Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2018

No Third Person, rewriting the Hong Kong Story (2018), by Christine Loh and Richard Cullen

No Third Person is a very interesting little book: it’s an essay about how Hong Kong perceives itself in the 20-odd years since reunification with China. I heard about it in a review at the Asian Review of Books a site which is

… the only dedicated pan-Asian book review publication. Widely quoted, referenced,  republished by leading publications in Asian and beyond and with an archive of more than two thousand book reviews, the ARB also features long-format essays by leading Asian writers and thinkers, excerpts from newly-published books and reviews of arts and culture.

It’s free to subscribe and it often has enticing reviews of fiction that we might otherwise not hear about, and although the reviews of non-fiction tend to be ‘scholarly’, occasionally there will be something that piques my interest— as No Third Person did.

The book is published by a new initiative associated with The Asian Review of Books, The Abbreviated Press.  Their website explains its mission:

…  to re-imagine the publishing model for the Internet age, envisaging a collaborative effort between writers, editors and publisher while focusing on prose works of 4,000-15,000 words and targeting publication within four weeks, rather than the 6-12 months that prevail in traditional publishing.

No Third Person is their third publication.  (The other two are titled Journey to the West, He Hui: a Chinese soprano in the world of Italian opera and There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon, vignettes from journalism’s front lines.)

This is the blurb:

British Hong Kong had a good story in the run-up to 1997. Its people worked hard and had an indomitable spirit. China had its own story about Hong Kong: after reunification, the city would prosper as never before due to China’s wise and pragmatic “one country, two systems” policy.

Hong Kong people and the world bought those stories. But now it is clear that the British version of the Hong Kong story no longer holds while Hong Kong people are not so sure about themselves and their future seems less bright. The city and its people are stuck—they have no compelling narrative that joins the past and the future.

This book is based on our thoughts of what a new Hong Kong story might be: a story about “us” and “you”, the people who care about Hong Kong, not an impersonal “he/she/it” story—a story, moreover, to be worked out between Hong Kong and mainland China and no one else.

In just 74 pages, the authors explain how the British ‘story’ of a robust post-1997 agreement that would protect Hong Kong against China the Ogre was the dominant story for world opinion.

The Hong Kong story was in fact the perfect allegory of the larger geopolitical clashes of ‘capitalism vs. communism’, ‘democracy vs. authoritarianism’, and ‘freedom vs control.’  It was in other words, an allegory of the desirable West and undesirable East.

The problem with that line of thinking for Hong Kong—as is was destined to be reunified with the People’s Republic of China—is that it essentially pitched what Hong Kong represented against what mainland China represented.  Communism would never, or at least could not be seen to, succeed.  The West was ‘free’ and ‘rich and China was ‘oppressive’ and ‘poor’.

The British Hong Kong narrative concluded that for ‘one country, two systems’ to work, Hong Kong needed to be able to stand apart from the mainland or even resist it.  (p.14)

Universal suffrage and free elections became the bellwether indicator for the health of post-1997 Hong Kong and an albatross around Hong Kong’s neck because no other form of progress is deemed to be enough.  And that ‘British’ version of the Hong Kong story simply isn’t a convincing narrative for the people of Hong Kong any more.

Efforts to create alternatives are likewise wanting. In 2004 a set of ‘core values’ was advanced: freedom, rule of law, transparency, justice and inclusiveness.  But these core values only emphasise the difference between the two systems.  Recasting Hong Kong based on its business prowess and as a regional hub, as ‘a superconductor’ for the world with China, is too narrow a focus.  The new narrative needs to incorporate a wider framework than that.

Chapter 2, which explains in palatable detail why the Chinese regard their history as traumatic and humiliating, is essential reading for everybody.  I did not know, for example, that China supplied thousands of non-combatant labourers to aid the allies in WW1, many of whom died or were injured—but despite this contribution, China was betrayed at the Paris Peace Conference by Britain and the European powers.  The chapter also shows how this history impacts on China’s fear of internal unrest and foreign intrusion, and how it drives their preoccupation with national security.

What is striking is the optimistic tone of this essay.  The authors identify many common aspirations between the mainland and Hong Kong, and they have numerous suggestions for ways in which Hong Kong’s unique culture and expertise can be valuable to the mainland.  These forms of ‘soft power’ present opportunities for a new narrative to develop.

Chapter 4 is about the basics of the law which protects Hong Kong’s autonomy, at least until 2047, neatly summarised in this video at the South China Post which explains the basis of ‘one country, two systems’.  But what the authors say is that Hong Kong has an interest in demonstrating that diversity can contribute to national modernisation and that its legal system is complementary to the mainland system—rather than something that it is used to confront it. [Analogous, perhaps to Traditional Law being used in some situations to complement the Australian legal system?] The authors concede that there have been some worrying attempts by China to restrict free speech, but they insist that China has still has to work within the Basic Law and that Hong Kong can resist this sort of delinquent behaviour robustly. 

But Loh and Cullen are also adamant that

Hong Kong must first and foremost accept the People’s Republic for what it is today and work towards national betterment in good as well as difficult times. (p.65)

They say that persistent political confrontation and challenging Beijing has not helped to advance democracy, implement better policies or improve local governance.  They argue that Hong Kong people, (especially its rebellious young people), need to jettison misplaced romanticism and pessimism about ‘one country, two systems’.

The all or nothing’ approach has, on balance, plainly been counter-productive. Hong Kong made a grave error in rejecting Beijing’s offer in 2015 allowing candidates, however they might have been selected, to compete in a direct election to choose the chief executive in 2017. (p.67)

Better to pursue incremental reform, they say.

No Third Person is an upbeat essay about Hong Kong’s potential but it also cautions its readers to seize the moment—as they had done before—to build a robust future as a part of the People’s republic and to contribute to the betterment of the nation. 

I reckon our politicians could usefully read this short essay on plane flights in and out of Canberra…

Authors: Christine Loh and Richard Cullen
Title: No Third Person, rewriting the Hong Kong Story
Publisher: Abbreviated Press, 2018, 74 pp.
ISBN: 9789881662965
Source: personal library, purchased from Fishpond $17.97 No Third Person: Rewriting the Hong Kong Story


  1. Interesting Lisa. You don’t hear much about what’s happening politically in Hong Kong these days, do you? BTW I didn’t know that about China and WW1. My the West has a lot to answer for doesn’t it? So sure of its own superiority.

    That ARB sounds worthwhile – but I’m going to resist! You can see by my tardiness in visiting your blog this week just how on top of things I am!!


    • *chuckle* You seem to be busier than ever lately!


  2. Thanks, China!


  3. […] No Third Person, rewriting the Hong Kong Story, by Christine Loh and Richard Cullen […]


  4. Having a day off – I think this is the oldest post I haven’t read. It is difficult not to view Hong Kong through a British lens, particularly as this is the only view our news media offers, but whatever we may wish, China will increasingly assert its power – and yes it has two centuries of humiliation to make up for.


    • Enjoy the day! It’s Cup Day here, and I am about to blow my $2 in the sweep on a horse whose name I’ve already forgotten…

      Yes, that’s true about the lens through which we view the world, which is why I like The Asian Review of Books because it unearths gems like this one.


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