retirement homes. Out of sight and out of mind.
At the same time, medical science has made such great progress. We keep people alive using our machines. In a modern society, with top-class medical facilities, a person is kept going after organ failure. Even brain death. As such, death only arrives when someone opts to switch off a machine. Meanwhile, the family frets. What about this option? Can this help?
The good news is that some now prepare and make their passage memorable. It gladdens my heart to know that “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” tops the charts of funeral music in the United Kingdom. Maybe we can get some proportion on death. So, let us not hide from it, because it’s coming to us all. Acknowledge it, then get on with living. Finally, remember death makes us all equal.
"The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan."
Mein Kampf. - Adolf Hitler.
Trump understands this. And yet, the mainstream media don’t get it. His use of tweets, repetition, distraction, the alternative narrative and victimhood is all part of a process. In effect, he has cut out the mainstream media, whilst in the process damaging their standing. Assertions of ‘fake news’ are sticking. Mainstream media outlets are now less legitimate under this onslaught.
Self-appointed intellectuals deride his reliance on cable news. A stance that reveals their limited understanding of what Trump is doing. Cable News is what the masses watch. Thus, he is able each day to assess the mood and direction of the news. Next, he exploits tweeter to comment or take a position with messages crafted for impact. In the process, he steers the agenda, communicates direct to masses. Along the way, the media is playing catch up, forced to repeat his tweets. It’s genius.
He uses repetition like a school teacher. The scientists tell us you need to see a message three times for it to embed. Watch Trump at work and count. Teressa May has adopted the same approach with her ‘Strong and Stable’ mantra.
When Trump gets caught off-guard then distraction comes into play. Don’t look at that, look at this. It’s an old trick which he uses without shame. The Syrian missile attack distracted us from the investigation into Russian influence on the election. Clinton used the same tactic during the Monica Lewinsky saga. He hit an alleged terrorist base. In fact, it proved to be a milk powder factory. So Trump is not novel in his approach.
On account of their herd mentality, mainstream media get outflanked by Trump. He’s reaching out to the public and they don’t like that's not through them. Their ability to filter and interpret is gone. Plus they are all chasing the same story making them blind to other aspects of whats happening. Trump portrays himself as a victim of the press’s prejudices. Few of them have managed to get themselves from under that cloud.
The lazy rhetoric that Trump is a ‘crazy man’ is easy to reproduce. This overgeneralization is now the default position for some. Meanwhile, there are those who argue that his lies are damaging. Yet, the public doesn't see it that way. It’s results they want to see. Lying politicians are the norm.
Lastly, a couple of weeks ago I pontificated that Trump could pivot. I asserted he was learning ‘on-the-job’ thus he could settle down to being a conventional president. I’m not sure that is an accurate assessment. His address to Congress was presidential. Despite this, in no time he was back to the usual habit of tweeting. His firing of the Director of the FBI affirms he’s playing the game by his rules. Trump is not going to change, and his audience doesn’t want him to.
Personally speaking, its fascinating to watch. However, it would take a brave man to forecast where this is leading us.
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do” to quote Philip Larkin, the Hermit of Hull. Well, I almost ‘fucked up’ my youngest daughter's chances of employment. She was in her late teens. Going through one of her periodic rebellious phases that mark those troublesome years. Locked in her room, head in a computer, I grew frustrated as it appeared she was neglecting her studies.
Frustrated at her surly attitude, in a fit of anger, I cut the cable for her internet connection. Resolute and steadfast, I’d made my point. Meanwhile, unknown to me in an instant she’d connected to the wifi in an adjacent apartment. On she continued with her internet work. In the end this secured her a place at university and in the modern world of work. Again, unbeknown to me she’d created several websites. Her internet presence earned her credits. She now does a job that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
All this came rushing back to me. The headline was “70% of Australians are studying for jobs that won’t exist in a decade”. It's already happening. The industrial revolution was the last big flip in work. Then we moved from agrarian based jobs to city based factory work with all its spin-offs. With it, the rustic life that dominated most societies was gone forever. Yet, this is nothing new as we have always evolved work. Except that the pace of that change is now much quicker. Plus, we don’t appear to be getting ready for it.
The research suggests that up to 50% of the jobs that currently exist will be lost to automation within 10 years. It’s even possible to predict which jobs will be hardest hit. Accounting clerks and bookkeepers will disappear. Likewise checkout operators, general administration staff and wood machinists. Most of these positions will be filled by automated processes based on algorithms. Meanwhile, factory work will decline further as more sophisticated robots appear.
Even the medical profession will see increased automation. Screening of symptoms is already underway. The next step will be precise diagnoses, then the assignment of treatment. Don’t forget that doctors interpret your symptoms by a process of elimination. Then determine likely ailments. An algorithm can do this well and much quicker. Plus, it has the advantage of being available 24/7, it doesn't get tired and should be cheaper. Doctors will still be needed, but the role will be even more specialised.
Today's kids need digital skills. Australia reckons that 50% of college level students will need advanced skills. This means they can configure and build systems. This should be a wake-up call for Hong Kong, where the education system is stuck in the past with rote learning. Imagination, innovation and flexibility are the skills future workers need. Alarm bells should now be ringing across the Hong Kong education system. Why? Because it's a system that discourages innovation. Kids either comply or be considered disruptive trouble makers. In short, Hong Kong’s education system is setting us up for failure.
No profession is going to be safe from the power of algorithms. Most processes can be automated, even thinking and judgment. The challenge is to create a world that keeps humans engaged, doing something useful. We survived the switch from hunter-gatherer, we survived the industrial revolution. We will survive this change if we move beyond our old thinking and don’t cut the internet cable!
It’s necessary every couple of months to escape the rough and tumble of Hong Kong. The frantic pace of this place takes a toll. A beach in Thailand or Bali is always an inviting option. And yet, Japan can offer respite, even in large metropolitan centers. Is this surprising? Culture, a slower pace of life and the sheer convenience of the place all combine to achieve this.
Let's take convenience first. Like Hong Kong, Japan offers easy access to services. Whether it's a quick meal or trains. Plus, Japan excels in delivering quality, which is nothing short of exemplary. Travelling by train is a delight. Modern, clean and always on time, even the small local lines impress. Contrast that to the poor state of the UK's rail system. The difference is stark.
Travelling in London or any European city, you keep a watch for pickpockets or other rogues. Wandering around Osaka, Fukuoka or even Tokyo, no such concerns enter your head. Whilst Hong Kong is safe, petty crime remains an under-reported issue. Thus, it's wise to be alert. In Japan, those fears evaporate. Without doubt, crime exists in Japan. Even so, the atmosphere is conducive to believing you are safe.
Helping drive this impression and create a relaxing mood is the ever-present politeness. Japanese people are always mindful of behaving in the correct way. Give way, don't jostle others, be considerate. Uniformed officials, no matter the agency, greet you with a polite nod or gentle bow. I smiled at two police officers, who each smiled back, then bowed their heads in turn.
This is all part of ‘omotenashi’, which translates as “Japanese hospitality”. In practice, it combines politeness with a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict. Deeply influenced by Zen based precepts and the Samurai ‘Bushido’ culture of controlling ones emotions, society has adopted these principles.
There is a serenity that is induced by the politeness, an antidote to usual stresses of city life. Further, it’s done in such a way that no sense of inferiority is conferred. In fact, I found myself bowing in response. Such is the power of cultural norms.
Taken to an art-form that manifests itself in even the way food is presented. Setting aside any foibles about eating raw fish, the delivery is exquisite. Each accompanying piece of pottery, plate, dish and even the table cloth is chosen to complement the food.
I suppose it's possible for us Europeans to interpret the conduct of ordinary Japanese as obsequious. All the genuflection seen as belittling. Such a view would undermine a fundamental truth. The Japanese have recognised the importance of good manners in making life more tolerable. This collective community consensus extends itself to their behaviour at times of crisis. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not made worst by looting or random violence. The police don't need to guard abandoned buildings or waste time dealing with the hooligans. Instead, the people come together, helping each other through the troubles.
After the 2011 tsunami took down the Fukushima nuclear reactors, a struggle ensued to control radiation leaks. In a selfless act, a group of retired engineers volunteered to undertake the work. They asserted they'd reached an age that the radiations impact of their bodies is unlikely to take hold before their natural deaths. This is a fine and humbling example of the Japanese group culture (shogun-shugi)… the needs of the many are greater than the needs of the few. The rationality of this is self-evident, unsentimental and overpowering.
Meanwhile, the loutish behaviour that exhibits itself in European cultures is pleasingly absent in Japan. Still, the Japanese can be loud when having fun, in particular when alcohol is add to the mix. Although, I never recall it ever getting out of hand or proving threatening to others. The same can’t be said about a Saturday night in London.
Yet, I’m not blind to the downsides. The repressed nature of Japanese culture has produced issues that are a concern. Trains with female-only carriages suggests indecent assaults are a significant challenge. Whilst the inability to vent frustrations or be different must take a mental toll on some.
What can we learn from the Japanese? Well, their politeness is infectious. That's certain. The power of culture to over-ride the individual is evident. That's both a good and bad thing. I'd like to think that if we adopted the politeness of the Japanese, whilst recognising people are different, then the world may be a happier place.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.