All too many places have the form of democracy—elections—without the substance. Hong Kong, just about uniquely, has the opposite: most of the substance—a free press, independent courts, rule of law, privacy protections, etc.—without the form. The territory suffers having a significant democratic deficit, a situation that Christopher Patten, the “last governor”, famously called “liberty without democracy”.
The checks on a largely unelected government include not just the courts, press and enough directly-elected legislators to stymie administration attempts to railroad bills through, but also the Hong Kong public’s predilection to turn out en masse when it doesn’t like something. Large-scale demonstrations have over the years resulted not just in the government rethinking policy proposals, including the notorious “Article 23” anti-sedition provisions and an ill-advised proposal for “national education”, but even in the resignation of Hong Kong’s first post-Handover Chief Executive.
The exercise of public will through demonstrations had a track record of perhaps surprising success up to the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” of 2014, which singularly failed in achieving its aim of political reform.
Antony Dapiran’s City of Protest traces the history of Hong Kong dissent from the 1966 “Star Ferry riots”. These were much more violent than those in subsequent decades, but they also set a pattern for those that followed: the elevation of grassroots political leaders (Elsie Tu in this case) and causing government about-faces.
The center-piece is, of course, “Occupy Central” and the “Umbrella Revolution”. Dapiran’s placing these tumultuous few weeks in their broader historical context is, while not necessarily new, nevertheless useful and arguably central to an understanding of the political situation in Hong Kong today.
Dapiran also usefully places the protests in the context of the development of a Hong Kong identity, something that is perpetually elusive and hard to define. He finds it to have developed from people increasingly identifying with the substance of democracy that is unique to the city. This feels persuasive.
Perhaps as a result, this run-through of Hong Kong’s history of public dissent reads, curiously and perhaps only impressionistically, like those of the Boston-based lead-up to the American Revolution: the Stamp Tax, Boston Massacre, the relatively democratic local system at loggerheads with an unresponsive governor and an even less comprehending autocracy in the mother country. Dapiran tells of reasoned elder statesmen balancing hotheads, confrontation and camaraderie, progressive radicalization and the division of the parties into distrustful uncomprehending camps. This is not to say that Dapiran has glamorized his subjects; he is on the contrary rather matter-of-fact. But one can see here the raw material of creation myth.
“Occupy Central” ironically illustrates both the power and limits of public demonstration: it succeeded in killing off the existing political reform process the demonstrators thought inadequate, but failed to catalyze a replacement. As Nicholas Gordon wrote in The Diplomat in 2016:
Hong Kong’s political system … is not particularly good at generating forward momentum, partly because of the limited vehicles through which popular will can guide policy. Mass action is one way for members of the public to influence politics, but it is far better suited to blocking things than engendering progress. Mass action can also backfire by closing off the space for compromise.
The net result, whether due to “Occupy Central” or not, was that Hong Kong was stuck with the inferior status quo ante. Hong Kong residents in 2017 were treated to the irony of pan-democrat politicians exercising via the selection committee a franchise they had, by opposing the political reform on offer, played a large role in denying to everyone else.
Dapiran appears (wisely) reticent to pontificate about current politics. He does however posit a fundamental “disequilibrium” between Hong Kong’s democratic substance and (lack of) form, which seems as good a way as any of modeling the current situation. He also adopts a modesty not as common as it should be among non-local commentators, concluding this small and worthwhile book with the observation that Hong Kongers need to answer questions about their place in the world “for themselves”.
Peter Gordon is the editor of The Asian Review of Books. He is also co-author of a previous Penguin China Special, The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815.