With democracy books being pulled from Hong Kong public libraries and political activity being banned in the city’s schools, HKFP rounds up a selection of political reads still available for readers. From local reads – for those looking to be better informed about Hong Kong’s legacy of protests – to titles currently banned in China, most are available from Book Depository.
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Local reads: The 2019 Hong Kong Protests
CITY ON FIRE: THE FIGHT FOR HONG KONG by Antony Dapiran (Scribe Publications 2020)
Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei describes Dapiran’s analysis of the 2019 Hong Kong protests as “the most comprehensive book about the Hong Kong protests from a professional observer.” Dapiran’s account attempts to give a definitive account of the year of unrest, unpacking the historical and cultural elements fuelling the movement, and shedding light on Hong Konger’s unique protest tactics. Ultimately, it examines what the protests may mean for the future of the city. For those looking to understand and contextualise Hong Kong’s fight for democracy up to 2019, this is the mother lode.
UNFREE SPEECH: THE THREAT TO GLOBAL DEMOCRACY AND WHY WE MUST ACT, NOW by Joshua Wong with Jason Y. Ng (WH Allen 2020)
Touted as a “must-read for anyone who cares about Hong Kong and democracy”, Unfree Speech details Wong’s journey into politics in his teens, followed by his personal letters and journals written during his time in prison, and ends with an impassioned plea for global engagement in the fight to preserve democratic freedoms in his city. Compiled with the help of Jason Y. Ng, the title was both The Times and Observer‘s “Book of the Week” following its release earlier this year.
VIGIL: HONG KONG ON THE BRINK by Jeffrey Wasserstrom (Columbia Global Reports, 2020)
Wasserstrom entitled his analysis of the Hong Kong protests Vigil after the city’s annual June 4th vigil at Victoria Park, noting that it was symbolic of what distinguished it from the mainland. Considering the concept of holding vigil over lost freedoms and a disappearing home, the historian considers the ways in which Hong Kong’s freedom movement is a continuation of 20th-century dissent on the Chinese mainland. Described by the Wall Street Journal as “brief and efficiently readable”, this novella-length read is part of the Columbia Global Reports series which publishes ambitious writing from across the world.
MAKING HONG KONG CHINA by Michael C. Davis (Columbia University Press)
Written in the three months following Beijing’s passing of the national security law this July, Davis’ primer charts the legal developments in the city which marked its descent from one of the world’s freest cities to one under authoritarian control. Davis brings his three decades of experience to the telling of the city’s “constitutional journey.”
Local reads: A refresher on the 2014 Umbrella Movement
UMBRELLAS IN BLOOM: HONG KONG’S OCCUPY MOVEMENT UNCOVERED by Jason Y. Ng (Blacksmith Books, 2016)
This was the first English-language account of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which saw tens of thousands occupy major roads to demand universal suffrage following the publication of a white paper from Beijing that many saw as an infringement on Hong Kong’s promised autonomy. Drawing from his own experience of the 79-day sit-in, Ng explains what exactly took place, what it hoped to achieve, and what the movement came to mean for Hong Kong.
CITY OF PROTEST: A RECENT HISTORY OF DISSENT IN HONG KONG by Antony Dapiran (Penguin Books, 2017)
Another Dapiran title, this is a concise history of resistance in Hong Kong up to the 2016 Mongkok “Fishball Riots”. Published on the 20th anniversary of the handover, it offers insight into Hongkongers’ entrenched tradition of taking to the streets to demand democracy and safeguard their freedoms. At a breezy 100 pages, it’s a good one to dip into if you don’t have time for his more recent comprehensive account, City on Fire.
Banned on the mainland:
THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF AMNESIA by Louisa Lim (Oxford University Press, 2015)
According to The New York Times Book Review, this is the best analysis on the impact of the Tiananmen massacre and China’s brutal crushing of all dissent since 1989. Lim, journalist-turned-scholar, challenges China’s stubborn silence on and censorship of the massacre, charting how the tragedy has affected the country and its citizens in the 30 years since. Through unearthing new stories from the massacre, Lim hoped to combat the “collective amnesia” Beijing imposes on its people. Reading her work means such stories will not be buried again.
WILD SWANS: THREE DAUGHTERS OF CHINA by Jung Chang (HarperCollins, 1991)
Chang’s autobiography traces the lives of her grandmother, mother, and herself to tell the story of three generations of women in 20th-century China. From her grandmother’s bound feet, to her mother’s miscarriage during her gruelling experiences during the Communist Revolution, to her own reminiscences of wanting to commit suicide during the Cultural Revolution, Chang gives readers an intimate portrait of how life and family carries on under a horrifically oppressive regime.
BEIJING COMA by Ma Jian (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
After being shot during the Tiananmen massacre, student protester Da Wei falls into a coma. Published before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this fictional retelling of the 1989 democracy movement and the decade that followed through the internal dialogue of a paralysed narrator is powerful both as an allegory and a political statement. The novel is entitled “Rou Tu” or “Flesh Earth” in Chinese, referencing the bodies of students crushed into the ground by PLA tanks. It is considered by critics to be Ma’s masterpiece.
SERVE THE PEOPLE! by Yan Lianke (Grove Press, 2010)
Named after a Mao-est slogan, this satirical novel tells a Lady Chatterley-esque, sex-drenched tale of an illicit love affair between the wife of a Communist commander and a house servant during the Cultural Revolution. As their affair grows, they destroy statues of Mao and urinate on his writings to prove their love for each other. Bursting apart sexual taboos in China, this irreverent novel was deemed ‘unpublishable’ on the mainland.
DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeleine Thien (WW Norton & Co, 2016)
Shortlisted for the Booker prize, Thien’s work weaves an inter-generational narrative of musicians from before the Cultural Revolution to the summer of 1989. It is a beautifully rendered story that delves into the role of art under tyranny, and how creativity and love can survive in the margins of oppression. There is a dazzling musicality to Thien’s storytelling. This one will draw tears.
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell
This classic tale of life and love in a dystopian surveillance state, where language is distorted to foster absolute control under totalitarian regimes (“newspeak”) and brainwashed citizens instinctively self-censor (“doublethink”) is as relevant now as it was in the 1940s. The use of language to distort reality may feel eerily familiar today.
THIS IS NOT PROPAGANDA; ADVENTURES IN THE WAR AGAINST REALITY by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber & Faber, 2019)
This book is the antidote to our age of misinformation and fake news. Pomerantsev examines Russian underground troll factories, the clampdown on journalists in the Philippines, and the international indifference towards the war in Syria to flesh out the sinister consequences of the strategic spread of misinformation by totalitarian regimes. Blending his personal memoir of his parents exile from his native Ukraine with in-depth analysis on how weaponised online information can have far-reaching political consequences, this should be mandatory reading for anyone who receives their news via the internet.
ON TYRANNY: TWENTY LESSONS FROM THE 21ST CENTURY by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books, 2017)
The 20th-century world order was shaped by the struggle between the ideals of democracy and the oppression of tyrants. Snyder’s twenty lessons are snappy snippets of hard-hitting truths drawn from societies that ushered tyrants into power, mostly focusing on Hitler’s rise in the 1930s. Here, we learn the nature of tyranny: how it rises and how free societies can unwittingly cede to it. It is a sharp reminder to the free world to stay vigilant against those who would do away with its liberties.
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