Part III: The Fragile ‘Winners’

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

This has an ongoing intellectual journey for me. As one might note from the small level of writing output over the past year, it has also become a solitary journey as the movement splintered and arguably died. Revolutions, we are told, have a tendency to devour their own.  I should thank Krastev for the writing prompt in the form of new terms, models, and trends. One of the issues I addressed in the wake of the Umbrella Movement was the fundamental unsustainability of de-democratization. Perhaps too boldy, I argued that “there are no successful autocracies.”

Krastev challenges my thinking on this point by writing that, “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.” I concede that this is true of Hong Kong. Cam MacMurchy predicted this, in fact, in the summer of 2014. While never denying that this would be a possible short-term outcome, it’s proving more ‘intermediate-term’ than I suspected.

After reading The China Fantasy, I was humbled by my own tacit embrace of both the ‘collapse model’ and ‘inevitable democratization’ arguments. Particularly their intellectual origins as responses to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Mann is arguing that we should be seriously entertaining a scenario in which the Party remains in power for several decades, becomes even more powerful, and cares even less what other’s think of its human rights record. I would also concede an intellectual blind spot: I have never seriously considered the possibility that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ would functionally collapse before 2047.

I would, however, add an important caveat to Krastev’s point about regime ‘success’: while these regimes have ‘profited,’ there are good reasons to challenge the longevity of these ‘successes.’ At issue is that these regimes that have profited have done so at the expense of their leaders becoming widely hated. Their regimes, while stronger today than before, are largely seen as illegitimate. One is tempted to say, “so what? They won. They have all the guns and power.” Let me turn to Machiavelli for help here:

A prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared while he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from despoiling the property of his citizens, and from their women.


Men love according as they please, and fear according to the will of the prince. A wise prince should establish himself on that which he controls, and not in that which others control. He must endeavor only to avoid being hated.

In the Hong Kong context, the CCP was not really feared in Hong Kong before the Umbrella Movement. Tilly argues that the three principal tools of social control for states are capital, coercion, and commitment. Both the CCP and SAR government lacked coercive instruments. People did not fear standing up to unpopular issues like National Education (Morris & Vickers recent article provides excellent context) and the massive Article 23 protests that took down the SAR’s first Chief Executive. Tear gassing brought more people, not fewer. In a sense, the first big wave of the Umbrella Movement was a taunt: “we dare you to keep escalating. Bring out the PLA and destroy the legitimacy of the CCP and their allies in Hong Kong forever.”

The CCP and their allies ‘won’ the Chief Executive fight mostly through capital and commitment. They bought off allies; they didn’t move an inch on their position. They endured in comfortable air conditioned offices longer than youth in tents on the streets. I suspect that most of the post-tear gassing policing was designed to let the Movement continue until it wore itself out (Admiralty could have been cleared quickly at many junctures where only a dozen or so Occupiers remained).

They have now brought some degree of fear. As an academic, they used Johannes Chan to “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys.” I am one such higher education ‘monkey’ disturbed by this on a professional level. But as a blogger, as a pseudo-public intellectual, I am not scared. Nor is most of Hong Kong. In the Hong Kong SAR, the CCP and their allies are ruling through Machiavelli’s worst-case scenario: hated and barely feared.

In mainland China, the situation is more complicated. Xi and his clique are clearly frightening to anyone interested in making a more cosmopolitan, liberal China. His propaganda outfit ensures that ‘Xi Dada’ is loved by some. But the purge of lawyers, scholars, military leaders, businessmen, journalists, and CCP cadres is undoubtedly creating hate. Working opposite Machiavelli’s advice, Xi’s purges are always carried out in slow motion to illicit the most fear. Xi and his CCP allies in Hong Kong offer little evidence of “endeavor[ing] only to avoid being hated.” Some would argue that CY relishes in it (see: appointment of Arthur Li to the HKU Council).

Shifting back to the global level, Pankaj Mishra eerily captures the intellectual history of how of this ‘Anti-Cosmopolitan Moment’ in The Sound of Cracking. He notes that “aspects of the 20th century’s much despised communist states resurface in the free world: inefficient and uncontrolled economies; expensive and failing welfare systems; vast surveillance mechanisms; and a state that has subordinated civil liberties to perpetual warfare against real and imagined enemies.” We are left, he argues, with “the fact of deepening and irreversible inequality is aggravated by the awareness that there is nothing on offer to replace an ideology that promises freedom and progress through endless economic expansion and technological innovation.”

The promises are empty. Therein lies a difficult truth I tried communicating to many protesters: even if we get ‘real universal suffrage’, we shouldn’t expect massive change. Western democracies are having their own governmental crises. While democratization is better than de-democratization, it only opens a technical process to challenge powerful stakeholders. A good many Americans, British, and others feel the process just isn’t working. Mishra concludes:

Homo economicus, who seeks to replace all other human values and interests with cost-benefit calculations, rampages across the globe: in personal relations as well as the workplace, higher education and political institutions. Pulverising the welfarist state, and even a sense of community, and contemptuous of history and tradition, he sentences hundreds of millions to economic and psychological insecurity and isolation in an opaque and hostile world. This scorched-earth universalism incites, as Santayana warned, ‘a lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence’. Many… seem keen to surrender their onerous individuality to demagogues and to be used by them. Elsewhere, those excluded from a degraded world of man, or condemned to join its burgeoning precariat, are prone to embrace the god of destruction rather than of inner peace. The thin sound of cracking is heard from many more parts of the world as exhausted authority surrenders to nihilism.
I hint at this in Surveying the Post-Occupy Landscape. Many ‘localists’ have given up on liberal values, beliefs, and systems before they’ve even been given a chance to work in Hong Kong. For many defeated Occupiers, there was indeed “a lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence” against the injustice. For the regime ‘winners’, Mishra seems even more on-point: they aren’t even trying. And what is C.Y. Leung if not the epitome of “exhausted authority surrender[ing]” to a nihilism where truth, justice, democracy, and law mean only what those who wield power say they mean.

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