How marking the anniversary of British colonial occupation could help heal divided Hong Kong

Peter Kammerer says an annual day of reconciliation, like Australia Day, would be a good way to foster discussion, debate and a better understanding of the past

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 3:26pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 3:26pm

Hong Kong needs an annual day of reconciliation. Politics, economics and a sense of entitlement have bruised society to the point that there is mistrust, hate and disregard.

There is every need for a time for reflection, discussion, debate and education. A perfect date would be January 26, the anniversary of British colonial occupation.

The 175th commemoration of that event passed unnoticed last Wednesday. Even under British colonial rule, there was no effort to remember the raising of the Union Jack by Royal Navy sailors at Possession Point, now the site of Hollywood Road Park in Sheung Wan. A year later, in 1842, with the first opium war over and the Treaty of Nanking signed, Hong Kong Island was formally ceded to Britain.

READ MORE: Healing the generation divide: Hong Kong’s past can be a guide to integrate young people who feel disenfranchised

These were dark days for China and marked a low for the Qing dynasty. Using such a date would therefore seem insensitive, even incendiary.

Yet, there is a reality for Hong Kong whether we like it or not: Without history, there can be no future. There were only 7,500 Chinese on Hong Kong Island when the British landed, but with the trading the foreigners brought, the population quickly grew. People from other British colonies came, especially from the Indian subcontinent, and other nationalities were also attracted to do business.

These were dark days for China and marked a low for the Qing dynasty. Using such a date would therefore seem insensitive, even incendiary

Without those beginnings, centred on trade with China and onward to Europe and the Americas, coupled with British governance and laws, our city is unlikely to have become so international or successful.

But British rule also brought ethnic discrimination and inequities, many of which still persist. A favoured few became excessively wealthy. Those living in the New Territories were given land, while others from elsewhere were denied that right.

With the handover back to China at midnight on June 30, 1997 came a new set of entitlements. Those who had opposed British rule were now in favour. Society now distinguishes between Chinese born locally, from overseas and the mainland. Caucasians and non-Chinese Asians sit uncomfortably in the “one country, two systems” model.

The deepest divisions, though, have been caused by politics. Beijing and one-party rule are on one side, Western-style democracy and an elected government on the other. Adherents of each are unable to find common ground. Idealistic young people, wanting the best for their future, are getting ever-more vocal about expectations.

A day for all in society to consider the past and how they can together build an equitable future can help mend rifts. The anniversary of the handover is not such an occasion; it ignores the 156 years of British rule that made Hong Kong what it is today.

Better, then, to go back to where the “two systems” part of the equation began, using that date as an occasion for all to learn and understand. Reconciliation will not come easily or quickly, but through discussions and debate, the roots for co-operation can be formed.

That is the aim of Australia Day, which also falls on January 26. On that day, in 1788, British settlement began with the arrival of the first convict ships at what is now Sydney.

For two centuries, the day was about white people’s achievements, but racial sensibilities and political correctness now demand that it be about inclusiveness. It was, after all, the day that the Aboriginal population also had its lands invaded and dispossessed and a shameful era of discrimination, abuse and, some contend, genocide, began.

Aborigines refer to Australia Day as “Survival Day”. Organisers of the event have gradually been changing its tenor and focus towards reconciliation.

Gradually, the holiday is becoming less British in nature and more Australian. Through activities and learning, the aim is to make it a day all people can enjoy together, no matter what their background.

It is a formula Hong Kong should consider. Declaring our own January 26 as a holiday would be a good starting point.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post