Protesters gather in solidarity rally for those detained at the San Uk Ling facility. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan

Between Washington and Beijing

Hong Kong is caught within a historical and geopolitical trap.

Originally published in Jacobin. Republished with permission.

Editor’s note: The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) was signed into law by the U.S. President on November 27, 2019. This interview was published in September, shortly after the launch of Lausan’s website.

It has become impossible for American elites to ignore the Hong Kong protests. On Tuesday prominent Hong Kong activists appeared on Capitol Hill, urging a congressional commission co-chaired by Senator Marco Rubio to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA)—a bipartisan bill that would introduce new forms of US oversight over Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status. The goal, supporters say, is to shore up Hong Kong democracy against the authoritarian encroachment of China.

Western pundits have dutifully echoed this argument, claiming Hong Kong is the “new Berlin,” the front lines of a renewed Cold War.

This is an appealing line for moderate protesters and politicians alike, casting the complicated conflict in a simple binary where the United States represents freedom and China autocracy. Yet in reality, Hong Kong is caught within a historical and geopolitical trap: its value as a conduit for capital between China and the West is the very reason its self-determination has been denied. China’s authoritarian state capitalism and the West’s neoliberalism are both threats to Hong Kong’s already-weak democracy.

In this environment, a leftist analysis of Hong Kong politics becomes vital. This week, a collective of writers, researchers, artists, and activists from Hong Kong and its diasporic communities launched an English-language publication called Lausan to publicize the views of the Hong Kong left and to build cross-border solidarity based on worker and migrant justice, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and feminism. Their goal is to situate, in the international discourse, the ongoing demonstrations in relation—and opposition—to both China’s authoritarian ascendance and the West’s global economic dominance.

It was critical to bring depth to shallow Western narratives that focused solely on “freedom and democracy.”

Jacobin contributor and Lausan member JS Chen spoke with the collective about US policy toward Hong Kong and how the international left should see the massive protest movement—now in its fifteenth week.

JS: Members from Lausan Collective live in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, and beyond. How did Lausan come together, and why now?

Lausan Collective: Our collective includes journalists, lawyers, academics, artists, and activists involved in tenants’ rights groups, unions, worker coalitions, and political organizations in the United States (like the Democratic Socialists of America and Solidarity) and across the globe.

We initially connected in a WhatsApp group to process a feeling of speechlessness following the police-sanctioned triad attacks on protesters in Yuen Long, Hong Kong on July 21. As leftists from Hong Kong and its diasporas, we have been accustomed to occupying marginal positions in Hong Kong’s social movements. But on that night, watching fellow Hong Kongers suffer a wrenching new level of violence, it was no longer feasible to be alone.

Coming together gave us a way to talk through our grief—while also developing an analysis to connect the horrifying scenes in Yuen Long to often-forgotten histories of colonial state violence. In the following weeks of discussion we became inspired to pool our efforts in writing, translating, and organizing to amplify the perspectives of Hong Kongers who were making the most ambitious arguments for progressive structural change.

The form we decided on was a publication. We felt that it was critical to bring depth to shallow Western narratives that focused solely on “freedom and democracy.” We knew that it was important to highlight radical left voices within the movement to counter both the local government’s smearing of protesters as engaging in violence for violence’s sake, as well as the sensationalist coverage of right-wing “localists.”

Given our upbringings and current locations, we see ourselves as providing a bridge between the predominantly Chinese-language leftist discourse in Hong Kong and the international left. Sharing our city’s existing leftist discourse and transmitting their writing outwards is a core part of our work.

JS: We’ve seen anti-Chinese racism in the protests and, equally troublingly, the use of swastikas and comparisons of the Chinese government to Nazi Germany. While these acts are not representative of the movement, they certainly are getting a lot of attention in the media. How should we think about Hong Kong’s relationship to China?

LC: While the US-courting, right-wing nativists are a fringe element in the current protests, their involvement reflects the current of ethnonationalism and xenophobia against mainland people that has gained currency in social movements since at least 2003. This closes off cross-border solidarity and action, especially with labor movements on the mainland, in favor of a cultural chauvinism.

Over this summer of protests, China has also dialed up its nationalist propaganda, portraying the movement as Western-funded, anti-China, and fueled by Hong Kongers’ hatred for China.

As leftists, we must reject both anti-Chinese rhetoric and Chinese nationalism. Nationalism and xenophobia have been used time and again to divide oppressed people across borders, and the case of Hong Kong and China is no different. Working people in China are equally oppressed by China’s state-capitalist government and should be a natural ally to the Hong Kong people.

Despite the Chinese government’s anti-Hong Kong propaganda, there is clear evidence that there are people in China that support the movement. An online photo campaign in the mainland was created to show support for Hong Kong. A Chinese lawyer, Chen Quishi, even visited Hong Kong to report on the protests. But under the pressure of being “good nationalist citizens,” many choose to remain silent. As a platform and a community, Lausan wants to promote solidarity between the oppressed people of Hong Kong and China to unite against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

JS: Although the business community in Hong Kong was initially supportive of the protests, they’ve since turned their backs on the movement. We can also see protesters divided along class lines when we look at the student strikes that happened earlier this month: students from elite, expat-majority international schools and private schools were hardly present. How have you been thinking about class struggle in the context of this movement?

LC: It’s critical to understand that China is not a socialist state, despite the way that the CCP characterizes the country’s economic system (“socialism with Chinese characteristics”). Hong Kong functions as a bridge between Western capital and the Chinese market, exposing the working people of China and Hong Kong to the exploitation of Western capital. This has been true since the early days of British colonialism, and now, a new class of Hong Kong elites has been consolidated. In working with the Chinese government, this class of Hong Kong business elites has benefited from China’s economic encroachment at the expense of working people. As such, it’s as much the Hong Kong elite as the CCP that we are up against.

Working people in China are equally oppressed by China’s state-capitalist government and should be a natural ally to the Hong Kong people.

The demand for “democracy” becomes much more intelligible when you take into account the fact that the Legislative Council (Legco), the city’s version of Congress, is in the pocket of the Hong Kong elite. Corporations manipulate governments in democracies all over the globe (as in America), but in Hong Kong it is even more obvious: only the elite class, along with corporations and legal entities, are entitled to vote for the so-called functional constituencies in Legco, which comprise half its seats. While the working class can only vote in their regional representatives, the elites can dominate the Legco with pro-business, pro-China politicians that make little to no attempt to address economic inequality.

The Left is marginalized right now in the movement, and liberal interests continue to shape and frame the protesters’ demands. But within economic precarity lies the potential for a deeper class consciousness: young people are grappling with a lack of employment opportunities and job security, and a massively inequitable housing market. To save money, it is not uncommon for young people to live with their parents until getting married—and sometimes even afterward.

It is up to the Left to integrate economic struggle into the movement’s discourse and provide a platform for such grievances. Only then can we steer the frustrations of ordinary people away from exclusionary ideologies like xenophobia against mainlanders and toward inclusive and truly liberatory values.

JS: How has the movement engaged with other struggles happening in Hong Kong? And what’s lacking in the movement?

LC: What is critically lacking in the movement is not only class analysis, but also a foregrounding of the struggles for marginalized groups in a highly cosmopolitan city: sex workersSoutheast Asian migrant domestic workers, LGBTQ+ people, etc. These movements have existed long before the anti-extradition bill protests and have contributed much in their own ways to the protests.

There have been self-organized actions and study groups for #MeToo, and these values were reflected in the August 28 #ProtestToo protest, which condemned police sexual violence against female protesters. Many migrant workers from the Philippines and Indonesia have come out strongly in support of the movement, connecting it to their struggles in their home countries. At the same time, their ongoing campaign for a higher monthly wage, from HKD 4,520 to HKD 5,894, has gone unnoticed. Connecting these struggles to the daily protests are key to the city’s liberation.

JS: What does Lausan hope to achieve from dialogue with the broader international left?

LC: Hong Kong exists between two global ambitions—Chinese state capitalism and Western neoliberalism. To fight for self-determination is to confront both, and to do so, Hong Kongers must engage internationally, seeking allies not only in China and the West, but beyond all borders in order to build a broad anticapitalist movement.

This is especially important in combating Chinese colonial influence through projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, which promotes new forms of economic imperialism and infringes on people’s right to self-determination. Kenyan coal miners and indigenous groups in Southeast Asia like the Dumagat people are examples of communities at the front lines of the struggle against Chinese capital and the exploitation of their land and labor. As Hong Kongers in the city and abroad, we hope to learn from and foreground these voices.

Hong Kong exists between two global ambitions—Chinese state capitalism and Western neoliberalism.

Furthermore, as Hong Kong looks to the United States for support, we urge protesters to refuse alliances with right-wingers like Marco Rubio and instead build connections between oppressed groups. Police brutality is one example of an issue that creates an opening for solidarity. Considering how opposition to violence from the Hong Kong Police Force is now at the heart of the city’s struggle, we want to draw connections between police brutality and other forms of state oppression in the United States with what’s happening in Hong Kong. We want to help build alliances between marginalized groups and facilitate a cross-border solidarity grounded in skill-sharing and meaningful dialogue.

Finally, we want to connect Hong Kong’s fight for self-determination and anticapitalist struggles to places like KashmirSudanPalestine, Tamil Eelam, Kurdistan, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Lausan is invested in the fight to establish other forms of community not necessarily based upon nation-state sovereignty, and not based upon borders or capitalism’s imperatives. A lot more work needs to be done on this front.

JS: US senators Marco Rubio, Ben Cardin, and Jim Risch are reintroducing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA), which has now acquired bipartisan support. How should we view the HKHRDA?

LC: Lausan’s perspective on HKHRDA is that the United States has an exploitative economic and political self-interest in promoting this act, but also that it’s understandable why local supporters see it as a necessary (if desperate) defense against CCP encroachment.

While the HKHRDA may well provide short-term protection to Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status, it does not address the deeper problem: that Hong Kong’s economy, and the security of Hong Kongers, remains far too dependent on receiving “special” treatment from a distant empire, whether it be the United Kingdom, the People’s Republic of China, or the United States.

At best, the HKHRDA is a stopgap measure. But it does not appear to move Hong Kong closer to its true goal: genuine self-determination that is not underwritten by the economic interest of a superpower, but the democratic will of the Hong Kong people.

JS: The Western left doesn’t have a unified response to the Hong Kong movement. While many support the movement, there are others who are troubled by it. How have you responded to the detractors?

LC: There are contingents among the Left who view the world solely through the lens of a great power struggle against American imperialism—and conclude all credible enemies of America must be supported. In doing so, they habitually undermine the narratives of nonwhite people abroad for whom other forms of state-led violence and exploitation pose far greater immediate threats. Many of the leftists who smear the Hong Kong protesters also deny the Chinese government’s ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people and its suppression of the Tibetan people’s fight for self-determination. They argue that allowing any of these peripheries self-determination would create unacceptable opportunities for Western imperialism’s advance.

Yet for the people of these in-between places, self-determination is not an abstract idea, but a matter of life and death. Thus for Western leftists an urgent reframing of the question is necessary. Instead of supposing that American imperialism can only be vanquished by other (also imperialist) great powers, how can we identify the problems at the heart of imperialism itself—especially their dependence on unsustainable practices of accumulation and exclusion? Could we discover, in their inverse, radical models of community and self-definition? Could we take the survival of the people of Hong Kong as a starting point for our critique, and imagine a new politics of international solidarity—one that no longer rests on the us-vs-them logic of nation-states, or the profit motive of global capitalism—but something else altogether?

Of course, no one has the answers. But for the people of Hong Kong, we may soon be out of time to ask.