Hong Kong civil disobedience (Part 1)

September 30, 2014

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Student Boycott

When news of the week-long student boycott broke in early September, my initial reaction was one of guarded optimism. I was encouraged by the idea that this form of activism was finding (or forging) a platform in Hong Kong, but like many other people I spoke to during the time, I remained unconvinced that uptake would be sufficient enough to really make a noticeable difference. And as the boycott drew closer, and talk of “catch-up classes,” emailed readings and non-participation began to circulate, it seemed as if this reticence was pretty well founded. The peculiar intensity and results-driven environment of Hong Kong’s higher education system, I reasoned, would help to undercut the movement just as it was beginning to find its feet.

And this is without taking account of the core message (or aim?) of the boycott itself: greater democracy for Hong Kong; a 2017 electoral system without loaded dice; an agentive rather than Hobson’s choice. That such aims appear lofty within the broader context of Hong Kong-China relations is undoubted, and a common (if myopic) critique of the movement focussed precisely on this question of outcomes. What did the students hope to achieve through boycotting class? Where was it going to end? And if it wasn’t going to achieve all that much, then why bother in the first place? The problem with this criticism, of course, is that it drastically undervalues the consciousness-raising work that even the most abortive of resistance movements can—maybe—help to produce (as has been played out to such staggering effect these past few days). But this does not mean to say that it did not (and does not still) have its adherents (as well as its partial truths), and it certainly helped to contribute to what I saw a few weeks ago as the faint air of negativity and/or cynicism surrounding the proposed strike.

It was not a great surprise to me, then, that as the boycott began on September 22nd, the University of Hong Kong’s campus seemed relatively normal—which means, in the context of this semester at least, that is was teeming with students, a fraction of whom were wearing the yellow ribbon now so strongly associated with recent events. Whilst I occasionally read of students in other universities across Hong Kong taking a more active and en masse approach to the boycott, I learned from colleagues in HKU that class attendance figures were more or less stable, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that as the week went on, the boycott almost completely fell from my thoughts.

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Student protest at Government HQ

The extent of the protests at LegCo on the final day of the boycott (Saturday 27th September) was therefore unexpected. Whilst nothing compared to the crowds seen across Hong Kong in the past few days, it was already possible to see in the assembled hundreds evidence of the cooperation, efficacy and determination that have characterised the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” as a whole. Each time the police line retreated, the barriers (initially deployed by the authorities to contain the crowd) were put to work as networked barricades; once the order was given, the whole process took no longer than five minutes, and gradually the demonstration space expanded to accommodate new arrivals.

When I arrived on the site, the “storming” (as I’ve sometimes seen it phrased) of the government HQ courtyard had already taken place, and the high-profile arrests already made. People were by and large settling in for a long night, and not without a good deal of trepidation. Already the iconic umbrellas were being deployed as possible shields for pepper-spray; protesters often spoke warily of police advances; a legal-aid text number was written on people’s arms in case of arrest; there were reminders also to conserve battery so as to avoid being out of contact.

After I left the demonstration site, I heard from protesters still on location that Benny Tai, one of the key figures in the Occupy Central movement, had decided to launch the civil disobedience campaign initially intended for National Day on October 1st. And although this call was not received too favourably by many of the students, who accused Occupy of bandwagon opportunism, it was (partly) through this “hitching together” that the consciousness-raising student boycott became what is now headline news around the world.

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Occupy Central (Day 1)

The real catalyst, though, came on the Sunday evening, with the police’s use of pepper-spray, baton charges and tear gas (and if some sources are to be believed, rubber bullets). The question of provocation is of course particularly vexed here, especially given that police representatives have recently stated that the wearing of protective devices against such weaponry (and by “devices” I mean something as simple as cling-film) can be cited as evidence for the wish to engage, provocatively, with the police (“cause, allow me to introduce you to effect …”). But Lewis Carroll nonsense-logic notwithstanding, it is safe to say that one can lay the charge of provocation rather squarely with the (overworked, exhausted, sometimes frantic) police force.

After the first few volleys of tear gas were fired into the crowd, I did see a handful of protesters pick up objects to throw at the police, but this retaliation was quickly suppressed by fellow protesters. Since then, the only time I’ve seen objects picked up from the ground, they’ve either been placed into rubbish bags or sorted for recycling. This is conscientious stuff.

In some part because of the police’s disproportionate and violent response—which lasted well into the early hours of Sunday morning—the demonstration began to split into discrete areas across the territory. Before long, new (and frequently attacked) occupied spaces had been established in Central, Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Chinese University. At the increasingly besieged epicentre of the protests on Gloucester Road, gas-masked, shotgun-wielding police tried their level best to remove an intransigent, cooperative and ever-resolute mass of protesters. It was never going to be a fair fight … the police eventually retreated, and the occupied spaces were secured.

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Occupy Central/Umbrella Revolution (Day 2)

If, though, the previous day’s violence was marked by a determined and organised solidarity under pressure, then the following day was more a question of consolidating the occupied positions in the face of a curiously absent police force, who, it seems, in a move mirroring the recent Ferguson riots, decided on a softly softly approach following their attempts at removal by force. By the time dusk rolled around, the crowds had swelled to astonishing numbers, and without a police presence, the mood had turned from fear to one of (almost) celebration (who was it that was provocative again?).

Walking from LegCo to Causeway Bay, I was able to witness what a peculiar, uncanny city Hong Kong has now become. From the teeming crowds on Gloucester Road—which now features a mocked up grave for C.Y. Leung, adorned with dead flowers and cigarette ends—the city becomes “itself” again by the time you reach Wan Chai Arts Centre. Another 15 minutes down the road, however, and you hear that now familiar hum of congregated folk, and encounter yet another city junction pedestrianised through force, a space made to speak the political will of its new inhabitants.

On our return home from Causeway Bay, my friends and I were (un)fortunate enough to be interrupted by two tourists looking for a place to drink (or, rather, to continue to drink). We told them that it might be difficult to find transport because of the protests (“I know,” said the girl. “It’s getting really annoying”—I’m fairly sure my eyes audibly rolled), and told them their best bet would be to walk 10 minutes down to Wan Chai. “Oh, I don’t walk,” said the girl … *roll* …

“Oh, I don’t walk.”

“Oh, I don’t walk.” It was a throwaway sentence, really, perhaps even a very poorly constructed joke (it definitely wasn’t—she was a prize diltoid). But it led me to reflect on what it is that I see as so important about the protests currently spreading through Hong Kong. In the past, the majority of Hong Kong residents expressed their own “Oh, I don’t walk-ness” through political apathy, through a blind retention of the status quo. But this has now changed, and changed for good. There is no “depoliticising” these students now. I know of middle-aged Hong Kong residents who’ve never protested before (nor even really thought about it), who have decided to take part in these acts of civil disobedience. I’ve seen old and young alike, facing down lines of police.

“Oh, I don’t walk” has become a determination to be active, to see Hong Kong differently, to engage space politically, through footfall, through critical mass.

Whether the “Umbrella Revolution” (or as I’d prefer, the “Umbrella Movement”) is a success or not is still more than a little uncertain—and if we’re being totally honest, very unlikely. China is a fiery beast that takes none too kindly to jabs and scratches. I’m fearful for the protesters as much as I am heartened by their resolve, by their enthusiasm to take part, to organise, antagonise. This is certainly no time for blunt sanguinity, but there is a communitarian energy and urgent vitality about Hong Kong at the moment that I’ve never seen present before … and long may that energy continue.

All photos courtesy of Aaron Anfinson.

Remember, Remember, the fuzz of Movember …

October 30, 2013

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It’s Movember again. And that can mean only one thing: the terrible and dispiriting moustache of a just-teenaged boy.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. For the past 2 or 3 years my friends both here in Hong Kong and elsewhere have bravely (read: effortlessly) resisted the razor and bushed up, top-lip-wise, in next to no time. I can’t remember now the exact rhetorical wriggles I resorted to in order to excuse myself, but they evidently worked …

This, though, will be my ‘tache-growing debut. 2013. Remember the year. History will.

In truth, very little will change—at least from a distance. Up close (ohhh, up close …), I’ll look that bit more like a try-hard, fall-short, fishoutofwater hipster. Or I could, alternatively, look genuinely creepy, of course, like some disgraced middle-school caretaker found with a handmade “sex-Tardis” in his living-room. (Don’t Google that.)

Other characterful visages are more than possible, and none of them look good in the mind’s-eye.

Despite these relative unknowns, however, there are some certainties to rely upon. The main one being that whilst my Mo-friends are Mo-rauding round Hong Kong like a halloween-gang of George Bernard Shaws, I’ll be the one looking like a shit, blonde, Gary Neville impersonator. And I’m not even sure such a category exists.

Whatever the case, though, whilst others lazily leaf through books of moustache designs, deciding which one to wax, twirl and thirrup into place first, I’ll be living with the genuine, adolescent regret that I even started out with this whole Mo-growing fiasco in the first place.

And that’s got to be worth some sponsorship, even if you’re inexplicably pro-testicular cancer, which seems, I would hope, unlikely.

I’ll be trying to write a bit more about the damn thing on here, mainly as an angst-outlet, but also as an excuse to fire up the casual-writing engine again. And the blog itself, which has lain fallow for far too long.

This is my page.

And this is my “team’s” page.

Your part is simple. Get sponsoring. I’ll report back soon.

‘merikey, again

July 22, 2012

The blurredup, pseudoreality of the SCT is now reaching endtimes. The grand banquet approaches; final trumpets blare.

It’s been a wondrous few weeks, I reckon—although pretty Hogarthian. I’d arrived imagining some sort of academic Damascene conversion, but have instead spent a good deal of my time languishing down Gin Lane, vomiting in passing buckets, or pizzeria toilets. This isn’t to say that a lot of learning hasn’t gone on (it certainly has—don’t get me started on the primacy of poetic language; I’ll bend the ears right off your face), but more that there has been a pleasing ratio of work to notwork, reading to notreading, sobriety to notquitesobriety. They should probably put this on the posters. But I bet they don’t.

In my time left I still anxiously await two things: 1) feedback on my thesis project from that most eminent of brainboxes, Professor John Brenkman; and 2) my as-yet-undetermined fine from the Ithaca court judge for the terrible crime of illegal swimming. A potential double-whammy of “your project is dross; give up” and “we’ve considered your fine, and have decided to give you The Chair” would certainly be hard to stomach. I’m hoping instead for a shiny red rosette for “Best Boy” and a slap on my Twink (thanks, Tony) wrist from the authorities. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between these imagined outcomes.

A shortsharp spell in GITMO notwithstanding, though, it’s been a thoroughly de-concealing (ahem) experience in many ways. I have learned, for example, of my moochful attitude towards new acquaintances, who have, given my residence in the arse-end-of-nowhere-town-of-Lansing, been persuaded over time to lend beds, belts, trousers, shoes and even underwear (thanks, Dan) in a continued effort to keep me both clothed and off the streets. I’m essentially living as a parasitoid wasp armed only with an English accent and a voracious appetite for grace and hospitality. In this regard, it’s probably a good thing that we’re winding down the course. I’m no entomologist, but I seem to remember that in the lifecycle of the parasite it doesn’t end too great for the unwitting host.

What I’ve offered in return is open to question. I would like to think, of course, that dazzling conversation, wit and joie de vivre serve adequately as currency. But I think it’s far more likely that my role here has been one of accent punchbag (in the nicest possible sense). So if—and this is a real if—I’ve brought anything to the table here at all, it’s probably a heightened appreciation of the humble glottal stop. To my credit (and surprise), I’ve so far resisted the temptation to up the ante and Bill Sikes my way round town like some cock-er-ney chimneysweep. Perhaps in the coming days this will change.

Other than all this, my time here has been spent lurching, bathed in coffee and cyclesweat, from seminar to lecture and from miniseminar to colloquium—all of which, the seminar excluded, have been slightly hit-and-miss affairs, but certainly worthwhile, and often (unexpectedly) entertaining. Reading in the inbetween has been a bit of a challenge what with the everpresent possibility of groupbased distractions, but I’m glad to say that my too.cool.for.school, selfprepared reading packs have been (almost) totally devoured, brainwise. Just a couple of Heidegger essays and some Eliot poetry to plough through, and then I can (figuratively, probably) throw the things into a burning lake of hellfire.

It’s going to be a sad occasion on Thursday when we all have to say goodbye. Sad and very probably socially awkward, given that it’s a vague “banquet”-style event for which we’re supposed to make ourselves look presentable. We had a Garden Party a few weeks ago which came with similarly equivocal instructions on attire, meaning that whilst some people rolled up dressed for the beach, I looked like a fucking waiter. I was pretty overdressed, too, for the awful, fratboy-gunshow, topless-wrestling tourney I was unfortunate enough to witness, but perhaps more on that another day …

‘merikey, so far

June 18, 2012

Within just a few hours of landing in New York I was sitting in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, eating an overpriced ‘eggplant’ (read: aubergine) burger, and enjoying some low-priced festival music as part of the ‘Celebrate Brooklyn’ summer series. Willy Mason was first up, Masoning his way about the place, followed then by some British guy called Michael Kiwanuka, a singer with a truly remarkable voice but slightly less remarkable songs. Unfortunately for me this hipsterglow was tarnished slightly through spending most of my time sitting in isolation as gangs of happyfolk caroused about me like smiling helium balloons tethered to fashionable paint cans. And as the sun set I began to feel increasingly like a tourist in a dominion of knowingfolk chatting their knowingtalk of knownboroughs and knownpeople. Still, not a bad introduction to a city of which I had unreasonably high hopes …

The rest of my shortlived Brooklyn-life was spent largely under the influence of good booze and better company, punctuated by a seatofthe’pants’ (read: trousers) ‘soccer’ (read: football) game in which England managed, daringly, to beat a pretty mediocre Sweden team and get a nation’s hopes up for no reason. Most pleasing, though, in this regard, was the Hasidic Jew sat opposite me in the pub during the match—that really was some high-five.

Then it was off to Ithaca on the Greyhound Bus, amidst mild passenger fury, but, alas, no beheadings.

Ithaca is deadlyquiet. I’d never realised quite how much noise my own ears make. The whole place is lakes and trees and hills and waterfalls, with some land in between, holding everything up. That’s about the best I can do so far. I’ve only really been to the supermarket and the university, both of which are vast and a bit scary, and more expensive than I thought they would be. 1 x bag of onions: $3.99! I’ll let you decide which that relates to.

Otherwise, my seminar proper starts tomorrow morning at 9.30 a.m., and having now met the majority of my fellow SCT goers, all my fears and apprehensions appear well-founded. These guys both know and, possibly, pretend to know, a great deal of effing stuff about stuff. And they talk very quickly about it all. One girl in particular spoke as if she was disappearing over an event horizon. I caught about every four words. I think she was talking about gays.

I fully expect to be outgunned on the academic front anyway, so I’ll maybe try to develop a series of endearing and ostentatious gimmicks by way of distraction and feint. It’s all about hiding in plain sight. Now where are my bowling shoes and L.E.D. cravatte?

Wake(y) Wake(y)

May 27, 2012

It’s been far too long since I wrote anything on here. But now that my brain has started producing such high-grade academic horseshit I think it might be time to opt for some words with fewer syllables—even if these shorter words are used up mostly in describing the horror of the longer ones.

I’m writing a chapter on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake at the moment, and writing about ‘the’ Wake when you’re not a fulltime Joyce scholar is a frightening experience. The book is astonishingly good, of course, and worthy of the praise it receives, but I can quite understand the opprobrium too. A critic called Ruben Borg says somewhere that ‘the’ Wake teaches you that there are books you still need to learn to read, and that’s exactly what it feels like. I spend much of my time just stumbling about from word to word, like a drunk looking for his keys, and every time I think I’m getting somewhere close to unlocking a phrase, a sentence, a passage, I discover it’s just the change in my pockets, jingling about and confusing things.

The real absurdity, though, is that it can only be a single chapter. People spend their entire lives reading this bloody book, and I somehow need to say something interesting (perhaps even original) about it over the course of what really amounts to just 7 or 8 months. And having recently screeded several thousand words about the meaning of just one, it seems that this is a task with an unlikely and unknowable end, a bit like Finnegans Wake itself.

I do already have a contingency plan though. Should I be fortunate enough to make it to my viva exam and be unfortunate enough to be asked a question on this chapter, I’m just going to filibuster my way through and then knock up a homemade degree certificate on a passing Etch A Sketch. Ta da!

In memory …

February 29, 2012

We only ever really talked about our shared passion for the music of Radiohead. He even gave me a free ticket to one of their Earls Court gigs back in 2003. Nearly a decade ago.

I can’t pretend to know what might have happened in the intervening years. Or even what might have been happening then. Whatever the case, it’s over now—for better or for worse.

Neither of us had seen Radiohead perform live before; they didn’t disappoint—it was a fantastic night.

Things are always in such a delicate balance.

Rest easy, JB. You’ll be missed.

Après moi le déluge!

December 9, 2011

The system-driven selfishness of the capitalist mode of production, as seen by Marx all those many years ago:

In every stock-jobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that is may fall on the head of his neighbor, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in secure hands. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases out pleasure (profit)? But looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.

(Capital, 381)

It is perhaps the last two sentences which speaks most readily to current predicaments.

Progressive change (whether in relation to workers rights or environmental degradation) as a purely market-driven effect, divorced from ethics, is only too palpable when it comes to the depletion of nonrenewable energy resources, where serious implementation and funding of alternatives will only commence (in the coming decades) when the price of producing oil exceeds the production costs of its cleaner rivals.


Growth, Growth, Growth

November 1, 2011

7 billion people now inhabit the Earth. Although they don’t, of course—the article announcing the news is by now hours old. Now there will be several thousand more. Even now you can add on another couple or so. And now? Yeah, maybe you’d better just keep your pen handy …

This 7,000,000,000+ already uses 1.5 planet Earth’s per year—an inescapable statistic which defies logic as it damns. “Use” is perhaps a little neutral in this sense. How about “consume”? Everyone is, after all, born into a capitalist system hell-bent on consumption, on the acquisition and loss of money.

This capitalist system requires at least 3% growth in order to sustain itself. David Harvey’s lecture does better than I could ever do. As does Sir David Attenborough quoting President Kennedy’s environmental advisor Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad—or an economist.”

The whole of the Attenborough speech can and should be read here.

I wrote nearly 18 months ago on this same topic and surmised that we suffer from what political scientists call “status quo bias”—basically a resistance to change when the imperative for change seems insufficient. Expensive products and holidays help drive this. The worldwide Occupy protests are an important step in the opposite direction.

Population Growth, consumption Growth and 3% compound Growth feed each other hungrily. And it is from these three interconnecting issues that a whole host of other worthy causes stem. It almost seems unnecessary now to talk of the environment, of animal welfare, of renewable energy, of global warming, since all are intimately related to and negatively dependent upon these three predominant (and growing) problems.

Answers? Well, I’ll probably have it all figured out in the morning …

For starters though, a healthy dose of consciousness raising through the (very limited, given the readership of this blog) dissemination of important information. Start with the Harvey lecture. Go on—consume it up all nice and tight.


Hypocrites! or pragmatists?

October 27, 2011

The criticism of the Occupy London protests in much of the right-leaning press in the UK recently has focussed largely on issues of hypocrisy. How can these so-called activists possibly be politically motivated, the question goes, if they’re seen drinking Starbucks coffee, browsing the internet on their Apple laptops, and wearing designer clothes? There they sit, complaining about a system of excess and corruption, whilst they themselves reap the benefits. Hypocrites!

The alternative (but still linked) rebuke is that the activists are made up only of feckless students, rich kids with nothing better do to, or the lowly unemployed. And why should anybody listen to these freeloaders? Do they really think that without capitalism’s guiding hand they’d be receiving their benefits or student-loans? And as for Henrietta and Ptolemy living off daddy’s oil money: they don’t know they’re born …

The recent (debatable and debated) news reports claiming that 90% of the Occupy London tents were vacant overnight conforms to this same all-or-nothing logic. Activists are clearly required to conform to an unchanging social role involving minimal shades of grey. As soon as one social category is breached or blended with another then activism ceases, political messages are compromised and hypocrisy reigns.

But then what does this really leave?

If the logic states that it’s impossible to engage in the activity of activism whilst immersed in the activity of capitalism, then who is left to speak? The answer, presumably, is only those with no political voice at all; those who can be easily derided or ignored—those, in effect, who can safely protest without ruffling too many feathers.

Undoing this cleverly disarming logic is, of course, quite easy. The influence of markets, branding and capitalism is inescapable. Put simply, it is impossible to be an effective political activist without engaging in hypocrisy. Just as it is very difficult to be an effective environmental activist without, say, international air-travel. Slavoj Žižek puts it well:

What one should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on enemy’s turf; time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be taken from us – everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our “terror”, ominous and threatening as it should be.

To remove these necessarily overlapping areas leaves only a choice between the ‘all-in’, easily stereotyped (and ignored) left-wing anarchists who want a return to communism, or the ‘all-out’ Mr Monopoly bankers who’d willingly sell Africa to Shell—which is effectively a choice between fuck- and bugger-all.

If someone at Occupy London leaves the camp every three days to go and catch up on paid work (so as to lengthen their stay at the protest), then their act of so-called hypocrisy is in fact a pragmatic choice based upon the realisation that whilst the current system is broken, it is the only system in town, and that it is only through such a system that new and collective political agency can emerge.

Within a hegemonic system like capitalism, hypocrisy must in fact be the point of departure for any act of political dissent. And whilst there are certainly some modes of hypocrisy it would be better to avoid (protestors drinking Starbucks coffee for one), to simply berate pragmatic people for working within their limitations is a shortsighted and manipulative attempt to caricature what is a complex social movement into clearly defined parameters, and works only to stultify debate.

And it makes me mad.

Subatomic particles: the musical!

September 7, 2011

EDL supporters have been ridiculed, Jeremy Kyle has been put to music, and now this, from the Symphony of Science: the Quantum World, autotuned for your pleasure.

I’m increasingly siding with Leibniz. This really is the best of all possible worlds.


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