City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong
by Antony Dapiran
Published March, 2020
On 9 June 2019, a million people poured into the streets of Hong Kong, kicking off a protest movement that would last seven months, see pitched battles between citizens and police on tear-gassed streets, and shake the territory to its economic foundations. Bruce Lee’s ‘be water’ defined its fluid and agile tactics. But tear gas smoke, flaming Molotov cocktails, chants of ‘If we burn, you burn with us’ and the politically incendiary slogan ‘Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of our time!’ showed fire to be the movement’s true element. The aptly titled City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong is an engaged and authoritative account of the movement – both the fire and the sparks that lit it – by Australian lawyer, journalist, photographer and long-term Hong Kong resident, Antony Dapiran.
When the British began negotiations with China over Hong Kong’s future in the 1980s, they understood that a handover of sovereignty was non-negotiable. Britain had taken Hong Kong from China in the nineteenth century, and its lease on the largest part of it, the New Territories, was up in 1997. The only question was how Hong Kong would be governed after that. The result of the negotiations was the Basic Law, a kind of mini-constitution for post-1997 Hong Kong, designed to preserve the territory’s prosperity, stability and way of life. The principle behind it, ‘One Country, Two Systems’, implied that Hong Kong could retain its essential institutions and way of life for fifty years, to 2047. Enshrined in the Basic Law were guarantees of freedom of speech, press, publication and assembly, and underpinning all of those, an independent judiciary. It also promised that Hong Kong people would one day enjoy universal suffrage in elections for the head of government, the Chief Executive.
It didn’t take long after the 1997 handover for many of the promises in the Basic Law to begin sounding hollow. Dapiran had just moved to Hong Kong to join an international law firm in 1999, when Beijing’s National People’s Congress overruled a decision by Hong Kong’s highest court in an interpretation of the Basic Law. That act put the entire notion of an independent judiciary under threat. Members of the territory’s legal profession embarked on a silent march of protest across Central, Hong Kong’s business district. ‘Joining that march, with all of us sweltering in our dark suits’, Dapiran recalls feeling ‘a sense of community in my new home, as well as the realisation that there were important issues of principle being contested in the streets of this city. Little did I realise how the moment would come to foreshadow – if not define – my life here.’
As the years passed, an escalating series of incidents would make it ‘very clear’, as Dapiran writes, that ‘Beijing was far more interested in the “One Country” side of the equation than it was in helping preserve the distinction between the “Two Systems”.’ Beijing’s demand that the territory’s youth undergo a similar program of ‘patriotic education’ as promulgated in the mainland’s schools helped to politicise a post-1997 generation – and not in the way that Beijing had intended. In 2014, religious, student and other leaders demanded the universal suffrage promised in the Basic Law. The Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, dismissed the idea, remarking without irony that universal suffrage would turn elections into ‘entirely a numbers game’ and force politicians to talk ‘to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month’. Protests erupted in what became known as the Umbrella Movement, named after the umbrellas used by demonstrators as protection from police-fired tear gas. The Umbrella Movement culminated in the phenomenon known as Occupy Central With Love and Peace.
The occupation site, which I was lucky enough to visit that October, featured neat rows of tents, in front of which the neatly arranged shoes of their inhabitants stood sentinel. At a canopied homework zone, I was invited to pedal one of the exercise bikes that was hooked up to a generator keeping the lights burning, phones charged and computers humming. Students bent over their books as other young people zipped past on skateboards, carrying messages between leadership stations. Cheerful volunteers manned recycling and well-stocked supply kiosks with remarkable efficiency. It was, as Dapiran would later write, a kind of ‘mini-utopia’, and I was overcome by a strange emotion that combined euphoria and a kind of fear for how it might all end.
As it transpired, it ended with a court injunction in November 2014. Dapiran made his last visit to the occupation site on its final night, taking notes for what would become his short but essential history of that movement, City of Protest. Watching as activists busily packed, cleaned and archived the site, he observed others putting up new banners proclaiming: ‘We will be back!’. As he writes in City on Fire: ‘I couldn’t help thinking it was merely an act of wishful thinking. If, after all these months, this occupation ended with nothing, what would it take for people to come back?’
The answer to that question came in the first half of 2019. Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, put forward a bill for an extradition law that could potentially see critics of the People’s Republic of China dragged across the border to face justice in a politicised system infamous for its lack of fair and transparent procedures and for its brutalising prisons. Such a law would make a mockery of the guarantees in the Basic Law. Despite an outcry, Lam refused to withdraw the bill.
On 4 June, nearly 200,000 people gathered for the annual vigil commemorating what was now the thirtieth anniversary of the Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989 that put a violent end to months of student-led pro-democracy protests there. The extradition bill had touched a nerve, and 2019’s commemorative vigil was one of the largest to date. Organisers announced plans for a peaceful march against the extradition bill just five days later. On 6 June, helping to build momentum for the 9 June demonstration, Dapiran and 3000 other members of Hong Kong’s legal profession, including Queen’s Counsels, senior corporate lawyers, politicians and former public prosecutors, took to the streets again, once more marching in silence. Never, he writes, had ‘the values of the rule of law and human rights’ felt closer or more urgent.
Three days later, the million marched. Many held signs with the same three-character slogan: Faan sung Zung! In City on Fire, Dapiran, who is fluent in Mandarin and conversant in Cantonese, pays close attention to the signs, symbols, songs and slogans of a movement characterised by its linguistic creativity. As he shows throughout the book, protesters typically used Hong Kong-style Cantonese, dense in slang, full of wit and rich in global pop culture references, to reinforce both group solidarity and identity. Even Cantonese-speaking mainlanders would have been hard pressed to understand much of it.
The message of the three-character slogan faan sung Zung (fan song Zhong in Mandarin pinyin), however, was crystal clear for any Chinese speaker. Literally ‘oppose sending to China’, ie oppose extradition, it also sounds exactly like ‘to see off a dying relative’ or, as Dapiran explains, ‘“Oppose sending us to our death” – whether by extradition to China, or through the death of civil liberties in Hong Kong.’ The second major demonstration, also entirely peaceful, drew an astonishing two million onto the streets, almost one out of every four people in Hong Kong. What’s more, right from the start, one of the movement’s most fascinating aspects – and one that Dapiran illuminates – is how it developed not so much a leaderless but ‘leaderful’ style of organisation, in which apps including Telegram became conduits for the hive-mind guiding the crowd’s every action.
With lawyerly precision, journalistic observation and a natural storyteller’s gift for pacey narrative, Dapiran covers the twists and turns of a story that became darker and more violent as the months wore on. He gets up-close without ever making himself the story. The only hint at any personal ordeal comes in the epilogue, ‘Map of Tears’. We all build ‘personal topographies’ of the cities in which we’ve lived, he writes: ‘the people of Hong Kong now have personal mental maps of all the places they’ve been tear-gassed.’ Listing his own takes up a paragraph.
Dapiran explains that the value of tear gas to police is that it ‘obliterates the solidarity of the crowd’, or what he elsewhere refers to as ‘barricade sociality’. It also ‘helps to turn a protest into a riot’, turning it into ‘a legitimate target for further state violence’. He notes that the protesters came up with some ingenious methods for dealing with tear gas, including using traffic cones to contain the smoking canisters, funnelling the smoke in a straight line upwards and allowing them to be doused with water. He also observes that you can discover ‘something about the nature of Hong Kong’ in how the police dutifully reported the exact number of rounds of tear gas they had fired (16,000 by year’s end) – and how outraged members of the public became at the discovery that some of that tear gas had been fired past its use-by date.
As protesters began to fight back, police methods became ever more violent. Firing rubber bullets and bean bag rounds at close range, they blinded at least two women, one a young volunteer first-aider and another an Indonesian journalist. They beat protesters, ground their faces into the pavement, shot dyed and acidic liquid out of water cannons, appeared to collude with triads (gangsters), and even fired live rounds, including in one case, at close range into a young protester’s stomach. All this, captured on smartphone cameras and broadcast around the world, only hardened the protesters’ determination to continue. Lam eventually withdrew the extradition bill, but flatly refused the protesters’ new list of demands, which included an independent investigation into police violence. Fury at the government’s refusal to even try to make the police follow their own guidelines on the use of force caused the peaceful majority of protesters to stand behind, literally and figuratively, the more violent ‘frontliner’ factions.
At the lowest points of communal despair, Dapiran reports, something would happen to create a ‘state of wonder’ that ‘lifted the fog of cynicism and disenchantment, encouraging engagement in civic life, and offering rays of hope for the protest movement and for the city’. One such moment of ‘enchantment’ was the creation of a 60-kilometre chain of hands and lights from one end of the territory to the other: the ‘Hong Kong Way’, inspired by the Baltic Way of 1989. These were profoundly unifying moments, he observes, that reinforced and deepened a sense of a unique Hong Kong identity, turning ‘borrowed time, borrowed place’ into ‘our time, our place’.
Twenty years ago, few would have predicted that Hong Kong people, who have long enjoyed a reputation as law-abiding, materially-focused and pragmatic, would risk so much for political ideals. But by the end of 2019, it was clear just how much they would risk. The territory’s important tourism industry was in tatters, its universities had become battlegrounds, its economy was in recession and society had polarised along Blue (pro-police) and Yellow (pro-protesters) lines. As Dapiran writes, ‘something in Hong Kong society had broken’.
Then came end-of-year elections for district councils. As the only elections open to universal suffrage, they were, Dapiran observes, ‘effectively a referendum’ on the year’s events. Global media descended on the city, ‘the world watching to see who would have the power to decide where to put an extra rubbish bin, remove a tree, or build a park bench’. On the day, voters showed up in unprecedented numbers, and pro-democratic candidates thrashed their pro-Beijing opponents, taking control of seventeen out of eighteen local councils. The ‘silent majority’ Carrie Lam claimed as her own had spoken, and they were not with her.
For all the chaos, all the violence, all the hurt and pain and tear gas, by the year’s end, the protesters had won what Dapiran describes as ‘a fight for the very soul of the city’. For now, COVID-19 and social distancing orders have put an end to mass gatherings. But with an entire generation having forged its identity ‘at the barricades of the city on fire’ over seven months that changed their world, the flame still burns.