Friday, October 10, 2014

Hegemony in Hong Kong

There are many arguments against the "umbrella movement" protest that I find odd. For example, the opponents of Occupy Central have long focused on the economic losses that would come from the civil disobedience. This is typical of Hong Kong; somehow, noting the economic cost is expected to convince people that protests are bad for everyone. I see this as an example of using an economic explanation to trump all other explanations. We see this often in Hong Kong, where economics reigns supreme.

More difficult for me to understand, however, have been those who argue that "Beijing has done so much for Hong Kong"--implying that the protesters are ungrateful and selfish. (See for example the commentary by Zhang Lijia in the SCMP who reports of CCTV colleagues in Nanjing, "The consensus is that the protesters are ungrateful.) This narrative of Beijing doing so much for Hong Kong goes back to the "Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed in 2003, as the SARS crisis was receding. It was indeed intended to be a boost for the HK economy at a time that the SAR was experience an economic slowdown. But the agreement actually just lowered barriers and tariffs, so in fact both sides benefited, and it cannot be viewed as only a Beijing concession. CEPA has also caused many problems for Hong Kong, including the skyrocketing rents, conversions of shops into designer goods stores to cater to Mainland tourists, and the shortage of milk power. But the newspapers reported that angry anti-Occupy Central protesters yelled that students should be grateful for all that Beijing has done for Hong Kong, and I have met Mainlanders who say the same thing. I have always found this puzzling.

The other argument I find surprising is the fury at protesters for "breaking the law." Some seem to be deeply offended about civil disobedience and the challenge to authority that the students and Occupy Central represent. They raise "obeying the law" to a cardinal principle. Of course I believe in obeying the law, but it is pretty standard that protesters will break the law. As long as they don't break windows or bones, it seems OK. I don't remember opponents of "Occupy Wall Street" focusing on the importance of ending the illegal occupation of Zuccotti Park because it was illegal. Here, anti-Occupy people argue that the protesters are hurting Hong Kong's image, and that they are undermining the rule of law. I can partly understand this viewpoint, in that if one disagrees with the students, one would want them to simply obey the law. But I'm surprised that these critics do not see that in fact, peaceful demonstrations (even if illegal) can actually raise the image of a place (Jon Stewart jokes that now China is even holding protests better that the US! John Oliver and Steven Colbert also speak admiringly of the orderliness of the protests; see SCMP story here).  The other view, of course, is represented by HKU law professor Kelley Loper, who says "student protesters are not undermining Hong Kong's rule of law, but are opposing the use of the law as a tool of oppression" (SCMP commentary here).

I have thus been mulling over the question of why some protest opponents focus so much on the benevolence of Beijing and on the importance of obeying every law. I was surprised to find the answer in a textbook about sports. It mentions Gramsci, and his idea of hegemony:
he explained that leaders often maintained power by convincing the people that they governed of three three things: (1) that life was as good as it could be under present conditions, (2) that any positive things that people experienced were due to the goodwill and power of current leaders, and (3) that changing the current structure of their society would threaten everything that people valued. (Coakley Sports in Society p.115)
This really explains a lot. People who cannot imagine things being different, or who are wealthier ro privileged, are afraid the protesters will damage Hong Kong (and if the students protest until the PLA has to restore order, they will have turned out to be right).  Beijing officials and Hong Kong pro-establishment figures often use the rhetoric of Beijing being "good" to Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are China's "children" so Beijing would never do anything to hurt these areas. A Mainlander was quoted in the SCMP as arguing like this to protesters in Mong Kok. Like all governments, Beijing wants it to seem that all good and wealth flows from its policies. And some people believe it, submitting to Beijing's hegemony. Others may see through it, but think that since now Hong Kong is part of China, it is best to just keep quiet. The students are too "immature" to have learned this discourse. They have stood up, and present an alternative discourse. They do not see China as having helped Hong Kong with CEPA, they argue that they are opposed to Beijing using the law to oppress Hong Kong, and the apologize for any economic losses and inconveniences.

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