Letter From Hong Kong


The Royal Yacht Britannia sailed into Hong Kong harbour flanked by a flotilla of local boats, with two Royal Navy Sea King helicopters circling overhead…she was on her final voyage.  After much pomp and ceremony displayed by the People’s Republic of China, Prince Charles and Governor Chris Patten boarded the Britannia during the early hours of 1st July 1997 to make their way back to Britain.  With the handover ceremony over, Hong Kong had been returned to China and a few months later Britannia was decommissioned by the Labour Government.

Nearly two decades have passed, the UK has voted to leave the EU and some of us still live in hope that Britannia, this great emblem of Britishness which during its heyday had brought in over £3 billion in trade deals between 1991 – 1995 could be recommissioned.

Over in Hong Kong the newly elected Legislative Council is in meltdown, as Pro-Government/Pro-Beijing MPs’ block two Pro-Independence lawmakers from re-taking their oaths.  Much furore surrounded their original swearing in oath due to their revised wording:

“I do solemnly swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Hong Kong nation,”

Pro-independence lawmaker Yau Wai-ching, 25, said after laying out a flag bearing the words: “Hong Kong is not China.”

Upon being asked to repeat the Oath:

“People’s Re-fu”king of Cheena”

Sixtus Leung draped a “Hong Kong is not China” flag upon himself and held a Bible with his fingers crossed.

Their rebellious words are indicative of the current animosity towards the establishment and localists’ desire for independence.

In response, Pro-Beijing MPs have gathered “supporters” to demonstrate outside the council buildings in Hong Kong with banners such as “Hong Kong belongs to China” and “No Hong Kong Independence.”

Many amongst the chanting crowd appear to be OAPs, one wonders if they have been duped into participating, or simply there for a day out? My dear old Uncle with dementia has joined many a demonstration organised by the day centre he attends and has not fully understood the reasons.  (Bless the old boy).

Why all the commotion, surely now that Hong Kong is at one with her motherland and free of colonial rule, everything should be tickety-boo, no?

There is certainly a degree of lost identity in Hong Kong; one could say a hint of schizophrenia amongst locals.  Unlike most colonised nations where years of violent struggle and bloodshed led to sovereignty; the people of Hong Kong did not “fight” to be free of British rule, they were returned to Communist China when the 99-year lease on the New Territories came to an end.

Even though Hong Kong island and Kowloon had been ceded to the Brits during the Opium Wars, it was not practical for Brits to function without the New Territories. Thus, Margaret Thatcher negotiated the return of all of Hong Kong in exchange for a guarantee that Hong Kong’s economy and government would operate autonomously for at least 50 years after the handover to Communist China.

But one would do well to doubt how easy such a return would be in practice.  In Foucault’s words: “one should totally and absolutely suspect anything that claims to be a return. . . there is in fact no such thing as a return.”

This postcolonial return is less a de-colonisation than a re-colonisation of the capitalist Cantonese city by the mainland Mandarin master.  Hong Kongers are trapped in the juxtaposition of the dual identities of “overseas” British (as classified in their passports) yet have no right of abode in their adopted country –  and Chinese nationals, who have no choice in determining their own nationality. Reunification with China has caused nothing short of a “nervous breakdown” for the locals.

From being the UK’s Crown Jewel, Hong Kong is now China’s SAR – Special Administrative Region, and functions under Deng Xiaoping’s “One Country, Two Systems”- his invention to bridge the macro gap between communism and capitalism.

 It did not, however, address the micro fissure of identity cleft.  There is still a distance between Hong Konger’s Chinese identity and their identification with China.  China in turn denounces Hong Kong as an ‘Anti-Communist base’ for its protests and vigils in remembrance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.  China views such identity duplicity with disdain and translates it into potential treason to the party state.

China also views Hong Kongers’ desire to maintain quintessentially British legacies as less than patriotic. Remnants of colonialism remain, such as Parliamentary democracy in political debates, a legal system symbolised by the Victorian-style Supreme Court. Likewise, financial services iconised by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.

British influence also permeates everyday life; Hong Kongers love the everyday practice of afternoon tea with milk (Chinese tea is taken without milk) and cars still drive on the left with English road names. The use of English continues in all disciplinary services, all statues of British monarchs such as Queen Victoria and King George remain.

The Sino-British clash will take some years before the locals become “pure Chinese” in thinking.  Aihwa Ong describes Hong Kong folk as “internal outsiders in China.” This lack of identity with the motherland together with Beijing’s paranoia of subversion and increasing encroachment onto the daily lives of the locals has not helped unify or reintegrate the locals with China.

An informal online poll by the South China Morning Post newspaper indicated that 92% of readers who voted think Hong Kongers would prefer a return to British rule; they feel their own government is doing a worse job than it was during British rule.

The interference from the Chinese Communist Party has certainly spooked the locals; suspicious circumstances such as the booksellers disappearing in the night, who just happened to work for a bookstore that sells books banned in China and then their reappearance on State TV with “confessions” has confirmed to locals that Big Brother is scrutinising their every move. The proposed revision of the education curriculum to include lessons in patriotism is further evidence that China seeks to indoctrinate school children with Communist ideology and promote loyalty; something the British never had to do.  Instead the locals naturally gave their allegiance to the British for the very reason that they were never told to be loyal or patriotic.

China – ever fearful of its own people – reneged on its commitment to deliver true democracy and universal suffrage in the forthcoming Chief Executive elections. Instead the State will impose its version of universal suffrage which hardly mirrors the locals’ interpretation.

It is never wise to dupe the people and renege on a promise as this just further exasperates an already apprehensive public.

Thus, sprung the Umbrella Movement of 2014 which led to a 79-day standstill in Hong Kong.  It also exposed Beijing’s hard-line approach in its use of teargas against peaceful demonstrators, reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square riots of 1989. The Umbrella Movement has given birth to a younger, more radical generation of political activists, several of which have been voted into the Legislative Council in October.

The fiasco with oath taking did not sit well with the Pro-Beijing groups nor the Beijing backed Chief Executive CY Leung, who has drawn a hard line against the “Localist” lawmakers, asking the courts to block a second swearing-in ceremony and disqualify them from their seats.

The message to China from the locals is clear: suppressing Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations cannot be tolerated nor will the locals acquiesce to the Pro-Beijing government.  China in turn has reacted angrily to calls for Hong Kong independence, with some senior officials calling for separatists to be prosecuted.

In fact, China views Hong Kong as a spoilt, petulant, arrogant child, prone to tantrums and demonstrations where a spanking wouldn’t go amiss.  I say China should let go of its fear and trust the child to grow; adopt a more lenient method of parenting as a content child is more likely to flourish and less likely to rebel.  Nathan Law, another former Umbrella leader and the city’s youngest lawmaker, quoted Gandhi before taking his oath.

“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.”

Such is the conviction of the younger generation to establish democracy and they fight for self-determination for the people of Hong Kong.

Lady Thatcher revealed in an interview with Sir David Tang that she was very sad about Hong Kong and felt her hands were tied during negotiations. She had her doubts about Deng Xiaoping’s “One County, Two Systems.”

Since the return, the focus has weighed heavily on “One Country” and rather lightly on “Two Systems.”

There is still a core group of locals that prefer life under British rule and I do not believe this is in any way because they are not proud Chinese or unpatriotic as the PRC accuses them of being.  It is simply because there was an order to daily life and government during the British days, not the farcical scenes that have become routine under the Pro-Beijing government.

Rather, the seeds for greater democracy in Hong Kong have been planted. High turnout for the Legislative Council election results show that Pro-democracy candidates won 30 of the 70 seats, more than is required for the opposition to have veto power to block attempts by Hong Kong’s government to enact unpopular or controversial legislation suggested by Beijing.

Hong Kong is transforming into a postcolonial global city albeit with a somewhat schizophrenic sense of identity.

2 thoughts on “Letter From Hong Kong

  1. The Umbrella protesters in China are brave but foolhardy. How can they possibly have any effect on what is a Chinese state? They can’t. While they should be applauded for taking a stand, they are better off getting a deal with China than setting themselves up as the next Uighurs.

  2. Hong Kong is a marvel. I cannot see the Chinese Communist Party swallowing it up and turning into a chunk of China. They would risk 1) losing business and 2) uncovering the trails which link the ruling party officials to hundreds of corrupt flight capital cash and gold accounts.

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