Part I: The Desire for Idiosyncracy

This is Part I of Hong Kong and the Anti-Cosmopolitan Moment, a response to Ivan Krastev’s Why Did the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ Fail? 

Ivan Krastev wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, “Why Did the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ Fail?” For those involved in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, everything about it scratched nerves. When Christopher DeWolf asked what this essay meant about Occupy, Darcy Christ took issue with social media in question – the Umbrella Movement/Revolution-Occupy Central/Hong Kong was not organized on Twitter, which was primarily a platform for English-speaking journalist and “non-neutral observers’ like me. It’s undeniable that Facebook (pages, groups, and individual accounts) and WhatsApp groups were an increasingly powerful organization tool.

What follows is four blog posts that were originally a 2500 post. Krastev is making several points, all of which deserve reflection about what they mean about Hong Kong and our Umbrella Movement last year. This first post starts with this: the knee-jerk reaction against having Hong Kong’s 79 days of Occupation lumped together with ‘those other’ Occupies and ‘color revolutions. Darcy Christ’s reaction was only the first layer: the Umbrella Movement was different because it wasn’t primarily Twitter-led. It goes much deeper.

As to the question of whether the Umbrella Movement was a ‘Twitter Revolution’, Krastev is making a larger point about social media, which is that “these” social movements “fell victim to similar fashionable notions: that organizations are a thing of the past (and networks representative of the future), that states no longer matter, and that spontaneity is the real source for legitimacy.” On this point I agree, and would argue that participants and ‘leaders’ of the Umbrella Movement widely shared this view.

Krastev’s second point is more chilling, and again relevant to Hong Kong:

Wherever you look, little movement along the lines of what the political scientist Francis Fukuyama called the “revolution of the global middle class” seems to have endured… What is now apparent is that the global protest wave may have polarized societies, but it is “the party of stability” and not “the networks of hope” that profited from the polarization. Wherever one looks, the political and social disruption brought on by protesters resulted not in more democracy and pluralism, but in a consolidation around the state and the national leader. We are witnessing a new anti-cosmopolitan moment.

I take issue with some of his framing, which I’ll address in other posts, but concede the wider point: Hong Kong too has fallen victim to de-democratization, crackdowns, and overall consolidation of state power in the immediate aftermath of our movement. Which is to say that in Krastev’s checklist for ‘Twitter Revolutions,” we can check the two main boxes for his point: over-optimism in social networks as agents of change; regime survival and repression the intermediate result. Nonetheless, there’s considerable resistance to seeing the Umbrella Movement as anything but a locally idiosyncratic event that had little, if nothing, to do with ‘all those other’ protests.

Occupy as an Idiosyncratic Event

Why does ‘globalizing’ Occupy/Umbrella scratch the nerves of participants and sympathizers? Perhaps in the first sense, it would have conceded the failure of those movements that were already obvious when the Umbrella Movement kicked off in late 2014. The connect what was happening in Hong Kong with what happened in Tahrir or Manhatten would almost admit defeat before anything started. One had to believe Hong Kong’s version of Occupy was fundamentally different to support the idea to begin with. An unsentimental Hong Kong doesn’t give much room for ‘lost causes,’ especially before they even begin.

It’s a claim that the idiosyncratic, spontaneous, beautiful, ‘impossible to understand without a firm understanding of Hong Kong-Chinese history and politics’ was, in reality, just another outburst of “Twitter Revolution” happening around the world. It lumps what ‘we’ did with everything from Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Gezi Park, the Maidan, Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, and yes, ‘our’/’my’ movement: the Umbrella Movement.

This is problematic for Umbrella Movement supporters and organizers for a few reasons. From my observations, a tangible idiosyncrasy was a defining feature from the Class Boycott onwards to the Umbrella Movement. This new movement an intentional break from Pan-Dem repertoires of struggle: from Long Hair’s shenanigans in LegCo, to the July 1 marches and their colonial flags, and particularly the yearly mass group photo reproduction, same place and time every year – for 24 years – known as the Tiananmen Vigil. There was certainly nothing to learn from Tahrir or the Maidan.

At a personal and empirical level, I tried to offer students literature on ‘lessons learned’ from other movements. I held a discussion forum during the Class Boycott discussing the differences between civil disobedience, direct action, and protest. There was little interest. As many students told me, “we need to learn as we go.” Even if the tactics (occupation) and terms (Occupy X) were very familiar, Hong Kongers insisted on its idiosyncrasy. I have even heard Margaret Ng claim that Benny Tai’s idea for “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” was distinct from the other Occupies even if it sounded quite familiar.

In my evolving political thoughts on the issue, I had come to a few points. One was that “China changed, not Hong Kong.” The protests were a result of a new hardline leader in Beijing and a particularly sycophant local proxy in C.Y. Leung. What Beijing was demanding of Hong Kong in 2014 was substantially different than what was promised during the Joint Declaration negotiations (see: Zhao Ziyang signing the document with Margaret Thatcher), and even what was in the Basic Law (see: Article 39 and read the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights). Second, I saw it as a pre-nationalist movement. It was a final stand for a flawed but functional implementation of One Country, Two Systems. Were the Umbrella Movement to fail, Hong Kongers would see that there was ‘no political roof over their head’, and we would see the birth of a nascent nationalist/independence movement.

But maybe this is the wrong approach. Globalizing Occupy, Part II of Hong Kong and the Anti-Cosmopolitan Moment, argues that focusing on the local origins and idiosyncrasies of the Umbrella Movement prevent us from seeing in a broader global and historical context.

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