Then They Came for the Bookseller

January 9, 2016   •   By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Photograph by Jeffrey Wasserstrom. All rights reserved.


THE ONGOING THREATS to free expression in Hong Kong, which are again in the headlines, need to be placed in a long-term historical context. To understand them fully, we must go back at least as far as the 1997 Handover, which transformed a British Crown Colony into a specially administered part of the People’s Republic of China. It is thus something of a surprise that the most powerful recent statement on the topic takes the form of a video created by a local woman who has no memory of a time before the Handover.  How could she? Agnes Chow is only 19.

Chow may be young, but she is no political novice.. Along with Joshua Wong, she is among the key figures in Scholarism: a grassroots student organization that played a pivotal role in the 2014 Umbrella struggle to expand democracy and protect civil liberties. Chow’s video, “An Urgent Cry from Hong Kong,” focuses on the mysterious disappearance of Lee Bo, a local bookseller whose company drew the ire of the Chinese Communist Party after publishing gossipy works on the private lives of Beijing leaders. Some think that Lee, a British citizen, was spirited across the border and is being detained on the mainland. Chow is among them. Chow views Lee’s disappearance, and the disappearance of four other members of the same company, as part of a disturbing recent trend in Hong Kong: people involved in activities of which Beijing disapproves are being threatened, hassled, physically assaulted, or arrested.

To increase global attention, she created her cri de coeur for the city she loves. At one point, she gives a local twist to a series of famous lines about the Nazis, which originally came from a sermon and later evolved into the poem “First They Came…” She refers in her version to the state moving first against activists, then against journalists, with the poem’s narrator saying nothing in each case, due to not belonging to either group.. “Then they came for the bookseller,” she continues, “and I did not speak out — for I was not a bookseller.” After that comes the familiar ending: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This use of a Holocaust-related text adds poignancy to Chow’s video, especially given the personal risks she has taken.

As someone who first visited Hong Kong a decade before Chow was born, though, a different German historical phenomenon strikes me as at least equally as useful for illuminating Hong Kong’s predicament: how the two halves of Germany’s most famous city differed while the Berlin Wall divided them; how the once utterly dissimilar entities of East Berlin and West Berlin have grown more entwined and more similar since that barrier came down.

My interest in placing Hong Kong and Berlin side by side goes back to 1987, when I first visited each city — in one case midway through, and in the other at the end of, an academic year spent in mainland China. Traveling from Canton to nearby Hong Kong at that time could have a very similar feel to going from East Berlin to West Berlin. Upon arrival in Hong Kong, I found a much more consumer oriented, and also freer urban environment, than the one I left behind. There were more movies at local theaters, and more varied shows to watch on television. Grocery store shelves were stocked with more types of food and department stores with more attractive brands. Professors and journalists were less constrained in what they could cover in lectures and articles, respectively. It was also far less dangerous to join, or even lead, a protest.

Many of the norms of West Berlin, which was once referred to as an isolated “island” of capitalism surrounded by Communist territory, have spread throughout the metropolis, which is now a unified city in a unified Germany. With Hong Kong, a key part of which is literally an island, the tale is more complicated.

On the one hand, the city definitely remains distinctive. Whenever I reach post-Handover Hong Kong after spending time on the mainland, I still see and hear things I had not seen and heard where I had just been. I know I’m not in Shenzhen when someone hands me a pro-Falun Gong pamphlet, and is not immediately arrested. I know I can’t be in Shanghai anymore when I find it easy to use Twitter, access newspapers from around the world, and check Gmail on my computer. I know I can’t be in Beijing when I arrive at the University of Hong Kong and see a poster calling for students to take part in an upcoming rally to commemorate the martyrs of 1989’s June 4th Massacre.

On the other hand, there are many things that formerly seemed like radical differences between Hong Kong and all mainland cities but now seem merely subtle contrasts.  The most worrisome forms of convergence relate to mainland political trends creeping into the island, but there are instances where flows in the other direction have been responsible for reducing a yawning chasm to a small gap.  The fact that department stores and grocery store shelves in Shenzhen now look so much like those across the border in neighboring Hong Kong is a case in point.

What then of the trio of figures singled out in Chow’s reworking of the well-known text, enjoining people to speak out while there is still time? How do the activist, the journalist, and the bookseller fit into this story?

In all three cases, there is evidence that Hong Kong continues to be the freest city in the PRC. Yet there are also signs that mainland-to-Hong Kong flows are doing more than Hong Kong-to-mainland ones to push things toward convergence. This trend was not always clear. A decade ago, it seemed that Hong Kong’s more freewheeling media style was having a liberating ripple effect, opening up room for journalistic experimentation in nearby Guangdong Province. Now, though, the most envelope-pushing Guangdong publications have been reined in. A decade ago, there was an increase on the mainland in bookstores, filled with everything from fashion and travel magazines to translation of international fiction, that resembled those one typically found on the island — until, that is, you looked closely for titles on taboo subjects, such as the Dalai Lama, writings by Chinese dissidents, and infighting within China’s allegedly unified current leadership group. Today, the more notable bookstore trends include an increase in Hong Kong outlets of mainland companies, and most recently of all, in the wake of Lee’s disappearance, some independent stores choosing not to stock books that Beijing finds especially objectionable.

Turning to activists, the course and aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, despite its failure to achieve the specific changes participants demanded, offered important reminders of the degree to which civil liberties remain more protected in Hong Kong than on the mainland. When leaders of the struggle were arrested, they were able to have their day in court, something that does not typically happen in other parts of the PRC. Sometimes, before things even reach the arraignment stage, judges ordered the police to release those they had arrested, citing lack of evidence or a failure of due process — again a dramatic departure from norms on the mainland. Tear gas was used, but only rarely. No protesters were killed, and the city’s journalists covered the events, often presenting protesters in a positive light, even when reporting for venues, such as the South China Morning Post, which took an editorial stance critical of the struggle.

Even with activism, the clear differences between Hong Kong and the mainland — which according to agreements reached before the Handover, were to be maintained for half-a-century after 1997 — seem ever more precarious. They are dependent on structures, from an open press to rule of law to a network of universities with autonomy from the state, that are under threat. In the wake of the Umbrella Movement, for example, local authorities moved to subvert the universities’ ability to support future struggles. Last weekend, in addition to protests sparked by Lee’s disappearance, there were demonstrations by students angered that someone seen as “pro-Beijing” had been elevated to a high post at the University of Hong Kong, for which a professor supportive of democracy struggles had earlier been slated.** And there is good reason to doubt that the South China Morning Post, now owned by mainland entrepreneur Jack Ma, will cover future protests the way it did those of 2014. Whatever promises were made before 1997, an increasingly assertive government just across the border seems determined to make the island’s public sphere more and more like that of a typical mainland city.

All this may seem to take us far from a bookseller’s disappearance, and a video by a young activist who says to the camera that she is among those who feel “Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore.” Yet the reason Lee’s case has struck such a nerve is that, if mainland agents illegally removed him from Hong Kong, his plight brings together key fears of those who are convinced that it is time to “speak out” before the right to do so vanishes; before Hong Kong, a city that seems to have a degree of legal independence, reaches a breaking point where its residents lose the sense of being safer from political suppression than people living across the border — something that many of them treasure as much as once did the citizens of West Berlin.


**Correction: The recent protest at the University of Hong Kong mentioned above was triggered by Arthur Li, a pro-Beijing figure, being elevated to the post of President of the Council, a body of which he was already a member. Johannes Chan, the professor supportive of democracy struggles alluded to above, had previously been passed over for a different appointment, that of pro-Vice Chancellor for staff, a senior management position that needs the Council’s approval.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. His latest books are, as author, Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (published next month by Penguin China), and, as editor, The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China (published this summer).