The Hong Kong events in historical perspective: An interview with Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Historians in the News
tags: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Hong Kong



Zack writes about all of the things that are not American things. He previously edited a section on political thought at ThinkProgress and, before that, contributed to The Dish. It's pronounced BEE-chum.

The protests in Hong Kong would seem to be, in many ways, about the city's special status: it is largely autonomous from the rest of China, has vastly greater freedom (including the freedom to protest), and even has a promise from Beijing to have free elections in 2017. But it's not just Hong Kong: mainland China has a long history of democratic protest, and knowing that history is essential to understanding what's happening in Hong Kong today.

To that end, I spoke to historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the Chancellor's Professor of History at UC Irvine and author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. Wasserstrom's research focuses on protest in China. We discussed why these protests are happening now, why the Chinese government is so worried about the demonstrations, and the unique role students play in Hong Kong and Chinese protest more broadly. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: There's been tension between Hong Kong and Beijing for some time. When did it start becoming acute, and why is it boiling over now?

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: There are several milestone moments. One of them, early in the 21st century, came when there was a plan to impose a Patriot Act-style set of security measures on Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong pushed back courageously about that. The security measures, called Article 23, were tabled. I think that was important because it was a protest generated by an effort to curtail civil liberties, and it showed how determined Hong Kong people were to maintain the things that make political life in their city very different than political life in the mainland.

The real turning point, I think, came two years ago, when there was a pushback against efforts by Beijing that were seen as threatening the difference between Hong Kong and mainland cities. That was efforts to bring Beijing-style "patriotic education" curriculum into the local schools. There were very bold protests then, largely involving students — including secondary school students, which is where the group Scholarism, which has been important, was formed. One of the leaders of student activism, who's now 17, was a leader then at 15.

Once again, the protests did succeed, leading to a pullback of this effort to impose something on Hong Kong. Those are things that have been flashpoints, but there have been continual efforts by people in Hong Kong to demonstrate — quite literally — their determination to keep a greater degree of political freedoms in the territories. And we've seen that every year, when there are vigils held to commemorate the June 4 massacre of 1989 [near Tiananmen Square], which cannot be commemorated in any other part of the People's Republic of China. That's in part to honor the memory of the students and workers slain by the Chinese army, but it's also a way of reminding themselves and Beijing that this is a place where things can be said and done on the mainland.

In the last decade, there's been a stronger and stronger sense of a distinctive Hong Kong identity. The current protests link up with long traditions of Chinese struggle for democracy, but are also an expression of a sort of more local pride...




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