“Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink” by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

HK Protests

For those of us who live in Hong Kong, the past six-eight months have been a roller-coaster. The (it is almost now universally accepted) ill-advised extradition bill—the proximate cause of the discontent that has roiled the city—has been withdrawn, but too late to stem the tide of protest, which took on a momentum of its own and which has been a matter of almost daily conversation, argument, newspaper commentary and, for no small number, involvement.

It is for many, on both sides of the divide, a source of sadness. “Loss of innocence” is a term much employed, although the roots of the problems are deep and were visible to anyone who cared to pay attention: not that no one was paying attention, just that little was done about them.

Hong Kong has finally become the focus of world media and even political attention that residents long thought it deserved, although not for the reason many would have wished. Although this attention is sometimes seen as disingenuous by pro-establishment voices, the reasons for it are not hard to fathom: young people, barricades, cries for freedom have been a heady mix since revolutionary France, a reference reinforced when a song from Les Misérables emerged as an unofficial anthem. The protests, which have echoes in several other countries, also fit into larger geopolitical and socio-political narratives prevalent in the media’s home markets.


Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, Jeffrey Wasserstrom (Columbia Global Reports, February 2020)
Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, Jeffrey Wasserstrom (Columbia Global Reports, February 2020)

Books, therefore, were to be expected. Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink by Jeffrey Wasserstrom (and part of the Columbia Global Reports series) is one of the first.

Although Hong Kong people tend to leap at any expression of foreign interest and although it is likely many here will buy the book, read it and discuss it, this book is not really for them: Hong Kong people are more passionate, committed and nuanced than any overseas observer, even perhaps any resident foreigner, could aspire to be. They, after all, they have skin in the game: most, unlike foreigners and the local elite, are unable to pack up leave should things turn sour.

Nor, I think, is the book for those outside Hong Kong who follow the protests closely: media, including and perhaps particularly the Hong Kong media, have (despite claims about diminishing press freedom) provided good and blanket coverage. Vigil is instead perhaps better seen as a primer or guide for those who want to know, at a level deeper than a 30-second TV news sound bite, what is going on in “Asia’s World City” and why.

Vigil is, like Wasserstrom’s other books and many essays in the press (content from some of which has been reworked for this book), clear and well-written with a prose style that makes for easy reading. Most of this short book (it is under 100 pages) is history, starting back before the Handover, running through the National Curriculum protests, the 2014 “Occupy” protests (better known, perhaps, as the “umbrella movement”), etc. and the rise of new political movements and leaders, driven by young people who have for the most part grown up the 20-odd years since the end of British colonial rule.

It seems to be de rigueur these days for books on current affairs to include a lot of first person reportage. Wasserstrom obliges. He is, furthermore, sympathetic, both in general and to the protagonists: this isn’t a detached account. Although one must always be aware of the risk of conflating anecdote with data and analysis, Wasserstrom has the ability to bring the reader into the scene.

His narrative, regardless, is straightforward and goes a long way in clarifying complexity, whether it is the nature of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s unusual political system and the various players, past and present. Wasserstrom is good at putting people into context, so for those for whom CY Leung, Benny Tai, Joshua Wong and Denise Ho are little more than names, Vigil is a far more efficient way of remedying that than pouring through several years of South China Morning Post back issues.


Somewhat contrary to what one might expect from the dramatic title and subtitle, it is only the last fifth of the book or so which is concerned with the events arising from the introduction of the now infamous extradition bill. Here Wasserstrom delves into the zeitgeist rather than giving a chronological account of the escalation. The difficulty with any book that addresses ongoing political developments is that it can very quickly go out of date. Vigil was written before the local District Board elections in late November 2019 in which the establishment candidates were trounced. Although there have been both marches and some violent protests since, escalation has at least taken a pause and the atmosphere has calmed somewhat, not compared to the status quo ante, but perhaps compared to November. New elections for the legislature are on the way. Not all Court cases are going the Government’s way.

Despite Wasserstrom’s conclusion that “it’s become clear… that there is little stopping Beijing from destroying many of Hong Kong’s institutions”, it has not happened, at least not yet. Wasserstrom’s pessimism in the end may prove prescient, but many of those of us who live here hope that Hong Kong’s institutions remain robust.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.