It’s hard to believe that just over three years ago, mass pro-democracy protests swept through Hong Kong. What began as protests against a law that allowed China to extradite accused criminals to mainland China and its opaque legal system eventually became Hong Kong’s last stand for universal suffrage and its “one country, two systems” with the Chinese Communist Party.
Three new books look back on China’s fateful protests and swift and chilling judicial crackdown, and discuss the history leading up to these events and what China’s authoritarian actions mean not only for the future of Hong Kong, but for the rest of the world.
Impossible City: A Memoir of Hong Kong
By Karen Cheung
(Random House; 352 pages; $28.99)
Journalist Karen Cheung’s “Impossible City: A Hong Kong Memoir” is the moving tale of a millennial who watches the free, international city she was born and raised in slowly transform into an oppressed society. With bracing honesty, Cheung writes about growing up in a broken family, finding his place in Hong Kong’s independent music scene, and becoming one of the millions or more who took to the streets. After the pro-democracy movement was stifled by a combination of police brutality; arrests of protest leaders, booksellers and newspaper publishers; and the arrival of COVID-19, Cheung describes parts of Hong Kong’s youth culture that are slowly disappearing:
After the raids, many warehouse shows were pushed further underground and became private gigs: Sai Ceong, a factory gig space on the other side of Hong Kong, adopts a members-only policy ; other shows are so secret that organizers spread the word through private messages rather than creating social media event pages. A scene that was already niche has even fewer means to recruit concertgoers, and a new generation of music lovers will find it harder to discover bands that operate on the fringes.
“Impossible City” is full of details about Hong Kong life that are not known to American readers, from how the city government keeps real estate prices artificially high to the 100-week wait for appointments. you psychiatrists in the overburdened public health system. As the book sags in the second half of Cheung’s gripping details about the various musical acts she loves, her memoir is a deeply felt lament over a flawed, yet free society subsumed by authoritarianism.
America Second: How American elites are empowering China
By Isaac Pierre Fish
(Knopf; 288 pages; $29)
“America Second: How America’s Elites are Making China Stronger” by Isaac Stone Fish posits that China’s increasingly autocratic policies have been enabled for decades by American politicians and CEOs eager to capitalize on China’s economic growth. China. Fish goes so far as to label former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a foreign agent for his highly lucrative consultancy work with US companies in China. Few American politicians of the past 50 years are spared. Everyone from George H. W. Bush to Madeline Albright is mentioned as willingly taking free trips and six-figure checks from Chinese elites seeking greater influence in Washington, D.C.
A particularly damaging passage reveals that Neil Bush, brother of George W. Bush, was hired as a consultant and paid $400,000 in stock by a Chinese semiconductor manufacturer despite having no experience in the industry. . In his divorce deposition, the former president’s brother admits to having sex with women who came to his hotel rooms “at least three or four times” during his business trips to Asia, and “he didn’t know if the women were prostitutes, and he didn’t pay them,” Fish writes. The book begins with the case of dating app Grindr, which was acquired by private Chinese company Beijing Kunlun, and points out that “the Party could access … compromising photos and messages of some of America’s most powerful men – some openly gay, some closed” to blackmail them.
Fish’s case against America’s elites is more compelling than his own obscure revelations of self-censorship. Like Kissinger, he owns a consulting firm that “ranks companies by their exposure to the [Chinese Communist] Party.” “To what extent do the interests of my clients influence me? I don’t know,” he wrote, far from being a full-throated or particularly detailed admission.
“America Second” is a provocative read that will surely make you wonder if there are any powerful Americans whose hands are clean in relation to China’s rise as an authoritarian superpower.
Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere
By Mark L. Clifford
(St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $29.99)
Mark L. Clifford is the former editor of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper. His “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World” is touted as a definitive account of the 2019 protests, and Clifford’s authoritative reporting is gripping reading. But the book gets bogged down in repetition and begins to look like a magazine feature spanning 300 pages. His assertion that China’s ambition is to suppress free thought in the world seems insufficient, despite numerous examples of China pulling levers of intimidation beyond its borders. Like Russian disinformation campaigns, it is difficult to know the scale and scope of China’s harassment methods abroad, and unfortunately Clifford fails to shed light on what has already been reported in the mainstream media.
Clifford’s coverage of the arrest and conviction of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai personalizes the crackdown on free speech in China. Once one of the best-selling Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong, Apple Daily was forced to close after the Chinese government froze its assets. While serving a 13-month prison sentence, Lai wrote:
“In Hong Kong, we are now facing an age of evil, overwhelmingly. It’s hard not to have enemies. Yes, I have enemies. But funny enough, I don’t have a bit of hate. … I believe that in the end, righteousness and justice will prevail.
The three books call for greater action by American politicians and businesses to support free societies overseas, convincingly demonstrating that allowing Hong Kong to fade into authoritarianism without consequences is not only ethically wrong, but dangerous for the rest of the world.