Hong Kong, My Friend

So you tried peaceful protest in 2014, and now it's time to take the gloves off?

"The history of sea power is largely, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war. The profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected."

"The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice." – Alfred Thayer Mahan


"The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." 

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

We have the theory of asymmetric information in economics and the balance of power theory in geopolitics. (Believe me, they are relevant to what I’m saying below.) Emotional reactions to events are never theoretical, but it's essential to understand major Theories if we are going to change things we want to change or maintain things we want to maintain.

It's almost impossible to gauge the many influences that ignite our actions, but we have to try.

We are awash in information that updates every second. It's easy to spark outrage. It's harder and harder to establish well-founded perspectives on fast-paced events.

What's happening in Hong Kong now is hard for me to write about because it's not as straight forward or as narrowly focused as many people might think. Also, I've lived and worked in Hong Kong for many years, and I like the place. I've seen it change, a lot, since I first visited with my parents in 1967. I have waxed nostalgic over many good times and circumstances that I've known here over the years.

After the failure of the "Umbrella Movement," it was inevitable that something would eventually set off more mass action as Hong Kong struggles with its identity during Beijing's ongoing takeover of the Special Administrative Region.

I won't attempt to go into detail or address the structural and political issues involved; there is no shortage of intelligent and informed opinion on the subject. I can only share my impressions as an attempt to break through my own confusion on the matter.

I have spoken to quite a few people about why they are participating in the protests. It seems to me that young people are worried about losing their unique sense of identity. They are concerned about the future. They are concerned about Hong Kong's special status, basic law, human rights, housing, the economy; all the things most people are concerned with around the world.

Take a look at what young people are doing in Russia now. They appear to have similar concerns about their elections.

My intuition tells me that there are interests on both sides of the border that may be operating in bad faith. I haven't found any specific evidence of this so far so I won't go into it. When I talk to people or read articles, it's clear that, especially among young people, trust in the police and the Hong Kong government is diminishing. It's also clear that young people I've talked with don't trust the Communist Party of China.

Young Hong Kong people have grown up in a unique environment with a culture influenced by British Crown Rule from 1847 to 1997. Things are different here. Over the decades of my activities in Hong Kong, I've always found it to be a friendly, open place where a person can do business and live life. It's not a perfect place, no place is, but it can be an excellent place to live and work; it has been for me.

Hong Kong is a complex, international community, open to the world. Its legal system is easy to navigate. Real estate is king. It's gone through many cycles of economic development and reinvented itself many times over its relatively short history. When mainland China opened up, Hong Kong was an essential element of China's strategy for economic growth. Today, so many things have changed. The Pearl River Delta region is a true mega-city. The pace and breadth of development in the region are impressive. I first visited China in 1980, and I can tell you that China is like a timelapse movie. In the late nineties, I'd look out the window of my old apartment in Shanghai watching highway construction; the highway was going up so fast that it seemed that if you took a train to Hangzhou for the weekend, it would be completed when you got back. Hong Kong is a perpetual construction site. The place where I live in Hong Kong is growing so fast that I sometimes wonder what will come of it all. Make debt through development to make money, I guess. Read, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman" by John Perkins, and I think you'll understand where the CCP got their Belt and Road idea. When people are indebted to you, you have "leverage." Hong Kong is continually reclaiming land so they can build on it and increase revenue. Amidst all of this glorious development, the world-class shopping malls, five-star hotels, and private housing estates, most people live modest lives in small concrete apartments.

Most Hong Kong people seem relatively content, no matter how hard life is. Hong Kong has always felt like a safe city to me, a place where you can stagger home blind drunk and not get mugged. It's a place where you can enjoy relationships with people from around the world. It has beautiful places to hike, some attractive beaches, good local food, and lots of shopping areas. Hong Kong's location is also ideal for doing business in Asia.

It's clear to me that Hong Kong people desire to maintain their unique Hong Kong identity. People don't want to become "mainland Chinese." They like their educational system; they enjoy their open connection to the world. They will tolerate the inequality, crowded conditions, the lack of space, and so on if they can just be allowed to maintain their unique culture.

Unfortunately, culture is an emergent thing, always changing, never fixed. Most people will know that Chinese history is long, complicated, and profound. China is becoming a superpower again, and there has never been more at stake. If things go well, the world may benefit from China's new status; if not, we could see another world war. There exists a naturally pressurized context that includes forces way beyond its borders. I've read quite a bit over the years about China, and I still feel way out of my depth when I think about current events in light of the geopolitical ramifications of the ongoing "great game" as dominant players game theory their power plays in the Asia region.

Below are some of my concerns.

In places where demonstrations aren't regularly taking place, Hong Kong is doing its best to maintain business as usual. Is business as usual, a good thing?

I find the motivations of the protestors to be a bit naive. I can't see how their current tactics will meet with a positive result. I understand, however, that they feel that there is nothing else they can do, they feel as if they have found only dead ends down every path. In my opinion, this is evidence of a lack of imagination and sophistication in their leadership. Perhaps there isn't any leadership.

The protests seem like emotional reactions to events and a perceived loss of identity, not strategically designed to engage in a practical course of action that might achieve positive engagement from the CCP.

They are compelled to struggle, but, unfortunately, they most likely won't achieve success. And yet, as Chris Hedges says, "I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists." I'm not saying China is a fascist State. One could say, "We fight for our freedom and identity not because we will win, but because we value our freedom and identity." They are worried that they are losing something precious that they will never get back once lost; this is a compelling reason to "revolt."

The global socio-economic system is unsustainable, any local, conventional action intended to reform the system while maintaining the status quo is doomed to fail. As it collapses, only terrible things can happen to our environment, our ecosystem, our habitat, culture, and health. It's time to recognize that what's happening in Hong Kong, the United States, the U.K., Russia, Central America, Venezuela, Brazil, India, and many other places in the world stems from the same baked in causes. We need a global, coordinated effort to address structural issues and redesign our economic system, emphasizing sustainability, health, and justice for all. Of course, global efforts start locally.

Can we do that? Probably not but its a betrayal of everything good about Homo Sapiens if we don't try.

Climate change is already changing everything anyway, and we can't stop that no matter what we do so we might as well prepare for it for the consequences and allocate the resources needed to continue the journey towards civilization. I don't think we are genuinely civilized yet.

We are living in a period where understanding the big-picture takes on enormous importance. We have to understand the forest and the trees.

We must avoid global conflict and work together across nations to solve problems. A global conflict would be the end of our species. We don't seem to be concerned with biodiversity or the sixth extinction, but shouldn't the lives of our grandchildren matter enough to transcend our differences for peace and long-term prosperity and health?

Hong Kong must find a way to work successfully with the CCP. Gunboats are not coming to Hong Kong's rescue. If people feel the government isn't prepared to help at all, and therefore limit their tactics, it's going to be a long hard road until they finally arrive at an unknowable destination.

There are things worth fighting for, and there are aspects of culture worth preserving, but things are always changing and how you flow with the changes makes all the difference.

I'm hoping people take a break from breaking things on the street and form community comities where they can work on ways to achieve a better Hong Kong by analyzing history, geopolitics, economics, society, culture, technology, science, etc. Young people need a coherent strategy that has a chance of success. I hope they endeavor to come up with proposals that are so good they can't be ignored. Focus on values that are profound and indispensable. The more informed the efforts are, the more likely we are to create long-term solutions.

Also, I hope they focus on the real, structural problems, identify roadblocks, understand their blind spots and the blind spots of their opposition, comprehend the limitations of all sides, and work to help each other overcome all challenges. I'm afraid that if young people aren't patient enough to collaborate, they will ultimately lose the fight.

When Hell breaks loose, it will be too late for anything but panic and suffering. Until then, we must be positive and keep searching for answers.

I know people here believe that the government isn't listening. That's frustrating, indeed. Sometimes when people aren't listening, it's best to find new questions, broaden the conversation, establish common ground, and let parties know that you are in it for the long run and you will do what it takes to find solutions.

More unrest may have horrible unintended consequences. There is a massive power imbalance, and we should recognize this. None of this is to say that people here shouldn't continue to struggle for what they believe is essential.

I feel that China doesn't want things to break down. It benefits no one if Hong Kong stumbles into chaos. Don't give up trying new things. It's not helpful to believe that one's tried everything and nothing will work except unrest.

Here's an excellent resource for peaceful civil disobedience strategies.

About The Wildfire Project

Our world is shifting rapidly. All the systems that shape our lives are in crisis or collapse. Wildfire supports social movements to navigate this time, and adapt and grow through it, by stepping into collective agency in the face of physical, political, and spiritual violence.

Wildfire does more than just activist facilitation. We support organizational transformation as we all navigate the unstable terrain of change. Our Partnerships take grassroots movement groups through creativeexperientiallong-term processes that help them shift their own group cultures through cycles of practice. This includes moving through generative conflict; connection to land, our bodies, ritual and song; grounding the work in study, history, and political education; navigating power, rank, and leadership; building concrete strategy and organizing skills; finding balance between purpose & belonging; assisting interpersonal transformation, and building cultures of curiosity learning.

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In addition to our core Partner Programming (see Partner Groups below for more), we also coordinate fellowships and convenings, offer coaching, and facilitate coalitions, single workshops & retreats, pop-ed curriculum development, and meetings for groups on a shorter-term basis.

Civil disobedience can work, but it's a marathon, not a sprint, it takes time and requires sacrifices. A sense of urgency is essential, at this point incremental change may not save us but we have to understand that to achieve success we can't merely go on with our comfortable lives expecting a better status quo than the one that's lead to all the problems in the first place. Also, we can't rely on "creative destruction." Sometimes, when we break things, they remain broken.

Of course, if you are content, maybe nothing can move you. Many people are lazy and fearful of change. Some people have it so good that they will do anything to defend their position. Be careful while backing these people into a corner.

Most importantly, if you are going to break the system, you have to have something better to replace it. We need vision and concrete ways to implement our ideas. We have to design and engineer a new way of living in this world, and we have to convince influential players that change is for their benefit as well.

I'm not optimistic. We are relatively spoiled people, unaccustomed to discomfort. Most of us would settle for some more money and a few more material possessions. If the lights went out for a month, many of us wouldn't survive. Most of us have no idea what keeps the lights on anyway. We could care less about our environment as long as we can go shopping and watch Netflix after work. We are more concerned with who will win the football match than we are about whether our companions feel loved.

I have noticed while doing business here, that when people are focused on making money, everything else in their lives is secondary. They are myopic, only concerned with power, prestige, security, and the things money can buy. We fly off to beautiful places only to trash them for a selfie and to say that we've been there. We rush here and there and lose ourselves in noise.

It's time to reevaluate everything and get serious about working together to make things better for everyone. Of course, if you think things are great and can only get better than you probably think people like me are insane. Well, sit back, enjoy the show, and come what may...

One more thing, when you step out into the streets to fight, you have to understand that you might get hurt. It has to be worth it to you. How long can you handle the pain before you give in? How many sacrifices are you prepared to make and for what exactly. What are you building? What do you want? Why do you want it? How are you going to get it? How are you going to maintain it? The answers to these questions must be crystal clear. Don't think that they are simple questions, the more you know, the more complex these questions become.

Regardless of how you feel about these questions, you'll need to train to be tough. Things are not going to get more comfortable under our current socio-economic way of doing things. New challenges are coming faster than ever. These days, if we want to increase our agency, our ability to make good choices that have a positive impact on life and our future, we have to learn new things continually. We even have to learn to defend ourselves from progress. It's true; certain kinds of rapid growth aren't always good for us. Our world has never been more complex than it is today. All the great things we've developed in our history could disappear in a moment if we aren't careful.

My heart goes out to the young people here; I tear up after I talk with them. They seem so innocent to me. I'm getting old.

One has to be reasonably sophisticated to make good things happen these days. Sure, we can appeal to our basest emotions and move the masses, but what will that achieve? Power? Power for whom? Today, more than ever, we need to know how things work and the consequences of our actions. And, above all, we need each other.

Good luck, my friend, all the best, Hong Kong.

I always wonder about the human rights record of the U.S.A. Never the less, some organizations are keenly interested in what happens in Hong Kong.

Ask Your Representatives to Co-Sponsor Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019

Below is a view from a Beijing media organization as penned by Tom Fowdy, a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities.

Just what do people in Hong Kong want?

Given this, whilst news outlets are portraying events in the territory as a noble and chauvinistic struggle between good and evil, the reality is that this is a much more all-embracing social conflict whereby a sense of local exceptionalism is unable to come to terms with the pragmatic implications of its own existence.

However, uprooting the territory and inducing political chaos is not going to change the status quo. Instead, it will only serve to increase the sentiment in Beijing that Hong Kong as it stands is a liability to the stability of the country and region.

I often wonder what freedom is in various contexts. I wonder what democracy means to most people. I wonder what free will is and all sorts of things. I watch cycles of unrest happen over and over again, everywhere. I live through economic bubbles and crashes. I watch wars, police actions and social turmoil on T.V. I know the ice is melting in the Arctic and on Greenland and I know that’s not a good thing. I wonder if consumerism makes anyone happy. I’ve come to believe that the way things are organized is far from optimal. I’m constantly improving the discipline required to operate my bull shit detector kit. My epistemic humility grows by the day. I question the value of hope. I am more focused on what can be done and on whether people can find ways of doing things together. I know that human life is about community, sharing and interdependence. Perhaps the values that underpin that will make a comeback in the Anthropocene when bread and circuses had never been more exciting, entertaining and in some cases enlightening.


Steven Cleghorn

Steven is an autodidact, skeptic, raconteur and film producer from America who has been traveling since he was a zygote. He's a producer at The Muse Films Ltd. in Hong Kong and a constantly improving (hopefully) Globe Hacker. He's seeks the company of interesting minds.