Past Event

Long Odds Struggles in East and Southeast Asia, the 1910-1920s and 2010-2020s

April 8, 2022
10:30 AM - 12:00 PM
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School of International and Public Affairs, 420 West 118th Street, Room 918, New York, NY 10027

Watch the recorded event here.


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Speaker: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine

Introduction by: Lien-Hang Nguyen, Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia

Moderated by: Manan Ahmed, Associate Professor of history at Columbia University

During the first decades of the last century, activists with ties to various parts of Asia embraced and then discarded different ideologies and found varying ways to connect with one another, sometimes in exile. What linked them were some shared grievances, such as a dislike of the way their community was being bullied or controlled by people in a distant capital and of the limits on their freedom to speak out on issues that concerned them and organize to bring about change. We have been seeing something similar in some ways but different in others take place now, as activists in and exiles from Hong Kong, Thailand and Burma take part in what is sometimes called "Milk Tea Alliance" struggles. There are obvious contrasts: importance of online connections now is novel; the Chinese state was a weak force a century ago, but is a strong one today; Vietnamese activists were a more central part of the earlier story than the current one; ties between South Asian and East Asian exiles were more notable a century ago; and there is no contemporary counterpart to the Comintern on the scene connecting radicals. And yet, this talk will argue, there are important echoes of the earlier period to be heard today, as well as much to learn about how different struggles in East and Southeast Asia influenced one another at other points in time, such as the 1980s. This talk will focus on Chinese activists of the early 1900s and Hong Kong ones now but place both groups in comparative and transnational perspectives, will move between the two eras with an eye toward reoccurrences, ruptures, and reversals.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Law School and in the Literary Journalism Program. He has written, co-written, edited, or co-edited a dozen books, the most recent of which are Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020), which he wrote, and The Oxford History of Modern China (2022), which he edited. In addition to contributing to academic journals, he often writes for newspapers (including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times), magazines (such as the Atlantic), and literary reviews (e.g., the TLS and the Los Angeles Review of Books).

Manan Ahmed is a specialist in South Asia. He is an executive editor for the Journal of the History of Ideas and the author of works such as A Book of Conquest: Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia (Harvard University Press, 2016) and The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (Harvard University Press, 2020), a book that was shortlisted for the Cundill History Prize in 2021.

This event is sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

Refreshments will be provided.


Q&A from the Audience

Anonymous Attendee 11:29 AM

The dangers of abusing connections? For example China connects Tiananmen, Hong Kong and January 6. The need to look at motivation behind connecting?

JW: This is a good point. There are many ways in which tactics used by activists pursuing one sort of goal can be used later by those pursuing a very different one. Symbols can also move around the world in promiscuous ways. As my project develops, I will pay a lot of attention to this issue, so I am glad the anonymous commentator on ZOOM brought it up.

Rhe-Anne Tan 11:44 AM 

Thank you so much for your exciting and insightful talk! I really appreciated the attention to the limits of a nation-state frame and the difficulty of thinking beyond it. My question has to do with how activists themselves are grappling with these challenges: in your view, can we speak of a transnational solidarity or consciousness that is shared between movements, not only in terms of symbols but how they understand and diagnose problems and solutions?

JW: I am so glad that you liked the talk, Rhe-Anne Tan. There are definitely some examples of transnational solidarity, such as participants in different movements expressing support for one another. This goes beyond the regional framework I was using, which emphasized ties between different parts of Asia. For example, when I was in Hong Kong in 2018, I witnessed a small pop-up protest at which Joshua Wong spoke and two members of the Russian Pussy Riot activist group help up signs saying that they stood with Hong Kong. They member of Pussy Riot were in Hong Kong mainly to take part in activities associated with a different cause: LGBTQ rights. There are also examples of young climate change activists and Hong Kong activists expressing support for one another, the common thread there being in part a shared sense that their generation will lead to them being affected for a longer time by a dreaded event on the horizon and processes already underway. At least some in this case argue that an older generation has squandered chances to do more to combat an evil, so the young need to be particularly militant in pushing back now.

Nathanael Lai 11:54 AM

I am also looking at the linkages of resistance across Hong Kong and Southeast Asia myself but I am focusing on the 1950s. While I hope to flesh out the connections across these spaces, in writing transnational or even connected history I am also constantly reminded of the importance of paying attention to not just connections but also disconnections. In the period I am looking at, there were Chinese activists in Thailand who sought to forego their personal or business linkages with Hong Kong or Communist China, precisely because these connections were detrimental to their lives and pursuits in Thailand, where the post-war government became resolutely anti-Communist. Disconnections, it seems to me, could be as important as connections in our attempt to understand transnational resistance or East / Southeast Asia as a transnational sphere. I wonder whether, or to what extent, disconnections figured in some of the relationships you try to draw between the activists you are exploring, both in the past and today.

JW: This is another valuable comment, which raises important issues for me to think about as my project goes on. I will also have to keep my eye out for work by Nathaniel Lai on a period that has not been one I have focused on yet. I agreed that disconnections as well as connections matter, and so, too, do cases when over times struggles that were disconnected become connected and those that were connected become disconnected. To cite just one example, there was a period when there was little connection between Tibetan activists and Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, some of whom saw their Han ethnicity as setting them apart. Now, increasingly, there are Hong Kong activists who see a bond to Tibetan exiles and focus less on ethnicity than policies the CCP is using to control a territory they are attached to that initially was supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy when it became part of the People’s Republic of China. Fissures within movements, which make people who were once close allies feel estranged, also matter, of course. We have seen tensions and disconnections among veterans of the Tiananmen movement in exile to name just one example.


Contact Information

Julie Kwan