The Hong Kong Conundrum: Pangs Of Transition – Book Review


The Hong Kong protests started in 2019, after the National Security Law (NSL), was introduced in the Hong Kong legislature. This showed that despite Hong Kong’s reversion to China over two decades ago neither its citizens nor Beijing yet trusted each other and neither have the ‘one country, two systems’ been able to adjust to each other. The protests garnered attention throughout the world and went on for a year. Finally, the law was passed by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee (SC) on June 30, 2020, amidst considerable concern and controversy in Hong Kong. For many China watchers, governments, ex-pats, businessmen, students and so on it was a matter of concern but for many people, it was an international event that needed to be understood. For this very purpose i.e. to understand the Hong Kong crisis, its background and history Prof. Rup Narayan Das’s book ‘The Hong Kong Conundrum’ has been published at an apt time. 

The book has eight chapters that trace the birth of Hong Kong during the Opium Wars with a postscript which covers the changes in Hong Kong till December 2021. Thus, the book acts as a textbook for readers who want to know simple yet important issues like why Hong Kong has a different growth trajectory from Mainland China, the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ touted by Deng Xiaoping the nationality issue. For China Watchers and geopolitics experts, it acts as a resource pool on Hong Kong in one concise form. 

The first chapter that traces the birth of Hong Kong and mentions the unequal treaties is important to understand the basis of Communist China’s slogan ‘recovery of lands lost during the unequal treaties’ that has been propagated by the Party ever since they took over in 1949. This has been more vigorously propagated by President Xi Jinping as the ‘China Dream’. It not only promises a better life, but it also assures the “rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation,” which includes the “recovery of sovereignty over Chinese territories lost through the imposition of unequal treaties by Imperialist foreign powers.” This theory is pivotal to understanding how the Party looks at Hong Kong, Taiwan, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, the South China Sea and the East China Sea. They are all part of the ‘lost territories’ that need to be reunified with the Motherland. This chapter lays a perfect setting and tries to delve into all aspects of Hong Kong’s history and the history of certain philosophies used so often in Chinese nationalism. 

Dr Das also traces the evolution of colonial administration in Hong Kong and very meticulously details the concept of the executive council, legislative council, judiciary, and so on that prospered in Hong Kong under the British. This system was supposed to continue after the transfer of power in 1997. Dr Das writes, “The Joint Declaration and the Basic Law provided that after transfer of sovereignty in 1997, the laws of Hong Kong will remain unchanged and the legal system will operate in much the same way as before.” The author expresses that the Hong Kongers always doubted the intentions of the Mainland as there was a basic ideological difference. Their doubts came true when Mainland China changed the Basic Law and introduced the National Security Law within two decades of the handover.

The chapter on the development of Hong Kong as a trading and manufacturing hub highlights a fascinated section on China-Taiwan indirect trade via Hongkong and the attempts of China to assimilate Taiwan via their economy.

However, the main theme and core of the book are how it develops the idea of political economy in Hong Kong and how ‘social harmony and political stability were ensured to create a congenial and conducive atmosphere for trade, commerce, and entrepreneurial pursuit’. To the readers, it also highlights the democratic debate in Hong Kong which was one of the main reasons why the protesters vehemently opposed any changes to the election of the executive council. The book elaborates on how elections were introduced through district boards and how this gave the people of Hong Kong a taste “of the dynamics and complexities of electoral politics on a limited scale .” 

The author further elaborates that “the introduction of electoral politics and the prospect of democracy thus polarised the apolitical people of Hong Kong. While the younger generation intelligentsia and the middle class opted for democracy, the conservative business community opposed the move for democracy and direct election.” This chapter is a crucial addition which helps the readers to understand the layers of Hong Kong society, polity, economy, culture and so on and how all this is intertwined into making a vibrant society that resisted Chinese hegemony and why some sections supported it.

A bonus chapter for the Indian audience is the addition of a chapter on Hong Kong Indians and their tryst regarding citizenship after the handover. It highlights their contribution to building Hong Kong and their dilemma under a Communist regime.

The last two chapters focus on the present times particularly covering the protests in 2019 and why Beijing decided to end the disillusionment of Hong Kong’s democracy. This section scratches the surface of certain issues like the Sino-US spat, Xi Jinping’s ambitions, the global reaction and so on. Dr Das also adds a small portion on whether ‘One Country, Two Systems can be replicated in Taiwan?’ This portion ends abruptly with no answers from the author and to the readers, it might raise more questions than answers. However, covering a range of issues and specifically tracing Hong Kong’s history itself was a huge task.

The book helps the readers understand the evolution of the idea of Hong Kong, i.e. ‘an economic hub and the convergence of different cultures’. Dr Das also gives an Indian perspective to the Hong Kong crisis, a field otherwise dominated by western authors. It also touches on the Taiwan issue and how Hong Kong’s example has enunciated that ‘one country, two systems’ is not a working option for Taiwan. The book ends on an ominous doom for Hong Kong and its cosmopolitan elan along with a warning of more devastations if China is allowed to continue on its path of national rejuvenation! 

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