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OscarWilde once said that ‘Royal Irish Academy’ was a ‘triple oxymoron’. I have recycled this joke quite a few times, in respect of the Hong Kong Literary Festival – which, even while I was doing it, felt slightly unfair. Or rather, no longer fair. The Hong Kong of my childhood was, at least in expat circles, a definitively unliterary place. You could tell this in the simplest possible way: nobody talked about, owned or read books. There was one tiny English-language bookshop in the basement of a commercial block in Central, but that was it. The most literary thing I ever came across in childhood was the dog who belonged to our neighbour the Israeli consul, who was said to double as the local representative of Mossad and who was the first person I ever saw jogging – he would go for long shirtless runs in the midsummer heat. The literary aspect was that he had an English sheepdog called Portnoy. I could tell that the adults thought that was funny, but nobody would explain why. ‘It’s a very silly name’ was all my mother would say.

Chinese Hong Kong was a different and much more intellectually active place, a hotbed of writing, journalism, publishing and free speech. But Chinese Hong Kong was a faraway country of which expat Hong Kong knew little. About that word: an ‘expatriate’ is a relatively affluent economic migrant, usually of Caucasian ethnicity, who is temporarily resident in a foreign country, who intends to return ‘home’, and who has little or no engagement with the place in which he currently lives. Most of the people I grew up around were like that, though my father wasn’t. His parents had emigrated to Hong Kong in the mid-1930s. He was evacuated to Australia in the summer of 1940, when war with Japan seemed imminent, but his parents stayed and were interned by the Japanese after Hong Kong’s surrender on Christmas Day 1941. They spent three years and nine months in Stanley prison. After the war my father got a job with a Hong Kong-based bank and spent most of his working life there; he spoke Cantonese and Japanese and read both languages too. (Written Chinese and written Japanese share a script.) He was British, according to his passport, but not English – he was born in Africa and had never lived in England. In sporting matters he supported Australia. All of this was untypical – and I don’t think it helped him, professionally or personally, being caught between worlds to quite that extent.

He took early retirement in 1979, after working for the same employer for thirty years, and died suddenly in 1983. He was the age I am now. Most of my memories of him are from Hong Kong and that emotional complication is one of the reasons I don’t like going back. ‘Back’: that’s one of those deceptively sneaky prepositions which do so much work in English and about which non-native speakers complain. It implies return, which in turn implies that the thing to which you are returning still exists. But I don’t feel that’s the case for Hong Kong. The place where I grew up doesn’t exist any more. It is a different place now, and good luck to it. But for me there is no ‘back’. My parents are long dead, our friends, including our Chinese friends, have long since left, and the place is no longer the same place. Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I can’t go ‘back’.

There is, however, a complication. Nothing has changed more in Hong Kong than the built environment. I can stand somewhere I stood hundreds of times in childhood and not recognise a single building. This is especially true in Central, the middle of town, where my father’s office used to be and where I went to school. (About that name, Central: names are very on-the-nose in Hong Kong. The peak of the island is called the Peak. The bit halfway up it is called Mid-Levels. The middle is called Central. The mass transit railway is called the Mass Transit Railway. The basic set of laws governing the territory is called the Basic Law. The person who runs the territory is called the chief executive.) Near our old block of flats, I can stand in a place which once looked down over shanties and look up at skyscrapers rising higher than my vantage point. In the 1970s, a regular outing for visitors to Hong Kong involved taking them to the border with China. You’d go there and say: ‘Behold!’ The spectacle consisted of two bored Gurkhas in a machine-gun nest, a roll of barbed wire demarcating the frontier, and then paddy fields stretching to the horizon, with nobody to be seen except a few Hakka peasants tending their rice. Now you go to the same spot and look out at the 12-million-person megalopolis of Shenzhen.

All this, however, isn’t what breaks my brain. The thing that breaks my brain is that combined with all this irrefutable evidence of change, the place still smells the same; and smell, as any neuroscientist will tell you, trumps the other senses as a trigger of memory. The main thing that Hong Kong smells of is the harbour: fish, oil, fish oil, live things and dead things; a humid, tropical, unmistakeable smell. So part of your head is telling you that you haven’t the faintest idea where you are, and the other part of your head is telling you this is a place you know so well it is part of your DNA. That – the vertiginous combination of complete strangeness and complete familiarity – is what breaks my brain.

I was apprehensive about going to this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival, but it was for these personal reasons, not because of the protests – about them, I was curious as much as anything. I was keen to see the situation first hand, and to hear what the locals were saying. Hong Kong’s politics are not always transparent to outsiders. Expat Hong Kong likes to think of itself as an apolitical place; Chinese Hong Kong is passionately political. The irony is that this is one of the reasons Hong Kong has never been permitted to be a full democracy. One of the under-acknowledged scandals of Britain’s colonial history is that Hong Kong was handed over to China as late as 1997 without democracy in place.

That is in considerable part because of the last time Hong Kong experienced extensive civil disorder, in 1967 – an episode always referred to simply as ‘the riots’. The riots were, in effect, the spillover to Hong Kong of the Cultural Revolution then raging in mainland China. They were civil disturbances whose origin lay in complaints about misgovernance, or ungovernance, on the part of the colonial authorities; at the same time they were systematically fomented by Hong Kong agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Beijing’s various institutions in Hong Kong, such as the Xinhua News Agency and the Bank of China, played a prominent role in the riots, as did the unions with the strongest links to the CCP. The riots went on for months. They were violent and frightening; 51 people died. The British colonial authority activated emergency powers, which had themselves first been introduced in 1922 to crack down on a seamen’s strike, and sent the army out on patrol with the police. I’m not sure if it was an urban legend, but a story from my childhood was that when the Gurkhas were on patrol and saw a mob starting to form they would draw their kukris – the long, curved, alarming traditional knife that all Gurkhas carry. A kukri cannot be sheathed unblooded. Once it’s been drawn, it has to cut something. The mob would see the Gurkhas, note the kukris, and find a reason to go somewhere else. The Gurkhas would walk down the street to the end, nick their thumbs with the tip of the kukri to draw blood, and put away the knife.

I don’t know if that story is true, but it is certainly the case that the militarisation of the police response in Hong Kong had a role in staunching the riots. It also seems that whichever faction in Beijing had thought the Cultural Revolution spillover was a good idea changed its mind or was superseded by a different faction who disagreed. The tap of CCP support was turned off and the riots, which began in May 1967, abated by the end of the year.

The riots gave people a sense that Hong Kong, a place that could seem pragmatic and business-minded to a fault, was on the edge of an abyss. The potential for violent ungovernable disorder was right below the surface of the apparently placid colony. Two consequences ensued. The first was that the British colonial administration began a programme of public works, especially house-building. Those shanties which featured in my childhood started to disappear and were replaced by the residential tower blocks which are omnipresent in contemporary Hong Kong. The administration began a plan to build a cheap transport system, the MTR or Mass Transit Railway, which has played a prominent role in the current protests. The government launched a series of initiatives to protect the environment and preserve the nature and wildlife of Hong Kong – one of the features which strikes visitors in Hong Kong is just how much nature the territory still has intact. A large part of the credit for that goes to Governor MacLehose, Hong Kong’s longest serving governor, in post from 1971 to 1982 and, in his benign- paternalist way, an early advocate of ecological and natural preservation. By far the worst thing about Hong Kong’s environment today is the pollution which drifts over from Shenzhen when the wind is in the wrong direction. Schools close; the young, the elderly and the asthmatic are advised not to go out of doors. It makes a pretty good New York Times op-ed Style Metaphor™: a huge problem caused by mainland China, impossible for Hong Kong to ignore, but which it can do nothing to prevent.

The switch from government by neglect to benign paternalism was one legacy of the riots; the other concerned the administration’s attitude to democracy. The British were no keener on democracy in Hong Kong than in their other colonies but the riots made them realise that the territory needed a safety valve of some sort. At the same time, the riots added to already existing anxieties about what would happen if the various tensions in Hong Kong were allowed to become too open. Some Hong Kongers came from backgrounds that were explicitly Nationalist, i.e. on the side that lost China’s civil war in 1949; others had fled communist China at the risk of their lives. These groups would be difficult to reconcile with the factions which were for various reasons and to varying degrees aligned with the CCP in Beijing. The CCP did not want a thrivingly democratic Hong Kong sitting on its border; the British did not want a fissiparously democratic Hong Kong loudly demanding complete independence from China or complete subservience to it or both at the same time. China and the UK had a shared interest in keeping Hong Kong’s democracy to a homeopathic dose.

MacLehose responded by founding a public body to discuss Hong Kong’s laws, the Legislative Council or LegCo. LegCo existed in the first instance wholly by appointment, but over subsequent years acquired a tentative patina of democracy through direct election to geographical constituencies in parallel with overtly rigged ‘functional constituencies’ to nominate council members. Later, when the handover to China was imminent, Chris Patten, who was then the governor, brought in a new body whose role was to appoint the aforementioned chief executive – a partially democratic 1200-member committee. The composition of this committee is designed to ensure that the chief executive is a Beijing stooge. That chief executive’s job, not an especially easy or admirable one, is to fake concern for the needs of Hong Kong’s citizens while devoting most of their energies to managing upwards, in the direction of the real bosses in Beijing. The detail of how a sequence of chief executives failed to implement the progress towards full democracy spelled out in the Basic Law was given in the LRB of 15 August by Chaohua Wang.

The tensions arising from Hong Kong’s pseudo-democratic arrangements have fed the current crisis in Hong Kong. The chief executive, currently the hapless Carrie Lam, is not a politician and does not behave like one, and as a result has failed to address the concerns of Hong Kongers. Some of these concerns are economic: a housing crisis and rising inequality are not exclusive to Hong Kong but they are as acute there as anywhere on earth. (Hong Kong property is three times more expensive than London property.) The more profound worries, though, are existential, and are felt most keenly by young Hong Kongers. President Xi Jinping has systematically eroded the territory’s independence. The ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement left behind at the end of the colonial era in 1997 was supposed to last fifty years. That deadline seemed a long way off in 1997, but much less so now; Xi has made it clear that Hong Kong will lose all independence long before that. The protesters in Hong Kong today all have one thing in common: they will be around to see 2047. If current trends continue, the place where they live now will effectively cease to exist.

This is one of the points which hits you most forcefully when you’re in Hong Kong, as opposed to following the story from a distance. From abroad, you can get the gist about the protests, but you don’t see how completely inter-generational the divide is. It is one of those increasingly common issues – common globally, I mean – where you have a good chance of knowing what a person thinks if you know their age. Families are split; the accommodationist grown-ups miss few chances to harangue the protesting youngsters, and the youngsters miss few chances to resent it furiously. You get told, repeatedly, that the protesters are ‘children’, as young as 14 or 15 or even younger. This is supposed to suggest that the protests are in some sense trivial, though of course it’s possible to take it in the opposite sense, as a sign of how desperately fractured Hong Kong has become: a society in which only children can tell the truth, and only children feel they have any political agency.

Another thing that stands out at close range is the behaviour of the police. I knew this was a hot topic – one of the protesters’ five demands is for an inquiry into police brutality. However, I hadn’t realised quite how out-of-control police behaviour has been. The protests were happening mainly at the weekends, for the incredibly Hong Kongish reason that during the week the protesters have jobs and/or studies that they don’t want to interrupt – ‘people call us part-time protesters,’ one of them said to me, ruefully. My wife and I were in Hong Kong over one of the protest weekends, and it wasn’t long before we started to catch the smell – the faint smell, luckily for us – of tear gas. People began running past – running from the police. Peaceful demonstrations linked to the upcoming district council elections were ruled unlawful by the police five minutes before they were due to start. The police had then tear-gassed the demonstrators. It was impossible not to wonder why. There was absolutely no need to ban the assemblies and even less need to tear-gas them. The actions of the police could only be seen as deliberate provocation and escalation. Two days later, on 8 November, a protester, injured as he was trying to get away from tear gas, died. Three days after that, a policeman shot an unarmed protester: the protester, who is still critically ill, was arrested and charged; the policeman wasn’t even suspended. The authorities’ hope was that the escalation of violence would lead to a public rejection of the protesters in the district elections of 24 November. The opposite happened: pro-democracy parties won 17 out of the 18 constituencies being contested. In 2015 they had won none.

I always trip momentarily over that very Hong Kong term ‘pro-democracy parties’. If you have pro-democracy parties, then that must mean you have anti-democracy parties … but if a party is anti-democracy, and an election comes around, then surely … About those five demands. If Hong Kong were run by an actual politician whose primary concern was the needs of its population, well, obviously, we would never have arrived at this point in the first place. But after that, if a real politician was in charge, four and a bit of the five demands could be granted immediately and with little real controversy. Those are to withdraw the extradition bill that triggered the protests; to investigate police brutality and misconduct during the protests; to release arrested protesters; to stop characterising the protesters as rioters; and for Carrie Lam to resign, which is the first part of the problematic fifth demand. (Lam has already said in a leaked tape of a private meeting that she wants to resign but Beijing won’t let her.) The much more difficult part of that final demand is for the institution of universal suffrage in elections for both LegCo and for the chief executive.

As Chaohua Wang explained, this was once an uncontroversial demand: ‘The main political parties, pro-Beijing and pro-democracy, all agreed that universal suffrage should be used in the election of the CE in 2007 and the legislature in 2008.’ It would be impossible today to find anyone with any knowledge of Hong Kong or China who thinks universal suffrage is possible; that is a measure of how far the ground has shifted. The person who brought about this change was President Xi, through a grandmother’s-footsteps incremental erosion of Hong Kong’s liberty and rule of law. The most spectacular example of the new normal was the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers by mainland authorities from 2015 onwards; as far as anybody knows, one of the booksellers, the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, is still in custody somewhere in mainland China. Xi has unilaterally rewritten the rules for Hong Kong, and his actions have brought the territory to a dangerous impasse. Nobody thinks China will make concessions over universal suffrage. But the young people of Hong Kong are sure that they have nothing to lose. I asked a protester if a permanent guarantee of ‘one country, two systems’ would be enough. He instantly said no: it was full democracy or nothing. Why not keep going with the 1997 fudge? I asked. ‘We have no future,’ he said, instantly. That is an article of deep faith among the protesters. The fact that their demands have been made to seem impossible gives them a desperate and nihilistic edge. A popular protest graffito comes from The Hunger Games: ‘if we burn you burn with us.’

This is a dangerous situation. But the dangers are not exclusively Hong Kong’s. Xi has made himself solely responsible for everything that happens in China; he has ticked the maximum publicity box. It might be that in the process he has given himself a job that nobody can do. Daniel Elam, a scholar of post and anti-colonialism at the University of Hong Kong, talked about ‘impossiblism’, about demands which at the time they are made seem impossible to meet. The examples he gave were the suffragettes and Gandhi. The Hong Kong protesters’ demands seem, here and now, in that same category. What made those other impossible demands into realities was a change in what seemed possible. Part of that process depends on the response of the counterparty, the person who began by saying ‘no, never’. The counterparty to the Hong Kong protesters is currently implacable. But there is a non-zero chance that the CCP will no longer be running China by 2047.

When you look at the internet, it seems that mainlanders universally regard the protesters as spoiled, ungrateful children, manipulated by foreign actors. But the locals cut me off when I mentioned that. ‘You can’t tell what mainlanders think from the internet’ is the consensus in Hong Kong. The Communist Party has taken over the internet, and everybody knows you can’t tell the truth from the trolls. Since the CCP is relying on the net to tell it what people think, that means the internet, from the CCP’s point of view, is no longer working. But the internet as a guide to popular opinion is the CCP’s main safety valve.

The protests made getting around town difficult. The protesters have targeted the MTR – ‘because they have betrayed Hong Kong,’ I was told – and the protests take advice from Bruce Lee, Hong Kong’s most famous son, and move ‘like water’. They are fluid and decentralised and unpredictable. That made it hard to make plans. We didn’t have much free time and in the end I only had half an afternoon clear to revisit some old – the word felt less of a cliché than usual – haunts. I thought about going to Stanley, where my grandparents were interned, on the south side of Hong Kong island. My grandmother would always go there when she came to stay at Christmas, to visit the graves of her friends in the military cemetery. I felt that if we went there we might not be back in time for duties later that day, so instead we went to visit the place where I grew up, a two-storey block of flats in the romantically named Mid-Levels.

On the way up the hill I was feeling sad, as you do when you visit a place where you lived with people you loved who are now dead. When we arrived, I found that our old home had been knocked down. Not only knocked down, but replaced by a hideous piece of white-box modernism, with a poser’s narrow swimming pool and a triple-height atrium overlooking where the garden used to be. The punchline was that this new development was empty and abandoned too. I felt, of all unexpected things, a wave of relief. The only thing left of the place where I grew up are my memories of it. Walking down the hill, I felt physically lighter. My host that evening explained the mystery of the empty building: property prices have been going up so fast that landlords can leave buildings vacant, to avoid the hassle of renting, and still capture all the capital growth they want.

In the morning we headed for the airport. I hate the new airport, because I dislike Norman Foster’s buildings, and because although Kai Tak was the most frightening airport in the world, at least it was a place, not a generic postmodernist international non-place. Still, there’s no denying that the new airport is a lot more efficient; lots more shops. Some things they’ll sell you and some things they won’t. In the departures area, you are confronted by signs saying you aren’t allowed to take more than 1.8 kg of baby milk powder out of the territory. The ban is addressed to mainland Chinese, who have reacted to a series of scandals about contaminated milk powder at home by stocking up on capitalist milk powder to ensure their children’s safety. Without a restriction on exports, Hong Kong would run out of milk powder.

I found myself thinking about that, as we wandered and drifted around the shiny nowhere of the airport: about a Communist authoritarian state which dreams about instituting a system of technocratic totalitarian control, but which can’t keep baby- food safe. In recent months I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking gloomy thoughts about the CCP’s dream of a new AI-driven authoritarian-technocratic state (I wrote about it in the LRB of 10 October). But the airport was a corrective. If the party is omniscient and in charge of everything, who takes the blame for the contaminated milk powder? If you can’t make milk powder safe, what are the odds of your controlling what everybody thinks and does, in a country with 1.4 billion people, and no functioning mechanisms for voicing discontent?

I was thinking about that as the plane took off, and thinking too about the feeling I’d had all the time I’d been in Hong Kong, the sense that something was missing, that I’d been expecting to have some encounter, some revelation, that hadn’t happened. I’d been braced for an impact I hadn’t felt. And then I realised what it was: in five days I hadn’t smelled the harbour, not once. Funny, sad, funny-sad. Lots of postcolonial mixed feelings. And on the plus side, in the expat anecdote column, at least I can now recognise the smell of tear gas.

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