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episode 434: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, "Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink" (Columbia Global Reports, 2020)


This podcast was recorded on May 21st, 2020 – the same day that the Chinese government proposed new national security laws that would give China greater control over Hong Kong. What motivates these laws and what is at stake for Hong Kong, China, and the rest of the world if they go into effect? In the podcast, Wasserstrom draws on examples from modern Chinese history and politics – such as the role of local press in reporting on SARS – to connect on the ground reporting in Hong Kong and the exercise of rights by the Hong Kong people with practical policy-making during a pandemic. He offers both stark realism and optimism about the ability of the public, heads of state, and policy makers to fully comprehend the meaning of political protest – and the freedom it represents – in Hong Kong.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom's Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020) provides a nuanced yet accessible overview of the struggle between Hong Kong and China over self-governance and civil liberties. This historical and political context is essential for understanding why – and how – 2 million people (in a country of 7 million) took to the streets in 2019 and 2020 to protest against Chinese control over Hong Kong in what was promised to be “one country, two systems.” Wasserstrom’s “history of the present” provides insights into sovereignty, colonialism, rule of law, national security, freedom of the press, authoritarianism, and the politics of protest.

This beautifully written – and remarkably short – book provides the political background necessary for concerned citizens, engaged students, and scholars of modern China.

Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013).

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