What is “ideology”, and what is its significance to the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement?
Characteristic of Hong Kong’s anti-ELAB protests of 2019, like the other popular, spontaneous, and leaderless uprisings of recent years — in the United States, Chile, Thailand, Belarus, and other countries — is the absence of a clear unifying ideology, inasmuch as ideology is defined in terms of such labels as socialist/anarchist/liberal/fascist etc. that historians have applied to the revolutionary movements of the past two centuries. Instead, the fury of the masses has coalesced around a number of specific and standalone demands; in Hong Kong, they are the Five Demands. In response to the brutality of the state response to the protests, a sixth demand has arisen — that of the abolition of the police. Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, in the aftermath of Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law upon Hong Kong, the anti-ELAB movement has been brought to a standstill; that the Hong Kong government might acquiesce to the remainder of the Five (or Six) Demands is no longer a realistic prospect. At any rate, the Demands, formulated as a response to the circumstances then in existence at the onset of the anti-ELAB protests, no longer bear much relevance to the current challenges faced by the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.
As per Terry Eagleton’s various definitions of the concept of ideology, an enquiry premised upon the interpretation thereof as being “the medium in which conscious social actors make sense of their world” would conclude that the protesting Hongkongers of the past year do indeed possess some form of ideology: the perception of Hong Kong’s crisis in terms of a narrow spectrum running between the poles of “pro-democracy” and “pro-establishment”, succinctly labelled “Yellow” and “Blue” respectively, alongside the situation of Hong Kong as a battleground between the “capitalist” West, and the “communist” People’s Republic of China, within a revived Cold War paradigm in which China has replaced the Soviet Union as the champion of authoritarianism against the democracies of the free world.
This worldview is integral to localist thought in Hong Kong, dovetailing with virulent anti-mainland Sinophobia to result in a form of chauvinistic nativism that makes little distinction between ordinary mainland Chinese — many of whom arrive in Hong Kong as immigrant wage-labourers — and the draconian apparatus of the Chinese state. Simultaneously, the sidelining of socioeconomic issues as ancillary to the pro-democracy struggle has resulted in a general failure to reckon with injustice and disparities in power on the intersectional bases of gender, sexuality, race, and class, and the replication of discrimination on such bases, unconscious or otherwise, within the pro-democracy movement, as a reflection of the values held by Hong Kong society at large.
Therefore, another of Eagleton’s definitions of ideology — that of it being an “action-oriented set of beliefs” — is applicable to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, inasmuch as Hongkongers have attempted to resist Beijing’s encroaching authoritarianism through acting on a collective conception of what constitutes resistance in terms of their social and cultural values — through demonstrating en masse in the streets, voting against the establishment parties in the District Council elections as a means of protest, consumer boycotts of pro-establishment or state-owned businesses, and appeals for support and intervention from foreign governments and international organisations.
An examination of the shortcomings and limitations of these means of resistance will yield insight into Hongkongers’ attitudes towards the pro-democracy struggle, and serve as a basis for a left-wing analysis of Hong Kong’s crisis today.
- Consumer Pressure/”Yellow Economic Circle” 黄色經濟圈
The loose grouping of pro-protest businesses in Hong Kong, known colloquially as the “Yellow Economic Circle”, represents an attempt to weaponize purchasing power as a means of political struggle. Protesters hope to exert economic pressure on the government by divesting from pro-government or Chinese state-owned businesses and corporations through consumer boycotts, instead choosing to do business with pro-protest businesses as a means of reciprocating the support of these businesses for the protest movement. The limitation of the Yellow Economic Circle is that the patronage of pro-protest shops and restaurants, which represents the furthest extent to which most people are willing to commit to the pro-democracy cause, is not a viable or sustainable substitute for movement-building and grassroots organising; after all, you cannot simply spend your way out of a geopolitical crisis as entrenched and complex as Hong Kong’s.
- Strikes and Disruptions 罷工
Over the course of the past year, there have been numerous attempts at workers’ and students’ strikes, where protestors aim to immobilise the city’s transport infrastructure so as to enforce the absence of workers from their workplaces, with the intent of forcibly bringing the economy to a standstill. Because the anti-ELAB movement lacked the organisational coherence and structure necessary to coordinate a protracted city-wide strike, the attempts of protestors to replicate the effects of a workers’ strike, without having secured beforehand the support of workers and their unions, were largely ineffective, with such strikes lasting for a single day before running out of momentum.
- International Awareness Campaign 國際戰線
With the government unwilling to concede to the popular demands for reform from the domestic population, some activists have resorted to lobbying foreign governments to exert political pressure on the Hong Kong government and the Chinese state. It is unwise to put so much stock in such lobbying efforts, at least to the extent of viewing intervention by foreign states as the sole possibility of salvation for Hong Kong. The high degree of economic interdependence between China and the West today means that any foreign retribution on behalf of Hongkongers would endanger the commercial, financial, and logistical ties that are integral to the function of the system of global capitalism that all states rely on for economic growth and development. Nor are the governments of the West, most notably those of the United States and the United Kingdom, true allies of the Hong Kong people, as such governments are responsible for monstrous systems of oppression and exploitation, domestically and abroad, whose victims suffer, as Hongkongers do, from draconian governance, police brutality, and structural injustice.
All these means of struggle have in common is that they are all premised upon the extraction of concessions from the government, as opposed to the long-term development of a sustainable mass movement. The prevalent view seems to be that a return to normalcy will ensue once the government concedes to the demands of the pro-democracy movement. In this sense, the Hongkongers protesting on the streets are akin to a consumer demanding action from a customer service representative: that citizens are entitled to a government responsive to popular demand, stemming from the conception of governance as a service provided by the state acting in the interests of the people. Of course, this is not true: customer service representatives are only interested in providing concessions to consumers as long as it remains in the best interests of the company to do so. Similarly, the Chinese state and the Hong Kong government will only concede to popular demands inasmuch as it remains within their interest to do so. For China, suppressing the protests in Hong Kong is a matter of national pride, and backing down would be seen as a sign of weakness, whilst the Hong Kong government can only execute the directives of Beijing. As for the Pro-Democracy Movement’s appeals to foreign governments to act on the behalf of Hongkongers, this too symbolises an inability to take the initiative, to possess the agency for direct action independent of any higher authority. Finally, the assumption that there had ever existed a version of Hong Kong in which Hongkongers had enjoyed significant democratic rights and freedoms must be questioned as well, in light of the tendency of the pro-democracy movement to romanticise Hong Kong’s past as a British colony.
- “Phoenixism”/Mutual Destruction/Laam Chau 攬炒
The accelerationist notion of Laam Chau is premised upon the conception of Hong Kong as being of crucial relevance to the Chinese economy, wherein the city’s semi-autonomous system of governance facilitates its role as the interface for foreign investment into China. It then assumes that, by having the pro-democracy movement engage in brinkmanship with the Hong Kong government and the Chinese state, the latter can no longer suppress the movement through the use of progressively draconian measures — such as the National Security Law — without endangering Hong Kong’s role as an interface for the flow of foreign capital into China, and thus the economic interests of the Chinese state. Fatally, Laam Chau overestimates the present economic relevance of Hong Kong to the ascendant Chinese state, and exaggerates the significance of such institutions as the rule of law, a free press, and an independent judiciary to the city’s attractiveness to foreign capital. Finally, it disregards the disastrous socioeconomic consequences that will befall ordinary Hongkongers if the mainstay of Hong Kong’s economy — that of maintaining the financial interface between China and the West — ceases to exist.
The lack of a solid ideological grounding, coupled with the organisational decentralisation of the Movement, means that the sporadic and uncoordinated protest actions have become ends in themselves, because there is no consensus on a coherent long-term vision to collectively strive towards. It is a hopeless struggle; people know instinctively that they must resist if they want to protect their home, but circumstances of Hong Kong’s culture and society — confused in its politics and out of touch with the historical reality of class struggle and popular revolution — means that the anti-ELAB Movement has lacked the unity of direction and purpose needed for it to become a truly revolutionary endeavour.
Hongkongers’ search for direction amidst their abject poverty of ideology has resulted in the rise of right-wing nativist localism. It is premised upon a rejection not only of the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist Party, but of anything related to China as well — that poor immigrants from China are denigrated as locusts becomes permissible through the lens of a reactionarily myopic mindset fixated on identitarian exclusion. Because the left has failed to step up to the challenge, to address and offer solutions to the contradictions and challenges faced by the anti-ELAB Movement, the proponents of right-wing localism — a shallow, incoherent and self-contradictory mess of reactionary thought — have been allowed to proliferate their worldview uncontested in the mainstream of the Movement, through the adroit manipulation of social media and demagogic rhetoric.
Unless there is a coherent and coordinated left-wing response to right-wing localism that offers a solution to Hongkongers’ poverty of ideology, then the Pro-Democracy Movement in general will continue to drift without direction or purpose, like a ship without a rudder, adrift on stormy seas. On the dismasted vessel that is the Pro-Democracy Movement today, the left must build the sails to harness the winds of change in these turbulent times, to metabolise the rage and fury of Hongkongers into the fuel for a true Revolution Of Our Times.
By: White Fish