My Take

History be damned: our future is in our hands

Harvard professor, author and media sensation Niall Ferguson’s bleak assessment of Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty reeks of bias

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2016, 10:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 5:34pm

Historian Niall Ferguson once said he felt proud being a Briton after reading reports about Hong Kong demonstrators waving the old colonial flag. Given his views on Western colonialism, that’s hardly surprising.

He believes the progress made by many developing countries once colonised by Western imperialists was mainly due to the latter’s tutelage. Despite all the exploitations, brutalities, discrimination and mass murders, it was all worth it for the natives.

As spelled out in Civilisation: The West and the Rest, colonial subjects advanced mostly because they eventually learned from the West what Ferguson calls its “killer apps”: science, property rights, medicine, consumerism and work ethic.

Economic suicide or accept the Beijing game? Harvard historian paints a bleak picture for Hong Kong

The Harvard professor, author and media sensation was recently in Hong Kong. His comments on the city’s future – or rather the lack of one – have generated a good deal of debate.

“Britain’s empire ended long ago,” he said. “Our [British] presence here ... is essentially gone. In that sense, it’s not too hard to foresee Hong Kong’s future. I don’t see that it can have easily an independent, democratic future.”

Many agree or even praise his realistic assessment of the city being caught between two bad choices: going independent and thereby committing “economic suicide”; or giving up by playing Beijing’s game.

“And another evil is to accept that it’s game over, and that the only game in town is the Beijing game,” he said. “And that requires an abandonment of substantial freedoms. I will not happily face that choice myself.”

Well, if it’s either committing suicide or playing along, the choice is clear. But is it really so grim?

For Ferguson, it clearly is. His is a quaint and politically incorrect view even if he doesn’t spell it out: Hong Kong is only what it is today thanks to its learning from those “killer apps” bequeathed by the British colonial masters. Once the Brits had to give up Hong Kong, its future was always going to be bleak.

Sometimes scholarship is just a fanciful way of expressing a bias. Most of us are not British, though. The city’s future is inextricably bound up with the mainland. That inescapable relationship is our future: we can make it better or worse. It’s up to us.