“When we fight you, we make sure you can’t get away.”
This is the message then-revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung wanted his enemies to hear. Yet Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese Nationalists, found this rival of his to be a fool. A military man with rigid, formulaic strategy proven to succeed, Chaing’s forces found Mao’s scattered troops comical. And yet, we all know Mao’s name today as China’s “Great Chairman” and the founder of the great power we observe today.
Mao found victory in formlessness and elusiveness. The first line in verse 8 of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching states “The highest good is like water.” Water is shapeless, gentle, and placid when observed at a standstill—but, always-shifting, it can’t really be grasped. Mao’s men were underestimated (naturally) by Chaing’s armies, as they were outnumbered and dispersed throughout the region. Yet this in and of itself was a strategy. Since they were elusive, Mao’s communist rebel followers were impossible to wholly destroy. There was no target for the Nationalists to hit. On the contrary, Mao’s shifty men had their eyes zeroed in on the bulls-eye that were organized Nationalist regiments. And so, history tells us how this story ended. Formlessness won, despite what seemed to be weakness in the dispersion. Rigid, regimented warfare lost. Disjointed guerrilla tactics proved to be a viable military strategy. And yet, the highly structured, regimented administration and regime that Mao built almost a century ago via formlessness is now receiving a taste of its own medicine in Hong Kong.
I’m not here to rewrite narratives about what has been empirically happening in Hong Kong: you can find that in detail through a variety of news sites. Yet, the tense stalemate and impossible resolution of the conflict occurring there (and the irony of it) must be better understood. Found in a deeply Eastern and cultural text like the Tao Te Ching, the identity of formlessness is subconsciously engrained into Chinese culture. It should not be surprising to see this strategy emerging and enabling fighters in Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong is using its own ideological tradition of formlessness here to advocate for Western freedoms, systems, and values it has enjoyed (and is supposedly enabled to enjoy) before complete integration into Chinese order in 2047. This conflict leaves a city and country stuck in a brutal stalemate where something will have to give.
For almost a year now, Hong Kong and mainland China have been embroiled in disputes that began with Carrie Lam’s extradition bill and now has left the public protesting for their five demands even after the bill was withdrawn. While many of the protesters have been peaceful, some have been violent. The revolution they wage has largely been described as leaderless—yet, on the contrary—participants call it ‘leader-full.’ The government tried (and failed) to ban protesters from wearing masks because then, the protesters are unknown and every man is for himself—for his own freedom and for his own rights. Each man his own lone leader against the state. Thus, everyone and no one is a target. This individualistic warfare, where no one is a leader, and yet everyone is in their own style and way, is enabled by social media “in a way that was not possible before.” A message is posted stating when and where to meet by an anonymous person and other anonymous users can indicate their solidarity with proposed strategies and plans.
While on the one hand, this sounds like it could be easily infiltrated by the Chinese mainland government, it is a testament to the city’s solidarity that there have not been spies, which could only be native Hong Kongese because the messages and discussions occur in the distinctive Cantonese dialect. The internet is the primary medium for this decentralized, faceless, and formless movement to continue flourishing and thriving.
Vaclav Havel’s dissenting greengrocers would all be jailed if society knew who they were, so masks are a saving grace. Hong Kong will not remake past mistakes, and allow their young champions to be targeted and jailed as they were in 2014’s Umbrella Movement. No, Hong Kong, realizing the nihilist agenda of their government—deadened to the sound of people crushed, violated, and oppressed—has taken a leaf out of a similar playbook. For dissidents to protect each other from themselves and each other—well, as Nietzsche once said, “Everything profound loves masks…someone hidden in this way…this is for the best.” The entire movement is taking revolution and combining it with emptiness; it’s taking peaceful protests and making them elusive. Mahatma Ghandi cannot be shot, because there is no Mahatma to shoot. To end this would require a tearing down of the fabrics of order. It would require an end of the Internet and the end of what makes the mainland rich. It’s a scenario of clashes between a force that is unstoppable because if Hong Kong collapses or is destabilized, the entire country of China will too (see the numbers here)—yet the protesters push at an object and administration that refuses to oust itself in the Chinese Communist Party. This party’s totalitarianism is the immovable object.
There is an irreconcilable temporal future at hand—a clash between ‘China 2050’ and ‘Hong Kong, 2047’. For one, it’s a bright, optimistic future. For the other, it’s a bleak end of all things good. Hong Kongese today are crying that their freedoms are being eroded by the mainland, first with the extradition bill, and then with the police brutality continually getting worse as the protests lengthen. This is a dangerous and reinforcing feedback loop; yet isn’t this in a sense supposed to happen? After all, Hong Kong is in a transition period in which the Eastern China mainland is supposed to slowly convert this two-system city into Chinese homogeneity by 2047. However, there is a further problem. For China 2050s global preponderance to happen, they must continue their capital development and growth on a global level.
The only way to maintain their currently staggering pace is to rely on Hong Kong being a financial gateway to the rest of the world. One thing that flows formlessly like water is money: after all, we call the process of making money “cash flow.” Capital goes and stays where it is ‘well treated’. So it goes to and through Hong Kong. To make Hong Kong Eastern would be to make Hong Kong less attractive to the rest of the world. In rejecting Hong Kong’s Western economic foundation, Beijing would be hamstringing itself. It would kill the goose that lays golden eggs, all for the sake of having systematic authoritarian and totalitarian solidarity among the herd. For party stability, China is willing to end the best thing that ever happened to them, and for PR, will be ending its chance at ‘China 2050’ if they crack down with finality on Hong Kong in 2047. Yet the Hong Kong economy is a tether and a life-force that the mainland cannot afford to lose. This becomes a ‘forever war’ where no one loses or wins. And maybe that is a win for Hong Kong. A loss of what they presently have is all they want to avoid. No more, no less is just fine.
Hong Kong is not breaking China down militarily. However, Hong Kong is exposing China on the world’s stage. We see China’s inability to really act—caught in a stalemate—and everyone knows why. Without Hong Kong’s economic prosperity built on its Western foundation, Eastern China cannot continue to rise. While the party wants to see the destruction of this “one country, two systems” formula, it knows that destroying the system will simultaneously cause the party to self-destruct. It is a “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” mentality. The Communist Party cannot live with the stench of Western order, and yet they cannot satiate their own people without that very same Western order. The party cannot decimate a city so vital to the mainland in the name of rooting out the infectious, poisonous strain of free and unfettered exchange in general in Hong Kong’s structure.
If the Meleans were given fifty years to make up their mind, this Chinese conflict would be a repeat of the Melean Dialogue. This conflict that has bubbled over way beyond the original outrage over the extradition bill is largely because of the timer ticking away, marking the end of everything that is Hong Kong’s identity today.
And yet, something’s got to give.
Robert Greene in his work The 48 Laws of Power believes that power must innovate, or else it will become powerless. He says that rigidified forms of power [i.e. the Chinese government] “come to look to us like death, and we destroy them”. It’s a warning to regimented rigidity—to Chaing’s armies, and to a Communist Party inflexible towards Hong Kong’s existing policies and systems. Hearing that the Chinese government “has lost the trust of a whole generation” in Hong Kong should fall ominously upon the administration if Greene is correct, China remains caught in the worst bind of all time—tearing into their own economic lifeblood in an effort to conserve their own party’s power.
This transition period and the tumultuousness of it gives us a window into a microcosmic mix of Western and Eastern systems. Can a dualistic world like Hong Kong survive? Or will it conform to look like the rest of China? Only time will tell. However, lifeless things become stiff in ‘rigamortus’. There’s no hedging bets. If a nation’s strategy and dogma fails, then the nation dies. The Chinese mainland feels inflexible, unbending, and dead to the generations of Hong Kong. The two parties are locked in a stalemate, where something must give.