Simone Pieranni: Hong Kong, the first revolt against surveillance capitalism

Simone Pieranni, China desk editor for the newspaper Il Manifesto, wrote this piece for the Italian online journal Sinosfere, following up on my own contribution in that venue. We translated it and republished here, as it fits well with Rebecca Karl’s post and explores the crucial dimension of “surveillance capitalism.” Thanks to Simone and Sinosfere.

Fabio Lanza’s piece on Sinosfere about what has been happening in Hong Kong since last June has the merit of broadening our perspective. Beyond the limitations that people “from the left” have singled out—folding back on localism, appeals for help to London and Washington, all contradictions that, in different forms, can be found even within instances of mobilization that have faced and kept in check the repressive apparatuses of other nation-states, like the gilet jaunes or Catalunya—Lanza signals how the Hong Kong protests reflect “in a polysemic and complex manner, a crisis within capitalism, specifically the explosion of the tension between, on the one hand, assertions of political subjectivity and desire to participate and, on the other, a system that systematically represses these aspirations in the name of market freedom.”

Let’s now try to increase the chronological distance and project ourselves into the future (which is already the present). We must do that, because in Hong Kong, the protest has taken on a peculiar character, especially in the street—that is, in direct action—and has seen mostly students or the very young as its protagonists. It has also pointed at a series of political intersections that involve us directly.

Hong Kong can indeed be grouped together with all the other rebellions against neoliberalism that we have observed throughout 2019, but this protest has “pushed” more strongly than any other on certain specific issues. What has been happening in Hong Kong has looked at times more like luddism, at times hacker activism, and at times mediatic self-organization. Physically attacking street cameras, removing and destroying them (since July 2019 at least 900 security cams are supposed to have been “switched off,” and that does not include those damaged or obscured in subway stations); deploying the technological systems more usefully to organize (Telegram has denounced interference from Chinese hackers precisely because it is one of the tools most used by protestors); hiding or using one’s body against those who can use bodies to repress; managing the entire communications with apps; inventing memes. This armory of tools highlights a crucial point: what’s taking place in Hong Kong is the first true revolt against surveillance capitalism, that is capitalism in its (so far) most advanced phase, capable of expropriating (extracting) data at no cost in order to perpetuate its system of domination and throw back into poverty large strata of the knowledgeable masses to whom much different promises had been made. And if anyone has a problem with attaching the term “capitalism” to China, we could easily call it “socialism with Chinese characteristics;” it makes no difference [if the we observe these same mechanisms in both].

The protagonists of this form of struggle are in the large majority young.As Sandro Mezzadra has pointed out, what’s happening in Hong Kong “must be placed within a new conjuncture, in which the investment and the penetration of productive urban texture through new technologies confer a special significance to what in other contexts is called ‘the knowledge economy’ and to strata of cognitive labor, which is essentially youth labor.” In the former British colony, we have witnessed a rebellion against what Shosana Zuboff (author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power) synthesizes as such: “a parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification” (https://www.moralmarkets.org/book/the-age-of-surveillance-capitalism/).

These “riots 4.0” could not but involve China, which is the current exemplar—even if with its unique “characteristics”—of this global tendency (of which it is also one of many exporters). It is not by chance that just before Christmas, a protest took place in Hong Kong in support of Uyghurs, the Turkish and Muslim minority in Xinjiang (“we are next,” chanted the Hong Kong protestors). Xinjiang is the periphery in which one can experiment unnoticed (except for some minor incidents, immediately covered up by Beijing’s economic might https://ilmanifesto.it/cina-cosa-ce-nei-xinjiang-papers-del-new-york-times/ ) and Hong Kong is the neoliberal financial hub. These are the two territories where the mechanisms of state surveillance (with Chinese characteristics) are being deployed.

But in the financial hub, everything is eventually exposed. “Be water” they repeat in Hong Kong: a new epic narrative was needed, a non-face in the age of facial recognition, a wave-like, water-like way of moving which cannot be traced in the age of territorial tracking, cash in the age of trackable mobile payments, something ever changing in the age of wealth extraction from our bodies in order to exploit that “moment” analyzed by Mezzadra. After all, China today is a giant under transformation, a huge apparatus of social engineering which has found in technological evolution a way to remain hyper-productive on global markets and control its people, while extracting from them the knowhow needed to excel in the age of surveillance capitalism. And where the grasp is less tight, as in Hong Kong, what can happen is that young people, students—who are living the transition between impoverishment (housing, salaries, etc.) and being the object of extraction—are the first to “feel” the problem. China might come up with a creative solution (Chinese politicians are more prone to political inventions than their Western counterparts, for example the theory of “one country, two systems” would have been inconceivable in the West). Or this first rebellion against surveillance capitalism might exhaust itself as happened with similar movements, even if in different contexts. However, Hong Kong in the end does give us something, by revealing to us the form, the sinuous perseverance that one will have to have in order to struggle against and modify the future which is already the present.

One Reply to “Simone Pieranni: Hong Kong, the first revolt against surveillance capitalism”

  1. This is such an important intervention. The control of bodies and minds as the realizable goal of capitalist accumulation. It forces us to think deeply about the nature of this latest round of so-called primitive accumulation and its relationship to protest, alternative use of technology, compliance, subjectivity, and precarity.

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