Beyond the Breaking Point: Locations of Hope through the Lens of Land Activism in Hong Kong | Shan Huang

by Critical Asia

by Shan Huang, June 2023】

In March 2006, 35 tall trees were to be cut down at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. A seemingly uneventful move to make space for the larger campus renovation project, it nonetheless became a controversy among the CUHK community before escalated to a loud campaign. CHU Hoi-Dick, a CUHK alumnus, became a key organizer through his activist journalism associated with A frequenter of the campus after his graduation in 1999, Chu admitted that his actions were imbued with very strong personal emotions. The campus, he noted, served as a sanctuary for an isolated young enthusiast of literature like him. The imposed “upgrading” of it raised his fury to the most during the thorough redecoration of Elisabeth Luce Moore Library, where he developed his literary interests and had been “soaking in without interruption for ten years.” Chu confessed that “at least in this half a year, I can’t bear to set foot in the (new) library again.”[1] As part of the campaign, Chu and his fellows tried to demonstrate the universal values of the trees on both humanist and ecological grounds. But clearly, the disappointment arose more directly from the fact that their affective geography and lived experience weren’t acknowledged as relevant by the authorities in their top-down decision-making. The university responded in a cold manner at first, reinforcing the felt contempt among protesters, but after several rounds of their collective actions, the plan was withdrawn.

Reading Chu’s scattered works in this era, his highly expressive writing style—a mixture of assertiveness, sentimentality, and impulse to act—sometimes makes me forget that all this happened almost two decades ago. Chu was in his late 20s, actively reporting on anti-globalization movements, local Muslim communities, among other topics in progressive politics unseen in Hong Kong’s political arena and urban life. In hugging trees, he and other advocates were also embracing, with their bodies, the intimate potentials that Hong Kong’s cityscape could afford but were rendered as insignificant.

The tree-preservation controversy was a small-scale mobilization, but it encapsulates the core elements that would reemerge, on a larger scale, in a series of subsequent city-wide campaigns that cast deep challenges to the regime of urban development in Hong Kong. A few months after the CUHK conflict, society-wide resistance to the removal of the Star Ferry and Queen’s Pier broke out consecutively (2006-2008).[2] These protests and occupations in the city center were followed by the Anti-Express Railway Movement (2008-2012) which, through its attempts to save an underprivileged village from displacement by the railway infrastructure, brought the public’s attention to Hong Kong’s countryside.[3] This turn to the countryside triggered several campaigns concerning land-use planning in the New Territories, which is usually referenced by its participants as “land activism.” Overall, these campaigns merged the demands for reducing neoliberal-developmentalist space-making and diversifying urban lives on the one hand, and the rights-based aspirations for social justice and democracy on the other. Chu Hoi-Dick himself also became arguably the most recognized “land activist” in town due to his deep engagement with many of these cases, first through the activist alliance Land Justice League he cofounded in 2011 and then as a member of Legislative Council (2016-2020).

Contrary to the impression on a “social movement,” often marked by well-organized collective actions, land activism was more of a flexible activist network, the capacity of which is enacted in responding to various scenarios and tasks. Maintained by a relatively small number of organizers, the network involved a wide range of actors who do not necessarily identify themselves as “land activists” regarding formal membership or self-identification. My use of land activism covers what this network was mobilized to accomplish in the broadest sense. That is, I am referring to a continuous, multi-sited, but loosely connected set of political mobilizations and social, intellectual, and environmental projects mostly in and/or concerned about Hong Kong’s countryside from the late 2000s through late 2010s; these mobilizations and projects seek to diagnose and change Hong Kong’s urban epistemology and politics by altering conventional conceptions, uses, and affective experiences of “land” beyond the seizure of it by dominant political economy as well as Hong Kong’s urban mythologies. Beyond what I have mentioned, some notable cases include the citizen research on Hong Kong’s brownfield by Liber Research Community (2009-present), resistance to the development schemes in the Northeastern New Territories (2012-2014) and Wan Chau (2014-2016), and the anti-land reclamation near Lantau Island (2014-2019).

Two Kinds of Hope in Land Activism

A central mission of land activism was bringing to public attention new locations in Hong Kong, especially its countryside, where both problem and hope exist.[4] Yet as land activists tried to accomplish their agendas in these locations, they oftentimes invented these locations anew, with social, political, and environmental effects that were not fully planned. In these activist interventions, two kinds of hope may be identified, signifying different theories of change.

The first kind of hope, which I shall call breakpoint hope, consists of a few widely accepted and discursively articulated political aspirations, the fulfillment of which is believed as not requiring specific locationality but can be facilitated by reproducing these aspirations in more places. It is often characterized by a temporal—and moral—breakpoint that distinguishes the (bad) before and the (good) after. Notably, the pursuit for democratizing urban planning, as a major component of this hope, resonates clearly with the master theme in the pro-democracy activism. In what social scientists termed Hong Kong’s “social movement era”[5]—in the sense that “social movement” is a major way of imagining and doing politics—this hope could be habitually packaged into clear demands for the authorities to respond. As a structuring mechanism, this form of contentious politics reinforced both the hope’s content and its breaking-point-ness.

Land activism’s attempts to actualize this hope—through large-scale mobilizations—led to some important outcomes, but not all of which followed its own script of change. In rendering new locations in the New Territories as relevant to the entire Hong Kong, for instance, it expanded the sites where urban politics could be felt and engaged. The relevance of some of these locations, however, was not immediately legible to a larger body of citizens that were supposed to be mobilized. Therefore, new articulations are made, oftentimes innovatively, between the specificity of these locations and “Hong Kong” as a master signifier and familiar terrain for political imagination. To accomplish this task effectively, land activists had to know these specificities and work closely with local villagers and concerned citizens elsewhere. It is precisely in these processes of being drawn to and/or divining deeper into the life world in the peripheral Hong Kong that a second kind of hope/location came into view, going beyond the causality involved in the logic of “mobilization” essential to the breakpoint hope.[6]

This second kind of hope, which I should call generative hope, resonates with land activism’s more constructive agenda of preserving—and sometimes establishing—pro-justice publics, alternative forms of social life and livelihoods, as well as living environments via grassroots organizations. In these activist interventions, the (re)making of place/location, the assessing of political opportunity, and the building of social relationship were always intertwined as they yielded the very content of hope. That is, something desirable that we are drawn to but cannot fully fix into language now may be further specified in a particular location if we find ways to formulate it together without rejecting the possibilities that we ourselves may be changed in due processes.

Instead of hoping for/with a breaking point, generative hope is more about constantly being attentive to the present condition. This temporality of hope resonates with Jonathan Lear’s theorizing of the radicality of hope, which points to “a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is” (2008: 103).[7] In the case he examines, what is hoped a subjectivity that is at once identifiable with a disappearing way of life but may have a different shape.[8] Hong Kong’s land activism ushers us to a slightly different terrain of imagination: if hope always has a (socio-geographical) space and creates space, then the social relationship and knowledge of certain locations are worth investing because they are epistemologically and methodologically immanent to sayable moral and political ideals.

Land activism witnessed a tightened discursive—and practical—articulation between two kinds of hope in the “social movement era.” The theory of change was that once the desirable political reform that constitutes breakpoint hope is actualized, more social and political space will be open for alternative urban/rural visions carried out through generative hope; likewise, the very components of generative hope are expected to mainly serve the fulfillment breakpoint hope. In the wake of the 2019-20 protests, however, the breakpoint hope has lost its ground, together with various resources the “social movement” permutations of land activism gained via this conduit. Most of the leading activist groups can no longer receive financial support that previously collected from fundraisers during protest marches and other mass mobilizations; also terminated are political resources from legislators and district councilors sympathetic to land issues—Chu Hoi-Dick’s arrest is the most conspicuous example. A saddening fact for a host of key actors is that much of their skill set on doing politics of land and beyond that they have made huge efforts to learn finds nowhere to use. But does the fading of breakpoint hope mean there is no hope at all? Can generative hope still hold its ground by itself? These are hard questions to answer, and the prevalent disappointment need time to process. What might be useful in the wait is reviewing some actual cases in which the trajectory of hope complicates the trajectory of change as assumed in the previous articulation of two kinds of hope.

Assembling an Agricultural Community

In 2014, Lantau Island became a front line in Hong Kong’s land politics due to the highly controversial land-reclamation plan. As the leading pressure group on the issue, Save Lantau Alliance, target at city-wide mobilizations against the plan, several concerned Lantau residents also established their community group named Society for Lantau Study (LanSo), calling out people concerned about the land reclamation to learn Lantau’s history and environment. Based in Mui Wo, the eastern entrance to Lantau, they organized a few oral history workshops and put together a mixed team of Lantau locals and incoming volunteers to conduct interviews in the neighborhood. In addition, LanSo also held regular informal gatherings, inviting residents to know each other and discuss a wide range of topics relevant to the Mui Wo community. A couple of enthusiastic kaifongs also designed and led guided tours based on their life experience and the findings from oral history. As LanSo’s community work evolved, a few members lived elsewhere than Lantau also became core organizers.

While many of these activities sought to raise the awareness of land reclamation’s potential negative impact, they also helped articulate what was worth preserving against such threat in the first place. Mui Wo’s active and diverse agricultural practices stood out as a new locus that may bridge the past and the future of this seaside town due to its potential for maintaining ways of using land beyond generic development and creating new forms of community engagement via farming and food. A moment of generative hope thus appeared at this point, as the social connectivity triggered by the anti-land-reclamation politics began to yield something new about the location without necessarily being hinged upon such politics in an antagonistic manner. Yet the force of a resident group alone was not enough in molding this hope into a specific shape. In 2017, in reaction to the social pressure against land-reclamation, Hong Kong government released a considerable amount of funding for conservation projects under the familiar rationale of balancing “development” and “conservation.” Several LanSo members decided to apply for it after soliciting critical inputs from residents. In trying to add “agriculture” as a new category of preservation, they were hoping to critically engage with the official discourse that Mui Wo is merely a touristy destination for camping and hiking. Receiving government funding for a project requires the qualification that LanSo didn’t have. Via the larger land activist network, they were put in connection with Land Education Fund, an NGO specialized for land and environmental projects. LEF then acted as the institutional applicant, successfully obtained the funding, and set a humble office in Mui Wo.

From 2018 to 2020, the project was launched in Mui Wo in the name of Farm to Table. In trying to build a “agricultural community,” the project was designed as an incremental and participatory one so that varied actors can join and shape it and, along the way, relate to each other. Let me capture a few components of it. Guided tours were still regularly held, but the tour guides, promoted by the project as “community ambassadors,” were no longer locals but incoming volunteers of different ages. They were “certificated” after attending five workshops and field trips on a range of topics from agriculture in Hong Kong to the basics of biodiversity field research, and to Mui Wo’s history and landscape. The tours would drop by several local farms which were at the heart of the project. Beyond supplying ingredients for occasional meals at collaborating restaurants, their produce was also made available to residents via the weekly “joint purchase initiative.” The project team also rented a small plot of land from a main collaborating farm for beginner participants to experience collective agricultural production from opening the field to harvest. An open gathering for food and recipe sharing was held monthly in various sites in the community.

These activities have attracted more interested actors and stakeholders in further shaping of agricultural sociality, economy, and ecology in Mui Wo. By the end of 2022, the presence and coverage of the project in Mui Wo have gradually increased due to the accumulative social network and reputation built in the past several years. LEF has organized several farmer’s markets and immersive agricultural classes on pineapple cultivation, as well as issued newsletters tracing the history and stories of local produces. Some of the oral history stories collected earlier are now being recycled in a more systematic study of agricultural history in the region. Although these developments might not have much direct impact on the land reclamation scheme, the imagination of Mui Wo as a location and the forms of life it affords have clearly been expanded. To what extent and in what form can agriculture be revitalized in here remains an open question, but doesn’t this sense of fuzziness, which indicates a possible route to be taken, already constitute a hope?

Dislocating Hopes

As Hirokazu Mizayaki observes in a comparable case on land and cultural politics, it is precisely the art and work of dealing with indeterminacy—which is an achievement instead of given condition—that keeps setting the knowledge (of a people their land) in motion (2004: 69-85).[9] Without such indeterminacy, hope may slip into a mere optimism which, in calling for realizing pregiven goals, not only annuls the prospective momentum inherent in hope (Miyazaki 2004: 8; Lear 2008) but also, when captured by strong moral interpretation of the world, does no good to us at all (Berlant 2011).[10] If hope is understood as essentially emerging from an interrelated trio of political opportunity, social relationship, and affective locationality, then at a time when there is only slim political opportunity to reiterate older ways of hoping, it is perhaps just fine to invest in other components before any hope becomes legible. As a hometown to seven-million people with diverse landscape/locations and potential for social connectivity, the city in this regard is far from being hopeless.

The “legacy” of land activism also invites us to ponder the dislocation between two kinds of hope after the structural change of political culture in Hong Kong. While dislocation—in the sense of the injury of a joint—is indeed painful, it also violently produces an opportunity for connecting parts anew. But this opportunity is hopeful only when brave, challenging questions are raised in re-examining the connections that used to be taken for granted. The retreat of the breakpoint hope from Hong Kong’s political arena may thus not be an utterly horrible thing, if part of it means alleviating the obsession with a temporality of change which, in monopolizing the politics of affect by maximizing the sense of urgency, may limit how and what we hope.

Shan Huang, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, USA


[1] 中大斬樹記 校長:安全和環保,我一定揀安全! | 朱凱廸 | 獨立媒體 March 9, 2006; see also 〔聯署〕中大學生會:齊來保護我們的山城; 獨立媒體 March 6, 2006

[2] Ting, C. C. (2013). The Star and the Queen: Heritage Conservation and the Emergence of a New Hong Kong Subject. Modern Chinese Literature and Culture25(2), 80–129.

[3] Yun-chung Chen & Mirana M. Szeto (2015). The forgotten road of progressive localism: New Preservation Movement in Hong Kong, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 16:3, 436-453, DOI: 10.1080/14649373.2015.1071694

[4] As this network has largely remained dormant since 2020, I write it in the past tense.

[5] 煒, 袁瑋熙(編)《社運年代:香港抗爭政治的軌跡》(2018)香港中文大學出版社

[6] For some examples, see《菜園留覆往來人》影行者 (2013);《何處是吾家– 橫洲》橫洲綠化帶發展關注組 藍出版 (2018)

[7] Lear, Jonathan. Radical hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Harvard University Press, 2008.

[8] Lear analyzes the courageous and difficult choice made by Plenty Coups, the leader of Crow Nation, as his people was facing cultural devastation in the late 19th century.

[9] Miyazaki, Hirokazu. The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge. Stanford University Press, 2004.

[10] Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, 2011.

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