Written by Lake Lui.

2014 was a fateful year for Hong Kong people—like me—who do research in China. The vibrant discussion of Hong Kong’s political reform, the Occupy Central Movement, and the increasing conflicts between Hongkongers and Mainland Chinese people were heard of in every corner of China, although the news is often misrepresented. Despite the fact that my research is about mate selection, a rather apolitical topic, my identity as a Hong Kong citizen often creates much drama. Some men started off the conversations with politics, while others said, “We can talk about everything but politics.” Interestingly though, no women initiated topics related to politics.

While traveling in a taxi that ferried me and my student around, here’s how the driver began his conversation with me:

Driver: You are from Hong Kong? Hmm…you know I never trust Chinese Communist Party. I visited a museum before and it illustrated that Lin Bao died in an accident. The fact is that Lao Mao (Chairman Mao) shot him with a rocket. From the imperial time to the present, all leaders have struggled against one another to establish their power. This is the fact. If Li Ximin hadn’t killed [a name that I cannot recall], how could he seize power? If Wu Zhetian hadn’t killed her daughter, how could she struggle against the queen? All leaders are the same, including Xi Jinping.

Lake: How do you feel about this?

Driver: This is natural. If not, how can they establish power? This is the only way to strengthen a country. If you don’t sacrifice the minority group of people, how can you benefit the most people?

Lake: Which group is the majority?

Driver: Lao bai xing (the common people)

Lake: How does struggling against one another result in benefiting lao bai xing?

Driver: Hmmm…Everyone is self-interested. The leaders have their own interests. We have our own interests too. If we don’t sacrifice the minority, how can China become so strong now? It is true that there are some problems, but those are inevitable.

Lake: So you think that it is okay to struggle against one another? And that there aren’t rules to guide people’s behavior?

Driver: Those rules are just applicable to lao bai xing, not leaders. Leaders need to consolidate power…Those rules are tools for controlling us. They don’t apply to them. Well…the root of the issue is: we are Chinese people. My friend said, “This is fate because we were born to be Chinese. So just accept it.”

My female student: To me, these things are too far away. There is no way I can change anything. Even talking about our demands for some changes in our canteen was in vain. [She laughs]

I was puzzled. The men who talked with me about politics sounded excited about how the leaders struggle against one another. They describe persecution, conspiracy, and murder as if they are describing TV dramas. Many times, their words were accompanied by physical actions, like jabbing their fist in the air, slamming the table, or gobbling down beer while speaking very loudly. Women, despite sitting side-by-side with men, were very quiet. At most, like my female student, women played a peacemaking role of alleviating the tension (if there was any).

In other words, they were “doing gender” – displaying manners and cues appropriately based on one’s sex category. Similarly, the men display their masculinity through talking about politics – a site of authority. However, masculinity seems to be classed, as some middle class men did initiate a rule of not talking about politics before they would eat with me or agree to be interviewed.

Another interesting observation is that the driver lost his enthusiasm as I ask him about his political logic. One interpretation is that, despite his rationalization for the Chinese government, he understands that the problem in his logic is that he, as a lao bai xing, is actually powerless and helpless under the authoritarian rule. On the other hand, he might also feel that his masculinity is being challenged in front of a woman who has broken the gender norm by broaching him with questions and comments that he does not want to and/or has difficulties justifying.

When masculinity is challenged, people sometimes compensate by responding more aggressively. Our conversation ended with the driver declaring, “Well, China is not the best place in the world, but China is a strong nation. Without China, how could Hong Kong have survived the financial crisis in 1998? Without China, Hong Kong’s economy would have been dead long ago.”

Reflecting upon these political discourses in 2014 and my simultaneous identities as a feminist, a Hongkonger, and a sociologist, I find myself very conflicted. As a Hongkonger, questions about my political views are never-ending, although I study Chinese families instead of Chinese politics. Yet as a sociologist, I do not want to reveal too much about my thoughts (which, by the way, may not necessarily conflict with my interviewees’ views). Nevertheless, in the face of aggressive comments, I find it hard not to respond, as I feel a responsibility as a feminist to resist men’s dominance. How do scholars like me negotiate the insider/outsider dilemmas in field research in China? Hopefully, friends in this blog can give me some insights.

Lui Ching Wu Lake is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies, The Hong Kong Institute of Education. Her work can be found here. Image credit: CC by mameshiba1985/Flickr.