Unpredictable Hong Kong

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:


All Quiet on the Campus Front

Contrasting student action in the 1910s and 80s with silence in the 2010s – Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When news broke that Xi Jinping would not be limited to serving just two terms as President, while some commentators turned to international ruler-for-life comparisons, others looked to China’s past for illuminating parallels and contrasts. As someone who began his career studying student-led activism and remains interested in the subject, I was struck immediately by references to two decades that figure centrally in the history of that topic: the 1910s and the 1980s. The former was the decade of the May 4th movement, which took its name from the date in 1919 when a rowdy student protest took place in the heart of Beijing, triggering a struggle that reached its peak with a general strike that shut down the city of Shanghai. The 1980s witnessed the massive 1989 gatherings in Tiananmen Square that preceded the June 4th massacre.

1919 and 1989 were not, moreover, the only years in the second and second to last decades of the twentieth century when campus activism mattered. The May 4th movement was preceded by and built on the foundation laid during a 1918 protest wave, while the Tiananmen protests also had a dress rehearsal in the 1986-87 struggles, whose biggest marches took place in Shanghai.