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Hong Kong’s Political Struggles Amidst a New Global Order

Pang Laikwan

After three decades of neoliberal stagnancy described by some as the end of history, the 2010s witnessed two different socio-political developments that ended this “end of history” rhetoric. On the one hand, social unrest emerged around the world, beginning with the London Riots and Tunisia Protests, culminating in the Global Occupy, and lost in the endless Yellow Vests, anti-authoritarian protests in Latin America and Asia, back to the US and the West with Climate Change activism and Black Life Matters mobilizations. On the other hand, we observe new contestations of the major state powers to reshape the dominant world order, signalled by the rise of right-wing governments in the world as well as the so-called “New Cold War” between China and the US. Maybe one of the most symbolic sites in this restless decade is Hong Kong, a global city at the heart of the current global order. While coordinating much of the global capital flow between China and the world, the city also staged the largest occupy movement in 2014, and it churned out and exported innovative protest strategies in its 2019 Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (Anti-ELAB) protests. China’s harsh legislative responses quickly followed, engendered by and reinforcing the hostile relation between China and West, also leading us to a much more unstable 2020s. Current Hong Kong political conditions offer us insights into a new global order characterized by fierce competitions among powerful states on the top with equally aggressive dissident movements from the bottom. 

Global Order 

Tapping into the increasingly blatant anti-China sentiments developing in many places, some Hong Kong protestors consentingly sutured their democratic movement into a grave international contest. While the call for help has been returned with global echoes, the risks of such tactical manoeuvres also became clear in the second half of 2020, when the PRC raised the draconian and clouded “National Security Law” to indict those who have participated in such global campaigns. To the PRC, both the biggest promises and threats of Hong Kong reside in its international connections, products of its colonial port-city history. This seems to be a fate Hong Kong is destined to face. The struggles of this global city in the last decade indeed signal the advent of a new global order. If critics have condemned neoliberal multilateral regimes presiding over state sovereignty that reinforce global inequality in the last two decades, powerful states now have come back to shape the global order, inducing more nationalist sentiments and unapologetic suppressions internally.   

Let us contrast Hong Kong with another place. Kashmir has also been undergoing similar struggles, with the largely Muslim population battling to maintain the autonomy of the region the Indian government promised. While the global limelight kept the Hong Kong unrest alive for a much longer time than expected, the Kashmir protests were relatively isolated, even while the Indian government’s repressions were fierce and unyielding. Most sarcastically, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi justifies his government’s actions in stripping the region of its autonomy in the name of ending the “isolation” of Kashmir, which, as he criticized, has allowed the youth to be misguided and radicalized. 1 By revoking Kashmir’s self-rule, the Modi government claims to be “reconnecting” the region with India and the world. 

While the Hong Kong and Kashmir protests differ on many levels, the rhetoric of the Indian government is not dissimilar to China’s, asserting that only the central government can establish legitimate connections to the world, and that all the local regions must follow the mandate of the sovereign state. If neoliberalism has largely been operating as a negative theology against state controls with subtle governmental engineering, we see an obvious revision of neoliberalism in the 2020s, when states now take the helm and make decisions in the name of the people and the world. Slogans such as “America First,” “Buy American,” and “Global Britain” vividly demonstrate how powerful Western states vow to prioritize their national interests, supposedly unified, in a new phase of globalization. This statist turn of globalization in the West is clearly intertwined with the rise of China. While the PRC leaders have unambiguously supported globalization, the Chinese version, particularly the one engineered by the current government, is not the neoliberal one. Xi Jinping spoke in the 2018 Boao Forum that in contrast to US protectionism, China stands for globalization with free trade as its cornerstone, and that the PRC would proactively develop global partnerships and firmly support multilateralism. But what he did not publicly pronounce was that such “free trade” and “multilateralism” must be controlled by the state. Particularly obvious in the last two years, the government is installing more Party officials inside private firms and, in some cases, instructing state-owned enterprises to absorb them completely. It is not individual entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma or Ren Zhengfei which steer this Sino-centric globalization, but the PRC state directly takes charge.

The recent happenings in Hong Kong demonstrate how this new global order is actively shaped, and how Saskia Sassen’s old account of globalization is both valid and becoming obsolete. Sassen argues that globalization has been facilitated by the cross-border dynamics among tiers of global and regional cities, forming strategic transnational networks with intense competitions among the cities. Such global cities rise above national borders to coordinate global capital flow. 2 The semi-autonomy Hong Kong enjoyed in the last two decades could be understood accordingly. Indeed, even while undergoing a most ferocious social unrest in 2019, Hong Kong continued to be the world’s largest IPO market of the year, indicating how the city is crucial in coordinating the world’s flow of finance capital in and out of China. China’s tight capital flow restrictions had allowed China to be largely unaffected by the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s. Beijing relied on Hong Kong, hailed widely as a most open economy in the world, to be the financial threshold to filter global financial risks while keeping inflow and outflow smooth. But this city is also used by rich mainland Chinese to manage their wealth. In the last few years many rich mainlanders tried to transfer their capital out of the PRC, through Hong Kong, over fears of corruption crackdowns and an imminent economic downturn. Most ironically, the extradition bill that caused the 2019 Hong Kong Anti-ELAB movement was advanced primarily to intimidate those mainland officials and businessmen trying to use Hong Kong for money laundering purposes. 

The 2019 extradition bill might be seen as evidence of the PRC losing its deftness in navigating current global capitalism with an increasing sense of sovereign insecurity. Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy, which has been very important to the PRC to maintain its leverage in the world, has also become intolerable for the PRC. The 2020 National Security Law indicates how this powerful state is determined to rewrite the rule of the game. While China has adopted some neoliberal practices in the past two decades, this is a country without a strong liberal tradition, and the power of the state has never been as challenged or feared as it has been historically in western liberal countries. With the government’s heavy-handed repression of its home-grown liberalist thoughts, Xi’s high-sounding idea of the “community of common destiny for all people” is entirely state-engineered and top-down. Promising a shared development of the world, this new Sino-centric globalization promises is a very conservative project, raising Confucianism and patriarchy as leading ideologies, and it is also more unmerciful in suppressing dissidents and imposing global censorship. 

As shown in the last few months, the PRC is still trying to utilize the global city status of Hong Kong to provide financial assistance for its global enterprise, and it is still maintaining Hong Kong’s status as a free trade port, a separate customs territory, and, to some degree, its Common Law system to support the free market. But the liberal political values associated with these economic functions must be tamed, if not eradicated completely. There will be no political excess associated with the city’s economic functions, and this Chinese city must be completely loyal to its sovereign owner, who is ready to sacrifice some of Hong Kong’s global city status and function in exchange for its political security. 

The world after COVID-19 will inevitably be a stage for powerful states to flex their muscles. Western countries have been criticized as unable to control the situation, in contrast to the PRC’s effective, though drastic, virus-curbing policies. Globalization is still thriving, but we probably will see state competitions becoming more ferocious, and hot wars will be imminent. Private players are likely to follow state policies more closely, and capitalist interests will have to align with the state’s overall strategic calculations. A real test for the democratic states is, seeing China as model/enemy, whether they also lose their self-restraint and move toward outright authoritarianism.  

Worlding

If state competitions are fierce, and sovereign powers reign high, the fates of most democratic movements in the world indeed appear bleak. Back in Hong Kong, the 2020 Implementation of the National Security Law was meant to suppress the 2019 Anti-ELAB protests. Chronologically, we can easily count the 2019 social unrest as the cause for the 2020 suppression, showing the iron will of the PRC to assert its sovereign rights. But the opposite is also the case: that it was Beijing’s increasing encroachment on the “high-degree of autonomy” promised to the city that agitated the intense protests, so that the 2020 National Security Law could be seen as the cause of the 2019 social unrest. In any case, Hong Kong seems to be so caught in a large historical wave that its struggles seem almost pre-determined. 

From a different perspective, we can also say both sides operate according to their own self-fulfilling prophecy, and they both get what they fear. Beijing constructs a Hong Kong independence, while Hong Kong opens its door for “one-country” to annul “two-systems.” We are seeing similar vicious circles happening around the world. People do not trust their government, and they also do not trust each other, and things keep spiralling down. This facilitates the development of nationalism, populism, and statism, which in turn reinforce the mutual conditioning of the strong state and folk grievances. In other words, what is shaping the new global order is not just the so-called “Thucydides’s Trap” between rival states, but also the states’ internal politics and tensions with their own people. 

If the contestations between the powerful states will only become fiercer in the new decade, and tensions between the state and the people will also intensify, we must still try to resist a Schmittian friends-vs-enemies mindset. As political actors ourselves, we must bring back the values of political participation as process, as connection-making, and as end in itself. We should re-invest in the idea of the people as a polyphonic existence, as well as in the projects of bottom-up global interdependence. If super-powers are fighting for control to develop a new phase of globalization, new alliances and empathetic connections might also develop on other levels to initiate new alliances, new intelligence, and fresh hope.

Alain Badiou wrote in 2011 how he was uplifted by the then-recent riots in England and the Arab world, which he believed were offering real hope to change a world dominated by capitalist and state interests. 3 Most recently Badiou concludes this decade, however, by criticizing the recent global struggles as failing to articulate new ideologies and organizations. To realize a truly global emancipatory movement, he asks global protestors to turn their slogans from “defend our freedoms” or “stop police violence” to “the abolition of private property.” 4 I agree with him that we should develop ties among the global protest communities. But would the tie be communism, narrowly defined? A major problem of macro-Marxist analysis is that it is always correct, as capitalism is producing social injustice basically everywhere in the world. But there are so many other structures of injustice in place that create different demands for emancipation. There is a genuine sense of despair felt by Hong Kong people that the city will be sacrificed to the fulfilment of the Chinese Dream. Thailand youths protest against a corrupt monarchy, while Indonesian students demand a more accountable government. Criticizing the operation of capital in these places is never wrong, but those criticisms lacking any careful account of the complexity of each society also become the ultimate comfort zone for the critics to stay on the plane of the universal and the totalizing.

In Hong Kong, social inequality is severe, and there are many pressing social problems in the city waiting to be tackled. Along with the protests against authoritarianism, there are also vigorous critiques of capitalism and neoliberalism. In general, Hong Kong people are deeply aware, and critical, of the many social problems the city is facing. Young protestors care deeply about the social conditions of their fellow residents, which they find congruent with their commitment to safeguarding the city’s liberal values. In such times of intense dichotomization, it is a matter of urgency to resist subsuming one critique under others, and we must encourage participatory politics and difficult dialogues instead of fantasizing easy hegemony. 

On a global scale, instead of imposing singular slogans such as “abolishing private property,” we might look at those moments of trans-local connections, established sometimes through shared political agendas, and sometimes simply through a leap of empathy. Many protestors in Hong Kong have experienced such moments of worlding with other protestors around the world comprising shared objects such as umbrellas and laser pointers as well as painful experiences of tear gas and water cannons. We have seen how Hong Kong is summoned in Catalonia, Jakarta, and Cleveland, and how Hong Kong protestors show solidarity with their peers in Belarus, Thailand, and Xinjiang. With little shared political agenda, many ordinary folks in Japan and Korea developed strong identification with Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong. There is also the online “milk-tea” alliance developing among netizens in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand, which began with their common anti-China sentiments and morphed to become a more comprehensive and dynamic international movement for democracy and human rights. The recent anti-security law protests in France also echoed with Hong Kong’s conditions, distantly yet intimately. These alliances might come and go quickly; each might not last, but waves and tides could be formed in unexpected ways. 

I do not believe that this new round of global protests can be connected, or sublimated, by one agenda, but they can relate to each other organically. We should be confident in the basic connections in the humanities that can induce empathy without forcing a common destiny. While the new global order, I believe, will be led by powerful states, dissident movements will also be formed under precisely such tendencies. In Hong Kong, the strongest political asset is a vibrant cultural identity and multi-level global connections. But the city also suffers from, correspondingly, its cultural arrogance and intense economic disparity. We can say that Hong Kong is a city entrenched with different versions of cosmopolitanism and localism, resulting in many internal tensions waiting to be resolved by the residents themselves. But such a combination also provides Hong Kong a protective shield against unified campaigns of nationalism and populism. If we are facing a new global order with fierce state competitions on the one hand and contentious state-society relations on the other hand, we must look for emancipatory politics within the plurality of the people. There is no need to romanticize any social movement or fetishize empty promises of global coalitions, but we should also not underestimate our innate ability to connect despite our irreconcilable differences.

Pang Laikwan 彭麗君 is professor and chairperson in the department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has published widely on  modern and contemporary Chinese cultures and media ecologies.

  1. “Isolation of Jammu and Kashmir Allowed Youth to be Misguided, Get Radicalised: PM Narendra Modi,” The Hindu Business Line, August 24, 2019. https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/isolation-of-jammu-and-kashmir-allowed-youth-to-be-misguided-get-radicalised-pm-narendra-modi/article29242501.ece.
  2. Saskia Sassen, Cities in a World Economy (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1994).
  3. Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, trans Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2012).
  4. Badiou, “On the Current Conjuncture,” Verso Blog, December 21, 2020, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4954-on-the-current-conjuncture