protesters enveloped in tear gas in Hong Kong. Source: ABC News.


“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

Niels Bohr (among others).



With Trepidation

I would like to outline three quick points about the current situation in Hong Kong, particularly as it relates to (and sometimes sidesteps) the traditional martial arts.  Like many of you, I am following events in the city closely for a variety of professional and personal reasons.  The concluding chapters of my volume (with Jon Nielson) on the development of Wing Chun were in many ways an exploration of the city’s unique identity as it has been expressed through, and by, the Southern Chinese martial arts. I find the current unrest and occasional outbreaks of violence to be both very sad and interesting.  Yet this is not a topic that I have been eager to address here on the blog.

I suppose that like so much else in life, it all comes down to disciplinary differences.  My colleagues in the field of economics love to make predictions, even when they are fully aware of how often these forecasts turn out to be wrong.  Political scientists are more cautious.  If human passions and “animal spirits” occasionally overrun economic markets, they are the base matter of social competition.  While positivists in my field may make large datasets, they are almost always more interesting in finding patterns in the behavior of entire systems rather than forecasting the actions of individual actors.  One only has to look back at the predicted election outcomes for the last few political cycles for a reminder that art still infects that particular “science.”

The protests currently going on in Hong Kong are so important to ongoing debates about the city’s identity and relationship with China that they deserved careful consideration and discussion.  Yet many of my attempts to discuss this with colleagues have quickly departed from detailed investigations of what is actually going on now (which is usually disturbing) to some sort of prediction of what the future will hold. Perhaps it is the very nature of a crisis that we seek for assurances that either everything will go back to normal, or the entire systems will collapse, even when neither outcome is entirely foreseeable.  The human mind simply prefers the assurance of any outcome to the discomfort of living with the unknown.

The following essay will attempt to problematize this tendency by examining issues at three distinct levels of analysis.  First, I want to discuss why predicting the PRC’s actions in Hong Kong may be more difficult than many analysts suggest.  I will do so by introducing a critical concept from game theory.  Second, I will turn my attention to the southern Chinese martial arts and discuss why they have been largely absent from this debate (at least publicly) and what that suggests about the extent of the social dislocation currently being experienced by the city’s residents.  Lastly, I would like to examine one specific case where a group of martial artists did appear to take a stand on these issues.  Yet a deeper examination of this case reveals the all-pervasive fog of war.  Political scientists dislike making predictions because they are aware that without the benefit of historical distance, what might at first appear to be “critical social indicators” may actually be problematic discourses that are driving the conflict.  None of this is meant to argue that the situation in Hong Kong is not important, or that we should not be discussing it (especially as it relates to the martial arts). But I hope that it acts as a reminder not to confuse what we actually see (which is often limited and confusing), for what we think we know.



“China Would Never….”

So many macro-level foreign policy discussion seem to begin with the foregoing formula.  I have lost track of how many experts I have talked with over the last month who argued that while events in Hong Kong were escalating in unpredictable ways, China would neverdo any number of things from attempting to suppress the foreign press in Hong Kong to sending paramilitary or PLA forces across the border. Generally speaking, these sorts of predictions are based on some sort of unspoken or subconscious model of state behavior.

One of the most common of these has to do with the power of the international press to affect a country’s reputation.  Reputation is a critical resource in international politics as no state has enough power or money to fight every potential battle with enemies and allies alike.  States seek to build and maintain good will with their partners as it lowers the cost of doing business.  And states seek to build a reputation for being strong, skilled opponents with their enemies so that they can deter non-essential conflicts.

History is full of examples of states who paid the price for ignoring the importance of reputation costs.  The Japanese, emboldened by the success of their invasion of Manchuria, an isolated area of the world where they could shape the emerging media narrative, made the mistake of thinking that a move against Shanghai would be equally costless. However, a large percentage of the global press corps was stationed in Shanghai in the early 1930s and Japan was forced to spend the next few years undoing the very real economic and diplomatic damage that it caused itself.  It would be easy to liken the current crisis in Hong Kong to a situation like that.  The PLA would never move across the border as the global press is watching.

Still, reputation is a complex topic.  What is lost in one sphere may appear as a gain in another.  The Communist Party has thrived by offering its people economic growth and social stability.  China’s economy currently faces strong headwinds in the form of a potentially damaging trade war with the US and a general global slowdown (seen especially in recent weakness in the European economies, and the potential of a hard Brexit on the horizon). As economic growth in China waivers, the promise of social stability becomes all the more critical.  From this perspective the chaotic scenes emerging from Hong Kong (including the recent closure of the city’s airport) are provocations that the Chinese government cannot allow to stand.

To understand why it helps to know something about “audience costs,” a concept popularized in the game-theoretic work of James Fearon in the 1994 and now a mainstay of political theorizing.  Within the international relations literature, an audience cost is the penalty that a government would incur if it were to escalate an international crisis and then capitulate to forces opposed to the nation or the state.  Fearon (and others) theorized that democracies generally have lower audience costs thresholds (meaning they incur the penalty more easily) than autocracies as their leaders must stand for re-election. Hence potential audience costs must be paid every few years.  This has a notable effect on the strategies adopted by states, and it is one of the main reasons why democracies often behave and bargain differently (if not always better) than autocracies.

Yet this should not be taken as meaning that authoritarian governments can never incur audience costs, or that there are no penalties for defaulting on entrenched foreign policy positions within non-democratic regimes.  When a government incurs an audience cost, it losses legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens.  It may also alienate other elite factions which the government depends on for support in either society or the state apparatus. That may not lead to a lost election in an autocratic state, but it often makes the state more costly to administer.  This may lead to leadership changes within the ruling clique, or in some cases regime change (though I hasten to add that this does not seem likely in China’s case). While democracies may be more sensitive to audience costs, no state can ignore them indefinitely.

China’s domestic political discourse has privileged stability above all else. At some point a fair percentage of the nation’s population will demand to see the government make good on that promise.  Likewise, in the international realm China is going to feel defensive pressure to maintain its reputation for both technocratic prowess and absolute control of its borders.  In that sense the current case is very different from something like the Japanese invasion of Shanghai.  China might feel forced to act in Hong Kong precisely because the world is watching.


Men in white T-shirts with poles are seen in Yuen Long after attacked anti-extradition bill demonstrators at a train station, in Hong Kong, China July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu


Hong Kong’s Missing Martial Artists

This brings us to our second point.  We might have expected Hong Kong’s many famous martial arts communities to play some sort of role in the current crises.  Such groups have been very active in a number of other periods of unrest. They sprang to life in the wake of the 1911 revolution, and many mobilized in the face of the 1925 Hong Kong Strike, as well as the early stages of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War.  The wave of refugees following the 1949 closure of the border fed the city’s quickly growing martial arts schools. So did the riots of the 1960s.

Even when martial arts organizations did not take a stand on pressing social issues, generations of myth making and Kung Fu films have effectively written them back into every aspect of the city’s identity.  This is one of the ways that styles like Wing Chun and Hung Gar have become so closely linked with Southern China’s unique, and often independent, identity.  One might suppose that these bastions of identity politics would thus have a voice in the current debates.  Yet most schools have remained silent, at least publicly.  Why is this?

The answer to that question is overdetermined.  While the martial arts have come to be reimagined as critical to the city’s social landscape, in truth they have always been somewhat marginal (though at times quite popular) institutions.  Some of Hong Kong’s martial arts organizations have sought to improve their fortunes by investing heavily in growth in Mainland China, thus creating relationships with groups and officials that they may be loath to damage. Also, the declining popularity of these groups within Hong Kong itself means that the average age of their practitioners is rapidly increasing.  In Hong Kong the martial arts skew old.  In contrast, pro-democracy demonstrators are overwhelming young individuals, many of whom are still students.

This generational divide is important.  Older residents of Hong Kong have often benefited from the city’s past economic growth and spiking property values.  At the risk of generalizing, such individuals will often value stability. Younger workers and students, however, are faced with declining wages, fewer professional jobs, skyrocketing rent and housing prices, and an ever more crowded city.  They feel left behind and ignored.  Such individuals will be less interested in preserving the status quo and in favor of greater representation.

Again, it is important to avoid totalizing generalizations.  One can certainly find martial arts masters who were vehemently anti-Maoist in their youth, or who are soundly pro-Beijing today.  But one way or another, most of these individuals are now of an age where they are less likely to be climbing over barriers.  The real question is why do they have so few students in the teens or early 20s?

This age-based erosion of so many martial arts organizations speaks to the decline in traditional types of social organizations across Hong Kong.  Again, the reasons for this are many.  One of the most obvious is rising rents.  It is now basically impossible to run the sort of “roof top school” that the city was once famous for.  Instructors who can still afford to teach are now more likely to rent space in a city community center a few hours a week.

As Daniel Amos argued in his paper for the recent Martial Arts Studies meetings, this new mode of overlapping geographic organization effectively cuts the once vital ties between a martial arts school and a specific block or neighborhood. Their students no longer circulate through the streets with their Lion Dance teams, and the neighborhood loses an important marker of identity.  As this erodes there is even less reason for overworked, underpaid, alienated Hong Kong residents to take up martial arts practice.  While these practices may be an important marker of regional identity in film and the media, they are no longer something that is organically part of their community or life.  While Bruce Lee’s image and “Be like water” philosophy inspires many of the protesters, there doesn’t seem to be much of an indication that it is leading to an actual boom in Jeet Kune Do or Wing Chun instruction.  As such, Hong Kong’s schools can no longer play their traditional role in unifying neighborhoods or ensuring the social order within them.



The Fog of War

All of this leads us to the final point of consideration.  In the last few weeks there have been substantial rumors of both organized groups (in some cases they are called Triads) being brought in from the Mainland to attack the protesters, while at the same time there is footage emerging on social media of military vehicles being positioned along the border.  Who are these individuals, and what role will the martial arts play in suppressing or fomenting social violence?

I was somewhat surprised to wake up yesterday and find images circulating on social media which purported to show a group of Jow Ga students (each holding a long pole and wearing a red t-shirt) who had been bused into Hong Kong from Fujian Province with the intention of fighting the city’s young, mostly Cantonese speaking, protesters.  Images were shown of the group both training by the waterfront (where I counted 27-28 members) and later attending a banquet at a restaurant in North Point.

North Point is a working-class neighborhood that is home of many individuals who emigrated to the city from Fujian between the 1960s and 1980s, often working in construction or light manufacturing.  A recent report in NPR noted that this is one of the more conservative, pro-Beijing, neighborhoods in the city and it has recently become the site of violent contestation. On Monday, August 5th, a group of about a dozen local men carrying wooden poles cross a set of barricades to attack a column of black clade pro-democracy demonstrators.  The demonstrators charged them back, and then chased the men down a side street.  After a number of them fled into something called the “Hong Kong First Youth Association,” the demonstrators broke multiple windows before dispersing.  Meanwhile, it was reported that one of the escaped attackers taunted the demonstrators with a knife from behind the shattered glass.

Violent clashes in North Point on the night of August 5th, 2019. Source: SCMP.

The violence in North Point received much local press coverage, some of which seems to have accepted that this clash was structured in terms of pro-Beijing Fujianese residents versus pro-democracy Cantonese demonstrators.  It was reported that calls had gone out on social media asking for “reinforcements” to be sent from towns and cities in Fujian who had close links with the Hong Kong Fujianese Community. These were taken seriously enough that the Hong Kong Police (who had previously been accused of ignoring violence against the demonstrators) became quite active in terms of issuing warnings, reaching out to members of the local community, and even raiding the HKFYA, apparently confiscating a number of poles and other items.  It was rumored that there would be another large march in the neighborhood on Saturday the 10th.  Luckily that did not materialize.

It is within this context that photographs of a group of martial artists, supposedly from Fujian, training with poles in North Point was circulated on social media. At any other time, such an image may have seemed encouraging.  I am generally happy any time I see a group of people practicing one of the southern Arts in public.  But within this context the image struck many people as threatening.  Specifically, were these the promised pro-government reinforcements from Fujian?

I suppose that is possible.  But, after spending the better part of an afternoon talking with friends and thinking about the various photos that had been made public, what was going on in these images became less and less clear.  Questions began to emerge.  When were these images actually taken?  And why was it assumed that everyone in them was from Fujian, as opposed to simply being Fujianese residents of Hong Kong, or Cantonese speaking locals, or anything else? We were left with the assertions of the social media sites that promoted that narrative, but nothing else.

It was pointed out to me that perhaps people assumed that the martial artists were from Fujian because they posted photos of themselves attending a banquet commemorating the founder of their art (Jow Ga) in North Point, a Fujianese neighborhood.  Yet Jow Ga was founded by a Cantonese master, and its generally considered a Cantonese art. It may simply be a coincidence, or matter of local expedience, that this organization’s banquet was held in that particular neighborhood.  Indeed, some quick searches on Facebook revealed that it has been held there for at least three years in a row (always in the month of August), and it has attracted schools from all over Southern China, South East Asia and even the United States. Maybe the martial artists practicing by the river really were pro-government thugs.  Maybe they were just a local club looking for a good photo-op before their annual event.  Maybe their demonstration was an attempt to publicly claim control over the neighborhood on the eve of an expected demonstration.  Or maybe these were totally unrelated events.  Correlation, after all, is not causation.  The actual evidence derivable from the photos and YouTube videos didn’t seem to be enough to validate or disprove any theory. So much seemed to rely on assumptions and arguments from silence.

Perhaps it was this sense of mystery that made the sudden appearance of a few dozen armed men in an empty North Point park seem more ominous than it might otherwise have been.  Yet upon further reflection it seemed to me that the theories that were being put forward to explain the photos relied on expectations and discourses.  They expected that martial arts groups (which had so far been notable mainly by their absence) should be central to fights over identity and governmental legitimacy.  Within the popular imagination the unorganized mobs that can actually be seen in news reports were only the stand-ins for better organized martial arts groups and triads acting as paramilitary forces. Further, there are social discourses at play pitting the supposedly restive Cantonese majority against a dangerous “foreign” minority which might appeal to “the outside” for help.

Certainly, everyone in this neighborhood has had a very bad week, tempers are frayed, and press reports have noted that ethnic terms of abuse have been tossed back and forth.  Yet Stanford Chiou points out that by turning this into a Cantonese vs. Fujianese issue, we risk ignoring the much more important fault lines within Hong Kong society on this issue such as age, education and income level.  Indeed, reporting on NPR suggests that at least some young Fujianese residents from North Point actually joined the pro-democracy demonstrators. Nor would it be all that difficult to find Cantonese speaking parents or grandparents of demonstrators who are pro-government in their politics and appalled by the actions of their children.

In conclusion, I suspect that the situation in Hong Kong is more tenuous than many Western observers suspect.  The presence of the global press does not provide any guarantees against an escalation in violence between the two sides.  The unrest may have been sparked by a single extradition law, but it is now being fueled by an erosion of Hong Kong’s social and economic potential. This strikes its youngest residents the hardest, yet it also accounts for many of the same factors that are weakening the city’s once famous martial arts communities.  As these once stabilizing forces within civil society disappear, important institutions that could push for social order (or at least defend their neighborhoods against the intrusion of small groups of poorly organized Triad thugs) are lost.  The decline of the region’s traditional martial arts communities and the rise of the current unrest are not unrelated issues.  They are two sides of the same coin.

Finally, as the events in North Point suggest, we must be wary of the fog of war.  It gathers when we attempt to read discourses and patterns that we expect to find onto the limited number of facts that are presented to us.  If this was really possible, forecasting the future would be easy. Yet as Niels Bohr reminds us, prediction never is.  Sometimes we must be content with studying what an unfolding situation means, rather than guessing how it will end.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Costly Signals, Credible Threats and the Problem of Reality in the Chinese Martial Arts