The protests that were apparently catalysed by the Hong Kong government’s attempted passage of a controversial Extradition Bill, and that escalated into mass societal demonstrations and violent confrontations with police during the summer of 2019 and beyond, sparked global attention and serious condemnation from various sides. The intensity of the popular reaction to the Bill was unexpected, as was the government’s ongoing refusal to withdraw the legislation. The persistence on both sides added fuel to the fire, to a point over time where it overlapped with general populist struggles that increasingly pitted the local interests of the Hong Kong populace against the nationalising interests of the state (and the Party). The view from outside Hong Kong largely reiterated this dualism as the underlying conflict precipitating the mass protests but also societal conflict at a deeper level.
It is certainly possible to dissect the events in themselves, revealing issues at many levels. But one might also ask how this series of protests related to other ongoing movements or whether the protests might be seen as a cumulative outcome of that larger range of collective actions. I would argue that the clash between an inherently local Hong Kong and the Chinese regime, as representative of both the state and national inclusion, is simplistic and misleading. It is just as simplistic as the distinction between a supposed pre- (British) and post-1997 (nationalist) era, a distinction that has seen ‘post-colonial nostalgia’ become an assertion of the value of Western democracy. These are discursive constructions from two sides, both of which disguise other levels of interest and conflict. Moreover, these constructions disguise a more important fact: that the geopolitical ground that gave rise to these events and the perceptions of them was evolving subtly and significantly long before the current flashpoint. We are easily blinded by the moment and its competing discursive representations.
History, firstly, is more about fictions than realities. The historical irony of Hong Kong’s handover to China on 1 July 1997 (or ‘return to the motherland’, depending on your point of view) was that the future of Hong Kong—a territory that had been ceded in perpetuity—was made to coincide with the end of the 99-year lease of the New Territories. Few remember that the New Territories were supposed to be administered as an extension of Hong Kong—with due respect to native (presumably unchanging) traditions, even though the reality of modern expansion effectively incorporated the Territories later into the larger colonial history of Hong Kong. One might add to this the mystery of why the Chinese government, on the other hand, played along with the official reality of the lease while denying the validity of Hong Kong’s status as a ceded colony (being the result of a treaty signed under duress). In addition to making Handover Day a Chinese national holiday, whose media hype became an industry in itself, Hong Kong’s celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday on the eve of the handover canonised the five-day weekend as an event of unreal proportions, many times over. Thus, the reality of Hong Kong’s colonial existence, already made mysterious by its official disappearance, was suddenly resurrected by the fiction of a lease that had been meaningless, if not long dead. Sovereignty and identity are rooted in such fictions.
We forget too that Hong Kong’s democratisation movement started in the 1980s and was firmly rebuffed by the colonial regime until British governor Chris Patten, in the last gasp of British administration, boldly promoted it, largely to screw the incoming regime. So why do we now view democratisation, which has become the rallying cry for the current protests, as the symbol of East versus West?
Social movement as stream of consciousness in the unbroken lineage of colonialism
At no point has the post-1997 transition ever been a smooth one, and it has been increasingly viewed as a conflict inculcated by the nationalising impulses of the central government, a conflict that at the same time exposed the fictional neutrality of ‘one country, two systems’, underlined in recent years by the plight of Muslims in Xinjiang. But the recent advent of a nativist Hong Kong movement—emerging most pointedly in the current protests—should not be viewed as the outpouring of long-dormant indigenous sentiment. Even in the period leading up to 1997, Hongkongers had never been hostile in general to integration with the mainland. Pro-China feeling was heightened in the bidding for the 2000 Olympics. Contrarily, nativist sentiment emerged in reaction to the hegemonic nature of mainland policy, most importantly in the politicisation of such nationalising impulses as sovereignty and identity.
The Anti-Extradition Movement can be viewed as the gradual escalation of civil protest that started with the Occupy Central movement in 2014. Occupy Central was directly inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many of Occupy Central’s participants were students who were influenced by leftist critiques of global capitalism and its effects on growing economic inequality. It was a peaceful civil-disobedience campaign that expanded eventually to Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, at which point it came to be referred to as the Umbrella Movement, driven now by broader demands for democratisation. Demonstrators occupied makeshift tents at these sites. Students continued their education while occupying the streets, until they opted to disband. Cleaning up also deflected criticism.
The Anti-Extradition Protest brought the issue of democratisation, among other things, to the fore. The mass demonstrations that followed were accompanied by extreme violence as well. But to view the protest as a direct extension of earlier, ongoing movements is perhaps a leap of imagination. The civil disobedience of earlier campaigns grew into mass demonstrations. Their intensity escalated into violent confrontations, and heightened conflict on both sides continued throughout the summer and on into 2020. Democratisation remained the ultimate goal, but it became only one of five demands: ‘not one less’. These included withdrawal of the Extradition Bill; an end to labelling protesters ‘rioters’; dropping charges against protesters; calling an independent inquiry into police behaviour; and universal suffrage in relation to elections for the Legislative Council and chief executive. The Extradition Bill had ignited the initial protest in June, but this incident overlapped with other, irrevocable changes in popular sentiment over time. Nativist rhetoric in terms of ‘Hong Kong for Hongkongers’ became increasingly pronounced, escalating tensions and violence. But a dualistic view of the situation on both sides contributed to the persistence of the protests and the violence that followed.
Unexpectedly perhaps, the political Left and nativist Right converged during the anti-extradition protests, clearly evidenced in the fact that the militants who fuelled the most violent incidents and confrontations with police—involving vandalism, armed barricades, petrol bombings and hostile campus takeovers (as opposed to peaceful mass demonstrations)—were not university students but rather teenage, even adolescent, ‘subaltern’ youth, many of whom reflected the marginalised, depressed sector of society victimised most by high rents, job insecurity and other ills of ‘globalisation’. The political polarisation of the post-1997 era contrasted with the previous generation, famously by apolitical ‘Hong Kong Man’, who inhabited a hybrid society seemingly immune to national identification. More importantly, the hard tactics of government policy sanctioned directly from above in Beijing contributed the most to the increasing polarisation that led eventually to the appropriation of culture as the face of the struggle-at-large of ‘us’ (Hong Kong) versus ‘them’ (China), and independence versus integration.
Nativisms, right and left, in the context of the most recent ‘democratisation’ protests
What was it about the Extradition Bill that sparked such a volatile mass reaction? It had less to do with interstate relations per se than with an attempt to bring an alleged murderer, Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong citizen, to justice for the killing of his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. The Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, was responding to pleas from the young woman’s family, as Hong Kong had no extradition treaty with Taiwan. But it had no extradition treaty with China either, and thus the bill was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Hong Kong had long been a haven for corrupt officials and business people escaping the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The latter factor probably weighed more heavily in the political calculus. In the legislature, few if any foresaw that the Bill would spark controversy, and there was little indication that it would incite heated public criticism. Apparently, the extradition treaty was seen by the public as an attempt to legitimise the eradication of political dissidence. This came in the wake of several brazen kidnappings by PRC security police of dissident booksellers (one of whom was a Swedish citizen), who were taken to the mainland and forced into detention and eventually gave confessions under duress. Certainly, the government underestimated the intensity of public mistrust. The Hong Kong business community was also wary of the Bill’s implications for those doing business in the PRC, as it potentially put them at risk from complicated tax policies, shady legal processes and corrupt officials. The government finally exempted white-collar crime from extradition, but this did not dampen the swelling dissent. In my opinion, the government’s doubling down or refusal to withdraw the Bill, combined with the overall powerlessness of prior social protests to effect change, energised mass hostility to the Bill, to the point of instigating widespread marches across the city. Yet the suspension of the Bill on 15 June and its eventual withdrawal on 4 September did little to prevent widespread peaceful rallies from transitioning into systematic mobilised violence, marked by general strikes, attacks on businesses and airport shutdowns. It was during this phase, when hard battle lines were drawn between police and extremist protesters, that the political conflict took on the character of all-out warfare between ‘us’ (Hongkongers) and ‘them’ (China) in nativist terms.
Violent armed clashes culminated in the blockade of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and a takeover on 17 November of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which was occupied for a week before being recaptured. The active participation of disaffected marginalised youth, who were at the forefront of the extreme violence, only underlined how the emerging cultural dualism, perceived on the ground as claims to a distinctive Hong Kong identity, also had roots in the economic inequality produced, in large part, by the influx of mainland capital and its oligarchic interests. This had been one of the main causes of a never-ending upward spiral in land prices and rents, although it remained secondary to the perceived political threat posed by the Extradition Bill.
The reaction was not dissimilar to that around the Hong Kong government’s proposal of a National Security Bill in 2003. The Bill sought to implement Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, which stated that the government,
shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies in the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.
In response, 500,000 people took to the streets on 1 July, effectively killing the legislation and silencing any hope of its reintroduction.
The end of the Hong Kong Polytechnic takeover was followed immediately by the District Council Election of 24 November, which saw a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates and the largest electoral defeat of the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong’s history. The influence of these protests reverberated ultimately to Taiwan. The landslide victory of Taiwan’s incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen, in January 2020 was attributed to a cross-strait domino effect of Hong Kong’s societal crisis and the perceived threat of China, or wariness about the fictive autonomy granted under the policy of ‘one country, two systems’.
So, what do these events really show?
The increasing intensity of societal protest in post-1997 Hong Kong has corresponded with sharpened tensions between a local Hong Kong populace and sinocentric nationalisation, rooted in Beijing. This has been popularly framed to emphasise the significance of identity politics as a critical means of resistance to political hegemony and to promote the inevitability of democratisation as an emancipatory force in this struggle. Social movement is without doubt a constructive strategy in this engagement, but it has been invoked as a concrete rationale for the ipso facto desirability of ‘native’ identity. The recent emergence of a Hong Kong identity is one created primarily in opposition to a hegemonic Chinese one. In local history, it has replaced, rather than evolved out of, a transnational, hybrid, depoliticised, fractured world view that was inscribed during the British colonial era, peaking during the 1980s. This often-cited image of Hong Kong Man replaced early modern nationalist identities that were forged during the Cold War era. Such identities were less autonomously defined subjective imaginings than positions crafted by changing geopolitical contexts. One can argue that the identities and the social movements that they embody today are likewise, in large part, a product of their particular geopolitical contexts and their possibilities for reconfiguration. In the post-1997 era, it is clear that ‘culture’ has become a discourse of identity in ways that differ from prior eras. Thus in a recent book, Hong Kong’s New Identity Politics: Longing for the Local in the Shadow of China, author Iam-chong Ip advocates the role of nativism in Hong Kong’s new identity politics. Yet it should be obvious that this representation and its conditions of possibility are products of a specific place and time.
In contrast, Macau has never been prone to the crises seen in Hong Kong, despite its being a former colony governed by the same ‘one country, two systems’ policy. So why doesn’t native identity resonate here? Why is democratisation not seen as a desired imperative? This is not the product of its inherent cultural profile. One can also argue that Taiwan’s situation vis-à-vis ‘one country, two systems’ has many similarities with that of Hong Kong, as well as significant dissimilarities. But it is at the level of its geopolitical framework of conditions, not just within the rhetoric of ‘one country, two systems’, that one must assess the emancipatory potentialities of each place. Taiwan offers another contrast. It has long been divided along the axes of reunification and independence, driven by identity politics, but oppositional difference vis-à-vis China proves to be of dubious influence in the long run.
Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan can claim to be ‘de facto’ independent but is still economically dependent. If the politics of difference has limits as critical strategy, then how can one gauge the effectiveness of social movement as a potential tool for bringing about democratisation in Hong Kong?
The geopolitics of democratisation from East to West: a note on critical self-reflection
Struggles over ‘democratisation’ in Hong Kong today have attracted considerable attention in the international media, but this coverage has been used most emphatically to highlight the global threat of China. The hard politics of social order combined with the authoritarian character of its homogeneous nationalism have made it an easy target for Western rule-of-law and individualist sensibilities. The continued domination of PRC state interests in the administration of Hong Kong society can in fact be attributed to the absence of universal suffrage, but the PRC simply adopted the functional constituency of the legislature left behind by the British colonial government, filling its political roster with its own appointees. Popular suffrage only determines a minority of total legislators, not enough to influence the election of the chief executive; thus it is a problem that cannot be rectified short of constitutional change. In the meantime, the media will continue to accentuate the culture war and international support to give the impression that the system is by nature something that can be transformed through active Westernisation.
But, in comparative terms, how progressive is Asia in relation to contemporary trends in the West? Contrary to Western assumptions, as portrayed in the international media, East Asia has a long history of social movement and progressive dissent. During the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, media coverage tended to overlook Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, which was initiated by radical student protest against the KMT Party’s promotion of the Service Trade Agreement, proposed legislation that would have allowed increased free trade between Taiwan and mainland China, and would also have liberalised direct corporate investment on both sides and loosened banking restrictions. Student protesters eventually occupied the Legislative Yuan on 23 March 2014 for over two weeks before voluntarily vacating. In the meantime, on 30 March, they organised a mass demonstration involving over 350,000 people, which was scarcely covered by the international media. In the aftermath of the public rally and the brief occupation of the legislature, the protesters regrouped, founding the New Power Party in 2015. In the elections of January 2016, led by its two main activists, it won five legislative seats and immediately became the third largest political party in Taiwan. This progressive victory as the result of social protest contrasts clearly with the emergence of right-wing nationalists in Europe and the United States, epitomised by Brexit and Donald Trump. One might also add the roll call of social-movement protest in South Korea, and the reaction to the bribery scandal involving President Park Geun-hye, which eventually led to her impeachment. With or without democratic institutions, public protest in Asia has played a seminal role in contesting the threat of nationalist oppression and the spectres of global capitalist imperialism and political corruption. East Asia did not need lessons from the West.
The crises that confront Hong Kong society today—as well as the threat of China’s global expansion as a political (or politicised) economy that is beginning to have reverberations far beyond its immediate borders—are serious issues that do not seem to have concrete solutions. That is to say, it is not apparent that continued social protest, heightened protest or increasingly hard-line policies can bring about desired progressive change. On the other hand, many of the concerned intellectuals and others who have actively supported the protests from afar ironically seem less critically concerned about political scandals currently infecting the West. What is so sacred about democratisation, especially as rooted in the belief in ‘free and fair’ elections? The ‘liberal’ West is indeed based on universal popular suffrage, but what does this really reflect about the nature of the society so represented? Are elections free from the influence of moneyed corruption, oligarchic manipulation or cultural prejudices? The tyranny of populist suffrage reflects, especially today, the underside of democratic rule, which can also normalise corrupt regimes.
The impeachment trial of Donald Trump represents a crisis in US society the scandal of which exceeds the failure of democratisation in Hong Kong. Trump’s continued ties to his businesses amply show that he is still profiting richly from the presidency, in defiance of the emoluments clause. The alleged bribery of South Korea’s Park pales in comparison to Trump’s pay-for-play policies, yet this has caused little social protest while tying up courts in endless litigation. The Mueller report has revealed more acts of obstruction of justice than most Mafia bosses can claim, yet the US masses remain unmoved. The impeachment inquiry conducted by Congress uncovered numerous corroborating witnesses who testified to Trump’s attempt to withhold military support for Ukraine until the latter agreed to announce corruption investigations into the son of Joe Biden, Trump’s main Democratic opponent. After the trial moved to the Senate, Republican senators remained resistant to subpoena-ing documents or calling witnesses in order to close the investigation, given their inability to contest overwhelming adverse evidence. CBS News reported that Republican senators were warned: ‘vote against the President, and your head will be on a pike’. When elected officials vote to keep their seats above and beyond the law, even when their electorate remains complicit or complacent, it corrupts the principles on which any democratic institution is founded. America’s gun culture is well known for its fanatical extremism. Most Americans support rational gun regulation, yet the power of the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby to influence elections remains an immoveable obstacle to the realisation of majority sentiment. Neo-nationalism has propelled Brexit and Trump into the political mainstream. Their manipulation of the electoral institutions and pollution of the courts have irrevocably warped the myth of a free democracy. Hong Kong’s current social protests have demonstrated the political rationale that justifiably prompted the resistance to the government’s proposed Extradition Bill. It would seem that there are lessons one could apply to the relative lack of political courage in the United States to defend the ethical principles that underlie its own democratic system.
Bio: Allen Chun is Chair Professor in the Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. His most recent book is Forget Chineseness: On the Geopolitics of Cultural Identification (SUNY Press, 2017).