FOR DECADES, Hong Kong — cosmopolitan, in possession of a free economy, and strategically situated — served as China’s face to the West. It is no surprise then, that when the British handed it over to China in 1997, many believed that the city’s unique status would enable Hong Kongers to continue enjoying, for the next 50 years, freedoms and rights not available on the mainland, under the “one country, two systems” framework. Moreover, there was a widespread expectation that these rights would be expanded in due time and that Hong Kongers would eventually be accorded the right to elect their own chief executive and other rights of a democratic civil society before Hong Kong’s special status expires in 2047.
Instead, the last two decades have felt like a contraction — a tightening of control from Beijing over the territory that has led to numerous protests over fears that China is reneging on its promise to grant the former British colony the high degree of autonomy promised in its Basic Law, or mini-constitution.
The most recent spate of demonstrations began in June 2019 and has continued nearly unabated ever since, save for a brief period when streets emptied due to the escalating coronavirus crisis in January. The immediate catalyst was the proposal of an anti-extradition law that would allow China to try criminal suspects on the mainland. But the protests are also the ideological heirs of the many pro-democracy movements that preceded them in the territory. They differ, however, both in scale (over a quarter of the city’s 7.4 million residents demonstrated on June 16, making it the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history), and in the degree of unrest and violence that has been roiling the city for months.
The significance of this tumultuous moment in Hong Kong’s history is the subject of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, a specialist on student protests, and a longtime observer of Hong Kong. In this slim volume, rich in the sort of anecdotes and personal observations that lend it the feel of a report from the ground, Wasserstrom brings us into the world of Hong Kong’s activists while explaining the current and historical context underlying their cause. It is no easy feat to convey a sense for the diffuse nature of the movement, but he succeeds. And he describes the ways that distinctions are increasingly blurring between the territory and the mainland, a blurring he sees increasing on every trip he makes back to the territory.
“The epic David-and-Goliath struggle currently underway in Hong Kong,” he writes, “can be seen in part as rooted in contrasting views of the meaning and significance of borders and what happens as they blur or disappear.” Some residents welcome this blurring, finding it inevitable, pragmatic, or convenient; others oppose it, fearing the loss of the vibrant civil society and independence from Beijing that make Hong Kong so distinct.
The city serves, among other things, as barometer — a harbinger of the degree of political openness, or lack thereof, that might be seen on the mainland. It serves, too, as a test case for the one country, two systems framework, long regarded by Beijing as a model for bringing Taiwan into the fold. But these are unique times. What makes this moment distinct is not just the fear that Beijing is increasingly brazen in exerting control over the territory, but that the protests are spearheaded by a generation of young people living in a singular moment in Hong Kong’s history. This is a generation that has no memory of Tiananmen, the sort of memory that might temper their fervor in the face of police aggression. These young people have never experienced what it feels like to be “second-class citizens in a British colony,” nor do they relate to those of an older generation that feel loyalty toward China from having profited from its economic rise. Their allegiance is to Hong Kong itself.
These are young people who, Wasserstrom tells us, see their future as grim, who face economic uncertainty in one of the most inequitable cities in the world, and who languished in a depression after what felt like the failure of the last major pro-democracy movement in 2014. These latest protests have given them new reason to devote themselves to a cause greater than themselves.
But this is also a generation bearing the psychic trauma of loving a homeland that bears a timestamp. In one of the more poignant sections of the book, Wasserstrom interviews a number of Hong Kongers and asks them to name a film or book that they believe best captures the current state of Hong Kong.
Hana Meihan Davis, a 21-year-old student who chooses the Hunger Games series, takes note of the “all-or-nothing feeling of desperation” in characters who feel that a “way of life they treasured was disappearing.” The dystopian franchise is an inspiring reminder of what is entailed in “giving your all for a lost cause.” (One of the rallying cries during last summer’s protests was a direct quote from the Hunger Games: “If we burn, you burn with us.”)
Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a reporter born and raised in Hong Kong, chooses the film In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai because “it evokes a sense of dreams that cannot be realized.” Wasserstrom explains, “She refers to this feeling as a ‘nostalgia for the future,’ a longing for the impossible.” It is precisely this — that “feeling of something almost within grasp but then forever out of reach” — that seems the psychological dilemma of the generation of protesters today.
Wasserstrom asks, “Will China ever genuinely keep its promise of implementing actual democracy in Hong Kong?” No, he writes, and in any case this isn’t the question anymore. Rather, it is whether the resistance can slow or stop the “erosion” of the beloved institutions and hopes and dreams that make Hong Kong what it is to its people. One might ask, though, whether this ever should have been a viable question at all. The British had a century to propose, let alone institute, political reforms in Hong Kong, yet waited until they were on the very brink of the handover. What was the motive in proposing them at the moment of departure? Could it possibly be that China is on the hook for reforms it never explicitly promised to deliver? When Wasserstrom writes that “it is difficult to overstate how strange and enigmatic the Basic Law of Hong Kong is,” one wishes there had been space for a fuller explanation of the circumstances surrounding the drafting of this as well as the joint agreement between Britain and China that it derived from. It is indeed enigmatic, and the ambiguity built into its language explains the vague understandings and assumptions about China’s intentions; it is open to interpretation. There was no clear articulation about what would be allowed, what would be off-limits; there was only an ambiguous, vague set of commitments.
Nevertheless, the movement has “put Beijing on notice,” writes Wasserstrom, “to show that if Hong Kong’s autonomy is wilting so, too, is the grand experiment of ‘One Country Two Systems.’” But it might be that maintaining the facade is not a high priority for China anymore. Hong Kong’s uniqueness — so striking in 1997 — has waned and diluted. The rise of China had not yet occurred at the time of the handover; Chinese cities on the mainland were still developing economies. Today, however, there are many business dynamos like Hong Kong: Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou. They may well be lessening the importance of Hong Kong for Beijing.
What happens when the political arc of a territory is out of sync with the aspirations of its people, when a territory is losing its relative significance at the same time that its population is crying out for more? There is a palpable disconnect between the activists’ ambitions and the political and economic arc of Hong Kong itself. This is a populace whose awareness of themselves and their hopes for their city appears to be reaching a peak just when Hong Kong itself is waning in significance.
A friend who teaches at a university in Hong Kong recently reminded me of what any author writing a story knows: in fiction, unlike in real life, the ending determines which actions her characters will take. Change the ending, and all else in the story must shift as well. But this is a real-life instance in which the protagonists are living in a narrative where the ending — 2047 — is already known.
Wasserstrom’s strength lies in how he puts a human face on the protesters and makes heartbreakingly clear their dilemma. One is left feeling compassion for a generation that feels doomed, that is waking up to its identity only to have it recede before their very eyes at the moment of their awakening.