The most telling chant of the 2019 Hong Kong protests is “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” (光復香港 時代革命), not because it offers a vision for “revolution,” but because it reveals the protesters’ accurate assessment of “our times.”
Very few protesters expect that Hong Kong will be “liberated” from its status as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Although the protest movement borrows the language of Cold War decolonization movements, the demand for Hong Kong’s “liberation” is not quite a demand for national sovereignty. It is, more accurately, a plea to let Hong Kong remain liberal: to let Hong Kong remain the island of unregulated global capitalism that it has been since the 19th century. This is why “revolution” seems, at first glance, an ill-fitting term: this is not a revolutionary politics in the traditionally optimistic or utopian sense.
But that is not to say that the protesters are conservative, naive, or uninformed. Indeed, to claim that the pro–Hong Kong protesters have no overarching political vision or historical perspective is to grossly underestimate their intelligence. The protesters offer a clear-eyed assessment of the global present—“our times”—and their demands are designed for the compromised world that we have made. Liberation and revolution can no longer promise us that we “have nothing to lose” or a “world to win,” in Marx and Engels’s formulation. “Our times” require a revised revolutionary vision that is merely necessary, dismally insufficient, and ultimately impossible: liberation for a future in which there’s nothing left to win or lose, for anyone.
Nowhere is this more fitting than Hong Kong, a city founded on thinking the future was impossible; the British signed their 99-year lease on the city with China because they couldn’t imagine that 1997 would ever arrive. The Hong Kong protests are unique to Hong Kong because they are about making demands that will never be fulfilled, or perhaps that will be fulfilled in a future that will never arrive.
But Hong Kong is also a world capital of global capitalism, and an augur of the international futures its banks specialize in trading. The protesters are fighting for ways to mitigate capitalism’s cynicism without succumbing to nihilism. The future that the protesters are fighting for is everyone’s future, even if that future is empty.
When Did It Begin?
Depending on which timeline you follow, you might say that Hong Kong has experienced political unrest since April 2019, when the city’s Legislative Council pushed forward legal amendments that would allow extradition to mainland China. Or you could start your timeline in September 2014, when Hong Kong denizens protested significant reforms that Beijing made to the city’s electoral system.
Or you might go back further and say—though you would want to do so with some significant caveats—that the trouble began in 1997, when the United Kingdom handed over the city to China, at the end of its lease. Perhaps, while watching today’s police, in riot gear, shoot unarmed protesters, you might point to the 1967 Hong Kong riots, which laid the groundwork for a wildly hubristic and reactionary police force. And there is some bland anti-colonial satisfaction in starting the countdown in 1842, when the British took the island as part of the Treaty of Nanking, effectively inventing a Chinese territory in order to conquer it.
The 2019 protests are leaderless, anonymous, and heterogenous; protesters have been phenomenal in their flexibility, self-criticism, and ability to address mistakes. The police seem equally leaderless and, in their riot gear, anonymous; they have been horrific in their inflexibility, deflection of criticism, and inclination to violence.
Until mid-August, the protests were assertive but fairly polite. Since then, the police’s indiscriminate use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons have made the protest sites dangerous and violent. Police have focused their force on university students, who have been the most active protesters, the most creative poster artists, and the most articulate theorists and critics.
Until early November, the protests were scheduled on weekends in order to not disrupt university classes. But since the death of 22-year-old Alex Chow Tsz-lok, a student at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, that has changed. The protest, and the police response, is now constant.
On November 12, police teargassed the vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong as he attempted to negotiate between students and police. Five days later, police trapped student protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and continuously fired teargas canisters at them for over 12 hours. (I teach at the University of Hong Kong, the flagship of the city’s eight universities, which has experienced the least amount of violence. The campus has been closed to the public, and remaining lectures have been moved online.) The protests have hardly brought the city to a standstill—the city is incapable of standing still—but it has rapidly deteriorated into chaos.
In the evenings, you can watch a cloud of teargas slowly dissipate as it floats up the side of the Bank of China Tower. A chemical dye, shot from water cannons to stain protesters’ skin so they can be identified later, has painted the sidewalks pastel blue. Lingering traces of dioxins and cyanide, produced by the detonation of old teargas canisters, are close to lethal levels in some neighborhoods.
What Does Hong Kong Fight For?
The confrontation between pro–Hong Kong protesters and the Hong Kong government (and/or Beijing) has passed a point of straightforward reconciliation. Though the chant, “Five demands, not one less,” remains popular, listing the demands now feels nostalgic for a simpler time.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has more or less withdrawn the extradition bill, though the Legislative Council’s willingness to fulfill Beijing’s requests is already a sign of Hong Kong’s lost judicial and legislative autonomy. It is unclear what “launching an inquiry into police brutality” will reveal that the police haven’t already made clear, after firing over 9,000 teargas canisters, raiding eight university campuses, sexually abusing women protesters, and openly shooting unarmed protesters. Meanwhile, the demands that the city grant amnesty to protesters and drop “rioting” charges (which carry a 10-year prison sentence) require a city government, which Hong Kong does not appear to have. Carrie Lam has rendered herself so useless that her resignation would be redundant.
Hong Kong’s district council elections on November 24 resulted in overwhelming success for “pro-democracy” candidates against the “pro-Beijing” candidates (these adjectives are limited in their descriptive precision, but are commonly used to differentiate between the two sides). All pro-democracy candidates pledged to uphold the five demands. In this sense, the election outcome is cause for tentative optimism.
But the demands, first made in June, are now entirely insufficient to address the full scope of the crimes committed by the city’s Legislative Council and the police. In any case, Carrie Lam has said that making demands at all is “wishful thinking.” In the face of such disregard, despair and nihilism cannot be appropriate political responses. But neither is a politics of optimism and hope. Hong Kong’s protesters understand that they must fight for their future, but without deluding themselves that the future is at all possible. It is a revolution for our times.
There have been a number of objections to the 2019 protesters and their concerns; some have been more sympathetic than others. One of the critiques of the protests, from the Anglo-European left, is that fighting for Hong Kong’s autonomy fundamentally upholds the city’s myopic love of money and property. Chinese Communist Party sympathizers point to the city’s appalling inequality and housing crisis as the underlying causes of unrest, which is misdirected at Beijing when it should be directed at the city’s billionaires. Under the CCP, they claim, everyone would have a house. This is a fair critique of Hong Kong’s uncontrolled housing market, but a profound misunderstanding of how the current CCP works.
Others complain that the protesters are rowdy and callous, keen to destroy property and throw Molotov cocktails. Prior to the police raids on the city’s universities, the most violent confrontations between police and protesters were in shopping malls and in the MTR, the privately owned city transit system. The protesters’ widespread destruction of private property, such critics argue, has put off otherwise sympathetic crowds.
Both of these arguments write protesters off as immature or shortsighted political thinkers.
A fairer critique of the protests might be that the professed values of free speech and free assembly ring hollow in a city where migrant workers and domestic help are too busy working in the protesters’ houses to attend the protests. Some protesters have plans for economic reform beyond the five demands, but the movement, which is predominately made up of middle-class students, has failed to successfully incorporate the city’s most vulnerable workers. On the other hand, the city’s wealthiest denizens are rarely to be found at protests, and “expats” (migrant workers who are white and/or rich) tend to spend their Sunday afternoons in bars along Hollywood Road, undisturbed by the protests at the bottom of the hill.
A Future for Hong Kong?
Before the British arrived, Hong Kong had been a relatively unimportant island of small fishing villages. But, at the beginning of the 19th century, the British East India Company made Hong Kong the capital of capitalism. The city was founded as a place where opium smuggling was called “free trade” and where the British Royal Navy defended private industry (as long as it was British) against the perils of state intervention (as long as it was Chinese).
As the capital of capitalism, Hong Kong has been the laboratory for some of capitalism’s most astonishing inventions. For example: Hong Kong’s response to the end of slavery—first in the British Empire and then in the United States—was “coolie labor”: Chinese workers who moved to the US and Canada. In a macabre twist on slavery, the worker with nothing left to lose was “free” to sell himself to plantation and industrial masters abroad.
In the 20th century, banks like the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) pushed for financial deregulation and international trading. The measures they championed included the Bretton Woods system, in 1944; Thatcher’s “Big Bang” deregulation, in 1986; and Clinton’s repeal of the regulatory Glass-Steagall Act, in 1999. They invented a new standard for global banking, in a world where everything might be gained. Hong Kong’s global status has dwindled since 1997, but even today the Hong Kong stock exchange is valued at more than London’s or the Eurozone’s.
In lieu of a national bank to guarantee the value of currency, HSBC, Standard Chartered, and Bank of China collectively print and regulate the Hong Kong dollar. The bills, like the cityscape, foreground the island’s priorities: Norman Foster’s HSBC Building and I. M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower grace notes above $10.
In short, Hong Kong has never bothered with any distinction between “public” and “private” and has had no regard for any distinction between the economy and politics. (Carrie Lam holds the title of “chief executive” and has “board meetings” with Beijing, and the streets are named after successful businessmen.) This is why analyses of the Hong Kong protests that pit communism against liberalism are absurd. The Chinese government is not “communist” in any clear sense; instead, the Party possesses total monopoly on a capitalist economy. Meanwhile, xenophobic nationalism in North America and Europe directly contradicts any pretense of economic liberalism there.
It is appealing to say that Hong Kong stands at the center of a fight between two seemingly paradoxical options: state-controlled capitalism and xenophobic capitalism. But what is the difference between statist capitalism and nationalist capitalism? HSBC (and Bank of America, to be certain) has shares in both futures.
Such capitalist contradiction is not new: in the 1830s, the British Empire went to war to defend the state’s monopoly on capital, so that, from the 1860s onward, British capitalism could go entirely unregulated. After Hong Kong passed into the control of the People’s Republic of China, in 1997, the city continued this paradoxical tradition, and has sustained a devotion to state-protected, unregulated capitalism.
This has produced one of the most economically unequal and politically vacuous cities in the world—a cramped space where there is nothing left to take. The current protests are both a response to and essentially built from Hong Kong’s lifelong contradiction. To “liberate” Hong Kong is to wrest it from any political regulation. In the past, this would hardly have been called a revolution. But to “liberate” Hong Kong “for our times” is to figure out how to live in a future that has already been traded away.
Like Hong Kong itself, the current protests are a harbinger for the rest of the world. Old revolutions promised egalitarianism on the basis of a shared world to win. A revolution for our times promises very little, except perhaps an egalitarianism based on a shared world in which there is nothing left to lose. “When we burn you will burn with us,” graffiti at the University of Hong Kong says. Is that a threat or a resignation? It’s both: for the future, there is nothing left at all.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.