Part II: Globalizing Occupy

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

Krastev is crashing the ‘idiosyncratic’ party by saying the social media-driven organization of the protests were similar, the tactics and theories of change familiar, and more worrying – the results were largely the same. But Krastev isn’t the first. I was struck by how meticulously Charles Tilly had described the Umbrella Movement in 2006’s Regimes and Repertoires. Tilly died two years later, three years before Scholarism was formed. David Harvey wrote Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution in 2012. The socio-economic backdrop of Hong Kong was the same as Harvey had seen almost everywhere:

In much of the advanced capitalist world the factories have either disappeared or been so diminished as to decimate the classical industrial working class. The important and ever-expanding labor of making and sustaining urban life is increasingly done by insecure, often part-time and disorganized low-paid labor. The so-called “precariat” has displaced the traditional “proletariat.”

Where Hong Kongers assume a monopoly on the claim, “this city is dying“, Harvey wrote:

The traditional city has been killed by rampant capitalist development, a victim of the never-ending need to dispose of overaccumulating capital driving towards endless and sprawling urban growth no matter what the social, environmental, or political consequences.

Talking about these issues has been problematic because the Party and their United Front has been pitching a narrative that the Umbrella Movement was about everything but what the Occupiers actually said brought them to the streets: dim career prospects matched insanely expensive and manipulated real estate market. They would throw in themes of Hong Kongers inability to accept or respect the mainland’s economic rise and the switching of roles that came with it.

These were, no doubt, important background contexts. In the foreground was a very clear message: “I want real universal suffrage“; “Step Down, CY.” Political liberalization was a pre-requisite to confronting those problems. And unlike many other contexts, Fukuyama-like winds blew stronger in Hong Kong than elsewhere. Hong Kong is idiosyncratic in having a high degree of civil rights coupled with very low political rights. For the yellow ribbon supporter at the time, to connect these larger socio-economic trends to the Umbrella Movement itself was to succumb to propaganda. Perhaps there is enough distance between now and then to carefully say, “all of the above.” The protest crystalized around democratization; there was hope that ‘real universal suffrage’ would fix the background socio-economic issues that were more global than the threat of CCP infiltration.

Beijing Apologetics 

When Krastev writes that “we are witnessing a new anti-cosmopolitan moment,” I am reminded of my difficulties turning the Umbrella Movement into an academic topic for an international audience.  In a trial run of my ideas, I arrived at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference in March 2014 (Washington, DC) prepared to tell the story of students fighting an increasingly authoritarian regime. What I encountered was little sympathy for (or even much knowledge of) what had happened four months earlier in Hong Kong. China and Chinese issues were all over the conference. I was perhaps the only one there talking about Xi’s crackdowns.

I was witnessing the dynamics James Mann recounts in The China Fantasy: ‘engagement,’ ‘dialogue,’ ‘mutual understanding’ were the key words when talking about China. Not ‘purge’, ‘tear gassing’, ‘crackdowns’, or – god forbid – human rights and universal values. It indeed felt like “a new anti-cosmopolitan moment.” Even in Washington DC, there was more sympathy for the ‘hard work’ and ‘progress’ that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had delivered than for the comparatively (to the PRC population) small group of underappreciating students and protesters in Hong Kong.

In an act of desperation, I seized at the last minute the conference theme: “Ubuntu! Imagining a Humanist Education Globally.” In a move to make CIES more diverse, the 2014 conference was organized primarily by Africans and African-Americans. They brought with them the intellectual legacy of Nelson Mandela, who popularized the ‘ubuntu‘ term.

I attempted to usurp it for Hong Kong’s yellow ribbons. If the conference was intended to focus an explicitly universal humanist values, then we need to take the threats posed by an increasingly powerful and specifically anti-universalist, anti-humanist, anti-liberal seriously CCP. ‘We’ should be standing with the yellow ribbon wearers in Hong Kong. While the audience was small, this did mark a moment of intellectual transition for me: the Umbrella Movement needed to be de-localized.

Too much was being lost in translation focusing on the particularities of Hong Kong and China. Perhaps too much is still being lost in how we talk about what happened. Maybe there’s insight to be gained if we start thinking about the global nature of these problems and movements, becoming ‘just another ‘Twitter Revolution.’ Focusing on Beijing and C.Y. Leung has the tendency to make us stop talking about the tycoons and Functional Constituencies that enable Party rule over the city.

The Fragile ‘Winners’, Part III of Hong Kong and the Anti-Cosmopolitan Moment, takes a closer look at the regimes that “profited most” from ‘Twitter Revolutions’ like the Umbrella Movement.

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