I left Hong Kong for America when I turned eighteen. When I am feeling uncharitable, I say that I abdicated my responsibility to the Hong Kong people just so I could be a middling scholarship student right in the heart of American empire. It was 2014, and several days after my plane landed in Chicago, my classmates back home, in lieu of showing up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at their universities of choice, surged onto the streets and began a 79-day occupation for full universal suffrage. Almost six years later they returned to the streets, adjusting their work schedules to help deliver supplies or be on the front lines, in protest of a bill that would potentially allow political dissidents in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, where the chances of a fair trial are next to none. My family’s apartment, in a sprawling public-housing complex built during the colonial days, stunk of tear gas for weeks. One of my relatives has been stopped by the police for fitting the profile of a protester: young, on their way to university, black-bloc clothing, sneakers for a quick getaway. Because I am terrified of accidentally disclosing anything that might lead to my family members’ arrests, all I will say is that they did their part honorably, all of them, against police brutality and the farce that is the Hong Kong government.
Like plenty of other Hong Kongers in the diaspora, I have been steamrolled by guilt for not being there (I have not been teargassed, I have not suffered assault at the hands of the Hong Kong police), and nothing I do from afar seems to rise to the level of sacrifice that a real “revolution of our times” demands. During the summer, I kept asking myself if I should just go home and be a journalist there, in service of the people. That is not to say in service of my “nation,” since Hong Kong is not recognized as a nation, and never has been.
Technically, you cannot be a Hong Kong citizen. Despite the fact that the city-state has its own currency, a mini-constitution that also serves as its legal code, a semi-independent government that is not a direct outgrowth of the Chinese Communist Party’s state apparatus, at least on paper, it is only quasi-sovereign. The city’s residents only vote for half of the legislature; the other half is voted in by “functional constituencies,” or business interest groups like the insurance or finance industry, which means that, legally, corporations like PricewaterhouseCoopers have political representatives in Hong Kong’s version of the Senate or parliament. In some cases, corporations can cast extra votes through their subsidiaries. It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that PwC and the World Bank jointly designated Hong Kong as having “the most business-friendly tax system in the world” in 2018. (There is no such thing as a capital-gains tax in the city Milton Friedman called “a shining symbol of economic freedom.”) About one in five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line. The city doesn’t have a president or a prime minister but a “chief executive.” If you were to call Hong Kong a privately held business whose purpose is to generate profits for its shareholders, you would not be too far off the mark.
But there is no denying that, with the swells and surges of the protests over the past year, something akin to what Benedict Anderson famously called an “imagined community” is crystallizing rapidly in Hong Kong. The “Lion Rock Spirit”—grit, hard work and a can-do attitude—has been part of the mythos of being a Hong Konger since the 1970s manufacturing boom, but now, to be a Hong Konger is to hold “Hong Kong core values,” which famously include a belief in the rule of law as a vehicle for justice, human rights and democracy. The pseudonymous Kong Tsung-gan, writing in the Mekong Review in late 2019, described this nascent national identity as one of “a democratic, freedom-loving, rights-respecting, egalitarian community forged out of self-determination”—a generic statement of Enlightenment values if ever there was one (and one that would not be out of place in, say, a Lockean defense of the British Empire’s holding of Hong Kong as a colony).
But while the Chinese regime would like for you to believe that most Hong Kongers are secessionists, most people in Hong Kong have no real desire for flag independence. In a recent poll, 67 percent of respondents voiced opposition to the idea, while only 17 percent supported it outright. This non-sovereign nation has a dream other than Westphalian sovereignty proper, even as it begins to adopt all the typical paraphernalia of a nation-state.
One of the most conspicuous tokens of the Hong Kong protests is “Glory to Hong Kong.” The de facto national anthem was consciously sourced from the anthems of the U.K., the U.S. and Russia and collaboratively written on the city’s version of Reddit. Over the past year, Hong Kongers have taken to shopping malls and other public spaces around the world to sing this song in defiance of the Chinese regime. I know the anthem by heart. The lyrics are heavily dependent on antiquated imagery (circa the French Revolution) where, through the mist, a bugle heralds in the collective defense of freedom. And, though it deeply pains me to admit this, the first time I watched the anonymous Black Blorchestra perform it, I found myself tearing up, subsequently shaken by the emotional resonance of something as innocuous as a crowdsourced rip-off of “God Save the Queen.”
There is something messianic about the image of Hong Kongers finally cohering into a community of their own making. Protesters have a plan they call “the pact of the pot,” for what they will do when all their demands have been fulfilled: they will meet underneath the Legislative Council complex, which looks like a giant rice cooker and is where many of the protests have occurred, and there they will take off their masks and finally see one another in their totality. In the moment of recognition, the realization of the Hong Kong demos is the same moment as the end of history. The affective power of the nascent Hong Kong nation is tied up in its deferral. In this way, Hong Kongers have intuited one thing correctly: for the community of Hong Kongers to cohere, the system as it exists will have to be destroyed.
It is easy to gloss over Hong Kong’s position in the former British Empire, even as it is the first thing anyone knows about the city, but the effects of colonialism have extended well past its expiration date in 1997. The British handed their intricate economic machinery over to Chinese Communist Party rule completely intact, as part of an agreement negotiated solely between high-ranking British and CCP officials. “One Country, Two Systems” allowed the question of CCP sovereignty over historically Chinese territories to be resolved without altering much of the already entrenched infrastructure, in part to ease Hong Kong’s transition into the country’s (alleged) “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Hong Kong would be maintained as the international financial center that it was for at least fifty years; there has been no clear discussion as to what would happen to the city afterwards, though it is all but guaranteed that there would be a unilateral application of the CCP state’s draconian laws over press freedom and political dissent in the territory. In reality, One Country, Two Systems has allowed China to internationalize its markets further and for those with capital to park their assets in the city. (The finance industry has only grown over the past decade, making up 19.7 percent of the city’s GDP in 2018.)
The Hong Kong government, like its colonial predecessor, is the sole owner of all land and, through artificial restrictions on its land supply, collects exorbitant land premiums and rent from auctioning leases off to land developers, who in turn shift the cost of leasing this land onto home buyers. The lack of a capital-gains or wealth tax has made the city a playground for real-estate speculators, and the HKSAR government has done laughably little to curb speculation or break the iron grip that real-estate conglomerates have on many facets of Hong Kong life. The metro system, which is partly government-owned, is incentivized to generate as much profit as possible, pairing up with land developers to create vast housing-shopping arcade complexes around new stations, and in 2005, the Housing Authority launched a large privately held real-estate investment trust that took over several public-housing shopping malls and wet markets and continues to push out mom-and-pop stores with extortionate rents.
The foreign news media tends to describe Hong Kongers’ frustrations with how the economy is structured as simply being about not having the money to purchase housing. But the broader discontent is fueled by the sense that the city itself is being built and refurnished for the rich, who have direct access to the upper echelons of government and are seen to act in accordance with the CCP’s wishes so they can invest more profitably in the mainland economy. From 2011 onwards, you could see the phrase “real-estate hegemony” emblazoned on newspapers and protest signs everywhere. And anyone who has lived in Hong Kong in the past decade and paid attention to the news headlines can tell you that the ballot box is widely seen as the only possible remedy. Democracy certainly cannot redistribute income by itself, but at least an administration that is actually voted in by the people would be accountable for making Hong Kong hospitable to its own inhabitants—or so the theory goes.
Anti-authoritarianism fueled by the growing sense that the CCP is aiding and abetting capitalists lands the people squarely in the liberal-democratic imaginary that “Glory to Hong Kong” represents so well. A potent yet amorphous desire for liberation unites the populace, and with it an even vaguer sense of la patrie. The common refrain that Hong Kong is itself “already a nation-state” invariably boils down to cultural factors: its inhabitants speak Cantonese (never mind that those who don’t, such as Filipino and Indian Hong Kongers, receive fewer opportunities); Hong Kong culture is distinct from the culture of the People’s Republic (the distinctive cha chaan teng, or diner serving British-influenced Cantonese cuisine, is always trotted out as an example of the ways the city is an admixture of “East” and “West”); and the people are freedom-loving (unlike those within the PRC’s borders?). According to this story, the only thing missing is a government actually representative of the people, as if those colluding with the CCP were not themselves Cantonese-speaking, cha chaan teng-frequenting and generally invested in maintaining some semblance of freedom within the city’s borders to avoid scaring off foreign capital.
None of this is to discredit the fear that Hong Kongers have of a CCP-controlled police state; I know this fear intimately. But from this side of the Pacific, the idea that liberal-democratic protections like the rule of law and voting rights can solve structural problems looks rather naïve. Whether independent or not, most liberal-democratic polities are struggling to regulate capitalism, or even just to curb the prevalence of politicians in the pocket of tycoons. Hong Kongers, especially those who parrot the idea that the city has developed a culture more suitable for democracy than China’s, are too eager to forget that the prosperity of the city has been built on the backs of workers both inside and outside the city’s borders. I think often of the aunties and uncles flitting in and out of my childhood who decry the lack of democracy and then, in the same breath, complain about how their imported domestic workers are paid too much for the work they do to maintain their tiny apartments.
This is to say nothing of a second, darker path for the movement in Hong Kong: ethnonationalism. Playing into the hands of the CCP’s own ethnonationalist ideology, some Hong Kongers have come to see mainlanders as extensions of the CCP regime instead of its subjects, blaming wealthy Chinese tourists and expats for speculating in the city’s real estate, causing housing costs to skyrocket and for every major shopping mall to be filled with Louis Vuitton, Prada and Armani stores. Some Hong Kongers have also been radicalized by “parallel traders,” who purchase commodities like baby formula in the city and resell them at higher prices across the border, causing shortages of those household items within the city itself. But rather than acknowledge the deeper, structural causes behind these phenomena (mainlanders are not the reason why the average Hong Kong apartment costs the equivalent of $1.2 million), the ethnonationalists embrace bizarre, racist revisions to history. Hence you have certain Hong Kongers like Andy Chan Ho-tin, founder of the banned Hong Kong National Party, who argue that Han Chinese Hong Kongers are a separate ethnic group from the Han Chinese mainlanders, and are therefore entitled to nation-statehood, because the former’s ancestors—refugees who have fled from the mainland to the British colony—have freedom in their DNA. Or Horace Chin, who penned the widely read screed On the Hong Kong City-State in 2011, which entrenched the notion that Hong Kong, having been perfected by its exposure to British colonialism and Enlightenment thought, is the true heir to an authentically Chinese cultural consciousness.
Certainly not all forms of emergent Hong Kong nationalism are premised on xenophobia. But it is nonetheless concerning that dozens of pro-democracy restaurants have turned away Mandarin speakers as a way to keep out mainlanders, with a small but determined group of netizens signal-boosting the racist claim that people from mainland China are to blame for the coronavirus pandemic. The myopia of the liberal-nationalist and nativist factions is such that they both call for Hong Kong to be “restored” to its past glory, as if the city itself had ever been hospitable to anyone but the rich and powerful—as if the people of Hong Kong weren’t its only saving grace.
My family has lived in the same cramped studio in the same public-housing estate since they stepped foot in Hong Kong forty years ago, and some part of me firmly believes that that is where I will die. The fifteen-story building houses mostly older folks and working-class families dependent on social-security disbursements. It is in that apartment where I grew to understand that Hong Kong has very little use for laborers who don’t happily feed the economic machinery that loads the pockets of the already rich; it is there that I watched my mother, sitting with paper and calculator in hand, trying to figure out how she was going to pay for groceries and utilities on her housekeeper salary and still have money left over for school supplies. It is to that apartment I would return after going to school, tutoring kids my age to pay for my school lunches, and doing my homework on the subway home.
But it is also that public-housing estate that showed me the possibility of community and gave me my first taste of freedom. In Sha Tin, there are several interconnected combined shopping-mall apartment complexes that are also connected to public-housing estates, where, moving from one footbridge to another—passing from an Hermès storefront to an auntie hawking shumai on the side—you could easily pass from prosperity to poverty. The story of my adolescence could be told as a tally of the times I ducked into a footbridge or the odd staircase on the way home from school to pretend that I wasn’t from the projects. And I have known and loved all those stairwells, the waft of drying salted fish cornering me before I could even see them laid out in rows on a bamboo mat, the auntie who sold her vegetables in the wet market next to our shoddy public-housing estate—who would apologize if her choi-sum wasn’t looking fresh enough—the old uncle who has been running the bodega right outside our building as long as my family has been in Hong Kong, who would sell fifteen-year-old me packs of cigarettes, winking, “These are for your mother, right?”
That mile stretch of land is what constitutes both my attachment to and my ambivalence about Hong Kong—none of which can be neatly parceled into nationalism or patriotism. For whose emancipation is exactly at hand with the ascent of the Hong Kong nation? If all that self-determination entails is the people grabbing institutional power so they can be the ones buying houses, if all that being a Hong Konger entails is a desire to shoulder the existential threat from the CCP, then the Hong Kong nation has no place for me, my family or any number of the dispossessed.
The Hong Kong nation is an affect—a structure of feeling, rather than a cogent political program—which makes it all the more seductive, all the more pliable. From the mutual-aid and labor-organizing groups to the teenage frontliners who have defended the local universities from police searches, the protest movement has inculcated a sense that everyone can take responsibility for the well-being of their comrades and defend them against the encroaching CCP regime. But without analyzing what plagues Hong Kong absent CCP control or building solidarity that prioritizes working-class interests, this structure of feeling—the sense that Hong Kong can be a better place to live—will coalesce into little more than a means of enriching the professional Han Chinese middle class.
In his 1993 book The Nation and Its Fragments, Partha Chatterjee ends his objection to Benedict Anderson’s influential account of nationalism by noting that the national aspirations of former colonies emerged from under the heel of an imperialist system “that had on its side the most universalist justificatory resources produced by post-Enlightenment social thought”:
The result is that autonomous forms of imagination of the community were, and continue to be, overwhelmed and swamped by the history of the postcolonial state. Here lies the root of our postcolonial misery: not in our inability to think out new forms of the modern community, but in our surrender to the old forms of the modern state. If the nation is an imagined community and if nations must also take the form of states, then our theoretical language must allow us to talk about community and state at the same time. I do not think our present theoretical language allows us to do this.
What is the point of an imagined community if it cannot be imagined differently, without conflating the “people” with some sort of unitary culture and a chosen state? The current protests have been nurturing a communitarian spirit, this is true, a sense that we all share the same plight and therefore a collective destiny. But the nation is not and has never been the sole domain of all these newfound affiliations, shared experiences and knowledge (how to neutralize a tear-gas canister, how to organize your coworkers), dreams foreclosed and undreamt of, practices of care. It is precisely because communities forged in collective political practice are not reducible to nations that states have historically encouraged pinning one’s identity to idyllic enclosed territories with racially defined in-groups to maintain their grip on power.
It is easy to point out that Hong Kong is an exceptional case (very few territories have been colonized and then forced to return to the so-called “homeland”!) but Hong Kong’s extreme situation in fact lays bare the dilemma of plenty of others. The community we need to imagine in the 21st century is at its core an association of people who are disenfranchised by global capitalism and who, intuiting correctly that power is in the collective, want to deploy it for their own personal flourishing. But we will need to remember that Benedict Anderson once warned of “the danger of arrogant provincialism, or of forgetting that serious nationalism is tied to internationalism,” which in my view is a remarkably even-keeled way of saying that our interdependence requires us to work in tandem with other oppressed groups across borders. Corporations and financial institutions everywhere benefit from nation-states’ largesse and lack of regulations, moving workers, capital and resources as they see fit; the same financial institutions purchasing subprime mortgages in the U.S. invest in real-estate hedge funds in Hong Kong.
The crescendo of “Glory to Hong Kong”—its most moving stanza—notably does not speak of the Hong Kong nation or even the Hong Kong people: Dawn breaks, we must liberate Hong Kong / fellow travelers for justice, revolt for our times. The kind denizens of Hong Kong Twitter have offered “like-minds,” “brotherhood” and “companions of shared faith” as alternative translations for “fellow travelers,” none of which is limited to any static conception of a community based solely on identifying as a member of a nation. It is a collective defined by those who walk on the same path for justice. At its best, it operates on the recognition that liberation will not come in the deliverance of a political program from on high, or even in reforming broken political institutions.
Coronavirus transmissions have all but stopped; people are slowly getting back onto the streets, but unlike this time last year, a foreign news media that is laser-focused on the global pandemic has little interest in the trials and tribulations of a city lapsing further into authoritarian rule. In the course of editing this essay, the CCP released a draft resolution toward imposing national security laws in Hong Kong, which would ban most if not all forms of political dissent and may allow CCP law enforcement to directly intervene in the city should the Hong Kong government fail to establish anti-sedition mechanisms that would appease Beijing’s ire. In response, more and more Hong Kongers seem to be construing the “Hong Kong nation” not just as a vehicle for their flourishing, but as the sole bulwark against CCP encroachment. Instead of chanting “five demands and not one less,” protesters in Hong Kong are again turning to this once-anathema slogan: Hong Kong independence, the only way out.
This essay was born out of bad debt—a desire to pay my dues to the community of Hong Kongers who raised and nurtured me. But now I am riddled with fear about what will happen to them as a result of my writing it. Those with capital or connections can attempt to flee Hong Kong, but people living in the housing estate where I grew up are bound to the mast of the sinking ship; for them, emigration is not an option. I cling to the hope that those of us in the diaspora can help facilitate a transnational consciousness, one that will aid in the struggles of my old neighbors in Hong Kong and the marginalized and oppressed the world over. As I watch my little city being torn asunder, I am hardly confident enough to say that this consciousness represents the “only way out,” but the stakes are far too high for us to let flags and lines on maps dictate the bounds of our fellow feeling.
Photo credit: Studio Incendo (CC BY/Flickr)
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