Battling for Hong Kong’s Soul

22 October 2023

Review: Louisa Lim, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, (Riverhead Books, 2022)


When the United Kingdom turned control of Hong Kong over to the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1997, China pledged that the island city would retain a high degree of autonomy for fifty years: its robust capitalist system would remain intact and its governmental system, based on something approaching democracy and the rule of law, would continue. That pledge, reduced frequently to the mantra “One Country, Two Systems,” was underpinned by a 1984 Joint Declaration that was hammered out between Britain and China after two years and twenty-two rounds of negotiations. But as Louisa Lim details in her elegantly written, heartfelt, yet altogether dispiriting account, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, the “One Country, Two Systems” pledge now seems like a bad joke. China has turned this once free society into an authoritarian one.


Although resting entirely on Beijing’s good faith, with no mechanisms to monitor or ensure compliance, the “One Country, Two Systems” pledge nonetheless held through the first decade of the 21st century. But in the century’s second decade, as Hong Kongers asserted their desire for greater democracy, China reneged on its pledge. Ever harsher assertions of Chinese control over what is known euphemistically as a “Special Administrative Region of China” have seen pro-democracy activists, lawmakers and journalists jailed, major political parties shut down, voting rights curbed and the freedom of the press and media undermined. China’s endgame, Lim argues, is now “total dominance”: it views Hong Kong’s systems and its attendant freedoms as a “threat to its own security.”


At the core of Indelible City is Lim’s account of resistance to the power of the Chinese Communist Party  in the 2010s, especially in 2014 and 2019, when Hong Kongers turned out in massive numbers to demand democracy, human rights, and the principle that Hong Kongers should rule Hong Kong. Lim witnessed these demonstrations first-hand, as both a journalist and a participant. After growing up in Hong Kong and working there as a journalist for many years, she found herself not only writing about the collapse of the familiar world she had known since her earliest years but also working actively to prevent it.


Lim recognizes that participating in events as an individual and detailing them as a professional journalist requires tricky balancing. Although she tried earnestly to preserve her professional neutrality and objectivity, she found herself continually asking whether she had fallen short of the standards of her profession. Yet, gradually, the feeling that she had to “choose between being a journalist and being a Hong Konger” gave way to the uneasy realization that she was both, not one or the other.


The first mass demonstrations that Lim covered, in 2014, known as the “Umbrella Movement” (because many demonstrators used umbrellas as shields against the police), were organized as a protest against proposed reforms which would limit Hong Kongers’ capacity to choose their city’s Chief Executive to candidates approved by Beijing. The Umbrella movement was followed by even more significant demonstrations in 2019 against a proposed extradition provision that would have allowed Hong Kongers suspected or charged with criminal acts to be tried on the Chinese mainland under the very different Chinese system of justice, threatening Hong Kong’s traditional role as a refuge for mainland dissidents and activists.


In the following year Beijing imposed a new National Security Law on Hong Kong which effectively criminalized dissent, with broad and vague definitions of sedition, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces (a similar law had been proposed but not adopted in 2003). Since 2020, this law has been used to further tighten China’s grip on Hong Kong. Organizing demonstrations on the scale of 2014 and 2019 is now far more perilous, and none appear likely in the foreseeable future.


Although there were multiple causes underlying the demonstrations of 2014 and 2019, in Lim’s view they all “revolved around one core issue: identity”, an issue that Lim digs into deeply. Throughout Hong Kong’s colonial history, Great Britain competed with China to define the city’s identity, but, as Lim shows, Hong Kongers defied both as they sought to define their own identity. These battles “for Hong Kong’s soul,” as Lim terms them, cast critical light on Hong Kong’s turbulent recent years.


About one third of Indelible City concentrates upon how Great Britain controlled Hong Kong territories from the 1840s up to 1997. In a century and a half of colonial rule, Britain did not establish genuinely democratic institutions in Hong Kong and it did not, Lim argues, endow its subjects with “full citizenship, the right of abode in Britain, or universal suffrage”. But it nonetheless provided a framework within which democratic institutions could emerge and potentially flourish – more by accident than by an “imperial masterstroke,” Lim writes, driven by a “confluence of misplaced personal initiative, misunderstanding, and overreach.”


Hong King, Lim argues, was “born in fits and starts, [in] century-old acts of piecemeal acquisitions that bear revisiting because the city’s current plight is rooted in them, their consequences rippling and expanding over the years.” In the first such acquisition, in 1842, Hong Kong became an official British Crown Colony when the Qing dynasty ceded Hong Kong Island through the Treaty of Nanjing. The treaty put an end to what was known as the First Opium War between the Britain and China that had been fought over the right to import opium into China. In 1860, Britain acquired the Kowloon peninsula, at the conclusion of the Second Opium War with China. Finally, in 1898, through what was known as the Second Convention of Peking, Britain acquired the third and largest tranche of land that makes up contemporary Hong Kong, known as the New Territories, 92% of present-day Hong Kong’s land mass. Rather than a permanent concession, the Chinese agreed to a 99-year lease, terminating in 1997. The British minister in Beijing surely thought this was forever, Lim speculates, probably he never imagined a China strong enough to demand its return.


By the 1850s, Britain had a flourishing trading station free from Chinese jurisdiction. Many who were low on the social totem pole in mainland China came to Hong Kong and made their fortunes. In the 19th and early 20th century Hong Kong allowed “opportunistic and hardworking migrants, both British and Chinese, to reimagine their lives, though few saw it as a permanent home.” British colonial administration was mostly about economic regulation, and marked a regime of “control and regulation of the local population, rather than governance.” While the British “preoccupation with justice brought order to the new colony,” Lim writes, it also “cemented in British minds a view of the incoming Chinese migrants as deplorable.”


From the 1840s onward, moreover, two competing historical narratives shaped Hong Kong. For the British, Hong Kong was a “moneymaker, a ‘future Great Emporium of Commence and Wealth,’” as Hong Kong’s first British Governor put it. But in Beijing, the Nanjing Treaty of 1842 was seen as the first “unequal treatment treaty,” imposed by what the Chinese considered the gunboat diplomacy of imperial aggressors. Hong Kong’s loss marked the start of China’s “century and a half of humiliation by foreign powers, a matter of national shame that could only be eased with the island’s return to its rightful owner.” For both Britain and China, the competition between the two contrasting historical narratives was part of the effort to define Hong Kong identity.


Throughout British rule, Hong Kongers were told that they were “purely economic actors.” Lim writes that she herself was “shaped by Hong Kong values,” in particular a “respect for grinding hard work and stubborn determination.” But, somehow, latent civic values also became part of the Hong Kong mindset, including an “almost religious respect for freedom, democracy, and human rights.” Over time, Hong Kong became a “place of refuge and free thinking… a sanctuary for Chinese dissidents and revolutionaries, a place where taboo topics could be discussed, and forbidden books sold in tiny bookshops tucked up narrow staircases.”


Extensive business and family ties to mainland China also led many Hong Kongers to identify culturally with the mainland.  The Cantonese language spoken in Hong Kong was another identity marker.  Although often viewed as a dialect of Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese is incomprehensible to most Mandarin speakers, Lim indicates. Hong Kong identity, she suggests, should be considered “plural, more like a constellation of evolving and overlapping self-images rather than one fixed point of light.”


Through what Lim terms “gritty perversity,” Hong Kongers also sought to forge their own identity in ways that fit neither the British nor the Chinese historical narrative. With no great war heroes or statesmen or even heroic acts capable of becoming the stuff of myths, Hong Kongers invented icons that tended to be “antiheroes in the form of discriminated-against outsiders and bullied misfits, people who resisted and continued to do so despite the overwhelming forces allied against them.” Antihero number one for Lim is the so-called King of Kowloon, Tsang Tsou-choi, an eccentric calligrapher whose drawings repeatedly appeared at key points in the demonstrations of the 2010s, long after his death. Lim’s book begins with the King, as everyone called him, and circles back to him throughout.


A “toothless, often shirtless, disabled trash collector with mental health issues,” the King was obsessed with a jutting prong of the Kowloon peninsula that he believed had originally belonged to his family and had been stolen by the British in the 19th century. In the 1950s, he began a furious graffiti campaign in which he accused the British of stealing his family’s land. Viewed then as a “crank and a vandal,” the King continued his campaign against the British until the 1997 handoff, when he turned it against China.


The King gained fame and notoriety for his idiosyncratic Chinese calligraphy, easily recognizable by its misshapen, unbalanced characters. Proficiency in calligraphy was a critical measure of one’s cultivation in traditional China – “both the apogee of all art forms and a tool of power.” The King was known and loved for breaking calligraphic rules with “brushstrokes that screamed his illiteracy.” For Lim and Hong Kongers of her generation, the King’s work was a “celebration of originality and human imperfection… He broke all the rules, repudiating traditional Chinese behavior.” In the early 2000s, the King “seemed to be everywhere.” He was the subject of a rapper group’s song and made a commercial for a household cleaning product.


The King died in 2007, but in death became a symbol of the city’s “radical search” for its distinct “social and cultural identity through endless negotiations with its colonial past and neocolonial present.” He had raised issues of territory, sovereignty, and loss “at a time when no one else dared to think about them.” In their continued acts of defiance, “no matter how small,” the Hong Kong protestors of the 2010s were “following the lead of their dead King.” Those acts of defiance “helped to define what it meant to be a Hong Konger.” At the heart of that definition was an intensified commitment to democratic values and what Lim terms an “appetite for autonomy.”


The 2014 Umbrella Movement was precipitated by a contentious debate over the method of choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive, culminating in an eleven week “explosion of discontent, desire and above all hope.” After the departure of the last British governor in 1997, Hong Kong’s chief executive was chosen by a committee composed of representatives of Hong Kong’s business elite. The long-term goal was for direct nomination and election by Hong Kong voters by 2017. But in 2014, the Chinese National People’s Congress proposed limiting the ballot to two or three candidates nominated by a 1,200-member Selection Committee. Universal suffrage was still the long-term goal, the Committee added, but must be achieved only through a “steady and prudent path.”


In an early demonstration challenging the proposed nomination procedures, protestors were met with tear gas, the first time Hong Kong police had used this heavy-handed tactic since the 1997 takeover. Seen as a huge betrayal, the tactic prompted a previously unimaginable numbers of persons to take part in a subsequent demonstration, later estimated to be 1.2 million or roughly 1/6th of Hong Kong’s population. But despite the massive demonstrations, the Umbrella Movement ended without even a symbolic victory. While the Chinese proposal was withdrawn, the chief executive continued to be chosen by the Hong Kong committee of business elites and not by the people.


Lim sensed at the time that the fight for democracy in Hong Kong had been lost and the movement crushed, with its leaders imprisoned and marginalized. Many young people were trying to find a way out. Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms were being “salami-sliced away with accelerating speed,” she writes. “One Country, Two Systems was tilting to favor One Country over Two Systems.” But the 2014 Umbrella Movement can now be seen as “only a dress rehearsal for the carnival of discontent that would explode onto Hong Kong’s streets five years later,” when the hope for a more democratic Hong Kong once again surged, only to be snuffed out even more ruthlessly.


The 2019 “carnival of discontent” was triggered by a proposal by the Hong Kong government, acting at the behest of Beijing, to alter its extradition laws to permit the rendition to mainland China of alleged criminal suspects, where they would be subject to arbitrary detention and even torture in a legal system with no presumption of innocence. The proposed legislation threatened the independence of the city’s judiciary, its rule of law, and its status as a political refuge for mainland dissidents and activists, the “very things to which Hong Kong attributed its success,” Lim writes.


On June 19, 2019, over a million demonstrators, over 1/7th of Hong Kong’s population, took to the streets to protest the government’s plans to change the existing extradition law, drawing an eclectic crowd that included “all who elevated principle over pragmatism, hope over experience.” Putting her journalistic hat aside, Lim and her teenage son participated in the demonstration. The police used tear gas on the crowd and deployed rubber bullets, with Lim and her son nearly caught up in the attack by the police. One week later, a still more massive protest took place, with an estimated 2 million people turning out.


The second protest, which Lim covered as a journalist, targeted the extradition changes but also gave voice to a broader set of demands that had been added to the protestors’ agenda: investigation into police brutality, amnesty for those arrested, retraction of the “riot” label the government used to describe the protests, and genuine universal suffrage. As she witnessed the protest, Lim felt a surge in her love for Hong Kong and her identification with its doomed democracy movement.  She considered the moment a “triumph of idealism” for a people “long stereotyped by their colonial masters as motivated only by the pursuit of money.”


In early September 2019, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lamb withdrew the extradition proposal. But it was “far too late,” Lim contends. The battle for Hong Kong’s soul had “already spilled over its borders, causing clashes between Hong Kong supporters and mainland Chinese on campuses around the world.” Lim, who by this time had taken a teaching position in Australia, found that she couldn’t discuss the Hong Kong situation safely in her new location.


Protests and violence continued during much of the remaining portions of 2019. At one point, Lam called the protestors enemies of the people, a “chilling phrase straight from the Chinese Communist Party lexicon.” The November 2019 elections resulted in a substantial boost to the protest movement. 17 of the 18 district councils flipped from pro-Beijing to pro-democracy majorities. But this “did not change a government that had never been answerable to the people,” Lim observes.


The National Security Law of the following year is anti-climactic in Lim’s account. In addition to proscribing sedition, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces in the vaguest terms, the law appeared to allow if not require those suspected of violating the law to be tried on the mainland. In August 2021, a law allowing the government to impose exit bans went into effect. “Even the freedom to leave was being denied.” After turning a huge percentage of the population into dissidents, China’s moves were now producing a population of refugees. Historically a place of refuge, Hong Kong had become a “place that people were fleeing from.”


In Lim’s exhilarating yet ultimately disheartening narrative, Hong Kong in the 2010s was on the “front line of a global battle between liberal democratic values and an increasingly totalitarian Communist regime,” with the tiny dot on the map somehow managing to “unsettle the world’s newest superpower with the power of its convictions.” Although Lim retains hope that China has not fully snuffed out Hong Kong’s pro-democracy aspirations, the story she tells leaves little reason to support her optimism. The cruel irony at the heart of Indelible City is that a full-throated pro-democracy movement did not gain widespread public support in Hong Kong until China intensified its efforts to exert its control over the island. The movement was anything but too little, yet we can now see that it came far too late.


Image credit: Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong[cover] (Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House), Fair Use.

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