Graphic: paperbridgeee for Lausan.

Non-sovereign revolutions: Thinking across Puerto Rico and Hong Kong—Part five

What futures, ideals, and models can we look to in a place without nation-state sovereignty?

Editor’s note: This is the final part of the series that presented the roundtable “Non-Sovereign Revolutions: Thinking across Puerto Rico and Hong Kong” in its entirety. The parts have been divided thematically to highlight the divergences and overlaps of the participants’ conversations as they moved across different sites and times.

Series table of contents:
PART ONE: Preface; introductory remarks; J on Hong Kong’s long history of mobilization and the problem with “restore Hong Kong, revolution of our times”
PART TWO: R on postcolonial capital and the postcolonial state; Wen Liu on the politics of comparing Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Puerto Rico and non-sovereign visions of interdependence
PART THREE: Yarimar Bonilla on a “sovereignty rooted in abandonment” post-Hurricane Maria and “Ricky Renuncia” as a movement on pause
PART FOUR: Rocío Zambrana on the political economy of coloniality and debt as an apparatus of capture
PART FIVE: Q&A—land, global capital, language, the university, and solidarity


Roundtable participants: Professor Yarimar Bonilla (CUNY), Dr. Rocío Zambrana (Emory), Dr. Wen Liu (SUNY, Albany), J, R. Moderated by Wilfred Chan.

Questions were pooled and answered at once but have been ordered thematically here for ease of reading. This transcript has been edited for structure and clarity.


Sovereignty, land, and capital

Q: I’m thinking about non-sovereignty, and particularly a non-sovereignty and anti-colonial framework, based in an indigenous framework in North America. I’m Navajo, from Diné territory in Arizona, and there are a lot of emerging discussions within an indigenous, North American context that are also critical of sovereignty, and the ways in which even indigenous sovereignty articulated as such can replicate the colonial form of nationhood and its exclusions and its exclusionary nature. Even though I’m convinced by the sort of decolonial nationhood movements of the past, we also know that the postcolonial nation has replicated and reproduced these dynamics.

But one thing that makes me nervous about non-sovereignty is thinking—in the language of your comments just now—about the coloniality of capital, but also how that coloniality seems to be shifting with finance capital. How does non-sovereignty also perhaps open up territory to expropriation and extraction from non-state formations, speaking of these corporations and other forms of transnational capital?

I wonder, perhaps this panel is one example of the forms of solidarity that need to happen to create a global network on the scale of global finance capital and imperialism. If we see imperialism as world-making and capital as remaking the world, how do we create other forms to combat that? 

Yarimar Bonilla: In terms of thinking about non-sovereignty, and how it could possibly make us more vulnerable to capital: I sometimes wonder if that was the right title for my book, the concept of non-sovereignty. I write about how I use that phrase as a placeholder. In some ways I’m in dialogue with—because the book came out at around the same time—Audra Simpson’s ideas about refusal. You know, the ways of saying no even when you don’t yet know what you want to say yes to. And when you’re still trying to bring into being what you want to say yes to. But there’s a slipperiness too, because non-sovereignty is the state that we’re already in, in a way. We don’t have sovereignty, but what we seek is not the Western model of sovereignty. So we seek something other than that.

But I think there are models of collective land use. For example, in Puerto Rico, there are land trusts. And it is not coincidental that right now, after the hurricane, those folks are being pushed to give those up, and to turn their land into commodities. So part of the reason why lots of folks in Puerto Rico were denied FEMA assistance after the hurricane was because they did not have land titles. This was not illegal; you weren’t required to have land titles in Puerto Rico, and there were a lot of family plots of land, and different alternative relationships.

Protesters wave flags under an altered street sign reading “Street of Resistance.” 2019, January 20. (L) Protester stamps handprint in red paint around portraits of Rickardo Rosselló. 2019, July 15. (R) Photos: Yarimar Bonilla

And now, there’s this drive—that is not unique to Puerto Rico, that also exists in other places like Haiti—by organizations like the Clinton Foundation and others to get people to get titles. And part of the logic is that then they can take out mortgages to repair their properties. So the commodification of land is very much underway.

Rocío Zambrana: So the point about global capital and the state: I think that finance capitalism needs the state to actualize its ends. So I think that hitting it from all directions is necessary. I would steer clear from reifying a distinction from global capital, and financialized capital and the state. 

The other thing is that—and the language is obviously problematic—of land occupation. In Puerto Rico, land rescue has been a long-standing practice throughout the twentieth-century, in response to a variety of forms of expulsion that have to do with different iterations of economic development. Right now, in urban centers that have been decimated by the debt crisis, people are also occupying or rescuing those spaces.

Finance capitalism needs the state to actualize its ends. So I think that hitting it from all directions is necessary.

It’s very complicated for a bunch of different reasons that we can talk about later. But I think that challenging private property has a history through community land trusts and socializing forms of private property. But there’s also a longstanding tradition of taking back land—even though the language is complicated, because it’s usually occupying but also on occupied land.

R: The funniest thing about British colonialism is that the first transnational company, the first non-state actor that colonized the rest of the world or a great chunk of it, is what we now know as the East India Company. The point here being that corporations and state power are very much aligned with each other, especially in the Hong Kong context, especially in terms of land.

The MTR corporation—which is a big landowner in Hong Kong, which is also coincidentally the biggest operator of the public transit system—builds shopping malls and rents out the spaces of those shopping malls at extremely high prices. Such that you have, say, Jackson Heights subway station would also entail a gigantic shopping mall with Louis Vuitton inside of it. It is not built for Hong Kong people. It is built entirely for the expropriation of Hong Kong people and the exploitation of Hong Kong workers.

Protesters raise their hand to signal the slogan “Five Demands, Not One Less” in Central. 14 November, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

Basically, land is such a big problem that, in 2011, when the Hong Kong government was proposing to build the high-speed rail linking Hong Kong to Beijing, the Land Justice Movement was inaugurated. And you have a lot of what I would consider left localism, coming out of the Land Justice Movement, which is basically saying, look, we need the land to be used for the people, and not for expropriation, not for profit.

So you have all of these different young activists doing something called the prostrating walk; they walked the full length of the railroad, and for every three steps, they walked, they kneeled, and then prostrated themselves in protest. As we all have been talking about, this creates a different kind of connection, creates a different kind of sociality.

J: In relation to the finance capital and corporation angle, it’s also important to note that finance capital relies on the state. And also the state and lots of corporations are imbricated, in our case, with a lot of surveillance and technologies that are used across different sites of struggle, including in Xinjiang, and across different territories across the One Belt One Road project, which is the new infrastructural project that the Chinese state is trying to institute. So it’s very important to look at these coexisting and co-conspiratorial factors that may operate seemingly separately but actually are extremely imbricated. And it’s terrifying, but it’s also something we need to be able to discern as a whole rather than separately. 

And for your question about non-sovereign forms of land use, I wanted to highlight that one of the ways Hong Kong people have transformed the topography of the city is that they have made maps of areas and tried to do live mapping of tear gas releases and confrontations of police. It’s become this exercise of relearning the territory of the city in a way that truly transforms the alienation of the concrete blocks, into spaces of resistance and subversion. 

Wen Liu: About East Asia, the region: Its relationship with capitalism is very complicated. East Asian countries and postcolonial countries are created precisely because global capital needs a spatial fix. A nation-state must be created to absorb the surpluses of US mobile capital.

Every time we talk about sovereignty in East Asian countries, it becomes a very difficult question, because it often becomes about supporting US imperialism. But now I don’t think we have to think about sovereignty and non-sovereignty as a binary relation—but as a strategy of seeking autonomy, of seeking multiple forms of belonging rather than a necessary angle.


The university as a site of attack

Q: I’m just wondering if we can think about how and why the university in both Puerto Rico and Hong Kong became a site for the protests, and whether there’s similarities—whether that helps us think about that question—between both colonial forms that are obviously what we’re learning in these spaces. But also how we’re being trained to become these little individual insulators of capital in those places, and how those also become spaces of international student solidarity? 

YB: In terms of universities—I want to hear the context in Hong Kong. In Puerto Rico, the university has long been the major site of political protest, of imagining alternative futures. One of the projects that I’ve done was looking at the political knowledge in Puerto Rico. Folks who graduated from the public university had much greater political knowledge of what was happening in Puerto Rico, of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the US, than folks from the private universities, where the graduation rates are much lower, where people are geared much more towards vocational education. Not coincidentally, the university was the first target of the fiscal board for dismantling, even though it was not the biggest site of debt for the government, and there was no other really clear reason. 

JP: Higher education in Hong Kong is a bit different to that of the US, in the sense that higher education is relatively inexpensive, but there is a lack of availability of higher education spaces. This means that there is a way in which universities are sites of political consciousness raising, which is why in 2014 and in the current movements, we’ve seen students mobilize significantly.

A protester peers out at flames during the first dawn of the police siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 17 November, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

That being said, I also think it’s a mistake to fixate on the student perspective and the young protesters’ perspective, because the only way students are able to resist and struggle is because they have this—and I don’t want to use the military metaphor—but they have this army of people behind them, that supports them on the front lines.

For example, recently, in the siege of Polytechnic University which lasted for 9 days, students tried to escape by the sewers. And somehow, in the density of Hong Kong’s online networks, they managed to enlist professional engineers, who calculated when the tide in the pipes would be at the highest water level, and fed this information inside so that people could escape. All of these are ways in which we’re reconfiguring resistance to not only be something done by young university students, but something that is supported by all of these affinity networks in a really powerful way.

We often think about the university as a pure space; but it’s also a site of attack now.

WL: We can’t just purify universities. As folks based in the US, we also need to think about how universities in North America are sites of encroachment, about how it is actually risky for faculty to teach about Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet. In my institution we have a Confucius Institute. There’s actual regulations and ways in which conversations cannot or can be had.

For example, in a recent event at the University of Rochester, we know there was a student attacked by a Chinese student association for speaking about Xinjiang and Uyghurs, about Tibetan struggles. Or in Toronto, there was a student president, a Tibetan student who was elected, but then was cyber-attacked. We often think about the university as a pure space; but it’s also a site of attack now.


The language of protest

Q: Thank you all so much. I wanted to ask about the language that the protesters are using, both in Puerto Rico and in Hong Kong. Because one of the speakers, Jun, mentioned the “pro-democracy movement”—so I was wondering to what extent are these movements calling into question these very systems, the institution of democracy. I work in Arab countries, North Africa, and the Middle East, and one of the arguments that are being made about the Arab Spring is that procedural democracy has actually cut short the revolutionary momentum and trajectory of these protest movements. Could you please speak to that? 

YB: In terms of language, the Puerto Rican movement has been in Spanish. But I think you meant more in terms of slogans and concepts. During the movement, the slogan was Ricky Renuncia!—for Ricky to step down. And then people were like, “Well, okay, he’s stepped down. How do we talk about the movement in a broader way?”

There was another slogan that became really popular, which was: Somos Más, “we are more, we’re a majority,” Y No Tenemos Miedo, “and we’re not afraid.” I had never heard this slogan before, but it was echoed throughout the movement. And to me it speaks to this desire of imagining ourselves as a collective, of being more than the corrupt politicians, of also being more in terms of not being divided by ideologies, by discriminatory practices. And of not being afraid to plunge into the unknown, and not being afraid of police violence, because this was also something that was hurled at the police.

Vamos por todos, ‘we’re going after them all.’ It’s an agenda that is impossible, because it’s hitting every possible aspect: economic, political, social—because that is the nature of the problem.

RZ: The other thing I wanted to say about language and about refusal is that one of the slogans that really caught my eye was the reference to an important slogan in Argentina: Que se vayan todos, “they must all go,” with respect to the corrupt governors. But it turned into: Vamos por todos, “we’re going after them all.” I thought that was really interesting, that it related to those lists. This is an agenda that we have. And it’s an agenda that is impossible, because it’s hitting every possible aspect: economic, political, social—because that is the nature of the problem.

JP: The language question: I think one of the concepts in Professor Bonilla’s book, about strategic entanglement, is really useful to understand the way that Hong Kong people understand “democracy.” Because within the framework of Hong Kong’s political system, democracy is definitely concerning the electoral system. The approach is basically to engage with the electoral system as much as is possible to extend the power of pro-democracy, progressive, or social democratic, or generally liberal-democratic power; but also to resist in different ways and to enact direct democracy in the ways we engage with one another during protests.

People walk by “erased” slogans during a march in Causeway Bay. 8 December, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

I think the electoral participation is important, but equally important is the kinds of prefigurative politics that we are enacting by the ways we organize. This enables the strategic entanglement to not be the end goal, and produces new possibilities that we see being manifest, even in the way that Lausan was created. This is a very minimal example, but we didn’t know each other before July, and then we found each other on the Internet, and we organize with people all around the world. I’m not an optimist, but I think this is a beneficial way of moving past considerations of only strategy. 


The question of solidarity

Q: I’m wondering what is the most important or the biggest action that can be taken in solidarity and in conjunction with the Puerto Rican diaspora here in the United States and with the people of Puerto Rico? And the same question goes for Hong Kong as well. What are the biggest, most important things we have to be organizing right now?

YB: In terms of solidarity: the first one I always say is that the United Statesians have such a lack of knowledge of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the US. And that’s part of why then policies can get passed and politicians, even folks like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, can say, “I just support self-determination for Puerto Rico.” Well, if you have an understanding of Puerto Rican history, you’d know what an empty phrase that is.

What does self-determination mean in a relationship of colonial power? So if Puerto Ricans said, “We want to be a state,” would that happen? Or if we said, “We want to be independent, but we want to retain our US citizenship” or “We want reparations from the US,” would that happen? So I think a better understanding with which to speak back to politicians would be really key. 

RH: One thing we talk about a lot is the need to combat a lot of the false narratives that come out of different forms of media. For example, there is a fixation on how young the protesters are, even if this is not necessarily true. You have a lot of people who pay for frontliners’ meals, which is why the frontliner and protestor distinction has come about. Because you have people paying for the gas masks, people bringing in all of the materials for molotov cocktails during a siege. There is a network here, as prefigurative forms of community.

So I think for a lot of us, combating what we would call “tankie” narratives; basically that the US is funding Hong Kong protests, or it’s a “color revolution” which is a term that is used. Combating that here is actually extremely important, because that is a concrete barrier to solidarity. Without people actually understanding what is going on in Hong Kong, without actually engaging on the same terms that Hong Kong people are articulating the movement, you basically have the sort of black-and-white constructs of good and evil.

It’s all about the territorial integrity of this “Chinese socialist state,” as opposed to the wishes of the Hong Kong people. That might seem like a wishy-washy answer, but it’s actually extremely important because that’s what forms policy: Combating Marco Rubio-type, China-hawk narratives around Hong Kong, so that we can make space for the aspirations of the Hong Kong people.