We Can Be Hopeful: A Review of Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink
by Terrie Ng
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history of modern China at University of California, Irvine, tackles the current situation of Hong Kong in his latest book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, published earlier this year. Though a short volume, the book recounts a number of key moments in history when Hong Kong was, according to the author, already on the verge of losing its local identity due to China’s totalitarianism, namely, the signature of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, and the subsequent handover in 1997. The irreversible damage caused by these has taken a toll on every Hongkonger who longs for democracy for the city, but the realisation of being betrayed by two sovereign states came lamentably late. Hong Kong’s handover to the PRC was decided by the overly optimistic Thatcher government, who failed to see, or refused to acknowledge, the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitious irredentism. As Wasserstrom highlights, there are many indicators in Chinese history that show how eagerly the CCP has striven to eliminate different cultures and voices – the annexation of Tibet in 1950, the flight of people, capital and the sundering of international ties from Shanghai during the Mao Zedong era, and the brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement in the heart of Beijing in 1989. Hong Kong should have learned from these lessons, the author argues. Nevertheless, Thatcher believed, even after witnessing the bloodshed at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, that the PRC would still keep its promise and eventually grant democracy to Hong Kong.
The author goes on to describe the world’s pessimism in view of the handover of Hong Kong. He cites an untimely but apposite article by Louis Kraar, former Asia correspondent for Fortune, entitled “The Death of Hong Kong”. Kraar predicted that the handover on 1 July 1997 would be the death knell for the city, as it would immediately became a colony of Beijing. He foresaw that Hong Kong would lose its unique status as an international financial hub; the English language would lose its dominance over Cantonese and Mandarin; the PLA would stroll the streets in cahoots with local triads; the Hong Kong government would be controlled by Chinese officials, replacing uncooperative judges and elected legislators and directly appointing the city’s chief executive… Kraar’s worries were deemed alarmist at the time, as China did not overtly intervene in the city’s local affairs immediately after the handover. However, the prediction has proved to be prescient ever since Xi Jinping came to power. The attempted introduction of the National Security Bill in 2003, the proposal for the Moral and National Education curriculum in 2012, the Extradition Bill in 2019, and the eventual implementation of a National Security Law this year are all evidence of the incessant efforts of Communist China to strangle Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and to violate citizens’ human rights. Hong Kong is once again ‘on the brink’.
As a historian, Wasserstrom draws on close observations of the gradual disappearance of Hong Kong’s local identity. The author emphasises tangible evidence: the cession of Hong Kong territory to China at the Express Rail Link terminal, and the ‘Greater Bay Area’ plan that could gradually raze the physical border between Hong Kong and China. The Hong Kong government has claimed that these grand projects aim to foster bilateral collaboration on economic development; nevertheless, the blurring of borders would only result in a more rapid assimilation of the former British colony to Communist China, which would inevitably pose a considerable menace to the city’s local identity. For a long time, the Hong Kong government has neglected its people’s grievances. Instead of defending the interests of citizens, the government’s policies favour further Chinese intervention, such as soliciting interpretations of the Basic Law from China’s Standing Committee of National People’s Congress, disqualifying pro-democracy legislators and candidates likely to oppose pro-Beijing policies, attempting to import workers from mainland China disregarding qualification discrepancy. This has forged the illusion that Hong Kong is indeed deeply dependent on China and that Beijing’s intervention is necessary. As a result, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists are left terribly unsettled. Concurrently, enabling Beijing’s overbearing intervention has not only dwarfed the local government’s legitimacy, but concomitantly pronounced the death of ‘One Country, Two Systems’.
Although the author’s fear of the disappearance of Hong Kong’s local identity is far from groundless, this local identity is not quite disappearing, but is rather evolving. For decades, Hong Kong’s local identity has been intertwined with the celebrated ‘Lion Rock spirit’, upheld by Hongkongers from older generations who still believe that an assiduous work ethic and apolitical lifestyle can overcome adversity and bring prosperity. Some of the proponents of this colonial era philosophy have been the wealthiest businessmen in Hong Kong today, such as Lee Ka-shing. Nonetheless, the myth of the Lion Rock spirit can no longer be applied to contemporary Hong Kong, where staying silent about Beijing’s tightening controls will only lead to greater cultural erosion as well as political suppression. More and more citizens, especially those from the younger generation, have become detached from the prosperity narrative. On 16 June 2019, two million enraged Hongkongers from all walks of life took to the streets to show their resistance to Beijing—it was the biggest turnout for a protest in Hong Kong history. The anti-extradition bill protests swept away the despair of the post-Umbrella Movement, reuniting those who think that only democracy will save Hong Kong from oppression and injustice. This common goal has reshaped Hong Kong’s local identity, which has morphed from pursuing the material needs of individuals to fighting for the public interest as the city’s collective will. It is also notable that such resistance is no longer limited to marches or sit-ins. The fight for freedoms and democracy have been sewn into Hongkongers’ daily lives and everyone can participate to the best of their ability, such as fundraising for those unreasonably arrested by police, supporting pro-democracy local businesses, sing-along flash mobs, and putting up information posters on the ‘Lennon Walls’ across the eighteen districts. The massive participation in this resistance stems from the urge to defend citizens’ local identity, and by defending their local identity, it becomes Hongkongers’ new identity.
Wasserstrom’s Vigil largely focuses on the impact and meaning of the June Fourth vigil to Hong Kong. In parallel, Hongkongers have also organised various unofficial vigils to commemorate important dates and events from the demonstrations of the past year, such as the start of the anti-extradition law protests, the violence against random citizens in Yuen Long on July 21, 2019, in which police colluded with Triad thugs, and the unsolved deaths of Chow Tsz-lok and Chan Yin-lam. To generations born after 1989, the pain and anguish from the 2019 protests are more keenly felt, though the bravery of Chinese students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 has strongly influenced Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movements. Will these local vigils one day supersede the significance of the June Fourth vigil? Will these grievances remain unresolved for another thirty years?
‘History does not repeat itself.’
This quote, attributed to Mark Twain, is repeated several times towards the end of the book. The second half of the maxim goes, ‘but it often rhymes’. Such a reiteration can be read as the author’s warning to those who ignore the lessons of history. History will not be re-enacted exactly as it was, but if we’re not vigilant enough, similar events will happen under our eyes before it’s too late. Twenty-three years after the Handover, Hongkongers are now facing the most blatant political violence by the CCP. In light of what has happened in Shanghai, Tibet or Xinjiang, Hongkongers should be clear about what the CCP is capable of, but tend to assume that humans are of good nature by default. It is not too late for Hongkongers to finally realise they will probably not enjoy the democracy they were once promised by 2047. The upheaval of a widespread pro-democracy movement is well under way. Hongkongers have made historic achievements one after another in just a year. With such momentum, we can be hopeful that Hong Kong will eventually steer away from the brink.
How to cite: Ng, Terrie. “We Can Be Hopeful: A Review of Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 3 Aug. 2020, hkprotesting.com/2020/08/03/vigil/ .
Terrie Ng is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Rennes 1 in western France. With a research focus on Hong Kong’s protest history, he travels between France and Hong Kong for the past years. He is currently writing a doctoral thesis on the 1970s student movement in Hong Kong. His recent writing can be found in Branded Protest: the power of branding and its influence on protest movements (BIS, 2019).