March 1st, 2008



I woke up this morning to find a stern red "no entry" sign replacing one of the Edison Chen photos in my Edison electrifies China piece. Apparently the decision of some kind of robot judge, this sign informed me that "this image or video violated our terms of service". It was the work of a few seconds to host the image on another server in another country, but out of interest I read their Terms of Service to see what clause this image of two clothed people could have violated.

Section 5, "Restrictions", had some quite plausible reasons the image might have been blanked -- I didn't have "the lawful right to display" this image, or release forms from each identifiable person, as outlined in 5a(i) and 5a(ii). But since none of the other images of Hong Kong actresses had been blanked, I had to assume the puritan robot judge had acted on 5e, defining this as "content that is obscene... that contains nudity or pornography". Wikipedia told me that "Photobucket has Terms of Service (TOS) that allows nudity", and also that the service was acquired last May by News Corporation subsidiary Fox Interactive Media. I can only assume that News Corp / Fox has changed the TOS terms to ban not just nudity, but people wearing clothes who are touching each other in ways the Murdoch organisation doesn't like.

That got me thinking again about the relativism of cultural standards of propriety, and how they might differ from country to country, from era to era, and from proprietor to proprietor. And that's fine -- it would be a dull old world where everyone thought the same things were beyond the pale. But I think there's some confusion in the way these things are written about, confusion that circles around the questions "Are we all heading in the same direction?" and "Is there a single cultural standard that accompanies modernity wherever it's to be found?" and "What happens to cultural difference over time?" and "What happens if the West no longer represents modernity?"

Have a look at this BBC story about Richard Gere kissing the actress Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS awareness rally in New Delhi last year. (Thanks to Lord Whimsy for the link.) The BBC article only talks about Gere having angered "protesters" with his kiss, but the Indian press speaks of arrest warrants having been issued by various courts. So, as in the Photobucket example, this seems to be a case in which local cultural standards (whatever "local" means for News Corp) and laws are intertwined.

What really caught my eye in the BBC article, though, was the explanation: "Public displays of affection and sex are still largely taboo in India." It's the word "still" that troubles me there; there's a whole world of assumption built into it. It implies an anti-relativist view of the world, a convergence model in which it's taking some cultures "longer" to arrive at the standards "we" have already reached, but they'll get there in the end. "You're just like I used to be when I was young!" it seems to say, and it's a view we see often in tandem with "We don't like the backward way you treat your women" or the idea that "You guys are still living in the middle ages".

The word "still" also came up yesterday in coverage of the Edison Chen scandal. "We tend to imagine Hong Kong as a free-wheeling, anything goes kind of place," said Foreign Policy. "But in many ways, it still reflects the conservatism of the mainland." That model puts Hong Kong's sexual morality "ahead" of Mainland China's. But another analyst, Daisann McLane, told the LA Times: "In many ways, Hong Kong preserves a lot of Confucian ideals that got swept away on the mainland". Notice how nobody, in these Western media reports, is saying "Ex-colonial Hong Kong, in many ways, still reflects the sexual morality of the West". This "still" formula can never be applied to the West. The assumption is that it's other cultures which are converging towards our way of doing things, abandoning their own as a matter of course. We in the West can never be "conservative", no matter how many tame images we ban. We will always represent, in our own eyes, modernity and a lifestyle which the whole world envies. Happy to say that thousands-of-years-old cultures like India and China are "just like we were when we were young", we would be outraged to hear someone say that the West was "still x or y", implying that we needed to "get with the program" of someone else's cultural standards. That person would instantly be our enemy. We'd have to gun them down, send in the troops.

Sunshine Wong made a very interesting comment yesterday about the current state of relations between Hong Kong and mainland China. "I could go on forever about the myriad of complexes HKers have," the Berlin-based Hong Konger wrote, "our false sense of superiority over China waxes and wanes depending on the day of the week, we're less and less secure of our identity as separate from China's, we feel ambivalent of our colonial past, etc. Meanwhile China forges headlong into the modern age, using us as a blueprint of their development, and quite literally at that; there are areas in newly urbanised regions of Guangzhou named after HK districts! And their MTR stations look almost identitcal to that of HK's. So we go to China, see this, think "WTF?" and console ourselves: so indeed we are better, they're copying us after all. But simultaneously, we realise that they are going to surpass us at this rate - but in what ways? That's what's disconcerting to a lot of us. If it were pure economics we were worried about, the answer would be simple: we'd work harder. But of course it isn't just that..."

"China's unrelenting development is ruthless and makes no apologies. It is dead set in proving to the rest of the world that it, too, can modernise in 30 years what has taken a couple of centuries to do in the West. And sexual permissiveness is part and package of modernisation. China has been nothing but permissive, for they've had a lot of catching up to do. I don't know many Mainlanders intimately but wouldn't be surprised if there are more co-habitating twentysomethings in China than in HK. The generation growing up with violent transformations have fewer moral coordinates, so everything goes - metaphorically and literally. This gives them the liberty to be rebellious, self-centred and experimental the way HKers could never dream of."

"I don't know what to think of the timewarp analogy [Daisann McLane's view of HK as a kind of "pickled Confucian China" overtaken by events on the mainland]. Maybe s/he's spot on, but considering China's voluntarily stepped into a vortex fast forwarding its own evolution on purpose, it's a bit unfair! I'm afraid of what might happen to the country, honestly."

Perhaps the relationship between Hong Kong and China is the relationship between the West and China in microcosm. Let's say -- just hypothetically -- that China is now more experimental, more permissive, faster-growing, more futuristic and less socially conservative than the West. That China, in other words, now represents "modernity" better than we do. At what point, then, will Western media reports start saying that the West is "still" doing things the old way? At what point will we imply a convergence model towards someone else's cultural standards? The answer is that we may be too conservative in our worldview to embrace a worldview in which we're the conservatives.