Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan. Edited by spf.pdf.

Undoing dependency: How to build a future from below

We are better off connecting struggles from below than rely on ‘champions of the people’

In its latest edict from above, Beijing demanded holders of public office in Hong Kong to bear allegiance to the People’s Republic of China. It then accused several lawmakers of promoting independence, soliciting foreign political intervention, and rejecting China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, before summarily disqualifying them for such disloyalty.

In Hong Kong’s 23-year history as a Special Administrative Region, Beijing has already twice expelled its democratically-elected lawmakers for their “lack of patriotism,” a charge as malleable as “endangering national security” itself. The latest instance was on November 11, when the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) passed a resolution to unseat four pro-democracy lawmakers: Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki and Kenneth Leung, prompting all 16 remaining democrats to resign in protest.

Many commentators read this ousting as the Chinese state’s attempt at reinforcing the suppression of dissent against rapidly unfolding plans to assimilate Hong Kong into its national agenda. For those who hold onto the constitutional promise1 that universal suffrage was to be implemented in the city, it represents the final nail in the coffin of what is left of Hong Kong’s semi-democracy.

But there is a silver lining. The folding of the “parliamentary front” and intensifying persecution of activist leaders mean we can no longer depend on our tried and tested “champions” to fight the battle on our behalf. It creates a window for ordinary folk to galvanise their own communities and more proactively defend against encroachments to their collective interests. This can even kick off more bottom-up “battlefronts” in the movement and enhance its overall base and power, which we will certainly need as Hong Kong enters a period of heightened repression under the newly enacted national security legislation.

One door closes

Upon his disqualification, Dennis Kwok said, “Parliamentary politics has become obsolete.” This is why his colleagues thought it fit to resign “with honour and without regret,” even if it meant letting Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address cruise through with zero parliamentary opposition.

But this is not so much a valiant defeat than an inevitable petering out of the “parliamentary front” that could never really prevail in the first place. By design, the lawmaking function of our legislators is neutered, as they are not allowed to introduce motions relating to public expenditure, the political structure of the government or existing government policies. They also cannot impeach the Chief Executive, but can conversely be disbanded by her, a relic of colonial Hong Kong that Beijing has gleefully kept after the handover. In addition, since democrats have always been the minority in the legislature—hampered by the fact that 30 of the 70 seats are not popularly elected—they have had to resort to causing disruption and filibustering to hold their ground.

Yet, the “parliamentary front” had long commanded attention as the de facto main battlefield in Hong Kong’s struggle for democratisation, and voting had been the pinnacle of political participation for many citizens. This has changed somewhat since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which saw several student and youth-led movement groups and political parties come to the fore and militant protests play a notably larger role, but the overall dependence on legislators and fresh faces in prominent activist circles remained.

As such, we may not have lost as much as we think with the folding of the “parliamentary front.” In fact, many believe the lawmakers who quit should not have been in the legislature at all: their terms would have elapsed in September were it not for a postponement of the election, which followed the decision to bar 12 candidates from running for “supporting independence and endangering national security.” The disqualification targeted the favourites in the pro-democracy straw poll (民主派初選), which was held to maximise the chances of securing a legislative majority. This was widely thought to be the last trick up the lawmakers’ sleeves; with a majority, they could conceivably have been able to vote down the budget and force the government to respond to the movement’s five demands.

The defeat of the majority campaign and the controversial extension of the legislative term should have been reason enough for the 16 lawmakers to quit. Instead, they broke rank with those who considered the “parliamentary front” futile and insisted they must forge forward in order to “block bad policies,” “keep advocating on livelihood issues,” “monitor the government,” and “visit jailed protesters using their privileges.” Clinging to their positions on borrowed time was tantamount to emotional blackmailing at this point, given they have hardly been effective as opposition throughout the past decade, and that our biggest wins have been won on the streets—including, of course, the withdrawal of the extradition bill that sparked the present struggle in the first place.

It was not hard to see this coming. In 2017, the NPCSC exercised its much-derided power to interpret the Basic Law and invalidated the oaths of office taken by six localist lawmakers-elect for “advocating secession.” That had been the first time Beijing unseated Hong Kong’s lawmakers; no mass resignation on the part of the pan-democrats then either.

Rather than an act of protest on behalf of the movement, their resignation feels like an expression of shock and long overdue disillusionment. “We have toed the line, done things by the book and distanced ourselves from the ‘bad apples’ all this time,” the pan-democrats seemed to ask, “How dare you come for us?” Through their supposedly heroic sacrifice, they have proven to the public a logic that activists have been trying to hammer home for years: you cannot take down the master’s house with the tools he gave you.

The problem of dependency in a people’s movement

With the “parliamentary front” done for and the government readily persecuting leading activists since the passage of the national security laws, we have lost the familiar roster of political figures that we have traditionally pinned our hopes on. The urgency of filling this gap with organising and direct action is, of course, not lost on those most affected by this fresh wave of repression: for example, teachers facing censorship, journalists arrested for filming the police and investigating police misconduct, medics facing retaliation for going on strike, civil servants asked to sign a loyalty pledge. But this understanding has yet to take root in most of the roughly two million people who have taken part in the movement one way or another over the past year.

There is an ingrained culture of dependency among ordinary folk when it comes to defending their own interests and seeking justice in their everyday lives. It perhaps inhibits the movement more profoundly than the disintegration of any single given “front” or the lack of knowhow in base-building. This over-dependency encompasses, for instance, workers’ tendency to defer to the union staffer when they hope to win back unpaid wages; residents who come knocking on the doors of their local district councillors with complaints, telling them, “I voted for you, so it’s your job to fix this,” whether it is about a water-damaged ceiling or a controversial “urban renewal” project; or advocacy groups whose ambitions (and available tools of intervention) seldom go beyond talking to the media, lobbying legislators, and presenting research to the government.

Of course, self-initiated political projects exist, from curating zines, making protest music and outreaching on social media, to supporting comrades materially and building an alternative “yellow” economy,2 but these are relatively small in scale and influence. The majority remain inclined to let those perceived to be better placed or stronger to act in our stead and deliver us justice. We don’t necessarily ask why they might have the power to do so, or whether the interests of those representing us are even aligned with ours, perhaps only trusting that they will because they are supposed to.

This is not a moral judgement, as political action for ordinary folk is time-consuming, difficult and risky, and letting those whose profession and “expertise” are in politics handle our issues for us is not outside the realm of reason. The catch, however, is that politics is not a vocation, but everybody’s business. The price of this apparently sensible dependency is the undermining of the overall power and base of the movement, which in turn puts those we are counting on at greater risk of failure or capture, and ourselves vulnerable to betrayal. At a time of intensifying repression, this collective habit of dependency is a temptation that we cannot afford.

The price of this apparently sensible dependency is the undermining of the overall power and base of the movement, which in turn puts those we are counting on at greater risk of failure or capture, and ourselves vulnerable to betrayal.

One heartbreaking image of the movement in August is fresh in our minds: students implored office-goers to go on strike to pile pressure on the government, “I am willing to take a bullet for you, are you willing to go on strike for us?” But in a city where going to work has always been the stronger pull than taking to the streets, the appeal failed to mobilise enough numbers and left both protesters and strikers more exposed to retaliation. The mantle of sustaining the momentum of the movement was left to the most militant students and protesters to take up, and they had already been battling police violence on the frontlines.

This forced the students to resort to a desperate tactic: causing an involuntary strike by blocking key traffic routes. The police then besieged the universities where they were stationed, causing a humanitarian crisis and inflicting huge losses on the movement in the form of casualties and arrests. Only then did the wider movement find the will and perspective to mobilise labour in a more coordinated way.

But the wave of unionisation that followed has stalled ever since the medics’ strike at the start of the year. The new unions’ activities were partly affected by the pandemic and the ensuing bans on gatherings, but what really hindered them is again the culture of dependency. Eager to emulate the medics, they saw forming unions as the silver bullet they did not have in previous attempts to agitate for a strike—that it legally protects workers’ participation in union activities from retribution—and the central ingredient to the medics’ successful mobilisation.

To their credit, these new unions have eagerly recruited members and condemned repression in their sectors and wider society by running street stalls and ramping up social media discourse. But the fact remains that their rank-and-file engagement has remained weak, having overlooked how the medics’ strike owed their remarkable energy to other factors as well: the utter shock of a pandemic, traumatic public memory of the 2003 SARS crisis, deep-seated anti-mainland Chinese sentiments that long precede the movement, and pre-existing networks between the medics who shared workplaces and a single employer.

By relying on the union as an organisational form rather than focus on the organising itself—building relationships with members and other unions, recruiting in not only the sector but also the workplace, identifying major issues in each sector that could spark grievances and action—the new unions have failed to truly open up a new front for the movement and are now encountering their own impasse. For now, they resemble sector-based pressure groups voicing out about political issues more than organised workers agitating for action.

From decentralization to ‘blossoming everywhere’

These bottlenecks will only exacerbate current conditions of escalating repression. But our struggle has been through lows before too, most recently after the Umbrella Movement, and we have made notable strides since then. One lesson we learned was how decentralised decision-making makes the movement more flexible and creates space for non-traditional tactics. This is precisely what unleashed so many interdependent actions and “fronts” deviating from old modes of resistance, while avoiding the infighting between camps that plagued the Umbrella Movement.

But it is one thing to decentralise, and another to empower each community to advocate for themselves and organise around issues that shape their lives. It is an even bigger ask to connect different communities and their everyday struggles with broader demands for political and economic autonomy from China and beyond. Yet this is precisely what the goal of nurturing a movement that “blossoms everywhere” (遍地開花)3 demands of us. What impedes us most, apart from state repression, is the lingering tendency to look to “champions” to step up on our behalf and rely on quick fixes that sidesteps the nitty-gritty of base-building. There is no better time than now to take this on, before our organising must retreat underground.

The most obvious starting point would be to counter the HK$624 billion reclamation and infrastructure project, “Lantau Tomorrow Vision,” which would open up Hong Kong as an even more accessible source of extraction for China for the coming decades. It attempts to tie the fulfilment of the basic livelihood of Hongkongers—accommodation and liveable spaces—and the growth of the city’s central economic activities—real estate, finance, technology—to huge long-term investments, ceding ground to property developers’ interests, environmental devastation, and assimilation into the economic and surveillance infrastructure of the Pearl River Delta. If previous Hong Kong governments have tried to create a neoliberal consensus in the city, then Carrie Lam is now appending to it the following directive: “There is no alternative to being a part of the CCP’s national agenda.”

What can be done in resistance? Since the project is still in its “impact assessment” stage, we might try to block government officials from accessing key sites to carry out their assessments—though the fact that the main reclamation site is around a tiny uninhabited island adds complications—while doing our own research into the project’s adverse effects; Liber Research Community already regularly engages in this public research.

What impedes us most is the lingering tendency to look to ‘champions’ to step up on our behalf and rely on quick fixes that sidesteps the nitty-gritty of base-building.

But if what we lack is the consciousness to act and solidify connections between struggles, then it might be most productive to build from the villager, farmer and resident communities who, like Hongkongers on the whole, are imminently threatened with the destruction of their home and ways of life, and the exploitation of their lands for interests alien to theirs. To organise on this level requires mobilising people most intimately exposed to unaccountable authority, state violence, unequal power dynamics, government-business collusion, and resource grabbing, all the while suturing each predicament with the bigger picture: a reality defined by a collapsed democracy and a development-driven practice of policymaking.

Starting here is about energising one another to defend each of our livelihoods and rights, ensuring information reaches marginalised community members, learning to make decisions democratically, and taking collective action, whether out of necessity or by choice. It is also about bridging our efforts with other stakeholders in order to broaden the scope of the movement. For example, farmers fighting against displacement are often supported by environmentalists, while tenants opposing urban redevelopment may find allies in nearby businesses and residents who expect rent hikes. Such grassroots and cross-movement networks, tactics of bottom-up pressure building, and the accumulation of organising experiences will be crucial for the years to come. As we continue to resist an encroaching authoritarian state, these practices will cement our movement’s central values of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination within the very minutiae of everyday life.

Another tangible conduit through which the movement can live on and organising can become all the more embedded in daily life is the yellow economic circle, particularly for folks who want to boycott shops with mainland Chinese “red capital” (紅色資本) and pro-establishment backgrounds, give pro-movement shops more business, and sustain the livelihoods of stricken protesters.

Envisioned as an idyllic alternative, this has led to some hesitation to criticise yellow businesses even as they were found to have violated worker rights. In a dispute involving yellow restaurant Agape Garden, complaints of an unfair dismissal were initially met with accusations of “promoting infighting within the movement” and calls to “let them settle the dispute through the law.” For a movement that has supposedly lost faith in the rule of law, the amount of people who continue to rely on this logic is alarming. Labour rights are inseparable from any movement for justice, especially when those victimised are comrades of our own (手足); if anything, we should be promoting the knowledge and importance of labour rights in the circle and urging businesses to be better employers than those of the pro-establishment shops we so hope to marginalise. We might also explore how yellow businesses could build a stronger base in their local neighborhoods and respective industries, by providing community services, opening their spaces for locals’ use, and developing supply chains and self-sufficient relationships between yellow restaurants and farms.

All the suggestions, provocations, and imaginings in this article come from a place of humility and a commitment to empowering ordinary folks to defend themselves from increasing abuses of power and to build better, fairer worlds. The Hong Kong government—in its lust for authority, eagerness to appease Beijing and, ultimately, fear of the power of the people—have shut the doors of the parliamentary institution on us and taken away even the possibility of semi-democratic deliberation within the system. But how we, the movement, make of this is up to us. Let’s move away from structures of dependency that have failed us anyway, and find strength in one another, and in ourselves.


[1] Article 68 of the Basic Law states that ultimately all members of the Legislative Council are to be elected by universal suffrage. Article 45 also states the Chief Executive should ultimately be elected by universal suffrage, albeit “upon nomination by a…nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

[2] A pro-movement economic circle created by protesters to support politically-aligned businesses, create job opportunities for participants of the movement and encourage the boycotting of businesses connected to the establishment and the Chinese Communist Party.

[3] The term entered Hong Kong movement lexicon with James Leong’s documentary Umbrella Diaries: The First Umbrella, which captured important turning points and conflicts in the first three months of the Umbrella Movement. Some of the central conflicts were tactical: should protesters remain peaceful? Should they escalate? Should they heed the commands of the initiators of Occupy Central? These frictions lingered and coalesced into suspicion against the “big stage” within the movement, and “blossoming everywhere” came to represent resistance to such centralised authority and preference for participants to organise actions however and wherever they see fit. This manifested many times in the anti-extradition bill movement, when protesters deliberately organised actions that were scattered across the city, in order to allow for different forms of mobilising and stretch police resources. The deeper meaning of the phrase, though, is for the movement to be liberated from the shackles of top-down decision making, and to equip everyone to be a protester in their own right.