Occupy Central

Occupy Central is really a battle over the idea of the city

Adam Bobbette says in its opposition to the political reform framework, Occupy Central is in fact arguing for a more humane value system to replace our bankrupt capitalist model

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 September, 2014, 5:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 September, 2014, 5:33am

Architects, planners and professions with a stake in Hong Kong's urban future have been generally quiet throughout the debates on political reform. I'd like to rectify this by pitching in a few arguments from the perspective of someone who studies cities and cares about the future of Hong Kong.

In my view, Occupy Central is a battle over the idea of the city. It is necessary at this moment in Hong Kong's history: we need new, dissenting and divergent ideas about the collective future of the city. A confrontation of values is the essence of politics.

The capitalist principles that have shaped Hong Kong and mainland cities have resulted in urban failures. They fail socially, as evidenced by people's precarious livelihoods (economic migrants, for example), destitution, and our embrace of the existentially meaningless values of personal gain. Let's not forget, also, that capitalism produces economic uncertainty. And, finally, these cities fail architecturally: buildings become profit engines, and only the privileged few have access to the nicest ones.

The problem is that the cities we inhabit shape how we think and value the world. The reverse is also true; our values shape our cities. When a city becomes primarily an engine of profit and accumulation, it creates people who see the world that way. The result is that it becomes ever more difficult to imagine the world differently.

This is the current sad reality of Hong Kong: its impoverished imagination. It is also why Occupy Central and Scholarism are necessary, to break this impasse.

The prevailing attitude among those in power is that nothing can change. The future is written. "Just use common sense and follow the law," they say. They must have swallowed some amnesia pill from Mannings.

People whose power is being questioned always appeal to the law and some mythical common sense (which is just their ideas projected onto everyone else) to protect their position of power. Let us be reminded, however, that, firstly, the central government was born of a revolution that transgressed a whole lot of laws - not to mention murderous bloodletting. Contemporary Chinese law is founded upon revolutionary violence.

Secondly, Hong Kong was stolen by the British. This city was born by breaking the law. Now we are asked to respect the law while the law is founded upon its transgression? If we want to get out of this paradox, some serious creativity is going to be required. The solution is certainly not capitulation to an imperialist, oligarchic central government that makes and breaks laws according to its own vicissitudes.

There are some lessons that both the central government and pro-Beijing camps need to learn about cities. That they are machines for investment and profit is a relatively recent thing. They have been otherwise in the past and can therefore be otherwise in the future. Capital could be put towards the betterment of human beings and the enrichment of their communities.

Cities are by nature places of mixing, hybridity and confrontation. They intensify the diversification of human cultures. This means they will always be sites of conflict. The key is how to work with this reality, not annihilate it or enslave it.

Economic disruption is necessary. Strikes are necessary. An economic downturn in Hong Kong is necessary. That might just send finance capitalists running from the city - then they would be out of the way and we could finally get down to the serious work of building the future.

We need to understand that the mania for growth is sick. It destroys the psychological life of humans by measuring life and value by what one can buy, and it destroys their surroundings by turning nature into a gas station.

When vast personal accumulation begets the respect of others, you can be certain society has become dominated by crooks and vandals.

The false land scarcity of Hong Kong needs to be abolished. Land should not be the primary source of government revenue. This transforms housing into a commodity when it is actually one of the most intimate and complex forms of human inhabitation.

The meaning of infrastructure needs to be rethought. It is not only about using technology for increased speed and efficiency. Everyone suffers because of this view, but mostly it is the workers who operate the infrastructure and who are increasingly obstacles to its speed.

Infrastructure, instead, needs to be understood as what connects people to their environments. How can it cultivate deeper and more meaningful connections? Rich folks who love their weekend junk parties almost understand the meaning of this, that's what they are already doing: connecting to each other, technology and nature. Urban governance needs to better distribute, in more and different ways, these forms of communal meaning and enjoyment.

People who want to maintain their position of power like to pretend that nothing can be changed, that the conditions we have today have always been this way. They selectively forget that the city is a result of human efforts. If it was made by us, it can be remade.

Adam Bobbette is an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong