Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.41.7: SYSTEMS AND TRADITIONS

V041-07_GreekcolloqyFriends sometimes ask me why I have returned so many times to live in Hong Kong. It’s not the Cantonese food. As I age, it is less and less the beautiful women. The vibrant, intense urbanism, remains its powerful magnetism. But as I reflect more upon the question something else, more recondite, keeps coming up, something that harkens back to the days when I taught seminars in Planning Theory, days when I and my students pondered the differences of systems and traditions.

 

Hong Kong presents an interesting case for such considerations, not only for its contrasts with the West, but for its contrasts with its own recently rejoined motherland, The People’s Republic of China. Consistently cited as a jewel in the crown of unfettered capitalism, a business-friendly environment with minimum regulations and corporate social responsibilities, of course, very low tax rates, Hong Kong is laissez-faire in concrete. Workers rights and protections are all but non-existent; if you don’t want to work overtime until 8PM for no extra pay, there are a hundred million workers up in the PRC ready to take your place.  

 

That is the tradition in Hong Kong. That’s how Hong Kong got prosperous, through the business of trade and exploiting the labor supply. That’s how its heroes, the tai pans, became the models that so many Hongkongers want to emulate. Before Gordon Gekko, Hongkongers believed that “greed is good”; and before Deng Xiao-ping they belkieved that “to be rich is glorious.” That is why there is a bank on nearly every corner in Hong Kong. That is why so many people here are individual capitalists—because they must be. They are pretty much on their own; their government—mostly an institution that colludes and paves the way (often through people’s neighborhoods [1] ) for private enterprise to increase private profits—does not see much responsibility for looking after the welfare of individual citizens. The government only recently inaugurated a sort of Social Security fund, at a paltry small percent of workers salary.

 

To the extent that most Hong Kong yan (people) buy into this tradition, or really have little choice, most of them tend to be socially conservative.   This is not meant in the way political conservatism has come to mean in America, but in the sense that they see tradition—the established ways of doing things—as the form of social-political behavior.   It means that most Hong Kong yan tend to believe that they have to look out for themselves because government is not going to look out for you.   That’s their tradition .   Part of this comes from Chinese history, a long one in which there was never any reliable government, and in which famines and revolutions and centuries of social unrest left only the clan and the family as the social institutions that could be relied upon.   There was no overriding, collective social institution, no system.     Eventually, all that flipped 180 degrees into the Communist revolution.   But more on that below.

 

In Hong Kong this all distills down to a corollary to the real estate adage that the three most important things in real estate are location, location, and location. In Hong Kong this is nearly the same thing as to say that, in Hong Kong life, the three most important things are money, money, and more money.  It is only money, in bank, in pocket, in gold, in securities, that provides any real security. It is money that will give you a chance at a flat higher up the hill, with more space and perhaps a view. It is money that will buy a ticket out if things go bad, or if you need a good doctor. That is why there is a bank, and not a government office, on nearly every intersection in Hong Kong—people want their money close to hand.

 

Tradition teaches Hong Kong people that this is the way of things. What convinces them more is the collapse of the system up north in the motherland.   Not so much collapse, as its rapid elision, via the now fabled rhetoric of the late Deng Xiao-ping, into market capitalism “with Chinese characteristics,” of the “one country-two systems.” There it is, that word, system. Systems differ from traditions in that they come about—and we are talking only about socialsystems here [2] —by way of projection, by theoretical reasoning, by rationality, rather than by the results of trial and error that underpin traditions.

 

A system might come to be the way of things virtually overnight, as people who have lived through revolutionary change well know. Systems come about from observing traditional life, but they extract regularities from tradition and conduct critical analysis of it.   The traditionalist says, “this is the way we have always done things, and it worked well enough; it’s what we know.” That’s what makes them “conservative.” And that might be just good enough—so long as circumstances remain somewhat the same as they always have. Traditions work pretty well rural/agricultural societies where the men from one village have always married the women from the nearby village. [3] But when things change (sometimes from imposed social systems), traditions are usually a problem. The Poles always used to fight the Prussians with horsed cavalry; it didn’t do them any good against the Pansers in 1939.

 

Systemic thinking says things can be the way we want them to be. We just have to understand the system attributes of things, and then we design it they way we want.  Sort of like genetic engineering. Tradition comes from a naked empiricism (observation); systems come from analysis (taking things apart and seeing how they work). Systems theorize about things (sometimes very well, or we wouldn’t have been able to put a man on the moon), develop relationships, coefficients and laws and such, from which we can hypothesize that “we now know that doing X produces outcome Y, so if we want Y, then we do X.”   Tradition and systems come from different ways of learning about things.

 

But sytems can have problems too: entropy, for one. [4]   Systems change, and have breakdowns and become corrupted. They need to be monitored and adjusted.   Remember Mao’s adjustment to the communist system called The Cultural Revolution?   Hong Kong yanremember it very well, a lot of them are refuges from Mao’s China.  And now, the big mother up north has some sort of cockamamie hybrid of system and tradition. The somewhat natural entrepreneurial tendencies of the Chinese have been encouraged in the atmosphere of Deng’s dualisms—a freewheeling market economy under the hegemony of the good old Communist Party. China’s new economic ascendancy has become the world’s third largest economy, and in the process threatens to eat Hong Kong’s lunch.  What happens when “one country—two systems” becomes (and will it) one country—supposedly becomesone system.   Can such a system of rigid political control continue to sustain itself?  

 

In both paradigms there are problems, problems that Heraclitus, the author of my own personal motto— everything changes, nothing remains the same —told us about long ago. [5] Traditions don’t always work in globalized societies; some systemic policies and regulations are necessary to deal with poverty, pollution, aging populations and new educational needs.   And highly socialized systems must address the same problems without succumbing to the entropic elements of corruption, rigidity, and in the case of leaders like Mao—outright stupidity.

 

Somewhere in the vast middle ground between Traditions and Systems, between what seems natural and known, but is not, and between what seems rational and certain, but is not, is aplace and a process that provides sort of a gyroscope between the momentum of tradition and the progressive potential of systemic thinking. The candidate answer is usually these daysdemocracy.   And the place we usually look to for how that works to address the balance between tradition and system is usually the USA. Well, the past six years have shown us just how corruptible that is; the putative traditionalists have corrupted the system.  

 

In the end is a perplexing question: (A) Do systems corrupt people, or (B) Do people corrupt systems, or (C) Why is my gas $3.69 and 9/10ths a gallon?

 

Email me with your thoughts on this subject (not in Greek). There is a lot more to be said about it.

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©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.29.2007)

[1] There is, however, one tradition that does not stand in Hong Kong and that is land use. When business needs or desires land for its purposes there is no historical site that will stand in its way. Tradition does not extend to retention of the collective memory or to nostalgia for the city and buildings of the past.

[2] Systems, which etymologically derive from the Greek words for “stand together” (sus+tematikos), comes to us from biology, which, as we know, represents things that stand together (and then fall apart) that long precedes social systems. This has not prevented the borrowing from biology in, for example, the representation of urban transportation as the city’s “circulation system” or the central business district as the “heart of the city,” with all the consequent errors that go with reifying such metaphors.

[3] Here’s where the bio-systems start coming into pay and producing too many “village idiots.”

[4] Another Greek etymology, this time from Physics:   en ( inside) + trepw, ( to chase, escape, rotate, turn) in thermodynamics is central to the second law of thermodynamics , which deals with physical processes and whether they occur spontaneously.   In other words, systems don’t always operate the same.

[5] Sorry, Greek again (Thank you Fr. White, S.J.):   panta rei kai ouden menai.

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