Why Hong Kong?

By Jeffrey WasserstromJune 24, 2013

ON JULY 1, 1997, Hong Kong stopped being a British Crown colony and became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the lead-up to this shift, many people speculated on how this would alter economic, social, cultural, literary, and political life in the city. More than 15 years later, it continues, in some expected and some surprising ways, to stand apart. Edward Snowden’s decision to go there underscores Hong Kong’s persistent distinctiveness — he could hardly have said that an ongoing “strong tradition of free speech” had drawn him to Shanghai, Nanjing, or any mainland urban center — even though, as many commentators have noted, he may have overestimated its difference from those locales, overlooking the extent to which Beijing can determine the fate of people living or just staying in Hong Kong.

Snowden’s choice has prompted a growing list of Snowden-focused analyses of “what makes Hong Kong special,” and impelled me to put the topic into longer-term perspective, with an admittedly personal twist that is more attentive to bookstores than to extradition treaties, more to campus life than to elections, more to literature than to law. Over the last 25 years I’ve stopped in Hong Kong many times, either midway through or at the end of trips to the mainland, and each time I’ve spent time trying to sort out how the place feels like and unlike the other Chinese cities on my itinerary. And I’m convinced that tracking these changes over time — as they accumulate, disappear, or are reshuffled — reveals some intriguing things not just about Hong Kong but about the PRC as a whole.
1987: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry


I first crossed the Pacific in August 1986, heading to Shanghai to spend an academic year doing dissertation research, accompanied by my wife, who worked as an English teacher at Fudan University, where I was based. Early in 1987, we took advantage of her Chinese New Year break from work to travel around the mainland and then spend a couple of weeks in Hong Kong, where I’d poke around in archives and we would both get a needed break from life in the PRC. Arriving there was like entering a completely different world, a much more colorful and vibrant one. What hit us most was that we suddenly had consumer choices again.

Shanghai stood as China’s great consumerist mecca in the early 1900s and has now again become a shopping and entertainment hub, but it was different during the 1980s. Choices about what to buy and where to dine were incredibly limited, even if slightly less so than in other mainland cities, and the only Hollywood movie that played in Shanghai during the 11 months we were there was Superman, the Christopher Reeve version. It was paralyzing to be confronted by the options in Hong Kong stores, figuring out again how to choose between shampoos and toothpastes after more than half a year living where stores only carried one brand. It was a shock to once again be able to ponder seeing any one of dozens of films on a given night. And as good as some of the meals we had had on the mainland were, in people’s houses and elsewhere, it was a welcome change to be able, again, to ruminate at night over whether to grab a pizza or go to a pub, try that nearby Austrian place or go out for Indian food; in Shanghai, at that time,there were just a handful of restaurants. Going from Shanghai to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s was probably comparable, in many ways, to going from East Berlin to West Berlin before the Wall fell.
1996: In the Shadow of Tiananmen

By the time of my next Hong Kong stopover, nine years later, Shanghai’s department stores were almost a match for Hong Kong’s, and its restaurant scene, while still lagging behind the Crown colony’s, had become much more varied. What stood out in 1996 were the many kinds of books, including those dissecting the private lives of Mao and other Chinese leaders, that were available in Hong Kong but not on the mainland. As someone who had been researching protest, I was particularly aware of how many books on the Tiananmen struggle of 1989 were available in Hong Kong, while not a single one had been on the shelves of the mainland bookstores I’d visited.

And the same with film. I was invited by a student association at City University of Hong Kong to answer questions after a showing of The Gate of Heavenly Peace they sponsored. This is a documentary film about Tiananmen, which aired in the United States as an episode of Frontline and for which I had served as a consultant. Needless to say, there was no way the film could be screened publically anywhere on the mainland, though black market copies had begun to circulate there and still do.

As a general rule, I try to avoid making concrete forecasts about the future where any part of China is concerned, but I slipped up after that City University event. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I went on record with a prediction about how Hong Kong would change after the handover the following year. Screening The Gate of Heavenly Peace would, I said, become impossible. I was wrong: the film was shown every night for a month in a Hong Kong cinema right after the city became an SAR.
1999: Big Events on Campus

Three years later, I made my first post-handover visit to Hong Kong and was struck again by a Tiananmen-related contrast. My trip began with an early May visit to the mainland, and while I was there a NATO bomb hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC. The American and British governments insisted the bombing had been a mistake, but many in China thought it was an intentional act of aggression. This triggered the first significant campus demonstrations since 1989 in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities.

These protests have often been portrayed as government-manipulated ones. My own sense was that they were ones that the government allowed to take place — even encouraged — but also worried about. Before long, the authorities were reining them in, fearing that, once on the streets, students might move from expressing outrage at foreign governments to speaking out about other issues as well.

What was absent on mainland campuses was any reference during these 1999 protests to the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen events, public discussion of them still completely taboo. Hong Kong was then, as it remains to this day, the only part of the PRC where it was possible to speak publically about the demonstrations of 1989 and the crackdown that curtailed them.

On Hong Kong campuses in 1999, placards lambasted NATO, just like those in Beijing and Shanghai. There were also, though, some that encouraged local students to remember the martyrs of June 4, 1989, who lost their lives when People’s Liberation Army troops fired on protesting students and workers and ordinary passerby. And there were placards that drew connections between the protests of 1989 and 1999, describing them both as the actions of patriotic youth.
2002: Start Spreading the News

My 2002 trip to Nanjing and Hong Kong coincided with Jiang Zemin’s handover of power to Hu Jintao, the man who has just, a decade later, passed the baton to Xi Jinping. On the mainland, even though newspapers and magazines had begun to develop more varied journalistic approaches, every periodical covered the transition in the same respectful way. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, some publications hewed to that official line, but others lamented the lack of democracy and transparency involved, or openly mocked the leader stepping down, the leader taking over, or both. One, for example, ran a political cartoon portraying Hu as a hapless marionette whose strings were being pulled by Jiang, who had only seemed to leave the political stage, while actually continuing to control the action from behind a curtain.
2009: Let’s Go Surfin’ Now

Seven years on, I spoke at first the Shanghai International Literary Festival and then the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. Rather than the material conditions in Hong Kong making me feel like I was back on familiar ground, it was the virtual that gave me that sense — the internet. In Shanghai, if I wanted to read — let alone post to — the online publications I was engaged with, such as the “China Beat” group blog (2008–2012) that I had co-founded with two UC Irvine colleagues, I needed to use a cumbersome and machine-slowing virtual private network (VPN), a proxy that fooled my computer into thinking it was logging on outside the mainland’s “Great Firewall” censorship apparatus. In Hong Kong, no such work-around was needed. The net was worldwide.
2013: White Powder Tales

When I went to Hong Kong this March, stopping there on my way home from Shanghai, certain old differences between Hong Kong and Shanghai had disappeared, some had remained fundamentally unchanged, and some were still there but not quite what they once were.

Little difference remained now between the two cities when it came to leisure activities, like going out to restaurants. There are still very different kinds of youth movements in Hong Kong than exist in other parts of the PRC — I had the chance to meet a high school student very active in the inspiring — and ultimately successful — protests to block the sort of “patriotic education” curriculum on local schools that is the norm on the mainland. And locals continue to push back in dramatic ways against efforts to chip away at freedom of speech. Only in Hong Kong could placards calling for resistance to “thought control” be carried openly in the streets by students, as they were in 2012, without police immediately whisking away those holding them.

In bookstores the contrast was not quite what it once had been. There was a time when you could buy Orwell’s 1984 and works by Hayek in Hong Kong but not Shanghai, whereas now you can pick these up in bookstores in either city. So long as they don’t deal directly with how China is governed or with certain specific taboo subjects, there is much wider latitude on the mainland when it comes to publications that could be described as anti-Communist or pro-capitalist or (in Mao’s day) “reactionary.”

Other very important differences remain, which go beyond the mainland’s lack of books celebrating the Dalai Lama or honoring the martyrs of 1989. Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, a 2009 dystopian novel with a clear debt to both Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, set in a mainland of the near future, can be sold openly in Hong Kong, the city he grew up in, but only distributed secretly in the one he now calls home, Beijing. When Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping was translated into Chinese, there were two editions produced — a Hong Kong one with more and a mainland one with fewer references to the events of 1989. When I speak in Hong Kong, it is easy for people to buy English language copies of my books, but it is always hit or miss whether mainland booksellers will be allowed to stock them. So many taboo subjects are addressed in my China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know that it did not surprise me at all that, when the Chinese rights to the recently updated 2013 edition of this Oxford University Press book were just sold, it was to a publisher that will bring out an edition intended exclusively for the Taiwan and Hong Kong markets.

These similarities and differences were all things I expected, but one thing I experienced during my March pass through Hong Kong was completely unexpected: announcements in the airport when I landed that told me inspectors would be looking carefully to see that passengers did not try to board planes for the mainland with more than an acceptable amount of white powder. The contraband substance was not, as one might have thought, cocaine — though that surely would not be allowed in any quantities. Instead, what was being checked for was baby formula, as mainland scandals involving tainted powdered milk had led to the growth of a black market in this commodity. The inspectors were determined to keep travelers from buying up large quantities of the substance in Hong Kong, where supplies were assumed to be safe, and distributing it to friends or selling it on the mainland.

In a bizarre way, thanks to fears of tainted products, my moves between mainland cities and Hong Kong have now, in one sense, come full circle. Once again, a key contrast has to do with buying and eating. It is just that now, the contrast no longer has to do with a greater variety of things to consume. Now it is that in the still special city of Hong Kong, they are less likely to be dangerously adulterated.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010), a new edition of which is published this month by Oxford University Press.

image: Kin Cheung/AP

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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