Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan

Facing down global ‘Trumpism’ and Hong Kong’s far-right

Trumpism would not provide the democratic future that Hongkongers want, even on a basic level

Originally published in Asia Art Tours. Republished with permission.

Read Promise Li’s original article, “It’s time for Hong Kong to reckon with its far-right.”

In the wake of the January 7th storming of the United States Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, Matt Dagher-Margosian of Asia Art Tours spoke to Promise Li on how support for the far-right and Trump poisoned the Hong Kong movement and corrupted its demands for democracy and human rights—and why global movements must refuse solidarity with the right.

Asia Art Tours: To start, could you debunk a common straw-man argument I’ve heard in Taiwan, Thailand and one you address throughout your article on the right wing in Hong Kong: Why does it matter how these struggles achieve victory so long as victory is achieved? Why does it matter if Hongkongers (or Thais, or Taiwanese) “support” the right wing or Trump, in their pursuit of greater freedom within civil society?

Promise Li: The rise of Trumpism is a symptom of a deeper problem in the Hong Kong movement: What does it say about the kind of victory and future society that we want if we condone such blatantly anti-democratic positions among our ranks? I’m interested less in the various excuses of why Hongkongers have turned to Trump—be it out of desperation or because of disinformation—and more in the troubling reality that many Hongkongers precisely enjoy what Trump symbolizes: the abrasively elitist attitude, wrapped in a crudely controversialist garb; the blindness to one’s privilege and need for self-criticism; and ultimately, a rejection of democratic mass movement-building in favor of an irrationally individualistic politics. It’s ironic and unfortunate that what I indict Hong Kong Trump supporters for early on in my piece directly applies to the heated reception to my piece from these same people. 

I wrote that some Hongkongers’ love for Trump in fact overrides their own sacred principle of building international solidarity regardless of political line. Trump is hated by a majority of citizens in the world for his bullying, authoritarian actions. He is also wildly inconsistent on the issue of Hong Kong, and the movement’s refusal to take a strong stance against its own Trump supporters actively delegitimizes the struggle in the global sphere. The alarming thing to me is that the right-wing Hongkongers critical of my piece do not seem to care about the harm they are doing to our own movement—as long as they can latch on to their fantasies of Trump and distorted view of reality.

What many Hongkongers don’t understand is that the capacity for self-criticism—to be clear against the hateful values that Trump supporters knowingly or unknowingly support—would actually gain us more allies than our condoning of these elements within our ranks. The fact that my piece enjoyed more support from activists beyond Hong Kong and other important potential allies to our cause than Hong Kong protestors themselves, who have been clear before that any international support would be appreciated, speaks volumes to the movement’s misguided priorities and self-destructive biases.

On one hand, my point is that Trumpism would not provide the democratic future that Hongkongers would want even on a basic level—quite the contrary, in fact, as countless protestors have given their lives and livelihoods to show for the last four years. Its rhetoric has much more in common with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) lying, totalitarian rule than even the most liberal and “non-ideological” vision of Hong Kong’s liberation. And on the other hand, my point is also that countering Trumpism in our ranks is important because there is no conception of “victory” possible for Hong Kong with Trump. His relationship with Xi is highly volatile, and the only options are either a betrayal of Hong Kong (which he has demonstrated all the more willingness to do to America’s allies, like the Kurds) to promote US-China capitalist collusion once more, or an escalation of a geopolitical power struggle that would harm everyone involved economically, especially Hongkongers.

AAT: Then, still within the right wing, we have the US Democratic Party. In an upcoming Arts of Travel podcast on Taiwan, scholar Lev Nachman hypothesized that the only solidarity Democrats can offer democracy movements in Taiwan is “neoliberal solidarity”: trade Deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), helping technicians of finance/STEM more easily glide past borders, and so on. Could you explain if you (or by extension Lausan) see the solidarity that neoliberals would offer the Hong Kong movement as another “dead-end” like that of the right?

PL: I won’t speak on behalf of Lausan, but I personally agree with Lev. I know many leftists in the Hong Kong diaspora feel alienated from our diaspora community and came together because of our dissatisfaction with the sanitized liberalism or uncritical “bipartisan” impulse in the mainline Hong Kong pro-democracy diaspora organizations. This is not to say I reject working with many of these organizations: I see many of them as allies in the struggle, and they have provided an important home for politically active Hongkongers in the diaspora, some since the Tiananmen Massacre. But I think this unspoken consensus that neoliberal globalization is only a secondary issue, at best, if not a non-issue, in the face of Chinese authoritarianism is not the right nor an effective framing at all.

Political and economic oppression are linked, and the CCP’s suppression of Hongkongers’ human rights is the tip of the iceberg to a larger reality of oppression dedicated to limiting everyday Hongkongers’ freedom to act—in the most basic sense of the word. Erosion of political freedoms, privatization of public services, minimal labor protections, an inequitable housing situation—this means that Hongkongers have little to say about how and where they live and work. Without a reckoning of capital’s authoritarian hold on the city at the core, which means the actual decolonizing of the city’s political and economic framework, universal suffrage would only signal new systems of oppression in a pseudo-democratic shroud. 

At the same time, Trump represents a far-right threat that poses not just a dead-end for transnational organizing, but actively undermines it in a way and in a climate that we have not faced before. I cannot in good conscience publicly endorse Joe Biden and his neoliberal allies, but I do see vigorously and uncompromisingly combatting the far-right—be it the CCP or Trump’s authoritarianism—as a crucial responsibility of being a leftist. I believe that the more or less center-of-the-road attitude of mainline Hong Kong diaspora groups will not lead us to a genuine road to liberation, but I will say that there is definitely more space to struggle for our democratic politics in that atmosphere, as opposed to if and when Trump supporters continue to consolidate their hegemony.

Some Hongkongers’ love for Trump in fact overrides their own sacred principle of building international solidarity regardless of political line.

AAT: From both your article and others I’ve spoken with in Hong Kong, the rise of the right has been a very real trend within the Hong Kong protest movement. Do you attribute the right’s rising popularity to the content of its ideas resonating with Hongkongers? Is it simply that it has the ability to outspend left-wing perspectives and dominate print or social media spaces? Or is it some combination of the two?

PL: My article precisely tries to address this point: It’s not just that the right is better organized and effective in itself; it’s that right-wing ideas are easily popularized because it resonates with something already entrenched and latent in Hong Kong society. It’s what I call a certain unaddressed proximity to whiteness and the legacy of colonialism. It’s the same attitude that naturally compels many liberal Hongkongers to see Western “democracy” as an alternative: the right wing merely embodies this sentiment to a monstrous extreme.

At the center are the beliefs that systemic inequality is a myth, crafted by those who are “too lazy to work”, and that Hongkongers should have a privileged place in the system—unlike Mainlanders or Southeast Asian migrants—because of our exposure to “Western values.” Political organizing and education, especially in the diaspora, and looking for every way to make the movement confront how the uncritical attitude of Hong Kong’s economic system and xenophobia toward Mainlanders, will be necessary moving forward in order to keep effectively resisting Beijing’s oppression once and for all. 

That said, I do believe the Hong Kong left has unfortunately lost the discursive battle in recent years and we have seen that ground shift to the right, thanks to outlets like Apple Daily and pundits like Lewis Loud. It’s not that a majority of people in the movement are right-wingers, but that right-wing ideas have been packaged to seem like they are “non-ideological” or somehow unrelated to the left-right spectrum for many in the movement. Of course, we cannot neatly find an organized left or right in a traditional sense in the city—I’ve pointed this out very early on in another piece on New Politics right when the movement began. But this doesn’t mean that political choices don’t have ideological implications—some promote democratic solutions, and others foreclose them. Just as CCP authoritarianism is objectively right-wing (though presented in superficially “left” iconography and discourse), support for another clearly far-right political figure signals its own kind of destructive politics. The CCP’s open identification with “the left” obviously also doesn’t help with this confusion and lends weight to open right-wingers like Chin Wan who have spent much ammunition and energy attacking and smearing “the left”, despite the general population not clearly understanding what the left actually means.

It’s definitely going to be a difficult rhetorical battle moving forward, like it always has been for the left especially in post-handover Hong Kong. One important thing for Hongkongers at home and in the diaspora to understand is that what most of them are used to thinking that “the left” would be unrecognizable in the context of many global mass movements, most of which—at least the most militant elements—are instigated by left-wing forces, like most anti-colonial struggles in the Third World. And rigidly holding on to a confused definition of the left (thanks to both localist right-wing pundits and the CCP) actively prevents effective international solidarity and a clear perspective of how political relations of force function more generally and in Hong Kong.

AAT: Some of the most interesting innovations of the Hong Kong protests were elements like the Yellow Economy, labor unions & mutual aid. Even “Lennon Walls” have the ability to transform one’s relationship to private property. Could you discuss how you (or others in the movement) came to see the rise of mutual aid and a “commons” within the Hong Kong protests?

PL: If we’re going to be dogmatic, technically it’s a bit difficult to characterize all of those initiatives as exactly anti-capitalist. Even the upsurge of new unions is compelled more by developing another line of resistance to political oppression, rather than social movement unionism for the most part. But this attitude would crucially miss the core dynamic at work here: Hongkongers are not only thinking for themselves to advance political solutions, but are doing so collectively. These instances are basic training in democratic thinking and collective organizing in a way that Hongkongers have not done before en masse, and no real path to class consciousness can develop without this impulse to figure out political strategies collectively.

Of course, the point is that such a unity is ultimately impossible under the rubric of ethnic or national identity: any mature collective political project would eventually discover that there are contradictions between classes that are irreconcilable to some degree, and a new understanding of social relations must emerge for a democratic struggle to advance any further. At some point, self-determination for those who work for a wage and those who give wages would emerge as the ultimate division beneath the facade of a unified Hong Kong self-determined identity. 

The Yellow Economy and the labor unions are sites in which these contradictions can be explored in ways that Hong Kong workers can deepen the political experience they have gained in recent years. What would the movement do if the newly unionized workers understand that their oppression also extends into the workplace, whether their employers are “blue” or “yellow”? How do the everyday practices of mutual aid and solidarity in the movement last year reveal the limits of an economy shaped by bureaucrats and corporations? These are the possibilities opened up for the Hong Kong people by the spontaneous practices of mutual aid and organizing with each other in a year of struggle.

The consequence of not facing up to how contemporary CCP authoritarianism is no unique sin, but a product of global neoliberalism and an adaptation of Western colonial methods, is the entrenchment of our vision of liberation in these same myths of ‘Western democracy.’

AAT: On the targeting of “Chinese” capital (one that seems paradoxical in a global economy and neoliberal world), could you discuss how this vision was articulated within the Hong Kong protests? And how or why did it become a part of direct action? And if the protests continue, will this targeted looting eventually open the Pandora’s box of questions about global neoliberalism, Hong Kong’s billionaires, or the racial and colonial foundations of Hong Kong capitalism? Would the democratizing of capitalism, rather than democracy under capitalism, become another pillar of the movement’s fight?

PL: One thing to point out is that Jimmy Lai has always been a long-time champion of the pan-democratic camp. His stewardship of Apple Daily, which has popularized anti-Mainland rhetoric among other reactionary positions for a younger generation, and his recent political persecution newly elevated his standing among younger protestors in a way that we have not seen with older pan-democratic political figures. Real estate tycoon Li Ka-shing is another example of someone who has been less outspoken but has been seen as sympathetic to the opposition at times. The movement’s entrenched and lingering reverence for people like Lai and Li signals the movement’s general conservatism about systemic, anti-capitalist change. By contrast, the rise of the new unions, which I see as being perhaps the most effective engines of struggle left for the movement, is still seen as merely one aspect of a political struggle by the general public, not a broader economic struggle.

Nonetheless, any attack on capital is an opening for the left and democratic movements. While the focus on “Chinese” capital—rather than how various regional capital has been mobilized by the CCP as a central method of maintaining the city’s oppression—specifically continues to reinforce the movement’s limitations, I do believe it offers a way for the movement to start interrogating how CCP oppression works beyond simply a liberal and abstract sense of human rights concerns. I find it impossible to discuss the effects of Chinese capital without seeing their connections to Western banks and local capitalists, but we need to vigorously force the discussion whenever the moment arises.

For example, last December, HSBC froze the accounts of legislator-in-exile Ted Hui and a local church, whose funds were responsible for a variety of social services and humanitarian aid for protestors. Lausan responded by organizing an action with Lion Rock Cafe, another Hong Kong diaspora group, in Manhattan in front of the HSBC headquarters, calling out not only big banks’ collaboration with state repression, but also linking it to how Chinese capital, in tandem with Western developers and local government, also contributes to gentrification and exploitation here in Flushing, New York. In the grand scheme of things, the effect was not that big, but the key here is creating opportunities for further political education and exchange with other movements to cultivate Hongkongers’ distrust of capitalism as a whole.

AAT: To conclude, in present-day Hong Kong, where do we see structures that contribute to the global flows of anti-Blackness? And did the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd uprising allow Hongkongers space (and perhaps windows of solidarity) to discuss this anti-Blackness?

PL: As I’ve tried to point out in my article, the movement for Black lives last year forced Hongkongers to not only consider the issues of racism and anti-Blackness for the first time en masse, but also the content and nature of our own struggle. Black liberation movements have long and diverse traditions of organizing to draw on, and they have cultivated varied sets of movement-building paradigms that are centered around systemic injustice at the core. Unlike the mainstay of Hong Kong’s movement, many Black activists recognize that a mere change of administration cannot wipe out the injustices that have grounded how modern society has functioned since the start, upheld by the interlocking pillars of capital and white supremacy.

As Eddie Glaude Jr. said recently, many Black communities “didn’t believe in the myths and the legends because [they] had to bear the brunt of them.” It’s not that Hongkongers have all the class and racial privileges, but that we never had to bear the brunt of them. And the consequence of not facing up to how contemporary CCP authoritarianism is no unique sin, but a product of global neoliberalism and an adaptation of Western colonial methods, is the thorough entrenchment of our vision of liberation in these same myths and legends of “Western democracy” that ultimately constrain our future. And this inability to critically revise our own attitude toward liberation and solidarity in fact helps the CCP in limiting our own struggle.

Our whole capitalist system is founded on anti-Blackness, and many Hongkongers, like other East Asians, have the privilege, partly in their proximity to whiteness, to regurgitate anti-Black sentiments in their daily lives, despite barely coming in contact with another Black person. In a sense, our movement’s general tendency to see CCP authoritarianism as somehow exceptional to other forms of state-sanctioned violence and exploitation also reifies a global system of capitalist destruction predicated on anti-Blackness. The movement for Black lives, however, has offered an opportunity for Hongkongers to learn and re-evaluate these positions—in ways that benefit our own movement as well. Because it’s impossible to truly understand the Black struggle without recognizing that the grass is not greener on the other side, that the US is not the democratic alternative that we seek, and there is much to learn from Black organizing and its myriad histories. 

I hope engagement between Hongkongers and Black protestors continue, just like in the webinar exchange that Lausan and Borderless organized this past summer, so we can move toward a more informed, global movement against all forms of capitalist violence and state repression.

Asia Art Tours and The Arts of Travel podcast host print and audio conversations, centered on creative voices in Asia. For more conversations on Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan and elsewhere, visit their platforms, or get in touch at [email protected].