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Seeing Hong Kong through the Lens of Environmental Movement

By Shan Huang

This blog post was written by a recipient of our Summer 2021 Environmental Justice Graduate Student Research Fellowship.

On March 15th, 2019, in responding to the Fridays for Future international movement, more than a thousand teenagers in Hong Kong skipped their classes and went on a strike for climate change in the city center. On the same day, similar protests and gatherings occurred in cities in Europe and North America. I was doing my long-term fieldwork on Hong Kong’s politics of land use and urban planning through the lens of grassroots activist groups. Out of my curiosity of social movement in this “city of protest,” I walked with the crowd for about an hour. Although I bumped into several acquaintances in land activism, the ethnic make-up of the peoplehood around me was in striking contrast to Hong Kong protests that I had witnessed before. In a city with over 90% residents Cantonese-speaking Chinese “locals,” the crowd is predominantly formed by international school students. Their parents are usually expats in Hong Kong with multiple origins or local upper-to-middle class who are invested in sending their kids abroad for higher education.

In responding to the Fridays for Future international movement, more than a thousand teenagers in Hong Kong skipped their classes and went on a strike for climate change in the city center. March 15, 2019. Photo by Shan Huang.

Where are “local” students, then? I came to know later that most of them didn’t even hear about the schedule of this protest. Words were mostly spread in English within a relatively small sociolinguistic circle. It is also far from imaginable that public schools they attend would tolerate an aberrant outing of this kind. Despite these logistical barriers, however, a more tacit subtext for local students’ absence perhaps comes from a sense of incommensurability in linking their city with the world’s environmental future. What does the latter, as a far-reaching but somewhat indefinite issue, have to do with Hong Kong? The city is homeland to seven million people, but, really, it doesn’t occupy much space on earth. A unique polity, Hong Kong is settled between nation-states but has never gained a “proper” membership in this received order of categorizing the world. In what ways would teenagers here think they are a “representative” of this “international” environmental mobilization? It seems these questions are less answerable for the majority of Hong Kong teenagers than their peers in the street, who seem to feel more readily entitled to publicly claiming their demands and responsibility as “global citizens.”

In December 2019, I had chance to stay closer to some international school students in their classroom. About twenty of them were taking an anthropology course as part of their IB program, and I was invited to share my research on local land activism. The students were kind, sociable, and eager to learn. I started off my presentation with what I thought a hotly debated land conflict in town. In October 2018, Hong Kong government announced its plan for a massive land-reclamation of 1,700 hectares in the waters at heart of the city. The ambitious blueprint of creating an artificial island in the ocean — the most expensive engineering project in the city’s history — received immense criticism from citizens for various reasons (I will come back to this below). To my surprise, however, only two students said they knew this case that is much more immediately relate to the environmental/ecological future of Hong Kong.

To grapple with my puzzlement, it may be useful to see Hong Kong in a larger picture. As a hub of global capitalism, Hong Kong in many international organizations is treated as an autonomous advanced economy like its Euro-American counterpart. Accordingly, the city is subject to strict regulations on environment that apply to polities in this tier. Yet given Hong Kong is under China’s sovereignty — as a Special Administrative Region (HKSAR, 1997-present) — in some other scenarios it enjoys more “lenient” environmental policies for developing countries. That HKSAR is at once financially weighty and geographically small yields another contrast: while major transnational environmental NGOs opt for setting their Asia/China offices in Hong Kong, they are typically not enthusiastic for environmental problems within the city’s geographical scope. These “local” issues are considered as too trivial compared with more impactful cases elsewhere, not to mention that these organizations’ low-key, sometimes depoliticized, operation on the ground serves better fundraising, which is arguably their main task in a city of finance.

This “dislocation” embedded in the spirit of “strategic making use of Hong Kong” isn’t new, however. It indicates a more general status of residents in town, especially those with higher transnational mobility and socioeconomic privileges. This is class whose life worlds have been divided from the majority of Hongkongers since British colonialism. Their business or career typically profits from the city’s political economic arrangements in favor of a selected group of elites to which they usually belong, but they are less invested in knotty local politics and societal issues that matter for ordinary citizens. And yet, historically, it is also activists from or closely affiliate with this class who played an important role in bringing into Hong Kong both the discourse and practice of “environmentalism” as a universalistic agenda. In this universalism, “environment” is seen more or less as an external “background” to human activities with its quality remains unchanged across societies and cultural traditions. With an epistemology as such, anyone is supposed to care about the environment because it is something that matters for all and in the same way.

In spite of this universalistic environmentalism, if we look into major environmental movements that have actually taken place in Hong Kong since the 1980s, it becomes clear that in fact, it is more specified versions of “environment” that have been placed at the center of social mobilization on the ground. In these cases that run through late British colonialism and the inception of HKSAR, how authorities manage environmental issues is always articulated with the political crisis of the city. In the mid-1980s, most notably, the construction Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant right across the Mainland-Hong Kong border, received immense objection from Hong Kong citizens — one million of them signed against the power plant. As a project that might jeopardize Hong Kong with nuclear pollution, its planning, much similar to the plan of handling Hong Kong back to China, excluded the voices of Hongkongers from the onset. By opposing the power plant, people were crying for Hong Kong’s autonomy, which, just like the city’s environment, was perceived as under threat. The momentum of this environmental movement also led to a considerable political gain for the emerging pro-democracy camp.

Local environmentalist campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s, as anthropologist Tim Choy (2011) has observed, dwelled upon this sentiment of endangerment, most persuasively manifested in the preservation of species that are uniquely found in Hong Kong. The same process also reinforced the public’s perception of Hong Kong’s uniqueness as a city — a uniqueness that is in itself constructed by comparing with other entities (“the West,” “China,” etc.), not without cultural essentialism.

This motif of “preserving the unique,” though, has been greatly enriched since the 2000s, when various kinds of social movement broke out in Hong Kong and brought new urban politics to the fore. Left-leaning urban movements inspired by critical geography and development studies, in particular, have turned the public’s attention to social justice in understanding the building of their city and living environment. Beginning with campaigns against the removal of architectures imbued with collective memories, this set of movements further problematized the regime of urban planning and institutionalized land grab in the countryside, deeply interrogating the power structure in Hong Kong. Rural areas and the built urban environment are thus examined under the same rubric. On the ground, participants of this line of activism have also explored with ordinary residents, especially underprivileged villagers, the possibilities of alternative urban futures. And yet, in the 2010s, right-leaning localism also emerged and won a good popularity by attributing Hong Kong’s various predicaments, environmental threats included, to the influx of tourists and immigrants from Mainland China.

Overall, the “environment” in public culture has become loaded with contested ideologies and political emotions in today’s Hong Kong. The controversy of land reclamation mentioned above clearly shows this complexity. After the big-budget plan was made public without enough technical details and justifications, right-leaning localists soon criticized that the government’s ambivalent plan for building more houses is made for undisclosed immigrants from China. Left-leaning groups attacked the lack of public participation in finalizing the decision of such a giant project that would foreseeably lead to another round of an involuted urban development. More politically neutral environmentalists also joined the campaign due to the plan’s damage to marine ecology. These various voices merged into a big protest march in October 2018, which was followed by a series of mobilization in the months to come. While Hong Kong’s government was hoping to increase the city’s land supply in this way, so they no longer need to deal with various landowners and landless residents, it is precisely the land that doesn’t exist yet that has attracted all kinds of disapproval.

I hope to show in this essay that thinking “environment” (and environmental movement) in Hong Kong is a challenging intellectual exercise given multiple layers of differentiation and contradiction that characterize the city’s (dis)location in the world. Yet it is perhaps rewarding to truthfully engage with this complexity, which tells us much about Hong Kong as a city and indicates some general methods to understand environmental movements in other places with contingency of their own.

Further Reading:

Chiu, Stephen Wing-Kai, Ho-Fung Hung, and On-Kwok Lai. 1999. “Environmental Movements in Hong Kong.” In Asia’s Environmental Movements: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Alvin Y So and Yok-shiu F. Lee. Routledge.

Choy, Timothy K. 2011. Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Duke University Press.

Shan Huang is PhD Candidate in anthropology at Stanford University. He is broadly interested in political anthropology and urban studies, and is writing a dissertation on Hong Kong’s grassroots land activism. He is co-editor of ethnographic essay series: Global Protest Movements in 2019: What Do They Teach Us?

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