A primer on the Hong Kong protests
UCI historian's new book chronicles the current affairs of a region on the brink
In his new book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020), Jeffrey Wasserstrom (Chancellor’s Professor of history at the University of California, Irvine) delves into the current protests in Hong Kong. Through on-the-ground reporting and interviews with essential figures in the history of Hong Kong, such as protest leader Joshua Wong and the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, Wasserstrom works through the history of the region while also concisely summarizing the ongoing protest wave that began more than seven months ago.
Here, we discuss with Wasserstrom the impetus for this book and what he hopes readers will take away from it.
For anyone who hasn’t kept up with the protests in Hong Kong, would you provide some basic context and tell us what they signify?
The immediate trigger for the latest protests, which began midway through 2019 and are continuing into 2020, was a proposed extradition bill. Many people in Hong Kong take pride in the extent to which the rule of law applies in their city. Meanwhile on the mainland, the justice system is capricious, to say the least, and those accused of crimes have few legal protections. This bill, which was withdrawn in the fall, would have made it easy for the Chinese Communist Party to have those Beijing wanted to prosecute taken across the border. The struggle quickly became about much more than just that one bill, especially after the police started using harsh measures against the protesters. It sparked a struggle for the right to protest itself, and calls for an impartial international investigation of police brutality became central to it.
More generally, many have felt that there has been an erosion of the “one country, two systems” structure under which Hong Kong was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy for fifty years after becoming part of the People’s Republic of China in 1997. People have been mounting protests to push back against efforts by Beijing to minimize the differences between Hong Kong and other parts of the PRC. The most important protests, before the current ones, took place in 2014, when people rallied to get a greater say in selecting Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, who under current arrangements always ends up being someone clearly willing to do Beijing’s bidding. The big call during that struggle, which was known as the Umbrella Movement, was for true universal suffrage, meaning an open election for the Chief Executive. The authorities did not budge in 2014, and now universal suffrage is once again a demand of the protesters.
You’ve written and edited ten books on China. Why Vigil and why now?
Until 2014, while Hong Kong was a place that interested me, I didn’t think I would ever write a book about it. I have always been fascinated by protest movements, though, especially those in which students play key roles, and my first book was about campus-based upheavals in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city on the China coast. When the Umbrella Movement broke out, I realized that Hong Kong had displaced Shanghai as the cosmopolitan Chinese city where the kind of events that intrigue me were taking place most regularly. I traveled there to witness the struggle—Skyping in a session of my “Global Crises” course from Hong Kong, since the movement took place during a teaching quarter—and then wrote a long piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books about what I saw.
I’ve been going back regularly since then and writing about the ongoing efforts there to protect the things that make the city special. Then the publishers of Columbia Global Reports—a great series that commissions short books on subjects in the news—asked me if I wanted to write something about Hong Kong for them. I jumped at the chance, even though when I signed on to do the project early in 2019, I thought it might be largely about a struggle that had flared up and then largely died out. No one saw the resurgence of activism on this scale coming. I know I didn’t. The people of Hong Kong have often defied expectations and they have done so again during the last eight months. The book has a lot to say about past movements, but it is largely about the recent protests—and about Hong Kong proving forecasters wrong, over and over again.
Your book opens with a comparison of Hong Kong to Berlin, saying that the two “were doppelgangers in an important way” and served as focal points of Cold War tensions. What can we learn from Berlin when it comes to Hong Kong?
East Berlin and West Berlin were radically different sorts of places until 1989, when they became integrated and grew more similar, with life inside the former becoming much more like the way life in the latter had long been. With Hong Kong, which was similar to West Berlin in the sense of being an outpost of capitalism nestled by a large Communist Party-run state, something similar happened after 1997, even though there was no counterpart to the Berlin Wall coming down. The big difference is that, in this case, it is more like East Berlin ways becoming the norm. Using this analogy can help outsiders understand why Hong Kong people are so concerned about specific developments like mainland forces being put in charge of security at a high-speed rail station located in Hong Kong a couple of years ago. That was, in a symbolic sense, like the Stasi being put in charge of Checkpoint Charlie on the western side of the Berlin Wall.
In June 2019, you visited Hong Kong for the 30th anniversary of 1989’s June Fourth Massacre to take part in the yearly candlelit vigil. Could you tell us how this massacre shaped the current situation in Hong Kong? Did this experience inspire your new book’s title?
The June Fourth Massacre had a profound effect in Hong Kong. The annual vigil, on a date that no one on the mainland is allowed to commemorate, is a way of showing that Hong Kong remains special, a place apart. I knew that attending the vigil would be something I would write about in the book, but the title refers to more than that.
Vigil can also describe keeping watch over a person you care about who is in danger of dying, and by extension, a place you care about that is dying. People in Hong Kong have been fighting to keep features of local life they care about from dying and I care deeply about the city even though I don’t live there, so the term seems apt. An editor at the press suggested the title over the summer and it felt just right. It feels even more right now. After finishing the book, I spent a week in Hong Kong in December, and on the last evening of my stay, I went to a rally organized by secondary school students honoring those who had been injured or died while struggling to protect the city. It was a vigil of sorts, which included a moment of silence for a youth who had died when he fell off a parking garage roof that was being tear gassed by police.
You interviewed quite a few people for this book and asked each one of them, from writer Ma Jian to leader of Civic Passion Wong Yeung-tat, to name a novel or film that captured something important about Hong Kong’s situation. Answers varied from George Orwell’s 1984 to The Hunger Games trilogy and the film “Titanic.” What film or novel do you think captures the current situation?
I find a lot of value in the answers that people gave during the interviews that Amy Hawkins, who helped me with the book, and I conducted. One book I keep thinking about when pondering the Hong Kong situation that no one mentioned is Station Eleven. It’s a haunting novel by Emily St. John Mandel, who came to UCI a few years ago to speak, that is set in a North America that has been utterly transformed by a devastating disease. The reason it comes to mind when I think about Hong Kong is that Mandel focuses much of her attention on a traveling Shakespeare troupe that performs plays while moving across a post-apocalyptic environment. Even in a terrible setting, she reminds us, people hunger for beauty, striving to create it and appreciating it when it is created by others. Amidst the tear gas, the vandalism, the mass arrests, the street fires and so on, people in Hong Kong have been creating works of heartbreaking beauty, from drawings and songs to, most recently, a stunning video of a reenactment of episodes from the crisis by student dancers.
What can these protests and the harsh repressive moves made against activists tell us about the future of Hong Kong?
I worry greatly about Hong Kong’s future. As determined as the protesters have been, I find it hard to see how they will be able to stop the trend underway to minimize the ways that Hong Kong stands apart from mainland cities politically—unless there is some kind of liberalizing shift in Beijing, and there is no sign of that happening. On the other hand, I keep reminding myself how often Hong Kong and its people have made fools of forecasters!
What do you hope readers will take away from Vigil?
I hope they come away from it with a deeper appreciation for how truly unusual a place Hong Kong has been and remains. I also hope, in a broader sense, it gives them a sense that in order to fully understand a protest surge, wherever and whenever it takes place, it is crucial to pay attention to the way they are shaped by various historical and cultural factors.
Officially out on February 11, 2020, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink is available for pre-purchase now.
Join Jeffrey Wasserstrom on January 30 for the public launch of his book (free and open to the public): “Social Media & Social Movements from Hong Kong to Silicon Valley and Beyond -- A Double Launch of Jeffrey Wasserstrom's Vigil (2020) and David Kaye's Speech Police (2019)." More info. here.
Read a Q&A with Wasserstrom in The Nation here.