Hong Kong on the Brink

By Jeffrey WasserstromNovember 11, 2016

Hong Kong on the Brink
WHY DOES THAT BILLBOARD show camels walking beside the sea? That was my first question on November 2, after I cleared customs at Hong Kong.

And why is Hong Kong’s Standard Chartered Bank working a Chinese Communist Party slogan into its ads? The big advertisement, with its desert animals in a maritime setting, had the following words written in white across a big blue body of water: “One Belt. One Road. One Bank is pumping new life into Oman.” I snapped a photo to record this latest visual evidence of the mainland’s ever-increasing economic and symbolic reach into the former British Crown Colony.

“One Belt, One Road” is the slogan chosen by Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping and company to promote their efforts to expand trade and deepen ties with — and to extend infrastructure projects to — countries across Eurasia and beyond. On the billboard, Standard Charter claims to have been “Connecting Asia, Africa and the Middle East for 150 years.” It seems to feel that the best way to continue doing this is to get a piece of the Beijing action. So it is embracing a government-sponsored development drive with a clunky name. The second half of the slogan makes sense, evoking as it does the old Silk Road, but then there is the oddly chosen term “belt” for the system’s sea routes. [1]

There were other signs on my five-day trip of the changing relationship between China’s capital and Hong Kong, which was absorbed into the PRC in 1997 with a promise that it could remain largely autonomous for the next half century. The local news broadcasts portrayed the eventful and ultimately disturbing 24 hours just before I left on November 7. Demonstrations that began on the afternoon of November 6 were peaceful when I was there, but later that night clashes between protesters and police officers turned violent, followed by many of us via social media and television. A small number of protesters were arrested and pepper spray was used to disperse the crowd. Next morning came reports of Beijing officials issuing directives designed to rein in Hong Kong activists, and, finally, comments by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive C. Y. Leung, who endorsed Beijing’s warning and added that this might be the time to reconsider Article 23 — a long-tabled, much-hated set of Patriot Act–like security measures.

All this was triggered by a usually routine oath-taking ceremony that went off script, and which has, perhaps inevitably, been dubbed “Oathgate.” Several veteran activists who had participated in previous protest waves, including 2014’s Umbrella Movement, recently won seats on the Legislative Council — “LegCo,” for short. This governing body is symbolically important, even if real power over the city lies with a chief executive, who is always selected via what truly is, to invoke a word that has lately been misused in the American context, a “rigged” election; only those approved by a pro-Beijing nominating committee are allowed on the ballot, so only candidates that the Communist Party finds congenial have a shot at winning. Among those newly elected to serve on LegCo were two strong supporters of Hong Kong independence, a position that is anathema to Beijing: Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, a 30-year-old man, and Yau Wai-ching, a 25-year-old woman. While being sworn in, they refused to say what they were supposed to; instead, they cursed and used terms such as “Hong Kong nation,” which they knew would infuriate Beijing.


The trigger for the November 6 march was word that Beijing’s National People’s Congress was going to rule on how to deal with these young independence activists, even though local courts were already in the process of deciding the issue. On the morning after the protests, Beijing ruled against the activists, making clear that their oaths were not valid, and that they would not have a second chance to take them; in other words they were not going to be allowed to take their elected offices. This angered all those concerned over the mainland’s steadily tightening grip on the city. Even the significant segment of this population who originally thought the two young legislators had behaved in an unproductive, crude, and juvenile fashion were infuriated, since the autonomy of local courts is taken seriously. C. Y. Leung’s talk of implementing Article 23 only ratcheted up the outrage.

Back in 2003, the original effort to put Article 23 measures into practice had sparked large demonstrations. These ended with a pivotal victory for the protesters. A series of similar standoffs have followed, most famously in 2014, pitting defenders of this small island’s partial autonomy against the mainland’s mighty Communist Party and its local surrogates. The match-up is, to put it mildly, unequal, which makes the small victories secured by the protesters especially surprising. In an article written for the Asian American Writers’ Association’s The Margins last summer, local journalist Elaine Yu and I described the ongoing struggle as “Hong Kong vs. Goliath.”

I came to Hong Kong in early November 2014 to get a sense of the Umbrella Movement. That struggle’s stated aim was to change the way the city’s chief executive is elected, so that voters would have a real choice between varied candidates, not a pseudo-choice between a set of potential puppets. Intimately entwined with something called “Occupy Central with Peace and Love” — a local variant of the globally distributed “Occupy” surges of the time — the Umbrella Movement was fueled by economic and social issues as well as purely electoral ones, and after police took the unusual step of using tear gas against protesters in late September, it became largely a fight to defend the right to protest itself. Rows of tents in two of the city’s main Occupy camps were accompanied by protest posters that mocked C. Y. Leung as a rapacious “wolf” (a play on one of his nicknames), that said “down with ‘689’” (a play on another term for the chief executive, with a more obscure derivation), and that made fun of Xi Jinping himself, something that would lead to immediate arrest in any other PRC city. The Umbrella Movement’s kaleidoscopic and iconic “Lennon Wall” featured drawings and hand-written statements (“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” among them) on colored post-it notes.

The following November I gave a talk at the 2015 Hong Kong International Literary Festival, in which I looked back at the Umbrella Movement. The audience responded with questions and comments from widely varying perspectives and commitments, but all clearly felt that assessing the legacy of the event — which some viewed as a complete failure, since Beijing did not budge over the issue of how the next chief executive would be chosen — was vitally important.

This year, I retuned to participate in the same festival, which is still underway as I write, flying eastward across the Pacific Ocean. Just before going to watch the November 6 demonstration, Zoher Abdoolcarim — Asia editor of Time magazine and a longtime local resident — and I spent much of our time on the stage talking about the Umbrella Movement, which, two years later, has begun to feel more like a mixture of failures and successes; after all, several people associated with it — including Nathan Law, one of the main student leaders — have been elected to LegCo as well.

The publicized theme of our dialogue was the various ways that Hong Kong and mainland cities had changed during the last three decades, but the events of 2014 dominated the conversation. How could they not? The history of these protests has been one of our main interests; Abdoolcarim has interviewed the likes of Joshua Wong, the most famous figure of the Umbrella Movement, and he, too, wrote about the 2014 struggle while it was taking place.

The mood in the auditorium grew more charged whenever either of us, or anyone in the audience, brought up the Umbrella Movement or weighed in on issues like the career of Nathan Law. A close ally of Joshua Wong, Law has quickly changed from being a 21-year-old activist, juggling his classes as a cultural studies major with organizing and speaking at protests, into a 23-year-old with a seat on LegCo. For those steeped in American history, this career trajectory immediately brings to mind the recently deceased campus firebrand turned legislator Tom Hayden — except that Law moved from campus to electoral politics in months rather than years.

None of the photos I took last November or last week were as compelling as those I took during the Umbrella Movement, which was a remarkably photogenic struggle. I took a snapshot on the afternoon of November 6, though, after watching marchers carrying signs that advocated autonomy and urged resistance to all injustice, that features demonstrators on parade in front of a passing bus. Covering the whole side of the bus is an ad for an alcoholic drink — a mainland-made baijiu called “Meng Zhi Lan,” which comes in a blue bottle. The words emblazoned across the bus in Chinese characters refer to the “Chinese Dream” and “Dreams in Blue.” “Chinese Dream (Zhongguo Meng)” is Xi Jinping’s mantra, representing the drive to reassert the country’s global centrality. It is, to invoke another American parallel, the leader’s call to “Make China Great Again.”

I imagine how differently Xi Jinping might view the advertisement and the marchers. Like the Standard Chartered billboard, the bus provides evidence that his pet phrases are becoming part of the Hong Kong business landscape, complementing the ever-larger role of Beijing rhetoric and propaganda in the city’s media landscape. But the image also includes the crowd.

As powerful as Xi is, and as much weight as his Goliath-like government can throw around in the world these days, he must find this reminder of people’s willingness to take action even when the deck is stacked against them profoundly unsettling. These are very dark days for the Davids in Hong Kong. Distracted with their own crises, other parts of world are all but ignoring Beijing’s encroachment into the city. But for a Party that would prefer to focus on its dreams, determined marchers taking to the streets are the stuff not of Chinese dreams, but of jittery nightmares.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s latest books are, as editor, The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, and, as author, Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo.


[1] Since this essay was published, colleagues have told the author that the term “belt” actually refers, somewhat confusingly, to overland routes. The full official term for the drive abbreviated as “One Belt, One Road” is “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road.”

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). He is also the author of books such as Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016), co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018, third edition), and the editor or co-editor of several titles. He is the advising editor on China for LARB, a member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazineand a co-founder of UCI’s Forum for the Academy and Public Life. He has written reviews and commentaries for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as for a wide range of magazines, journals of opinion, and literary reviews, including TLS and The Atlantic. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and has been a featured speaker at Internazionale’s Ferrara Festival. Find him on Twitter at @jwassers.


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