The Hong Kong Autonomous Movement claims that the displays of the Hong Kong British flag are not a call for a return to colonialism. Instead, they claim it is, “the defense of the lion and dragon and the blending of the East and West.” Opponents of the movement argue that the flag belongs in a museum.
Although the city-state movement in Hong Kong may not intend the British flag to symbolize the return of British colonialism, the usage of the flag as an icon of Hong Kong is one that cannot be removed from our long history of colonialism. Its display is not simply assertion of the Hong Kong “East-meets-West” identity. It speaks to the embedded nature of the colonial mindset.
The discussion of Hong Kong as an autonomous state comes with a viewpoint of history, one that is amnesiac in its recollection of colonial Hong Kong. In order to fully understand the origins of the autonomous movement, we must look at the historical and post-colonial context.
It is understandable why Hong Kongers credit the British for the city’s global prominence. Hong Kong would not be the financial hub it is today without the British. Like Mumbai, Hong Kong started out as a collection of tiny islands. Queen Victoria reportedly was regaled by the signing of Hong Kong to the British after the Chinese Qing Dynasty had lost the Opium War. “Albert is so amused at my having got the island of Hong Kong,” she wrote in a letter to King Leopold of Belgium in 1841. Others were less tickled. “A barren island with hardly a house upon!” wrote Lord Palmerston.
The island, along with a perpetual lease granting Kowloon and the 99-year lease granting rent-free use of the New Territories to the Queen, grew into a major trading post. Trading giants including Jardine Matheson and Forbes conducted the business of banking and opium from its harbours.
The period from the Opium War onwards was a tumultuous time for China. The Qing court from which Hong Kong was ceded crumbled, and the Republic of China took over. World War I and II caused heavy damage to the landscape and decimated its population. During this time, Hong Kong remained relatively insulated from China’s woes, even when occupied by the Japanese for 3 years and 8 months.
Then the Communist Party began taking territory in China as they chased the Kuomintang out. The fervor of socialism swept into Hong Kong, mirroring the Marxist movement happening across Europe and the post-colonial movement in the Global South. The 1967 Riots were sparked by a labour dispute on May 6 when picketing workers clashed with police. Unfair working conditions became the cause of pro-communists inspired by the Cultural Revolution. The British responded with brute force, arresting protestors and suspected communist sympathizers. Martial law was imposed even as leftists planted home-made bombs both real and fake. Anti-communist public figures and politicians were kidnapped or murdered.
Nearby Macau also experienced a series of pro-Communist riots, leading Portugal to temporarily hand over control of the colony to Britain.
The riots spurred discussion of Britain’s role as a colonizer and heralded massive policy changes in colonial affairs. Discussions were held as to whether or not continued brutal handling of the pro-communist anti-colonial movement was effective in quelling social unrest. In response, the British colonists began to change its attitudes towards locals, adopting a “soft” colonial agenda of social programs and greater economic freedom under Governor MacLehose.
It is these policies where the rosy view of the British comes from. Yes, the British colonists did implement some great social programs, including universal healthcare and public housing projects. But these policies stemmed from the demands of the Hong Kong people, not the initiatives of the British.
It is all too easy to forget that prior to the 1970s, Hong Kong was no better off than China is now. In fact, the British practice of indentured servitude was rampant before its abolition in the 1930s. Before WWII, Chinese could not go to some beaches and were not allowed to own property on the Peak, in accordance with racially segregated zoning laws. Prior to Governor MacLehose, Chinese was not recognized as an official language of Hong Kong.
Doing away with these policies was an investment for the British, who now saw Hong Kong as a viable gateway into China, a future economic partner.
Unlike other post-colonial nations, Hong Kong did not have a successful uprising against the colonists. It was a teary goodbye, symbolized by the torrential downpour where Prince Charles stood miserably in the rain while the Chinese officials remained dry and high indoors. Was it Stockholm Syndrome? Or simply fear of the unknown? Looking at the turning points in Hong Kong history, I’d say it is a mixture of both. My then 10-year-old self sitting in front of the TV watching the ceremony most definitely felt that sense of uncertainty.
Ultimately the fight for Hong Kong is still about politics and economics. The basic struggle is still about differing ideologies, a push back against the government once perceived as a major threat by the colonists. Although controversy surrounds the National Education Plan that was shelved a month ago, I believe civic education in the context of history is essential.
As Hong Kongers, we must assert our identity as a post-colonial state, to embrace the legacy of the colonial era without adopting the fears and prejudices of the time. We must look at the bigger picture of history without cherry-picking parts. Only then can the true potential of our city be realized.
Originally posted at Meanwhile in China News