Write-think: Umbrella Movement – global or local, economic or political?

So a mentally distressing day. The police had decided that killing people on site openly is fine. I don’t know what sort of society I am living through. I fear for my life and for the lives of people who are just like me. I fear for the authoritarian present that I’ve heard many friends saying was bound to come some day before, as if it’s an intellectual comment seeing what others can’t see – knowing you’re going die and actually dying, are different feelings.

I am reminded of the times when death is hanging overhead every day. As I saw the uncensored picture of the dead woman at Tin Shui Wai who felt from height without any trace of blood (apparently ‘suicided’), and as I screwed open the window frame in my room to hang a yoga mat stuck with 3 words: 止警暴, stop police violence, outside my flat. My head gets this swirly feeling as if neutrons, fibers (whatever) and neurotic networks are getting rewired, getting metallic, into a loop whenever I reach back towards that pattern of thinking in the not so distant past.

I am certainly not like that right now, but, ironically the recent Hong Kong is a lot more desperately steep into a collision course. Between fate and those refusing to accept fate. And we can fight fate with let say a strong general strike, but it will still, very probably be brutally repressed even if we successfully stage it. It still worths a try and I am glad I am here in Hong Kong to be with this city while witnessing and taking part in the seismic change we’re gonna experience. But remember to brace, brace, brace.



So reason why I want to write is coz I’m getting some inspiration from the papers I am reviewing for Chris’ paper on localist populism as a consequence of Umbrella Movement, UM. I have always and always been using the ‘plug all the holes in the argument body’ brain when doing research and even writing up reading group summaries. But I want to be less alienated and to get some more personal connection with the stuff I’m doing. That’s all because there was this moment earlier on at around 7, when I had been frustrating over the points in the original draft that remains valid despite counterpoints raised by the articles I read, I suddenly ask myself, ‘well, what do I think?’

As with a few other similar moments before, I frowned for like a minute. So I know there must be some lack of digestion here again.

So first of all, Chris is trying to argue that we should see the Umbrella Movement as part of the global upsurge of Occupy+ movements, characterised by youth participation, use of digital media in mobilisation, horizontalism & lack of leadership, plus distrust for the establishment. Before going into counterarguments (both Ho Ming-sho & Ching Kwan Lee dispute that the UM completely converges into that global wave of movements), I realise I have to even take a step back to ask why the fuck does all these matter. What good comes out of the endeavor to try to argue that this Hong Kong movement is part of a global movement??? Like, literally how does that help our cause or whatever?

So it goes back to some politics 101 that sadly, I completed my first degree with distinction without knowing. That is, why compare. Why the fuck should we do comparative studies? Is it just an academic gimmick to like, come up with new topics to write about? (It used to mean something like that to me, sorry, f me. Maybe that’s true to some extent.)

I remember the only time really being moved by the power of a comparison was… very recently, reading something about comparing Hong Kong to Shenzhen regarding economic policies/ industries? (I don’t entirely remember) – like I remember suddenly being able to see how limited our form of world, our ‘common sense’ of how things should be is challenged. I remember part of the psychological growing up milestone involves recognising that the others do not experience what you experience. I remember realising some day in Primary 1 or 2 that, hey, if my Chinese teacher is teaching me Chinese now, the other class could not be taught by her at the same time!!! So they actually do not have the same Chinese classes or teacher as I do!! lol Sorry if it seems dumb. But comparison is meant to help us to grow out of our idiocracy, to sharpen features that are unique to our society, and to see what’s possible out there.

(my mom ranting, breaking up my mood, thanks.)

ok so, comparison. So C. K. Lee’s ch.1 of her new book Take Back Control: Eventful Sociology of the HK Umbrella Movement (2019) was really succinct in pointing out where Hong Kong stands in the politics 101 framework, and the way she puts it just makes it suddenly crystal clear what kind of society we are in right now (put in comparative landscape). Hong Kong has an executive-led political system where the executive holds the power to initiate bills, set the agenda, veto legislator’s bills. Legislators can only raise bills that do not involve public expenditure, political structure or the operation of the government (Article 74 of Basic Law), and CE’s written approval is needed for any bills that involve government policy. (I immediately think back on the bill by New People’s Party to set up rent control against the Link – it failed the Article 74 test and even ‘responsibility to protect the right of private property’ (Article 6). (The Basic Law is so evil! I mean, even proposing rent control violates big landlords’s right to private property? How about the right to live of ordinary people? Lucky I did not take the CRE 🙂 ).

Not to mention a Functional Constituency that was made up of 統戰對象 of the then British and now Chinese government. Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. So essentially we are insulated perfectly from the comparative politics world of ‘presidentialism vs. parliamentalism’ (101 debate of US system vs. UK’s), whatever. Our CE is more powerful than most presidents in the world. Opposition are forced into disruptive tactics in LegCo, and now they are running out of them.

I think we are a lot more like an autocracy than a democracy. Given the really dirty fist-fight for breadcrumbs of political power given our electoral system of ‘proportional representation with the largest remainder method’ (looked it up on Wiki). I now formally forgive myself for having not cared that much about Hong Kong electoral politics – it’s not a level playing field at all. Not to mention all the patron-clientelistic links from tycoons and new compradors (given honorary titles and seats at consultative bodies to 統戰)to grassroots based on generous handing out of resources.

On top of that you get a 金剛箍 of ‘legal liberalism‘. I like how C. K. Lee puts all these well-known elements together to let you see the nasty cake it bakes. So in the early colonial period everyone fucking hated the colonisers who were corrupted, who beat & shot Chinese dock workers without hesitation – they were the imperialists condemned by the whole of China based on Lenin’s Imperialism (1917). Natural reaction! It was only after the failed Maoist-leftist insurgency during 1967 with a huge PR mistake of bombing 2 kids alive, plus the buildup of the ICAC + other MacLehose policies that completely reinvented the image of the British government in Hongkongers’ eyes since 1970s. (Of course plus our economic fortunes.) From then on, plus the 1989 movement, we moved swiftly onto a liberalist discourse, getting completely into the British tactic that used rule of law to placate political demands (法治吸納政治). From then on the cleavage of pro-Beijing v. pro-democracy gradually got entrenched. (1980-2000 is a blur to me – need to do more history homework).

So all these adds up into a mode of eruptive politics that’s like a volcano. C. K. Lee puts it this way: HK is a society of conservative order and political inaction at most times, only driven into intensive, concentrated eruption of an unexpected mass discontent that forms an ad-hoc united front in disjointed, pivotal events. It’s really rare that I enjoy a definition, but she took a definition of event as ‘a rare subclass of happenings that, instead of being produced by the structure, has the potential to disrupt structure‘. (wow, neat. and subversive.) Hong Kong politics’ really just that. 1967, 1989, 2003, 2014, now 2019. I know GDC and other people who had tried so hard so hard against this pattern. They want to build an alternative civil power center that acts as a shadow opposition to the government, to the whole legislature engulfed by the neoliberal consensus (sorry for jargon. Essentially it means an order that is pro-free-market-plus). But so far they had been isolated except in rare times when their campaigns work (e.g. on Universal Pension, The Link, etc.). We do not have a mass-based civil society.

‘There is no society’, I hear, says someone, a ghost that lingers and reincarnates into us.

They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.

Margaret Thatcher, in an interview in Women’s Own in 1987

The government is caught in the structural bind between a ‘liberal’ colonial legacy plus world-class administration, and the new authoritarian re-coloniser, China. That’s why the new awakening – perhaps too late? or not? – that we are the source of sovereign power, that we should take back our future, means something. I remember Eddie Chu Hoi Dick says it’s de-colonisation despite in an anti-China form, but regardless he’s glad it’s eventually taking root among the people. 解殖,guess that has been the keyword for a generation of scholars.

So yes, I really liked C. K. Lee’s framework. Good and succinct writing. It’s sometimes eyeopening to see in clear terms exactly how and in what way repressed we have been. It gives one power to articulate it and then fight against it. 🙂

So, C. K. Lee actually disagrees that the UM can be seen as entirely similar to US and Europe economic-driven protests against failing democracy in 2014-5, but rather more similar to Arab Spring protests against the lack of democracy in political tyrannies. On this you know, that’s sort of why I get excited at first about working on Chris’ project, which seems to be trying to argue against this conventional view.

Maybe I thought at the time that being able to trace the economic root of the unarticulated rage only expressed in form of reformist, law-based demands (think of 2014 political reform bill, and 2019 extradition bill) – is progressive in a good way – people will see how this mass carnival-like movement they put up isn’t to no avail; it is extendable to some important fronts in the political turf war, say demands for fairer wages, working hours, rent levels, pension rates, etc. on which a much larger mass can resonate with and hence be mobilised. Well, this is lefty wet dream of course, thinking of how entrenched the legal liberal discourse is. (Even in me. ‘Will I get caught or visited by the police, putting up that yoga mat outside my flat? Hope it’s not illegal?‘)

Maybe this is just not possible. I don’t really see how a direct link can be set up between economic grievances and the UM movement. I buy Ho Ming-sho’s other couterarguments: HK and Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement differ from other global movements in how 1) they were a lot more receptive to institutional forms of politics, from the speed that the power in protests got translated into electioneering; 2) they focused a lot more on geopolitics regarding the China factor than neoliberalism despite sharing economic grievances; C. K. Lee added that people see economic subsumption by Red Capital a scarer thing than economic inequality itself; 3) Despite being educated-youth-led and digital-based, they were NOT leaderless.

I find the first one especially powerful a counterargument because, Western populism had always been about anti-system, anti- the rigged electoral system and the whole bunch of elected scumbag of elites. Hong Kong and Taiwan do not think like that. WE HAD NEVER REALLY BEEN ABLE TO BE THOSE SCUMBAGS OURSELVES. We want to try being the scumbags. We want to see how the way we stink differs from the Beijing appointees. 🙂 WE (at least Hongkongers) HAVE BEEN POLITICALLY DEPRIVVVVVED!!! At least let me vote for universal pension and buy back the Link once in my life! Or vote to limit mainlanders from coming in (a more conventional wish I guess this is). AT LEAST!

At least I want that for myself T_T Like my friend, we want to be in the game don’t we. They are building up plans to buy back water and railways in the UK (bite my lip T_T)…

To be very fair, I think the economic anti-neoliberalism debate had not really began in Hong Kong. Definitely not in UM, and not now in anti-extradition bill fight. See how ‘get unionised and stage a general strike!’ can only sneak in as a tactic. We are losing so much political airtime in this cross-class alliance for liberal democracy to be defended. (Yup, I am in the 失語 camp from day one. Ousted 🙂 )

Some found the mass realising their political (disruptive) power and realising how hateful the police is as a form of significant political awakening. I agree. It’s a political awakening regarding 解殖。NOT about economic demands AT ALL. Try debate having more public housing is more important than removing mainlanders from HK. I know there is a ‘populist’ simplistic undercurrent that is pro-more public housing and less ‘white elephant’ infrastructures. But these are definitely SECOND in their political agenda and tradable.

So.. guess the direction forward is to look more into populism that arose from the movement, instead of trying to do the Sisyphus task of reasoning the bygones as how I or we wanted it to be about. I don’t know populism very well either, we’ll explore it tgt later on.

Happy to be able to speak my thoughts,

Anna x


Lee, C. K., & Sing, M. (Eds.). (2019). Take Back Our Future: An Eventful Sociology of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. ILR Press.

Ho, M. S. (2019). Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Temple University Press.

Author: Veronique

To be tenacious, patient and independent.

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