Dec 01, 2019
What began as a protest against a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong has rapidly spiraled into one of the worst political crises confronting the Chinese city; as the movement enters its fifth month, violence has continued to escalate in the streets of what once was a hustling and bustling international cosmopolitan.
It is difficult to not feel disillusioned as a Hong Konger. To watch one’s city descend into flames and chaos, as routine militarisation by factions of different political orientations, coupled with antagonistic and belligerent confrontations between law enforcement and the public, take over the city – is an experience that is surreally distant yet now proximate for many amongst the 7.4 million inhabiting one of the world’s leading financial centers. What used to appear on news regarding distant corners on Earth has now become a recurrent, daily fixture in Hong Kong’s politics.
The polarisation is beyond extreme – some would say it is irrevocable. On one side we see protesters, oppositional forces, large swathes of the general public who are disenchanted and infuriated with what they view as inept governance, unaccountable enforcement structures, and socioeconomic inequalities – to many of the more radical individuals amongst, there is a tragic but also disturbing tendency that seeks total, nihilistic annihilation. On the other side we see individuals who conjoin for a multitude of reasons – some are deeply perplexed by the damage the ongoing protests have on their businesses and livelihoods, yet more are simply of the view that these protests reflect a fundamentally misguided objective – one that is unjustly de-aligned with Hong Kong’s status as a part of China.
I’ve been thinking about why such polarisations are so seemingly intractable, and came to a few preliminary conclusions. The first is that the ongoing tussle is a matter over identity and self-identification. Consider distributing a basket of apples between two squabbling hawkers – both hawkers see taking the whole basket as aligned with their interests, and that any and all benefits accrued to the other hawker an active damage to their own interest. Such zero-sum logic means that once one has “picked their side”, it’s hard to see any further gains and losses through the (ostensibly) objective lenses of what would perhaps do the aggregate economy the most good.
There is a tempting rejoinder here, to attribute such manifestations of localist identities to “deeper”, “genuine” materialist and socioeconomic concerns. The objection to my diagnosis is that the ongoing movement reflects disillusionment with both the lack of social mobility and political inertia in the special administrative region, which in fact have little to do with identity politics.
I do not dispute the fact that there are factors beyond identity politics at play here – obviously, socioeconomic mobility stagnation and anger towards the slow pace of democratisation both play a significant role in inflaming pre-existing resentment towards Mainland China. Yet to overlook the distinctly identitarian discourses and attitudes underpinning the movement would be equally disingenuous. From essentialist narratives that portray Mainland Chinese migrants as “locusts” and ostensibly ethnically distinct from the “indigenous” Hong Kong Chinese, to the articulation of the Hong Konger identity as being antithetical to and exclusionary of the Chinese identity (see the controversy featuring Francis Hui, a Hong Kong student at Emerson’s College, who declared herself a Hong Konger – not a Chinese; or the post-2014 polls that have shown unprecedentedly low numbers of Hong Kong citizens identifying as Chinese citizens) – it is apparent that identity lies at the crux of the fraught Hong Kong-China relations. The 2016 Legislative Council elections saw the unprecedented election of candidates with explicitly localist agenda (e.g. Lau Siu-Lai, Nathan Law etc.) to the city’s legislature – despite the subsequent disqualification of these candidates for their impropriety during the oath-swearing ceremony, this landmark election was remarkable in registering the localist camp as a sizeable electoral force in the city.
Therefore, large number of those embroiled in the ongoing conflict in Hong Kong is locked up in a zero-sum identitarian struggle. For those who sympathise with or are from the mainland, any and all concessions – including the ones for which there was avid campaigning from even the politically apathetic – are viewed as capitulation in face of “Western forces” and an alien population whose values diverge irrationally from their “national interest”. In contrast, for many Hong Kongers who have found the Chinese identity difficult to grasp, if not swallow, this ongoing movement is a definitive and ardent expression of their identities. It is only logical – if not poignant – that both sides view the total elimination of each other (at least within Hong Kong) as the strategically and instrumentally wise course of action to adopt.
The second reason is the important role played by socialisation – the processes that govern and underpin imagined communities, through which loosely associated individuals connected through previously weak ties have come to coalesce around social norms and rituals they have previously shunned or avoided. Online echo chambers have convinced extremists on both sides fully that any and all dissenting opinions must be eliminated and silenced “at all costs” – it was particularly chilling to witness some of the most denigrating and dehumanising language employed to describe the city’s youth, an entire generation who would and should rise to lead our city into navigating its future with the Mainland and Central Chinese government. On the other hand, the abandonment of facts and embracing of emotive discourse have emerged as the most expedient ways of accruing social capital, media salience, and public recognition in one’s camps – this is particularly the case for the small but virulent minority on all sides who view the ongoing struggle a political exercise for power acquisition.
The final reason why polarisation seems to dominate in its hegemonic position – is the innate divisiveness of violence. It is easy to identify and distinguish the use of force from non-force – but where force becomes violence, legitimate defense becomes illegitimate and cantankerous abuse… these are questions that are innately subjective and embedded with the perspectives from which individuals hail. Some view violence by the protesters as justified, on grounds that they lack reasonable alternative means of expressing and lobbying for their agenda. Others condone the vigilante attacks by mobs on the protesters, on grounds that the severe disruptions to the city’s traffic and economic order by the protesters impose unduly and unreasonably high costs to Hong Kong citizens. Regardless of one’s substantive political positions, there is a tendency to view violence by one’s “side” as innately justified self-defense, and violence by the opposing faction as fundamentally oppressive and tyrannical. The entry of violence into the protests has not only divided political communities, but also torn apart personal relations – families, friendships, and neighbourhoods. Hong Kong is but a desert of deserted and broken friendships and families – consigning camaraderie and pluralistic tolerance to the status of relics of the past.
The conventional narrative that this is a David vs. Goliath fight is all too tempting – but also unconducive towards pragmatic resolution given the empirical realities governing Hong Kong’s status as a part of China. There is a difficult, but necessary third path ahead of Hong Kong. This city’s future cannot be built upon mutual blame, premature judgments, and vigilante distortions of justice. This city cannot continue down its trek down a path of irreconcilable polarisation. This city will live and thrive – or die and fizzle out – in accordance with whether a peaceful and sustainable settlement could be found for this summer’s crisis. To attain such a peaceful solution requires moderation and pragmatism from all parties – not just the government or the movement itself. The tendency to push for all-or-nothing outcomes (the satisfaction of all five demands, vs. the negation of all demands) is only mutually destructive and paves the way for irrevocably recalcitrant polarisation that leaves lasting damage in the city’s future.
When my city is burning in dire flames, I do not – for a second – believe that through incandescent rage and self-destructive nihilism could we find productive solutions. Similarly, the rally against the establishment in states across the world is long overdue – but there must be more that we could do than the somewhat futile (albeit valiant) belief that anyone and all working within the system must be expelled and excommunicated for their failure to be radical.
More generally, however, what this summer of events has shown is that Hong Kong, if not the world at large, needs a new model of triangulation. Such triangulation is not policy-centred or ideological (so let us do away with the blind fetishisation of centrism that the likes of Blair and Cameron conveniently championed in the UK) – it is instead a triangulation in the amorphous, ambivalent political middle, who could speak to all sides, hear from all sides, and forge a compromise that, whilst frail, is the only hope forward. In his 2019 book Illiberal China , Daniel Vukovich astutely extrapolates from the 2011 Wukan village protests in Guangdong a new model for civil society activism in China. This model of “rightful resistance” features local citizens positioning themselves against corrupt or ineffectual local cadres – as opposed to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime itself. Through such tactical positioning, the Wukan movement acquired critical momentum through external media coverage, as well as acquired the implicit endorsement and blessings of the Central Government in Beijing. Similarly, in the case of Hong Kong, the movement would benefit from articulating a vision for greater political liberalisation and autonomy in Hong Kong that does not directly undermine the stability of rule of the CCP. Only by aligning Hong Kong’s political reforms with Beijing’s interests, could the Hong Kong public find a way out of the current impasse.
Triangulation is neither easy nor always the appropriate modus vivendi. There are times when obstinacy and inertia render the exercise futile – if not detracting from more proactive and radical solutions. There are also times when its attempts to depoliticise or de-escalate conflicts ends up suppressing and inhibiting, as opposed to facilitating, genuine crisis resolution. Yet with all dialectical contradictions, there must be a synthesis – and synthesis comes only through attitudes of ideological flexibility, rooted upon integrity and devotion to the genuine greater good.
Brian Wong is an MPhil Candidate (Political Theory) at Wolfson College, Oxford and PPE graduate from Pembroke College, Oxford. They have been recently selected as Rhodes Scholar-elect for Hong Kong in 2020, and are due to begin a DPhil in Politics in Oxford from September 2020 onwards. They founded the Oxford Political Review, and serve as Founding Secretary to Citizen Action Design Lab, a Hong Kong-based policy think-tank; Founding Fellow to Governance Partners Yangon, a Myanmar-based development non-profit organisation. Brian was on the leadership teams of the North American and European Universities Debating Championships, and serve amongst the coaches of the Chinese National Debating Team. They are passionate about rectifying historical and present structural injustices in non-democracies, advancing LGBTQ+ and ethnic minority rights in East Asia, and facilitating Hong Kong-China relations through productive and open dialogue. Their writings have appeared in publications such as TIME, Fortune, Times Higher Education, Asia Times, the Diplomat Magazine and South China Morning Post. As a public-facing philosopher, they have written for the American Philosophical Association Blog, the Uehiro Practical Ethics Blog, and maintain a regular column for the Hong Kong Economic Journal.