By Alfie Bown
I CAME TO Hong Kong twelve months ago from a Europe in political turmoil. Fundamentalist attacks and the refugee crisis, symptoms of a failing global system, were hitting Central Europe the hardest, while the UK, my own place of birth and residence, was experiencing its own fallout from the same phenomenon: the rise of right-wing nationalism. One year on, I am still just beginning to learn about how nationalism and politics work in Hong Kong and China, so I can’t speak as an authority of any kind on the topic, but some things strike me about the situation in my new home that may be useful to bring into discussions of the place I left behind, which now dominates the news cycle due to the Brexit vote. It also seems only right that, since global crises require global solutions, we look for connections and possibilities wherever we can find them. What I suggest here is that the political identity proposed by some Hong Kong citizens might provide a hopeful alternative to trends we are seeing in the UK, other parts of Europe, and the US.
A period of crisis is also a period of great potential. When the old is folding and the new has not yet fully emerged, there is the chance to influence the new terms that will replace the old ones. Simultaneously, such times are periods of great potential danger: the wrong forces can easily take hold. The recent Brexit vote, where 52% of the British public opted out of the EU, is a perfect example. While non-nationalist voters who wanted out of the EU cited the exciting potential for change and increased freedom from European restrictions, those who wanted to remain in the EU were more attentive to the (plainly obvious) danger that the real winners from Brexit would be the hard right nationalists.
What most troubles me and many Britons I know who similarly identify with the Left is that in this threshold time of crisis when the new is out but the old is not yet in, the Right is having the most success in offering “solutions” to current problems and outlining a plan for the future. The Right’s plans are backwards-looking, seeking the return to the nation-state, demanding increased national sovereignty and tighter borders. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson are perhaps the most prominent figures to harness this imaginary nostalgia for national serenity and sell it, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, as a solution to the present predicament. Most European nations, though, have a counterpart right-wing representative whose popularity is similarly on the rise. Brexit itself seems to have already emboldened some of them, such as Marine Le Pen in France. Hong Kong is a totally different context, but it is also in a fascinating moment in which we wait to see whether nostalgia for the nationalist past will dominate its political future.
To my mind, the most inspiring call to arms for the Left made in response to this problem is #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, a 2013 philosophical tract by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, which implores progressives to embrace a speeding up of various forces. This manifesto takes the notion of “acceleration,” which critical theorist Benjamin Noys had quite rightly used as a negative descriptor of recent trends, and gives it a boldly positive new spin. The premise of the document, whose relevance for Hong Kong I’ll get to below, is that we should seek an internationalist anti-nostalgic and future-looking politics that embraces speed rather than trying to slow everything down in a protection of what we already have. In short, Srnicek and Williams are for everything that Trump and Farage oppose. They write:
In contrast to […] ever-accelerating catastrophes, today’s politics is beset by an inability to generate the new ideas and modes of organisation necessary to transform our societies to confront and resolve the coming annihilations. While crisis gathers force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.
Thus we are confronted with the task of overcoming a politics which looks only backwards and attempts to slow things down, tasking us with re-scheduling the cancelled future and taking control of what it might look like.
The BBC have already reported on the position of the Brexpat in Hong Kong, but I would like to give a different and more positive left-wing interpretation of the situation here. Hong Kong, despite the vast contextual differences with Europe, is also at a threshold moment, poised between the old and the new. Given Special Administrative Region (SAR) status in 1997 for a 50-year period, Hong Kong will officially lose its separate political system 30 years from now when it will become closer to Mainland China, a prospect explored so powerfully by Wong Kar-wai in the film 2046. Hong Kong is therefore a very clear example of a temporal space that is in contest, concerned about the dangerous forces that may take hold in the years ahead, but also aware of being in a moment that has potential for positive change.
This gives a sense of urgency to actions by Hong Kong youths, who have become increasingly politicized in the last decade in struggles dealing with everything from local, social, and educational issues to globalization and elections. In my first year of university teaching in Hong Kong, I have been struck most powerfully by some of the students’ willingness to change their minds about political issues — showing both the danger that the wrong forces could take hold and the potential for a powerful political force to do something positive. Most important, my students are willing to recognize the way that national identity is harnessed and used by politicians both here and abroad. While my former students in England might agree with me on this in class, they would immediately take to the streets to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee or the wedding of William and Kate directly after our seminar. On the contrary, I’ve found my students here tend to develop a real suspicion of nationalism in all its forms.
It seems to me that while the Right has made concrete gains in the UK by looking backwards, Hong Kong has the potential to suffer less from nostalgia and to “#accelerate” more effectively via its global political identity. An internationalist solution to the present global crises is the only possible solution –— and is something Trump in the US is and the Brexit campaign the UK was working to prevent, instead using any crisis to justify and implement right-wing change. While there is at least one group at the other end of Eurasia, DiEM25, which has begun the task of building international collaboration in Europe and imagining a new European identity, Hong Kong is a place in both space and time that can potentially contribute to globalizing this struggle.
Neither “localism” nor “nationalism” is the word for this potentially radical construction of Hong Kong’s identity, which often — but not always — involves something more political than things provided by birthright, bloodline, or even citizenship. Some aspects of the pro-independence camp in Hong Kong are indeed nationalistic, and some regard them as not unlike Trump and Farage. One recent “pro-independence” group actually suggests that Hong Kong should first go back to British sovereignty before it claims its independent status, which is obvious nostalgia. Others still advocate a yearning for a China and a return to Chinese identity as it was before 1949, again looking backwards just as Britain tends to do. But there is also another possibility among those I have spoken to here, both teachers and students: a desire to develop an identity that refuses to look backwards, but instead looks to the politics of the future, accelerating away from nationalism. For these people, the “great traditions” of both British and Chinese identities are washed away by the combined influence of America, Korea, Taiwan, and others. Following this line, one academic suggested to me that Scotland might be a more useful model for Hong Kong to follow than England, since their independence bids are borne out of a political necessity to respond to its neighbors rather than nationalist “roots.”
Benedict Anderson famously showed that nation-states should be seen as “imagined communities,” and while the UK and US seem to have never realized this or to have recently forgotten it, believing in the essential Britishness or Americanness of the people once again, Hong Kong — if it can resist the tendency for its criticisms of other cultures to slide into apolitical dislike of the other and essentialist nationalism — has the potential to embrace its identity as something politically “imagined” and help envision new identities, restoring the cancelled future. Identity in Hong Kong can at least potentially be less about an essential connection to a “homeland” and more about the pragmatic choices we face in contemporary politics. While it is mainland China that is charging into the future economically, Hong Kong could #accelerate when it comes to political identity in order “to confront and resolve the coming annihilations,” rather than seeking solutions in the imaginary past.