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Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World

Masterpieces of mid 20th century English fiction, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984, imagined a dystopian future. This riveting book by Mark Clifford, former editor of South China Morning Post recently forced to leave Hong Kong, suggests that future could soon be realised if Beijing’s plans proceed unhampered. And the contemporary fate of Hong Kong, which has known freedom and rule of law, offers in microcosm a glimpse of what could happen if the liberal world order is up-ended.

The cliché is that Hong Kong cares only about prosperity and status, but Clifford offers enough material here to overturn that cliché. The book’s technique is almost cinematic as it pulls back from Hong Kong’s tumultuous pro-democracy movement – which Clifford observed from close quarters – to a history of the present. After a granular and insightful portrayal of the pathways leading from Hong Kong’s past to its present, Clifford completes the picture by bringing us back to the principal characters in the pro-democracy movement and ruthless crackdown on it.

Clifford pulls no punches over the injustices of Hong Kong’s colonial past. It was founded on profits from the opium trade, made possible by Britain’s gunboat diplomacy. However, while the British undoubtedly have a complicated history of conquest and colonialism, it’s remarkable that British-ruled Hong Kong gave Sun Yat-sen – the ‘father of modern China’ – his vision of a new China. In 1923, Sun told students at Hong Kong University that it was the city’s peace, order and good government, as opposed to China’s corruption, that turned him into a revolutionary.

The British allowed property and other rights to the residents of Hong Kong, and a local commercial elite prospered. Hong Kong flourished as an entrepot port and became, along with Shanghai and Calcutta, one of Asia’s great trading ports. However, it was wrecked by World War 2 when it came under Japanese occupation and crippled by an enormous refugee influx following China’s communist revolution. From poverty and disease, Hong Kong rose like a phoenix during the postwar era.

There may be an object lesson here for countries like India. Whereas in most places excess people are seen to be a problem, Hong Kong turned them into an asset by placing them in an environment of rule of law, light regulation, low taxes, openness to the world plus the provision of some public goods such as housing and good medical care. Magic happened and Hong Kong became one of East Asia’s ‘tiger’ economies. By the time of its handover to China in 1997, its per capita income equalled Britain’s.

Drawing on his journalistic experience, Clifford provides a weathervane of Hongkongers’ emotions since the handover. Their reaction to the handover itself was mixed but by no means wholly negative towards the PRC, and many Hongkongers felt Chinese during the successful 2008 Beijing Olympics. But that mood turned sour as it became increasingly clear that the promise of autonomy to Hong Kong till 2047 was going to be belied, particularly through the introduction of a draconian national security law in 2020, negating Hong Kong’s legal protections.

Future historians may well see a parallel between this moment and Stalin’s going back on the promise he made to Churchill at the 1945 Yalta conference – that the Soviet Union would oversee “the creation of a mighty, free and independent Poland” – by tightening his grip on postwar eastern Europe. But Clifford provides, from ground zero, a vivid and moving account of the epic resistance mounted by Hongkongers to the creeping encroachment on their freedoms, culminating in the harsh 2020 crackdown when Beijing finally imposed the national security law. When London protested that the law violated the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration governing the terms of the handover – which assured autonomy to Hong Kong for another 50 years – Beijing riposted that the Declaration was voided by the handover itself, and any invocation of it amounted to interference in China’s internal affairs.

Hong Kong’s protests often mobilise close to a million people in a city of 7.5 million; a protest rally on 16 June 2019 drew up to two million participants, which Clifford estimates as amounting to between one quarter and one third of Hong Kong’s total population in the 15-58 years age group. Protests at this scale and intensity would surpass, say, India’s civil disobedience movement against British rule. Yet Beijing’s only response has been to tighten repression.

Clifford chronicles some of the impressive leaders of the pro-democracy movement – such as Jimmy Lai who could well be Hong Kong’s Alexei Navalny. Lai was a mainlander who escaped to Hong Kong as a boy of twelve, began life as a factory hand, and became a serial entrepreneur building fortunes in textile and retail. He then moved to publishing and started pro-democracy newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including the best-selling Apple Daily newspaper. Lai has now been arrested and Apple Daily shuttered under the national security law, signalling the end of press freedom in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s valiant strike for freedom is confronted by a totalitarian juggernaut before which its chances look as dim as that of Orwell’s hero Winston Smith, who ends the 1984 novel sobbing that he loves Big Brother. Yet Clifford ends his book on an optimistic note, hoping (against hope?) that Hong Kongers’ creativity and sacrifice has not been for nothing. Perhaps a future Sun Yat-sen, or the equivalent of a Solidarność movement, will arise here.

Clifford convincingly argues that what happens in Hong Kong doesn’t stay in Hong Kong, as he draws connections between the techniques used to end freedom there with China’s penetration and manipulation of open societies elsewhere. In his words “anyone, anywhere, who questions China’s policies risks punishment … the government-backed campaigns of intimidation, blacklisting and violence are part of a totalitarian pattern that we are seeing from Australia to Norway, from Sweden to South Korea and the United States.”

India experienced this in the sneak attack on its troops in Galwan and in China’s militarisation of the Line of Actual Control, where more overt attacks may follow. The world has seen only the latest instance of Beijing’s rule-breaking in Lithuania’s case where, in blatant disregard of WTO obligations, China abruptly ended all trade with it as Vilnius had allowed Taiwan to open an embassy. The question Clifford’s book raises is this: what must democracies do to withstand this totalitarian onslaught? They will have to hang together, or they will hang apart.

Clifford, Mark, Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow The World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans To End Freedom Everywhere. Macmillan (U.S.), 2022.

Swagato Ganguly is Adjunct Fellow, Gateway House and Consulting Editor, Times of India.

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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