We are all Hong Kong
The evening news tonight will break from the latest Covid updates to look to China, and to Hong Kong. The Chinese government is moving to crush the localised democracy that has existed in Hong Kong under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework that came into place after the British left in 1997.
This will be portrayed as being outside of Covid; as happening on the other side of the world, albeit with a particular British interest; and probably, it will be portrayed as somewhat inevitable.
But actually, what is happening in Hong Kong today is absolutely happening because of Covid, and it matters because we are all Hong Kong right now. Nothing is inevitable in this time; we all have a part to play; and this is a wake up call.
Nothing is inevitable in this time; we all have a part to play; and this is a wake up call.
Xi Jinping and the story of the Subject
We are living in a contest between deep stories: stories about who we are, how we relate to one another, and to wider society. Several are in play right now, at every level: within ourselves as individuals; in our towns and regions; across our nations; and on the global stage. One will emerge as dominant, and which it is will fundamentally shape the future for all of us.
The most dangerous of these is the story of the Subject. In this story, the right thing to do is to keep our heads down and do as we are told, while the powerful few step in to command and protect. It has played a major role across the world in the first phase of Covid, as we have been ordered into our homes and indeed embraced those orders. It is a story we perhaps needed to inhabit briefly, ceding freedom and power in the name of safety. It is an alluring story: taking responsibility away from us as individuals is attractive in such uncertain times. But it is also quite clearly a story of oppression.
If the Subject story has been having a moment across the world, it has a much firmer hold in China. Under Xi Jinping, state control has become more and more extensive, constantly reminding the Chinese how lucky they are to have a leader so wise and strong to look after them. Now Xi sees Covid as his moment, with propaganda intensifying both at home and abroad, portraying China’s authoritarian power structure as by far the best to deal with a pandemic, and increasingly as a better way to run a society at any time than the mess of the West. The Chinese government claims the move on Hong Kong is made to improve the governance system there. It is not. It is a move to crush the most dangerous challenge to Xi’s story, to the Subject story.
Hong Kong and the story of the Citizen
The protests in Hong Kong over the last year have gained a decent amount of attention on the global stage. What is less well known is how that democratic passion has equipped the city to be a surprising and outstanding success story in responding to Covid. There have so far been only four deaths in Hong Kong, but this is no thanks to the city administration. Instead, as Zaynab Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic, “the city’s citizens acted swiftly, collectively, and efficiently, in effect saving themselves.” Among the most inspiring examples is the repurposing of what had been a protest information website during the district council elections in 2019; it was rebooted as a Covid information site on 23rd January, the day the first case was confirmed in the city. This crowdsourced site now tracks cases, monitors hot spots, reports hospital waiting times, and much more besides.
This is the challenge to Xi and his government: Hong Kong’s success — like that of Taiwan (which I have written about here), Iceland, and other nations whose democracies have been shaken awake in recent years — shows there is a better story than the Subject. Not just a nicer story, but one that is more effective. It shows that we can best control this virus by empowering, not oppressing. It is the Citizen story in action, where the right thing to do is not to keep your head down, but to raise it; not to succumb to command and protection, but to get involved.
The exciting truth is that this story is everywhere. In this contested Covid moment, we have not just been Subjects; we have also all of us been Citizens. We have helped one another and made our contributions, whether you have organised a Mutual Aid group or simply stayed indoors and protected those around you. We have worked together, pooling our intelligence and resources. And what success we have had is down to this, not to the “efforts” of our government.
We are all Hong Kong
That is why we are all Hong Kong. And it is also why we all have a part to play.
This does mean the big political picture. We should write to our MPs and lobby for Boris Johnson to challenge Xi. This will at least show a next government what we expect of them, so it is important, however little faith we have in our current leadership.
Just as importantly, though, I am talking about the way we think and act in our own lives, and in our own places, because through Chinese power and money or through other means, the Subject story could easily spread here in this time. We are only at the beginning, and the times when we want to be told what to do are more than likely to return.
This means that our true task is to build the Citizen story. This is difficult. We have not fully lived it before. The institutions and processes that will make up a truly participatory Citizen society exist, but they are scattered around the world and through history.
Right now the critical tasks are to build these institutions and processes, and to keep the space open so that they can be built. Many of us will have a part to play in the first task, where we work, and where we live, in large ways and in small.
The second task, though, needs every single one of us, because the space this story needs most is the space in our minds. We need to remain open, and not accept the easier stories. As such, what we can all do, most fundamentally, is hold to the belief that we will get through this best if we all play our part, and give others the opportunity to play theirs.
That above all, I suggest, is what it means to be Hong Kong.