Hong Kong people don’t need any history lessons from mainland China, thanks
Shen Jian says the story of Hong Kong is not a story of humiliation, and it doesn’t start with the Treaty of Nanking – even if that’s what Beijing and its supporters want us to believe
Many of Hong Kong’s oldest temples, built in the 17th and 18th centuries, are consecrated in the name of Hau Wong. It is the honorary title bestowed upon Yang Liangjie, a general who defended the last emperor of the Song dynasty until his, and the dynasty’s, dying breath in 1279, not far from what is now Kowloon City. No one remembers that the Song dynasty made its last stand in Hong Kong.
Because there is one thing the British and Chinese have both always got wrong: the story of Hong Kong does not start with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. That moment aboard Her Majesty’s Ship Cornwallis has long been the convenient first page of both British and Chinese histories of Hong Kong, but only because it feeds the two countries’ preferred narratives: the British Empire as benevolent colonial power that transformed a barren rock into a global financial centre, and the Communist Party as liberator of the Chinese people from a century of humiliation.
I am sick of both narratives, but at least the British one sailed away with Chris Patten on Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia 20 years ago. Only the Chinese version still tries to infiltrate our memories, whether it is the president during his handover anniversary speech or law professors from aeronautical universities writing in these pages this month. We are reminded, without end or irony, that “China’s modern history is one of humiliation and suffering” so that our “youth develop, gradually, an understanding of history from the perspective of love for the nation and Hong Kong”.
Spare us the history lesson. We can tell our own history, thank you very much. And ours is not one of pathetic humiliation at the hands of imperialist running dogs, even though our self-appointed tutors always neglect to mention it was they who threw us to the dogs in the first place.
Long before China the drug addict gave us away to her British dealers, Hong Kong had been valiantly fighting off would-be conquerors since Tuen Mun was fortified as a naval base in the eighth century. It was on our hills and in our bays that Yang Liangjie and the Song dynasty held out that one final time against Mongol invaders, and we do not wallow in the misery of that defeat, or of our surrender to the Imperial Japanese Army on Christmas Day, 1941. No, we embrace even the fights we lost – we build temples to them – because at least we fought.
Beijing treats us like we have Stockholm syndrome, like because we don’t buy into the nation’s collective self-pity, we are somehow “stalling the process of decolonialisation”. But it was China that was too high on opioid to defend Hong Kong from colonialism in 1842, then so wasted from withdrawal it gave more of us away in 1898. So we fended for ourselves, waging a six-day resistance against the British occupation of the New Territories in April 1899. Hundreds of local villagers perished in a battle we were never going to win, and the tombstone of their mass grave in Kam Tin still bears the Chinese character for justice and loyalty. Their sacrifice may have been misguided, but hardly humiliating.
Even when China’s humiliation and suffering were self-inflicted, through the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and the victims came in droves to Hong Kong, we complained little. We took some of the refugees in and made them our own. The mainland unloaded its unwanted baggage on us, and not only did we take it, we sent back money, and food, and medicine.
Now that China is finally sober again, demanding our fealty, expecting us to run to her bosom; now we are the ungrateful ones? We are told to feel like we were given new life in 1997, when it was China that left us for dead in 1842?
When the president celebrates “the coming of age of the Hong Kong SAR”, or academics write that “Hong Kong people still have some way to go in learning to think like an adult”, it is everything wrong about the way the central government sees Hong Kong, and why Beijing is losing the campaign for our hearts and minds as badly as it lost the opium wars. Stop treating us like children. You tell me who’s still stuck in a juvenile, colonial mindset: the one who accepts bad stuff happens and just gets on with it; or the one who never stops talking about all the ways they have been wronged by others, but never openly discusses the errors of their own ways.
History does teach us lessons, but not only about days gone by. How we tell history to ourselves, how we impose it on others, what we keep and what we delete, is as much a reflection of our present selves as it is a recounting of our past. The “historical consensus” we are being told to accept in Hong Kong is one that writes off all we accomplished before 1997 as window dressing for our former Western masters. It is one in which our parents and grandparents were never persecuted on the mainland, never felt their only choice was to risk the swim across the Shenzhen River. In this history, no one of importance died in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, or in a Shenyang hospital last week.
We’re not buying it. You can tell us foreign elements organised Occupy Central, or try to pretend five of our publishers were never arbitrarily spirited away to the mainland. But every time you erase another line of our past, you push us another mile away.
Shen Jian is a lawyer in Hong Kong