Hong Kong peak viewHaving set up journalisnt.net as a site for alternative journalism, the observant observer would note the absence of any New Journalism or even a humble travelogue – until now, I have held the “I” aloft in my jottings.

Today I’ll offer that travelogue, then. Having returned from a couple of weeks spent in Hong Kong compels me to write a few lines in wonder at an astonishing metropolis both fast and garish, wild yet condensed, exhausting and energising at the same time. Hong Kong has the second longest life expectancy in the world (after Japan), ranks high on the Human Development Index, has superior corruption perception according to Transparency International and at the same time retains singular economic freedom and is unattached to any Western democracy since the handover in 1997. It’s a confounding place.

It’s also geared toward families, with all generations out on the streets at night – that is, safe. Coming into the city, nestled in the hills, it looks like a science-fiction paperback jacket from the 1960s minus the flying cars and multiple moons hugging the horizon.

But what I find most striking, and what I want to write about, is the lack of cynicism in the people. This is not something so easy to quantify, but coming en route between Australia-London-Scotland, it is evident. When you talk to someone in Hong Kong, the conversation starts from a place of mutual trust; at the same time, Hong Kong is saturated in media and commercial interests which seem less questioned.

I’d like to clarify my doubts here, before I go on. I spoke to a friend employed in Hong Kong as a schoolteacher – she suggests there just isn’t the same emphasis on coaching in critical thinking (although I noted protests before I arrived, some of which had to do with resistance to China’s injection of jingoist doctrine in the school curriculum). My friend, who has also lived in New Zealand and Australia, says almost exclusively when the kids hit their teens, they don’t do traditional outbursts and question authority (teenagerdom as we know it), they just retreat inward. She describes this as difficult to watch.

Another friend whose extended family resides between Australia and Hong Kong describes the way most families – including her own – will not speak openly of familial disputes, preferring instead to pretend they are not happening, suffering in the process. She posits this as a kind of local custom – family enmeshment reigns, but healthy questioning of family bonds does not. Many in her family refuse to speak to one another.

At the same time, the openness and honesty, the lack of ingrained irony and constant questioning I encountered – and have encountered in others I’ve met from Hong Kong – as well as abundant honour- and trust-based social and commercial transactions, all came as such a relief that I began to ask myself some hard questions.

Although I’m pretty much hardwired now to uphold the virtues of critical thinking in education – an irony in itself when you consider how spuriously targeted a value this “critical thinking” is – I had to note that its absence makes for a refreshing point of view. There’s a lot lost in a world where it is necessary to mistrust every message as you receive it, to always start from a critical position with all communiqué.

There’s the problem: it is necessary to do this kind of questioning. The culture of critical thinking didn’t come out of nowhere – I’ve devoted a lot of time here to encouraging readers to consider not so much the values embedded in specific media, but the sociology of the effects of mass media; what is happening to us the more time we spend engaged with mediated reality? One thing we need more than ever are the tools and the minds to question whether or not pretty much every communication we encounter has our best interests in mind, given that the majority of messages we receive are now commercially driven and often harder to detect as commercially driven. Working in PR, I have witnessed with some distress the drive to integrate commercial interests with our most intimate, local and trusted sources.

Naturally, this emphasis on critical thinking has to become habitual and attitudinal in order to work – but as this happens, it increasingly has to spill over into all our interactions, ever the more so when our social interactions are mediated through devices which add adds to them, and all manner of sneaky distortions of our sociality to direct our attention through trusted media. It has become necessary to mistrust everyone, and it shows in the attitudes of successive generations – if Gen Y communicated in a protective nudge-and-wink irony, wait until you see Gen Z and subsequent iGens at work!

For communication to mean something, it needs at least occasional trust. But with good reason, that trust is harder to find.

The relative absence of this familiar attitude may have made Hong Kong refreshing to a traveller like myself, but subsequently Hong Kong is an almost blindingly commercialised city. Every surface seems covered in advertisements of some kind – and considering the amount of buying and selling and intensive consumption of planetary resources happening there, some of it is surely internalised…

How do we do this then? How do we achieve a workable level of trust and not become driven by those with the capital to exploit it?

Of course, this is just one question weighing on my mind. I also regretfully left behind such wonders as the MTR, providing the mobility of which my hometown Sydney can’t possibly see for decades, at least. Why? Because in our version of democracy, we value critical debate 4eva and live in the moment – how long have we been debating long-term public transport plans? How long, despite clear future gains, has no one been willing to pay for it?

Yet another friend elucidated the economics of the transport system: the government built shopping centres above the land under which the MTR was developed. The shopping centres partially fund further transport investment. But then you’ve got more shopping centres, of course…

So I come to wonder, so grandly, whether democracy is only a means to begin separation of powers – once this is achieved, how on earth do we get on with the job of long-term planning? How did Hong Kong plan such a great city, with its tumultuous political past, swapping hands and enduring occupation? After the Japanese left and the war ended, the United Kingdom did put a lot into development of one of their final colonies, at this point with no opium gain in return – perhaps at pains to make amends and rebrand colonial heritage, make it look good. After the unpopular handover, it seems to have kept developing at speed. Hong Kong fans are fond of saying it’s the best of the east and the best of the west combined – I’m inclined to tentatively agree. “Tentatively” – must be that westernised cynical streak in me.