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Terminal Diagnosis

Hong Kong’s protestors are caught between liberation and a looming crackdown

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink by Jeffrey Wasserstrom. Columbia Global Reports, 112 pages.

On July 1, 2019, I arrived outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to find a sea of grimly determined protesters—mostly young, dressed in black, and wearing protective gear— trying to force their way in. Over half a million people had taken to the streets that day, and instead of dispersing after the march in typical fashion, many turned their attention to the drum-shaped building near the heart of the city. Throughout the afternoon, they rammed the glass panels lining the compound’s exterior with makeshift tools such as metal bars and a recycling cart. Nobody had ever tried this before, but with each deafening clang they seemed to affirm their resolve. Later that night, when they finally broke through and occupied the legislative chamber, it felt like something trapped had been set loose.

The storming of the Legislative Council was a defining moment for Hong Kong’s protest movement, which erupted last June over an extradition bill that could send people to China for trial, exposing Hongkongers to the mainland’s opaque legal system. The bill was eventually withdrawn in September, but the public outcry grew to encompass demands for justice and electoral democracy. At its peak, an estimated two million people took to the streets and violent clashes broke out daily between protesters and riot police. By now, over 7,000 people have been arrested and thousands more injured, and still there is no indication that the unpopular administration, led by chief executive Carrie Lam, will loosen its grip. As the movement edges closer to its one-year mark, it remains to be seen how protesters will continue their fight.

Wasserstrom envisions Hong Kong as a less fortunate West Berlin, struggling in vain to free itself from the gravity well of an authoritarian state.

Even for a city with a long history of dissent, the 2019 protests felt unprecedented in scope, longevity, and force. That burning rage was fueled by decades of frustration, as historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom recounts in his latest book Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink. The slim volume, part of the Columbia Global Reports imprint, offers a concise overview of the city’s troubled past, tracing the current unrest back to a flawed political makeup with its roots in British rule. In 1997, Hong Kong was handed over to China under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that let residents retain their personal liberties while giving China the final say over matters of leadership and governance. Despite the change in sovereignty, much of the city’s political apparatus seems to be frozen in time. “This system was and still is a colonial one,” Wasserstrom correctly notes. “It was created by the last masters to limit democracy and adopted and adapted happily by the current ones.”

As for China’s track record post-handover, Vigil paints a worrying picture of political and cultural encroachment. After some initial years of restraint, the Chinese government began to intervene more often in local politics with impunity. After the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement collapsed, for example, the activists faced crushing reprisals from Beijing. In 2016, China’s top legislative body disqualified two pro-democracy lawmakers even after they won their seats by popular vote. Wasserstrom did much of the reporting for his book during this time of uncertainty and malaise:

I visited Hong Kong often during the period . . . when many people, especially young activists, felt disheartened. Each time I went there, I looked intently for signs of further erosion of Hong Kong’s distinctiveness from mainland cities—and always found them. I also looked for signs that . . . the territory remained very different from the cities just across the border on the mainland—and I always found those, too.

Wasserstrom envisions Hong Kong as a less fortunate West Berlin—one of the “imperfect but useful” analogies he is fond of using—struggling in vain to free itself from the gravity well of an authoritarian state. It’s a slow-motion tragedy played out over decades. “Every political battle has had to do with Beijing gaslighting on universal suffrage,” he argues. “Democracy is and always has been the dominant issue in Hong Kong politics.” This framework also allows him to draw parallels between Hong Kong and other uprisings in China’s past: not just the 1989 student movement that ended with the Tiananmen massacre—by now a standard approach for contemporary China scholars—but comparisons to the anti-imperialist 1919 May Fourth Movement as well.

Vigil covers events up until last October, and Wasserstrom concludes on an apprehensive note. There will be “little stopping Beijing from destroying many of Hong Kong’s institutions,” he predicts, putting his money on Goliath instead of David:

Will the resistance be able to stop the erosion of Hong Kong’s hopes and liberties? Years of Beijing moving the goalposts make it seem unlikely. What is clear is that “liberty without democracy” has torn Hong Kong apart, and that this Special Administrative Region cannot survive in its current state.

As far as analyses go, this is hardly novel. Vigil reflects the mainstream view on China that has emerged out of American academia, a discourse that Wasserstrom helped shape with books like China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010). He understands Xi Jinping as the driving force behind an imperialist China that will continue to hound fringe territories like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet. With Xi’s rule unchallenged, the prospect of meaningful autonomy in Hong Kong grows dimmer by the day. Wasserstrom sees protesters as trapped by geopolitical forces beyond their control, awaiting a looming crackdown; the best they can do is delay the inevitable.

He is not alone in his pessimism. Few in Hong Kong are so naïve as to expect a change of heart from the Chinese Communist Party. Xi’s unyielding stance so far appears to validate the historian’s conclusion; there is a decent chance that China will assimilate Hong Kong, just as it has other cultures and communities. Yet there are reasons to resist this terminal diagnosis. For many, 2019 was a grueling emotional journey that changed how they viewed themselves and the city they call home—and may finally propel Hong Kong onto a new trajectory.

At first glance, the most recent protest movement appears similar to its predecessors, but there is a key distinction: if the legacy of the 2014 Umbrella Movement was thwarted idealism, then the 2019 protests have left collective trauma in their wake. Much of the population has had to directly confront state violence in a way they had never before imagined. So many people have been shot, beaten, or otherwise brutalized that you were either one of them, or they were someone you knew. Tear gas brings about an ironic kind of equality. It stings your eyes whether you are at the frontlines of a protest, observing the action from a side street, or just going about your life in an apartment above. Medical experts have since warned that many Hong Kong residents are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That term is not exactly accurate: the trauma is still ongoing.

During the brief hours on July 1 when protesters took control of the legislature, the twenty-five-year-old student activist Brian Leung gave an impassioned speech asking others to join him for an extended occupation. But that was not to be: protesters retreated en masse after riot police advanced on their position. Nevertheless, reflecting on his experience, Leung later said in an interview with Stand News that he witnessed a community being born. “I came to realize what truly connects Hongkongers, aside from our language and values, is pain,” he said. “This pain makes living more real: this kind of political agency . . . will shape our future resistance.”

Perhaps that is why the 2019 protests have given rise to a near-miraculous sense of unity. Hong Kong’s political landscape has always been fractious, but poll figures showed that the protest movement had cross-generational, cross-sector, cross-faction, and inter-class support. A random snapshot of a rally will confirm as much. The running joke among protesters is that they have chief executive Carrie Lam to thank for the newfound solidarity. Her intransigence has given everyone an axe to grind.

Tear gas brings about an ironic kind of equality. It stings your eyes whether you are at the frontlines of a protest or just going about your life in an apartment above.

But Hong Kong’s protesters know they cannot risk settling for a politics of grievances. Rather than let their pain consume them, they must work collectively to share this burden and move beyond it. What might this process look like? Ask any protester, and they will tell you a fantasy of sorts: the war is over, and the tyrant is deposed. The police force has been disarmed and disbanded. Those who fired guns on civilians are standing trial, where they will soon be found guilty. All arrested and jailed pro-democracy protesters are granted amnesty and promptly released. We gather at the base of the Legislative Council—known colloquially as the “bottom of the pot”—and together at the count of three we cast away our masks. Then we observe a minute of silence for those who couldn’t show up. This is it; we’ve won.

This yearning for a “liberation day” found expression in the most popular slogan of last year: 光復香港 時代革命, which was first used by activist Edward Leung when he ran for election in 2016. News outlets tend to translate it as “Liberate Hong Kong, the Revolution of Our Times,” but the term 光復 could be translated to mean “free,” “liberate,” “restore,” or “reclaim.” Searching for a political doctrine, some commentators mistakenly interpret it as a desire to return to British colonialism. Others note that this version of “liberation” elides, or at least does not overtly address, the material conflicts within Hong Kong, such as its world-leading levels of economic inequality.

It’s true that the protesters’ idea of liberation is not about governance or power or wealth or ideology; in some ways, it flaunts the rules of history and politics. But then again, the vast majority didn’t adopt the slogan out of misplaced nostalgia or allegiance to Leung. They heard other people chanting it and joined in because the words tapped into something raw. To them, liberation means an end to suffering. It is an idea that carries real affective weight. 

Of course, simply dreaming of liberation will not avert the depressing fate suggested in Vigil. But the slogan is powerful because it rebukes fatalism—it gives permission to Hongkongers to imagine a future in which they are free. Already people are bonding over this shared aspiration, which opens up daily life to opportunities for caring and solidarity. There has been an uptick in support groups for arrested protesters stuck in the wheels of the criminal justice system. With luck, there may be a push to reform how the system treats prisoners and criminal defendants. The continuing trend of industry-specific political reprisals also means that Hongkongers are more open to supporting labor action as a form of resistance.

If you happen to walk past the Legislative Council today, you will find it fortified by barriers on all sides. The broken glass has been replaced, and police stand guard around the clock. Lawmakers resumed their work in the building after preliminary repairs were complete; if you didn’t know better you would think it was business as usual.