Ideas | Jonathan Kaufman

Are Hong Kong protests a preview of China’s uncertain future?

A protestor uses a shield to cover himself as he faced policemen in Hong Kong on Aug. 31.
A protestor uses a shield to cover himself as he faced policemen in Hong Kong on Aug. 31.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

Just three months ago, as the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests approached, exiled Chinese dissidents gathered at Harvard to talk about the demonstrations that paralyzed Beijing for weeks before the government cracked down. They agreed that such a massive public outpouring of hundreds of thousands of students, workers, and others could never happen again in China. Chinese government surveillance, augmented by innovations like facial recognition, would enable communist officials to prevent it.

What then explains the turmoil gripping Hong Kong where as many as 2 million protesters — more than a quarter of the city’s population — have marched through the streets, defied tear gas and arrests, disrupted public transportation, even overrun the airport?

I first visited Hong Kong as a young journalist more than 40 years ago, in 1978, and have covered it ever since as a foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg News. While Hong Kong is officially part of China, it has a very different history and a different political DNA. The ongoing protests and growing crackdown suggest that whatever happens this fall, China is likely to face similar upheavals in the future as its people become richer, more worldly, and more exposed to the world outside China’s borders.


China’s communist leaders teach a simple version of history. In elementary school classrooms across China hangs a poster that declares “Wu Wang Guo Chi” — Never Forget National Humiliation. Starting in 1840, the narrative goes, waves of imperialist foreigners — first the British, then the French, then the Americans, then the Japanese — imposed their will on a prostrate China, occupying cities, imposing extortionate trade agreements, selling opium, exploiting Chinese workers. Only when Mao Zedong and his devoted army of communist guerrillas toppled these rapacious capitalists did China stand on its feet again.

There is much truth in this version of history. But there are other truths as well and Hong Kong and Shanghai — its sister city in history and spirit — embody them. From the first arrival of Westerners in the 1840s until the communist takeover in 1949, Shanghai was China’s melting pot, the crucible in which all the forces that shaped modern China — capitalism, communism, imperialism, nationalism, foreigners — came together. Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s was China’s New York — the capital of finance, commerce, and industry. It was China’s Los Angeles, the capital of popular culture. Its publishing houses produced more than 10,000 newspapers and magazines. Its film studios churned out hundreds of films, many of them set in the westernized city. Colleges flourished. So did politics. What would become Mao Zedong’s Communist Party held its first meeting in Shanghai, just a mile from the art deco skyscrapers that lined the famous Bund filled with American and British companies making millions.


After the communists took power in 1949, that cosmopolitan energy moved to Hong Kong — often literally as Chinese entrepreneurs from Shanghai opened factories in Hong Kong and foreign companies relocated their offices to the still British-controlled colony. One element was missing: politics. Hong Kong’s British rulers largely eschewed public criticism of China, even when the chaos of the Cultural Revolution spilled over the border in communist-inspired riots and killings in 1967.

This studious avoidance of politics made Hong Kong an anachronism, out of step with the independence and liberation movements that swept through Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s and the Cold War tensions that dominated the 1970s and 1980s. Hong Kong seemed a booming city filled with apolitical, industrious, and energetic Chinese focused on making money. In 1997, Hong Kong was peacefully returned to a resurgent China, with the promise of 50 years of limited freedom, and appeared poised to slip seamlessly into China’s 21st century future.


Beneath the surface lay a more turbulent reality. Though it may be unfashionable to say it, Hong Kong represented the best of British colonialism. The British never granted democracy to Hong Kong, in large part because the Chinese communists, knowing they would eventually retake the city, wouldn’t have stood for it. But the British created a society with rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, universal education, and a booming economy. The Chinese capitalists and foreigners who fled Shanghai, and their Hong Kong successors, created millions of jobs that generated a vast middle class with middle class aspirations — not just for travel and consumer goods but for an accountable government and the freedom to think and act as they wished.

The Hong Kong protesters aren’t denouncing “national humiliation.” They are demanding a greater say in how they are governed, the repeal of laws that would allow Beijing to detain dissidents and ship them to mainland China, an end to creeping censorship and control in the media and on university campuses. Some wave the old Hong Kong colonial flag.

The Beijing government is unlikely to tolerate this. In the censored media on the mainland, protesters are denounced as “spoiled rich cousins” inflamed by foreign agitators, including the United States. China and Hong Kong’s lack of democracy means both sides lack the experience or tools to find a workable compromise. Hong Kong’s demonstrators lack strong leadership to negotiate with the government. The Hong Kong government has lost all credibility. Beijing fears a challenge to its power and turns to the familiar tools of arrest and crackdown. It is a similar dynamic that led to the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.


But the forces unleashed by China’s modernization over the past 30 years cannot be tear-gassed away. Every year, China sends more than half a million students overseas to study in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. My university in Boston has Chinese students studying everything from physics to computer science to American politics. Millions of Chinese tourists returned this summer after visiting Europe, the United States, and Japan. I was recently talking with some mainland Chinese students studying in Hong Kong, drawn by its freer atmosphere and lack of censorship. We chatted as we walked rapidly along the street, the only place these wary teenagers, brought up in a surveillance state, believed was beyond the reach of hidden microphones.

Why, one of them asked, could she access Facebook to follow her favorite pop singer (Rihanna) while back home in her Chinese town, less than 50 miles away, Facebook was blocked and she felt cut off.

How long will a growing, educated, and cosmopolitan Chinese middle class be satisfied with one-party rule, censorship, surveillance and a lack of government accountability? With the fractious, polarized state of our democracy, it is easy for many Americans to look at China as a smooth running monolith united in common purpose. Hong Kong suggests the path forward for China may be more unpredictable.


Jonathan Kaufman, former China Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal and an executive editor of Bloomberg News, is director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. His book, “The Last Kings of Shanghai” will be published by Viking in spring 2020.