In This Review

City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong
City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong
By Antony Dapiran
336 pp, Scribe, 2020
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Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now
Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now
By Joshua Wong with Jason Y. Ng
288 pp, Penguin Books, 2020
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Last summer, hundreds of thousands of protesters had been pouring onto the streets of Hong Kong for about a month when I got a call from a senior official in Beijing inviting me to lunch. We were quite friendly. We had shared stories about our work experiences and had politely sparred over the deepening chasm between the United States and China. I was about to leave China after seven years, and I was looking forward to a warm goodbye.

Thanks to Beijing’s scrupulous censorship, the crowds of angry Hong Kongers had barely registered on the mainland. Even as Hong Kong was becoming important on the world stage, the open defiance toward Beijing—two back-to-back marches had drawn more than a million people each—had yet to be revealed by China’s state-run media. Chinese leaders were afraid of contagion: if images of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were seen on the mainland, they might inspire errant thoughts and actions.

 So as I headed to lunch, ordinary Chinese people were only vaguely aware of the tumult. Many of them consider Hong Kong to be a place that is rightfully part of the mainland and dismiss its residents as spoiled ingrates who do not understand the wisdom of hard work. When the protests later turned violent, China’s media presented the tear gas, Molotov cocktails, ramming rods, and injured people as dark examples of what was wrong with the disobedient territory.

My host quickly dispensed with pleasantries. Hong Kong was the designated subject of our discourse, and the tone was more insistent than usual. As my host described the protesters as traitors, the United States became central to the argument: Washington was acting as the Black Hand. More specifically: “Allen Weinstein is responsible.” I knew about Weinstein from a book he wrote in 1978 that set out to prove with newly disclosed documents that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. “But Weinstein is dead,” I replied. The official retorted that Weinstein had founded the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 and insisted that the NED was behind the protests.

The idea that Washington was provoking the eruption in Hong Kong through a thinly funded nonprofit seemed far-fetched—something out of a 1950s playbook. But it also sounded like the kind of theory that would be attractive to Chinese Communist Party loyalists. In fact, my lunch partner had just emerged from a long refresher course at the Central Party School, the main ideological training ground for China’s elite, and the subject of how to deal with Hong Kong had been on the curriculum. Some weeks later, another Chinese official offered the same NED conspiracy theory to a friend of mine, a prominent civil servant in the government of one of the United States’ Asian allies. My friend had more fortitude than me and gave the rational response: if Washington had tried to organize the Hong Kong protests, only a handful of people would have shown up.

Before Xi came to power, Beijing had mostly treated Hong Kong as a backwater.

By blaming Washington, Beijing was eliding its own responsibility for the political unrest, which was provoked by the creeping chokehold that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, had imposed on Hong Kong in the previous five years. Decades ago, China and the United Kingdom agreed that when British rule of Hong Kong ended, in 1997, the territory would be entitled to its own governance. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s chief executive would be appointed by Beijing but the territory would maintain its own legislature and an independent judiciary, with the right to freedom of expression as the underlying glue. The arrangement was designed to last until 2047, when Hong Kong would pass into the hands of China. Although it was not specified in writing, it was generally assumed that the agreement would grant Hong Kong breathing room until then.

Before Xi came to power, in 2012, Beijing had mostly treated Hong Kong as a backwater. China’s officials dealt with it through their appointees in the territory, who publicly supported the status quo. Xi had other ideas, however, and soon began chipping away at the territory’s autonomy. At first, his Hong Kong handlers meddled by dictating a new school curriculum, designed to inculcate loyalty to Beijing. A strong backlash from Hong Kongers forced the withdrawal of the plan; the leaders of the anti-curriculum effort also mobilized 79 days of protests in 2014, known as the Umbrella Movement. In 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers vanished; all had been known to offer material critical of the mainland. Some of them, after reappearing, later revealed that they had been abducted by Chinese law enforcement. As a result, written criticism of China, once an attraction in Hong Kong for even the curious party faithful visiting from the mainland, disappeared.

In 2019, when Beijing proposed an extradition law that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be tried on the mainland, China’s overbearing approach finally proved more than Hong Kongers could bear. Naturally, many of them feared that the extradition law would cast a wide net and capture more than just those in legal trouble. Protests over the move have roiled Hong Kong for the past year, and the tensions finally came to a head when, on June 30, China imposed a harsh new national security law on the territory—a move that eschews any pretense of democratic rule, strips Hong Kong of much of its autonomy, and arguably signals its absorption by the mainland, decades ahead of schedule.

 As two recent books make clear, what has happened in Hong Kong will affect not only its 7.5 million residents but also the entire region—and the rest of the world. China’s crackdown has revealed that Xi is determined to impose authoritarian rule on the troublesome territory. Washington, meanwhile, has shown little appetite for confronting China over Hong Kong. And yet there is little doubt that the drama there will have an impact on the already tense U.S.-Chinese relationship.

A TEAR GAS BUFFET

In City on Fire, Antony Dapiran gives a rousing account of the protest movement from its beginnings in 2014 to the long showdowns in 2019. Australian by nationality, Dapiran has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years. As a blogger and a lawyer who has advised many Hong Kong firms, Dapiran is convincing in his analysis that the protests were homegrown, largely born of Beijing’s heavy-handed determination to stage a takeover of the former British colony decades before it had any legal right to do so.

Dapiran takes readers through the streets, alleyways, and subways of the city alongside the black-clad, yellow-hardhat-wearing, gas-masked protesters. He gets inside their skin, signing in to Telegram, an online social network used by the protesters to organize. Because Dapiran is with the crowds, he describes with great verve how the protesters operate without leaders, instead moving “like water” to pop up and then evade the police.

It is appropriate that Dapiran begins his discussion of the 2019 protests with the Hong Kong police resorting to tear gas, a vestige of the British colonial era. (He also points out that tear gas is not in fact a gas but rather a powder delivered by the smoke of a burning shell.) During the seven months of protests that began in June 2019, the police fired 16,000 rounds of tear gas, lobbing it inside subway stations, onto crowded walkways, and onto apartment balconies. Hong Kongers sardonically called the tactics an “all-you-can-eat tear gas buffet.” Hong Kong nurses, who treated wave after wave of victims, rallied against its use.

Protesters amid tear gas in Hong Kong, November 2019
Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times / Redux

The tear gas had a dual role. “As well as having a psychological effect on those being gassed, tear gas also has a psychological effect on those deploying it,” Dapiran writes. “By creating a scene of violence and chaos, tear gas works to objectify the crowd, turning it from a group of human beings into a seething, writhing mass.”

Soon, the Hong Kong police pulled out another weapon. Outside the government headquarters at the end of August, the police unleashed water cannons onto thousands of protesters. The jets of water contained a form of pepper spray and an indelible bright blue dye. Protesters were left dripping, smarting in pain, and now easily identifiable for arrest.

As the protests unfolded, Beijing bullied or co-opted Hong Kong’s commanding heights, sending a clear message about who was now in charge. Rupert Hogg, the chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airways, a potent symbol of Hong Kong as Asia’s financial hub, was forced to resign when staffers showed sympathy with the protesters. By contrast, Beijing treated the Hong Kong police sergeant Lau Chak-kei as a hero. He had pointed his shotgun—his finger on the trigger—at an unarmed crowd outside a police station. (The police later said that the gun was loaded with beanbags.) The Chinese government hailed Lau for standing up to what it characterized as violent rioters and invited him to Beijing for the National Day celebrations.

Last November, Dapiran watched as young middle-class professionals passed chunks of bricks from hand to hand to be thrown at the police during their two-week siege of a university campus. “It was clear to me that something in Hong Kong society had broken,” he writes.

LETTER FROM A HONG KONG JAIL

The 2019 protesters could easily have used Joshua Wong as their mascot. Wong had been a 17-year-old charismatic leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement—the vibrant precursor of the 2019 protests—and subsequently served several prison sentences for his activism. But instead of seeking to spearhead the more recent opposition to Beijing, Wong endorsed the idea that the 2019 protests should try a different strategy and be leaderless. None of the 2019 demonstrators put his or her head above the parapet by making speeches. Wong wandered the streets at the peak of the 2019 protests as one of the pack, almost unrecognizable except for when he turned up for interviews with the Western press. Unfree Speech, his portrait of his generation of Hong Kongers, provides a basic understanding of why so many ordinary people, most of whom had never been near a demonstration before, took to the streets. They were loyal, he explains, to Hong Kong—and not to the United Kingdom, like their parents, or to China, from where many of their ancestors had fled.

Wong writes that he learned about Hong Kong’s extraordinarily high rates of economic inequality as a student at United Christian College, a private secondary school in Hong Kong. Old people pick through trash cans and push heavy carts of recycled paper to make a borderline living. Salaried workers live in tiny cramped apartments. Yet the city’s monied class, with ties to Beijing, owns some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Although many members of his age cohort stayed on the sidelines during the 2014 protests, Wong was driven, he explains, by what he calls an “incompetent” Hong Kong government and the economic and social effects of the SARS epidemic, which hit Hong Kong especially hard. Most important, he found he had a gift for speaking in a way that could mobilize his peers. 

Wong delivering a speech in Hong Kong, October 2014
Wong delivers a speech in Hong Kong, October 2014
Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Due to his organizing skills and his clarity as an anti-China campaigner, Wong served 69 days in Hong Kong jails, where he turned 21. While there, he kept a diary, which he reprints as a part of his book. What is most notable, Wong led a jailhouse protest against the compulsory biweekly head shaving of the juvenile inmates. He was allowed to receive mail, play Ping-Pong, and keep current with his computer skills. His jottings fall short of ranking among the classics of prison literature, but they are appealing as an entrée into the mind of a brave young protest leader. 

Wong is not so foolhardy as to call for independence for Hong Kong; he knows that is not a winning idea. But he has been unrelenting in his advocacy for freedom of expression and a fair electoral process, both of which Beijing has feared could become attractive at some point on the mainland.

YOU COULD BE NEXT

Even as the protests heated up during 2014, Hong Kong stayed low on the agenda at the White House and on the periphery in the inner sanctum of Zhongnanhai, the formal seat of Xi’s power in Beijing. But the turmoil of 2019 pulled Hong Kong right to the center of Xi’s concerns. Xi essentially defined Hong Kong as a sovereignty issue, raising the price that the United States and its allies would have to pay if they tried to oppose him. Xi acted quickly to contain the protests. The coronavirus pandemic delayed his imposition of a new draconian national security law, but only by a few months.

The new law, put into effect on June 30, brings Hong Kong directly under China’s thumb. It has effectively flattened the already reeling protest movement. Beijing’s long-dreaded security forces are now authorized to set up operations in the territory. Beijing will be able to override local laws. Separatism, terrorism, subversion, and “colluding with foreign powers” are all defined as crimes. In short, the law makes it almost impossible for protest leaders, such as Wong and older prominent figures of the movement, to oppose the diktats of the Communist Party without risking extradition to the mainland. Hours after the new law came into effect, Wong and his co-founders resigned as the leaders of Demosisto, the political party they had formed in 2016 as the face of the protest movement.

For many Americans, Hong Kong is little more than an exotic destination.

For the small clutch of Washington lawmakers who care about Beijing’s suppression of human rights, Hong Kong’s travails have intensified their hard line against China. But for many Americans, including many policymakers and officeholders, the territory is little more than an exotic destination, an entrepot that mixes Asia and the West, and a now faded stopover for shopping. The lack of appetite in Washington to take a stand on Hong Kong almost certainly means that the territory will be steadily subsumed into China’s grand design for the Greater Bay Area, a planned megapolis of roughly 70 million people and 11 cities, including booming Guangzhou and Shenzhen. What has been Asia’s financial hub may find itself reduced to a twenty-first-century version of the fishing village that Queen Victoria’s subjects found when they sailed into the harbor in 1841.

The takeover of Hong Kong has also sent shudders through Taiwan, intensifying opposition there to the mainland. Chinese fighter jets buzzed Taiwan’s airspace on a daily basis in the period leading up to Beijing’s imposition of the new national security law in Hong Kong. That sent an unmistakable message to the island’s 23 million inhabitants: “You could be next.” 

The day after the new national security law went into effect, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a bill imposing sanctions on the Chinese officials and companies that will help implement the law. There is talk of revoking Hong Kong’s special status under American trade law, a step that would have little impact on Hong Kong’s economy. These measures are unlikely to deter Beijing’s resolve to keep Hong Kong on a very short leash or impress Hong Kong’s business community, now dominated by big Chinese investors. Whoever occupies the White House come January will have a hard time reversing the mugging of a world-renowned vibrant society at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. 

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  • JANE PERLEZ was a correspondent and Bureau Chief in Beijing for The New York Times from 2012 to 2019. She is currently working on a podcast series about U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China and its consequences.
  • More By Jane Perlez