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Quartz Obsession — Laam caau — Card 1
Laam caau (pronounced “lahm tsow,” with the “ow” sounding like “how”) is a strategy that a sizable fraction of Hong Kong protesters believe is the only method that gives them a fighting chance against their formidable authoritarian foe, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Think of the classic David versus Goliath narrative flipped on its head: instead of the underdog—in this case Hong Kong—defeating the giant with an unconventional strategy, laam caau envisions the little guy gripping on to the fearsome opponent as they wrestle to the death, with the two of them eventually tumbling off a cliff and crashing down in mutual destruction. One might describe it as an “if we burn, you burn with us” philosophy.
As Hong Kong fights back against China’s crackdown and systematic destruction of its freedoms, protesters are grappling with what they see as the harsh reality: The existing political framework is so rigged that operating under the current rules of engagement, as dictated by China, will only lead to defeat. What’s needed, laam caau adherents say, is a different approach: leverage Hong Kong’s position as a global financial hub to make Beijing pay maximally for its actions. It’s a risky approach and may well backfire, but protesters feel they have no choice.
Let’s make a wager.
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Quartz Obsession — Laam caau — Card 2
11: Number of Hong Kong and Chinese officials hit with US sanctions this month for their roles in undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms
54%: Percentage of China’s total foreign direct investment that is channeled through Hong Kong, according to the Hong Kong government’s statistics
21: (link in Chinese) Number of people who have been arrested to date under Hong Kong’s national security law since it took effect on June 30, 2020
16: Age of the youngest person so far to have been arrested under the security law
97.5%: Percentage of poll respondents last December who agreed with the use of more radical tactics by Hong Kong protesters
3 million: Number of Hong Kongers to whom the UK has offered a path to citizenship
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Quartz Obsession — Laam caau — Card 3
China has been dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms at warp speed over a few short months. Using the pandemic as a cover, authorities arrested more than a dozen prominent opposition figures in April, but they were just warming up. In May, Beijing announced it would unilaterally enact a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong by fiat, effectively taking full control of the city. Since the law took effect on June 30, plunging Hong Kong into the depths of authoritarianism overnight, China’s crackdown on the city’s civil society has only intensified.
While distressing and frightening, some protesters are betting that Beijing’s heavy-handed dissent-crushing will backfire spectacularly. Supporters of laam caau say protesters should continue to provoke and antagonize the CCP, baiting Beijing to take ever more aggressive action. This will draw international condemnation, the thinking goes, pushing countries like the US and UK to take actions like imposing sanctions on Chinese officials and banks.
Some of that has already come to pass. Last month, the US revoked Hong Kong’s special status—which previously gave the city preferential treatment on issues like trade, taxes, and customs controls—in a move that will have unpredictable, but certainly painful, consequences for Hong Kong and China. Washington has also imposed sanctions on 11 Hong Kong and Chinese officials, possibly leading to serious complications for both foreign and Chinese state-owned banks. Meanwhile, numerous countries have halted sensitive exports to the city and suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong.
For the laam caau camp, this upheaval in Hong Kong’s global position, despite its cost, is worth a gamble. Protesters argue they have little left to lose, and if Beijing is going to crush their freedoms, they might as well put up a fight. Opponents, however, say laam caau is recklessly naive and futile, and urge Hong Kongers to try and preserve the few freedoms they have left.
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Quartz Obsession — Laam caau — Card 4
“The choice is between dying quietly without the world noticing, or dying with dignity with the world noticing, and at the same time creating the chance of causing some damage to the people who kill Hong Kong.”
— Ho-fung Hung, professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University
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Quartz Obsession — Laam caau — Card 6
2019: Months of protests against China’s encroaching influence engulf Hong Kong. An anonymous account begins to post under the moniker “I want to laam caau” on the popular online protester forum, LIHKG.
Sept. 2019: (link in Chinese) A widely circulated essay published under the account “I want to laam caau” gives the first detailed exposition on the laam caau philosophy, offering an apocalyptic yet hopeful vision for the resistance movement.
Nov. 2019: US president Donald Trump signs the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law, which pledges support for Hong Kong’s freedoms and threatens China with sanctions on human rights. It’s the first major move by a foreign government.
June 2020: China’s sweeping national security law for Hong Kong is signed into force.
July 1, 2020: The UK offers a path to citizenship to 3 million Hong Kongers.
July 15, 2020: The US revokes Hong Kong’s special status.
Aug. 7, 2020: The US sanctions 11 Hong Kong and Chinese officials.
Aug. 19, 2020: The US suspends its extradition treaty with Hong Kong.
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Quartz Obsession — Laam caau — Card 7
Laam caau translates literally to “embrace and fry,” and is borrowed from poker to mean making your opponent suffer as much as you do.
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Quartz Obsession — Laam caau — Card 8
From anti-establishment rap songs to religious hymns to Les Mis, Hong Kong’s protesters have eclectic tastes when it comes to movement music. The latest Obsession playlist pairs the iconic—and iconoclastic—songs that have accompanied pro-democracy protests with a wider musical selection that is both of and inspired by Hong Kong over the years.
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