Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan.

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

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

Editor’s note: This is part two in a series that will present 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.

This transcript has been edited for structure and clarity.

(Post)colonial capital

R: I want to talk about what statehood means—what is the nation, what is the state, and whether the nation and the state necessarily map on top of each other, in Hong Kong’s current situation. Hongkongers are problematizing these normative political ideals at the same time as they purport to use them as a framework for their own liberation.

Hong Kong has always existed in a state of exception. It was always a colony that was meant to give profits back to the metropole, which is not necessarily the framework within which many of the other colonies were operated. Ninety-nine percent of reserves up until 1973 were concentrated back in London.[1] Very little of the reserves were given back to the people. Even now, the Hong Kong government is the sole proprietor of all of Hong Kong’s land, which means that the government is invested in keeping land prices artificially high so that developers can develop the land and profit from rent—that is how the Hong Kong government has maintained its reserves over the years.

Hongkongers are problematizing these normative political ideals at the same time as they purport to use them as a framework for their own liberation.

From the 1970s, after the manufacturing boom in Hong Kong, both British and Chinese capital has been concentrated in the city. Both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Hong Kong government have no interest or incentive to reform the city in a way that will allow people to actually take control over resource distribution. What we have here is 150 or so years of a government that expropriates from the people, a government that does not give the people any sort of political power—a people that has been disempowered to live as they should. 

So when Hong Kong people talk about self-determination and wanting universal suffrage, is not just about elections; it is about the city as a whole being able to have political and economic control over itself. 

I emphasize that Hong Kong has always lived in a state of exception, because I want to illuminate the reasons why Hong Kong is still stuck in this legalistic framework of thinking about self-determination, sovereignty, and all of these normative political ideals that have never actually been realized. Hong Kong people use these norms in order to articulate a struggle that is essentially a struggle for people power: a struggle to have a proper economic livelihood that isn’t just dependent on state expropriation.

Riot police congregate outside Giorgio Armani in Central. 19, January 2020. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

Postcolonial statehood

I want to also point out here that Hong Kong was removed from the UN’s list of Self-Governing Territories, in 1972 at the request of the CCP, which is why Hong Kong has never really undergone, within international jurisprudence, what we would consider decolonization, which is flag independence. I know Puerto Rico was removed from this list in 1953. 

Do people in Hong Kong want flag independence, when they say they want self-determination? A small faction of nativists do want that—they do want independence. But a lot of people do not want a state solution to what they see to be a problem of the greater social and political organization of the city. 

What can a people do, how can they cope in a space where sovereignty will not necessarily liberate them?

Yarimar Bonilla: When you talk about statehood, is that independence? In Puerto Rico, statehood means independence. In the context of Hong Kong?

R: It’s a little bit different. There’s a small faction of nativists led by a person called Chin Wan. He wrote this book called On the Hong Kong Polis, where he intentionally creates and conflates a Hong Kong imaginary—as nascent as it is—to a state proper. He actually talks about imperialism, and how he wants Hong Kong to be a libertarian city-state. But I think those two things are extremely separate for a lot of Hong Kong people—the idea of a nation as an imagined community that faces the same sets of traumas specifically, not as in what Benedict Anderson would say through the emergence of print capitalism, but from the very fact of state violence. 

Obviously, the final question then becomes: what should become of Hong Kong? I think there are no obvious answers. Flag independence would still, in my view, not upend the forces that keep Hong Kong in the space that it is in right now. Not a single country within the Western First World system, both imperial and not, benefit from Hong Kong being freed from its current nexus of global capital. So hence the term non-sovereign. What can a people do, how can they cope in a space where sovereignty will not necessarily liberate them? 

Protesters march in the shadow of banking towers in Central. 15, September 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, Puerto Rico: The politics of comparison

Wen Liu: I want to focus on why we should do relational comparison, particularly as someone working on Taiwanese independence movements. One common saying is: “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan.” But that term is problematic in a way, as if there is a spectrum of sovereignty, that is progressing from Hong Kong to a more autonomous state of Taiwan. Rather, we should think about the sovereignty of Taiwan and Hong Kong in relation to the Cold War binary of the US and China, and the constraints and possibilities created by that binary. 

When the movement started to break out in Hong Kong, it was very marginalized in Western international media. The reasons are, first, the imposed identity of Hong Kong as this global capitalist center, which meant that a lot of international leftists were hesitant to engage with the movement, much less think about supporting the movement as a progressive movement. Second, academics or those engaged in leftist scholarship, have a very well-trained aversion to Cold War politics between China and the US. Third, there is the marginalization of the academic fields of Hong Kong Studies, Taiwan Studies, Indigenous studies in Western academia, that can allow us to think about the problem of China in another way.

By doing a comparison of Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, we can see that the state of exception in Hong Kong is not exceptional at all.

We also have to note that there is a very active program of Han unification and Han chauvinism that is being propagated by both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the US, too, in Western academia. Those three problems make it especially important for us to have a non-sovereignty framework for thinking about Hong Kong.

By doing a comparison of Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, we can see that the state of exception in Hong Kong is not exceptional at all. Hong Kong’s international governance, ambiguous statehood, and its connections to the global superpowers of the US and China is a condition produced by postcoloniality itself. 

Hongkongers light up their phones on Victoria Peak. 13 September, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

Queer and feminist scholars have already argued that the projects of statehood and sovereignty can never be complete; think about the border, nationalism, global capital flows, global militarism. But Yarimar Bonilla asserts that the problem of sovereignty is also an ontological problem, particularly when we think about how sovereignty was really used as a way to define legal territorial differences of indigenous land, particularly in the US or even in Taiwan, which has at least 16 tribes or indigenous communities.

Sovereignty is never only singular. As such, we have to think about how anti-colonial national struggles pursued by postcolonial states—such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, Palestine, and also more recently in places like Kurdistan, Kashmir—have resulted in enduring forms of non-sovereignty in global imperial politics. 

Non-sovereign visions of interdependence

WL: I would avoid thinking about the driving form of the Hong Kong protests as the seeking of independence. Instead, the protests can be seen as a demonstration of the interdependence of Hong Kong, how it is trapped between the two imperial superpowers of China and the US—but also how that can be an advantage. Hongkongers are bearing the drastic social inequalities being created by the interconnectedness of global capital itself; at the same time, this opens us up to think about what Kandice Chuh calls the “imagine otherwise” of politics, beyond Cold War nationalism, beyond neoliberal financialization. 

I recently watched a talk by Professor Ching Kwan Lee from UCLA Sociology. Lee said that many of the protestors she interviewed had never been in a social movement before. But by being in the movement itself—facing police violence, extending care and solidarity to one another—people were transforming the Hong Kong identity from the model of the selfish, capitalist, productive citizen, to that based on the idea of ‘Hongkongers’ as a community. 

This makes me think about what happened in Taiwan during the 2014 Sunflower Movement. At the time, Taiwan was dealing with a neoliberal trade deal that the KMT—the Chinese nationalist government—was trying to sign with Beijing, which would drastically change the autonomy of the economy in Taiwan. During that time, students occupied the Legislative Yuan for 24 days. A new society and economy were created during that occupation: people did food supplies, bought and put in cigarettes for occupiers inside, brought beers.

In our movement, we created new possibilities, a new sense of sociality.

This is why I don’t think the Sunflower Movement was a failure, even if in the most recent poll asking people whether they wanted Taiwan to be an independent nation, the majority (60%) of the voting population said they wanted to maintain the status quo. In our movement, we created new possibilities, a new sense of sociality, which is reflected in what is happening on the ground in Taiwan. 

Lastly, we cannot talk about sovereignty without thinking about it as a decolonial struggle. We cannot think about sovereignty without considering indigenous sovereignty, and the overthrow of Han unification or Han supremacy—which is the idea that the nation should be dominated by one ethnicity only, which is the Han people. We can’t think about the whole China as seeking one type of sovereignty, or that any one movement can or should represent everyone who is fighting in that same region. 

Regarding the critique of nativism in Hong Kong, which I think is being propagated by a small faction who believe in closing the city’s borders, Lausan collective is precisely invested in thinking about what a vision of “leftist localism” would look like, that will honor the history and people on the streets, but will not fall back into right-wing nativism and nationalism.


[1] Jon Halliday. “Hong Kong: Britain’s Chinese Colony.” New Left Review. 1/87-88 Sept/Dec 1974: 91. [Please contact us if you are having trouble accessing this document.]

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