Life in Hong Kong will never be the same, reflects book on recent riots
City On Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong
Scribe, $35Review by ROSS FITZGERALD
These days, there’s a lot to bash China about, but the protesters in Hong Kong have hardly bathed themselves in glory, either.
Most of us have seen footage of the mass movement that began in Hong Kong in June 2019, as a protest against a proposed bill extraditing lawbreakers to mainland China. Protesters claim this resulted in a march 1 million strong on Sunday, June 9, and then of 2 million a week later.
But after the extradition bill was suspended and then withdrawn, regular weekend protests continued and widened to include what demonstrators, with five fingers raised, said were their ‘‘Five demands, not one less!’’. These demands were the withdrawal of the extradition bill (that’s done); an independent investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct; the release of all arrested protesters; retraction of the official characterisation of the protests as ‘‘riots’’; and the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam (who has so far resisted)
Having written about Hong Kong politics and the 2019 protests for journals as diverse as The New Statesman, The Guardian and The Atlantic, Antony Dapiran, a long-time resident there, boasts a fine writerly pedigree. He also has close connections at the University of Hong Kong.
But, disappointingly, Dapiran’s book is one-sided and one-dimensional. It does not give us a thoroughly nuanced insight into the complicated reality that characterised the actions of the protesters, the local administrators and politicians, as well as the actions of the authoritarian Communist Chinese regime in Beijing, and that of the Hong Kong police, a number of whose leaders were trained by the British.
At the very least, British culture, including notions of freedom of expression and civil liberties, still influences some Hong Kong politicians and its police, some of whom were mercilessly targeted by protesters.
Protesters even attacked a policeman’s wedding in the New Territories and regularly engaged in acts of vandalism, including trashing government offices and equipment.
Dapiran certainly writes lucidly about the demonstrators’ varied strategies and explains in useful detail how the 2019 protest movement forms part of a history of dissent in the city of Hong Kong. Dapiran’s ideological position with regard to the protest movement is made clear by the last line of his book. Here he quotes with utter approval the protesters’ rallying cry: ‘‘Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our times!’’
To be fair, Dapiran explains that many citizens were essentially concerned ‘‘about reclaiming the institutional autonomy promised under the One Country, Two Systems formula of ‘Hong Kongers ruling Hong Kong’ ’’. But as the result of recent events, state violence and street violence have, he writes, ‘‘been normalised in Hong Kong to an extent it wasn’t before’’.
The reality is that Hong Kong has been hit with a double whammy.
First the deleterious effects of escalating violence and what sometimes seemed to be the desire for retribution on the part of the protesters, as well as the regular use of tear gas by the Hong Kong police, who were well aware that the British had vigorously employed it in the anti-British riots of 1967.
And now the city, a Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic of China, is facing the awful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether Hong Kong will survive as one of the world’s leading political, economic and financial centres is a moot point. One thing is for sure: life there will never be the same.
So far, confrontation hasn’t worked. Dialogue might. But that should be left to the people of Hong Kong without the interference of grandstanding Western politicians uber-keen to bash China.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His latest book is Fifty Years Sober (Hybrid).
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, April 11-12, 2020, Spectrum, Books, pp 16-17.