Beijing’s want to impose anti-subversion legal guidelines on the Asian financial hub that’s Hong Kong stems from occasions final 12 months when avenue protests, initially triggered by China’s contentious extradition invoice, advanced right into a pro-democracy motion that captured worldwide consideration and alarm.
Two new books by pro-democracy advocates assist us perceive these 2019 protests and the more and more hardline response they sparked from an anxious and indignant Chinese language management. Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong, the youthful face of Hong Kong’s democracy motion, is a rallying cry for grassroots democracy actions all over the world. Antony Dapiran’s Metropolis on Hearth combines relentless on-the-ground reporting with a deep understanding of town’s political, financial and social undercurrents.
Dapiran’s authoritative account weaves collectively very important context in regards to the systemic issues going through Hong Kong. The previous British colony just isn’t a democracy however reasonably “a metropolis dominated in impact by an alliance between the native authorities, the Beijing authorities and town’s omnipotent actual property tycoons.” As Beijing tightens its grip on town, China’s authorities is utilizing the territory’s authorized system as a instrument to realize political targets, argues the veteran Hong Kong-watcher, drawing on greater than 20 years of expertise as a company lawyer.
The writer makes use of flashbacks to hyperlink key moments of the protest motion with important occasions and themes in Hong Kong’s current historical past from the 2014 Umbrella Motion and demonstrations in 2003 in opposition to a proposed anti-subversion legislation. Dapiran’s fashion is energetic and vivid, transporting the reader to the center of a riot police baton cost or a panicked, tear-gassed crowd, capturing the broad neighborhood help and new-found solidarity of the motion in a metropolis that had a popularity for being chilly and distant. (The smattering of typos all through the e book is likely one of the few giveaways of how shortly the e book was produced.)
A Mandarin-speaker who beforehand lived in Beijing, Dapiran spells out the Chinese language authorities’s official narrative used to legitimise its rule within the metropolis, in addition to how the folks of Hong Kong have tried to reclaim their very own historical past by way of types of protest that draw on slogans and songs.
Whereas Metropolis on Hearth particulars Beijing’s motivations, it’s clear the place the writer’s sympathies lie. Hardcore protesters are described as “frontline braves”, a direct translation of the Cantonese phrase utilized by the pro-democracy camp.
The occasions of 2019 additionally highlighted the rising attain of China’s ruling Communist occasion as supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy motion clashed with those that supported Beijing at avenue rallies and on campuses all over the world. “If the 2019 protests had a world significance, it was that they served to disclose the face of Chinese language energy to the world,” writes Dapiran.
The protests additionally introduced into focus the selection that many companies and international locations are being requested to make: to select a facet, as tensions rise between China and the US. A few of the e book’s most illuminating chapters discover how native and worldwide corporations addressed the age-old stress between revenue and precept offered by the protests. World manufacturers from Cathay Pacific to Apple had been pressured by Beijing over the protests, a portent of issues to come back when UK banks HSBC and Commonplace Chartered declared their support of the nationwide safety legislation final week. It was an illustration of the strain between ostensible help for democracy and freedom, and rising reliance on income from the mainland Chinese language market managed by Beijing, which makes use of wields its energy over such instruments as visas and market entry to police freedom of expression.
The theme of income vs rules additionally runs all through Unfree Speech, launched earlier this 12 months. China is “concurrently probably the most powerful autocratic regime and the most important shopper market on the planet, the one greatest menace to world democracy,” Wong argues within the e book.
Regardless of being solely 23 years outdated, Wong has already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and been out and in of jail 3 times. Essentially the most revealing a part of his first e book written for a global viewers is that primarily based on his journal entries from jail.
A number of inmates ask him how a lot he’s paid by the CIA and MI6 for his political activism, a well-liked concept perpetuated by mainland Chinese language propaganda regardless of any lack of proof. “Most individuals don’t perceive why any sane individual would threat jail to do what I do if it wasn’t for the cash,” he explains within the e book, which traces the origin of his activism from its early days of beginning a Fb web page to enhance meals in his faculty canteen.
Wong finds most of his fellow inmates real and heat, chatting to them about prisoners’ rights. In return, they share their experiences of jail abuse, together with being made to beat their very own arms with wood golf equipment till their fingers are damaged, being groped within the groin and force-fed water blended with cigarette ash.
The aim of Unfree Speech is to mobilise folks all over the world to push for citizen-driven democracies, with Wong reflecting that the one locations in Asia he considers it protected to journey to are Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
He writes about being detained for an unknown purpose at Bangkok’s airport the place a guard whispers in damaged English that “Thailand is rather like China!” — an obvious reference to the shortage of human rights protections in each international locations. “These had been by far the scariest hours in my life, not solely due to the language barrier, but additionally as a result of I used to be on overseas soil with out entry to a lawyer,” he writes, describing the excessive profile abduction of a Hong Kong bookseller in Thailand earlier than resurfacing in detention in mainland China.
A deep sense of hopelessness permeates each books. Wong believes the favored lament that Hong Kong will finally turn into simply one other mainland Chinese language metropolis is inescapable, as the 2 different outcomes — Hong Kong independence or the territory outliving Communist occasion rule — seem implausible.
Unfree Speech: The Risk to World Democracy and Why We Should Act, Now, by Joshua Wong, WH Allen/Penguin, RRP £9.99/$16, 288 pages
City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, by Antony Dapiran, Scribe, RRP£9.99, 336 pages
Sue Lin Wong is an FT correspondent overlaying south China
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