Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, Columbia Global Reports, 2020. 112 pgs.
When Hong Kong Governor Murray MacLehose met with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing forty years ago, it marked the start of what would become the Handover talks. The 1997 Handover was still two decades away, but MacLehose felt compelled to relay one central message to Deng: with a population descended from refugees, Hong Kong people craved stability and needed reassurance that their way of life wouldn’t change after 1997.
In his new book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, Jeffrey Wasserstrom shows just how much Hong Kong has changed since 1997 and how the act of protesting is the only political outlet for the vast majority of the population. Wasserstrom goes back to the general strike of 1925 and from there gives a brief history of Hong Kong’s protest movements until 1989. The Tiananmen Square student protests that year brought a new set of issues to Hong Kong protests, namely that Britain and China had already signed the Joint Declaration to decide Hong Kong’s fate after the Handover, and that the final version of Basic Law was in its final stages before ratification. So when the Chinese government authorised troops to shoot pro-democracy activists in Beijing and Chengdu, Hong Kong people took it personally. They worried they might be next.
To show they still worry about stability, Hong Kong people have conducted annual vigils on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre since 1990. In fact, Hong Kong has almost single-handedly kept these memories alive within China.
For the first few years following the Handover, Hong Kong wasn’t without its crises, but those early ones had little to do with rights. Instead, the territory was plagued by different health crises like avian flu and SARS. The Tiananmen vigils carried on as usual, but the attendances averaged under 50,000 people. As Wasserstrom writes, “The Communist Party exerted a much lighter touch on Hong Kong immediately after the Handover than…predicted.” (p. 35)
But in 2003 when the Tung Chee-hwa government announced a bill to tackle sedition, Hong Kong people showed their displeasure through the only way they could: mass protests. This happened again in 2012 when the Hong Kong government introduced a national education bill. Students like Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow led the protests and set the stage for Occupy Central—what would later be known as the Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Wasserstrom links these protests with one common denominator: “Every political battle has had to do with Beijing gaslighting on universal suffrage.” These different demonstrations may seem like they are only fighting a sedition bill, a national education bill, or recently, an extradition bill. But, as with the 2014 protests, mass demonstrations are the only way for Hong Kong people to fight for what was promised them in the Joint Declaration and Basic Law.
In a particularly chilling line quoted from Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Wasserstrom writes, “…Lord Patten made a comment that has stuck with me more than anything that anyone else I have interviewed for this book has said: ‘When the snow starts melting, it melts quickly.’” And that’s exactly how one can describe the unravelling of rights in Hong Kong, whether it was the disappeared booksellers in 2015 or the disqualification of pro-democracy legislators in 2016 and the banning of a localist party the same year.
Wasserstrom also compares the Hong Kong police’s first use (since the 1960s) of tear gas during the 2005 World Trade Organisation conference against farmers mainly from South Korea who had made a special trip to protest the summit. The police then used tear gas again—this time intentionally against Hong Kong people—during Occupy in 2014 and again during the so-called Fishball Riot in 2016. Now, at the end of 2019, tear gas has become commonplace in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong people are determined to preserve their culture and to make sure that Hong Kong does not become just another Chinese city. This is a real fear. As Wasserstrom writes, “Shanghai’s fate after 1949 has always provided a model for what could happen to Hong Kong after 1997.” (p. 29) He also likens China’s grip on contemporary Hong Kong to Japan’s colonisation of China in the 1930s and 40s. Shanghai is again used as an example. “[Japan] made this claim about Shanghai, proclaiming in the early 1940s that it was finally liberated from all forms of foreign control, even as Japanese troops and Chinese puppet officials control the city.” (p. 89)
Wasserstrom is most surprised by how long the 2019 protests have lasted and doesn’t know how Hong Kong’s current turmoil is going to play out. But 2019 has shown that one thing seems more certain:
It’s become clear, however, that there is little stopping Beijing from destroying many of Hong Kong’s institutions, even if it continues to be frustrated, as other colonizers in Ireland and many other places were in the past, in its ability to stamp out attachment to signs of local identity and crush the Lion Rock spirit. (p. 84)
But he warns that it is not prudent to compare 2019 Hong Kong with other, earlier protest movements, even those in the city itself:
History does not repeat itself. Even the most attractive analogies need to be used with care…However, 2019 will clearly go down in history as one that…marks an important turning point in the history of protest, repression, and imperial projects in East Asia. (p. 90)
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)