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Defying the Dragon:
Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship

by stephen vines
hurst, 352 pages, $31.20

Early on in Defying the Dragon, a new book that offers an engrossing, street-level view of the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong, author Stephen Vines makes a bold claim. There are some pessimists who consider the city’s overlords in Beijing invincible: Vines is not one of them. Powerful empires, he reminds us, are often brought down by events on the periphery. He argues that although Hong Kong’s democracy activists are under unprecedented pressure from China’s Communist party, their movement, diminished but not defeated, poses a serious threat to the party’s rule—not just in Hong Kong, but on the mainland itself.

It’s an especially striking argument because the majority of Hong Kong’s protestors are not seeking independence (at least not yet) but more immediately achievable objectives. These include recognition of their right to demonstrate, investigation of alleged police brutality, and transition to universal suffrage—something anticipated in the Basic Law, which codifies China’s commitments to the territory.

Yet what happens in Hong Kong doesn’t stay in Hong Kong. Vines introduces us to a protest movement that is both local, rooted in neighborhood-level activism, and boldly global, connected to diaspora communities in New York, London, and Toronto. Hong Kong’s activists have studied the tactics of dissidents in the former Czechoslovakia, the Baltic republics, and elsewhere on the Soviet Union’s periphery, who helped bring down another seemingly invincible empire. This creative tension between the local and the global, between being rooted and being connected, is in Hong Kong’s DNA. Founded as a trading hub, it served as Britain’s doorway to China and, later, as China’s doorway to the world.

Surprisingly, Vines largely overlooks another important link between the local and the global: the heroic witness of Hong Kong’s Christian activists, something that has helped power the movement and underline its moral seriousness. The movement’s earliest anthem was the hymn “Sing Alleluia to the Lord.” Its leaders include prominent Catholics like Martin Lee, known locally as the “father of democracy”; outspoken media mogul Jimmy Lai (now imprisoned); and retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, whose warnings about Beijing’s antipathy to belief and believers have, sadly, fallen on deaf ears in Rome.

China’s Communist leaders see religious belief as an existential threat, hence their assault on Muslims in Xinjiang, on Buddhists in Tibet, and on Christians throughout the country. Although this campaign is associated with the demolition of temples, mosques, and churches, China’s ultimate targets are people, not buildings. Beijing seeks to shatter faith communities entirely, down to the level of the family itself. Faith inspires in societies a harmony and coherence that Beijing finds threatening. And by transcending China’s heavily guarded borders, it makes them meaningless. Faith is the ultimate connector.

Vines is at his best detailing the passion and creative energy that have come to define Hong Kong’s protests, much to the surprise and consternation of China’s ruling elite. As vast downtown protests stalled, organizers went local, connecting with partners like Hong Kong’s beleaguered food hawkers. Neighborhood-level demonstrations were planned via online forums. Using Hong Kong’s subway system, protestors moved rapidly and emerged with little warning.

Beijing sees Hong Kong solely through an economic lens, caricaturing its residents as people whose only passion is making money. Vines begs to disagree. He reminds us that Hong Kong is essentially a nineteenth-century British invention. Almost everyone is an immigrant, or only a generation or two removed from immigrants. It is, as a result, a society of strivers and strugglers, a category that includes Vines himself, who moved to Hong Kong from the U.K. in 1987, becoming an entrepreneur as well as a journalist.

Struggle has forged in Hong Kong a unique sensibility, one that disdains ruling elites, whether from Britain or Beijing. It finds expression in an irreverent and highly scatological sense of humor, rich in rude puns and stinging epithets, something largely lost on the powers that be in Beijing. Dictatorships don’t do humor.

Under British colonial rule, the territory enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom, albeit without democracy. The fruits of that freedom, including an outsized influence in Chinese and English media, are now in peril. So, too, is a publishing industry whose specialties have until recently included lurid books about Communist officials behaving badly. In 2015, following rumors of a new book chronicling the love life of China’s strongman leader Xi Jinping, five booksellers went missing, only to reappear mysteriously in China, where they endured forced confessions and various forms of house arrest. One of them, Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, is now serving a 10-year prison term for the trumped-up charge of leaking intelligence.

Leaking intelligence is not a phenomenon commonly attributed to any of the people Beijing has chosen to govern Hong Kong as Chief Executive. In addition to displaying uniformly stunning incompetence, each appointee has exhibited depressing servility. They have routinely turned to Beijing for permission to make decisions that the Basic Law already delegates to Hong Kong’s own authority, thus forfeiting the “high degree of autonomy” that the Basic Law promises.

Vines skillfully takes the reader through the main events of the intensifying pro-democracy protests of the last decade. In response to persistent attempts by the government to enforce pro-China patriotism and enable the construction of a Chinese-style security state, activists have conducted a master class in evolutionary innovation and disruption. Until recently, each retrograde proposal has been turned aside by a democratic alliance that grew steadily bigger, smarter, and better organized.

But things changed dramatically a year ago, when Beijing, tired of watching its hapless Chief Executives fumble and fail, moved directly to impose on Hong Kong a National Security law that criminalizes most forms of dissent and allows suspects to be shipped into a Chinese legal system that has a 99.9 percent conviction rate.

Vines does not minimize the effect of Beijing’s counterstrike. Most key figures in the democratic movement have by now either been imprisoned or sought refuge overseas. Universities, media, and civil society are under intense pressure to conform.

But Vines still sees cause for optimism, noting, among other things, that the movement is now so networked, informal, and organic that it no longer relies on high-profile, and therefore vulnerable, leaders. Polling shows strong popular support for the protest’s objectives, and the Communist party’s mishandling of the early stages of the pandemic has only increased popular discontent.

Vines has written an important book that makes a strong case for the continuing significance of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Daily coverage of the struggle reminds Hong Kong’s neighbors in China of the cruelty, incompetence, and frequent absurdity of the party. But it also matters to the rest of us. As Hong Kong’s protest goes underground, its refugees are fanning out to our democracies for shelter and support. As the pandemic lingers, we’re united with Hong Kong in our experience of frailty, vulnerability, and loss. And as people of faith, we, too, sing Alleluia to a Lord who transcends borders.

David Mulroney is Canada’s former ambassador to China and a former president of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto.

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