What the Fight for Hong Kong Is Really About

Writer and activist Wilfred Chan on what the movement teaches us about authoritarianism, nationality, and liberation

Photo Illustration; Source: Michael CW Chiu

TThousands have been arrested since protests began last summer against a proposed bill, since withdrawn, permitting Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China. The PRC-friendly Hong Kong government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has failed to quell the ongoing unrest. Steadily increasing street violence and arrests culminated in the terrifying 12-day siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which ended on November 29. The six-month anniversary march that followed on December 8 drew somewhere between 183,000 and 800,000 people, depending on whether you believe the police or the organizers. And a far-flung diaspora of Hong Kongers has been dedicated to amplifying the story worldwide.

To gain a deeper understanding of what’s been going on​ — and what the future of activism in the former British colony may hold​ — GEN called up writer and activist Wilfred Chan. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Seattle, Chan lives and works in New York, where he’s been analyzing the ongoing protests; he is a founding member of the Lausan Collective, a forum for writers, researchers, activists, and artists of Hong Kong and its diaspora.

Chan returned to Hong Kong for four years after college, working from 2013–2016 as a journalist for CNN and co-founding Still / Loud, a magazine about Hong Kong music, art, and culture. His Twitter feed remains a major source of insight about what’s going on back home.

We began by talking about what he learned from working at CNN during an earlier round of protests.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

GEN: You’ve been observing and writing about Hong Kong’s political uprisings since the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Wilfred Chan: That really helped me make the connection to how media is constantly processing and shaping the world around it, in these sometimes scary ways. I learned at CNN how eagerly people would answer my calls when I said I was calling from the network. They were hungry for the visibility we could offer them, no matter who they were, from hardcore activists to business leaders.

When it came to the Umbrella Movement, I felt that acutely. A lot of the protestors were trying really hard to make sure that the visuals of the protest would be compelling to the international audience that they knew was watching.

There were two main camps of protestors. One in Admiralty, by the government headquarters, and another in Mong Kok, which is a more working-class district in urban Kowloon. And the Mong Kok folks got pretty fed up with the Admiralty protestors, near the end of the Umbrella Movement — accused them of being too enraptured with this idea of international media attention, of sacrificing the chance at more effective types of confrontation to what they considered a distraction.

And interestingly, that was sort of the beginning of this ideological split in Hong Kong between these old school pan-Democrats, the so-called peaceful or nonviolent faction, and the more hard-line pro-independence factions.

So I was there working as a journalist, and at a certain point, I knew that I needed to approach the story in a different way. But at the same time, the ending of the Umbrella Movement left everyone I knew in Hong Kong in a state of political despair that lasted from 2014 until now.

During this time, people were giving up on politics. Making plans to emigrate. Those who didn’t have those luxuries were kind of going underground. It was a period of very little media attention: Hong Kong went from being a huge story in 2014 to not a story at all, basically overnight.

And journalists went from breaking international stories to suddenly, no one caring. I left CNN during this period, and Karen Cheung and I co-founded an arts and culture magazine called Still / Loud; the name of it reflected that I was into photography, and she was into music, so, “still” and “loud.” We hoped to use these two mediums as ways to interrogate Hong Kong-ness, focusing especially on artists who were probing these questions of identity. In English, but in a way that was not centering an international audience.

We were really talking about Hong Kong and Hong Kong people in this very intimate way that didn’t try to hold your hand or baby your understanding of what this place was. We absolutely refused to play into popular tropes — you know, Hong Kong as a crossroads, or Hong Kong as the “Pearl of the Orient.”

That would really drive us nuts.

We still have this bad habit in Western media in general — not to diss people who fly around talking to whomever, but, please, let me hear from the person who’s lived there, whose parents are from there —

Who has stakes there.

There’s been so much incredible reporting from the protests, but information is limited, it seems, on a lot of the arrests.

There are a lot of incidents with unanswered questions right now. Stories of unspeakable violence — people just aren’t receiving explanations. This is one of the tolls of being in Hong Kong. It’s a total crisis. There’s no sense of security; the world you thought you could count on has just been totally pulled out from under your feet.

It’s hard to talk about because you could actually be actively endangering somebody. The surveillance has gotten so insane.

What’s happening there is really a harbinger for what’s to come, I think, for the rest of the world — and I don’t just mean in terms of authoritarian advance.

I also mean the contradictions of global capitalism, playing out in this confined space. The false seductions of Western political frameworks, limiting your ability to imagine and take your existence into your own hands. These are all things that we struggle against every day in Hong Kong.

You could drive from one end of Hong Kong, through Kowloon to the Chinese border, in probably 30 to 40 minutes if the traffic was good. So it feels like a microcosm of all these global dynamics, but it’s also kind of just a small town.

You’ve commented from time to time on how Hong Kongers might make common cause with the struggles of oppressed people around the world. Are you looking at this from a dedicated socialist perspective? Are there specific political frameworks that you want to promote?

Our tagline at Lausan is, “Sharing decolonial left perspectives on Hong Kong.”

Some people ask us what we mean by “decolonial,” or are frustrated by the way we use that word. I understand that; it’s not a word that has a lot of purchase in day-to-day Hong Kong. There’s not even a very agreed-upon translation for it in Chinese. But I think that’s even more reason to adopt that as a starting point: Hong Kong is a colony, and it still has a really colonial dynamic.

Yet Hong Kong has been weirdly excluded from the postcolonial conversation that’s been happening since the mid-20th century. This is a source of frustration, and also a huge opportunity. There are all these conversations waiting to happen, between Hong Kong people and people who’ve walked similar walks.

How do you explain Hong Kong’s exclusion from that critical conversation?

In many ways the United Kingdom pursued a policy of being “extra nice” to Hong Kong — I’m being facetious, but just treating Hong Kong with care in comparison with a lot of its other colonial holdings because of the need to create a counterbalance against the rise of China. They understood this from the 20th century.

That’s not to say that they didn’t do really horrible and exploitative things, or that they weren’t completely racist. But the fact remains that they were determined to build Hong Kong as a safe place to do business at the highest levels of global trade.

So you see Hong Kongers nostalgic, sometimes, for the colonial era.

How do you envision building a bridge from that era to this?

We think about promises a lot in Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong was promised 50 years of a high degree of autonomy at the time of the handover, and was promised universal suffrage, and it was promised all these freedoms. What you’re seeing right now is a feeling of betrayal and disenchantment.

But beyond the conversation about democracy and freedom, the larger disillusionment is really about the promises of modernity.

Not only capitalism, because that’s only one part of it, but the promise that you will get to become a part of this global (Western) modern existence.

From our perspective here, even if Hong Kongers had the opportunity to experience the process of disillusionment, it has been overshadowed by the proximity to China and, since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the threat of violence from across the border. So it’s hard to have the larger discussion in a way that will resonate with folks in Hong Kong. And I really don’t blame them.

I don’t either. But I also think it’s important to be able to say: We’re very far away, yet it is the most meaningful political moment for me in many years. To see what has happened in Hong Kong, realizing that we are all up against it now, whether we know it or not. And watching that kind of solidarity, what can happen when people understand what they can do for themselves, has been very inspiring to people in the U.S. How to take that energy and spread it? It’s not going to come from politicians.

Even in Umbrella, Hong Kongers were surprised by themselves. In 2014, when suddenly the highway was transformed into this almost utopian encampment, people had to really reassess what they thought of each other.

There was so much talent in terms of art and organizing, and young people were thinking about society in this sophisticated and mature way.

It speaks to a kind of spell that we’re all under when you become so desensitized to reality — especially in a place like Hong Kong, where there are so many crisscrossings of global power. For example, if you’ve ever walked in a mall in Hong Kong, it’s one of the most disorienting experiences in the world. They’re designed to make it hard to get out, so that you’ll spend more time walking by more and more luxury goods. I’ve always joked that if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, I’ll go to the top floor of a mall in Hong Kong because the zombies will never figure out how to get to the top.

It’s a really unique place. And people were caught off guard, that a place under these dynamics could produce these political energies. But maybe it actually makes sense that a place like this would have eventually hit that breaking point.

One wonders when we might see the same thing in Singapore or, like, New York City. You know?

Yeah.

When I walk around the New York City MTA and, you know, because I’m thinking about my friends in Hong Kong, and I’m just like, “Why aren’t people rising up here?”

I think about this constantly. I have really good friends who are Marxists who just… they want nothing more than to just break it all. Break it. But we’ve seen what happens when you do that.

Well, you know, it goes back to a question my dad used to troll me with: What if China and the U.S. went to war one day, who would you support?

Even when the U.S. and China played each other in the Women’s World Cup finals in 1999 — he would prod me, taking this kind of perverse delight in how difficult it was for me to sort through these divided loyalties. And my response since that moment has just been, I don’t want that to happen.

I don’t want the U.S. and China to destroy each other. I don’t want to see another world war on the pretext of defending Hong Kong or whatever excuse they want to make, to create some global conflict that’s going to be horrible for all of us, and benefit like five people.

I don’t know the straightforward path for Hong Kong to get free. There’s not just one bad guy. There’s not just one force that’s ensnaring us. We’re caught between China’s authoritarian state capitalism and Western neoliberal globalism and the histories of colonialism, and border logics that deny us sovereignty.

So if you actually take the idea of Hong Kong seriously and you want to see Hong Kong free, that means you have to thread your way out of all of those things at once. And I mean, how do you do that?

But that’s what we’re trying to — I’m not even going to say we’re trying to do that because that would just be arrogant. But we’re trying to at least get more people to look at this.

It’s not arrogant to want to be free.

It’s arrogant to suggest that we will have any knowledge of how to actually accomplish this. How to undo all these systems at once.

Sure, people have a lot they should be learning from us because we sit at the intersection of all of these systems, but we also have a lot that we need to learn from others — who maybe have been disenchanted in different ways, and are more perceptive than us in different ways. And that’s partly why we’re talking to folks in Puerto Rico, and we want to talk to folks in Kashmir, and Palestine, and everywhere really.

We don’t know how we’re going to get there. But, like, the first thing is to want it.

And yeah, people want it.

Hong Kongers, you know, they have these different slogans. I mean, it’s one slogan in Chinese, but it can be translated in a lot of different ways: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Or, “Free Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Or, “Restore Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” The verb, in Chinese, means all of those things at once. And how you translate it I think also says a lot about what you’re imagining, right?

At Lausan, we reject the idea of “restore,” as do our friends on the Hong Kong left. Because there’s nothing to restore to, you know? What are we trying to pull out of this history, that never even belonged to us? We have to create something completely new. When we say “liberate,” what are we trying to liberate ourselves from? What would a free Hong Kong actually look like, feel like?

People are trying to answer these questions in different ways, but to the extent that I can address them in this nerdy, quasi-academic way, in English, over here in the diaspora, that’s what I’ll be doing. We all have complex relationships to Hong Kong. But we’re doing this work with a lot of heart and affection for a place that we really consider to be our home.

is a journalist and editor of Popula.com, an alt-global news and culture publication experimenting with blockchain-based publishing innovations.

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