Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Street Protest

It is indubitably the case that the five-month long, and still continuing, protest in Hong Kong over China’s attempt to subvert the so-called ‘one nation two systems’ mode of governance and subvert democratic norms constitutes a comparatively new if still uncertain chapter in the global history of civil resistance.  The world has been rather slow in coming to a realization of the extraordinary implications of a movement that cannot really be associated with anyone who might be termed a widely accepted leader, is fundamentally hydra-headed or anarchic in impulse, and, notwithstanding both immense provocations from the state as well as occasional lapses into violence on the part of some demonstrators, has remained overwhelmingly nonviolent.

Hong Kong Protestors

By “anarchy” I signify not the absence of law and order but rather, as in the original meaning of the term, the radical devolution of power.  Though the outcome of this revolt cannot be predicted, its reverberations will be felt for years to come—and not only in Hong Kong or China.  The histories of nonviolent and civil resistance will have to add a hefty chapter to the existing narrative.  There are salutary lessons in this revolt for those who are seeking to find avenues to resist oppressive state measures, just as, I suspect, states everywhere are looking at what is transpiring in Hong Kong with fear and concern.  Their apprehension arises from China’s puzzling failure, as it appears to them, to have suppressed the revolt.  It is not that China balks at the brute exercise of power.  There is Tiananmen Square to remind rebels of the fate that is likely in store for them:  hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese were killed and disappeared in that crackdown. The Chinese have herded a million Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous region into so-called “re-education” camps that critics are terming concentration camps.  China relentlessly hunts down dissenters, wherever they may be, and it has spared no effort in bullying other countries to hand over political asylum seekers. Whatever “Asian values” it may seem to embody in its better moments, few and far between these days, China is ruthless in its suppression of dissent and in its insistence on the imperative to maintain “law and order”.

The question why China has not acted decisively thus far in the suppression of the revolt in Hong Kong is of far more than academic importance.  The view of the economists is that China can ill-afford to antagonize other countries, particularly Western powers, at a time when the economic slowdown in China is pronounced. Hong Kong represents one of the world’s largest financial markets, with a stock exchange that is larger than London, and China may be astute in not wanting to do anything that jeopardizes its own stock markets. We need not elaborate on the ongoing war between China and the US over tariffs.  But economists are nothing if not reductionists, and it is certainly a fallacy to believe that rationality guides most economic conduct.

Another pervasive argument is that China has for decades wanted to position itself as a responsible world power and that it is hesitant to take steps that might undermine its credibility.  This kind of thinking emanates, not surprisingly, from the hubris of Western powers who somehow think that they have been models of “responsible” conduct.  The United States, of course, leads this pack of wolves—and to think that it supposes it has been a “responsible” world power!  If as a responsible power it has waged several illegal wars, raided countries, engineered coups to overthrow democratically elected governments, supported dictatorships, and sabotaged many international agreements, one can only speculate with trembling fear what it might do as an irresponsible power.  There may, perhaps, be something to the argument that rash action taken in Hong Kong could have adverse consequences for China’s bid to put to rest the long-standing rift with Taiwan and absorb it into the People’s Republic.

What if, however, China’s reluctance to take decisive steps to put a halt to the revolt in Hong Kong stems from the inability of the Chinese government to understand the nature of the resistance movement?  States know precisely how to counter violence, but nonviolent movements are known to baffle and disarm the opponent.  The present movement has its antecedents in the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which commenced with the demand for more transparent elections and throughout retained an essentially nonviolent character.  The protests of 2019 have already outlasted the previous demonstrations and are, in intensity, scope, and gravitas of an altogether different magnitude.  On a single Sunday afternoon last month, nearly two million people are said to have gathered in protest at the city’s Victoria Park.

Umbrella Movement.jpg

The protests began with opposition to an extradition bill but, in the preceding months, the demands have not only multiplied but have become diffused in the most unexpected ways.  The demonstrators have asked for fundamental reforms in how elections are conducted and in the democratic process as a whole.  They have also demanded amnesty for all political prisoners.  But, more unusually, they have also insisted that the large-scale protest on June 12, the day when the bill was scheduled for a second reading in the legislature, should not be characterized as a “riot”.  To some officials this may appear as a rather opaque demand, but it would be no surprise, for instance, to a student of colonialism who is well aware of the fact that the colonial state constantly endeavored to reduce political protests to ordinary crimes.

There is much else in the protests that has left the functionaries of the state clueless about how to tackle this rebellion and its “instigators”—that is, if there are instigators, since one of the more remarkable features of the movement is the fluid manner in which the organic impulse to demand and protect freedoms has been conjoined to grass-roots level organization and coordination.  The demonstrators have displayed astonishing ingenuity in responding to state provocations and have come up with an arsenal of innovative tactics to defang the repressive status apparatus. Tear gas canisters have been extinguished with water bottles; traffic cones have been used to snuff out the gas before it spreads.  Using elementary hand signaling systems, protestors have conveyed messages down long human supply chains to warn of impending police activity. All this is really, pardon the cliché, the tip of the iceberg:  what we have in Hong Kong is the semiotics of a new architecture of mass-scale nonviolent street protest.  Political rebels with ambitions to craft resistance movements built from the ground up would be well advised to give serious study to the Hong Kong protests.

Hong Kong Protests Traffic Cones As Shields.jpg

Protesters in Hong Kong have been using traffic cones to counter tear gas. (Photo on the left by Antony Dapiran; image (screengrab) on the right by Alex Hofford).  Source: https://observers.france24.com/en/20190805-hong-kong-traffic-cones-shield-against-tear-gas

The questions that emerge from this riveting demonstration of the power of the people would have been critically important at any time, but take on even greater significance at this unusual juncture of history.  Nearly all over the world, established as well as younger democracies are under assault.  Some would like to characterize the period as one of “strong men”:  Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Rody Duterte come to mind.  And then there is Xi Jinping, who has eliminated term limits for the President and effectively installed himself as President of the People’s Republic of China for life.  Xi has no use for Mao’s baggy trousers or worklike uniforms and dons himself in crisp suits, and could easily be confused with the tens of thousands of people who constitute the technocratic managerial elite.  He even fancies himself as some kind of intellectual successor to Mao, peddling “Xi Jinping Thought” to party faithfuls and school children.  (A previous generation of students of politics and philosophy might remember “Gonzalo Thought”, named after the supposed new theoretical construction of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism by Abimael Guzman [aka Chairman Gonzalo], the leader of the insurrectionary group Shining Path who has been serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism since 1992.) It is perhaps apt that the word ‘populism’ has been used to describe the political culture of our times, even if fewer commentators have paused to delineate the specific features of this populism. At this rate, there will be little left in a few years to distinguish between (most) democracies and authoritarian states.

The possibilities of dissent have, then, diminished greatly in most countries.  Earlier generations of nonviolent activists and civil resisters were able to deploy the media to great effect; publicity was their oxygen. It might even be argued that strategies such as those of “filling the jail”, whether in Gandhi’s India or Jim Crow South in the 1960s, were partly born out of the awareness that such actions were calculated to arouse the interest of the press. (One should be wary of abiding too readily by such a view, more particularly because the likes of Gandhi, King, James Lawson, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and too many others to recount in these struggles were rigorous critics of the notion of instrumental rationality.) The critic may point out that the media is, if anything, even more widely available to nonviolent activists today.  That is far from being the case:  the state everywhere has shown remarkable tenacity, will, and power to commandeer the media, in all its forms, to its own ends, and moreover in this era truth, which is intrinsically tied to notions of nonviolence, is the first casualty.  Hong Kong has gifted us not only a new architecture of street protest, the first one of its kind in the post-truth era, but also crucially alerted us to the fact that the question of dissent will be the paramount question of our times.

 

(This is a slightly modified form of the piece first published at ABP [abplive.in] September 14 as “Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Protest”.)

For a Bengali translation of this article, click here.

For a Hindi translation of this article, click here.

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Hong Kong and the New Architecture of Street Protest

  1. Excellent post. Indeed, one of the only good things about the election of Trump is his departure from the US being the responsible world power, though this has caused considerable hand wringing from liberals. My main concern about the Hong Kong protests is their positive views towards the US and UK in fact. They have generally looked back at the period of British colonialism with nostalgia. They have also waved the American flag and sung the American national anthem. While China’s authoritarianism is indefensible, it is worth keeping in mind that Hong Kong has been democratic for a much longer period of time under China than it was under British rule, when it only received democracy shortly before it was given to China. Though these protests are justified, one wonders if they are also a useful tool for the NATO world order.

    • Hi Kumar, You are absolutely right. I, too, have some concerns about the Hong Kong protestors and their (though is not your word) Anglophilia. They may wish to escape from Chinese colonization but Hong Kong is in every respect the creation of a colonial regime and its people cannot escape that history. As for the protestors waving the American flag, I would like to remind you that Ho Chi Minh cited the American Declaration of Independence in issuing forth the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. America hogs the world’s imagination and somehow becomes the original site of dissent. That narrative is going to take another few generations to dislodge. I have in mind at least one follow-up piece which is precisely about this, but nevertheless in my judgment the Hong Kong protests constitute a significant challenge to China and to the culture of authoritarianism, even if they peter out. The semiotics of this revolt is fascinating. There is of course no doubt that the West hopes to derive as much advantage as it can from the protests to humiliate China, though I hope that decent people in the US will learn something from Hong Kong to wage a street-level movement in the US.

  2. Excellent analysis of the situation and biting indictment of China while also not letting US foreign policy off the hook. I can say that every September 11th, (or 9/11 as the Americans like to call it), the chief thing I mourn is the US backed coup in Chile on September 11, 1973 deposing Salvador Allende and installing Augusto Pinochet. Quite interesting to consider all the other major incidents that occurred on September 11th in history.

    • Hi Divya, September 11th is indeed a milestone day in contemporary history: it is the day when Mohandas Gandhi effectively launched satyagraha in South Africa. And there is the US-backed coup in Chile, as you point out. I have discussed some of this in the postscript to the Indian edition (Sage, 2005) of my book, “Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy” (London: Pluto Press, 2002).

  3. Thanks for penning this, Vinay. You say you hope that “decent people in the US will learn something from Hong Kong.” The problem is East Asia (all of Asia for that matter) has long been the Great Invisible in US media discourse. While the rest of the world burns, most Americans’ knowledge of China and Hong Kong is still limited to Bruce Lee; US farmers now out of work due to the Chinese grain tariffs have had perhaps a bit more knowledge forced on them. I don’t think the Hong Kong protests register at all in the US public’s consciousness, even with regular news coverage. It’s long been a fascination to me that Americans’ cultural referents don’t extend to the East, except in a confused, vestigial way, and why this is. It’s interesting that the recent protests in Puerto Rico dwarfed the numbers that manage to make it out onto US city streets during political protests.

    • Good to hear from you. I am of course in agreement with the view that Americans are horribly provincial and that the Hong Kong protests have barely registered in the public consciousness in the US. The rest of the world and not just Asia hardly matters to the US. This is part of the story of American exceptionalism but I shall not get into that at this time. I did use the word “hope” (as you know) in adverting to the possibility that Americans might watch what is happening there and learn something from it, because what else do I or for that matter anyone else have left but hope? I must admit that I am not very hopeful, more particularly because most Americans also think that the US, the “greatest country in the world” (as it has been described by every American president, and thousands of scores of others) has nothing to learn from any other country. The late and much lamented Justice Scalia, a mediocrity if there ever was one, even admonished his fellow judges when they cited Supreme Court decisions from other countries since, in his view, American jurisprudence was infinitely superior and there was no need for American courts to refer to decisions in other countries.

  4. Quite bizarre that the CPI M and other Indian communists have been calling the protesters Western imperialists and defending the Chinese state, this too while sitting in the world’s largest democracy.

    • I can’t remember the last time that any Indian communist party really showed any capacity for independent judgment. It is true that there is a certain Anglophilia in Hong Kong, but the movement is not necessarily compromised merely because of that. The CPM and other communist parties have what I call a “textbook” notion of what constitutes a “real” revolution, and everything else is too easily dismissed as “bourgeois”.

  5. Thank you for your analysis Professor Lal.

    Please correct my characterization if it is wrong, but I am under the impression that Hong Kong is a largely two-tiered society, with the division between the Haves and the Have Nots being more pronounced than in other Tiger economies. Please forgive my submission of such cursory evidence, but I recently watched a documentary film which related the tragic condition of many Hong Kong pensioners. These elderly were housed in what can barely be called human accommodations, and lived among a rather disturbing variety of pests. This in a society that boasts the highest property prices in the world.

    The film did explain that the housing crisis was inflamed partly by the influx of mainland capital, but I was curious as to how such organic cooperation could take place among the people of Hong Kong in the face of rather glaring inequities. Is this a lesson in how to occasionally reach across class lines to achieve common objectives? Or is this a lesson in how to advance a cause in spite of the powerful Hong Kong elite? Or am I framing the question wrong entirely? My curiosity is piqued mainly by the severe numerical advantage the PRC (in many metrics but in population especially) holds over Hong Kong, and how Hong Kong might be able to overcome such difference in spite of internal fractures. I would appreciate your input Professor Lal.

    Of course, the success of the demonstrations is a positive development to be celebrated. I also enjoyed your quieting of the United States, which again never shows itself to be lacking in Hubris.

    Thank you Professor Lal,

    Michael

    • Hi Michael,
      My endorsement of the Hong Kong demonstrations is not at all meant to offer a rosy picture of Hong Kong or the commitment of many of its people to democratic norms. Many of the protestors have been raising the US flag, which I think is not merely unfortunate and reflects naivety on the part of some protestors. Similarly, there are many lines of fracture in Hong Kong society, and you are right in pointing out that there are, besides those who are obscenely wealthy, also those who are extremely poor. The gulf between the two seems more pronounced in a small place such as Hong Kong, which also bills itself as a place of opportunity for all. Only a close sociological analysis will reveal to what extent people are marching across class lines and whether new forms of solidarity are being created, or whether the protests to some extent might also be reflecting class differences. I suspect that among the very rich, there is generally less support for demonstrations, since business interests are by instinct (and more) conservative.

  6. It is only the eternal energy of the Vedas that Hong Kong and China can be saved. They have abandoned their Buddhist dharmic heritage, embracing communism. It must be through a return to the dharmic path that they will resolve their challenges! Om! Agnimeele purohitam yajnasya deva mrtvijam hotaram rakhtadhatamam.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s