Should Asian Americans/Canadians care about Hong Kong? Part 3: What’s Political Agency For?

Should Asian Americans/Canadians care about Hong Kong? Part 3: What’s Political Agency For? July 16, 2014

You can follow earlier installations of this series in the following posts:
Part 1: The Preschool Answer
Part 2: The Asian American/Canadian Answer 

The current debate in Hong Kong’s public sphere is over the political agency of the people of Hong Kong. That they should have some degree of political agency is not even a question that’s on the table. The answer is yes.

The question up for debate: what kind of political agency ought they to have?

On one hand, the state establishment holds the view that the people’s political agency should always reinforce the sovereignty of the state – indeed, in the government’s eyes, what else are citizens for? The government reports recently released by the Chief Executive and the Chief Secretary, as well as the Beijing State Council’s ‘white paper’ on ‘The Practice of the “One Country, Two Systems” Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,’ have one angle on political agency. For them, Hong Kong people are politically agents of the state – the Chinese state, to be exact. For the state establishment, it’s practically inconceivable that things could be otherwise. How on earth, they are rhetorically asking, could a potential Chief Executive be againstthe central government? If, after all, Hong Kong is a ‘special administrative region’ of China, doesn’t it compute for Hong Kong people that the practice of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy is supposed to reinforce the sovereignty of the Chinese state? Doesn’t it register that it’s practically impossible, except, say, with the Tea Party in America, that a nation’s politicians would be dedicated to undermining the state? Why would anyone want to go into public service if one did not ‘love Hong Kong and love the nation’?

In other words, it’s without question for the central government, as well as for the Hong Kong government, that the people of Hong Kong have political agency. In fact, their reports even go out of their way to make a point that they take into account their barometer of popular opinion. If indeed 800,000 people voted in a referendum for a system that has a civil nomination system directly from the people, then it follows (in the government’s logic) that if Hong Kong has 7 million people, the vast majority are not for this civil nomination. Hong Kong people are to love their government, love their city, love their nation. That, for the government, is the patriotic duty of a citizen, including a democratic one, toward which the government is insisting it is moving. At one level, it actually can make sense – it’s a democracy with Chinese characteristics, where the political agency of the citizens, rightly exercised, should always reinforce the sovereignty of the central government.

What’s up for debate is whether this is actually political agency or not. As Occupy Central with Love and Peace’s Benny Tai has said repeatedly, the last thing he wants is a ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics,’ but rather a democracy recognized by international standards. As I’ve hammered home in another post, this is why Tai insists on having ‘deliberation days’: this is because for Tai, the duty of a citizen exercising political agency is not so much to reinforce the sovereignty of the state, but to hold the state accountable by adopting a critical view toward the establishment.

Out of those ‘Deliberation Days’ came three proposals that each called – against the government’s wishes – for civil nominations for Chief Executive candidates. With nearly 800,000 people voting in the 6.22-29 PopVote civil referendum that followed the finalization of these proposals, what this meant was that these voters were practicing a different sort of political agency – one that understands their civic duty not as to reinforce the sovereignty of the state, but to participate in the sovereignty of the state. What these people are saying is not that the state is out there, but that it is us. The practice of ‘one country, two systems’ is not so much up to the state out there, but up to the people of Hong Kong to determine how it is that they should exist in this symbiotic autonomous geopolitical arrangement.

The golden question is: why should an Asian American and Asian Canadian care? I’ll give more examples tomorrow, but allow me to plant an idea into your head. Yesterday, what we talked about was that Asian American and Asian Canadian politics have always been about empowering the community against economic structures of oppression. Well, by the mid-1990s, cultural critic Lisa Lowe made a landmark argument in her discipline-changing book Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics that Asian American community struggles have never only ever been about America. If indeed the movement that founded the earliest ethnic studies colleges was called the Third World Liberation Front, then that’s actually an act of transnational solidarity already. In the same way, Lowe argued that the labour struggles that were taking place in the 1990s around sweatshops in Southeast and South Asia demanded Asian American solidarities.

What I’ll show tomorrow, then, is that this Hong Kong democracy movement works along a similar logic. These democracy struggles are not merely about getting each person in Hong Kong a vote for the Chief Executive. If PopVote makes anything apparent, there’s something in there about citizens deliberating with each other about the autonomous future of Hong Kong; there’s something in there about resisting the idea that the sovereign state is out there with an alternate vision of how the public sphere in fact participates in the operations of the state. The process by which that happens is called – at least in some circles – community organizing.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

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