Hong Kong’s reputation as an international city with guaranteed liberties and freedoms is crumbling nine months after Beijing imposed a national security law on the region in response to the pro-democracy protests that rocked the city in late 2019.
In his latest book Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship, veteran journalist Stephen Vines tells the story of Hong Kong’s rise to its current political crisis. Detailing the city’s fraught relationship with the largest authoritarian regime of our times, he delves into what this means for the future of Hong Kong — and a world in which dealing with China has become an economic and geopolitical necessity.
Vines, who covered the 2019 protests on the ground as they erupted, told HKFP his book was a way to preemptively resist official attempts to cast the movement as pure violence and chaos: “One thing that I knew for sure was going to happen after the heat of the protests died down, is the mainland would rewrite history. I was very sure that they would paint the uprising as being riots, destruction. So it seemed to me it was very important… to keep a record and to keep the integrity of the narrative.”
Vines’ new book traces Hong Kong’s history from its British colonial roots as an enclave for mainland Chinese refugees, through the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 and the 2019 unrest, right up to the eve of Beijing’s implementation of the national security law.
He was motivated to write this account to understand the historical and political forces that culminated in the biggest crisis the city has faced since its return from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under an agreement that introduced the One Country, Two Systems framework: “China was promising something that no dictatorship has ever promised in history: that part of its territory will be governed in a way that was significantly different from a dictatorship.”
Vines questioned whether the framework was ever a “plausible proposition” or whether Beijing ever intended on preserving it. Recent developments in the region, however, suggest the promise is now obsolete, he said. “The national security law is a major, major moment in history. It rules a lot of things that underpin liberty to be unlawful. I think it obviously means One Country, Two Systems is dying.”
A pivotal moment in the city’s story, Vines said, was the rise of a distinct Hong Kong identity in the 1980’s when the majority of Hongkongers were born in the city instead of emigrating to the region as refugees fleeing a harsh communist regime on the mainland. “Their lived experience is entirely in Hong Kong,” he said, pinpointing the demographic shift as the reason for the rise of a regional identity separate from that of mainland China. This, he added, is crucial in understanding the arc of the city’s struggle against its mainland leaders.
In his book, Vines identifies the key to predicting Beijing’s behaviour towards the rebellious city. He referred to an illuminating moment in August 2019, when reports emerged of China’s People’s Armed Police conducting anti-riot drills in Shenzhen. Many then feared Beijing would send troops across the border to stamp out the pro-democracy protests in its special administrative region. Instead of the dreaded physical crackdown, Beijing imposed its national security law in June 2020, which has since been used to silence all political dissent.
Beijing’s reluctance to eradicate Hong Kong’s autonomy in the midst of the greatest challenge to its authority under leader Xi Jinping’s rule stems from the “enormous wealth” China’s political elites have tied up in the region, Vines told HKFP.
Keeping Hong Kong’s economy intact is in the personal interests of China’s political elite, who funnel their money through the city: “My argument is that they genuinely do want One Country, Two Systems, but they want the system entirely refined to the financial and commercial sphere – so the money of the leadership can be processed…so they can get the money out of the mainland into an internationally recognised jurisdiction,” he said, referring to the family members of the party leadership who own Hong Kong real estate.
“It explains a lot of how the personal interests of the leadership and of the political imperative of keeping in Hong Kong under control. It explains why even today, Beijing insists One Country, Two Systems must be preserved,” he continued. “What they want to preserve is a tiny fraction of it – and it’s very largely dictated by their personal interests… they want the banks, the international respectability, they want the clean-up centre for their money.”
Vines said the Chinese political elites are running the risk of losing the international trust that has served to protect their wealth: “They want the impossible. They want to create essentially everything that exists in a dictatorship, and then at the end of it a free, internationally-recognised international financial centre.
He added that China’s gamble is abetted by international corporations: These businesses are so desperate to get into China… they will fall over themselves,” he said, referring to Facebook’s attempt to enter the mainland market through its “Facebook Lite” application.
“Their understanding of the world is mitigated by the way they see these companies behave, they are very confident that they have got them so much under their thumb, that they can continue to do this trapeze act of putting people in jail, closing down this and that, and somehow, the business system will be untouched by that,” he said.
‘Set aside illusions of China’
For Vines, the world should pay attention to Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s promised freedoms because it says much about the regime’s attitudes towards international agreements and what other countries can expect when dealing with the rising superpower.
“The international community has no alternative but to engage with the largest country in the world,” he said. “The largest country in the world is now asserting itself very heavily into the international arena. It’s building the physical ties all the way into Europe with the One Belt, One Road. It’s exercised enormous influence on international organisations like the World Health Organisation [and] the United Nations.”
“Hong Kong is, as many people say, the guinea pig. During the period of reforms from the mid-1980’s onwards until the arrival of Xi Jinping, I think people thought that China was heading in the direction of reform,” he continued.
“The reality of how the Communist Party has responded to events in Hong Kong… [shows they have] zero toleration for even its own promises of autonomy of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong,” he said, referring to the promises laid out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration between London and Beijing.
“When people say ‘Will China keep its word?’ Hong Kong has cast enormous doubt on that.”
The crushing of the city’s freedoms signals to the international community that Beijing wants to write its own rules, he added. “There was a time when people said ‘this is great, China is coming into the international world order.’ I think the rest of the world presumed that China wanted to play the game… and the response to the uprising in Hong Kong is that they don’t like the game, they don’t want to play it. And that has enormous repercussions for how people deal with China.”
He added that the Covid-19 pandemic, which first emerged in China’s Hubei province, plays a decisive role in relations between China and other countries: “[The pandemic] revealed the problems with China being able to tell the truth to its people, tell the truth to the rest of the world.”
Vines refers to a quote by the French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 — ‘We have to set aside all our illusions about China” — as indicative of the growing international unease of foreign governments in their dealings with Beijing.
“I don’t think the rest of the world is actually that interested in Hong Kong… countries are interested in their own interests. They want to know: if I sign an agreement with Beijing, will it be honoured? Is my understanding of exchange the same as theirs?’ All of this has been put into question by the fact that Beijing signed an agreement with Britain over the future of Hong Kong and then… basically said ‘none of your business.'”
Vines sat down to write his account of Hong Kong’s decades-long fight for genuine democracy under Beijing’s unyielding authoritarianism as the city’s pro-democracy protests swelled in late 2019. Back then, the book’s working title was “Awaiting the Avalanche.” In the lead-up to Beijing’s imposition of the national security law last June, Vines quickly realised the avalanche had already arrived.
“What absolutely astounded me was the speed of the developments,” he said, referring to the series of events in the last seven months which have seen the majority of the city’s pro-democratic voices silenced, with most activists in detention or in exile.
“I got it that the national security law was a very, very significant game changer… but the speed of the arrests, the speed of the crackdown… the purge of the civil service… this is all within the space of six months. I just didn’t think it would happen with that velocity.”
The speed of authorities’ crackdown on civil liberties in the region prompted Vines to revisit his original manuscript: “I had to take a lot of things out. I was much more cautious about the chapter that deals with Hong Kong and China’s relations with the rest of the world. Because I know that the national security law’s emphasis on [collusion] with foreign powers… While I think it’s valid to report on these relationships, I’m much less happy commenting on them.”
The law has also made him reflect on the drastic changes in a city that has served as his reporting base for three decades. “When I first came, Hong Kong was a base… I would arrive at Kai Tak airport and think ‘freedom’.”
Referring to the current crackdown in Hong Kong, the HKFP columnist said it felt “oppressive — that’s the mildest way to put it… I would never say this before, but it’s become dangerous to be a journalist in Hong Kong now. I just didn’t think that was ever going to be possible.”
He reminisced about a time earlier in his career when he worked for the Lebanese paper Al Hawadis where an editor was assassinated: “When the editor was assassinated, they said, we’re even more determined to carry on.”
Despite Hong Kong’s present dangers, Vines said he was committed to continuing to report in a region where what is permissible is shrinking by the day: “My view is you carry on until somebody stops you. I have never felt so worried than I do today.”
Limited copies of Stephen Vines’ book Defying the Dragon are available now via HKFP.