Featured Society and public opinion Post Brexit

Hongkongers and Britain: a history with a future

silhouette of body on body of water during nighttime
Written by George Lai

After China’s imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong in 2020, the UK government has created a new visa scheme to allow the 3 million people with British National Overseas (BNO) status and their dependents the option to come and live in the UK. But who exactly are these people? We should know more.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

George Lai is the pen-name of a pro-democracy campaigner from Hong Kong, whose identity is shielded to protect him and his family from reprisals by the CCP.  He has no connection with any political group or lobby, including BfB.

As someone from Hong Kong now studying and living in the UK, I realize many in the UK do not have a good understanding of the history of Hong Kong and its people, despite it being for so long a part of the British Empire. It is vitally important, given the incoming wave of Hong Kong immigration to the UK, and the ascendance of China’s power in the world, that British people understand this part of British and Asian history. Perhaps now is a good time to throw some light on how it all came to be.

Hong Kong’s story defies imagination. When the British first took over Hong Kong in 1841, it was an unpopulous collection of insignificant fishing and farming villages in the periphery of China. The then British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston was so unhappy about the acquisition that he fired Captain Charles Elliot, who was in charge of the operation, for failing to perform his duty properly. In the words of Palmerston, Hong Kong was a “barren rock with nary a house upon it” that would never “be a mart for trade.” Yet by the time Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, Hong Kong was a prosperous international financial centre with a population of more than 6 million, richer in per capita terms than even Britain itself. What happened in between?

The genesis of Hongkongers: migrants and refugees

I read a newspaper column a few years ago written by the famous Hong Kong writer Lee Yee where he recounted the true story of a man who suffered under the tyranny of Mao’s communist China and risked his life to flee to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution and later went on to become an accomplished academic. The journey of fleeing China to Hong Kong is a tough and dangerous one — he had to climb over mountains and navigate through the wild, all while avoiding being caught by the communist state military and militia, almost fainting and collapsing at points. He whined “Why didn’t the old Chinese government cede more of its land to Britain? Then I could have reached Hong Kong faster!” This made a deep impression in my mind — the way he put it is so striking, so politically incorrect, and yet it resonates so much.

Like him, my mother was born in Mao’s communist China and grew up in the mess of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — she and her family migrated to Hong Kong in the 70s during the Cultural Revolution because in China, “life is hard”. I remember asking my mother innocently when I was a child, “Did you have pets when you were a kid?” to which she answered, “Back then, we barely had enough food for human beings.” That’s a dialogue which I can never forget. It wasn’t just on my mother’s side. My paternal grandparents moved to Hong Kong penniless from China in the late 40s to escape the communist revolution. An uncle of mine smuggled himself to Hong Kong by swimming across the sea covertly at night so as to avoid being captured by the communist authorities. My family’s history is in no way an anomaly in Hong Kong. The 1961 Hong Kong census found that out of the 3.2 million people in Hong Kong, 50.4% were born in mainland China and only 47.7% were born in Hong Kong. If anything, this statistic understates the extent of the migration, as my father, who was then a toddler, and his older siblings were among the 47.7% that were born in Hong Kong but to parents both of whom were born in China. More than half of the post-war population of Hong Kong were refugees and migrants from China fleeing from the communists, or their descendants. Between Mao’s communist China and the British colony Hong Kong, they chose the latter with their feet.

Colonial governance and economic miracle

The vast majority of these refugees and migrants fled to Hong Kong penniless with almost nothing. In Hong Kong, they only had themselves to rely on — social welfare was almost nonexistent, there was no foreign aid and the colonial government only had a little money it could use to help all those people. Unable to find any proper place to live, they had to put up their own makeshift shacks with whatever materials they could obtain on whatever piece of land they could find, forming large and dense shanty towns where conditions were very poor and often a major fire hazard. After a fire in 1953 which destroyed the Shek Kip Mei shantytown leaving 53,000 people homeless overnight, the colonial government started a decades-long public housing program to gradually rehouse people in higher quality housing. This was to become a major achievement for the colonial government, cherished by many in Hong Kong. Though other forms of important social welfare would only come into existence gradually in the later decades when the revenue from economic growth meant the colonial government could finally afford them.

As a child in the sixties, my father lived in a primitive house with no electricity, no gas, no running water, with a roof that leaked whenever it rained. My illiterate paternal grandmother (who was not privileged enough to get even a basic education) always spoke of how hard she had to work in such an environment to bring up her children while at the same time working to earn enough money to feed them, adding: “I hadn’t got even a penny from the government.” She did not say that with a grudge towards the colonial government, but rather with pride. She hadn’t expected any help from the state and neither did the countless other refugees and migrants who had escaped the communists – all they had wanted was a safe place where they could build their lives with their own hands, and British Hong Kong was that place.

By the time my parents were in their early thirties, they were living a life as affluent as that of a middle-class Briton, owning their own property equipped with modern amenities and living comfortably with extra money to spend on leisure and consumer goods. Perhaps my family’s story sounds extraordinary, yet in Hong Kong it is an ordinary tale. The fact that these stories are so ordinary in Hong Kong makes them all the more extraordinary. In 1960, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita was just 30% of that of the UK, and yet by 1997, it had overtaken the UK. In just a few decades, Hong Kong created for itself enormous wealth and prosperity through rapid industrialisation followed by a quick transition towards a service based international financial centre.

Before World War II, Hong Kong mainly functioned as an entrepôt between the West and China. But when the communists took power in the late forties, they shut China off from the outside world, and after the start of the Korean War there was also an international embargo on China. These meant Hong Kong could no longer function as an entrepôt, and so instead the Hong Kong people turned to manufacturing. The ensuing rapid industrialization drove the incredible economic growth in post-war Hong Kong, a method which China would imitate for itself much later after the Chinese economic reform. It proved highly successful. Exports of Hong Kong increased more than six-fold between 1948 and 1968, and in the 70s the value of its exports grew to more than that of the whole of India combined despite a population size that was 140 times smaller.

This remarkable growth was generated by local small industries, which received neither government help nor foreign aid. “Self-generated and self-financed” was how the economist Leo F. Goodstadt described it. Some, like the Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman, attributed this remarkable success to the free market non-interventionist economic policy pursued by the colonial administration. Others considered the true hero to be more the ordinary Hong Kong people themselves. In 1961, the then Hong Kong Financial Secretary (equivalent to the role the Chancellor of the Exchequer plays in the UK) Arthur Grenfell Clarke gave his final budget speech. In it he offered advice to his successor: “I expect, too, that my successor will make exactly the same mistake that I have always made. He will underestimate revenue. He will underestimate his revenue, because, like me, like so many of us, he will never be able to comprehend how new and successful industries can be created overnight out of nothing, in the face of every possible handicap; how new trade can suddenly start up in some way that has never been thought of before; he, like me, will never be able to comprehend how on earth our enterprising, ingenious, hardworking people can ever manage to accomplish so much with so little.”

It is the British colony Hong Kong and its institutions that help to make this all possible, by providing an environment in which people and businesses can flourish. With its independent British-style judiciary, British Hong Kong was a place where the rule of law prevailed, a place where one was not subjected to arbitrary prosecutions, a place where one’s rights and freedoms were protected, a place where all one had to do was to work hard to be able to live with not just material satisfaction but also dignity and liberty. British Hong Kong was a lifeboat from the Chinese communist tyranny that was the opposite of all that. Whilst perhaps not as free as Western democracies, British Hong Kong was a place much freer than both Communist China and Nationalist Taiwan. The current president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen reminisces that during her youth, in an era before the democratisation of Taiwan, she would stop by Hong Kong during her travels to read books whose publication was banned in Taiwan. In her words, British Hong Kong was a place with a “modern legal system” where one could breathe the “air of freedom”. Back then, with heavy censorship in both China and Taiwan, the comparatively much freer Hong Kong was the place where Chinese language writers could publish much more freely. “The most free place in the Chinese-speaking world for people to read whatever they want,” is how the formerly pro-CCP (the Chinese Communist Party) writer Lee Yee, who used to run a pro-CCP publication in British Hong Kong, described it.

The executive branch of the colonial government also earned itself an excellent reputation. The governor and his administration did not have the same motivations and concerns as a dictator, and were answerable to a democratic government in London that would not want a scandal in the post-war climate of decolonisation where the Western attitude towards colonisation had undergone a “wind of change”. As a result, the government acted in general with self-restraint and was considerate to Hong Kong’s public opinion, even though in theory they enjoyed essentially unchecked power. (The situation was to become the opposite after the 1997 handover, even though more checks regarding the government’s power had been put in place as per the handover agreement.) In many cases, it was even a step ahead of public opinion — even without the people asking for it, the colonial government gradually created and improved various social welfare policies, on education, public housing, health care, safety nets and more, when the government’s financial situation permitted. This was to earn them the reputation of being “caring” among the local population.

Thus, by the 70s and 80s, many people in Hong Kong, like my parents, came to see the colonial government as “efficient, effective, conscientious, fair, honest and responsive to public opinion” as the Hong Kong historian Steve Tsang described. Indeed, an opinion poll (in 1997) found that 64.5% of Hong Kong people thought the British rule is more good than bad, only 2.9% thought that it’s more bad than good, with the rest saying either they don’t know or that it’s equally good and bad. (Unlike the late post-war colonial government, the record of its pre-war and early post-war counterparts are indeed a bit ugly at places to the modern eye. That said, even then Hong Kong was a better place to be than China, and British Hong Kong had been a hotspot for immigration from mainland China throughout virtually its entire existence.)

The handover of power without consent

But then something happened that left many in Hong Kong feeling that they were being betrayed and abandoned. Without consulting the will of the Hong Kong people and giving them a say, the British government in London and the Chinese government in Beijing reached an agreement for the former to “hand back” the whole of Hong Kong to the latter in 1997 when the lease for the New Territories (one constituent part of Hong Kong) was due to expire. This cannot be justified wholly by the lease because other parts of Hong Kong were permanent British territories. And furthermore, apart from a small minority of “elites” who were (later) granted a proper British passport, the British government had earlier created a separate class of British citizenship for the Hong Kong people, later evolved to be the BNO (British National Overseas status), which denied them the right to reside in the UK (Britain didn’t want immigration).

The people who worked so hard to build up their lives after desperately escaping the communist tyranny were now to be handed back to the tyranny. Many of them, being culturally Chinese and having deep and recent family roots in China, felt Chinese (in terms of their identity) and were not in principle against Hong Kong being returned to China (and from a purely ethnic and nationalistic point of view many actually found it agreeable that it should), but the prospect of returning to a China that is ruled by an autocratic Leninist party was extremely worrying for them. “How is it that Britain, a democracy, is handing over Hong Kong to a totalitarian state without consulting the people of Hong Kong, without giving them any choice?”, the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, recalled being asked when stopped and questioned by a Hongkonger.

So why didn’t Britain give the Hong Kong people a referendum on the issue? As Chris Patten explained in a 2017 interview, if there was a referendum and it returned the result of “no” to handing Hong Kong to China, it would put Britain in an impossible situation. China was adamant that it should “take back” the whole of Hong Kong, and Britain was obviously not in a position to fight a war with China like it did with Argentina. And indeed, had a referendum been given, there was a real danger of people voting “no” to handing Hong Kong to China. Opinion polling in 1982 showed that only 4% of people in Hong Kong supported handing Hong Kong to China.

In order to make the whole situation more palatable, the British and Chinese government made a promise to the Hong Kong people that their rights, freedoms and ways of life would remain unchanged for 50 years after the handover, and that Hong Kong would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy”, having self-governance in all matters except defence and foreign affairs. An arrangement that came to be known as “one country, two systems”. This was formalised in the 1984 Sino-British Joint declaration, a legally binding treaty lodged at the UN, signed by both Britain and China. Britain and China promised the Hong Kong people that they would have democracy, with China’s leaders famously promising for “Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong” (although this was never to become reality as many had hoped).

With all these assurances and promises in place, the fears of the Hong Kong people were ameliorated, and polling in 1984 showed that many were now willing to accept this arrangement given the circumstances. However, anxiety remained, polls continued to show people still had reservations about the handover. An opinion poll in 1988 found that a majority still thought that a reversion to Chinese rule would hurt civil rights and individual liberty. Another in 1995 showed that, despite all these promises, still only 42% of people preferred Hong Kong being returned to China (the others being, 24% preferred independence, 27% preferred remaining under Britain or the British Commonwealth, 7% had no opinion). On the eve of the 1997 handover, an opinion poll asked, “Suppose Hong Kong remains under British rule after 1997, do you think the development of Hong Kong will be better or worse compared to ‘one country, two systems’ (under China)?”. 40% answered it would be better, 15% answered worse, 14% said the same, and 31% answered “don’t know”.

On the day of the handover — supposedly a day of celebration and jubilation to “shaking off colonial humiliation” and “returning to the motherland” – an opinion poll found that only 35% of Hong Kong people were actually feeling happy or positive, 56% reported feeling neutral, mixed, or nothing, while 9% reported feeling down, worried, or negative. Nevertheless, the fact that only 9% were feeling negative showed that people were in general not too pessimistic. They did see themselves as Chinese (hence the mixed and complicated feelings despite the anxiety) and were willing to give China a chance, wishing for its success: 75% of people said in a poll that they remained confident about Hong Kong’s future.

No doubt, had the Sino-British Joint declaration and all its promises and guarantees been followed as set out, Hong Kong and its people would be fine and content. But as history was to show repeatedly, the Chinese Communist Party is not to be trusted, and all the hope that it would gradually reform itself democratically as the Chinese economy developed was merely wishful thinking.

The emergence and consolidation of a distinct HK identity

In the 90s, no matter how much they disliked the Chinese Communist regime, most people in Hong Kong still saw themselves as Chinese; and despite all their reservations, they still had a warm nationalistic feelings towards the idea of China and saw China as their motherland. Even if they hesitated to cheer for the return of Chinese rule due to its political implications, when it came to, for example sports, they would cheer for China’s team as if it were their own team. My older relatives recalled how in the 90s almost everyone in Hong Kong would cheer for the Chinese Olympic team (in addition to cheering for the separate Hong Kong Olympics team), and that was still mostly true in the 2000s when I was old enough to have memories of it. Yet two decades later, this has changed. In recent years, many people have become increasingly indifferent towards China’s team as if it is just another foreign team, some even going as far as cheering for the defeat of China’s team.

A poll in 2019 found that 55.4% of people in Hong Kong identify as “Hongkonger” and 10.9% identify as “Chinese”, with the rest identifying with different shades in between. This is a historical record — just after the handover in 1997, the figure was 34.9% and 18.6% respectively. When asked on a scale from 0 to 10 how much they identify as “Hongkongers” and “Chinese” respectively, the poll returned 8 and 7.5 respectively in 1997. In 2020, the figure became 8.6 and 5.7. This is extraordinary — in 1997 most people still identified at least partially as “Chinese”, and yet now more than half of them are tending to reject a Chinese identity. What made these people — who either themselves, their parents or their grandparents had only just come from China a couple of decades earlier — not only adopt a new local identity, but to also now increasingly to reject a Chinese identity after more than two decades of “returning” to Chinese rule?

The fact that Hong Kong society was able to successfully absorb a huge number of refugees and migrants around the 1950s should not be taken for granted. Perhaps an important factor was that the vast majority of those refugees and migrants were from the neighbouring Chinese province of Canton (Guangdong), of which Hong Kong was historically a part. They were culturally very similar to the local population of Hong Kong, and hence assimilation was not really much of a problem for them. Indeed, the aforementioned 1961 census found that 93.3% of the Hong Kong population back then were born in the Chinese province of Canton or Hong Kong, and only 4.9% from elsewhere in China.

However, after half a century of communist rule in the mainland and British rule in Hong Kong, the culture in the two places had diverged. The communist government in the mainland pursued an aggressive policy of pushing the Mandarin language. Severe restrictions were placed on the use of non-Mandarin languages in the media and in schools. The official reason for doing so was “in order to facilitate easy communication within China,” which is understandable. However the policy has gone so far that now over a hundred minority languages in China are in danger of dying out and disappearing, whereas in the early part of the 20th century a majority of China’s population did not speak or understand standard Mandarin. China originally had a very rich and diverse culture — the linguistic diversity of the various Chinese languages is comparable to the Romance or the Germanic languages. Cantonese and Mandarin for example are as different as English and German.

For many in Hong Kong, it is not only sad to see the dwindling and disappearance of so many culturally valuable languages, but it also raises the suspicion of whether the Chinese government’s true purpose was to homogenise the Chinese population and its culture so as to make it more governable. With propaganda slogans such as “speak Mandarin, be a civilised person”, the effect of Chinese policy and propaganda in mainland China is such that nowadays it is common for a mainland Chinese person, even if their family historically spoke a local language, to look down on non-Mandarin languages as uncultured and improper. But people in Hong Kong do not see their own language as inferior. To them, the Cantonese language is proper and they speak it proudly. Unlike the Communist government, the British government never actively tried to suppress the Cantonese culture or language, and under the British, traditional Cantonese culture and language prospered and reached a new cultural height with many Cantonese-language films and songs produced. To this day my father is still singing various Cantonese songs written by Hong Kong songwriters in the 70s and 80s. The post-handover Beijing-mandated Hong Kong government push for teaching Chinese in Mandarin in schools, against the long-standing historical tradition of teaching Chinese in Cantonese, angered many as they saw it as an attempt to suppress Cantonese in favour of Mandarin. The mainland Chinese attitude nowadays of looking down on local languages like Cantonese inevitably created clashes and conflicts with people from Hong Kong. And this is only one of the many differences in values that now exist between the Hong Kong people and the mainland Chinese people.

Because of their experience under British rule, the Hong Kong people came to value and embrace the Western values of human rights, liberty and democracy. In China, after more than half a century of communist propaganda, the mainland Chinese population came to be one that is exceedingly nationalistic and indifferent to human rights, liberty and democracy. For example, a poll by the Chinese state-run media Global Times in 2016 found that 85% of people in China support waging a war to “reunify” Taiwan. To many in Hong Kong, the idea of waging a war to forcefully “reunify” a place that doesn’t want to be “reunified”, possibly sacrificing millions of lives in the process, is deeply revolting. Of course, the poll, coming from the Chinese state media, might be propaganda and might have the numbers exaggerated. However, anyone who has discussed politics with Chinese people from the mainland will know that this opinion is not rare. Differences in values like this one caused conflicts between the Hong Kong people and the mainland population. Gradually, the Hong Kong people came to realise that their values are incompatible with those of the Chinese. Their culture is one based on Cantonese and infused with Western values and British elements. They came to see themselves as a distinct people with a unique historical experience and a unique culture that incorporates Western values.

Immigration to Hong Kong from China in the last two decades, although still significant for a place the size of Hong Kong, is nowhere near the level it was around the 1950s. And yet a poll in 2012 found that more than half of the Hong Kong population want to see a reduction of mainland immigrants, outnumbering those who think it should increase by three to one. What made people, who either themselves or their family had only just come to Hong Kong a couple of decades earlier from China, now become reserved about having immigrants from China? Without understanding this divergent development of values between the Hong Kong people and the mainland Chinese, it would seem baffling. Under Chinese rule, there is a scheme to let people in the mainland emigrate to Hong Kong. Crucially, under this scheme, the Hong Kong authorities have no power to vet who is allowed entry. That power lies entirely with the mainland authorities. Against the backdrop of the clash in fundamental values between the Hongkongers and mainlanders, this led some people to feel that they have lost control of their homeland and that they are being colonised, that such a scheme is a Chinese government attempt to “mainland-ise” Hong Kong and dilute its uniqueness.

Misgovernance and the erosion of freedom

There are many dimensions to this issue surrounding contemporary Chinese immigration to Hong Kong. It was of this extremely densely populated city where almost everyone lives in tiny flats in high-rise buildings that the Guardian reported sensationally: “The city with the world’s tiniest and costliest living spaces may soon convert drainpipes into homes.” In recent years, house prices in the city have soared to unreasonable levels, and its housing is the most unaffordable in the whole world. In 2020, the median house price in Hong Kong is 20.8 times the median annual household income, the highest in the world; in comparison the figure for London is only 8.2. While an average person in a New York City flat possesses a living space of 414 square feet, in Hong Kong the figure is only 160. While a Londoner has the choice of relocating to the nearby countryside or even to a different British city, for Hongkongers, they have nowhere else to go. For many in Hong Kong, even those from a middle-class family, the cost of housing is a huge struggle. My older sister and her husband, both graduates of elite Hong Kong universities, struggled for a long time to afford to rent a place of their own, and had to cram into my parents’ modest flat with both my parents and my grandmother. The government, who failed to address these issues, cited “insufficient land supply”. Other areas like public services have also seen increasing stress. This has led some in Hong Kong to feel that there simply isn’t enough space for more people and that having too many immigrants over-stretches public services and contributes to some extent towards the housing shortage crisis. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that upon hearing that the UK will grant BNOers the right to live in the UK, apart from being glad, some in Hong Kong believe there should be a screening process to select for those who are supporters of the democracy movement (about 60% of Hong Kong’s current population), since they are the group that is now at risk of persecution in Hong Kong, in order to reduce unnecessary immigration to the UK and make it more manageable for UK society.

Many see the housing shortage also as the result of failure in government policy to make sure the supply of housing is in line with demand, for example the discontinuing of the successful public housing program pursued by the British colonial government in order to “free the private sector from public competition”. By 2012, the annual average supply of new public housing units was 62 per cent lower than the 1997 level. Many have come to feel that the government does not have their interest in mind, and that it only cares about the opinions of Beijing and the rich business elites. Without the right to elect their own Chief Executive (the head of government), they feel powerless to change any of that.

The worsening of various social problems like that of house prices is symptomatic of a broader mismanagement by the Hong Kong government. Chinese rule after 1997 saw not only social problems and inequalities worsening due to misgovernance, but even worse, assaults on the rule of law and the independent judiciary that were supposed to carry over unchanged for fifty years after the handover as set out in the Joint declaration. In 2019, in the then latest of a series of assaults towards Hong Kong freedom, the Hong Kong government, which is not elected by the people and is in reality mandated by Beijing, attempted to push through the “extradition bill” in the Hong Kong legislature. Only about half of the seats in the legislature were directly elected and hence it was dominated by pro-Beijing parties despite them never winning the majority of the votes, and pro-democratic parties were always rendered a minority in the legislature despite always winning the majority of votes. Opinion polling showed that those who oppose the bill out-numbered those who support it by two to one – a blatant disregard of public opinion by the government. The proposed law would allow China to extradite unconvicted suspects to be tried in mainland China. Under this law, the Chinese government could potentially fabricate charges and extradite someone to China to circumvent Hong Kong’s criminal justice system. The rule of law, the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people were under unprecedented threat. Many in Hong Kong decided to fight back with all they had, even at the risk of years in jail. They see Hong Kong as their home which they love deeply – many consider emigrating only as a last resort, and many others would not even then. And so started the months-long protest. The people paralysed the legislature and stopped the bill being passed, and eventually the Hong Kong government had to abandon the bill.

However, this success was short lived. In 2020, the Chinese government decided to simply tear up the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and no longer even pretended to abide by the treaty. It decided to bypass even the already very flawed Hong Kong legislature and government, and directly imposed a so-called “national security law” on Hong Kong from Beijing. It introduced a series of broadly and vaguely defined offences that could potentially be used to prosecute even completely peaceful moderate dissidents, all punishable with a life sentence. The law takes precedence over the existing laws of Hong Kong, in effect sidelining the laws which protect various rights and freedoms. It allows the Beijing-mandated Hong Kong chief executive, which is not elected by the people, to hand-pick judges to try its cases. It allows the government to bar a jury from being used. It affords the government the use of secret closed-door trials. It mandates the establishing of an agency responsible for “national security” matters in Hong Kong which is immune from legal challenges. It grants the police hugely expanded power to search premises, freeze assets, intercept communications and conduct surveillance without needing a court warrant. It permits suspects to be held without bail much more readily. It allows mainland Chinese personnel with law-enforcement powers to operate in Hong Kong without being subject to checks by local law enforcement. It allows the extradition of a supposedly “very small number” of suspects to be tried on the mainland. It leaves the right of interpreting the law in the hands of the Chinese authorities, so they could interpret it however they like. There is more. The independent British-style judiciary that upheld the rule of law and Hong Kong’s freedom is now a thing of the past.

The law also instructs schools to provide “education” on “national security”, and an agency to scrutinise schools, corporations, nongovernmental organisations, and news companies to be set up. This is the latest of a series of moves which appear designed to control and mandate all aspects of civil life in Hong Kong. In the months following the implementation of the national security law, the symbols of Hong Kong’s once free society crumbled away one after another under pressure and persecution. The last remaining pro-democratic newspaper in Hong Kong, the Apple Daily, was forcefully shut down by the authorities, its top journalists and executives arrested. (As a result, the link to “a newspaper column”, containing the story of the man who fled Mao’s communist China to Hong Kong mentioned at the start of this article, published by the said newspaper, no longer works). Nor were online media spared; the same then happened to the prominent pro-democratic online news outlet Stand News, followed by the closure of others due to the wider pressure and chilling effect. The crumbling is not limited to the press and media; dozens of trade unions disbanded under pressure, including the city’s largest independent trade union and the largest teachers’ union. Virtually nothing was spared, from school curricula to public art, films, memorial museums and marathon attire, all were targeted by the authorities. Pro-democracy books were purged from Hong Kong libraries, many pro-democratic politicians and activists were arrested and jailed by the authorities. A new “electoral reform” imposed on Hong Kong meant that now all election candidates had to be pre-approved by the authorities, so people disliked by the authorities won’t be able to stand in elections. As a result, now not a single seat in the legislature can be said to be democratically elected. With authors arrested for writing children’s books about sheep that satirise the government, many of the city’s prominent intellectuals and writers ceased writing in fear of persecution. Even many ordinary people started self-censoring for fear of retribution, with many deleting social media posts critical of the government, and hesitating even to answer honestly to interviews. International NGOs like Amnesty International ceased operating in the city amid rising threats, as did many other NGOs and professional groups.

The end, the future, and the past

With the Chinese government now completing the process of taking over absolute control over Hong Kong’s education, press and media, public and private institutions, and with a draconian law to silence all those who dissent, will this shiny “pearl of the orient” survive? Perhaps it will once again defy imagination. Or perhaps in a generation or two, just as China seems to be aiming to do to the Uighurs and the Tibetans, the Chinese state propaganda would take hold and an Orwellian new truth be established, transforming the people of Hong Kong into one identical to those on the mainland, erasing their own history and identity. Perhaps that’s how the history of Hong Kong will end, the pearl ground coercively into dust and sand, lost forever to the beach and wind.

There is an irony in all this, perhaps illustrated most clearly in one simple fact: under Chinese rule, “disrespecting” the Chinese national anthem became a criminal offence punishable with three years in jail, while under the British colonial rule, no such law existed for the British national anthem. When the protesters stormed the Hong Kong legislature to stop the extradition bill in 2019, they hung up the flag of British Hong Kong inside the building. In what must be an irony of history, the British colonial flag has become a symbol of liberty for many in Hong Kong. Beneath this symbolism is perhaps something much more poignant and tragic, that the Hong Kong people were never truly in command of their own destiny.


Side notes: some important facts about the wider historical and geopolitical context

  1. Attitudes towards colonialism in the West had changed rapidly after World War II, decolonisation quickly followed and British colonies were given self-rule, democracy and independence — India in 1947, Malaysia in 1957, and the various African colonies by the late 60s. Why was Hong Kong an exception? The fact that one part of Hong Kong was under a lease certainly complicated matters. And as early as the 1950s, China had threatened to invade Hong Kong should Britain attempt to introduce self-rule to Hong Kong. At least in the post-war context, Britain was not the main obstacle to democracy in Hong Kong.
  2. Hong Kong’s economic miracle in the second half of the last century is part of a larger so-called East Asian Miracle, comprising the so-called Four Asian Tigers – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Between the 1960s and 1990s, they underwent rapid industrialization and their economy maintained exceptionally high growth rates such that by the early 21st century they had become high-income countries as rich as Western countries. To put that into perspective, South Korea, for example, was poorer than sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s.
  3. The Chinese economic reform, starting in 1978, was an attempt by China to emulate the success of the Four Asian Tigers. Before the reforms, the Chinese economy was dominated by state ownership and central planning. In order to salvage the failing economy (in comparison to the Four Asian Tigers), after the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party leadership turned to market-oriented reforms. This involved the de-collectivization of agriculture, the opening up of the country to foreign investment, permission for entrepreneurs to start businesses, and the privatisation and contracting out of much state-owned industry. Rapid industrialization followed and China has had certain success in growing its economy such that by 2010, China became the world’s second-largest economy.
    When the last governor of Hong Kong, Tory politician Chris Patten, expanded Hong Kong’s still quite modest welfare programs in the 1990s, he was lambasted by China’s Commmist leaders for “galloping welfarism” — an ironic charge that perhaps reflects how far the thinking within the CCP had changed since the Chinese economic reform.
  4. Political persecutions in China, which reached their most astonishing height in the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), are one of the causes of the massive wave of refugees to British Hong Kong from Maoist China. But another very important reason is the economic deprivation caused by communist economic policies in the pre-reform Communist China. Its most extreme examples include the so-called Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) which had, alone, estimated to have led to tens of millions of starvation deaths. Capitalist economic policies adopted after the Chinese economic reform (starting in 1978) resulted in massive improvements in economic conditions in China, and as a consequence the desperate and dramatic refugees waves of the pre-reform China are not seen today. (That being said, even nowadays China is still a net exporter of migrants, with many people emigrating each year). As a result, a young UK reader not familiar with Chinese history might not be aware of the massive refugee waves to British Hong Kong in the Mao era. To get a feel of the refugee situation back then, the reader can read the following two New York Times articles: “Million Refugees From China Crowd Housing in Hong Kong” published in 1964, and “Chinese Refugees Swim Across a Perilous Bay to Hong Kong” published in 1972.

Further reading

For an account of British Hong Kong, read “A Modern History of Hong Kong: 1841-1997” by Steve Tsang.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the author

George Lai