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Non-Sovereign Revolutions? Thinking Across Puerto Rico & Hong Kong

Hong Kong and Puerto Rico seem worlds apart. But recent global protests show there are deep commonalities as people organize against austerity, inequality, and the legacy of colonialism.

That was the topic of a recent panel this month at the CUNY Graduate Center.

The panel featured five experts, two from Puerto Rico, two from Hong Kong, and one from Taiwan.

The purpose of the event, according to organizer Wilfred Chan, was to “hopefully get toward some kind of shared vocabulary, or even interesting new avenues for inquiry.”

The panel positioned itself as part of a larger global discussion about building frameworks for community, political futures, and consciousness raising.

“As activists we should really think about in what ways a community is born,” said panelist Dr. Wen Liu, a professor of gender studies at SUNY-Albany. “It happens through action, through practice, through care.”

“How to rethink that whole global system is the question,” panelist and CUNY anthropology professor Dr. Yarimar Bonilla said. “To decolonize the decolonization movement.”

Hong Kong and Puerto Rico are both former outposts of global colonial powers that were later annexed by different rising global powers. Hong Kong became rich, and more unequal, thanks to its strategic position as a nexus of global capital. The city currently functions as an interface with China as it reemerges as an economic superpower.

At the same time, Puerto Rico’s diminished strategic importance to capitalist interests throughout the 19th and 20th centuries led to its current precaritized and pauperized state.

The comparison is noteworthy because Hong Kong has long been held up as a model for others to follow for prosperity and freedom.

“In Puerto Rico, we’re told we should be more like Hong Kong in terms of wooing more financial capital and of having a stronger economic base,” Dr. Bonilla said.

The impetus behind the event was the newly formed Lausan Collective. Organized on WhatsApp in July in the wake of the Hong Kong protests, the group came together to talk and create space for perspectives that were largely absent in mainstream discourses around the city’s political unrest.

“There’s a simplification about what’s happening that tends to reinforce a lot of the binaries of East vs. West, or freedom vs. democracy,” Chan told the audience. “And these stories are more complicated than what you often see on the front page of the newspaper.”

The panelists noted how online left-wing discourse around the Hong Kong protests is often disappointing and wrapped in dated binaries, like the “tankie narratives” – that Hong Kong protesters are just another Color Revolution backed by the U.S. – that lead to a loss of solidarity with leftists around the world.

Meanwhile, the protests in Puerto Rico are often ignored or forgotten, perhaps due to its poverty or because of its current status as part of the United States, even if that status is unsettled.

In addition to expanding the discourse around Hong Kong, Lausan Collective seeks to connect with and form solidarity with other oppressed and colonized peoples around the world.

Questions raised during the panel included:

What does it mean for different sites to erupt in protests at the same time? Can we think about similarities in terms of their methods, practices, or challenges? And also, in the way questions of sovereignty and possibilities are being articulated?

What happens when you are a place that doesn’t have nation-state sovereignty?  How do you imagine your future? What kind of ideals or models can you look to? What statehood means? What is the nation? What is a state?

What can a people do? How can they cope in a space where sovereignty will not necessarily liberate them?

“What I’ve written about before is the search for a non-sovereign future, which does not mean a search for a future without sovereignty, but a search for something other than the Western model of sovereignty,”  Bonilla said.

With emerging movements, clearly articulated political ideology is often absent. To catch a glimpse of the possibilities or potential futures, Bonilla says we need to look for “emerging structure of feeling.”

This means not only asking why people are mobilizing, but also looking at art, music, dance, memes, any form of cultural expression. 

For example, panelist Jun Pang brought up the protest slogan “Restore Hong Kong.” Pang – a researcher based in Geneva but who’s worked for various Hong Kong NGOs around migrants’ and women’s rights – raised the question, what does “restore” mean in the context of Hong Kong’s history?

“We can’t be talking about restoring our British colonial history because that was also an oppressive regime,” Pang said. “But then also the word restore gestures towards more than just colonial nostalgia and more than our desire to return to a period before the protests. It’s also a response to grief, loss, and also a posture of hope in response to previous disappointments and unrealized possibilities.”

Even if a movement fails, it’s important to remember it created new possibilities and socialities, the panelists said. In Puerto Rico, it’s currently unclear how they will move forward after successfully removing the governor. Protests still rage in Hong Kong, but what follows if protesters’ demands are met is unknown.

And that’s okay.

“There is also another form of power within, that was built on the streets [of Puerto Rico] in July,” said panelist philosophy professor Dr. Rocío Zambrana. “This power of interrupting. This power of saying no. And without necessarily knowing just yet what political future is available.”

Watch the entire conversation recorded live here:

LIVE: Non-Sovereign Revolutions? Thinking Across Puerto Rico and Hong Kong at CUNY Graduate Center!

Posted by Lausan 流傘 on Thursday, December 5, 2019

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