Interview on the Protest Movement in Hong Kong

This is an interview on the latest developments in Hong Kong, the protest movement, ‘Hong Kong identity,’ and more. The Italian version was published here. The interview was done by email with an activist who has been involved in social movements in Hong Kong for several years and has been part of the current movement from the start, with a left-wing standpoint and a critical view on some of the forms and aims of the movement.

The U.S. Government recently ordered the removal of Hong Kong’ special status, due to Beijing’s new security law. How did the movement react to this announcement? Did it cause a radicalization of views or attitudes among the protesters? What is now the place for pro-American positions?

The local responses to the U.S. government’s response vary. There are some who welcome the decision, citing the slogan “if we burn, you burn with us.” The mutual destruction is considered as people believe that if Hong Kong’s special status – which allows the Chinese state to evade tariffs – and the ban on high-tech imports and to receive foreign capital investment will no longer hold, then the Chinese regime will face an economic and political crisis. This idea also grows out of the frustration that the protest movement last year has not been able to put pressure on both the Hong Kong and the Chinese government and can only see the intensification of repression, like arrests and persecution of protesters, the restructuring of existing government institutions to “demand” stronger loyalty to the Chinese state, national education and the new units of the police force. People expecting that only other states, by means of sanctions etc., could alter the course.

However, some – reflected by some responses from liberal spectrum of the Pan-Democrats – fear for the economic prospect of Hong Kong and would want to avoid being sanctioned.

Pro-American (and explicitly pro-right) positions have always been there but they represent only smaller factions of the movement. But I think generally only a small group of left-wing protesters has developed a larger solidarity towards protest movement elsewhere and, generally, the newly politicized protesters have a very narrow understanding about geopolitics.

So the U.S. government’s move is well-received in Hong Kong, even though its supporters are not necessary pro-Trump.

Members of the Chinese government started talking about a new “Cold War” which would see China and the U.S. on opposite sides. Could we see it as less of a real threat than an attempt to remold local social conflicts in both China and the U.S. into an external geopolitical opposition?

I think on the part of the Chinese government, the struggle in Hong Kong is being portrayed as a threat to China’s national security, either by portraying the Hong Kong movement as the work of foreign infiltrators, an argument picked up by a recent documentary propaganda by the Chinese state TV, or straightly as an independence movement. My feeling is that the Chinese state tries to prevent potential support from China for the movement in Hong Kong. At the very beginning, there was an information blockage in China. Later the state shifted to anti-violence rhetoric and then anti-independence and anti-foreign intervention. So there seems to be a gradual shift of official policy to handle the transfer of information about the movement.

During the past year we have seen how a “Hong Kong” identity has been reshaped by political struggle, radical self-organization, and violent repression. What does this identity mean for the movement now? Does it represent a limit or set a boundary for progressive struggles in the city?

The discussion of a “Hong Kong identity” as an anchor of mobilization vs. a Chinese national identity combined with economic development without political rights dates back to the anti-eviction and anti-developmentalism movement in the 2000s. The “local” Hong Kong identity was constructed more or less with a leftist political framework that seeks to challenge the capitalist “global” or “national” system that seeks to dispossess urban space. Things rather changed in the 2010s where a right-wing articulation of a “Hong Kong identity” became much more apparent especially when related to the discussion of border control – “less tourists and migrants from China” – and also growing influence by the Chinese government and Chinese business in Hong Kong.

The question about what can be defined as part of a “Hong Kong identity” became a contested ground since the start of the movement. There is no question about the collective identification of Hongkongers being the force that enabled the mass mobilization seen during the movement. Different marginalized groups, such as migrants from China and from South-Asian countries like foreign domestic workers, have been actively fighting for a place of being “Hongkongers” by showing support and participating in the movement.

With stronger repression in place from the Chinese and the Hong Kong government and an overall dissatisfaction with the state, the voice of self-determination as a “nation” and even the search for becoming “independent” from the Chinese nation-state is getting stronger. Apparently, the independence movement was sidelined or played a rather small role at the beginning of the movement. Alongside that, anti-Chinese and anti-migrant politics still persist within movement and in Hong Kong at large.

What’s the place of Hong Kong’s colonial history in the movement? Does it make sense to use traditional concepts such as imperialism, decolonization, independence, when we look at Hong Kong?

I think to look at the arrangement of “one country, two systems” and the Basic Law, they have essentially frozen Hong Kong’s “successful” colonial political infrastructure that allows global capitalism to flourish in Hong Kong, and one that the Chinese CCP regime continues to use: power sharing with capitalists and the professional class under partial elections, centralized power for the government, low taxes and deregulation for the rich, few public investments – except for a public housing program and medical services which are subject to pressure for privatization –, and relative freedom compared to China. At the same time, when the Basic Law was drafted in the early 1980s, there were widespread beliefs that China’s political space would be “opened up” following economic liberalization.

There are voices in the movement that criticize the Basic Law and “one country, two systems” as it is seen as a deal between the Chinese and the British government without representation from people of Hong Kong and as a tool to reinforce existing social and economic inequalities. While currently the demand for a return to “colonial rule” is still very marginal, it is true that there has been nostalgia among the public about the “golden age” of Hong Kong during the colonial era from the 1970s to 1990s which saw rapid economic development and increasing public investments in housing, medical care, and other welfare programs. Therefore the legacy of that exceptional period, the colonial era, has become a reference point for people now when they bemoan the increasing living expenses, expensive housing, and the diminishing importance of Hong Kong as a center of global capitalism.

Hong Kong’s real estate market is in a desperate situation, big capital is hardly taxed, economic inequality is high and even getting higher. How big is the role played by social disparities in this last year-long wave of struggle? Could we see the ‘Hongkongers’ anti-Chinese struggle even as a struggle against the Hong Kong upper class?

I think there is widespread dissatisfaction with the economic polarization and inequalities in Hong Kong. But I think it was deliberate to not address these issues in the major demands of the movement. On one hand, it was because the government, in the midst of the protest last year, claimed that the protest was a result of a “deep structural issue.” So-called policy adjustments proposed by the government last year did not change any of those existing economic and political structures that have led to inequality. And as a response to that claim, many of the protesters chose to focus on “political demands”, i. e., about universal suffrage and the reform of the system of political representation. On the other hand, it was because leftists had been heavily attacked in previous years since 2012. Partly, the “none division” principle of the movement meant that the demands we kept vague so to include people from different political positions.

I think the Hong Kong upper class has sided with the Chinese government – while it is also the choice of the Chinese government to maintain an alliance with the Hong Kong upper class.

It seems often that focusing on Hong Kong political identity prevents from discussing social and economical issues like welfare, housing, working and living conditions. What is in your opinion the link between these different issues? And what different views are to be found among the protesters?

I think different positions exist within the movement. The liberals, represented by political parties such as the Democratic Party and the Civic Party have been either supporting or not been entirely critical of the existing economic and social issues. They might be in favor of preserving the “Hong Kong way of life” and Hong Kong’s role in global capitalism, and they see the Chinese government’s latest move and crackdown as a threat to Hong Kong’s existing freedom and perhaps it’s economic potential. There are also protesters, who share similar perspectives. Organizations such as Demosito or politicians like Chu Hoi-dick argue that large-scale political participation and democratization – to get representative democracy – will allow changes to the current economic structure, because the current status quo cannot be changed without changing the political structure, i. e., the Legislative Council that is controlled by the pro-Beijing elite that heavily favors the rich.

Anti-migrant rhetoric can be found among localist supporters who believe that the social and economic issues are the result of the increasing number of migrants from China. They have different views on who can be defined or be considered and accepted as a “Hongkonger,” from more cultural essentialist views about Hongkonger which argues that only people who share a common cultural background and even birthplace can be accepted to those who refer to the theory of civil nationalism.

Despite their differences, the emerging Hong Kong identity is a strong rallying force for these different political camps, whether their enemies are the rich, the CCP, the Hong Kong government or migrants. Interestingly, different forms of struggle other than street protest, such as strikes and trade unionism, have started to emerge along with the movement. Some newly established unions have not only see it as a means to organize workers in the anti-extradition movement but also started to address the issues that workers faced in that sector – the medial worker union being one of the strongest so far.

Last not least, there are also a marginalized leftist positions which are both critical to economic and social order and representative democracy.

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