This interview was conducted shortly after Vigil: Hong Kong On The Brink by Jeffrey Wasserstrom was published in February: an excerpt from the book appeared in Public Seminar on March 3 shortly before COVID-19 was classified as a global pandemic. Our thanks to our own Mark W. Frazier, Professor of Politics at The New School, for such a thoughtful and timely response to this book and our current moment. And thank you to Lala Pop, Ph.D. Student in Politics and Program Manager Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) & Democracy Seminar at The New School For Social Research, for bringing Jeffrey and Mark together.
Mark W. Frazier [MF]: Your book was released on February 11, in the midst of a public health crisis in mainland China that has meant massive disruptions to life and work in Hong Kong, the cancellation of a major international arts festival, and the cessation (for now at least) of the protests. What are the prospects that the protests can continue in 2020, assuming the COVID-19 infections are brought under control?
Jeffrey Wasserstrom [JW]: One central theme in Vigil is that Hong Kong has a long tradition of making fools of forecasters (that goes back to the 1840s), and I’m continually struck as well by how often social movements take unexpected turns in all parts of the world. That said, while I hesitate to make firm predictions on this topic, I see good reason to expect a significant resurgence of protests. There have been some even as fear of infection has led to a drop in all kinds of crowd activities.
In addition, one motivation for the protests last year was broad dislike and distrust of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, due to a feeling in some quarters that she was continually more concerned with whether her words and deeds pleased Beijing than whether they spoke to the needs desires of local residents. Some people who were ambivalent toward her, distrustful of the protesters or both are now likely to be more willing to take part in future street actions, due to how Lam’s handling the virus has alienated them.
MF: Vigil offers an excellent background to the 2019 protests, which as you note were just beginning when you took one of your final research trips to Hong Kong. One of the interesting areas of contrast and continuity is with Occupy Central aka The Umbrella Movement in 2014. A claim often heard today is that the ongoing protest wave has been “leaderless” by design, given the punishments that the government handed out to the leaders of the 2014 protests. Are these later protests genuinely leaderless? Has there been more coordination among civil society organizations than is apparent to outside observers?
JW: It’s true that there are no clear overall leaders of this movement playing roles like legal scholar Benny Tai did in the early stage of Occupy Central, nor any individual who stands out as a globally recognized face for the struggle, as Joshua Wong came to be during the Umbrella Movement. This does not mean, however, that there have been no key players and no key organizations. Civil Human Rights Front, for example, took the lead in organizing some of the biggest rallies of 2019.
In addition to Jimmy Sham of that group, the Cantopop singer and activist Denise Ho, while not a “leader” per se, has been a bold and important international spokesperson for the movement. A tireless campaigner for causes she believes in, from LGBTQ rights to Hong Kong’s struggles to me she’s definitely an inspiring figure — not least because when speaking out about the how she sees Chinese Communist Party moves as hurting the city she is from and loves, she also often brings up the horrific repressive in Xinjiang, at the other edge of the People’s Republic of China.
MF: Hong Kong has very high levels of economic inequality, beyond the simple measurements of income inequality. Protest movement leaders and participants have forcefully denied any suggestion that the 2019 protests were motivated by economic insecurities, such as unaffordable housing or dim employment prospects. But could the movement draw broader support if they were to call on the government to address economic grievances?
JW: That’s an interesting question. It is misguided to assume that all the discontent in Hong Kong is rooted in economic concerns or think that a specific economic move could make the crisis go away, which is what people in the central government and local government sometimes seem to believe. It’s also important, though, to acknowledge that material concerns matter and sometimes fuse together in complex ways with issues associated with politics, identity, and culture.
When some people in Hong Kong disparages newcomers and tourists from the mainland, and when some people on the mainland disparage the residents of the city, a complex cocktail is sometimes at the base of the regrettable mutually reinforcing bias — a cocktail that is made up of stereotypes associated with not just contrasting customs and linguistic divides but also economic competition and shifts over time in which group is associated the accumulation of wealth and pursuit of riches.
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to the economy is that the local authorities are seen as closely tied to Hong Kong’s tycoon class, even though the Chief Executive right now is not part of that class. With a couple of notable exceptions, the richest people in Hong Kong have refrained from expressing support for protests. This leads to a view that local oligarchs have struck a bargain with Beijing that is mutually beneficial to both sides. If one holds that view, then calling for free elections rather than sham ones to choose future Chief Executives is not just a political issue but also an economically inflected one.
Where things will go from here is again something I don’t know. I do know that there have been more calls within the movement to focus on building up and connecting with labor unions, as there is an awareness that, for all the success in mobilizing people for marches and rallies last year, the calls for general strikes did not achieve much.
I also know that there are groups, such as the Lausan collective, that are trying to figure out ways to work against the grain of Hong Konger vs. mainlander notions by drawing attention to shared grievances that workers on both sides of the border have. (By the way, just because it is always worth noting, there are people in Hong Kong who don’t despise people from the mainland and vice versa, as these are diverse populations, and there are Cantonese speakers on the mainland who feel caught in between when it comes to identity issues, especially in some cases because they have family members and friends living on both sides of the border.)
MF: There’s a suggestion in the epilogue that the events in Hong Kong over the past decade can be understood as an anti-imperial or anti-colonial resistance movement. Most Chinese nationalists would counter that Hong Kong was a part of China before the British took possession of the island and the adjacent territories from the mid-19th century. Calls for Hong Kong independence remain rare. In what ways do the protests resemble an anti-colonial resistance movement?
JW: Since finishing the book, I’ve become even more convinced than I was while writing it that it is useful to think of the current struggle as a variety of anti-colonial resistance movement. Such movements have taken many forms over the course of history, involved very different visions of the future and different tactics. Thinking about it capaciously, it could include protests that are in places that are not formal parts of empires but nested within empire-like structure and dependency.
Thought about that way, for example, countries such as Poland and Hungary were never formal colonies of the Soviet Union, the relationship between local officials and Moscow was sometimes similar to that between representatives of an empire in a colony and the metropole. The Hong Kong Chief Executives are not quite the same as the colonial Governors who were their counterparts in the British system.
The members of the former group have been people of Chinese ancestry, while those in the latter group were not, and Chief Executives are chosen through a locally held election (albeit one in which only a tiny percentage of people can vote), while Governors were appointed in London. Still, in each case, you have a figure who is beholden to those in a far-off capital, a few hundred miles away in the current system, a few thousand in the old one.
One frustration many in Hong Kong feel is that local people were not able to control their community’s fate before 1997 and cannot do so now, and, adding insult to injury, they did not get to play a central role in deciding how the transition from the old order to the new one would be managed and structured.
There is a lot of argument now about whether the current struggle is or should be a fight for “independence,” as so many anti-colonial movements have been, or for something else, such as protection of the “high degree” of autonomy the city was promised it could enjoy for fifty years after the 1997 Handover. This debate is hamstrung by the risks involved in calling for “independence,” which Beijing insists should be treated as a form of sedition and the difficulty of wrapping one’s mind around what exactly an “independent” Hong Kong would even look like and how it would function in the world.
Rather than dive into that debate, I find it productive at this point to simply note that not only are there ways that Beijing is operating like an imperial metropole at times vis a vis Hong Kong, but also the elements of an independence struggle that emerged during the 2019 protests. Even if only a small percentage of protests spoke about independence, during the massive march on December 8 I witnessed during my last trip across the Pacific, everyone on the streets seemed comfortable singing “Glory to Hong Kong” that day. That’s a song, written just last summer, that has gained wide popularity and sounds, in terms of its music and its lyrics, much like a national anthem.
I’ve also found persuasive a claim made by Ching Kwan Lee, a sociologist who has done pathbreaking work on labor activism on the mainland and China-Africa relations and connections and is now doing research in and on her native Hong Kong. The claim is that, in the course of the Hong Kong protests, a new sense of political community has formed. She draws on ideas in Imagined Community, Benedict Anderson’s classic study of nationalism, to argue that people in Hong Kong are now feeling themselves to be interconnected in a powerfully emotional way that exceeds past sense of sharing a bond. Anderson argues that in “imagined communities,” which need not be actual or even proposed nations but often are, people often turn to metaphors of kinship and home to explain their ties to even members of that entity they have never met face-to-face (hence the “imagined” part of the term). They also can be ready to risk their lives for the community.
Sorting out what is actually happening in Hong Kong, and how it resembles while also being distinctive from struggles that have taken place in other times and places, is an exciting enterprise. It has the best chance of generating light rather than simply heat if we don’t get too tied up in naming games (like that of trying to settle where exactly the line between working toward “independence” vs. toward a robust version of “high degree of autonomy” lies); and if we make room for what (in not just my work on Hong Kong but on other places) I have called “imperfect analogies,” parallels that are not exact but may be illuminating (like likening Carrie Lam to the heads of satellite states in the old Soviet system).
I hope that my book contributes to moving this enterprise forward, and know that there are exciting projects in the works by figures ranging from Lee to local lawyer and writer Antony Dapiran, to People’s Republic of Amnesia author Louisa Lim that will take it further. Hong Kong studies have become in recent years a vibrant and increasingly diverse area of activity, and I’m glad to be able to see myself now as not just a China specialist and world historian but part of that field as well.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His new book is VIGIL: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020).
Mark W. Frazier is Professor of Politics at The New School, where he also serves as Co-Director of India China Institute. Frazier has been a fellow in the Public Intellectuals Program of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations since 2005 and is co-editor of the journal Asia Policy.