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Re: <nettime> From Deng & Thatcher 1984 to the Hong Kong 2014 OCCUPY
Brian Holmes on Sun, 5 Oct 2014 19:57:43 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> From Deng & Thatcher 1984 to the Hong Kong 2014 OCCUPY

On 10/04/2014 11:48 AM, Tjebbe van Tijen wrote:

'Rule of law' did not only benefit big business, but also functioned
as social leveller for the less affluent citizens of Hong Kong,
because a successful economy is only hampered by too blatant social
unequally in its direct realm.

Dear Tjebbe, despite the due respect which is considerable, I read the above and said, "Huh?"

Hong Kong is the city that Milton Friedman once proclaimed the most pure experiment in liberal free-trade economics. It has 114,000 billionaires, including the four richest men in Asia. Housing prices have doubled since 2009. A fifth of the population lives below the poverty line (calculated as 50% of median income). Hong Kong's Gini coefficient, measuring the degree of inequality, stands currently at 0.537, around six points higher than that of two very unequal societies which set unfortunate benchmarks for the rest of the world: China (0.474) and the United States (0.477).

The question of what democracy could mean for Hong Kong and the world is an interesting one. To appreciate its many dimensions I recommend a book by a fellow named Hai Ren, called "Neoliberalism and Culture in China and Hong Kong." He analyzes the 1997 handover - or, as the Chinese would say, return - of Hong Kong as the culmination of Deng Xiao Ping's policy aiming at the "synchronization" of China with the West. This was perceived to be necessary as the failure to keep in step with Western development had led to China's humiliation in the nineteenth century, beginning with the loss of Hong Kong itself. Those enamored of the visual history of societal development would be fascinated by the vast cultural programs of "countdown" toward the day of return that were deployed by the Chinese Communist state in order to dramatize the progress toward synchronization.

The question is, what does synchronization entail on the social level? Hai Ren tackles that in his next book, "The Middle Class in Neoliberal China," where he shows that after the death of Mao and the purging of the Gang of Four, there was a crisis of political representation in China. What this meant, however, is not what you might think. It meant that the Party was unable to represent, i.e. create an image or profile of, the ideal citizen. Hai Ren maintains that the essence of Deng's policy and the resolution of this crisis can be found in a shift away from the figure of the proletarian and toward that of the "middle strata," as defined by very extensive sociological studies which deliberately abandoned the earlier category of class. Ten distinct strata were identified, from the destitute to the billionaire, and on that basis, five strata were identified as the components of the ideal synchronized society. The aim was to produce this idealized range of income distribution, which obviously includes the very wealthy - because, according to Deng, "To get rich is glorious," and "Someone must get rich first."

Once again, the book attempts to trace the deliberate processes of social and cultural engineering that produced what we might call cognitive capitalism with Chinese characteristics. One the one hand, these processes included the institution of "the rule of law," to the exact extent that it is indeed necessary for the successful conduct of business. And on the other hand, they included all sorts of cultural and educational transformations aiming to produce the right entrepreuneural and consumerist subjectivities. Of course the return of Hong Kong was crucial to this whole policy, as the former British colony included not only the desired billionaires, but also the educated, talented, technically adept and creative "middle strata" on which China's synchronization with the West would depend. (Plus they have such a nice movie industry, good universities, great restaurants, Canto-pop, you name it.)

Now, the primary "Chinese characteristics" that the Party has insisted on maintaining throughout its progress toward synchronization are obviously centralized decision-making and authoritarianism. According to the sociologists of inequality, these become necessary for social control in any country at some point after you cross the threshold of 0.4 on the Gini scale. And indeed, we have seen authoritarianism and oligarchical centralization of decision-making on a distinct rise in the US itself, ever since inequality began its dramatic intensification in the 1980s. To that extent, China's synchronization with the West will not really be threatened by the, alas predictable, but perhaps not inevitable repression of Occupy Central in Hong Kong. After all, the US, in its way, also cracked down on its Occupy movement, which was demanding substantial democracy in the face of massive inequality and oligarchical rule. (Somewhere in the above I should have skillfully inserted the number of billionaires you actually now find within Party ranks in China, to make the point that they are just as oligarchical as the US - but hey, this is a nettime post, so I can just do it like this.)

The US and now increasingly, the EU, are examples of what political scientist Sheldon Wolin calls "managed democracy," and to achieve full synchronization, China would have to be too. Again, Hong Kong seems to be the perfect place to experiment. "Managed democracy" is something a bit more detailed than what Guy Debord called "the spectacle perfected," but anyway, so far it's the most advanced reconciliation of oligarchical control and rapid economic growth. In other words, managed democracy is what you really need for a so-called "successful economy." It does require figureheads and sham elections, so China seems to be on the right track with its HK policy. Wolin also refers to managed democracy as "the specter of inverted totalitarianism," which is really interesting when you want to make the comparison between the Western societies and China.

I reckon that the achievement of substantial democracy in Hong Kong would have significant political and economic consequences. Maybe not only for the island and the adjacent peninsula, but for the whole world. Experiments on the order of the one being carried out in the streets of Hong Kong right now are great and powerful things. May our hearts and acts be with all of those who have joined Occupy Central.

best, Brian

PS: Those interested in Hai Ren's first book might fish around in a deep pool called lib.gen-dot-org. Just google the second book and with a little persistence you may also get access to it without having to make an investment that your precarity would not necessarily allow. As for all the details on inequality in Hong Kong, I was lazy so I took 'em all from a single Bloomberg article that tallies with everything else I have been reading for the past week:


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