There will, one imagines, be quite a few books written about Hong Kong’s year of protests, from journalistic retellings from the front-lines, memoirs from influential figures, and attempts to tie the protests to a broader “New Cold War” narrative. There have already been a few.
But one might hope, as a necessary foundation, for a reasonably authoritative timeline of what happened. Rebel City: Hong Kong’s Year of Water and Fire is a lightly-edited volume collecting The South China Morning Post’s coverage of the 2019 protests, starting from the first proposal of the extradition bill in February 2019 to the de facto pause in protest activity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It fits the bill.
Rebel City has already been overtaken by events. But any discussion about the position Hong Kong is in now requires an understanding of the year of protests that led up to it.
Even avid readers of local Hong Kong news will find value in Rebel City’s straight retelling of events.
By virtue of being drawn from the reporting of a local paper, Rebel City is both broader and deeper than other current longform writing on the protests. SCMP reporters delve into how the protests affected a wide swathe of Hong Kong society, from the poorly-paid cleaners who had to clean up after street violence, Mainland Chinese migrants in Hong Kong unnerved by the protests’ increasingly anti-Mainland tone, and the domestic helpers who lost their Sunday social spaces to protests.
But reporters also had access to insights drawn from the pro-establishment, pan-democratic and protest camps to get a richer view of what motivated people’s decisions. The chapters on the protestors, for example, explore the emotions that drove a wide range of people, from secondary school students to middle-class professionals, to take part in protests.
This would make Rebel City an easy recommendation for anyone outside the city who wants more detail about Hong Kong’s protests. But even avid readers of local Hong Kong news (whether in Cantonese or in English) will find value in Rebel City’s straight retelling of events.
For example, most Hong Kong people can probably recite the important dates in the movement. 12 June, when police fired tear gas on protestors gathered outside the Legislative Council. 21 July, when protestors in Yuen Long were attacked by a group with rumored triad links.The week of 11 November, when protestors occupied Chinese University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Those at the time were operating without the benefit of hindsight.
Yet Rebel City’s timeline highlights a few other important dates that, as of now, have been less-discussed, yet are perhaps useful in understanding the shift in the Central Government’s view of developments in Hong Kong throughout 2019.
The first is 23 March, when Anson Chan and other prominent pro-democracy politicians travel to Washington. Rebel City notes that this was when Beijing’s approach shifted from studious silence to more active support, as the Washington visit turned what was originally might have been seen as a local and perhaps non-critical issue into “a sort of sovereignty and security level” problem (to borrow Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s term for it).
The second is 13 August, when protestors in Hong Kong’s international airport briefly detained two Mainland Chinese people they suspected of being Mainland Chinese security officers. Rebel City notes that this was the point where Chinese state media shifted from ignoring the protests to strongly negative coverage.
Rebel City does not dwell on these dates, but they help elucidate the timing of developments since the protests began.
Reading through Rebel City shows how variable the outcome of the protests really could have been. Post facto, the new status quo can look inevitable, but Rebel City notes all the individual decisions made by the city’s senior political leaders along the way. Different decisions may have led to different outcomes, yet those at the time were operating without the benefit of hindsight.
Rebel City is necessary reading for anyone trying to understand where the city goes from here.
Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He works at a think tank in Hong Kong. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.