The Village People

After reading this essay from a fellow Hong Kong blogger named Chonghead, I feel like I have been unkind. Or, at least, that I’m guilty of painting the brusque, aggressive villagers of Sai Kung, who harassed me and my fellow Long Hair supporters on election day, with brushstrokes that are too broad and careless. There’s a side to these villagers that in the heat and anger of the moment I was unable, or unwilling to see. But Chonghead, an ex-urbanite who lives up in a village in New Territories West, points it out: Those legions of pro-Beijing, pro-government DAB supporters, the troops of the infamous tit piu, or “Iron Vote” aren’t casting their vote out of blind obedience. They’re voting with passion.

It is not, of course, a passion that we advocates of a free and fully democratic Hong Kong can easily understand. We are big picture people, and our mantra is change! Change the system. Change injustice. Change intolerance. Change the world, or at least our little corner of it. One of our weapons of change is the vote. But in Hong Kong the system is rigged, and just about all a vote can do is hold the line, keep things from getting worse. Even if 60 percent of Hong Kong voters choose a pro-Democracy candidate, the most this will do is secure about a third of the seats, barely enough for a veto. This, in a legislature that by definition is already hamstrung. So the passion gets frustrated, cynicism and indifference set in. The government is all-powerful, there’s no use fighting them, nothing will change. On this election day in Hong Kong, 55 percent of the people decided to stay home.

And what about the Iron Vote villagers? Chonghead observes them walking, in the evening, to the polls, large families strolling together cheerfully. They come out, willingly, in droves, to vote. Because they feel their vote has power, that it means something.

But the passion behind the Iron Vote isn’t change, but stasis. These are small town folk who want life to stay calm, to stay predictable and same. And they want a gentle, paternal government to ensure that this happens. This is a deep and abiding passion in Chinese village culture–go take a look at a map of Guangdong province and count the number of villages named Ping On–“Ordinary Peaceful”.

Actually, this is a deep and abiding passion just about everywhere in the world. I’m thinking about my own country, America, now. Really, how different is the mindset of a villager in the New Territories, from that of the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska? As the U.S. heads into the home stretch of its own big elections, I see nothing but a replay (albeit a more nuanced, complex one) of my little clash with the troops of the DAB in Sai Kung. You’ve got your people–mainly educated, city slickers–who rally behind the banner of CHANGE. And you’ve got your small town folk (in the sprawl that is the contemporary U.S., small town is a mindset, rather than a geographical location) who distrust those city types and their so-called “change”. Who use their vote not as a weapon of change, but to celebrate who they are, to affirm the as is.

I told you that I felt I had been unkind to the “Iron Vote” villagers. The other day, in the hot sun, defending my banner against their elbows and jeers, I could only see them as an ugly, faceless tribe, not as individual human beings with history, feelings, opinions.

The ugliness is there, but it’s not in the Iron Voters themselves. It is in how they are being used. Their honest passions, their love for their homes, their beliefs, are being manipulated for the benefit and profit of others. This is the greatest flaw of democracy. It only works if everyone agrees to play fair, on a level playing field. It assumes nobody will cheat or game the system. Ah, but the high minded and fair minded are always easy prey for the schemers and the powerful (and the “powerful” have many names–DAB, Republican Party, DNC).

That’s true in Yuen Long, Hong Kong and is true in Brooklyn, New York and San Francisco. In the fight to keep democracy true, we are all, all of us, village people.

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