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  • Occupy as Democratic Living:Pang Laikwan's The Appearing Demos: Hong Kong During and After the Umbrella Movement
  • Shuk Ying Chan (bio)
Pang Laikwan. The Appearing Demos: Hong Kong During and After the Umbrella Movement. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. 228 pp. $19.99 (pb). ISBN: 9780472037681

A social movement that fades away without achieving its stated goals can seem like a political failure. Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, one of the longest occupations of public space in the era of #Occupy, began in 2014 and ended in 2015 without attaining its main goal: the implementation of democracy as promised to the city by the Chinese government. In the years immediately after, student leaders and pro-democracy politicians were arrested and imprisoned, and a new wave of protest in 2019 ended in the most draconian bill in post-handover Hong Kong: the National Security Law. At first glance, then, the Umbrella Movement looks like the beginning of a failed protest for democracy.

Pang Laikwan's The Appearing Demos argues otherwise. Tracing the rise and fall of the movement, attending to its tensions and aspirations through interviews, theoretical engagement and cultural analysis, Pang argues that the Umbrella Movement was an instance of the politics of appearance—that is, the "swift" appearance of individuals as political actors and the "gradual" construction of political intersubjectivities (11–19). Drawing from and at times critiquing Hannah Arendt, Pang explores how the Umbrella Movement was as much a process for participants to work out the fundamental question of preserving individuality amidst collectivity, as it was a protest to be seen by outsiders. This makes the Movement much more than a failed bid for democracy; rather, Pang argues it should be viewed as a political experiment in living together (31). The Movement amounted to "the most powerful critique to the hegemony of nation-state sovereignty on the one hand and the neoliberalist myth of development and freedom on the other" (198).

The book is ambitious and explores a wide range of themes. I will highlight four central claims. First, Pang argues that there is a contradiction between occupy as a means to achieve a political end, which requires a coherent collective, and occupy as an end in itself, in which plurality is always present. Pang deftly analyzes these tensions as they come up in debates over strategy. One of the book's most interesting examples is the now-internationally-famous Old Lady Wong, who refused to go along with collective retreat and instead held her spot on the street for days on end. Pang writes that Wong's refusal to align with other participants demonstrates "the many different layers of antagonism internal to the movement" (53). She lauds political actors who behave in ways truthful to themselves amidst collective pressure, and argues that this "demonstrates the impossibility of presenting the protest body as a unified whole" and the importance of respecting each individual's right to act according [End Page 874] to their independent judgment (54). Yet while homogenizing any social movement is always problematic, Pang's emphasis on individual judgment may also risk undermining the collective responsibility that actors take on in a movement that ties together their fates. During the Umbrella Movement, as well as the Anti-Extradition Movement of 2019, protesters who decided unilaterally to engage in acts of violence were still supported by others who disagreed with these tactics (hence the famous slogan, "Don't Split"). Yet the dire consequences of escalation fell upon everyone involved. An important question that Pang's argument leaves open, then, is whether protesters have duties to adhere to collective decisions, and whether unilateral action may actually be in tension with democratic values.

A second theme Pang insightfully engages with is identity. Here, Pang compellingly argues that the people of Hong Kong should neither embrace an identity that draws upon glorified memories of the British colonial past, nor erase present diversity in conceptualizing the demos. Amidst despair following the end of the Umbrella Movement, localism has become increasingly popular, and it is no longer uncommon to see slogans and symbols of Hong Kong nationalism in protests today. While localism can contribute to unity in a near...