Cosmopolis and its (W)hole: The End of Neoliberal Capitalism in Post-2020 Hong Kong? | Man-tat Terence Leung

by Critical Asia

by Man-tat Terence Leung, Dec. 2021】

The trenchant implementation of the National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong during the summer of 2020 has probably taken almost every person from both the local and overseas communities by surprise. This very decision to introduce the NSL into Hong Kong society through the National People’s Congress during the peak season of the global pandemics seems to serve nobody’s interests, including the ruling parties themselves. On the one hand, the inception of the NSL could compel many Hong Kong citizens into the decision (or contemplation) of temporary and permanent departure, even if it means to be a radical uprooting of their established ways of life, as well as different sorts of familial ties and socioeconomic connections that have been accumulated for years. On the other hand, this political intervention from Beijing could undermine the legitimacy of its indirect ruling that has been proven economically successful and effective in post-handover Hong Kong. But at a deeper level, the legislation of the NSL in 2020 may not be a totally incomprehensible or arbitrary move spearheaded by the Chinese government. Rather, it could be a strident, carefully administered measure that sought to make Hong Kong a fully “neoliberal,” “depoliticized city” purely catered to economic activities and financial interactions, as well as reshuffling those “unfettered” sociopolitical ties between the Chinese Mainland and Hong Kong since 1997 into an integrated whole.

Controversially regarded as a bill that could undermine the long-standing ruling principle of the “One Country, Two Systems” proposed by former Chairman Deng Xiaoping during the 1980s, the blossoming decade that not only saw the territory’s economic upsurge, but also witnessed its spectacular transformation from a tiny port city (or prior to that, a “fishing village”) to one of the most flexible, cosmopolitan, and secure financial hub in the capitalist world system that guarantees both civil liberties and economic freedom of its citizens, the NSL might have radically upset the reigning sociopolitical assumptions and socioeconomic consensus altogether. What many Hong Kong citizens have learnt from this neoliberal consensus since the colonial era is that political legitimacy and economic interests belong to two loosely connected social spheres, and it is arguably through this relatively “loose” ideological connection between politics and economics that helped the city accentuate its transnational aura and global prestige for different sorts of financial exchanges and trading between Asia and the West over the years, especially since the heyday of the Cold War. In facing these abrupt changes and gigantic uncertainties ahead, a number of Hong Kong citizens from all walks of life (but the main portion of it remains the professionals, teachers and health workers) would consider leaving their living place for a probably better future in terms of the freedom of speeches and civil liberties, which are closely connected to the protections of private assets and economic freedom according to the teachings of Western Enlightenment (despite the fact that political freedom was, historically speaking, recognized in Hong Kong society only after the local economy thrived).

This new emigration wave, which could eventually surpass the scale of previous mass migrations in Hong Kong, has certainly alerted many rank-and-file officials and the general public to a considerable extent. However, the sheer inception of the NSL does not overtly discourage the biggest companies in Hong Kong from staying in the territory and continuing to conduct businesses with the Chinese Mainland. Instead, many ruling elites and neoliberal conglomerates, following Beijing’s hardline determination to restore the public order after witnessing multiple sociopolitical and socioeconomic setbacks in both the local and global scenes since 2019 and suture the existing electoral “errors” and administrative “loopholes” left behind by the ex-British colonizer, would consider the post-2020 environment, what many have called “the Second Handover” or the “Real Handover,” a perfect platform for developing and renegotiating new economic opportunities and collaborative ventures with the Chinese Mainland. Thus, they would see the NSL an ideal prescription to help “depoliticize” and “sterilize” the reigning capitalistic mechanism from the lingering influences of Western colonial legacies and democratic excesses that pertain to Hong Kong society at large. Yet, rather than simply wiping out all the neoliberal traces in the territory, it is assumed that the “Second Handover” of Hong Kong to the Chinese Mainland could showcase or remind the world of a new model of “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” that “revives” the predominant global capitalist system, which has been proven time and again an alarming case in many Western societies since the financial tsunami in 2008. Not coincidentally, this kind of confident, if not self-congratulating, views from the pro-establishment camps emerged precisely at a time when the Trade War between China and America became increasingly evident and unavoidable, followed by the global outbreak of the pandemics that tremendously shook the health care system and state governance in both developed and developing countries.

So, the biggest question for Hong Kong citizens today could be rephrased as: is the NSL really undermining the “One Country, Two Systems” or actually perfecting it in a way that looks radically unfamiliar to many existing (Western) neoliberal assumptions? Historically, the ruling elites of the city have always prized monetary laissez-faire over political freedom since the heyday of Hong Kong’s economic takeoff. Many neoliberal oligarchs in Hong Kong, who flock to prioritize economic interests over egalitarian concerns at all circumstances, vividly embody the idea of “homo economicus,” an ultra-utilitarian notion that sees profit maximization of an individual as the founding stone of a society. Interestingly, according to David Harvey in his concisely-written book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, the original idea of Deng’s “One Country, Two Systems,” which derived from his earlier doctrine of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the subsequent social experiments in the four pivotal Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of the Chinese Mainland during the reform and opening era (although some may argue that this doctrine could be dated back to the Maoist policy in Tibet shortly after 1949), was an eclectic mix of socialism and capitalism that aimed at suturing both the intricate local discontents surfaced after the demise of the Maoist Cultural Revolution and the global predicaments that emerged from the world energy crises related to the religious-ideological conflicts between the Third World and the First World in the 1970s.

In this book, with a particular chapter entitled, “Neoliberalism with Chinese Characteristics,” on the post-Mao reform and opening, Harvey juxtaposes Deng with Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Augusto Pinochet as the major proponents and pioneers of global neoliberalism which began as early as in the late 1970s for the sake of rebuilding and reshuffling the symbolic legitimacy of different ruling elites after witnessing the global oil crisis in 1973 as well as the mass revolutionary dissents after the political watersheds of 1968 that fundamentally changed and unsettled the traditional Cold War dichotomy. Harvey’s conclusion is that the sheer emergence of neoliberalism is, first and foremost, a matter of realpolitik among the world politicians regardless of strict ideological orientations. In fact, it is largely concerned with the crisis management or pragmatic flexibility of a regime according to the changing geopolitical landscapes and circumstances. As such, the “liberalizing” and “depoliticizing” images of this move are perhaps just the after-effects of numerous highly calculated policymaking and utilitarian decisions.

This very administrative flexibility that characterizes many neoliberal policymaking since the 1980s may not necessarily benefit the common citizens in terms of both economic and political freedom in the long run. Instead, while unexpected crises may present new opportunities to a ruling regime for repackaging its national image and ideological discourses, they might only help perpetuate, if not enlarge, the existing power unevenness pertaining to a neoliberal society. Ordinary people, unlike those privileged neoliberal elites who control most of the resources of the country, could be more easily prone to prolonged precarity and vulnerability, especially during the course of gigantic sociopolitical transition and turmoil. Even so, citizens who are not “flexible” or “adaptable” enough to reshuffle or reconceptualize these crises in a positive, productive manner could be radically marginalized or dismissed as “obstructive” and “threatening” dissidents to the teleological development and progress of a society at large.

After the watersheds of 2019, it is perhaps this latent worry or worry about one’s worry that designates a unique critical juncture and ethical impasse among many Hong Kong citizens when facing an increasing power asymmetry between the rulers and the ruled in the current regime. After all, the highly divisive responses towards the NSL in post-2020 Hong Kong may not be easily sutured by a new set of “uplifting” or “depoliticizing” ideological campaigns that derive from the conventional neoliberal rhetoric and cosmopolitan ethos. Rather, the unprecedented scissions among Hong Kong citizens today precisely deflect an irreducible symptom or antagonism that has long been inhabited in the predominant neoliberal system itself, in which the operation of the latter always requires the complicit collaboration of numerous cynical, opportunistic individuals who are sheltered in a “safe,” “harmonious” and “joyful” universe in line with the ruling classes, while the majority of the silenced and oppressed are constantly exposed to new crises of dislocations, dispossessions and despair.

Man-tat Terence Leung, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong

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