From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Central: The Case of Hong Kong

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS as if every time Occupy has been declared dead in one place, it crops up somewhere else. From Nigeria to Turkey, Brazil to Bosnia, and most recently, now, Hong Kong, where a sudden and unexpected revival of “Occupy Central” — the movement that set up camp on the ground floor of the HSBC headquarter in Central in 2011 in solidarity with the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York — has paralyzed the city for over a week.

This is not just a change of language or tactics by those engaged in social protest. 2011 marked a moment where the very notion of what it means to organize a democratic revolution permanently changed.

The movements of 2011 did not begin in the United States, of course. They began in North Africa, then crossed the Mediterranean to Greece and Spain. But it was only after it hit the epicenter of American capitalism that occupations began appearing everywhere, not only in hundreds of cities across North America, but from Argentina to South Africa. For a moment, it seemed the youth of America had spearheaded a global revolution in their wholesale rejection of the liberal economic and political system their elders had spent the last 30 years imposing on the rest of the world. Within a matter of months, most had been suppressed. But in retrospect, it now seems there really was a revolution — just not the kind we thought. When historians look back at that year, it will surely be remembered as something akin to 1848: a year in which insurrections almost simultaneously across the globe seized power nowhere, but nonetheless changed everything.

But unlike in 1848, or even 1968, the insurrectionaries weren’t even trying to seize power this time. This may well make 2011 more significant than either. If the surest sign that there has been a revolution is the transformation of political common sense, then the movement we are seeing today marks a genuine watershed. While its tactics and demands may often look superficially similar to older movements, the notion of democracy, and government, have by now been so decisively severed from one another that even those ostensibly protesting for the creation of institutions of representative government are adopting anarchist tactics, sensibilities, and modes of organizing.

Occupy Central in Hong Kong was one of the longest-running occupations, running from October 2011 to August 2012. Though it never consisted of more than a few dozen tents and 100 people, it set seeds of possibility, gave a sense of new modes of organizing, of direct democratic expression, that turned out to have greater long-term implications than anyone, including its participants, expected. In 2013, two professors and a priest from the “pan-democracy” group proposed what they thought would be a modest new encampment — labeled “Occupy Central with Peace and Love” — to fight for universal suffrage in the election of the chief executive in Hong Kong in 2017. For more than a year and a half, the idea of such a camp had been widely bandied about, but there was no consensus about a date. Then on August 31, the government announced citizens would not be allowed to nominate the candidate of the chief executive. Instead nominations would have to be made by 1200 people, most “appointed” by the central government. The promise of “One country two systems” negotiated between China and Britain was never realized, and the current chief executive, Leung Chun-Ying, proved to be nothing but a puppet. On September 28, two student groups (Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism), tired of waiting for the official OCLP organizers to finally announce a date, led a march of 50,000 people, and began the occupation themselves.

For most of the protesters, it was the first time they had ever experienced tear gas. Occupations immediately spread from the central square, where the seat of government is located, to other commercial quarters: Admiralty, Causeway Bay, MongKok. What happened surprised everyone, not least the original organizers of OCPL who seem to have been scurrying around frantically in recent days trying to cork back the genies they had so unexpectedly decanted. During the first days, more and more people from all classes joined the movement: truck drivers parked their truck at the central of the road; mini-bus drivers gave students free rides; citizens brought them food and drink. The police were so panicked they were even willing to make common cause with Triads to physically attack protesters and terrorize females protesters. Still, the occupations continue.

Why did it happen? By all reports, while occupiers in Hong Kong uniformly assert they stand for democracy, the specific grievances that brought them to the streets are economic. It’s important to bear in mind that Hong Kong was one of the very first laboratories of neoliberalism. In 1963, American economist Milton Friedman — who eight years before had described Hong Kong as a “poor and miserable city,” crying for redevelopment — held talks with the finance secretary of the British colony, Sir John J. Cowperthewaite, where he proposed a radical experiment: Let Hong Kong, he suggested, become a free market experiment that could mark a radical alternative to socialist Britain. By the 1970s and ’80s, market reforms appeared to have created a genuine economic miracle, and the per capita income had far surpassed that of Britain. In a lecture delivered in Chicago in 1997, Friedman confirmed that “we are more productive than Hong Kong. But we have chosen, or been led by the vagaries of politics, to devote roughly half of that capacity to activities to which Hong Kong devotes 15 or 20%.” He was referring to spending on government programs, culture, education and political engagement, which Hong Kong simply ignored in favor of concentrating all resources on economic development.

Since the handover in 1997, the neoliberal model had begun to run its course, and Hong Kong developed its own mutant hybrid market authoritarianism, of which its most critical elements were these:

1) The Individual Visit Scheme, which turned Hong Kong into a shopping center of luxury products for tourists from the mainland, leading to a gentrification process that resulted in the closure of local shops, destruction of living neighborhoods, and skyrocketing rents and property prices;

2) Government permission to property developers — who became the leading capitalists in Hong Kong — to demolish remaining rural areas so as to integrate the city with Shenzhen on the mainland, without any investment in social housing. This further inflated real estate prices. Young people were thus doomed to live in misery. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, the rental for apartments under 40 square meters increased 28.3%.

3) The near fusion of city government and the investor class, leading to frequent corruption scandals, even including, however absurdly, the governments’ Independent Commission Against Corruption itself. The former chief of Chinese police Tao Siju’s endorsement of the Triad gangs as patriots — who largely control Hong Kong’s famous entertainment industry — is only one iteration of this.

The combination of real-estate driven crony capitalism and the general collapse of the neoliberal model after 2008 has had profound effects. Last year, 1.31 million out of 7 millions residents in Hong Kong were reported as living in poverty. The Occupy Central movement emerged from a popular consensus that the Communist-appointed puppet government and business elite in Hong Kong were so closely interlocked that they are, effectively, the same group of people — there’s no possibility of addressing this problem without displacing them from power.

It’s critical to understand that this is exactly what Occupiers in America meant when they coined the phrase “the 99%.” Singling out the 1% as the problem was not just making a statement about wealth, or even class, but precisely, about class power. The 1% are that portion of the population who are capable of turning their wealth into political influence, and turning that political influence into the means of generating further wealth. In the US, the 1% are not only the portion of the population who have managed to keep for themselves the proceeds of economic growth in the last decade, but are also responsible for approximately 98% of campaign contributions. A new financial ruling class has turned the apparatus of government into a means of extracting wealth directly from the population in the form of interest, fees, various forms of rent, and real estate manipulations. It is by no means fundamentally different from the situation in Hong Kong. And in both cases, it led to demands to throw out the entire political structure and start over.

If one looks at what lay behind similar movements in Istanbul, Sao Paolo, Tuzla, or any number of other cities, it’s always a variation on the same story: The government — whether elected or imposed — is viewed as a fundamentally alien apparatus, in which even well-meaning public representatives are powerless to influence the real levers of power since the core functions of the state — its legal, administrative, and above all, it’s “security” functions (that is, it’s bureaucracies of violence) — are no longer in any sense accountable to anything that could be called “the people,” but directly, to the interests of global finance.

This is the real and final outcome of the neoliberal reforms that began in Hong Kong in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Those who wish to challenge the global power system no longer even imagine they can do so by appealing to, or even attempting to take over, the core apparatus of state. The powers that be can only be budged by applying pressure from outside. To do that, an outside has to be created — either temporarily, by creating impromptu democratic assemblies as in Tahrir, Syntagma, or Zuccotti, or in an ongoing basis, as in the Zapatista communes of Chiapas or Bolivian neighborhoods like El Alto. The outcome is an entirely new political landscape, where the results depend on complex alignments between often overlapping forces: elements in the state security apparatus, working class organizations, students, Mafiosi, right-wing nationalists who inevitably try to provoke actual street violence and align with either Mafiosi or State Security to bring the movement back into the terms of the state. These forces have played off against each other in radically different ways in places like Greece, Egypt, or Ukraine, with very different outcomes. It’s clear all the same elements are at play in Hong Kong. How they will play themselves out remains to be seen.

For the moment, matters appear to have reached an impasse. The Communist party is terrified that any compromise may encourage similar events in mainland China, already prone to thousands of more isolated “mass incidents” ever year. Occupiers are in a near panic over the police and Triad violence, and fear a repetition of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989; they are desperately for international support. However, one thing is certain: the demand for electoral democracy can only be the beginning of a broader movement of resistance against authoritarian neoliberal governance. A population that has had the experience of direct democracy, consensus-making and self-organization is by definition the worst nightmare of any future government. Hong Kong may thus become less “productive” in Milton Friedman’s terms, but it might also mark a point where, like the rest of the world, the meaning of democracy in China as a whole begins to change.


David Graeber is a professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, author of numerous books including Debt, and an activist who played an early role in Occupy Wall Street. 

Yuk Hui, philosopher and activist from Hong Kong, currently teaches and researches in Leuphana University in Germany.