What A Free And Hungry Hong Kong Press Looks Like From China

Analysis: The spectacle of Hong Kong reporters hounding candidates for upcoming elections has baffled some in China. Yet rabid reporters are a matter of neither conspiracies nor bling -- just an important lesson for mainland Chinese about the basics of de

In Hong Kong, Big Reporter is watching (Joybot)
In Hong Kong, Big Reporter is watching (Joybot)
Wu Weiting

BEIJING - "Power should be locked up in a cage..." has always been the spirit of Hong Kong's legal tradition. All its government agencies regard this as their driving principle and guidance.

Ahead of the March 25th election, candidates campaigning to become Hong Kong's next Chief Executive have all been under severe scrutiny from the Hong Kong press. Take Henry Tang for instance. Two weeks ago, rumor had it that Mr. Tang had constructed an illegal underground palace under his residence without getting the planning board's permission. So what did the press do? They hired cranes to look over the high walls of his mansion to get a better view.

If you were to ask local media executives in Hong Kong why they'd go to such lengths for such a report, the question itself would surprise them. "This election is a big event for Hong Kong," they would respond. "All vital information related to civil servants and to Hong Kong's next Chief Executive should be reported."

Likewise, Hong Kong citizens have an unending appetite for details and discussion as to how much Donald Tsang, the current Chief Executive and a rival candidate of Mr. Tang, would have paid for taking various luxurious cruises to Thailand provided by his rich friends -- or if he really did pay for his tours, as he claimed.

In Hong Kong, the exercise of power and policy-making has to inform the public and follow a certain procedure. It also has a legislative Council that questions public policy decisions. Legislators have the power to hold an emergency questioning session to ask governmental officials how they intend to respond to some urgent problem.

In turn, the officials have to describe and review the work that has been done, and are always expected to stick with the objective truth. This "objective truth" means they have to respond exactly to the question they have been asked, according to the data and the facts, so they can convince the legislative member who has raised the question that they are acting competently and correctly. During the whole process, any press reporter or citizen has the right to be present in the audience.

Lessons in democracy

Generally speaking, in a democratic society, public authority has a set formula as to how it sends out information and responds to questions. The media hence need not be always obsessed by what is in the political "black box." Public authority operates under a framework of mutual supervision and mutual independence, therefore the media doesn't have to spend all of its energy nor risk their lives to expose scandals.

From this point of view, Hong Kong's press is, in most cases, just playing the basic "watchdog" role of informing the public. It is rare that they have a scoop involving "digging up dirt" that can shock people.

The crowds of Hong Kong media hanging from cranes over Mr. Tang's mansion's fence is after all a single specific case of a larger phenomenon. Before it happened on Feb. 16, the media had already repeatedly posed the same questions to Tang many times. Since Mr. Tang seemed to be withholding the truth, the Hong Kong media rented cranes and took a look over his garden fence. The media follows the principle that all public figures have to be supervised.

A Hong Kong reporter told me that media probing only has to respect one basic premise: all parties must be probed. Questioning is based on common sense and logic. And the premise that supports this common sense and logic is democracy and the rule of law. In the Tang case, the Hong Kong press wanted to inspect whether the rumoured luxurious underground palace was built before or after the construction plan was authorized. This is the point of determining whether it's legal or not.

At the same time, the media also interrogated Buildings Department officials as to whether or not they had done their job in accordance with the law. This is a time where the government can demonstrate its administrative efficiency.

"Lock up power in a cage" in no way defines the media's take on everything, nor mean that an affair drags on indefinitely. On the contrary, it tries to review every detail of a case according to the law, put it in perspective and see through to a justified punishment if it so merits.

The higher rank the official's position is, the more he has to assume the consequences. For the man given the highest leadership of Hong Kong, integrity is even more important than experience. This explains why when Mr. Tang's secret was exposed, his poll ratings plummeted.

It would be incomplete to say this is because Hong Kong has a powerful media. We might rather say it's because all political parties, as well as the citizens of this island society, agree that politics should be clean, and power must be regulated.

The Hong Kong media is not an exotic flower, but just a basic product nurtured from a soil within its own legal tradition and political system.

Read more from 经济观察报E.O in Chinese

Photo - Joybot

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!