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Hong Kong’s new feminist wave

Hong Kong has long been home to sexism and inequality with little protest. But things are starting to change.

The throng of defiant, energetic men with bras strapped around their chests was the first indication of a new movement. Last month’s “breast walk” was in aid of Ng Lai-ying, a 30-year-old woman who was sentenced to three months and 15 days in prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer with her breast during a protest in March. She recalled that the Chief Inspector in question, Chan Ka-po, put his hand on her breast when he was attempting to grab her bag, but the judge accused her of using her “female identity” to “trump the allegation” that the officer assaulted her.

Despite its overtly westernised society, which has remained intact since the 1997 British handover, Hong Kong has avoided the public sexism scandals seen in cities like London or New York – like an increasing pay gap, and the backlash against catcalling in NYC, after Hollaback’s street harassment video went viral. Hong Kong has managed to maintain its archaic hierarchy system thanks to “tradition”, and shut the blinds on the changes occurring in mainland China, namely women exercising their ambitions and making considerable dents in the glass ceiling.

People have found their voices, thanks in part, to the Occupy protests last year against Beijing’s power over the selection of Hong Kong’s new leader. With more noise being made about feminism, it’s no longer just city politics Hong Kongers are breaking their silence over.

While Ng Lai-ying’s case is extraordinary, sexism in Hong Kong isn’t. In 2013, the Secretary for Security, Lai Tung Kwok, commented that women “should not drink too much” if they wanted to avoid being raped, after it emerged that the number of rape incidents had risen by 60 per cent.

It doesn’t end there. One of Hong Kong’s biggest problems for women lies in the boardroom. The eight tertiary education institutions across the city are dominated largely by men, with women making up just 35 per cent of professional staff. It’s not surprising, then, that none of these colleges has had a female at the helm.

While gender parity seems to have been reached within the student body, with the number of women choosing to study having risen 20 per cent over the past 30 years, it gets less promising the further up the timeline you go. Women are quitting their jobs to look after their families, with a staggering 83 per cent admitting they wouldn’t ever go back to work. For most, this comes off the back of the economic crisis. Only 10 per cent of families are able to afford childcare, and new mums only get 10 weeks maternity leave, falling four weeks short of the International Labour Organisation’s recommendation. With tradition condemning stay-at-home dads, women are left with few options.

In an interview with Time Out Hong Kong, Su-Mei Thompson, the head of non-profit organisation The Women’s Foundation, called it “western guilt”, a result of the aforementioned barriers. “Hong Kong women are prone to western guilt about being a bad mother if you also have a demanding job,” she said. The lack of women in work is also largely fuelled by the overriding attitude that females who work part-time are uncommitted. Add to that the recent widening of the pay gap (by HK$500 since 2011), and the current situation doesn’t look good.

“There are so many bright women graduating from our universities and joining the workforce, but the upper echelons of power are still dominated by men across industries and professions,” Thompson said, adding, “How can it be that in our Court of Final Appeal, all 21 judges are male?”

But the landscape for women in Hong Kong is changing. One of the initiatives raising the flag for feminism is She Objects, a project spearheaded by The Women’s Foundation, which focuses on the reality of female objectification and sexualisation within the media. The short film, due to be released in early 2016, covers media-bred eating disorders, sexual harassment and features young women defiantly stating, “I am not an object”.

Meanwhile, the first all-female e-gaming team emerged last month, sponsored by Logitech to compete in professional gaming battles. Earlier in the year, lecture phenomenon TED teamed up with a host of successful Chinese women to host TEDxWanchai Women, covering everything from technology to challenging the status quo. Amazingly, through a successful petition, the women of Hong Kong also recently took down a new advice book titled Get Laid in Hong Kong, which had become an Amazon bestseller.

While this is only just the beginning – American sports bar Hooters and new “dirty” burger bar Double D are set to open in the city this month, both complete with sexualised advertising – it’s clear that feminism in Hong Kong is finally having its moment.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear