July 1, 1997, marked the day that Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, bringing to an end over 150 years of British colonialism. On the same date in 2003, the largest protest seen in the city since the Handover took place over anger at a proposed National Security Law that many felt would unduly limit local freedoms. And it is now clear that July 1, 2020, will also mark an important moment in Hong Kong’s history: the day when a National Security Law, crafted in Beijing without the input of anyone in Hong Kong, goes into effect. This measure, announced in late May, is designed in part to prevent the kinds of massive popular mobilizations that have taken place over the last year.
As the law’s enactment nears, we are already seeing a chilling effect. Activists and citizens are taking protective action: pro-protest social media accounts are quietly disappearing or removing content critical of the Chinese Communist Party, stores long supportive of protests in Mong Kok are ripping pro-protest art off the walls, and citizens are quietly considering the possibility of having to leave Hong Kong indefinitely. We are still waiting to learn the details of the National Security Law—details that are scheduled to be released later today. But there is little about which to be optimistic. Already there are leaks about what the bill will entail, from definition of crimes to possible lengths of sentences. And everything relating to it was decided in the capital. The Basic Law that went into effect in 1997 not only pledged that Hong Kong would remain largely autonomous for fifty years but made it clear, in Article 23, that Beijing would not be in charge of defining sedition. There is no ambiguity: the local government, it says, will “enact laws on its own.” With this new law passed today, the Chinese government has snatched away any sense that the Basic Law will protect Hong Kongers in one decisive move.
With Xi Jinping tightening Communist Party control over all parts of the country in recent years, a number of historical analogies and comparisons have entered popular discourse. Where Hong Kong is concerned, two specific analogies have become prevalent. The first is about history repeating itself: the return of the violent repression that crushed the Tian’anmen Square protests. The other is an anthropomorphic view of a “dying city.” These descriptors have their uses, but they also risk normalizing the violence being inflicted on Hong Kong as it undergoes a series of dramatic transformations.
Amid the uncertainty with the new law, many fear a violent military crackdown against unarmed protesters, similar to the repression in Beijing in 1989, which ushered in an era of increased state control and chilled future popular protest. It is natural to take as a metric the killings near Tian’anmen, a memory kept alive by iconic images. As the Hong Kong–based journalist Ilaria Maria Sala pointed out almost a year ago in a powerful New York Times op-ed, however, this metaphor encourages a form of myopia. When the only question we ask is whether there will be tanks in the streets, anything besides tanks in the streets becomes less than horrific, less oppressive and more palatable than what could have been.
In 2019, police filled indoor spaces with tear gas, turned a blind eye to thugs brutally attacking protesters and passersby, and targeted journalists as well as protesters at short range with bean bag rounds and other projectiles, blinding several and causing other serious injuries. Hong Kongers recognized the violence of these actions and claimed as martyrs those who committed suicide for at least partly political reasons and a youth who died from falling from a parking garage that had been tear gassed. But global criticism often seemed muted, despite (or perhaps in part because) many continued to measure current events against Tian’anmen, even using the specific phrase “Tian’anmen 2.0” in late 2019 and during the first half of this year.
Beyond downplaying the physical violence in the city, the Tian’anmen metaphor presumes that physical violence is the only kind that matters. Beijing’s decision to bypass Hong Kong’s founding document is also violence—to a political system, a culture, a way of life. For the first time in twenty-three years, a march against Communist Party encroachment on July 1 was not given a permit, representing the narrowing of state-sanctioned forms of dissent. Hong Kongers now face the violence inherent in everyday life marked by powerlessness and fear.
In response to these developments, many have turned to a more ambiguous metaphor: Hong Kong as a dying, or dead, city. The specter of imminent death has been haunting discussions about Hong Kong for a long time. Some prognosticators asserted that the end of British rule dealt Hong Kong a death blow, and that all local freedom would disappear on July 1, 1997. And yet Hong Kong not only survived into the twenty-first century but remained a place where the press could criticize the Communist Party, satirical television shows like Headliner could mock local and mainland officials, and protest was legal. In recent months, Headliner has been taken off the air and the government has begun to routinely refuse all requests for permission to hold demonstrations. But calling this the “death” of an entire city implies a lack of continuity in other parts of life that is empirically false, allowing critics to downplay the harm being caused every time new oppressive measures emerge.
When we say the city has died, we have the potential of missing what actually did change today: a hope was extinguished. This was the hope that the protections enshrined in the “one country, two systems” framework would allow for the continued creative imaginings of Hong Kong’s potential futures until 2047. This was not only the death of a system, and the death of the safety and stability that comes with rule of law; it was the death of potential futures that could have been. Those who fought for those alternative visions are grieving their foreclosure under the National Security But, as they remind us, to pronounce Hong Kong as “dead,” especially from outside, without recognizing what will and can survive, is to destroy the hope that resistance may evolve in new ways while allowing Beijing’s supporters to dismiss criticism of ongoing violence as overblown. Despite the sweeping jurisdiction the law now allows, Hong Kongers have shown themselves to be endlessly inventive in how they adapt to oppression. As Joshua Wong—the former leader of the pro-democracy group Demosisto, which disbanded in response to the National Security Law—explained, his individual fight will go on. To declare the city dead is to ignore their continued fight.
A new and mournful July 1 anniversary, which brings us into unknown historical terrain, calls us to reframe how we think about the future of Hong Kong: to recognize that events that do not directly follow the patterns of 1989 still constitute violence, and to make room for thinking about a spirit of resistance that stays alive even in a city shaken to its core by broken promises and a lack of popular power. Otherwise, we risk missing the violence that is happening right in front of us and diminishing the new struggles that lie beyond.
Gina Anne Tam is an Assistant Professor of History at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, and the author of Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960 (Cambridge, 2020).
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020).