Translating Self-Determination

Essay by Promise Li, Lausan Collective

Lausan 流傘 is a political collective founded in 2019 in response to the rapid social changes in Hong Kong and the increasing profile of the movement on international media. Through writing, translation and organizing, Lausan provides decolonial, leftist perspectives from Hong Kong for both English and Chinese readers. Promise Li, one of the members of Lausan, shares the rationale behind his involvement


Lausan came together partly in response to an ecosystem of mistranslation. In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong became an overdetermined site more so than ever before: a bargaining chip for empires, an intellectual exercise for academics and pundits, a post-modern spectacle for subcultural enthusiasts, and another instance in the United States’ campaign for subversion against its new rival, or in China’s plan to extend its global ambitions — it all depends on who you ask. In the midst of this discursive overdrive, what is being mistranslated, and what voices are prioritized in translation over others?  What does it mean to attune to the diverse voices calling for self-determination in Hong Kong, and to sit with the complex lived experiences and contradictions behind the five demands, which united the movement under a common platform as a reaction against the anti-extradition bill?


I and others ask these questions as we live through our own experiences of translation. I was born and raised in Hong Kong — growing up in, and processing a society shaped by the trauma of the Tiananmen Square massacre. My first political awakening was marching alongside my friends and cousins who took me to Central — the central hub of the city and where the Legislative Council is located —  protesting the ‘Moral and National Education Curriculum’ curriculum changes in 2012. I was also radicalized into leftist politics as a student in the U.S., and exposed to how “Western democratic values” have been used ironically as part of an elaborate facade to justify colonialism — a long-standing, international program to suppress democratic rights. As I juggled overlapping identities as a student, immigrant rights activist, tenant rights organizer, and socialist on the frontlines during the repressive Trump years, Hong Kong’s protest movement erupted. I felt the weight of standing in the midst of contradictions. I saw the movement at home in Hong Kong increasingly turn toward the West as a democratic alternative, while I have witnessed friends and allies oppressed under the imperialist and exploitative U.S. administration. I also saw my allies on the left stay silent on or defend Beijing’s authoritarianism in the name of “anti-imperialism.” I find myself going back to a fundamental question: what does freedom from oppression ultimately entail? 


My fellow Hongkongers remind me that one of the basic units of freedom is self-determination: to be able to collectively and democratically determine our own political future and material conditions without repression or coercion. My comrades on the left remind me that a genuinely democratic sense of a people’s capacity for self-determination, is impossible to achieve without reckoning with the reality that this can never be confined within ethnic boundaries. For every society, the “freedom” of one class of elites is always predicated on the rest of our unfreedom, be it Hongkonger, Chinese, or American.  


As an ongoing translation of my belief into action, these are the principles that guide my own personal path into Lausan: democratic self-determination is as myriad in its forms and agents, as it is ideologically rigorous. This is not to look to a model of a universal human rights framework that would sanitize Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy, nor a hyper-localist one that fetishizes a conception of ethnonationalism that sees other struggles for liberation as disposable or auxiliary. To translate between the movement participants — between Hong Kong and China, Hong Kong and beyond, the movement and the international left — is not an abstract concern; it is a set of strategies that concretely build and expand the power of those struggling for self-determination from below and against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), backed by its own transnational alliance of oppressors. 


This means rethinking our priorities, understanding how attending to the voices and demands of people living in the margins of Hong Kong — from domestic workers (especially those who are ethnic minorities), sex workers, to other workers’ organizations such as the new union wave — is not mere idealism. These are choices that stem from a strategic assessment of the weak points of the infrastructure of state terror. It is often those unheard or neglected that provide the most pragmatic way to topple tyranny. 


To build self-determination is to translate, and to translate is to make choices. To practice collective decision-making over valorizing a facade of horizontal unity that masks unaccountable actions by an internally-atomized movement. To choose certain allies over others — class solidarity over indiscriminate American sanctions that strengthen a “New Cold War” that fails to account for the history of collusion among U.S.-Chinese elites and infrastructure-building. To be in critical solidarity with a movement with contradictions, over a nation-state with contradictions. More concretely, it is to translate and prioritize certain voices from allies that have been inaccessible to Hongkongers, and for our international allies to understand the diversity of Hongkongers’ struggles for democracy. It is to choose which coalitional meetings to go to, which event or incident to promote, report on, or organize around, with our limited capacity.


To translate is also to choose when and whether to negotiate. Self-determination is predicated on an ethos that values difference collectively. Ultimately, the goal is to radically change society for the better so that it serves all Hongkongers democratically. It is also understanding the value of critically analyzing issues and strategies with one another, and when to collectively break ranks with our oppressors who pose as our saviors and allies, such as far-right politicians.


Ultimately, to practice self-determination is to learn how to inhabit a traumatic and visceral scene full of contradictions. To recognize that translation rarely produces unambiguous, immediate results, and even sometimes fails. To sit with the grief and anguish that come from mutual misrecognition between activists and movements. To persist collectively in the face of loss, of friends, allies, and battles. To learn to feel at home with one’s principles and convictions in exile or not, and to live with the discomfort that comes with a political struggle that may not end anytime soon — one that requires constant vigilance and self-reflection. Like the complex time of translation work itself, the fight for self-determination must be supple enough to take on different temporalities of struggle. It must discover strategies beyond the internecine immediacy of Molotov cocktails and laamchau-style international advocacy — be it migrant justice and anti-racist coalition-building in the face of mass emigration, or joint labor campaigns that target the confluences of global capital through which the CCP exerts an ever-greater influence.


It is an overwhelming scene of contradictions that I and many others at Lausan have been learning to live with, within the nexus of multiple struggles across Hong Kong and the diaspora. Tomorrow may not be any better, but I trust that the improvisatory work of self-determination can bring us a different temporality of hope, and translate for us new sites of resistance in fresh inflections.