Hong Kong: paradoxes of dissent

Having receded from the global headlines, the pro-democracy protesters have not receded from the streets of Hong Kong. Nov. 6 saw new clashes with police in street occupations that have now persisted for more than a month and a half. The skirmish came in the commercial district of Mong Kok, after police attempted to arrest a man they said was shining his mobile phone light in their eyes. In the ensuing confrontation, at least one protester was left bleeding from the head. (AP, Nov. 6) That night in New York City, the Lower Manhattan office of the New America Foundation hosted a screening of Lessons in Dissent, a new film focusing on two teenagers who have emerged as leaders of the Hong Kong protests, Joshua Wong and Ma Jai. The film was released just before the Occupy Central movement finally went into action, but depicts the precursor struggle in 2012, when students organized against proposed constitutional reforms in the territory that would limit freedom, and a mandatory "national education" curriculum they saw as propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party. The protests were successful; the constitutional changes were shelved, the new curriculum made optional. The film's two protagonists are still at it—Wong having risen to global attention.

Without wishing to reduce these two courageous young men to mere symbols, they do represent different currents in the movement. Wong is clean-cut, a practicing Christian who opens protest demonstrations with public prayers, and emphasizes nonviolence. He sees his enemy as Communist Party rule, and repeatedly invokes Western democracy as a positive model. Ma Jai has long hair falling past his shoulders, and sports an anarchist cricle-A symbol on his shoulder bag. He is more confrontational with the police, and got into legal trouble for burning the Hong Kong regional flag at a protest. He's worked to oppose the hegemony of the development interests over Hong Kong, and xenophobic persecution of foreign domestic workers in the territory. While of course he also opposes CCP sway over Hong Kong, he evidently doesn't see this opposition in classically "anti-communist" terms; at one point he even invokes the Marxist aphorism "Workers of the world unite." And while he views Wong as a friend and comrade, he also voices respectful disagreement, and sometimes seems resentful of his superstar status.

Film-maker Matthew Torne was on hand at the screening, and said that despite Wong's greater renown, the more radical Ma Jai is "more representative of the activist community in Hong Kong." Although he also emphasized that in polite Hong Kong, "what they call 'radicals' are not what we would consider radicals."

Torne notes the contradiction in the Hong Kong movement, and actually offered criticism of Martin Lee, leader of territory's Democratic Party, who in the prelude to the current protests sought an audience with UK Prime Minister David Cameron to complain of China's interference in local democracy. (Cameron shunted him off to an underling, as Reuters noted on July 16.) Torne said that complaining of the "Daddy in Beijing" to the "former daddy" in London just played into China's propaganda that the Hong Kong democracy movement is a foreign-inspired neo-colonialist enterprise.

As if to drive home this point, the after-film panel, which was facilitated by La Frances Hui of ChinaFile, also included Bay Fang, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, and Isaac Stone Fish, Asia editor at the very wonkish Foreign Policy—who in his comments praised the Hong Kong police for their restraint! This after a film with harrowing scenes of pepper-spray being used against protesters trapped behind barricades—a gruesome tactic that won the Hong Kong demonstrators their umbrella icon.

It's a hopeful sign that Wong and Ma Jai have maintained their friendship, speaking to the possibilities of a synthesis of principled discipline with a ruthless critique that extends beyond the transparently bogus "communism" of Beijing's rule.