Champions of HK autonomy should embrace full colonial history

Victoria Sung says the argument for a Hong Kong autonomy movement appears to be based on a selective reading of our colonial history

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 4:43pm

The Hong Kong City-State Autonomy Movement claims that displays of the Hong Kong British flag are not a call for a return to colonialism but, rather, "the defence of the lion and dragon and the blending of the East and West". Opponents say the flag belongs in a museum. Yet, the use of the flag as an icon of Hong Kong cannot be removed from our history of colonialism.

The discussion so far of Hong Kong autonomy rests on a selective recollection of colonial Hong Kong. To fully understand the origins of the autonomy movement, we must look at the historical and post-colonial context.

It is understandable why Hongkongers credit the British for the city's global prominence. Hong Kong would not be the financial hub it is today without the British. Hong Kong started out as a collection of tiny islands and grew into a major trading post.

The period from the Opium War onwards was a tumultuous time for China. The Qing court from which Hong Kong was ceded crumbled, and the Republic of China took over. As the Communist Party chased out the Kuomintang, the fervour of socialism swept into Hong Kong. The 1967 riots were sparked by a labour dispute on May 6 when picketing workers clashed with police. Unfair working conditions became the cause of pro-communists inspired by the Cultural Revolution. The British imposed martial law.

The riots spurred discussion of Britain's role as a coloniser and heralded massive policy changes. The British began to change their attitude towards locals, adopting a "soft" colonial agenda of social programmes and greater economic freedom.

It was from these policies that the rosy view of the British emerged. Yes, the colonists did implement some great social programmes, including universal health care and public housing projects. But these policies stemmed from the demands of the Hong Kong people.

It is all too easy to forget that, prior to the 1970s, Hong Kong was no better off than China is now. In fact, the British practice of indentured servitude was rampant before its abolition in the 1930s. Before the second world war, Chinese could not go to some beaches and were not allowed to own property on the Peak, in accordance with racially segregated zoning laws.

Doing away with these policies was an investment for the British, who saw Hong Kong as a viable gateway into China, a future economic partner.

Unlike other post-colonial societies, Hong Kong did not have a successful uprising against the colonists, but instead there was a teary goodbye.

Ultimately, the fight for Hong Kong is still about politics and economics. The basic struggle is still about differing ideologies, a pushback against the government once perceived as a major threat by the colonists. Although the controversial national education plan has been shelved, civic education in the context of history is essential.

As Hongkongers, we must assert our identity as a post-colonial state, to embrace the legacy of the colonial era without inheriting the fears and prejudices of the time. We must look at the bigger picture of history without cherry-picking parts. Only then can the true potential of our city be realised.

Victoria Sung holds a masters degree in media, culture and communications from New York University