Hong Kong civil disobedience

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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.

Après moi le déluge!

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

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?

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.