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Day Two: CHUA Beng Huat

Youth and Occupy Politics






Political occupations of public spaces are not uncommon in East Asia. The most recent are ‘Occupy Hong Kong Central’, which was quickly dubbed the ‘Umbrella Movement’, and the ‘Sunflower Student Movement’ in Taipei, both in 2014.

These occupy movements clearly question the trustworthiness of their respective governments and are interested in the long game of changing fundamental social and political conditions in their respective nations but not necessarily interested in capturing state power for themselves. While each has its own immediate cause, they emerged from similar grievances in the social economic conditions of the current phase of global capitalism: hyperinflation of assets which increases riches of the wealthy, stagnation of middle income and real declines in wages among the working class, all contribute to the intensification of social and economic inequalities; economy entering slow growth, with rising unemployment and underemployment in the face of rising costs of living.

Occupy Central

Although these grievances are experienced across the entire population, except among the rich, they are most intensely felt by youth, whose sense of future is more than just economic and financial uncertainties but also a sense of ‘meaninglessness’, beyond the unavoidable dull compulsion of making a living with meagre wages. This accounts for the highly prominent presence of particularly high-school students among the occupiers in the movements. The participating youth are of the social media generation, adept at instant dissemination of information and images through the different social media platforms.

The constant uploading of images and sounds of unfolding events in situ inducts, extends and expands the ‘participation’ of sympathizers who are not in the occupation sites, turning a local event into city-wide, regional and global media event, drawing sustenance from symbolic and material support from all these levels. The spontaneous pouring of individuals into the occupy areas, turning statistical co-presence into relatively coherent crowd with unstated ‘common’ purposes, without apparent organization and centralized leadership, although there might be self-selected or media-selected ‘spokes’ persons, who are the movements’ public faces. However, in truth, behind the romantic euphoria and celebration of ‘spontaneity’ and ‘absence of structure and authority’, the sustained massive occupation requires a constant mobilization and coordination of both material and immaterial to get it started and keep it going. Finally, a practical difficulty which is politically symbolically highly consequential, is how to wind down the occupation beyond a certain ‘respectable’ duration; i.e. how to declare victory and go home to avoid a violent end.

Texts to read:

CHUA Beng Huat, ‘Return to/of the Political Popular in Asia’ [unpublished paper, 2015]
Chih-ming WANG, ‘“The Future that Belongs to Us:” Affective Politics, Neoliberalism, and the Sunflower Movement’ [unpublished paper, 2015]

CHUA Beng Huat is Provost Chair Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Science and until last June, Research Leader, Cultural Studies in Asia Research Cluster, Asia Research Institute and former Head, the Department of Sociology (2009-2015), National University of Singapore. His most recent book is Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture (2012). He is co-executive editor of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.

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