China’s National Day is a carefully orchestrated occasion. Each year on October 1st, rigorously rehearsed celebrations take place nationwide, with those on Tiananmen Square broadcast live across China. On the decadal anniversary years, the display of pageantry is ramped up further, though these commemorations of Mao Zedong’s announcement on October 1st 1949 that the Chinese people had “stood up” have often been marred by events outside the careful control of the party leadership.
Much of Beijing’s old city was destroyed in the preparation for the first of these, in 1959, though the shine was taken off the capital’s socialist-realist makeover, and the grandiose military parade it showcased, by the recent purging of the man who should have overseen the celebrations, defence minister Peng Dehuai, after he raised concerns over the Great Leap Forward at the Lushan Conference earlier that year.
In 1989, the asphalt of the avenue along which the People’s Liberation Army ordinarily process in lockstep as part of the anniversary military parade still bore the marks of the tanks which had rolled down in on the night of June 3rd to clear the street and Tiananmen Square. The parade was cancelled, and amid tight security, leaders including the 85-year-old Deng Xiaoping watched a display of dancing and fireworks instead.
October 1st, 2019 was to mark the PRC’s 70th birthday; a year longer than the Soviet Union had managed. Rehearsals had been going on for months. An enormous portrait of Xi Jinping had been commissioned, to be paraded along Chang’an Avenue as the real life Xi looked on. Security in the old centre of the capital was ramped up beyond its already paranoid levels.
There was one aspect of the imagery that could not be controlled, however. On the big day itself, millions around the world—though not, of course, within the People’s Republic itself—watched split screen news broadcasts, with the tanks and ballistic missiles of the parade juxtaposed with images of mass protest and tear gas in Hong Kong.
The protests had begun in June, and punctuated the summer. Many, though, had predicted that Xi would simply not allow Beijing’s celebrations in October to be overshadowed by events in Hong Kong; that at some point decisive action would be taken. But, as Antony Dapiran observes in City on Fire: The fight for Hong Kong, in the end, Xi seemed willing to let the protests continue; to “let Hong Kong burn”, while incrementally tightening its grip. In mainland China, after initially ignoring the protests, Hong Kong became held up by the media as a morality tale—look at the chaos that unfolds, the nightly CCTV news reiterated, without the guiding hand of the party. There was no decisive confrontation, protests continued through the autumn, and a short few months later, people in Wuhan began to develop a mysterious and persistent cough.
Dapiran’s book ends before the coronavirus pandemic emerged to dominate the global news cycle, and made large-scale physical protest In Hong Kong essentially impossible, but in any case the book resists the temptation of trying to either predict the future or suggest that this story is finished. The author’s previous book, City of Protest, elucidated the long tradition of protest in Hong Kong and City on Fire likewise sees the 2019 protests, ignited by the introduction of an extradition law, as a continuation of earlier discontent—and as discontent that will continue.
The book takes the reader chronologically through the events of last year, which Dapiran observed first hand. Many of the moments which Dapiran describes will be familiar to those who have followed the protests in the media: the march of two million in mid-June; the storming of LegCo and the symbolic vandalism of the Hong Kong emblem; the protests at Hong Kong Airport. This is a book aimed at those who kept one eye on the news, and now want a more detailed account. Dapiran does a good job of explaining some of the more complex aspects of Hong Kong’s political structure, and its relationship with Beijing, but generally eschews analysis in favor of this informative, linear account of events.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about City on Fire is the speed with which it has been written and published. It gives a sense of immediacy and lived experience which is powerful and compelling; there is a rawness to passages of the book, and a sense of the unresolved trauma that last summer marked. The book is at its best when we get the visceral, first hand experience of the protest movement; of the disorientation and fluidity—the protesters’ motto is “Be water”—of the street-level experience. The author, an Australian lawyer who has lived in the city for many years, is both observer and participant, though he rightly acknowledges that this is a fight primarily by and for those born and raised in the city, and who will reach middle age at the end of the fifty year transition period in 2047. It is not a fight which has universal support, as Dapiran notes, citing a poll showing 59 percent support for the protests in Hong Kong—but the book chooses to leave to one side any detailed investigation into what the other 41 percent of Hong Kongers think and feel.
In one effective section, he writes of Hong Kong’s liminality—of its status as a borderland between the world and China. This is, of course, part of its great value to the People’s Republic—as a bridge, particularly for money, to move between the PRC and the rest of the world. Its status as such has seemed to suggest Hong Kong is irreplaceable to China’s government. Yet, China’s State Council announced in the summer of 2019 their intention to make Shenzhen, the mainland city which sits just across the river from Hong Kong, a more internationally open city, with the suggestion that rules around residency and foreign investment may be further relaxed. Dapiran notes that we may see a future where “Hong Kong and Shenzhen converge economically and financially towards Hong Kong, but politically towards Shenzhen.” Certainly, Hong Kong’s closer integration with Shenzhen and the other cities of the Pearl River Delta is a stated aim of China’s current leadership, although the legacy of COVID-19 may harden the border once more.
When asked what he thought would define the course of his premiership, British prime minister Harold Macmillan is said to have commented: “Events, dear boy, events.” The ceaseless train of events in Hong Kong has of course continued beyond the chronology of Dapiran’s book: first COVID-19, and then in mid-April, the arrest—controversial in the extreme—of 15 pro-democracy politicians. This was preceded by an announcement from the Liaison Office which, as its name suggests, operates as a political link between Beijing and Hong Kong, that it has “the authority to represent the central government to exercise oversight, be concerned about and express stern views on important matters involving the relationship between the center and the special administrative region.” This seems like a further power grab on behalf of Beijing, at a time when the world’s attention is elsewhere, and an attempt to further undermine Hong Kong’s independence. Events, more than time, will tell.