BOOK: Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016)

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As the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement – a collection of essays that takes as its theological cue the 79-day protest occupations in Hong Kong in 2014 – I am happy to formally announce on this blog that I have received a hard copy of the book. The text has been available as an e-book since July, and I am now glad to see that a physical version is now available.

I think it’s incumbent on me as the lead editor to say something about how we put together this book, what the book is about, where this book sits in relation to my larger research agenda, and what the book’s limitations are in the ever-shifting situation in Hong Kong at present.

The book had its genesis in a forum that occurred during the Umbrella Movement on Syndicate Theology. In 2014, I was recruited by Syndicate‘s managing editor Christian Amondson to edit its Theology and Social Theory section – a task that included editing fora on Gil Anidjar’s Blood, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, and John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order before the site’s format was radically revised – and my first initiative as this section’s editor was to put together a forum on the Umbrella Movement, which I modeled after another quite successful series of essays on Syndicate titled Ferguson and Theology. For this forum, I recruited some of my colleagues in Hong Kong such as Kung Lap Yan, Rose Wu, and Sam Tsang (there were others in the mix as well, but because it was a volatile time in Hong Kong, these three were the only ones who could find the time to write), and I also wrote an original essay for the series critiquing the way that theology in Hong Kong had been done up until the Umbrella Movement and what changes the movement might contribute to the task of grounding theological reflection in the actual material and ideological conditions of Hong Kong as a city with a rich and conflicted history of colonization.

As this Syndicate series wrapped up, Jonathan Tan approached me with an idea that had come out of a conversation with Kwok Pui-lan (who wrote our foreword) to write a book on the Umbrella Movement that would be in English for readers who might not have any knowledge of Hong Kong but could also benefit them in the task of contemporary theological reflection. I drafted and submitted a proposal to the series editors for Palgrave MacMillan’s Christianity in the Asian Diaspora series, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Joe Cheah, as well as a request to Christian Amondson to publish the Syndicate essays in a substantially revised form. Tan also brought on Mary Yuen, who substantially revised an essay she had put into AsiaNews.it on Catholic social teaching and the Umbrella Movement.

As all such writing projects go, the task of ‘substantially revising’ quite rapidly turned into ‘original writing’; indeed, Sam Tsang ended up writing a completely different essay from what he had given to me at Syndicate, and the other essays have been expanded and reworked. My own submission to Syndicate has never been republished, although I’m sure one can find the seeds of what I wrote on the forum now in the book.

When I began to receive the submissions, it occurred to me that what makes sense in Hong Kong’s local context may not be intuitive for those who have no knowledge of Hong Kong. At the same time, Tan found himself consumed by another editing project. While the original plan was for him to write an essay situating the Umbrella Movement in the liberation theologies of Asia (indeed, one has glimpses of this in Kwok’s foreword to our volume when she discusses liberation theologies and the ‘multitude’), it fell completely to me to truly lead with a vision for what this volume would be – combing through the essays with a fine toothcomb to make sure they would speak directly to English-speaking readers and thinking about the scholarly discussions to which this volume would contribute. This is to say, of course, that most of the editorial errors in this book should be attributed to me, though I am thankful to Tan for the initial idea to turn this into a book and for recruiting Yuen.

The plan of the book emerged from these editorial challenges. The volume is divided into two parts. Part I is a detailed primer that I single-authored on Hong Kong’s politics and how it can be used for theological reflection, and Part II contains the four theological reflections from Mary Yuen on Catholic social teaching and the occupy movement, Rose Wu on the queer Pentecost that gave rise to an interstitial Hong Kong identity, Kung Lap Yan on the kairos moment of opportunity and danger of the political movement, and Sam Tsang with a stunningly original account of the colonial occupation of Hong Kong and how such an understanding of occupation radically revises the liberation politics of an occupy movement in Hong Kong.

These two parts are sandwiched between two pieces on liberation theology, an introduction and an epilogue, that I took the liberty of single-authoring as lead editor. Thinking through Tan’s original plan to situate the Umbrella Movement in the context of theologies of liberation in Asia, it occurred to me that what was awkward about the Umbrella Movement’s relation with the notion of liberation theology is that it wasn’t a straight-forward application of models advanced in the past; indeed, our authors – disagree as they might about every other aspect of the movement – agree on this one point. My introduction thus outlines the contours of the liberation theology that has gone before and how using the ‘see-judge-act’ analytic lens of theologies of liberation in Hong Kong will yield some surprising results. This transformed the primer that I wrote in Part I into an argument that demands for ‘genuine universal suffrage’ during the Umbrella Movement wasn’t a vacuous ideological slogan but came out of the actual material conditions of Hong Kong. In turn, the epilogue became about the relationship between the concept of conscientizaçao as understood in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and how the Umbrella Movement played out. In other words, my vision as the lead editor was not so much to fit the Umbrella Movement into a model of liberation, but to situate the Umbrella Movement as a contemporary challenge for how to do theology in solidarity with the materially oppressed in both Hong Kong and around the world. Each of the authors contributes to this vision by showing how their vastly different Christian traditions shaped the Umbrella Movement’s theological challenge to reflections on liberation, and my job as the lead editor was to fine-tune these four distinct voices as they made their original arguments to a readership that may not even be familiar with Hong Kong. As I made my way through these tasks, I received constant encouragement from my friend and colleague (and now Patheos Catholic editor) Sam Rocha, a philosopher of education who has thought a lot about liberation theology and who exhorted me to keep in mind the pedagogical aims of the volume.

Leading this editorial work (which included single-authoring about half of the book) forced me to think about what doing all of this work had to do with my larger scholarly agenda. I came to understand working on this volume as a sort of pivot point between my first and second projects and as the culmination of my Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington. The first project (which became my PhD dissertation and on which I am still generating publications) was my attempt at an ideological map of Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with Pacific Rim civil societies, especially Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. While the research for this project ended before the Umbrella Movement, it can be said that the lead-up to the protests, the protests themselves, and the aftermath has been fascinating to watch in light of this research, especially because Cantonese Protestants (and Catholics) are key to understanding the Umbrella Movement, both its supporters and detractors. This topical interest has led to a broader thematic inquiry that is becoming my second project, which is on the relationship between the theological underpinnings of some of these contemporary occupy movements and the intriguing ideology of ‘capitalism with Asian values’ (which, as Slavoj Žižek reminds us, has very little to do with persons whose bodies are marked as ‘Asian’). Some of my new interests – Asian Americans getting involved with Black Lives Matter, the rhetoric of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv around ‘Eurasia,’ and protests in Vancouver’s Chinatown that bring together issues of housing and indigeneity – might seem to have only a tangential connection to Hong Kong, but what holds this together are the inquiry into what forms liberation, solidarity, and occupy movements take – which are precisely the concerns of the book. In this way, I’m thankful for the task of leading the editing on this volume, because it pushed me to think about why I do what I do.

This book has been described as ‘timely,’ and I take that as a compliment. However, I of all people am deeply aware of how timeliness can hardly describe any book about Hong Kong because political developments in Hong Kong have always moved quickly. The book was written in 2014, substantially revised and edited in 2015, and touched up in 2016. The last reference to an actual event in Hong Kong is the Fishball Revolution that took place in February 2016. The book came out around the lead-up to the Legislative Council elections of 2016 and doesn’t include much about the emergence of youth political parties such as Demosistõ and Youngspiration. It certainly does not contain any information about the assassination threats made against Eddie Chu Hoi-dick.

My hope, then, is that the ‘timeliness’ of this book is a reference to the themes of the book, that people both inside and outside of Hong Kong want to read the events of contemporary occupy movements closely and judge them theologically before making the next move. That is why what we have offered are reflections and why we are so pleased that Benny Tai’s endorsement of our book also speaks about this book perhaps being able to help with writing Hong Kong’s next chapter. Certainly, we expect criticism for what we have written, but we hope that that process of critique will not be about us, but for the good of Hong Kong as a city that is wrestling with questions of justice and peace. This book is an offering to readers who want to join us in that task of reflection. May our conversation be lively!

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International Conference on Paulo Freire 2016: Mechanizing Conscientization in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace: failures of pedagogy, theology, and solidarity in contemporary social movements

I’m at a conference at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at Vancouver organized by my friend and colleague Sam Rocha (UBC). Titled the ‘International Conference on Paulo Freire,’ it has a stellar lineup of philosophers of education and other people who think about pedagogy. I usually treat these as my super-enhanced teaching workshops as I sit and learn from people who think about teaching all day in a way that is philosophically smart. The keynotes are phenomenal – Eduardo Mendieta (Penn State), Deborah Britzman (York), and Eduardo Duarte (Hofstra) – with an undercurrent of theologies of liberation carrying through all the talks and paper sessions.

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I’m happy to also be presenting this afternoon. My paper is titled: ‘Mechanizing Conscientization in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace: failures of pedagogy, theology, and solidarity in contemporary social movements.’ Here’s the abstract:

Critics of Anglophone critical pedagogy have suggested that North American readings of the word conscientizaçao in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed tend to reduce the building of a liberating consciousness to a liberal ‘mechanization of Freire’s revolutionary pedagogical proposals’ (Macedo 2000: 24). These critiques also apply to activists attempting to use technical educative approaches for conscientization, mistakenly framing the use of religious overtones in such mechanized pedagogies as liberation theology while foregoing a ‘communion with the people’ that ‘is really human, empathetic, loving, communicative, and humble, in order to be liberating’ (Freire 2000: 171). However, these liberal misreadings of Freire may also be fostering the contemporary phenomenon of ‘occupy’ movements, said to be primal eruptions of a collective consciousness while also failing to actually overturn oppression before their dissipation. My case study is Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), an initiative noted for its Christian leadership that attempted to ‘conscientize’ (as its founder Benny Tai put it) the Hong Kong public through a mechanistic model of civic dialogue and ultimately failed to deliver on its promises of civil disobedience. Instead of stifling activism, the disappointment of OCLP arguably generated the protest occupations in 2014 known as the ‘Umbrella Movement,’ said to be a primal (and theological) explosion of the Hong Kong populace’s discontent with oligarchic oppression, but which ultimately met its demise due to internal dissension. I argue that OCLP’s misappropriation of conscientization as a liberal mechanistic pedagogy generated an ‘occupy’ movement that externalized the primal unconscious of the oppressed without a cognate sense of solidarity derived from the communion for which Freire actually calls. Contemporary ‘occupy’ movements may thus manifest incomplete processes of conscientization due to mechanistic readings of Freire leading to activist expressions that may even be religious, but are not truly theological in the humanizing tradition of liberation theology. Closely re-receiving Freire’s call to communion may in turn yield pedagogies of the oppressed with more primal depths, perhaps generating the ontological revolutions that can truly negate the oppressions ineffectively protested by contemporary social movements.

I’m looking forward to learning a lot this weekend. I’m also going to attend many of the Spanish- and Portuguese-language sessions, even though I am in no way competent in any of those languages, in order to broaden my horizons. Many thanks, Sam, for letting me play along!

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015: Newport Beach, CA

I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.

The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.

My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.

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Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’