A US flag at a march in Causeway Bay. 8 December, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

Facing down the Hong Kong protests’ right-wing turn

Lack of ideological debate allows existing conservative structures to seep into the deepest core of the movement.

Original: 【時代遊戲】, published on Matters

Translators: P, LWH, R, SR, Brian Ng, Wilfred Chan

Editors: Brian Ng, Elis Lui

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

Editor’s note: Zoe Zhao is a sociology PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. She appeared on a panel hosted by Lausan, “Hong Kong Between Empire & Capital,” with Alex Chow and Wilfred Chan at the Verso Books office in January 2020, a recording of which can be viewed here.

This piece was originally published in October 2019. It has been edited and condensed in collaboration with its author. Read Zhao’s new afterword, published in November 2020.

Understanding the turn to the right

As the crisis of the Hong Kong protests intensifies—whether it is the expansion of authoritarian police repression, the spread of violence, the escalating tension between the United States and China, or the widening rift between Hong Kong and the mainland—a discussion of the Hong Kong protest movement’s ideological character may appear ill-timed. Yet in reality this historically unprecedented protest movement, a self-styled revolution, is clearly experiencing a right-wing turn. 

On the ground, the right-wing turn has not been made through abstract notions of “restoring Hong Kong” or independence slogans, nor through some protestors declaring a “provisional government,” nor even the rapid normalization of the increasingly radical, violent tactics used by protesters. Slogans, declarations, and hardline actions are simply theatrics of the movement, which can appear in left-wing, liberal, and right-wing formulations and practices alike. The same act, across different ideological contexts, can and must be read differently. 

This turn to the right in Hong Kong’s struggle includes two basic dimensions. First is the use of racialized attacks to target ordinary mainland Chinese people rather than the elite, in order to establish a Hong Kong nationalism which purports to sustain the momentum of the movement. Second is the appeal to the European and American political elite rather than other means toward building international solidarity, which leaves unchallenged and even bolsters the existing global order. 

The framework of nationalism may sound seductive for mobilizing the masses, but fundamentally restricts the impact of the protests through impeding global alliances between mass movements. All domestic struggles can engender an international impact beyond the intentions and aspirations of those who started it. If the Hong Kong protests go all the way to the right, its legacy will leave a bloody footprint in the history of global struggle, a template for the fight between the powerful and the powerless. Instead, we can take this opportunity to form a network of international solidarity, to recognize and respond to a predatory world system that pits protesters from different regions against each other. 

Decentralization, accountability, anonymity

The decentralized and anonymized nature of the early anti-extradition movement reduced the risk that individuals would be prosecuted on the basis of politicized charges, and also allowed for a variety of alliances to form and collaborate. These strategies did not necessarily relate to the movement’s general aims, but their benefits soon became clear. For example, after it was discovered that a bug on Telegram could inadvertently expose individuals’ phone numbers in August, IT engineers, protesters, and media workers successfully coordinated to put pressure on Telegram for a security patch. 

But as the movement passed from an initial period of mobilization into formulating a vision for the future, the advantages and efficiencies of anonymity and decentralization have begun to fracture, while their capacity for abuse has become increasingly apparent. As unbridgeable rifts begin to appear within the movement, there is no mechanism for internal coordination to integrate different perspectives. Nor is there a way to guard against the overstepping of authority by the few to represent the strategic decisions of the entire body.

Protesters shield themselves from tear gas in Wong Tai Sin. 1 October, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

In August, while some protesters issued a “public apology” following the blockade of the Hong Kong airport, the statement was not unanimously endorsed by the various Telegram groups. Insofar as there appeared to be a unified apology, it was due to a consensus created by the media. A more recent example centers on the usage of Nazi analogies to criticize China. Although representatives at a “citizens’ press briefing” announced the “Chinazi” slogan would not be used, this did not prevent the continued appearance of the flags and symbols in person. Also, incidents of violence and property damage against organizations and companies perceived to be loyal to Chinese influence—flag-burning, broken windows, looted shops—highlight how the shortcomings of a decentralized movement are amplified as it is broadcast. 

The tide of Hong Kong public opinion has slowly degenerated into a 4chan-like anonymous platform. The right-wing localists do not represent every Hongkonger’s position, and yet they have taken up space at the core of the movement and become a self-actualizing prophecy. Sociologist Ann Swidler coined the concept “unsettled time” in order to describe the unstable circumstances from which new conceptions of citizenship  and national identities, can emerge; amid such clashes, previously unsettled contentions can find themselves inadvertently molded into pre-existing ideological frameworks. In this way, right-leaning ideas have gradually come into vogue, leaving little space in which Hong Kong leftists can maneuver.

Classic theories of social mobilization are, firstly, based on a Eurocentric and US-centric understanding of urban and industrial movements which often exclude rural movements; secondly, they are founded on an understanding of traditionally legible forms of participation in social movements. Works like Doug McAdam’s classic book, Political Process and the Development of the Black Insurgency, 1930–1970, directly studied how groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Black churches organized and came to a reasonable view of their differences, organizing principles, actions, and consequences. 

The right-wing localists do not represent every Hongkonger’s real thoughts, and yet they have taken up space at the core of the movement and become a self-actualizing prophecy.

Yet, in the last ten years, the shift towards decentralization in social movements challenged mainstream theory and extended people’s expectations toward how such a movement can keep its initial momentum alive. On this point, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement pushed decentralization to a new frontier. At the start of the anti-extradition movement, European and American headlines had romanticized Hong Kong’s struggle. With their aspirations for liberalization through the Arab Spring dashed by counter-revolutionary forces, the international media seized the opportunity to mythologize the next new locale of leaderless, anti-authoritarian protest: Hong Kong. 

Decentralization and centralization; anonymity and the use of real names… These are not fixed dichotomies under which we can sort and file various social movements, but organic strategies that can only be contextualized by the dynamic process of struggle. A successful movement may often entail a protean array of seemingly contradictory strategies. When the strategy of decentralization has uncritically been championed as an invincible tool against an authoritarian regime, it can become a destructive force when media coverage of the social movement inevitably recedes. 

An umbrella burns in Wong Tai Sin. 1 October, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

Anonymity and decentralization do not necessarily result in a diversity of perspectives. The popular slogan: “Brothers climb the same mountain, separately towards the summit” (兄弟爬山,各自努力) is perhaps one of the most misleading refrains of this movement. Purporting to give equal credence to both the non-violent (和理非) and violent frontline (勇武) protesters in order to emphasize the benefits of a decentralized movement, the slogan only evades ideological debate.

The choice to escalate protest violence depends on the participants’ estimate of the movement’s repertoire of contention and of the likelihood of state oppression, not the depth of their critical principles. The history of revolution and social movements shows us that the ideology of a movement may become decoupled from its respective repertoires of contention and on-the-ground rhetoric. When the movement’s theatrics have made the question of ideology a stigmatized taboo, critical thought fails to develop underneath the consensus to resist the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Anonymity and decentralization within a social movement do not guarantee equal opportunities for participation. While, compared to platforms such as Facebook that use real names, anonymous platforms like LIHKG and Telegram have mobilized more ordinary citizens, they also prevent us from understanding the demographics and principles of their constituents, which makes it harder for us to notice when there are inequities in their organizing structure. When structural oppressions manifest, it becomes harder to hold people to account.

Anonymous organization makes it difficult to even see where structural biases lie, much less address them. Researchers struggle to answer basic questions: Are particular subgroups directing the movement’s discussions? Compared to other non-political discussions, and those related to previous political struggles, have these structural inequalities been exacerbated during this movement? Are the various surveys on the direction of the movement representative?

In general, because of more lax regulations and minimal sanctioning of hate speech on anonymous online platforms relative to spaces where real names are needed, we tend to observe more rightist expression and wider inequities in participation in the former. Is there such a trend among Hong Kong protesters? 

Refusing right-wing alliances

From the G20 summit promotional campaign, it has become clear that the protesters’ promotional campaign, at least, has become a highly internationalized, transnational discussion and spectacle. However, “international” and “transnational” continue to be treated as apolitical terms that lack specific political context. 

In a conversation with a friend during the year of the Fishball Riots, I joked that it was probably only in Hong Kong that people could witness a black bloc composed of people who weren’t avowed leftists. Recently, democratic socialists and anarchist groups alike have expressed disappointment regarding how protesters have turned towards Western governments for assistance. From a strategic perspective, waving the flag of Trinidad and Tobago may not mobilize the masses as much as waving the American flag would. But it is not as if there are no other options in the face of authoritarianism.

The world is not only made up of wealthy countries and legislatures made up of white people—if we lack the nerve of antifa and Black Lives Matter to burn the American flag, then we could at least symbolically recognize some of these other groups. Even if we do not have the nerve to connect with organizers in mainland China, there is the possibility of connecting with Afro-Asian struggles. If we cannot advance progressive politics, we could at least refrain from buying into conservatism. 

Whenever people in black bloc raise the British or American flag, hold MAGA signs, or display the “Swole Trump” image, and English-language media flock to report on these incidences with a tone of seeming “neutrality,” it becomes impossible not to confront the movement’s turn to the right. The motivation for this shift is racialized: by emphasizing their proximity to Euro-American whiteness, East Asians fall into the trap of ethno-nationalism and racial hegemony.

These two different forms of right-wing ideology belie two competing empires; though they may appear different on the surface, their substance is the same. The appearance of these flags is a boon to European and American conservatives. No matter how dearly protesters hold the support of such unsavory allies and profess innocence as to their provenance, these kinds of street protests will ultimately only attract international supporters with conservative ideological agendas. 

Protesters carry US flags in Central in support of the HKHRDA. 9 September, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

During the occupation of the Hong Kong airport, Western tourists grumbled at the inconvenience that the protestors brought on: “You have a problem with your government, not mine.” This indifference encapsulates the average Western view towards Hong Kong, even when it is not explicitly expressed. So then, who is actively advocating for Hong Kong in the West?

The support we’ve seen from conservatives and ultra-right wing politicians has far surpassed that of the centrists and progressives. Joey Gibson, the founder of West Coast right-wing protest group Patriot Prayer, flew to Hong Kong to livestream what he saw as an anti-CCP protest and raise funds for his own organization. Conservative media outlets even claim that Hongkongers were inspired by their prayer to use American flags in the protest. Alt-lite pusher Paul Joseph Watson has been broadcasting the situation in Hong Kong for more than three months. Some new organizations—like Young Americans Against Socialism, founded by American University graduate Morgan Zegers—have seized on Hong Kong as a prime example to support liberal democracy and oppose Antifa violence; their posts on Hong Kong seem to attract more likes and shares than other content.

Among the large Western social media platforms, it is also Reddit where you see the most interest in Hong Kong, and a large Hong Kong user base seeking international support. It isn’t hard to find rightist symbols among these threads. Even on threads discussing a broadly non-partisan issue, like the censorship of a South Park episode, the majority of commentators are often Trump supporters. Hongkongers have enough to deal with; they have no need to connect with these rightist organizations appearing out of thin air. But the fact that this connection has sprouted over the issue of Hong Kong, and not other places, is worthy of reflection.

The historical position of Hong Kong prior to the Cold War is, of course, a part of the story; so is local anime and otaku culture, which meshes naturally with Euro-American right-wing ideology. Euro-American gaming culture has always rejected “political correctness” and mainstream media; from a cursory observation of different cultural industries, the Hong Kong protests have gotten the most attention in the gaming community.

If we cannot advance progressive politics, we could at least refrain from buying into conservatism. 

In August, prior to and during the DOTA2 World Competition in Shanghai, the Twitch livestream was full of chants to “liberate Hong Kong”; it was also full of moments of anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism and images of Pepe the Frog. Apart from stigmatizing Chinese players and champions, these messages also failed to amplify international awareness of the actual issues faced by Hongkongers at large. 

Apart from this, lively debates on the Hong Kong protests that began to appear in June culminated into a stultified discourse that remade Hong Kong as a political exception: the idea of Hong Kong’s young people as the noblest of all, on the basis of morals, courage, and strategy. These exceptionalizing discourses became particularly apparent during Hong Kong’s recreation of the hand-in-hand Baltic Chain: in one fell swoop, Hong Kong’s young people began to be valorized as the “bravest protesters in the world.” 

The classed hierarchization of protesters is insidious because it elides commentary on the material conditions of struggle which, in many cases, have made Hong Kong more favorable to mobilize than other cities: for instance, the quantity of mobile devices, signal coverage, public transport, density of transit networks, and relative demographic homogeneity.

It is playing to the right’s advantage when public opinion confuses this for moral stringency, and forcibly divides worldwide resistance into those conducted by the “deserving” and “undeserving”—the former imagined as Hongkongers acting in defense of democracy against authoritarianism; the latter being the violent antifa and the progressive baizuo in the West. As with the discourse on “worthy” and “unworthy” migrants, this rationalizes the oppression of other marginalized groups under the guise of liberal moralism.

World revolution amidst growing fascisms  

When a movement evades ideological debate, the existing conservative structures of the world will seep into the deepest core of the movement. When decentralized action becomes a criterion that cannot be questioned and challenged, the criteria itself will have become a dogma which represses new energies.

Can Hong Kong’s revolution empower struggles in other parts of the world? Of course. A movement that has endured for seven months and counting can still catalyze new energy and tactics; there is a wealth of resources that can still be gleaned for the wider left. The rightist turn of the movement is its anonymity and decentralization projected, and we need to change the orientation of this light show.

How a movement is classified and discussed is as important as the movement itself. On this question, Jeanne Theoharis’ book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History, is inspiring. She succinctly documented the dominant ways in which the Civil Rights Movement was remembered and interpreted by the US elites, who obscured bottom-up resistance by suggesting “racism derived from individual sin rather than from national structure—and that the strength of American values, rather than the staggering challenge of a portion of its citizens, led to its change.”

Can Hong Kong’s revolution empower struggles in other parts of the world? Of course.

So, while we cannot expect frontline protestors to take up the banner of internationalism, the Hong Kong revolution needs to self-criticize and be reconstructed before it can inspire the front lines of resistance in Egypt, Indonesia, and Iraq. A “revolution of our time” that supported ethno-nationalism and western imperialisms would inevitably have a negative impact on movements worldwide, no matter when and how those aspects took root. True unity is when everyone gets the upgrade, not just elites in developed countries. Those who care about the world, not just Hongkongers, have an obligation to reveal the revolution’s inherent contradictions. 

And so long as China’s authoritarian fascist regime continues, the Hong Kong question is forced to remain within the paradigm of anti-Chinese identity politics, which inhibits proper discussions about political justice. The shadow cast by China is not simply physical violence, but how it makes the values of its detractors’ seem naive, thinly defended and, I daresay, premodern.

Between these interlocking structural gears of fascism there is no room for reconciliation from within, and the helplessness of those who seek justice embeds them in a structure of complicity. “South Park, NBA, and Blizzard: do you support or oppose?” Without systematic re-organization and a high degree of self-reflection the movement, in the face of cruel repression from the state, the Hong Kong anti-establishment struggle will lose trust from its worldwide allies and gradually run all the way to the right. 

When both the Chinese state and Western elites are corrupt to their core, what we seek can neither be a string of binary answers, nor a watered-down concession among all parties, but another political dimension entirely. Perhaps this space is not as far away as most people think.

Read the new afterword by Zoe Zhao here.