Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan.

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

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

Editor’s note: This is part one of 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


“Non-Sovereign Revolutions: Thinking across Puerto Rico and Hong Kong” was a roundtable that took place on 5 December 2019 in New York City. The panel was organized by Lausan Collective and Yarimar Bonilla, Professor in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Hunter College, CUNY and in the PhD Program in Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The roundtable brought together scholars and activists interested in the uprisings in Puerto Rico and Hong Kong to think about forms of political community beyond the nation-state. Our goal was to develop a shared vocabulary and theoretical toolkit for thinking about questions of self-determination, autonomy, decolonization, and the search for new political futures, in societies that challenge traditional understandings of decolonization and nationalism. We discussed what brought us here—postcoloniality, movement timelines, state neglect, tactics of resistance, and the political economy of disaster—as well as where we want to go in both Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, toward “non-sovereign revolutions.”

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.

Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan.

Introductory remarks

Yarimar Bonilla: At the beginning of this semester, I had just come back from Puerto Rico, where we had big protests over the summer. We’d heard in Puerto Rico that there was also something going on in Hong Kong; but we did not hear much. Part of what we want to do here is to think comparatively about these two movements and what it means for these two sites to have erupted at a similar time. Can we think about similarities in terms of their methods, practices, challenges, and the way they are articulating questions of sovereignty and possibilities for the future? 

Wilfred Chan: By way of introduction, Lausan Collective formed this summer in Hong Kong, to explore the complexities of the Hong Kong protests beyond the binaries of “East versus West” or “freedom versus democracy”. For us, the Hong Kong protests prompt the questions of what happens when you are a place that doesn’t have nation-state sovereignty; how do you imagine your future; what kind of ideals and models can you look to? I’m really excited that folks from Puerto Rico and Hong Kong are coming together to theorize comparatively in our different contexts, and to hopefully get towards a shared vocabulary or avenues of inquiry. 

Hong Kong’s history of mobilization

J: I will be giving a brief background to the situation in Hong Kong. Our city’s protests have been ongoing for almost half a year. In the past few weeks, we have seen the sieges of multiple university campuses. We’ve also seen the resounding so-called “victory” of pro-democracy candidates in our District Council elections, albeit this majority win by the pro-democracy candidates has not resulted in any meaningful responses from the government. 

The protests originated from an extradition bill that would have allowed any person travelling through Hong Kong regardless of their citizenship to be extradited to China. But as we know now, the original grievance extends far beyond the issue of extradition. The problem that is the root of the unfolding movement is the perceived encroachment on the autonomy of the Hong Kong identity, which is not necessarily linked to any legal conception of a “state.” 

Hongkongers queue in Sai Wan during district elections. 24, November 2019.
Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

What does autonomy refer to? On one level, Hong Kong’s legal autonomy is guaranteed to us by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which is an agreement signed between Britain and China in 1984—with no Hongkongers involved—that guarantees a high degree of autonomy and universal suffrage under the Basic Law for 50 years after 1997. But there is also a burgeoning idea of Hong Kong identity that is also understood to be autonomous. Both of these senses of autonomy are being encroached upon in the public imagination. 

This needs to be situated in a collective memory of previous examples of state violence and injustice, which has created a general mistrust, fear, and anger towards the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. Perhaps the clearest example is the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, when the Chinese government clamped down on student protesters in Beijing. In response, tens of thousands of Hongkongers braved a storm to participate in a vigil in Victoria Park. Then we had the anti-Article 23 protests against the implementation of a national security bill; a student movement in 2012 against the implementation of a national education curriculum; and, of course, the 2014 Umbrella Movement, against the Chinese government’s suppression of the city’s right to universal suffrage. After that, there was the abductions of booksellers from Hong Kong’s borders; the disqualification of democratically-elected lawmakers; and other forms of socioeconomic injustice, including what we call the investment of government resources into “white elephant” infrastructural projects that do not actually serve the public good. One example of this is the Lantau Tomorrow project, which is essentially a plan to build an artificial island in order to create more public housing—but which is feared to be a way for the government to drain the public coffers, for the ultimate benefit of Chinese capital and Hong Kong elites. This is all to say that the ongoing protests, though showcasing Hongkongers’ ingenuity in resistance, are also only the most recent manifestation of a hard-fought history of mobilization

The problem with ‘restore Hong Kong, revolution of our times

J: I want to end my introduction by posing a few theoretical questions that are raised by one of the guiding chants of the movement: 「光復香港,時代革命」, which has different translations in English. In English, this slogan can be translated to: “restore Hong Kong, revolution of our times” or “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” I think that these different translations gesture towards different relationships with history, memory, and solidarity that have bearing on how we conceive of nationhood, sovereignty, collectivity, and imagining a world where we are not only free from state violence, but also positively what that would and could look like. 

Protesters hold a “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now” banner. 31, December 2019.
Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

The phrase “restore Hong Kong” raises the question of what we are trying to restore Hong Kong to be. One of the readings of this seminar was written by a local leftist in Hong Kong, Tony Wong. Wong talks about how we should not talk about ‘restoring’ Hong Kong to its condition under British colonialism, because that was an oppressive regime. Instead, then, we may refer to the second translation, ‘liberate Hong Kong’. In this context, ‘liberate Hong Kong’ may refer to our desire to liberate the city from oppression and state violence, which includes the violence of a political structure that deprives citizens from a voice in their future. Some so-called leftists in the West have interpreted ‘liberate Hong Kong’, to mean that Hongkongers want people to liberate them. I think this is a mischaracterization and a misunderstanding of a movement that has seen Hongkongers try to liberate themselves. I also think that Hongkongers, whether we realize it or not, we are—in the new ways we are organizing and relating to one another—liberating ourselves from the ossified categories of “nation,” “state,” “sovereignty” that have previously bordered our imagination.

Then there is the second part of the slogan: “revolution of our times.” It’s important to situate Hong Kong’s history and trajectory in precisely this idea of a “timed” revolution. Hong Kong and its legalistic autonomy, is bound within the 50-year framework of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The imposition of this telos of progressive integration into Chinese sovereignty—which is the real aim of this 50-year transition period—is for me a technology of colonialism. By recognizing this constraint, we can see this current period as one of interregnum, and thus an opening for radical change and possibility. Rosie will now explore these questions more substantively. 

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