Accounts of Hong Kong’s summer of discontent have largely reflected the mainstream discourse of the protests themselves. This discourse, which has characterized the larger pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong since its inception before the 1997 handover, is dominated by liberal narratives of a popular struggle to defend Hongkongers’ rights and freedoms against Beijing’s encroaching tyranny. This is unsurprising given the construction of a mainstream Hong Kong subjectivity in a classical liberal mold and the associated, reflexive aversion to non-liberal modes of critical discourse (through the lenses of class, gender, race, colonialism, etc.), both products of the territory’s unique historical trajectory as a colony transferred from one master to another.
As a result, class is conspicuously and predictably absent from discussions of the protests in mainstream discourse. Even when economic issues are explored, mainstream analyses rarely go beyond stale liberal framings. They either air anxieties over the possible damage to Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub resulting from erosion of its rule of law, or they identify acute socioeconomic pressures as causing pent-up disaffection among the youth who supposedly found a convenient target for release in the extradition bill. Both perspectives contain some truth, but, as is typical of liberal analyses, they are grossly inadequate, superficial, and leave more questions than answers. If the critical economic implication of the extradition bill is capital flight, why have the city’s real estate, business, and financial elites fallen in line to oppose the protests as instructed by Chinese officials? On the other hand, if the protesters are simply frustrated youth seeking to vent their socioeconomic distress, why have they continued to mobilize on a massive scale for over nearly three months, despite facing unprecedented police brutality, the threat of imprisonment, and after the government offered HK$19.1 billion in economic sweeteners? Shallow liberal analyses are incapable of resolving these apparent contradictions.
When class is considered in analyses of the Hong Kong protests, it is all too often done in bad faith, resulting in knee-jerk dismissals of the protests that appeal to dated and dogmatic understandings of class. Yet, despite all these misreadings and non-readings of class by outside observers and commentators, it remains a critical and emergent dimension of the protests that should be analyzed.
The theory of class I intend to apply to the analysis of the Hong Kong protests was developed by Karl Marx in the 19th century. This Marxian theory of class, later elaborated by Marxian economists Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, understands class as a process of surplus production, appropriation, and distribution. In the classic case of capitalist wage labor, the employee produces a quantity of output, part of which she receives from the employer in exchange for surrendering her autonomy while at work. The remainder of the output, called a surplus, is appropriated by the employer.
Before pocketing the surplus as profit or reinvesting it as capital, the employer must first distribute portions of it to ensure that the production and appropriation of surplus can continue under given external conditions. In analyzing the Hong Kong protests, the conditions of interest are primarily political ones. Depending on what political conditions are prevailing, surplus may be distributed to the state in the form of taxation, to officials in the form of bribes, to local gangs in the form of protection fees, to politicians in the form of donations, or perhaps combinations of the above.
Political conditions also help determine how surplus is produced and accumulated. In a liberal democracy, citizen-workers whose fundamental freedoms and liberties have been violated can—at least in theory—appeal to state institutions for redress, flawed and corruptible though they might be. The press is free to report on exploitative or discriminatory practices by capitalists. People can take collective action to create pressure for change. An independent judiciary and the rule of law reinforces these institutions. Finally, a democratic government can translate popular pressure for change into policy. Such channels for changing the conditions of surplus production and accumulation are inaccessible to the public in a political system where rights and liberties are not guaranteed by the state.
The contemporary context of Hong Kong and China furnishes many examples of how political institutions function as objects of class struggle. In Hong Kong, where such freedoms have historically been safeguarded but are now rapidly eroding, there exists a lively tradition of civic engagement and protest epitomized in the annual July 1 march. On each anniversary of the 1997 handover, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Hongkongers march on the streets to protest the undemocratic government. Though the ultimate demand is always universal suffrage, hundreds of civil society and activist groups also participate in the march or set up stalls to promote a multitude of causes from environmental protection to migrant rights. The institutions that safeguard fundamental rights and liberties in Hong Kong facilitate the struggles of various marginalized groups against capitalist domination.
Despite a high level of engagement, these struggles rarely succeed because the government is largely undemocratic. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said bluntly that if universal suffrage was implemented, “then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies.” Plainly, Leung was concerned that universal suffrage would empower Hong Kong’s working class to use the political system to rectify the economic inequalities they suffer and from which he—and the business interests he serves—benefit.
Compared to other OECD countries, Hong Kong spends the least on public services, despite a tremendous fiscal reserves, taxes corporations at significantly lower rates, and strongly favors employers over workers with lax and patchy labor laws, all of which contributes to the city being one of the world’s most economically unequal. In the terms of class analysis, the political conditions of Hong Kong impose very few limitations on the freedom of capitalists in determining how surplus is produced, how much of it they can appropriate, and to whom to distribute it. As Leung expressed candidly, Hong Kong capitalists rightly fear that democratizing the political system will threaten their extremely advantageous class position.
Other fundamental liberties, like freedoms of press, protest and expression, are also implicated in the class process.
Conversely, in Mainland China, the suppression of these freedoms has been essential to facilitating surplus production and capital accumulation. Since the start of economic reforms in 1978, the party-state has taken both passive and active leadership in China’s monumental transition to capitalism by managing its contradictions and establishing a new hegemony based on a state-capital nexus of unprecedented sophistication. The 1989 crackdown, the success of “national champion” corporations, mass dispossession drives (primitive accumulation) like the eviction of Beijing’s “low-end population,” the apartheid project in Xinjiang, the staggering surveillance state, and repression of mounting labor unrest, all demonstrate the deft and often brutal hand of the party-state in managing China’s tumultuous social and economic transformation. Whereas the state in Hong Kong historically refrained from intervening in the economic sphere and thus allowed capitalists to dominate it, the Chinese party-state has actively shaped and regulated surplus production, appropriation, and distribution to achieve a more efficient extraction of surplus from labor.
From a class perspective, what is at stake in the extradition protests and the anti-government movement are the political conditions of capitalism that Hong Kong inherited from its colonial period. These political conditions provide for liberal institutions that safeguard, at least in principle, the fundamental rights and liberties of Hong Kong citizens, which set limitations on surplus production and accumulation. The threat posed by Beijing’s project of completely destroying Hong Kong’s autonomy—of which the extradition law is the latest assault—is the replacement of these liberal institutions by the repressive institutions of Mainland China and, critically, the associated change in the regime of surplus production and accumulation towards greater efficiency (read: exploitation).
Hongkongers realize that something fundamental to their society is at stake in their struggle for democracy. Though their objectives may not be expressed in terms of class, the anxieties that motivate their struggle are inextricably linked to class: gaping economic inequality, state-capture by business interests, gentrification, alienation of residents from their communities. Hongkongers’ struggle for democracy is a struggle for self-determination, for the control of their own community and its future. Though the current struggle is premised on a defense of existing conditions, the demand for universal suffrage opens up the possibility for changing existing conditions, too, in the direction of a genuinely emancipatory future.
Joy Ming King can be reached at email@example.com.