Raffles Reads: The Gate to China

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Anamika Ragu (23A01A)

Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.

Rating: 4/5 

One word: contention.

This is what surrounds any kind of history, especially that of global superpowers. So much of our yesteryears, nebulous and unembellished as they are, seem to exist as interpretive iterations by primary and secondary sources alike as time passes. 

Consequently, it is as if the past dares every curious mind that faces it to deconstruct this ruse of objectivity as it is dug up. It is an arduous, meticulous, and incredible process.

With Hong Kong and China, considering their complex and intertwined pasts, the prospect of contentions about their histories looms further and more intimidatingly. Hence, examining Michael Sheridan’s The Gate to China: A New History of the People’s Republic & Hong Kong, a mammoth of an endeavour and a work called his ‘magnum opus’, inevitably incites both scepticism and fascination.

Framed as a comprehensive history of Hong Kong, this tome has received much praise, named “essential reading” for anyone aspiring to learn about China and an “absolute tell-all”. This is no small feat, and Sheridan has lived up to many of these claims.

In preparation for this review, I spent some time perusing various sources to piece together such a history on my own, reading short books and academic studies on the events Sheridan signposted, watching videos with a plethora of contentious perspectives, and reading interview transcripts to cover as much ground as possible.

Even so, my knowledge remains limited. That said, I can say this with some certainty: Sheridan’s book remains one of the clearest historical accounts I have encountered.

Much to be learnt from Sheridan’s tome.

There are few other books I can name that could surpass or equal it in terms of comprehensiveness and consistency.

“This account has sought, imperfectly, to give full scope to the Chinese point of view”

Michael Sheridan, in the Afterword of The Gate to China

Indeed, Sheridan’s reverence of what he recounts bleeds through every page, but that’s not tangible enough for a review. Thus, in the plainest, most concrete terms, here is what I’ve gleaned.

I have learnt much about Hong Kong and China’s history from this book. Cursorily, it covers nearly 200 years of the lands’ past and just under 1400 years of cultural evolution. From the early days of trade and British-Sino relations that incited the Opium Wars all the way to the 2019-20 protests, Sheridan has created an incredibly relevant read for this decade.

I’ve also learnt much about China’s foreign affairs from this book. With extreme precision, the last 6 decades have been recounted with a compelling narrative that sheds light on the country’s strategies, evolving values, and priorities in every struggle it has faced.

Interestingly, Sheridan accomplishes this in an almost literary fashion. His ‘characters’— key political figures— come to life in his craft as their psyches are critically examined to precede their various discussions that ultimately define China’s changing image in the global stratosphere. 

In fact, Michael Sheridan begins his book, The Gate To China, by introducing key players in Hong Kong & China’s political journey as main characters of a dramatic work—“Dramatis Personae”.

Currency debates, pervasive Marxist values in governance, alliances and frictions by the Chinese Communist Party, dealings with the media and annexations of revolutionary technology are but some of the thrilling events Sheridan covers in his unique style, though this in itself is a contentious way of portraying history.

Regardless, I believe that this book is a fantastic starting point to (most fundamentally) understand Hong Kong’s history, and why its relations with the mainland are so fraught with tension. 

On a more abstract level, it is also a good source to help visualise the preservation of culture and tradition amid a country’s ever-changing geopolitical context, and grappling with the moral dilemmas that come with the decisions made at each difficult juncture (e.g. discussions between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher preceding the 1997 British handover). 

How to negotiate with China - Engelsberg ideas
A picture from Michael Sheridan’s The Gate To China, captioned, “No meeting of minds: Deng Xiaoping, with spittoon, and Margaret Thatcher, with handbag, in Beijing, September 1982.”

Finally (and in my opinion, most enjoyably), it is best as a springboard for debates on what is most important for a country to pursue—what should Hong Kong have fought for? What would you have valued?

I am not sure if Sheridan has achieved his goal of encapsulating the “Chinese point of view”, though this is likely because I doubt that it is something one individual can accomplish, especially from the outside. 

Sheridan’s facts are straight and his explanations are well-informed if not occasionally tainted by his personal definitions, but it seems the question of what Hong Kong is to the mainland has been asked and answered contentiously for centuries. 

In fact, Hong Kong has evolved from a “gate” into so much more, having endured estrangement and repeated palpable transformation. Its inhabitants have experienced cultural diaspora and unity through the decades, so much so that other hypotheses—paternalist/body politic metaphors, or even visuals of Hong Kong as a model for mainland China—have begun gaining traction. 

Again, rife with contentions, such a discussion remains ever-changing.

A picture from Michael Sheridan’s The Gate To China, captioned, “Violence becomes routine: a protester dressed for battle is hauled away by the police.”

There is no doubt that a great deal of research and work goes into creating something like this. The book itself was three decades in the making—Sheridan, before he was a bestselling author, had an impressive career as a journalist. He has written for numerous papers and was posted across Europe and East Asia before securing a more permanent job in the latter. 

According to his biography for HarperCollins (publisher), “He first reported from Hong Kong and China in June 1989 and later served as Far East correspondent for The Sunday Times (London) for twenty years, covering the rise of China, the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and the city’s struggle for democracy.”

A photograph of the author on the back cover of Michael Sheridan’s The Gate To China, captioned, “MICHAEL SHERIDAN photographed at the handover of Hong Kong, 1997”.

On that front, Sheridan’s magnum opus seems to me worthy of all the praise it has received and more. 

“The other truth was that most people really loved their home; its islands and seas, its sunsets and summer downpours, the sizzle of fresh food at the roadside and the din of family banquets […] all conducted to a soundtrack of quick-witted chatter on the airwaves and a cacophony of entertainment from all over Asia. It was worth a fight.”

Michael Sheridan on the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests in The Gate To China

Not only that, these descriptions are backed by iconic interviews, private documents of politicians, media extracts, and more. He has illustrated a vibrant, evocative picture of a dynamic and evolving region. 

In hopes of achieving a spoiler-free review, I will end here—to anyone wishing to learn more about China & Hong Kong from a bird’s eye view, this book is for you. Though it has its faults with somewhat embellished perspectives, it is one of the most well-executed historical accounts I have encountered in a while. In short, it is a gripping volume, from cover to cover.

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