On the Hong Kong protests, "Chinese-ness" and the state, and more with Sebastian Veg

Part II of our interview with one of the world's foremost experts on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement

Here’s the second part of our conversation with Sebastian Veg, an intellectual historian of China. Last week we focused on the recent arrests in Hong Kong; this week we discuss “Chineseness,” asking what, if anything, can be salvaged from the Chinese ethnocultural identity at a time when Gen-Zers in Hong Kong and Taiwan overwhelmingly don’t identify as Chinese. We also look at the chilling effect Beijing’s repression has had on academics outside of China, and whether the utopianism of the 2014 Sunflower and Umbrella Movements are still alive.

Some key takeaways:

First, Sebastian notes that China’s geopolitical ascendancy has given the PRC increased weight in defining what it means to be “culturally Chinese.” At the same time, he emphasizes that identity can be multiple—a point that resonated with both of us, since we identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese.

Second, he suggests that, due to Beijing’s repression and surveillance, historians of China will need to look for a broader range of sources, as depending on access to Chinese archives may prove a liability, especially for younger scholars.

Third, he wonders what really triggered Xi Jinping’s ascendancy, speculating that it’s some combination of threats to Chinese territorial sovereignty and the broader global context of a “post-9/11 creative erosion of legal norms.”

On a personal note, we had the joy of meeting Sebastian two years ago in Paris, where he grew up. (“Paris is really romantic,” he has said, “unless you’re from here.”) This interview reflects the traits of his that we love so much: frankness, clarity of mind, deep knowledge, a passion for justice, intellectual honesty, and wry humor. Michelle’s current favorite quote from him is also a dig at her people: “You can find legal scholars to defend pretty much any view of the law.”

The issue of “Chineseness” is fraught for both of us; the Umbrella and Sunflower Movements in 2014 surfaced divided identities our families. We’ll write more about this in the future; in the meantime, we’re grateful to Sebastian for radicalizing our baby by teaching her the protest slogans—“five demands, not one less” (五大訴求,缺一不可)—in Cantonese.


Michelle: We wanted to talk more about Hong Kong identity and “Chineseness.” In one of your seminal articles on the Umbrella Movement, you write beautifully about how people in Hong Kong might identify with some kind of civic identity, but less and less so with a Chinese ethnocultural identity. Is there anything to be salvaged from that ethnocultural Chinese identity?

Sebastian: I don’t see the next generation of Hong Kongers affirming their Chinese identity. They’re not very interested in that. The surveys show that people under age thirty have a very high rate of identification as Hong Kongers—up to 80 percent. They won’t describe themselves as Chinese.

On the other hand, these surveys can also be a little bit misleading. These things are polled as alternatives, whereas if you poll them separately on a scale of one to five, you get slightly different results. Clearly, yes, there is a pro-democracy movement that is not interested in claiming Chinese identity, but to what extent does that really reflect everyday practice? It also depends on what you are contrasting “Chinese” with. For example, Joshua Wong once said to me in an interview that “having democracy is more important than the question of belonging to China or not.” Joshua’s generation doesn’t necessarily reject Chinese identity wholesale. But it no longer plays such an all-defining role. In his case identity might be mainly about democracy, local culture and language, as well as Christian faith and maybe some connection with China—perhaps through June Fourth [the date of the Tiananmen massacre] or other points of reference.

Even in Taiwan, where there’s a low rate of identification as Chinese, when you start digging into issues of language and writing and so on, you also find more balanced or more nuanced numbers. We know that identities are not exclusive. They’re multiple, situational, and they can fluctuate over time.

But you also see that the trends have been increasingly disconnected. Previously, in the 1970s, identifying as local and identifying as Chinese were correlated. [During that time, being “local” often meant being Chinese, as opposed to British or another form of identity that permitted or required international mobility.] The issue was: were you in Hong Kong or were you on your way somewhere else?

A lot of headlines have pointed to the emergence of calls for Hong Kong independence. But that’s really a fringe view. The latest polls show that support for independence is very low in Hong Kong society. Of course, you might argue that now people feel even less safe describing themselves as supporting Hong Kong independence. But still, there are very strong links across the border—familial, economic, and cultural links. And those ties might be stronger with Guangdong than they are with the rest of China. I mean, everyone has worked with mainland colleagues. I very rarely see discrimination in person.

Certainly, you have irritation at mass tourism and a devitalized city center taken over by souvenir shops and luxury hotels that make rents go up, and so on. Hong Kong had a totally misguided tourism policy that determined that tourism would become one of the main drivers of its economy after SARS in 2003. So Hong Kong has more Chinese tourists in a year than Paris has tourists from all places combined. We’ll see whether that holds up after COVID.

There are a lot of observers who think that the mainland strategy for dealing with Hong Kong now is to replace the native elites with high-end migrants from China, to put it very bluntly. Especially for those in financial services, banking, shipping, trading, or other sectors, either Hong Kong locals will adapt to the new environment or no one will shed any tears over them if they leave. And there are plenty of people in China who would be eager to take their place in Hong Kong. So resentment is definitely on the rise, a kind of neocolonial resentment.

MK: You write that the Chinese state has increasingly doubled down on ethnocultural identification— “extolling blood ties and values”—as a way to legitimize its power. When you were in Hong Kong, did you see a state strategy evolve to depict the movement as anti-Chinese?

SV: Yeah, this is another interesting aspect of this question. When people say the Hong Kong movement is discriminatory against, you know, Chinese people or even ethnic minorities, I think they’re turning things around. The issue is more that state discourse from Beijing has become increasingly exclusionary and discriminatory against people who don’t fit its model of Chineseness. There’s less and less space to define oneself as both culturally Chinese and non-adherent to the values of the PRC. And this is linked, of course, to the larger economic and geopolitical rise of China.

In the 1970s or 1980s, with the existence of the KMT regime in Taiwan, there was still an idea that there were different views of Chineseness that were competing. To some extent, the demise of the KMT has meant that the definition of “China” has been largely left to Beijing. And for various reasons, the current government in Taiwan is not very interested in staking a claim to a different sort of Chineseness. That’s of course fine for Taiwan if that reflects the majority opinion of voters. But it does shift the balance for overseas Chinese communities and even more so for Hong Kong. There’s no alternative model available.

It will be interesting to observe how people in the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement connect with Taiwan—that is, with which Taiwan they choose to connect. Although neither side would really like to put it this way, the link between the Hong Kong activists and the Taiwan activists is China. Right?

MK: We were wondering how your work has been affected as an historian of China. Have you seen the recent moves by Beijing as having a chilling effect on academics outside of China?

SV: Yeah, for sure. I’m definitely vetting every word of this interview before it gets released. [We all laugh.]

Albert: Yeah, we don’t want you to be kidnapped by Chinese security agents.

SV: Or have protesters show up at my doorstep with banners, like in the Teng Biao case. Just indescribable.

Yes, clearly there is a chill among historians of modern China. As always, it’s very individual: some scholars are not afraid to speak out.

Frankly, I struggle to give good advice to students at this point. COVID creates huge unknowns. A post-COVID China will most likely have increasingly pervasive surveillance over every aspect of daily life. If your career depends on access, then you’ve already been, in a certain sense, muted. Depending on access to China emerges as a vulnerability.

Accessing archives will clearly pose a growing problem for people interested in PRC history. Take, for example, the ongoing issue of the Universities Service Centre at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). This was one of the most amazing places, outside of the mainland, to do research on the PRC. It was an incredible resource center with lots of material, including internal and official publications. They were very difficult to find outside China. And in China, access to those publications was not guaranteed.

Now the Centre is being “reorganized” by CUHK. They claim that the collection has been moved to the main library, where they are going to digitize it, and that it will remain as a separate collection within the main library. There are a lot of questions about that.

The Centre once played a huge role as a place for visiting scholars. The staff will be moved to another center, the Institute of Chinese Studies, which is mainly devoted to Chinese philosophy. The programs for visiting scholars are also being moved to that institute. It’s really a shame.

For those of us who study the PRC, we mainly have to rely on our mainland colleagues. Some of them still have access to some sources. But I think for foreign scholars, access to PRC sources is almost zero at this point. We’ll have to see.

Luckily we have fallback options. There are many archives outside of mainland China. I encourage students to think about topics that they can feasibly tackle—ones that rely on archives or fieldwork not just within China. It’s a good opportunity, I think, for us as a field to think about issues more broadly in terms of the region, in terms of territories peripheral to the traditional historiography, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Or we can think more about Asia as a region, exploring transnational connections between China, Korea, and Japan.

And there are still a lot of published sources, so I always encourage students to consider that. We may have to change our thinking in our field, where access to unpublished archives is seen as somehow this summit, the ne plus ultra of historical research. We also have to acknowledge that in terms of protecting our sources, working on published sources can be a viable alternative.

AW: Shifting gears a bit: you’ve written several articles on the Umbrella Movement from 2014. Michelle and I were rereading them and found them really prescient—we were like, “Oh, Sebastian was right about everything.” You predicted, for example, the deepening political paralysis that was going to ensue. How has your thinking changed about the Umbrella Movement?

On a personal note, Michelle and I remember 2014 with such optimism. It felt like something new was happening in East Asia. You pointed in your article to that streak of utopianism in the protest movements, and we wonder if that’s still alive.

SV: Yes, I don’t see people turning their backs on the Umbrella Movement. I think that was a formative moment for a whole generation of Hong Kong people. And I think it will stay that way. The anti-extradition movement was more traumatic in many ways because of the police violence and the repression and the subsequent national security law, although it also had some very emotional moments. The solidarity between different groups of protesters with different strategies, for example—that is an important legacy. But I do think that the Umbrella Movement will remain as a kind of foundational moment of this new wave of the democracy movement.

But my view is that the democracy movement goes back further. I’m trying to work on that—maybe one day when I can get back to a library in Hong Kong. There are foundational moments in the past of the democracy movement. For one, the anticolonial movement in the ’60s. And the support in Hong Kong for the 1989 movements in China, of course, was another foundational moment.

But I think for this generation, the Umbrella Movement will remain formative because it lasted for such a long, continuous period of time. The anti-extradition movement was also very long, but it happened in waves, with people gathering and then dispersing and so on. Of course, there’s this element of violence that for some people—the “hands and feet” (手足) members of the movement—was a defining experience.

For the larger population, I think the Umbrella Movement may remain the more inspiring one. The occupation lasted for months; people really built up new networks of communication and solidarity. Some people camped out there for several months and others just came occasionally. But groups emerged on the ground that later moved to social networks. People continue to communicate and continue to pursue some of the causes that they became engaged with there.

The utopian aspect was probably broader in the Umbrella Movement than in the anti-extradition movement. It was a more imaginative movement, and it enjoyed more space because it was not repressed as severely as the anti-extradition movement. It engaged with all of these issues, including sustainable development, real estate, housing, agriculture, reimagining farming in Hong Kong, worker unions, LGBT causes. All of these groups came together on the ground in their tents and built up networks that were reactivated in the anti-extradition movement. They mobilized.

The anti-extradition movement’s main goal was to push back against one law, and so they didn’t have that kind of deliberative space. But of course, this is just me sort of betraying myself as an irredeemably idealistic Habermasian who thinks that, you know, middle-class guys getting together to talk about weighty issues in tents is somehow an ideal of political deliberation. [Laughter.] I know some of my colleagues who pay more attention to social movements would say that the more important thing is organizing to struggle and fight, and that things don’t happen when male intellectuals gather under a tent to talk.

I think 2019 had that quality, but it was more evanescent. Those kinds of groups or those dynamics came together occasionally, but it got drowned out in the violence and the police repression: all those horrible scenes we saw, you know, of riot police, the blue water cannon, the siege of Polytechnic University.

And I mean, of course, some of the members of the protest movement also got a bit carried away. Call me a peacenik or whatever, but I still prefer the origami umbrellas to the bamboo catapults that protesters had set up to bombard police.

MK: That’s very sweet but I think I might be more of a bamboo catapult kind of person.

SV: Why am I not surprised?

[Laughter.]

AW: When I look back at 2014 in Taiwan, I definitely see the development of a new democratic, participatory culture. But I wonder whether 2014 also pushed Beijing to go this extralegal route. Like you said earlier, I would never blame Beijing’s repression on a democratic social movement; Beijing was already going down the rabbit hole. But I wonder if 2014 catalyzed this process of ramping up its extralegal oppression, kidnapping booksellers and so on.

And of course the rise of Trump and other populist movements across the world gave the Chinese media apparatus a way to say, “Look, democracy isn’t working in ‘the West.’” We saw this in our families, too. The Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement became a wedge issue, where people who opposed the movements were on the side of law and order and the younger generation was seen as lawless.

SV:I do think there’s a continuum of tightening control; I wouldn’t say extralegal, though. I mean, it’s this Schmittian legality. And I think Beijing has understood how it can use this kind of thin legality, or whatever you want to call it, to advance its cause. It’s fully prepared to churn out all the legal interpretations by, you know, specialist constitutionalists and so on to support the national security law. And at the end of the day—sorry to the legal scholars sitting in on this conversation—you can find legal scholars to defend pretty much any view of the law.

[Laughter.]

MK: That’s so funny. Don’t worry, I don’t take offense. Look at all those lawyers who defended torture!

SV: The way I prefer to think of it is that for Beijing, the Basic Law is a light constraint. They want to be operating plausibly within the framework of the Basic Law. I do agree with critics of the Umbrella Movement who claimed that it was naive to think that Beijing would seek or accept a kind of balanced interpretation of the gray zones (like how to elect the Chief Executive). That’s not how Beijing operates. For Beijing, the Basic Law was already a compromise. You have to be prepared for the fact that Beijing will use the Basic Law to its utmost, and it will stretch it as far as legally plausible to pursue its own political goals.

But to an extent, that’s what the law is like everywhere. I mean, that’s also what we saw in the U.S. in cases like Guantanamo and so on. The law operates as some kind of constraint, but it’s a very elastic constraint. Beijing certainly continues to claim that it’s operating fully within the Basic Law, that it’s fully implementing “one country, two systems” and so on.

But I think you put your finger on a very important issue: what happened in Beijing? And it’s true that something happened around 2012, 2013, 2014 those years. Some people say it’s just Xi Jinping. And I don’t entirely buy that, because the system is much too complex for one person to influence it so profoundly. I like taking inspiration from Weberian studies of other dictators in the past. If you read Kershaw’s Hitler biography, you get a very good sense of how charismatic power is about seizing the moment, an individual reflecting certain structures of society. So I think Xi Jinping was the person who was able to sort of perfectly incarnate a specific moment or a specific option taken at that specific moment.

But what really triggered his ascendancy and the turn towards greater authoritarianism is still a mystery to me. Why did China take a sharp turn across the board towards a Schmittian prioritization of sovereignty and national security?  As you say, I think the terrain was somehow prepared by the international situation, in particular the post-9/11 creative erosion of legal norms and this worldwide prioritization of national security.

It’s such a paradox, right? I mean, when you see the lengths to which states went to guard against terrorist attacks and the lengths to which they did not go to guard against a disease which is killing thousands of times more people than the wildest terrorist attacks you could imagine, the contrast is so disturbing now.

To think: for the past twenty years we’ve been prevented from taking a bottle of water on a plane, but they won’t even pass a law to make a mask mandatory on planes. [Note: Biden just did this week!] You really have to wonder what those regulations were for, right?

AW: So true.

SV: I think Beijing’s moves were all somehow related to all of that. From Beijing’s perspective, you could see how they felt besieged. In 2008 there’s the uprising in Lhasa, 2009 in Urumqi, 2014 in Hong Kong and Taiwan. So you can see that there is some kind of threat of breakup. In an international environment that’s conducive to prioritizing national security, they saw a window of opportunity. So I don’t think the catalyst is simply the Sunflower or Umbrella Movement.

AW: Right. I completely agree with that.

MK: Last question—and maybe this will help us end on a more utopian note—you wrote about the hundreds of slogans that emerged from the Umbrella Movement. What was your favorite?

SV: That’s a good question. There are a couple of images I really like, for example flowers blooming everywhere, and another one with a plant sprouting through the asphalt, but the slogan is a little underwhelming. More than a single slogan, what I found striking was the pluralism of the movement. It had a slogan for everyone. A few still resonate today.

Here Sebastian shares his photos of slogans from the Umbrella Movement that still have resonance in Hong Kong today:

“Be water” emerged as one of the most powerful slogans of Hong Kong movement. Inspired by a Bruce Lee quote, it refers to a leaderless strategy and the fluid tactics of protesters, who evaded surveillance by changing meeting locations constantly.

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