J. Daniel Elam in Public Books:
The most telling chant of the 2019 Hong Kong protests is “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” (光復香港 時代革命), not because it offers a vision for “revolution,” but because it reveals the protesters’ accurate assessment of “our times.”
Very few protesters expect that Hong Kong will be “liberated” from its status as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Although the protest movement borrows the language of Cold War decolonization movements, the demand for Hong Kong’s “liberation” is not quite a demand for national sovereignty. It is, more accurately, a plea to let Hong Kong remain liberal: to let Hong Kong remain the island of unregulated global capitalism that it has been since the 19th century. This is why “revolution” seems, at first glance, an ill-fitting term: this is not a revolutionary politics in the traditionally optimistic or utopian sense.
But that is not to say that the protesters are conservative, naive, or uninformed. Indeed, to claim that the pro–Hong Kong protesters have no overarching political vision or historical perspective is to grossly underestimate their intelligence. The protesters offer a clear-eyed assessment of the global present—“our times”—and their demands are designed for the compromised world that we have made. Liberation and revolution can no longer promise us that we “have nothing to lose” or a “world to win,” in Marx and Engels’s formulation. “Our times” require a revised revolutionary vision that is merely necessary, dismally insufficient, and ultimately impossible: liberation for a future in which there’s nothing left to win or lose, for anyone.