Taiwan has been trending on social media due to China’s threatening posture and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the island in defiance of Beijing’s “fire and fury” threats. The intense focus on Taiwan reminded me of the summer of 2019, when the world was similarly obsessed with Hong Kong as millions of the city’s residents took a stand for freedom and democracy.
According to journalist Louisa Lim, “In standing up for their ideals, Hong Kongers were putting themselves on the front line of a global battle between liberal democratic values and an increasingly totalitarian Communist regime.” Still, the international attention didn’t prevent Beijing from imposing its will on Hong Kong through a draconian national security law.
Within two years, Hong Kongers lost the liberties they used to enjoy, including free speech and freedom to assemble. The once freest place in the world has disappeared before our eyes, and what’s left is a Chinese city under communist authoritarian rule. The rest of the world watched Hong Kong’s demise in silence. Did it lose interest, or was it afraid of Beijing’s retaliation?
Louisa Lim’s new book “Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong” reminds us not to forget about Hong Kong and its people. Especially now, given all the focus on Taiwan, we need to learn lessons from Hong Kong’s disappearance and ensure Taiwan will not repeat a similar fate.
Lim considers herself a Hong Konger because she was raised in the city. She has spent more than a decade covering China on behalf of the BBC and NPR, and she had witnessed the city’s many milestones, including the 1997 Hong Kong handover to Beijing. She even participated in the 2019 pro-democracy protests. Her book combines memoirs, interviews, historical investigations, and profiles of some of the fascinating characters in Hong Kong.
Writing a book like this takes tremendous courage. The national security law is so vaguely defined that any writer who attempts to say anything about Hong Kong risks being charged with secession or subversion and could face a maximum penalty of life in prison. Not surprisingly, Lim observes that “the act of writing about Hong Kong has become an exercise in subtraction … many of Hong Kong’s best writers can no longer find words, even the platforms to express themselves openly.”
Fortunately, Lim moved to Australia in 2020, so she could write about Hong Kong objectively and honestly without worrying about imprisonment. Her book gives voice to the now voiceless Hong Kongers and ensures their stories and their city’s history will not be forgotten.
Lim’s book is timely because Beijing has been busy rewriting the history of Hong Kong, emphasizing China’s sovereignty claim of the city since time immemorial. Chinese authorities reportedly will introduce a new history book to Hong Kong schools that denies Hong Kong was ever a British colony.
Lim traced the city’s history back to the Bronze Age and discovered that Hong Kong had a long and distinctive history before the CCP laid its claim and the city became a British colony. Hong Kong had been a sanctuary for rebels and fugitives from power for thousands of years. Today, Beijing has eliminated that distinctive character. Lim’s book is therefore a timely record of Hong Kong’s true history that has been either erased, revised, or soon will be forgotten.
Lim’s book helps answer some questions many people, including myself, have, including: Why and how did the British government give up Hong Kong so easily?
Great Britain deserved credit for bringing the rule of law, independent judiciary, and laissez-faire capitalism to Hong Kong. These political and economic systems, combined with the Chinese people’s resilience and industriousness, transformed the once-sleepy fishing village into an international financial center and one of the busiest trading ports within a few decades. However, the British made three big mistakes that sealed Hong Kong’s fate today.
First, the British government failed to institute a democratic political system in Hong Kong. Probably driven by racial bias, a succession of British governors never thought that Hong Kongers were capable of thriving under a democracy. When Chris Patten, the last British-appointed governor to Hong Kong, tried to implement democratic reforms in the 1990s, it was too late. The Chinese government invalidated all of Pattern’s reforms right after the 1997 handover, and Hong Kongers were left with no political infrastructure to protect their liberty under China’s rule.
The second big mistake was that the British government was naive about the nature of the CCP, which was shocking to me because Hong Kong’s fate was sealed when Margret Thatcher was the prime minister of the U.K., and she was known for standing up to communism. Yet Thatcher let her colleagues and herself be played by cunning CCP officials during their negotiations.
Beijing often deployed sticks and carrots during the negotiations. On the one hand, Beijing promised to maintain Hong Kong’s political and economic systems for 50 years (a promise Beijing had no intention of keeping). On the other hand, Beijing threatened that the People’s Liberation Army could take over Hong Kong at a moment’s notice if the negotiation failed, a threat that Britain’s chief negotiator, Percy Cradock, bought wholeheartedly. Rather than fighting for Hong Kongers’ interests, Cradock focused on “securing a form of wording that allowed Thatcher to give ground to the Chinese demands without losing face.”
Beijing also dragged out the negotiation for more than two years to wear out British negotiators’ patience, turning the negotiation into a “slow process of Britain giving way to China.” The British let themselves be outmaneuvered and outsmarted by Beijing.
For example, the British thought both sides had agreed to let the Hong Kongers choose their leader through universal suffrage after the handover. But the language in the agreement was so fuzzy that Beijing denied that it ever agreed to this, a denial that angered Hong Kongers so much they staged a massive protest, nicknamed the “Umbrella Movement,” in 2014.
The third big mistake the British government made was to exclude Hong Kongers from its negotiation with Beijing. Thatcher told the British Parliament that the final agreement was “acceptable to the Hong Kong people.” But the Hong Kong people did not get a say in the matter.
Ethnic Chinese who served as advisers to the Hong Kong governor’s office were shut out of the negotiation despite repeated requests. They warned the British government that without an ethnic Chinese on the British negotiating team, the team “might be missing the nuances of spoken Mandarin.” They also feared that the British negotiating team “simply failed to understand the down-and-dirty nature of haggling with the Chinese.” All of their concerns turned out to be spot on.
Never interested in consulting these advisers, the British government withheld information about the negotiation from them. These advisers didn’t learn about the details of the agreement until they read it in newspapers like everyone else. They immediately noticed that without any mechanism to “monitor or ensure Chinese compliance, the agreement simply rested on Beijing’s acting in good faith.” They foresaw the danger of such blind faith in Beijing, but the British government ignored their warnings.
The British government didn’t even organize a public referendum or democratic process to let Hong Kongers vote on the agreement. Lim wrote that in retrospect, she could see how accurate the advice Hong Kong advisers gave was and how they “had pinpointed the problems at every step of the way.” Had the British government involved Hong Kongers from the very beginning, Hong Kong’s demise could have been prevented.
As Taiwan becomes the flash point between the United States and China, it’s foreseeable that the two nations may engage in a negotiation about Taiwan’s future someday. Lim’s book offers some timely and valuable lessons for future U.S. negotiators. Let’s hope they don’t repeat the British government’s mistakes regarding Hong Kong.