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.

8 Replies to “Rebecca Karl, Thoughts from afar on Hong Kong, 1 January 2020”

  1. I wish the protests would embrace the migrant workers, who are huge in numbers, appallingly exploited, sometimes abused, increasingly organised on class lines (though still within national sections, I understand), and mainly women. Until this happens, I can’t see the movement consolidating in a clear progressive internationalist antracist direction

    1. Yes, most certainly, although there have been some attempts on behalf of civil rights groups in Hong Kong to involve migrant workers. There have been moments of solidarity, but not nearly enough.

      The following article from the Hong Kong Free Press provides a voice from the large Philippine OFW community in HK, demonstrating their own support of the protests:

  2. I respect and largely agree with Rebecca on two extremely important points (If i understand her correctly): 1) we have no right to demand or even to expect the mass protesters to have a particular political direction and 2) if China regards HK as part of China then it has to deal with its politics as part of China politics.

    I would, however, like to add two more points for those outside of HK to consider: 1) the Chinese authorities at that time could not (not that they would, and, as I said elsewhere, they wanted to jump into bed with the HK capitalists asap) decolonize the place radically since the mainstream position at that time was that if China stopped the horse race in HK it would be the end of the world as we knew it. A peaceful transfer of sovereignty had to be to maintain the status quo and 2) the geopolitics of the US headed West that supports HK protests.

  3. 〈 On the Universalist Left’s Denial of Mediation 〉

    The great thing about Karl’s post is that it begins with a recognition of at least two sorts of borders: 1) the border, or “wall of separation,” between the political and the economic and 2) that between the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Regions (HKSAR) and the rest of China.

    The bad thing about Karl’s post is that it doesn’t recognize any other border, neither that which mediates Karl’s own position “from afar” in relation to Hong Kong and the rest of China, nor those within Hong Kong that mediate the different positions. As a result, Karl’s position ends up, much like Chuang about whom I will talk in moment, with a universalism that conceals the mediations that constitute its own positionality.

    It’s become quite fashionable today to denigrate the international left for its criticism of the Hong Kong protest movement. Much of this opprobrium is warranted to the extent that international left critics mystify bordering practices. Inevitably, however, such opprobrium effaces another crucial alternative.

    This is what happens when Karl rhetorically asks, “Do all movements these days need always to be red in the old or the same way?”

    Old and in the way… It’s so much easier to pretend that the Left is simply a form of nostalgia and that nothing of any importance has happened in leftist theory since 1918. If one knows better, as Karl certainly must, then why write the following passage:

    “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.”

    Given that this kind of notion of revolutionary class identity has been refuted time and time again since the 1980s by wave after wave of postcolonial, feminist, autonomist, post-marxist, decolonial, shucks even accelerationist, critics over the past four decades, it ought to be an excellent indication of the degree to which the appeal to such a notion is nothing but a bad faith straw man. It’s a poor substitute for the attempt (and there are many) to articulate a new idea of what revolutionary political subjectivity looks like. Hence, when Karl opts to depict “fluidity” as the polar opposite of an ossified rigidity that is the product of her own fictional construction, the reader is led to conclude that the opposition is purely symptomatic of the critic’s own limitations.

    Karl is a really smart and erudite reader of modern China, but there is nothing in this blog post to suggest that she has the faintest idea of what’s been going on in Hong Kong intellectual and activist circles over the past twenty years. I’m thinking especially of the rise of the “post 80” generation, the major reversals in position among leftist intellectuals, and the increasing identification of the Hong Kong Left with the border. In the opposition between ossified identity and fluidity of formation, Karl misses the way in which identity crisis is intimately linked to border anxiety.

    It goes without saying that the border anxiety in question could not possibly be understood if it were only posed unilaterally or unidirectionally. That is just how borders work. Yet this is exactly what Karl does. She only recognizes the problem of the HKSAR’s border with the rest of China. There is no mention of the internal borders that have been a crucial part of Hong Kong’s development since the 19th century (particularly the incorporation of the New Territories in 1898), much less any mention of the border between Hong Kong and fantasy of the West (which played a major role in the handling of Hong Kong citizenship claims leading up to retrocession in 1997).

    Speaking of borders, there is no mention of the local Chinese population’s active investment in settler colonialism and the desire for normative (white) sovereignty. No mention of their exclusion, like the Ashkenazy Jews who settled post-Mandate Palestine, from a European world that would only provide recognition of their essential adherence to “shared values” on condition of establishing a militarized island, a forward outpost, in a sea of ‘heathen’ authoritarians. Like those Zionists, many in today’s Hong Kong refuse to break with the fantasy of sovereignty altogether. How many, whether in settler colonial societies inside or outside Hong Kong, are ready to recognize, as theorists from the black radical tradition such as Nahum Chandler argue, that sovereignty and freedom are not equivalent?

    One comes away from reading Karl’s post with the sense that not only has she avoided engaging with anything specific to Hong Kong (like, how about the defeat of the HK left between 2006 to 2019, or the role of institutional cultural studies in discrediting Marxism?), but that her unilateral understanding of border anxiety conveniently covers up the bordering practices that create the “things” between which “borders” ostensibly distinguish. Isn’t this the position that those who would suture themselves to the fantasy of universalism have always indulged in?

    “Fluidity,” a quality that is elevated by Karl to the role of a concept, occurs with regard to subjective formation only to the extent that one is ready to acknowledge the indeterminacy of bordering practices that precede the “things” between which “borders” demarcate division. Yet by covering up such indeterminacy, or again, by naturalizing the gradient along which the “things” divided by borders are created, Karl’s position works in exactly the opposite sense.

    To reiterate a friendly critique of Positions that was made several years ago, Karl’s post adopts a position that covers up the complicity of positionality. Key to this complicity is a binary opposition between an anachronistic, ossified notion of class identity and postmodern fluid composition that actually covers up the possibility of a new kind of subjectivity that could be both at the same time. “Both” in the sense of being class oriented and being fluid with respect to all and every form of bordering practice.

    Since Chuang was mentioned above by Fabio Lanza, and Chuang’s position bears some important similarities (and differences) with Rebecca Karl’s, esp in term of the Universalist Left position, I’ll ask to be permitted to add the following comments.

    The key passage from Chuang’s post linked above to which I would like to draw attention is the following: “The point is this: Never trust anyone who speaks of the world in purely geopolitical terms, as if there are simply ‘nations’ that have ‘interests’ which sometimes conflict…this means that it is absolutely essential to see through the mirage of geopolitics and perceive the true terrain of global power, which is fundamentally economic.”

    Chuang’s understanding of the formation of political subjectivity focuses in effect exclusively on the capital – labor relation, seeing all other forms of mediation as derivative, secondary, or simply unimportant.

    Among these other forms of mediation, such as race, ethnicity, gender, etc., one of the principal ones that stands out is the position of translational and linguistic labor. Translation stands out in particular because, it bears repeating, translation is the quintessential bordering practice in colonial-imperial modernity. (One of the principal reasons why translation must be seen as a bordering practice is because it is the essential and unavoidable means by which national language is created. Translation, in other words, is essential to the creation of a world system based on nation-states).

    If the universalist position can only be maintained by an erasure of those practices, such as translation, that point to the ever-present possibility of alternative choices, the critique of universalism is important not for formal, theoretical reasons, but because universalism covers up the process of anthropological branding that occurs during the commodification of labor.

    While this post from Chuang recognizes and is really good at describing the complicity across borders, it completely fails to account for the bordering practices that precede the borders themselves. Focusing only on borders (i.e., the given) instead of bordering practices (i.e., the indeterminate or the common), it is no wonder that Chuang pins greatest significance on the nihilism of Hong Kong “burnism” (攬炒) — the notion that mutual self-destruction (of both sides of the border) is the only viable political subject today.

    In short, Chuang’s univeralism leads to the aestheticization of politics instead of a political critique of aesthetics. Chuang’s effacement of the mediation of national sovereignty in the constitution of political subjectivity is a direct product of Chuang’s refusal/inability to recognize bordering practices instead of borders.

    Chuang’s whole shtick is based on the presumption of a naturalized asymmetry that effaces this kind of mediation. In lieu of a critique that establishes the link between a certain regime of translation and the hegemony of exchange value, Chuang instead implicitly espouses a social practice of knowledge production that naturalizes the area studies specialist. Hence, the area studies specialist who writes exclusively in global English based in an institution of higher education in the nation-state that issues the global debt currency (i.e., the US dollar) never has to confront the mediation of translational labor in the production of subjectivity. On this basis, Chuang can blithely assert that the only relation that matters for the production of subjectivity is the capital – labor relation. And.Nothing.Else.Matters.

    On the face of it, it seems like the area studies are simply peripheral and unimportant to a decolonization of the humanities. Indeed, in terms of theoretical production, the area studies are unarguably unimportant. Yet the disciplinary divisions of the humanities could never be maintained without the existence of the area studies as such. Hence, the edifice of the humanities — the epistemic roots of colonialism as such — depend entirely upon the continued viability of the Universalist Left’s erasure of mediating / bordering practices in precisely those fields of knowledge production where borders are the crucial constitutive element — i.e., so-called area studies.

    While Chuang recognizes a form of cross border complicity that is absent in Karl’s post, the two of them converge on a general erasure of bordering practices, those forms of mediation without which the polar opposites that constitute today’s political positions would not be able to constitute themselves as such.

    I think that today’s Left needs to recognize that bordering practices such as translation that create oppositional identities are the key tool by which capital is able to naturalize the commodification of labor. Recognition of this idea has enormous ramifications for the way we look at the regularization and normalization of bordering practices, hiding them in the naturalized form of “borders” such as area studies and the humanities constructed on the presupposition of areal disciplines.

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