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Dancing to my own tune: pursuing artistic freedom in an increasingly repressive Hong Kong


"Let me try and make her look like a ballerina," Youtuber ballet coach Claudia Dean mused as she adjusted her sister's shoulders, elbows, hands and neck - her sister had no dance training, and the point of the video was to show how ballet looked like when attempted by a layperson.

Dean said she did the video for fun. Indeed, many times during her broadcast, she literally collapsed to the floor laughing, so amused she was by the sight of her sister wobbling and stumbling while making a go at ballet. Yet underneath all the hilarity, Dean is making a serious point: ballet may seem effortless on stage, but it's all an illusion.

Youtuber ballet coach Claudia Dean and her sister.

I thought of Dean and her sister as I set myself upon the task of editing a column written by The South China Morning Post chief editor Tammy Tam. As an English writing coach, I'd long been aware of the amateurish quality of Tam's writing, and one day, it occurred to me, why not use her weekly column as teaching material? As I re-worked her copy - changing this word to add more oomph, modulating the tone of that sentence to make her sound more assured - I felt I was Dean adjusting her sister into a ballerina's standing position. I was giving Tam the poise of a writer.

It was while I was in the thick of deciphering the intended meaning of Tam words and rewriting them into coherent utterances that I gained a sense of Tam's ineptitude as a writer: whatever Tam had applied herself to in the past, toiling at the keyboard - so necessary a part of any writer's growth - wasn't one of them. So, just as some people think any able-bodied person can lift her leg and "dance", Tam probably approached column-writing assuming any literate person can string sentences together and "write." Is it therefore any surprise that you find one of her readers groaning
"(Tam's) columns are just too hard to read ... no rhythm or natural flow," and another grumbling she has to "continuously go back and read a sentence or two to make sense of (Tam's writing)" 

Youtuber ballet coach Claudia Dean and her sister.

How did someone with Tam's shoddy English got herself installed as the chief editor of an English-language paper in a cosmopolitan city? In recent years, Beijing has made many moves to curtail the freedom of expression in Hong Kong; Tam's appointment can be understood as just one of such measures. And from Beijing's point of view, the need to have a loyalist helm the SCMP is so pressing that the optics of Tam dancing like Dean's sister in the paper every week is of negligible importance.

Unlike the antics of Dean's sister, however, Tam's performances aren't funny. Quite the contrary, to me they bring home a sobering truth: either I pursue the lonely path of the independent writer and live with the risks this path entails, or I seek safety in numbers and - since I seem to do a better job of coping with Tam's copy than her current sub-editor - I could, say, get a job at the SCMP, where the the multitude of recent new hires rival "the cast of Ben Hur"and the budget is "staggering"  .

I should therefore ask myself, why stay on the road less traveled? The stock answer, of course, is, "I want the freedom of expression." But to explain how this desire has come to emerge as the driving force in my life despite trying political circumstances, I first have to show how it plays out in me. The closest I can come to do so is to compare it with what the dancer-turned-ballet-historian Jennifer Homans has said about "the exhilarating sense of liberation" that acts as a drug on dancers and draws them to their physically and low-paying profession: "If the coordination and musicality, muscular impulse and timing were exactly right, the body would take over. I could let go." This is how writing is like for me too, when I throw caution to the wind, allow random thoughts and images to slowly coalesce into an order of their own, and wait for my writing to write itself. The satisfaction that comes when something as hard as writing not only appear effortless to the reader but also feels effortless to the writer - I have yet to know a life experience that can top this.

Now, imagine a change of scene: I'm working at an outfit where someone with Tam's abilities is there to make sure no one steps out of line; surely, the mere sight of her is enough to deter me from setting my imagination into motion. This would mean an annihilation of what I prize most in life. Admittedly, out on my own in the shadow of an increasingly authoritarian China, I have no idea how long I can hold out - but I hope it can be forever.

In the body of text below, I comment on SCMP chief editor Tammy Tam's column paragraph by paragraph. I have numbered each of her paragraphs for easy reference. I have also italicized her copy, to distinguish it from mine.

(Title)
Hong Kong cannot escape the US-China trade war unscathed

The problem with this title is most people would agree with it, and a title that's devoid of controversy is less likely to attract readers. If I were Tam, I'd draw people to my column by giving a forecast on the degree of damage Hong Kong will suffer in the trade war. I'd suggest using this title instead: "Hong Kong in for a bumpy ride in the US-China trade spat?"

(Subtitle)
Despite being an independent and free economic entity, the city will not be able to avoid being dragged into this clash of global economic titans

I suspect that in calling Hong Kong "an independent and free economic entity," Tam wanted to say (a) Hong Kong is an entity separate from China and (b) Hong Kong has the world's freest economy. Tam could have expressed herself more precisely by describing Hong Kong as "an autonomous entity with the world's freest economy.”

1.What is the "biggest trade war of the century" all about?

Even the first sentence of Tam's column can't be properly understood until one has done some detective work.

In putting "biggest trade war of the century" in quotation marks, Tam is signaling that the reasonably well-informed reader should know its source. I do try to keep up with current affairs, but initially I didn't have any recollection of this phrase. So, I had to go off and investigate its origin.

The first page of a Google search on "biggest trade war of the century" and "China" yielded only one item related to China: a Washington Post column rebutting the claim made by China's Ministry of Commerce (Mofcom) that the current trade dispute is the "the largest trade war in economic history". The column provides a link to Mofcom's statement ; I clicked on it and noted its date of issue: two days before Tam's column was published. So, Tam's quotation probably came from Mofcom.

Now, Tam herself may be constantly eyeing Beijing for the latest line to take, but she can't assume many of SCMP's readers rely on government websites directly as their news source, and therefore can't expect them to automatically recognize a phrase as coming from Beijing when they see it in print. To serve her readers better, Tam could have written "How well can Hong Kong weather a trade dispute that Beijing has characterized as 'biggest trade war of the century'"? (I'm mentioning Hong Kong in the opening line because Tam's column is about Hong Kong).

2. Is it purely over America's trade deficit with China? Or is it a war for the US to contain China's rise? Or even a war against globalisation?

I'd avoid repeating the word "war" in so short a paragraph - I'd simply replace the second sentence with "or is it a scheme devised by the US to contain China's rise?

3. Beijing and Washington apparently have just the opposite views. Then how about Hong Kong, which remains an independent and free economic entity under "one country, two systems"? Can Hong Kong try to remain neutral so as not to be dragged too far into this row? The city may once have hoped so, but that is very unlikely to be the case now.

In the previous paragraph, Tam lists three interpretations of the trade war without attributing them to anyone. This gives the reader the impression that she is merely providing three possible readings of the dispute for the reader to consider. In the first sentence of paragraph 3, however ( "Beijing and Washington apparently have just the opposite views"), Tam suddenly informs the reader that the views presented in paragraph 2 are actually ascribable to the US and China. But which view belongs to the US, and which to China? Readers who don't follow the news closely may not be able to tell immediately.

Regarding the sentence "Beijing and Washington apparently have just the opposite views" - I'd omit "apparently"; without it the sentence still has the same meaning.

As for the last two sentences of the paragraph - "Can Hong Kong try to remain neutral so as not to be dragged too far into this row? The city may once have hoped so, but that is very unlikely to be the case now" - their meaning is vague. Does Tam mean (a) "it is very unlikely that the city now continues to harbour the hope that they can be neutral" or (b) "they continue to harbour this hope, but it is very unlikely that they won't be caught in the crossfire of the US-China trade war"?

4. What puzzles many Chinese is that while US President Donald Trump keeps talking of President Xi Jinping as "a great man" and his "good friend", he has no qualms about launching this massive trade war against him . With the signs indicating a further escalation rather than an easing, the answer to the puzzle is evident: Trump's "America first" policy takes precedence over any friendship.

The real puzzle is this: are we to believe Tam isn't astute enough to realize (1) Trump's profession of friendship with Xi is mere posturing (2) the US isn't a one-person dictatorship, so even if Trump wanted to prioritize his relationship with Xi over his country's interests, he wouldn't be able to do so, due to the safeguards embedded in a democratic system, like the watchful eye of a rival party and the press.

"Trump keeps talking of President Xi Jinping as 'a great man'" should have been "Trump keeps speaking of President Xi Jinping as 'a great man'".

5.As for China, besides accusing the US of trying to stop its development, the latest official line is that – more than a trade war between the two most important global economic powers – this is a war against the world's free-trade system, a set-up ironically initiated by the US decades ago.

This whole paragraph is awkwardly written. I'd suggest this rewrite: "Recently, China fine-tuned its stance on the trade war by pointing out an irony: in initiating the dispute, not only is the US attempting to contain China's rise; it is also dismantling the free trade system it had set in place decades ago."

6. That narrative signifies a shift in the Beijing leadership's thinking. After negotiating hard with the US in the hope of a last-minute reprieve, regardless of how slim the chance, China now is apparently not only deeply disappointed but must have come to realise the inevitability of this trade war. And that it will be a long one – a reality that is hard to swallow but cannot be changed.

"That narrative signifies a shift in the Beijing leadership's thinking" - I’d replace "the Beijing leadership" with "the Chinese leadership" or simply "Beijing."

"China now is apparently not only deeply disappointed but must have come to realise the inevitability of this trade war" - I'd do away with "apparently" because it doesn't add any meaning to the sentence

"And that it will be a long one – a reality that is hard to swallow but cannot be changed" - didn't Tam already note in the previous sentence that Beijing has "come to realize the inevitability of this trade war"? I'd therefore delete this last sentence because its meaning is already contained in the sentence previous to it. If Tam still wants to emphasize that Beijing thinks the trade war will be a long-term problem, she can combine the last two sentences and write "as hopes dim that it can put a halt to the trade war, the Chinese leadership is now steeling itself for a long battle ahead." 

Notice Tam's use of "last-minute reprieve" to describe Beijing's final effort to stop the trade war. Here, Tam is exposing she doesn't have an ear for the English language. If she had been capable of detecting the harshness of her tone, she wouldn't have used this phrase because she couldn't possibly have wanted Beijing come across as being so totally at the Washington's mercy. Making the Chinese dictatorship appear weak is the ultimate party taboo, if there was ever one.

7. The old Chinese saying, "It rains when heaven deems fit, mother remarries when she wants to", aptly describes the inevitability and acceptance of it all in this situation.

I'd avoid employing the word "inevitability" since it was just used in the previous paragraph. In fact, I would rewrite this wordy sentence as follows: (the Old Chinese saying) "aptly describes China's acceptance of the trade war as unavoidable.

By paragraph 7, we are already halfway into the column, yet Tam has yet to deliver on what she has promised in her title - an explanation of how the trade war will affect Hong Kong. Instead, in paragraphs 5 - 7, Tam allocates 156 words (25% of her column) to painting Beijing as a victim, without uttering a single word on why Washington has decided to be so tough on China (without noting, for example, that Washington is refusing to tolerate any longer Beijing's practice of subsidizing Chinese firms, which then steal intellectual property from western firms and then put them out of business).

If Tam thinks she can drum up sympathy for Beijing by ignoring the elephant in the room, she is sadly mistaken. Her tactic only serves to confirm the truth of former The South China Morning Post reporter Paul Mooney's portrayal of her: a few years back, when Tam had the opportunity to interview the controversial Bejing-appointed religious leader of Tibet, she "ask(ed) only one serious question of (a person) who has never appeared in the Western media before"; and in her write-up of the interview she "gushed like a high school girl". Obviously, Tam hasn't changed since. If anything, her efforts to ingratiate herself with Beijing have intensified after she assumed the leadership of SCMP.

Granted, there's always the possibility that Tam's intended reader is her Beijing masters, and that she is writing primarily to express her solidarity with the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, a foremost concern among those beholden to the party is being seen as always ready to embrace Bejing's latest fixation. Those who fail to do so risk ostracism. Back in the 1950s, for instance, when party official Deng Zihui (鄧子恢)voiced reservations about Mao Zedong's (毛澤東)Great Leap Forward plan, Mao famously wasted no time in publicly chiding him for falling behind, comparing him to "a lady with bound feet, wobbling on stumps while constantly complaining that others are pacing ahead of her (「像一個小腳女人,東摇西擺地在那裡走路,老是埋怨旁人說:走快了,走快了。」). Since - this should be glaringly obvious by now - Tam couldn't have landed on her position on her abilities alone, of course she's going to overdo it in the follow-the-party department. Hence her overwrought prose, her almost unconscious minute mirroring of Beijing's emotions in paragraphs 5 -7.

8. However, by asserting that the US is waging a "world war" against globalisation, Beijing has a better reason to try to convince others to be its allies.

A stronger word than "assert" is needed here, for Tam is talking about Beijing's gambit to convince other countries to accept its narrative of the trade war instead of the US's. Tam's use of the word "better" is also problematic because she doesn't tell the reader, better compared to what? I'd suggest this re-write: "By targeting countries which have benefited from globalization and persuading them that Trump's retreat from it will compromise their economic interests as well, China can turn them into allies and gain more leverage over its battle with the US."

Notice how again, Tam's writing is more interesting for what she has left out: since early last year, when the US began to attack China in earnest, Beijing has become more and more of a pariah on the global stage. By conveniently labeling the phantom countries that are likely to ally themselves with Beijing as "others," she can sidestep the burden of coughing up names.

9. So where is Hong Kong in this war? The city had once hoped that, with a different economic system and its special status as an independent member of the World Trade Organisation, it could avoid bigger collateral damage, although the government was also preparing for rainy days ahead.

"So where is Hong Kong in this war" - what a sloppy use of language! Then there's a misuse of "although." And "bigger collateral damage" doesn't tell us bigger compared to what?

Since, in this paragraph, one can already sense that Tam is about to shift from fawning over Beijing to fawning over the Hong Kong government, I might as well rewrite the paragraph in the voice of a gushing schoolgirl: "So how can Hong Kong find its footing in the US-China tussle? Despite the widespread belief among Hong Kong people that the city's autonomous status can shield them from the US-China trade war, their government, ever prescient and ever efficient, has already preemptively put in place measures that will see Hong Kong sailing through the worst-case scenarios."

10. Thanks to a free and open economic environment, plus historic reasons, Hong Kong maintained close trade relations with the US before and after the handover of the city's sovereignty from Britain to China. For the same reason, the US business community in town apparently doesn't want to see the trade war spread to Hong Kong either.

What are the "historic reasons" that Tam has in mind? If such reasons aren't worth spelling out, why add this phrase in the first place?

"For the same reason, the US business community in town apparently doesn't want to see the trade war spread to Hong Kong either" - I'd edit out "apparently" because it adds no meaning to the sentence.

Note that Tam has used the word "apparently" unnecessarily three times already (in paragraphs 3, 6, and 10). Apparently, Tam doesn't understand the usage of "apparently"!

11. But it's a wake-up call for Hong Kong. Over the weekend, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor joined the global chorus blaming the US for disrupting the international trading order. Both Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po and trade minister Edward Yau Tang-wah gave public assurances that the government would closely monitor the latest developments and assess the possible impacts before taking necessary measures.

"But it's a wake-up call for Hong Kong" - common sense dictates that a wake-up call doesn't occur by itself. Tam therefore leaves her reader wondering whether there has been an incident that prompted the call.

Another example of Tam skirting around an issue: recall that in paragraph 8, Tam describes Beijing as planning to convince phantom countries ("others") to join forces to counter the US. Here in paragraph 11, again Tam is claiming that there exists a "global chorus" keen on condemning the US for upsetting the global trade order. In both cases, Tam isn't short on specifics for no reason:the only allies Beijing has are the ones it has bought.

Another problem with paragraph 11: just two paragraphs ago, Tam said the Hong Kong government was already "preparing for rainy days ahead." In this paragraph, however, we're suddenly told a wake-up call has been issued out of nowhere, and now, Hong Kong officials are scrambling to do what sounds like really preliminary tasks, as if they don't even have a plan in place yet. Which version is the reader supposed to believe?

12. Hong Kong is definitely not, and should never be, "just another city in China". That's why Lam has vowed to travel overseas more to promote the city's unique qualities. Yau is busy working on more deals with his foreign counterparts.

The irony of this paragraph is probably lost on Tam. The fact that someone with her abilities (or lack thereof) is now the chief editor of a once-august publication certainly lends credence to the perception that Hong Kong is just another city in China - if anyone needs proof that the mainland practice of muzzling the fourth estate is being extended to Hong Kong, just look at Tam.

As for Lam, when she travel overseas, on the mind of her audience will probably be two things: (1) the US State Department's rebuke that in 2017, at China's behest, Lam declined to honor a US request to extradite a fugitive, and (2) last year, when The Financial Times asked Lam who is the political leader she admires most, she named the Chinese president Xi Jinping, but not without self-consciously adding "you may say that it's shoe-shining". 

13. But no matter how special Hong Kong's status within China, when it comes to a trade war on a global scale – which not even long-time allies of the US such as Japan, South Korea and Europe can avoid – this city cannot hope to remain untouched.

Does the last paragraph of this column sound familiar? It should, because it's actually a rewording of the column's subtitle ("Despite being an independent and free economic entity, the city will not be able to avoid being dragged into this clash of global economic titans")! After forcing her reader to trudge through all her mangled copy and meandering logic, Tam hasn't nudged her reader towards understanding the trade war's impact on Hong Kong one tiny bit. Instead, her one accomplishment is causing the soft-hearted among us to feel for those propaganda officials entrusted with carrying out President Xi's mandate to "tell China's story well": if Tam is the best person they can find in their stable of party loyals to front SCMP, then they must be having a severe human capital problem!


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