Emma H. Zhang reviews Stephen Vines’s uncompromising critique of Hong Kong’s new political terrain.
Stephen Vines, Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship (Hurst & Company, 2021), 393pp.
“Leave? Certainly not. This Brit is staying” wrote journalist Stephen Vines in July 1997. Vines had given up his full-time position at the Observer in London to be stationed in Hong Kong on a part-time basis in 1987. At the time of the Handover, Vines had been living and working in Hong Kong as a journalist and businessman for ten years. He had faith in the people of Hong Kong, in the energy and audacity of the city. He believed that it was “foolish to jump before being pushed,” referring to those who had made plans to leave the city before the governance of the territory was returned to China. Vines kept his resolution and stayed in Hong Kong for another 24 years, constantly reporting on the business, finance, and politics of this city for a wide range of local and international media outlets. In 2021, he paid homage to the people of Hong Kong with his new book, Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship. In August, two months after the book’s publication, Vines ended his 34-year-long sojourn in the city and departed for London.
Defying the Dragon can be considered a sequel to Vines’s 1999 book, Hong Kong: China’s New Colony. For all those who doubted Vines’s judgment about China’s refusal to tolerate the pluralistic society of Hong Kong back in 1999, the events recorded in Defying the Dragon are an attempt to confirm Vines’s prophetic vision of the city. His book documents Hong Kong’s failure to preserve its existing freedoms despite the best efforts of its people. Vines argues that the root cause of Hong Kong’s vanishing liberties is its dysfunctional political system, which he says is manipulated by a small group of self-serving elites who do not adequately represent the people. To this end, Vines lays out an insider’s account of the increasing presence of Mainland authorities in Hong Kong’s political, judicial, business, and media sectors since the Handover.
The book consists of three parts. Part One offers an introduction and analysis of Hong Kong’s evolving relationship with mainland China and explains the historical, political, financial, and cultural factors that set the two societies on a course of collision. Part Two provides a detailed account of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, reporting on the events as they unfolded day-to-day. Part Three describes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on superpower politics and argues that the “oppression” of Hong Kong may become the catalyst for the eventual downfall of the Chinese Communist Party regime.
Books about the 2019 Hong Kong protest are numerous, some of the best known include Vigil (Feb. 2020) by Jeffery Wasserstrom, Unfree Speech (Feb. 2020) by Joshua Wong, City on Fire (Mar. 2020) by Antony Dapiran, Rebel City (May 2020) written by a team of journalists at the South China Morning Post, and Making Hong Kong China (Oct. 2020) by Michael C. Davis. Among them, City on Fire and Rebel City both provide detailed journalistic accounts of the cause, escalation, and aftermath of the protests, but the authors’ interpretations of the events are starkly different.
In this context, Vines’s book has little insight to add to the existing voices and narratives about the protest. Vines is characteristically blunt in his opinion and relentless in his portrayal of the politicians of whom he disapproves. He describes the territory’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, as someone who “appears to have had any scrap of charisma surgically removed; and is simply incapable of dealing with people who challenge her opinions” (53).
On the other hand, Vines celebrates Hong Kong people’s courage and ingenuity with zest. “Defying the dragon of the Chinese regime involves sacrifice and determination. Both are the qualities that have characterized the Hong Kong spirit and its incredible history of overcoming adversity” (294). Quoting Michael DeGlyer, who conducted public opinion surveys from 1989 to 2012, Vines points out that the notion that Hongkongers are politically apathetic is a myth. The problem is that they are “faced with a system that makes [political] participation very hard to achieve” (48). Vines argues that the post-Handover Hong Kong political system kept some of its worst heritage from the colonial area, but the new masters are even less tolerant of dissent.
Ultimately, Vines blames the undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy on its self-serving elites. “It’s hard to find an example of any senior official prepared to stand up for Hong Kong’s interests in the face of Mainland pressure” (42). Vines describes the Hong Kong political system as “farcical” and argues that the legislative council gives only the appearance of legitimacy. The Election Committee responsible for selecting the Chief Executive cannot truly represent the will of most citizens, he claims. For example, in the 2017 Election Committee, the education sector had 80,643 voters, but held only 30 seats, whereas the agricultural and fishery sector had merely 154 voters yet held 60 uncontested seats. Carrie Lam, who won 777 votes from the 1,200 members of the Election Committee, “owes her position solely to the men in Beijing who installed her in office, and who can remove her any time they want to” (53), Vines asserts.
Vines also argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the internal and external crisis of the Chinese regime. It “had the effect of sowing doubt over the invincibility of the [Chinese] regime, as citizens slowly became aware that the pandemic was being covered up, and then started suffering from its dire economic impact” (203). Vines neglects to include that the pandemic has also seemingly strengthened state control in China and severely damaged people’s faith in democratic systems globally. The quarantine measures taken in Hong Kong eliminated mass gatherings, promptly ending the year-long protest. Vines acknowledges that “only a third of pro-democracy protests since 2010 have yielded any kind of success” (294), but he still holds out hope that the Hong Kong uprising will have a long-lasting impact like the Prague Spring – disturbances from the periphery can end up tumbling an entire regime, he reminds his reader.
And it will be those readers who appreciate Vines’s satirical humor, seething criticism of the powerful, and unwavering empathy for the oppressed who will enjoy this book the most. Although Vines’s account and analysis of the events is unapologetically subjective and unhesitatingly one-sided, he does take considerable time and care to make this book reach beyond his established fan base. The book’s content is supplemented by two appendices that list the timeline of events and note the key figures in Hong Kong politics. The book finishes with 32 pages of notes that cite a wide range of sources, and 22 pages of index. As if anticipating that his book will not find an outlet in local Hong Kong bookstores, Vines writes for an audience who is not so well informed about Hong Kong. As time passes, this book will serve to preserve the memory of the 2019 protest that is in danger of being obscured, as well as memorialize an era when journalists had the space to write and publish scathing criticisms against those in power without fear or reservation.
Dr. Emma H. Zhang is a lecturer of English at the College of International Education of Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature, comparative mythology, and e-learning. She has written on the subjects of contemporary Asian-American literature, Chinese mythology, as well as life writing.