The first chapter of Antony Dapiran’s book, “City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong,” is a study of tear gas — its effects, both physical and psychological, and its uses throughout history. It sets the tone for what is to follow, a meticulous account of the street protests that roiled Hong Kong for the latter half of 2019.
In smooth, heady prose that blends legal scholarship with the romanticism of a battle for independence, Dapiran shows what he calls “a fight for the very soul of Hong Kong,” from the spark of a contested extradition bill — provoked by a murder committed by a Hong Kong man in Taiwan — to the escalation of nearly 7,000 arrests and a shutdown of the airport and legislature. He shows a city unhinged, on the verge of breakdown.
“I have watched as wave after wave of tear gas was unleashed upon crowds of protesters,” writes Dapiran, who witnessed the events from beginning to end. “After the protests of 2019, Hong Kongers have a new saying, and a new aspect to their identity: ‘You’re not a real Hong Konger if you haven’t tasted tear gas.’”
An Australian lawyer and longtime resident of Hong Kong, Dapiran speaks Mandarin and has spent 20 years advising Chinese companies on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. His love of the city pervades the book, as does his solidarity with the protests. Still, he allows, the events were often less war-like than the news implied at the time.
“The violence shown in the media was actually very discrete — while the clashes were occurring, just a few blocks away, ordinary life carried on as normal,” Dapiran says in an interview with the Japan Times.
“There was a whole other mode of protest — what I have called ‘enchanting protest’ — that involved a great deal of creativity, artistic expression and solidarity that was emotionally very powerful and captured the imagination of the community. It was this other protest that helped the movement keep broad community support, even in the face of the violence.”
Although written and published with astonishing speed, “City on Fire” never feels rushed or less than coherent. Nonetheless, it ends with a stalemate, and even since the book was released in March, the situation has dramatically changed.
Until recently, the coronavirus pandemic nixed the protests, as the Hong Kong government banned gatherings of more than eight people. Meanwhile, taking advantage of a hamstrung resistance, the Chinese government proposed new national security laws that criminalize most forms of political protest.
Dapiran’s book predicts this development. He writes that Hong Kong, now deeply divided socially and economically, should expect “a slow and steady squeeze” as Beijing uses state power to push toward integration.
“Beijing is imposing the law directly on Hong Kong from above,” says Dapiran, who fears the coronavirus is serving as cover for a crackdown. “It will be interesting to see which sentiment will prevail: anger at the law causing people to protest, or the despair that there is nothing people can do.”
Beyond a street-level view of the marches, “City on Fire” helps to illuminate the primary clash, the threat that the protesters see to their identity as Hong Kongers. Dapiran harkens back to what he calls the “original sin” of post-handover Hong Kong: the different readings of the “one country, two systems” arrangement, and the fact that the people were not given a say in how to return to Chinese sovereignty.
Dapiran argues that the British handover of Hong Kong to China was clouded by wishful thinking, the unspoken hope that matters would sort themselves out as China became more democratic. This, of course, was never promised by China, which now sees itself as enforcing the original agreement.
“The whole underlying assumption of ‘one country, two systems’ and the promise of a 50-year guarantee of rights and freedoms for Hong Kong was that China would be a very different place by the year 2047,” writes Dapiran. “It was as if, 22 years after the handover, the Hong Kong people suddenly woke up and realized that they were living in China — or, rather, that the China they found themselves living in was not the one they expected it to be.”
But if identity is non-negotiable, are the two sides bound for more radical entrenchment? Will the standoff play out like a Greek tragedy, where character is fate and things don’t end well?
“As long as both sides hold these mutually exclusive positions, I do fear that that future is somewhat inevitable,” says Dapiran.
“It seems that Beijing cannot bear to relinquish sufficient control to meet the aspirations of the Hong Kong people. But with goodwill on both sides, there should be scope for Hong Kong and Beijing to come to a modus vivendi that works for both.”