The movements in Catalonia and Hong Kong : democracy advocacy or examples of global illiberalism ?

, par Juan Alberto Ruiz Casado

The Catalan independence movement has a new reference : the revolutionary movement of Hong Kong. “We are going to make a Hong Kong !”, groups of people recently cried, exalted as they headed to paralyze Barcelona Airport, imitating what Hong Kong activists had done just days before. The recent incidents in these significantly autonomous regions, Catalonia and Hong Kong, have introduced into the international media agenda the discursive struggle that aims to equate both movements as democratic and liberating, despite the long distance between their spatial and political contexts. The explicit aspiration of the Catalan independence movement to emulate Hong Kong with the assault on the airport and the siege of the police and public places on the streets of Catalonia was just the first step in this direction. The approach began when Catalan independence radicals studied, disseminated and emulated the tactics of the Hong Kong protests, techniques and tactics of confrontation with police forces and infrastructure occupation, with the explicit objective of obtaining immediate international attention. In this sense, they had the expected success. This strategy was confirmed by Elisenda Paluzie, the president of the most important pro-independence civil association in Catalonia, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), who in recent statements supported a constant mobilization as the one in Hong Kong to weaken the pillars of the Spanish State in Catalonia, while defended that it was precisely the violent incidents what made the Catalan secessionist movement visible in the international media on a continuous basis, making the conflict finally visible. In a similar line talked Albert Botran, representative of the pro-independence party CUP, openly anti-capitalist and anti-establishment. It is worth asking whether visibility in the international media, by itself, confers any sort of legitimacy, or if the versions offered by the press adhere to the facts or to sweetened and romanticized versions of reality.

It seems obvious that some idealized vision of the Catalan pro-independence struggle has reached the international arena, especially when we observe the reaction that a small faction of the Hong Kong movement had soon afterwards. A mass demonstration of support for the Catalan independence movement, which was extensively reported in Spain, was staged in the former British colony on 24 October 2019. According to Ernest Chow, former president of the student union of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in charge of reading the manifesto during that demonstration of support, the cases of Catalonia and Hong Kong had certain similarities, such as them being two territories with a different language and culture, enjoying higher levels of development than those of the rest of their parent countries, and finding themselves “facing the same sad and tragic fate”. In this way, a clear gesture of mutual approach between both causes, self-identified as “struggles against oppression”, had begun. At this initial moment, an analysis of the idealization of these so-called democratic or freedom fighters—a phenomenon on the other hand nothing new— becomes pertinent.

Of course, none of these actors mentioned a word about the different nature of the state enemy they face, Spain and China, as if they were identical political entities and, hence, both cases were comparable. Moreover, the government in Hong Kong is said to be a puppet of China whereas the government in Catalonia is precisely the one promoting independence from the institutions. But just mentioning these otherwise relevant factors, as the Spanish government and Spanish media constantly do, should not be an excuse to foreclose the debate and lead us to dismiss an in-depth analysis of the similarities between the two movements. Because there are many elements in common worth mentioning between the two :

1- Both movements have as one of their main roots the fear of a worse future. The negative mental picture of the future is not only caused by the threat of climate change or the disenchantment with the neoliberal system and the increasing economic inequalities, but also by a fear of losing the position of privilege that its members have maintained in these regions, historically richer than the rest of the state to which they belong. Similarly to Ernest Chow’s statements about the higher standards of living of Hong Kong regarding China during the manifesto in Hong Kong, Josep Costa, vice president of the Catalan Parliament, also talked in a similar line on 13 August 2019 : “What happens in Hong Kong teaches us some things, for example, that rich societies can also revolt with all the consequences”. As if that was a positive lesson to be learned. In Catalonia, the wrongly vindicated “right to decide” or “right of self-determination”, merely camouflages the support for the policies of isolationism and ethnic supremacy that have already been seen in the West with Trump or during the Brexit, as well as other actors that use lies to portray a pessimistic economic future due to external factors very far from reality. The promoters of these discourses only hope to cling to their privileges while avoiding economic solidarity with the “other”. The recognition of a purported right of the richest regions to secede from the parent states would only give these privileged regions a perfect excuse to blackmail the rest of the state from their position of domain and the possibility of leaving freely. That would likely cause a disastrous contagion in the rest of the liberal democratic world : from Padania to Babaria, from Alberta to Texas, from Flanders to the Basque Country. It would be the starting shot for an atomization between richer and poorer regions and the annulment of intra-state distributive justice, an essential part for liberal democracy and the welfare state to function in already existing democratic political associations. In the case of Hong Kong, the part protesting for freedom and sovereignty is not precisely that of the underdog, the working classes or the immigrants, but the privileged middle classes and the bourgeoisie that seek to sustain their economic position and privileges after they felt it jeopardized by the decline of Hong Kong and the influence of China. In both cases, Catalonia and Hong Kong, the democracy they pursue is not exactly that of the protection of liberal values, the protection of minorities, and the promotion of social equality, but could look more like that of the nationalist search of ethnic sovereignty, the differentiation of citizenship between the real Catalans and Hong Kongers and the Spaniards and Chinese in their territory, and the reactionary defence of economic supremacy. Similarly, the Catalan movement has received support by a broad social base : the bourgeoisie as well as those exploited by it, all of them articulated under the same hegemonic project of independence. A hegemony that has deceptively been presented as a goal that once reached would benefit everyone equally : a well designed illusion for disenchanted people.

2 – As it has been already implied in the previous paragraph, these movements use a populist logic based on the construction of a victimhood subjectivity, an underdog, antagonizing an evil power bloc. Such subjectivities, “the people” of Catalonia and Hong Kong understood as underdogs, are new identities crystallised over the previously established national identities, also of recent construction. The different groups encompassed around such subjectivities are articulated through the respective hegemonic projects of each movement, by the hand of a very specific series of idealistic empty signifiers (democracy, freedom, self-determination, independence). It is done by placing both China and Spain in the role of the pure enemy, aiming to create a dichotomy between a sanctified people vis-à-vis a vile institutional enemy. David against Goliath without palliatives : the excitement produced by this grandiloquent narrative has already captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of people not only in Catalonia and Hong Kong, but also in the rest of the world. But equating the current Spanish state with Franco’s dictatorship, or the Chinese government with Hitler’s nazi regime (“Nazichina”), is just a discursive trick to sell a Manichaean portrait of the enemy, simplistic and easily digestible by all those who want to believe in the lie of the national moral superiority. It is an infantile chain of equivalence, sheer wishful-thinking and self-delusion, which nevertheless is believed on tiptoe by large social groups that have been fed for years on that victimhood discourse and its distorted historical associations. It does not matter if it is true or not, as long as people want to believe it is.

3- Their fight is not only against the Spanish and the Chinese states, but against part of their own fellow citizens who do not share their ideals, goals, or means. The vertical antagonism between an underdog and the state elites is facilitated by a prior horizontal antagonism—nationalist, ethnic—based on hatred towards the “other” (Spanish and Chinese), which is considered a threat to “us”. The growing fanaticism and disrespect for this other social groups entails a mounting spiral of silence and dehumanization of all those Catalans and Hong Kong people who identify themselves as partially or totally Spanish or Chinese. Or with those who simply do not wish to join the movements for ideological reasons beyond identity. Thus, many Hong Kong people who manifest themselves as pro-Chinese, or simply those who make the mistake of speaking Mandarin instead of Cantonese or English, are more and more commonly labelled as traitors, sometimes are censored, insulted, and even attacked. Same occurs with those Catalans who are opposed to secession and defend their right to remain Spanish and Catalan at the same time, or those who criticize the approach taken by the secessionist movement in the last two or three years. The Catalan independence movement didn’t ever enjoy the support of at least half the Catalans in any democratic elections until now, but their purportedly democratic logic, which is indeed only a populist and nationalist one, does not understand the diversity of opinions and tried to impose their secessionist project going over the law and the respect to the rest of the society. The serious risk that entail both the dichotomous vision of the world between “us” and “them”, and the increasing social polarization based on ethnic identities, is its proximity to the most retrograde and violent nationalist outbursts. Because the exaltation of the supremacy of the own nation, as opposed to that of the Chinese or the Spaniards, provokes an identical reaction with opposite direction from those who suddenly feel the need to defend the Chinese and Spanish reactionary nationalisms. Proof of it has been the emergence of the far-right party VOX, entering the Spanish lower house and many local governments for the first time since the end of the dictatorship in 1978. Chinese nationalism and hatred against Hong Kong is no wonder also growing.

4- It is equally important to mention that in both movements violence has been exercised only by small groups, mainly anti-system/anti-establishment, largely formed by young people. These young people, feeling they are leading an historical moment for their nation, are also the most desperate about the negative future our societies face, and the more easily influenced by the antagonistic discourse and the hatred speech. On many occasions, the activists engaging in violence against the police do not have even reached the age of majority. They have opted for violence as a method of struggle opposed to the peaceful protests carried out by the majority of the supporters of the movements. However, the soft condemnations of this violence by the majorities in these movements coexist with a hypocritical condemnation of police repression and its alleged excesses. Paradoxically, these young activists have exerted violence against what they call the repressive police of the state, which is neither Chinese nor Spanish, but primarily Hong Konger and Catalan, and against the public infrastructure of Catalonia and Hong Kong, which is paid by their own communities. In the beginning of this article I already exposed the whitewashing of violent actions by certain socio-political actors from Catalonia and Hong Kong, considering violence as a valid means to an end. The great danger of these narratives, together with those of hatred against the different other and the progressive polarization between the social groups within Catalonia and Hong Kong, is that it becomes more and more probable that these violent minority groups end up imposing their strategies in the core of the movements, displacing the moderate voices, accusing them of being weak, cowards, or directly treacherous. The use of violence as a tactic to make the conflict visible internationally requires the conscious search for shocking images of state repression and, therefore, needs increasing provocations until these images of force majeure appear. As the young Hong Konger that was shot by a policeman said, if he had been shot in the head and killed, it would have been a good thing because that could increase society’s awareness. Ideally, the search for a dead man, a martyr that makes the passions explode and touches the sensibilities of the international community, supposes a double-edged sword : by increasing the hatred towards the “other”—describing it as antidemocratic and fascist, as an oppressor, in short, dehumanizing it—this escalating violence can bring and, in fact, already brought, seriously injured people in both sides, the protesters and the policemen who risk their lives to do their job. In Catalonia, the same pro-independence government that encouraged mass mobilization, then had to order its own regional police, formed by Catalan people, to suppress the protests, showing a total lack of criteria and institutional responsibility. Afterwards, the government reluctantly condemned violence “on all sides”, focusing not so much in those who throw Molotov cocktails at the police and send a policeman to the hospital seriously injured after breaking his hull with a cobblestone, but on the alleged excessive use of the force of those riot police that subsequently acted against the violent activists as a part of their dangerous job. Something similar has occurred in Hong Kong, as if those masked people that hit policemen with iron bars attempting to cause them the maximum physical damage, had the right to do so without consequences or response from those whose life they are putting at risk. Policemen, we have to remind, who are also from Hong Kong. Members of the Hong Kong movement and large sectors of the international press have interpreted all police actions as an example of Chinese dictatorial repression, which is an exercise in hypocrisy that forgets the basic role of police in all states, democratic or not. Therefore, with the nationalist hatred speech running wild and the violence sought as the only way to find a solution to the unsolvable conflicts that I believe Hong Kong and Catalonia are facing at this very stage, it is not possible to know if in the end the martyrs will come from the side of the purportedly suppressed people or from the side of the police repressors.

Finally, once settled the main similarities, it is time to return to the opposite political nature of Spain and China, which is the main difference between the cases of Catalonia and Hong Kong. When some actors in the Hong Kong movement voluntarily associate themselves with that of Catalonia, in solidarity as brothers fighting against “oppression”, we could easily infer that for those Hong Kongers democracy is not what truly moves them. Because if that was the goal, they should be happy to be a highly autonomous region like Catalonia is within a full-fledged democracy as Spain, enjoying all the rights to protect and promote their own culture and language, and all the freedoms that any liberal democratic state could wish to have. Even to the point of having the right to pursue independence by legal and constitutional means and from the Catalan autonomous government democratically elected. On the contrary, when some factions of the Hong Kong movement support the Catalan movement as a “struggle against oppression”, what they are supporting is the approach of the Catalan pro-independence faction that employs exclusionary discourses and anti-democratic actions as a tool for keeping their privileges, and the minority who believes in violence as the only way ahead. For these Hong Kongers, in the case China was a full-fledged democracy they would still maintain the same sort of discourses, as Catalan pro-independence do. It does not matter the political nature of the parent state, because it is not a debate about democracy but about national—ethnic—sovereignty. In Catalonia, legitimate state repression has been only exerted on those representatives who pursued their individual goals in open violation of the constitution and the rule-of-law, or those activists who employed violence to attack and destroy. We should be aware of the groups mobilized by hatred and fanaticism, those who feel scared of a not very promising economic future, threatened by the presence of an inferior “other” that jeopardizes the moral and economic superiority of the real “people” of Hong Kong and Catalonia. In short, those who show a supremacist germ camouflaged in the shape of a misleading popular (populist) democratic endorsement in which a dominant group intends to impose their identity and their political will on the whole of the citizenship. They are creators of borders and perpetuators of inequalities who, on the other hand, show only the natural selfishness inherent in human beings.

But despite this harsh critique, I understand, endorse and support the protests in Catalonia and Hong Kong when it comes from the real underdogs and when it is directed against the real culprits : no China and Spain, but the neoliberal system that the bourgeoisie in Hong Kong and Catalonia—among many other places—have been feeding during decades, subjecting a social majority to the economic power of a few, contributing to the breakdown of liberal democracy and underpinning injustices. That neoliberal system is the one that ignites the fanaticism of poor devils who do not know how to constructively direct their desire for change against the right enemy, and end up following the dictates of a bourgeoisie that utilising a supremacist discourse pretends to protect or increase their own power. Hopefully, in Catalonia and Hong Kong, two exemplary regions until recent times, people will rediscover what the real struggle should be, dismiss violence as a viable mean to their goals, forget ethnic factors as a reason to break apart with the different “other”, and become the spearhead of the global battle against cannibal neoliberalism rather than the perfect example for the advocates of the destruction of liberal democracy and the success of nationalist exclusionary discourses.