Hong Kong from the Inside | Ian Johnson (2022)

In November 2019 some one thousand young pro-democracy protesters occupied the campus of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, which is located at a crucial junction of two highways and the cross-harbor tunnel. They disrupted traffic for more than a week, trying to pressure the government to investigate police misconduct during large-scale protests earlier in the year. On November 17 they repulsed police efforts to storm the campus. The police threatened to use live ammunition but decided to starve them out instead.

What happened on the following morning was a remarkable show of civic courage. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents tried to deliver supplies to the protesters. Police pushed them back, but they still found ways of rescuing the young people. Motorcyclists raced under a pedestrian bridge to pick up some who had climbed down on ropes. Civil engineers used maps of the sewage system and tidal tables to figure out when others could escape through the enormous underground tunnels without drowning. In the end, only one hundred of the protesters had to surrender to police.

The political scientist Ho-fung Hung recounts this episode in City on the Edge, a timely and carefully researched exposé of how China botched its stewardship of Hong Kong after taking over the British colony in 1997. It had promised fifty years of considerable autonomy that would leave in place many of the freedoms the prosperous region had enjoyed under the British. But instead Beijing installed a succession of barely competent leaders who tried to ram through unpopular measures meant to bring the city of 7.5 million more firmly under Chinese control. That spurred two decades of protests culminating in the 2019 uprising. Despite widespread popular support for the protests—several of half a million or more participants—Beijing eventually got its way. This was made clear in late June, when the Chinese leader Xi Jinping traveled to Hong Kong to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the handover—a trip that showed how the city’s once-thriving culture of political engagement, its independent media, and its judiciary have been obliterated.

Hung is a professor at Johns Hopkins who grew up and was educated in Hong Kong. His book is one of several recently published by people with long ties to Hong Kong who struggle to make sense of the catastrophe that has befallen it. Each gives a kaleidoscopic view of the many realities of a city that long sat on the edge of two empires: the great land empire of the Qing and its eventual successor, the People’s Republic of China, and the British oceanic empire and its successor in the American-led world trading system. This geography meant that Hong Kong was a borderland but also a bridge between a semiclosed command economy to its north and foreign commercial empires across the seas—a bridge that grew into one of the world’s great financial and commercial centers.

For most of the British colonial era, which began in the 1840s, people moved easily between China and Hong Kong, and most thought of themselves as Chinese. The creation of the People’s Republic cut these ties, causing a one-way flow of refugees escaping the Communist regime. A new postwar generation of people with no direct experience of China began to think of themselves as Hèunggóngyàhn, or Hong Kongers.

As Hung sees it, this was driven by a new middle class that developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. Unrest in 1966 highlighted a pressing need for social services in education, health care, and social work, which the British grudgingly provided. That created a class of local teachers, doctors, nurses, and social workers who combined with a new managerial class that arose around the territory’s booming manufacturing and financial services industries. These people, along with student groups, led grassroots movements for housing rights, social reform, and historic preservation, all well before the 1997 handover.

During the 1980s, Hung recalls, Hong Kongers saw nearby Taiwan and South Korea democratize but knew that their own fate was out of their hands: in 1984 Britain agreed to hand the colony back to China in 1997, when its ninety-nine-year lease on a large chunk of the territory expired. Still, many of these new social activists pushed for more democracy before the handover, culminating in part in the 1990 Basic Law. This contradictory document allowed China to pass some sort of undefined national security law once it took control but also promised that Hong Kong would maintain its separate political and economic system until 2047.

Before the handover, protests and pressure actions were often mild and polite: candlelight vigils, petitions, but little confrontation, which led to the stereotype that Hong Kongers were apolitical and mainly interested in earning money. This was mistaken, but the British administration did manage to balance the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong society and keep it relatively peaceful and prosperous. In part, this was because those forces were only gathering steam and not yet as potent as they would become, but it is also true that the British ruled with a relatively light touch. In Hung’s telling, this history is what made the subsequent militancy so jarring:

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Any Hong Kong observer would notice how swiftly and fundamentally the social equilibrium underlining the relative political stability of pre-1997 Hong Kong unraveled under Chinese rule.

A combative protest culture arose after the handover, demanding more democracy and the protection of the limited rights that citizens enjoyed. The British had never conferred full democracy on Hong Kong but had left it with a partially elected legislative council, a fairly free press, and an independent judiciary. Without these institutions, many Hong Kongers realized that they would become just another big Chinese city with censorship, arbitrary arrests, and no protection from government power. Businesses also worried that the loss of rights would undermine prosperity by politicizing business disputes and hurting the city’s world-class financial industry.

It was surprising how broad-based the support was for these protesters, especially in 2019. Most detainees were students, but frontline protesters also included doctors, airline pilots, and accountants. Opinion polls showed that residents consistently blamed the government for escalating the conflict.

Beijing’s biggest error in trying to subjugate Hong Kong was to use what Hung calls “racialist nationalism.” This is essentially what the Qing Empire used to control the vast territories it acquired in the eighteenth century, including Xinjiang and Tibet, which more than doubled its size. During this period, it offered these new possessions autonomy, but the assumption was that this was temporary. Qing authorities encouraged Han Chinese emigration and introduced Chinese culture in these regions, making it the benchmark for correct assimilation. This trend continues today, helping to explain the brutal policies being forced on Xinjiang, Tibet, and other non–ethnic Chinese parts of the People’s Republic. Hong Kong would seem to be different from these areas because, according to modern racial discourse, it is “Chinese” in the sense that its residents were historically part of the same cultural world as Beijing, Shanghai, and other ethnically Chinese parts of the People’s Republic.

But areas such as Hong Kong have also been on the margins of Chinese culture, zones of refuge and resistance with a language different from the standard Chinese (also known as Mandarin, or Putonghua) spoken predominantly in North China. The Cantonese version of Chinese spoken in Hong Kong and nearby regions is as different from Mandarin as French is from Spanish or Italian. People there have not necessarily felt themselves part of the “motherland” to which the authorities in Beijing assume that all patriotic Hong Kongers belong.

Thus one of the ways that Beijing has typically denigrated opponents in Hong Kong is to call them un-Chinese. One of Hong Kong’s best-known public figures, the civil servant and later politician Anson Chan Fang On-sang, was attacked as a “traitor to the Han race” (hanjian) and for “forgetting about your ancestors” (shudian wangzu).

This history is also why the People’s Republic did not view absorbing Hong Kong as a unique challenge. After it took power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party promised regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang autonomy but quickly imposed firm control. From the start, Hung reminds us, Chinese leaders saw these regions as templates for Hong Kong’s ultimate assimilation. Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the 1984 agreement with the British, had been in charge of the Communist Party’s Southwestern Bureau from 1949 to 1952 and was involved in negotiations with the Dalai Lama. They quickly ended when the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1959, bloodily suppressing Tibetan opposition.

During these early years of the People’s Republic, the British gingerly maintained relations with Beijing, always fearing an invasion of Hong Kong. London permitted the Chinese Communist Party to build and maintain authority over major media outlets in the city, set up profitable business operations, and run a network of party cells headquartered at the Xinhua news agency. This is one reason why China could move so swiftly after 1997 to push for firm control. In 2002–2003 Beijing tried to implement the antisubversion legislation stipulated in the Basic Law, but popular opposition forced its withdrawal.

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Beijing’s conclusion was that this defeat was due to a lack of patriotism caused by 150 years of British colonial rule. It pushed for more “patriotic education,” which has worked surprisingly well in China to essentially brainwash many young people into seeing things the way the Communist Party desires. The government tried in 2019 to pass an extradition law, which spurred the mass protests, but these only managed to delay passage of the law, and it took effect on June 30, 2020, leading to the clampdown that has effectively ended the city’s autonomy. The only surprise might be how long Hong Kong held out—nearly twenty-five years—which Hung ascribes to its value to China as a hub for global capital. That deterred Beijing’s heavy hand, although its need for control finally won out.

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City-states like Hong Kong are not unique. Hung reminds us that Machiavelli outlined the strategies that a prince can use to rule a free city he has recently acquired. Many of these five-hundred-year-old techniques are eerily similar to methods employed by Beijing over the past two decades: giving locals a free hand (the initial promise of fifty years of autonomy); creating a trusted local oligarchy to rule on behalf of the prince (the initial three “chief executives” installed by Beijing); and—today’s method—annihilating local customs in order to rule directly with an iron fist. (Machiavelli prefers the first and second methods; the third, he writes, can become a drain, and “then the acquisition turns into a loss.”)

Hung does not believe that Beijing’s move toward direct control means the end of Hong Kong’s days as a great city. In two chapters based on original research, he challenges much of the conventional wisdom that Hong Kong has lost its position as China’s most important financial center. Many see in Shanghai’s rise, for example, Hong Kong’s death knell, because Shanghai’s stock market now has a larger market capitalization. But Hong Kong is a far bigger market in futures and bonds, and it offers more transparent regulations. It also has a broader financial services industry, with extensive insurance, legal, and accounting firms not found in China. Crucially, it has its own currency as well, the Hong Kong dollar, which is fully convertible, while China’s renminbi, or yuan, is not. In essence, Hong Kong allows China to take advantage of global markets and capital while keeping a partially closed economic system.

Depending on one’s financial literacy, these two chapters might be challenging—the barrage of tables can perhaps be skimmed by most readers. But Hung makes an important point: Hong Kong remains important to China because the country does not intend to open up completely, especially under its control-oriented leader Xi Jinping. That means Hong Kong still has a function as an airlock between the global and the Chinese economic systems, which in turn means that China might not want to completely squelch all of its liberties: “Hong Kong is a city constantly on the edge. It is on the edge of great powers, on the edge of being annihilated, and on the edge of breaking free.”

Hung writes well and provides excellent material and arguments, but what is it like to live in this edge city? One answer is provided by Karen Cheung’s The Impossible City, the memoir of a young woman growing up in post-handover Hong Kong. Born in 1993 to a Hong Kong father and a mainland mother, Cheung moved from the Chinese city of Shenzhen to Hong Kong when she was one year old.

She had an epically miserable childhood. Her father was a self-made businessman who met her mother in a Shenzhen restaurant where she was working as a waitress. The two appear to have had nothing in common and later split, with Cheung’s mother and younger brother moving to Singapore. Her father sent the girl to be raised by his mother, a loving but poorly educated woman who had little idea of the tensions in her granddaughter’s life. Cheung’s father slowly lost his business and spent hours listening to loud music late into the night and neglecting her. Cheung was later diagnosed as suicidal, spent time in mental hospitals, and became addicted to prescription drugs. She left home at eighteen to study law at the University of Hong Kong and spent dismal years living in overcrowded apartments.

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As a vehicle for telling us about Hong Kong, Cheung’s personal story has many strengths. Although she doesn’t make this point explicitly enough, her father’s life wasn’t unique. Many Hong Kong (and Taiwanese) businessmen had affairs, children, and marriages during stints on the mainland, especially in boomtowns like Shenzhen during the go-go 1990s. In this sense, Cheung’s tumultuous childhood is a product of a specific era of Hong Kong history, giving us insight into the intense pressures it caused for families. Cheung went to an expat school for children of Singaporeans but later had to attend a local high school when her father ran out of money. She skillfully contrasts these two worlds, one of children with futures outside Hong Kong and the other of those tied to the city.

Cheung ended up in the latter camp, in part because, for unclear reasons, she renounced her British National (Overseas) passport and then lost her Singaporean citizenship. As of the book’s publication she still lives in Hong Kong, and although she has a likely way out (via her husband, who has a foreign passport), she is the only writer under review who comes across as truly bound to the city. Hers was not the world of smart expat kids or politically aware children of the city’s new middle class. Instead, it was the life of someone whose horizons never extended beyond Hong Kong:

I stayed mostly in libraries, cramming myself with English literature and Chinese history, so I could score well enough to earn a coveted university place in Hong Kong. I lived inside television shows, books, and, later, the Internet.

This upbringing in a troubled household meant that Cheung’s youth was overwhelmed by personal problems, so she only really engages with her hometown relatively late in her story. It also leads her to make claims that some might dispute, such as that Hong Kongers had no sense of local identity before the 1997 handover.

Cheung had her awakening to Hong Kong at age twenty-one when she was in Scotland studying law. She was away for just a semester, but back home the 2014 “Umbrella” protest movement was going on in the streets. Suddenly she realized that she cared about Hong Kong more than anything and yearned to be part of the movement. She writes that she overcompensated for missing the 2014 protests by throwing herself into journalism for a few years and observing every subsequent protest.

Cheung challenges readers who lazily look for one person whose story can stand in for Hong Kong’s. She grew up outside the Mid-Levels—a foreigner enclave halfway up the hill that dominates Hong Kong Island—but learned excellent English at the expat school she attended, allowing her to make connections in the world of English-language publishing:

If I gave you the impression that I had a shitty early twenties, it’s because everyone my age in late-capitalist Hong Kong has had a shitty early twenties. I am not suddenly more representative of Hong Kong just because I offer you a little more than life in the Mid-Levels. The fact that my father could afford to send me to an international school guaranteed my fluency in English, and that in turn guaranteed upward mobility and continued privilege.

These personal tensions underlie large sections of the book. She writes for foreign media and publishing houses but resents having to explain Hong Kong to foreign readers. She is scathing about expats and people who come to Hong Kong to “find themselves,” but fell in love with it herself after moving to the western district of Hong Kong Island, which has long been popular among poorer expats. As if to resist the demands of outsiders to explain Hong Kong, she sprinkles the text with untranslated Chinese characters. The intention might be to remind us that we’re dealing with a world that primarily operates in a foreign language, but readers who cannot understand written Chinese miss out on some important points.

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Although her complaints sometimes come across as repetitive, this is a vivid, well-written account of how many people in Hong Kong feel betrayed. They were promised fifty years of autonomy after the handover and thought they had another twenty-five years until China would lower the boom. Suddenly 2047 has arrived early and their worlds are smashed.

A book that bridges Hung’s research-driven narrative with Cheung’s millennial elegy is Indelible City by Louisa Lim, a former BBC and NPR journalist now living in Australia. The author of a book on the Communist Party’s efforts to erase the history of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre,* she now turns her attention to the city where she grew up.

Lim’s mother was British and published serious research into local historical sites, dragging along her children on expeditions to cemeteries, temples, and villages. Her father was a Singaporean hired to work in the Hong Kong civil service. Lim’s Eurasian heritage made her stick out in the United Kingdom, where she lived until she was five. Hong Kong was plagued by deep wellsprings of racism against Caucasian women who married Chinese men, but it was also a cosmopolitan melting pot where she could feel at home.

Lim cleverly uses the story of a slightly mad calligrapher, Tsang Tsou-choi, to discuss Hong Kong’s erased history. Known as the King of Kowloon, Tsang was a poorly educated man who claimed that his ancestors owned large swaths of the district of Kowloon. From the 1950s until the early 2000s, he furiously wrote out his claims in messy calligraphy on telephone poles, electrical boxes, and any public space he could find. He listed the twenty-one generations of his family lineage, along with the lands that they had lost, and sometimes added “Fuck the Queen!” for good measure. Tsang’s story is skillfully woven into the main text, which recounts the past decades of history, from Lim’s childhood to her returning to raise a family on limited means in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Lim also makes use of original research in the British archives. She unearths extensive interviews done by the UK-based historian Steve Tsang, who talked to most of the major British and local Hong Kong figures in the years leading up to the handover. His interviews were sealed for thirty years, and Lim was one of the first to mine them, revealing a devastating picture of how the British bungled the negotiations: they acceded to almost all Chinese demands and did not involve even the Hong Kong elite in their diplomacy—although it’s unclear whether this would have made a difference, since China probably did hold all the cards

Lim makes a convincing case that had the British, for example, given Hong Kongers British citizenship, as they did to people living in Gibraltar, China might have acted quite differently. She is also withering in her assessment of how the British quashed all local efforts at democracy until they had one foot out the door. That led China to view the partially elected local parliament as a trick the British had played on them before leaving.

Lim’s book is touched by a sense of loss, even while she hopes for Hong Kong’s renewal in the future:

People like me—the half-castes and mixed-bloods—had never really fit anywhere, but Hong Kong’s own hybrid status had made it feel like a place where we could thrive. Now the forces that were changing Hong Kong were leaving me behind. It was around this time I stopped calling myself a Hong Konger. But I didn’t really know what else I was.

Mark Clifford is not a native Hong Konger but lived for nearly thirty years in the city, working as one of its most prominent English-language journalists. He was a reporter at the Far Eastern Economic Review and BusinessWeek, and later editor in chief of The South China Morning Post and The Standard. He also served on the board of Next Digital, the company founded by the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, which owned the territory’s feistiest newspaper, Apple Daily. Clifford left Hong Kong in 2021 when Lai was arrested and Next Digital crushed.

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In his new book, Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World, Clifford uses his background in business journalism to give sure-footed, brisk explanations of how the city’s real estate oligarchs rig the property market. He writes scathingly of how the British worked hand in hand with the business elite to suppress popular aspirations. And his firsthand account of Lai’s arrest is heartfelt and telling: the owner of the biggest media company in Hong Kong was denied bail and paraded in shackles. Clifford has exchanged numerous letters with the now seventy-four-year-old, who remains optimistic in prison thanks in part to his Roman Catholic faith.

Like Hung, Clifford cautions against writing Hong Kong’s obituary. He says that for its elite, especially the new elite from the mainland, it will remain attractive, with world-class dining, spectacular hikes in the mountains, and a famous skyline and harbor. Thanks to China’s partially closed economy, Hong Kong will keep a special position as the country’s window on international financial markets. It is no longer a free city, but Clifford echoes many others in a romantic but perhaps wise warning not to bet against this remarkable place:

Hong Kong will be tested as the party tries to crush those who stand up to its power. Very difficult times are bound to follow, and many people will suffer for their beliefs. But ideals of freedom have outlasted every dictatorship. Hong Kong will not be an exception.

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