Hong Kong Has Become a City Unstuck in Time

Demonstrators are detained by riot police during a protest at Causeway Bay as a second reading of a controversial national anthem law takes place in Hong Kong, China, May 27, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Two new books about the city’s troubled recent past shed light on its ominous political future.

At the end of March, when the U.S. began to shut down as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic increased, New York Times op-ed columnist and NR movie critic Ross Douthat put his finger on an uncanny psychological side effect of what was happening. “The strangest thing about this crisis,” he tweeted, “is what you might call the not-yet/but-already experience — where things that haven’t yet happened (symptoms, hospitalizations) are nonetheless settled facts, and we measure the way telescopes catch light from the past, from a dead star.”

When the news broke last week that mainland China’s rubberstamp congress planned to force a draconian national-security law onto Hong Kong, the former British colony that has been a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China for the last 23 years, I thought of Douthat’s observation applied to a different context. No one knows what it’s like to live the not-yet/but-already experience better than the people of Hong Kong.

From the day the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which stipulated the terms of the handover, was signed in 1984, Hong Kong’s fate as a future Chinese territory was already a settled fact, even if July 1, 1997, was over a decade away. When the handover did happen, and the Union Jack was lowered in the territory for the last time, the city knew its SAR status, which guaranteed freedoms of speech, assembly, the press, an independent judiciary, and other rights that didn’t exist for citizens on the mainland, also came with an expiration date — this time in 2047, when Hong Kong’s autonomous status was set to end.

Of course, far fewer than 50 years would elapse before Beijing and its loyalists in control of the local government began attempts to chip away at these rights and the autonomy supposedly protected under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the portion of Chinese law that functions as the city’s de facto constitution. Although the details of the new national-security law have yet to be revealed, most analysts believe it to be a variation on the national-security bill the Hong Kong government introduced in 2003. That legislation was intended to fulfill the controversial Article 23, the so-called National Security Provision of the Hong Kong Basic Law, which stated that the city would, of its own accord, pass legislation to “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, [or] subversion against the Central People’s Government.” The bill introduced into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council would have criminalized all the above acts and allowed warrantless police searches of those suspected of them. With fears that the law would be used to punish legitimate political dissent, the proposed legislation triggered massive protests, was quickly withdrawn, and until now, neither the Hong Kong nor mainland government had ever attempted to introduce it again. That Beijing has now done so is the culmination of a troubling acceleration over the past two years of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy, to the point where the situation on the ground seems to change day by day.

For Western readers looking to get caught up on the political struggle for Hong Kong’s future, a good place to start is Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, a short book published in February. In fewer than 100 pages, Wasserstrom, a professor of History at UC Irvine, deftly takes the reader through a concise history of the territory, beginning with the British acquisition of Hong Kong Island in 1841 and continuing with the subsequent additions of surrounding territory to the colony, all the way through to Hong Kong’s post–World War II boom as a center of international finance and its status as a SAR of China today. His focus, however, is on the protests of 2019, and to a lesser extent on the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014. Core to both was the question of the nature of the city’s relationship to Beijing.

The current arrangement between Hong Kong and the mainland is known as “One Country, Two Systems.” Yet as Wasserstrom and others have made clear, the problem is that the two sides of the political divide have incompatible interpretations of what that means. For Chinese president Xi Jinping and the pro-Beijing faction of the Hong Kong government, it’s only the first half of the phrase that really matters. For Hong Kong’s democracy movement, the second half is what legitimates the first. Every major political protest since the handover has related to this question in one way or another.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement arose from one of the most contentious issues of Hong Kong’s politics: universal suffrage. Hong Kong’s Basic Law stated that universal suffrage was the “ultimate aim” in electing the city’s chief executive post-handover. (As with the colonial-era governor, the chief executive was not a democratically elected position post-handover.) Yet a decade and a half after 1997, any progress toward universal suffrage was non-existent, with the chief executive still chosen by an election committee of just a few thousand, which all but ensured a candidate acceptable to Beijing would win. In response to a renewed push for democratic reform, the government proposed a process in which the chief executive would be elected by the populace, but only from a small pool of candidates pre-approved by a nominating committee. This constraint essentially guaranteed that anyone standing for election would be limited to those acceptable to Beijing, and it triggered an Occupy-style sit-in at the city’s center. It would come to be known as the Umbrella Movement because of protesters’ use of umbrellas to combat tear gas shot by police.

The period between the end of the Umbrella Movement and the start of the 2019 protests saw several ominous developments. Five booksellers from Causeway Bay Books, a Hong Kong bookstore that sold works banned on the mainland, were mysteriously disappeared in 2015, with several suddenly appearing on television in the mainland months later making obviously forced confessions to falsified crimes. When a new high-speed rail link to the mainland opened in 2018, the security at the Hong Kong end of the terminal was handled by mainland security agents, a first in the city’s history. And in circumstances eerily reminiscent of Beijing’s treatment of foreign journalists it does not care for, Financial Times editor Victor Mallet returned to Hong Kong from a trip only to find his visa revoked and his entry into the city barred. Although no official explanation was given, the likely cause of Mallet’s trouble was his hosting a luncheon featuring remarks by a member of the Hong Kong National Party, a pro-independence party that was on the cusp of being officially banned (and would be just a few weeks after the luncheon).

The integrity of One Country, Two Systems was also at the heart of the 2019 protests, which began in response to a proposed bill introduced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam that would have allowed Hong Kongers wanted on charges in mainland China to be extradited there and face prosecution under a draconian mainland justice system known for its subservience to the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party. A demand for the bill’s withdrawal led to the biggest demonstrations in the city’s history, with over a million of the city’s 7.4 million residents marching in June. These demonstrations continued throughout the summer and into the fall, after Lam had formally withdrawn the bill. (Protesters still had other demands the government had not met, including an independent inquiry into police brutality.)

Wasserstrom’s telling of the events leading up to and taking place throughout 2019 is strong on its own, but what adds appeal to the book is the personal dimension he weaves into his account of the city’s crisis. He has clearly long been an admirer of Hong Kong, usually traveling there twice a year or so. Each time he arrives, he notes with dismay the increasing signs of absorption into the mainland — more propagandistic language from the Xi era featured on billboards, fewer signs of a city distinct from its mainland counterparts — while taking heart in those elements of differentiation that have endured in city life and culture.

Vigil is not without flaws. Abrupt shifts from expository narrative to personal anecdote leave the flow of the book choppy in a few spots. And whatever utility a historical comparison between Hong Kong in 2019 and Shanghai in 1919 made near the book’s end may have is fatally undermined by excessive hedging about the inexactitude of such comparisons and repeated admonishments that history does not repeat itself. But these are small quibbles with a strong, economical account of what the city has gone through — and where it may be headed. In a conversation with Sir Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, who presided over the handover in 1997, Wasserstrom relays his puzzlement over why, after so long a period of more or less leaving the One Country, Two Systems arrangement intact, Beijing’s erosion of that system has accelerated in the last few years. Patten’s response: “When the snow starts melting, it melts quickly.”

At its best, Antony Dapiran’s magnificent City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong (already available as an e-book but out in hardcopy on June 23) shows precisely how quickly that melting can occur. A gripping account of last year’s protests, the book relates how Hong Kong changed month by month, day by day, sometimes hour by hour in the course of 2019. Dapiran is an Australian lawyer who has lived in Hong Kong for the past 20 years. He is also a gifted writer who tells a compelling story of what the protesters have been up against, what they are fighting for, and how their tactics and goals have evolved over time.

Dapiran’s book begins with a chapter on tear gas — its chemical composition, the history of its creation, the early instances of its use, and ultimately its deployment in the 2019 protests. It’s a particularly effective way to start a book about the demonstrations because the use of tear gas is a troubling example of how the formerly unthinkable has become the quotidian in the Hong Kong of today. When police deployed tear gas against Umbrella Movement protesters six years ago, it elicited shock and outrage. By the peak of the 2019 protests, its use was an accepted fact of daily life, with protesters donning gas masks and finding other ways to quickly neutralize the compound.

The creative and efficient ways protesters have adapted to coercive police tactics and brutality feature prominently in City on Fire. By 2019, they had come a long way from responding to tear gas with umbrellas. Small teams now existed to quickly approach a deployed canister, cover it with an orange construction cone, and douse the inside with water. When police got wise to the coordination of demonstrations that was happening on the Telegram app and began cracking down on moderators of pro-democracy groups, protesters began to use the air-drop feature on their iPhones to quickly spread information person-to-person about where the next march would occur, where police had been spotted, what kinds of weapons they were equipped with, etc.

With Dapiran on the ground to witness almost all the book’s key moments in person, City on Fire relays the events of 2019 in harrowing detail. As the tensions between the demonstrators and police rose throughout the summer and into autumn, the spectacle became increasingly surreal. The November siege by police of protesters barricaded in Hong Kong’s confined urban Polytechnic University campus featured protesters “operating an improvised catapult to launch petrol bombs and rocks at the police lines.” Police in turn fired tear-gas canisters, rubber bullets, and sponge grenades, which could occasionally be heard ricocheting off makeshift shields. “This was no longer a protest, or even a riot,” Dapiran writes. “It was medieval siege warfare.”

In addition to his strong descriptive powers, the author shows a keen understanding of human psychology and sociology, which adds another layer of depth to the reader’s understanding of the urgency of the demonstrations. Unlike previous generations, most of the youth composing the main body of demonstrators had grown up at a time when Hong Kong was in relative decline. Previous generations of the city’s residents defined their identity in largely material terms. Hong Kong in the ’80s and ’90s was far wealthier than the mainland, and punched above its weight not only in finance but in pop culture as well. The Cantopop music genre dominated the region, and figures of Hong Kong cinema such as John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Tsui Hark, and Jackie Chan became beloved throughout the world. (Indeed, the title of Dapiran’s book is a reference to a cult 1987 Hong Kong action film that, among other things, inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.) The Asian Financial Crisis that followed the handover dealt a blow to Hong Kong’s economic and pop-cultural power. In recent years, Shanghai has begun to overtake Hong Kong as the financial hub of the Asia Pacific, and Hong Kong cinema has largely melded into the mainland’s. As Dapiran makes clear, the erosion of these previous pillars of identity has led Hong Kong’s youth to form their own based on what still differentiates the city from the mainland: namely, its political freedoms and liberal values.

At one or two points in the book, Dapiran goes overboard on cultural-studies jargon. I found his discussion of the protests as a means for people to “participate in the production of urban space” more an exercise in abstraction for its own sake than a useful way to provide insight into what was animating the movement. And many readers will roll their eyes at his channeling of his inner Derrida when he describes 21st-century cities as “porous texts open to being rewritten.” But these blemishes are few and far between. This is the definitive account of China’s biggest political crisis since Tiananmen, and I look forward to a second edition that looks at all that has transpired since it went to print.

Dapiran ends his book by acknowledging that Hong Kong’s future is inexorably tied to Beijing’s, and he makes the case that it is in China’s interest to maintain the integrity of One Country, Two Systems in order to provide a space for open and free communication between itself and the world. The example he cites to prove the utility of the arrangement is all too relevant to 2020, and leaves the reader cringing in despair:

In 2003, it was Hong Kong that helped to gather and disseminate information about the SARS outbreak. This saved China — and, most likely, the world — from the devastating epidemic that might have ensued if the mainland’s instincts for suppression of information had not been undermined. Hong Kong keeps the entire ecosystem in balance.


Both authors finished their books before the COVID-19 pandemic overtook China and then the world. And when it comes to Hong Kong, coronavirus is a crisis China has not let go to waste. The timing of Beijing’s encroachment is no accident. Not only is the West preoccupied with fighting the coronavirus, but the social-distancing rules in place in Hong Kong mean it will be particularly difficult for demonstrators to respond to the move in the way they did last year. Despite the city’s having one of the best records of managing the disease in the world, with only four confirmed deaths to date, the government has extended bans on large-scale gatherings to the point where Hong Kong’s traditional June 4 vigil for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the only such commemoration to take place within Chinese territory, will not be allowed to happen. Wasserstrom made a point to attend the vigil in 2019, wondering if it would soon “be added to the ever-growing list of things that used to be a part of the Hong Kong landscape but [have] subsequently disappeared.” He now has his answer.

Washington will not sit idly by as Beijing deals the death blow to Hong Kong’s freedoms. Legislation passed in response to the protests last year requires the State Department to annually review Hong Kong’s autonomous status when it comes to trade. If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s early comments are any indicator, that status will almost certainly not be renewed. Mainland officials involved in the law’s passing, meanwhile, will probably face harsh U.S. sanctions. But the United States cannot and should not lead the free world’s response alone. As the other signatory of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the former colonial ruler of the city, the United Kingdom has both a political and moral obligation to condemn what Beijing is about to do. Both Wasserstrom and Dapiran argue that Hong Kong never stopped being a colony after the handover. The ruling power merely shifted from London to Beijing. Indeed, the legacy of colonialism has empowered the government to take actions it might otherwise not have been able to by invoking harsh (if rarely used) laws inherited from British rule. Reports have emerged of a quiet plan to allow political refugees from Hong Kong some form of asylum in the U.K., but Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs to be vocal in denouncing what is happening.

Even with these steps, however, the outlook for the city is grim for the foreseeable future. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Hong Kong has come unstuck in time—2047 has arrived 27 years early, and the colonial rule that allegedly ended in 1997 never went away, but merely changed hands. As Hong Kong enters the next chapter of its existence, all most of those concerned for its future can do is look on in horror and honor the example of a miracle city that continued to live free in the shadow of the world’s most powerful authoritarian government, hoping against all odds for a better tomorrow.

Nat Brown is a former deputy web editor of Foreign Affairs and a former deputy managing editor of National Review Online.


The Latest