29 September 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan

Facing down the Hong Kong movement’s right-wing turn: A new afterword

The case for a Hong Kong left internationalism in the wake of the pandemic and Black liberation movement

Original: 【時代遊戲,未完待續】, published in Squatting 2047

Translators: TC, ZL, fs3

If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.

On October 10, 2019, Zoe Zhao published “Facing down the Hong Kong movement’s right-wing turn” on Matters (the English language translation of which Lausan published in March 2020), identifying the movement’s early right-wing shift. She contended that the right-wing turn contained two basic components: Firstly, racialized attacks on ordinary mainland Chinese people toward a new ethnonational character became a source of momentum for the movement, instead of focusing on local and national elites; secondly, persistent appeals to Western political elites bolstered instead of challenged existing hegemonies, in lieu of exploring multiple other pathways toward international solidarity. Looking back on the first half of 2020, Hong Kong society’s mounting hostility toward mainland Chinese people and China as a whole solidified in the wake of the pandemic. Under the specter of the national security laws, the slogan “Hong Kong Independence is the only way out (香港獨立,唯一出路)” became increasingly embraced in the mainstream. The movement’s right-wing turn turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

So, Squatting invited Zoe Zhao to pen a new afterword to her original article to take stock of recent developments. Zhao reassesses the Hong Kong movement’s right-wing elements, not least of which is the fact that the silence of the left has in no way been exceptional to Hong Kong. The international left, too, has largely lagged behind in initiative and organizing power throughout the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Existing discourse on movement solidarity leaves a lot to be desired in both depth and resilience. Leftists concerned with the fate of Hong Kong still need to disentangle several problems: in addition to disabusing protesters of hastily formed and uncritical ideologies, how do we go about realizing an alternative vision? How do we better inform the world about the struggles in Hong Kong, so that it is not merely a footnote to the evils and atrocities of empire? In turn, how can Hong Kong better learn about struggles elsewhere?

I finished the first draft of ”Facing down the Hong Kong protests’ right-wing turn” in early October of last year. At the time, the Hong Kong protests’ right-wing elements, spurred by police violence and rampant abuses of power, had already begun to intensify. After I published the essay, I also clarified on Matters that the subject I described and analyzed in my article was explicitly the public-facing operations of the Hong Kong protests: How it has been identified, represented, and propagated. Can what seems to those in the rest of the world to be a decentralized movement running on the “Be Water” ethos truly bring about equality and democracy? How has a movement apprehensive to place its inner workings on full display gradually marginalized its leftist (or at least progressive) forces? In an international field where rightist politics has decisively retained an upper hand, I believe a decentralized movement, particularly in its middle to late stages, would be eroded if not entirely devoured by the political economy of nationalism and racism if there is no room for unflinching self-reflection and course-correction.

It has been a little over a year since the article’s initial publication. With Covid-19 upending the world, Beijing passing national security laws in Hong Kong, and a new round of racial liberation movements taking the US by storm, typical political dynamics have yet to show signs of large-scale transformation, but do seem to be caught in a self-destructive downward spiral. The inter-imperial rivalry between China and the US has certainly cornered left-wing discursive space and narrowed avenues for action. In practice, mass struggles, even those in the name of the working class, have often become tainted with nationalism. Those engaging in discourse around strikes in Hong Kong have been more than eager to distance themselves from the labor movement in mainland China as a standard procedure. This marked a radical break from tactics in the early stages of the movement, where people handed out flyers to Chinese tourists and even attempted to intervene in collective action in mainland China. 

But even those earlier efforts did not so much come from a place of worker solidarity as opportunism and desperation in the middle of a volatile situation. Looking at other sites around the world, right-wing groups in Europe, the US, and Latin America have once again advanced racist agendas in the name of the working class, no less, during this pandemic. Even in the wave of BLM protests, left-wing organizations have been forced to go with the flow, largely unable to lead with their own demands. Everywhere, the left is met with the same fate. This doesn’t necessarily mean a totalizing reactionary turn has swept across the world’s publics, but it does show that nativist forces are finding it easier than ever before to mobilize on a larger scale under pandemic-fueled nationalism. By contrast, the left often finds itself short on funds. The need to appeal to a more heterogeneous base is also resulting in sacrifices in efficiency and influence. 

Today, the West’s indiscriminate hostility toward China has reached its highest point in half a century. As longtime model minorities, Asian Americans have had to pick a side to shore up their precarious Americanness. As for Hongkongers, the constant search for survival—to not fall between the fissures of empire—has become all the more pressing. So long as the meta-narrative of the US-China standoff continues to narrate and shape all international affairs, any formation of Hong Kong internationalism will find it challenging to escape the double-bind of structural dependency. 

For one thing, Hong Kong’s numerous international “supporters” tend to turn their attention to Hong Kong with an instrumentalizing interest. Hong Kong is seen merely as a footnote to the despotism of Beijing. Its citational value does not extend toward any concern for the region’s aspirations for autonomy. For another, the international left as a whole knows and cares very little about Hong Kong; they are out of their depth, so to speak, and that is why so few international left-wing organizations have declared a stance on the issue. Even more frustrating is the sheer number of Stalinists, for instance, who have simply dismissed the protests in Hong Kong as reactionary and subservient to capital. Under these dire circumstances, many people consequently saw an alignment with Western conservatism as their only way out.

So long as the meta-narrative of the US-China standoff continues to narrate and shape all international affairs, any formation of Hong Kong internationalism will find it challenging to escape the double-bind of structural dependency. 

If the question is how the left in Hong Kong can reclaim or extend its influence, then we need to think about how to offer an alternative vision, instead of trying to convince protesters on the frontline to give up a belief that they haven’t had a chance to really think through. If the Trump administration is not the panacea to Hong Kong’s bleak future as people would have hoped, then what are some new ways of pivoting or connecting? How do we make sense of the world outside of US-China elite politics, and what radical elements are in fact latent in Hong Kong’s connection to the world?

What has become evident from the wave of protests around the globe in 2019 and the Black liberation uprising in the US is how sparse and tenuous organic linkages between these sites are. The philosophy and praxis of racial liberation in the US, histories of Black Power and Pan-Africanism, the rise of BLM and its subsequent development and coordination with other movements—all of these nodes of action could have been a site of deep exchange in experience and strategy for the struggle in Hong Kong. Instead, the mainstream narrative has all but fallen hook, line, and sinker for logics of rivalry and exceptionalism perpetuated by the power play between China and the US, going so far as to see Black liberation as antithetical to, if not a betrayal of, the ideals of liberal democracy dearly held by so many Hongkongers. As I mentioned in “Facing down the Hong Kong movement’s right-wing turn,” we must stay alert to the mythologizing habits of the Hong Kong movement, which have produced and then foisted categories of deservedness and legitimacy onto contemporaneous struggles. But the reality is that such divisive and judgmental tendencies are precisely where the movement has long been heading: Struggles in one site are often used to delegitimize those in another.

Existing discourse around movement solidarity has also mostly been mediated and filtered through the Anglophone media landscape, which lacks the level of depth and sustainability required for good communication and exchange. Inter-movement learning is much more than clicks and likes. It is not enough to just cheer for ongoing revolutions on social media. Rather, it is an everyday commitment to raising, absorbing, and connecting theory and practice within and between movements. The world needs to learn more about Hong Kong; similarly, Hong Kong protesters need to get closer to struggles around the world, including those in mainland China. Some organizations in Hong Kong have already begun working toward this goal. The importance of these efforts is sure to shine through as future struggles unfold. 

Of course, as someone with a foot in the door of academia, I understand the danger of left internationalism’s co-optation into the clubs of elites. Many of those who are highly proficient in concepts like postcolonialism, neoliberalism, labor solidarity, and queer Marxism are precisely people who have benefitted from systems of elite education complicit in globalized structures of exploitation. While left academe tends to share a level of familiarity with vocabularies of critique, they might not be able to pick up on, let alone directly confront, the daily entanglements and contestations within movements. In other words, the left academic has much to learn from, for example, working-class protesters with no academic training. Dominant discourses, nevertheless, often determine how people come to understand the nature and bodily experience of oppression, be it through the lens of nativism or that of internationalism. To reflect meaningfully on the formation and fixation of these discourse contexts can often shed light on both the limitations and potentials of movements. 

Not everyone is in a position to stand at the intersection of different worlds and systems, to peer into the abyss that threatens to devour all possibilities of revolt. Unmoored, those who make observations at such junctions risk isolation and exile, but they also tend to access a viable standpoint from which to theorize and critique. What this portends for the left in their dialogue with movements “on the ground” is the explicit acknowledgement that knowledge production is entangled with class struggle and larger structures of hegemony and domination. The left must take it upon themselves to diagnose and think through how such dynamics persist and threaten the emergence of a truly emancipatory politics at every turn. The silence of the left is perhaps a major indictment of such embedded relations of power. 

Read “Facing down the Hong Kong movement’s right-wing turn” here.