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No shame: The British should get real about their recent history.

British Empire
Written by Hugo de Burgh

It is time for us to assert our confidence in the progressiveness of the British Empire, its tangential part in the development of Britain itself but its great value to much of humanity. The British Empire set standards and raised expectations, disseminated humane values, opened closed societies and gave hope to the oppressed.

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Councillor Elsie and the Meaning of the British Empire

Stepping down a corridor over infants, plastic buckets of laundry, tatty bundles and snoring men in torn shorts and string vests, I glanced through steel grills into rooms containing a dozen or more bunks walled with chicken wire. Each bunk was the home of somebody, or a mother and child.

They were some of the two million refugees who had made it through the currents and past the machine guns to swim the 4 km from Shenzhen to British-run Hong Kong[1]. I was a teenager in the company of a haughty Englishwoman, Urban Councillor Elsie Elliott, investigating cases of persecution or corruption. Several evenings a week she would hold a surgery in a room in one of these blocks and hear the troubles of the homeless, hawkers, prostitutes, squatters, newly arrived refugees and the sick. A couple of interpreters helped her understand the cases (her customers were from all over China) and then she would summarise them to me in English to typewrite the record. To her, every man or woman, no matter how destitute or desperate, was a human being owed the same Respect that she would show to the Governor or a police inspector. Her Respect for all was the wonder, not only of the refugees who were used to being despised, but to the journalists, police inspectors and civil servants whom she tried to co-opt and often lambasted.

Shame at the Empire

When at school, I had first come across China’s modern history and how we had inaugurated the collapse of the Chinese monarchy and nearly 200 years of chaos and suffering in China, I felt ashamed of the British Empire. In 1839, Chinese officials had asked British traders to stop importing drugs into their country. Britain responded with violence, then annexed Hong Kong.

To an idealistic Irish boy from a leftist background, that clinched it. Imperialism was all bad. Once I got to Hong Kong, Councillor Elliott fired up my anger at the colonial authorities such that, in a mass demonstration against British rule, I got knocked about by a policeman and could tell myself I was a freedom fighter[2].

The victims’ version

And yet it was in Hong Kong that I came across a more nuanced view of the British Empire than either the heroic one I had learnt as a child or the guilty one later adopted. As I got to know more Chinese, they told me that, apart from the safety from persecution it gave to innumerable peasants and workers, British Hong Kong provided a refuge for dissenters, liberals, intellectuals, artists and writers, first under the monarchy and then after the Communist conquest, a refuge without which Chinese civilisation would have been much poorer[3].

The suffering of the Chinese people in the first thirty years of Communism

was terrible, with mass starvation and many more killings than those inflicted by the savage Japanese occupation ended in 1945. The refugees in Hong Kong were spared that, thanks to British administration, which also allowed a free press, freedom to associate and discuss plus the rule of law, all of which had been abolished on the mainland. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when Communist barbarity lessened, Hong Kong was thought of by reformers in China as a model for the economy and media.

Once I had realised that the view of Empire as malign is much too simple, often wrong, then the door was open to a complete rethinking. And, looked at from a wide, historical perspective, rather than from the point of view of offended elites, it is indisputable that the British Empire set standards and raised expectations, disseminated humane values, opened closed societies and gave hope to the oppressed everywhere, not just in Hong Kong. For the huddled masses of Asia and Africa we introduced modern medicine, advanced communications, public education and leadership training.

There are Empires and Empires

It is easy to emphasise the mistakes and wrongdoings of the Empire.  In the takeover of India or the colonisation of Native American lands, things were done that we condemn today but which were typical of the times[4]. Yet when we contrast the British with other empires, both pre-modern and modern, we can see a great moral difference.

The Roman and Mughal Empires were all about acquisition, taking the resources of the conquered lands to benefit Rome or Delhi. The Ashanti and Zulu empires were also exploitative and violent. The German empires – whether in Africa in the 19th century or Eastern Europe in the 20th – were genocidal; they sought to kill all the educated and enslave the rest as a prelude to their total liquidation. The Japanese in China and Korea behaved similarly. They stole resources and whole industries; the people they did not starve to death were their playthings. No wonder that, in the 1940s, Indians generally preferred British rule to Japanese ‘liberation’. In the Soviet empire, Lenin initiated the slaughter of vast numbers of peasants who might doubt his right to steal their livelihoods, to say nothing of other potential opponents, especially the educated, the enterprising and whole ethnic or religious minorities.

The British Empire committed crimes, but when the mistakes and the cruelties have receded into distant memory, its lasting legacy is the idea of Respect, carried from these islands to almost every corner of the world.

When its subjects have wanted to name the benign inheritance from the Anglosphere they have talked of ‘liberalism’ or ‘democracy’. I prefer to call it ‘Respect’, the word my Hong Kong associates used to describe Elsie Elliott’s demeanour.

The idea of Respect

Respect? Usually the word connotes good manners, consideration for the other, treating him or her as a distinct person whose way of life may be different to our own. It means that, but also duty of care for others, toleration of difference and willingness to compromise rather than confront. These behaviours became habits or customs among the offshore islanders[5] earlier than in most other societies. At home, we outlawed torture earlier than any other country. We initiated the heroic crusade against the slave trade. Shaftsbury and other philanthropists campaigned on behalf of the exploited. Our colonial officers anathematised human sacrifice and sexual exploitation. Parliament sought to protect Native Americans and Australians from predatory settlers. Our administrators nurtured local talent in Africa and India and introduced the eccentric idea that all should be equal before the law.

How this came about and how the sense of Respect became a factor in our politics, challenging realpolitik, is a subject for a different essay, but that this is recognised the world over is attested to by incontrovertible evidence: Whereas Anglophone countries need to curtail immigration, most other societies worry about emigration.

While not ignoring injustices and cruelties that are the inevitable concomitant of rule by one people over another, it is time for us to assert our confident belief in the progressiveness of the British Empire, its tangential part in the development of Britain itself but its great value to much of humanity, among which are the refugees from Communist China whom Elsie Elliott respected. For them, the meaning of the British Empire – so utterly different in nature from other empires – is that, for the first time, they encountered Respect.


Hugo ‘Huge’ de Burgh is a Professor of Journalism and author of China’s Media in the Emerging World Order (2nd edition UBP 2020) and Investigative Journalism (3rd edition, Routledge 2021).

[1] Chen Bing’an: The Great Exodus 大逃港 Salt Lake City: American Academic

[2] The demonstrations were against the rule (1971-82) of Sir Murray MacLehose. He carried out many reforms in the governance of Hong Kong, including setting up the Commission Against Corruption, the proposal for which is credited to Elsie Elliott.

[3] For a few weeks I lived in a hostel full of Russian refugees whose parents had sought safety in Harbin, but who were now hoping to flee to Australia under an UNRRA programme. They were keen to explain to me the horrors of life under communism in both USSR and PRC.

[4] The rapaciousness of colonisation, the cruelty of slavery and the racism of settlers are graphically described in Ferguson’s Empire. He also gives the other side and concludes that, for most of the population, British rule was better than what had gone before – and, sometimes, after.

[5] Not wishing to exclude the Irish, I prefer ‘offshore islanders’ to ‘British’.

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About the author

Hugo de Burgh