Déjà Vu in Hong Kong and Shanghai11 min read

A tale of two cities – Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Editor’s note: This essay, by China Channel co-founder Jeffrey Wasserstrom, is excerpted from The Umbrella Movement, a new collection of essays from Amsterdam University Press. It can also be read as a ninth juxtaposition of sorts, following his previous book Eight Juxtapositions (Penguin, 2016), that compares democracy protests in Hong Kong to the student demonstrations he witnessed in Shanghai in 1986.

There is a long tradition of treating Shanghai and Hong Kong as comparable cities, albeit ones with distinctive features. This was especially true during the period that followed the Opium War (1839-1842), which ended with a treaty that turned the former into a city divided between a Chinese-run and foreign-run part and the latter into a British colony. Throughout the next century, the two cities vied with each other for the distinction of being considered China’s most cosmopolitan port community and most important gateway to the West. To place them side by side, as I have done in these two vignettes – that while written in the third person, as many readers will have guessed, refer to my own experiences – may seem a much tamer sort of juxtaposition than those found in earlier parts of this book. And yet, the two cities went very different ways after 1949, when Hong Kong remained part of the British Empire and Shanghai became part of the newly created PRC. By the time I first encountered the two cities in the mid-1980s, Shanghai and Hong Kong seemed very different indeed, separated by much more than the hundreds of miles that stood between them. In addition, back then, their campuses and students had little in common.

Hong Kong, as I first experienced it, was a consumerist mecca, with department stores that were a match for any on earth when it came to their stylishness and array of choices. Shanghai, by contrast, though it could have been described that way before 1949, had become a place where the fabled department stores of its era as a subdivided treaty port were mere shadows of their former selves, drab places that were devoid of luxury goods. When it came to campus life, Hong Kong’s students in the mid-1980s seemed focused only on their classes and their job prospects. Shanghai’s, by contrast, could often be heard debating political issues and wondering what they could do to make the city and country they loved better places in the future.

When I moved between the two cities during the following quarter-century, I saw some things about them draw closer together. There began to be less and less of a contrast between shopping in Shanghai and shopping in Hong Kong – with some notable exceptions, such as buying books on contemporary Chinese politics, Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and some aspects of China’s past. When it came to campuses, though, as my experiences in 2014 brought home powerfully, the story was not one of convergence or near convergence but rather of the two cities switching places. Now, when I go to Shanghai universities, I do not expect to see any political posters on bulletin boards, but this is just what I know I am likely to see in Hong Kong. Similarly, it is now Hong Kong students who are more likely to be debating what the political community they love – for them generally just a city, not a city plus a larger entity – will be like in the future. Recently, it has always been in Hong Kong, never in Shanghai, that I have seen youths take to the streets.

There is much more that I could say about the student protests that took place in Shanghai between the 1910s and 1980s and in Hong Kong during the last few years. After all, I wrote a whole book on the former subject – Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai – and have a lot to say about the latter topic as well. Here, though, I will end by simply offering up a few further examples of Shanghai then/Hong Kong now parallels, in the form of a series of statements that could be about either setting, then make some brief closing comments on the significance of this particular imperfect analogy. 

Statement 1: The students were on strike again and some members of other social groups were taking to the streets as well, but the movement had not really picked up steam – until, that is, a harsh police action triggered popular outrage, leading to ramped up multi-class protests that brought all business in some parts of the city to a standstill.

This could work as a description of either Hong Kong developments between mid-to-late September and early October 2014, but it works just as well as an account of the course of events in Shanghai during the final weeks of the spring of 1925, during the May 30th Movement. There are important differences between the kinds of police actions that spurred the growth of the Umbrella Movement and those that transformed the May 30th Movement from a minor to a major upheaval. In the former case, many people were injured, but no one was killed, when the police used tear gas in an effort to disperse crowds, but in the latter some unarmed protesters were slain. There are similarities, though, as well. In both cases, it mattered that some of the victims were young students. In both cases as well, the use of violence gave the movement not just new supporters but new symbols – the umbrellas used to block tear gas and pepper spray in the Hong Kong case, the bloody clothing of martyrs in the much earlier Shanghai one. 

Statement 2: Those were years when there were both protests calling for change and pseudo-protests organized to show support for the government and the status quo, and it was common for those involved in each kind of action to insist that the events they supported gave voice to genuinely popular sentiment, while those of their opponents were manufactured affairs that served the interests of outsiders. 

Hong Kong has lately been the site of the kind of dueling demonstrations and the only-my-side-has-real-popular-support rhetorical battles just described. So, too, though, was Shanghai during the Civil War era (1945-1949). The Nationalist Party insisted then that all Shanghai protests calling for change were the work of agitators beholden to Russia, while the Communist Party mocked all pro-stability and anti-Soviet demonstrations as serving the interests of the Americans. 

Statement 3: The protests were driven forward by local grievances but things taking place in other settings had an influence, inspiring students to act and providing them with ideas relating to tactics, and sometimes they gave local twists to forms of expression that had originated far away.

If this statement is taken to be about the Umbrella Movement, the reference to the influence of events taking place in other places could refer to the Sunflower protests in Taiwan a few months before or to more distant earlier struggles such as Occupy Wall Street. (The appearance of people’s libraries and community gardens in Hong Kong occupy zones were among the many things that had New York antecedents.) As for the form of expression being given a local twist, that could refer to the use protesters made of a song from a foreign musical: ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ As Tammy Ho Lai-Ming has noted, when Umbrella Movement activists sang this anthem from Les Miz, the tune was the same as that used elsewhere, but in the process of translating the lyrics into Cantonese, the meaning of the core refrain was altered in a subtle but significant way. Instead of being addressed to the powers that be, calling on them to listen, the version sung in Hong Kong in 2014 asks which members of the populace have not spoken out yet.

If, by contrast, the statement above had been about Shanghai’s past rather than Hong Kong’s present, there are several different things that each part of it could refer to. In May of 1919, for example, Shanghai students chafing at warlord appeasement of Japan were aware that protesters in nearby Korea, then a colony of the Japanese Empire, had taken great risks a couple of months earlier in carrying out the March First Movement. In 1986, students were familiar with a very different set of Korean protests – those which activists in Seoul were staging, which were given a good deal of attention on Chinese television, since they were challenging a right-wing government. It is always hard to prove where a tactic or symbol originates, but the use Shanghai students made of headbands with characters written on them in during the 1986 protests could well have been inspired by what they saw in broadcasts of South Korean events. What then of a counterpart to the modified version of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ Well, in Shanghai during the period of Nationalist Party rule, when students set out on a petition drive to Nanjing to present their demands to the central government there, one thing they did to pass the time and keep their spirits up was sing a version of ‘Frère Jacques,’ whose tune by then was well known in China, with newly crafted, topical lyrics.

Statement 4: When students took to the streets that year, the authorities claimed that what they were doing was mere troublemaking rather than rational protest and chided the youth for doing things disturbingly reminiscent of actions that the Red Guards had taken during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.

This statement could apply to Hong Kong in 2014, as both the Beijing media and local critics of the Umbrella Movement brought up alleged parallels between local youths of the present and Red Guards of the past. It could also, though, apply to Shanghai in 1986. Here is how I described the situation then in the final chapter of my first book – which was mostly about pre-1949 protests but included an epilogue on the events of the 1980s – using phrasing that with only slight variations could apply equally well to Hong Kong in the recent past:

Radio broadcasts and newspapers criticized the city’s educated youths for creating traffic problems and preventing laborers from going to and from work… School administrators [in Shanghai in 1986] expressed sympathy for the protesters’ goals but cautioned that further protests would hinder rather than help the cause… Official propaganda pieces…used the specter of the Cultural Revolution to denigrate the new protests… 

Some of the parallels flagged above may merely have curiosity value. Others, though, offer more. I am struck above all when toggling between Shanghai’s past and Hong Kong’s present by two intriguing ironies that are worth keeping in mind when thinking about the current state of the CCP and the struggles underway in the PRC’s most cosmopolitan metropolis.

One irony is that the tactics that the Beijing news media and the Hong Kong government have been using against local protesters recently have often resembled those that were used in the past by figures who are identified as villains in standard CCP historical narratives. In ginning up pro-stability “protests” to counteract oppositional ones, for example, the CCP is taking a page from the playbook of its erstwhile Nationalist rivals.

A second irony is that, as important as a shift toward identifying with Hong Kong as opposed to China as a whole has been to local activists, one could say that a laudable Chinese tradition is now more alive in the SAR than in any mainland city. I am thinking here of what I referred to in my first book as the “May Fourth Tradition” of patriotic student activism. It is rooted in several interrelated ideas, including the idea that campuses should be places where people engage in vigorous debate and that students have a right, indeed a duty, to speak out against abuses of power and to challenge officials who seem to care more about lining their pockets, pleasing people in a distant capital, or both of these things than in serving the interests of the people of a beloved community – be it a nation or, in this case, a city. ∎

This post is adapted from the chapter ‘Hong Kong Now, Shanghai Then,’ which appears in The Umbrella Movement: Civil Resistance and Contentious Space in Hong Kong, edited by Ngok Ma and Edmund W. Cheng (Amsterdam University Press, May 2019), and is published with permission. The author would like to thank Anya Goncharova for her editing help.