Reflections on Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement, in the era of the National Security Law

Following in the wake of the National Security Law recently imposed upon Hong Kong, the July primaries held amongst Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, in preparation for the upcoming Legislative Council elections, commenced amidst a radical paradigm shift within the city’s protest movement. The criminalisation of such nebulously-defined acts as “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism”, and “collusion with foreign interference” have fundamentally changed the political landscape of the city by potentially outlawing a significant portion of the means of expression and dissent used by the pro-democracy movement in the past year.

Already, the consequences of the NSL have manifested in forms as disheartening as they are mundane: businesses sympathetic to the pro-democracy cause are taking down the colourful “Lennon Wall” message boards that had been ubiquitous across the city in months prior; activist groups, from those newly borne out of last year’s revolutionary fervour to such high-profile political organisations such as Joshua Wong’s Demosistō, have preemptively dissolved; the catchy protest slogans, which had been so characteristic of the popular, spontaneous nature of the movement, have now undergone coerced metamorphoses, reemerging into a post-NSL landscape in abstracted and camouflaged forms. There have not yet been mass arrests of dissidents by the agents of the Office for Safeguarding National Security, as some had feared, but the chilling effect the NSL has had on the leaderless and spontaneous nature of Hong Kong’s popular uprising are clear for all to see.

The political awakening undergone en masse by Hongkongers during the 2019 anti-ELAB protests has resulted in a diverse, and oftentimes self-contradictory, flourishing of discourse pertaining to the future of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy, self-determination struggle — one in which coordinated efforts at facilitating in-depth discussion on what direction the movement should take were largely absent, owing to the decentralisation of the movement’s organising capabilities across both physical and virtual spaces. The consequences of the fragmentary and unstructured manner in which political discourse had unfolded over the past year becomes evident if the contemporary “Yellow-Ribbon” consensus on certain thorny but pertinent topics is put under scrutiny: the movement’s relationship with mainland Chinese, as well as the city’s sizeable minority of Foreign Domestic Workers and immigrants from South and South-East Asia, remains under the sway of patriarchal, chauvinist, and xenophobic thought that excludes and alienates these marginalised groups — with whom the majority of Hongkongers share a common oppressor, in the form of the state-capital alliance upholding a status quo premised upon capitalist exploitation and neocolonial authoritarianism — by infantilising and devaluing their struggles as tangential to that of the Cantonese-speaking, majority-Han Chinese Hong Kong people’s.

The root causes of Hong Kong’s current predicament are complex and messy; they include the rise of the People’s Republic of China as a nationalist, imperialist superpower, at a time where the right-reactionary forces of illiberalism are ascendent in Europe and America, culminating in an intensifying geopolitical conflict in which Hong Kong — the quintessential gateway between East and West — is caught in the crossfire. The role of Hong Kong within the global capitalist economic system, as an entrepôt-turned-international finance hub that now serves as the traditional interface for the flow of capital from the West into China — the true raison d’être behind the city’s continued existence as China’s freest city, to which the vaunted, and now-threatened, institutions of rule of law and independent civil society are subservient and ancillary — must be reckoned with if Hongkongers are to determine the intrinsic value of their home independent from its usefulness as a geopolitical bargaining chip, or an important, but not indispensable, facilitator of the global capitalist system. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has always had a problem with latent xenophobia, borne out of legitimate resentment towards the Chinese state’s overbearing, autocratic rule that strips the city’s inhabitants of their right to cultural identity and self-determination, but the highly-charged and impassioned atmosphere under which the political radicalisation of Hongkongers took place during the past year had culminated in decidedly ugly expressions of nativist chauvinism, as the ideals around which a new Hong Kong identity cohered ended up being expressions not only of independence from the Chinese state and the Hong Kong government, but additionally, of belligerence and xenophobia towards Chinese cultural and societal values, presented as irreconcilable and diametrically-opposed to those of Hong Kong’s presumed cosmopolitanism and liberalism. The origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan may have spurred toxic racist posturing that demonized Chinese cultural and societal norms as barbaric, backwards, and uncivilized, but such sentiments had always been present within, and perhaps integral to, the localism’s exclusionary stance of fear and contempt for mainland China.

Localism’s relationship with the West — primarily, with China’s largest rival, the United States — showcase how Hong Kong’s collective political imagination remains shackled by a partial and narrow perception of Hong Kong as the battleground in a new cold war, trapped betwixt the liberal-capitalist West and the authoritarian “communist” East. The narrative that Hongkongers must seek to court the support of the governments of the West, borne out of a faux-utilitarian calculus premised upon the extent to which a potential ally would deal the most damage to Chinese interests, is emblematic of the myopic, emotionally-charged nature of the Localist approach, that, preoccupied with resisting the actors deemed overtly responsible for Hong Kong’s demise — ranging from the Chinese Communist Party to “uncivilised” mainland immigrants, deemed locusts — whilst dismissing the underlying socioeconomic conditions thereof as irrelevant or abstract, remains unable to articulate a vision of a Hong Kong independent of its opposition to, and rejection of, a xenophobic conception of mainland China pervaded by “Yellow Peril” rhetoric.

With Beijing having responded to Hong Kong’s tumultuous popular uprising with the imposition of the National Security Law, the future looks bleak for the city’s struggle for self-determination and democracy, which, after having experienced a fleeting moment in which the myriad possibilities and opportunities for a liberated Hong Kong had seemed to be just over the horizon, has been dealt a crushing defeat, utterly demoralizing in its arbitrariness, by the immutable, immovable, opaque edifice of the Chinese state. It has transpired today that the heady optimism of the all-too-brief months of June and July in 2019, when Hongkongers took to the streets in their millions in a display of unity, determination, and courage, had not been the promised daybreak of freedom and democracy, but rather, the incandescent beauty of a glorious sunset — more’s the pity, then, that it heralds the night. Under pressure, divisions within the movement begin to widen and tear — as there becomes less room in which to maneuver, with prospects dwindling, it is all too easy to unconsciously lapse into tunnel vision, focusing overmuch on the narrowing range of possibilities for success that remain in sight. As right-reactionary rhetoric, justified by a perverse, cynical notion of pragmatism, increasingly comes to dominate “Yellow-Ribbon” discourse, the pervasive sense of despair and desperation brought about by the NSL must not be allowed to reify Beijing’s gloating caricature of the movement as a “cornered wild beast”, lashing out at its foes and would-be allies alike in the throes of its anguish.

The worsening factionalism between the moderate pan-democratic parties and the ascendant localist camp before and during the July primaries present a glimpse of what lies ahead if a meaningful reckoning with localism’s nativist and chauvinist aspects fails to materialise. Recognising the superficiality of such hollowed-out maxims of the movement — most poignantly, “No Schisms, No Disavowals” (不分化,不割蓆); or “No Central Leadership” (無大台) — entails an acknowledgement of the current dominance of right-wing localist thought in the pro-democracy movement. The movement may not be visibly figure headed by an exclusive and unaccountable leadership, as 2013-14’s Occupy Central movement had been, but it would be naive to assume that there are no implicit hierarchies or inconspicuous thought-leaders influencing the expression and manifestation of dissent in the city. With critical perspectives on the problematic aspects of the movement, as well as advocacy for socioeconomic struggles deemed ancillary to the dual “primary” goals of achieving democracy and self-determination, derided as “leftard” (左膠) sentimentalism lacking the conviction or sense to subordinate themselves to the “mainstream” struggle, there must now be a critical appraisal of the reductionist dichotomy of “pro-democracy” (民主) and “livelihood” (民生) issues that determine what struggles are deemed relevant to the interests of the Hong Kong people at large, and what actors may be responsible for, and stand to benefit from, the propagation of this dichotomy.

The August cancellation of the 2020 Legislative Council election is yet another blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy struggle, as the outcome of the elections would almost certainly have favoured the pro-democracy camp, thus facilitating the metabolization of the past year’s surge of popular support for the movement into tangible political gains. That the suspension of the most prominent aspect of Hong Kong’s crumbling pseudo-democracy is unjust and illegitimate is self-evident, as is the government’s motivations for having done so, when the recent resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic in the city has given them a convenient mandate with which to abrogate civil rights in the name of public safety. But the cancellation of the elections may also present an opportunity to break away from the onset of tunnel vision precipitated by the electoralist approach, where the multitude of political parties seeking to represent the pro-democracy movement, driven by the need to attract voters, had sought to broaden their appeal by denouncing their rivals as inefficient and weak-willed. The resultant internecine infighting, which saw the most vitriolic attacks come from the localist camp targeting the older generation of established pan-democrat parties for their perceived conservatism, broadened ideological schisms around key issues central to the movement’s future; primarily, the determination of Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China, with the populist and nationalist rhetoric of the localist camp further fanning the flames of xenophobia. Hong Kong’s decades-old pro-democracy movement has long been centered around the narrow scope of achieving universal suffrage, through an electoralist approach keen on remaining within the bounds of legality, as well as being distinct and mostly divorced from grassroots socioeconomic struggles, but the imposition of the NSL, commencing amidst Beijing’s most blatant attacks on Hong Kong’s autonomy to date, and now, the cancellation of the LegCo elections, have definitively marked the end of this era of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy struggle. In the three years preceding the anti-ELAB protests, those who had come of age during the Occupy Central movement of 2013-14 had tried to make sense of why that movement had failed, ultimately culminating in the rise of militant localism, and with it, a pivot to the reactionary politics of the right. With the mass political radicalisation precipitated by the anti-ELAB movement of 2019-20, the forthcoming discussion on the future of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement will be defined by a diverse array of events from the past year of protests: the trauma of police brutality experienced by the population at large; the wholesale alignment of Hong Kong’s institutions of state and capital with Beijing’s interests, and subsequently, the insurgent coalescence of pro-democratic political and economic power in the form of the “Yellow Economic Circle” and explicitly anti-establishment industrial unions; the intensifying geopolitical conflict between China and the West; and now, the effective termination of the reformist electoralist approach to effecting political change. It remains to be seen how the pro-democracy movement will adapt to these pressures, and whether or not the subsequent political shift will finally result in the emergence of a critical, comprehensive, and intersectional analysis of the convoluted circumstances of capitalism, imperialism, and geopolitics that are responsible for Hong Kong’s predicament today.

By White Fish