For several months starting late January, the Covid-19 Pandemic seemed to have demobilized the mass movement in Hong Kong, in any case pushing it off the radar of global news. Over the past few weeks, however, the Special Autonomous Region’s unresolved conflict has again begun to heat up, with fifteen prominent anti-Beijing (“pan-democracy”) politicians being arrested on April 18 for “organising and participating in unlawful assemblies,” and the revival of city-wide protests, including one on May 10 ending in over 200 arrests, the firing of a pepper ball round in a shopping center, and the police strangling of a journalist caught up in the melee (one among multiple recent police assaults on journalists). On May 12, “Ms. X,” the teenager who had accused Hong Kong police of gang-raping her in detention after a round-up of protestors last September, learned that the state had now issued a warrant for her arrest on the charge “making a false statement” and “absconding” to Taiwan, and that the Department of Justice had dropped her case against the police. Meanwhile in the Legislative Council, a number of controversial measures have been pursued by pro-Beijing officials, including a 25 percent increase to the police budget, passed on May 14, for the force to add 2,500 officers and purchase more weapons. The next day saw the first in what is expected to become a flood of trials for participants in last year’s protests, with 21-year-old lifeguard Sin Ka-ho being sentenced to four years in prison for “rioting.” Most importantly, Beijing’s “Two Sessions” are currently pushing to impose national security legislation that, opponents argue, would effectively incorporate Hong Kong into China’s political structure, prematurely ending the era of “one country, two systems.”

So now is a good time for us to finally publish the following translation of an interview we conducted last November with two mainland Marxists, Red-Haired Monster (红毛怪) and Basketball (篮球).1 In contrast with our previous writings, translations, intakes and reposts about the movement in Hong Kong, this interview focuses on the movement’s less widely understood significance for the state and ordinary people in mainland China. In particular, the conversation centers on Beijing’s efforts to build “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”—what the interviewees’ describe as ideological window-dressing for the state’s fumbling attempts (actually dating back to the previous government under Hu Jintao) to create a new model for capitalist rule, now that neoliberalism has been exhausted and economic growth has entered a period of decline both globally and increasingly within China, just as Chinese capital has begun to achieve a new importance on the world stage.

We had originally intended to follow up on this initial interview for clarification on some points, but then the pandemic erupted and swept our entire inquiry under the rug. When Hong Kong’s conflict started reviving a few weeks ago, we contacted the interviewees to look over the translation, providing corrections and updates. Below we present excerpts from the original interview combined with those recent additions.


Update from the Interviewees, May 2020

Although much has changed since this interview took place last November, the movement in Hong Kong has not ended, and we can be sure that its next stage will involve even greater explosive force than before. Not one of its demands have been met, and none of the deep-seated problems behind the movement have been resolved. Multiple signs indicate that the Chinese state is preparing to carry out major surgery on the city’s political and social life.

The Covid-19 pandemic has struck a blow to China’s economy and pushed Hong Kong further into decline, its political and social contradictions only deepening over the past half year. The measures that the state has adopted toward Hong Kong seem to have been aimed at “purging” the city, forcing it to “shed its mortal form and exchange its bones” (脱胎换骨) — in other words, to be born again, this time in the service of Chinese capital’s own global interests and struggles.2

Although geographically, Hong Kong and Taiwan may both be archipelagos cut off from any major landmass, neither of them are politically isolated on the world stage. If it weren’t for the support of Western powers led by the US, both would have been “liberated” by the PRC long ago. Now, China has begun to challenge those powers in multiple spheres, including the economy, politics, diplomacy, and media. In this global struggle for supremacy, Hong Kong and Taiwan are both key components, but Beijing still has not achieved complete control over them — if it has achieved any control over them at all. In the currently unfolding global struggle, if Beijing cannot control those two archipelagos, they will become weapons the US can use against China. Since those calling for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” have already begun making moves against the West, how could they avoid trying to resolve the Hong Kong Question and the Taiwan Question as soon as possible?

Mainland media reports on the National People’s Congress (NPC) have already made clear what will happen. One headline from a couple days ago said the NPC’s approach to Hong Kong would be “relatively restrained” (相当克制). Beijing has long possessed the determination to resolve the Hong Kong Question, along with detailed plans about how to do so, with only the rhythm and specific tactics to be adjusted according to how things play out, including surprises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. But the goalpost hasn’t changed. Now Beijing is facing a few more domestic and international complications, but it’s still proceeding with its plans, step by step. Here “relatively restrained” actually just means that everything is still moving forward according to plan.

Chinese capitalism is has entered an historical period in which it is grabbing shares of the world market and establishing its own sphere of influence, and Hong Kong cannot avoid becoming a battleground in this process. When will the city’s laboring masses turn away from the morass of [anti-mainlander] xenophobia and toward class struggle? We can only wait and see. Xenophobia has deep historical roots in Hong Kong. For the forms and aims of struggle to morph into a proletarian attack on capital, this would require certain preconditions that are lacking at present. It might take something like another pandemic to shake things up enough to create those preconditions.

How does the state want to transform Hong Kong, exactly? Might it include some reformist measures to mitigate social contradictions and improve the lives of the locals? We haven’t seen any evidence of such aims, for now at least. Moreover, the state wants to eradicate any destabilizing factors it can control, concentrating resources for use in global competition. It’s unlikely that we’ll see large-scale reformist measures in either mainland China or Hong Kong in the near future, so people’s standards of living will continue to fall.

November 2019 Interview

Chuang: There are four main areas of interest where we could begin this discussion:

  • The movement’s significance for China’s political system, and the economic factors behind it;
  • The various mainland perspectives on the movement;
  • The role of Hong Kong capitalists, and their relation to the conflict of interests on the mainland between capitalists within and outside the party-state establishment (体制内、体制外);3
  • How the Chinese state is responding.

Basketball: Regarding the first topic — the significance for China’s political system — you could put it this way: What kind of capitalism do China’s current rulers want to develop? We can be sure that it’s not “freedom + democracy” — that traditional kind of [liberalism]. It’s said that Hong Kong has freedom without democracy, whereas Taiwan has democracy without freedom. Hong Kong is a model, or a window, deliberately created by global capitalism in order to display the superiority of that system, but in reality it’s never been that impressive. Compared with many other major capitalist cities, like Tokyo, for example, it seems pretty crappy. But still it’s a free port, a hub of world trade, you know. China’s rulers have long been trying to find an existing model for the kind of capitalism they want to develop, always exploring. Of course this exploration has been a conscious endeavor since the very beginning of the period of capitalist transition, but its systematic promotion on a large scale began during the last years of the Hu Jintao government. That is to say, after the completion of the restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the 2000s [….]

During the last years of Hu’s rule, models based on the idea of “freedom + democracy” were discussed at the highest levels of the state leadership, but clearly that direction was ultimately rejected. So what would become the new model? Among the internal opposition (体制内的反对派), as well as the opposition external to the establishment—private Chinese capital—some people are clearly oriented toward [such liberalism]: decrease the government’s control. But especially among the external opposition, as you mentioned [in an earlier conversation] about New Confucianism and so on, some of them have recognized that Chinese society could not function according to the model of “freedom + democracy.” The economy could be liberalized, but politics could not be democratized—on the contrary, there must be more control, even reviving extreme traditions of the old aristocracy. But the new government is apparently not interested in adopting such [conservatism] or complete totalitarianism.

Against this background, the significance of Hong Kong was that, in theory, the city provided a model that could be emulated. For example, Hong Kong’s methods of urban governance: how did the rulers govern such a cosmopolitan metropolis? Its crime rate was low, its economy continued to develop to some extent, and its society was relatively stable. But it’s a small place. When it comes to ruling all of China, Hong Kong’s experience might be applied to one or two cities, but not to the whole enormous country. There were similar discussions about Singapore. There’s no democracy there either, but Singapore is too small—even smaller than Hong Kong.

Red-Haired Monster: Nor does it have even some of the civil liberties enjoyed by Hong Kongers.

C: Neither democracy nor freedom!

B: The US has also been a major object of research and emulation (学习) by the Chinese rulers, since the US is as big as China, and the American political system has been relatively stable for over two centuries. But clearly this model is now unacceptable as well. It has many components that can be emulated, but as whole, the order of the day is to explore and establish a completely new model of capitalist rule.

C: Why is that?

B: Because the US is declining. This is a pressing question for rulers all over the world: how can capitalism be transformed in such a way that they can maintain their rule? And in this context, China seems to be the only power that is on the ascent. Such a big country still in the midst of its rise: economically and politically, including in its Comprehensive National Power (综合国力).

Moreover, China is now trying to cast off the ideology of the so-called “Reform and Opening,” to explore the creation of new methods for capitalist rule, including both economic methods and political ones. A reckoning (清算) must be made with the past three decades. The past thirty years of development were modeled on these “advanced Western” places, giving Chinese people the impression that “market economy is good, capitalism is good, it can help us get rich.” But clearly that era is over: the US is declining, Hong Kong is going crazy (乱了), Paris and many other places are going crazy. China is the only place that still seems to be stable. If we continue down this path, there will probably be chaos here. That cannot be allowed to happen. But there is no other fully formed model that we can emulate, so the only solution is to create something new.

And this new thing must be aimed not only at maintaining rule in China but also asserting power globally. China’s rulers now have great ambition to take on a leadership position (引领) in capitalist development throughout the world. They’ve even announced the long-term goal that by 2050 China will become the world’s most powerful state and “make contributions to human civilization”—of course “human civilization” refers here to capitalism.

So the uprising in Hong Kong entered the stage at just the right moment. Although the mainland government doesn’t want instability at this time, but for the goal of drawing a balance sheet (清算) with the Reform and Opening ideology of the past three decades, and of developing a new model of capitalist rule, the situation in Hong Kong is actually very helpful. It can help dislodge the widespread notion among Chinese people that “Western capitalism” is good, whether in the US or in Hong Kong. Now people are starting to think, “That’s no good anymore. We used to emulate it, or admire it, or harbor jealousy for it, but that was a mistake. So now we have to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics under the leadership of our Communist Party. We need to accept the party’s leadership and complete this process on our own as a nation.”

C: Let me just clarify: what exactly are the components of conventional models that the Chinese state is rejecting? You mentioned “freedom + democracy” but also noted that Hong Kong has no democracy, so is it just Hong Kong’s freedom that is being rejected?

B: First of all, complete liberalization of the economy is definitely unacceptable. In a purely theoretical sense, a lot of Chinese liberals believe in Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago school: the government shouldn’t be involved in so many things, the market can solve all kinds of social problems if you just let it function on its own. But the Chinese state recognizes that global capitalism has reached a point where such traditional ideas can no longer be used.

C: But if it’s just a matter of rejecting free markets and political liberalism, this is nothing new: the 20th century saw many examples of capitalism with various degrees of state control over markets, and more or less authoritarian political systems. These include, of course, fascism, but also many postcolonial developmental regimes that were authoritarian, with economies that were partially state-owned but still very much integrated into global capitalism. So how is this anything new?

B: The difference is that those models belonged to an era to which we can no longer return. And I think the Chinese rulers are aware of that. They can adopt elements of those earlier models, but ultimately they have to create something new. But they’ve only just started exploring for a few years, so I’m not sure what that is yet, and I don’t think they have a completely clear idea either. What they have done is to propose a bunch of tentative plans (设想), some of which have already begun to be implemented. For example, the party-form itself: during the Hu years, it seemed that they were beginning to give up on the Communist Party and considering whether to get rid of it. But two or three years after [the present leaders]4 came to power, they started rebuilding the party. Clearly, among the current rulers of China, the faction with the most power wants to rebuild the party into a tool for ruling—an extremely important one. This is a clear change of strategy. It’s not simply a matter of one-party rule, like that of the Guomindang (KMT) in Taiwan, but to make the party into a tool for ruling every sector of society.

C: Well again, how is that different from fascism, for example?

B: A friend once compared [current leaders] with Hitler: both wanted to strengthen their control over society, but Hitler didn’t have nearly as much power as [current leaders] do today. Hitler couldn’t control big capital. Behind him there were some big German capitalists who supported the Nazi regime. [Current leaders], on the other hand, represent the strongest elements of state-owned capital, so [their] power is much greater than Hitler’s—just to make an oversimplified historical comparison.

Moreover, fascism was primarily a petit-bourgeois movement, which was of course utilized by the big bourgeoisie, but in China there are not any petit-bourgeois movements, nor any political parties to represent them. And with fascism, the big bourgeoisie utilized the petit-bourgeoisie in order to crush the workers movement. This was especially clear in Germany and Italy at the time: millions of petit-bourgeois mobilized to attack millions of members of labor unions and socialist parties—the goal was to crush organized workers. But China has no organized workers, so there’s no need to mobilize such social forces. As we’ve discussed before, in late 2010, the Chinese government allowed an academy to open where the headmaster posed for pictures dressed up as Mussolini. It seemed that the goal was to organize petit-bourgeois students into a social force that could deal with the masses, including auto workers. This was after the strike wave that started at Honda, and the Chinese government was worried that the police would not be sufficient to deal with a workers movement, so they seemed to be planning to use these petit-bourgeois students and middle-class families. […] But they soon abandoned this idea because it wasn’t necessary: an organized workers’ struggle did not emerge. There continued to be lots of strikes, but they didn’t get organized. This was an outcome even the Chinese government didn’t expect. After 2010 the government was afraid, but nothing happened.

C: Is that also why the Guangdong government and union federation began experiments with union elections and collective bargaining at that time, but then abandoned them a couple years later?

B: Yes, that was one reason the union experiments were abandoned: the workers didn’t get organized, so it became unnecessary to continue reforms in that direction. The second was that the experiments, while intended to pacify workers, actually had the opposite effect of stimulating them to become more active and helped them to learn some things.

C: Could you elaborate on that second part a little?

B: Workers discovered that setting up plant-level unions involved elections where ordinary, frontline workers could become union reps (干部) who could actually do some things to help their coworkers.

C: But these two reasons to stop the experiments seem to contradict one another: on the one hand workers didn’t get organized so no longer posed a thread, but on the other you say the experiments stimulated them to become more active — thus posing a threat.

B: The state had two goals: one was to decrease the number of direct actions by workers, such as strikes. The other was to prevent the workers from getting organized. The goal of the union experiments was to decrease the number of strikes: if you have a grievance, don’t raise a ruckus, just bring it to us. But this union is something we set up, it’s not really your organization, so we can control it. […]

R: With the direct election of plant-level union reps, although this was a top-down policy meant to control the workers, it opened up a door for workers to see that they could use this institution, or something like it, for our own ends. If that attitude continued developing up to a certain point, the state might lose the ability to control it. Because the workers always keep moving forward. Like in the second volume of Narratives of Workers’ Resistance in the Pearl River Delta,5 there’s an example from a Japanese-invested auto parts plant where they had a union election, and several militant workers were elected, and this gave them a chance to learn and exercise (锻炼) various skills in the process of collective bargaining. Although these weren’t directly related to organizing workers for collective direct action, it helped to open up their field of vision. Some of them came away even more strongly convinced that they wanted to do something for their class as a whole.

The point is that the state had opened up something that it might not have been able to control if things continued to develop in that direction.

B: Just to clarify what I mean by saying the experiments ended: in 2010, the party secretary for Guangdong province publicly called on local union offices to carry out elections in all workplaces, and this was promoted through the mainstream media, but by 2013 such calls had stopped, and there were no large-scale political moves to continue promoting such reforms. Actually they didn’t completely stop: union reform has continued, but the has direction changed.

C: How did it change?

B: The goal is still to strengthen control over the workers.

R: In 2010, the goal was already to increase control, but there were some people in the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) who hoped that unions could become more independent and play a more active role. In 2013, it was more like the state directly using the unions to increase its control over workers. At least this is clearer now than before. For example, with the food delivery workers in Shanghai, or the crane drivers last year: when these sorts of industry-wide or even interregional strikes occur, immediately the ACFTU sets up industry-wide organizations, like the “food delivery workers association.” In these cases they don’t necessarily use direct elections like they did in 2010, because with those elections you actually had ordinary workers becoming union reps through a process of campaigning, speeches, etc., at least as a formality. Ever since 2013, those formalities have disappeared, and it’s become a purely top-down affair of setting up a system that the state can use directly to enforce stability.

B: In 2013, [current leaders] had already come to power. In the last years of the Hu government, there were some people within the establishment, including within the ACFTU, who actually wanted to set up independent unions. They thought, the ACFTU is a division of the state, but within the state its status is the lowest, as is the salary of its officials. They don’t even have many opportunities for graft to pad this income. So they wanted union reform in order to evade control by the state. They would prefer to be completely independent, but if not, at least they wanted to improve their status. But after [current leaders] came to power, this idea was abandoned. What didn’t change was the strengthening of control over workers—this trend didn’t change between the governments of Hu and [current leaders].

C: Thanks for that explanation. Let’s bring this back to the topic of Hong Kong: this aside about unions came up because we were discussing the role of Hong Kong in the Chinese state’s efforts to create a new model of capitalist rule. Hong Kong represents something like a neoliberal model of “freedom without democracy” that was important in China’s Reform and Opening ideology over the past few decades, and now China’s rulers want to cast off that ideology and create a new model of capitalist rule that involves more direct control by the party and the state over markets and all spheres of society, within the context of global capitalist crisis, the end of neoliberalism, the decline of the US, and mass unrest in many parts of the world. I was asking how this new Chinese model is meant to differ from models of the past such as fascism or postcolonial developmental regimes that were also authoritarian and involved state control over important sectors of the economy. And you responded that with fascism the political context was different, as was its class composition and some of its methods of social control.

B: Another aspect is that, in today’s China, this social control is developing on a much larger scale, in an economy more comparable to the US in size, and with less direct violence and more sophisticated technologies of rule than what we saw with fascism. It’s not that the Chinese state lacks the capacity for such violence—it’s developing that too, but at present it’s focusing on developing other forms of social control.

C: And just to connect this last sub-topic of unions, how does the emerging form of union control over workers in China differ from that used in fascist Germany or Italy?

B: Under fascism, unions were an enemy that the ruling class defeated and then tried to use for its own purposes, whereas in today’s China, the unions are new institutions set up directly by the state, and its officials belong to the ruling class.

C: Ah yes, I see your point now.

So the movement in Hong Kong has emerged right at the time when the mainland bourgeoisie wants to discredit Hong Kong neoliberalism as a model of capitalist rule and rally popular support for the new Chinese model that is still in an experimental stage of formation.

B: Among the mainland rulers, there are some who think that Hong Kong can continue in its current condition: freedom without democracy. But those mainland rulers with more power to determine policy want to use the mass movement in Hong Kong to speed up China’s ideological adjustment. It’s not that they think the movement is a good thing, but it is something that can be utilized.

C: Aside from Hong Kong’s ideological role on the mainland, there are also economic factors. Hong Kong played an important role in China’s re-integration into the world market during the period of capitalist transition, and it continues to play an important role as a hub for finance and logistics while also still providing the mainland with a thin layer of protection from the vicissitudes of the global economy. Is this role changing?

B: The central leadership has expressed the intention to experiment with some changes to this role. Starting next year (2020), Beijing aims to take on a more direct role in planning the future development of Hong Kong’s politics, economy, education and media. This experimentation might provide the state with some points of reference for its rule on the mainland, but Hong Kong is too small, how could its experience be directly applicable to all of China?

C: That’s interesting, but I was thinking more about Hong Kong’s role as a broker between China and the global economy. For example, last year 54 percent of China’s foreign direct investment was received through Hong Kong, and 58 percent of its investment abroad went through the city.

B: That role is also part of the old model that China’s rulers are trying to replace. This was part of China’s “peaceful development” in relation to other countries, but now conflicts have already emerged with the US, and Chinese capital is searching for other ways to expand internationally. It can’t just rely on using Hong Kong as a broker anymore. It will continue to use Hong Kong, but within the new system China is trying to set up, Hong Kong would play a less important role. For example, it’s trying to develop Shanghai and Shenzhen to fulfill the same functions, but they still can’t completely replace Hong Kong.[…]

C: You’ve mentioned before that the Chinese state has revealed some of its plans about Hong Kong through direct and indirect statements. What kind of statements have you seen?

B: The policy of “one country, two systems” is definitely over. That’s for sure.[…] These plans have been revealed in vague terms via official media, and in more explicit terms through unofficial sources, such as that interview with the Hong Kong real estate tycoon Ronnie Chan (陳啟宗) that was released online.

C: Why do you think his statements reflect the views of Beijing?

B: Because if it didn’t, Beijing wouldn’t allow the video to be shared and reposted on mainland social media platforms. He mentioned a lot of sensitive details about Hong Kong. He also talked about attending meetings with high-ranking officials in Beijing, about details from their conversations. If he was trusted enough to be privy to these things, and the censors still don’t take down the video, that’s tantamount to making an official announcement through unofficial channels.

C: So he’s within the [party-state] establishment?

B: No, he’s s a so-called “patriotic businessperson” that is endorsed by the central leaders, although he’s outside of the establishment.

C: So what did he say?

B: He said “Hong Kongers don’t understand politics,” “Hong Kong has no good officials”[….] He insinuated some specific individuals: Li Ka-shing, Carrie Lam as well as the previous chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. He said they have no “political talent.” What he said about Li Ka-shing signifies that Beijing aims to assert control over big capital in Hong Kong. What he said about the chief executives means that, in the future, they will be appointed by Beijing.

C: I thought they were already appointed.

B: Yes, but in the past they were still relatively independent. […] He also criticized Hong Kong’s educational system, saying it’s no good. […] Overall the idea is that Hong Kong’s entire political economy will be incorporated into China’s plan for the future. It will no longer be “one country, two systems,” but nor will it be simply a matter of imposing China’s existing system on Hong Kong. They’re trying to create something new, so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The thing that [current leaders] want to create includes Hong Kong as part of it. […]

C: But this is just one guy saying this, right?6

B: No, I’m just giving you an example. There are lots of others like this.

C: What about Beijing’s own official statements? Wasn’t there an important meeting last month that made some decisions related to Hong Kong?

B: Yes, the Fourth Plenum. I think the takeaway point of that meeting was that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is to be an entirely new thing, completely different from the system during the Reform and Opening, as well as during the preceding period of planned economy. Of course they still say it’s “socialism,” but they say it’s to be a new kind of socialism. Which is to say, a new type of capitalism. They distinguished it from what’s come before in China as well as in other countries, specifically naming the US and highlighting its problems: its unemployment rate, its crime rate, it gun problem, its economic decline, and so on.

C: Was this in a report I can find online?

B: No, this was in a lecture by a central official sent from Beijing to educate local cadres about “the Spirit of the Fourth Plenum.” Of course I’m not a local cadre, but I just happened to have a chance to go and listen.

C: Let’s move on to the other two questions: the perspectives of mainland civilians on the movement, and the positions of Hong Kong capitalists. Regarding the latter, you already gave one example of a pro-Beijing capitalist from Hong Kong. Are Hong Kong capitalists basically split into pro-Beijing and pan-democrat factions?

B: There are more than two factions, but at least one of them is pro-Beijing. As for the opposition, some are localist, some lean more toward Euro-American interests, I’m not sure how to categorize them all.

C: But in terms of explaining the movement, I’ve heard people say that some Hong Kong capitalists are discontent with Beijing and have been trying to use the movement to promote their own interests.

B: Yes, that exists, but I’m not sure if those capitalists are actually tied to American and British interests. One way they’ve participated in the movement is by using the trade unions. For example, [a certain company’s] union participated, but that was incited by the company itself. And lots of other bosses told their employees that they wouldn’t be punished if they skipped work to go protest, some simply announcing a holiday.

C: Do these oppositional capitalists in Hong Kong belong to the same political or ideological camp as oppositional capitalists on the mainland?

B: I’m not sure if they’re connected politically, but one thing that observers have pointed out is that the mainland liberal opposition has not made any statements about the movement ever since it began.

C: Neither for nor against?

B: No statement means that they’ve been silenced. During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, lots of mainland liberal media outlets expressed support and used it as an occasion to criticize the Communist Party. But there’s been no statements like that this time.

C: That brings us to the last topic: the various ways that ordinary people on the mainland have responded to the situation in Hong Kong.

B: On the mainland, it seems that most people are still under the spell of official propaganda. They accept the state’s position: the movement is a baoluan [riot or event of mindless violence, unreasonable chaos], “the Hong Kong people don’t know what’s good for them, why the hell are they raising such a ruckus, the participants are just a bunch of spoiled brats, their parents should discipline them.”

C: Do a lot of people buy the line that the whole movement is orchestrated by the US?

B: Yes, a lot people believe that.

R: This comes up in official propaganda as well as in discussions on social media, but also in the photos and videos people see of the protests, there are so many flags of the US and the UK, so it seems consistent with the official line. Even I wonder about this, especially when the protestors approach the American Consulate requesting that Washington intervene, it’s clear that such voices exist within the movement, and when that aspect is exaggerated in the mainland media, it becomes easy for ordinary people to buy the official line that the whole movement is purely something orchestrated by Western governments.

C: But if that were the case, then why would the protestors need to go beg Western governments to intervene? If anything such actions seem to prove the opposite.

B: Beijing’s propaganda about this has acknowledged that the people of Hong Kong are facing problems of livelihood, that the standard of living is falling, and this was also mentioned in that interview with Ronnie Chan, but then they ask: if those livelihood problems were solved, if everyone were given a place to live, would the people stop protesting? No way. The problem is fundamentally political, not economic. This is Beijing’s position, including in domestic propaganda as well as the views of ordinary mainlanders circulating on social media: “Yes, the standard of living in Hong Kong has been falling the past few years, it’s becoming harder to find a good job there, but you rioters are possessed (鬼迷心窍), influenced by some kind of incorrect political ideas.”

C: It’s true that none of the movement’s Five Demands are directly related to livelihood.

B: Yes, and Beijing uses this as a way to discredit the movement, saying the protestors are either being used by foreign powers, or that they’re just inherently stupid. The government will say, “This nonsense won’t solve your real, economic problems. The Western powers are just using you for their own interests. Instead you should have faith in the Communist Party, love your country, and then we can solve your problems.” So it’s not that Beijing doesn’t acknowledge that Hong Kongers have real causes for complaint, but they say that’s unrelated to the movement.

C: How do you know that many ordinary mainlanders buy into Beijing’s propaganda?

R: Actually most mainlanders don’t seem interested in what’s happening in Hong Kong, especially outside of Guangdong, but for those who do, among those I’ve talked to and from what I’ve seen on social media, their views seem pretty much the same. Of course, on social media a lot of them might be paid trolls (五毛), but among people interested in external affairs, even among those inclined toward liberalism and who were sympathetic with the protests at the beginning, as soon as they started to see the American flag flying at demonstrations, they were turned off. It’s actually like with the Jasic affair: at first when students and workers started protesting and giving speeches, some liberals expressed support, but as soon as they pulled out the Mao posters, the liberals turned away. […]

C: My observation has been that over the past year or so, first the trade war with the US sparked a lot of discussion on Chinese social media in which ordinary, previously apolitical young people became increasingly patriotic and anti-American, and then the movement in Hong Kong added fuel to flames—is that consistent with what you’ve observed? And how widespread is this phenomenon?

R: It seems to be pretty widespread among students in university and high school. Not just in China but also among Chinese students studying abroad. In confrontations between students from China and Hong Kong [at overseas universities], the mainland students seem deeply attached to an abstract political position, even moreso than the Hong Kong students, about China’s sovereignty and so on. I’m not sure if this is something new or just a more vocal expression of what we’ve been taught in school for many years. Before I turned 18, or even up to about the age of 25, I probably had similar views. […]

C: Last question: Why don’t any mainlanders seem to be looking at the situation in Hong Kong and saying, “We’re discontent with the system too, we’re also fighting against injustice, maybe we could learn something from those tactics they’re using over there”? Or at least something like, “That looks fun, that looks like a good way to vent my frustrations”?

R: I think very few mainlanders feel as desperate at the people in Hong Kong.

B: Most mainlanders don’t even acknowledge that it’s a movement. For them it’s just a “riot” (baoluan).

C: But even if they consider it a riot, it’s not like riots don’t happen here all the time too. It seems like the main differences are the scale, the temporality and the level of organization. You’d think it would resonate with people here who have seen, participated in or at least heard of riots against Urban Management officers, pollution, land grabs, etc., so they can understand why someone might participate in a riot, and then they would say, “Look, they’re doing the same thing as us but they’re way more organized.”

R: But the goals of the movement are so different, the slogans used, the symbolism—none of it is anything that resonates here. 

C: So you mean ordinary mainlanders are more concerned with these things than with the movement’s tactics — its molotov cocktails, its blockades, its protective gear and so on? I would assume that most people would pay more attention to these dramatic visual aspects than to abstract things like demands and slogans. Especially people who are themselves upset about some local injustice, like if you’ve been abused by the cops and want revenge, and then you see videos of people in Hong Kong setting cops on fire, wouldn’t you feel inspired to do the same?

R: That wouldn’t happen, because when people fight with cops here, it’s because they’ve done something to piss people off and they just explode on the spot. It’s spontaneous and localized. But in Hong Kong, it’s because they want “universal suffrage,” they have political goals. There’s no way people here would suddenly think, “Well we want universal suffrage too.” It doesn’t matter what tactics are involved.

B: Look at it this way: The protests in Hong Kong have been going on for nearly five months now, but there still hasn’t been a single riot or protest on the mainland that was in any way related to what’s going on over there.

C: How do you know? There have been several riots on the mainland that made it into the news, and unless we go and talk to the participants, we have no way of knowing whether they were at least partly inspired by videos they saw about Hong Kong. For example, the protests in Huazhou, Guangdong over the past few days, some people are saying there’s some kind of connection to Hong Kong. Maybe there’s not, but how do we know?

B: But those sorts of protests have always been happening in China. It’s a purely local matter.

C: You’re probably right, my point is just that we don’t know for sure. And really my question was more the opposite: why do most mainlanders’ responses to Hong Kong seem to be limited to demonization or infantilization of the protestors there rather than finding inspiration for struggles here that are at least tactically similar?

R: I think the main reason is ideology: people here look at the protests there and don’t see them as targeting cops or the local government, but as targeting China and its rule. And that either pisses mainlanders off for ideological reasons, or it seems too grand in scale for people who’ve at most only ever protested against specific local officials or bosses.

Added in May 2020

R: In mainland China, when collective actions erupt against local authorities, these have usually taken the form of economic disputes over land grabs, forced evictions, environmental issues, etc., or occasionally large-scale riots sparked by police brutality (the latter being mostly about ten years ago, as far as I’m aware). In most cases, the government has managed to defuse the situation by dismissing local leaders or doling out economic compensation, and the participants understand their enemy as local corruption or the improper implementation of policies. Neither the intensity of these actions nor the casualties involved have been less dramatic than what’s been happening in Hong Kong, but their aims have been completely different—not at all concerned with changing the political system. Over the past few years there have also been some nationwide protests by teachers, retired soldiers, etc., aimed at central policies, but even these have remained at the level of economic disputes limited to a specific sector or profession. This is mainly because economic growth has continued to be robust enough that mainlanders’ lives have seemed to be improving overall. It would be inconceivable for demands such as “universal suffrage” (even for the election of a mayor) to gain traction without a nationwide political movement.

In Hong Kong, after years of economic decline and worsening living conditions, combined with the experience of a few social movements, most people have come to recognize—to various decrees and from different perspectives—that it would be impossible to address these problems without some kind of political change. I think this is one reason the current movement’s Five Demands all take the form of political demands rather than economic ones.

Of course, that is not to rule out the possibility of a nationwide political movement on the mainland, but just to say that at present the contradictions are still accumulating, and different types of action are developing at a different pace from those in Hong Kong, so they don’t resonate. This is true even for Guangdong, the mainland province most closely interconnected to the SAR. (I’m not sure if it’s too much of a stretch to compare this to 1989, when there was a nationwide political movement on the mainland. Although many Hong Kongers participated, there was no movement against the British colonial government there. At that time Hong Kongers had plenty of complaints against the government, but the economy was growing and living standards were still rising overall. Now we’re faced with the opposite situation.)

As for specific tactics of action on the streets, whether “like water” or “like fire,” the creativity of the masses seems to be endless. This idea of a movement with “no big platform” (无大台)7 seems to have long been the norm in mainland China, no?

C: What do you mean by “no big platform”?

R: Isn’t that how they describe the movement in Hong Kong? Meaning its direction isn’t led by any famous people or organizations, that no identifiable group can determine whether the movement stops or pushes forward.

A movement’s tactics are related to its participants’ level or organization, their state of mind, the kind of results they plan to achieve, the strength of their resistance, and the amount of repression they are able to withstand. It is one thing to be like water, as in guerrilla warfare, but it is another to become a flood capable of bursting the vast dams of “tyranny.”

Translators’ Notes

  1. Also see our translation of Reignite’s interview with Red-Haired Monster and Basketball about the widely misunderstood relationship between the 2018 Jasic factory affair, Maoist student activism, and the post-2016 terrain of workers’ struggles in China.
  2. The sentence translated here appeared somewhat enigmatic in Chinese, so we asked for clarification and received the two paragraphs that follow. We would describe this as a contrast between Hong Kong’s old function, which was in service of the global capitalist class and was often directly controlled by capitalist interests that lay beyond the mainland—either international capitalists from the wealthiest countries or “bamboo network” capital from the Chinese diaspora—and Hong Kong’s new intended function, which will be in more or less exclusive service of the mainland Chinese fraction of the global capitalist class.
  3. This conflict, along with several other themes discussed in this 2019 interview, also emerged in our 2017 conversations with Lao Xie (another independent Chinese Marxist with a similar perspective to those of Red-Haired Monster and Basketball, in some ways), selections from which were translated in “A State Adequate to the Task,” Chuang 2: Frontiers, 2019.
  4. The interviewees have requested that we remove the names of leaders currently in office.
  5. The first volume of this Chinese book series was translated as China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance (Hao Ren, ed., Haymarket, 2016), but this second volume (工厂里的行动——珠三角工人抗争口述集第二辑), published in 2017, has not been translated. The Chinese preface and table of contents are online here.
  6. It’s worthwhile to note again that this interview took place long before the analysis given here was confirmed by later events. The method the interviewees use here to sound out the realities of state policy prior to their formalization via official pronouncements is particularly useful, and is clearly robust in its ability to predict what those formal policies have actually become.
  7. This Cantonese term is normally translated as “leaderless” or “decentralized” but literally means “no platform.” According to a friend in Hong Kong, the “Big Platform” (大台) refers to the stage in the middle of Admiralty during the Umbrella Movement of 2014, where Pan-Democrats had the power to arrange the agenda and determine who could speak. Later there were actions against this monopoly of power within the movement known as “smash the Big Platform” (拆大台). By contrast, the present movement doesn’t use the platform at all, even for participants to give speeches. That was the origin, but now the term “big platform” is used more broadly, referring to any individual or group that tries to take on a leadership position or give orders. Although it sounds horizontal or anarchistic, in practice it’s not related to anything like democratic discussions among participants, but more ideologically associated with the Localists who opposed the Pan-Democratic group that was in power and controlled the stage. Eventually the term spread among the broader mass of participants, who feared that conflict among such political factions would undermine the movement, and a consensus emerged that nobody should take power. This gradually happened through trial and error, and a sort of “voting with your feet.” But it doesn’t involve, and even actively prevents, the sort of onsite airing of different views normally associated with terms like “horizontal” or “leaderless movement.”