I had two views of China on its national day this year. I spent the morning of 1 October 2019 in Beijing, with throngs of people who had stayed in the city to try and get a glimpse of the 70th anniversary national day. It was so well and tightly organised, nothing was left to chance. There was no doubt that the state was in control and despite not having access to the parade itself, the people were genuinely happy and even proud of their country. I remember thinking that if China was to embrace open elections right at this time, more than 80% of its population would vote the Communist Party of China without batting an eyelid. The party had delivered on its manifesto for a prosperous nation on many front, more than almost any elected government in any country in the world, that it was enjoying a well-earned legitimacy.
I then took a flight to Hong Kong to watch what I thought would be a counter-parade, riots or anarchy in a Chinese city at the fringe of the country in the evening. I did not arrive in time that evening, but I saw the carnage, the aftermath of the riots. I saw the power of the competent state, law and order in the morning, and I saw a weak provincial government in the evening, both in the same country. I returned again on 6 October, a Sunday, and this time walked with the demonstrators and watched some of the riots, all the time absorbing and thinking about what all this energy meant. My interest was to come to terms with the powers that are shaping societies today without reducing them to political clichés like democracy and human rights. I thought I saw two forces at work in both places.
The first force, surprisingly enough, is as old as the Chinese civilisation itself – the need to keep control of a large, wide and energetic population. There is nothing surprising or new about the Hong Kong protests. Every single day there are any number of social unrests brewing just under the skin in any number of parts in China. Anyone who rules China, from the emperors in the past to the democratic parties of the early 1900s to the Communist Party of today would have the same issues to deal with – holding the centre in an unruly alliance. Some managed them better than others, and none as poorly as the Qing empire in its time, having to concede concessions to foreign powers from the misbehaviour of its own people.
The comfort I had in the Hong Kong riots, even if it is now entering its most outrageous phase, is that it is nothing new at all. In fact, it is the one known factor in the whole story. Every 20-30 years, senseless riots flare up in different parts of China, including Hong Kong, every time the traditional institutions fail to keep up with the demands of the moment. We forget that Tiananmen 1989 was just as “irrational”, students belittling their leaders on national television. There was even a statue of liberty erected to humiliate their leaders. In that episode the State was able to contain it. We forget the bloody street fights in Hong Kong in the late 1960s, between real thugs with real gun battles, between supporters and detractors of the Cultural Revolution. Inside China, sons were betraying their fathers to senseless public executions for the simple crime of stating an opinion.
We forget the sheer irrationality of the Taiping rebellion which tarried from 1850 to 1864, yes for fourteen long years, between the state and a madman called Hong Xiuquan who claimed he was a brother of Jesus Christ. How rational was that? We would have reeled at the senseless violence and vandalism in the riots that the episode presented, but we reel at the current one as if it was the first. No it isn’t. If the many who are indignant about the increasingly blatant violence of the Hong Kong riots today only realise that it’s so familiar to script, we would be asking a very different set of questions indeed.
The fact that the current Chinese government is able to contain several boiling pots all at once is testament to its incredible skill, harnessed over the years and emboldened by technological surveillance, to keep the lid on almost all of its boiling pots, except for the one that got away. It does not matter if the government is communist, democratic or a libertarian one acceptable to westerners – any government in any form in any country the size of China would have the same challenges in front of it.
The question we need to ask then is why the Hong Kong pot boiled over and not any one of the others that are simmering today. For a civilisation of so much precedence, analysts seem to treat each episode as if it is new. The obvious answer is the same as the reason the Taiping rebellion erupted – the government had given a concession that put the turn of events outside its control. In the Taiping rebellion, Hong Xiuquan’s clever association to Christianity made it difficult for the Qing emperor to quell the riots in the far south of the country that had deteriorated into thuggery for fear of being seen as anti-Christian.
The less obvious reason is that segments of Chinese society have always been prone to seriously losing context because the institutions to navigate society in times of important social transitions have been kept consistently weak or broken. All the sensible people calling for the thugs and protesters to some form of sensibility when things get totally out of control forget that there is no common ground, even in modern day elitist Hong Kong.
Nonetheless, the funny thing about the Taiping rebellion and for that matter, the Boxer Rebellion and Tiananmen was that all of these were eventually assigned to a footnote in history. We all know they happened, but no one today discuss the how, the why or to what effect of any of them. The episodes were quickly forgotten, superseded by the more substantive changes of the fall of the Qing empire, the rise of the Chinese state and the economic miracle of the past 30 years.
It may be that in 20 years, Hong Kong itself may become irrelevant, but nobody will remember why because the events that will define the future are far more powerful, even if they are quieter, and already underway despite the riots. For the moment, there is no lack of “expert” historians, politicians, and even psychologists propagating their respective views of “what is wrong with Hong Kong.” Those who suggest that the Chinese government will “punish” Hong Kong don’t realise that Hong Kong was already being “punished” since 1978, when after Deng Xiaoping’s famous speech in Shenzhen, many cities in China have been overtaking Hong Kong as the largest port, largest airports, larger banking, technology and innovation centres and so on.
I am more concerned about the second force that the Hong Kong demonstrations/riots represent, a phenomenon for which Hong Kong is but a proof of concept for the rest of the world. It is the impact of the internet and the network effect on the ability of society to coagulate, form associations and drive even valid ideas but in an irrational way.
The “irrational community” phenomenon originates from the time Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, YouTube, devices like the iPhone and the Kindle and a whole host of communal platforms from GitHub to Android and the “Cloud” all came together at about the same time in the 2006-2007 period. Then the clock started ticking towards the ease with which new virtual communities coagulated so easily around shared ideas that were not necessarily grounded in any shared values or institutions, not just in China, but around the world.
Within ten years, we saw some very irrational phenomenon – the rise of ISIS, a full-fledged rogue state run almost entirely by innocent volunteers coming from around the world, the Brexit vote despite all the rational value that membership to the EU brought to the constituents themselves, the rise of extreme right wing leaders like Donald Trump and I now put the street violence in Hong Kong in the same category – the ability of thousands of young people to coagulate in an increasingly irrational way without paying attention to the consequences. The traditional institutions seem to have lost hold on them.
All of these episodes have the same set of defining operating principles:
i. They don’t operate with a distinct leader providing direction. There is no one leader in the Hong Kong riots, no one leader in ISIS, no one leader who led the public sentiment to vote Brexit. On the same principle, the shared anger of the racist white heartlanders in the US did not start with Donald Trump as their leader, it was festering during the time of Obama’s rule and Trump presented himself much later and it will continue to organise after Trump, ready to morph yet again just to survive. Removing any perceived “leader” does nothing to the ability to organise virtually.
ii. These virtual congregations can be hijacked by any number of personalities, for good or evil. The original issue in the current Hong Kong crisis started with the disagreement over the “extradition” treaty with Mainland China. The proposal was originally going through the motions as a fairly harmless piece of legislation, but was very easily “hijacked” and restated by Jimmy Lai and others as a Cause to fight against China. It is not my place to suggest if this was good or bad, but obviously there was no one at the wheel at the government’s end. In the same way that Brexit was hijacked by a number of personalities who steered public opinion and ISIS is a case of fundamentalists hijacking the idealism for good amongst youth.
It’s no wonder that through the ages, the emperors were wary of every one from Confucius to political rivals, but the internet has turbo charged these influencers, for good or bad. Today, even mere actresses with nothing to offer more than a pretty face garner a 300 million following on social media in China. Mere shopping or restaurant bloggers are able to garner millions of followers. Can these “hijackers” of opinion be stopped? Yes, they can, if they are recognised and neutralised in time. But sometimes, it is the State itself that is the hijacker, so that the better way is that there has to be an institutionalised ability to moderate these influences.
iii. The Cause comes after the Community, the ability to organise, and not before it. In other words, the community did not come together because of the anti-extradition Cause. The community was perfected before the Cause. I remember vividly when Occupy Wall Street was played out in Hong Kong six years ago, I could not understand the relationship that Hong Kong young people saw with a faraway Cause on Wall Street. It was a Community looking for a Cause. There are hundreds of innocent communities coagulating not just in China but in many other countries today that can easily be hijacked by anyone with a Cause, for good or evil.
iv. The ability to organise in the virtual world is built and perfected over time. Not built overnight. Look out for the rehearsals. From the first Occupy Wall Street Hong Kong protests six years ago, every year’s protest was a dress rehearsal for the next one. By the time this year’s riots took place, the community had perfected the logistics for sharing information instantly, distributing water, first aid, legal help, creating a virtual command hierarchy and responding to external threats. It is a high sophisticated community functioning digitally all on its own.
It is also worth noting that the Hong Kong protestors did give society warning over the years that they will head towards greater militancy if their views were not heeded. I have no sympathy for the many so-called “experts” expressing outrage and proffering all sorts of ideas only when the riots started to get violent. To me, the rioters are just keeping to script. Remember, they are a virtual community. The energy grows on them. There is no orchestrator. It was the rest of Hong Kong’s civil society that under-estimated this escalation to their own peril. Where were they when it was festering over the past six years? The question now is how to unwind the wound-up clock.
v. Virtual communities have multiple layers and defy definition. To say that all the rioters in Hong Kong are violent is not true at all. There is a very small core group, but supported by sympathizers who would not hurt a fly and sympathizers who support the sympathizers. They enfranchise thousands of otherwise disenfranchised people, both young and old, professionals and plebeians. We patronise them by trying to find a common ground on which to hang all of them, when there is none. Even if the most violent elements are put away in jail, the moderates will continue to protest. I watched housewives cursing at the police and flat dwellers throwing projectiles from above when the police were done shooting tear gas and retreating for the day. The protest is now truly and deeply entrenched in the social consciousness of the Hong Kong people so that it is meaningless to sieve out the layers. The internet has brought them together – the educated and uneducated, mainstream and marginalised.
vi. The Cause itself does not need to be rational. I am amused by the number of analysis from all quarters, piqued Chinese, Hong Kongers, British, Taiwanese and even the presumptuous Singaporeans as to how and why the Hong Kong riots started and how to stump it out. They insist there is a logical historical reason, which if assuaged, can result in the riots ending, not realising that no one amongst the rioters are even aware let alone discussing the history of anything. The rioters waving the US flag have no idea what the US constitution stands for, and they don’t care. They just look for icons to effect the greatest damage on their parent country. The Cause has taken on a life of its own.
The ISIS phenomenon in Syria/Kurdistan was played out entirely over the internet, drawing innocent school girls from otherwise very middle class countries to a Cause they scarcely understood until it shocked them when they actually got to Syria that it was nothing like what was promised on the internet. The Cause then grows on itself and takes a life of its own and asks to be stumped out by a greater force, even by force.
I would go further to suggest that the reasons that the Hong Kong rioters gather on week 30 is probably different from the reasons they gathered on week one, such that when the proposed list of demands are met, they will just invent new ones to justify perpetuating their existence. It is the pseudo-intellectuals, discussing the phenomenon from the sidelines, who are trying to align the Causes to institutions they are familiar with. The networked world that is now forming will require new institutions and values, but these are not formed as yet, and even if they are, will appear irrational to those of us who still hang on to the old.
vii. Social networks crave for Empathy, both to validate their existence as well as to resolve them. This was the powerful message that came to me as I walked alongside the protestors in Hong Kong on 6 October, and validated from my conversation with sympathizers. The most common bond between the protestors was that they shared the notion that Hong Kong’s leaders had “no empathy” with them. The same craving that bonds a family or a company whose father or boss is a tyrant. It may be that Empathy will be one of the pillars of the new institution, but the fact they are looking for Empathy does not mean that they are going to respond to it reasonably. To be sure, the demands being made to the Hong Kong government today have escalated to simply humiliate the state, so that the state cannot win no matter what it does. But the opposite of Empathy is distrust, and walking in that direction did not solve the problems for the state in the first place. In fact, distrust is punished severely by the community in the networked world.
The State has the option of putting a strong leader who truly empathizes with the demonstrators (someone who is local, has the trust of the demonstrators, represents their views) to steer the course, but this is exactly what the State will not do. The State wants a weak leader that leans on its side so that the demonstrators will not sense the empathy. All states are the same.
My reason for writing all of the above down is to outline for myself what societies, countries, companies and personalities can and should do to survive these seemingly illogical aberrations in the new age that we are now entering into. New technologies like 5G and Artificial Intelligence (AI) that China proudly claims leadership in will only accentuate the network effect and the ability of society to congregate and coagulate in irrational ways. Without new institutional safeguards attuned to deal with the network effect, the state will be wishing it never had these technologies in the first place.
Fads, counter-cultures and sub-cultures will be created and disappear faster in societies around the world, but in China more than any other. China is both a fast adopter and a first victim of these networked social phenomenon. For the world’s largest country, it will require much more institutional clarity and strength to hold the ground in the future, which it refuses to do. But every country will need to do this, even the United States and the United Kingdom, where traditional institutions are no longer carrying the fractured sentiments of sizeable micro-communities and multiple generations, including millenniums, within them. Old fashioned regulators and political systems in Western states are scarcely placed to draw from the positive energy that these phenomenon can represent even in their own societies, so that they are ill placed to lecture to China what it should be doing.
To the question on how the Hong Kong demonstrations/riots will play out, the simple answer is that it will pale when a larger agenda presents itself. China has any number of larger agendas playing out right now. In the meantime, the protests have become an institution in themselves, in the absence of a credible one, to provide the platform for discourse. The protestors turning up every weekend is the predicable part of the tale. The state needs to replace it, but it won’t, so ironically, it is the state that is perpetuating the protests, even if it does not see itself that way.
The networked world requires any new institution to be transparent (accountable in a way that it never was before) and “porous” (giving different factions the right to hijack the agenda and then leave) so that all its constituents feel it represents them – a WeChat-like participatory community for Hong Kong, for want of a better analogy. But if someone really smart comes along and finds a way, he or she will be a pioneer, not just for Hong Kong, but for the rest of the networked world. Until such time, holding firm control, as they do in Beijing, is perfectly understandable, given that the alternatives in these uncertain formative days of our future are not quite formed yet.
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