When historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom was contemplating Hong Kong’s future as he wrote his book on last year’s protests, he never imagined that freedoms would come under attack so soon after Beijing’s national security law was passed.

“I’d say this was the picture that I feared,” he told HKFP, “but it’s happened faster than anybody expected, including me.”

Photo: Columbia Global Reports.

Wasserstrom’s account, presciently entitled Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, was one of pragmatic pessimism. “There is little stopping Beijing from destroying many of Hong Kong’s institutions,” he wrote. Elsewhere, he described the city as “Beijing’s captive colony.”

Just months after its publication in February, Hong Kong has experienced a delay in its legislative elections, the arrest of pro-democracy figures, attacks on press freedom and a breakdown in the city’s separation of powers.

‘Devastating blows’

Speaking to HKFP the day after the arrest of two pro-democracy lawmakers over a mob attack in Yuen Long on July 21, 2019, Wasserstrom said that what he found most noteworthy was the strategic timing of each fresh assault on the city’s freedoms. “For people like me who have been following events very closely in Hong Kong…, there’s the sense that things [are] happening very quickly… It’s just one after the other, these attacks,” he said.

“But for people who aren’t really paying close attention, one thing that’s striking is that the moves are actually spaced out, so they happen in different news cycles, and so much is happening in different news cycles that it’s hard for the world to pay as much attention as I think it should to what’s happening.”

“Yesterday’s arrests of legislators and the rewriting of the history of the mob attack wasn’t the same day as when Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow were arrested.”

Photo: Audrey Fong / UCI School of Humanities.

According to Wasserstrom, the “spacing out” strategy makes it hard for those outside the city to fully comprehend the trauma of what’s happening to Hong Kong. “It’s been a whole series of devastating blows, but it’s a challenge to explain it to people who haven’t been paying attention to the story.”

The accelerated pace at which events have unfolded can be partly blamed on the current coronavirus pandemic, Wasserstrom said. “Beijing has taken advantage of the degree of distraction of the world to try to make moves that would have gotten a lot more attention at another historical moment.”

“We have no way of really accessing what’s going on inside the Chinese leadership but I think [the pandemic] provided an opportunity that has been seized.”

Shifting ground

When asked whether this is a deliberate strategy, Wasserstrom said that the obscure inner-workings of the Chinese Community Party means it is impossible to prove. However, he suggested an attempt by Beijing to prevent the international community from latching onto a single image exemplifying the changes in Hong Kong.”There has been a desire on Beijing’s part to not give the world one day and one image to focus on.”

Tank Man photo at the June 4 museum in Hong Kong. File photo: Dan Garrett.

“With 1989, June 4 was the day there were the images of tanks on the street. There’s been an effort to do things differently. This is true of Xinjiang as well…,” he added. “There isn’t really one iconic image [in Hong Kong] that you can point people to and say ‘This is what’s happening’ that sums it all up.”

The assaults on Hong Kong’s freedoms in the two months since the national security law was passed have also prompted a shift in Wasserstrom’s perspective on parallels with Xinjiang and Tibet. “When I first started hearing comparisons with Xinjiang and Tibet, it seemed so overly alarmist,” he told HKFP.

But now, the historian said he sees specific parallels between the three regions. “If you were in Shanghai right now, and… you said ‘I just love my city, I love the city in some ways even more than I love China’, it wouldn’t be a dangerous thing to say, it wouldn’t leave you open for prosecution.”

“If you said something equivalent in Xinjiang, you would be vulnerable, it would be a risky thing to do.”

Photo: Wikicommons.

“Now, potentially at least, that can be a risky thing to say in Hong Kong, to say ‘I love Hong Kong much more than China’. So there are ways in which the ground is shifting, and we don’t know how far it’ll shift, but I no longer think it’s outrageous when people bring up the parallels with Tibet and Xinjiang.”

Keeping Vigil

Wasserstrom named his book after the annual June 4 vigil held at Victoria Park to commemorate victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing. The event, as he saw it, was one of the most noteworthy things that distinguished Hong Kong from the mainland.

This year, citing coronavirus concerns, the government cancelled the public vigil for the first time in 31 years. When asked whether he thinks Beijing will attempt to enforce the same collective amnesia surrounding the massacre in Hong Kong as it has in the mainland, Wasserstrom said: “I do think there are moves in that direction.” 

Photo: Sam Lee/United Social Press.

The historian said the cancellation of the annual June 4 photo exhibition in Macau is further suggestive of Beijing’s desire to erase the memory of the event in both special administrative regions. “You see a kind of strategy… to make the political situation in Hong Kong more like the situation in Macau, where Macau has One Country, Two Systems but the two systems part is really just different ways of making and spending money.”

“There’s an effort to make Hong Kong more like Macau and to make Macau more like the mainland.”

The cancellation of the Victoria Park vigil means Hongkongers must stay vigilant and resist Beijing’s attempts to rewrite history, he said. In particular, they must “keep vigil” over other symbols like the annual pop-up June 4 museum and the Goddess of Democracy statue at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The other sense of ‘vigil’ is keeping watch over somebody or someplace in danger so I think there is still some way of keeping vigil for Hong Kong.”

‘Lion Rock Spirit’

When asked what recent developments mean for the future of the Hong Kong protests and the city’s cultural identity, the professor at the University of California, Irvine, draws parallels with 20th-century struggles within the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, where “centres of identity” still stayed alive under an oppressive regime.

People take part in a human chain protest in support of the Hong Kong Way, a recreation of a pro-democracy “Baltic Way” protest against Soviet rule three decades ago, in Vilnius, Lithuania on August 23, 2019. Photo: Petras Malukas.

“You had the Baltic states that were subsumed by the Soviet Union for a long time but still people kept alive a sense of a separate identity. So there are models for Hong Kong… in those kinds of places where a state tried to absorb and tries to stamp out, in Hong Kong’s case, the ‘Lion Rock Spirit’. But there are ways in which it stays alive underground.”

“I’ve been noticing tweets coming out of Hong Kong talking now about the writings of Václav Havel, who was in a setting in Czechoslovakia where a struggle had been stamped out… in 1968. After that, people found ways of keeping the spirit of resistance alive, even when you couldn’t have mass actions on the streets.”

Hongkongers are already resorting to subversive protests. “Right now, I think it’s very likely that there’ll be a time of subtler forms of resistance, of doing things through mockery. We’ve already seen it with the blank pages,” he said, referring to protesters who have displayed blank sheets of paper during protests under the national security law.

“In the case of the mainland, we saw in earlier cases of people talking about ‘May 35’ when they couldn’t say June 4. In some ways I think we’re moving to a phase where more of the expression of discontent will have to manifest itself through a more ‘May 35’ style of critique than public gatherings.” 

Things do change

As an expert in modern Chinese history, Wasserstrom has spent decades tracking the course of protests in China. Despite complications for Hong Kong’s fight for democracy under the Xi Jinping administration, he said there was no way of predicting the outcome. “You can’t know how the political situation is in the mainland right now. I don’t see any room to manoeuvre but you don’t know what will lie ahead, and I think that will have a big effect on what’s possible in Hong Kong.”

Photo: via Wechat.

“This is a very interesting moment to talk about [the future] because if you had asked a specialist in Belarus politics: ‘Can you imagine a time soon when there would be masses of people on the streets the way we’ve just seen?’ That would’ve seemed impossible. There’s a kind of unpredictability to it.”

The course of history, Wasserstrom said, has been full of surprising turns of events: “It’s much harder to see a scenario where [Hong Kong’s] fight can be won in any kind of short-term or medium-term future, but I do think there needs to be an awareness that things change,” he told HKFP.

“There are changes in the world that people didn’t see coming.”

Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush. Photo: Wikicommons.

“In 1981, after there had been a big Solidarity movement in Poland… there was martial law imposed. It really seemed that Solidarity was a complete dead-end, a failure… It looked impossible that things would change. But nobody saw [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev coming, nobody saw the changes in the world that made that possible. It was only eight years later that things had changed a lot.” 

“On the other hand, there was a crackdown in Hungary in 1956 and people… kept hope alive after. It was another 30 years before anything happened again. So these can be very long periods,” he said.

In light of the varied timelines of earlier freedom struggles, Wasserstrom was cautious in making predictions of Hong Kong’s future. Referring to Professor Benny Tai’s “perennially optimistic” statements about an upcoming “golden age, if people stay resilient”, the historian said he doesn’t agree.

“I don’t think it’s that, I don’t feel there’s an inevitability… History gives you this sense of how often the unexpected happens, and things that seem impossible eventually seem possible. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen. It’s a balancing act. It’s different from saying that [history] bends in the direction of justice all the time, because often it bends in terrible directions.”

‘Care and pay attention’

Vigil was published by Columbia Global Reports, an imprint which curates “ambitious works of journalism” and “underreported stories” and is affiliated with Columbia University’s Journalism School.

Police fire tear gas on October 1, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Although the Hong Kong story in the past year can hardly be described as “underreported,” the American historian says the world should keep paying attention. “There are things that the international community can do. I think showing that we’ll be paying attention is important psychologically for the people of Hong Kong to not feel abandoned.”

He added that recent changes to visa schemes in Western countries to offer Hongkongers streamlined pathways to citizenship are steps in the right direction. “Offering places for people to go… those things are important. And I think sending signals to Beijing that there is a price to pay for violating international agreements, which is part of what’s been going on in Hong Kong,” he said, referring to the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

According to Wasserstrom, international pressure on Beijing is important – particularly given its efforts to drum up international support for the security law. “The Community Party was able to get dozens of countries to express support for imposing the national security law. That alone shows that Beijing does care about international opinion, even if sometimes they claim not to.”

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Ultimately, the historian’s message to the international community is to care and pay attention to the unfolding of events in the city. “What has been so special about Hong Kong, [although] it was never completely democratic, it did have a clear separation of powers between different parts of the government. That’s what’s been really eroded and unpacked recently.”

“That isn’t as dramatic as tanks in the street, but it is really a fundamental shift in the nature of life. In the US, we’re really aware right now of how much it does matter to have some kind of a separation of powers, and how important that is. So I think that’s [how] we need to think about it, as just a terrible assault on a way of life.”

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.