How China’s leadership and Hong Kong’s protesters have both embraced Hugo’s words – Amy Hawkins and Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Despite worldwide popularity, the 19th century French author Victor Hugo remains a mystery. His novels and the films they inspired are beloved from Hiroshima to Hanoi. When South Korean demonstrators toppled a corrupt president several years ago, one song their marches featured was “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables. In 2019, this anthem was among the rallying cries of Hong Kong activists. Meanwhile on the Chinese mainland, Beijing theatregoers flocked to a dramatization of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Shanghai art lovers took in a show dedicated to his “legendary life.”
Hugo’s current prominence across the People’s Republic of China is particularly intriguing. How can a writer linked to a song that has been key to anti-Beijing struggles in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement – one removed from Chinese music-streaming platforms – simultaneously be celebrated in China’s capital, where his fans include Xi Jinping himself? The answer lies in the multifaceted writings of Hugo, spread by globalization, relaying the struggle taking place in China and Hong Kong about what it means today to be both Chinese and a citizen of the world.