Climbing different mountains: A commentary on the London 12 June rally

Notes on Hong Kong’s democracy movement-in-exile. By Zi-yuet.

 

I attended the rally at Parliament Square, London, on the third anniversary of June 12th. It featured such speakers as Simon Cheng, Finn Lau, and Nathan Law, all of whom are well-known and high-profile figures in Hong Kong’s mainstream pro-democracy movement in exile, as well as the UK campaigners Benedict Rogers and Luke de Pulford. My motivation for attending was to listen to the speeches and to gain a critical perspective on the current mainstream political discourse on Hong Kong’s struggle.

The question the rally’s speakers sought to answer was: what can we as diasporic Hongkongers residing in the “freedom and democracy of the United Kingdom” do to ensure that the sacrifices of 2019 were not in vain? Between the nine speakers at the rally, three main approaches to answering the question of how Hong Kong’s struggle could carry on were expressed. They ranged from a military reconquest of Hong Kong, international lobbying, and the building of a Hongkonger identity and community in the diaspora. Nathan Law, who gave the endnote speech, invoked the adage that we were “brothers individually climbing the same mountain” (兄弟登山,各自努力) to remark favourably on the plurality of approaches expressed by prior speakers to the task of liberating Hong Kong from the Chinese Communist Party. However, it seemed to me that each speaker had been talking about climbing a different mountain. And indeed, if these representatives of the mainstream Hong Kong pro-democracy movement have not decided among themselves which mountain to climb, how should the radical left sections of the movement intervene? Which mountain should the left in Hong Kong and the diaspora climb?

A recording of the event can be found below.

The military struggle

This approach was taken by three of the speakers, one of whom said that he had been 12 years old and a valiant frontliner during the 2019 uprising. In comparison to the other big names, these speakers were much younger than the others and would have been unknown to most people in the audience.

According to them, the 2019 uprising was part of the same continuity as the 2016 Fishball Revolution, the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2014 Ukrainian Euromaidan Revolution. These were all militant “anti-Communist” uprisings against a totalitarian regime—for the former, China, and the latter, Russia. According to these speakers, the only way to defeat the Communist regime was through an armed uprising, and the failure of the 2019 uprising was the fault of the woleifeis (和理非, peaceful protesters) who refused to support the escalation of force necessary to take the uprising to the next level. This drew a markedly cooler response from the audience, which included many families with children, although there was substantial appreciation and admiration for the young age of these valiants. The last speaker of this category, who belonged to the Hong Kong Aid organisation, emphasised the need for Hongkongers to acquire firearms and military training, so as to bestow upon the Hong Kong nation the means of armed self-defence. He said that exile and diaspora were but a process, the culmination of which was the retaking of Hong Kong through force. Of those who would inevitably fall in battle, according to them, history would vindicate their sacrifice as a glorious deed.

This was juvenile military adventurism that evidently did not convince the crowd for reasons that should be obvious. There was no explanation of how the diasporic Hongkonger community in exile, emigrants from a thoroughly demilitarised society, could muster an army capable of landing on the shores of Victoria Harbour. The speakers did not expand on how a Hong Kong retaken by revolutionary returnees could withstand, if this narrative is followed to its logical conclusion, the inevitable arrival of the People’s Liberation Army. This was a foot-soldier’s perspective that had more in common with the power fantasy of first-person shooters than a coherent political philosophy like Blanquism.1 However, it is clear that such sentiments have emerged into the mainstream of political discourse among diasporic Hongkonger communities, in particular among younger radicals who, because of their youth, do not have the benefit of the British government’s BNO visa scheme and have become asylum-seekers instead. Perhaps the precarity and transient nature of their life in the United Kingdom, unable to set down roots as other Hongkongers have done, means that they have but one home—Hong Kong—that they feel they must now fight to return to. But lacking a coherent political framework, their radical militancy can only be expressed in the amorphous form of military adventurism.

Warming around the stove

The importance of the “stove-warming” (圍爐) approach was first emphasised by Simon Cheng, followed by a dialogue between the MC and a woman representing the Sutton Hong Kong Culture & Arts Society (Sutton 藝文社), and then finally, Nathan Law.

According to them, in the long night of exile, the flame of community and the desire for a free and democratic Hong Kong must be kept alive. Those diasporic Hongkongers who cannot actively participate in the London-centric circuit of pro-Hong Kong demonstrations and rallies can still be connected with through community arts and culture events, such as neighbourhood screenings of films banned in Hong Kong, lobbying to get books banned in Hong Kong onto the shelves of local libraries, or establishing and participating in Community Interest Companies2 geared towards Hongkongers in the UK. 

They emphasised, in addition, that the diasporic community must not only huddle around the stove, but also connect with local residents in their adopted communities and inform them of the plight and exile of Hongkongers. The rationale behind this is the same as that behind the Lennon Walls, agitprop, and protest-themed appropriations of pop culture and consumerism in Hong Kong during 2019—to awaken those who remain unconscious and unaware to the importance of Hong Kong’s struggle so as to gain their support. According to these speakers, diasporic Hongkongers must find their voice as a community and as a political force. Nathan Law noted that after 2019, there will never again be a “big stage” in the vein of the Umbrella Movement, but Hongkonger activists will still need a network to facilitate the division of labour—so that when one calls for help, a hundred voices can answer.

Simon Cheng voiced his hope that in the future Hongkonger activists, formerly an opposition force back home, could participate in British politics and government as a constructive force. Cheng believed that the unity of diasporic Hongkonger communities will be the force that obliges the politicians of host countries to recognise and support our struggle.

I found most of what these speakers said to be generally agreeable, but the idea that Hongkongers must integrate themselves into British society and politics is not without qualification. Simon Cheng’s was the same sentiment expressed by Ben Rogers, Luke de Pulford, and Finn Lau, all of whom enjoy bedecking themselves in the Union Jack and the British Hong Kong flag. They are not people who can be expected to be critical of the British government or political establishment, the United Kingdom’s colonial legacy, or the structural and institutionalised racism that persists in the UK today.

If the popular understanding among diasporic Hongkongers of integration into British society is stuck at the level of being a model minority focused on being loyal allies of the West in their conflict with China, who refrain from commenting critically on British politics and whose political participation is limited to reminding British politicians about the “China threat,” this will eventually lead to the entrenchment of reactionary politics among the diaspora. Such politics may already be crystallising. For example, there has been little response from the Hongkonger community in the UK to the Tory government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the New Plan for Immigration, or their new “Bill of Rights,” which, in reality, is an attack on human rights. Diasporic Hongkongers, as refugees from repression and illiberalism back home, should feel and act strongly against these authoritarian, repressive, and racist laws.

The international front

After the National Security Law (NSL), the “International Front”(國際戰綫)approach to climbing the mountain of Hong Kong’s struggle has taken on such importance that it has almost become a separate branch of the political struggle altogether. During the uprising of 2019, when other modes of struggle had been possible, the “International Front” had merely been one of multiple “fronts” of the social movement, which included union-building, militant resistance on the streets, political education, and mass civil disobedience. Furthermore, “International Front” work can only be done by lobbyists abroad today, as advocating for foreign intervention in Hong Kong affairs would now constitute “collusion with foreign powers” under the NSL. The effect of this has been to further isolate “International Front” work from the political struggle on the ground in Hong Kong.

Of the speakers pushing this line, Benedict Roger’s speech was not particularly memorable, but Luke de Pulford noted that the British government had betrayed Hongkongers with the false promise of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and by declining to provide meaningful retaliation in response to the Chinese violation of it. He said that the BNO scheme, though much appreciated, is but a surrender policy, and though it is not the natural disposition of Hongkongers, we must be angry at the British government for not doing enough to punish the CCP. All three speakers pushing this line said that targeted sanctions must be implemented against Hong Kong and Chinese officials.

It was Finn Lau, the eighth speaker, who linked the demand for sanctions to his doctrine of laam chau that would bring down the Communist regime and pave the way for Hong Kong’s liberation. On campaigning for sanctions, my (negative) view remains the same as in my previous article for Lausan. Hongkongers should not prioritise the pursuit of foreign sanctions on Hong Kong as our primary focus of struggle because these sanctions would not be effective in changing government policy, nor would lobbying foreign governments to impose sanctions meaningfully rebuild Hongkongers’ collective capacity for political agency.

However, I have to concede on one instance in which a campaign for sanctions would be justified. The disinvestment campaign against apartheid South Africa and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israeli imperialism can be understood as calls for foreign sanctions. No leftist would be against these calls, because they come not from exiled lobbyist-activists cut off from the mass movement back home, but by a mass movement who is already fighting their regime on the ground. By weakening the regime, foreign sanctions provide tactical support to mass movements by exacerbating the economic pressure experienced by the regime due to the struggle of the mass movement using such tactics as general strikes and occupations of public spaces and workplaces.

While foreign sanctions have proven both effective and worthy of our support in some cases, such as against apartheid South Africa and in the BDS campaign, this does not apply across the board in all economic and political circumstances. At their best, foreign sanctions can weaken a repressive regime in their efforts to suppress an active resistance or uprising by a mass movement of the regime’s subjects. However, they must be accompanied by other specific social and political conditions to ensure that the sanctions are not simply offloaded by the targeted governments onto the most vulnerable, as they often are.

Despite what these speakers argued, lobbying for foreign sanctions must not be allowed to become the whole of the struggle. The only way they can be justified is through the framing of garnering tactical support for a struggle already being waged, on the ground, by the people against the regime. Because targeted sanctions against individual officials do not have any significant effect beyond inconveniencing their targets—Carrie Lam has said as much—these sanctions will have to be sweeping sanctions against the entire economy to really put pressure on the regime. These sanctions will cause suffering among people in Hong Kong, which is why they are the only ones who can legitimately call for them, and why their assent is essential.

Furthermore, there must exist non-state networks of social solidarity to alleviate the brunt of the suffering under sanctions when they fall on regular people. To outlast the regime under the withering heat of foreign sanctions, a mass movement must spawn self-organised systems of mutual aid that allows its grassroots participants to survive by banding together.

For Hong Kong today, there is no popular movement on the ground actively resisting the regime that has the legitimacy or need to demand foreign sanctions. You could say that such conditions to justify demands for foreign sanctions had existed during the height of the 2019 uprising, but they do not exist now. It is rebuilding this popular movement that must be the main priority of Hongkongers. Lobbying for sanctions can be no substitute.

Deconstructing the “Revolution of Our Times”

Lau also tried to explain the meaning of the「光復香港,時代革命」(Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times) slogan. He defined “revolution” as meaning a successful uprising, which may take decades to materialise. He said that, with the death of the “One Country, Two Systems” promise under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the way forward is clear—Hong Kong independence. According to Lau, once the revolution is complete and Hong Kong is liberated, Hongkongers can all return home, just as the Israelis who never stopped fighting, over thousands of years, to return to their homeland, did.

However, the contemporary Israeli state is founded upon a system of racial apartheid and imperialism. This system combines ethnonationalism, religious fundamentalism, militarism, and unchecked state-capital collusion, in the form of Israel’s powerful military-industrial complex, to continue the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its frequent military interventions in neighbouring Middle East countries.

Lau probably did not think through the full implications of the analogy with Israel, but it is not surprising that such a comparison would be so powerfully symbolic in the minds of nativist-chauvinist localists like him, as it would dovetail nicely with their vision for a post-revolutionary Hong Kong. Their vision is a representative democracy for Hongkongers premised upon the systemic exclusion and repression of mainland Chinese non-citizens and the almost 400,000 migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, who will continue to work for a pittance as disenfranchised live-in servants. Hong Kong’s south and southeast Asians will remain second-class citizens. “On the second day of Hong Kong’s independence, the present lifestyle of Hong Kong citizens will remain unchanged,”3 indeed! This is a revolution in the literal, and quintessentially Chinese, sense: a process which comes full circle to result in a new emperor and a new dynasty presiding over the same power structure whose rulership and privileges they have merely usurped.

Commemoration as resistance?

Like the 6.4 commemoration rally in front of the Chinese embassy a week before, the 6.12 rally made me feel like I was attending mass at church. The speeches retrod familiar ground to express the same predictable messages. They were heavy on rhetoric but lighter on substance. At the end of each speech, such well-worn slogans as「光復香港,時代革命」are chanted in call-and-response between the speaker and the crowd. And finally, a strong sense of moral guilt was repeatedly hammered home by reminders that, back home in Hong Kong, thousands of protesters languish in jail for their part in the great uprising of 2019. Emotional engagement without political innovation only retains those already converted to the cause, and even so risks stunting the growth of their political consciousness by limiting their imagining of initiative and action to mere ritualism. 

The ritualistic feeling of the event was not dissimilar to that of the Hong Kong June 4th vigils I had attended a few times prior to 2019. After the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the growth of localism that it had precipitated, the perceived ritualism and ideological stagnation of the Hong Kong June 4th vigils had alienated younger Hongkongers from the cause for a democratic China, which had been a mainstay of the older generation of moderate pan-democrats.

The banning of commemorations of June 4th in Hong Kong has completely recontextualised the meaning and significance of the vigil. Under heavy police surveillance and harassment, commemorating June 4th in Hong Kong has become an act of active resistance against the regime, a defiance of its historical revisionism. It is overseas June 4th vigils and other pro-democracy rallies, held in Western countries to which Hongkongers have emigrated, that are now at risk of becoming merely ritualistic events lacking political substance. Let’s hope that the effect of future vigils outside of Hong Kong will be reinvigorated to go beyond the ritualisation of resistance as well.

What is the way forward for Hong Kong’s struggle?

How can a successful uprising be achieved? If 2019 was a revolutionary moment, why didn’t the uprising develop into a full-fledged revolution? With the luxury of hindsight, we can say that the material conditions for a revolution did not exist then. The vast majority of Hongkongers did not have the political consciousness or experience to even contemplate, let alone be capable of seizing power for themselves. Finn Lau is right about one thing in that the death of “One Country, Two Systems” has shown Hongkongers the way forward: not the pursuit of reform within the boundaries of the existing political system, but to launch a revolution that will overthrow it altogether.

If we are serious about the “Revolution of Our Times,” then it is not enough to work within the confines of the narrow approaches expounded upon in the June 12th rally, as they have overlooked the most important component of any revolution: that the masses have become revolutionary masses. The task of any revolutionary organisation in Hong Kong now is to create the material conditions for a revolution. In addition to getting organised, this also means building up the revolutionary consciousness of ordinary Hongkongers through a campaign of political education. This political education must be premised upon a clear and radical analysis of the context in which Hong Kong’s struggle is situated. This analysis must not be framed in merely nationalistic terms, but pay heed to Hong Kong’s unique position as a bastion of authoritarian neoliberalism at home, and as an interface for global capital to flow between Western nations and China—the latter being Hong Kong’s colonial suzerain, who will uphold their claim to ownership over the city by military force if their local collaborators are overthrown.

This approach begets its own set of problems and questions. What are the goals of the revolution? Should Hongkongers fight for a sovereign and independent Hong Kong nation-state in order to achieve self-determination and democracy, or frame our revolution in different terms? What is the ideological content and values of this revolutionary movement? And finally: how can leftists and socialists intervene in the struggle, both in Hong Kong and in the diaspora?

I don’t have any concrete answers, but I can at least point out some pertinent questions that would be crucial to the formulation of any sort of revolutionary programme for Hong Kong. The dissemination of this revolutionary programme to the people of Hong Kong will be the task of the political education campaign. In order to understand the aims of our struggle, we need to confront and deconstruct presumptions such as the meaning of the “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times” slogan and the exclusionary definition of “Hongkonger.” What kind of balance should be struck between “underground” and “aboveground” forms of political struggle and resistance in Hong Kong today, under the white terror of the National Security Law? Finally, what basic features of a post-revolutionary Hong Kong can most Hongkongers agree on? What will our education system look like once the HKDSE exams are abolished? Will Hongkongers keep importing migrant domestic workers to act as substitute parents to their children while they work 996 shifts at bullshit jobs? How will Hongkongers enact land reform so that the artificial housing crisis is finally resolved, while conserving what remains of Hong Kong’s urban heritage and countryside?

Footnotes

  1. Blanquism is a theory of revolution advocated by the French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui. According to Blanqui, a successful revolution must be undertaken by a small and well-organised group of conspirators, who would seize control of the state machinery in an armed coup or putsch.
  2. Community Interest Companies are a special type of company (as opposed to a non-governmental organisation or a charity) designed to be operated as social enterprises. It is easier to set up a CIC than a charity, but CICs are not eligible for corporate tax exemptions.
  3. This quote can be attributed to Hong Kong localist and former advocate for Hong Kong independence Ventus Lau. The 2016 Facebook post in which he first made this statement has since been deleted. A more in-depth analysis of Hong Kong localism prior to and during the 2019 uprising can be found here.

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