The Cost of Thinking Globally

by Yan Long

In October the principal of Hong Kong’s Shung Tak Catholic English College posted an open letter opposing Occupy Central protests, which was widely circulated and discussed on social media in both Hong Kong and mainland China. The letter asked, “Who will reap the greatest benefits if Hong Kong becomes chaotic? Who will reap the greatest benefits if China becomes chaotic?”1 The principal, Kung Kwong Pui, then accused the United States government for stirring up trouble and destabilizing East Asia.

This was only one episode of an intense battle between the Occupy Central movement and counter-movement over whether western money and training had put protesters on the street. On the one hand, allegations were swirling on how Occupy Central was only a U.S.-financed plot against Beijing’s authority. On the other hand, the primary movement leaders, including Chan Kin-man and Joshua Wong, firmly denied such claim and repeatedly emphasized that umbrella protests were a domestic grassroots movement.

This post will not seek to determine whether the nature of Occupy Central was domestic or transnational; I bring up these conflicts to call attention to the complicated, nonlinear, contradictory, and sometimes unintended consequences of world contentious politics on the internal political environment of China. Even if foreign influences had little to do with Occupy Central, the fact that many people in Hong Kong consider the possibility strongly suggests the importance of international relations in what is arguably the strongest authoritarian country in the world. Drawing on materials from my ongoing book project, I will talk about how thinking globally might lead domestic actors—the Chinese state and bystanders—to act locally in a variety of ways, which affects the interactions between Chinese activists and transnational advocacy networks.

Even though Chinese activists had come into contact with a wide variety of international networks and organizations since the “third wave of democratization,” I argue that the Chinese central government had not developed organizational practice on a national scale in response to the evolution of collective action across national borders until the Orange Revolution in the early 2000s. When Hu Jintao, China’s former president, came back from his visit to eastern European countries in 2004, Chinese senior party leaders were convinced that the collaboration of western agencies and aspiring domestic NGOs in the former Soviet Union had produced the unrest. At the time China’s political apparatus lacked horizontal coordination cross various ministries at the central level to enforce control over emerging forms of transnational connections and activism. Before 2004, the policing of social movements was largely defined as a domestic issue. As much as the communist party leadership had long been concerned that Western intelligence agencies might subvert the socialist regime in the name of promoting democracy, these concerns were classified as “international issues” belonging to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and State Security. Accordingly they were mostly handled at the central level in Beijing. As a result, most local governments had low degrees of capacity in suppressing transnational activism. Neither was it a political priority for governmental officials at the local level.

After 2004, blaming foreign forces for local dissents was no longer a discursive practice that the Chinese central authorities had engaged in; there has been a shift in the government’s tactics towards escalated coercive measures. The communist party’s heightened sovereignty concerns had led to governmental organizational reconfiguration. A joint committee of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Foreign Affairs, State Security, and Public Security began to develop a central coordinating institution to conduct anti-penetration and risk prevention work. The goal was to expand the scope of regime capacity by intensifying the scrutiny of Chinese society and Sino-western transnational networks. This new committee also created a set of special working teams to strengthen the capacities of local governments to extend control over a population of domestic activists with overseas connections. This series of reforms has established the organizational foundation for an increasingly repressive and hard line approach against the involvement of transnational advocacy networks in Chinese social movements. For example, the policing of protests in Hong Kong during Occupy Central was combined with the coordination of police and security units throughout mainland China in order to disrupt linkages connecting various activists and NGOs in different regions and places.

Furthermore, accusing activists of acting as agents of western governments, especially the United States, has gained much wider appeal since the Olympic Games in 2008. This powerful discursive weapon discourages participation in and support for mobilization or recruits allies for Beijing. As China’s economic success has led to increased status in the world over the past ten years, regular mainland Chinese have changed their understanding of China’s relations with the rest of the world. As a leader of the Anti-Occupy Central movement stated, “Chinese democracy might look very different from the western style of democracy. Maybe it’ll turn out to be a better system.”2 Occupy Central itself tried to anticipate this mindset when it abandoned the idea of presenting itself as a paradigmatic democracy movement rooted in an international context. This framing did not resonate with a broader public, and Occupy Central embraced a domestic frame, emphasizing local democracy from below with the grassroots characteristics of Hong Kong.

What social circumstances decide the receptivity to one frame over another? What kinds of people respond to global or local frames? Social movement scholars have paid attention to how global frames interact with local ones and lead to the unification or convergence of contentious repertoires across borders. The case of Occupy Central’s rejection of a global frame suggests that global frames have a more complex role in activism. As other actors in contentious politics have changed, Chinese activists face the question as to whether and how to connect local activism with global political campaigns and policy arenas. What makes Chinese activism particularly challenging is that the state controls almost every aspect of society as well as holding central authority and power and control the distribution of most social resources. It has also expanded its infrastructure power to strengthen repressive capacity against transnational activism. Chinese society’s rejection of universal concepts and transnational norms compounds the difficulty activists face; global interdependencies and experiences in one region and practice in another hold little information in the crafting of activism. As a result, in many areas such as health, environment, labor, and women’s rights, a large number of Chinese activists have been withdrawing from transnational engagement.

In December 2014 a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong shows that public support for the government’s electoral reform grew significantly in response to Occupy protests.3 This outcome was more than a little disappointing to activists who had hoped Hong Kong could be the experimental ground leading to democracy throughout mainland China. Occupy Central’s spotlight on international media led the Chinese central government to arrest a number of mainland activists and intellectuals as a preventive response to the threat of Occupy Central to the rest of the country, a frustrating outcome. Understanding the complexity of the transnational-local nexus where social movements take place can only enlighten scholars and point the way forward for activists.


1Kung Kwong Pui, “A letter to students on Occupy Central,” October 7, 2014.
2Willfred Chan, “Pro-government Protesters Hit Back with Huge Hong Kong Rally,” CNN, August 18, 2014. Retrieved from
3“After Occupy, more Hongkongers back government’s reform package, study finds,” Souh China Morning Post, December 25, 2014. Retrieved from

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Movements in East and Southeast Asia

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