About three years ago, before the onset of the COVID pandemic, I attended a talk in New York City given by a Hong Kong activist. Back then the city was deep in the throes of massive pro-democracy protests, with millions of Hong Kongers taking to the streets and enduring the sticky summer heat to oppose the increasing authoritarianism of the Chinese government. Despite his obvious weariness, the speaker talked hopefully about the prospective outcome of the demonstrations: the rule of law, freedom of speech, and human rights would prevail over China’s attempt to undermine them. “If we don’t fight for our freedom,” he said, “that is self-destruction.”
Fast forward to now, and even revealing that activist’s name would be enough to land him in prison. Just one year after the protests began, the Chinese government—without consulting Hong Kong officials—imposed a harsh national security law on the city-state. According to the statute’s vague wording, any expression of discontent, countervailing views, or conversations with “foreign forces” could result in a prison term of three years to life. Since the Hong Kong police are increasingly applying the law retroactively, the activist whose talk I attended is still very much at risk—even though he spoke in New York in 2019. For Hong Kongers, accustomed as they are to inhabiting a free society governed by the rule of law, the new law comes as a shock.
How did Hong Kong, a former British colony with an independent judiciary that protected personal freedoms, come to find itself under the heavy dictatorial thumb of Beijing? In her beautiful and timely new memoir, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, journalist Louisa Lim does more than simply answer that question. She fills a gap that has long been missing in books about Hong Kong: an account of the city’s long history of defiance, told from the perspective of Hong Kongers themselves.
A native Hong Konger, Lim starts her narrative playfully by describing one of her adolescent obsessions, the so-called “King of Kowloon.” The King, as he was popularly known, was actually an eccentric named Tsang Tsou-choi. Between 1956 and the early 2000s, Tsang regularly graffitied public spaces and government property—mostly buildings, lampposts, and mailboxes—with a manifesto written in childlike calligraphy. He claimed that the Kowloon neighborhood of Hong Kong had once belonged to his family, insisting (absurdly) that since the neighborhood had been taken without just compensation, he wanted it back. Whenever his assertions were painted over, Tsang would return days later to write it all again. Returning repeatedly to the King throughout Indelible City, Lim makes him not just a quirky part of Hong Kong history but also a larger symbol of Hong Kongers’ long struggle for self-determination over their land and lives.
That struggle, as Lim demonstrates through fascinating interviews with archeologists and historians of early Hong Kong, has been waged continuously over many centuries. By as early as 222 CE, Hong Kong had become an important salt producer, trading extensively with the Chinese mainland while occasionally rebelling against the latter’s salt monopolies. In 1197, Hong Kongers again rose up to protest the monopolies, this time taking their revolt all the way to the Chinese city of Guangdong (Canton).
Linked to this rebellious commercial spirit is Hong Kong’s historic openness to persecuted refugees fleeing mainland China. Modern examples include the university students who participated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, as well as those who narrowly escaped the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s (and used fishing boats to do so). As Lim shows, Hong Kong’s protective impulse can be traced back as early as the year 1276, when the city sheltered two boy princes from the recently overthrown Song dynasty. “The island has always been the safe haven, the refuge for those escaping injustice and tyranny,” Lim writes. Tellingly, she never answers the question of where Hong Kongers should go now to escape Chinese persecution.
Of course, Hong Kong’s ability to write its own history has been impeded by the two colonial powers that have ruled it, first the British beginning in 1841 and then the Chinese since 1997. Lim humorously describes Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong as more of an accident than a well-crafted plan—British officers first laid claim to the land by using outdated maps. Even under British rule, though, Hong Kongers continued to exercise cultural sovereignty, and responded forcefully whenever it was threatened. For example, in 1899, after the Chinese government leased Hong Kong’s “New Territories” to the British for ninety-nine years, local clans revolted. While this Six-Day War has been largely forgotten today, Lim highlights a compelling parallel between this earlier uprising and today’s protests: “Both were leaderless, grassroots movements aimed at defending Hong Kongers from an all-powerful colonizing force. Both used popular culture to mobilize support, with the bamboo clapper songs of 1899 prefiguring the protest anthems of 2019.”
Lim’s most heartbreaking chapters concern the U.K.’s preparations for its eventual “handover” of Hong Kong to China in 1997. “It is a story of political expediency, denial, and betrayal of a people that sowed the seeds for the unraveling of one of the world’s great cities,” Lim writes. Tragically, it didn’t have to be that way. Whether acting out of diplomatic arrogance or just plain indifference, the British—the creators of black-letter contract law—shockingly agreed to a hopelessly vague Sino-British Joint Declaration with China, setting the stage for the repression we see in Hong Kong today. Lim shows that as late as 1982, the British still hoped to avoid a complete handover of Hong Kong, even proposing to Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader at the time, that the United Kingdom should administer Hong Kong after the colony had been transferred back to China. Deng summarily rebuffed the proposal, leaving the British with little time to find another plan.
Deng’s adamant refusal was no surprise to the “Unofficials,” the group of ethnically Hong Kong bankers, lawyers, and industrialists appointed to either the executive council or the legislative council by the governor of Hong Kong. In the era before competitive elections, these unelected Unofficials were the closest Hong Kongers came to having their voices heard inside the halls of government. So it was telling that as the Joint Declaration was being negotiated, the Unofficials were largely kept in the dark. By the time they became aware of what was happening, it was already too late. The Unofficials’ subsequent warnings—about the lack of details in the transfer documents and the treaty’s overreliance on the Chinese government’s good faith—were ignored.
The Unofficials’ frustrations and foresight come through in a trove of documents Lim unearthed while researching in the University of Oxford library. Sealed for thirty years under government secrecy laws, these documents contain transcripts of interviews with the Unofficials. There’s an air of disaster about them, as the Unofficials’ fears of the weakness of the Joint Declaration and the ensuing Basic Law, also known as Hong Kong’s constitution, have all come to pass since Hong Kong was transferred back to China. There was no monitoring mechanism, no guarantee of universal suffrage, and no way of preventing future Chinese leaders from reverting to political extremism.
In Lim’s telling, the botched 1997 handover did have one silver lining: it galvanized Hong Kong’s culture of defiance and even led demonstrators to some early successes. In 2003, Hong Kongers took to the streets to oppose a new national security law that would impinge on their freedoms; the Chinese government shelved it. In 2012, Hong Kong high school students, with Joshua Wong at the lead, marched in opposition to China’s mandatory “patriotic education”; the mainland-focused curriculum never made it to the schools.
By 2014, Hong Kongers were ready to protest en masse for universal suffrage. The ensuing Umbrella Movement—so-named for the ubiquitous umbrellas used to block police pepper spray—became the largest protests in Hong Kong history until 2019. That year, nearly two million Hong Kongers (more than one quarter of the city’s population) came out to protest, beginning in the summer and continuing into the fall. They were incensed over an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong criminal suspects to be transferred to mainland China for trial. Lim does not hide the fact that some of these protests became violent. But as a direct participant, she witnessed countless examples of the openness, camaraderie, and commitment to shared values that define modern Hong Kongers.
Lim’s account ends with the passage of the 2020 National Security Law, which was more severe than the 2003 proposed law and shocked even the most pessimistic China watchers. Indelible City refrains from assessing those developments, but the disastrous implications are clear: Hong Kong’s ancient traditions of freedom, independence, and defiance of colonial rulers are currently no match for a China bent on crushing them into submission.
There are no indications that Hong Kong’s fortunes will improve anytime soon. This past spring, Hong Kong authorities arrested one of the pillars of Hong Kong civil society, ninety-year-old Catholic cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. He has been accused of “colluding with foreign forces” for his work on the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, an organization that helped democracy activists pay their legal fees. Zen’s arrest represents more than an attack on civil society; it is also a warning to all people of faith in Hong Kong (almost 12 percent of Hong Kong’s population is Christian, and 5.5 percent are Catholic). It’s not hard to predict that someday soon even the Hong Kong Diocese’s ties with the Vatican could be considered an instance of “colluding with foreign forces.” Wary of upsetting Beijing, Church officials in Hong Kong canceled the annual memorial Mass for the victims of the June 4, 1989 massacre.
Cardinal Zen has warned the world, and in particular the Vatican, about the Chinese government’s continued oppression of Hong Kong. Like the Unofficials before him, he has largely been ignored. What Indelible City makes clear is that Hong Kongers understand their fate better than anyone else. Even as China’s grip tightens and the world’s attention wanes, Hong Kongers haven’t given up. They continue their defiance—albeit in a more muted way. Those of us living in countries where democracy is threatened have much to learn from their courageous, unflagging commitment to defending their freedom.
Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong
$28 | 320 pp.