[This is the English version of an article published yesterday, in French translation, at atlantico.fr. Links have been added.]
– Since the beginning of June, pro-democracy demonstrations have been taking place in Hong Kong against the policies of Carrie Lam, who is very close to Beijing. Should these demonstrations be compared to the great popular anti-communist movements of the last century, or to public revolts, as you described them in your book The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium?
The form of the Hong Kong protests is strictly 2019, not 1989. The protesters have no organizational structure, no leaders or chain of command, no shared ideology, no programs or policies they advocate. (Four of their “five demands” are negatives – calls for the Lam government to cease or investigate certain actions.) In these characteristics, they strongly resemble other 21st-century revolts – the indignados of Spain, for example, or the gilets jaunes in France.
The insurgents have also demonstrated a brilliant grasp of the agility of digital networks. The only advice from a 20th century figure they seem to take seriously is that of martial arts star Bruce Lee: “Be water.” Coordinating on encrypted applications such as Telegram, demonstrators appear suddenly, disrupt traffic and business, then roll away to another location before the authorities can react. The heavy hand of repression comes down – but the protests swirl around it like water.
This strikes me as a new and quite clever adaptation in tactics. The public in revolt has always organized online, but the preferred method of disruption has been to “occupy” a public space – Puerta del Sol, Zuccotti Park – which then becomes symbolic of the movement. That was the approach taken during Hong Kong’s 2014 protests. Several government buildings were taken over until police intervened. But lessons have been learned. Occupation has obvious tactical disadvantages: it concentrates and exposes the occupiers to repression, while robbing them of mobility and flexibility. The “liquid” mobilization of 2019 requires constant and intensive digital communications, but it’s allowed anti-Lam activists, so far, to retain the initiative.
Needless to say, none of these tactics or tools were available to the anti-communist dissidents of the last century.
A final contemporary aspect of the conflict is the dominance of the visual. The enormous crowds, the troop transports mustered across the border, the clashes with police – mediated by tens of thousands of cell phone cameras, these become scenes in a protracted video playing out on the web: and both sides appear desperate not to be cast in the villain’s part. For the protesters, the desperation is existential: they don’t wish to provide a pretext for intervention by the Chinese regime. They have thus taken great care to have their revolt perceived as “the most polite, clean, and orderly ever,” as one report put it. An interesting question is why all those cameras have until now prevented the regime from ending the protests by brute force, in the manner of Tiananmen Square. It may be that Xi and his top people are governed by prudence – but it may also be, without contradiction, that they are aware of the uneasy relationship between their power and any idea of legitimacy. (For those with a tragic sense of history, who believe that, in the non-biblical world, Goliath usually defeats David, the obsession with visuals appears to be a struggle over future memory: that is, over the potent images and evoked emotions that will be associated with the regime’s actions to bring the revolt to a conclusion.)
The only visual moment in Europe’s liberation of from communism was the fall of the Berlin Wall – and by then the system had already crumbled, much like the wall itself.
The substance of the Hong Kong revolt connects directly with the aspirations of 1989: but these aspirations, I would hope, are universal. The public of Hong Kong, in large numbers, is fighting a slow political strangulation at the hands of Beijing. They want their freedom, and, like the rebels of 1989, they associate freedom with a specific system: democracy. The only positive demand they have made is for the universal ballot. It is, I think, the one demand the authoritarians in the mainland can never grant.
– Even if Donald Trump or Dominique Raab seem to raise their voice against the movement’s repression, the West seems rather reserved. In your opinion, is this revealing of the fact that the ideological conflict between communism and liberalism has given way to an international conflict between ruling elites and the public? Or is it simply economic opportunism, especially for European leaders?
One of the most remarkable developments of the 21st century has been the decline of ideology as a political force. During the time when Nazism and communism contested the world with liberal democracy, the choice of an ideology resembled a religious conversion – determinative not only of politics but of personal life. Today, democracy stands alone. The ruling class in China is composed of privileged billionaires, not revolutionaries or communists. The Chinese regime isn’t a “model” but a mafia. The same is true of Putin and Russia. Both have admirers but few imitators: there will never be a Chinese Model International. Democracy stands alone – but it stands for very little in the way of political or personal commitment. Without the Holocaust or the Gulag as points of comparison, the flaws in the democratic system appear to many of the public to be enormous, monstrous. Those who praise democracy, we now believe, are often self-interested hypocrites. When protesters in Hong Kong express their faith in our system, we feel, at best, uncertain. Other protesters – in Egypt and Ukraine, for example – have done the same, and their revolts led directly to authoritarianism or corruption.
Politics in the old democracies are at present consumed by the struggle between an angry public and frightened, demoralized elites. The public loves to smash at institutions it considers remote and undemocratic. The elites identify democracy with their enlightened control over the masses. Ideology hardly factors into the quarrel: politicians and movements arise in the left or right, but the mobilizing question is always whether you repudiate or embrace the system. Lately, the direction of events has favored the populists – that is, the chosen instruments of the public. Trump, Salvini, Bolsonaro, López Obrador are on the move, while paragons of the old regime, like Merkel and Macron, are on the defensive. The mandarins who rule the EU probably consider Trump’s America a more immediate threat to their authority than Xi’s China. The conflict is fought over the definition of every event and aspect of society: it leaves the contending forces exhausted. Caught in the chaotic early stages of the transformation out of the industrial age, democratic nations have no time or energy to spare for those, like the insurgents of Hong Kong, who wish to join their club.
– To what extent does the Hong Kong case show an increasing adaptation of authoritarian governments to new methods and objectives of demonstrations? I refer to the ideas in Peter Pomerantsev’s article: ideological flexibility of leaders to demotivate protesters, propagation of conspiracy theories, censorship of collective issues, but not of demands for individual freedom, etc.
I am continually amazed by the number of Western thinkers who ascribe superpowers to China’s ruling class. Sometimes I think it’s a form of wish-fulfillment: intellectuals long to discover a system that can end the current informational chaos, and impose order. China’s colossal economic success, I imagine, makes it the obvious candidate.
Here I’m going to touch on two putative superpowers that relate to the situation in Hong Kong: the claim that regime surveillance of the population has reached 1984 “Big Brother” levels of sophistication, involving all sorts of electronics and artificial intelligence (AI); and the idea, put forward by Pomerantsev and others, that China has somehow cracked the code for discouraging opposition through disinformation and propaganda.
On the first claim: you can install 1984-style surveillance, and collect every word and image (and triggered motion-sensor, face-recognition, and CCTV) produced by every person in China. When you add all of it up, what do you have? For one, you have contracted the Big Data problem: it’s mostly Big Noise. There are (roughly) 1.3 billion people in China. They will generate fantastic volumes of information. How to analyze it? You can tag certain words and phrases and images, but internet humanity in China is very adept at twisting the language in new ways to avoid the censors (I refer readers to the apparently nonsensical phrase, “grass mud horse”). The cops will eventually catch on, but dissidents will catch on to that and change their language: it just makes the Big Data problem exponentially worse. It would take millions of person-hours just to begin to make sense of the output of the AI surveillance algorithms.
Jorge Luis Borges had a short story titled “Funes the Memorious,” about a man who recalled perfectly, second by second, every experience in his life. In the end, he was overwhelmed by the data, and just lay in bed, paralyzed, remembering minutely some trivial tidbit from the past. That’s how I envision China’s digital surveillance people in the 1984 scenario.
Regarding disinformation, Pomerantsev makes many interesting points, but they don’t add up to much. 2019, he insists, isn’t 1989. That’s tautologically (and trivially) true. The regime in China, he writes, has learned ideological “flexibility”: it now mixes up “the language of communism with a culture of consumerism.” But who is persuaded by that strange coupling of ideals? And what is revealed, other than the massive contradiction at the heart of the regime’s claims of legitimacy? The regime is said to promote conspiracy theories involving shadowy powers – and the effect of these theories, Pomerantsev maintains, is the belief that “you, the little guy, can never change things.” But that is the opposite of what I have observed. The web is the mother of all conspiracy theories – and the revolt of the public was born precisely out of that dark netherworld. Belief in conspiracies inflames the “little guy” and motivates him to political action. In the US, for example, belief that the “Deep State” has conspired in various ways against Trump has helped to mobilize the forces of populism.
For clarity in these matters, it’s always best to look to effects, rather than causal claims. Last Sunday, a gigantic crowd marched down the streets of Hong Kong, through heat and heavy rain, to protest the Lam government and assert the “five demands.” Estimates of numbers varied from many hundreds of thousands to over a million. The marchers kept the peace and disbanded uneventfully in the evening. This took place three months after the first large demonstrations began in the city. During that time, Chinese propagandists and the Hong Kong government worked their disinformation magic. Presumably, they sought to confuse people with consumerism and spread conspiracy theories. The size of Sunday’s crowd is empirical evidence that, on that day at least, their superpowers failed them.