Hong Kong’s Liquid Protesters and Beijing’s Strategy of Corrosion

“Hard as ice, flow like water, disappear like smoke. Be Water”  Source; © KitDaSketch,

[An edited and shortened version of this essay was published on the Guardian website on 14 August 2019].

As Hong Kong’s anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (ELAB) movement enters its third month, a resolution or simply a de-escalation dynamic still seems far off. However, the past week brought some clarification of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ strategy in dealing with the protests.

The movement achieved early success with the suspension of the bill by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on June 15, further to unprecedented peaceful demonstrations that brought out up to 2 million people, and police violence on June 12. After a small group of protesters broke in to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on July 1, inflicting targeted material damage to the chamber, the five demands voiced by the occupiers (withdrawing the bill, withdrawing the government’s characterization of the protests as a riot, ordering an independent investigation of police violence, granting an amnesty to the arrested protesters, and implementing universal suffrage) continued to enjoy widespread support in society. The movement’s innovative “be water” technique, moving occupations, “Lennon Walls,” outreach to mainland tourists via “airdropped” flyers, and leaderless coordination through Telegram groups and the LIHKG Forum were all seen as lessons learned by the protesters to avoid the pitfalls of the Umbrella Movement of 2014. Beijing authorities, having distanced themselves from the bill, seemed to be lying low.

But after protesters were attacked by suspected triad members on July 21, the same evening as protesters spray-painted the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong, police authority was questioned and the Hong Kong government practically disappeared from public view for two weeks. People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a first page commentary on Hong Kong on July 22, followed by a first-page editorial on August 5, in which it comprehensively reaffirmed its strategy. The gist of the editorial was repeated in press briefings by the Hong Kong Chief Executive, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing, and its director, Zhang Xiaoming, in a meeting with 300 members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing elite in Shenzhen on August 7. The editorial drew a distinction between violent extremists who have used the bill as a pretext for other goals and the vast majority of the HK public, called upon to unite against the violent elements.

Zhang Xiaoming further pointed out that Beijing cannot rely on compromising with the opposition and should make no concession to the five demands. In particular Zhang was quoted as saying that “full withdrawal of the bill would imply that the stated intention of preventing Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives was wrong” and that an inquiry could only take place after the unrest had ended. Instead, Zhang argued, Beijing should rely first and foremost on the Chief Executive, the Hong Kong government, and One Country Two Systems, second on the Hong Kong police and judiciary, third on patriotic forces in Hong Kong, and fourth on the overwhelming majority of HK people who desire peace and stability. Zhang’s statement lays out a multi-pronged strategy. The Hong Kong police have been tasked with suppressing demonstrations at any cost. A previous commander was brought back out of retirement, in an implicit acknowledgment of previous missteps, but presumably to enforce even harsher methods. On August 12, police were forced to recognize that plainclothes offices had infiltrated protesters. Similarly, the judiciary will come under further pressure from the prosecution, using politicized charges and expedited procedures.

Next, patriotic forces will be mobilized to reunify the extremely disunited pro-establishment camp: businesses will face disproportionate retaliation or boycott if they do not actively oppose the protests; universities and public institutions in Hong Kong will be brought back under control through internal discipline. This will raise the cost of sympathizing and participating for ordinary protesters. Indeed, pro-establishment politicians immediately lined up behind Beijing’s wording, putting an end to calls for Lam’s resignation or an independent inquiry. Finally, Beijing has engaged in a battle to turn public opinion in Hong Kong against the movement and isolate the “violent extremists” from the “patriotic silent majority,” especially by highlighting the economic impact of protests. Depictions of the protests as instigated by “foreign forces” were stepped up.

This “strategy of attrition” served Beijing quite well in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. At the same time, Beijing also continues to “breathe fire” and release videos hinting at the possibility of a military crackdown. Beijing’s position is no doubt driven by fear of contagion to the mainland and geopolitical anxiety about Hong Kong’s loyalty, at the same time as by the need to maintain Hong Kong’s “stability and prosperity” and mainland influence in Taiwan. The protesters’ challenge will therefore be to avoid responding to police provocations with violence, and to keep public opinion on their side, even as surveys show the public’s concern about the level of violence. Support for at least two of the claims remains above 95%, as another recent survey points out. However, the leaderless “be water” strategy has also emerged as liability of the movement, as there is no forum to coordinate a return to non-violent tactics or possible negotiations. Finding an exit strategy is almost always the most difficult part of a mobilization and it remains unclear how the spiral of escalating violence can be halted.


Just published: The Rise of China’s Statist Intellectuals: Law, Sovereignty, and “Repoliticization”

81h8-4ftfnl._ac_ul436_Citation: The Rise of China’s Statist Intellectuals: Law, Sovereignty, and “Repoliticization”The China Journal 82 (July 2019), pp. 23-45.

Beginning in the 1990s, a number of elite Chinese intellectuals developed new critiques of liberalism. Within the orbit of Marxism, a group often called the “new left” mainly concentrated on economic liberalism and inequalities of wealth. Some of them also showed an affinity with the views of intellectuals referred to as statists. The statists’ three main ideas can be summarized as the superiority of political sovereignty over the rule of law, a critique of the “judicialization” of politics and the need to “repoliticize” the state, and a critique of universalism and an assertion of Chinese exceptionalism. Some of the legal scholars who developed these ideas are directly influenced by Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), an authoritarian German legal scholar and political theorist. Important texts by the current Chinese group of statist thinkers provide an intellectual background to the recent evolution in Party ideology.

Just published: The Three Crises of 1989

This is a piece I wrote for the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 democracy movement, in which I try to take a look at the historiography and draw some conclusions for understanding China today. I argue that 1989 crystallized three crises, none of which has been truly solved by the Party today. It was a crisis of succession which entailed a paralysis of top Party-state institutions. Since 2018, succession has once again become a problem as the Party roles back institutional norms that had become widely accepted. It was impulsed by intellectuals, who were at the time derided for their elitism. In the last decade, we have seen the rise of grassroots intellectuals who are better able to connect with broad sectors of society. After the students’ hunger strike began on May 13, the protests turned into a vast popular movement in which an incipient identity as citizens or shimin was articulated and claimed. Today, as social inequalities have only further deepened, citizenship remains conditional and continues to be demanded by the many groups and individuals who are disenfranchised or treated unfairly by the state.
See the article in French on the Esprit website.

Civil disobedience and the rollback of Hong Kong’s judiciary

(clockwise) Benny Tai, Chan Kinman, Raphaël Wong, Shiu Ka-chun being taken away after the verdict.

The series of judgments and sentences by Hong Kong courts in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement have suggested a durable undermining of the autonomy of Hong Kong’s judiciary. The sentence in the “OC9” trial on 9 April highlighted the new norm of imposing custodial sentences in freedom of expression and association cases, which represents a break with the practices of the 1990s and 2000s. To get a better idea of the extent of custodial sentences, Kong Tsung-gan’s regularly updated tally of legal proceedings is an excellent resource.
In this piece I recently wrote for Tocqueville 21, I tried to dissect the court’s views of civil disobedience in order to get a better understanding of how and why the judiciary’s approach has changed.
While I believe it is unlikely that judges are being given specific instructions or approached directly by politicians in Hong Kong or Beijing, a series of developments have put judges under huge pressure to deliver the “correct” verdicts.
The first and foremost of these factors is the agressive political prosecution and systematic appeal of all non-custodial sentences by the Hong Kong Department of Justice, which can be seen as a form of weaponization of the legal process.
Second, the background pressure from Beijing: since the White Paper on One Country Two Systems (2014), Beijing’s spokespeople have insisted that the judiciary is part of the “governing team” of Hong Kong and must contribute to “upholding” national priorities like sovereignty and state security.
Finally, the conflation in official but also media discourse of civil disobedience with public disorder has consolidated the preference among parts of Hong Kong society for law and order.
However, the recent mass protests among pro-democracy groups, the judiciary, but also in society at large against the amendment to the Fugitive Ordinance that would allow for extradition of suspects to China, suggests that the government has overplayed its hand and may yet have to reconsider red lines among Hong Kong civil society on freedom of expression and judiciary process.
Read the full piece “The Limits of Civil Disobedience in Hong Kong” on Tocqueville 21.

May Fourth: Academic Freedom and Democratic Legitimacy

Arrested students of BNU return to school on May 7th, 1919. (Wikimedia Commons)

In this essay, published by The Diplomat for the centenary of China’s foundational political moment in 1919, I attempt to “scrape away” the many commemorative layers that have obscured the meaning of the movement, and to bring out its original connection with academic freedom and democratic procedure.
Since it’s paywalled, I’m summarizing some of the ideas here. I begin by looking back at some recent events, in particular how, in March 2019, some students at Peking University leaked a questionnaire they were asked to fill out, in which they are prompted to identify May Fourth with patriotism (“the most important part of personal dignity is knowing how to be patriotic”) and the need to actively practice it (“patriotism should not be limited to slogans”). I argue that this selective form of commemoration is particularly ironic at a time when two central aspects of new culture – the defense of academic freedom and the cosmopolitan enthusiasm for ideas and knowledge from around the world – are being repressed in China. Xu Zhangrun, a professor at the Law School of Tsinghua university was suspended from duty and placed under investigation by the university in March 2019 for no other reason than a series of editorials criticizing the current government (see Geremie Barmé’s Xu Zhangrun Archive). More broadly, following the publication of a State Council “Opinion” in January 2015 (see original and English translation by Rogier Creemers), the minister of Education issued a call to minimize the use of “foreign content” in textbooks and other class material at all levels of the educational system, leading to a gradual phasing out in all but some top tier institutions of the cosmopolitan spirit that has imbued China’s universities for the last decades.
In the conclusion, I make a few other points that in my view are sometimes unfortunately overlooked:
– The movement marked the emergence of universities as autonomous institutions, based on freedom of thought and expression, where students were both socialized in the ethos of new citizens and from where they organized the movement, establishing groups to awaken and mobilize society. In particular, the protests of 1919 were also a struggle over the control of PKU.
– Similarly, the movement marked the emergence of “peer journals” as spheres for elite discussions on culture and politics, predicated on the broad social endorsement of freedom of the press. The press was both used as a means to spread information and mobilize the masses (for example when students were arrested on May 5), while at the same time the letters to the editor sections provided a public platform for open discussion. The expression of student “patriotism” is therefore inseparable from the claims of freedom of expression and political participation.
– Finally, the issue of patriotism itself is worth revisiting. Much of the public outrage stemmed from the fact that the Beiyang government (like the Yuan Shikai regime before it) not only eschewed normal diplomatic protocol by signing secret agreements, and accepted foreign loans as funding for party campaigns or as personal bribes, but was also perceived as lacking the democratic legitimacy to represent the nation in the first place. The Peking government remained strongly contested, seen by many as de facto rather than de jure. Many members of the first Assembly elected in 1912 had regrouped in Canton and peace negotiations between the Peking and Canton governments were ongoing, even as representatives from both camps were included in the delegation sent to Versailles. It is against this background of lack of both democratic procedure and democratic legitimacy that the patriotic demonstrations should be understood, not unlike Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.
For this reason, I conclude by arguing that, while Western politicians would do well to remember the broad resonance of the movement’s critique of Western double standards, Chinese politicians would be well inspired to pay heed to the ideals of academic freedom and democratic process that were at the heart of the student activism of 1919.

Minjian. The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals

9780231191401Upcoming book talks:
Oxford China Centre, 7 November 2019.

Previous Talks:
Columbia University Weatherhead East Asia Institute, 23 April 12:00-13:30.
Harvard University Fairbank Center, 25 April, 16:00-17:30.
Reid Hall, Columbia Global Center in Paris, 14 May, 19:00-20:30.
The University of Hong Kong, 21 June 2019 16:00-18:00.

David Ownby in PRC History Review, July 2019.

Publisher’s blurb:
Who are the new Chinese intellectuals? In the wake of the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement and the rapid marketization of the 1990s, a novel type of grassroots intellectual emerged. Instead of harking back to the traditional role of the literati or pronouncing on democracy and modernity like 1980s public intellectuals, they derive legitimacy from their work with the vulnerable and the marginalized, often proclaiming their independence with a heavy dose of anti-elitist rhetoric. They are proudly minjian—unofficial, unaffiliated, and among the people.
In this book, Sebastian Veg explores the rise of minjian intellectuals and how they have profoundly transformed China’s public culture. An intellectual history of contemporary China, Minjian documents how, amid deep structural shifts, grassroots thinker-activists began to work outside academia or policy institutions in an embryonic public sphere. Veg explores the work of amateur historians who question official accounts, independent documentarians who let ordinary people speak for themselves, and grassroots lawyers and NGO workers who spread practical knowledge. Their interventions are specific rather than universal, with a focus on concrete problems among disenfranchised populations such as victims of Maoism, migrant workers and others without residence permits, and petitioners. Drawing on careful analysis of public texts by grassroots intellectuals and the networks and publics among which they circulate, Minjian is a groundbreaking transdisciplinary exploration of crucial trends developing under the surface of contemporary Chinese society.

Columbia University Press page: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/minjian/9780231191401


Just published: Popular Memories of the Mao Era

This edited volume provides an overview of the many forms of critical popular memories of the Mao era that have recently developed in China. While the state has attempted to limit critical memories to the private realm, they have increasingly appeared online and in the media, in cultural productions and in the publications of amateur historians, despite the crackdown in the last few years. These popular memories challenge the officical historiography and have begun to modify the dominant narratives of the Mao era. For example, public debates have taken place over the last decade about some key episodes in PRC history: the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Famine of 1959-1961 and the Cultural Revolution. While trauma and nostalgia dominated earlier expressions of memories of the Mao era, the new narratives, which appear in semi-official or unofficial journals, in independent documentary films, in private museums, or in oral history and archival projects by amateur historians, seek to open a space for a critical debate about China’s recent past.

Contributions by Jean-Philippe Béja, Wu Si, Jun Liu, Kirk Denton, Sebastian Veg, Judith Pernin, Aihe Wang, Frank Dikötter, Michel Bonnin, and Daniel Leese.
See: https://hkupress.hku.hk/pro/1690.php
The Editor’s Introduction and Michel Bonnin’s chapter on the Rustication Movement are freely available through the publishers website: https://hkupress.hku.hk/pro/con/1690.pdf