Revolution of our times: Hong Kong’s Resistance Finds Resolution in Localism
The political crisis kindled by the now-suspended extradition bill has put Hong Kong on the brink of anocracy. In the face of police brutality and perpetual hostility from the government, however, protesters show no sign of retreat.
The resistance against Chinese interference in the semi-autonomous territory is driven by a strong sense of local identity amongst the youth. Among the 44 protesters who were charged with rioting on 28th July, 38 of them aged under 30. The Chinese national emblem at the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government was spray-painted weeks ago in defiance to Beijing’s domination.
Following a general strike on 5th August, clashes with the police have escalated into violence across the city, in residential and business districts alike. More than 800 rounds of tear gases were deployed and 148 people arrested, including a 13-year-old, amid the confrontations on a single day. Police stations were besieged and vandalised by enraged protesters while pro-government triad gangsters assaulted civilians dressed in black, a colour preferred by the demonstrators to conceal their identity.
In the ninth consecutive week of protests, the movement has been brought to a standstill as the city’s Beijing-anointed chief Carrie Lam flippantly turns a deaf ear to the people’s demands and orders the police to stifle radical protesters adopting urban guerrilla tactics.
A chant echoes through the streets while clashes with the police escalated into violence. “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” is the most commonly heard slogan in recent protests. It was initially used by a now-jailed localist candidate Edward Leung in 2016. Leung was then barred from elections due to his advocacy of an independent Hong Kong, along with 6 other elected but eventually disqualified lawmakers. The disqualification controversy marked a setback of the localist campaign but it simultaneously amplified the voices of the movement.
The slogan’s resonance has drawn Beijing’s attention, fearing the spread of agitations to neighbouring provinces. Chinese officials have warned that the People’s Liberation Army on the mainland could be mobilised anytime. Not to mention the local garrison under the direct command of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP hereafter) is ready to be deployed whenever a military suppression is requested by the local authority.
Veteran activists who witnessed the Tiananmen Massacre have cautioned that a harsh crackdown is not unlikely as China has a record of killing its people. However, China itself will have to bear the economic consequences if the military is deployed, as Hong Kong is the biggest offshore RMB clearing centre and the largest source of FDI into China, accounting for 54% of the country’s total. Hong Kong is taking a gamble, betting that Xi Jinping will not dare to destabilise the economy amidst the trade war with the US.
Beijing officials have ratcheted up the rhetorics, claiming the recent unrest shows “signs of terrorism”. Meanwhile, the police are seemingly rampaging through the city, deploying tear gases in residential areas, shooting projectiles at close ranges in metro stations, harassing female protesters by ripping off their clothes and launching indiscriminate attacks on passersby, tourists, journalists, lawmakers and first aiders alike. Terror is spread through verbal and physical intimidation. Hong Kong is facing a serious humanitarian crisis.
The people of Hong Kong have responded with steadfastness and tenacity. Batons and guns and tear gases could not scare them off. They have even furthered their demands to calls for reform and investigation into police brutality, bracing themselves for suppression from China.
As descendants of refugees who fled from oppressive regimes in China and elsewhere in the world, Hongkongers know well that living in fear is way more dreadful than being knocked out in a brutal suppression. Millions of people are determined to take part in this war of attrition and such sentiment is exemplified by the heated localist slogan.
But what exactly is Localism?
Localism is a political doctrine which lays stress on a unique Hong Kong identity and local interests. The preservation of local cultures and ways of living are essential notions of this facet of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. In short, it is a set of ideas that embraces notions such as autonomy, freedom and self-sustainability.
Some critics might have discredited the ideal as they found the Localist rhetoric on immigration restriction resembles anti-immigrant sentiments in the West. It is imperative to point out that, unlike nativism characterised by a xenophobic, chauvinist frenzy, Localism is grounded in democratic values. Attempting to revoke inequalities imposed by an autocratic regime is far from spreading hate speech in functioning democracies. In reality, the emergence of Localism is a backlash against authoritarian and extractive domination upon the region.
Localist propositions stem from a structural deficiency where the absence of popular representation in the government has repeatedly undermined the rights of the Hong Kong people. The city is a semi-democracy which only half of its legislature is popularly elected and its Chief Executive is appointed by Beijing. It is apparent that without democracy, local interests can never be truly served.
Hong Kong’s political spectrum has been occupied by two loose coalitions. The loyalists (aka. commonly known as the pro-establishment camp) are constituted by traditional left-leaning workers’ unions and China-dependent business elites. A collusive, crony capitalist ruling alliance comprising the ideological left and right came into existence based on its members’ affinity to China. They are also preachers of the official Han-centric Chinese nationalism, which overrides any form of local identity conducive to separatism, as in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Whereas the pan-democrats, being the customary opposition, hold a fraction of seats in the Legislative Council. However, discontent over the pan-democrats has escalated rapidly since the 2010s, as they have often detached themselves from the progressive wing of the resistance and have turned their backs on Hongkongers on critical junctures, as in the 2010 political reform. They are beleaguered in the recent anti-extradition movement because of their past frailties.
Localism provides a sound discourse to Hongkongers for combatting Chinese hegemony. It is an analytical framework that differs from the conventional China-centric perspective embraced by many, including the pan-democrats who found their rationale from a patriotic, national struggle against CCP’s dictatorship. To the young Localists, the “democratic reunification (with China)” narrative endorsed by the veteran pan-dem leaders, who emerged from the democratic movements in the 80s, is not only impractical but also detrimental to the very existence of a distinct Hong Kong identity.
30 years ago, some might have found hope in a gradually liberalising China. Yet decades of waiting have left Hongkongers in disappointment while the city’s freedoms, guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, are being gradually chipped away. People will sooner or later realise that democracy under Chinese rule is nothing but false hope and a Chinese identity is incompatible with a Hongkongese one. The youth is losing patience.
As democratisation on the mainland is a self-evident fantasy and Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong becomes adversity, it is comprehensible for the disenfranchised locals to develop a theory which keeps the city’s resources, cultures and ways of living in shape.
From street protests to election campaigns with proper agendas, Localism has grown over the last ten years to curb China’s persistent encroachment. It represents an outcry of the powerless, those who remain skeptical towards the economic and social integration with China and those who disapprove the authoritarian regime.
Localism is a yeast of thoughts in the post-colonial era, where London is replaced by Beijing and the Governor by the Chief Executive. As with the swapping of the old master with a new one is no liberation, the transfer of sovereignty is nothing but recolonisation. Localism appears to be a solution for decolonisation and a theoretical ground to restrain further assimilation with China.
Localists aspirations, varying from maintaining autonomy to complete independence, flow from the emphasis on the city-state’s subjectivity, meaning that Hongkongers as a people should be able to manifest its own will, an idea which is fundamentally democratic.
Oppression from China has unleashed Hong Kong’s collective consciousness. The recent protests reflected the refusal to the grand narratives imposed upon Hongkongers, be them the official Chinese nationalism or the alternative, illusory democratic China. It is time for Hong Kong to dictate its destiny.
As a Hongkonger studying abroad, I am often asked whether I am willing to return to Hong Kong later on, even the city turns unfree.
I have always replied without a second thought, “Then I shall go back and set it free.”
That was a moment of empowerment, and Localism was the source of such resolution. It is a belief beyond a sheer sense of belonging and affection for one’s homeland. It is a political allegiance, a dedication and a commitment to the interest, welfare and betterment of the local community.
After all the years of soul-searching, Hong Kong has once more defined itself by defending its freedom and autonomy from Chinese domination. The call for democracy has bound the post-handover generation together, and that shall be the “revolution of our times.”