Symposium: The Geopolitics of Civil Spheres: Hong Kong and the China Factor

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Spring 2020, Vol 32. Issue 1

Book Symposium: The Civil Sphere in East Asia (2019, Cambridge)

David A. Palmer
Professor of Sociology,
Univ. of Hong Kong


Spillman recounts how The Civil Sphere in East Asia helped her to make sense of daily headlines on the Hong Kong protests of 2019. She asks, “when do different languages of claims-making about universalizing solidarity stop being civil sphere languages, and start being something else?” Lo asks us to think more about the “China factor” and its role in an “international civil sphere.” Saeed forcefully asserts that it is “no longer tenable” to consider that the democratic and civil norms underpinning civil spheres are “Western or American”. When I began this project, I would have agreed with her on the necessity of decoupling civil society theories from their Western historical grounding, and to see how far one can go in that direction. But Hong Kong’s protest movement has led me to become starkly aware of the limits of such a proposal. In this discussion, I will use the Hong Kong case to reflect on some of the questions raised by Lo, Spillman and Saeed.

The protest movement that shook Hong Kong throughout the second half of 2019 has been portrayed in the American media as a paradigmatic instance of a dramatized struggle, played out in the streets between citizens and the police, between civil values of democracy and anti-civil, violent authoritarian repression. On the ground, there has been no shortage of verbal and physical incivility on both sides of the conflict. But the repeated and regular acts of protestor violence, mob assaults, vandalism, arson, and attacks on police officers with petrol bombs and bricks never inflected the Western media’s narrative, which has focused on police arrests, beatings, tear gas and pepper spray as the symbols of anti-civil violence being deployed against innocent citizens. In the Western civil sphere, the symbolic binary has been unambiguous in its dramatization of the Hong Kong struggle – an inverted image of the typical media framing of protests using similar “Black Bloc” tactics in Europe and America. Writing of media coverage of anti-corporate globalization protests such as the “Battle for Seattle” in 1999 and the G20 meeting in Genoa in 2001, for example, Juris (2005: 428) writes, “dominant media frames skillfully decontextualized and reinserted images of militant rebellion into a larger narrative of dreaded criminal, if not terrorist, deviance, threatening to alienate potential supporters and wrest legitimacy from the broader movement.” In contrast, in its investigation of the overwhelmingly positive media coverage of the Hong Kong protests, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) concluded that “The quantity of Hong Kong articles is inversely proportional to the diversity of opinion. The reality of the situation is much more nuanced, but this nuance is entirely lacking in the hundreds of articles sampled. Corporate media sing the same song on Hong Kong, presenting the situation in a lockstep single-mindedness that would impress any totalitarian propaganda system.” (Macleod 2019)

Who is the public to whom Hong Kong protesters and the media present this monolithic narrative? In other words, within which civil sphere are the actors shaping public opinion? In Hong Kong, much of the protest actions aim to garner the attention of the Western media. An important strategy has been to mobilize the Western media and other authoritative institutions such as human rights organizations, to pressure the American and British governments to take actions to support the protests and punish the Hong Kong government. The Hong Kong movement engages Western civil spheres as much as Hong Kong’s.

Protesters waving American flags and posters of Donald Trump have been common sights. The passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by the US Congress in November 2019 was widely seen as a major victory in the struggle, the fruit of an intense media and Washington lobbying campaign by public leaders of the Hong Kong protest movement. The act, which threatens to sanction officials and revoke the special trade status conferred on Hong Kong by the USA, was supported by the bipartisan coalition of “national security hawks on China, trade hawks on China, and human rights hawks on China” (Girard 2019), and passed with only one dissenting vote. Hong Kong is now regularly mentioned alongside technology, intellectual property, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and other issues justifying the containment of China in the new cold war. The Hong Kong protest movement has enthusiastically joined the American side in the broader geopolitical conflict between the US and China.

Over the decades, Hong Kong’s civil sphere had evolved through the tensions between different formulations of civil/anti-civil binaries, becoming a space for negotiating the conflicts, ambiguities and overlaps between liberty and paternalism (Lo & Bettinger 2009), liberal and traditional conceptions of the rule of law (Ku 2019) and the localizing vs universalizing boundaries of the sphere of solidarity (Junker and Chan 2019). In the current protest movement, however, most nuances have been lost. Earlier debates between mainstream advocates of civil disobedience and localist groups advocating violence, have given way to a generalized cultural legitimation and acceptance of violent tactics. Local civil/anticivil binary codes have largely merged with the deep structure of American discourses of the new Cold War: American power is sacralised as the guardian of civility, while China is profanated as the looming spectre of anti-civil infiltration and menacing world domination.

Under this moral code, in the Hong Kong protest movement, anything associated with mainland China is vilified as anti-civil. Mainland Chinese (even native Hong Kongers) who disagreed with protesters were often subject to violent mob attacks — in one case set on fire — and prominent leaders of the movement declined to criticize such acts. Businesses, banks and restaurants associated with critics of the movement, and even the metro system, were systematically trashed and vandalized week after week, and are now the subject of boycotts. A sacred principle of the movement is an unshakable unity and tactical cooperation between violent “warriors” and non-violent “moderates.” Any criticism of the movement, including principled reservations about its tolerance or advocacy of violence, may lead to stigmatization as “pro-Beijing” or “pro-communist.”

Hong Kong’s protest movement plays out in Western civil spheres to the extent that the media for which it performs, and the public opinion that it intensely engages with, is Western public opinion. Conversely, the movement does not engage with mainland Chinese public opinion. Rather than seeking to win mainland Chinese over to democratic values, the anti-mainland mob violence and vandalism have only provided fodder for the inverted moral code of civility propagated by the Chinese government: just as major Chinese cities have made significant strides in improved public behavior and civic consciousness, in many ways catching up to the much-vaunted civility of Hong Kong and demonstrating the advanced capacity of Chinese “social management”, the Hong Kong rebellion provides countless images of Western-style liberalism degenerating into violence and barbarity.

In the discourse of the movement, translated into the terms of Civil Sphere Theory, the Chinese regime is anti-civil by nature, and all civil means of engagement have failed. There is no mainland Chinese civil sphere to contribute to. There is no channel for influencing the mainland Chinese media narrative and engaging with mainland Chinese public opinion. There is no choice but violent pressure, and to internationalize the issue by drawing in the US and Western powers. Thus, Hong Kong can only engage the Western civil sphere, and add to the voices in America that call for an all-of-society struggle against Chinese communism (Wong and Chow 2019).

In my chapter in The Civil Sphere in East Asia, I stressed the role of ambiguity in the overlaps between the conflicting moral codes associated with Chinese tradition, socialist ideology and Western liberal values, thus making possible the emergence of evanescent “micro-civil spheres” on the mainland. I argued that these spaces collapse when state actors and popular groups symmetrically deploy the codes against each other, mutually contaminating each other as existential enemies in their respective binary schemes (Palmer 2019: 141-144; see also Palmer & Winiger 2019; Ning & Palmer 2020). In recent years, the space for ambiguity has shrunk in China with the increasingly rigid orthodoxy of the socialist “red code”. Broader trends such as China’s greater international assertiveness and rising economic power, coupled with local incidents such as the abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015, has amplified existential fears of China’s socialist regime in Hong Kong (Palmer 2020). The ambiguities and overlaps between the moral codes of mainland China and those of Hong Kong society, are now deeply frayed, replaced by zero-sum opposition between the codes of the supporters and opponents of the protests, each side polluting the other as the incarnation of anti-civility.

In the new cold war narrative, American power is required to save freedom, democracy and human rights from the China menace. American geopolitical power is the guarantor of freedom, and the Hong Kong protest movement turns to it for protection. So, can a civil sphere exist outside of the framework guaranteed by such power – a power that is military as much as economic?

Sadia Saeed uses the examples of Haiti in 1791 and India in 1947 to show that such non-Western countries were able to surpass the level of democracy that existed in France and the US at those times. But Haiti and India were first colonized and subjugated, and democracy grew out of, if against, such subjugation. What these cases show is that non-Western societies can absorb Western democratic principles and hybridize them with indigenous cultures. But is this possible without Western domination? Let’s turn to Asia and the polities covered in The Civil Sphere in East Asia: Japan’s current democratic political system, within which its civil sphere is nested, came into being after the Japanese empire was crushed by American nuclear bombs then placed under direct American administration, and remains under the US military umbrella. Taiwan and South Korea were military dictatorships under American protection during the Cold War, and were able to evolve into democracies as the Cold War ended, maintaining and even expanding deep cultural and military ties with the US. Hong Kong was a British colony that knew little democracy under colonial rule and whose evolution towards greater democracy after the handover to China was ultimately aborted – even though intense economic and cultural ties with the West have led to high expectations for Western-style democracy. China, the exceptional case in our book, is the one country that was never fully colonized, occupied, or durably integrated into an American military alliance (other than a brief period during and following World War II).

The Civil Sphere in East Asia demonstrates that civil spheres can exist and flourish in East Asian societies, and that the moral codes that structure them can integrate and hybridize moral codes from indigenous sources, Western values, and local historical experiences and trajectories. But one question that we didn’t raise in the book is the troubling relationship between civil spheres and geopolitics. Is it the case that the legacy of some form of Western conquest or military domination is a necessary condition for a democratic civil sphere to develop – even if this civil sphere then overturns or “civilizes” the colonial or postcolonial structure of domination?

As shocking as such as suggestion may sound, it seems to be inherent to the concept of the civil sphere. As Junker and Chan (2019) show in their analysis of Hong Kong localism, both democracy and xenophobic chauvinism have their roots in the collective constitution of a “people” with its boundaries between who is to be included and excluded from popular citizenship and sovereignty. The civil spheres of democratic nation-states grow out of the tensions between those two poles. As narrated by Alexander, the American civil sphere was originally limited to white men: women, blacks, Jews and others were excluded. Two centuries of the struggles of the civil sphere led to its expansion, as these populations successfully fought their way into the civil sphere, acquiring equal rights and dignity. But they fought their way in from a position of being dominated subjects within the same state. They acquired a civil status within the Western system of domination.

And now, it is in the name of this system– and with broad public support spanning the ideological spectrum, both within the US and in places like Hong Kong — that the US flexes geopolitical muscle to protect people against “anti-civil” threats in other countries. The Civil Sphere in East Asia focused primarily on specific national or regional political entities as the local of analysis, although two contributions touched on transnational cases (Pun & Ng 2019, Wang 2019). But, stimulated by recent events in Hong Kong and the comments by Lo, Spillman and Saeed, I now feel that further exploration of the civil sphere needs to move beyond the nation-state as the unit of analysis, to consider the deeply paradoxical connections between civil spheres and colonial trajectories, geopolitical histories and contemporary international tensions. This is an empirical question.

And there is a normative question: if my hypothesis is correct, there are important implications. If a legacy of Western subjugation or protection is a sine qua non of civil spheres as we now know them, what, then, of China? Washington’s support for repressed groups in mainland China – or for the protests in Hong Kong, which enjoys a high level of freedoms – is countered by a tightening of the Chinese state’s apparatus of control, not only of those groups, but of Chinese society as a whole. America and its allies may well be able to restrict Chinese threats to their own security – but China is simply too big and powerful to be fully subjugated. As for dreams of regime change, the experience of other countries in the past few decades shows that civil spheres do not simply grow out of the ruins of collapsed regimes. The weakening of the civil spheres of America and other Western countries, makes them increasingly unlikely exemplars. There is not, and will not be, a Chinese civil sphere derived from or relying on Western geopolitical pressure. But, as argued in The Civil Sphere in East Asia and reiterated by Alexander in his contribution to this issue, values and participatory practices of solidarity and civility, both of indigenous and Western provenance, have deep roots among Chinese people. The challenge, then, is not so much a cultural one, but a geopolitical and ethical one: is it possible for civil spaces to open up and grow without becoming bound up with geopolitical interests and struggles? (Palmer 2018) Is it possible to build a truly civil geopolitical order? (For a more general discussion of these questions, see Palmer 2018)


Alexander, Jeffrey, David A. Palmer, Sunwoon Park, Agnes Ku eds. 2019. The Civil Sphere in East Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Girard, Bonnie. 2019. “A Bipartisan Congressional Group Supports Trump’s Tough-on-China Approach,” The Diplomat, April 5, 2019. 

Ku, Agnes. (2019). Performing Civil Disobedience in Hong Kong. In The Civil Sphere in East Asia pp. 84-103.

Junker, Andrew & Chan, Cheris. (2019). Fault Line in the Civil Sphere: Explaining New Divisions in Hong Kong’s Opposition Movement. In The Civil Sphere in East Asia, pp. 104-125). 

Juris, Jeffrey S. (2005). “Violence Performed and Imagined: Militant Action, the Black Bloc and the Mass Media in Genoa.” Critique of Anthropology 25/4 : 413-32. 

Lo, Ming-Cheng & Christopher C. Bettinger. 2009: “Civic Solidarity in Hong Kong and Taiwan.” The China Quarterly 197: 183-203. 

Macleod, Alan. 2019. “With People in the Streets Worldwide, Media Focus Uniquely on Hong Kong” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 6 Dec. 2019.

Ning, Rundong and David A. Palmer. 2020. “Ethics of the Heart: Moral Breakdown and the Aporia of Chinese Volunteers.” Current Anthropology, forthcoming. 

Palmer, David A. 2018. “Religion, Spiritual Principles and Civil Society,” in Ben Schewel and Geoff Cameron eds., Religion and Public Discourse in an Age of Transition: Reflections on Baha’i Practice and Thought. Guelph, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 

—. 2019. Three Moral Codes and Microcivil Spheres in China. In The Civil Sphere in East Asia, pp. 126-147. 

—. 2020. “Black Bloc against Red China: Tears and Revenge in the Trenches of the New Cold War”. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 10:2. 

Palmer, David A. and Fabian Winiger. 2019. “Neo-Socialist Governmentality: Managing Freedom in the Peoples’ Republic of China.” Economy and Society 48(4):  554-578.

Pun, Ngai and Ng, Kenneth. (2019). Attempting Civil Repair in China: SACOM’s Campaigns and the Challenge to Digital Capitalism. In The Civil Sphere in East Asia, pp. 148-166.

Wang, Horng-luen. (2019). Reconciliation through the Transnational Civil Sphere?: Historical Dialogue and the Tri-National Joint History Project in East Asia. In The Civil Sphere in East Asia, pp. 256-277. 

Alan Macleod, “With People in the Streets Worldwide, Media Focus Uniquely on Hong Kong” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 6 Dec. 2019.

Bonnie Girard, “A Bipartisan Congressional Group Supports Trump’s Tough-on-China Approach,” The Diplomat, April 5, 2019. 

Joshua Wong and Alex Chow, “The People of Hong Kong will not be Cowed by China.” New York Times, 31 Aug. 2019. 

Wong, Joshua and Alex Chow. 2019. “The People of Hong Kong will not be Cowed by China.” New York Times, 31 Aug. 2019.