Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong, China and the Future of Freedom

Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship

By Stephen Vines

Reviewed by Robin V. Sears

April 8, 2021

The Hong Kong cab driver wheeled on the one Cantonese-speaking passenger among his riders and snapped, with heavy sarcasm, “Two systems, really?! You believe that?”

Just as quickly, he turned his stony gaze back to the traffic ahead.

The group had been quietly discussing, in English, the latest crushing news on the slow asphyxiation of democracy. It was a typical moment these days in a place under invisible siege amid the undaunted frenzy of one of the world’s great cities. The ubiquitous construction, traffic congestion and crowded streets, restaurants and parks continued to thrum amid the power struggle with Beijing that animates a million conversations.

The stunningly beautiful Hong Kong countryside — nearly 70 percent of the territory — remains undisturbed in the surrounding mountains and beachside parks, aswarm with families and young children, the elderly and an army of Filipina and Indonesian ‘helpers’.

In the nearly 20 years since I lived and worked in Hong Kong, I have been back many times, but only for flying business visits. Having had the privilege to wander the streets, listen to locals venting, and feel the rhythms of the city for many weeks recently, one concludes two things: the struggle is far from over and the people seem to have adopted as their coping strategy the old cliché, “Surviving and thriving is the best revenge.”

Stephen Vines’ powerful new book Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship places Hong Kong’s swirl of contradictions and complexity in eloquent context. He details the pain of the 2019 protests, framing his narrative between a powerful history of Britain’s loveless treatment of its colony over nearly a century and a half, and a shrewd analysis of what will likely come next.

Vines is one of Hong Kong’s pre-eminent journalists; a Brit who fell in love with the people of Asia’s most cosmopolitan, global city observing their uproar of protest in the hours following the events in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. He has covered the territory and East Asia for many of the world’s media giants, including the BBC, the Observer and the Guardian. He still hosts an influential TV political analysis show locally and is a writer for one of Hong Kong’s only two remaining newspapers not owned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or its servants.

Vines is passionate in his support of the defenders of democracy, from 82-year-old Lincoln’s Inn barrister Martin Lee, QC — known as the “father of democracy” — convicted with six others this month of unauthorized assembly under China’s National Security Law for their attendance at two massive, peaceful protests in August 2019; to the thousands of young protesters who risked sabotaging their lives and careers before they had turned 16. But he is equally critical of their tactical misjudgments; their failure to understand the importance of timing, strategy, and building institutional foundations.

One can almost see him shaking his head in astonishment at their stunning learning curve over only a few weeks, from street protests to shutting down the city’s commercial heart, its vast airport complex. He does not condone the violence employed by the protesters or the police, but attempts to untangle the threads of miscommunication and mistrust that led to such a brutal and pointless escalation through the fall of that fateful year. He is caustic about the city’s “fellow travelers” among business leaders and foreign investors, citing their many egregious efforts to buy goodwill from Beijing.

He saves his most savage judgments for Hong Kong’s stunningly inept administration — one revered only 30 years ago for its efficiency, competence and freedom from corruption — and for its hapless leader. Carrie Lam was an unlikely choice to be the senior political and administrative leader of Hong Kong. A former mid-level bureaucrat who still holds a British passport, who previously held deep loyalty to the former colonial administration but flipped following the 1997 handover to become one of Beijing’s most intransigent champions. Lam has proved to be one of the central obstacles to any hope of restoring trust in the Hong Kong government, let alone any dreams of reconciliation.

Vines  is caustic about the city’s “fellow travelers” among business leaders and foreign investors, citing their many egregious efforts to buy goodwill from Beijing.

Some international readers may find Vines’ tick-tock on the daily escalation of the conflict over more than a year in 2019 and 2020, his detailed analysis of who struck whom first, where and why, as too much information. But even if skimmed, one gets his point — this was a stunningly rapid collapse of faith in the government, and an equally rapid crackdown on resistance by a dictatorship that apparently sees democracy anywhere as a threat.

One of the most surprising sections of his impressive book, to readers with little background in this fascinating corner of the world, are his detailed descriptions of the rebellious history of the people of Southern China, and especially those of the lower Pearl River Delta. It was these impoverished towns and villages that supplied more than nine out of ten Chinese immigrants to the world as they fled oppression, starvation and war starting more than two centuries ago.

Indeed, until after the Second World War, these incredibly resilient men and women built all the Chinese communities and businesses across the West, Southeast Asia, with outposts in Africa, the Middle East, and South America and the Caribbean. (An excellent study of their achievements is Lynn Pan’s, “Sons of the Yellow Emperor.”) Vines, along with many observers before him, makes clear that virtually every emperor, over five centuries, failed in their efforts to bring these tough peasants to heel; leaving unspoken what that implies about the current regime’s odds.

He details the mounting number of self-inflicted wounds that Beijing has accumulated in recent years, including the precipitous slides in popular approval of China and in relations with it around the world (see my Policy piece from June 2020, The Fall of China’s Mask). Drops of more than 50 percent in many countries (approval of China stands at a dismal 14 percent in Canada as of May, 2020) have placed China’s government at lower levels of approval than were registered after Tiananmen. Vines recounts the CCP’s dismissal of the backlash against its despotic and expansionist behaviour in Xinjiang, Africa, the South China Sea and with its many unhappy neighbours — not to mention its brutal ‘sinification’ — or ‘campaigns to ensure the healthy development of a united national ethnic unity,” as Beijing prefers.

Most powerfully, however, he surfaces the essential strategic flaw in Beijing’s efforts to make Hong Kong “just another Chinese city.” The city’s vast global financial networks lubricate the floods of capital — including legitimate corporate transactions with the Chinese state, mostly in the bond market, but a large chunk of it not. One local friend dubs Hong Kong, “the world’s biggest Chinese laundry.” The city’s influence as a commercial entrepôt has certainly faded, as has its economic influence though investment on the mainland.

But, paradoxically, Hong Kong’s unique role as an investment location for mainland investors has mushroomed. Its importance as a place to tap Western capital had grown equally — especially as Beijing clamps down on local listings and the United States continues to hold the threat of US de-listing of Chinese entities over their heads. In essence, Hong Kong becoming ‘another Chinese city’ could have grim financial consequences for Chinese state finances, for its business communities’ ability to finance growth globally and for the confidence of foreign investors that they could still safely invest and repatriate earnings. For it is through Hong Kong that most of that capital flows, precisely because it is not just another Chinese city.

The story of this proud city is far more complex than most of the newspaper headlines would have world readers believe. Beijing’s freedoms to clamp down with no restraint are more cross-pressured than reported. And, perhaps, most importantly, one would be unwise to bet against the ability of its citizens — children and grandchildren of those irrepressibly independent Guangdong peasants — to duck, weave, deceive, adapt and slow-walk unwanted change, and to survive. They have done it for centuries. This is the marvelous story that Vines tells incomparably well.

Veteran political strategist and Policy Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears lived and worked in Tokyo as Ontario’s Agent General for Asia for six years, and later worked in the private sector in Hong Kong for a further six years.