Two books and two documentary films explore the massive anti-China demonstrations that shook Hong Kong in 2014 and over the past year. Cheng is a Hong Kong–based scholar who has been writing on local affairs for four decades. The two dozen articles and book chapters reprinted here trace residents’ transition from political apathy under British colonial rule to resistance to what many view as an even more colonialist Chinese rule. The Basic Law, or “mini-constitution,” that Beijing wrote to define how the territory would be governed after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 created an all-powerful chief executive and a weak legislative council, both beholden to Beijing. China anticipated that Hong Kong residents would learn to accept their status as Chinese citizens as the territory prospered from economic integration with the mainland. Instead, income stagnation, rising housing costs, and growing inequality created pessimism about the future. Beijing’s handpicked chief executives turned out to be politically tone-deaf, and China increasingly interfered in the territory’s politics, judicial autonomy, and media.
With public sentiment trending the wrong way, Beijing delayed the promised introduction of direct elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive. Frustration over that delay sparked the massive, 79-day Umbrella Movement in 2014, which is analyzed in Lee and Sing’s edited volume. The contributors’ deep reporting reveals the debates among the demonstrators over how to preserve the territory’s autonomy. Moderates advocated accommodating to the reality of Chinese sovereignty in exchange for more freedom to elect local leaders. Hong Kong nationalists wanted to resist infrastructure projects that would speed integration with the mainland. Self-proclaimed “localists” ranged from those who sought merely to limit the right of mainlanders to buy Hong Kong property to those who advocated full independence and statehood. As students took the lead from established pro-democracy figures, the movement grew more radical. In the end, Hong Kong police violently suppressed the protests, and there were no concessions made by either Beijing or the Hong Kong government.
These events set the stage for even bigger demonstrations beginning in 2019 against a proposed extradition agreement. Two documentary films convey the intensity of feeling that drove millions into the streets to brave tear gas and police batons. Denise Ho is the inspiring story of a Cantonese-language pop star who found herself locked out of the mainland Chinese market and her endorsements from international luxury brands dropped because she stood with the protesters. We Have Boots presents extraordinary footage and interviews that reveal how the vicious cycle of protest, government rigidity, and police violence pushed demonstrators toward an ever-deeper commitment to Hong Kong’s separate identity. In 2020, however, Beijing imposed a national security law on the territory, with the apparent purpose of using the threat of punishment to force Hong Kongers to “love the motherland.”