Towards a Radical Hong Kong Imagination: New Forms and Content in the Movement for Self-Determination

Protestors storm the Hong Kong Legislative Council building and hoist a banner reading “No rioters, only tyranny!” Photo: unknown, from Twitter @phila_siu

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century must scoop* its poetry not from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin till it has stripped off all superstition from the past. Previous revolutions required recollections of world history in order to dull themselves to their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury the dead in order to realise its own content. There phrase transcended content, here content transcends phrase.” — Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

  • Thanks go to Prof. Dermot Ryan for this gloss on the translation here. He explains, “Marx is not saying they will make their poetry in the future. Quite literally, the revolution will scoop [schöpfen] its poetry out of the future. The creation of what does not yet exist will not occur ex nihilo; paradoxically, the revolutionaries will work on a raw material that will only appear as the end of their labor.” This fundamental contradiction in the connection between revolutionary imagination and action reveals some of the deep anxieties about “the uncertainty about the possibility of autonomous action” that have preoccupied Romantic and Marxist theorists.
  • Article: D. Ryan. “The Future of an Allusion: Poiesis in Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” SubStance 41, no. 3 (January 1, 2012): 127–46.

When a form is broken, one must reconstruct the content that will necessarily be part of a rupture in the order of things. To take over, to anticipate, the material.” — Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature

I recently engaged in a Twitter conversation with some HK folks in regards to the 7/6 nativist mob at Tuen Mun that barricaded an HKID-holding mainland Chinese woman in a public bathroom and shouted misogynist verbal abuse at her until she had to be escorted to safety by police. The protestors’ grievances involved these so-called “dancing aunties,” women who blast Putonghua music and perform in designated “self-entertainment zones” in public parks. Understandable appeals by neighborhood residents to control these loud and abrasive nuisances have gone unheeded by the district council,* which resulted in yesterday’s angry mob. Worse yet, the protestors seized upon (baseless) accusations that these aunties are engaging in sex work in the park in order to justify driving them out. I wasn’t able to fully articulate my thoughts on this specific Tuen Mun incident, and by extension my thoughts about the nativist streak within the self-determination movement in general, in successive chunks of 280 characters so I thought it would be easier if I wrote them out in long form and shared it. Here’s a start:

*since the start of writing this 16 hours ago, the Tuen Mun District Council has apparently taken action to close the “self-entertainment zone” in question, validating the tactics of these protestors and setting a dangerous precedent for mob-based conflict resolution in neighborhoods across Hong Kong (source).

1. Don’t be a cop

Graffiti referring to “government official dogs” and half of an “ACAB dog” in the background Photo: AFP

This nativist mob should be condemned by all in the pro-democratic and anti-ELAB movements. So far, no one has even commented on it. In fact, prominent localist voices in the movement such as Kong Tsung-gan have tellingly included it within his accounting of #anti-ELAB (extradition law and bill) protests [see image, July 6 Tuen Mun protest included on Kong’s spreadsheet]:

Not only did this mob bypass Rule of Law, what is supposedly being defended from CCP threat by the anti-ELAB movement, but they employed cop logic to harass these women based on suspected “unacceptable” activities and used punishment and threats of violence to compel compliance. They used violence, misogyny, and threats to exclude these women, one or several of whom are legal HKID holders* from “their” neighborhood. These are functions of the police, ironically many such acts that are being decried by the defenders of this mob in relation to the HK Police abuse of anti-ELAB activists and press covering the protests.

Select commentators on Twitter have excused this mob behavior by saying “well, our voices weren’t being heard by our councilors,” “the system is broken so we have to take matters into our own hands,” or that only those without skin in the game (ie. me) worry about ethics. These people fail to see that protestors should be taking their ire out on the unaccountable failing councilors, not innocent people, and that attempts to call this a protest rather than what it was (mob action) are cynical at best and a promotion of mob policing at worst. One commenter even went as far as saying that “these particular ends justified these particular means.”

Contrary to the claim that the abuse of the aunties was separate from the more benign issue of public noise complaints, protest messaging took as central the unfounded accusations of sex work and the aunties’ mainland cultural identity (see image below with signage that suggests the existence of behavior inappropriate for those under 18 years of age and the imagery of chickens, Cantonese slang for sex worker). This is “community policing” at its worst.

Photo credit: Aaron McNicholas (@aaronMCN)

[*For the record, this auntie’s HKID status should be irrelevant in discussing the inappropriateness of mob abuse but it reveals the fact that those protestors could care less about legal status and are instead putting their cultural and ethnic xenophobia on full display. Additionally, sex work should never be the subject of abuse and it should be decriminalized, full stop. If that were to happen, this hypothetical, clandestine “sex work in the park” wouldn’t even have to take place because it would be a destigmatized and safer industry.]

This current of cop logic runs deep in Hong Kong. Policing has always been a problem here (as it is around the world) and never has the mainstream cried police overstep, brutality, or fears of a police state as they do now. In fact, several recent media headlines bemoan the current “loss of trust” in a formerly “professional and respectable” police force (“Asia’s Finest” as the epithet once went. Alas…). Yet ethnic and racial minorities, particularly from South East Asia, South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, have been stigmatized, surveilled, constantly stopped, carded, and questioned on the street for decades. Sex workers, queers, and trans folk, too, have long been harassed and abused by the police. Cops in concert with immigration officials have detained, abused, and deported undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees for decades.

There is no “police state” sprung up ex nihilo simply because they have now savagely attacked you, the middle-class Han Hongkonger. You’re just now in reach of the batons.

The implicit support of policing before 2014, when tear-gas was first used against youth protestors, (though the police have a long history of using violence to disperse protestors during the British colonial period eg. during the 1966 Star Ferry Riots) shows this police logic at play in wider HK society. This logic says: it’s fine if you police the non-normative, the poor, the queer, the refused, as long as you don’t police us.

2. The nativism of the Hong Kong movement toward nationalist liberal democracy is not a fringe element — it is constitutive

In the grand tradition of liberalism, the political formation of a nation composed of citizens is necessarily based on exclusion. Liberal democracy as a political theory is based on the rights of the individual: a private property-owning citizen that is a subject in front of the Law — anyone who can’t fit that profile is excluded from rights, protections, and participation in the democratic institutions reserved for the differentiated, rational individual. [This is why the British colonial regime indefinitely imprisoned Vietnamese refugees in the 80s and 90s, trying especially hard to keep them from setting foot on Hong Kong soil. This was to prevent any claim to liberal personhood and its attendant rights. Without such rights, these refugees could more easily be repatriated to Vietnam where they faced certain persecution or death.]

Vietnamese refugees detained (left) and rebelling against repatriation (right) at Whitehead Detention Center. Photo: AFP/Thomas Cheng

This is the mode of governance to which Hong Kong aspires. It is abundantly clear that this political tradition’s “citizenist” logic of domination is central to the calls to support a universal “freedom and democracy.” It is no contradiction, then, that Hong Kong has de jure excluded so many from accessing the Right of Abode, such as the hundreds of thousands of migrant domestic workers who prop up the entire blasted economy, and has de facto excluded so many from social belonging through its own local brand of Han ethno-supremacy. Proponents argue that the exclusionary logic that drives liberalism is fundamental to protect the rights of the individual (from government and each other) and is thus a necessary feature of the system. To me, this is no political or social system to aspire to.

As HK protestors promote their own brand of liberal nationalism, I am reminded of Roderick Ferguson’s argument that revolutionary nationalism is based on the politics of purity and the expulsion of unclean contradictory elements that weaken the justification for nationhood (see: the “sex worker” dancing aunties, and nativist discourse about mainlanders being locusts, savages, animals, etc.) The unique form of Hong Kong nationalism in play is certainly a mix of the liberal and revolutionary kind, being articulated through the promotion of definitive quasi-democratic Hong Kong institutions such as the Basic Law, Rule of Law, as well as the revolutionary refusal of colonial rule (the refusal of CCP authoritarianism).

I resolutely support this fight against authoritarianism, imperialism, and colonialism — in all of its guises be it under the auspices of the CCP, the U.S. or British regimes.

But, sadly, this rejection of mainland authoritarian rule has trickled down into the ethno-supremacist rejection of mainland peoples’ social values and cultural identities as backward, uncouth, and counter to Hong Kong sophistication, respectability, and cosmopolitanism. Indeed, one angry commenter, while telling me to butt out unless I myself live in Tuen Mun, railed against the “mainlandised vulgarity” that Hongkongers have had to endure. [This is no doubt partially a reaction to the larger fear of cultural colonialism, a real colonial strategy to be sure, but in this form supposes that China is allowing hordes of mainland people stream into HK in order to dilute and eventually eradicate “HK culture,” a strange and mystifying theory when one understands anything about the history of twentieth-century Hong Kong.] Yet, ironically, this type of ethnonationalism actually plays by the CCP’s rulebook, whose entire logic of governance is through the naturalization of the notion that

The Party = The State = The People

This, we know, is not the case. China does not have to be a one-party state, for one thing. To believe as such is truly to have our (political) imaginations limited by the CCP. And, the voices of dissent, as we’ve seen in the recent widespread environmental rights protests in Wuhan, the JASIC labor rebellion, spontaneous heavy industry labor revolts, ongoing national liberation struggles in Tibet and Xinjiang, and resurgent Marxist student uprisings, are growing everyday in China. There is no homogenous “Chinese People” and such a fantasy concept cannot be represented by The Party — its greatest fear. The HK nativist logic of equating party, state, and people in their protest messaging and tactics actually props up the CCP’s self-given monolithic status and refuses what could be fruitful cross-border ties of activist solidarity and action. The abuse of Putonghua-speaking dancing aunties, no matter how boorish, anti-social, and annoying, may have accomplished a small neighborhood goal but its broader impact is badly damaging because it feeds the nativist impulse that subtends the broader self-determination movement.*

*Update 8/14/19: this nativist impulse was thrust once more into the international spotlight this past weekend during the fourth consecutive day of protests and occupation of the Hong Kong international airport. Following yet another hideous round of escalating and senseless police brutality (including the protests’ first serious civilian casualty — the loss of a female medic’s eye due to being hit by a cop’s beanbag round — and the flagrant use of police agent provocateurs who beat protestors with impunity), a good number of protestors were both enraged and paranoid about counter-revolutionary infiltration. Commentary abounds on Twitter and in mainstream media about what followed and I needn’t rehash it here. Needless to say, the protestors have expressed regret and apologized but it is already clear that anti-mainlander sentiment (for understandable reasons or otherwise) can erupt violently in high-stakes situations as the protests continue in the face of an increasingly arrogant Lam administration.

Despite all of this, I am cheered by recent actions that have seen HK protestors trying to facilitate anti-CCP solidarity by airing their political grievances to mainland tourists in HK as well as the breath-taking storming of LegCo because the former creates horizontal alliances rather than punching down and the latter is the use of force against the unaccountable elite. These are ethical acts.

Sebastian Veg’s piece in ChinaFile was shared with me to counter the charge that no one has ever forcefully condemned the nativist faction. I appreciate the fact that nativism in the public sphere is even being acknowledged but this piece reads as a dismissal of nativist protestors’ impact rather than a condemnation of their influence. Contrary to what Veg claims, the fact remains that prominent nativists Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching were elected into LegCo, thus signaling popular support and the youths’ ability to capture the “localist” zeitgeist of 2015/16 (epitomized by the critical acclaim for nativist film Ten Years (2015)).

Likewise, xenophobic nativists like Ray Wong and Alan Li, who have recently become the first Hong Kong political refugees in Germany, have become celebrated figures and icons of Hong Kong’s persecuted status. Imprisoned “spiritual leader” of the current anti-ELAB movement, Edward Leung, whose party Hong Kong Indigenous along with the aforementioned Leung and Yau’s Youngspiration party, once spearheaded a campaign to deport a 12 year old undocumented mainland boy from Hong Kong, has seen his slogan 光復香港! 時代革命! variously translated as “Reclaim/Restore/Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution Now/Revolution of Our Times!” become the rallying cry of the current protests. The word 光復, in Cantonese “gwong fuk,” contains within it ethno-nationalist, nativist undertones (borrowed from its revolutionary, anti-minority, anti-foreigner usages on the mainland) and remains an uncomfortable yet unconfronted presence in the current uptake of Leung’s slogan.

The specious argument that Veg forwards to prove that there is no nativism in the pro-democratic movement is that xenophobia and democratic procedure are logically incompatible. Decades of critical ethnic, race, and cultural studies would beg to disagree. He even argues that activists trying to create cross-border solidarity caused the rise of nativism in HK — veering dangerously close to Hillary Clinton’s jaw-dropping argument to appease far-right xenophobes in Europe by clamping down on resettlement and aid to migrants and refugees. Veg also omits the fact that Apple Daily regularly foments nativist, anit-mainlander antipathy through tabloid-like sensationalism (they published the infamous internet crowd-funded “mainland locusts” ad), mirroring much of the agitprop of its mainland nemesis the Global Times, and has ready support from the mainstream pro-democracy movement because of its sympathetic coverage. Hong Kong Free Press treads the same ground, evidenced by its recent bloodless description of the mob “surrounding” a public toilet and “taunting” the auntie barricaded inside.

I will say that HKFP’s recent profile on “minority” involvement in the anti-ELAB protests does some good work, as Laurel Chor notes briefly that “The exclusion [of] non-ethnically Chinese Hongkongers experience belies the city’s reputation as an international melting pot.” Yet, the profile operates on the assumption that these folks are only valuable or even only come into being as a “Hongkonger” when they are involved in these protests (nevermind the problematic formulation of the notion of a homogenous “Chinese ethnicity” from which these minorities are excluded or the fact that the metaphor of a (Han) “melting pot” is exactly what has caused these ethnic minorities’ to feel invisible in the first place). The experience recounted by one of the individuals, of being greeted positively as a “foreigner” who supports the protests, is telling but it doesn’t get to the issue, which is that the movement is an ethnonationalist one, a demand for Han Hongkonger rights, which have long excluded, for one, migrant domestic workers (despite the fact that radical migrant domestic worker labor groups such as Federation of Asian Domestic Workers [FADWU] have long shown up to support the mainstream. See image.)

FADWU activists at the annual July 1 march in 2017 (author’s photo).

3. This is not to say Hong Kong should never have the right to self-determination but these repressed elements that many want to brush aside as fringe, unimportant (or, god forbid, acceptable) need to be dealt with. I don’t believe building a movement for self-determination on cop, nationalist, and exclusionary logics will lead to an equal or just society. It will only benefit the racial, ethnic, political, and capitalist elite — one might call this aspirational future “ capitalist liberal democracy with Hong Kong characteristics.” A repressed impulse or past trespass in the subconscious necessarily informs present and future action. It will eventually erupt if it’s not dealt with. The head-long rush into democracy (though it would be a victory) would simply foist the prejudices, both legal and social, fully onto the shoulders of the Hong Kong people. Hong Kong would do well not to bite this poisoned apple.

4. We can walk and chew gum at the same time

By contrast proletarian revolutions, such as those of the nineteenth century, engage in perpetual self-criticism, always stopping in their own tracks; they return to what is apparently complete in order to begin it anew, and deride with savage brutality the inadequacies, weak points and pitiful aspects of their first attempts…(Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

I suppose in discussions like this, it’s necessary to be explicit: opposition to alliances with the imperialist regimes of the U.S. and U.K. does not mean support for the CCP and vice versa. We can condemn authoritarianism and imperialism of all kinds at the same time, as wise anarchist thinkers have long urged. And to be clear: criticism of pro-democracy advocates does not mean a lack of support for democracy or self-determination. It signals a belief that a pro-democracy movement, a movement toward self-determination, needs to achieve its goals in careful and ethical ways. This upsets some because they believe it to be petty infighting that “deflates the cause.” The cause isn’t worth much if it doesn’t occasionally (or, more precisely, constantly) re-examine its own principles — the Tuen Mun incident should be a moment for this critical self-reflection. Political expediency and pragmatism superseding ethics is the first slip in sliding a movement into the mud.

In short, to answer the commentator that cited Saul Alinsky at me, no these means do not justify these ends. (The cynical uptake of Alinskian pragmatism by folks who justify punching down on innocent individuals rather than punching up on unaccountable elites indexes some of the major problems with Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

So what?

I, like many folks in HK and the diaspora, hold a great deal of (cautious) hope for genuine and just self-determination in Hong Kong. There are many parts of the movement that I am enthralled by and my admiration for the bravery of people on the street facing down a fascist and violent police force is unbounded. My criticism of the ugly elements of the movement is not meant to destroy it but to urge its people to be thoughtful, root out prejudice, and avoid a tainted outcome.

In response to my criticism of the Tuen Mun incident, I was challenged to suggest a solution for the various ills in Hong Kong society (such as lack of resources, economic domination in property, housing, etc.) that are being blamed on the encroachment of mainland people. I don’t doubt these material deprivations are frustrating, as I’ve experienced it myself while living in HK. Others criticized my current residency in the U.S. to complete my Ph.D., asking: is it Trumpian to demand some “balance” (in HK society)? No, but finding “balance,” and by that I assume they mean access to resources and housing, by abusing individuals is the essence of Trumpism, and not only counter to the “Rule of Law” but is entirely ineffectual at getting what these people want done. A brief victory now for the residents of Tuen Mun. What next and at what cost?

Many Hong Kong folks have said that they feel helpless and therefore their only recourse is to highlight their cause on the world stage, begging for assistance from anyone that will hear them out. The search for Hong Kong’s voice is an important one that I fully support — but this future voice won’t gain legitimacy through the validation of right-wing, conservative groups in the U.K. or U.S.

I appreciate that many people leading this charge, such as Freedom HK (@freedomhkg), have little to no political or activist experience. I admire their ingenuity and the ability to organize at the drop of a hat. But if new activists are flailing because they lack experience, they should seek to link up with folks who have it. HKCTU and HK Socialist Action, for example, have been active for many years on the ground and have plenty of strategizing, protesting, and organizational experience particularly around cross-border (mainland-HK) labor solidarity. Dozens of other progressive, justice-oriented groups exist and are similarly involved in #anti-ELAB and many of their agendas don’t involve joining the ranks of the global right-wing movement.

I won’t pretend I have every answer. But to me, one thing is clear: instead of seeking absorption into old and existing political forms, Hong Kong could define its own voice by leading. The best argument for HK’s self-determination shouldn’t be a determined retrenchment in tradition but to seek radical imaginations of justice. A creative and imaginative commitment to providing broad access to housing, (mental) healthcare, plus the end of policing (including immigration policing) and the Right of Abode for all would make HK a model around the world and do more to advocate for the region’s fitness for self-determination than xenophobia and localism. It could revive the utopian 90s dream of being the agent of change that would reform China as opposed to the defensive, desperate position of a cat backed into a corner that we’re in now. This radical imagination could form the foundation of the long-sought after but always elusive “Hong Kong Culture.”

This would require the overturning of the real estate oligarchy and the capitalist tycoon’s grip on HK along with provincial, nativist ideas about what it means to be a Hongkonger. Solidarity with labor activists on the mainland and Taiwan could be the basis for a powerful transnational coalition waiting to be brought into reality and would form a potent challenge to CCP authoritarianism — and they know it. The international celebrity tours of conservative halls of power that Joshua Wong took and, newly freed from prison continues to take, begging for Trump to sanction the CCP through the WTO, as the localist Andy Chan did, and rousing liberal polemics by activists such as Denise Ho at the anemic UN, will do nothing.

It’s ironic that defenders of the Tuen Mun mob extoll the power of the people in taking direct action because of institutional inaction but then will invest all of their energy into global institutions that could care less about HK as long as the China-driven profits continue to roll in. Twitter commentators have sarcastically noted that US President Trump sold Hong Kong out to for some soy beans, a reference to the on-going trade war with China. So why does people power work in driving out dancing aunties but the possibility of transnational people power as a challenge to capitalist exploitation (the source of almost every single ill in Hong Kong) elude these folks?

Could it be the desperation that comes from helplessness? The seeming complete impossibility of decolonization in the region? So much of this change, the destruction of all known forms that is part of decolonization, is psychological — as scholars such as Frantz Fanon and Kuan-Hsing Chen have argued — that I have to believe change must come through a radical political imagination that can envision using this time of extreme crisis to break from given forms. To embody the paradox of revolution that Marx outlined in the Eighteenth Brumaire that we must make the incredible leap of creating new forms before we arrive at new content, to do the unthinkable and scoop our poetry from the future. Perhaps we can focus together on that goal.


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