By Mandy Hui
A Convenient Misremembrance: Hong Kong’s Colonial Legacy
Editor’s Note: This paper was completed as a part of the History Research Fellowship, a one-semester course available to sixth form students.
Is Hong Kong a part of China? The answer to that question depends upon whom you ask.
In 1842, Britain occupied the small island of Hong Kong. The colonial empire maintained political control for a century and a half, eventually returning the city to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. During the transfer of power, the PRC declared Hong Kong a special administrative region. This unique status permitted the city to operate separate legal and economic systems from those in mainland China, a principle embodied in the slogan “one country, two systems.” The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping developed this idea during the 1980s in anticipation of Hong Kong’s reunification with China. The concept not only preserved Hong Kong’s capitalist system, it also granted the city a high-degree of autonomy until 2047. The agreement promised Hong Kong residents freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, all of which are not guaranteed in the mainland.
In recent years, many Hong Kong residents have prided themselves on their city’s civil liberties, in distinction from the more strict rule on the mainland. However, China began gradually limiting Hong Kong’s freedoms in many different ways, such as abducting Hong Kongers who sold books criticizing the PRC in the early 2010s. China’s repeated threats to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy have been met with mass demonstrations; thousands of pro-democracy residents rallied in the streets of Hong Kong, protesting the PRC’s infringement on the “one country, two systems” policy it had promised to retain for 50 years.
Growing up in Hong Kong, I witnessed protestors block familiar roads and businesses to force China’s authoritarian government to concede in its attempts to end Hong Kong’s democratic system. I have seen thousands symbolically use umbrellas and black clothing as a cry for freedom and democracy. For most of my life, my friends and I were too young to formulate our own informed opinions regarding these protests, but the events of 2019 and 2020 changed my perspective on what was unfolding before me.
In the midst of the 2019 protests, I had a conversation over lunch with one of my close friends about Hong Kong’s political crisis. I was conscious of my friend’s impassioned beliefs on the matter. Due to the topic’s sensitive nature, we decided to eat at a “yellow restaurant,” a title given to restaurants owned by pro-democracy supporters. I asked her about her thoughts. She described tension among her family members about China’s restrictions. She wanted to take part in the pro-democracy protests, however, her parents threatened to disown her if she associated herself with the demonstrators. At the end of her soliloquy, she let out a sigh and muttered, “I wish Hong Kong was a British colony again.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard pro-democracy supporters reminisce about the city’s colonial era. The week before, thousands of demonstrators gathered to sing the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” and hundreds waved Union Jacks as a sign of resistance against the PRC. I was confused. Why do many Hong Kong citizens look favorably on British colonial rule but bravely resist PRC’s control? How can the British Union Jack, the flag of Hong Kong’s former colonizer, be used as a symbol of democracy?
My friend’s statement and its increasingly popular sentiment inspired my research on Hong Kong citizens’ perception of British rule and how that perception has evolved over time. During Hong Kong’s colonial era, although the British administration initially tolerated locals, it gradually adopted discriminatory practices against the local population, implementing a series of racist laws that preserved White power. However, because the colonial government belatedly assisted Hong Kong’s democratization in the 1990s, Hong Kong’s disdain for the United Kingdom morphed into admiration as the PRC cracked down. By the late 2010s, when I was a pre-teen, pro-democracy supporters eventually yearned for the return of British rule as China attempted to reintegrate the city back with the mainland. They began softening their memory of the British administration’s mistreatment towards the city’s locals and glorified the colonizers’ later positive acts to promote democratic ideals. Hong Kong citizens became anxious thinking about a future without as many freedoms.
The first section of this paper will provide context for the formation of British Hong Kong through the history of the two Opium Wars and the cession of the land that makes up present-day Hong Kong. The following section will examine ways in which the Europeans implemented racist systems to oppress the Chinese population and maintain their dominance. The paper will then discuss how the British administration redeemed itself in the eyes of Hong Kong’s native population by creating democratic measures in the 1990s. Finally, it will detail significant pro-democracy protests in the city from 1997 to 2020, the year when the PRC enforced the National Security Law, which ultimately ended the pro-democracy protests as well as Hong Kong’s autonomy.
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Mandy Hui is a sixth form boarding student from Hong Kong. She has an array of interests that includes art, science, and animals. At St. Mark’s, Mandy serves as a Dorm Prefect in Sculley-Elm, co-head of the Student Discipline Committee, and senior editor of the St. Marker. She hopes to continue her studies in college with a major in Engineering.