With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Hong Kong Apocalypses: Teaching the Recent Past and the Speculative Future

Perhaps it should have been predictable that when the recent past tries to predict the near future, the two collide in an unimaginable present. In that collision, unsettling though it is, the idea of a past that is distinct from the present has unraveled in an era that from any number of angles has been “history in the making.” I wonder if it would be different if we thought of it as “the present in the making?” And I’m left with the idea that the two are just mirrors held up to one another.

Most historians are comfortable with the idea that history is the interaction of the past and the present, mediated by our sources. From our perch in the present, we interpret, reconstruct, and analyze what happened in the past. Yet, though we tend to acknowledge the importance of all three of these—past, present, and sources—I have found that most historians are more comfortable with, even fetishize, the last two, and only grudgingly admit the role of the present. Yet, as historians and humans, it is our burden to be trapped in the present. Phrases like “time travel” or “immersed in the sources” reveal the extent to which many historians see their profession, at least sometimes, as an escape from the present. Indeed, the closer one’s subject of study comes to the current page of the calendar, the less pure it is often seen. 

The line between past and present (presumed to isolate the concerns of the present from the proper objects of history) often fades, though. The temporal border between the objects of “history” and “journalism” is (half-jokingly?) placed at World War II, or at the French Revolution, or any other time that suits the audience. Although the demarcation may be meant as a joke, its fluidity illustrates that the whole enterprise is somewhat arbitrary.

This spring I taught “Contemporary China” as a History class, aware that I was walking a confusing line. The point of the class was largely to be a vehicle for a study tour (cancelled by the pandemic) that would bring students to China for two weeks following end of term, but the topic raised questions. What would distinguish this as history, and not sociology, or political science, or journalism? Finishing the class—remotely, of course, though that had nothing to do with the course’s subject—I cannot be sure I know the answer to that even now, but I have been privileged, and burdened, to see and live the most extraordinary interplay among past, present, and source.

One of the featured topics for the course was Hong Kong and the protests that had swept across the territory during 2019, while I was planning the class. Determined to make the course topical, multidisciplinary, and also grounded in historical context, I arranged guest speakers and film screenings to accompany the more traditional readings and discussion. 

I arranged our discussion of Hong Kong to accommodate the launch of a new book on the protests, Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink. Students read the book just as it was released, and then welcomed Wasserstrom to campus to talk about the events as they unfolded. As if to further strain the chronology, we combined Wasserstrom’s visit with a screening and discussion of the Hong Kong film Ten Years

The historical context was this: Hong Kong had been ceded to Britain in 1842, spoils of the first Opium War. To this original colony were added the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860, and the so-called New Territories, in 1898. The first concessions were granted to Britain “in perpetuity,” but the New Territories—which comprised almost 90% of the colony’s area—was leased for 99 years, until 1997. As all three areas became both intertwined and dependent on the mainland for utilities like electricity and water, and the People’s Republic of China made clear that the lease would not be renewed, 1997 became an end date for Britain’s colonial endeavor on the China coast.

Ten Years was acclaimed upon its 2015 release, exceeding expectations at the box office and outperforming even the new Star Wars installment when it opened. It is a work of speculative fiction, a suite of five short films giving different directors’ takes on what Hong Kong might look like in another decade, in 2025, just about halfway through the 50 year period during which, according to the 1984 Basic Law, Hong Kong’s “way of life shall remain unchanged.” (Hong Kong Basic Law, Article 5) The five stories vary in tone, but all of them paint a dark future for the territory: staged assassinations, censorship run amok, ritual suicides, families torn apart. All of them grim, but all of them fictional.

Historians often resist predicting the future, claiming instead that their purview is the past. Similarly, speculative fiction, which trades on suggesting possible futures, tends to resist a date that is too specific or too near. Ten Years defied that tendency, giving a date that was both precise and imminent. Even more imminent than many expected. 

Somewhat counterintuitively, speculative fiction relies on history to work. Works that explicitly explore an altered past, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, clearly rely on our understanding of the history to make its points, but even less concrete—more speculative—examples depend on how we know the world to be, so that they can point out ways it could be different (or perhaps ways in which it is not quite how we believe it to be). If we are shown a date too near, then power of the book is often evaluated as a kind of parlor game—what did it get right?—rather than a commentary on our world—the present.

There were no moon bases, HAL computers, or Jupiter missions when the actual year 2001 arrived, but by 2019—6 years before Ten Years fictional setting—university campuses were aflame. Scenes of students weaving through plumes of tear gas were meant to be provocative in the film; instead, they were merely descriptive. There were no staged assassinations in 2019, as there were in the film, but many of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists were jailed. In April 2020, this list came to include most of the movement’s first generation leaders, including legislators like Martin Lee.

Lee, now 81, was arrested on April 18. He had served on the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) and been the chair of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. In normal times, his arrest would have been front-page news (as, in fairness, it eventually was, a week or so after the event), but its lack of prominence was part of the plan. With the world distracted, attention was hard to come by. Even my class, with its focus on contemporary China and a reading list that included Hong Kong, struggled to find time to give to it.

This was without doubt the intention behind the timing of these arrests. Counting on distraction, the PRC government moved to silence some of its most outspoken and consistent critics. Lee, though, was not quite silenced: Interviewed by the Foreign Press Association on April 23, Lee said that Hong Kong is “the key to China’s future,” insisting that the People’s Republic of China would be judged on its ability to keep its word, as it seeks greater prominence and influence on the world stage. How well Hong Kong preserved the autonomy and freedom promised in the Basic Law, Lee argued, would be critical to the world’s judgment of the PRC.

And what of the world’s judgment? What of my students’ judgment, for that matter? While Covid-19 dominates headlines, and frames China’s relationship to the rest of the world, it is far from the only factor. It is, however, a controlling one. The often unspoken goal of many history classes is to reach closure. Sometimes that is a point in the recent past (the lament of the second half of the US survey: where do I stop?) or a more or less arbitrary date, often in the title of the course. But Contemporary China didn’t end just because the course did. Our last class, held April 28, didn’t provide an end point for anything other than our (virtual) meetings.

That was partly because we were unable to have the familiar rituals of an on-campus class, and partly because many of the topics we were studying—the repression of Uighurs in China, the Hong Kong protests, US-China trade wars, and of course the global responses to Covid-19, but it was largely because the capstone of the class was not to be. One principle I have always tried to follow as an educator is exposing students to ideas and information and letting them judge for themselves. This was the idea behind taking students to China: with a little exposure, including some formal meetings but, ideally, with lots of informal interactions with Chinese students and others, my students could flesh out what they had learned. Maybe some would be inspired to further classes or even careers focused on China. For now, at least, those plans are on hold.

I finished “Contemporary China” feeling deeply unsatisfied. Instead of boarding a flight to Beijing, I was convening Zoom sessions, wondering what had been accomplished. But in the end, I think I understood what it means to do history better than did when I started teaching the class.

Left without the capstone, without the trip toward which the course had been pointing, students were left to do the work of the historian. To assign meaning amid uncertainty. We never have complete sources, and we never have all the information. It is tempting to think that, in the present, we can know “everything,” and that the further into the past our subjects recede, the greater our challenge. But historians (ought to) know better than that. Both the past and the present elude our understanding, and only through sources do we have chance at making sense of either of them.