Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Remembering Historian Arif Dirlik

In "Raise the Umbrellas", Arif Dirlik compares Tiananmen protests  
in 1989 to Hong Kong 2014: "Didn't they occupy Tiananmen Square"?
Screenshot from the documentary'
My memories of Arif Dirlik, the eminent historian of Marxism and anarchism in China, will seem more personal, and rooted in Hong Kong, where I am currently based.  This distinguished scholar, whom I'll refer to by his first name, was a not infrequent visitor and resident, although based at Duke University in Chapel Hill, NC, and later at the University of Oregon, Eugene.
Only recently, just prior to a 13 November 25 2017 Chinese University of Hong Kong screening of Evans Chan's "Raise the Umbrellas", an insightful, lengthy documentary on the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, in which Arif Dirlik appears, its director announced to a stunned audience that he was saddened if honored to have received what he believed to be Arif's final email, and that Arif "was dying".  Arif indeed passed away 18 days later, on 1 December, 2017, in Eugene, Oregon.  Evans Chan dedicated that CUHK screening to Arif, and says he plans to also dedicate future screenings to Arif.

In around 2004, when he was teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I was visiting Hong Kong and we met over lunch at the massive New Town Plaza in Shatin, two train stops away from his campus.  I recall accompanying him as he loaded up a shopping cart at the City'super supermarket on a higher level of the shopping center, where he politely asked the sales clerks to carve meats and cheeses.  As we reached the cashier he suddenly became frustrated and angry, at having to pay the 50-cent (Hong Kong currency, or 8 cents in US) charge for each plastic bag.   Arguing he had not be forewarned, he dumped his shopping load on to the counter and stormed away.

Here was my only public experience with his temper, usually  aimed at other academics privately but not, I would have thought, at members of the working class, especially on an environmental issue for which he is generally supportive.  As I related that incident to friends later, I realized that was part and parcel of what made Arif special, if not adorable, i.e., his stubborn unwillingness to compromise, but to stick to his principles, however misguided as in this instance.

An October 2004 interview with Arif at CUHK appears (in English) in indie musician and radical Lenny Kwok's bilingual (Chinese and English) retrospective compilation that came out in 2007, Body of Work, 1984-2004 (see cover image below), by Blackbird (i.e., Lenny Kwok).

In that 2004 interview ("WTO Protests, Place-based Democracy, Tiananmen & 7-Chinas: The Arif Dirlik Interview", see image below) Arif is amazingly prescient about Hong Kong, saying that democracy has to be grassroots-based.  Referring to the then-forthcoming WTO protests in Hong Kong, Arif said:

"In the case of Hong Kong, I think it is really important to keep in mind the community bases...The local community bases.  And the linkages between the local bases of the other bases...".  He expected China to crack down on protesters, given the Chinese government "made such a big effort to get into WTO... they are not going to like anti-WTO protests in Hong Kong.... They'll certainly pressure the SAR government to suppress the movement", athough he did not think they would use the army (PLA).

Arif continued:  "Hong Kong is really interesting because Hong Kong was a global city before globalization! It has economically been tied in so many ways with the world and that you have the local elites.

And they're not gonna like this.  The PRC government is going to get together with them to suppress the actions."

He suggested instead of activists focusing exclusively on protests, they convene a "counter meeting. In other words, do a Counter-WTO, rather than an Anti-WTO. The alternative of what's happening.  Contribute to the education of the people.  You might be able to include people from the PRC under those circumstances, because there are people willing to talk about the enormous waste involved in the so called globalization craze - the waste of money building the Olympic Centre in China, so that it could represent itself as a global power.  The problems of ecology, the problems of social inequality etc.  This might be the time to bring people together to talk about these things."

On the 7-Chinas, including Hong Kong, Arif told Lenny:  "To me it is really important these various Chinese societies achieve some kind of democracy.  And I don't see how you can achieve a democracy in a country of this size ruled from Beijing, according to habits which are very dictatorial.  I try to conceive of it in reverse, that the government in Beijing, instead of fearing that if Taiwan separates out, then maybe Tibet would follow, and then Xin Jiang too.  I think that's what they are afraid of.  But they also could use Taiwan, or Hong Kong, as an example of creating democracy slowly from the bottom up rather than controlleń•d from the centre.  That could happen.  Why not?"

He warned against the rise of "Chinese chauvinism" as China asserts a more "racialized nationalism". In contrast what he is suggesting is "this other thing", that "democracy must be based on differences, not homogenate."  And he explained that is why he is "all for what's going on in Taiwan... democracy from the bottom up."

I suspect while Arif, an avowed radical, would have been critical of some of the pan-democrats and localists in Hong Kong, he would totally embrace their assertion of democracy from the bottom up.

Indeed in one of his last pieces written for publication, he endorsed the activists in Hong Kong who were in the streets fighting against an authoritarian Chinese government across the border.  In "The Mouse that roared: The Democratic Movement in Hong Kong," Arif called "one country, two systems" an "unstable arrangement "openly favoring the corporate and financial ruling class in Hong Kong which is in turn prepared to align its interests with those of the Communist regime in a mutually beneficial relationship."

Originally published in Turkish and English in the newspaper Agos, near the end of the Umbrella Movement on 6 October 2014 and in boundary 2(29 October 2014), an updated version appeared in 2016 in on-line public access journal, Contemporary Chinese Political Economy and Strategic Relations: An International Journal.

Arif then ties the Umbrella Movement to "the latest chapter in a narrative that goes back to the 1980s, the emergence of a neoliberal global capitalism of which the PRC has been an integral component, and the Tienanmen movement which was one of the earliest expressions of the social and political strains created by shifts in the global economy."

In the article, Arif writes that [s]truggles for autonomy in Hong Kong raise significant theoretical and political questions about issues of "Chineseness" as well as the relationship between colonialism and historical identity-formation."  Both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, Arif argued that "there are different ways to be Chinese."  He adds:  "Declarations that 'we are not Chinese, we are Hong Kongers' or 'we are not Chinese, we are Taiwanese' are at one level protests against political homogenization that presupposes a homogeneous political identity centered in Beijing.  In a deeper sense, they raise questions about a racialized ethnic and national identity in the name of local identities that nourish off the experience of diverse historical identities that challenge de-historicized and de-socialized notions of "Chineseness.' "

For Hong Kong, the "colonial legacy has proven to be more deep-seated than the regime had wished.  It would be simplistic to attribute Hong Kong demands for democracy and independence to lingering nostalgia for colonial rule, or even the political and legal norm established under it."

He continues, "What is equally significant is that the colonial pasts offer alternative historical narratives that are invoked against the nationalist narrative of a single history based on common ethnicity and imagined homogeneity that justifies Beijing's claims".   Indeed, "from the perspective of these alternative narratives... unification with the Mainland adds up to little more than a new round of colonialism."

He also spoke at the local cultural studies bookstore, Hong Kong Reader, in March 2008.

I also visited with him earlier when he taught once at the Hong Kong University of Science and

Source: ICAS 8 Day 2 Newsletter
Technology. I tagged along with Chinese American poet and editor Russell Leong, who had been invited to Arif's class to guest lecture there, on that beautiful, then-new campus.  Arif was generous enough to let me talk to the students about my mother, who was a U.S. born woman of Chinese ethnicity. More recently, he gave a lecture at ICAS 8, meeting in 2013 in Macau.  Just past the casino tables he gave a keynote speech on the rise of Asia, warning not to be deceived by the rhetoric.

I will miss his pugnaciousness, generosity of spirit, and willingness to mentor emerging scholars.  I regret never having interviewed him for my show, and especially these last months, not making the trip up to Eugene from southern California to meet up with him, although we kept in email communication and on Messenger until he fell ill.  His final email (August 24, 2017) to me was uncharacteristically succinct:  "Neat" in response to my email about finding some historical material of interest from my own archive before heading to Hong Kong for an extended research stay at CUHK.  I did not learn till writing this blog entry that he also was once a Fulbrighter.  -  Daniel C. Tsang.

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