Hong Kong Protests 21 October 2014. Photo by Beryl_snw is licensed under CC0

It’s time for Hongkongers to build a new international line

The Hong Kong movement must pursue a new international strategy, one that centers people and not states

Read this article in Chinese.

Hong Kong’s new national security laws that criminalize dissent inaugurate the darkest phase of the city’s anti-establishment movement. In an attempt to block the laws and preserve the territory’s special status, the US Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan sanctions bill on China. But this didn’t stop Beijing from forcing the national security laws on Hong Kong. Indeed, as the US Senate passes bill after bill to “protect” Hong Kong’s autonomous status, the situation in Hong Kong has only deteriorated. With the national security laws now in place, Demosisto—led by figures like Joshua Wong and long seen as the movement’s primary advocate for international ‘solidarity’—has disbanded, revealing the limits of the movement’s “international line” (國際線) as we know it. 

Indeed, Hongkongers’ plea for the help of the US government, rather than US-based activists and grassroot organizations, has always been a major oversight. Since the Hong Kong movement began, its international strategy has prioritized courting elected officials instead of building solidarity with civil society groups, community organizations, and labor unions around the world. Yet as anti-establishment struggles sweep the globe (including last year’s protests against economic inequality in Chile, demands for the governor’s resignation in Puerto Rico, and Yellow Vest protests in France, as well as this year’s Black liberation movement in the US), trust in state governments around the world has plummeted. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US where voter turnout is barely 60%, Congress approval ratings are as low as 20%, and both candidates of the upcoming presidential elections are widely disliked

Unlike the US government whose support for Hong Kong has primarily taken the form of sanctions (which ends up hurting working class Hongkongers the most), militant grassroots movements in the US have much more to offer to the Hong Kong people. In fact, the ongoing Black liberation movement is an example that Hongkongers can learn from when it comes to building mass movements. While it may appear ‘leaderless’, the anti-racism movement was built on the unrelenting work of community organizations. Black historian Robin D. G. Kelley points out that “[the Black Lives Matter protest] is not a spontaneous response to the pandemic [but rather the] product of enormous work,” developed by organizations, movement leaders, scholar-activists, and community organizations. 

What these Black organizers have shown us is that there is no shortcut to building power. In Minneapolis, their campaign to abolish the police department in one of the nation’s most racially inequitable cities was a striking success because of years of organization and coalition building. Key contributors to this were local organizations, Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective, who achieved this not by courting politicians behind closed doors but through empowering community members to take action. This involved connecting the discussion of tactics (such as mobilizing one another from each district to protest their own city council representatives) to that of political principles (such as developing an analysis of how the local struggle over policing reflects a larger systemic failure that goes beyond electoral representation.) We can learn a similar lesson by studying the movement in Puerto Rico, which was built on a long history of feminist organizing among groups like La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción

By studying other global movements, Hongkongers can also learn about movement building through labor organizing. Earlier this year as Hong Kong workers embark on the biggest wave of unionization in the city’s history, they stand to learn from more established union activists who have more experience organizing their workplaces. In some instances, these transnational exchanges have already started to take place. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) has seen new leaders cultivate connections with labor advocacy organizations like the US-based Labor Notes, while medical workers from the US and Hong Kong recently shared strategies in an online panel. 

Even if it’s simply for cultural or linguistic reasons, the diaspora—who constantly navigate between the rules of Western and Chinese states—are in a unique position to facilitate transnational dialogue.

Studying other movements and exchanging tactics are good first-steps, but there is still much more that can be done. With hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong and Chinese people living throughout the world, this diaspora is uniquely positioned to act as a link between movements. Diaspora groups like NY4HK, Hong Kong Forum, Northern California Hong Kong Club, and Alliance Canada Hong Kong, have bases throughout the US and Canada where community activism is booming, making them the perfect bridge for transnational exchanges. For example, Hongkongers can work with and learn from Chinatown and Asian American activists to combat the spread of pro-CCP propaganda that gets disseminated via WeChat among Asian immigrant communities. Many of these pro-CCP narratives lean on the rhetoric of ‘law-and-order’ that draws Asian American immigrants to oppose the movement for Black lives. 

Indeed, the Hong Kong diaspora is extremely mobile, with an increasingly high number who emigrated in the 90s, returned to Hong Kong in the 00s and 10s, and recently emigrated again because of the political atmosphere—known otherwise as ‘re-returnees’. Even if it’s simply for cultural or linguistic reasons, the diaspora—who constantly navigate between the rules of Western and Chinese states—are in a unique position to facilitate transnational dialogue.

Last but not least, examining how other grassroot organizations operate can, in turn, reveal the limitations of Hong Kong’s own movement. For example, Hong Kong protesters’ ‘no platform’ attitude has turned from strategic compromise to dogma while its ‘leaderless’ ethos has resulted in a lack of organization and a diluted political vision. While this version of decentralization has benefited protesters in important ways, its limitations must not be overlooked. In contrast, the Black liberation movement, through years of political education and organization building, has been able to stay decentralized, while articulating immediate demands that clearly focus on a broader, anti-capitalist critique of the underlying system. 

With the most radical demands to abolish the police being enacted by the masses themselves across the globe, Hongkongers must carve out new lines of international collaboration. But unlike last years’ international strategy that prioritized US politicians who treated Hong Kong as nothing more than a pawn in their larger geopolitical struggle, it is time to connect with militant grassroot organizations and learn to build more sustainable and effective tactics in Hong Kong’s anti-establishment struggle.