I Do Not Want To Be A Bystander

Sitting on my flight back to Hong Kong, I was planning some gatherings with my old friends and playing with my recent project ruce, a restroom traffic management and space sharing platform. In two months, I would be graduating with my MBA degree, and I wonder what has been changed through this journey and what I have been enabled to continue fulfilling my commitment to the society.

About six years ago, as part of my thesis for my architecture master’s degree, I designed an app that could help people share spaces from toilets to kitchens and parking spaces. It was the first time that I examined the urban developments in the Chinese cities, carefully and critically, and I was deeply concerned about the arising urban inequalities – cities were offering fewer affordable spaces to poor people who wanted to change their lives there, while those cities also succeeded because of the poor migrants/cheap labor. The complexities drove me crazy: so many stakeholders got involved in the urban issues, and how could I solve the problems?

After almost two years of working as an architect, I realized that negotiating with those stakeholders (e.g. real estate developers and local governments) would not change anything fundamentally. I recalled my experience of participating in the umbrella movement: even such a big movement did not change anything, then how could I expect the strong interest conflict between the Chinese people and the Chinese government (and the elite classes attached to it) can be addressed by negotiations/discussions?

I felt disappointed about being an architect at many moments as I could not do much to solve the problems that I identified. During those down times, I recalled the dinner that I had with my friend Eric and my thesis tutor Juan. Juan believed she could change the things by educating the government officers – with an assumption that the government still wanted to make improvements to maintain the tension between the people and the government at an acceptable level. She had already made some progress through her work in Shenzhen: urban village was not even a thing before she brought it into the SZ&HK biennale followed with countless discussions between the government and the public. My best friend Eric believed that he could encourage people to think about the arising social problems and the underlying conflicts through his architectural works. However, I cannot wait: the “educating” approach took 10 years to bring a topic into discussion, and the “inspiring to think through architecture” approach will take even longer before any solid change can be observed.

What’s worse was that many urban inequalities were just the results of the autocratic government – which is the fundamental reason for all the unfair treatment that many Chinese people received. Without any bargaining power, can we succeed in any negotiation with the government? What power could I (we) borrow to force the Emperor Xi to step down and bring real democracy to China and Hong Kong?

After a painful search, I believed that the disruptive technologies could do better than negotiating and educating. Instead of making small steps through negotiations, those disruptive technologies will fundamentally change how an industry works, how the power is distributed, and how new balances will be formed during the transformation. For example, Uber and Didi addressed the shortage of taxis in cities, a problem that could be solved earlier but never got solved because of the complicated interest parties. For example, social media forced the Chinese government to become more transparent without any negotiation, while before that the Chinese government could tell the public a fake “90,000 KG yield of corps per acre” story through its official media without getting challenged.

I soon determined what I wanted to do for the rest of my life – leveraging technologies to disrupt the “system” and bring democracy and equality back to the society. I tried it by joining Didi for a while. I prepared myself with a Yale MBA and internships with TuSimple and OurCrowd. And I hope I can continue fulfilling this commitment by enabling more disruptive startups as a venture capitalist.

As once a student majored in engineering, I love “right and wrong”, “black and white”, “fair and unfair” but hate “grey area”, “it depends”, “it’s too complicated to be changed”, “every coin has two sides”, and “the bad things are corner cases while it is good overall”. I totally agree that the world is full of complexities and nothing is purely “black and white”, but I’ve also seen too many people using “complexities” as an excuse for doing nothing.

I cannot accept myself stepping back because of the “complexities”, and I cannot keep watching people get arrested for using VPN, people get into jail for 10 years for writing and selling gay-themed novels (while a famous film star did not get any real punishment after an evasion of taxation of 900 million RMB), people get their social media accounts closed for sharing news that the government does not like, people get blocked to the foreign websites simply because the government is afraid of the truth becoming public, people get “robbed” in the stock market because the government continues colluding with companies and encouraging people to put money into the market.

Then do something. Remember what I mentioned before my business school? Desmond Tutu says “Si eres neutral en situaciones de injusticia, has elegido el lado del opresor” (If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. 如果你在不公正的情形下保持中立,那你其实已选择站在压迫者一边).

I do not want to see more bystanders using excuses such as “China is too complicated to change” and “the victims are not important (or those cases are rare) compared to the huge economic progress that China has made”. When you use those excuses for doing nothing or getting on the same boat with the Emperor, have you really thought about the pains, the sufferings, and the deaths that those families have received? “They” are our friends, “they” are our family members, and “they” can be ourselves one day – everyone who wants to know the truth and live in a safe and fair system.


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