Academic journal article Social Justice

Deploying Weapons of the Weak in Civil Society: Political Culture in Hong Kong and Taiwan

Academic journal article Social Justice

Deploying Weapons of the Weak in Civil Society: Political Culture in Hong Kong and Taiwan

Article excerpt


AT THE CLOSE OF THE 20TH CENTURY, HONG KONG AND TAIWAN HELD THE FIRST national democratic elections in their history. In both settings, a long and complicated set of global maneuvers by more powerful states kept democracy from emerging and threatened to delegitimate local identities. The reality of this past colonization and current, informal imperialism has until very recently discouraged, or even censored, political discourses informed by robust civic engagement. The slow, limited, but often successful efforts at institutionalizing democracy in these contexts are thus remarkable; neither the current situation nor the legacy of political disempowerment has proved strong enough to dissuade civic engagement. Our article, however, focuses not on the history of how such institutions were built, but on cultural legacies. How do histories of colonialism and resistance, if at all, shape the political-cultural repertoire of a society after institutional markers of democracy are more or less in place? Our article takes up this question as a point of entree into exploring how civil-political discourse is manifested in places deeply divided by historical and present power differentials.

We begin with a review of the literature on civil society, explaining why the question posed above is crucial and how it has been inadequately addressed. We suggest that to develop a richer understanding of the historical continuity and cultural creativity of the groups that have only recently been included in civil society, it is important to examine how their cultural legacy, developed under conditions of oppression, is transformed in the civic moment and informs their new civil speech. To develop theoretical tools for such inquiries, we take up W.E.B. DuBois' ideas about double consciousness and veils, as well as James Scott's description of "weapons of the weak," and elaborate on their relevance in the context of civil society. Because of the nature of our inquiry, we use as our data rich, multivalent expressions in the form of political cartoons.

By exploring public political engagement in Hong Kong and Taiwan during their first democratic elections, we broaden our understanding of how civil society, at least that sector engaged with the state, develops despite these legacies. Yet to explain what we wish to accomplish requires us to attempt to bring a coherent understanding to the notion of civil society. We describe civil society as: (1) a network of autonomous associations in the space outside the state and the family, and (2) a culture of civility that informs individuals' participation in these associations (Hall, 1995; Bryant, 1995; Giner, 1995). In addition to a set of institutional arrangements that guarantee the freedom and autonomy of the associational sphere, civil society must include a culture replete with a means of expression that makes activities in the associational sphere "civil."

Civility informs associational activities across sectors of civil society, but different sectors can develop drastically different political orientations and potential. Some sectors, such as social movements and political campaigns, are explicitly politicized; others may accommodate an apolitical or reactionary associational life. Thus, civil society should be conceptualized as "something more complex than Putnam's social capital, Tocqueville's voluntary associations, or Habermas' public sphere" (Ryan, 2001: 242). Political discussion among civic groups about public interests or state actions--something we could broadly describe as "political engagement"--constitutes the small segment of the civil realm in which our interests lie.

We must keep in mind that this complexity of civil society manifests in its cultural richness as well as its diversity. Civility is not only a cultural condition enabling contractual behavior, but also deep cultural play bridging considerable social barriers (Lichterman, 2005). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.