Analysis of events in the Mong Kok occupation (part of Hong Kong's "Umbrella Movement") from October 9 to 11, related to a split between what could roughly be called "left" and "right" factions, regarding "leftist" efforts to expand the movement from a single-issue protest for liberal democracy to a broader movement for the transformation of everyday life.
By Holok Chen
Note: Yesterday and this morning (October 14-15), hundreds of police in riot gear violently attempted to clear both the occupations in Mong Kok and Admiralty. As with the coordinated attacks by hundreds of thugs (including some undercover police) that began on October 3 (mentioned in our previous post on the Mong Kok occupation) – the “left” and “right” factions described in this article overcame their differences and resisted the attack. However, this was the most forceful attack the movement has experienced since September 28 (when a surprisingly violent police attack on thousands of protesting students brought tens of thousands of supporters onto the streets, transforming the student protest into a mass occupation movement). While some supporters have come back out onto the streets, more of the already dwindling occupiers have been arrested or fled home, and the broader public seems less supportive than during the movement’s first week. For the latest news in English, see South China Morning Post’s daily updates. For historical background and analysis of the movement’s first few days, see “Black vs. Yellow" by Ultra. Another good Chinese analysis of the right-left split described in the article translated below is “遮打革命的暗湧，或香港的魏瑪現象,” also on InMediaHK.
The recent “hotpot incident” may lead to a split in Mong Kok’s occupation.
On October 9, there was an event called “Mong Kok New Estate Opening Day.” It involved ping-pong, hotpot, cotton candy, etc. It took place far from the main tent at Argyle Street, in a relatively open space at the intersection of Shantung Street and Nathan Road [on the south side of MK’s occupied territory, close to the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood]. Some participants organized a competition called “occupy shacks” [to provide shelter for occupiers sleeping in the street], refashioning cardboard boxes to look like luxury flats with names like “Nathan ONE” [mocking the power of real estate companies in the area]. Photographs of these activities rapidly spread online and attracted many responses.
"Occupy cardboard shacks" - photo from Woofer Ten
Messages began to spread on Whatsapp, first claiming that the organizers were “blue ribbons”2 who should be immediately suppressed, later using photos to identify “leftists” and accusing them of trouble-making. Finally, after the leaders of online opinion had called for ending the hotpot in the name of safety, they began emphasizing the negative effects of such activities on the public image of the movement. At first when a few people came and asked to end the activities, they were open to debate, but soon a large crowd of opponents surrounded the site and started shouting. Finally the cooking facilities and ping-pong table had to be put aside. As for the “occupy shacks” competition, although it had attracted widespread interest, the opponents claimed that it “blocked the street,” although it was within the already barricaded area.
The organizers were clearly unprepared for such an attack. Many local residents actually supported the festivities at the time, and after the cooking facilities were gone, even more people gathered in Yau Ma Tei, where they discussed what had happened. I observed several opponents attempting to surround these discussion groups and sing “Happy Birthday” [a widespread tactic of driving away suspected provocateurs], but they failed due to the sheer number of supporters.
Many people also gathered in the area where the hotpot had been set up. Some yelled for the crowd to disperse and prevented them from engaging in discussion. The main reasons they proposed were “military discipline” and “public imagine,” arguing that this was a martial conflict with no place for fun or recreation. When asked who was the “general” demanding such discipline, they simply yelled for people to shut up and disperse, saying for example “Don’t fall for their tricks! Don’t participate in their group discussions!” Others threated to to call the FEHD [Food, Environment and Hygiene Department, notorious for harassing street vendors] to enforce sanitation regulations. One occupier asked why they couldn’t have a discussion and was told, “Discussion is not always needed. Do we even have to discuss whether to eat chicken with rice?” This occupier happened to be a vegetarian, so was particularly annoyed by this response.
Soon thereafter, online there appeared several photographs of participants in the hotpot, with vicious criticism and slander about them. Some people printed these photos out with comments claiming that the participants were “leftist pricks” (左膠) and “Communist spies.”3 Since one of the accused was a student from the Tertiary Students’ Political Reform Concern Group, that organization immediately posted a statement condemning the slandering of students, and making a call against divisive behavior.
The following night (October 10), the cardboard shacks were again surrounded by an angry crowd. The crowd claimed that the shrine to [the god of war] Guan Yu set up by “leftist pricks” was blasphemy (as opposed to the similar shrine set up by the anti-“leftists”), and should be removed.4
Guan Yu shrine on Mong Kok barricade. Photo from Salad Blog
The same night, a class of local secondary school students screened the film Ordinary Heroes by Ann Hui about social movements in 1970s-1980s Hong Kong.5 Opponents gathered round shouting that this screening amounted to “carnivalization” of the movement, and that it also violated copyright. Finally plain-clothes police intervened and brought the screening to an end. The students expressed disappointment, complaining that adults always use the excuse of “protecting students” to prevent them from acting autonomously. They also noted that even after the screening ended, the assault continued, pressuring the students to leave the site immediately.
Later that night, a group of occupiers engaged in discussion were surrounded and interrogated as to whether they were “leftist pricks,” and one of the female occupiers felt so threatened that she called for help. Another group of occupiers playing a board game spotted some [anti-“leftists”] patrolling and then hastily put up the game, lest they too be reprimanded as “leftist pricks.” As dawn approached, unidentified people tried to confiscate a ping-pong table that had already been folded up and set aside, saying they would throw it away, but occupiers managed to intervene and save it.
By the third day (October 11), the cardboard shacks had already been destroyed, but no one had witnessed what happened. Woofer Ten [the community art center that had initiated the “Mong Kok New Estate” event] issued a statement expressing sadness and despair. Some said that those who had destroyed the shacks were no different from the FEHD or Chengguan [Urban Management officers in mainland China, also notorious for harassing street vendors].
This antagonism is still brewing. In the movement for universal suffrage, more participants should pay attention to the development of this situation in Mong Kok, because it could determine the texture of our civil society in the future.
Suppressing spontaneous grassroots activities could end up hurting both sides
Some people argued that if anyone wants to cook hotpot, they could go to another street and do it there, and when they are done they could come back to the occupied site. They think that if people want to have fun they should leave the occupied area. This position is connected to the tradition that people in Mong Kok are accustomed to enjoying hotpot and other food outdoors on the sidewalk. You can find such things at a lot of restaurants on the streets nearby. But when people do this on their own in the occupied area it is suppressed. Perhaps this is because Nathan Road was taken over for the purpose of an “occupation,” and the understanding of “occupation” in this case is pretty much synonymous with a sit-in protest. It is no surprise that groups who do not subscribe to this specific approach are being purged. It’s also true that no one had tried to do a hotpot on Nathan Road before. Some protesters described this occupation as some kind of fear of the sublime, and when autonomy and spontaneity become facts (before the goal of universal suffrage is achieved), people become afraid.
Some people were suspicious because the event seemed so well-prepared: bringing the ping-pong table, the cotton-candy machine; were the people doing this some kind of provocateurs? In my opinion, the people asking these questions are disrespecting the local neighborhood. Mong Kok is known as a place where it’s easy to find anything (starting with sex workers and gambling dens), so it is naturally a good area to make an occupation, since the neighborhood can be very resourceful (the so-called local qi or vibe of the area). As a member of the Mong Kok community, I can say that people there are not afraid to break the rules, and everyone can cross the line a bit. So before people were attacked for playing ping-pong and having hotpot, lots of people from the community that came by were supportive of the even and even joined in the fun.
Other people’s analysis is that groups trying to bring community-style activities into a protest will fail, but this is a misconception. In reality, the fight for universal suffrage, a political issue, brought a mass movement into this community. If this issue and the community can find a way to support one another, then perhaps the fight for universal suffrage will be able to connect with the local people and gain broader support on the level of the street.
Those involved in the communities of Mong Kok and [neighboring] Yau Ma Tei have a long tradition of taking over spaces. The sort of martial discipline the anti-“leftists” are trying to enforce is something quite unfamiliar to the locals. As far as the occupation of Mong Kok is concerned, the Yau Ma Tei community has been earnest and active in supporting it from the beginning. Some people supported the movement by bringing food, while others brought a statue of Guan Yu. Cooking hotpot outdoors was a way to bring local characteristics and a sense of community to the occupation. Mutual support between local small businesses and the occupation represents an attempt to synthesize the community with the movement. Military discipline is restricting and authoritarian. Cardboard houses are not only useful for sleeping on the street during the occupation, but also an ironic statement about the hegemony of real estate companies. If someone suppresses the autonomous activities of the people, it is not only a way to attack political enemies in order to gain political leadership, but also an act that would destroy the local qi. Such suppression will eventually lead to a counterattack.
A Critique of “Space-Hijacking”
“Space-hijacking” (or taking over spaces for alternative public uses)6 is an inevitable part of this movement. “Hijacking,” “possiblities,” and “carnivalization” are topics that repeatedly appear in debates. Why is the discourse about “leftist pricks” so deeply rooted in some people’s minds? In order to understand this, an analysis of the composition of the crowd is necessary. The people who oppose “carnivalization” are the people who feel disappointed with the compromising strategy of the Democratic Party, some being voters who felt betrayed by the 2010 political reform. Moreover, they are sick of the rigid and conservative modes of activism associated with social movement organizers. They wanted a breakthrough, but what they experienced was how the social movement organizers always follow the old rules and block further action. In their eyes, social movements have long been a failure, so they believe that only by breaking away from the leadership of the social organizers there is a hope of winning. For the people who oppose “carnivalization,” the term “possibilities” [used by organizers of the hotpot event, in the sense of “opening up alternative possibilities for the movement”] is synonymous with “failure.” They are joining the movement to achieve a specific political goal and not to lose. Space-hijacking is an attempt to open up alternative possibilities in an urban space that has become highly supervised and functionalized, but out of a hundred such experiments, ninety of them fail. That’s why many people are turned off by this term.
Personally, I think one of the goals of such recreational activities is to turn politics into an issue of everyday life, and to turn everyday life into a political issue. But simply switching the location of everyday life activities to the occupied territory did not achieve this result, because the occupation is in an intense atmosphere. As mentioned above, there is a constant state of emergency. Whenever there's an incident happening in Admiralty, Mong Kok will be affected simultaneously, so both places depend on each other. Mong Kok therefore doesn't have its own agency or autonomy. Everything that happens in the occupied space would be challenged by the simple principle of whether it is going to help getting real universal suffrage, and whether the people doing an action might be provocateurs.
The failure of the “Mong Kok New Estate Opening Day” event lay in the fact that, regardless of specifics such as hotpot or cotton candy, they did not happen in an organic way, but were planned as subversive acts. The goal was to open up the movement from being limited to a single demand to a broader level. But as this was done in a way that was too obvious, so its organizers were viewed by the anti-“leftists” as “enemies of democracy” and suppressed. Performances and production of images that are too obvious can turn the whole act into a “spectacle.” Not only would this isolate the event from other actions happening simultaneously, but it also produces an image that is easily consumed by the media. The next day many opponents were carrying the Oriental Daily report on the event. So it’s true that the organizers did not make a serious preparation to convince others. The goal of “bringing everyday life into politics” seems to have failed, at least in this movement.
Currently the most important channels for spreading information are online media, Facebook pages and so on. These kinds of media do not only report on how the situation is developing, they also steer the direction of the movement. Many actions are carried out in response to calls made online. As a result of earlier criticism of general assemblies, big stages, and movement prefects (纠察), no central platform for spreading information was established. At the same time, there is also a strong dislike for decision-making by small-group discussion [another characteristic of “leftist pricks” warned against in ubiquitous posters, associated with failed social movements in recent years]. The anti-“leftists” think that such discussions are some kind of a trick intended to sabotage the movement. Nor do they believe they can use discussion to change the minds of people who organize recreational activities, so they refuse to talk and instead just crowd around violently to disrupt such activities. Face-to-face communication is also a medium and should therefore be understood as a field of media struggle, but if we compare the strength of online media with that of offline decision-making through discussion, then online media is clearly the dominant force in this case. One of the consequences is that online rumors, slander, witch-hunting, stigmatizing and personal attacks are acceptable excuses [to ignore what someone has to say], even when the person you are attacking is standing right in front of you.
Mong Kok May Split
Mong Kok’s political situation is complex, involving many civil society organizations, local powers [including gangs], and pre-existing relationships in the neighborhoods. This contrasts with Admiralty, which was basically empty prior to the occupation. After the hotpot incident, I think it will be hard to avoid a war. In a narrow sense, this is a struggle for leadership over the movement. In a broader sense, this is a struggle between two political models: liberal democracy and freedom without domination. Hotpot and ping-pong are just the fuse. The prevention of film-screening and the smashing of cardboard shacks have merely brought this conflict to the surface.
At root, expanding the imagination of occupation belongs to a different politics from that of single-issue protests. I think there is a profound contradiction between the occupiers of Shantung Street [on the south side of the Mong Kok occupied territory, near Yau Ma Tei] and those concentrated at Argyle Street [further north]. If not dealt with appropriately, it may lead to a violent turf war resulting in defeat and dissolution amidst mutual accusations of being provocateurs. A better solution would be for each group to maintain its own area and stop trying to police everyone else.
- 1 The hotpot photo at the top is from MingShengBao.
- 2 "Blue ribbons" refers to opponents of the movement, including undercover police and allegedly hired thugs as well as genuine civilian opponents, who originally wore blue ribbons to indicate their support for the police, although the police claim to be neutral in disputes between occupiers and their blue-ribboned oppenents.
- 3 See “Black vs. Yellow” for a discussion of this term and a translation of one ubiquitous poster outlining the alleged characteristics of “leftist pricks.” These characteristics differ in some ways from what has been conventionally associated with “the left” even in Hong Kong. Some of the people identified in the earlier posters (often with photos and names) were actually liberal democrats who don’t identify as “leftists,” whereas some of the organizers of the hotpot were anarchists who don’t necessarily identify as “leftists” either. On these posters and online, “leftist prick” is often used interchangeably with “(Communist) spies,” implying that “leftist” means people implanted in the movement in order to undermine it.
- 4 Guan Yu is traditionally worshipped by both the police and gangsters (some of whom have been supportive of the movement from the beginning, as mentioned in our previous post), so his role in this movement had been ambiguous. These shrines were meant to deter police and thugs from dismantling the barricade. One of the messages on the photo above warns anyone who considers removing the shrine and barricade that they and their entire family would die a miserable death. A few anarchists also made a shield with an image of Guan Yu using a yellow umbrella as a weapon, with the words “overthrow capitalism and its running dogs.” The Wikipedia article on Guan Yu is here.
- 5 Information on this 1999 Cantonese film can be read here.
- 6 This term derives from a British movement by the same name. The Wikipedia article is here.