Hope as Space

Jun Pang

October 2014: Students hunch over their pads of lined paper and listen attentively to the teacher at the front of the classroom as she discusses the benefits and drawbacks of democracy. A cardboard sign next to the podium shows the talks that have been scheduled for the day, and the names of the lecturers for each. Some students stand up and grab bottles of water from the supply tent off to the side of the classroom, and return quickly before they lose their places on the floor; others take out lunchboxes packed with food from home; still others remain seated, scribbling notes indecipherably. All the while, the overpass bustles with people moving from tent to tent, station to station, trying to catch a glimpse of the sights of Hong Kong’s Occupy movement. Another lecturer joins the podium; the Mobile Democratic Classroom is now in session.

Fast forward to 2017, and the political situation of Hong Kong is in dire straits. 2046, the year in which our Basic Law expires and we are officially and legally handed over back to the Mainland, looms heavily on the horizon. Our collective uncertainty as to what will happen next to our city is corroborated and exacerbated by countless instances of political and symbolic repression in the last year: the kidnapping of five booksellers, the forceful recusal of two democratically-elected localist lawmakers from the Legislative Council and legal challenges to five others on the basis of their swearing-in oaths, the resignation of a widely-despised Chief Executive and emergence of a predictable line-up of conservative candidates; the installation of giant mock-up posters of the proposed “Palace Museum” in the busiest MTR (metro) station in the city, bearing down on passers-by like the eyes of T.J.Eckleberg. At the same time, Hong Kong people have demonstrated incredible resilience in their approaches to dealing with this gap in history. Most noticeably, they have employed the strategies of producing locality and taking up space to channel their resistance, to great effect.

In Modernity At Large, Arjun Appadurai writes about the ways in which the production of locality has persisted in spite of the deterritorializing effects of transnational globalisation. In his exploration of the challenges being posed to the traditional lexicon of the nation-state, Appadurai emphasises the growing disjunctures between ideas of spatial territories and virtual citizenship, and argues that what is driving the establishment of new forms of social ties is the social practice of imagination, supported by developments in technology. People today think as broadly as they do deeply. They no longer see their relationships as being bound by territorial or geographic factors. Instead, they see the world as one of infinitely expanding opportunities, one in which they are, or at least have the potential to be, mobile, and subsequently, free. This does not mean, of course, that imagination itself grants individuals freedom; indeed, as noted by Appadurai, the production of neighbourhoods is necessarily paradoxical in that a locality exists only in relation to a wider context of neighbourhoods, and these neighbourhoods are more often locked in complex contestation over individuals’ power, legitimacy, and rights. However, the emergence of the ability to envision different forms of freedom has led to the possibility of developing new and meaningful solidarities between individuals, on the basis of hope.

This hope is not wishy-washy, nor is it a thinly-veiled defence mechanism against fear; it is radical in that it is based on the enormous potential of individuals to imagine a better world together, and it is a social practice, in that it aims to achieve practical goals of self-determination. Quite literally, it is hope driven by the idea that localities deserve to determine their own status as localities, and to be recognised as such by the broader communities that they comprise. Imagination manifests itself in individuals’ minds by making space for hope: it is an expansive force that enables people to think not of the margins of social possibility but to get rid of those limitations altogether, in favour of an organic, sprawling field that focuses on the power of rupture to impel the development of actionable solidarities.

Just as hope has taken up space in individuals minds, in turn, its resultant solidarities have manifested in Hong Kong in the activity and strategy of taking up space, whether that means taking to the streets, speaking up in classrooms, or creating new forms of civic participation. The strategy of taking up space is powerful because of the ways in which the very architecture of the city seems to encourage the atomisation of society; one look at Michael Wolf’s photography series, “Architecture of Density” illustrates the paradoxical reality in which just as the city converges in on itself, individuals lead more and more alienated lives, stuck in their cubicles and routines. In opposition to this, the act of taking up space has required individuals to come together and assert the bodily presence of their community; the Umbrella Movement (2014) managed to literally clog the financial heart of the city, force the world to look in its direction via sheer magnitude, and simultaneously assert the right of Hong Kongers to have their voices heard. Within the movement, the Mobile Democratic Classrooms combined the cultural value placed on education and schooling with a radical approach to teaching democracy, both in the sense of educating students about the values fundamental to self-government, and preparing them to take up the responsibilities that come with living under a democratic system. That this occurred in the context of an occupation movement is demonstrative of the way in which the physical act of taking up space always carries within it the potential for radical politics – in this space, in the words of bell hooks, education was the practice of freedom, and teaching was a form of meaningful transgression.

Some would disagree with the characterization of these spaces as points of ‘radical resistance’, dismissing them simply as manifestations of rebellious and ultimately unthinking youth culture. When I say “resistance”, however, I mean it in the sense of resilience: of fluid growth and resolute survival across centuries of colonial and neo-colonial rule, of persistence in our own language, culture, and values in spite of innumerable impositions of inextricable scale. This is not a new development; in Bruce Lee’s immortal metaphor, the people of Hong Kong have always been like water: we have always resisted incursions on our space by accepting them and attempting to incorporate them in our vision of the future. Our history of memorialising the June Fourth Tiananmen Massacre, of civil disobedience and protest, of screaming each other down (or throwing things at one another) in the Legislative Council all attest to the way in which taking up space is ingrained in our social fabric. The beauty of the hope that has persisted in our city is that it is expansive but also integrative; it has faced and is facing adversity head on, has sheltered and is sheltering communities against pessimism under canopies of creation and innovation.

And of course, this resistance movement is imperfect. There remain many apolitical people who have failed to be convinced of the looming threats posed by the central Chinese government. The space of protest is still primarily the reserve of those who can make a claim to be an ethnic ‘Hong Konger’, despite moves to become more inclusive of other social movements, lending support to LGBT+, feminist, and environmental campaigns. If the goals of autonomy, democracy and independence are to be achieved, Hong Kong’s civil society will need to develop in a way that guarantees rights and freedoms for all. There is no point in displacing one despotism for another.

But in the face of greater and greater repression, the space for hope is ever-expanding, Resistance persists in construction. Organisations like PEN Hong Kong have been founded in the wake of continued threats of political silencing; news outlets such as Hong Kong Free Press, Stand News, Initium Media, and Local Press have withstood bans on digital outlets’ attendance of official events, impingements on freedom of expression, to provide alternate perspectives on current affairs. Uncertainty has led some people to become pessimistic, and for good reason; hope is not a salve for the agonizing wait for the future. But for many in the city, the clampdown has provided an impetus for creativity and innovation, and for the building of new solidarities. Space has been repurposed as a form of resistance, and by taking it up in different fields Hong Kongers have demonstrated their strength in the face of adversity. It is important, now, that they do not forget the expansive possibilities of such a hope.