If you look at a map, Hong Kong is actually pretty distant from Catalonia. Both territories have a similar number of inhabitants but, in fact, are extremely different in history, climate and almost every other characteristic you can think of. And yet, recent riots and protests in both places seek the very same thing.
This may appear strange, but it’s not really. As a Spanish citizen who grew up in Barcelona, the son of a local, and lived in Asia for eight years, including three in China, I’m in position to explain, so you’re in luck.
The thing a lot of Hong Kong and Catalan people want is separation. They want to secede from their current states. That is very clear and very obvious: it’s what they proclaim!
It’s true that Catalans are more explicit, because Spain is a democratic country where you can openly defend secession and still run for election, and win elections: Catalan separatists have controlled the Catalan regional government, with huge devolved powers that any American state would envy, for most of the last 40 years; and they also sit, for some reason, in Spain’s parliament, where they mostly play spoiler, hoping that the state they hate and despise will be destroyed through their efforts. However, the fact that separatism from China is the ultimate agenda of the Hong Kong protests is not a very well-hidden secret either: they burn Chinese flags and attack Chinese-owned stores. They scream at cameras, in English: “We’re not Chinese!”
Get the point. Hong Kong protesters first rallied to ask for one specific thing (the removal of an extradition bill) and, once they secured their goal, they doubled down and asked for more. They now have five demands. Of course, if the government caves, they will ask for more, until all there is left to ask is their ultimate aim: separation. This is how these things are done, all over the place: this is how things have always worked.
I was in the Basque Country, another restive Spanish region, five years ago, reporting on this story for the Wall Street Journal, when I met the then-leader of the far-left separatist bloc Bildu, ahead of a regional election there. I asked her, in all honesty: Spain has devolved more powers to regions than any other country in the world, over the last 30 years; so what’s left for you to ask from the central government?
“Nothing,” she simply said. “They already gave us everything we asked for, there’s nothing left for us to request, except the one thing that is our ultimate goal: independence.”
This is, by the way, why those foreign ignorants who fly in to Spain every time there’s some sort of regional crisis, and chant that there must be some way to sit down and discuss things to address the regions’ concerns, are always wrong: no, fundamentally, there’s nothing left to concede, other than separation.
So, back to Catalonia and Hong Kong. What they want is separation. But, and this is a very important point, they don’t really want independence.
This is not a contradiction. Look at the similarities between the two: they’re both prosperous, export-oriented regions in somewhat wealthy countries. Local elites want more power, true; in fact, they want all the power. But they don’t want it to build up huge walls and become the next hermit kingdom: they want to cut ties with their previous master, and find a new master.
The search for a new master is an underlining thread in small, long-shot political movements, for obvious reasons. Take a movement pitted against something huge, massive and apparently impossible to defeat, like capitalism. Slavoj Zizek, writing in the London Review of Books in 2011, noted that the contradictions, and apparent aimlessness, at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement were of no consequence:
“In psychoanalytic terms, the protests are a hysterical outburst that provokes the master, undermining his authority, and the master’s question – ‘But what do you want?’ – disguises its subtext: ‘Answer me in my own terms or shut up!’ So far, the protesters have done well to avoid exposing themselves to the criticism that Lacan levelled at the students of 1968: ‘As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one.’”
Many small countries in Europe first became independent only on the condition that they would become a protectorate of a different power, a new master: thus, the Baltic States and Ukraine under the German Empire; Slovakia under the Nazis in 1938; Austria, Hungary and others under British and French protection after 1918; one could easily argue that the list should include the former Yugoslav republics, all of which have been forced to look for sugar daddies now that they’re tiny dots in the global map.
The same goes for Catalonia and Hong Kong, neither of which has ever been a state; it’s more than a psychological reflex, it’s also a practical matter because, as export-dependent economies, they require outside customers who will buy their products and services.
The fundamental thing about both regions is that they’re more closely weaved within the globalized economy than the rest of their countries: Hong Kong is a financial center for all of Asia, with exports tripling their entire GDP; Catalonia is a high-tech and conference center for all of Southern Europe, as well as Spain’s largest manufacturing base.
At the same time, both are part of some of most ancient countries in the world, with Spanish and Chinese nationalism harking back to really ancient times: China has been a recognized, somewhat continued state since at least the 3rd century BC, and Spain (with a long medieval hiatus during which there was no central power) since the 5th century AD. In a world where the true divide is between nationalists/populists and globalists, Catalonia and Hong Kong stick out like sore thumbs, from their elites’ point of view: highly globalized, inter-connected regions attached to countries where motherland and flag are still a significant draw, rather than an old joke nobody cares about.
Elites in Hong Kong and Catalonia don’t want a Brexit. They don’t want new barriers, they don’t care much about immigration (actually, they actively court immigrants so they will join their cause). THEY DON’T WANT INDEPENDENCE: THEY WANT TO DEPEND FROM SOMEBODY ELSE. They want to cut out the middleman (Madrid and Beijing) and be even more closely connected with the global economy, via Brussels and New York or straight through Davos if they could.
One can argue: but the protesters in Catalonia, and their oppponents, say they are Catalan nationalists. And you’ll be right. That’s what they claim, but this is a misleading claim: if you ask them, there is no nationalism. There is no real attachment to land and tradition and people when, as it’s openly the case with all Catalan separatist parties, the intent is to stay within the European Union if and when they leave Spain. In fact, all of these parties claim that they are more EU-friendly than Madrid itself (which is almost impossible) and they are, again, right.
This not to say that true, real Catalan nationalists do not exist. They do exist, even if they’re a minority within the movement, and one that is shamelessly manipulated: because the Catalan nation is meant to be a fake from the beginning. (*)
What the elites in Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia, those in control of the movement, want is the sweet, sweet deal that dudes in Slovenia, Malta and Lithuania have: a small country they can easily control almost by birthright, where they are absolute top dog, sheltered within a globalized influential institution (the EU) where they can have glittering careers that make them bosses of hundreds of million of people, like Luxembourg’s Jean Claude Juncker, departing President of the EU, or his predecessor Herman Van Rompuy from Belgium; or any of the happy citizens from irrelevant countries in this list of EU commissioners who wield immensely more power that you could dream of. They want to be UN secretary general like the South Korean citizen who now occupies the post. You don’t need Madrid or Beijing for that anymore.
You do need to be friendly with the Americans, the sole super-power, and with other globalized centers of power. And that’s why people in Hong Kong wave American flags like crazy. And why Catalonia’s government has spent huge amounts of money and effort to lobby the U.S. government, so far with little to no success; that’s why they rarely forget to add banners with English-language slogans to their protests.
* This is not to say that Catalan separatism shouldn’t be taken seriously. Because of the nature of the Spanish state, and the expansionist nature of Catalan separatism, is an extremely serious threat to peace and stability in the Iberian peninsula.