I was sent a copy of Freedom as a gift, so I tried to come at the book with an open mind. I wrestled with a number of things reading book, which will come out a bit later on.
Is Freedom any good?
Early on this was a question that I was asking myself. Freedom clearly wasn’t a book with someone like me in mind. I have read a number of the China and Hong Kong books out there, kept up with the latest thinking and for a time lived in the city.
I could see that the book might be written for others as a primer. It is a swift tour through Mr Law’s own story, the resurgent nature of China across as an authoritarian state. China’s power projection beyond its borders and the nature of authoritarianism in general. He also tells the story from his perspective of the Hong Kong protests.
The reality is that in this ambition for Freedom, Law and Fowler have squeezed the territory of at least half a dozen books into one slim paperback.
Mr Law’s own story
Mr Law’s own story mirrors that of previous generations of Hong Kongers. His father escaped from the mainland and brought his wife and son across. The honesty of Mr Law’s story comes through his own admission of how few memories he had of life before Hong Kong. His concern about China at this time is more from the life of his parents. He only really remembers the sun on his back and hugging his Mum on her bicycle. He relies on the struggle of his parents in China, during and after the cultural revolution to tell the story of an authoritarian state.
Hong Kong like Shenzhen is a city of immigrants. Chinese people from Guangdong, Fujian and Shanghai have moved to the city over the decades in waves. As an immigrant child Mr Law is an everyman Hong Konger.
Two other aspects of Law’s story struck me. The first was the honesty with which he talked about not wanting to engage with the 2019 protests at first as he was going to Yale on a full scholarship.
The second was the way he talked about the horror of a custodial sentence. I have no desire to go to jail, but about a third of the UK population has a criminal record. It isn’t quite the ‘mark of Cain’ that it seems to be in Hong Kong. That says a lot about the kind of society that Hong Kong is.
The nature of China
I think other people have done a better job of talking about the nature of the Chinese government, in particular its approach to governance and foreign policy. Mr Law just can’t cover the ground needed in Freedom, he doesn’t have the space. I will include a list of recommended material on China at the end of this post.
The Hong Kong protests
The main thing that struck me about Mr Law’s account of the Hong Kong protests is a sense of restraint in the telling. He pulls his punches and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, or do their own research. This is especially apparent with Mr Law’s description of the Yuen Long incident.
If you want the general gist of the Yuen Long incident, there was a good documentary that the Hong Kong government clamped down on called 7.21 Who Owns the Truth? produced by Yuk-Ling ‘Bao’ Choy
Tone of voice
I was trying to put my finger on the tone of voice in Freedom. What did it remind me of? Eventually I realised that it reminded me of the kind of content I had read previously by the likes of think tanks like Demos during the New Labour era. So far the Hong Kong protestors have managed to engage and activate right of centre politicians across Europe, the US and the UK. But more progressive voices aren’t engaging with the situation in Hong Kong. I took this book as an attempt to reach out to the wonks in this camp. Activists like Mr Law would need to create receptivity in the the people who work for progressive politicians before they can engage with the politicians themselves.
Hence the primer approach, so that these people would delve further into China. You can find out more about Freedom by Nathan Law with Evan Fowler here.
Other recommended reading to get you started
Hidden Hand by Clive Hamilton & Mareike Ohlberg
Chinese communist espionage by Peter Mattis with Matthew Brazil
The Dragon and The Snakes by David Kilcullen
Prisoner of The State by Zhao Ziyang
Red Roulette by Desmond Shum
City of Protest by Antony Dapiran
Rebel City by Jeffie Lam