READING THE HONG KONG PROTESTS – Three newly released books on the history and future of the protest movement

Until the spread of Covid 19, the Hong Kong protest movement was one of the leading stories in world news. Beginning in 2019 in response to the proposal of a new extradition law, the movement grew in strength and violence in a manner hitherto unseen in this small city state. The advent of coronavirus changed all of that as the city applied itself to containing the spread of the disease, in spite of open borders with China.

I recently heard from three writers who have had books published on the protest movement in Hong Kong. They all agree that the pandemic will not bring an end to Hong Kong’s quest for freedom. On the contrary, corona may well have brought a welcome respite for campaigners who are now preparing once more for the local elections due to take place in the city, in September.

The story of Hong Kong is a fascinating one – it is the story of a city state that has survived when many predicted it’s collapse. As author of recently released Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, Jeffrey Wasserstrom puts it, ‘Hong Kong has a tendency to make fools of forecasters’. His recent book, traces the history of this small territory from the Opium Wars of the 19th century up until the Umbrella movement which ended in 2016.  Professor of History at University of California, Wasserstrom, specialises in the study of protest movements. In his book he draws on the histories of the social protests in China and the freedom movements in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s in order to shed light on current Hong Kong protests. From this wider perspective, he presents China as an imperial power and  Hong Kong as one of its colonies.

I met Jason Ng a couple of years ago when he visited the Hague for the Movies that Matters festival. He came on behalf of the now famous poster-boy of the protest movement, Joshua Wong, who was not allowed to leave Hong Kong at that time. The award-winning documentary about Wong’s life, titled, Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower, was being screened at the film festival. A lawyer and an activist, Jason Ng recently co-authored Wong’s biography, Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now for Penguin. 

He describes the biography as ‘a call to arms’ and hopes that Wong’s story will empower and inspire people to realise that one person can make a difference, even against a superpower like China. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ng sees the protest movement as ‘a long game’. He is confident that in spite of the pandemic, protestors will continue their campaign. ‘The Hong Kong government is always capable of doing something spectacularly stupid to bring people back out on the streets’, he smiles wryly.   

City on Fire: the fight for Hong Kong is best-selling writer and lawyer, Antony Dapiran’s latest book. Originally from Australia, Antony has lived and worked between Beijing and Hong Kong for more than twenty years and is a fluent Mandarin speaker. He admits to an initial reluctance to move from Beijing to Hong Kong in 2010 but is now deeply involved in charting this small city state’s fight for freedom. Dapiran’s writing follows the protests on the ground. For example, he provides a detailed description of the experience of being caught in tear gas. The so-called, ‘all-you-can-eat protest buffet’ which is how local protestors describe the hundreds of rounds of tear gas fired at them by police. The writer witnessed first-hand, ‘the enormous power’ of tear gas to ‘mould a crowd together’ and recalls how the spectacle of tear gas came to define life in Hong Kong in 2019. ‘You’re not a real Hong Konger if you haven’t tasted tear gas’ they say.   

There is something unexpectedly charming and touchingly authentic about Hong Kong. I lived there for two years during the time of the Umbrella Movement and clearly recall walking the streets of down-town Mong Kok in search of the protests. I found instead  neatly ordered rows of tents, desks and chairs where students could be seen studying or deep in earnest discussion. At the time, all agreed that this was ‘typical Hong Kong’.

Although the long term goals of the protest movement might seem ambitious, Professor Wasserstrom points out that what usually brings people together in protest is a short-term agreement on what they don’t want. Increased interference from Beijing resulting in a loss of civil liberties and prospects for native Hong Kongers, is something that many who live there definitely do not want. Wasserstrom recalls an interview he did with the last British Governor of Hong Kong in 2019, Sir Chris Patten. He asked him about his thoughts on the future of the protest movement. Patten simply replied, ‘When the snow starts melting, it melts quickly.’    Souwie Buis    April 2020