Have you been sanctioned?｜Kevin Carrico
When I was living in China, I have to admit that I wasn’t always completely in sync with social cues: this is not to suggest, of course, that I am much more in sync elsewhere.
One of the more challenging types of interactions that I had on a near daily basis was responding to the greeting “have you eaten?” At first, I took the question as a sincere expression of interest in my eating habits, which I have to admit have never been terribly healthy and which I have thus never been eager to share with others.
It was only with the passage of time that I gradually began to understand that my interlocutor was not interested in whether I had in fact eaten, nor (thankfully in my case) in what I had eaten. Rather, as I assume many more socially adept readers are already quite aware, it was essentially an empty question comparable to “how are you?”
This type of an opener does not seek an answer so much as it draws upon the shared content of everyday life to give voice to connections between people: we all eat (have you eaten), we all find ourselves in emotions (how are you), and in the expression of these commonalities a bond is created. If one was casually asked “how are you” and ended up giving a lengthy response detailing how horrible one’s day had been while sobbing uncontrollably, answering the question honestly would in fact constitute answering it the wrong way.
Such conversational openers vary as sociopolitical developments reshape everyday life. For example, during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards shared “proletarian revolutionary greetings” when they met. To cite a more relatable example, during this past year’s pandemic, the standard greeting of “how are you” has taken on new meanings, opening onto the discussion of novel shared experiences of lockdown, isolation, illness, and survival.
The ongoing pandemic is however not the only development this year to have changed the daily lives of Peking’s loyal servants in Tamar and Sai Wan: the announcement of the United States’ sanctions regime against officials who have destroyed Hong Kong’s legally guaranteed autonomy has undoubtedly made every day just a little bit more exciting for these folks.
Their new greeting at gatherings is probably no longer “how are you” or “have you eaten,” but rather simply “have you been sanctioned?”
The first group of officials to be sanctioned by the United States in August consisted of some genuine elites: Carrie Lam, John Lee, Teresa Cheng, Zhang Xiaoming, and Luo Huining, among others. Not just anyone could be on this list: the question of whether or not one was the target of sanctions, or in the words of some recipients “so-called sanctions,” had a genuine ring of distinction to it.
The second group to be sanctioned in November consisted of four officials with considerably lower name recognition: Deng Zhonghua, Edwina Lau, Li Jiangzhou, and Li Kwai-wah. Although these four were less well-known than the first batch, their involvement in heaping piles of communist nonsense means that the sanctions were undoubtedly well earned.
Ringing in the new year in the most festive manner possible, earlier this week the United States announced further sanctions on six Hong Kong officials: among the sanctioned were officials in the national security office, police officers, and of course beloved National People’s Congress delegate Tam Yiu-chung.
As the sanctions list has grown from zero to twenty-one officials, I have imagined Peking loyalists at gatherings in the Liaison Office or in meetings of the Executive Council beginning their dialogues with the opener, “have you been sanctioned,” giving voice to this new common experience of their daily lives.
Yet the tone of this opening question would have shifted over the past few months from cool and mocking to dark and worried.
In August, in response to news that he had been targeted in the first round of sanctions, Liaison Office Director Luo Huining declared that he had no assets in the United States to freeze, before mockingly offering to send over $100 USD to President Trump for freezing. Carrie Lam also announced that she had no assets in the United States and no plans to settle there. These initial responses struck a tone of outright (and uninformed) mockery.
The joke, of course, was on the officials subject to these sanctions who seemed so eager to voice their defiance despite completely failing to understand the sanctions’ implications. It soon became apparent that any entity engaged in business with the United States, such as banks that want to use US dollars, are now forbidden from having any contact with Luo, Lam, and other sanctioned individuals, including their immediate family. I am not a financial expert, to say the least, but in my experience most banks like to have access to the US dollar trade.
Woman of the people Carrie Lam discussed the real impact of sanctions in her characteristic down-to-earth way in November, declaring that her inability to maintain a bank account meant that she now lived among “stacks of cash” at home: a comment unlikely to evoke much sympathy from Hong Kong residents. Lam has not, however, made a public statement on how the sanctions impact her son Lam Yeuk-hei’s graduate studies at Harvard.
The reality of the sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials is that they are much more far-reaching and impactful than their targets initially thought. And a further reality is that these sanctions are not going away anytime soon: they are part of these officials’ lives.
Being sanctioned nowadays has become just as common of an experience for Beijing loyalists as eating a meal or thinking about the weather.
The real question that officials should ask, then, is not the empty opener “have you been sanctioned,” but rather “if I continue serving this regime, will I be sanctioned as well?”
(Kevin Carrico, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University)
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