Lawyer and writer Antony Dapiran has lived in Hong Kong since the late 1990s, and has been reporting on events there since 2014. He writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and Bloomberg, among other publications, and is the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong (Penguin: 2017).
In “The Pushback”, his new piece in Mekong Review, he discusses Hong Kong’s protest culture and responds to Richard McGregor’s book Xi Jinping: The Backlash (Penguin: 2019). We asked Antony a few questions about his piece, the current round of mass protests in the city and the likely response from China.
Read “The Pushback” for free this week.
Hong Kong is in its ninth straight week of mass pro-democracy protests. In your piece in the magazine, you argue that protesting is part of the city’s identity. How has that driven the recent protests?
Hong Kong is unique in that it has a very high level of rights and freedoms but a very limited level of democracy, a condition the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has called “liberty without democracy”. This has meant that, if Hongkongers are unhappy with their government, they are unable to effect change through the ballot box — to “vote the bastards out”, as they say in Australia — but they do have the right to take to the streets to protest. This act of political expression through protest has become a key part of Hong Kong’s identity, and it also kick-started the current wave of protests. The government proposed to introduce an unpopular law, and the people took to the streets to stop it.
Hong Kong seems to have become a battleground of liberal democracy and authoritarian communism. Do you see the protests having global political ramifications?
The current conflicts in Hong Kong are already echoing across the globe. They are playing out on university campuses, from Queensland to Tasmania, from Auckland to Vancouver, pitting academic freedom of expression against the financial interests of the universities. The protests are also occurring in the context of an ongoing trade war between China and the US, as well as in the lead-up to presidential elections in Taiwan. It is possible to envision a future in which Hong Kong becomes a wedge driven between the interests of China and Western liberal democracies worldwide.
You’ve lived in Hong Kong for twenty years now, but you weren’t always a writer. What was it about the Umbrella Movement, in 2014, that prompted you to start reporting on the region?
The Umbrella Movement unfolded on my doorstep. At the time, I was living just a few blocks away from the main protest site, in Admiralty, and I watched the entire course of the months-long movement literally from my living room window. To be living in and among that movement day by day — I would walk through the protest site every morning on the way to work, and spend some time every evening there on the way home, as well as most weekends — it remade my relationship with the city, which at that point I had already been living in for fifteen years. In many ways, you could say that the Umbrella Movement finally made Hong Kong feel like home to me. It felt only natural at that point to write about it.
How does the mood on the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks compare with the mood during the Umbrella Movement? How do you think the current round of protests will end?
The Umbrella Movement was a utopian movement; the protesters were hoping to bring a “more perfect” (to borrow a phrase) democracy to Hong Kong. As a result, the prevailing mood of those protests was optimistic, full of creativity and hope. The current protests are much darker: protesters almost have the sense that they are locked in the ultimate, life-and-death battle for the city. For some this has tragically become literal: several protesters have taken their own lives in the course of the protests. The violence in the streets — weekly clashes with police, and the city seemingly permanently shrouded in tear gas — is also significantly greater now than during the Umbrella Movement, which was largely peaceful. This is a much more desperate time. As to how it will end, I would not dare to predict; I can observe only that Beijing always gets its way. We can just hope that Beijing handles the situation with wisdom and tolerance.
Ben Wilson is Mekong Review’s digital editor.