One system, different culture

From the moment, in July 1997, that China became Hong Kong’s sovereign, two visions of the city-state’s future vied for ascendancy. Hongkongers wanted democracy, the Chinese Communist Party demanded obedience. Hongkongers wished to preserve their traditions, the CCP resolved to uproot them. In the eyes of China’s leaders, Hongkongers were unpatriotic, calling themselves “Hong Kong people” rather than “Chinese”.

“Men easily savage what was never secure”, lamented the Anglo-Saxon poet of Wulf and Eadwacer. After years of protest and provocation, the stage was set in Hong Kong for a final showdown between China’s overlords and their restive inhabitants. It arrived in the early summer of 2019. An extradition bill that allowed Hongkongers to be tried in mainland courts sparked a protest that became an uprising. Within a year the uprising was over, its defeat sealed in a national security law that, in broad strokes, criminalized “terrorism”, “secession”, “subversion” and “collusion with foreign powers”. Once regnant slogans – “high degree of autonomy,” “Hong Kong people’s governing Hong Kong” – were now empty and Hong Kong’s sub-constitution, the Basic Law, was rendered ineffective. Following the “election” to replace Carrie Lam earlier this month, it could hardly be more fitting for Hong Kong in 2022 to have a former policeman, John Lee, as its chief executive.

Recent books by Stephen Vines and Mark L. Clifford investigates the causes and effects of Hong Kong’s downfall. Until recently both authors were veteran expatriate and (this being Hong Kong) businessmen. Fearing imminent arrest by the national security police, Vines fled Hong Kong in August 2021, capping a thirty-five-year career in the city. Clifford’s three-decade tenure in Hong Kong ended in October 2020.

Vines’s Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship charts the background to the 2019 “uprising” (the term he prefers to “protest”), its chaotic trajectory, foreign support for the democracy movement and the endgames of localization and the CCP. The author smoothly traverses Hong Kong’s history, politics, demographics and economy, enabling readers to see the hidden threads connecting them. Vines asks intriguing questions. How was it possible for students, trade unionists, civil society organizations, pan-democratic politicians and ordinary citizens to form a grand anti-government in 2019? What allowed this coalition to cohere until it was crushed by the government? The answers lie partly in what the movement eschewed and partly in what it embraced. It articulated no overarching doctrine, rendering it less vulnerable to ideological schism. Attitudes might differ on some issues, including the legitimacy of violence against the police, but these differences were subordinated to a common opposition to the CCP, a belief in full democracy and a passion to preserve the distinctiveness of Hong Kong’s material, linguistic and symbolic culture . This was as much a conservative uprising – to protect a way of life – as one to enhance civil liberties.

Less successful is Clifford’s Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s crackdown reveals about its plans to end freedom everywhere. Clifford is the president of the US-based Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. He knows the terrain, but his book is poorly crafted. The title is a misnomer. Only a fraction of the study considers China’s global footprint, now or in the future. It is disjointed, really three separate essays on Hong Kong’s economy, colonial history and politics, with plenty of padding and overlap. This is a pity, because Clifford is a talented storyteller who has met some of Hong Kong’s quirkier personalities. Readers are introduced to Jin Zhong, a muckraking publisher, Gordon Wu, the engineer mastermind of the Pearl River Delta infrastructure projects, Lau Chaak-ming, the author of a Cantonese-Cantonese dictionary (as distinguished from a bilingual dictionary), and Johnson Chang , the founder of the Hanart TZ art gallery. Almost hidden is a superb chapter on the history of Hong Kong’s arts scene (entitled “The First Post-Modern City to Die”). Despite the book’s failings, this chapter alone would justify its cost.

While Clifford and Vines touch on several aspects of Hong Kong’s identity, Kevin Carrico examines in detail the idea of ​​its nationhood in Two Systems, Two Countries: A nationalist guide to Hong Kong. A senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Monash University in Melbourne and a sociocultural anthropologist by training, Carrico explains that he had intended to write an immersive ethnographic study of nationalist intellectuals in Hong Kong. But when a visit to the city-state was monitored by Chinese state security, he changed course, deeming it unsafe for his interlocutors to be identified, even anonymously. His book then became a study of nationalist texts, all publicly available and most written after 2011.

Carrico’s goal is to provide “an introduction to the main schools of Hong Kong nationalism, giving readers the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of independence and recognize their intellectual contribution to the study of the politics of Hong Kong and China”. He achieves this and more: his lucid and comprehensive survey is likely to become the pre-eminent account of Hong Kong’s nationalist currents. The four that he identifies are “city-state theory”, “self-determination theory”, “independence theory” and “returnism”, which advocates a resumption of British sovereignty. Each is identified with a core thinker or group of thinkers. For example, city-state theory, which depicts Hong Kong as a republic analogous to the ancient Greek police, is the idea of ​​Chin Wan, a prolific author and localist who was once my colleague at Lingnan University. All species of Hong Kong nationalism are, of course, monstrous to the CCP. Carrico describes how its counter-narratives pivot on similes of deprecation: Hong Kong is variously represented as a child, a hysteric, an outlaw and, inevitably, as a virus.

One anomaly of Carrico’s account bears mentioning. Anthropologists do not undertake to judge the merit of their subjects’ ideas. They aim, rather, to show, via close, direct observation, how and why the ideas make sense to those who hold them. The author is a skilful practitioner of this art and extends it creatively to textual analysis – but only when the subjects are nationalist intellectuals. He applies an entirely different method to the ideas of “official scholars”, Carrico’s term for those critical of Hong Kong nationalism, whom he elides, cavalierly, with CCP apologists.

Covering the 2019 Hong Kong Protests by Luwei Rose Luqiu examines how reporters of all stripes navigated the city’s choppy passage from “a libertarian to an authoritarian” political order. Luqui is a journalist and teacher at the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Communication, and her book is based on interviews with seventy, as well as extensive textual research. Each of the main chapters is devoted to a particular type of media – mainstream, state, oppositional (citizen and student journalism) and foreign – and identifies a tension or dilemma specific to that type. Consider the situation of foreign correspondents. Most understood that the 2019 protest movement had a complex political and social background, but they were also aware that international readers were not interested in receiving a history lesson. They wanted to know, chiefly, how China was responding to unrest in Hong Kong. Foreign media also tended to fall back on familiar formulae, even after these had become anachronistic. Unlike the Umbrella Movement of 2014, centerd on a coterie of magnetic leaders like Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, the 2019 uprising was leaderless. That did not stop Korean correspondents from looking for new leaders and re-interviewing previous ones.

Readers might expect, given Luqiu’s pedigree in state media, to receive a less than balanced account of the coverage of the Hong Kong protests. On the contrary, her analysis is outstanding in its fairness and restraint. The chapter on citizen journalism, for instance, points out that, where it failed in professionalism, it succeeded in compass. Unlike mainstream or legacy media, citizen journalism is largely free from editorial control or the pressures of advertising. Accordingly, in 2019 it was able to articulate an alternative – often radical – viewpoints and, not least, expose police brutality.

Without a trace of self-importance, Luqiu describes some of her own dilemmas. She urged her students who were covering the protests to be disinterested in their reporting and to avoid actions that might threaten their career prospects. She also discouraged frontline reporting as a safety risk. Was she thereby encouraging them to play too safe and even to self-censor? Even more interesting are her reflections on state media. Many who work for these outlets, she says, do their work in good faith and try to uphold professional standards of impartiality. Naturally, they are frustrated when their reporting is distorted by government and editorial fiat. Such calm their consciences with a soothing caveat: they are not responsible for what others make of their reporting. Alas, the consolation is hollow, says Luqiu. To work for an agency that pedals in propaganda is to become, at only one remove, a propagandist oneself.

Peter Bahr was a professor in social theory at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, from 2000 to 2021. He is currently a fellow at the Center for Social and Political Thought at the University of South Florida

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