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Anti-mainland China sentiments

Government rewrites history of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, one inconvenient phrase at a time

‘Handover of sovereignty’ no longer an acceptable way to refer to the events of 1997, according to government department

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 12:11pm

The Hong Kong government is rewriting the city’s history, one phrase at a time.

After the proposed removal of the words “taking back” from school textbooks to describe the return of the city to China in 1997, the Post has learned that the official protocol office has changed its website to erase any mention of a “handover of sovereignty”.

The Protocol Division, which is responsible for receiving foreign dignitaries and consuls general, was found to have made the changes after the Post filed an inquiry about the guidelines on terms used by the government to describe the handover from Britain.

Originally, the division’s website read: “Since the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997, a number of foreign state or government leaders have visited Hong Kong.”

The sentence now begins, simply, “Since July 1, 1997”.

In the Chinese version of the website, the phrase “handover of sovereignty” (主權移交) has been removed from the same paragraph. However, in a separate paragraph in the Chinese version, the phrase “since the handover of sovereignty” remains.

Hong Kong officials have been using “handover” to describe the city’s return to China since 1997, and the ceremony held on July 1 that year was called the “handover ceremony”. 

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However, in February 2015, the Administration Wing, which oversaw the Protocol Division, issued a circular – Correct Use of Terminology – to all civil servants, to “ensure the [use of certain expressions] are correct in both verbal and written correspondence”. 

One of the reminders related to the description of the handover, saying officials should use “return to China/the Motherland” or “resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong”.

It did not, however, specifically ban the word “handover”. 

The circular was understood to be binding on all civil servants, including press officers drafting official speeches and publications.

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In response to a Post inquiry, the Protocol Division said it had been “in the course of revamping the website by stages since early April 2018 with a view to making it more user-friendly”.

A protocol spokesman said: “The change you mentioned is part of the updates, among others, being made to the website.” 

The change you mentioned is part of the updates, among others, being made to the website
Protocol Division spokesman

Asked whether other departments would take the phrase “handover” out of past publications and websites, the spokesman said bureaus and departments would follow the circular on expressions “to ensure they are correctly formulated”. 

He added that departments would update their websites from time to time.

The protocol office would not comment on whether the word “handover” had conflicted with previous guidelines.

Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu called the timing of the amendment “highly suspicious” and said the office was “disrespecting Hong Kong’s history”.

“Let’s not fool ourselves [over the amendment],” Yeung said. “[‘Handover’] was how the two governments of China and Britain have been describing it.”

The change followed a row over terminology, after the Education Bureau’s external textbook review group said that describing China as “taking back” Hong Kong in 1997 was problematic.It has not recommended what should be used instead.

Hong Kong’s leader defended the review, saying there was “no harm” in history books being a “bit more accurate”. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said: “China has never handed Hong Kong’s sovereignty to others.”

Some educators, including education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, asked if the committee’s proposed changes were really necessary. 

And, senior officials have still used “handover” and sometimes “taking back Hong Kong” in official remarks.

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The term “taking back” in Chinese was engraved by the government on a monument commemorating the handover in Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai in 1999. Officials built the monument to mark the two-year anniversary of the handover.

Hu Jintao, the then Chinese vice-president, officiated the unveiling ceremony, where he also used the phrase “taking back Hong Kong” in Chinese.

Lam and former chief executives Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Leung Chun-ying have also used “taking back” in their Chinese speeches before. 

Lam, for instance, said in a Basic Law seminar in August 2016 that “in the process of taking back [Hong Kong’s] sovereignty, the nation has emphasised unity of territory”.

Her predecessor Leung also referred to China “taking back Hong Kong” at least four times in official remarks during his time in office between 2012 and 2017.

Other officials who have used similar phrases include Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, former secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie, and former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah

The phrase “taking back” to describe the return of Hong Kong to China was also documented in Legislative Council debate, and consultation committee documents, when drafts of the Basic Law were discussed in the late 1980s.

A more recent reference to “handover of sovereignty” was made by Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu. Lee used the phrase three times in January when responding to a lawmaker’s written inquiry on military land use.