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Historian Jeff Wasserstrom shares with Daniel C. Tsang his historically tempered observations about Hong Kong.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom. Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). 120pp.

This interview was conducted at Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s office at UC Irvine on 31 January 2020.  The transcript has been edited for readability.


Entangled genealogies

Daniel Tsang: Why vigil?

Jeff Wasserstrom: I was thinking in terms of the June Fourth vigil. When I started working on the book, I hadn’t decided to call it Vigil. I did plan to end the book with an account of the June Fourth vigil of 2019, which I would attend. The event also marked the 30th anniversary of 1989. And I thought, how many more years would a kind of vigil like that take place in Hong Kong when it can’t take place on the mainland? To me, the vigil is a very important symbol of what makes Hong Kong different. Macao also has a vigil though it’s usually a very small one.

DT: In Taiwan too.

JW: Outside of the People’s Republic of China, there can be ones. But Hong Kong is the one place within China where there’s a significant, large-scale vigil. I also thought about the fact that after the Umbrella Movement there was a fairly widespread sense among a lot of Hongkongers, especially the young, that things were dying, things were disappearing, freedoms were disappearing. There was this kind of a sense of frustration, sometimes even despair, like sitting vigil over someone or some place you care about in its death throes.

The last event I witnessed in Hong Kong before coming home was an event on the evening of December 13, next to the Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, organized by high school students. It was a vigil that began with a moment of silence for the people who had suffered, who had died or been injured. In some ways, Hong Kong’s ongoing movement is showing many signs of life. But the title Vigil still made sense to me because some rallies during the movement were held to look back on the suffering that people had endured when they’d been beaten up by police or by triads, such as the notable case in Yuen Long on 31 July 2019.

DT: There’s dispute, even among the younger people in Hong Kong, such as the Federation of Students, that local university students didn’t want to join the June Fourth vigil. Instead they set up alternative forums at the University of Hong Kong and other places. Do you think eventually they will get back to honoring the dissidents in Beijing or in other places in China? Or that this historical event has nothing to do with Hong Kong and therefore Hong Kong people should focus on Hong Kong issues?

JW: For me, it’s kind of ironic that at the very moment when Hong Kong students are saying most assertively, “Don’t think of us as just being part of Chinese history,” I think of them as keeping alive one tradition of Chinese history that’s largely hard to find on the mainland: the

May Fourth tradition. Young people in Hong Kong are saying, “We love this community. It’s being badly governed. We’re going to take we’re going to risk our bodies and even our lives to try to protect this country and this community that we care about.” If you think of the movement as a community, I think there is a line of connection between Chinese mainland students in 1919, 1989 and Hong Kong students in 2019.

Goddess of Democracy Statue at CUHK, 18 Oct 2019. Photo credit: Daniel C. Tsang

I think one of the things about the Hong Kong protesters is they’re incredibly eclectic. They borrow things from all over the world. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, you still have the Goddess of Democracy statue that suggests how some of these protests are connected to 1989. But the last time I saw the statue last December, the Goddess had a placard around her that said “Five Demands, Not One Less” that makes her distinctively Hong Kong. Another time I saw the statue, there was a skirt around her which had white and black strands, and on the white strands were the names of all the political prisoners in Hong Kong. That may be the way to think about the Hong Kong struggle. It’s not like any other Chinese mainland struggle, or Eastern European struggle. It’s not like any other protest in the world but it draws on a lot of different protest traditions.

An imagined community

DT: In your book, you mentioned that patriotic Hong Kong people have hope. But when you use the word “patriotic” in the Hong Kong context, it means you’re patriotic to Beijing. For me, it’s a bit ironic when you use that to describe Hongkongers because supporters of the movement don’t use that word to describe themselves.

JW: Now, that’s really interesting. I saw a video of a great presentation by Ching Kwan Lee, who was talking about how to think about the movement. Lee talked about Benedict Anderson’s famous formulation of imagined communities. Nations and a kind of nationalism come into being when people see themselves as part of an imagined community, which is an entity that they love and feel part of. In this imagined community, they feel a special connection to people who are part of it, even if they’ve never met each other before.

You can think of this imagined community as an extended family. It’s something you think of and are willing to die for. One of the things that Anderson said, and which Lee mentioned, was how during a movement the sense of a new imagined community can take place and take shape. However, it does not necessarily take the form of a country. This is what is taking place in Hong Kong. What Anderson proposed is a powerful way to think about nationalism, as other kinds of political communities are also imagined communities. And clearly, Hong Kong is an imagined community.

DT: Some people see it as a nation state or city state.

JW: It is a community that people care deeply about. Sometimes there can be communities that you care deeply about that formally aren’t and can’t be complete, that aren’t able to operate independently. Some people feel the same about California even though it is part of the United States. The connection to a place can be more passionate than to a nation, especially when you’re worried about what’s happening to the nation.

DT: I was glad you included the quote from Chairman Mao saying that Hunan should leave the country because of meddling from Beijing.

JW: I think that’s a great example of a time when people felt attachment to provinces. There were moments when Shanghai people thought, if only Shanghai could be its own place because people felt they had more in common with each other within Shanghai than they had in common with people in other parts of China and in Hong Kong.

The certainty of uncertainty

DT: You said at a talk in January 2019 that the Umbrella Movement is dead. But recently, you remarked that you don’t want to rely on your own statements because things are unexpected and things change. Do you think there’s a chance that Hong Kong will change drastically because even the government is now hinting that after 2047, the “One Country, Two Systems” could go on?

JW: Regarding my comment about the Umbrella Movement being dead, I think some of the activists now would also consider that event to be over, and that there needed to be a new movement with very different elements to it. Some aspects of the Umbrella Movement approach have been left behind. No more gathering in just a few set places, no more obvious leading figures. In a way you could say that the Umbrella Movement was over. But then there was a new movement to come.

Yes, I’m very straightforward about the fact that my predictions about Hong Kong have been wrong just like many others’. In 1841, some in London predicted that there was no way Hong Kong would ever become a great city. A barren island with hardly a house upon it was one way the city was described. And they were wrong. It became a great city. In 1996 there was prediction that in 1997, everything would change. There would be no more free speech, no more free press, no more ability to protest. And that was wrong. There are others who predicted that things will go along just fine and the Hong Kong way of living will flow into the mainland and they were wrong.

DT: Do you think that there is hope in the future? Your book is about a vigil and people are devastated because they feel there must be an alternative possibility. Now some are saying that maybe in the 20 or so years left before the 50-year limit is up, there could be a referendum or something.

JW: There’s a variety of reasons why you continue fighting a battle that seems impossible to win. One is because you feel that even if you’re going to be defeated in the end, it’s the right thing to do to hold out as long as you can. Another is because of an awareness that things change. Things that seem impossible can shift and then they become possible. You want to have your movement or your community to be in the best possible position when that happens. Both situations can be true in Hong Kong.

The Dean of Humanities at my school, Tyrus Miller, works on Hungary and Eastern Europe and thinks about authoritarianism. He was telling me about a story by Franz Kafka, about being in this authoritarian, impossible situation. You keep pounding on the door, trying to get in, to be able to make a change. The door keeps being blocked and locked. You keep going back and you knock again. And then at some point, for no explainable reason, it opens.

If you think about that story as well with this kind of impossibility during the Soviet era, how Hong Kong is placed within the People’s Republic of China is a bit like East Germany or Hungary or Poland or Czechoslovakia within the Soviet system. In the 1950s, there were uprisings in these countries and they were crushed in the 1960s. There were efforts to change the system and they were crushed. In the late 1970s, there was the Solidarity Movement that did better than any of the other ones had done. But it was crushed. But people kept thinking and kept struggling. This way, the Solidarity Movement stayed alive and ended up being able to succeed. Something had to change. Moscow had to change. It had to come under a new kind of leader like Gorbachev.

As long as China is ruled by Xi Jinping, I don’t see how Hong Kong and the movement can do anything more than to sort of slow the tide. There are so far no specific things to be hopeful about Hong Kong, except the very inspiring protests, beautiful creative work and daring and inspiring acts of solidarity. I don’t see how all this can reach a positive resolution, but impossible things can happen. The world is unpredictable and it is important to remember just how quickly things can shift. I thought there was a good chance the district elections in November 2019 would be canceled but instead they were held and pro-democracy candidates won many seats. I think that we should take seriously how people sometimes have good reasons to fight for causes that seem impossible.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of five books, including China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (co-authored by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham) and Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo. His most recent edited volume is The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China. He writes for leading academic journals and contributes to The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The Atlantic and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and a former member of the Board of Directors of the National Committee on US-China Relations.

Daniel C. Tsang is Distinguished Librarian Emeritus at University of California, Irvine. A visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he is also an honorary data archivist at the Public Opinion Research Institute in Hong Kong. A recent Fulbright Research Scholar at CUHK, and earlier at the Institute of Sociology, Hanoi, Vietnam, he is also a recent Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Hong Kong. A Hongkonger who splits his time between Hong Kong and California, Tsang hosts commentary and podcasts on an occasional blog, Subversities (http://subversities. blogspot.com). He also writes for Medium. He has recently contributed to the Hong Kong Free Press and the Hong Kong Review of Books, where he interviewed documentary filmmaker Evans Chan on his film on Qiu Miaojin.

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