Hong Kong on the Brink

On the frontlines of the battle for democracy in China

The rise of Hong Kong is the story of a miraculous post-War boom, when Chinese refugees flocked to a small British colony, and, in less than fifty years, transformed it into one of the great financial centers of the world. The unraveling of Hong Kong, on the other hand, shatters the grand illusion of China ever having the intention of allowing democratic norms to take root inside its borders. Hong Kong’s people were subjects of the British Empire for more than a hundred years, and now seem destined to remain the subordinates of today’s greatest rising power.

But although we are witnessing the death of Hong Kong as we know it, this is also the story of the biggest challenge to China’s authoritarianism in 30 years. Activists who are passionately committed to defending the special qualities of a home they love are fighting against Beijing’s crafty efforts to bring the city into its fold—of making it a centerpiece of its “Greater Bay Area” megalopolis.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, one of America’s leading China specialists, draws on his many visits to the city, and knowledge of the history of repression and resistance, to help us understand the deep roots and the broad significance of the events we see unfolding day by day in Hong Kong. The result is a riveting tale of tragedy but also heroism—one of the great David-versus-Goliath battles of our time, pitting determined street protesters against the intransigence of Xi Jinping, the most ambitious leader of China since the days of Mao.

Published with support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF)

Read CGR Director Nicholas Lemann’s Letter to the Reader

  • ISBN: 9781733623742
  • Price: $15.99
  • E-book ISBN: 9781733623759
  • On Sale: February 11, 2020
  • Pages: 112


“A strong, economical account of what the city has gone through—and where it may be headed.” —Nat Brown, National Review

“Brief and efficiently readable.... Mr. Wasserstrom offers a vivid narrative of Hong Kong ‘on the brink.’ He is perhaps strongest when he puts the protests in historical context. Beyond making the standard comparisons to Tibet and the struggles of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, he hears in Hong Kong’s current conflict echoes of events in China over the past century. He reminds us, for instance, that Shanghai, after falling in 1949 to Mao’s revolutionary forces, ‘was an example of a Golden Goose that the Communists killed no long after taking control of it.’ For those who believe that Hong Kong’s status today as China’s premier financial hub will shield the city from Beijing’s wrath, this is sobering.” —Adrian Ho, Wall Street Journal

“In this well-organized, strikingly relevant work, the author provides a penetrating review of the situation through on-the-ground reporting and interviews with protest leaders like Joshua Wong and Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong…. A passionate, important study of the current affairs of a volatile region.” Kirkus Reviews ★ starred review

“What Wasserstrom and good rapid-response books provide is context: what led to this? How did we get here? And, for the percipient commentator, what happens next?... Whatever happens next, Vigil will stand as a key explanatory text.” —Paul French, Mekong Review

“A remarkable, and remarkably succinct, analysis of the ongoing crisis in Hong Kong. This is essential reading for understanding China’s foreign policy, the legacies of empire and above all the extraordinary politics, society and culture of contemporary Hong Kong.” —Julia Lovell, professor of modern China at Birkbeck, University of London and author of Maoism: A Global History

“Jeffrey Wasserstrom has long been a master of unearthing shared resonances in the human experience across ages and in different societies. With Vigil, he has not only produced a surefooted guide to the turmoil shaking Hong Kong, but a richly insightful look at how recent events there fit into the broader sweep of history.” —Howard W. French, author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power

“The slim volume, part of the Columbia Global Reports imprint, offers a concise overview of the city’s troubled past, tracing the current unrest back to a flawed political makeup with its roots in British rule.... As for China’s track record post-handover, Vigil paints a worrying picture of political and cultural encroachment.” —Holmes Chan, The Baffler

“This is an essential primer to understand the factors driving the most serious challenge to Beijing since the 1989 protest movement.  Written clearly and concisely, it offers a handy background briefing to Hong Kong’s political crisis.” —Louisa Lim, author of The People's Republic of Amnesia and Tiananmen Revisited

“As illuminating as it is beautiful.” —Yangyang Cheng, particle physicist at Cornell University and columnist at SupChina

“A concise yet pertinent analysis of why and how Hong Kong exploded into months of escalating protests in 2019. Wasserstrom combines the deep knowledge of a historian and the captivating voice of literary writing. The result is an account that weaves together objective historical parallels and subjective sentiments that have driven Hong Kong’s various waves of protest.” —Victoria Tin-bor Hui, associate professor, Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame


‘They can’t speak freely’: Hong Kong a year after the national security law — Guardian

Hong Kong police arrest authors of a children’s book in latest free speech crackdown — PBS News Hour

🎧 Listen to our Underreported with Nicholas Lemann podcast episode with Jeffrey Wasserstrom

About the author

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
© Audrey Fong

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, where he also holds courtesy appointment in law and literary journalism. He is the author of five previous books, including China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (co-authored by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham) and Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and a former member of the Board of Directors of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.  @jwassers