Unpredictable Hong Kong12 min read

The perils of prognostication and lessons of history when it comes to Hong Kong’s protests Jeffrey Wasserstrom

How long will the large-scale street actions that began to take place regularly in Hong Kong last June continue? And what kind of development is most likely to bring to an end these protests, which were first triggered by an extradition bill but are now in large part calls for the government to rein in and investigate the police?

I was often asked variations on one or both of these questions during the period lasting from early June until early October of 2019 that I spent writing Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, February 2020). As the length of the struggle went from days to weeks to months, I grew used to either dodging the questions or providing equivocal answers. I continued to do so during the final weeks of 2019 and the first weeks of 2020 – right up until the main questions people asked me shifted, just before Vigil came out, from being about the protests to about the coronavirus. Whether I refused to make any kind of prediction or made a careful one with all sort of caveats and prevarications, I typically began my response to the two questions by making some or all of the following points:

First, it is important to remember that Hong Kong has a long tradition of making fools of forecasters. 

This tradition was particularly notable during the lead-up to the 1997 handover that changed Hong Kong from a British colony into a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet there is also a famous earlier illustration of faulty forecasting: Lord Palmerston’s assertion in 1841 that Hong Kong, then just coming under British rule, would never be a great “mart of trade” like Macau and Canton.

Second, prognosticating is hard because Hong Kong’s fate is intertwined with that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has itself defied expectations. 

The CCP was thought to have no chance of taking power at various points before 1949 – and then it took power. Afterwards, some took for granted that as long as Mao Zedong was alive, the country he led would stay closely allied with the Soviet Union and view the United States as its main enemy, but before he died he had broken with Moscow and hosted Richard Nixon in Beijing. In the 1990s, books predicted confidently that the CCP’s version of one-party rule would not endure much longer, yet it has. There were also many who expected – and I plead guilty to this more cautious sort of erroneous prediction – that what we would likely, if not definitely, see the CCP continue to stay in power but to move in the twenty-first century along the path it had followed from the mid-1990s until the turn of the millennium: very gradually allowing its people more freedoms in various realms, with occasional brief backslides toward increased repression, all while maintaining its monopoly on political power.

In this respect I have been proved wrong (as have others who had similar expectations) by the chill that began to set in after the Olympics, and which has become a bitter winter since Xi Jinping became head of the Party late in 2012 and head of state in early 2013. For more than a decade now, there has never been a year when the Party has used a lighter touch in areas such as civil society activity than it had the year before, and there have been some years when in certain parts of the country we have seen a dramatic tightening of controls – the proliferation of indoctrination camps in Xinjiang being a particularly important case in point.

Third, the starting and stopping of social movements is notoriously hard to predict, in all parts the world. 

Before the fall of 1989, no one was predicting that massive crowds would take to the streets in East Germany. Nor, in the wake of the first large gatherings, were many people saying that the wave of unrest would end with the Berlin Wall coming down. Closer to home and the present, before the Parkland killings two years ago, few thought that the current generation of American teenagers – often described as self-absorbed and dismissed as politically apathetic – would take the lead in a mass movement. Yet they staged an impressively large anti-gun violence march on Washington. And after that march, some expected that Americans would finally wage a sustained struggle to push for tougher gun laws, but that was not to be.

The course of events during the final half of 2019 and first weeks of 2020 proved clearly that Hong Kong has not lost its ability to make fools of forecasters. There were those who thought at various points that a massacre by People’s Liberation Army troops a la 1989 was likely, and that this is what would stop mass actions. (There was not.) Some predicted that, as soon as protesters engaged in even isolated acts of violence, popular support for it would diminish dramatically. (In fact, while there were a lot of protester attacks on property and some rare attacks on people, the majority of Hong Kong residents continued throughout 2019 to be less outraged by those occurrences than by strongarm police actions that injured both protesters and bystanders.) Some thought that what would end the movement would be the dismissal of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the launching of an independent investigation into the police, or sheer exhaustion. Yet six months after the first big marches, Lam was in power, there was no independent investigation, and tired or not, people were still taking to the streets.)

I do not claim any prescience. Yet I feel compelled in some cases, due to my book’s subtitle, to give people who ask a sense of whether I think Hong Kong is settling down completely, or if despite the lack of massive street actions it is still on the brink. The short answer: I think it is still on the brink, and that there is a high probably there will be a resumption of major protests of some form after the fear of infection from the coronavirus lessens. I also want to stress that, while I thought I had a sense of the kinds of developments that might lead to a pause, if not complete cessation, of large scale street actions (such as the mass arrests and imposition of martial law which curtailed for a time the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the early 1980s), I did not even ponder the possibility that a disease would play a crucial role. And yet, the coronavirus is a crucial variable that explains why there has been no large-scale gathering in recent weeks.

I sympathize with those who make erroneous Hong Kong predictions, because as careful as I usually am about making specific forecasts – due to knowing how often history moves in unexpected ways – Hong Kong once made a fool of me. In my case, I made sure not to make any sweeping statements expressing either great optimism or great pessimism about what would happen after the handover on July 1, 1997. I asserted, correctly, that it was impossible to say how exactly the city would change, as well as how long Beijing would keep some or all of its promises. If only I had stopped there. I slipped up, though, and said that there was one thing I felt certain would happen – or, rather, would not happen – after the handover. And I was proved wrong. Immediately.

I sympathize with those who make erroneous predictions, because a Hong Kong prediction once made a fool of me”

My road to an inaccurate prediction began on October 1, 1996. That was the first day of my second visit to Hong Kong, and the last I made when it was still a part of the British Empire. The highlight of that short stay was going to City University on the evening of my arrival to participate in the Q&A session following a showing of ‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace,’ a documentary about the Tiananmen protests and June 4 massacre, for which I had been a consultant. Watching the documentary with leaders of the student union that had organized the showing and invited me to be there, and then joining the discussion after the credits rolled, was a moving experience.

During the weeks that followed the City University event, I dodged predictive questions about Hong Kong’s future, sometimes using the familiar excuse that as someone trained in history, I was more comfortable looking backward than forward. But I made one exception. I felt, and foolishly told people I felt, that whatever else did or did not happen after the handover, ‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace’ – which was banned in all parts of the mainland – would not be shown openly in Hong Kong. In fact, throughout the month following the handover, a local theater showed the film every day.

It turned out that, when it came to the film, I was too pessimistic about how quickly censorship and self-censorship mechanisms would kick in. When I queried knowledgeable people about the theatre deciding to show the film, I got two answers. Some said that the theatre put it on to demonstrate that Hong Kong would continue to be a place where the mainland’s taboo topics could be dealt with in the open, and somehow got away with it. Others said that a lot of mainland officials were curious about the film, and one way they could see it was to visit Hong Kong. Both of these explanations could be true.

Two final notes about the City University event are worth making. First, when I told the student organizers how impressed I was by the turn out, they said they were disappointed by the absence of some key people. The showing took place on National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and to mark that holiday the local CCP representatives hosted a party. They invited student leaders from various campuses to attend. Weighing their prospects in the new order, some prominent City University students had decided it was more politic to go to an event celebrating the founding of the country Hong Kong would soon become part of than one looking back mournfully to the day in 1989 that the people’s army had turned their weapons on the people of Beijing.

Second, I later wished that I had asked a predictive question of my own of the students. What, I would have queried them, did they think it would take to trigger big protests in Hong Kong? In spite of the fact that Hong Kong had been shaken by riots and demonstrations in the mid-1960s, while the Cultural Revolution was underway, and in spite of the fact that big solidarity marches linked to the Tiananmen protests of 1989 had been held in Hong Kong, the city did not have a reputation for protest. The emphasis, or so a common line went, was not on politics but on making and spending money – shopping, working and eating. Certainly, when I had first come to Hong Kong, soon after witnessing a series of student-led Shanghai protests late in 1986, my sense of local universities was that they were less filled with political discussions than were those on the mainland. The film showing proved that there was interest in politics on Hong Kong campuses in 1996, but I wish I had asked the bigger question.

Even though I did not ask that question, I got my answer in the middle of 2003. A year and a half before, I had made my first return visit to City University. What brought me back to the campus in November 2002 was something very different from a film showing: I was there as part of a delegation from Indiana University, where I was teaching at the time, which had been sent to explore possibilities for school-to-school cooperation and to see one of its members, IU President Miles Brand, receive an honorary doctorate during the school’s graduation ceremony. The speech City University’s President gave at that ritual was upbeat, focusing on the benefits Hong Kong was getting from being part of the PRC. He told the graduating students that they should celebrate the porousness of the border between the SAR and the mainland. He said that, if City University had been successful in educating them, they would be well positioned to pursue career paths that made the most of Hong Kong’s situation as a world city and a metropolis with close ties to mainland cities.

The City University President went on to say that those graduating should open their minds to a future that found them spending their post-college years living and working in Hong Kong some of the time, and in Beijing or another mainland city the rest of the time. What he did not mention, but which many others were talking about that fall, was an ominous development which would bring some of the students listening to his address – as well as hundreds of thousands of other Hong Kongers – out into the streets the following summer: a proposed security bill designed to ensure that the local government would be able to vigorously stamp out all signs of ‘sedition’ in the territory. Those backing the bill insisted it was no more than carrying out Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, which stipulated that local authorities would in due time introduce rules relating to the steps that could be taken to ensure that the former colony remained free of turbulence. Many residents not see it that way – and took to the streets to show it. ∎

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom (Columbia Global Reports) came out in February. While the discussion above of the author’s 1996 visit to City University is not included in the book, a more detailed account of the protests of 2003, which ultimately succeeded in blocking Article 23, appears in Chapter 3, ‘Victories.’
Header: Hong Kong skyline; photo by David Iliff (Wikicommons; license CC BY-SA 3.0).