Note: The impetus for this essay was a recent China Made lecture by the sociologist Ching Kwan Lee, the ideas expressed, however, are those of the author.
On September 23, 2018 the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link officially opened—linking Mainland China to downtown Hong Kong by high-speed rail. This $11 billion project, built over nearly 9 years, did more than facilitate travel. It also brought Chinese territorial sovereignty right into Kowloon. Now, there is a new Chinese border inside the wave-like steel folds of the gleaming station, where travelers are subject to Chinese laws.
As the sociologist Ching Kwan Lee argued in an September 2020 China Made lecture titled “Hong Kong: Global China’s Restive Frontier,” the past decade of Chinese infrastructure projects, such as the high speed rail station, are part of the colonial project to remake Hong Kong in China’s image. “They wanted direct access to downtown Hong Kong.” Lee noted, “As soon as you enter the custom areas inside train station you are under Chinese law. It was the extraterritoriality of the project that caused popular outrage and protests.” Both sides of this project—Hong Kong protestors and Chinese authorities—understood something about the way power was carried by the built environment.
Listening to Lee’s discussion of the imposition of new infrastructure systems brought to mind conceptualizations of infrastructural power: the way the dispositions of built systems can enhance a state’s influence over a society (Mann 1984; Easterling 2016). By building itself into the lives of citizens and introducing a new regime of costs and benefits through this imposition, an infrastructural state begins to shape the right to the city, the right to transport, the right to work and so on. Infrastructure power—a materialist reframing of what Foucault might refer to as biopower (Foucault 2007)—announces the priorities of a state: who and what is authorized to move and act, whose lives and what materials are valued. Paying attention to infrastructural power adds another dimension to recent discussions of Hong Kong which focus on human rights, legal reform, democracy and protest (Davis 2020; Wasserstrom 2020). It opens up a materialist analytic of China’s colonial territorialization of Hong Kong.
The highspeed rail line that announced China’s intention to transform Hong Kong was also at the center of Hong Kong’s decolonial movement. Back in 2009, when the new express rail-line was proposed, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets. It was clear to them that the project was producing redundant railway capacity, and dumping extra infrastructure from Mainland companies into Hong Kong at the expense of Hong Kong taxpayers. The protestors used many of the tactics typical of democratic protest—petitions, marches, hunger-strikes, rallies—but they also began to innovate.
Over several weekends in January 2010, they adapted a Tibetan votive practice, prostrating every 26 steps to protest each kilometer of the proposed rail line. Their protests began to mirror the built environment in other ways too. Using social media they organized a coordinated blockade of the Hong Kong Legislative Council Building trapping pro-Beijing lawmakers inside for over a day. They drew and published online maps of the locations of police and protesters. They carried plastic wrap to cover their faces against pepper spray. They chanted “shame” when the police escorted the lawmakers out and began beating protestors.
This protest, over ten years ago, inspired Joshua Wong and many other high school students 2 years later to protest the introduction of propaganda materials into Hong Kong high-school text books. This in turn inspired the 2014 Umbrella Movement which in turn inspired the Anti-Extradition protests of 2019. Each successive protest has grown in scale and become more sophisticated in its tactics. It has produced a generation of young Hong Kongers who have come of age in the midst of radical political action. Protest is now mainstream in Hong Kong—though now dangerous due to a 2020 National Security Law.
Lee argues that this history is important not only because it shows us how social movements take form, but also because it speaks to the role of infrastructural power in activating decolonial politics. It also demonstrate the limits and strategies of global China.