- Reviewed book: After Autonomy: A Post-Mortem for Hong Kong’s first Handover, 1997-2019 / Daniel F. Vukovich. - Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore, 2022. 176 pages: ISBN 978-981-19-4982-1; 978-981-19-4983-8 (eBook)
- By Andrea Schüler, Former intern at Istituto Affari Internazionali
Post-colonial Hong Kong – having come into formal existence in 1997 as the metropolis was handed over by the British back to Chinese sovereignty – enters into a new era after going through what some have called its own death, culminated in the crushing of protests in 2019 and early 2020. It is an era which might mark the end of interim solutions and the idea of “living on borrowed time” (Hughes 1968) that has characterised Hong Kong’s history for more than 180 years. Having formerly contributed to the debate on orientalism, Daniel F. Vukovich, Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Comparative Literature, continues to challenge predominant views of western scholars in Chinese Studies in his latest book focused on the Chinese Special Administration Region (SAR). The book raises questions regarding Hong Kong’s decolonisation, which, although being inherently important to the discourse about Hong Kong localism, has received little scholarly attention within the past decade or more. It seems therefore the right time to discuss recent events as well as the SAR’s future from this perspective. Even though the book is to some extent also an account of the Hong Kong localist movement and the protests of 2019/2020, Vukovich intends it “not [to be] an introduction to 2019 events or their aftermaths” (5).
With regards to its structure, the book’s introduction is followed by three extensive chapters. Chapter 2 focuses on the protests of 2019. Unlike the greater part of the literature concerned with the Hong Kong protests, this chapter does not chronologically account for all (major) events, let alone their examination through the lens of the protesters’ Five Demands (that is, withdrawal of the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, release of imprisoned protesters and termination of their cases, ceasing to use the term ‘rioters’ [boutou暴徒 in Cantonese], assessment of police brutality and universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections). Instead, the author contextualises selective events by reference to several leitmotivs including nativism, ‘burnism’, policing, foreign influence, international reactions and financing. By assessing the protests with notable criticism – as xenophobic (one could argue whether ‘sinophobic’ would have been a more accurate term), nativist, unwarrantedly violent, nihilistic, and even as “using (cultural) imperialism” (41) – Vukovich responds to scholars that are supportive of the localist movement, calling for less glorification and more willingness to evaluate not only the protests’ reasons and demands, but also the downsides of their means and consequences.
Chapter 3 explores the Hong Kong Basic Law as being a source of conflict. Though it was meant to smooth down an unpleasant transition from one political system to another, the Basic Law actually continues a colonial tradition according to which Hong Kong is not provided with permanent solutions but rather with ever-changing regulations over time (until, at the latest, 2047). The Basic Law is mostly concerned with the execution of Deng’s premise of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ – meaning socialism for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and capitalism for Hong Kong – which, as Vukovich argues, has lost its importance in light of China’s rise as a global power over the past two and a half decades, entailing Hong Kong’s economic integration into China most notably through the SAR’s dependence on Chinese capital flow after the Asian Financial Crisis and the SARS epidemic. Vukovich points out that too little space of the Basic Law is allocated to the question of Hong Kong’s political future. Hence, the yellow-blue conflict of the recent years (as the localist versus pro-Chinese establishment conflict is sometimes pictured) is also a “conflict of interpretations” (69) which refers particularly to Art. 23 (national security) and Art. 45 (suffrage and democratisation).
Another problem discussed within the chapter is the question of Hong Kong’s autonomy in relation to the Basic Law’s grant of the much-debated ‘high degree of autonomy’ (Hong Kong Basic Law 2021, Art. 12) – as autonomy in itself is a vague term – leading to the wider ideological debate around the way many Hong Kongers have perceived the SAR’s autonomy after 1997 and its gradual erosion since. The author depicts the emerging demand for autonomy (or de facto independence) as a result of the politicisation of a distinct Hong Kong identity, distancing itself from China or, more precisely, from the Chinese Communist Party regime. He does not delve too deeply into tracing the history of Hong Kong’s identity, yet he does not fail to emphasise that the localist Hong Kong identity – existing among multiple identities in Hong Kong – is to some extent a product of colonial times and comes with the baggage of orientalism (79).
Chapter 4 deals with Hong Kong’s decolonisation, clearly considered by the author as a failed process prior to 2019 (97). According to Vukovich, this is especially true with regard to Hong Kong’s socio-economic issues, among them the housing market. A lacking (or incompetent) political class, injustice and inequality are other mentioned examples of colonial remains. The 2019 protests display some similarities with anti-colonial independence struggles, although they took place in a somewhat special legal and economic environment – China being the legal sovereign and Hong Kong no longer a colony. In this light, Vukovich critically examines the portrayal of the PRC as Hong Kong’s new coloniser and asks both the mainland and the SAR to engage more with each others’ views, especially in the field of academic research. A brief outlook suggests that tackling Hong Kong’s prevailing socio-economic problems through a decolonising process will pave the way for the rearrangement of its political fractions, and also for its integration into the mainland.
This last point is echoed in the book’s coda, which addresses more specifically the role of the Hong Kong government. It was especially during the Covid-19 pandemic that the government’s lack of effectiveness and adjustment to our time became evident.
Most of the existing (non-mainland) literature on the Hong Kong protests and its future, be it written by Hong Kong-based scholars or in the West, displays a tendency to sympathise with the protesters’ demands. Vukovich’s pragmatic prioritisation of Hong Kong’s ‘functionality’ and the overcoming of “economic and livelihood issues” (144) as well as the book’s unsympathetic tone cause it to stand out within the debate. It is rather challenging to write critically about the critics of authoritarianism without falling into the trap of being conflict-insensitive. Vukovich does at times not fully comply with his aim of keeping the book “green” (6) – meant as a combination of both blue and yellow – although, in this respect, the book grows more convincing as the reading progresses. By considering Hong Kong’s decolonisation and its impacts on the peoples’ satisfaction, the book adds an interesting contribution to the larger discourse about Hong Kong localism. Standing as another determinant of Hong Kong’s fate, the book frequently mentions the current Sino-American conflict which could have been developed in more detail.
In a nutshell, the book offers a provoking, nonconformist and unanticipated optimistic perspective of Hong Kong’s alleged ‘end’, suggesting that Hong Kong might not need (western style) democratisation to its own rebirth, but instead a decolonising pathway as a political and cultural entity in China.
The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (Hong Kong Basic Law). 2021. Revised edition. https://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/basiclaw/index.html.
Hughes, Richard. 1968. Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time: Hong Kong and Its Many Faces. London: André Deutsch Ltd.
Post updated on 30\10\2023