Rebecca Karl, Thoughts from afar on Hong Kong, 1 January 2020

“Tout ce qui bouge n’est pas rouge” (“All that moves is not red”) 
Alain Badiou (speaking of the Yellow Vests in France)

The Hong Kong Basic Law (1997) was intended, among other things, to lock Hong Kongers into being cogs in the wheel of economic production, China’s in this case. Their political role, by Chinese-UK design, was to be constrained, and their obligations towards the Chinese State were neither to serve in the People’s Liberation Army military nor to participate centrally in the implementation of State or Party authority over political, ideological, or social life in general. There were certain political participatory measures granted by the Law, but these were minimal concessions wrung from both the British colonial government and the Chinese State by incipient HK activists at the time. Mostly, Hong Kongers were to be declared autonomous only in a very particular way: they were to be left to labor freely in the manufacturing and service sectors; to assist freely in the local, national, regional, and global accumulations of capital; and to enhance freely China’s then-emerging and now rigid nationalist project. At the same time, Hong Kongers were expected—along with albeit differently from regular PRC citizens—to suffer freely but in relative silence the depredations of the rapid and vast wealth and power polarizations manifested in the process of Hong Kong’s integration with the mainland. Maintaining a HK way of life was, from the Chinese State’s perspective, to uphold the State-imposed policed line between production (good and free) and politics (the preserve of the few). This was the premise and working practice of “one country two systems.”

The legislated separation of politics from economics—a notion that ignores any materialist analysis of the indivisibility of life under capitalism (not to mention socialism, of course)—hasn’t gone so well recently in Hong Kong, to the utter dismay and perhaps incomprehension of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overlords and the Chinese-sponsored political apparatus in Hong Kong (Carrie Lam and her coterie).  The Chinese State has been somewhat successful in the majority of China over the past several decades in drawing and normalizing the wall of separation between economics and politics – although of course episodic and sharp factory unrest, feminist movements, peasant disturbances, and private protests, among others, have demonstrated the constantly breached and thus precarious nature of that purported wall ( recently published a report cataloguing the rich variety of such social upheaval [“Picking Quarrels: Lu Yuyu, Li Tingyu, and the Changing Cadence of Class Struggle in China”]).  Meanwhile, since 1997, many common Hong Kongers increasingly have not been calm about being silenced politically while being mobilized economically. In fact, the current social movement (since June 2019) has taken widespread internet activism and griping to the street and street activism back to the internet in ingenious, spectacular, and apparently durable form. Rather than mobilize some presumed inherently revolutionary political-identity class (proletarians, peasants, bourgeoisie), one of the main features of this movement has been the fluidity of political subjectivity-formation in the course of the events themselves. Some see this as a weakness. Not I.

Clearly, there are acute social splits and sharp class struggles in Hong Kong, as well as between Hong Kong and the mainland (among others). There is no univocality in the current manifestations of the movement. The range of movement opinion and activist motivation—from right-wing nativist to colonial nostalgia to dreams of Trump-times to Hong Kong nationalism to left-wing proletarian solidarity to anarchism or nihilism to anti-police and many more—has been the hallmark of this round of political voicing. In my opinion, it is a strength and not a weakness not to have a vanguardist notion of how to proceed, a settled class analysis on who leads and in whose name a revolution is being made.

Be Water, the movement activists have proclaimed. Be fluid, flow, change directions and respond in real time to real crises on the streets and in social life as they emerge; force new crises upon the police to make violence inescapable, not because violence is fetishized, but because the stability of State power and capitalist order demand invisible as well as visible violence. Make revolution and allow revolution to re-make Hong Kong.

Ideological eclecticism has enabled the participation of huge swathes of the HK populace, and it has led to an elaboration of a stunning range of visual and aural presentations that function as integral to the events, as a form of spectacular domestic argument as well as a visible global tactic. Ideological eclecticism has meant that, as Badiou remarked with regard to the Yellow Vest movement in France, “not all that moves [that augurs unrest] is red.” Indeed. So it is. Slavoj Zizek recently cited the lack of “redness” in Hong Kong as a debilitating factor and a reason perhaps that leftists globally should keep their distance. Do all movements these days need always to be red in the old or the same way? And in whose mandated shade? Of course, the possibility of right-wing capture of movement politics is ever-present; the history of the post-1989 world is evidence enough of that. But why pre-emptively foreclose the issue by dismissing it a priori in some Zizekian way?

The undemocratically negotiated and enacted Basic Law of 1997 mandates that Hong Kong is part of China. If so, one could say that it is Hong Kong, as part of China, that most persistently, acutely, and concentratedly has called attention to and dissented from the Chinese State’s desire for the smooth separation of economics from politics. It is Hong Kong, as part of China, that has given the lie to the Chinese State’s efforts to depoliticize social, cultural, and economic life in general, to separate economics from politics. It is thus Hong Kong, despite and even because of the broad and fragmented movement this time and of the past decades (e.g. the Umbrella Movement of 2014), that potentially points the way towards an analytical reconceptualization of our contemporary global capitalist moment and its discontents. Will this reconceptualization be “red” in the politically vanguardist way of the past? Do we want that, given all we know now about how seizures of State power turn away from their radical democratic premises and devour themselves in technocratic, bureaucratic, and violent managerialism? The leftist collective, Lausan, has been systematically working through some of these issues.

What Hong Kong means for China could be considered alarming to the CCP and the State. It might mean that materially, by swallowing Hong Kong, China has swallowed a wasps’ nest of proliferating protest and dissent that defies neat categorization and thus neat suppression. It means that logically, by insisting Hong Kong is part of China —inalienably so— China will have to recognize that Hong Kong’s activist political critique of its post-1990s presumptions about political quiescence and economic growth come from within, that they are domestic critiques and are intractable. It means that China cannot seriously insist that Hong Kong is alien, foreign, other (except in weak rhetorical fashion), because Hong Kong gives the lie from within to China’s desired depoliticized present and future. It means that there is no return to the Basic Law and life as usual. It means then that Hong Kong, a place C.K. Lee has recently called a frontier of global China (a frontier that is joined by Xinjiang, Tibet, and other so-called peripheries, where Chinese state repression is not restrained by Basic Laws or other agreements and thus where mass incarcerations and cultural genocides can proceed outside the glare of international media and its capacity to whip up global sympathies), could very well be deemed entirely significant in today’s multiple worlds of political protest, where centers may be holding for now, but where the margins are spectacularly unfolding in unpredictable ways.

Rather than impose analytical closure and demands for ideological purity on an emerging activist movement, leftists globally might wish to embrace the most radical meaning of praxis as it has unfolded and continues to unfold in the recent and ongoing Hong Kong events: the transformation of subjectivity through a dialectics of activity, or, that is, the realization of political philosophy in the here and now, with all the messiness and incoherence that that might connote. In my opinion, we do not now need settled-ness, nor old definitions of redness or rigid parameters of what is or is not appropriate. What we need and what Hong Kong’s activists in all their variety and courage have provided so far is disruption of business as usual. Through unpredictable disruption, leftists may find new ways of troubling the smooth reproduction of capitalist and State-sponsored power relations. It is only thus by defying stability that we might find a new, more progressive path forward.