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ong Kong –– a city once marked by its identity as a global financial hub –– is now known for its months-long mass protests since March 2019. The “Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (ELAB)” movement was initially inspired by the government’s introduction of the legislation that would allow the extradition of individuals from Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for trial, which provoked fears of the end to Beijing’s promise of the “One Country, Two Systems” framework in the ruling of the city post-British colonial period. The mass mobilization that is unprecedent in terms of scale and duration has evolved from the original anti-ELAB goal to include “5 demands, not 1 less” that call for the full withdrawal of the ELAB, a commission inquiry into alleged police brutality, retracting the classification of protestors as “rioters,” amnesty for arrested protestors, and the implementation of universal suffrage.
Despite the widespread international circulation of Hong Kong’s protests, the Western media has largely oversimplified it as a “pro-democracy” movement without excavating the social conditions and material realities that Hong Kongers are facing under both neoliberal capitalism and PRC’s state repression. The same processes that have made Hong Kong the financial center have also contributed to making Hong Kong the world’s costliest city for the second consecutive year where one in five people live below the poverty line. This is the result of the complicity with neoliberal trading by both Beijing’s and Hong Kong’s political and economic elites at the expense of ordinary Hong Kongers. The current protests, though they may not have an explicit class dimension in its mainstream representation, grew out of Hong Kongers’ disfranchisements and discontents with Beijing and Hong Kong authorities’ vision for the city’s future, and the lack of full democratic measures to counter the hegemonic course. The drastically disproportional and rapidly intensified police violence against civilians and protestors, including intrusion and firing tear gas into multiple university campuses, has only confirmed the high stakes in the present struggles. That is, there is no “restoration” to a peaceful past, but to organize toward a revolutionary vision of the city’s becoming.
In the midst of Hong Kongers’ fight for their future, both the pro-US and pro-PRC right-wing forces have attempted to steer away the complexity of the movement to advance their own imperialist interests. For instance, Western media and conservative politicians have uncritically embraced Hong Kongers’ flying of colonial and USA flags as a sign of anti-Chinese nationalism, and as a means to further exacerbate the class and ethnic tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China in advancing the US’ leverage in the trade wars against China. Furthermore, both right-wing and liberal activists have appropriated the Cold War narrative, either claiming that Hong Kong’s movement represents the defeat of communism, or cautiously warning that Hong Kong could become “next West Berlin” without adequate international support. The reductionist reinforcement of the “democracy” vs. “authoritarianism” divide along the ideology of Cold War not only reduces the movement’s internal debates and complexity to a singular pro-Western narrative, but also gives the PRC leadership excuses to claim that the movement is indeed infiltrated and led by “foreign forces” and to insist that it is PRC’s “internal affair.”
As a result, Hong Kong finds itself trapped in this double bind. The discourses on neither side of the pro-US and pro-PRC do justice to the complexity and solidarity building across border, ethnicity, class, and tactical positions within Hong Kong’s movement. Despite their distinct intention, the uncritical adoption of the “new Cold War” rhetoric only results in the bolstering of the right-leaning nativist faction within the movement, neglecting Western imperial and neoliberal elites’ contributions to Hong Kong’s austerity. These moves ultimately treat the city and its people as merely bargaining chips for global superpowers. As the struggles advance toward the next level, from mass street protests to community mutual aid practices, and from electoral mobilization to workplace unionization, it is critical that we continue to build a left-leaning international solidarity movement that refuses the reductionist narratives on Hong Kong’s full revolutionary potential, and insists on the global interdependency of what the city has always represented.
Wen Liu is a Taiwanese activist-scholar who writes and organizes around transnational queer movements and Asian Pacific politics. She is currently Assistant Professor in the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, at University at Albany, State University of New York, and a member of Lausan, an activist collective that advocates for decolonial perspectives on Hong Kong.
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