Hong Kong stands courageous and defiant

After visiting Hong Kong, you never forget this unique, vibrant and beautiful island. I find this city, which has the most skyscrapers in the world, simply breathtaking. This is especially true when viewing the city from the Sky Terrace on the top of the mountain overlooking Victoria Bay or capturing the skyline at night.

Still, Hong Kong is much more than one of the financial business centers of the world. Last week it made the headlines as the center of political activism with large protests against a controversial law that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China. I want to join the Hong Kong people in the hope that the world will take notice. Not just take notice as in 3 min news clips but speak up for the democracy and freedom that is threatened in this part of Asia.

Hong Kong’s political future is clearly at stake. “One country, two systems” is a constitutional principle which means that there is one China but certain regions, for example, Hong Kong, have its own governmental system, legal, economic and financial affairs. When Britain transferred Hong Kong to China in 1997, the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 guaranteed these rights to Hong Kong for the next 50 years. How Hong Kong will be governed after 2047 is an open question – reintegrate with mainland China or stay under separate administration… Nobody knows what that future looks like.

It is very clear that China under the leadership/rule of Xi Jinping is becoming more and more authoritarian. Surveillance of its people like no place else; a social credit system to be fully implemented by 2020 which will monitor the behavior of all citizens  and rank them based on the “social credit“; a continued oppression and re-education of Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province which human rights groups describe as the largest mass incarceration in the 21st century; increased religious persecution, closing of Christian churches and jailing pastors who do not submit to the government control.

These are only few of the obvious abuses of universal human rights in the name of order and control of this vast country with large population and turbulent past. I would dare to say that in China the line between authoritarian and totalitarian rule is very fine.  The age-old idea of one strong hand (party), one ideology, one strong man (supreme leader, king, emperor) is steadily enforced and Hong Kong feels increasingly targeted and pulled by force into this authoritarian orbit.

I don’t understand all geopolitics and I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. Nevertheless I can’t shake the feeling that the democratic nations are either completely consumed with their own domestic problems or care much less about using the “soft power” of diplomacy to support democratic initiatives around the world. Recently I was discussing these issues with a Hong Kong friend. I made a remark how Western governments, including in my home country of Latvia, are suspiciously quiet on these obvious human rights abuses and erosion of any signs of democracy in China while focusing on trade wars and economics. My friend replied: ” The only place to stand up to China is Hong Kong!”

After seeing the photos of 2 million people marching on the streets of Hong Kong last Sunday, I have to agree with her. Hong Kong may be afraid about its Chinese future but people are not willing to accept it without strong resistance and letting their common voice be heard around the world. At the forefront of this political activism are young people who are no longer passive about their future prospects.

Another friend of mine who grew up in China but few years ago moved to Latvia, told me that he does not think the Westerner societies care about Chinese people (he meant the effects of authoritarianism). Those were sad words to hear and, I am afraid, mostly true. Still, I hope that this time Hong Kong people will not feel completely on their own.





A good city is like a good party…

Bangkok, Hong Kong, Cairo, London, Beijing, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Manila… some of the biggest and most densely populated urban areas I have visited or spent an extended time.

I smile when I think about many people I know in Latvia who complain when they have to go to the “big city” of Riga, our capital. They start talking about the cars, the people, the noise, the bad air… I think to myself, “You have no idea what it means to have lots of traffic, crowds, concrete, noise and air pollution.”

I love these cities and I hate them. I love them because there are so many things to do and see and I hate them because it takes ‘forever’ to get to those places. I love them because there is so much energy and creativity and I hate them because these cities ‘never’ sleep. I love them because they offer many good jobs and I hate them because they take people away from other places they don’t actually want to leave. I love them because there are so many people to be loved and I hate them because there is so much social injustice.

I am a city girl but I am also a country girl. I feel good in both and I need both. I think how the human story starts in the Garden of Eden and it continues in the new City. It sounds like there is an amazing place awaiting us. Maybe it is as nice and clean and green and enjoyable as Singapore and then hundred times better. I do believe that God must be an amazing urban planner… The sky will be blue, the weather will be perfect, the streets will be wide, the community will be whole. Hopefully no cars since we will not have to hurry. If there is no time, there is no hurry. We will get to places not too late and not too early.

My brother is an architect. He works in London and likes to share some of his ‘pearls of wisdom’ with me. Once he shared a quote which I have never forgotten. “First create life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.” These are words by a renowned architect, Jan Gehl, from Denmark who has devoted much of his life to improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards the pedestrian and cyclist.

Unfortunately in so many places I feel like it is the other way around. Like good and enjoyable and sustainable life is the last priority. These megacities are places of so much concentrated wealth and power and under the shiny facade there is often another tale. Tale of abuse of this wealth and power which means that the good life is not for everyone.

Jan Gehl also said that “In a society becoming steadily more privatized with private homes, cars, computers, offices and shopping centers, the public component of our lives is disappearing. It is more and more important to make the cities inviting, so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and experience directly through our senses. Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life” and “A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves.”

Where do you enjoy yourself?


Hong Kong… one of the places I could stay longer

Bangkoka, Honkonga, Kaira, Londona, Pekina, Losandželosa, Mehiko, Manila… vesels saraksts ar milzīgām un pārapdzīvotām metropolēm, kur esmu bijusi vai dzīvojusi.

Pasmaidu, kad dzirdu pazīstamus cilvēkus Latvijā sūdzamies, ka jābrauc uz “lielpilsētu” Rīgu. Tur esot tik daudz mašīnu, asfalta, cilvēku, trokšņu, un neesot, ko elpot. Es iedomājos, ko viņi teiktu šajās vietās, kur ir pavisam citi mērogi un cita nozīme vārdiem “sastrēgumi, satiksme, drūzma, burzma, asfalts, betons, troksnis un gaisa piesārņojums…”

Es gan mīlu, gan ienīstu šīs milzīgās pilsētas. Mīlu, jo te ir tik daudz ko redzēt un darīt, bet ienīstu to, ka jābrauc tik ‘tālu’ un tik ‘ilgi’. Mīlu, jo te ir tik daudz enerģijas un radošuma, bet ienīstu to, ka šīs pilsētas nekad ‘neguļ’. Mīlu, jo cilvēki var atrast labāku darbu, bet ienīstu to, ka daudziem jābrauc prom no sev mīļām vietām un mīļiem cilvēkiem, kurus negribas atstāt. Mīlu, jo te ir tik daudz cilvēku, ko mīlēt, bet ienīstu to, ka tik daudz netaisnības un sociālas nevienlīdzības.

Esmu gan pilsētas, gan lauku meitene. Man patīk un man vajag abas šīs vides. Nav jau brīnums, jo arī cilvēces stāsts iesākās Ēdenes dārzā, bet turpinās jaunā Pilsētā. Izklausās, ka tā būs apbrīnojama vieta. Varbūt tik jauka, tīra, zaļa, ērta kā Singapūra, bet simtreiz labāka. Man nav ne mazāko šaubu, ka Dievs ir vislabākais pilsētplānotājs… Debesis būs zilas, klimats būs perfekts, ielas būs platas, cilvēki vislabākajās attiecībās ar sevi, citem un apkārtējo vidi. Klusi ceru, ka nebūs mašīnu, jo nebūs taču nekur jāsteidzas. Ja nav laika mūsu izpratnē, tad nav arī steigas. Visur nokļūsim ne par ātru, ne par vēlu.

Viens no maniem brāļiem ir arhitekts. Strādā Londonā, un viņam ir daudz visādas ‘gudrības pērles’. Reiz viņš man atsūtīja kādu citātu, ko vēl joprojām atceros. “Vispirms radi dzīvi, tad radi vietu, un tad ēkas – no otra gala nevar sākt.” Šos vārdus teicis pasaules atzinību guvis arhitekts Jans Gēls no Dānijas, kurš savu darbu ir veltījis pilsētas dzīves kvalitātes uzlabošanai, rodot jaunus pilsētdizainus, kas dod priekšroku gājējiem un riteņbraucējiem.

Diemžēl daudzās vietās ir sajūta, ka tiešām sākts no otra gala. Un labā un ilgtspējīgā dzīve ir atstāta pēdējā vietā. Šajās metropolēs ir tik daudz bagātības un spēka koncentrācijas, bet zem spoguļstiklu fasādes slēpjas vēl kāds stāsts. Stāsts par šīs bagātības un spēka ļaunprātīgu izmantošanu, kas labo dzīvi piedāvā ne visiem.

Jans Gēls apgalvo, ka “sabiedrībā, kura kļūst arvien privātāka, jo ir privātās mājas, auto, datori, ofisi un iepirkšanās centri, sāk pazust mūsu dzīves publiskā daļa. Arvien svarīgāk ir padarīt mūsu pilsētas viesmīlīgas, lai mēs varētu satikties ar pārējiem iedzīvotājiem un piedzīvot šo saskarsmi vistiešākajā veidā. Publiskā dzīve labas kvalitātes publiskās vietās ir nepieciešama demokrātiskai un pilnvērtīgai dzīvei.” Un vēl viņš salīdzina “labu pilsētu ar labu tusiņu, kur cilvēki paliek ilgāk kā vajadzīgs, jo viņiem tur patīk.”

Kur tu gribētu palikt ilgāk?