Author’s note, updated Dec. 8: I would like to apologize for my Dec. 6 column, “Hong Kong Looks Back” in which I examined the reemergence of colonial symbols in Hong Kong’s current protest movement. In the column, I failed to analyze the significance of using colonial symbols and imagery in democratic protest, and to properly explain the effects of Hong Kong’s colonial past. By not touching on subjects such as legalized and codified racial discrimination, I presented an image of British rule that unintentionally and unfortunately glamorized the British colonial government. The purpose of the column is to show the confluence of history and modern politics, and to demonstrate how historical patterns and tropes reoccur in modern situations. By not fully explaining Hong Kong’s political past, I failed to present an accurate representation of the city’s narrative. For those interested in learning more, the research paper “Law and Racism in an Asian Setting: An Analysis of the British Rule of Hong Kong” by Richard Klein is an excellent resource to better understand the impact of the city’s colonial rule.
Baroness Dunn, the first ethnic Chinese and Hong Kong-born British citizen to be elevated to the British peerage, is perhaps best remembered for breaking down in tears during a British parliamentary committee in May 1989, only a month after the start of the Tiananmen Square Protests. As the government investigated possible problems concerning the impending handover of the territory to China, Baroness Dunn lost her composure as she called the British government “morally indefensible” for being willing to surrender “British citizens to a regime that did not hesitate to use its tanks and forces on its own people.” Hong Kong citizens, she pointed out, had been British subjects for 150 years, yet had no more right to live in Britain than any other foreign national. Her call for the people of Hong Kong to have the right of abode in Britain after the handover was rejected by Parliament, and in 1997 Hong Kong was returned to China.
As Hong Kong society struggles to preserve its liberty and not collapse against the pressure of communist China, one can’t help but credit Baroness Dunn for her foresight. While the mainland Chinese government has yet to send tanks to the streets to reassert authority, the recent besieging of the city’s Polytechnic University and other institutions has fully removed the veil of civility that could be projected onto the unrest. Most alarming of all is the Nov. 8 death of Chow Tsz-lok, a student who fell to his death and was delayed help by paramedics as police attempted to disperse nearby protests with force and tear gas.
Such violence has created a quiet but powerful nostalgia for Hong Kong’s colonial past, which is increasingly visible in the protest movement. In September, pro-democracy protesters waved Union Jacks and sang “God Save the Queen” outside the British consulate, and earlier in June, protesters who stormed the city’s legislature building draped the colonial era flag across the lectern of the chamber.
What is the significance of this affinity for Hong Kong’s colonial past? Certainly not a return to British rule. But the modest democratic reforms instituted in the dying days of British rule created a desire and expectation for democracy, however minor, in the city that China has refused to satiate. British Hong Kong, compared to modern circumstances, offers an easy nostalgia of freer times. The fact that the city was returned to China in 1997, rather than granted independence, becomes all the more prevalent and consequential as the discord between it and the mainland only grows.
22 years ago, Prince Charles watched as the Union Jack was lowered for the final time in Hong Kong, promising the city, “We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with the closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history.” As the territory enters its first recession in a decade and an increasing number of citizens begin to consider emigration, one is left to wonder whether watching is all the rest of the world will continue to do as the Pearl of the Orient begins to lose its luster.