Excerpts

Déjà Vu in Hong Kong and Shanghai

A tale of two cities – Jeffrey Wasserstrom

There is a long tradition of treating Shanghai and Hong Kong as comparable cities, albeit ones with distinctive features. This was especially true during the period that followed the Opium War (1839-1842), which ended with a treaty that turned the former into a city divided between a Chinese-run and foreign-run part and the latter into a British colony. Throughout the next century, the two cities vied with each other for the distinction of being considered China’s most cosmopolitan port community and most important gateway to the West. To place them side by side, as I have done in these two vignettes – that while written in the third person, as many readers will have guessed, refer to my own experiences – may seem a much tamer sort of juxtaposition than those found in earlier parts of this book. And yet, the two cities went very different ways after 1949, when Hong Kong remained part of the British Empire and Shanghai became part of the newly created PRC. By the time I first encountered the two cities in the mid-1980s, Shanghai and Hong Kong seemed very different indeed, separated by much more than the hundreds of miles that stood between them. In addition, back then, their campuses and students had little in common.

Q&A

Taking Risks in Hong Kong

Maura Cunningham tells Jeffrey Wasserstrom about controversy at the Hong Kong Literary Festival

In the first week of November, I crossed the Pacific to take part in several events dealing with the past: university talks about the Boxer Crisis of 1900 and a panel on the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, held this year in Tai Kwun – a former prison turned heritage site cum arts and shopping district (think Alcatraz meets Covent Garden). I thought these activities would prove interesting, especially the panel, where I was paired with the versatile writer Mishi Saran (a LARB contributor) and the historian Stephen Platt (author of an acclaimed new book on the Opium War). I was not disappointed.

What I did not expect – though perhaps I should have, given recent clampdowns on rights in the territory – was how many interesting discussions relating to a single contemporary issue, censorship, would be taking place while I was in the territory. Before I departed the US, my schedule for the week included attending a November 3 launch party for the first international exhibition of work by a China-born and Australia-based satirical cartoonist I admire, Badiucao. Two members of Pussy Riot, as well as local artist Sampson Wong and local activist Joshua Wong, were scheduled to speak at the party. By the time I reached the Hong Kong airport on the evening of November 2, however, both the party and the exhibit had been called off due to concerns about Badiucao’s safety.

Essays

What Do Xi and the Pope Have in Common?

One's a powerful leader for life. The other's Xi Jinping – Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Five years ago, when Xi Jinping became President and Francis became Pope in the same month, I wrote a playful piece suggesting that the question in my title could be answered in the affirmative. One inspiration for this was finding, as I toggled between broadcasts on CNN and other networks, that the ascensions of Xi and Francis were being described in very similar ways. There was talk, in each case, of a small group of men using a secretive process to decide which of them should be the next leader of about one-and-a-half billion people. There was speculation over whether the new leader would be a bold reformer or a stay-the-course type. There was also some musing on whether the new leader’s predecessor, who had just stepped down, would fade away or try to exert influence from behind the scenes.

Essays

One Country, Three Systems

The limits on freedom in today’s PRC – by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When journalists interviewed me during the lead-up to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress, some grew frustrated by my unwillingness to make predictions. In dodging their forecast questions, I often played the history card.  “Historians like me,” I would say, “are more comfortable focusing on the past than the future.” I sometimes added that it was worth noting how misguided much of the prognosticating chatter about Xi Jinping had been five years before when he first ascended to power. Many analysts seemed certain in 2012 that Hu Jintao’s successor was likely to be either another colorless status quo-maintaining figure or a reformer, perhaps even a liberalizer. In fact, Xi has turned out to be something quite different: a strongman leader with a growing personality cult.

Some illiberal trends were already underway during the second half of Hu’s decade at the top, which lasted from 2002 to 2012, but Xi, far from being a liberalizer, has ratcheted up controls over many spheres of activity. What I could have mentioned to the reporters, but did not, was that I remain keenly aware of how wrong I was myself just over twenty years ago when I slipped up and made a prediction.