Democracy’s Dislocations

Public Culture 96

with Joanna Mansbridge

Spaces of Protest and the People of Hong Kong

This essay originated in discussions about politics and space in the months of 2019 when conflict became central to the life of Hong Kong. What began as an iconic image of protest, with a crowd of millions marching through the city’s central business district to challenge a proposed extradition bill, quickly became a leaderless collective dispersing into the city’s outlying districts and infrastructures. We were struck by the uniquely spatial character of the movement, and its economic impacts, as well as by impassioned attachments to ideas of democracy and its freedoms that seemed, to us, undefined. Our argument begins by contextualizing the protests within the historical formation of the city’s economy and political life. The first section traces the formation of Hong Kong as a colonial entrepôt and the political promises and practices that emerged from that formation; the second situates the spatial tactics used during the protests within the context of the city’s physical formation, namely the long-standing government land policies that have manufactured urban density and subsumed the civic realm; and the third interrogates the term “Hong Kong people” as a narrow, limiting political identity. We begin each line of inquiry by tracing the continuation of colonial policies into the present; this continuation has prioritized the maintenance of Hong Kong as a low-tax haven, whose economic benefits accrue to an elite within the territory and, importantly, elsewhere. We argue that the protests functioned, in both their strategies and their effects, to destabilize these political and economic agreements. Our reading is informed by writings on democracy and space by Chantal Mouffe and Doreen Massey. We also draw on leftist thinkers in Hong Kong—activists, researchers, and journalists whose voices have often been out of step with the heterogenous actors behind the protest and with international media narratives that have defined the pro-democracy movement. Together, these ideas provide historical and theoretical insight into the role of both collaboration and conflict in the formation of the city’s political identity and point to possibilities for engaging with the still-open question of the meanings and practices of democracy in Hong Kong. This possibility depends on an understanding of both political identities and space as open, contingent, and pluralistic, and of Hong Kong as a “question” still waiting to be answered.