Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan

An island’s dignity in struggle: Jeju Island and Hong Kong in dialogue—Part 2

'Minor nationalism' only strengthens the co-constitutive power relations of US and Chinese imperialisms

Original: 【島嶼的尊嚴與力量:濟州島與香港的抗爭對話】, published in Reignite

Translators: ZL, TC, FL, AW

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

Date of interview: Nov. 14, 2019
Place of interview: Gangjeong Village, Jeju Island, South Korea
Interviewee: Born in Taiwan and taking up residence on Jeju Island since 2011, Emily has participated in the anti-naval base construction movement and continues to reflect on related issues in anti-militarism and imperialism in the Asia Pacific.

This is Part 2 of a two-part interview. Read Part 1 here. This article has been edited for clarity and precision.

Interviewer’s note

As we build international solidarity with the anti-extradition bill movement, is there room to remember Jeju Island, when all that remains of our global struggles are news headlines and solidarity rallies across the world’s major cities?

For many of us, Jeju Island is probably associated with volcanoes, silver grass, seafood and duty-free shops. But sitting on this piece of land is also a place known as Gangjeong Village, where a group of civic-minded and politically engaged people has lived and organized tirelessly for over a decade. With a collective dedication that almost approximates religious doctrine and practice, they have marched, labored, struggled and coordinated the use of public space together, day after day, year after year. Their bright, spacious organizing space is plastered with Korean newspaper clippings and political ephemera from the anti-naval base construction movement. But the room holds space for even more: draped across a chair are banners and signs made in support of Hong Kong.

These activists’ care for and connection with Hong Kong extend far beyond moments of occasional sympathy upon reading about the anti-extradition bill movement in the headlines. Though not speaking Cantonese themselves, these activists have brought Hong Kong into their grassroots movement and invited participants to unpack the complex situation in Hong Kong during their assemblies.

This solidarity stems from a faith in the region as a political community as well as a critique of the ideology of nationalism. These activists’ support of the anti-extradition bill movement is not based on a distant allyship for “others,” but rather on a shared subjectivity and commitment to collective praxis (我們都是當事人). This political awareness would not have been cultivated in the first place without the anti-naval base construction movement in Gangjeong Village. It is crucial to remind ourselves that Hong Kong is not the only place suffering from political, economic, and militarist displacement amidst the new Cold War between China and the US. Jeju Island, for instance, is one such site—there are many others. After all, the spatial politics of power under authoritarianism, capitalism, and nationalism—seen through the spreading of wars and even viruses—reaches far beyond “the state” as a geographical category. In these trying times and in the face of ever-escalating threats, it is all the more important to remember that we could just as easily be inhabitants of Jeju island—that is to say, we are part of a larger community of kindred spirits in pursuit of alternative visions of love, safety, politics, and economy. 

We thank Emily for sparing time during the busy harvest season to share her thoughts on this communal form of organizing. While confining ourselves within our local political movement may provide us with a fleeting sense of security, we risk losing valuable allies. What we present here is a conversation between two islands—a dialogue between two “small” places. The minor doesn’t necessarily have to follow the lead of the major; in fact, the convergences of the minor might yield more power than we could ever imagine.

The limits of nationalism

Reignite: A lot of Taiwanese folks would actually be happy if the US built a military base on the island. This is because many people are trapped within a relatively hollow nationalist imagination. It’s a classic case of not understanding the stakes until something happens to you (針唔吉到肉唔知痛): until the rampages of nationalism materialize in people’s daily lives in an immediate, palpable way, self-reflection remains unlikely. Only then will people realize that nationalism’s lofty promises are in fact at odds with their own interests, and only then will they begin to reckon with this question: “Is it possible that what oppresses me is also oppressing others, and vice versa?”

Hong Kong, too, has a “base” as fundamental as that of Jeju Island—its financial system. The renminbi has much to gain from entering Hong Kong and overtaking the Hong Kong dollar (HKD), especially since Hong Kong is currently the offshore center of the renminbi and the HKD is pegged to the US dollar (USD). This move requires intensive investment, which puts pressure on people’s lives and livelihoods. This has resulted in a chain of serious problems, including a housing crisis, skyrocketing rents, and exorbitant costs of living. Just as US-China tensions have consolidated regional military rivalries across multiple archipelagic contexts, finance capitalism has become immovable as the predominant governing order of the day in Hong Kong. Under these geopolitical conditions, as renmenbi capital outflows surge and Hong Kong markets are injected with new investments, people’s lives will only get harder. The symptoms of this shift are already becoming evident in Hong Kong—what we have to do now is to bring these issues into the limelight. We have to say what people have never been brave enough to say—that we must tear down the naval base, or in our case, dismantle our financial and economic system.

What people in Hong Kong fear most is the loss of the city’s financial system. They are afraid that Hong Kong would be nothing without it—that Hong Kong would become utterly powerless against the whims of more powerful states. I think a lot of South Korean folks must share a similar anxiety, holding onto the belief that building military bases and engaging in the global arms race is the best way to ensure the country’s survival in the face of imminent and inevitable warfare. These are shared affects of crisis. However, by disempowering ourselves in advance as minoritized sites and peoples or turning to a form of ‘minor nationalism,’ we would only stand to lose if we play the game of superpowers.

By disempowering ourselves in advance as minoritized sites and peoples or turning to a form of ‘minor nationalism,’ we would only stand to lose if we play the game of superpowers.

Whenever anyone suggests withdrawing from such geopolitical games altogether, there are always derisive naysayers eager to voice rehearsed criticisms of how unrealistic and impractical that is. If I even so much as hint at an anti-capitalist approach in Hong Kong or that the city should cease to occupy its current position in the international financial system, people will decry these positions for being ill-timed and oblivious to the crisis at hand. That’s why it really moves me to see Jeju Island activists’ attempt to connect and stand in solidarity with the Hong Kong movement. The power of any single marginalized site or any oppressed people is always going to be limited by definition, but that is all the more reason to connect with one another and band together as though our lives depended on it—because they really, really do. I think that is what actual Third World solidarity looks like.

Emily: The current situation here is very tense. I’m afraid that things might blow up at any second, and this atmosphere of tension has already put serious pressure on the local community. The peace movement’s network has discussed and speculated about how the superpowers would use Jeju Island and how this would affect the entire region in the event of a US-China war. At the same time, I do feel that people in Taiwan, for example, have very little awareness of these problems.

The academic Tetsuya Takahashi has proposed that East Asia has a “system of sacrifice (犧牲體系).” His view is that, from a postwar perspective, Fukushima and Okinawa were sacrificed by Japan. I am unsatisfied with this statement. I would say that not only has Japan sacrificed Okinawa, East Asia itself has sacrificed Okinawa as well, as a result of its longtime reliance on US military strength. In this context, Taiwan has been sacrificed, too. Japan often describes itself as not having stepped out from under the shadow of war. In fact, I think this is a condition shared across the entire postwar Asia-Pacific. The aftermath of war remains ongoing. Nothing is necessarily “over”: postwar China, postwar Taiwan, postwar South Korea—all of these nation-states continue to live under the specter of war. After such total devastation, what have we done to reflect? Why has the idea of “postwar Japan” eclipsed a more comprehensive account of the ways East Asia continues to live in the wake of the war?

It seems that after seventy years, we still haven’t learned much: people are still making the same mistakes and it feels as though we are back at square one. Why does only Japan have a postwar “Peace Constitution”? Does that not strike anyone else as strange? What about other countries? Anyway, it is precisely because only Japan has a Peace Constitution that Japan has felt a lack of security and a sense of injustice, as if East Asia as a whole has sacrificed Japan. At the same time, it was also under such circumstances that Japan sacrificed Okinawa. So this is why I say that this is not only an issue concerning Okinawa, but one in which everyone in East Asia has a stake.

People have spent a lot of time discussing national responsibility, but we need to talk about this from the perspective of East Asia as a region, too. How could a single event like the Tokyo Trials, for example, spell the end of a war of such monumental scale—and on the terms of powerful Western nations, no less? Even after so much suffering, we have been unable to achieve collective closure nor a shared understanding of the war. I am not necessarily pointing fingers at anyone, but I do think we should reflect on why we haven’t been able to engage in such reflections properly.

Reignite: Yes, East Asians have not adequately processed the end of the war.

Emily: The fact that we are still living in the wake of war is closely related to the current state of geopolitics, one that is increasingly embroiled in the clash of nationalisms.

Reignite: And of course this prevailing nationalist order has served as the foundation of military expansion.

Emily: That’s right. This is how relations of power and dominance have become rationalized. In the end, it is local people who pay the price. Indeed, no matter how powerful the Chinese People’s Liberation Army becomes, in the end, its “target” may not even be a foreign power. South Korea has sold equipment to Hong Kong that South Korean police are prohibited from using. We should trace the journeys of arms sales, such as where the tear gas is coming from and who is pocketing the cash. I think these are definitely worthwhile projects. 

Reignite: Hong Kong protesters expended a lot of energy advocating for the US to adopt the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act during the anti-extradition bill movement. The hope was that world powers would exert pressure on China through these laws via political and economic sanctions, including freezing police and government officials’ assets in the US. Behind this hope was, in reality, an invitation to major states to intervene in Hong Kong politics, especially in the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. However, some have also expressed trepidation regarding further US involvement in the conflict. For example, at one extreme, the US could mobilize troops stationed nearby to exert pressure on China. For many Hongkongers, this is indeed a potential solution to the problem—some may have even hoped for further escalation. Some Hongkongers have become consumed by their own despair, while remaining utterly self-centered. They know that they will suffer in the event of war, and are willing to martyr themselves in an ethic of mutual destruction—but this tunnel vision also precludes consideration of how war may affect others in the region.

Nothing is necessarily ‘over’: postwar China, postwar Taiwan, postwar South Korea—all of these nation-states continue to live under the specter of war.

Emily: But that’s exactly how world wars start. Taiwanese folks might also share this view of the situation. Perhaps it is idealistic for me to envision a demilitarized Taiwan or an island of peace… At any rate, Taiwan’s military power is closely enmeshed with that of the US. If China looks at Taiwan from the perspective of national defense, it will of course identify it as a threat, and a significant one at that. Once this perception of threat sets in, China is unlikely to go easy on Hong Kong, Taiwan, or any other similar place in the region. Under these conditions, I often think about what it would take to make everyone feel safe, which is a crucial part of any non-violent dialogue. When we try to identify why certain courses of action are carried out or justified over others, we have to consider what the underlying motivations are: whether it is the need for love, safety, and/or certainty and predictability. Often, the need for security is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. I may be being overly idealistic again, but I think that when you feel unsafe, your opponent is likely to feel unsafe, too. For instance, Taiwan has always wanted to resist the stranglehold of Chinese nationalism, but it has also worked hard to enact nation-building processes in its own right. The frictions resulting from these nationalist antagonisms often produce a lack of safety or security.

Reignite: Taiwan has always had a victim complex. I suppose this isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, because Taiwan did suffer a lot in history at the hands of multiple successive imperial regimes. But constantly reinscribing the subjectivity of victimhood and harm has led to dangerous tendencies to resort to those in positions of power for help. Rather than finding the agency and capacity for resistance from within, people have been reluctant to see how they can turn the situation around on their own. Not only does this prevent us from understanding others’ struggles, but it also disempowers us. Suffering has a way of making us desperate. At the same time, it can absolve us of the need to take responsibility, as we become dependent on powerful states to take the reins and save us. In this way, we lose the space to plan and organize for alternatives while remaining ignorant of other people who are going through similar challenges—people who could use our solidarity. Hong Kong is guilty of this, too. We are all quickly losing hope.

Emily: Since returning from Nanjing, I’ve organized memorials at the Alddreu Airfield to honor victims of the war. Many suffered forced labor or displacement when the airfield was being built. For them, the reality of oppression was all-encompassing. Once the Airfield was built and started to serve its intended purpose, more people and communities became subjected to the violence and dispossession that had been perpetuated from its inception. That’s why we hold a memorial at the same time every year to remind people that once this military base is built, the residents of Gangjeong Village won’t be the only ones that have to live in its shadow—it will have greater ramifications down the line. We all ought to remember that. What we want to emphasize with these memorials is the fact that all of these bases are part of the totalizing machinery of warfare.

Constantly reinscribing the subjectivity of victimhood and harm has led to dangerous tendencies to resort to those in positions of power for help.

Reignite: The point of likening finance capitalism in Hong Kong to the military base on Jeju Island is to say that for both cases, there are sure to be both local and regional ramifications. In other words, military expansion on the part of the US, Korea, or China will invariably hurt local communities and eventually, people across the region. That is to say, any US intervention in the politics, economics, and militarist agendas of East Asia or Asia at large will bring problems to many people. With that in mind, could you talk about the potential effects of further military expansion on Jeju Island more specifically?

Emily: Once Jeju Island is militarily fortified, it will either be maintained in its current state or treated as a convenient base to launch further expansion. This is similar to how Alddreu Airfield expanded as Japan’s war efforts escalated. The more tense the military competition among East Asian countries becomes, the more likely Jeju Island will emerge as a military stronghold. Indeed, after the site was slated to become a naval base, a nuclear-powered submarine soon arrived. While Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movements focus on nuclear energy, the development of such projects is always inevitably linked to military interests and the potential for proliferation. We need to deal with the military networks surrounding nuclear energy very carefully. Jeju Island doesn’t have nuclear power plants, but the presence of the nuclear-powered submarine introduced a new element of danger. The anti-nuclear movement in Taiwan has been quite successful because everyone is concerned about energy-related issues. But there are actually many nuclear power plants along the coast. This is terrifying. There may not yet have been any accidents at nuclear plants in Taiwan, but there may have been accidents in nuclear plants in mainland China. In the past, contaminated water from Fukushima has made its way to Taiwan. If an accident were to take place at one of the nuclear plants on either side of the strait, the consequences of such devastation would bleed beyond national borders. It would be a humanitarian disaster.

Reignite: Yes, anti-nuclear movements must move beyond the scope of any single nation to remove the threat posed to humanity as a whole.

Emily: Nuclear power is internationally regarded as a costly means of generating energy. One of the only reasons nuclear plants are still being built is to sustain the development of nuclear weapons under the auspices of looming militarism. Therefore, anti-nuclear movements that do not simultaneously address the forces of militarism cannot hope to make lasting, material changes. Japan tried to legitimize the usage of nuclear energy for electricity by dubbing it “atoms for peace,” but we know full well the country’s underlying military objectives. The reason it is so difficult to wean the world off of nuclear energy is because states fundamentally want to protect their military interests. Unless we analyze this properly, we will never achieve real security.

It is difficult to exercise oversight over military bases. For example, if we find out that naval bases are going to usher in more nuclear-powered submarines, and we want to take pictures and make public how much pollution these submarine teams cause to local seas, it is extremely difficult. Military bases do not allow photography because it is considered a threat to “national security.” And that’s just the start of our troubles. Say we want to address the environmental destruction caused by these weapons. The evidence we would need to present in the courts testifying to the scale of environmental destruction that would be caused by these bases would be considered to have been extracted from military bases, which is again related to issues of national security. Local municipalities have no jurisdiction when it comes to matters pertaining to national security. Therefore, “national security” is often in direct conflict with “local security” here. Not only is the state disinterested in guaranteeing local residents’ safety and security, it also provides no avenues for local residents’ self-defense against military encroachment.

The irony of siding with those in power

Reignite: My last question is regarding your thoughts on the oft-captured images of (a small number of) Hong Kong protesters flying the US flag. How do you and other folks in Jeju Island feel about these flags, as allies of the Hong Kong movement?

Emily: I just think it’s really ironic. The US’ staggering record of global annihilation should be common knowledge to most protesters. This is of course not to say that Americans are bad people, but rather points to the culpability of the US state apparatus. I wonder if people think about the extraordinary traumas the US has unleashed upon the world as they wave the country’s flags in the air, crying out for liberation. It is crucial to bear in mind the scale of privation that has accompanied both the US and China’s economic pursuits—the material consequences that have befallen the working classes within each state and within the region. The US-China trade war, for example, indirectly triggered China’s swift crackdown on Hong Kong. All that is to say: people in Hong Kong need to trace the origins of their struggle to the power game played between empires and hold all of them accountable. Hong Kong is caught in the same kind of crossfire between two giants that Jeju Island and other archipelagos have long had to contend with. It is crucial for minor, peripheral sites like Hong Kong and Jeju Island to dismantle existing systems of domination together. In other words, we must collectively tackle the authoritarian power structure that enables each specific regime to violently oppress its people.

To be blunt, the irony lies in the fact that the US state apparatus that these flags stand for is precisely one of our most violent oppressors. Despite all this, we support Hong Kong people’s struggles and have been doing our part to stand in solidarity with the movement. To be clear, not all protesters have brandished the US flag, and we hope that those who do will see our support and eventually become aware of the real forces of oppression that have subjugated both of our movements in Hong Kong and Jeju Island, i.e. the co-constitutive power relations of US and Chinese imperialism. More precisely, this is not simply a matter of conflict between nation-states, as the US state apparatus is only part of the problem. Militarism is what we on Jeju Island are agitating against, and this includes US militarism, Chinese militarism, and South Korean militarism. In pursuit of national security and profit, battles between centers of power constantly manipulate and sacrifice the minor and the peripheral. Those of us on Jeju Island perhaps have a clearer sense of this dynamic due to the physical establishment of a US military base here.

Militarism is what we on Jeju Island are agitating against, and this includes US militarism, Chinese militarism, and South Korean militarism.

Symbolic of a force of subjugation we have in common, the US flag some friends in Hong Kong choose to wave creates a sense of alienation for us as we attempt to extend our solidarity and support to the movement. We want to join hands with comrades in Hong Kong, but the mainstream movement there has chosen to cling onto the US government instead. We support Hong Kong because we do not want the vulnerable to be isolated, but when they join forces with the powerful, they alienate themselves by rejecting their allies. Does siding with major powers really empower us? It’s impossible for us to strengthen horizontal solidarity with adjacent struggles while latching onto our shared oppressors. Doing both at the same time is counterproductive and strategically inconsistent. Frankly, it makes very little sense.

Reignite: What are your connections with the South Korean left? Are there any movements whose philosophical and political thought you are more aligned with?

Emily: We are connected with all kinds of social movements in Korea, including leftist ones. However, sometimes such alliances are based more on action than politics. For example, when we proposed to demilitarize Jeju Island in the Save Jeju Campaign, folks who disagreed just quietly withdrew their participation. When it comes to the peace movement, many Korean leftists still cannot let go of their nationalism.

I often recall this one experience. Before coming to Korea, I used to live in East Timor. At the height of the movement in Gangjeong Village, we were joined by many foreign supporters. There was a girl from the UK who shared with us her experience with peace movements. Once, she organized an action that aimed to destroy a fighter aircraft, after gathering enough evidence to show that it would be sold by the UK government to Indonesia, and subsequently used to crush anti-establishment resistance in East Timor. The group had planned to destroy the jet and then turn themselves in. But because they had gathered enough evidence, they ultimately won at their trial. Hearing her story was a revelatory moment for me: our efforts here in Gangjeong Village are linked to those in East Timor. As long as we are fighting for the same thing, our struggles will inevitably be connected, no matter where we are or where we come from.

Afterwards, when I was researching the relationship between the Alddreu Airfield and Nanjing, I read up on the history of Alddreu. Some sources claim that one year, all the aircrafts at Alddreu mysteriously became faulty and had to be decommissioned. I’ve always thought that this, too, might have been the handiwork of a like-minded group. Whenever I am reminded of this, I also recall the activist from the UK, our work in Gangjeong Village, the bond we share—the poetic justice of our shared histories. To my mind, although those peace activists never made it to the pages of history, our protests in Gangjeong Village today are, in a way, a continuation of their anti-war, anti-militarist legacy. I would say the best way to dissolve nationalist antagonisms is to stop talking and start doing—start participating in peace movements, for instance. This is the path that we most need to pursue.

Reignite: Out of curiosity, would you use the term “imperialism” when criticizing the US? So far you’ve focused mostly on militarism.

Emily: Absolutely. The US is unquestionably an empire, complete with its own set of colonial conquests. Korea, too, is an empire, albeit on a smaller scale. Situated within the American military-industrial complex, Korea consistently participates in the US’ wars. Under Park Geun-hye, South Korea signed secret military agreements with the UAE; this was uncovered during Moon Jae-in’s administration. The agreement was that Korea must come to the protection of the UAE by means of military intervention in the event of a crisis, including through the supply of arms. Before that, Korea had indeed provided military training to the UAE, going so far as to brag about the sizable profits and perks gained from these arms dealings, including contracts to assist the UAE in building its own nuclear plants. Seen together, it becomes clear that Moon Jae-in’s talking points about denuclearization have amounted to little except the concealment of nuclear technology exports to other countries.

Reignite: In the ’90s, when criticizing the southbound policies of Lee Teng-hui, there was a similar critique of Taiwan as an imperial power in the region. Although Taiwan did not have colonies or exert economic hegemony in the traditional sense, the reality of oppression was undeniable.

Emily: Every state wants to be an empire. Every state wants to profit. So, even as we criticize US imperialism, we must also ask ourselves whether we, too, harbor or internalize imperial ambitions.

Reignite: After chatting today, I think you’ve answered the question that has been on my mind for a long time, which is: how do we build transnational solidarity? International solidarity doesn’t mean that our actions have to provide immediate assistance to Jeju Island, or that Jeju Islanders have to extricate Hong Kong people from their plight overnight. The more important thing is that our organizing takes minor sites like Jeju Island and Hong Kong seriously, and truly addresses the breadth of our interrelated struggles. I think that is real transnational solidarity.

Revisit Part 1 of the interview.